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Border Skirmishes

The Cadillac lives at the family house, in the garage, and I live down the street in what they call an efficiency apartment. It has a kitchen along one wall, only you're not supposed to know it because it's behind folding doors. In my place the doors don't fold. I've got suitcases piled up in front of a cabinet and the trombone that I had to buy for high school band. When I moved out, my mother said, "Matthew,  enough is enough."  I had to take the horn along with almost everything else of mine. The last time I played it, we were knee-deep in water marching on a sidewalk to the tune of "Hey, Look Me Over."  We were in a city band competition, doing show tunes in a monsoon.  We were a mile from the buses when the storm hit.  Did you ever try to run with a trombone?  It’s not so easy.  Why my mother couldn't keep the trombone, I'll never know.  It lived in the guest room closet all through high school.  "I've got ideas for the closet," my mother said when I moved out.  I could have asked her, what ideas, but she made her lips go thin, and I knew the data bank was closed.

She gave me the Cadillac when my dad died and it was the one thing she let me keep at her house.  It was understood between us that I'd never drive it.  Every Sunday I go back home and work on the car.  In good weather, I open the garage and wash her down.  She gets regular oil changes and I give the engine a look-see.  The light green color is still as pretty as it was the day Archer Robbins died. 

This particular Sunday I go into her house as usual after working on the car some.  My mother is short with frizzy hair.  She's one of these people who grows in width rather than height.  If I picked her up, I definitely couldn't run with her. 

"I'm making a roast," she says.  "Can you stay for dinner?"  It's just a way of saying hello.  She knows I'm staying for dinner.  Every Sunday rolls around, you can find me here, tinkering on the car, and fixing things in the house, sometimes before they go wrong. 

Dinner is at 3:00 on Sundays.  I chew the soft meat slowly, savoring the way the juice oozes out.  It's rare, just how I like it. 

"Good, Mom." 

She smiles.  "After dinner maybe you'll go get your pick-up and take me to visit your father's grave.  We missed going last month." 

"Sorry, can't today. I got some plans."  I was surprised to hear my voice announcing this.

"Plans?  Oh. So what time do these plans start?"

"About five. And I think I'll take the Cadillac." This last part I say slowly, not wanting to pile all the words on her at once. Maybe if she gets them one at a time, she won't realize what I've just said.

She looks at me through her gold glasses that have three different strengths in the lens.  It's amazing how they can do that. Her glasses are huge and magnify all the tiny wrinkles and molecules of Tawny Beige powder under her eyes. She wears that powder every day of her life. It's a brand no one has ever heard of and she gets it from a neighbor lady who sells cosmetics. Not Avon, my mother will assure you if you ask.  When this neighbor dies or moves away, I don't know what my mother will do. No more Tawny Beige. I can't think about what will happen.

I look right back at her. Showdown at the Robbins kitchen table. Or I should say breakfast nook table.  It was my father's last home improvement project, and he threw himself into it and came out with what is knotty pine heaven in an alcove off the kitchen. That is, if you like knotty pine. Myself, I don't care for it.  It looks as if a woodpecker or a bat is going to crawl out of those huge knots.  We always eat in the breakfast nook. The dining room table has a lace doily on it that hasn't been moved in ten years. 

"That old car won't drive anywhere," my mother says, assuring me of my foolishness.  On her side of the table her water glass is lined up with her salad plate, and the silver salt and pepper set is sitting at attention over to the side.  She never places them on my side - if I want one I have to reach over, making a big production out of it.  Which I never do because my mother takes great offense if I put extra salt or pepper on food she's cooked. 

"I took her out for a spin when I was working in the garage. She ran fine."

"Come on, Matt, don't try to fool me. There's no gas in the car."

"There is now. I brought a container over and put some in."

"After all these years, you're going to break the record?  Ten years of not driving it. How could you?"  She looks down at her plate of half-eaten meat and the mashed potatoes that have blended into the gravy and are circulating in a red-brown river.  Her eyes are closed.  She's trying for tears.

"It's my car," I say, feeling like a Neanderthal fending off guilt with a club.

I get up without helping to clear the table. If I'm going to take that car somewhere, I better get it to a station and put more gas into it than a container's worth. So I go out to the garage and start the car. It always amazes me how the interior still has that new leather smell to it.  I don't know why I told my mother I couldn't take her to the gravesite or why I said I was at long last going to drive the Cadillac. I didn't really have anything planned.

At the Quick Stop there's a woman inside waiting over by the display of Quaker State oil cans.  She has stringy blonde hair and her eyes are so puffy it looks as if she has mushrooms under them. I pay for my gas.  For some reason, I can't stop myself.  I turn to the woman. "You look upset," I say. 

"Darn right.  My engine is fried.  I just found out my car is a piece of junk."

"Can I give you a ride?" I ask.

She looks me up and down.  "Say, didn't you go to Senn High School?

"Yeah, I did," I admit, surprised that anyone would remember me, and from nine or ten years ago too. "My name is Matt Robbins," I tell her.  "I still live in the neighborhood."

"I'm Jolene.  And I live far away. Flossmore. You ever heard of it?"

"That is far. I sometimes make house calls there for my company. I sell insurance. You want a ride?"

"I'd be grateful."  She holds out her hand to shake.  I take it, but it's the other hand I'm interested in.  It has a ring on it, and it doesn't seem to be a wedding ring.

"Wow," she says, when she sees the Cadillac.  "A real classic."

"Not quite, but I try to keep it nice."  I open the door for her and she slides in.

"Listen," I say.  "Would you mind if we stop by my mother's?  I promised her I'd take her somewhere."

"I can't really argue with that," Jolene says.  "You're giving me a ride all the way home."

When we pull up in front of my mother's little brick house, she's outside clipping the lilac bushes, planted since my father died.

I get out of the car, but since I'm double-parked, I don't leave it.  "Mom," I yell.  "Hurry up and get your sweater.  We'll go to see Dad after all."

She shades her eyes with her hand, the clipper hanging in her other hand.  I think she notices that there's someone else in the car. She stands there for a long moment, then goes into the house and comes out with a sweater.  Jolene doesn't act as if she'll volunteer to move to the back seat.  She's peering into a compact mirror, putting on lipstick as my mother approaches.  I open the rear passenger door. 

"Get in, Mom."  She glimpses the back of Jolene's head and pauses, organizing her thoughts. 

"I'm Winnie Robbins," I hear her say as I close the door. 

Then we drive off to Elmwood cemetery, where of course there isn't one elm tree thanks to the Dutch Elm disease.  I smile over at Jolene who is telling my mother the tragic story of her engine that fried.  "The inside was pure molten metal. . . . "  My mother is leaning forward, trying to listen, trying to figure things out.

Karen Loeb's writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers, most recently in The Louisville Review, New Works Review (online), Abiko Quarterly, and the anthology 100% Pure Florida Fiction. A collection of her stories, Jump Rope Queen, won a Minnesota Voices award and was published by New Rivers Press.

Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
Bottom photo courtesy of Clay Fowler

 


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Jump Rope Queen: And Other Stories, Vol. 58
Jump Rope Queen: And Other Stories, Vol. 58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jump Rope Queen: And Other Stories, Vol. 58
Jump Rope Queen: And Other Stories, Vol. 58

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jump Rope Queen: And Other Stories, Vol. 58
Jump Rope Queen: And Other Stories, Vol. 58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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