Under the Packard by Joanell Serra

     In the summer of 1975, my childhood clung to me like a tattered cape that I was determined to throw off. In anticipation of my tenth birthday at the end of August, I taken to wearing a cast off pair of dungaree jeans, too tight and halter tops. I’d kicked my Barbie trailer to the Netherlands of the basement and instead eyed my older sister’s things enviously: bikinis, a roach clip on a key chain, the Fleetwood Mac album that played continuously. Rumors lyrics were embedded in my psyche that summer, mixed with the sound of gin and tonics being mixed up for my parents, in pitchers. Two of my cousins, from my mother’s infamous Crossin clan, had come to stay with us that summer, and their presence forced my family’s façade of acceptability to crack.

     “Joanell, don’t forget your suit.” My mother dangled my hideous bright orange one piece bathing suit from her hand, leaning out the back porch window. Her hands were twisted with an invasive, painful and crippling disease. The older girls would be wearing bikinis. I plucked the childish bathing suit from her hands, by now almost immune to noticing their tortured state, and reluctantly forced the suit into an over-stuffed duffle bag that smelled of camping trips — smoke and pine trees.

     I listened as my sister and cousins got ready inside, their voices wafting through the open window. My Florida cousins had arrived in June with long hair, deep tans, and a mountain of experiences. Suzie, the oldest, openly kept her cigarettes in her pocket and talked about her “tits” at the dinner table. Sammy, the younger, was more demure and soft spoken, until she found something amusing and laughed a deep rumbling laugh that stopped us in our tracks. And then demanded we laughed with her.

     “Did you bring a towel? Does Aunt Pat have towels for us?” I heard Sammy asking someone. We were bound for Milford, Connecticut. A beach town. We would need towels.

     “Did Stephanie ever return my Coppertone?” Suzie, sounding irritated with my older sister. “And where the fuck is Joel? My cigarettes are in his car.”

     For a month, since my cousins had arrived from their home in a Florida trailer park to be under the care and influence of my theoretically more stable, and educated parents, I had been on the fringes of this Crossin Family Sorority. The Florida cousins were older and prettier and had more experience with everything except my mother’s cooking. Which they loved. The cousins quickly formed a tight bond with my older two sisters, while my brother hid in his room, and I would jump up and down on the sidelines. They would find ways to have me around without ever really including me: I could go to dinner with them, but I’d have to wait in the car while they got high first. I could visit the tent they’d pitched in the back yard, but not actually sleep there with them overnight. Most nights I watched as they put on skimpy clothes and lipstick, then raised the volume of the TV as they snuck out the door, my only consolation a bag of Cheetos.

     But strangely, I was to be included on a weekend trip to Milford with my cousins and my sister Leslie. To be chaperoned by our ancient Great Aunt Nana.

     Hence I found myself waiting in the back yard, watching for my Aunt’s ca with equal parts trepidation and anticipation. Jersey heat seemed to lick at me. Sweat pooled in the hollow of my back as I squatted at the edge of the pebbled driveway, examining the stones one by one. I collected a few that shone with the pale colors of dawn. Pink ladies in a sea of grey. I had three rocks in my pocket by the time my I heard a car in the driveway, somewhat apropos as I was nearly drowning in my own anxiety.

     I leapt out of the way as Aunt Nana, my maternal grandmother’s sister, drove her 1958 black Packard Sedan up the driveway at an alarming speed, rocks spewing behind her. The car lurched as she stopped and threw it into park, and then seemed to sigh and belch when she turned it off and climbed out. Dressed in a faded yellow cotton summer dress that reached past her knees and sturdy black sandals, she carried a purse that could only be called a carpet bag. She waved to me, calling me forth for the obligatory kiss and squeeze hello.

     Nana’s face was a mottled map of deep wrinkles and brown spots that had merged into continents across her nose and cheeks, and she sported tufts of hair that emerged out of her nose, her ears, and other moles. She was small and wiry, with the appearance of frailty, until she wanted my attention. Then she would grab my skinny arm and squeeze with a vice-like grip. She’d whisper whatever she needed to say in my ear, all the while wheezing, a huffing train-like sound.

     “How’s your mother?” She’d say. Wheeze, Wheeze. “Are you taking good care of her? You kids need to take care of her you know.” And then, as I bobbed my head yes, vigorously, I knew above all things my job was to take care of my mother, she would give my arm a final squeeze that brought tears to my eyes. “She has it very rough.”

     “I know.” From the day I was born I knew. It was as clear as the fact that my hair was brown and my nose was my father’s. My mother’s life was hard and we needed to take care of her. Except she was always taking care of us.

     My mother had cooked all morning to assure we were properly fortified over the weekend. So along with the suitcases and beach chairs, we loaded a lasagna, potato salad, cold cuts, and soda into the trunk of the Packard.

     “Joanell can ride up front with me” Nana announced. “You other girls get in the back. The knot in my stomach grew tighter.

I ducked into the front seat, a dank smell rising from the floor, the leather seats cracking underneath me. The older girls giggled as I made a panicked face at them over the back seat. Nana was not only old, she was borderline blind, and I was all of ninety pounds. Why was I the front seat choice?

     Nana clucked as I made a futile search for a seat belt. “No need for a belt, Missy.” She seemed insulted by the suggestion, her wrinkly throat quivering. She scooped up Whiskers, her dog, from the driveway and tossed him onto my lap. I let out a panicked squeal which set the back seat into gales of fiendish giggles. They all knew the only thing I feared more than Nana was her dog. I loved most dogs. But not this cocker spaniel mix, a cranky, flatulent, and mean spirited old dog. Whiskers was possibly older than Nana, also blind, and most importantly, had a skin condition that made him periodically turn and bite at himself, as if ravenously hungry for his own flesh. Nana’s prophylactic treatment of this condition was Vaseline, from head to toe. Whiskers was so greased up you could imagine him hurling down a bowling alley with the right toss, taking out every pin.

     I squeezed myself against the door, which didn’t shut “just right” as we barreled up the New Jersey Parkway. Whiskers held his slippery ground on the seat between us. Nana kept his leash on so that she could give him a yank if he started to attack himself with those evil little teeth. Convinced he would miss his own shank and sink them into mine, and frightened we were going off the road at every turn, I prayed. We flew past the New York State border, lush green hills giving way to a stunning view of the Hudson.

     We were not the first generation to be packed off to Nana’s for parental respite. Thirty years earlier, my Crossin Grandmother, a bipolar caught in a manic upswing, put all four of her children on a train from New Jersey to New York to Connecticut. They had Nana’s address written on their coats, asking the world to “Please deliver them.” Amazingly, they arrived unscathed, without any intervention by the Police, CPS, or any of the agencies that would descend on four young children traveling alone today. What seemed to be most startling to my mother, in the frequent retelling of the story, was that they’d actually changed trains at Grand Central Station, without getting lost. Nana took them in, again and again, as Regina came and went, in a long saga of periodic, almost spastic, parenting. And now, a generation later, my mother now gathered her nieces for the summer, in her own home. Respite again, although the actual circumstances of their parents remained a mystery to me.

     On a particularly hard turn, the dog Whiskers slid right off the seat onto the floor in front of me. In a flash of nine year old brilliance, I stomped on his leash, pinning him to the floor. For the next two hours, despite his ominous, fang baring glares, I didn’t release his leash. I avoided touching the seat next to me, still covered in Vaseline, and stared straight ahead, alternating Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s.

We’d crossed into Connecticut when Nana called out, “Who wants Dunkin Donuts?” And made a sudden left turn and hurled the Packard across two lanes of traffic. My Aunt, oblivious to the screeching brakes of an eighteen wheeler, careened into a parking lot. The lot that was actually a steep incline straight up off the freeway. She pumped the gas as she lurched up the hill to the curb, and then turned it off. The Packard shuttered, spit, and then ticked, dismayed.

     Nana grabbed her suitcase sized purse. “Be right back. Leslie you still like Jelly donuts?” And then she disappeared into the dismal looking store. There was a collective catching of our breath.

     “Christ.” Suzie kept saying. “Fucking Christ, that was close.”

     My sister admired my handiwork with Whiskers’ leash. “You sure he can’t get to your leg?” Leslie had been bitten by dogs twice. More family lore.

     “Yes, I have him pinned down pretty tight.”

     It was Sammy who said, after a minute, “Guys? Do you feel like the car is moving?”

     “Shit!” Suzie yelled. In fact, the car was not only moving, it was picking up speed, rapidly rolling backwards towards traffic. An enormous steel cargo truck was pounding down the road, and the Packard was on the way to intercept it. Everyone screamed. At me.

     “Joanell! Get the emergency brake!”

     “Step on the brakes!”

     “Move it into park. Joanell, it’s not in park!”

     Did I need to remind them that I was nine? That I had no idea what any of those things were? And that if I moved my foot too much either way, Whiskers would get loose and take his revenge on my young flesh?

     In a move of heroic proportions, my cousin Suzie, age 14 going on 28, threw herself over the seat, head first, and dove into the well of the driver’s seat, holding the brakes down with her hands, while her younger sister jumped over as well and yanked up the emergency brake. The car slowed, jerked, and stopped. The traffic hauled past, just a few feet from our bumper. My legs shook so much I was afraid I couldn’t hold the dog down much longer.

     Suzie looked at me in dismay, bordering on disgust. “Joanell, what the hell? Don’t you know what an emergency brake is?”

I pointed out my age, but apparently in Florida driving is something you have mastered by nine, at least on the beach. Or if your parents were really drunk. You at least knew how to pull up the emergency brake, for God’s sake.

     We sat in a shaky silence as we watched Nana toddle down the steep parking lot to her car. I waited for her to exclaim in surprise that her car had moved twenty feet from where she left it, but she appeared not to notice. She passed out the donuts, making sure to give my sister Leslie the white powder jelly one, and then we got back on the road.

     An hour later we arrived, the smell of the ocean wafting around us as we stepped out of the Packard and stretched. Late afternoon sun splashed off the water, across the road, and a sliver of optimism surfaced in my heart. Perhaps this would be a lovely weekend at the beach, after all. Like they had in the books I read about teen girl detectives.

     We’d barely entered the house, a small cottage with the paint peeling and a faint smell of mildew on everything, when Nana announced the bedroom arrangements. “Leslie, take your cousins to the upstairs bedrooms. Joanell can sleep down here with me.”

     The other girls began to gather their duffle bags and clop up the narrow stairs. I saw my weekend before me: trapped in the wheezing ward, sharing a bed with Nana and her horrible beast of a dog. The other girls upstairs, free.

     “No!” I shrieked. “I want to stay with my sister!” It was all too much for my pre-pubescent spirit: the slimy, nipping dog, the near death experience, a scolding because I didn’t know how to stop a car. And now this. Exiled. Tears forced themselves out the corners of my eyes, even as I wiped them away fiercely.

     My sister Leslie, clearly taken aback, seemed to calculate that if she didn’t come up with a quick plan, I would disintegrate. As the older sister, it would be her job to put me back together again. Worse, she might have to take my place in our great Aunt’s bed.

     “She can share with me!” Leslie announced, quickly angling me towards the stairs. I felt myself propelled up the steps by Leslie’s will and Suzie’s hands, while Sammy grabbed my duffle bag.

     “But that bed’s only a twin,” Aunt Nana said in a half-hearted protestation.

     “We don’t mind!”

     The girls gathered around me, as my unbidden and shameful tears continued to fall. My embarrassment grew, I was sure to be banished for this display of childish vulnerability. My cousins and sisters were tough. There was no crying in Crossin-land.

     But Suzie, generally the sharpest, took pity on me. When our oldest sister wasn’t with us, as was the case that weekend, Suzie was the leader of the group by being several months older than Leslie and, as she put it, “the only one with tits.” She announced once we got the bedroom door closed, in the spirit of sympathy, “We should get Joanell high tonight.” My spirits soared.

     Later that evening, back from a walk on the beach, I went from being the left behind child to one of the gang. The smell of brackish salt water mixed with the marijuana smoke and patchouli oil one of my cousins had rubbed all over her body. In a stroke of adolescent brilliance, we gathered underneath the Packard, convinced Nana wouldn’t notice her charges were getting stoned in the backyard, if we were underneath this hulking black mammoth.

     I snuggled next to the others, itchy from the sand in my bathing suit and the crab grass beneath us, the clove and oregano smell of fresh weed wafting from the tiny promising joint, giggling with the others as we imagined Nana finding us out. We took bets on whether she would know what we were doing if she found us, whether Nana had ever seen weed, or gone on a date, or, god forbid, had sex. I choked on the remains of my ice cream cone, laughing. I was so happy, or maybe high; I wasn’t sure.

     Over the years, when my friends and counselors along the way expressed shock, even dismay over my early drug use, I knew they were right. But wrong.

     We were, in our pre-teen delinquency, still innocent in many ways. None of us knew the depth of the depravity that ran like a vein down the arm of our genealogy, or imagined how our own lives would follow well-worn pathways of despair. Later, we would split off like braches from one twisted tree, growing in opposite directions. We would enter rehabs, prison, therapy, and colleges. We would end up at disparate ends of morality’s spectrum: tormentor, victim, protector.

     But not that night. That warm night when the sun seemed to never actually set, I watched my cousin Suzie laugh, under the car, her taut belly rippling like a drum. Sammy lit the joint, and as the flame flared, her face glowed with the beauty of her strong cheek bones and warm brown eyes. Leslie and I dissolved, pounding our fists on the ground at a joke Suzie made, our hair blending together in an auburn puddle, our eyes streaming with tears. That night we passed the joint back and forth and let the bonds of blood and smoke tie us into a knot of love and loyalty that would never fully dissolve.





About the Author: Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. A long time creative writer, she recently had a play win in the California Writers Club Short Plays Contest. She will have pieces in 2014 in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She is currently finishing a novel.