It’s just past the pink part of dawn and I’m watching the white dash marks on the highway disappear under the hood of the car like they are being inhaled. I’m driving my mother to a funeral.
“Get over into the right-hand lane. You’re driving down the middle of the road.”
My mother is right. I have chosen not to select a lane. It’s early; the road ahead is a long, empty undulation. It doesn’t matter what lane I’m in. But I slip over onto the right-hand side of the road. It’s easier than having a philosophical discussion with my mother at 6:17 in the morning.
Besides, it’s her car I’m driving. She doesn’t mind driving herself around town, but she’s not fond of driving on long trips. I don’t have a car to speak of. I had a very old Pontiac, but when it didn’t pass inspection, I parked it in a dark alley across town, filled a grocery bag with all the flotsam I’d been keeping in it, and left it there for someone else to repair. I do have a bicycle and I can read a bus schedule, so I manage okay; though Richmond is not a city for the carless, unless you live near a bus stop.
The funeral is for my mother’s older sister Anna. Now that both Anna and her sister Louise have died, my mother and her two brothers, Paul and Wyatt, are all that’s left of that layer of the family. None of them are terribly close until a funeral comes up. When that happens, they all converge at a cemetery populated with gravestones featuring their shared surname and reacquaint themselves with each other.
I ask my mother if she needs to stop, which is the way she prefers for me to ask her if she needs to use the restroom. She does. I pull into the parking lot at the South Boston McDonalds. Whenever we drive to North Carolina, this is where we always stop—roughly halfway between Richmond and Greensboro. Usually, we get coffee and empty our bladders, though not necessarily in that order. Today, while I am in the restroom, my mother also orders some hash browns for each of us. Inside their raspy paper sleeves, they are shaped like little tombstones. They are also very hot. I prop mine in one of the nooks in the driver’s side door. It lists to the left while it cools.
“We might be a little early.” I take a nervous sip of my coffee. Nervous, because it, too, is very hot. “Is there anywhere else you’d like me to take you?”
My mother pinches off a tiny piece of hash brown. “Whew! They must have just cooked these.” She drops it back into its sleeve. “We won’t be the only early ones. Paul’s flight gets in at 7 o’clock this morning. Wyatt was going to pick him up at the airport. I expect they’ll be at the funeral home by the time we get there. Certainly Graham will be there, though I’m not sure if he’ll bring his latest friend along.” She says “friend” with a special twist in her voice, but she doesn’t bob her fingers to make the quotation marks that usually accompany the voice.
When my mother called to tell me Anna had died, she sounded like someone who had lost out on a parking space. Like I said, they weren’t close. Still, I expect she will cry at the funeral. She’s always been very good about doing what’s expected of her. And since she’s the last remaining female, crying will be expected. My mother is not an ostentatious crier. Some dabbing of the eyes, a discreet blowing of the nose, then it’s all over. She is always careful with her makeup. Over time, I think that has permanently cramped her crying style.
“So I guess we will be last to arrive, even if we are early.”
“Seems like it. I know Graham still lives in Greensboro. Not sure about the two girls. I don’t know where they live these days. Maybe they’ll be coming in from out of town, same as us.”
Anna and her ex-husband Graham have two daughters, Quinn and Bryony. I am sandwiched between them, age-wise. Back before all the divorces started up, when our families was more inclined to have get-togethers, I used to play with them. As years passed and relationships shifted, family gatherings become more and more problematic. Debates raged about what should be done with divorced spouses. Complications further escalated when folks began remarrying. If the children from a first marriage came, should that ex-spouse be included? What about the ex-spouse’s children from other marriages? What about those who just lived together and hadn’t married? After my grandparents died, the push of questions became more important than the pull of blood ties and the get-togethers stopped altogether. I haven’t seen Quinn or Bryony in at least ten years.
My mother gazes out the window. A creosoted fence is rising and falling alongside our car. Cows are blurring past. “You know, if you don’t want to come to the service, you don’t have to. I can call you to come pick me up when it’s finished.” She lifts the lid off her coffee. From the corner of my eye, I can see tendrils of steam creeping out of her cup.
“Why would I not want to go?”
“I don’t know. Just wanted to make you the offer. You don’t know these folks—at least you haven’t seen them in long enough that you’d hardly know them. And a funeral is just a lot of sitting and listening. I thought maybe you’d rather do something else. I could call you and you could come pick me up when it’s all over with.”
I bite into my hash brown. It’s still too hot. But there is no turning back. Juggling it with my tongue, I suck air over it. My mother picks up the newspaper, pops it open, folds it into a neat rectangle, and starts to read.
I think about my mother’s proposal. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to respond. Is she making this offer as a favor to me? Is she trying to keep me from appearing at her sister’s funeral? Do I embarrass her? My mind runs like a gerbil on a wheel. “Mom? Would you rather I not come to the funeral?”
“Now, I never said that. You should do what you want to do. I was just giving you the option—you’ve been so nice to do all this driving. There and back on the same day is a lot of work. And you had to take a day off, too.”
It’s not hard for me to take a day off. I’m a temp. I call the agency, tell them I can’t work, and they find someone else. When I say this to my mother, she gets a little sputtery.
“I know all that. But can you afford to miss a day? I mean, can your paycheck afford it?” While she talks, she pinches her thumb and index finger up and down the folded edge of the newspaper, pressing in a sharp crease.
I shrug, finish off my hash brown, take a sip of my coffee. “It’s no big deal.”
The day promises to be a hot, cloudless one. The sun is glaring down like an angry upstairs neighbor. Even my thrifty mother wanted to run the air conditioner, rather than save gas. Grey pavement ribbons on endlessly in front of me. On the scraggled median strip, I notice a lumpy silhouette in the tall weeds—a groundhog standing up on its hind legs to catch the last of the cool morning breeze. “Look, Ma—see that groundhog over there?”
As I speak, I look away from the road for just an instant. Maybe I am reaching for my coffee. I’m not sure. Suddenly, the car is jouncing, bouncing, rumbling off the road. I slam on the brakes. The jolt makes me bite down hard on my tongue. The groundhog crosses the road, scuttles past us, his fat rump disappearing into the rough brush. The car comes to rest at a sharp angle in the ditch.
My mother tries her door, but it won’t open. She has to crawl over the center console and follow me as I clamber out the driver’s side door.
We circle the car like a pair of wary dancers—stopping, starting, bending, stretching—to survey the damage. It looks okay, aside from being in the ditch. Clumps of dirt and bits of grass dangle from the grill. A car whizzes past us without stopping. We both wince, as if we expect to be hit by it.
“Well, that certainly was a surprise.” My mother is rubbing her neck. There’s a big diagonal welt where she was thrown against the seatbelt. Her spilt coffee has left an Africa-shaped stain on the right thigh of her beige slacks.
I can taste the ruddy metal of blood. I’ve bitten a gash into my tongue. “I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t know what—”
She cuts me off. “Good thing we’re early.” She pulls a hank of weeds out of the front bumper, tosses it into the ditch, flicks her fingers together to get the dirt off. “Do you want to push or shall I?”
“Mom. Don’t be silly. Of course, I’ll push. We may not even need to push—let me see if I can just drive it out.”
When I go to sit in the driver’s seat, I have to sidle in and leave the door open so I can lean out and remain somewhat upright. I turn the key—the car starts up on the first try. It’s as if it doesn’t know it’s in a ditch. I give it some gas and it churns forward. I see my mother standing off to one side, one arm crossed over her waist, the other covering her mouth. She is washed pale by the hazy morning sunshine. The car loses purchase, shifts backward, then catches itself and rumbles back up onto the road. I jump out and wave my arms around like I’ve just won a prizefight.
My mother claps her hands, grabs me in a sideways hug. I can feel the terracing of her ribs, and the thin plates of her shoulder blades. Her breath skims the side of my neck. For the first time, I realize I am taller than she is. I can see through her thinning hair right down to the scalp. There is a scrim of grey at the base of her brown perm.
When we get back in the car, we sit still for a moment. The cool of the air conditioning washes over us. We breathe in and out. Neither of us says a word.
Foust is a writer and printmaker who lives in Richmond VA with her lovely husband Melvyn and three spoiled rescue dogs. She has an MFA in fiction from Spalding University in Louisville, KY. She uses one name in order to save time.