You cry each time your father shows up on his court appointed weekends, but you got it out of your system last night in the wee hours, screaming about aliens coming for you, your mom, and your sibling. Streetlight shadows sticking to your skin in a way you couldn’t explain.
The radio song is a mess of jangles, begging you to whoa, oh, oh, listen to the music. Without realizing, your feet are moving, tapping out the beat on the glove compartment. You don’t necessarily like the song but it is there and your father is driving so fast with the windows down, it might lift off and whoever that band is knows something about it.
You are in the front seat because your eldest sibling is stretched out in the back with their headphones on. They granted you shotgun because they didn’t want it. This is how you will always move through the world. Quiet, waiting for permission. Wanting to be seen. Wanting to disappear.
You make fists curling your middle finger under and between your pointer and thumb. Sometimes, when the nightmares wake you up, you rub the fingernail marks in your palm—a tattoo of crescent moons in both hands. You fold and unfold.
They loved each other once, your parents. Before you were born. When you’re home alone, you study the few remaining photos looking for evidence. Your mama had waist-length hair in the ‘70s. Before you were born. A family legend says your great-grandmother, though forbidden to do so, bought your mother her first record. Please Please Me. You like to think of her trotting off to the library where she could play it in peace. Maybe she made up a dance to every song like you did to Culture Club. Maybe her arches are as high as yours, maybe her twirls equally proficient.
They went white water rafting once, your parents. Your mama’s long, tanned legs shine in canary yellow shorts and she’s wearing a kerchief over her braids and my God, you have never met this creature, this adventuress, but it will make sense one day, years later when you understand the folding and unfolding between them.
When you are almost forty, your mama tells you how often your father called her white trash, how the physical abuse is one thing, but the emotional trauma is a parasitoid wasp egg cluster laid in a caterpillar, gnawing flesh from the inside out.
The car smells like spearmint Skoal. Your dad keeps a Pepsi can between his legs so he can spit when he needs to and when the music hits just right, he takes his hand off the gearshift and covers his right ear so he can hear his voice better. You do not know the language of music but you can feel the depth of it in your feet, bare now, aching with tension. He’s making a harmony, floral, warm, connected to a memory you’ll never hear. When the song is over, he spits, says, “Who needs a break?”
You respond by singing the chorus. Though you long for softness, it comes out tinny and uncontrolled. As he pulls over, your elder sibling pulls their long hair back and removes their headphones. Before long, they will pick up a guitar, but for now, they listen, listen and when they hear your dad’s ‘70s rock with its easy tones and lyrics about cheating and boozing and the war he missed out on because of football knees, they brush their skater bangs out of their eyes, which are Cobain blue and rolling, rolling, until the car finally stops at a 7-Eleven half way between Charlotte, North Carolina and Florence, South Carolina.
When you’re almost forty, you’ll watch a film with Julia Roberts and Sam Shepard in which her character, on the way to identify her father’s body says, “Thank God we can’t tell the future; otherwise, we’d never get out of bed.” It will occur to you that Sam Shepard has something akin to your father in his voice. Julia Roberts talks about the settlers who stole this land from Native Americans, wondering why anyone who saw this “hot, flat nothing” would think heaven, would think Eden, would think salvation.
You go pee because your dad has promised he will not stop again so you better make something happen and yes, you can have one snack. Your sibling puts their headphones back on and walks around the parking lot. Your dad puts a six-pack of Bud and some wine coolers on the counter. You add a bag of Funyuns and grape Big League Chew.
“I said one.”
“It’s for Eric.”
“I better not see gum in my car.”
You tell him y’all will behave.
You already know he’s going to have another child. Back on the road, the sound of each can popping open is a signal to practice disappearing into your imagination. You are getting good at it. You think about The Muppets who know a thing or two about oddity. You think up monsters who grow up out of the ground only to melt before you. You think about the way color and water and thick paper talk to each other. You visualize echoes.
Last summer, when you almost drowned, he lifted his beer and nodded at you, cackling while the muddy water bubbled in your ears, which were supposed to stay dry until the tubes fell out. You remember pressure.
At almost forty, you wonder what happened to the little blue device, surgically implanted in your inner ear, that never left your body. At almost forty, a song triggers a memory and your body goes into high alert, the moons in your hands multiply.
When daddy finishes his last beer, he twists open a wine cooler, seven women on his mind. Peach smells better than Skoal but it’s too sweet for him so he hands it over to you. “Like Grandpa’s ice cream. You’ll love it,” he says. It is only when the cold hits your hand you realize the radio is off. All you hear is wheels on the road and a muffled Ozzy coming from the back seat.
You drink all four wine coolers to impress him. They taste a little like grandpa’s ice cream, true, but off, dank, as if produced in the hot, flat nothing by a man who beat his wife with a broom. You sing the jingle, giving your best impression of a young Bruce Willis, who even when you’re almost forty, you still won’t find attractive. It is the first time you are drunk. Your microphone is invisible in your hand.
The road is dark now. There is nothing for miles. Except frogs. The road is still wet but the rain must be traveling at a faster click than you, on a different path and then the car swerves hard into the other lane and back again.
At almost forty, you are still trying to remember what your father said in those few minutes as he ran over as many frogs as he could. You cannot recall ever arriving at his house or leaving the highway.
You plead to a God you still believe in to no avail. The swerves and laughter continue.
Over forty, you still wake with fistfuls of moon, trying to escape the hot, flat nothing.
Beth Gilstrap is the winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize for her story collection Deadheading & Other Stories due out October 5, 2021 and available for preorder now. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, The Minnesota Review, Hot Metal Bridge, and Wigleaf, among others. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville