I’d kneel in the back seat of our Buick on a carpet of fast food wrappers counting the contents of the trunk. This was Momma’s version of education, having me remind her what we had in our stolen car.
“Three sets of silverware, two wedding rings, four winter coats, and six handbags.”
“Excellent, Silas! What should we buy next?”
I was only eight, but I still knew there was something weird about the way Momma and I bought things. I’d seen TV at the walk-in clinic and thought about how different the commercials were from my own little life. Sometimes we’d sit at the DMV for hours just to see if anyone would give us their wallet or keys by leaving them in their seat. We both had one pair of good clothes that we’d wear to weddings when we’d come across one.
These receptions were a breath of fresh air compared to the backseat of whatever car I was in at any given moment. Momma never seemed to know anyone at these weddings, but she always told me that strangers were just friends we hadn’t met yet. She’d say to smile to tell anyone who asked that I was uncle John’s nephew. With how many people I was related to back then, I never understood how no one ever seemed to know who I was, including uncle John. I’d talk to long-lost relatives while Momma filled up the deep pockets of her sundress with pigs in a blanket.
If I were good, which I always tried to be, we’d get a piece of cake on the way out, looking for gifts in and under seats all the way through the reception. On good nights we’d be peeling out in our new Lexus with white icing covering our faces. Our new home would have all the furnishings of someone else’s life, a moving world of another person’s smells and trinkets.
“What’d we learn today, Silas?”
Momma would laugh and tell me how much happier we were than everyone else and I believed her no matter how fast we were going.
We’d drive until the sugar high wore off and then I’d sleep through the crackle pop sounds of Momma’s pipe. I’d watch the dark yellow twists of smoke plume over the top of the front seat into the upholstered ceiling. She was a great Momma cause she always thought I was asleep before she took her medicine; I was a good son because I never let her know I was awake.
Her face was like an Oklahoma highway, potholed and ever-graying. Her eyes said she loved me when she didn’t and the nights we had to sleep on the street Momma was still armed to the teeth she had left, always keeping one arm on me and a hand on the kitchen knife Mommas keep under their coats.
“Five wallets, three handbags, seven pairs of sunglasses, and a laptop.”
“That’s great, Silas! Now, can you tell me how much money we have?”
Drinking, driving, and arithmetic, Momma’s job and mine. Sometimes when I added all the money up, she’d be happy and other times she’d be sad. Whenever there wasn’t enough money for the medicine, she’d get very cold, even in the summer, and I’d have to eat alone. That’s when we would have to drive by construction sites and look for gifts in the back of pickups.
“Five cordless drills, one circular saw, four levels, and six hubcaps.”
I’d be the one to grab the goods and Momma would be the one to keep the car running.
When the money got low, and there were no construction sites or wedding receptions, we’d go into department stores and pick up our gifts there, hiding them under our baggy clothes, slipping bracelets and cufflinks into our waistbands, speed-walking to the car of the day. Sometimes someone would yell out at us on the way out, but Momma always held my hand too tight for me to turn around.
The night it got worse than it ever had, Momma let me sit in the passenger seat while she walked into a gas station with her kitchen knife. She came back out with handfuls of cash, and we tore off into the night while she pushed me into the floorboard of our new Mercedes home.
I heard the back window shatter and felt the cold air rush in as Momma swerved back and forth on the highway trying to keep us on the road. She held the side of her head and squinted through the blood dripping out the top of her eye. Red and blue lights started to fill up the flat ground all around us as Momma turned up the radio to wash out the sound of sirens. It was like none of this was happening, it was like Aerosmith could make everything disappear.
When she couldn’t hold on to my shoulder, she yelled at me to count the cars with the red and blue lights.
“One, two, three, four cars, Momma.”
But she didn’t tell me how very good I could count, or how great I was; she just held my shoulder and let off the gas letting the car roll to a stop.
“Wasn’t that fun, Silas?” she said, smiling and nodding her head through her tears.
I counted the men’s voices surrounding our car.
“Wasn’t it all worth it?” she said, leaning in to look at me as hard as she could.
“What did we learn today?” she screamed through the yells of Steven Tyler and the police officers swarming us.
I wasn’t able to say anything before they pulled her out through the broken glass onto the interstate.
I remember every bit of my education. No more gifts, no more distant relatives, no more counting for, or on, anyone ever again.
Rush Eby is an American writer based out of Franklin Tennessee. He spent his early adulthood traveling through Europe and Asia before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps infantry where he attained the rank of Sergeant. He has worked as a ghostwriter as well as a copywriter. His first novel Eat Me is currently in pre-publication and he is now finishing his upcoming novel, Fetish.