A new week, a new project
It was a nineteen hour drive
to South Carolina.
We took it in one day.
Leaving our wood-and-brick house
at three in the morning, the house
my father had largely grown up in,
my whole family drove all the way north
in our clanking used van.
There were a series of vans,
battered, all filled,
when we bought them,
with the dust of other bodies.
I was used to the gritty feel
of not owning much.
The shades my mother chose
were Mary’s colors; blue and gold,
flecked with bright minerals,
matching the uniforms I wore
for a couple of years
in the private school dignity insisted on
which we could scarcely afford.
My father tore out the van’s middle seat,
secured the TV from the kitchen,
the VCR, to the black trunk
with candy-striped bungee cords.
The trunk was mine, though I
had not packed it, or even
seen it properly before.
The TV had an adaptable plug
that fit into the cigarette lighter.
When I was left alone in the front seat
while Dad made his weekly visitations
to the old shut-in ladies
I would read for a while, grow bored,
and plug the metal lighter in
until the coils grew as red and appetizing
as cherries and I would have the pleasure
of filling the carriage with the scent of burnt fingers.
Now, in the nominal morning,
I leaned between the tinted window
and my sleeping brother, breathed in
the scent of children and dogs
while my parents sat up front, holding hands,
listening to reruns of Paul Harvey.
I woke at six with an aching bladder
in the parking lot of McDonalds.
I took Spot out first, his muscular neck
straining against his purple collar,
watching as he arced his leg
above the ragged highway bushes.
If no one had been watching
I would have laid my scent over his.
We were as well matched
as two-year-old horses.
As it was, I slid the side door open,
greasing my fingers in the bowels
of love-bugs who had died joined
and mating, mistaking the scent
of road for pheromones.
I sealed him in.
My young Dalmatian.
If I’d had my choice,
I would have had pancakes.
As it was, I found after using the bathroom,
that Daddy had ordered me
an egg McMuffin. A treat, he thought,
though it tasted of chemicals.
Maybe it was a treat,
My sister and brother had the cheaper
French Toast Dippers.
My mother had a coffee and half
a burnt hash brown. Her face
was pale already, strained,
hands tearing at her cuticles.
We were halfway up
the Florida coast.
We spent the ride watching
bootlegged recordings of Red Dwarf.
I was unaware of the crush I had
on Dave Lister, though I liked watching
his character enough to keep repeating
the episodes we had over and over,
until the tapes grew snowy, wearing out.
My delicate china-doll sister
could take only so much, squirming,
an eight-year-old in pinafore,
crying to go home to Virgie.
Day sat as usual, red-faced, stuffing,
his hands compressing his ears,
muffling the sound of his world
in the bright curls of his mullet.
I expected a fight, parental shouting,
the typical threat to turn around, go home.
It didn’t happen. I got my way.
I hadn’t learned yet how much
that can cost you.
We arrived in darkness,
different from the one
that swathed us when we left.
I was aware of the stench
of near cattle, the vague shapes
of trees, stone sepulchral buildings
leaning in, almost near enough to touch.
A porter was waiting
to let us into the Guest House.
There were three large bedrooms,
three large beds, the wooden furniture
looking worn but not quite institutional.
We piled onto the biggest bed,
parents, children, dog,
and watched an episode
of The Twilight Zone.
It was the one set on New Year’s Eve.
At the stroke of midnight,
the bad people all become their masks.
They scream and scream at their new faces
that are really their old ones,
brought to the surface.
I still hate disguises, whatever the cause.
I fell asleep afterwards,
between my parents.
For once they let me stay there,
though Daddy carried sister and brother
to their own borrowed beds.
He cuddled me, later, stroking
my long, snarled hair,
complaining of dog-farts.
I loved it. We still rarely touch.
Like all travelers
who voyage in darkness
along those vague paths,
I had to wait until morning
to know where I was.