61: The Thank-You

61: The Thank-You

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

The Thank-You

“Thank you” is the best prayer that anyone could say.

~Alice Walker

The cars were packed and ready to hit the road, a mini motorcade of two. My brother Douglas and I, ages nine and eight respectively, sat in the front seat of our old blue Cadillac next to my father, who was behind the wheel. My mother Laurie was driving the second car, a shiny green Buick my parents had picked up at the car rental place the day before. The driver’s seat was the only spot other than the floor that wasn’t piled high with our belongings. Even my mother likened it to the Beverly Hillbillies’ overstuffed jalopy; that’s how jam-packed it was.

“You look like Granny Clampett, Mom,” Douglas and I both said, each trying to outshout the other. But with her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, our mother bore a closer resemblance to Audrey Hepburn.

Every June, it was the same routine as my family left town to spend summer at the beach. My mother claimed she knew the way, but insisted on following behind us anyhow. “Just in case,” she’d say, making us laugh. Her poor sense of direction was a family joke we never got tired of.

It was 1963. My grandfather, Julius, had been killed in a car accident six months earlier. All of us missed him, but my mother had been devastated. She was an only child, and she continued to feel his absence like an open wound. Sometimes, her eyes were red-rimmed from crying.

The night before we left for the beach, my mother had an unusual dream, unlike any she’d ever experienced. In it, she was driving a car while her father sat beside her in the passenger seat. According to what she told me later, he was facing forward, but his eyes were closed. The sight of his familiar profile held her gaze like a magnet as she stared at the hawk-like nose, the graying hair, and the smile lines etched into his left cheek.

Breaking the silence, Julius said, “Always be certain you can see out of the rear right side of the car.”

When my mother tried to respond, she found she couldn’t speak or even move. It was as if her mouth was sealed shut and her hands glued to the steering wheel. There was nothing she could do but stare mutely at her father as he repeated, “Laurie, make sure you can see out of the rear right side of the car.”

Abruptly, she awakened. Trembling, she turned toward my sleeping father, grabbed his shoulder, and started talking rapidly, her voice shaking as she described the vivid dream.

“It’s your grief talking,” my father mumbled once she’d finished. He didn’t believe in visions or spirits. “It’s just a dream; you can’t take it seriously.” Not unkindly, he added, “Go to sleep.”

She didn’t think she could, not while the dream kept replaying in her head. Eventually, her eyes did close, and she drifted off. When the alarm clock jolted her awake several hours later, she jumped out of bed, thinking only of the long drive ahead. In the hectic glare of daylight, she never once thought of the dream.

By 10:00 a.m., both cars were breezing along the highway in the fast lane. Leaving the city had been the hard part. In order to keep other cars from getting between hers and the Cadillac, my mother drove as aggressively as a New York City cabdriver. Once that was over, she felt the tension leave her shoulders, and she reached out to turn on the radio.

She was humming along with the music when the dream came rushing back to her. Fear and adrenaline shot through her body as her father’s words lodged in her brain. She didn’t need to swivel her head around to know that the rear right window, as well as the one on the passenger side, was blocked, making it impossible to see what was happening behind her on the right side.

Holding the steering wheel with her left hand, she kept her eyes fixed on the road, and her foot pressed down on the gas pedal. Swinging her right arm over the seat back, she reached for the tightly packed mountain in the rear of the car, but it was too far away. Again and again, she stretched out her arm as her right hand clawed at the air. A burning pain had started in her shoulder. Ignoring it, she forced her body higher in the seat to gain leverage before arching her back and propelling her arm into a deeper sweeping motion. That’s when her frantic fingers grasped the sleeve of a jacket and, with one desperate tug, sent an avalanche of boxes, toys, and bags tumbling to the floor. The flash of sunlight shooting through a porthole-sized opening in the rear right window was good enough for her. She sighed with relief and pulled back her arm.

Moments later, as the car started wobbling like a vibrating drill, my mother leaned forward to glance through the window. She expected the road to be unpaved and gravelly. Instead, it looked perfectly level, even as the jerking and swaying intensified. Up ahead, the Cadillac was driving smoothly while the Buick had become a bucking bronco.

She gripped the wheel tightly but she was barely managing to stay in her lane. Unable to see if a car was directly next to her on the right, she increased pressure on the gas and sped ahead. Then, clicking on the right turn indicator, her eyes and head began shooting backward and forward, continually checking and rechecking the limited view through the rear right window as she maneuvered across lanes of fast moving traffic.

She didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until she careened onto the far right shoulder of the road and skidded to a stop. Exhaling loudly, she put the gearshift in Park and removed the key from the ignition. Grabbing her purse, she pushed open the door and ran to a clump of trees fifteen feet away. From there, she inspected the car’s exterior.

By the time, my father had doubled back with his two dumbstruck passengers to join my mother, she was leaning against the Buick and smiling. I remember thinking how cool and glamorous she looked in her oversized sunglasses, even as my father rushed from the car and grabbed her in a desperate hug, nearly sending the glasses flying from her face. He kept his arm around her as the two of them walked toward the passenger side of the Cadillac.

Douglas and I stared in disbelief at the mangled lump of shriveled black rubber encircling the silver rim. It was all that remained of the rear right tire.

Soon, we were back on the highway, heading toward the first exit and the nearest gas station. Unlike my brother, I wasn’t asking about tire jacks or tow trucks, although I did have a question. All four of us were crammed into the front seat. Douglas was by the window, while I sat squished between him and my mother. Tilting my head upward, I whispered in her ear, “Mom, why did Dad say, ‘Thank you, Julius’?”

~Hanna Kelly

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