“The Caravan is topped off, and I’ve checked the tire pressures. Here’s my phone, it’s charged.” Dad hands me his baby, his pride and joy, a Lumina wrapped tight in an Ole Miss Otter Box. “Remember what we said about the intersections in Brannon?”
“‘The soldiers from the army base fly through them, so give the green lights a few seconds.'” I say this with my eyes closed, reciting every syllable verbatim, singsong. I’m good like that. Looking up, I find Mom and Dad studying me from across the kitchen table. They seem pleased.
“Good,” Mom says. She’s wearing a new pants suit with a pin on the collar-Sunset Meadows: Because We Care. This is our first real conversation in about a week. “And what about Hwy 486?”
“‘The bends are bad so go five below the speed limit. Remember the Coleman High School Cheerleaders.'” I parrot her words, wondering if they used these same scare tactics on Morgan on her “Freedom Day.” Those five girls were killed after a football game twenty years ago (maybe while listening to a mix tape of The Cranberries and 5 Non-Blondes) and have now achieved urban legend status, something I sure they never expected in life.
“Good,” Mom says. She hands me forty dollars-a twenty and two tens, the reward for a perfect score on the driving test, both written and hands-on portions. Yeah me!
“The GPS is programmed to take the route we’ve been practicing, not the interstate. We’ll wait for that.” Dad’s voice quivers, and he clears his throat. “Be back by seven-thirty. I hope you have fun.”
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Mom says, eyeing the folded bills in my hand. “And I know what you’re thinking. June is not going with you. I will find out.”
As planned, June is waiting for me at the 7-11 outside Hunter Estates, looking bored beside the Quickie Ice dispenser. She’s wearing her going out suit, an oil-stained Marilyn Monroe t-shirt and a pair of tattered Levi jeans. Over the past few months the knee holes in those jeans have grown from looking “grunge-era cool” to “homeless and desperate.” Her hair though, pulled up in a thick black bun, distracts from everything else. It could be a Sikhs’ black turban, bold and exotic, fearless.
“What took you so long?” She asks, taping on the passage door window.
“Wait.” I keep the doors locked as she pulls the handle. “Mom said she’ll know if you were in here.”
June grins. “Unlock it.”
She opens the door and studies the seat, carefully examining its controls, perhaps wishing she had a magnifying glass. “She’s marked the adjustment knobs,” and then turning to the AC vents and the radio, “she marked everything. Que gringa inteligente.”
Hopping in, she adjusts the seat to fit her. “We’ll put them back later. Where are we going?”
“A Saturday in Brannon.” She moves most of the AC vents to hit her full face, leaving only one for me. “How much money do we have?”
“I have forty dollars.”
She grins. “We have forty dollars huh? That’ll do.”
We follow the GPS halfway across Greenville, passing a depressing number of boarded-up stores and dilapidated homes, before exiting onto weedy two-lane Hwy 486. Brannon is an hour away, beyond the small towns of McCain and Vernon, each having only one or two stop lights, maybe a gas station, and (as June Bug points out) not a single Mexican.
“Oh they’re there,” I say, attempting to reassure her. I let shine my most obnoxious, self-satisfied white girl smile. “Mexicans are like termites-you can’t always see them, but they’re there, having babies and eating away at our country, one tiny mouthful at a time.”
June’s elegant retort comes by way of a stiff middle-finger and two slowly mouthed words-f*** you.
She adjusts the radio after leaving Vernon. The Caravan’s beefed up antenna-one Oliver installed after the last family trip to Grandma Mimi’s-receives two-dozen stations, some from as far away as St. Louis. June settles on something old school, Guns and Roses I think, and listens with a grin as other songs, older than either of us, play between ads for used cars lot and firework stands. Crazy Joe’s World of Rockets, Black Cat M-80’s two for a dollar! And now Stairway to Heaven!
Soon Vernon’s lonesome town-scape gives way to fields dotted with fresh hay bales and plotting Jersey Cows. Every so often we see a chicken farm in the distance, they’re tin roofs appearing white and small in the sun.
“We went this way when we came up from Texas.” June says. “I remember the smell.”
“Why didn’t you use the interstate?” I ask.
“Car tag was expired, same as Mom’s driver’s license. She thought she could avoid a ticket cutting up the back roads.” She looks closely at the GPS where a thin purple line leads us on. “There will be a bridge after awhile. We’ll stop there on the way back. I want to check something out.”
The bridge (a dilapidated girder style held together by ten-thousand rusted and bleeding rivets) is there, and a few miles past it is the cheerleader’s memorial, five marble crosses guarded by a stone angel and hundreds of faded silk flowers. There’s nothing for the drunk driver who killed them.
With visions of fiery death flashing before my eyes and I drop to 45mph, causing a parade of pickup trucks and SUV’s to form behind us. After a mile, an old man in a vintage Ford F-100 lays on the horn. June gives him the bird. I won’t break 50 to save my life.