They had put my father in an orange driving suit and a hel- met and shown him how to get inside the cockpit of a Formula Ford racecar. Being tall and broad-shouldered, he didn’t exactly slide right in, feet first. Rather, he had to stuff himself into the ground-hugging vehicle by tucking and compressing his body in ways that made me wish for a giant shoehorn.
“At least we’re getting a tan,” said my mother, to my left. Her oiled midriff was turning deep brown. The smell of cocoa butter made me hungry.
It was my father’s turn to work on cornering, the technique explained in the classroom that morning. Instead of laying out by the hotel pool a second day, my brother and I had tagged along with him. Sonoma was the pits -- Peter and I renamed it Sominex -- but driving class turned out to be an exception. The instructor, a cool, soft-spoken ex-racer, drew pictures on the chalkboard and talked about getting on the right line when driving into blind curves. From the driver’s head he drew an arrow
way across the track to a tree, and told the class to aim their wheels at the tree if they wanted to come out with any speed. They had to quickly unwind their steering wheels, too, to regain lost speed. There were a dozen things to remember.
After my father’s fifth revolution, the other drivers started getting in their cars and zooming onto the track. The swarm of them would soon be like giant hornets going round and round, sawing my head open with the sound. “I’m broiling out here,” I said. “Can’t we go back to the hotel?”
“Don’t complain, Meredith. It’s boring. And tuck in your chin, please. You look like a monkey.”
According to my mother, who was sexy and exquisite without trying, I stuck my chin out all the time, especially when I was in a bad mood. I wasn’t aware of doing it, but according to her it was extremely unattractive. Peter’s racecar noises, on the other hand, didn’t bother her a bit. My little brother hung from an imaginary steering wheel to my right, jerking his shoulders violently whenever my father’s car went into a turn. I elbowed him and said cut it out.
“Men.” My mother sighed. She’d been doing it a lot lately, talking -- complaining, really -- about the problems between men and women.
“There’s a woman out there, too,” I said, removing my camera from my neck. The weight of it made me slouch, plus there weren’t any good pictures to take from the bleachers.
“She doesn’t have a family. She can do what she wants,” my mother said.
“How do you know she doesn’t have a family?”
“Meredith, you are being argumentative. I’m not in the mood, honey.”
Those of us not enrolled in driving school were getting grouchy. How had my parents imagined that watching my father have all the fun would be an enjoyable family vacation?
Peter revved up. “I’ll bet he’s at four thousand RPMs!”
“Could be,” my mother said.
We continued following the bright-blue car, number seventy-three, around the track, even though all we could see was his helmeted head peeking out the top as if it belonged to a mannequin. I decided not to speak for the rest of the trip. They could beg me, trick me, tickle me, but no more “argumentative” words would pass my lips. I let Reese Phillips’s gorgeous face take over my mind. I had seen it for the first time just days before, at school, and immediately made him my new fantasy guy. All I needed was the face. I could take it with me wherever I went, whenever I needed something good for myself. Substituting Reese for my father in the orange suit and helmet, I imagined I was watching a high-stakes race. I became the sexy girlfriend in the stands, following the action with the knowledge that if Reese lost, Tom Saucer (my former fantasy guy, and racing kingpin) would have him killed and I’d be sent back to Tom, who still wanted me and hated Reese’s guts for stealing me away.
“You want a Tab?”
It was my mother. She was holding out the can for me. Luckily I remembered to say nothing.
“You want one?” I took it from her and looked at the far green hills. I wasn’t Reese’s woman. I was just me, miserable and petulant. “You’re welcome, Miss Sourpuss.”
I didn’t know why I was being this way. My mother smoked her cigarette and stared at the sky. Peter belched.
Those days, I was studying fashion models, looking for faces that were sort of like mine because my mother had promised me a nose job that summer. I stood in front of mirrors, pressing my nose flatter, thinner, pointier. I thought I could have any nose in the world and that it would change my look completely. Not that I was so bad. I was blessed with my mother’s clear olive skin and blue eyes, and her pale, full lips which always looked thirsty. The main problem was my father’s big nose, slapped in the middle of everything.
“A penny for your thoughts?” my mother said. I could feel my heart beating faster. It was hard to be so mean, but I pretended not to hear her.
She said, “Have you ever heard of the mother’s curse? Because I’m going to put it on you if you keep up this behavior, Meredith.”
I pictured Amy Sloane’s face. The nose of noses, kindest girl in the school, and the best singer. I had taken loads of pictures of her for the yearbook. Amy’s mother was dead, hit by a car the year before while aiding a stranded motorist. The tragedy gave her a certain glamour, I thought. She had palpable pain and people ached to reach out to her with their sympathy. Everyone felt sorry for Amy. Something BIG had happened to her. “When I was thirteen,” she’d still be saying when she was old, “I lost my mother.” It would always be a conversation stopper, maybe the most interesting thing that would ever happen to her. When my mother heard the news, her only comment was, “All good deeds will be punished.”
“The mother’s curse, for Meredith Jessica Herman: I hope someday, my daughter, that you have children, and that they grow up to be just like you.” My mother’s mouth was pursed in a sarcastic little smile.
“Ha! That’s a curse? It sounds more like a beautiful blessing to me, so thank you very much.”
I had spoken. She’d won her little war and she knew it. Then Peter screamed and pointed at the track. Number seventy-three slid hard into the barrier, buckling like an empty pop can.
my father put a giant piece of steak in his mouth. “So much for my professional racing career.” Then he whipped his head back to clear the hair from his eye. His foot had gotten stuck under the brake pedal and he couldn’t wedge it loose before crashing. The entire incident exhilarated him. He drank a bottle of red wine with his steak and was more talkative than I had ever seen him. “At least I remembered to take these off the wheel before impact.” He lifted his hands. “See? No broken wrists.”
My mother played with her celery stalk. She was having Bloody Marys for dinner. We got to order whatever we wanted, no questions asked, on account of my father’s brush with death. I got a fancy shrimp cocktail and garlic toast, and a hot fudge sundae for dessert. Peter had a plate of fries, a plate of onion rings, and unlimited Cokes. “We’re celebrating,” I told the waitress, because she didn’t seem to like us very much. In a circular booth at the hotel restaurant, the four of us sat curled in like fingers of a hand. My father had emerged from the wreckage unscratched and I told myself we were special, a great family. Only my mother was sad. She fiddled with her straw and stared at the three of us as if we were strangers in a dream she was having.
Now, of course, I can imagine what was going through her mind. A theory was being hatched -- one she’d grow increasingly determined to prove come summer—that my father no longer loved her. The fact that he preferred death in a racecar to another bland day of their marriage was her evidence. Or maybe she no longer loved him. Maybe she sat listening to the loving details of his impact and was stung by the realization that she didn’t care whether he lived or died. All I know is, my parents sat side by side without being necessary to each other anymore. Not that I understood any of this at the time -- least of all why, the very next morning, she did what she did.
My father was suited up again, strapped inside of a brand-new car. The exuberance of the previous night had worn off and there was only apprehension among us, stunned disbelief to find ourselves back at the track. “What about his feet?” Peter said. “I thought they were too big.”
“Come on,” said my mother, walking away.
I didn’t argue, for a change. I grabbed Peter’s hand and the three of us headed back to the hotel. When we reached the dark hall in front of our rooms she told us to go in and pack everything up.
“What about Dad?” I protested.
“He’ll find his way home.” She didn’t look at me. “Peter? I don’t want you to worry about Daddy. Daddy’s a grown-up. He’s a good driver. He’ll be fine. We’re going to go home and wait for him there, okay?”
Peter nodded slowly. He felt the need to put his trust in someone just then, and my mother’s timing was perfect.
Back in our room, I put out the do not disturb sign and threw myself on the bed. My mother’s curveballs were a standard part of every vacation. Normally she refused to go out to dinner with us, or pretended not to know us. Already she’d threatened to run away with a strange man just to prove that she could.
“What are you doing?” I saw Peter emptying a drawer. He carried an armful of clothing to the bed, then looked at me.
I went into the bathroom and attempted to trick the mirror into showing me my profile. My hope was to turn my head quickly and catch the earlier side view still there in the glass. I knew how reflections worked, of course, knew all I needed was a second, handheld, mirror to easily look at my profile, but I actually believed the laws of nature might bend for me one day like they did for people on The Twilight Zone. My father’s nose stared back at me, head-on.
“Stop looking at yourself and pack.” Peter stood watching, so I lifted my toothbrush from the holder and dropped it into the wastebasket, followed by my comb, a barrette, and my wet bathing suit, just to see what he’d do. Then I picked up the wastebasket and walked past him, saying, “I think I’ll take this home as my new carryall.”
He followed me back into the room. “You can’t do that. Mom’ll get in trouble.”
“No she won’t.” I pulled it away from his outstretched arm. It was too easy to get Peter worked up, but I felt like arguing and he was the only one there. When the phone rang a moment later, I dived for it to warn my father of our impending departure, but it was her. She was on the other side of the wall, and I thought I could hear her distantly and close up at the same time.
“You kids almost ready?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“What’s your brother doing? Is he packing?”
“Good. Hurry up, both of you. I’ll be over in one minute.” I didn’t really think she was serious. I figured we’d make it as far as the car before she called the whole thing off.
“One minute,” I told Peter. He started moving twice as fast. He knelt on the floor and checked under both beds, then he was at the dresser, banging every empty drawer. Finally he noticed I wasn’t moving.
“You better start packing.”
She knocked on our door, two bumps with the side of her fist. Peter picked up his suitcase and let her in.
“Got everything?” she said.
I was still standing in the middle of the room, holding the wastebasket of stuff. She moaned. “What is taking you so long, Meredith?” That’s when I told her I wasn’t going.
Peter let out a cry of frustration.
“Fine, then. Bye-bye.” She continued looking at me another second or two, then turned her attention to my brother, as though I no longer existed.
As their footsteps faded on the carpet I expected a feeling to grab hold of me, telling me to run after them, but it never came. None of it seemed real. Eventually, the maid rolled her cart in front of the door and looked at the wastebasket in my hand. I smiled -- her presence signaled a spell-breaking return to order -- and requested she come back later.
Over the years I have wondered about this day again and again. Could I have done more? I know I considered rushing back to the track like it was a major emergency, but the thought of my father’s worried face as he ripped off his helmet and saw me standing alone, waving my arms at him, stopped me. I feared he’d get back in the car after hearing the news. Perhaps he would have come back to the hotel with me and rubbed his face all day until he decided what to do. Mostly, though, I wanted to outsmart my mother. I remember trying to determine what she expected of me so I could do just the opposite. In the end what I did was this: I got back in my nightgown, pulled out my magazines, and turned on the TV. Sooner or later, I decided, my father would come to me. I turned the pages and changed the channels, and the burden of responsibility became a speck floating somewhere far behind my eyes. It dulled the sharpness of the world, but only slightly.
At noon the phone rang seven times, then stopped. I wrapped one arm around my waist and pulled the pillow to my face with the other. Reese wanted me, bad. We rolled around the bed, our lips pressed tight. He pinned me beneath him. “If you ever leave,” he said, “I’ll come after you. I’ll bring you back, and my men will watch you night and day.” I bunched up my nightgown and rolled onto my stomach, rubbing against the material until the familiar shock waves of pleasure carried me high above the roof of this world. When I woke up, it was almost two.
I had an idea about divorce, that kids had to go to court and say on the stand who they wanted to live with. In my case, the decision came down to fun (my dad), versus duty (my mom), but more than anything I saw my father, sad and alone if they divorced, and Peter and me forgotten in the gulf between them.
The hotel room was oppressive. I was sick of old movies, so I took my swimsuit out of the wastebasket and slid it, cold and damp, over my warm skin. Posing like a model in front of the mirror, I realized I was quite hungry. When the phone rang again, I picked it up and lied to my father, saying we were all down at the pool.
“I just came in to use the bathroom,” I said.
He had eaten lunch with the group and was about to start the afternoon session.
“What time are you coming back to the hotel?” I said.
“I want all of you to come to the track at four-thirty. We’re putting on a demonstration, then there’s a little party for the graduates. Tell your mom it will be fun.”
“Bye-bye, sweetie.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Carousel of Progress by Katherine Tanney. Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Tanney. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.