This is the night mom pulls out her cardboard poster tube from where she hides it in the oven. We meet in the dining room with grilled cheeses and she slides out a diploma — can you believe it? she says, me, a doctor! Other diplomas follow – PhDs in optical engineering, political science, entomology, microeconomics. With all of them laid out in front of her she sits me down on her lap. Now, she always begins, what will we be today?
This night always happens after the night we move. We are always leaving food in the fridge, sometimes on the table. With trash bags full of stuff — my bag always has my books, honestly child, why do you have to choose the heaviest thing?! — we pile into the car. We hurry. This time there were sirens. Flashing lights. We drove away — but not too quickly. She talks to herself when she’s worried. We drove away from the whoop-whoops and red-blues. And she has me by the hand. Always.
This is followed by one of my favorite parts: the road. She tells me fantastic stories and I fall asleep in my seat. We sleep anywhere and everywhere. Would you believe it if I told you I’ve slept in a castle made of marshmallows? Or on a bed that can dictate your dreams like a stenograph? So I don’t pay attention when she sneaks out of the car to earn the money we need to pay for gas. She told me never to ask where she gets this money. And I never will.
Soon, we find a new home. It’s different at first, strange, as every different thing is at first. But then different becomes familiar and familiar becomes comfortable. I settle in, I meet friends, telling them I live in a military family, which they seem to understand (even if I don’t). Then, one night soon thereafter, we have grilled cheeses and the diplomas come out.
I reject medical examiner because, well, that’s what she was last time. I’ve long had my eye on the zoology degree, which she never picks. But this time I know she has to say yes.
We passed a zoo, it’s just down the street! Makes sense, right, momma?
She sighs. I know she’s trying to come up with an argument and can’t think of one. You sure that was a zoo? You sure it wasn’t a slaughterhouse? I giggle. Yup, I’m one hundred percent sure. She picks up the zoology diploma. Okay then, zoologist it is. I like the sound of that and I smile my Fourth of July smile that I know will make her happy. She smiles too. She is happy.
That night, before she tucks me in, she irons her nice suit that she’ll wear to the interview tomorrow for a job she’ll get because any time I wish her “good luck” she gets what she wants. She tucks me in and hands me a book that I’ve already read. Well read it again. You don’t want to grow up like your mom —
Yes I do.
No — no, you don’t. You read. You get smart. You earn your work and you get a real diploma. That way you can frame it all nice and hang it on the wall above your desk instead of hiding it in a poster tube. She kisses me on the head and I tell her — good luck. She grabs my cheek in her fingers and she says what she always says, you keep that luck yourself. That night, I read until my eyes droop. I sleep and dream about the everythings of tomorrow.
Finally, the day comes that she says I can visit her at work. I’ve read my book about bears twice, cover to cover, since she started her job at the zoo and that’s what I want to see first. I tell my teacher I’m not feeling well so I can get out a little early and I run home, past our trailer, down the road, through the woods and into the parking lot of the zoo. I don’t weave crazy zig-zags through the parked cars like I normally do, but run straight down the asphalt lane, the sun shining off the windshields, trumpeting my arrival.
I stop at the front gates to tell the ticket taker that my mom is working today and she said it was okay if I come. That’s when I see her. My mom and a police officer.
She sees me, says something to the officer who nods but doesn’t want to. She comes over and kneels down next to me, hiding her hands behind her back. I tell her I want to see the bears. I’m afraid the bears will have to wait. I look at my feet. But that’s only because I got another job interview! Where? I wonder out loud. Well, working down at the police station, of course!
But, you don’t have a diploma for that, do you?
No, I suppose I don’t… which is why this is a very special job. If it’s special then she must really want it. I wish she would have had time to shower though. Her cheeks are red and sweaty and her hair is stringy and wild like the nights we leave houses. And she’s wearing the wrong clothes. She doesn’t have on her interview suit. I ask her if she wants to change.
No, no time. The police officer helps her off the ground and a stiff, mannequin-like man in a suit approaches. My mom pecks me a kiss on top of my forehead. Read, child, just promise me you’ll keep reading. She says this to me and to herself. And then she’s away from me and heading for the flashing red-blues. The mannequin man kneels next to me and starts to talk. I don’t listen.
Good luck, I call after her, and I wait for her reply as the police car pulls away.
Raised in Missouri, educated in New York, resident of California, Chaz Salembier is a story analyst who spends much (too much?) of his time at his desk, reading and writing.
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