The Blue Moon Review

In The Wake
by Thomas Mott

My father being out of town on business, the job of driving Harry and me to school fell to my mother. She seemed even less happy to be taking us than we were to go, but then, trying to pinpoint the cause of my mother’s mood at any given moment was a fruitless game. Harry and I took note of her pursed lips and her cautious, deliberate driving style as we pulled out of the driveway and headed down the road, leaving behind a trail of white exhaust. Then we gazed through the light fog and mist at the swishing tails and lowered heads of the cows, at the old farmhouses and barns, and at the tall brown grass drooping with moisture that covered the fields stretching from both sides of the road. Soon we approached the crossroads, where three thoroughfares came together to form a large triangle, creating an ideal site for a local developer to build a three-sided strip mall. A red light and heavy traffic brought us to a stop and then a crawl as we made our way through the construction zone. We were moving at two miles an hour, stuck between a pickup truck in front and a station wagon to our rear, when, suddenly, although from my perspective it all happened as if in slow motion, a backhoe on the right side of the road swung its long arm and bucket in a wide circle, first away from us but then coming around directly toward our car. There was nothing we could do but sit and watch as our fate unfolded. By my calculations, the steel bucket was destined to hit our car and smash through the side window in a second or two. But it didn’t concern me much. First of all, I figured the man driving the backhoe knew what he was doing and would probably come very close to hitting us without actually doing so. On the road, you can’t worry about every near miss because near misses occur all the time. But secondly, it appeared that the backhoe bucket’s trajectory was leading to our back window, and both my brother and I were sitting in the front seat. The thought raced through my mind that sometimes my brother or I would sit in the back seat, for no particular reason, so it was a good thing that today we were crammed together into the front. And thirdly, I thought, since I was sitting in the middle of the seat while my brother occupied the window seat, he would be the one to receive the blow if the backhoe bucket did indeed hit us and if my estimation that it would hit the back side window rather than the front side window turned out to be wrong. And so again, I had nothing to worry about, and I sat there quite relaxed as the arm of the backhoe continued to pivot toward us. And when the bucket swung through the back side window and smashed it to bits and rested there above the back seat, I thought, No big deal, it’s just a car window. No one is hurt. In fact I was somewhat pleased that it happened, because suddenly yet another dreary school day had turned into a small adventure.

But you would have thought one of us had been killed, the way my mother reacted. She screamed, “Aaaaahhhhhh,” at the top of her lungs, and my mother had powerful lungs. She looked at us and stretched her arm out in our direction, as if to protect us from a second attack. She put the car into park and began to cry. Her head fell forward onto the steering wheel, but the impact seemed to bring her back to her senses; she looked up, and then she pressed her thumbs into the car horn until they turned white. Harry and I were fine, except that our ears were ringing. We sat there quietly, looking straight ahead, ignoring the unwelcome guest in our back seat.

“Let’s get out of the car, before they kill us,” my mother said. “Be careful. Come this way.” My mother opened the door and got out, and I followed her, and Harry slid across the seat and got out through the driver’s door as my mother held it open. But traffic was moving along in the opposite direction, and the cars behind us were trying to squeeze by, and the dust and fog were so thick in the air that other drivers couldn’t see us until they came within fifteen feet. We sidestepped along our car and took a position a few steps in front of our right headlight, the low-beam of which was still shining. We heard more of the construction site than we could see; the roar of equipment moving over a terrain of dirt, rocks, and ditches, filled our ears. Then came the honking of car horns. Who were they angry at? Yes, our car was blocking the lane, but it was not our fault, and there was nothing we could do. Dust continued to fly around us in intermittent clouds as Harry and I stood in front of our car, using it as a barrier, our faces sullen, our hands in our pants pockets. I took a look at Harry. Out of our car, we were spectacles now; people driving by could see me standing in my green blazer and super-wide tie underneath my mop of long wavy blond hair, next to my dufus of a brother wearing a burgundy sport jacket with a super-wide red tie under a mop of long, greasy, thick, straight black hair, thick brown glasses resting high on his nose, and sporting his first outbreak of acne on his chin. We looked like fools and losers. Why, I wondered, had the backhoe singled us out, when so many other candidates were passing by without a scratch? Now that I realized people were looking at us and perhaps blaming us for their commuting delays, I no longer appreciated our adventure. Our jackets and ties must have made them think we were rich kids, and that probably gave them pleasure in our misfortune. I wanted to explain to them that we were not rich but poor, destitute, almost. We only went to private school because we had scholarships, and because my father was a college administrator who placed an inordinate value on education, and because my father’s parents had saved a pot of money for our schooling. But we were still regular folk – “Just look,” I said silently to those passing us by, “at our inexpensive and now dented and broken box of a car!”

My mother, wearing a long, dull pinkish polyester knee-length overcoat with a belt tied around the middle, marched toward the men who had gathered beside the backhoe. We felt sorry for them. They had done wrong, they had made a mistake, and they were about to get a tongue-lashing to which rebuttal would be futile. Her voice boomed over the background noise -- the traffic and the ongoing construction. “What are you trying to do, kill us!” my mother demanded. “Why’d you stop! Why not pull back and smash us again! Smash the car to bits, for all you care. You don’t even look. Don’t you realize there’s traffic going by here! Don’t you care about other people at all! Nobody wants you and you’re stupid mall here anyway, and now you’re trying to kill us!”

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am,” said a man with a hard hat and a clipboard.

“Sorry? You nearly killed my children, and all you can say is, ‘Sorry?’ You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” And she began to cry again as she turned away and dropped her head, so all we could see of her, other than her coat, was her thick, curly black hair.

The men wanted their backhoe back. One of them – had he been the culprit who speared us in the first place? -- climbed into the machine and started it up. Our car bounced up and down as he worked the levers on his dashboard and pulled the bucket out through our back window. The men cleaned up the broken glass while the man with the clipboard took information from my mother and tried to converse calmly with her. My mother stopped crying, but now she wore a beady-eyed tight lipped scowl that, despite her cheery red lipstick, spoke of her contempt. She hated these men who plunged recklessly ahead, oblivious to the destruction they left in their wake.

We waited for a lull in the traffic, and then we climbed back into the car through the driver-side door, unsure if we had sustained structural damage or merely a surface blow. “They said the car is fine, nothing to worry about,” my mother said “They could care less. Just another day on the job for them.” She started the car up as though she expected it to explode; then she accelerated gently, and soon the wind began to whistle through the back window and the bent rear door as we made our way into town. I was sitting in the middle again, squeezed in tight between mother and brother. “Your father will have to take care of this, as soon as he gets back,” my mother said, and my brother and I nodded silently in agreement. I gazed out the window at the tall apartment buildings and the aging three-decker houses lined up in long rows on both sides of the road, and I braced myself for another day of school.


Thomas Mott has a Master's degree in English from Columbia University (1982). He lives and writes in Richmond, Virginia.





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