One day when my father’s car overheated down in Chula Vista, he came home with beans in a can the size of an oil drum. “This is what the real Mexicans eat,” he announced. That sounded suspicious. We ate beans our mom cooked on the stove and supposed real Mexicans did the same. We gathered skeptically as my dad opened the can. “Look at these beans!” he beamed. He was ready to dig in without even heating them up. We stared into the murky depths. Nobody else wanted to try them.
One day as we headed north on Interstate 5, a radiator hose burst right by the big, hollow globe, tilting on its axis in El Toro. Two hippies hitchhiking on the on-ramp kept offering us their ten-gallon bottle of water. “Water won’t do it,” my father said. “It’ll run right through.” There was an Episcopal church there across the street, and the priest took us in for the afternoon. It was 103 degrees that day, but cool in the church. My brothers and I walked up and down the adobe halls for hours. We drank chocolate milk from cartons. The hippies and their dog and their baby and their ten-gallon bottle of water got a ride in a Volkswagen heading for Oregon, but we were there in El Toro till nightfall. I don’t know how my father fixed the car.
The day I first saw snow falling from the sky, as we were driving back from Pine Valley in the station wagon that smelled perpetually of vomit, our left rear wheel came off entirely. Luckily my dad had felt it start to wobble, and we were on the off-ramp when the back corner of the car plummeted, and we scraped to a halt on the axle, leaving a long gouge in the road. Down there at sea level in El Cajon, it was raining, and we waited in a gas station. It was the end of the day. A man came into the office with a bundle of money, unscrewed a tile from the floor, reached into the dark space down there, and brought out some sort of canister. He stuffed the money inside, put the canister back in the floor, and screwed the tile back into place on top. When my brother strolled over to take a gander, the gas station man yelled at him to get away. We got to ride home in the tow truck.
In Burbank one smoggy summer, when my grandfather was dying, my mother took us in the Chrysler to the movies to get out of the heat. When we got to the theater, the car wouldn’t turn off. As the motor raced and raced it became clearer and clearer that we would never see the movie. No one at the gas station could turn it off either. We sat in the blasting sun on a red vinyl bench, waiting for my grandfather’s car to run out of gas and my father to come home from the hospital. We stared at the coke machine, where each cold bottle waited in its own icy compartment behind a little glass door.
One summer when we rented a camping trailer and started driving across the desert, the wind blew so hard it shattered all the camper windows. We walked across London Bridge at Lake Havasu, in sun that blazed down on us and back up from the crinkled turquoise of the reservoir. The bridge seemed to go nowhere, just to a small island. We walked back. Then we read in the brochure that even the island was man-made. At the Grand Canyon, the wind whipped our hair across our faces, into our eyes and mouths. We stood at the edge. Our little cat, too young to leave at home, lay in the car’s shadow and panted. She wouldn’t walk under the weight of the miniature harness we’d bought her for the trip. It was so hot we turned back long before we reached Utah, which was where we had wanted to go. On the way home, somewhere in Arizona, we stopped at a gas station to let the engine cool down. It was dusk, and the wind was still blowing hot, and when we got out of the car the whole state stretched out before us like a white bone. We saw a blurry green car approaching on the flat road for a long time. When it pulled into the station, we could see it was one of those cars worse, even, than ours. It was one of those cars filled entirely full of things, full of everything. Pillows. Plates. Pie pans. Blankets. Underwear. A toaster. A squashed box of kleenex. A birdcage for some reason. You don’t like to see someone’s underwear like that. The man got out of the driver’s side and left the door yawning. His pants hung down around his hips. Behind him, the woman slid across the seat and stretched bare legs out the door. She dropped a pair of sandals on the gravel and put her feet on top of them. The man wiped his hand across his moustache, and, without turning around, began to yell at the woman. “You packed it all wrong!” he yelled. “I can’t drive like this! I’m gonna stand here while you take it all out and pack it again!” He had his hands on his hips, and he was yelling out across the hot twilight. The woman seemed not to hear him, or not to think he was talking to her. She lifted her straight blonde hair from her neck.
Once on Christmas Eve, my father fixed a leak in our gas tank with a bar of Ivory soap. There’s something adhesive about soap when it mixes with gasoline. But it has to be Ivory.
We were never allowed to take our shoes off in the car. Wherever we were driving, however long it would take to get there, however hot it was, we always had to wear shoes. You could never know, my father said, where or when you might have to get out and run.
Margaret Weatherford writes and edits on the outskirts of Los Angeles.