My Mother in the Car
by Claudia Smith
We'd owned the Ford Explorer for three
months before I discovered it was inhabited by my
mother's spirit. I won't waste your time going into
too much detail over the initial discovery, the fear
that I was losing my mind. I was the sane one, the
only daughter born to an unwed teenage mother, the
calm in the storm. Impossible that I could be going
crazy, I decided. I still haven't told anyone about
Mom in the car.
"What kind of a name is Humphrey,
anyway?" Mom asks after I drop Humphrey off at
work. Humphrey is my husband. "Nobody that young
should be called Humphrey. The name suits him, though.
He's a seventy two year old man trapped in a thirty
two year old body."
"Don't start," I tell her.
Why does she have to pick on him? When I picture her
husband, his rat colored hair pulled back into that
skinny ponytail, his ferret eyes - it makes me sick
to my stomach to remember. His knuckles were thick
and hairy. I don't know how she could stand those
fingers caressing her flesh.
"You could do better, sweetheart,"
"Mom, could you wait until I get
to my exit? I am trying to concentrate here. I'm on
the freeway, for God's sake." She scolded me
yesterday for talking on my cell phone, but she doesn't
see anything wrong with harping at me when I'm driving.
The truth is, I love it that she's with
me. We were not that close before she showed up here
in the car. In fact, she didn't speak to me for almost
five years. She cut off from me my junior year of
college. She feels bad about that, I know. But it
annoys me when she criticizes Humphrey. He was there
for me my junior year, when I had salmonella after
eating bad chicken, and he helped put me through my
senior year of college. She didn't even send me a
lousy Hallmark card for my graduation. Where was she?
Off screwing around with my sleazy ex-stepfather Jasper.
Humphrey and I have had our problems, but he's my
family. I can live without my Mom's spirit, but I
don't know how I'd get by without Hump.
"Such a repulsive nickname,"
she tells me.
"What, are you reading my thoughts
"I'm your mother. I know what you're
thinking," she says. The voice that inhabits
the Explorer is a voice from my early childhood, the
voice of her youth. Before it rasped from years of
chain smoking, my mother had a voice like hot caramel.
Many people thought it was her loveliest quality.
"No, you are reading my thoughts
again. And that's not nice. And if you want to talk
about names, well, labeling your daughter Leonie.
After all, I spent my first three years of life in
a trailer park outside of Hondo. You should talk,
"What does that have to do with
anything? What's wrong with your name, Leonie?"
"Don't you think it's a bit extravagant?"
"It's one of the best gifts I gave
you. That and your college education."
The truth is, my mother did help me
out when I went to college. But I paid my rent, I
got a scholarship, and I worked my butt off to pay
what tuition I could. She gave me no help at all my
senior year. But to hear her talk, you'd think she
gave up one of her kidneys to send me to school.
I was so excited when we bought the
Explorer. It's the first new car I've ever owned.
Humphrey asked me to pick the color and I chose candy
apple red. The first time I heard Mom's voice I was
taking it for a drive out to the Llano, just for the
pleasure of driving it. I had the windows rolled down
and my favorite Cyndi Lauper CD blasting. I took a
deep breath and inhaled the new car scent. Do you
want to know what she said to me?
"Really, Leonie. An SUV? Didn't
I raise you better than that? I taught you to care
more for other's safety, for the environment, didn't
She's such a killjoy. I was feeling
so good, so in the moment, so positively in love with
my life. My long hair whipped in the wind. Outside
my window, the wildflowers were blooming. It was spring.
I was wearing a brand new lipstick, Big Apple Red,
a red that matched my new car and the Indian Paintbrush
that dotted the landscape. And then she has to go
and say a thing like that. While I'm driving about
eighty five miles an hour. I nearly ran off the road,
I was so startled.
Today I have a list of errands to run,
so Mom and I will be spending quite a bit of time
"I'll be back in a couple of hours,"
I tell her.
"Don't watch too much junk television,"
"I'm going to have some coffee
and a bran muffin. And then read some Texas Monthly,"
"I know what you're up to,"
she says. She's not ready to let me go yet. When I
turn off the ignition she starts the car right up
"Mom," I sigh.
"I'll tell you what. These are
the first signs of depression. Believe me, hon, I
know. You've been spending your days watching cheap
talk shows and the soaps. Why don't you call about
that job you want to apply for?"
"First of all, the economy sucks
right now. So I doubt I'll even make the interview.
And I'm not qualified." Sometimes I can't believe
the way I talk to her now. When she was alive, I never
would have used the word sucks in a sentence during
one of our conversations. Maybe its the incredible
absurdity of the situation, but I talk to her with
the kind of abandon I use only when I'm having internal
monologues. I know that if I was faced with her physical
presence - her knowing eyes, her raised eyebrows,
that withering look she used to flash me - I would
never be so bold.
"You've had editorial experience."
"Mom, I was an editorial assistant
for the Chronicle. I typed obituaries, organized
newspapers, and fetched people their coffees. That
position you are talking about calls for five years
"You sell yourself short, Leonie,"
she says. But I've already turned off the ignition
and I'm not going to answer her this time.
She's right, of course. I've been feeling
low about a lot of things lately. Humphrey and I have
been trying to make a baby for three years. There's
a pregnancy test in the medicine cabinet waiting for
me. It's funny. Not that long ago, when I took those
things, my roommate Lisa and I would pace nervously
outside the bathroom, crossing our fingers and toes.
"Please be negative," Lisa would say, over
and over again. We'd stare at the urine soaked wand,
waiting for the pink lines to appear, and those few
moments seemed to last forever. Now, I take the test
alone, and every time I close my eyes, as if I'm closing
them against bright sunlight, and pray for a baby.
The test is waiting for me. Well, I
won't take it today. I'll wait and if my period doesn't
show up by tomorrow afternoon, I'll take it then.
Instead, I do a load of laundry. Humphrey's
shirts are almost all dirty, and he hates waking up
and finding that he doesn't have anything to wear
to work. He's a salesman, and he has to look well
groomed, that's part of the job. He's very careful
of his appearance. He was the first man I'd ever met
who actually had manicures done at the mall. Even
when his clothes are dirty, they just don't stink.
They smell warm and woodsy, of cologne and soap. I
have to be careful with his gold-toed socks. We've
had knock-down drawn-out fights over those socks.
I used to roll them up and that stretched them out.
They aren't cheap, those socks. That's one of the
difficult parts of our relationship. Humphrey is very
picky, and, frankly, much too critical sometimes.
I know that. I'm aware of that. We're working on it.
After a bowl of bran flakes, one morning
television show, and a big glass of juice, I brush
my teeth and then inspect my face in the mirror. I
try to see myself the way Humphrey sees me. I think
I look good. My hair is getting shaggy, but I like
the color - a warm brown streaked with cinnamon. I
added the highlights myself last year when I noticed
a few gray strands, and I've kept them up. I have
a good body, and I maintain it well. I jog about every
other morning. There is something faded about the
face, though - I'm not sure I recognize myself in
it the way I could a few years ago. That may sound
odd - what I mean to say is, there is some spirit
lost. The contours of my face are looser, the freckles
across the bridge of my nose are faded, and my eyes
are listless. I have my mother's eyes, more bronze
than brown. Tiger gold, Humphrey used to call them.
Your eyes slay me, Lay, he used to say.
Last night, when he came home, he just
walked upstairs without saying a word to me. I followed
him into the study and stood right in front of him
as he sat down at his computer.
"Aren't you going to say hello?"
I asked him.
"Hello," he said, staring
into the screen of his new laptop.
"I mean, I'm starting to feel invisible
here," I said to him. "Is something wrong?"
"Listen, Lay," he said, "I'm
tired, I just want to relax, don't take it personal,
okay?" It isn't as if he's calling me a lay.
He calls me that because it is the first syllable
of my name. But, the way he said it that once, you'd
think that's what he was calling me. He said all of
this without looking up from the computer. He was
playing some fantasy game.
"Okay. Just, you know, a hello
or something would be nice. A little 'Hi, Honey, I'm
home.' Or even a grunt of acknowledgement. Come down
when you've rescued the magic princess Galadriel or
whatever her name is from the dark castle. Or when
I have dinner ready. Whichever comes first."
I shouldn't hover. I shouldn't cling.
I should follow my mother's advice, I should wake
up early, go and get myself a good haircut at the
salon, buy myself an expensive tube of lip gloss,
and pound the pavement until I land a job that any
college graduate would be proud to have.
I haven't worked in a year and a half.
I quit working at the newspaper a few days after I
allowed myself to get so drunk at the weekly happy
hour gathering that I ended up puking a gallon of
margaritas, hurricanes, nachos and quesadillas into
my boss's lap. I ruined her chocolate brown Ann Taylor
pants. Enough said.
It was Humphrey who wanted to buy an
SUV. I wonder if my mother would have come back to
me had we chosen another car. Is she being punished
for her sins, was it Karma that stuffed her soul into
the kind of vehicle she abhorred? Or, is she simply
inhabiting the Explorer because it is mine?
"You're going out like that?"
my mother asks me as soon as I climb into the car.
"What? I'm just going to the grocery
"You could at least put on some
of that red lipstick you have in your purse. The terra
cotta shade? Orangey reds look best on you."
I ignore her advice. After I've pulled
out of the driveway, I go to use the lighter for my
cigarette and it won't work.
"Cut it out, Mom," I say.
"No, m'am. I certainly won't. I
will not support this filthy habit of yours. It's
what killed me, you know."
"What I do with my body is my own
business. Besides, I'm down to half a pack a day,"
I tell her. I go to switch on the left turn signal
and it won't work.
"What the hell, Mom? I need to
go to the store."
"Not yet. We're going somewhere
"You'd better give me directions,
"I'll take you there, sweetheart,"
she says, "you just let me do the driving."
It's funny. When she was alive, she
was a terrible driver. She could never concentrate
on the road, because she was always too busy gabbing.
Now, she has the uncanny ability to talk and maneuver
this monster of a vehicle through stormy weather or
noisy traffic. All I have to do is rest my hands on
the steering wheel and pretend to drive.
"I need to go to the store, Mom."
This is the first time she's highjacked me.
"You don't have to go this instant,"
she says,"I need to show you something. It has
to be now."
I give in to her. I lean back, unroll
the window, and close my eyes against the bright sunlight.
It is still spring, but I can feel the warmth of summer
creeping into the thick air.
"Don't worry, honey. Don't be nervous,"
she says. With my eyes closed, hearing her voice like
that, I can almost convince myself that she's here,
in the car, sitting next to me. She's inspecting herself
in the mirror under the passenger's sun visor, or
drumming her long fingernails against the dashboard.
"I'll bet you planned all of this,
didn't you?" I say, "It would be just like
you. Where did you get the idea from? Wacky grade
B movies? Herbie Goes Bananas? Or that show
you watched with me when I was a kid, because you
thought David Hasselhoff was so hot?"
"You're forgetting the best show
of them all," she says, "My Mother the
"I've heard of that. From what
I read, it was probably the worst show ever put on
"It wasn't," Mom says, "I
thought it was just so original. I watched it when
I was a girl. Do you know who created it? Allan Burns.
He went on to make the Mary Tyler Moore show."
"Sounds like you were quite a fan,"
I say. I open my eyes, stretch my arms a little. I
look out the window. Where is she taking me? It looks
as if we are going to pick up Humphrey.
"I was. I am. Do you know what
it was about?"
"Of course," I say, "some
old lady reincarnated as a car."
She goes on, "This lawyer, Dave,
buys an old jalopy who turns out to be Agnes Crabtree,
his mother. Agnes loved cars so much that she gets
reincarnated as a car to help Dave and his family.
But, just like Mr. Ed, the talking horse, she will
only speak to Davey when he is alone."
"Sounds familiar. How do we know
it all isn't in Davey's head?"
"You know you aren't imagining
this, Leonie, " she says. When I rest the palm
of my hand against the dashboard, I can feel the vibration
of her voice. It is almost like touching her.
"Remember how much you used to
love the Mr. Ed reruns when you were little?"
she says," I would watch them with you every
Saturday afternoon. You loved the theme song. 'A horse
is a horse, of course, of course'..."
I cut her off, "You know, I read
they trained that horse with shock treatments."
"I'm here to help you, honey,"
she says gently, "we're almost there."
She pulls into the parking lot of a
huge outdoor shopping mall.
"The Arboretum? Mom? You want me
to go shopping?"
She doesn't answer. She drives around
for awhile, and then parks right in front of the coffee
"Starbucks? You want me to get
coffee? Mom, you hate Starbucks."
She doesn't answer. The keys turn in
their slot, and the motor dies. I sit there, hands
on the wheel, waiting for her instructions. Then I
see why we are here.
There he is, my husband, sitting right
there in the Starbucks. He is gazing out the window,
looking winsome and handsome. There's a half-emptied
glass of some frothy coffee concoction in front of
him. I like seeing him this way, I like watching him
when he doesn't know he's being observed. It is similar
to watching him sleep. I love to watch him sleep,
it makes me feel as if I have a special window into
his dreams. He catches my eyes, and I feel a tingle
in my throat. He has such great eyes. They are a startling
shade of blue, the bright flame blue of a lit pilot.
When I met him I'd thought that he wore colored contacts.
That's how other worldly they are.
But it isn't me he sees. He is looking
at his reflection in the glass. He rubs his hands
over his chin, feeling for stubble. Then, he turns
A woman walks up to him, and he breaks
into a beautiful smile. She is slim, Asian, gorgeous.
She's wearing a long red skirt and a short-cropped
blouse that hugs her arms and small breasts. He stands,
and then puts his arms around her in an embrace. She
lifts herself up on tiptoe to reach his face, to press
it against her own. When she lifts her arms I see
a flash of her lovely abdomen. Her belly button sparkles
pink. She must be wearing a little pink rhinestone
I watch them for what feels like hours,
but it probably only lasts about ten minutes. Humphrey
is flushed, excited. When the woman leans over to
wipe some froth from his upper lip, I reach up and
touch my own lip, and feel a warm shiver rising throughout
my body. She is wearing half a dozen thin bracelets
on one arm; they glow against her skin. She leans
forward, and I imagine my husband's breath, warm and
thick between them. Their table is pushed right against
the window, and I can see everything. The woman slips
a foot out of her flip-flop and slides it up his pant
My mother backs out of the parking place.
"Why? Why did you show me that?"
I say in voice that is barely audible. She can read
my thoughts, anyway, I don't know why I even bother
to speak to her.
"I know. That must have been hard,"
This can't be real. I'm out of my mind.
"You can accept that your mother
is a car and yet you think that the possibility that
Humphrey is fucking this woman is insane?" she
"Get out of my head, Mom. Maybe
the fact that I think my mother is a talking car is
an indication that I am insane, and seeing Humphrey
with another woman is just one of my more plausible
My hands are shaking. I haven't cried
in years, and here it comes. I am gasping for air,
I can feel the tears stinging my face, taste their
"Why do you have to say he's fucking
her? Can't you think of a gentler way of putting it?"
"Well, you seem to feel the need
to use foul language with me. I don't see why I can't
call it as I see it," she says. She is speeding
down the highway. I take a deep breath. I can stop
crying if I concentrate on the road.
"Where the hell are you taking
me now? To see the ghost of Christmas future? What
other horrible sights do you have in store, Mother?"
"Shhh," she says, "just
cry, sweetheart. I'm taking you somewhere I know will
make you feel better."
"Why? Why did you show me that?"
I ask her again. The initial shock is wearing off
and now I feel rage. Not at my husband. At her.
"Leonie. Listen to me. You are
very smart, but your feelings lead your head sometimes.
You have to feel something, to understand it
on a visceral level, in order for it to sink in. You
would have found out, eventually. From some undeleted
email, or a credit card bill. But you would have ignored
Nice use of the word visceral, Mom.
"Thank you," she says, "I
may not be a college girl like you but I read."
"No, thank you," I say, "now
that you've helped me understand things on a visceral
level, you've completely eviscerated me."
"Oh, this is hilarious, isn't it
Mom? I'm glad you find this all so amusing."
"I can't help it. You're such a
clever girl sometimes," she says.
I want to get the hell away from her
but I don't want to go home. Besides, if I tried to
she'd probably lock the doors on me.
She turns on the radio. Willie Nelson
is singing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.
"I used to sing that to you,"
"I know," I say.
She drives us through 2222. Soon we
are in the hill country. Wildflower season is almost
over, but there are still a few stray bluebonnets.
I hang my head outside the window and let the wind
blow my hair back.
"Hey, are you nuts!" someone
in a banana yellow Beetle screams. She honks her horn.
I stick my head back in, place my hands
on the wheel, and pretend to drive. Once we pass Buchanan
Dam I know where she is taking me.
"I think I'm going to vomit,"
I tell her.
"Just close your eyes and listen
to the radio. We'll be there soon," she says.
I could swear, by her tone of voice, that she is cooing
to a baby.
When the car stops I open my eyes. We
are parked right in front of the Llano River, at the
old ranch where Jasper used to take us camping. She
unrolls all of the windows and I can hear the water
rushing. The river is shallow, now, clear and sparkling.
You can see straight through its little falls to the
pink granite riverbed.
"You loved coming here when you
were a little girl," she says.
"It's nice, Mom."
"Did you see the llanite along
the highway cut on Texas 16? I drove us through there."
"I wasn't paying attention. But
I remember it," I tell her. Llanite is a rare
type of brown granite with sky blue crystals and rusty
pink feldspar. It is found nowhere else in the world
but Llano County. When I was a child, I kept a gem
collection in a shadow box above my dresser. I loved
this area of the river, because of all that sparkling
granite. Jasper gave me a piece of llanite for my
collection. I still have it, tucked away somewhere
in a box in the storage shed at home.
The sky is on fire. Is it really so
late? The cicadas begin to sing.
"Is he in love with her?"
"Leonie," she says. She doesn't
"It's because she can give him
a baby," I whimper.
"Don't whine. It is very unbecoming,"
I wish I could see her face because
I swear if she was here in the flesh I would slap
her. Who is she to talk about what is becoming? It
wasn't becoming of her to fuck Jasper so loudly that
the neighbors had to complain about all the shrieking,
"I'm sorry," she says, "I
just don't think he's worthy of you. And that isn't
why. You know, deep down inside, that isn't the reason."
"This isn't the first time,"
I say, "and this isn't the first woman."
"You act like I am nothing more
than a baby making machine to him. But that's not
true. I want a baby, too."
"Like this? You're worth more than
that. He's a hollow man. With enough intelligence
to have an inkling of that fact. And he hates you
for being what he is not."
"You're too hard," I say,
"I love him. I love him." I'm crying again.
I want her to hold me and I want to slap her. I don't
know what I want.
"I'm never going to get pregnant,"
I know, now that I've said it out loud, that this
is probably true.
"Maybe not," she says, "maybe
not. But you don't have to get pregnant to be a mother."
"Humphrey wants his own flesh and
"Yes," she says, and she sounds
kinder, wiser, than she ever did in life, "I
was the same way. But your heart is bigger than that,
"Will he leave me? Will he leave
me for that woman?"
"That man is never going to leave
you. If anyone does the leaving, Leonie, it is going
to be you."
I lean forward and hug the steering
wheel. My legs are sticking to her vinyl seats. A
bug flies through one of the windows, buzzes around
my head, and then, eerily, is carried by a force other
than the wind and splatters against the windowpane.
"Did you do that?" I ask her.
"I didn't want you to get bitten.
You're allergic to wasps," she says.
"How do I know you aren't some
bad spirit? Oh, Mom. I wish you were here. I mean,
"I can't tell you what to do, but
now you know. Now you can't say you didn't know. Why
do you let yourself be so degraded? You are living
in limbo. He's sucking your lifeblood away."
God, she is so smug. Who the hell does
she think she is?
"You are a fine one to talk. What
about you? How you treated me? He's my family. You
aren't. You fucking knew what that pedophile was doing
I remember the first time Jasper kissed
me, sucked me into him. My mouth opened to his and
I could taste his mossy breath. His tongue searched
and tasted and then pushed against my loose tooth.
He lifted the tooth with his tongue and wriggled it.
And I giggled.
"Well," she says, "I
did know. And I didn't. I did and I didn't."
That - I can't think of a word heinous
enough for that motherfucker. I can't even allow myself
to think about him, or I'm filled with a kind of molten
hatred that would probably send me into cardiac arrest
if I didn't push that vision of him away. But I remember
it now. Coming home from school to find him sitting
on his grass matt, naked, back straight, sitting Indian
style, waiting for me. He would sneak me Pixie Sticks
and Mars Bars, the candy my mother wouldn't allow.
How was I supposed to know what the pretty little
pill, faded pink, the color of baby aspirin or Now
and Laters, was going to do to me? How it would fill
my senses, as he pulled the soft sweater over my head,
and then handed me my old stuffed rabbit, as I curled
into his arms. How soft and warm I would feel in his
"Oh God, Leonie," she says.
"There's so much more. You remember,
don't you? That first summer I came home? He slipped
me a roofie." When I woke, my muscles ached,
my lip was swollen. I was bruised and bleeding. I
could taste the blood in my mouth.
He was sitting at the edge of my bed.
His shit colored eyes looked down at me with contempt.
"Go ahead," he dared me, "Tell
her. See who she listens to. You, or me."
"I told you, Mom," I say,
"I told you. And you just sat there and looked
right through me, like I wasn't there."
We were in the kitchen, having a "family
meeting." Her back was rigid, her jaw clenched,
and I knew, as soon as I saw those pursed lips, she
had already made up her mind. She knew what I was
about, Jasper had told her. I was spoiled and petty
and selfish. Did I know how much money Jasper had
spent on my education? Didn't I know that he was on
my side, that she was on my side? That we were trying
to be a family? How dare I get involved with some
sadist, allow myself to have rough sexual intercourse,
and then blackmail Jasper in order to get money for
the dorm rooms. Oh yes, Jasper had told her all about
"I know, Leonie." She sounds
"No, you don't know, Mom! You don't!
You don't know what it is like to get wasted and spill
your guts out at so many college parties that you
start hearing people whisper about you when they see
you waiting in line at the cafeteria. You don't know
what its like to feel like vomiting every time you
are about to have an orgasm. I know that much. The
whole apartment complex could hear you coming. You
don't know what it's like to get the flu, and want
your mommy, and dial her number, then hear the phone
click as soon as you say hello."
"Listen to me sweetheart. Just
listen. I didn't know. But I do know now. I can feel
what you feel, I can feel those eyes, those two black
holes, bearing down on me, I can taste the blood that
you tasted. I'm changed. I'm not a creature of flesh
and blood anymore. When I was alive, my spirit was
linked to my body. I was a lot like you are now. I
was passionate, and I allowed physical love to cloud
"Shut up!" I'm screaming at
her now, "Shut up shut up shut up! I don't want
to hear about your lust for that motherfucker."
I bang my fist against her windshield, and feel my
I need a cigarette, bad. I try to use
the lighter again and she won't let me.
"Stop it, Mom. You think I don't
know what this is? Your great big fantasy? I'm inside
you again and you can control me. Well, I've got news
for you. I don't have to battle my way out of your
cunt to get away from you this time. All I have to
do is open the damn door."
I climb out of the Ford and slam the
door. I half expect her headlights to switch on, for
her to follow me. But she doesn't. I walk out to the
water and skip a few rocks. When I turn around, for
a moment, and glimpse her in the deepening light I
have to laugh. It am struck by the realization that
her candy apple red coating is the exact shade of
her favorite lipstick.
The mosquitoes are biting so I return
to her. I sit in the front seat, my feet propped up
on the dashboard. She lets me use the lighter this
time and the cigarette calms my nerves.
"You chose him over me, Mom,"
I finally say.
There is a long pause.
"I'm not haunting him now, am I?"
My cell phone rings. It is Humphrey.
He doesn't know where I am.
"Let him wonder," my mother
instructs, "don't answer it."
I obey her. He tries again. I turn off
"I love you," she says.
"You did come back from some kind
of afterlife to possess a 2002 Ford Explorer,"
I say, "that's an extraordinary thing."
My stomach growls.
"Oh dear," she says, "you
haven't had anything to eat since breakfast, have
you? And you're tired. Crying will take a lot out
of you. Why don't you take a nap? I'll sing you a
lullaby. Then when you wake up I'll drive you to a
nice diner and you can fill your tummy."
"Sleep out here? Don't you think
"I'll protect you," she says.
The back seat unfolds.
"I can't sleep without a blanket,"
"You'll be warm. I'll see to that,"
So I climb into the back and curl up.
I am surrounded by something that is better than a
blanket; it feels like the softest, fluffiest clouds
"I get it now, Mom. I'm in your
womb. You are taking care of me again," I say.
"Shh," she says, "close
your eyes, baby girl."
I close my eyes. Her voice is rich and
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea.
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western