Now they were riding in the Buick station wagon, the sun-roof giving them a view of the wide sky, the father driving. The baby rode between him and the mother. The two girls rode in the back seat; the two boys rode way in the back in the seat that faced backwards. The Buick towed a camping trailer which opened into a tent that slept four. The trailer was packed with gear.
The oldest daughter wove a cat’s cradle. “This looks like a pair of birds,” she said, “and this looks like trolley tracks. This one is skis.”
The younger daughter thumped her head softly against the back of the seat, chanting, “A pair of birds, trolley tracks, skis.”
“Skis,” said the father, “what looks like skis?”
The oldest daughter said, “This,” and held her hands laced with string up to the rear view mirror.
“That doesn’t look like skis,” he said.
“It looks like skis to me.”
“It looks like skis to her,” the younger daughter chanted.
In the seat way in the back, the boys were checking license plates, writing down the colors for each state they saw: the shock of gold wheat on a white background for Kansas, “wild and wonderful” for West Virginia, and the blue keystone on gold for their home state Pennsylvania.
The trailer bumped along in front of them. They pressed their faces against the glass and blew up their cheeks at an old couple from Massachusetts who stuck out their tongues at the boys. The boys fell against the back of their seat squirming and giggling.
“That was blue and white.”
“No, it was green and white.”
“Mom! He needs glasses!”
“You’re the one who needs glasses, dufus.”
The mother said, “Settle down back there.”
The sky was darkening ahead of them. They were driving along a farmlands highway in Montana. They had been visiting the mother’s great aunt who was eighty-six and lived on a sugar beet ranch in a valley at the foot of the Big Snowy Mountains. She had lived there for sixty years, and the mother said her husband’s name was Harley and that he had taken her there on the first train out, and that Uncle Harley and Aunt Blanche had lived in a big farmhouse with authentic early American furniture like feather beds that you sank into so you could not see over the sides. When the house caught fire, the bucket brigade lined up outside and finally let the house burn to the ground because the water was scarce then, so Aunt Blanche and Uncle Harley lost their house. After they built a new house, Uncle Harley died. Now Aunt Blanche lived alone in the house, and the hired hand lived in a shack out back.
The hired hand had shown the children the new baby pigs and a foal. Aunt Blanche had given them lunch under the trees in the garden where her roses grew to six inches in diameter, and she had shown them the crisp sweet peas that they could eat right off the vine in her truck garden. Everyone crowded together at the window of her kitchen to view the high blue mountain peaks in the distance reaching into white clouds.
The mother had been to visit Aunt Blanche as a child when she rode with her parents and her grandmother through the twisting mountain roads. When they passed through the steep places where they could look to the right and peer down into the sheer drop of a cliff, her grandmother would say, “Everybody lean!” and push to the left. Now the children called, “Lean!” themselves in the high places, and squirmed and giggled back into their seats.
Then the father would laugh. Sometimes, the father would get angry. He would glare at the mother and say, “Who in their right mind would take five children on a cross-country camping trip?”
The mother would say, “I think it’s fun.”
The father would say, “Well, it’s not.” One time he got so angry that he followed them into a truck stop where he pretended not to know them. He sat down by himself across the restaurant from them and ordered his food. The mother had to settle the five children by herself, and then they fought. At least he paid the bill.
He said afterwards, “Now you know how I feel.”
She said, “But at least we help each other.”
“That’s beside the point,” he said. “I’d rather take a couple of hotel rooms in Ocean City, and bring along a babysitter like we used to.”
“We only had two kids then,” she said. “Now we can’t afford it.”
“We can’t afford this,” he said. “We’re running out of money.”
Later, the mother whispered to the oldest daughter, “We’re running out of money.”
The daughter said, “What are we going to do?”
The mother said, “I don’t know.”
After that, the oldest daughter got carsick, and the father made her ride way in the back with a pillow where she could lie down by herself. But the back of the car bumped and wobbled, and she stayed sick.
The mother said, “You’re such a pill.”
Now the daughter leaned her head on the top of the backseat and watched the sky through the sun-roof. “Storm up ahead,” she said.
“Looks like a bad one,” the father said.
“We’ve been through storms before,” the mother said.
The father said, “Not like this one.”
“You worry too much,” the mother said. She was doing crossword puzzles. The baby was sleeping, leaning on her hip. The baby wore the same blue sweatshirt she called her “bye-bye” that she never allowed to be removed except for swimming and bathing. Even when it was eighty degrees in the mountains, when the sun was beating down high in the sky, the baby would scream if anybody tried to remove the “bye-bye.” The younger daughter would thump and chant, “Take off your bye-bye, byes are hot.” But the baby would hold onto the bright blue sweatshirt as if her life depended on it, and perspire into a heat rash. The father would order her to take off the bye-bye and then he would turn red with embarrassment. Then he would laugh, and everybody would sing, “Take off your bye-bye, bye-byes are hot,” including the baby, but she would not take it off.
The mother said, “What’s a four-letter word starting with Q?”
The father said, “Let’s not talk about four-letter words. Get the map out and see what the closest town is. We need gas, and there’s a bad storm coming whether you think so or not. Turn the radio on and see if you can get anything but static.”
The mother could only get static. She looked at the map, turning it around twice. “It looks like the nearest town is twenty miles,” she said.
The father pulled off to the side of the road. “Let me see the map,” he said. “No, the nearest town is Roundup, and it is forty miles southeast of here. Look for a station from Roundup on the radio. That must be where the storm is, and that is exactly where we are headed.”
The mother slowly adjusted the radio knob until she found a clear station, and they waited for the news. “Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think,” she said.
“Look up there. The sky is turning dismally black. We’ll be lucky if we make it out of here alive this time.”
“You are making a big deal out of nothing” the mother said. “Why can’t you just calm down and drive along?”
The two sons started to punch each other way in the back seat, “Mom! He’s hitting me!” cried the younger son.
“Mom, he broke the point off the pencil! He keeps pushing me when I’m trying to write. He’s a dufus, Mom!”
“Hand me the pencil. I’ll sharpen it. I have a pencil sharpener in my purse, right here. Now settle down, both of you. We’re driving into a big storm and your father needs peace and quiet to drive. He can’t drive with all this commotion.”
“But he hit me!” the younger son yelled.
“Shut up back there,” the father yelled, and the two sons dig their backs into the seat, and pinched each other silently and hard until the older daughter handed back the sharpened pencil and they resumed their license plate checking.
The younger daughter slept sprawled across the back seat. The older daughter sat stiffly watching the sky. The mother wrote on her crossword puzzle, and the baby slept leaning on her hip. The voice of the news announcer crackled through the radio.
“Do you hear that?” the father said. “It’s a hail storm. Do you hear that? The hail stones are six inches in diameter. He said it’s killing cows in the fields!”
The older boy called from the seat way in the back, “There’s something wrong with the trailer, Dad. It’s bumping harder on one side than the other.”
“It feels like a flat,” the father said, and the trees shook in the wind on either side of the highway, and the wind blew through the grass in the fields where the cows were loping toward the trees for shelter.
The rain splashed hard on the sun-roof. The younger daughter woke up. “I’m scared,” she said in a thin voice. She started thumping slowly against the back of the seat.
“It’s just a storm,” the mother said. “We’ve been through them before.”
“Not like this one,” the father said. “You better hold on for your life.”
The hailstones came down. They bounced across the windshield and the hood of the Buick. They bounced off the sun-roof and pounded on the top of the car and on the canvas top of the trailer. The father kept driving, crawling through the farmlands highway with both hands clenching the steering wheel. The mother sat quietly with the baby sleeping against her hip. The oldest daughter held tight to the door handle with one hand, and with the other hand, pushed hard against the ceiling of the car above her head. She watched the fields and the road while the younger daughter thumped against the back of the seat, chanting in a whisper, “Hailstones, hailstones, driving down the road.”
“How can you sing at a time like this?” the oldest daughter said.
The younger daughter answered, “What else is there to do?” But she sat still after that, and watched the hail pouring out of the sky like softballs that had gone crazy.
When the hail subsided, the clouds began to break. The silvery light of the late afternoon sun sparkled through the gray clouds, and the father pulled into a gas station. “I can’t believe the timing of this,” he said to the mother. “This is the awfulest thing I ever saw in my life.”
“This is making me sick,” the father said. “Take the kids across the road to that cafe. I’ll take care of the car. I’ll bet the rim on the wheel of the trailer is ruined. I don’t know where to get a new one. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
“Talk to the gas station attendant,” the mother said. “His face is in the window behind you.”
The father got out of the car, and the mother turned to the children. “Let’s go get something to eat at the cafe across the highway. When we cross, everybody look both ways. It’s only two lanes, but you’ve never been here before, so look for cars.”
The oldest daughter said, “I’m not a baby.” She said to the younger daughter, “Come on, let’s go,” and they climbed out of the car on either side, and started heading for the cafe while the mother put down the back window for the boys to jump out.
The baby said, “I want vanilla.”
While the rest of the family ate an early dinner, the gas station attendant told the father about the other cars getting smashed up in the storm. Other drivers came into the station with stories about stuffing pillows into their windshields to keep the glass out of their faces while they sat parked by the side of the road.
“I couldn’t stop driving,” the father said.
“You were damn’ lucky,” the gas station attendant said. He took the trailer wheel into the garage to pound it out. “I think I can seal this for you so’s you can drive on it to Roundup. You can buy a new wheel there. I’ll give you the name of a parts store. You’re damn’ lucky. You know that?”
“I do,” the father said.
The father sat in the car in the gas station waiting. The mother brought him a hamburger and a milkshake in a bag, and went back to the cafe. She told the children, “We were lucky because other people got their windshields smashed in the storm. They had to stuff pillows into their windows to keep from getting glass in their cars. One man your father talked to got a cut on his forehead. Their cars got banged up.”
“What happened to our car?” the younger daughter said.
“It looks like we got a dent in the hood. A pretty big one. And the canvas top of the trailer got a rip, but it’s small. There are a couple of dents in the top of the car, and since the trailer tire was flat, the wheel got bent up, but the gas station attendant can fix it so we can drive to Roundup, about seven miles. We’re going to stay in a motel tonight, one with a pool, and go swimming. We’ll go to bed early, and get a good breakfast tomorrow.”
“How can you think of swimming?” the oldest daughter said. “All I want to do is lie down.”
“You should go swimming,” the mother said. “It will make you feel better.”
“She’s a pill,” the older son said.
“Leave me alone,” she said.
Now they were holed up in the Buick, metallic blue with the sunlight reflecting orange in the west behind them, heading for a motel in Roundup. The oldest daughter was resting her head on the top of the back seat watching the sky through the sun-roof while the younger daughter thumped softly beside her. The two sons stretched out way in the back watching the sun going down. The father rode on the passenger side while the mother drove. The baby sucked her thumb between them.
When they found a motel with a pool, the mother pulled into the parking lot in front of the office. The father told her to get two rooms, one for the kids with a crib, and one for them.
“I don’t want to sleep with this dufus,” the older son said. “He stinks.”
“You’ll do as you’re told,” the father said. He was in no mood for shenanigans.
When the mother came back with the keys, she drove to their rooms. The father opened the door of the trailer to get the duffle bags of clothes that were stashed inside. He gave one to each child to carry.
“That’s not my bag,” the younger son said.
“Carry it anyway,” the father said, too tired.
The oldest daughter helped the younger children with their swimming suits, and put on her own, too. The whole family went swimming under the evening sky in the warm, clear air. When the dark came, and the lights failed to come on around the pool, they went to their rooms.
The mother helped the children into their pajamas while the father showered, and when she came to join him, the stars were bright, shining through the back window of their room. The parents stretched out on the bed side by side watching through the window as the face of the moon gleamed in at them.