Continued from The Twister, continued
My other memory of that multi-day, cross-country journey in the old gray Chrysler is the heat of Nebraska. It was early July, the heat-stroke days of summer. Nebraska was experiencing triple-digit temperatures as we steamed across the state in our oven-on-wheels. Air-conditioning was rare in restaurants and motels and practically unheard of in automobiles.
As I look back on it now, I wonder how we survived. I think this memory is so finely ingrained because it was during this segment of the trip that my mother lost it and actually yelled at Joan. Perhaps she’d done so in the past, but never, to my recollection, in front of me; and to my child eyes, Joan knew everything and could do no wrong.
I remember sitting up front with mother. Joan was in the back seat with the runny remains of a bag of ice we’d gotten at the last filling station. By turns, she rubbed the ice on her forehead, chest, and arms, and nibbled it. She was inconsolable when the ice ran out. We were all hot. Even I had water running down my face. How my mother kept her foot on the accelerator, I’ll never know because she was notoriously hyper-sensitive to heat. But we do what we must, and she pressed onward—windows rolled down and fan cranked high to blow more hot air at us.
Joan fussed and fumed from the back seat, whining about being too hot. “I’m going to die,” she moaned. I turned around in my seat—this was before child safety seats and seat belts—to peer over the back of the seat at her. She really did look awful. Her peaches and cream complexion had turned radish-red, her steel-blue eyes were bloodshot, her lips sagged; if she’d had enough moisture to produce spittle, I think she’d have been drooling. Mother tugged at my leg and told me to turn around and sit properly. The last thing she needed was for me to start antagonizing Joan. But I honestly felt sort of sorry for her.
“Mother, I need ICCE!” she wailed, then whimpered.
“Mootthher, I have to have IIICCCE!”
“Joan, you’re just going to have to tough it out like Linda and I are doing. There is no ice, as you well know. We will stop at the next little town we come to and we’ll get more ice. But I am not a magician! I cannot turn your tears into ice. Believe me, if I could, I would . . . gladly!
“Mother, you’re going to kill us all with your crazy ideas.”
“Joan, I’m warning you. I’ve heard enough. Now shut up.”
Mother told Joan to shut up? Wow! Unbelievable. She must be really mad, I thought, as I wiggled down into my seat, trying to become invisible. Lord knows, when mom went on a tear, anyone in her path was liable to get yelled at.
The racketing of the hot-air-fan filled the car, along with the roar of wind whipping through open windows. I rubbed my face, surprised to feel hard grains of salt under my fingers. A nauseating whiff of mint wafted through the car from a nearby field and Joan began whimpering again.
“Stop. Just stop the car. I’m going to be sick.”
Mother’s jaw wobbled. She suppressed a sigh. The car coasted to the shoulder of the road. Joan stumbled out and stood leaning toward the borrow pit. A semi whooshed by, kicking up a spray of hot road dust. Joan stood, moaning, mopping her wet forehead.
“Well?” mother had no patience.
More moaning from Joan. Without air brushing across the radiator, the engine heat gushed back at us like oven heat that steams your glasses when you crack the door for a peek at cookies baking. My hand reached for the door handle. Mother snatched my arm. “You’re staying right where you are, young lady. Joan, get back in the car right now. We’re all just going to get hotter sitting here.” Like an exclamation point, another semi thundered by, disrupting more heat waves.
Feeling sick, but unable to purge the nausea, Joan dejectedly turned back and slid into the back seat. “Just stop at a motel for God’s sake.” she mumbled.
“The motels don’t have air-conditioning. We’ll be more miserable locked in some dingy room than here in the car where at least the air’s moving. Besides, it’s too early to stop.”
“But we could stop at one with a swimming pool,” she persisted.
“Mein Gott nochmal!”
Oh dear, here comes the German, I thought, shriveling a bit more. She pounded the steering wheel, “Joan get a grip. I can’t take this anymore. I’m just as God-damned hot as you are. Linda is too. We’re not whining about it. Now just shut up. There not one damned thing I can do about the weather.”
I felt an unfamiliar flutter of pride that mother had actually used me as an example for Joan! As grumpy as mom was, I could fall off my short little pedestal in the blink of an eye if I said the wrong thing, so I tried to be invisible. Our thoughts roared through the car on the hot waves of air that whistled in through the windows. There was no more conversation till a small mid-western town came into view.
“Oh, God, mother, you passed the gas station!” Joan shrieked.
“That one’s too expensive. We’ll see what the Shamrock station is charging.”
Loud and belligerent groaning from the back seat. I was disappointed too. I liked the Sinclair stations the best because they had cool, gigantic, green dinosaurs. We did finally find a station that suited mother. We filled up on ice, water for the radiator, gas and oil, got the windows cleaned, and hit the road again. We skipped the bathroom break. None of us had drop of liquid to spare. When Joan’s ice supply ran low, I shared mine with her. For a few short hours that day, I felt very strong and grown up. For a change, I was not the one who got yelled at. We did eventually pull over to a motel with a swimming pool which revived Joan instantly.