Night Driving

There was a warm spot in the back of the bus that Chris, Jessie, and I used to take turns lying down on. The engine was in the way, way back, under my parents’ bed, and the floor under and around it would get warm when we drove and would vibrate pleasantly. My dad was the only one who drove the bus, so we would go sometimes for a few hours, then rest, then a few hours more, then more rest, and this schedule would find us sometimes on the road late at night. There was nothing better than throwing a blanket down on the patch of carpet next to the bed and curling up over the engine, nose to nose with Pups, who would often sleep under the bed and didn’t have to take turns with anyone. I would talk to him and canoodle with him and he would tolerate it for the most part, and then Chris or Jess would come nudge me to get out of the way and make room for them.

On the road, everything had to be battened down, tied up, or lashed in place. Even before there was an upstairs room, there was an upstairs, or an up-ladder at any rate, and the hatch that led to the deck would be tied down with thin leather straps near each corner. Same for the hatches over the kitchen. The cupboards also had leather straps that circled snake-like around the glass knobs, so the doors wouldn’t open and the cups and plates wouldn’t spill out in transit. The bookshelves had permanent encasements by way of long, narrow strips of wood, creating a lower lip that held the books in place. Of course things shifted. It was surprising rather, the things that didn’t move: my mom’s basket of trinkets and jewelry she kept over the closet, the found objects that lined the dash – stones, mummified lizard, driftwood, saguaro rib, arrowhead.

The bench seat in the kitchen had a small wooden table over it that would fold up, leaving room for Mike to sleep. Before bed though, driving in the dark, it was another coveted spot, leaning against the pantry wall and staring out the big windshield or side windows, curtains pulled to the side, watching the silhouetted landscape go by.

The kitchen – I’m sure we have “better” pictures of the kitchen, but they don’t have cowboys in them, now do they.  Chris – circa early 80’s judging by the baby gate.

I liked driving through towns and seeing the lights on in the houses and restaurants. This was before the country became one long string of nondescript strip malls, with a Starbucks at every third light and a Chipotle or a Chick-Fil-A skulking nearby. There were always the golden arches, but there were also Main Streets with every kind of mom and pop store, diners, etc., and then outside of town, the truck stops and filling stations that filched our allowances whenever we were in transit. If it was warm, we would lean our heads against the cooler glass of the window and let miles pass. If it was cooler, the bedroom was the coziest.

Jessie’s bed folded down above Mike’s, like bunks in a submarine. Chris’s folded down above mine in the living room in the same manner, at least for the first few years, before we moved the sofa to the other side of the room.

Living room – Mike, leaning against fold down bunk, Chris and friend playing in the background.

For the first year at least, my bed was a wooden door with a mat on it, and heaps of blankets. It took a while to make all the built-ins, and I never minded the makeshift nature of it. I had my own light and I would stay up reading as late as I could before Chris would start clearing his throat ostentatiously, in a passive-aggressive attempt to get me to shut out the light. I read Ramona a lot, because she was five and so was I, and though I didn’t always understand her actions, I understood her impulses. I puzzled over her desire to name her doll ‘Chevrolet,’ which I pronounced wrong in my head. “Oh, Chevrolo-laaaaay,” I remember thinking, when it finally clicked. “Like the car.” I felt foolish for not having put it all together earlier. When Chris’s phlegmy throat sounds became too gross for me to continue, I would turn out my light and pull my doll close, and curl up and sleep, enjoying the road sounds. It’s not the same as falling asleep in a car, though perhaps it isn’t all that different. The sounds big bus tires make as you drive along, when there’s little other traffic to confuse the melody, can be quite lovely. The engine wasn’t quiet, but it was deep and reassuring as it hummed along. Dad would have some music playing as he drove and it would drift in from the front of the bus and lull me further.

Eventually, Dad would find a place for us to park for the night. That was fun too. What would I see when I woke up in the morning? Beats me! Parking lot of a strip mall? Maybe. Open field next to a picnic table and a creepy old shack? Possibly. Campground with new kids to meet and play with? Not usually, but sometimes. The best was when we would roll into a new state and Dad would drive late into the night so we could wake up somewhere interesting. There was nothing like falling asleep along a plain stretch of highway, only to wake up to the sounds of the Pacific Ocean outside our door. Then we would tumble out of the bus, barefoot, our jeans rolled up to our knees, and rush toward the water, exhilarated. Mom would call us back after awhile for a breakfast of pancakes as she poured my dad a Melita of coffee, and he would sit in the driver’s seat of the bus, rolling a cigarette and watching the waves roll in.

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