When the foam pad goes missing from the station wagon, you will be told it was stolen. You will imagine someone tip-toeing to the garage in the middle of the night, turning the metal handle and lifting the door, tilting it into the upper recess of the small square building, the way you’ve seen your dad do it, then opening the hatch of the car (a Ford the color of chocolate milk) and taking the pad. This is the fold-up pad, covered in red plaid vinyl, that you and your brother sit on, facing the back window, where you wave to the people in the cars behind you, then duck down when they smile and wave back, repeating this game at every stoplight.
You will be told the garage was burgled and the pad removed from the station wagon under cover of darkness, and at first you will be frightened. You will wonder why your parents didn’t hear this affront to your home, for it was summer and the windows of their bedroom, at the back corner of the house, mere steps from the garage, would have been open, a sheer curtain billowing above their heads as they slept. You will think of the sharp stucco wall of the garage that snags your sweater when you stand against it, and the side door that opens to the back yard, where you once sat on a blanket (or perhaps it was the foam pad) half your life ago, in a ruffled dress, mesmerized by the dappled sunlight playing on the grass. It is your earliest memory.
The next time you ride in the back of the station wagon, sitting on the cold metal floor, its ridges hard against your bones, you will wonder why your dad hadn’t called the police to report the crime, and why there were no accounts of similar thefts in the neighborhood. You will also try to puzzle out why somebody would steal a plaid vinyl pad from the garage and not, say, the lawnmower, unless they needed it as a barrier between them and the dewy grass for a nighttime picnic.
You will wonder whether the neighbor’s car was broken into, their garage next door to yours, where you once picked all the flowers off a hydrangea bush as a gift to your mother. You were reprimanded for taking the blooms, and made to apologize to the neighbors, but later found the delicate flowers arranged in a large dish on the bathroom vanity, floating in water, snowballs scenting the room.
You will picture the burglar sneaking away down the long, parallel strips of concrete leading to the garage with the tuft of grass down the center that your dad cuts with the mower that he keeps in the garage, its twisted blades whirring, sending little flecks of grass flying into the air. The same dual tracks that he drove away on one afternoon, with you and your brother sitting on the open tailgate, feet dangling above the pavement, thrilling to this makeshift carnival ride, watching your mother run after the car as it turned into the street, laughing and waving. But no, she was not laughing, she was crying, flailing her arms and pleading with your dad to stop the car.
On nights when your dad was out bowling or playing cards with the other dads, when he didn’t come home until after your bedtime, you would sit at the kitchen table sipping tea from a spoon and watch your mother iron his shirts. A Royal Crown Cola bottle would sit on the ironing board, filled with water and fitted with a perforated nozzle, like a tiny watering can, and when the hot iron would meet the sprinkled shirts, it would carry the smell of singed cotton in a burst of steam.
On one of those nights, you pretend to be asleep on the couch, cheek pressed against the floral cushion, your face turned away from your mother, who sits in the chair opposite, talking to another woman in the room (was it your grandmother?), and tells her she had been driving the day before (in the station wagon), along the newly-built Interstate, speeding along that smooth white highway (you imagine), and had thrown her wedding ring out the window.
You cannot make sense of this, and you wonder, there in your feigned slumber, what it will take to find the ring on the side of the road because surely it was cast from the car by accident. You think you will help her when she goes back for it, but worry about walking along the four-lane highway, parting the tall grass, searching for a band of gold.
When the phone rings in the kitchen one Saturday afternoon, your dad will answer it then take the receiver through the door to the basement steps, stretching the cord so tightly that its coils unwind and the green plastic strains against the door jamb. He will be dressed in dungarees cuffed at the hem, a white t-shirt, and high-top sneakers with a star on the ankle, ready to play basketball or mow the lawn, and he will whisper and laugh into the phone until, out of nowhere, your mother will run through the kitchen to the stoop, pull the receiver from his hand and scream into the mouthpiece. Because you know her only as your protector, you will think she scared away the person (was it the pad thief?) on the other end of the line through sheer force of the high-pitched wail you have never before heard.
Years later, when you are in graduate school in a city not far from the town with the white house and the stuccoed garage, your phone will ring one night and you will answer it, sitting in your chair by an open window in the dark. You will hear the voice of a woman who knows your name and has found it in the phonebook, but hasn’t dialed it until now. She wants to meet you. At first, you will be frightened. But you will drive across the Interstate to see her and when she opens her door, in a black mock turtleneck and jeans, it will be like looking in a mirror. When you learn she was born the summer you were six, you will wonder whether she once sat on a plaid vinyl pad in the back of a car, waving at strangers.
Header photograph by Larena Nellies-Ortiz.
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