by Rebecca Haas
The station wagon’s engine’s going faulty. We’re driving 20 MPH on the right side of the highway, half in the slow lane, half on the shoulder. Mom’s got both hands clenched on the steering wheel, leaning over the dashboard like she’s urging the car forward with sheer will. The car moves in rhythmic gasps, pausing in between the surges, catching its breath. Mom whispers, quiet so the little ones can’t hear. Bad, bad, bad. This is baaaaaad.
She turns to me and says, “I’ve got the gas pedal pushed all the way to the floor.” Like, can you believe this shit?
We’re just outside of Gainesville, Florida, headed back home to Cincinnati. For ten years—since my brother Kevin was born—we’ve gone on a family vacation to Florida. Mom said it’d be no different this summer, even after the divorce. But we didn’t go to the coast, where we used to go when Dad was with us. We went to Central Florida, to Ocala, where Mom’s sister Florence lives.
“You’re bat shit crazy driving four kids down to Florida by yourself,” Flo said.
The air coming in the car windows feels like steam from a hot shower and smells like Kevin’s farts. Sweat has my bare thighs glued to the pleather front seat. The baby’s asleep on a quilt in the way back. My sister Kate is sprawled out on her stomach over most of the back seat, reading Mom’s book, ‘Flowers in the Attic,’ which she shouldn’t be reading because she’s only eight. Behind me, Kevin is squished against the door so no part of his body will touch Kate’s skin, his feet dancing a jig on the back of my seat.
“Christ, he’s even more neurotic than Nick,” Flo said. “If that’s possible,” she said.
“It must be 100 degrees,” Kevin says. He wears swim goggles with blue tinted lenses. He refuses to take them off.
“No complaining,” Mom says. Her white t-shirt is soaked through with sweat; underneath, her red bra glows like a neon sign.
“You’ve still got great tits,” Flo said. “You’ll find another man.”
The station wagon takes one last lurch and rolls to a stop, mostly on the shoulder of the road. Mom lays her head down on the steering wheel, not saying anything. Kate sits up and looks around. On either side of the highway for as far as we can see, there is marsh; lily pads floating in black water, clumps of tall shrubby trees.
We all stare at Mom’s bowed head. A fat mosquito lands on my thigh and draws blood before I can smack it dead.
“I’m praying,” she says.
I glance back at Kevin and Kate. Mom sits up and turns to face us. “Minor setback.” She smiles a tight little smile. “I’ll catch a ride to a gas station and find someone to come fix the car.”
“We’ll all go,” I say.
She looks at me. “And who’s going to happen by with enough spare seats for a rag tag family of five?” Flo called us that, rag tag, only she said it in a nice way.
“Watch out for alligators,” says Kevin. “And snakes and piranha.”
Mom sighs and picks through her purse. “Stay in the car. Keep the doors locked.” She hands the keys to me and opens the car door.
That’s when we see him, walking towards us along the shoulder of the highway. A man with hair so long it touches his waist, brown hair stained gold by the sun. He’s wearing nothing but a thick blanket wrapped around his bony torso, a wool toga. He lifts a newspaper from under his arm and opens it wide, like it’s a fine thing to read the daily news while taking a stroll along the highway. After about ten paces, he reaches up and tears a long strip from the paper and holds it high above his head in the air. He lets go. The torn piece floats like a streamer, twirling and twisting with the air. The man screams and jerks as if under assault by a swarm of bees. The blanket drifts away from his body and we glimpse the triangle of dark hair at his crotch. He reaches up and tears off another strip.
Mom’s standing in front of the car, hand on her forehead like a visor. When the man screams out a second time, she hurries back inside.
A squeal comes from Kevin, like a dog’s whine. With both hands he furiously winds up his window.
“He’s not wearing underpants,” Kate says.
Mom turns the key in the ignition. The car quivers and then goes still.
“Oh no!” Kevin cries. “Oh no! Oh no!”
Mom glances up at her image in the rearview mirror. She blinks in slow motion.
When she turns back toward us, her face is soft. She kneels on the seat, facing the rear of the car. She reaches down and squeezes Kevin’s hand, motions Kate to come closer. “I think God has answered my prayers. He’s sent an angel to watch over us.”
We look from her to the man. He’s finished tearing the paper. He’s walking toward us in a straight line—practically marching—long hair streaming out behind him like a cape.
Mom doesn’t bother to turn and look, she’s watching us, watching our expressions change from fear to wonder.