By: Billy Minshall
You should never tell a lie. Except when you should.
“How could this have happened in the school parking lot? No one heard glass smashing?” my mother asked.
She surveyed my VW parked beneath our carport; the driver’s side window demolished. My mom, the spitting image of Sally Field in the film Norma Rae.
“I don’t know. I told you. I walked out to the car after school and there was glass everywhere. I left some loose change in the console so someone must have seen it and decided to break in. I mean, I don’t know what else to say.”
Her brow buckled. “But why would someone smash the driver’s side window of the car in broad daylight? If they were going to break in, why didn’t they use a coat hanger or something?”
“I don’t know, Mother. I’ve never broken into a car before. Maybe it’s because Volkswagens are airtight, and you can’t jimmy the lock with a hanger or a slim jim”
She considered me carefully, then the car, then me once more.
“Well, I’ll report it to the insurance company.”
My mom went inside to get ready for her part-time job at a local health food store. The door to our rented ramshackle house slammed behind her. We’d been through a lot in the past year and a half. My stepdad, Russ, was a truck driver who filed for divorce after meeting the “love of his life” in Tennessee. My mother picked up a second job to make ends meet, and now she was rarely home and hardly ever slept. She was exhausted.
Mrs. Seagull was my high school drama teacher. She smelled like incense and frequently reminded us that she and her husband, Bob, met at Woodstock. He was a theatre professor at the university. He also hosted Kaleidoscope, a local talk show that was televised live every weekday morning from the Towne East Shopping Mall.
One day Mrs. Seagull invited Bob to our class. He told us that a Japanese company was coming to town to film a commercial and they needed extras, all-American types. The producers were holding a “look-see” at the university on Wednesday at one o’clock. Since I believed myself to be the epitome of all-American, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. Mrs. Seagull said it would be excellent experience.
“You’ll need permission to get out of school for the audition. Do you think your mom will be okay with that? I’m happy to talk to her if she has any questions,” she said.
“I’m sure my mom will say yes,” I said.
Another giant lie. My mother couldn’t stand Mr. and Mrs. Seagull. When I told her that they met at Woodstock, she rolled her eyes. “So, what? Half a million people were at Woodstock. Who cares?”
Obviously, my mom had no clue how awesome this was.
“Well, I think it’s amazing,” I said.
“Honey, do you even know what Woodstock was?”
“Um, yeah, I’ve seen the album cover. It was about peace and love.”
“It was about doing drugs in the mud. Mrs. Seagull’s probably still on drugs.”
My mom had other issues with Mrs. Seagull, like her East Coast dialect (“It sounds fake”) and her vegan lifestyle (“What does that mean?”). It didn’t help when my mom discovered that Seagull was not their real last name.
Months earlier we’d studied Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Near the end of the play, the character Nina blurts out, “I’m a seagull.” While reading this aloud, my sandalwood-soaked drama teacher burst into tears.
“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Seagull said in her faint, East Coast accent. “I think it’s best if I just share with you why I’m crying, rather than pretend I’m not upset.”
She confessed that decades earlier while honeymooning in Cape Cod, she and her husband accidentally hit a seagull with their Dodge Dart. The bird got tangled beneath the car and was mutilated. The newlyweds were devastated, so shaken that they legally changed their last name to Seagull. It was their attempt at reparation for taking a life from the Universe. I thought this was the most beautiful gesture ever. When I shared the story with my mother, her irritation turned to rage. She spoke in tongues. She levitated.
There was no way I would be allowed to leave school to attend an audition sanctioned by the Seagulls, so I decided to leave my mother out of it. I wrote a fake note with a forged signature and excused myself from class.
My handsome friend, Hector, and I left school around lunchtime and went to the audition together. I drove my 1973 white Volkswagen beetle out of the school parking lot to the nearby university campus. We could see the road through the rusted floorboards of my dilapidated car, which had belonged to my mom before she bought her Buick. Since it was just the two of us after my stepdad left, it was a pretty big deal that my mom could afford both cars. In fact, she’d saved up for months to make that happen. And I couldn’t have been more grateful—I loved that car. The seat fabric in the VW was a product of its time, with brilliant psychedelic blue-green waves that appeared to be hand painted within the confines of their black leather borders. I didn’t care that the driver’s side seat was torn to bits and chunks of yellow foam puked from the seat’s guts, littering the floorboard, falling through the cracks
Hector and I stopped for a hamburger across the street from the university. We sat in a sun-soaked booth that looked out at the university lawn, bathing in our freedom and talking about the audition, speculating if appearing in an international commercial might make us famous. When we returned to the car, I reached into my front right pocket for the keys, but they were not there. I searched my back pockets. Nothing. Through the shut driver’s side window, I saw my shiny keys glistening. They dangled from the ignition and smiled in the noontime sun shower.
Hector jerked at the passenger door, “What, dude? We’re gonna be late!”
“Look,” I said.
Hector peered into the car. “You’re kidding.”
Tears flooded my eyes. I was embarrassed that I’d made this mistake in front of my handsome friend.
“Well call your mom. I think I have a quarter for the pay phone,” Hector said, digging into his front pockets for change.
“I can’t call her. I’m not even supposed to be here,” I said.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
“I guess we have to break in. The thing is though, Volkswagen Bugs are airtight,” I said.
“Is that really true?”
“I think so.” I was flustered. “Don’t you remember The Love Bug? When Stefanie Powers drives Herbie into the Bay and they float? It’s because Bugs are airtight.”
“Why do you remember that? Plus, your floor is so rusted out there’s no way that thing is airtight anymore.” Hector laughed. I didn’t find any of this funny.
“Don’t you know how to break into a car?” I was desperate.
“What, because I’m Mexican?”
“Because you work at a garage.”
“Let me go see if they have anything I can use to jimmy the door open.” Hector returned to the restaurant.
I waited in the parking lot, pacing and plotting. I pressed my face against the smudged glass and saw Hector at the counter talking to the cashier. He looked at me from the other side of the glass, another dimension, and shrugged, defeated. This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t call my mom. What would I tell her? I wasn’t allowed to leave school for any reason without her permission, not even for lunch. The audition was in ten minutes and I was not about to forfeit my chances at international recognition. I scanned the parking lot and spotted a rugged-looking middle aged guy in flannel heading to nearby Bronco.
“Excuse me, sir? Do you have a hammer?”
We arrived on time and were instructed to have a seat in a very fancy waiting room. They called me in and the door opened. Three Japanese men sat behind a mahogany desk.
“You like Hard Rock Café in Orlando?” one of them asked. He had a Polaroid camera.
I glanced down at my T-shirt. I hadn’t known what to wear, what “all-American” looked like. Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts were all the rage at the time and made me seem well traveled. Orlando, though not New York City or Los Angeles, still revealed I’d been to Disney World. I bought the shirt when we had driven to Orlando on a whim the previous summer. Our drive was long and hot and my mom tried to make me laugh, singing along to Johnny Cash in her new used Buick, while I read a magazine article about ex-porn star Traci Lords.
“Austin, what are you reading?” my mom asked. She was irritated that I wasn’t singing with her, so she snatched the magazine out of my hands.
“Mother! What are you doing?”
“Oh, whatever,” she looked down at the magazine and read the title of the article aloud: ‘Nobody Loved Me.’ Oh, brother. That’s why she became a porn star? Because nobody loved her? Give me a break.” My mother rolled her eyes, then laughed, then tossed the magazine out the window.
“Honey, lighten up. We’re going to Florida.”
“You’re going to get a ticket for littering.”
I stared out of the passenger window for the rest of the drive.
“I just have the shirt,” I told the man behind the table.
“Smile.” A Polaroid camera flashed. I said goodbye, left the room, and Hector went in. He emerged minutes later, his head held high. We got into the VW and went to a gas station, where the two of us tried desperately to vacuum the broken glass from the car seats before I took him home.
A week later, my mom received a phone call while I was at school. She told me that I had been selected as an extra in a commercial. Wiped out as usual, she scanned our freezer for something to eat. Finding nothing, she grabbed a Hostess apple pie off the top of the stove.
“When did you audition for a commercial?” She devoured the pie.
“They came to our drama class.”
“Why did they choose your drama class?”
“They wanted all-American types and Mr. Seagull is an acting teacher at the university”
“Of course this involves your hippie-dippy drama teacher.”
“You know what, never mind. Can’t you be excited for me that I was actually cast? This is a big deal.”
“All right, fine Austin. I don’t have time to argue with you. I will drive you there. They said they’re filming this weekend and they’re going to pay you seventy-five dollars for the day. I have to go now or I’m gonna be late for work.”
My mom threw the pie wrapper in the garbage and put on a green and tan apron that read Health Nutz.
“You don’t have to come with me,” I said.
“I’m going with you or you’re not going.”
“Because I don’t know who these people are and because you are sixteen and I am your mother. And because I said so.”
“I hate you sometimes.”
“Well I hate you too. What do you think about that? I guess we’ll just hate each other in the car.”
That Saturday we drove to a nearby farm to film the commercial. Wardrobe provided an ill-fitted Wrangler shirt and a cowboy hat that was too small for my head, and the director paired me with a young woman in a pink gingham dress. We linked arms because we were told to and hung out by a picnic table, then spent the rest of the day walking back and forth behind the star of the commercial, take after take. We were told that this guy was a big star in Japan. He stood five feet from me, holding the product: a yellow snack that was shaped like a tornado. The star was handsome and he smiled a lot. The director encouraged him to make silly faces because, apparently, he was funny.
After walking behind the Japanese heartthrob for eight hours, I was sunburned. I lined up with the other extras to collect my pay for the day. Ten minutes later, I reached the front of the line where a man in the back of a U-Haul truck handed out the day’s wages. He gave me three twenties, a ten and a five, stapled together. I grabbed it from him and that was that. My sun-scorched face ached from a day of incessant smiling and nodding. I spotted my mother’s Buick in the parking lot nearby.
“Well, how was it?” my mother asked.
“You know it sucked.”
“Why would I know that? I’m just asking a question.”
“It was fine, Mom. Okay?”
“Okay,” she looked at me and touched my cheek. “Wow, honey, you’re really burned. We’ll get you some aloe when we get home.”
I jerked away from her. “I’m fine. That stuff doesn’t work anyway.”
“Ok. Would you like to drive?”
“Fine Austin. Just sit there and be miserable.”
We drove home in silence.
The summer before, after Russ left and before we went to Florida, my mother made time to give me driving lessons. Our house was adjacent to a swath of vacated warehouses that were surrounded by empty streets. With no traffic to disturb us, Mom repeatedly demonstrated how to drive a standard transmission.
“You have to release the clutch like this.” She raised her left foot.
I zoned out, stifled by the summer heat and annoyed by the sound of her voice.
“Are you watching, Austin? Come on, pay attention.”
“I am. God.”
“Look bud, this is no picnic for me either. You have to learn to drive. Now come on, you try it.”
I tried to drive that stupid car, but I couldn’t. It stalled every time I released the clutch. Laughter was my mother’s default response to stress. When she laughed at me that day, I jumped out of the car and stormed up to the passenger side.
“You know, I understand why Russ left you.”
There it was.
Her eyes flickered. My mom stepped out of the car; a gust of wind cut through the suffocating morning.
“And why is that, Austin?”
“Never mind.” I turned and walked away.
“No,” she grabbed my left shoulder and jerked me back toward her. “If you’re so smart then say what you need to say. Right now.”
“You scoff at everything. You think you’re better than everyone.”
“Don’t talk like that to me. I am your mother.”
“Yes, and I am your son. That is my job isn’t it? You have two jobs to keep us fed and my job is to keep you entertained,” I said.
“Oh, give me a break. You know how many kids your age wish that they had a car? We can’t afford anything and you have your own car. Yeah, I’m just a horrible mother.”
“You can’t talk about anything without tearing it down.” I couldn’t stop. “Jesus, not everything in the world is stupid and not every person who is different from you is bad. You’re so judgmental.”
She laughed again. “Go run around the block and get rid of your frustration. Blood-pressure head.”
I stormed off. I could hear her calling after me. My ears were hot. I wanted to run, I wanted to leave, I wanted to burn everything to the ground, I wanted to leave my body. I wanted to die, but really, I wanted my mother dead. She got us into mess after mess. Three marriages and we always ended up broke and exhausted, searching for a way out, for a solution. The tears came, but there was no way I’d let her see me cry. I wiped my face and looked back toward the car. There she was—Sally Field smoking a Kool—standing next to the driver’s side of my car with the door open, blowing her cigarette smoke over the roof of the dilapidated VW.
Not long after that, I finally learned to drive.
Monday in Mrs. Seagull’s class everyone wanted to know how the commercial shoot went.
“What was it like filming the commercial?” Hector asked. He hadn’t been cast.
“You didn’t miss anything. It was actually kind of boring,” I said.
Mrs. Seagull nodded in agreement. “Yes, it’s true. Film work can be so tedious. Very different from the stage. Are they going to send you a tape of the commercial?”
“I didn’t ask.” It hadn’t occurred to me.
“Who knows? You could be big in Japan.” Hector laughed.
My mom and I lived in an area known as Planeview, a so-called “instant city” that had been constructed during World War II. Planeview was meant to be temporary housing for workers at the aircraft plant. It was designed to be demolished. Now, half a century later, the sun descended on rows of blue-green shacks that were never meant to last.
I pulled the VW into our gravel driveway, got out, and shut my door. I looked at my driver’s side window, which my mom had repaired just two days after I had smashed it. Good as new, like it had never happened. I walked in and my mother was watching Designing Women. I sat down next to her on the couch. After a moment, Delta Burke delivered a zinger and we both laughed out loud.
“Hey, thanks for getting the car window fixed.” I meant it.
My mom was quiet. She reached for a Kool and lit it. “You’re welcome. Insurance paid for it so that’s good.”
Another silence. Dixie Carter ranted on the television.
“You know I can get a job too,” I said.
Then she smiled. No one smiled the way my mother did, not ever in the history of time. Inextinguishable light.
“It’s okay sweetheart. We’re gonna be all right. You focus on school. I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out. Okay?” She took hold of my hand.
“Okay.” I smiled back. Then I said, “I don’t hate you.”
“I don’t hate you either.”
My mom put out her cigarette, went into the kitchen, took a pair of scissors out of the junk drawer then snipped a leaf from the aloe plant on the windowsill. She knelt down in front of me and extracted the clear and cool salve from the leaf and onto the tip of her right index finger.
“Look up sweetheart,” she said.
My mother applied the elixir carefully, cradling my face with her left hand and dabbing my blistered ears and sunburnt cheeks. She coaxed the leaf once more.
“Close your eyes.”
Cool relief beneath my eyes and gentle pressure on my eyelids.
Now the healing could begin.
Billy Minshall is a writer and actor whose weekly column “Hunt & Peck” appeared in Gay Chicago Magazine. His essay “Chrysalis” chronicled his work as a health educator in Chicago’s Cook County Jail and was published in Positively Aware Magazine. Billy earned his undergraduate degree in English from Northwestern University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR Palm Desert. He lives in Long Beach, California, and is working on a novel.