Still Life 3: The Suburbs

By KELLY McMASTERS 

A child in a car seat through the car window
Long Island, NY

Interior of a silver Volvo wagon, back door pockets stuffed with Candy Ring wrappers, pencils, and rocks; I am looking in the rear-view mirror or over my right shoulder into the backseat, my left hand on the wheel, right hand on the seat back next to me. Two small boys, both with eyes the exact color as my own, stare back at me, pleading or explaining or demanding or questioning or laughing or crying or sulking or fighting or trying to hide. The car smells vaguely Cheerio-like. No matter the music, the soundtrack is chatter and the rhythmic kicking of a seat back. They also like punching each other’s seat warmer buttons with their feet to be annoying.

The front passenger seat is always empty. On the rare occasion we need to ferry a guest, I must first clear out the pile of student papers and Amish Country ticket stubs and grocery receipts and emergency snacks and half-empty cans of spray sunscreen. For a period, the seat was nicknamed Mom’s Mobile Library because of the person-high pile of books that lived there. On the drive to their elementary school each morning, we’d get halfway down our block before the car beeped urgently, warning us that the front passenger was not wearing their seatbelt, until one day it occurred to me that I could simply plug in the seatbelt around the books and, voila! No more beeping. 

I am in the driver’s seat, but I don’t always know where we are going. I am in the driver’s seat, but it is my father’s car on paper until the monthly payments I send to my parents’ mailbox in envelopes my mother has pre-addressed and pre-stamped add up to say otherwise. I am in the driver’s seat, but the wayback is full of things that are not mine, including a broken umbrella, a roll of flattened paper towels, extra sweatshirts, hats and gloves, an ice scraper, car blankets, a half-filled out book of Mad Libs, a picnic blanket, a Frisbee, footballs, and, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, two violas.  

We love the car, and depend on it, hard, even though it keeps trying to teach us we shouldn’t. The skylight motor stops working, skylight half open. The dashboard likes to flash threatening alerts, like Lift Open or Washer Fluid Low, when I know for a fact neither are true. We get flat tires everywhere, it seems. On a deserted country road in Pennsylvania, where the tow truck operator tells me he only has room for one child in his cab, not both. On a street corner in Brooklyn, where the tow truck guy knows a guy. In the town of Lancaster, where we once lived, where I wait for the tow truck while my friend Rachel rescues the children, ferrying them off down the road in her maroon sedan, their faces unrecognizable against the glare of the sun as they turn to wave from the backseat. The boys know not to panic, know where to find the AAA card, know what it feels like to be rescued, to need rescuing.

When their father lives two states away and we drive three hours each way every other weekend, we listen to the following audiobooks on loan from the library: Magic Tree House Collection: Books 1-8; Magic Tree House Collection: Books 9-16; Magic Tree House Collection: Books 17-24; The Penderwicks; The Penderwicks on Gardam Street; The Penderwicks at Point Mouette; The Penderwicks at Last; A Wrinkle in Time; Dragon Rider; Little House in the Big Woods; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator; Fantastic Mr. Fox; The Hobbit; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; The Mysterious Benedict Society; Midnight for Charlie Bone; Charlie Bone and the Time Twister; Charlie Bone and the Invisible Boy; Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors; Charlie Bone and the Hidden King; Inkheart; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon; The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; half of The Horse and His Boy, until the scary part.

When their father moves to Brooklyn and the drive is only 50 minutes long, the three of us sing along to pop songs on the radio instead, changing as many lyrics as we can to the words fart, butt, and toot. From the backseat, they make a rule that I cannot dance while driving; in response, I ordain them the Little Mormons.

The creases of the seats in back are at once gummy and sandy. I fish out mini golf pencils, half-melted M&Ms with the Ms rubbed off, pennies, army men missing limbs, and disintegrating cheese puffs from the space beneath the back seatbelt clips, imagining myself brave like Flash Gordon in that movie when Timothy Dalton forces Flash to stick his hand inside the beast tree. Feeling industrious while waiting in the elementary school carline one afternoon, I try to get out bits of granola bar from the 12-volt cigarette lighter in the center console whose cover is long gone. I unfold a paperclip and begin to tweeze out the sticky clumps of oats until I give myself a shock, like in a game of Operation. The center console USB port never works again.

One morning, the three of us go out our front door in a flurry of backpacks and coats and feet stuffed halfway in sneakers. We get into the car, snap into our seatbelts and wait for the clock to flash to life to see how many minutes we have left to get to school before the first bell, but the car doesn’t start. We quickly deduce that one or the other son forgot to close the back door all the way after coming home from Chess Club the day before (It doesn’t matter who! It’s not about fault!). I try the ignition again and again, but pretending doesn’t help, the battery is dead. We get out of the car and stand in the driveway. Their small faces are looking at me, like I will know what to do.

And suddenly I do know what to do. Or at least what to do next. I push down the worry about how to get a jump and whether I still have the cable kit my father gave me somewhere in the basement and how much this is all going to cost me since I don’t get paid until next week. I switch on a bright smile before turning to them and slapping my hands against my knees. Okay, my Little Mormons. Let’s get walking. 

At the end of our block, I turn back and can no longer see the silver glint of the car in our driveway. But I know it is there, a quiet and unmoving block of steel, as the three of us continue on our way up the road, hand-in-hand. What begins as adventure quickly turns tiresome and in another two blocks my older son’s bookbag is slung over my shoulder and my younger son rides on my back. We have a long way to go, most of it uphill. We certainly won’t make it by first bell. But we’ll make it.

 

Excerpted from The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays (WW Norton, May 2023).

 

Kelly McMasters is a professor, mother, and former bookshop owner living in New York. Along with The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays, she is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir of an Atomic Town, an Orion Book Award finalist and inspiration for the documentary “The Atomic States of America,” which premiered at Sundance. She is co-editor with Margot Kahn of This is the Place: Women Writing about Home and the national bestseller Wanting: Women Writing About Desire. She teaches at Hofstra University. You can find more here: kellymcmasters.com or @kelly_mc_masters

Photo by Author. 

Still Life 3: The Suburbs

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