I feel the vibration in my chest as the van clatters over the rutted, washboard road. I’m clinging like a monkey to anything that looks stable, Dad’s arm, Mom, the dashboard, the shifter. “Hey, don’t touch that!”
Dad’s teeth are clenched on the mouthpiece of a smoldering pipe as he steers around washouts and over potholes. Cherry tobacco smoke, dust, and exhaust fumes expand until I think the windows will melt from the toxic concoction. Mom rolls her window down and the air clears. Although the blue haze in the back remains a constant presence. But hey, a little bit of carbon monoxide’s never hurt anyone, has it?
The wheels of the van continue to churn up dust as we bounce and rattle down the dirt road. Mom white knuckles the door frame and the dash as we bump over a small wooden bridge. “John!” Her large eyes never leave the road. Dad chuckles and so do I. “John, you’re too close.” Her fear of imminent death by rolling off drop-offs becomes a running joke in the family. Thirty years later, as I pull into a parking lot the size of a small baseball field, she still clutches the hand strap. “Don’t back up too much. You’re too close.” The closest ditch is a hundred meters away. I roll my eyes.
I am proud of our van. It’s different from all the other vehicles in the neighbourhood. It’s big and white, with a set of double doors in the back, and a set on the side. My dad’s name is printed on the front doors. Mom thinks it’s ridiculous. In retrospect, yeah, it kinda was.
It doesn’t occur to me that seven people and only two seats is an issue. I don’t think it occurred to my dad either. There’s no calling shotgun. Dad drives, Mom sits in the passenger seat. The rest of us battle over the engine hump, the spare tire, and the cardboard on the floor. The premium child seat is the forward facing ledge on the engine cover. That’s where I’m perched. My little brother is sitting behind me, sometimes wrapping his arms around my waist for protection, his. I don’t see which brother got stuck with the cardboard.
When my grandparents come with us they get treated like royalty. Dad brings two folding lawn chairs. They sit in dignified silence, inhaling fumes and lording over the lower ranks. When I ask why we don’t always have the lawn chairs in the back, Dad tells me that I’m starting to sound like my mother, always wanting luxury items. Dad has certain ideas about what constitutes luxury items. Working windshield wipers. “Who needs to worry about that?” When the windows get really bad he stops and throws slush on the window and then wipes it down with a dirty rag. “Why do we need a heater? Were you kids raised in a palace? It’s only -35. Mother is perfectly capable of scraping the ice while I drive, and you children all have warm snow suits.” The dog snuggles between the twins on the cardboard and shivers. The slippery material of the snowsuit against the shiny metal engine cover turns a child into a flying projectile. Seatbelts? We don’t even have seats. I quickly learn to protect my face in sudden stops.
Dad doesn’t have much tolerance for the antics of his brood when we fight. All Star Wrestling matches sometimes spontaneously erupt in the back. His lips tighten, his skin turns a dark hue, and a flash of rage sparks out of his eyes. If Mom can’t calm the conflict he reaches his limit quickly.
His voice, loud and deep explodes. “Cut it out back there!” The sound fills the interior, bouncing around as if it’s a trapped animal trying to tear open the walls. Silence descends. Well, as silent as a rattle-trap, gas chamber, death-mobile can be. The doors creak, the windows jangle, wind howls through the cracks, and the engine growls. We are going blueberry picking and it’s a beautiful day.
“Has anyone seen the dog?” Dad glances out the rear view mirror and catches a flash of brown fur, scampering little legs, and a flapping pink tongue behind the dust cloud. He’s beginning to lag further and further back but he’s managed to keep up to us for a couple of kilometers. That’s another good thing about the van. After all, isn’t speed a luxury?
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