The Pontiac and the Dodge by susan robbins

We are flat on our stomachs, the three of us, a sister and brother and cousin, on the warm floor, listening to what’s going on in the room below us. Mama is being yelled at by her brother, Franklin, who is damning her to hell. It is much worse than what we are used to from daddy. Franklin is accusing her in strings of curses. “You never have told the truth in your life, but you are not going to tell lies about me, and if you do, they will be the last words you ever get to say. You better button your damn lip. It’s a dirty trick to play on me and Darlene.” It is sickening and thrilling to hear mama threatened by a man who had shot Germans and Japanese. He doesn’t attack our Aunt Willow, mama’s sister, who is down there too, sitting beyond our range through the heat register.

Daddy is sitting across the room from mama with his head down. Typical of him to be waiting for things to be over. We can see him when we lay our faces flat ears-down, next to the hot metal register over the wood stove directly below us, cutting our eyes at thirty degree angles and down into the anger and misery.

I was eight, my brother was six, and our cousin, eleven, from the more powerful family who owned a big farm and had tractors, but still used a team of horses to pull mowers and wagons. After working all day, Mr. Mitchell, the last man in the county who lived on their place to work the horses, let us ride them to the creek to drink and then back to the barn. He wouldn’t drive the tractors, but our older cousins let us sit up high on the seats with them and steer.

Every now and then, mama is saying, “No, Franklin, I did not tell anyone anything about you.” We knew she was telling the truth. She never lied except about us—how sweet Eddie and I were and about daddy—“he is not drinking.”

She does not raise her voice to her brother because he had come home, leaving their brother dead on Omaha Beach.

Celia, pushes us aside to lay her face down almost on the hot grid to get a good angle on her mama who is sitting across from daddy and is quiet, but for Aunt Willow, being quiet is unheard of and her silence is as frightening as Uncle Franklin’s threatening to kill mama for telling his new wife, Darlene, our favorite relative–now married into us, “poor thing,” mama always adds–lies about him. His life is no one’s business. Especially a sister’s. He knows that mama opened the letter addressed to him and read it, and then, she had told Darlene what it said. He hopes that mama burns in hellfire.

We are scared rigid. Three petrified logs of children upstairs over the family fight. We’d be found someday and sent to a sawmill, and no one would ever know we had ever lived or ridden on tractors or horses named Nellie and Champ.

There is no way to get out of the house except to pass by the door to the dining room down the stairs with the huge jade plant on the landing, tiptoeing, we who have never tiptoed anywhere, don’t know how, out into the darkness, to sit in the frozen 1950 Pontiac. Freeze outside or bake upstairs in the house–those are the two choices– only we needed to escape in order to freeze.

This was 1952 when Uncle Franklin threatened to kill mama. Our green Pontiac by the back door was from happier times before we moved to the country near our cousins. To save the Pontiac, we used it only for emergencies. Daddy wanted us to drive the 1934 Dodge, the car he had somehow gotten to run. That night we had been thrilled when mama had said “Let’s drive the Pontiac.” We were primed for an emergency but not for murder. We were Methodist children.

The seven miles up to our grandmother’s house took no time in the Pontiac, and maybe we drove it that night because mama wanted to be in the Pontiac for our getaway, the car that would start on cold nights by itself, not parked like the Dodge on a little knoll to roll down, us pushing and flying alongside to jump in as it came to a little life.