For the most important trip of her life, my mother wanted to buy a new car. Ever since getting her license at sixteen, and at least three years before that when no one was paying attention, she drove her sister’s battered Ford pickup truck. The vehicle had been red at one time, though little of that paint remained; mostly the truck was mud, rust, and soot smeared into intricate patterns. By the time I was born, the Ford had two hundred thousand miles on it and almost four years later it showed no signs of quitting.
Nevertheless, my mother opted to buy a “new” car solely for her personal use; a new car to her meant one she hadn’t owned before. She didn’t know much about other cars, nor did she put the time into finding out. Instead, my mother went to Cordell Ford’s used car lot and picked out one that still had its original paint, less than ten thousand miles, and a sticker price in her range.
The car that fit into her matrix of parameters was a yellow 1973 Ford Pinto with five thousand original miles. The salesman assured my mother the previous owner had been a nonsmoker who didn’t drive more than to work and back. He had to nearly wrestle her into the car—or at least attempt to since she was six inches taller and thirty pounds heavier, all of it muscle from working at the plant—to get her to do a test drive.
She paid cash for the Pinto and then took it over to Forton’s Hardware to get a car seat installed for me. In the pickup on the back roads my mother was content to let me bounce in her lap. She figured the height and weight of the pickup would protect me from any kind of trouble. With the Pinto, on the highway to Iowa City, she wanted added protection to keep me safe. Not safe enough.
“Where we going?” I asked my mother from the backseat, where I was strapped so tightly into the car seat I couldn’t move anything except my head.
“To see someone special.”
“Frost, please, I need to concentrate on the road.” Driving on the back roads of the county had not prepared her for the rigors of driving on I-380 with its four lanes of traffic whizzing to and fro, all of it going much faster than the Pinto. I watched as one car after another went past, the driver or a passenger—or both—wagging their middle fingers. I returned the gesture, thinking it was a secret greeting of the highway.
Those unfortunate cars who couldn’t get around my mother right away tried driving within an inch of her bumper, flashing their headlights, and honking their horns to no avail. She would not move faster than forty miles per hour. No one could move her unless she wanted to move.
My mother was heading to Iowa City for the big rivalry football game between the University of Iowa and Iowa State. The game didn’t matter so much as who was at the game. “Someone special” would be at the game and my mother wanted to see this person so badly she had bought the Pinto.
Less than a year removed from potty training, I couldn’t begin to imagine the identity of “someone special.” Nor did I care who “someone special” might turn out to be so long as he, she, or it had a present for me. My mother had not mentioned this possibility, only going so far as to reassure me this mystery person was nice.
“Someone special” was not my father, I did know that much. My father was back at Aunt Enid’s farm, still asleep in his “apartment”—the euphemism my parents used for his sleeping quarters in the barn. Aunt Enid, who spent most of her time watching soap operas on television, probably assumed “someone special” was my real father or an evil twin; I only watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street and so at best could imagine a kindly old man or fuzzy Muppet who would dole out candy and toys. If my father had any clue to the stranger’s identity he never said.
The first sign of the trouble to come was a shadow that fell over the Pinto. Looking out to my left, I saw a pickup truck as old and worn as the one my mother usually drove. The driver was an older man with a John Deere cap in the same condition as his truck. Like the others, he waved his middle finger at the Pinto as he accelerated. The pickup lumbered by and I saw the rear had been converted with planks of rotting wood into a holding pen for a pair of hogs. The snouts of the hogs poked through the rotten planks, sniffing for food in the air rushing past.
Had I been able to move my arms I would have waved to the hogs. Instead I could only shout, “Mommy, piggies!”
“I see them.”
Not yet four years old, I didn’t have the fundamental grasp of engineering to note the rotting latch keeping the homemade mobile hog pen closed. Years of rain and snow had weakened the wood around the door and having thousand-pound animals leaning against it didn’t help its structural integrity.
I watched the pickup through the front windshield, hoping to see the piggies again. The truck continued to pick up speed, growing smaller in the windshield, and with it any hope of seeing the piggies again. Like any child my age I didn’t let this bother me for long. I went back to looking out the side window as another car went flashing by, a fat older woman similar to Aunt Enid showing me her middle finger.
A second shadow, darker and more ominous, fell over the Pinto’s backseat as a red tractor-trailer eclipsed the little car. The driver blew his horn as he passed my mother, the sound of it loud enough that tears came to my eyes. The Pinto rattled in the tractor-trailer’s wake, my mother tightening her grip on the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white.
“It’s all right,” my mother said, though I doubted this.
Through wet eyes I watched as the truck roared past, veering to the right to cut in front of the Pinto. The tractor-trailer with its load of cement drainage pipes filled the windshield, blotting out everything else.
There was no way for my mother to see the chaos unfolding up the road. The rundown pickup with its load of piggies hit a pothole at the same moment as one of the pigs was rubbing up against the back door to scratch an itch. The rusty latch on the door gave way, the doors bursting open. A very surprised hog was thrown from the relative comfort of the pen onto the noisy chaos of I-380.
The hog was probably more surprised that it didn’t die immediately from the fall. Instead, it rolled a few yards along the highway, into the path of the red tractor-trailer. The big truck, going over the speed limit and weighed down with tons of concrete, couldn’t stop in time to avoid running over the helpless piggy.
My mother and I heard the metallic screech as the tractor-trailer applied its brakes. In my nightmares the glow of the truck’s red taillights filled the Pinto like the flames of Hell. The truck loomed before us like a mountain and was just as immovable.
The Pinto slammed into the rear of the tractor-trailer, its front end crumpling like an accordion while the truck suffered little more than a scratch and detached mud flap. My mother and I were safely strapped in, avoiding any serious injury—at least from the initial crash. I wore bruises on my chest and shoulders for days afterwards from where the straps bit into my skin.
My mother had unfastened her belt and turned to check on me when I saw the huge gray shape falling towards her. I screamed, though in my panic I couldn’t form coherent words. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had. There was no time for my mother to escape the half-ton sewer pipe rolling off the back of the truck, onto the front half of the Pinto. The pipe seemed to fall in slow motion, its shadow growing larger, until darkness enveloped the car.
The Chevy Impala that rear-ended our car saved me from watching her die. That much heavier car struck the Pinto with enough force that my car seat came loose from its moorings, dumping me into the narrow space between my mother’s seat and the backseat. It was from this place that I listened as she struggled for breath. Her last breath came with a grunt that might have been a word, but was unintelligible.
I heard a new sound at that point, a hiss like the stove at home, which my mother told me several times to never touch under any circumstances. Above me I felt a heat even worse than that of the stove. Out of instinct I turned my face away, but I was trapped between the seats. As the flames licked against my right cheek I let out a raw, primal scream as if being born again. Only now I traveled back into the darkness.
What I always remember is waking in a darkened room, a bit of light coming in from the crack under the door. I’m strapped down so tightly that for a moment I think I’m still in the backseat of the Pinto. That is until I see a face outlined in the light from under the door. That light gives her hair a copper tint while her skin looks sallow and her eyes like the black holes of a skull. She is at once terrifying and comforting. Terrifying because of how she looks in the light, but comforting because I know her. I am named for her.
Her pale hand is cool against my forehead. I try to say something, but my tongue is too heavy from a concussion and whatever painkillers they gave me in the ambulance and on the operating table. “Don’t move,” she whispers to me in that strange accent of hers, so different from my mother or Aunt Enid’s voices. “Go back to sleep. Everything is going to be fine.”
Before she says this, my body is already going back to sleep but my brain is fighting against this impulse, wanting to ask her about my mother. My body wins the argument and I go back to sleep with her sitting beside me, her hand still resting on my forehead to soothe me.
I wake up again and the hand is gone, but I’m not alone. I sense a figure lurking in the shadows, hovering there like a ghost. I think at first it’s my mother; unable to speak I revert back to babyhood and whimper in what I hope is a reassuring fashion. The figure, caught, shuffles forward and I see it’s not my mother—it’s my father.
“Hey, kid,” he says. “How you feeling?”
This is a stupid question as I’m in a hospital bed, surrounded by machines with my face wrapped in bandages. He hesitates before taking the seat next to my bed. For what could be a minute or an hour he sits there, staring at me as he searches for something to say.
“It’s too bad about your mother,” he says.
Though not quite four, I understand this means something terrible has happened. I whimper again, this time mournfully. This rattles my father; he twitches uncomfortably in the chair. He doesn’t want to be there and I don’t want him there; I want Mommy. My father was only the man who lived in our barn.
His hand reaches out to touch my forehead, but his skin is sweaty and warm, not the cool, soothing presence of my other visitor’s. I try to move my head to shake it away only to find I can’t. “I’m not going to hurt you, kid,” he says. His hand moves across my forehead to the bandages. He peels these back gently and then leans close to me so that he can see what lies underneath. Whatever it is causes him to quickly pull his hand back, letting the bandages fall into place again.
“Oh shit,” he whispers into the darkness. I’m too young to know the meaning of this expression. Still, from his tone of voice I gather something’s wrong and whimper again. “It’s all right, kid,” he says, trying to sound cheerful. I know he’s lying. I know things aren’t going to be all right. Not ever again.
My father pats my left hand with his. “Hang in there, kid,” he says. He backs away until the shadows swallow him again. He pauses for a moment before making a decision. The door clicks shut. I wait a moment for him to come back, but he doesn’t. Not ever again.