MY MOTHER AND I VANISHED the summer of 1975 when I was eight; we vanished and then we came back. There was nothing otherworldly or sinister about our disappearance. It wasn’t as if we’d been abducted by space aliens or the Mafia. We simply left town one afternoon, my mother telling no one—not even my stepfather—of her plans. We were gone a few days and then we came back and he wanted to know everything. My mother offered him no apology or explanation, and she left no trail or clues to where we had been, what we had done, or with whom.
It was the last day of the school year and I was an official soon-to-be third grader.
I came home that afternoon, had cookies and milk, and went to the living room to watch TV. The movie Jaws had just been released. A commercial for it was playing.
“Turn that thing off,” my mother yelled from the top of the stairs. “It’ll kill your brain cells and make it so you can’t think.” She surprised me when she came down carrying two suitcases, one of them mine. I acted as if I hadn’t heard her, intent on watching all the gory details about the killer shark movie. “You and I are leaving,” she said. “Mister, you need to get moving. We’ve got places to see.”
I continued to sit there, unsure as to what my mother was up to. I knew of no plans for travel, vacation or visits to anywhere. I ignored her when she set the suitcases beside me. She turned to go to the kitchen. When the commercial was over, I flipped the channel. President Gerald R. Ford. Boring. Click. Jimmy Hoffa went missing. Boring. Click. The war in Vietnam was almost over. Boring.
I turned the TV off and went to the refrigerator to get more milk and found her trying to compose a note to Ray, my stepfather. She was just standing there, holding a pen to her lip, her eyes rolled up staring at the ceiling, looking as if she wasn’t sure what she should write. She looked truly lost in thought until she noticed me watching her and then quickly scrawled out three words in large capital letters and held the paper out proudly for me to see. SO LONG SUCKER, it said.
“That should do it,” she said. She beamed a smile at me. “What do you think?”
“I think Ray’s not going to like it.”
“Exactly,” she said. “You going to miss him?”
“Nope, and where are we going?”
“On a road trip, and like it or not, you’re coming with me. You’re not staying with my mom and dad like last time.”
“I thought you were teaching summer school.”
“No, not this season, and I’ll be damned if I spend it with that jackass father of yours.”
“He’s not my father.” I remember becoming very angry with my mother in that moment. I looked up at her and thought about how she’d settled for the first man she’d met and ended up marrying a total jerk only a year after my real father had died. Everything in our house suddenly became weird and crazy and angry when Ray and his daughter, Breanna, came to live with us. “And that retarded Breanna’s not my sister. She’s never gonna grow up. She’ll always be a five-year-old.”
The truth was, all I ever thought about was I couldn’t wait to be grown up. I wanted desperately to have my own life, free of my mother and her husband, his bad moods, and that helpless girl Breanna. And I thought a lot about my own father, too, what kind of life I would’ve had if he’d not died. I was angry at him. I’m sure I was angry at the whole world that year of my life.
“Alright,” my mother said, “calm down and let’s think good things, okay?” She looked at her watch. “We really need to get going.”
“Why are we rushing?” I asked. “Ray’s still got to pick up Breanna from the retard school, right?” I knew I was pushing my mother’s patience with my constant questioning, maybe to the point to where she would become angry. She was like that, calm and patient one minute and then the next, snapping at me when all I wanted was an answer. I think her growing impatience with me was because of Ray. He had the same fiery temper as my mother, sometimes worse with his cruel and foul words. But unlike my mother, Ray threw and hit things, and quite often, one of those things he hit was me.
My mother knelt beside me so we were face to face and pulled my chin up. She frowned. “Rushing? Well, sweetie, let’s just say we don’t want to be here,” she pointed at the note stuck to the refrigerator, “when Ray finds that. Got it, kiddo?”
I nodded, then gulped when I looked at the stove clock. Ray would come walking through the front door in less than ten minutes. “I’m ready to go.”
A smile crossed my mother’s face as she stood. “Next time you see this place,” she said, sweeping her hands high into the air, “Ray and Breanna won’t be here. It’ll be just like it used to be. Just us, just you and me. How’s that?” I wasted no time in getting our suitcases to the car.
We had left the house, driving down the main road in our subdivision when my good luck with my mother’s patience and temper came to an abrupt end.
“What about Ray?” I asked. We were traveling the same road he took home. “What if he sees us?”
“I don’t care if he does,” she said. “Besides, he’ll think we’re going to the grocery store or to see my parents. I’m not the least bit worried.” I studied her face. She held her upper lip in a slight snarl, always a sure sign she was worried or maybe agitated.
My mother, as I remember her from that year, was a beautiful woman. She was slim and curvaceous with large blue eyes, long auburn hair, and bright red lipstick. And she always moved slow and graceful and with deliberate intention in most everything she did—shopping, cleaning, washing clothes, cooking—except when she drove a car.
“Mom, you are going to drive the speed limit, right?” She didn’t answer me. Instead, she pulled a tube of lipstick from her purse and began applying it while adjusting the overhead mirror to see herself. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a speeding bicycle exiting a side street ahead and to our right. “Mom!” I yelled, pointing at the bicycle, the boy on it pedaling fast. He was closing on us quick, so quick I thought he couldn’t—or maybe we wouldn’t—stop at the intersection ahead. “Stop, Mom! Stop!”
My mother slammed on the Plymouth’s brakes. The boy looked straight at her as he flashed past our front bumper. She blew the horn. His hand shot up, middle finger raised. “Shee-it! It’s that Todd Beasley from my last year’s class. I should’ve failed his sorry ass!” She slapped the steering wheel. “Baby, can you believe that? He blew the stop sign!”
“And you were about to do the same thing,” I said.
“Hey, smartass, you think you’re going to talk to me like that this whole trip, then let me set you straight, you’re not.”
“You’re saying a lot of bad words today,” I said. “Grandpa wouldn’t like it.”
“And you’re really pushing it, buddy boy. You want a spanking?”
“You’ve never spanked me,” I reminded her. “Besides, you’re just trying to start a fight, like you do with Ray.” I didn’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings by being so straightforward, but I had nothing to lose. She was stuck with me. It seemed important to me then to speak my mind and to not be taken for granted. I was tired of being treated and talked to like a small child, especially when I had just as much at stake as she did. We both were fleeing. We both hated Ray. I could tell, without looking up, that she was studying me, rolling my words over in her mind.
“You’re a real smarty pants,” she said. “Sounds like you’re the one trying to start something, not me. Whose side are you on, anyway?”
“All I meant was—“
“Hush up, Randy. Just be quiet, alright?”
“I’m not used to you talking back to me like this. I won’t stand for it. Hear me?”
I shrugged again, only this time adding an eye roll. My mother had had enough.
“DON’T shrug your shoulders at me! You either speak up or don’t when I talk to you, but you better not ever shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes at me again. It’s like telling me to go to hell, only worse. I’m your mother and worth the effort for you to say something, even if you don’t think I’ll like it. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
I did, and began to laugh.
“What the hell is so funny, young man? You think I’m something to laugh at, huh?” My mother was on the verge of tears, but try as I might, I couldn’t stop laughing.
I pointed up at the rearview. “Mom, look at yourself.”
My mother snapped her head around and pulled her face close to the mirror. She squinted. A line of dark red lipstick ran from the left side of her mouth around to her left ear. A car came up from behind as she pulled out a tissue. The driver hit his horn. “Shove it!” my mother shouted. The car came around and like the kid on the bike, the driver gave the middle finger as he sped past.
While we sat there and she cleaned her face, I asked, “Where are your granny glasses?”
“Oh, now you’re making fun of me. Stop it,” she said, pulling her glasses from her purse. She put them on. “Is that better? Are you satisfied now?”
I shook my head. “No, I wish you didn’t have to wear them. They’re goofy looking and make you look old, like Ray.” She looked at me but said nothing. The disappointment on her face was obvious, though. Ray was twenty years older than my mother, and looked it and acted it with his never-ending scowl and I-hate-the-world attitude. The odd combination of Ray and my mother made no sense to me or to her father. I overheard my grandfather once tell my grandmother an older man marrying a much younger woman was like throwing an open can of gas on a bonfire. “Somebody’s going to get burned,” he’d said to her afterward. All I could think of when I heard his words was I hoped it was Ray who felt the flames and not my mother.
Another car came up and honked twice before my mother could step on the gas. The driver blew his horn again. This time she didn’t wait for him to come around. She punched the gas and held it through the intersection. “To hell with this town,” she said, smiling to herself and then at me. A few seconds later, Ray’s van came into view in the opposite lane. My mother smiled a big smile, waved and blew him a kiss as he passed. “And to hell with Ray Burlington.”