Hell on Wheels

Today’s automobile commercials show men and women joyfully hitting the open road, driving just for driving’s sake. But I’ve long since had enough aimless motoring. When my family hit the open road, the open road hit back.

Dad had a unique sense of direction. He could get lost sliding from one side of the couch to the other. The only way he was able to read a map was to sit at the kitchen table and maneuver a penny. Slowly, speaking aloud the exit numbers, he’d move the coin along the route. Every time he had to make a turn, he’d rotate the map and say, "Let’s see. North is...?"

Once we were actually in the car, he’d shake his head in disbelief at every junction and say, "I could have sworn this was gonna be 41. Where’d 67 come from all of sudden?" Meanwhile, Mom would be holding the map. Except that she’d be more interested in finding out how to refold it than in looking at it. She couldn’t be bothered with Dad’s precious numerals; she thought in terms of landmarks. Mom had a great memory for any building or billboard to which she could attach a personal story. But if somebody tore down the cafeteria where I once threw up, or papered over the billboard picture of the woman who looked like our next-door neighbor only without a mustache, she would be hopelessly disoriented.

I was terrified of never being able to find our way home again. "Where are we?" I’d ask. "We’re lost, right?"

"Remember the shoe store where you tripped over the laces?" Mom would respond. "I think we are coming to it."

My sister Risa was afraid of motorcycle noises. Every few minutes, she’d ask the same question. "You don’t see any motorcycles, do you?"

"Of course not," Mom would say, as if the possibility were unthinkable.

"Isn’t that one?" I’d screech, gleefully pointing out the window at nothing in particular.

Mom, who always sat in the back, as a living barrier between us, would say to Risa, "He’s making it up. Don’t worry." Then she’d whisper, loud enough for me to hear, "Just don’t tell him we’re lost, OK?"

Nanny sat next to Dad up front. "How can you call me a backseat driver?" she’d ask. "Look where I am." Her main job was to remind Dad that he was going too fast if the car was actually moving.

It was also her function to complain about her girdle. "Uy," she’d announce to the windshield. "My two-way stretch is killing me." I never could figure out what part of her needed to be pulled in more than one direction. "What is that thing stretching?" I’d ask. "Never mind," she’d answer. "Pay attention to your own underwear."

Mom was oblivious to all the negative energy. "Who wants ice cream?" she’d ask, with a cheeriness that turned everyone’s stomach. "We’re almost at Howard Johnson’s."

"I don’t know about that, honey. Maybe they renumbered the signs, ’cause I don’t remember any 103."

"Keep straight. I’ll tell you how to turn when we get to the movie theater where we saw Around the World in Eighty Days."

"Are we lost?"

"We still have 79 days to go. Ask me then."

"Hey, that’s very funny, Mom. No kidding, does anything look familiar?"

"Is that a motorcycle?"

"What is this, a race? I thought you said ‘a nice drive.’ Listen, it wouldn’t kill me to use a ladies’ room."

"It is. It’s a motorcycle!"

"Seriously, does anybody have a clue where we are?"

"Uy. If I don’t get to a toilet soon, I’ll bust."

"Since when do exit numbers have fractions?"

"Mmmmmm! Can’t you almost taste that butter pecan!"

And that’s about the time we’d run out of gas.

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