© Thomas J. Winton
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Thomas J. Winton
At the time, moving to Florida sounded like a “real keen” idea, though I was positive it wouldn’t do any good. Going to Florida, Siberia, Timbuktu, or even the moon wasn’t going to make Mom and Dad get along any better. None of our other moves had, and there had been plenty of them. I was only in the fourth grade back in 1958 and already I’d taken up space in four different New York schools and six apartments--each dingier than the last.
No matter where we lived it was always the same deal, Mom and Dad still battled like two caged, junkyard dogs. When they got going they'd make Stanley and Stella Kowalski look like June and Ward Cleaver. I can’t count the times I got stomach-sick watching or hearing their tirades. Seeing my father in his black rages, wearing that sinister sneer, flipping his loaded dinner plate upside down on the table, or heaving the whole works up against some rented kitchen wall. With vivid clarity I still remember all those late nights my brother Sylvester and I cried beneath our pillows as the two of them exchanged shoves, insults, threats, and horrible dirty words that no kids should ever hear. I can too easily recall the time Dad broke our glass coffee table and all those other nights when he or Mom trashed our living room lamps, mirrors, TVs, telephones or whatever else was within reach.
But, bad as all that was, the worst nights were the ones when Mom just didn’t feel like dealing with any of it. She’d just put on her stockings and heels, slip into one of her second-hand, low-necked dresses, spray on that orange-smelling perfume that always lingered, and take off to some anonymous bar. What she did at those places, or with whom--if anybody--I never knew. But I knew for sure she went to them. Because time and again on the mornings after, when everyone else was still asleep, I’d rummage through her purse (before Dad had a chance to) usually finding, and disposing of, a matchbook advertising some dive she had gone to.
Nevertheless, we were going south for one last try. I wouldn’t tell Sylvester (even though he was two years older than I) because he worried and fretted about everything, but I overheard Mom and Dad one morning make a pact over coffee that if they couldn’t rectify their problems in Florida they’d file for something called an “uncontested” divorce.
Now, I knew what a divorce was because I’d read on the covers of Mom's Silver Screen magazines about all these movie stars who were getting them. But in the real world, in 1958 blue-collar America, getting a divorce was the ultimate admission of failure. But, bad as a failed marriage would be, things could actually get worse from there. There was always the possibility of that granddaddy of all disgraces looming over you. You could be excommunicated from the Catholic Church--possibly burn in hell’s roaring fire for eternity.
To most people it simply wasn’t worth the gamble, miserable or not they’d stick it out. But Mom and Dad were a different breed than most folks. They just might go the distance and get that divorce. It sure looked like they would. Bad as I wanted them to avoid it, I couldn’t help but to think this move, this half-assed attempt to quick-fix their sorry marriage, was destined to be the last in a long string of miserable failures.
Certain that my parents would be branded, diminished, and disgraced by divorce, I feared that Sylvester and I would also. That’s all we needed after all the harassment and bullying we’d been subject to as “the new kids” at every school we attended.
Anyway, like it or not, we were moving again. I clearly remember that cold February early morning when Sylvester and I were getting dressed to leave and Dad, in a rare display of paternal optimism, came into our room and told us, “Now don’t you boys worry about leaving in the middle of the school year, ya hear? This trip’ll be an education you could never get inside no classroom. As long as you live you’ll never forget some of the things you’ll see along the way.” And, man, would he prove to be right.
In the predawn darkness, like four gypsies abandoning one life in search of a better one, we piled into our ’51 Chevy. In one hand I had my banded stack of Topps baseball cards and in the other a cardboard box containing a real live chameleon that I’d bought on a recent field trip to the circus. I had skipped lunch that day at Madison Square Garden and used the money to buy the “must have” reptile. Now I was bringing it down to Florida to give as a surprise to my cousin Andy. Sylvester got in on the other side of the car and spewed a load of Classic comics and books on the seat between us. All the money we had in the world was up front in Dad’s wallet, and all our material possessions jammed tight inside a twelve-foot, orange U-haul tethered to our back bumper.
We may not have had much, and we may not have been much, but on that freezing cold morning it actually felt like we were a family--a unit. Not the "tribe" my father had disdainfully called us so many times before when he’d been pissed off.
Despite the sleep in my eyes and doubts lurking in my heart, I felt excited--excited and guilty. Guilty for allowing myself the pleasure of being excited when here were my parents mere inches--OK, more like 1200 miles--from a divorce. But I couldn’t help it. For weeks Mom had filled our minds with all these visions of palm trees, coconuts, blue oceans and year-round summers. And Grandma James lived down there. So did Aunt Bea, Uncle Augie and, best of all, our big cousin Andy--who’d been our hero long before Aunt Bea ever sent us that snapshot of him lying on their front lawn aiming a real twenty-two rifle at some imaginary target.
Even Mom and Dad were psyched when we motored away from our building for the last time. I could tell. Instead of just being civil to one another like they usually were when they weren’t fighting, they were actually being nice. I remember Ma bolstering the mood as we crossed the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island. Unscrewing the top of our green Thermos she said, “How ‘bout some coffee, Walter?”
“Sure,” Dad said, “unless you want some first. There’s only the one cup.”
“No honey. I can wait. Here,” she said handing him the steaming cup. ‘Be careful. It’s very hot.”
Oh jeez, I thought. Hope he doesn’t spill it on himself, he’ll go absolutely nutso and ruin everything.
But he didn’t, and everything went fine. Even with a Pall Mall locked in the fingers of his steering hand he expertly alternated sips and puffs without incident.
We beat the morning traffic out of the city, making it to Jersey by sunup, which pleased Dad big-time. Mom was tickled-pink that the heater was working, because sometimes, no matter how hard Dad banged his fist on the dashboard, it still wouldn’t come on. Things couldn’t have been going smoother. My favorite song, The Book of Love, had already played twice on the radio. Sylvester was reading The Count of Montecristo in the new daylight. And I’m back there with all these lovely thoughts and visions flashing through my head.
I wonder if I’ll see any of those neat birds I saw in Sylvester’s bird book? Maybe a kingfisher resting on a telephone wire, or a hummingbird ...nah, they’re too small. Maybe we’ll go by the stadium where the Washington Senators play, or in Baltimore, where the Orioles play. Hey, maybe I’ll see a real oriole flying around down there. They must have them or they wouldn’t have named a team after them, I don’t think. Maybe we’ll see a deer somewhere along the road. Dad said they only come out real early, but it might still be early enough. I saw on TV that they had alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp. Man, it sure would be great to see one of them. I wonder if Dad will stop at a motel with a pool tonight. It’ll probably be too cold for swimming anyhow, we’ll only be halfway to Florida. Wow, I'm gonna see Andy. I can't wait to give him the chameleon.
Yup, everything was just peachy, until that afternoon in Virginia. We were “cannonballin’” along as Dad happily proclaimed every time thinning traffic allowed us to pick up speed. Mom was merrily singing along to That'll Be The Day on the radio. Then, out of nowhere, this monster eighteen wheeler, big as a locomotive, comes barreling up to us on the passenger side.
This startled Dad because he couldn’t see it coming with the U-haul blocking the rear window. Without warning the headwind from the giant truck shoved the Chevy to the side and the U-Haul started fishtailing wildly. Dad had to work like hell, yanking the steering wheel this way and that, as he tried to regain control. When he finally did, he jerked his head a hard right and immediately got the wrong idea when he saw Mom looking up at the driver. Had the idiot in the truck not slowed down alongside us for a few seconds to check out Mom, Dad probably would have blown the whole thing off. But the driver did, and Dad didn’t.
“What the fuck are you starin’ at?” he asked Mom.
“Nothing! What are you talking about, Walter?”
Dad turned away quickly, rammed his angry face to the windshield, and glared at the trucker’s rearview up ahead. The rest of us followed suit. We all saw the driver's blocky face peeking back at us. He had this huge shit-eating grin smeared across his mush, just having a ball. Dad started yelling and hollering, spraying the safety glass with spittle, pounding it with the back of his fist, his middle finger standing at attention all the while. The trucker widened his grin even more, shot Dad the bird, shook it a few times for effect, then sped off laughing.
I knew things would turn ugly now. No making this go away. My stomach tightened--hard. I looked at Sylvester alongside me. He gave me that look, that simultaneous expression of dread and heartbreak that sabotaged both our faces whenever a war was imminent.
“YOU FREAKIN’ WHORE,” Dad screamed, spit flying all over my mother now, “WHERE DO YOU GET THE ASS TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT, YOU LOWLIFE POLLACK? I SWEAR…”
“Youuu jerk,” Mom interrupted, fighting to keep her cool, “I wasn’t looking at anybody or smiling at anybody. I was just smiling to myself, thinking how happy I’ll be to get away from all this cold weather. Then that idiot pulls alongside us and you take it all wrong.”
“Horseshit! You were makin’ eyes at the son of a bitch.”
“Don’t be an ass. I don’t even have my contacts on. I can’t see.”
“Bullshit. I knew this would never work. You’re a slut and always will be.”
“Oh yeah you asshole.” Mom says now, her inflection gone from somewhat patient to outright hateful, “You call me a slut? Huh? OK BUSTER! You gimme’ the name, I’ll play the game!”
With that Dad stomped on the brakes. We decelerated from 60 to 20 in three seconds flat. The trailer fishtailed again. Dad jerked the steering wheel hard left and we tore across the highway’s median. All four of us are damn near bouncing through the roof as we cross the grass. All our el-cheapo furniture is getting trashed, crashing around inside the trailer.
Finally, righting the Chevy on the northbound side of the highway by now, accelerator toed to the floor, Dad said, “We’re goin’ back to New York. I’m finished with your Pollack ass.”
“No, Dad! Please, NO!” Sylvester and I chimed as those all too familiar tears began to streak our cheeks. “Don’t go back. PLEASE!’
“Sorry, boys. You mother’s no dam good. I ain’t livin’ with her no more”
“NO DAMN GOOD, HUH!” Mom shouts now. “You say that to my kids, I’ll show you no damn good you miserable son of a bitch. HERE’S no good.” And with that she cranks down the window, yanks off her wedding ring, and flings the plain gold band out onto the asphalt highway. “There, that’s no good. Now get me back to New York…to my mother’s place.”
Then came the silent treatment.
For the longest time Dad just glared up the road while Mom stared out her window at nothing. Sylvester and I begged and begged our father to turn around. We cried and sobbed for probably an hour straight. Then, just as suddenly as he had the first time, he steers the Chevy into a 180, crosses the median, and starts heading south again.
Three hours later, around nightfall, when we were maybe a hundred miles beyond where the debacle took place, Dad pulls into a truck stop. Immediately I’m thinking, I can’t believe this. Of all the places to eat he’s gotta pull into a truck stop. What if that idiot trucker is here? Nah, he’s got to be at least one state away by now. But wait, what if he got a flat tire, ran out of gas, or broke down or something? He just might be here.
I knew Sylvester was thinking the same thing because; one, he’s my brother, and two, when I looked over at him he rolled his eyes up to the cars drooping headliner. But that wasn’t all that was eating me. I couldn’t fathom why Dad would want to bring Mom into a place full of truck drivers. What with her beautiful features, figure, and a penchant for tight clothes, men everywhere always gawked at her. I mean, hadn’t it been just a month ago that Dad ran all over the parking lot at Alexander’s Department Store with Mom and us in tow, looking for some guy who squeezed her behind when she was perusing the lingerie department? And then there was that story about Dad I’d heard my aunts and uncles tell so often--the one about the time when he was in the navy dating Mom. How they went to the Copa Cabana to have drinks and he ended up beating up three drunken sailors (two of which he threw through the plate glass front window) because they had made cracks about Mom.
“Do we have to eat at a truck stop Dad?” I asked.
“Yes son. Truckers live on the road. They always know the best places to eat. Look how crowded this parking lot is.” he said while sweeping his arm behind the windshield like Ed Sullivan introducing guests on his "rilly big show". “They gotta’ have good food here.”
As he slowed the car to a stop, Mom freshened her cherry red lipstick. Sylvester dog-eared a page in his novel, and I got this lousy feeling us kids were about to get some more of that “education” Dad promised us that morning. And to make things worse, when we got out of the car it was actually warm outside. Ma told us with delight that we were in the south now. She instructed us to shed our coats and leave them in the car. Don’t get me wrong, I was loving the soothing southern air, but at the same time I knew that without her coat on the men inside are going to get a real eyeful of my mother. My knowledge of sexual matters at this time in my life may have been next to nil, but I damned well sensed the attraction men had to Mom and sure as hell didn’t like it.
The 301 Truck Stop (named for the highway we were on) was huge inside, big as the auditorium at PS 199--my last school. And it was just as packed. But there weren’t a bunch of snot-nosed boys and tattletale girls there. Except for three or four frazzled waitresses running from table to table, and a few more serving meals and splashing coffee into mugs along the longest counter I’d ever seen, there was nothing but truckers. They were everywhere. Unshaven men with ruined smiles wearing John Deer and Mack caps, eating alien foods like grits and black-eyed peas, collared greens, chicken fried steak and God knows what else. But there were regular foods too. I saw slabs of meatloaf drenched in thick brown gravy, and monster burgers oozing with catsup and mustard. In the air was a hodgepodge of familiar aromas; strong coffee, melted American cheese, fried chicken, cigarette smoke. The place was full of chatter too, mostly southernese, surely about weather, loads, lovers and destinations. All the silverware clinking and coffee mugs clunking added to the almost deafening noise.
That is, until we started making our way towards the only vacant table in the entire place (wouldn’t you know) at the far end of the room.
That’s when everything got quiet. Not all at once, but little by little, from the front of the place to the back. It was like an undeniable force, a wave, a mighty silencing wave rolled alongside us—or, I should say, alongside Mom--extinguishing every sound, noise, and voice in its path. Table by table, row by row, horny men just froze. Some kept chewing, others stopped chewing. Some took hits from cigarettes, others laid theirs in glass ashtrays. There must have been a hundred five-o’clock-shadows flicking road weary, bloodshot eyes at Mom. At first some made muffled remarks to their buddies (snide remarks for sure), but soon the sprawling eatery became as quiet as a midnight monastery.
In the excruciating silence I thought, God...this is the worst.
I truly hated my father as he led me and our 'tribe" across that dimpled linoleum floor toward the empty table. I felt like Ma was buck naked, no, like all four of us were as we paraded in front of all these goons. Of course, every guy in the place was undressing my mother with his eyes, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that something was fucked-up, and I sure as hell didn’t like it. I don’t know who I hated more at that moment, all those toothless bastards in their ball-caps or my old man. But it didn’t seem to bother Mom much. She strode her stuff like the show girl she was when she first met Dad at some joint in Greenwich Village. Still, I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch and scratch and kick every last one of them--do a Superman number on them. But all I could do was swallow my rage and hope I'd soon digest it.
And it probably was a good thing that I did. Because once we sat down and things got back to normal, I put away the biggest and best fried chicken dinner I’d ever had. I mean, I cleaned the whole platter--meat, potatoes, biscuits, even the broccoli. And that was saying something for me to eat my vegetables, because back at home, whenever everybody deserted me at the kitchen table, I’d either chuck them out an open window or stuff them inside my rolled-up shirtsleeves. But this night was different. When we got back inside the car, Dad actually congratulated me (in his own way) by saying, “That was pretty damn good for a scrawny, seventy-pound kid to polish off all that food.”
Flattered as I was, by the time we found a motel late that night, I was just as PO’d at Dad as Ma and Sylvester were, and with good reason. After eating at that redneck joint he’d insisted on getting yet another hundred miles in before looking for a room. Then, grimy and dog-tired as we all were, he’s got to jackass around by hitting five different motels before signing a register. They all wanted seven or eight bucks a room and he wouldn’t spring for it. Only after finding The Carolina Morning Motel with its six-dollar rooms, and talking them down to five, did he return to the Chevy with a key and some words of wisdom. “See boys... it never hurts to offer less whether you’re renting a room, buying a car or a house. You can always raise your offer, but nobody’s ever comin’ down if ya don’t ask.”
When we awoke the next morning Ma and Dad started talking again, very tentatively at first, neither being sure how the other would react. But by the time we were all dressed and ready to leave the momentum of their conversation had revved up considerably. Dad got them each a cup of free coffee when he returned the key and we were on the road, cannon-ballin’ once again.
With my parents speaking again, and hope renewed, I contentedly watched the lush green countryside rush by as warm air rumbled into the Chevy’s open windows. I felt real bad for the poor black people Dad said lived in the tiny shacks and shanties sprinkled here and there throughout the endless greenery. I wondered how a country as mighty as ours could let its people live in such terrible conditions. But a short while later my sympathy vanished when I saw my first kingfisher perched on a wire over the Little Pee Dee River. Later, when we crossed a high bridge over the much bigger Santee Cooper River, I told Sylvester I was making history as I scaled a baseball card out the car window into the dark waters below. “I’m the first one to ever scale a Jim Bunning card into this river,” I boasted. He just shook his head and buried his nose back into The Count of Montecristo.
Other than the outside temperature, everything remained cool for hours. Ma and Dad behaved civilly. We piled up the miles. Life was good again. But then the Chevy overheated. The red needle snuck up near H, and Dad got real antsy about finding a gas station--quick. With his hyper-anxiety as contagious as it was, you can imagine how relieved we all were when he finally pulled into a two-pump Sunoco station. Minutes later with a cold sweating bottle of something called RC Cola in my hand I watched the bravest man I’d ever seen swing into action. A short slight southern man in a blue jumpsuit ordered us to move back, away from the car. Then, despite the scalding hot engine, the pump attendant popped the hood; put a towel over his head and a rag over the radiator cap; twisted it off; and ran like holy hell as a geyser of boiling antifreeze and water chased after him.
“Now boys,” Dad said, “that’s what you call earning a buck.” Then in a much lower voice coming from the side of his mouth, “The poor slob probably doesn’t make eighty-cents an hour, and he’s risking his ass.”
But despite the admiration and empathy Dad may have felt for this man, he still would not let down his guard after we all piled back into the car. Once the radiator and gas tank were refilled, and the guy was wiping off the windshield, I could see Dad in the front seat alternating glances at him and Mom. Making damn sure she wasn’t giving him the eye or sneaking a smile through the glass. Of
course she knew better. No sense in blowing everything now that we were so close to Florida.
Somewhere around five we stopped at a Stuckey’s in South Georgia for dinner. Dad said it would do us good to get out of the car, stretch a little, empty out, take advantage of the air conditioning inside. But he wanted to get something to eat on the fly rather than have a sit-down meal. Despite the fact that we’d driven till almost midnight the night before, we were still running a bit behind because of the about-face fiasco in Virginia. Perfect. Eating in the Chevy was fine by me. Anything would beat going to another truck stop.
The old man was so happy to be nearing Florida that he actually agreed to buy me and Sylvester a Stuckey’s pecan log to split after dinner. We’d seen them advertised on billboards for hundreds of miles, since Virginia, but never dreamed Dad would spring for one. Things could not have been more perfect. No fighting, no cursing, no screaming, no threatening. Once we got rolling again Sylvester and I scarffed down our burgers and fries so we could get to the pecan log.
I was savoring the last few chews of the sticky candy when we pulled into a Sinclair gas station for our last fill-up before Florida. I know it was a Sinclair because I remember seeing the green brontosaurus on a swinging, overhead sign. Seeing the reptile reminded me of the chameleon I’d brought along for Cousin Andy. It was about time I fed him.
I lifted his cardboard home off the sill beneath the back window and laid it on my lap. Wondering whether he’d be bright Kelly green now or that drab brown I opened the box and looked inside. I was crushed--devastated by what I saw. He was brown all right, but dead also, stone dead. All curled up and stiff as a twig. He’d baked all afternoon in the hot southern sunlight that had beat through the back window. I cried and cried the way any self respecting ten-year-old would--in front of his family--but never, ever, in front of anyone else. I had wanted so badly to give that creature to Cousin Andy.
I had no way of knowing that when we’d finally get to Lauderdale Andy would actually chuckle at the mishap, take me into the backyard, and show me dozens of the tiny lizards, all of them green as can be, running wild in Aunt Bea’s hibiscus bushes.
But I didn’t know and kept sobbing and sniffling, sniffling and sobbing for God knows how long. Ma kept telling me it was ok, that I hadn’t done it on purpose. Then Dad, displaying a rare pang of paternal sympathy told me, “You’d never have killed that thing intentionally, so quit punishin’ yourself with guilt.”
Punishin’ yourself with guilt! Wow, I thought, my father’s not only the strongest man in the world, he’s probably the smartest too.
I was just beginning to ease up on myself when suddenly Ma pointed down the highway and said in the most jubilant tone to grace her voice in a long, long time, “Look boys! Up ahead! See the sign? We’re here! We’re coming into Florida.” I sniffled once or twice, then ran my skinny hand beneath my nose. Sylvester and I rose to the edge of the rear seat, sat real high and straight, and peered through the windshield. Sure as heck, there it was, in green and orange:
Welcome to Florida
The Sunshine State
When I saw and heard what happened next I thought my senses were deceiving me. The vision was like a mirage. Like the dark puddles on the hot highway before us that always dried up just before we reached them. It was Ma, sliding across the front seat, toward my father. She snuggled up against him and laid her head on his massive shoulder. He looked at her for a moment, then smiled and put his arm around her. My mother whispered to my father, “I love you Walter”, and he whispered back, “I love you too Wanda. Another tear welled in my eye, but this one I fought off. After all, what was there to cry about? My family just might have a chance this time.