by Jen Michalski
“We’ll come back some other weekend,” your mother says. You sit in the parking lot, all four windows of the Subaru open, because your mother, in her quest to get the best gas mileage, doesn’t believe in air conditioning.
“We’re turning around and going home?” You look at her in disbelief. About three miles before the exit for Kings Dominion, you’d discovered, while rooting for Tic Tacs in your mother’s purse, that the discounted tickets she’d bought a month before at the grocery store were missing. Not missing–you could see them very clearly in your mind, at home on the dining room table next to the electric bill where she’d left them.
“I’m not paying full price for tickets when we have tickets at home.” Your mother taps out a Winston and lights it. The whole three-hour trip—your mother’s chain smoking, the crushed gold and red empty cellophane cigarette wrappers sliding back and forth across the dashboard, the entire Frank Zappa discography on crackly cassette tapes, your legs sticking to the hot vinyl of the seats as you sat up in front and kept the map spread across your thighs while your little brother Owen played a hand-held asteroids game, oblivious to everything but the blip-blip-blip on the machine—has stretched you to the breaking point.
“You can use my money.” You think of the crumpled ones and fives and the one nice twenty you’d gotten in an early birthday card from an aunt in Wisconsin you’d never met.
“It’s the principle of the thing.” Your mother exhales a mushroom cloud of smoke between the seats. She wears a Bahama hat and a T-shirt that says the Def-Tones on it. “It’s a waste of money. You have no idea of the value of money, Al-ex-an-dra. You get twenty dollars from Aunt Geraldine for doing absolutely nothing.”
“But we’re going to waste gas money coming back here—.” You point out. “So won’t it be a wash”?
You glance back at Owen, hoping he’ll pipe up. If you are both whiny enough, maybe your mother will take one of her “headache pills” and give in. But instead he frowns in concentration at his asteroids machine.
“Maybe if you asked me if I had the tickets before we left, instead of caring about what freaking toy was in the cereal box or wanting to wear your new sandals.” Your mother spikes the cigarette in the overflowing ashtray and glares at you. “Maybe if you were more responsible, we would have the tickets, wouldn’t we? You’re almost twelve years old, Al-ex-an-dra. You need to be more responsible.”
“I wish I could live with Dad,” you mumble. You don’t really mean it; for all you know, your dad is Satan. It was something to say, the same way you might have called Owen boogie breath.
The slaps are fast and furious. Your mother’s peridot ring, one size two large and always sliding around her finger, cuts your cheek.
“You want to live with your fucking father?” Your mother leans across you and opens her door. “You think he’s such a saint? The man who never came back for you? Then go right ahead. I’ll leave you here, with your thirty dollars, and you can call directory assistance and ask for John Maas, okay? There are probably four thousand of them, but you find him, okay, and tell him you want to live with him. Go! Get out!”
You grab your pink heart-shaped purse, the size of a small pancake, and your floppy hat that you remembered to pack this year because you’d gotten a terrible sunburn the time you went to Frontier Town. You don’t want to get out, but you’re afraid to get hit again.
You watch as your mother drives away. You catch Owen’s eyes as he stares at you from the backseat in terror. You pinch your forearm as hard as you can so that you won’t cry and follow the other families exiting their cars toward the entrance.
A child’s ticket cost fifteen dollars. You can afford lunch, and even a souvenir, maybe. But you couldn’t afford a way home. You didn’t even know how to get there.
You sit on the bench outside the turnstiles, your bravery draining after every minute that passes with no sight of the Subaru. Your father abandoned you, yes, but your mother didn’t have to blame you. It wasn’t your fault. Was it?
“Are you okay?” A woman in a straw hat and big sunglasses ambles up. She is stuffed into a pair of white shorts and a nautical tank top, her sausage arms sunburned. You glance at the woman’s sausage-shaped son and daughter and balding husband with a Cincinnati Reds t-shirt and silently shudder, thinking their house probably smells like grease.
“My mom is parking,” you say quietly, afraid if you speak any louder you’ll start crying. At least the woman, whose perm makes her look like an adult-sized Little Orphan Annie, would remember to feed you every night. She might even hug you and tell you she loves you.
If the woman says anything else, you decide, you will tell her your mother left you. You wonder if you will live in a police station and then a foster home. You think you can handle that. But you wonder what would happen to Owen, whether he would be allowed to go with you, or whether he’d be shuttled off somewhere else, where you know he won’t survive.
“Are you sure you’re okay, honey?” The woman glares at her family, who edge closer to the turnstiles, frowning at you. The woman turns back at you, staring at your left cheek. You can feel the abrasion from your mother’s ring there, the dots of blood in the crease of it.
“Yes ma’am,” you say after a moment. “I had to go to the bathroom, so my mom let me out to go while she parked.”
“Okay, then.” The woman nods. It is so easy to lie, you think, and so easy for the woman to believe you. If you had actually been to the bathroom, you would have washed the blood off your face, maybe even put on a Band-Aid over the cut. But maybe, you are starting to realize, people would rather believe the lie than the truth.
A half hour later, after you’ve taken out and rearranged everything in your little heart purse twice, the Subaru pulls up. Your first instinct is to run. But where would you go? You want more than anything to be in your room at home, with your books and diary and stuffed elephant, Henry, and never come out again.
You climb slowly into the Subaru.
“Owen and I have decided we should go to park, since we’re here.” Your mother says brightly. As if they are being magnanimous, are doing you a favor. You think of trying to have fun, riding the Big Bad Wolf rollercoaster after your stomach has knotted itself into a pretzel, or even eating an ice cream. You burst into tears.
“What the hell?” Her mother stares at the ceiling of the Subaru, as if pleading to the higher power she doesn’t believe in. “I thought this was what you wanted. Why are you crying now? Jesus.”
You do it because of Owen. Your mother cleans your cheek with a spit-dampened McDonald’s napkin and puts a bandage on it. You walk to the park, the three of you hand in hand, as if nothing is wrong. You push every tear back into your eyes like snakey springs into a peanut can, and you ride the log flume, the flying chairs, and the bumper cars.
When you get to the go karts, Owen runs ahead and picks a blue one, his favorite color.
“I’m going to ride with Alex, okay honey?” Your mother calls to him. She’s said little all day but had given into all your demands, from rides to games to hot dogs for lunch and even a slice of pizza two hours ago. As she slides into the bright orange car with you, the smell of her armpits stings your eyes briefly. You think of all the money she’s spent today, along with the new, undiscounted tickets. You wonder what you’ll have to go without. You figure you will put your own money in her wallet later tonight, when you are home and she is asleep. With any luck, she’ll have no memory of how it had gotten in there.
You tear around the first corner of the track, trying to catch up to Owen, shrieking with laughter as you gain on him. He drives like a grandmother, both hands on the wheel, puttering along. When you roar past him, you stick your tongue out. He grins and gives it more gas, as if you’ve given him permission.
“He’s gaining on us!” You mother shouts to you over the wind. You’ve just cut off a boy with a crew cut and are gaining on a little girl with pigtails.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” You laugh again, hugging the inside of the track with your wheels, trying to play the angles. But with your mom with you, there’s simply too much weight. The boy with the crew cut bumps you from behind and sends you skidding across the curve of the track, and you plow into a bale of hay.
“Are you okay?” Your mother clamps her hand on your shoulder. You shirk away, afraid it’s somehow your fault. That you hadn’t seen the boy with the crew cut early enough.
But you realize she’s crying. Her shoulders heave; rivulets of mascara-stained tears weave lines down her sharp cheeks. She looks like the fifth member of Kiss as she throws her arms around you and sobs.
“It’s okay,” you try to soothe her, but you begin to cry, too. You cling to each other, like survivors in a life raft, well after the ride has ended, until the ride’s operator, a boy in black pants and a polo shirt that looks like a checkered flag, stands on the sidewall of your go kart, instructing you to give it gas as he steers you free of the haystack, back toward the others.
It’s the last ride your mother gets on that day, preferring to smoke instead by the fences as you and Owen make a frantic dash to finish out the park’s roster. She looks so small, so far away, from where you are, on the tilt-a-whirl, the merry-go-round, the jerking hill of the Rebel Yell rollercoaster. But she is always waiting there, by the exit, and when it’s over, you always run to her.
Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books 2013), and two collections of fiction. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore, called Starts Here!