- Behind the Plastic Curtain
1997, Lake Wales, Florida
We got a ride from a neighbor who lived down the street. She wasn’t too keen on the idea of letting a couple of children and their barefoot mother squeeze into the backseat of her car, but she wasn’t left with much of a choice.
Faded summer blooms fell on her Bermuda sod as she pruned a bush and watched my mother advance, dragging my brother and me behind her. We walked quickly, trampling the freshly cut grass. “Excuse me,” Mom called to the woman, who pulled off her floral gardening gloves, so clean they might have had price tags still attached.
Mom pursued her target, closing in on the fragrant hedgerow that led to the neighbor. The air was unmistakably gardenia, like a rich jasmine custard with too much whipped topping, unpalatable when paired with the Florida summer.
The woman’s personal bubble had burst. Her fists closed in around her gardening gear. One hand had the shears and another the spotless gloves. She brought her belongings together, pulling them close to her chest, guarding what was left of her intimate space.
Mom stepped closer, breathing on the woman now, as if a nod of affirmation to the coming request was the only thing that could make her back away. “We don’t have a car, but we’ve got a place to go. Reckon you can help out a mother and her kids?”
The woman stepped back again and held her hands out in front of her as [End Page 23] if faced with a growling animal. “Don’t you have someone else to ask? Maybe a friend could—”
My mother interrupted. “You’re our last shot, please help us,” she pleaded, her voice going from manic to small and fragile. She released my hand, threw her arm over my shoulder, and hugged me too tight. “We just need one ride out into the country. We ain’t coming back.”
The woman reluctantly agreed, leaving the wilted gardenias to fetch her car keys off the kitchen counter.
As much as this woman disliked being cornered on her own front lawn, I think she preferred it to learning about the additional passenger. Bill rode shotgun, as he knew the way to our new home better than my mother. The woman used her peripheral vision, discretely glancing at this man beside her with matted hair protruding from his ball cap in ill-matched globs of oily locks and unidentifiable debris. She drove faster than I thought the cramped car capable of moving, catapulting us far away from her driveway, her neighborhood, her life.
I rolled the plastic garbage bag between my thumb and index finger. It contained everything I owned. Arctic air blasted from the vents, rippling the thin material in a lively rhythm and sweeping in the scent of blooming orange blossoms from the groves that lined the two-lane highway. I watched out the windows until we lost the lines that bisected the road, and only shadows of faded paint remained. We drove farther from civilization until the asphalt became broken and uneven under her racing tires.
Bill pointed out a stop sign long before it even took form, still just a red smudge inside faint octagonal lines. “Hey woman! Slow down!” he barked, lunging his calloused palms toward her wheel like she was about to plow through the intersection. She cut her speed and kept her eyes forward, stiffening as if her muscles had turned to cement.
“Woman drivers,” he huffed. The neighbor ignored his words. The smell of stale sweat on unwashed bodies. The juxtaposition of our tattered T-shirts against her leather seats.
She stared forward with a deep concentration that defined the creases around her eyes, unable to look away from the road ahead. The road that would eventually lead these people to get out of her car. The sun hung in the most frustrating slice of the sky, the time of day when its rays bore directly [End Page 24] into the eyes of motorists heading to dinner. Behind the blinding light, my mother recognized the name of our new...