In the Car
Family dinner at a fancy restaurant, a rare treat, was planned for that night, just the four of us—Father, Mother, Alicia and me. Father had made reservations this time; he usually didn’t which would result in a “no more seating for an hour” disappointment.
I had dressed-up in my new party dress. I waited, ready, standing at my usual spot, my wide-open bedroom window to gaze at the sweep of soft rain falling on the pedestrians in the early evening rush hour. Steam, hotter than the heavy air, rose up from the sidewalk. Dusk was a particularly good time for people-watching as the hurried crowd crossed Park Avenue and waited on the median—hesitating, calculating whether they could make it across the next two lanes before the cars started up, or before a heavier downpour started. The day before I had watched the gardeners plant the grass all the way down the middle of the Avenue, and now the median was a line of green.
Father called out from the hall. “Let’s go, the garage brought the car around, it’s parked downstairs.” I heard the coat closet door open as he retrieved his summer hat. “Come on, I don’t want a ticket, and I have to stop for an errand before we go to dinner.” I shut the window, and ran out to the apartment vestibule for the elevator’s arrival.
Father drove fast, then slow so he could compete with the changing street lights. And he loved revving the engine and making squealing brake sounds. “Oh, John, just please \ drive,” Mother said with a bit of an irritated laugh, but my parents seemed in good moods that night so Alicia and I hoped for a non-bickering evening.
Ten minutes later we pulled over and parked at the curb of 71st Street and Third Avenue. Father turned to all of us, “I’m running up to my secretary’s brother’s apartment right over there. He needs help with a letter to Immigration. I'll be back in fifteen minutes, no longer. Lock the doors, and turn on the radio— Lawrence Welk is on with his band."
"Oh, no, Daddy, we don't like him, he's awful," I said.
"Now, Joanie,” he chuckled, “we do like him. He's smooth, makes you feel sweet and good, especially in this heat. I won't be long. Go on, turn on the radio."
“Hurry John.” With the window down, Mother urgently called out to Father as he tried to fast-step away, “I don’t like us parked at this place. It’s grimey. Why do you have to go see this person now? And the car’s air conditioning is hardly working.”
“It’s okay, you’ll be fine. But, yes, I’ll hurry.”
The tension, the fights that started with a gesture, a word, a laugh at the wrong moment seemed to be in the air as Father left. Usually, as children do, we thought their fights might be our fault. It took me years —into my early teens—to recognize that the source of irritation in Mother’s tone, aimed at us, was meant for Father. Now I know, as we sat in a hot car, parked on a dreary curb, that Mother imagined Father not going to Mr. O’Donnell’s apartment at all, but instead that he was having a quick flirtation.
I learned how to get out of the way. Sometimes Mother seemed to be spinning with anger and we didn’t know where it would land. “Alice, take a Miltown,” the tranquilizer of the day, were demands my father threw at her. But that evening we were trapped in the car, and we knew we hadn’t done anything wrong. We waited.
The hazy drizzle gave Third Avenue an eerie somberness. We were parked alongside, almost under, the Third Avenue El train. The rhythm of the El’s clanking beat threw off a sound I liked. Passing trains created shadows on the sidewalk; they looked like monsters, and Alicia and I giggled at their creeping movements. Mostly the city didn’t scare me. I liked to stare at the people: at what they wore—especially their hats—how they walked, and if they smiled or frowned at each other. Some people talked to themselves—same as Mother did. Some moved easily through the crowd. Others had their heads down, in a hurry, not noticing anything or anyone much around them.
Mother turned to us in the back seat, “Come on, children, let’s have fun. Let’s listen to Mr. Welk,” she said lightly. She switched on the radio, but I knew she didn’t like Mr. Welk either. She just wanted to distract us—or herself from her worry and creeping anger. “We’ll look out the window and talk about the people on the street. You like that, don’t you, Joanie?” Mother called me Joanie while Father’s name for me, knowing I was an aspiring cowgirl, was Cactus.
We were quiet for a while until Alicia said loudly, “Look, Joanie! Look at him, that mean man pulling the dog so hard.”
I rolled down the window and yelled, “Don’t do that, you bad old man!”
"Joanie, stop that! Shut your window,” said Mother sharply, pressing her fingertips to her temples. “That loud train. I hate the noise. And don’t kick the back of my seat.”
Without warning she turned to us with a scowl on her face and said out of the blue, “And girls, don’t talk to strangers. Bad people are out there. The city’s not safe for little girls. And I‘m really talking to you, Joanie.”
“Why me? I know that. I don’t talk to strangers. Who said I do? Maybe it’s Alicia who talks to strangers.”
“No, it’s you, Joanie. Alicia’s older, and she knows better. Yesterday, when we were on Lexington Avenue, buying the cherry pie around the corner, you stopped a man with a big dog. I know you wanted to say hello to the dog, but the man just didn’t look agreeable.”
“But if the dog is nice, the man should be nice.” I sat still with my hands in my lap wondering why I had annoyed her. “And you talk to strangers too. I’ve seen you.”
I can hear my little girl’s urgent need to change the subject. “And, you’re not scared of the subway either. You said you always pick out a young man who’s going to protect you. And sometimes you pray. You told me that too.”
Mother laughed, and asked me how could I remember all those things. She turned around to look at us. “Did I also tell you that I like the musicians down there?” she asked with a smile. “Because I do. Oh, it’s too hot for so much talk. Let’s just be quiet and wait.”
I laid my forehead against the car’s window pane, and wondered why the window remained cool in the heat. “Why can’t I open the window, I want the raindrops to splatter inside,” I announced.
“You should keep the window closed because it's dangerous out there, that’s why.” When Mother got mad, I didn’t think she looked so pretty anymore. “See those men pushing each other, going in the bar?" she asked.
“Yeah, maybe they're all going to get drunk,” Alicia said with a slur that made me laugh.
Mother rummaged in her handbag and pulled out a handkerchief. She felt better with a handkerchief in her hand. She shimmied herself over to the driver’s seat. “I have the keys right here. We could drive around the block.”
“But then Father won’t find us,” Alicia said with a rising sob.
Mother’s two hands gripped the wheel.
“We’re scared too,” Alicia murmured and leaned forward to hook her chin over the back of the seat. “That man, he looked mean at us.” Mother reached up to briefly pat Alicia’s cheek.
Mother’s mood changed, as it often did. She turned with a terrible frown to look straight at me, and said in that scary voice: "Joanie, now listen to me: You’re only nine. You're a friendly little girl — too friendly —and you want to talk to everyone. But you can't.” She gestured at Alicia, “Ask Alicia: she knows. Some people are bad and mean. Yesterday I heard a horrible story about a man who grabbed a little girl, pushed her down —a friendly little girl just like you—and did terrible things to her fingernails. He ripped...”
“No, no, don’t tell me! I don’t want to hear!” I screamed over her story, sticking my fingers in my ears.
“You have to hear,” she said, her voice getting louder, almost shouting, leaning over the seat to pull my hands away from my ears. “I’m telling you for your own good. He hurt her hands, her fingernails. He twisted...It’s dangerous out there.”
I started crying. I yelled, “No! I hate it when you tell me horrible things. Stop it, stop it. You scare me.” I pushed her hand away. “Why do you do that? You tell me bad stories. Where’s Nanny. I want to get out.” I pulled the lock up and opened the door. Alicia cried and tried to hold onto my leg.
“I don’t want to be in the car, I’m scared,” I blurted.
Mother reached over and pulled me back in, back into the perfumed scent of the sticky leather seats. “Okay. I’m sorry, Joanie.” She dabbed at her face with her now messy handkerchief. “I won’t say anymore. I just got upset.” She turned toward me. “It’s this place. I don’t know. Lock the door.”
The three of us became quiet. Mother had her head in her hands but then called back to us without turning. “Don’t you girls want to climb over the seat and sit up front with me?”
“No, we don’t want to. Alicia and I want to stay back here.” I squeezed my eyes shut. My hands were curled up in fists to protect my fingernails.
“Okay. I’ll crack the window.” Mother said. “Where's your father?” she whispered, searching the street for him out the opened window, “I wish he’d come back. It’s just so dark.”
Soon we saw him. Father waved and opened the door to the driver’s side. He waited for Mother to move over to the passenger seat, but she didn’t budge. We were in tears. Mother’s voice, a mix of anger and relief, asked why he had taken so long, her voice rising in irritation when he didn’t answer. “Didn’t you realize it’s dangerous here? Where were you?” She demanded. “Those men in the bar; they looked at the car funny; we were all scared.”
“Yeah, and it’s hot in here,” Alicia chimed in. “Mother wanted the windows rolled up so we were boiling and we couldn’t breathe.”
I whimpered, “I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to go home. I want to be with Nanny. She’ll make me supper. I’m not happy anymore.”
Father was mad. We could see his face turning red, two shades darker than his auburn hair, as he leaned down to look at all of us—from Mother to Alicia to me. “What could have happened?” he yelled at Mother. “The girls are crying. I was only gone twenty minutes or so. Oh damn it, Alice, why couldn’t you take care of this?” He hit the top of the car hard with his fist, and Alicia and I cringed. “What have you done, what happened?”
Mother glared at him. “How dare you?” she cried. She pushed the car’s door open, getting out in one big lunge, “Why is it always my fault? And just where were you? You weren’t with Mr. O’Donnell, were you?”
He glared back at her, but said nothing.
Alicia and I cowered in the back seat. We’d seen her really mad before and could feel something bad coming. She turned and suddenly moved to the curb in big strides, unlike her usual ladylike way. Our heads out the window, we saw her pick up a beer bottle and throw it against the bar’s door. “That’s what happened, and I’m mad,” she exclaimed.
Two men lurched out. They shouted at Mother standing tall in front of them, “What the hell are you doing, lady?”
I cried out, “please. . .don’t. . . stop.”
Father grabbed Mother and somehow pushed her into the passenger seat. I knew Father wanted to fight—I had seen him punch a taxi driver once—but instead he shouted back at the men, “We’re leaving. Don’t worry. I’m taking her home, it’s okay.”
He threw himself behind the wheel. The tires screeched, Alicia sobbed, I sat on my hands and closed my eyes.
“We’re going home,” he shouted to the back seat.
“But we were going out to dinner, you said we were going to have family fun,” Alicia said.
“Your mother ruined the fun.”