My mother is lighting another cigarette from the stove. She holds her hair back with one hand, to keep it from the flame. There are no lights on in the kitchen, so all I can see is her face and the sides of her head glowing as she bends over the flame. I’m sitting on the couch in the next room, watching through the open door. My little sister is asleep next to me. It’s past her bedtime, but my mother hasn’t bothered to put her to bed. Mom’s just been sitting in the dark at the kitchen table, smoking. She hasn’t said a word since I told her, just after dinner, “There’s fleas in the carpet again.”
“Shit,” was all she said.
She finishes the pack and just sits in the dark for a few minutes.
“Wake your sister up,” she says. “Put your coats and boots on. We’re going for a ride.”
“It’s late,” I say.
“That’s okay,” she says. “Go on.”
So I help Jennifer on with her coat and boots. Her boots are secondhand and a little too big, and the rubber heel of one of them is hanging loose and hard to walk on.
“I’m tired,” Jennifer says. “Can’t I stay here?”
“It won’t be long,” I tell her. “We’re just going to get cigarettes.”
In the car none of us says much. It’s like we’re all there just to get the job done. It’s no family outing. I can see my mother’s face glowing green from the dashboard light and our headlights shining on the empty road in front of us. “You don’t know, do you?” my mother says. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
I’m not sure what she’s talking about, so I don’t say anything. Jennifer’s laying on the seat next to me, with her head on my lap. My fingers are playing with the fur inside the hood of her snowsuit. The fur is soft but lumpy, from too many washes. In the distance I can see the mountains laying like sleeping bodies draped over with blankets.
And the lights of a service station we approach and pass.
The lights that run along the highway are far apart but close enough together to imagine they’re a string of lights, like Christmastime, like the lanterns that line the way to church on Christmas eve, made of brown paper bags with candles and dirt in the bottom to keep them in place. Sometimes people forget to put them out in their yard and there’s suddenly a dark patch unexpectedly, but never enough that you can’t see where the lights pick up again. And it’s like the candles in the church when we stayed with Grandpa and he’d let Jennifer and I down to the basement after, to drink the little glasses of leftover grape juice and the little squares of bread cut like dice. Some days we’d walk the railroad tracks collecting things: spikes, arrowheads from the woods, and from the telephone poles green glass insulators like Coke bottles. Insulators were the best.
“Aren’t we going for cigarettes?” I ask.
My mother doesn’t answer. She just keeps driving, past the railroad tracks of the train we always hear in the distance.
“We going for a train ride?” I ask. I know it can’t be true, but she was always promising one day we would.
At night sometimes in my mother’s house, after everyone’s asleep, I go into the kitchen to the drawer next to the fridge and reach into where she keeps the birthday candles. She pulls them off the cake as soon as we blow them out. She saves them for the next time. For Jennifer’s birthday and then for me again. “I’m too old for candles,” she says. At night sometimes I stand in the light from the fridge, I hold the candles in my hand. I run my hands along the edges, along the smooth trails of melted wax. I hold them in my hand. They mean something good will happen.
Then once we’ve passed what used to be the horizon and passed it another time again, my mother pulls the car over to the side of the road and gets out. There are trees thick on either side and curving in front and behind so it’s hard to have any idea where we are. We might as well be in any dark room right now. The coat-room at school, with the doors closed.
“I hope you were paying attention,” Mom says through the open door. She nods her head and says, “You gotta learn you can’t depend on me to always take care of things.” Her right arm is stiff at an angle from her body and she’s breathing slow and easy. It’s like she’s smoking, but without the cigarette. “Come on now. Get out of the car.”
I nudge Jennifer and help her out of the car. She’s uneasy on her feet from being so tired and not knowing where she is and the broken heel and all. I follow her out and take her hand and lead her to the gravel next to the road.
“I’m gonna head home now,” Mom says. “And I want you two to follow me on foot. And I want you to think about things, you two.”
My mother gets back in the car and turns it around, catching us for a second in the headlights, then heads off, past the curve. Out of sight. The wind blows past us and follows her car down the road.
It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust. I look up past the tress to the narrow strip of light. The midnight sky looks light next to the darkness. Jennifer’s holding onto my leg. I can feel her body against me, but I can’t tell if it’s ’cause she’s cold or she’s crying. I lift her up and she rests her head against my shoulder. I don’t know what to tell her. I just walk back the way my mother left.
We keep stopping so I can put Jennifer down and we rest. Sometimes I can get her to walk a ways but the heel on her boot keeps making her trip and I’m afraid she’ll twist her ankle. Jennifer’s nose is running, but we don’t have any Kleenex so I tell her it’s okay to use her sleeve. When one gets too dirty, she switches to the other.
We don’t talk much. I wonder if this is what my mother had in mind.
Jennifer bends over and picks up a pine cone, and then another.
“What are you collecting pine cones for?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Jennifer says.
I pick Jennifer up again and we walk past another bend in the road. The fur on her hood rubs against my check and I pull her close to get warm. We’re heading for a little bridge that crosses a stream up ahead. I don’t remember passing it on the way out, but then I wasn’t paying attention.
When we get up to the bridge, we each take a pine cone and throw it over the side, then we run to the opposite side to see whose will come out first. The ripples of the water are just different shades of dark, and the deep blue of the sky and a little ripple of white from the moon. Our pine cones come out, sort of circling each other in the current. We watch them until they pass through the moon.
“When are we going to be done?” Jennifer asks.
“It just takes a lot longer when you walk,” I tell her. I don’t recognize anything at all. We stop and sit down as long as we can, so I can try to figure out what to do. I look up at the sky. Once my mother showed me the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and some people up in they sky if you connect the dots, but I don’t remember. I guess you can make anything out of the stars if you know where to draw the lines.
There’s car lights coming down the road, so I grab Jennifer and run into the woods. Mom always says that’s what to do when a car comes, even in daylight. They’ll drag you right in. Jennifer’s got her head over my shoulder, facing back into the woods, so she doesn’t see that it’s our mother’s car. And I don’t tell her. I just sit quiet and watch my mother get out of the car. She stands looking out over the hood, the car light shining up at her, making shadows on her face. She has a flashlight in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. The orange tip of the cigarette moves from her side to her mouth while she shines the flashlight into the woods. Short clouds of smoke rise from her mouth and disappear just above her head like smoke signals from Indians. She raises the hand with the cigarette and wipes the corner of her eye with the tips of her fingers. I think I see the orange tip of her cigarette begin to burn the ends of her hair. The flashlight light bounces between the trees but never makes it past them. The light doesn’t hit Jennifer and me. My mother gets back in the car and drives away slow.
“Are they after us?” Jennifer asks.
“Yeah,” I say. Then I lie to her. I tell her, “But we’re okay.”
We can hear the sound of water dripping, of a deer running home between the trees late at night, and if we are very quiet, when Jennifer is sleeping, sometimes I think I hear the sound of tires on the road, of our mother returning again, or driving away in the distance.