I was six, and we were on our way to get a new car.
“I can’t believe I won!” Mom said. “I don’t even remember entering a contest!”
I smiled at her, because she was Mom: a big deal, a winner, soon to have a brand new car.
By the underpass, a dirty-faced woman held a sign. Mom rolled down the window and waved her over. “I’ll give you this car,” she said. “I just won a Ford Explorer. I’m on my way to pick it up. Then you can have this.”
“Mom, no,” I said. I liked this car. I liked its peeling dashboard, and digging under the seats for pennies and old toys.
“Don’t be selfish,” Mom said. “Fortune favored us. We play it forward. It’s who we are.”
Instead of a dealership with shiny cars lined out front, Mom drove us to the Holiday Inn. In a room with pump coffee pots and scattered sugar waited a man I immediately disliked. His tie had stains, and he glanced around like he expected trouble. Mom sat daintily, and used her husky voice. They talked in words I didn’t understand, but soon I gathered something was wrong.
“I thought I could pick it up now,” Mom kept saying.
The man spread his hands and shook his head.
Mom’s look was the look when her job called to say they didn’t need her today, or when Dad couldn’t take me after all. I didn’t want a new car anymore. I tugged Mom’s sleeve and whispered, “Let’s just go.”
She waved me off, and fumbled in her purse. Trembling, she brought out her credit card. The man’s hairy hand darted out; Mom pulled away. He sneered and laid his arm across the table, and I despised him as I’d never despised anyone. In a series of jerky motions, Mom set the card in his palm. He thrust it into his imprinter, chunked down the lever, and dangled it between his fingers for Mom to retrieve.
Mom staggered on the way out, and I couldn’t look her in the eye. In the car she breathed deep, looked in the mirror, and became herself again. It was raining. The dirty-faced woman huddled deeper under the bridge, but came when Mom rolled down her window.
“A week,” Mom said. “You’ll still be here?”
The woman’s look was more than I could bear. Spilled at my feet was a jar of Cheerios. I salvaged what I could, crawled across Mom, and held the jar out the window. “Here,” I said.
This woman looked like she felt sorry for us. Ferociously, I dug under the seat. I offered her my treasures: a Fisher-Price radio, a creased yellow Arkansas from my states puzzle. Hot tears fell from my cheeks.
“Hon, easy,” Mom said in my ear, and I sank back into my seat.
“Week to ten days,” Mom told the woman. As we left the underpass, raindrops pattered on the roof. Mom’s head stuck forward hopefully.