“Can we do a drive-by?”
When Chris gets home from work, after he’s changed, but before they've eaten, Molly asks him. She clasps her hands under her chin, like she's praying. She tries to keep her face from doing that grimace thing that Chris can’t stand. He says it’s her panic, her pain. It makes him want to curl up in a ball. What he can’t endure, really, is seeing a woman he believes to be the most powerful force he’s ever met, look so desperate.
What Molly wishes he could accept is that, she is desperate.
She walks around looking normal, with arrows in her heart.
Well. Doesn't everyone?
Chris surrenders to the drive-by, but can they stop somewhere and get food first?
Of course! But Molly's pulse kicks because they shouldn't be spending anything, not even a cent. Molly is finishing her first year in college, working toward a teaching licensure. Fifth graders, and books. That's what she imagines, and dreams. But a teaching career, a career of any sort, feels like Paris. So grand and far away, she can barely believe it exists. After all, it was only five months ago she ran away. She’s twenty-two, and doesn’t even have her driver’s license yet. She rides her bike to campus, smiles dreamily at the trees, and still feels like a kid, even though she’s newly married.
Chris graduated in December, right after they eloped, and he is the only one making money. Not at the finance job he’d wanted. At the only job he could get, fast, to secure an apartment for them. Every day he busts ass, running packages for FedEx.
Now she has to tell him, they only have fifteen dollars left in their account. She does this, while wrestling her anxious face into what she hopes will pass for an expression of Zen serenity.
"Cool." Chris winks, swings into the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s and orders a McNuggets meal for them to share. He genuinely is Zen. He takes things so easy, and even when she expects it, and braces herself, he never blows his top. She wonders if his calm kindness will ever stop feeling like a windfall. She’ll forever thank the day she tripped over him, frantically trying to find her way to her first class, eyes glued to her schedule. She’d spilled all her books and, helping her collect them, he kept getting distracted by the titles, flipping through the pages. They’d sat right there, right through her first class, talking about all their favorite books from childhood on up. A windfall.
When they get to the window, their card is declined.
Molly grabs her hair, pulls from the roots. “What? I don't understand! I checked! I checked our account before you got home…” She dives into a frenzy of explanations that are really defenses because she’s failed. Her finely honed self-preservation skills kick into overdrive.
Unfazed, Chris tucks the debit card back into his wallet. He slides out the emergency credit card they are using far too much these days, as if their whole life is an emergency. Molly's face grows red hot, buzzing. “I don’t get it,” she says. “I’m so careful, Chris. I check the account all the time!” Her whole body is a panicky-grimace.
Because she’s learned this: you have to work harder to keep love intact than anything, even money.
"I'm really sorry, Chris.” The other thing is, once she starts apologizing, she can’t stop, like a rollercoaster plummeting, a terrible, unstoppable force pushing her downhill.
"Shush." Chris unfolds the greasy McDonald’s bag between them, reaches in, and plucks out a nugget, hot and crispy. He grins, dances it in the air in front of her. “Mmm-mmm,” he says in a Cookie Monster rumble, “greasy yummy fat fried goodness.”
Molly can’t help herself. She smiles.
Chris feeds her the nugget and it’s balm. She quiets, calms, sinks into eating.
Sometimes, on the inside, Molly feels like a mewling baby.
Sometimes, she realizes, Chris is mother.
Molly's old house is deep rural, nearly an hour outside city limits. Her family picked up and relocated to the countryside when she was fourteen, a mysterious and baffling displacement. The move, she now realizes, looking back, was a consequence of her Dad's persistent hope that one day, if only he made the right decisions, he could make her mother happy, drive out the demons. Land, and solitude, a kind of exorcism.
But a sequestered life in the sticks had only made things worse.
Molly’s gaze is glued to the window as they cross into Leesburg, MO, population 800. This ragged little town, its sprawling truck stop, trailer home lot, rusted out farm machinery, is the beating heart, the very center of Molly's loneliness, her fear, the most abysmal days of her life. Yet each time she returns, she yearns out the window, feeling hungry, wishing, inscrutably, for the trap to take her back.
Chris flicks the turn signal, takes a left onto Cherokee Sun Lane. The evening sky is a pitcher, tipped, tumbling soft amber light onto the pasture. The Oreo cows, their black and white hides luminous, stomp their hooves, swish their tails as they graze in the early spring, tender green grass. A red-winged blackbird lights on the fence post, tilts his head back, pours out a melody.
His familiar opera, an arrow through Molly's heart.
If she hadn't left that night, maybe, who knows, maybe her Dad is right, maybe things would’ve gotten better. If she hadn't gathered her most beloved books, as many clothes as she could, stuffing them all into a garbage bag, maybe they'd all be together right now, cooking out under the big Oak in their backyard, bathed in this wondrous light. Chris grilling his famous Rib-eyes, while Molly's Dad reclined in the lawn chair, his cowboy hat pushed back on his forehead. Her mother dancing around Chris, fixing his apron, fawning over him. You're so handsome! So smart! My adopted son, my favorite. Molly's sister, Lorie, rolling her eyes, disgusted by their mother's lavish, giddy affection bestowed on this interloper, when she’d never loved them like that. Her own two daughters.
But Chris. Chris had lost his Mom early, and he’d soaked up her mother’s attention. And the thing is, her mother could be so kind, deeply kind. Chris seemed to bring out the best in her. Molly had reveled in bright, sharp relief. She’d been so lonely, for so long, never encouraged to have friends, or make them. In fact, the opposite. Her mother never got along with the girls Molly brought home. She always found something aberrant. That one has a smart mouth. I’d better not catch you talking like that. Or, jeez, that girl’s dumb as a pile of bricks, and homely, too. Can’t you do better than that? If not the sharp critique, then the suspicion, the jealousy. What were you two giggling about in there? You don’t have fun with me like that. Best not find out you’re talking about me. After awhile, Molly turned to book characters as companions. In stories, her mind could hide, play, take a breather from navigating the shape-shifting, dangerous terrain of her mother’s moods, and the exhausting full-time job of love maintenance.
Now, they approach her old house. Chris exhales. Drive bys, more than anything, test his nerves of steel.
She can’t even look, squeezes her eyes shut. "Are they home?" she asks. "Did you see their car? What about Dad’s work van?"
"I didn't look," Chris admits. They dip downhill, out of sight of her house.
“Mr. Sweet Stuff!” Molly cries, seeing her horse. Not really her horse. But she'd unofficially adopted him. “Oh, Mr. Sweet Stuff.” Molly peers at him with longing. He’s as ancient as ever, with those knobby adolescent boy knees. She’d bring him sugar cubes, like a pioneer girl in one of those old-time novels she favored. He’d lick them from her palm, then try to take her fingers, too, with his greedy, grasping yellow wood-blocks of teeth.
He stands at the fence line, his tired, old head hanging. He looks so bereft, like his only friend in the world up and left him, no explanation, and no goodbye. Molly presses her hand to the window. He doesn't know, she's right here.
Mr. Sweet Stuff is an arrow through her heart.
They follow the curve of the cul-de-sac at the top of the hill. As they cruise down, then back up, Molly takes a breath. "Chris," she says, "can we stop?”
"I just want to see, Chris."
"If they're home."
"Molly, they're home. Where do your parents go? Molly, they're home."
"Chris, please. I just want to see." She swipes her palms up and down her legs.
"But your Dad, he notices everything. What if he recognizes our car? God, Molly. What if your Mom comes out?" He pushes a hand through his hair, as close to a panicky-grimace as she's seen him, and it hurts. How his love for her mother has turned to fear. How her mother is someone to fear. That’s shattering. She hasn’t yet reckoned with that.
The night everything spun apart, splintered, Molly had messed up. Had she neglected to wipe off the stove-top after dinner? Had she said something, not said something? Made a face? What was the fatal error? Her mother had screamed at her the usual checklist of deficiencies: selfish, lazy, uncaring, liar, traitor, enemy. Those words, like the lyrics of a terrible song Molly had memorized from childhood. Each time, inflicting fresh pain. But she could bear up. She could. And eventually her mother would cool down, forget, return to her loving, so completely loving for such a long time, Molly herself would forget. Or not forget, but hope. Wincing, she’d held her mother’s gaze. Every once in awhile, this posture worked. Molly had grown innovative, always trying out new tactics to dam the rage. That night, rather than back off, her mother bore down harder. Stepping close, she’d spat, “You’ve fooled Chris. Poor guy. He thinks you’re some angel from heaven. Someone really ought to tell him. Just you wait, little girl. Keep pushing me and one of these days, I’ll tell him who you really are.”
The verbal assault was terrible, stunning, but not what destroyed her. Not even her mother's searing look of hate. The difference, this time, was that Molly, for the first time in her life, listened. Not only listened, but believed. It would never get better. Never be okay. She’d never have a mother she could confide in, plan a wedding with. Be safe with. She'd slunk to her room, drenched in the cold shock of realization. She'd crawled under her quilt, collapsed into crying, soft, quiet, desperate, little peals of mourning. She remembered Lorie, after a knock ‘em down with their mother, keening, buried under her bed covers. Lorie said she knew the truth when she was five. While Molly, dumb Molly, stayed steeped in dumb hope. Just like their Dad.
Chris had called, the phone ringing and ringing, while she lay there, grieving the truth, and she'd scrambled, she'd tried, she really had, to tuck the agony away, hide it, back deep inside the suitcase of her guts. That time, it was impossible.
He'd picked her up in the middle of the night, an icy cold December night, where she stood shivering, her knees knocking, there by the mailbox with her garbage bag, the sky full of frozen stars.
Now Chris glides to a stop by that very mailbox, near the gravel driveway that winds downhill to Molly's old house. It's twilight, the sky purply, the little pond frogs peeping. Molly clutches her seatbelt, gazing at the one-story ranch, the stone columns, the porch swing she’d swung in many a night, reading, dreaming of a future that looked nothing like this.
The lights are on in the living room. She pictures them sharing a bowl of popcorn, watching I Love Lucy reruns. Then she pictures the pile of letters on her desk, returned unread. The phone calls unanswered. Isn’t love for a child unconditional? Isn’t that a capital T truth? One of the few in life? Why not her then? What’s wrong with her? She’s spent most of her life, never far from that question.
Molly whispers, "We can go, Chris. Let's just go."
The car inches forward. As they drive away, in the last star-flecked, frog-sweetened gasp of twilight, her eyes catch movement. She cranes. Dad!
He's rounding the corner of the house in his gardening jeans, torn at the knees, a soft blue cotton t-shirt, and his favorite straw cowboy hat. He pushes his hat back, mops his brow with the hankie that's perpetually tucked in his back pocket.
Without thinking, Molly whips off her seat belt, rolls down the window. She calls, "Dad! Dad!"
He stops. He looks, this way and that, tilts his head, like when he hears a bird call he can't quite identify.
Molly whimpers into her hands as they drive away, her hair all askew.
Chris squeezes her knee, again and again.
In child psych the next afternoon, Molly can’t stop seeing him, tilting his head, listening.
The strange bird that is her, an arrow through her heart.
The lecture fades to background. Molly daydreams. She remembers.
Fishing trips. How clumsy and wild she was with the fishing pole, swinging it slap-dash over her Dad’s head, the hook flying through the trees, ripping the leaves to shreds, leaf bits raining down on them like confetti. One time, the hook whirly dervishing over him, he’d ducked, but not in time. The hook snagged his cowboy hat right off his head, landing it way out in the water with a loud plop! How stunned she'd been, frozen in place, watching his favorite hat bob away. Her Dad, standing up, rubbing his hand over the top of his bald head. Right before she burst into apology, he laughed. He slapped his knee, and carried on laughing til tears ran down his cheeks and he had to sit, right back down on the rocks.
Why hadn’t she ever noticed how lonely he was? How in need, himself, of a friend?
When she was very little, maybe two or three, he'd come home from cleaning carpets all day, and worn to the bone, still play with her. He'd crawl around the house on all fours. She'd ride on his back, this crazy horse, and they'd belt out Home on the Range. They sang it a lot, on car trips, on cleaning jobs together as she grew up. It was their favorite song.
One time he’d pulled his sweater up over his face, made mummy arms, walked toward her stiff-legged. Her laughter had stilled, then crumbled. "No monster!" she'd screamed, running, hiding from him. And this is what she remembered.
Instantly he'd pulled his sweater down.
He'd found her, trembling behind the door. Sinking down on one knee, he’d enfolded her in his arms. "It's me," he'd said. "It's only me, beanbag." He called her that sometimes. Beanbag. She had no idea why, but she loved it.
She'd loved more than anything to nuzzle the soft cotton of his t-shirt when he read to her, cuddled in the crook of his arm. It was supreme, inexplicable comfort, smoothing the wrinkles of his shirt with her finger. She’d sigh, fall sweetly asleep.
That evening, while Chris is napping, Molly takes her child psych textbook to the small grove of fir trees near their apartment complex and sinks into the grass. Having lived so long in the country, it’s wrung her heart, not to have land to roam, her own trees to retreat to. She pretends this space is their own yard, even though dog walkers sometimes wander by, her fantasy broken by a pooping poodle. She peels off her shoes, presses her toes into the cool dirt. Oh, the bliss of that. She’s got an exam tomorrow, and she needs to study. Instead, what she does is, what she finds herself doing, is praying. Chin on folded-hands prayer. And it’s one of those things where, though she was raised religious, her Dad hustling them to church and her Mom going along with it, she hasn’t prayed in a long time. She can’t remember when she left off.
Yes, she can.
It was when her mother exploded, that last terrible time. Beneath the quilt, she’d both wept, and prayed. And that was the last time. It strikes her, like a lash, that when she stopped believing in her mother, she also stopped believing in God.
She draws in a breath. "Dear God..." she begins, and stops. The truth is, that doesn’t sound right anymore. God. It doesn’t feel right anymore. And yet, who else, what else is there? She tries again, and what stumbles out is, "Dear…Mother Earth…” Her eyes pop open. Things have really gotten out of hand. Molly can’t fathom she’s sitting in the grass, barefoot, praying to Mother Earth, like a hippie, or a pagan. But right here, right now, praying to a goddess, kind as the grass between her toes, protective as the fir trees that surround her, wise as the sky, this feels truer than God. “Mother Earth, I miss my mother. I know I hurt her, eloping with Chris. Could you please remind her, I’m her little girl? Please remind her, she loves me, deep down. Please, Mother Earth, help us find our way back to each other."
Molly lifts her head, and locks eyes with a tall-eared Terrier, taking a leak.
"Don't be stupid, Molly.” One of Lorie’s signature scolds since they were kids. Sometimes her sister changes up the adjective. Naive, gullible, blind. It all means the same thing. "Listen,” Lorie’s voice breaks up. In the background, the soprano of a tiny hammer, chipping away at stone. Lorie’s an art major. Molly survived their home life, ducking turtle-like into book worlds. Lorie made worlds, in graphite, chalks, paint, whatever she could get her restless hands on. Molly can see her sister now, decked out in paint-smattered overalls, curls restrained by a bandanna, toiling after hours in the studio, obsessed with the sculpture that brings her to rage and tears because she has to get it perfect. The thing about Lorie, she pushes herself hard to get every little thing, from her makeup to her grades to her artwork, perfect. “I'm not trying to be mean. I'm just telling you. I'm the one who’s around them. And I'm telling you, don't get your hopes up."
"I'm not," Molly says. But her voice is a dead giveaway. And she is stupid. She should never have told Lorie about her prayer. Shouldn’t have trusted her sister with something so baby bird vulnerable. She feels something then that frightens her. Something she’s felt toward her sister more often these days. Hate, like a wisp of smoke curling up, a fire smoldering in the pit of her gut. I'm the one who's around them. She says, her voice smacking of a brag. All those years, Lorie the black sheep, feverishly plotting her great escape from the mad queen and her puppet husband, as she’d christened their parents. She’d tried more than once to convince Molly to run away with her. Calling Molly all the usual names for digging in, not wanting to go. But now that roles have reversed, and Molly’s the bad one, Lorie can't get enough of home life, hanging out in the gardens, cooking them dinner, drinking wine with them! Basking.
"Don’t lie to me," Lorie says, and the hammering is replaced by a gentle scrape-scrape. "I can hear it in your voice. All high and plaintive, like you're ten years old. You just…God, Molly. You’re married now. You really need to grow up, get on with your life. Move away!"
Oh, so that’s it. Lorie wants her out of the picture entirely. Molly curls her hand into a fist. The other day, visiting Lorie's campus apartment, she’d spied a pair of brand-new pajama bottoms on the bed. Adorable acrobatic monkeys with bananas. "Oh! So cute." She'd rushed to gather them up. "Where'd you get them?"
Lorie had bit her lip, looked to the side. “Mom got them for me.”
After that, Molly’s eyes couldn't stop, could not stop roving, searching for and finding, all the little gifts from Mom, like a constellation around Lorie's room. "I think I have to go," Molly had finally said, grabbing her backpack and fleeing.
Monkey pajamas, an arrow through her heart.
The way Lorie sees things, this is karma at work. Lorie, after all, had to suffer the stings of injustice for years. Comparatively, Molly was the golden child, seeking to please rather than piss off their mother. She got the best deal. Now it’s Molly’s turn to suffer. Let Lorie finally have a taste of that coveted, vied for, ever shifting and ever scarce maternal love. Maybe, Molly thinks, it makes sense. Even though she wishes she and Lorie, for once, could be on the same page, unite, help each other.
Faltering, Molly says, “I was just thinking that Dad…” She takes a breath, lets it out. “I don’t know. Maybe Dad…”
“Really?” Her sister scoffs. “When has Dad ever chosen us? Name a time. I’ll wait.”
The silence builds into something unbearable.
“Listen,” Lorie says, with a soft clink in the background, like she’s set down her tool. “I haven't wanted to tell you, but you should know. Mom asked Dad to change the locks.”
"So if you come home, you won’t be able to get in."
Lorie obligingly fills in the blanks.
And yet, that very night, the first miracle occurs.
Molly and Chris drive to the store. One of Chris’ FedEx customers in the ritzy neighborhood slipped him fifty bucks. She drunk orders extravagant merchandise, like ten-thousand-dollar rugs, and forgets until Chris shows up hauling a massive box. Then she gasps and laughs, pinches Chris’ face, calls him her year-round Santa. She presses cash into his hand, says, “Go on, treat your sweetheart to lobster.” Usually they pay down the credit card.
Molly’s so rattled after Lorie, they’ve decided that, this time, instead of being good, they’re going to splurge. Chris will grill steaks, and Molly’s going to whip up a cherry cream cheese pie. Maybe she’ll grab some champagne. She needs to study, but damn, her focus is shot.
They’re searching for a parking spot when Molly sees it. She turns her head so fast, she thinks she might have given herself whiplash. Her Dad's carpet cleaning van! Hard to miss, ever since he painted it a bold and riveting shade of pink. A calculated move to draw more business. Her mother said it looked like a strip club.
Chris sees it, and drops his head, sighs. “Ah, shit.”
"Chris, can we just, can we wait for him to come out?"
Chris exhales, then parks where they can watch, but not be seen. They wait. Their stomach’s growl in unison, a duet. Chris drums the steering wheel, singing under his breath, you turn to stone, can't look away, you turn to stone, madness, they say. Molly’s recently realized he invokes Metallica when he’s feeling some emotion he can’t, or would rather not express.
When her Dad finally appears, taking long strides in his work uniform, a plastic shopping bag swinging from each wrist, she points, says, like a movie villain, "Follow him."
Her Dad drives like he always does. Window rolled down, arm on the edge, elbow pointed out. Sharp, killer elbows, she’d tease him. She knew he was listening to that folk music station, all the harmonicas, fiddles, and banjos. They used to sing together. She sings now, as they follow him to the edge of the city. Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play... He’d changed the locks. The pink van exits, and they go on straight.
Her Dad’s elbow, an arrow through her heart.
She goes to the fir trees again and this time, falls straight to her knees.
The next day, the second miracle.
Molly is on a field trip with her Intro to Teaching class. They'd spent the day at the zoo, chaperoning a rambunctious group of fifth graders. She thought she'd have fun. In truth, she's flattened. She leans her head back against the bus seat, closes her eyes. She might’ve caught a flash of a tortoise, a glimpse of a parrot, midst the ruckus and maelstrom of children. She’s pretty sure she still wants to teach fifth grade. Motherhood, however. Well, the field trip is yet another strong incentive to stay diligent with the birth control. The school bus rolls to a stop. Molly’s eyes flutter open just in time to see the pedestrian crossing the crosswalk. His cowboy hat sports a feather, perpetually bedraggled since that time in the river.
Lickety-split she's across the aisle, leaning over two children who press back, stare up at her, wide-eyed, as she muscles open the curmudgeonly bus window, and, finally, flinging it wide, screeches, "Dad! Dad!"
And isn't it ironic? Symbolic? What word to describe this scene: a twenty-two year old estranged daughter, waving frantically, calling to her Dad from a school bus.
He swivels. His eyes blow open. And he waves! He waves.
Their first contact in five months.
Molly’s hand flies to her heart as the bus rolls on.
“Sit down, Miss!” The driver yells.
“That was my Dad!” Molly calls. “My Dad!”
Then, falling into her seat, she bursts into tears.
For the first time that day, the fifth graders are silent.
She doesn’t expect another.
It’s Saturday, and she and Chris are on their weekly adventure to The Library Center, an abandoned megachurch refashioned into what Molly now thinks is the most holy space of all. They wander from cove to cove, lingering, then find big leather armchairs to curl up in with their finds, a graphic novel and an old book of poetry with pages that crackle, and sing. Molly thinks someday, if they ever make it, she might miss these days of having no money. Maybe a little.
After a few hours, tote brimming with books, they emerge from check-out.
And simultaneously freeze.
Molly’s Dad is right there, drinking from the water fountain.
She whispers, "Hide!"
She and Chris whirl, collide, then scramble backward, ducking into separate restrooms.
In the stall, Molly plops down on the toilet, unleashes a silent scream into her hands, dancing her feet up and down. She’s shaking. She should’ve warned Chris about the strange power of Mother Earth! She drops her hands. Every miracle, it's been him, hasn’t it? Mother Earth, ironically, has brought her father. Three times. What if this is a chance, their last, to reconnect? To make things right? To have him, in some capacity, in her life.
She blinks, and blinks, then stands, grabs her book tote, and spinning out, bumps smack into Chris.
“The two stooges.” Chris laughs. Then, “We’re safe. He’s gone.”
“Whew. Close call.” She mock swipes her brow, heartsick.
They turn the corner and Chris halts. “Shit.”
Molly’s Dad is clearly waiting for them, leaned against the wall by the exit, arms crossed. He looks up. Looks right at them.
Molly doesn’t know where she is in space or time. She only knows what she feels. So she walks, fast, then faster. Her father straightens.
Molly drops her book tote. She runs.
She is two years old, running, with all her heart and might to her Dad.
Molly sinks into his arms and she breathes him, the perfume of all the years, and everything he is to her. Gardening, cowboy hat, carpet cleaning, fishing trips, sharp killer elbows. Home, home on the range.
What she doesn't know yet, breathing him in, is what he’s going to say.
He's going to say, stop sending letters.
He's going to say, stop driving by the house.
He’s going to say, Mom gets upset.
He’s going to say, you chose to run off, now you have to live with the consequences.
He's going to say, no, Molly, as long as your mom won’t, I won’t.
He will leave her heart blooming with arrows.
Shortly thereafter, Chris will get an opportunity to transfer, all the way to Kansas City. They’ll pack the moving truck. She’ll keep looking toward the street, hoping for one more miracle. A glimpse of pink.
Two years later, she’ll walk the stage and someone will shake her hand, hand her a hard-won paper. She’ll toss her cap in the air. She’ll scan the crowd, each beaming face, a proud parent, applauding. Of course she’ll look. She always will.
One day, Molly’s mother will sell the house, along with all that belonged to her Dad, including his van. Molly will receive a padded envelope through certified mail. Arriving home after a full day teaching fifth-grade language arts, her backpack a tumult of stories to grade, sparkly star and gleaming rainbow stickers to affix, she’ll sign for it. Then, she’ll see the address. She’ll tear the envelope open with a wild heartbeat. Inside, she will find a check for $200. And a paint chip. A single paint chip. Hot pink.
Chris will sit beside her as she closes her hand over the memento. Chris is the only one in the world who will know what it is, and what it means. Because Chris was, is, and stayed through the years, through the debt, and the drive bys, and all the arrows, her best friend. And she's learning, that kind of friendship is more sacred than Mother or Father. That kind of friendship, is God.
But for now, here in the library, Molly knows only one thing.
Molly will smooth her finger over the wrinkles in her Dad's soft cotton t-shirt, and sigh.