The Driving Child
Jane was not a sensitive child, she was not. She was mainly this—eating with her fingers, slowly, after thirty hours of dizzy hunger, without regular days or school. This was the way she knew happiness, her foot on the bench, the other heel kicking metal, the bite of wet gold-brown meat against the cold.
Mary’s own childhood had been all rules: napkins at table, a dessert served on flowered china, with her glass of milk. She’d wanted anything but the sameness of that house, though now when her mother was gone she missed it.
A highway-wind slipped in her sleeves and touched her ribs, shivering her. They both wore old soft clothes. “Honey, I’m going to send you to your dad,” she said. “I’d take you myself, but I can’t. I just don’t think I can.”
Her daughter knew when not to say anything. But she pulled her knee closer, softening a scab with her tongue. “I don’t even know him,” she finally said.
A train horn started too far away to see. Her mother’s round face looked out into distance. “You met him that once.”
“Was at night. I don’t remember.”
“He’s got a house and all now. And a lotta lotta money. He’s an important man down there. He might even be governor someday. Gov-ernor. Wouldn’t you like to be the governor’s daughter?”
tried to keep her top lip straight. “No.”
“Yes you would. Later, you would.” Mary sighed. She unclasped her purse and gave Jane final money for two swirled ice cream sundaes with nuts. “I’m going to teach you how to drive.”
The only car they had was a truck and it was old.
Teaching Jane to drive took a long time. She stopped going to school. As the fall progressed, they absorbed themselves in the nesting of the truck. Mary fitted pillows to the seat, sewing telephone books in between padding and basting on a slipcover, so Jane sat fifteen inches above the cracked vinyl. They had to strap wood blocks to the brake and gas and clutch pedals, so Jane’s feet could reach. But the blocks slid and they couldn’t trust the straps and they finally borrowed a drill from the Shell station and attached the wood with deep barnum screws. Never once did Mary call Mack, although his long letters arrived every day, small forlorn script in blue ink on yellow lined paper.
“They’re probably having some bad times,” Mary said, “but little contentments too, I suppose.” The two of them were silent, reverent to the idea of marriage, the boys, Mack and the fat displeased wife sitting down to supper around one table. They perched high in the truck eating Arby’s, down the block from his house, where a strangled tricycle waited in the driveway.
“He says she’s on a diet.” Mary read from the letter. Mack used to tell them stories about his wife’s weight. When I married her she was a wisp of a thing, he’d say softly.
“Remember the time she ate the big zucchini?” Jane said. Once, he’d made a week’s worth of stuffed zucchini, a huge oversized squash as big as an arm, and she’d come in after her book group and scarfed it all down.
“She tries to diet and then gets mad at herself.” Mary pondered. “She should just accept that’s the way she is.”
The fixing of the seat took six days, sewing, adjusting the padding so the phone books wouldn’t slip and the sides rose up to enclose Jane. Fortunately, the truck’s long stick shift was easy for her to reach. Mary taught a little every day and tested Jane. Where is the choke? Okay, do it. Lights, brights, wipers, emergency brake. They fixed the broken back window with tape and a piece of cardboard. Mary sealed the seams with clear nail polish.
Then the real lessons started. They went on an old road, columns of trees on both sides, straight as far as they could see. They practiced starting, the gradual relay of clutch and gas. Jane found the brake again and again until it was easy. When the car sputtered and died on the late-afternoon road, no one knew.
Clouds bagged huge and magnificent.
In the rosy, cricket-loud dust, Jane pedaled and shifted, as naturally as the woman they’d seen once playing the organ in an empty church.
Mary made her do it all again with her eyes closed, which was like swimming in rain.
Braids, piecrusts, flowers in a vase, require talents that yield only themselves, nothing more than those passing pleasures. But Mary didn’t have the knack. She’d asked people fifty times to show her now to braid, and she still couldn’t do it deftly. Jane’s braids always looked uneven, at once too loose and too tight. Girls who lived in town with their grandparents came to school with braids like this, to keep the hair off the face. Only the young mothers seemed to understand that girls need a little flair, like the girls far away on television.
On Thanksgiving, Jane sat on the end of the mattress while her mother brushed her hair straight up from her head, pulling it tight, then braided it into a basket around her ears. She dressed Jane warmly, with two pair of socks in her new shoes. The truck seat was packed with a grocery bag, Jane’s clothes, her bear and her old shoes. They’d quarreled over those shoes; they had holes in the soles, and Mary wondered what people would think of her, sending a child with shoes like that, as if these same people would accept it as perfectly normal to send her in a truck over the mountains.
“What do you care?” Jane had argued. “I need them.”
Mary rolled down the top of the grocery bag, with Jane’s four Twinkies, Fig Newtons, an apple and a banana.
Then everything was done. Jane’s braids were tight and her scalp still felt as if someone were pulling her up by the hair. She sat on the bed, hands clutching under the mattress.
Her mother knelt on the floor. She slid off Jane’s left shoe and rolled down the double sock. Then she took a breath and lined her words along one edge, her attempt to be firm. She felt it was necessary to warn Jane about life’s dangers.
“Now, I’m giving you money,” she said without smiling. “That’s twenty, forty, seventy. And one, two, three, four, five ones. That’s a lot of money, do you hear?”
Jane noticed that her mother kept no dollars for herself, and this frightened her.
“Don’t, whatever you do, let anyone see you when you take that out.” Her mother folded each bill into a small triangle, like a flag, and put them in the bottom of her sock. She pushed the shoe on over Jane’s heel, tied the laces and patted it finished.
“Get just what you need. Because it was hard to save that. And here.” She pulled the special undershirt over Jane’s chest. She’d sewn in a pocket to hide her ring—as proof. Years ago, Owens had given her the ring, hidden inside a cherry pie. She’d sent him pictures of Jane every season, but he had never acknowledged them so they couldn’t be sure.
They watched the sky change, waiting. Finally, stars glittered against black, and Mary clapped a hat on Jane’s head. With the hat and the height of the telephone books, no one would see Jane was a child.
Mary fixed a glass of coffee the slow way and fed it to Jane with a spoon, as she had when Jane was a much younger child. From the first taste, Jane knew her mother had used the last sugar.
“Now I don’t want you to go.” Mary laughed a little.
“I don’t want to go either,” Jane said, her hands lifted, soft on her mother’s shoulders.
“But it’s the best thing, my little paw. He’ll have a house and you’ll get your own bedroom. He’ll probably buy you your own bike.”
For a moment, Jane lapsed to imagine. She’d seen a television show once where children ran around an obstacle course hammering bells, winning a prize with each ding. But in less than a minute, Jane went from being someone who’d always wanted many things to someone for whom prizes, if they rained on her now, came too late. “I won’t have a mother,” she said plainly, as they walked under the high cloudless sky.
“But you had me. And we’ve always had a better relationship than I had with my mother, ever. You can remember that I went as long as I could for you. And I always will love you, wherever I’m sitting.” They stopped at the truck. “If I had the money I’d buy you a little locket you could have around your neck.”
“I’ll get one someday.” For a long time already, Jane assumed she could do things her mother only wished for.
“And it’ll be from me. Whoever pays.”
In a tree above the truck, Jane saw an owl, stiffly lurching. She pressed closer to her mother, listened to her heart like the far sound inside a shell and felt the pull of an empty immensity, the attraction of wind, the deep anonymous happiness of sleep. “I want to stay with you.”
“No,” her mother said, separating their bodies, the way a lover might.
Through the window, her mother pulled on the truck’s lights, illuminating the invisible before them, and Jane had the sensation of being pushed, as she had been years earlier, trying to learn to ride a bike. In no time at all, she was down the road, wobbling until she caught her balance, past her mother, the cabin contracting in the small rounded mirror. She stopped the truck, leaned out the window and cried, “Mama!”
Her mother’s choked voice echoed back through trees. “Go on ahead, Jane. Go now.”
Jane drove. Her mother had taught her patiently and well, at dusk while others ate their supper. Jane saw her own leg, long for a ten-year-old, reaching the wooden block pedal, and she thought of her mother and the man who was her father marveling over her pats and understood, for the first time, this is why. The world seemed for a moment to have become clear, and remarkable uses for her brow, arms, cheekbones and widow’s peak would soon become apparent: she could use them to cross mountains, to collapse distance and to fly back in time.
She rounded a curve and felt herself flying already—sitting so high in the truck she could feel the velocity and whistling air—but her hands without her steered the wheels back into chronological time and she drove down a long simple road. Her mother’s pencil-drawn map lay on the seat next to her. She was traveling west, with an old sense of which way west was.
The envelope labeled Owens poked into her side. “I better safety-pin it on,” her mother had apologized.
Jane understood she was driving at night so shadows would conceal her childhood. Her mother had put her to bed six afternoons, waking her late and leading her on stumbling sidewalks outside, to prepare her dreams for daylight and accustom her eyes to the dark.
There was no heat or radio in the truck, there never had been, and the sounds that entered through cracks were sounds of the world repairing itself in its sleep. Animals moved in the distance, water seeped somewhere invisible, and there was the etching work of wind on branches, ticking. Jane listened to the sounds people almost never hear and forgot about driving and then snapped erect at attention when she caught herself swinging hammocklike into the lurching swoon of sleep. She opened the window and drove rigid, eating the air.
No one passed but, twice, mile-long semis, and then it was just clutching the wheel hard, through an arc like an amusement park ride, the noise so whole it carried you in it. And it wasn’t up to her if it let you down again or not. But it did and she was still there, her teeth chattering loose, the truck wobbling on the plain dark road.
For the rest of her life, moments from that night would rise into Jane’s memory to haunt and enchant her, though the sequence of the drive itself remained a mystery, so that finally she could only claim what her great-grandmother had once said after lifting a Ford off the junkyard ground to save her only child’s back: “I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t do it now if you paid me.”
Jane wanted to stop and lie down in the seat, but she was afraid of day: if she couldn’t make herself wake up. She had the clock, she could put it by her ear or inside her shirt on her chest. She decided to pull over and eat just one Fig Newton. That would help. But it tasted dry and strong; she didn’t really like them without milk. Water from the round canteen tasted metal, sticking to the back of her teeth. She finally let herself sleep, holding the clock against her chest, then woke with a start and it was only a quarter hour. On her knee she had a scab. She picked it off and ate it, liking the tough opening taste of blood.
Her mother had warned her not to let the gas go down to empty. She had painted a red line on the glass gauge with fingernail polish. But now the needle was hovering below and there was no filling station. When Jane felt frightened, she pulled on the wheel and made herself sit up straight. “I will always sit up straight from now on,” she told herself.
She mad numerous promises to God on that night. By the end, she’d promised her whole life away to goodness.
Later, the road widened and she stopped at a ten-bank gas station, got her money out and put on her hat. She was trembling and her knee jumped when the man came over to help her. He was an old man and small.
She handed him one of the twenties.
She picked a scab from her elbow, watching. When he put the hose back in its slot she drove away. That was done.
At one point, Jane began singing all the songs she knew, the night everywhere around dimensionless and still beginning, and she came to understand that she knew very few songs, and of those she remembered only one verse and a scattered mess of words with spaces between. Most were from camp meetings and she despised them. After “The Farmer in the Dell,” she tried the Beatles songs her mother liked to hum.
She did numbers then—picturing them, the line, the carry-the-one—and for a while she named the things she knew. Capitals lasted nine states, history was a little better, and she remembered only the first two lines of a poem she’d once had to memorize: “By the shore of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water…” She now understood the point of memorization. Rhymes and numbers and state capitals and presidents could keep you out loud at a time like this. All Jane knew was what she hated.
But she had been doing other things while her classmates chanted their gradual multiplication tables. In the tree hollow she had placed seven acorns, unfitting their hats and sprinkled each one with salt: that was for Mack to come back with her mother. She’d made offerings too for weather and the end of weather. She didn’t plan. Each commandment came complete, sometimes in school, and she had to obey. One time, she took a nest down and put in the three broken parts of her mother’s sparkly pin. These were her small duties that guaranteed nothing. Only, if she did not do them, it could be worse.
She drove that night in a straight line, through storm, the crack of lightning, trees of white, sheets of water dividing, spray on both sides, and it came to her that she had passed into the other world, where her mother was dead. Jane felt sure her mother was going to die, because that was the only reason she could imagine they had to be apart: her mother so pretty and, everyone always said, so young. “Yeah?” Mary questioned, with a strange expression, whenever Jane reported a compliment. Mary didn’t trust people talking about them. She felt always alert to the possibility that they were making fun of her.
Jane had never had a death yet. Mary had told how she’d leaned down and kissed her mother in the coffin. And Jane had the picture now of her mother dead. She could be dead the same way she had been a thousand times on the bed, sleeping, the way her face went, lying down, everything draped from her nose. Jane started crying for herself because she didn’t even get to kiss her mother.
In the beginning, more things were alive: plants felt, something commanded, creatures lived in the sky. The morning after her trip to her father, she woke up in a hole of dirt, her mouth full of stones, her hands smelling for a long time of gasoline.
The most terrible and wondrous experience of Jane di Natali’s life was over by the time she was ten, before she’d truly mastered the art of riding a bicycle.