by Cindy Rogers
I’m riding shotgun with my dad in his Buick Regal. We are headed to El Patio for dinner, then to the downtown post office so he can collect his mail.
My sister’s studying for the SAT at a friend’s house and my mom is who-knows-where, maybe playing bridge, maybe at Aunt Millie’s commiserating on life, maybe shopping to buy something new to add to the two closets she is forever filling with dresses and pantsuits and hats and shoes, most with tags still on them.
The cicadas out the open windows and the hum of the defroster that keeps the windshield from fogging up in hot, humid June are all I hear. I remember what my biology teacher, Mr. Damron, said during the module on entomology — how after spending their entire lives underground, the adult cicadas emerge to mate and after they mate, the female lays 400 eggs in tree twigs, then dies, her hollow body utterly spent. The males die a week later, leaving the eggs to hatch, and the nymphs to drop to the ground, where they burrow, nourishing themselves on tree roots for the next 13 to 17 years, until they emerge and repeat the cycle.
Such a sucky life.
Sweat beads on my nose and forehead but not from the heat. Normally, when my Mom and sister are out, I just pop a TV dinner into the oven then take it to my room to eat while I do homework or listen to Aerosmith or watch Laugh-In. My dad only requests my company on his nightly runs to the post office if I need a talking-to.
I press the electronic window control and roll my window up, down, up, down while I catalog the things I might need a talking-to about.
Two weekends ago, my best friend and I told each of our parents we were sleeping at the other’s house. Actually, we’d partied with two frat boys we’d met at a bar near the University of Texas campus, then slept in her Firebird, parked on the street two neighborhoods away from our own.
This past Monday, Mr. Damron caught me in the school parking lot after I’d skipped his lecture on the general functions of DNA and RNA in favor of drinking Shiner Bock at the lake.
I wait for my dad to say something. The cicadas are deafening.
I lean my head out the window, gaze up at the Big Dipper, follow the invisible line to the right, look for the North Star. It shines above David Allen’s house, where last spring, after a fight with my mom — about what I was wearing or not wearing, doing or not doing, being or not being — I’d consumed an entire pitcher of Mai Tais. The next morning, my mom was furious, ranted on and on about how disappointed she was. With me, with my friends, with her life, with everything. She wanted to ground me for a month. Suspend my allowance, my Saturday mall trips, my art classes. Said I couldn’t date again for a year, not till I turned 17. And maybe not even then. But my dad said waking up in a bed of my own vomit was punishment enough.
My dad is holding his Travis Club cigar half-in and half-out the window, eyes fixed ahead. The few thin strands on his otherwise bald head two-step in the breeze. Smoke trails in and out of the car while the ashes flicker and flutter into the night.
About three miles into our drive, after we’ve passed the high school where I’m pretty sure I’m flunking algebra and chemistry, the Safeway where I recently got caught shoplifting Tootsie Rolls, and the gas station with the attendant on whom I still have a huge crush even though he just started dating my so-called friend Sharon, my dad finally speaks.
It’s your mother, he says. She’s done it again.
Last time she did it, she went to the garage, got in her car, turned on the engine, and sat while fumes filled the garage like the great smog of London. But not, of course, before calling my dad at his office, leaving a message just cryptic enough to prompt him to race home. Such a cliché.
This time, my dad says, she swallowed half a bottle of Valium.
The cheese enchiladas with guacamole and chile con queso I was thinking of ordering no longer make my mouth water. In fact, they make me want to puke.
“She called the police from the motel room right after she did it.”
Such a drama queen.
The car jolts and a loud thump comes from underneath. My dad stops the car, gets out. I get out and follow him to the rear. The exhaust pipe is busted and barely hanging on. An armadillo lies wedged between it and the rear tire, on its side, motionless. We lean closer.
“She’ll be spending the summer away.”
I wonder what “away” means, if it will be like last time, when she spent two months at her sister’s in Houston and my dad drove us the three hours there and back every Saturday and Sunday so we could pretend we were normal, causing me to miss what my best friend said were the two best lake parties in the history of forever. I can’t tell if the armadillo is dead or alive.
“His shell looks good,” my dad says.
“Yup,” I say. From what we can see, anyway. I’d read a story about a man who went to the hospital for an appendectomy. The anesthetic didn’t work as intended. He could feel every cut and pull and tug throughout the procedure, but was unable to open his eyes or his mouth or move his hands or use his voice to let the doctors know.
The armadillo’s legs start to twitch then stop.
After the fifth Mississippi, they start twitching again.
“We should do something,” I say.
My dad gets the gloves he keeps next to the spare tire and puts them on, then gently works to pull the armadillo out. I have no idea if armadillos bite or carry rabies, but I’m pretty sure I see a brief glimmer of recognition in the armadillo’s eyes as it lets my dad set it on the ground beneath a bush.
I think about what Mr. Damron said about turtles during the module on marine biology, about how the very shell that protects them also slows them down, makes it hard for them to move forward.
I look into the passenger rearview mirror hoping to see the armadillo scamper across the road as we pull away. I see the five-year-old boy from the gold frame that hangs on the wall in my parent’s bedroom instead. The boy I was adopted to replace, erase. It becomes clear I never will.