***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Clement
My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.
My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.
And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me-songs.
But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.
My mother opened her mouth in a great wide O and breathed him right into her body.
I couldn’t understand. She knew all the songs, so why would she get messed and stirred up with this man?
When he said his name was Eli she was down on her knees.
His voice tamed her immediately. The first words he said were all she needed. He spoke singing, I am your medicine sweet baby my oh me oh my your name has always been written on my heart.
And from there on all he had to do was whistle for her.
Me? I was raised in a car and, when you live in a car, you’re not worried about storms and lightning, you’re afraid of a tow truck.
My mother and I moved into the Mercury when she was seventeen and I was a newborn. So our car, at the edge of a trailer park in the middle of Florida, was the only home I ever knew. We lived a dot-to-dot life, never thinking too much about the future.
The old car had been bought for my mother on her sixteenth birthday.
The 1994 Mercury Topaz automatic had once been red but was now covered in several coats of white from my mother painting the car every few years as if it were a house. The red paint still appeared under scratches and scrapes. Out the front window was a view of the trailer park and a large sign that read: WELCOME TO INDIAN WATERS TRAILER PARK.
Our car was turned off under a sign that said Visitors Parking. My mother thought we’d only be there for a month or two, but we stopped there for fourteen years.
Once in a while when people asked my mother what it was like to live in a car, she answered, You’re always looking for a shower.
The only thing we ever really worried about was CPS, Child Protective Services, coming around. My mother was afraid that someone at my school or her job might think they should call the abuse hotline on her and take me off to a foster home.
She knew the acronyms that were like the rest-in-peace letters on tombstones: CPSL, Child Protective Services Law; FCP, Foster Care Plus; and FF, Family Finding.
We can’t go around making too many friends, my mother said. There’s always some person who wants to be a saint and sit on a chair in heaven. A friend can become Your Honor in an instant.
Since when is living in a car something you can call abuse? she asked without expecting me to answer.
The park was located in the center of Florida, in Putnam County. The land had been cleared to hold at least fifteen trailers, but there were only four trailers that were occupied. My friend April May lived in one with her parents, Rose and Sergeant Bob. Pastor Rex inhabited one all by himself while Mrs. Roberta Young and her adult daughter Noelle occupied one right next to the dilapidated recreation area. A Mexican couple, Corazón and Ray, lived in a trailer toward the back of the park, far from the entrance and our car.
We were not in the south of Florida near the warm beaches and the Gulf of Mexico. We were not near the orange groves or close to St. Augustine, the oldest city in America. We were not near the Everglades, where clouds of mosquitos and a thick canopy of vines protected delicate orchids. Miami, with its sounds of Cuban music and streets filled with convertibles, was a long drive. Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom were miles away. We were nowhere.
Two highways and a creek, which we all called a river but was only a small stream off the St. John’s, surrounded the trailer park. The town dump was at the back through some trees. We breathed in the garbage. We breathed in the gas of rot and rust, the corroded batteries, decomposing food, deadly hospital waste, the odors of medicines and the cloud of cleaning chemicals.
My mother said, Who would clear land for a trailer park and a garbage dump on sacred Indian ground? This land belongs to the Timucua tribes and their spirits are everywhere. If you plant a seed, something else grows. If you plant a rose, a carnation comes out of the ground. If you plant a lemon tree, this earth will give you a palm tree. If you plant a white oak, a tall man will grow. The ground here is puzzled.
My mother was right. In our part of Florida everything was puzzled. Life was always like shoes on the wrong foot.
When I read over the headlines on the newspapers that were lined up at the checkout counter at the local store beside the gum and candy, I knew Florida was asking for something. I read: DON’T CALL 911 BUY A GUN; BEAR RETURNS TO CITY AFTER BEING RELOCATED; DEADLY MEXICAN HEROIN KILLS FOUR; AND HURRICANE BECOMES A CLOUDY DAY.
One summer, conjoined twin alligators appeared near our river. They had four legs and two heads.
It was my friend April May who found them. She’d been down by the river when she saw the baby alligators crawl out of the sandy earth beside the short wood dock. They still had white pieces of eggshell on the green, scaly back they shared.
April May didn’t stick around. She knew what we all knew: if there’s an alligator egg, then there’s an angry mother alligator nearby.
That afternoon, after word had spread through the park, everyone went down to the river to see if the babies were still there. Tiny specs of white eggshells lay broke around the alligators, as the creatures had not moved from the very place they’d been born, and no mother alligator ever appeared. The babies were each only a little larger than a chick.
The next morning, the first local journalists began to arrive. By the afternoon, reporters from national television stations in trucks with filming equipment had moved in. Before dusk, someone had tied one of the creatures’ four legs to a palm tree with a thin blue sewing thread so that it could not escape.
For two days our quiet visitors’ parking area outside the trailer park was filled with cars and news trucks and all their broadcasting equipment. Our baby conjoined twin alligators, born from our jigsaw land, were on the national news.
Only one reporter, a tall and slim black woman with light green eyes wearing a CNN News baseball cap, was interested in our car house. She tripped on us by accident. As she marched toward the river something made her stop at the open window of our car.
My mother was at her job. She worked as a cleaning lady at the veterans’ hospital. I was just home from school and making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the dashboard.
The reporter leaned over and poked her head inside the Mercury’s window. She looked around.
Do you live in here? she asked, and peered into the backseat.
Is that yours? Did you draw that? she asked, and pointed to a crayon drawing of the solar system that was stuck to the back of the driver’s seat with pieces of scotch tape.
On her finger were a gold wedding band and engagement ring with a large diamond.
My eyes were always looking at women’s hands to see if they were married. My mother said rings were like a passport or a driver’s license for love.
I nodded and placed the bread I was coating with a thick layer of blueberry jelly back on the plate.
No, don’t stop making your lunch, she said. I’m going to ask you about the baby alligators, okay? But first I need to ask you some basic questions. How old are you?
I couldn’t stop looking at her gold-love-forever rings.
I was nine then. I remember this perfectly because the alligators appeared the week before my tenth birthday. I also think of my life living in the car as divided in two parts—before my mother met Eli Redmond and afterward. Those words—“before” and “afterward”—belonged on a clock.
And you live in this car? the reporter asked. She peered in and placed her head almost completely inside the window. What’s your name?
How long have you lived here?
Since being a baby.
But what about a bathroom? she asked.
We use the park, the trailer park’s bathroom. The one next to the playground. Sometimes they cut off the water as it smells bad because of the garbage dump. On those days we go to McDonald’s and brush our teeth there.
Why does the water smell so bad?
Everyone here knows it’s the dump. The garbage is bad for our water.
That’s a very fancy plate you’re eating on, the reporter said.
I looked at the white porcelain plate covered with delicate pink flowers and green leaves.
It’s Limoges, I said. From France.
The reporter was quiet for a few seconds and then asked, Do you like living in a car?
You can get away fast if there’s a disaster. Well, that’s what my mother likes to say.
The reporter smiled and walked away. She never asked me about the alligators.
Within three days, all the reporters had left because, on the third morning after the discovery, the alligators were dead.
The reporters got in their cars and trucks and U-turned right out of there. It was fast. It was a twenty-minute funeral march.
They sure got out in a hurry. They never even looked over their shoulders to see if they’d forgotten something, my mother said.
We knew those reporters couldn’t take the odors from the dump. Our garbage was messing with their perfume.
After the reporters left, my mother slipped on her sneakers, grabbed her frayed straw hat, and got out of the car.
Let’s go look at those alligator babies, she said.
As we walked toward the river she took my hand in hers. We were almost the same size. If someone had watched us as we moved away they would have thought we were two nine-year-old girls walking together toward a swing.
My mother and I went through the park and along the trail, lined by cypress trees and saw grass, down to the river. As we walked our bodies broke up a cloud of blue and yellow dragonflies that hovered in our path.
The afternoon sun was large above us in a cloudless sky. This made our shadows long and slender and they cast ahead of us as we moved forward. Our shadows, like two friends, led us toward the river.
What’s the best thing about living in a car? I asked.
I can tell you. There’s no stove with gas burners. As a child, and then growing up, I was always afraid of the gas being left on. I hate the old cabbage smell coming out of a stove. And there’s no real electricity in a car, my mother said. And no electrical sockets. You can bet there’s always some person who wants to poke something into those holes like a hairpin or a fork. So, I don’t have to think about that.
The soft ground leading from our car to the river was a mess. The grass along the path had been trampled and there were a few plastic water bottles, crushed cans, and white lumps of chewing gum left behind. Under a cypress tree there was a length of coiled black electrical cable.
My mother and I expected to see the dead alligators, but when we reached the riverbank they were gone.
The white sand, where the creatures had been the day before, was red sand. Only a tiny pulp of scale and flesh remained tied to the blue thread.
The bullets had torn the newborns to shreds.
The shooters had left behind a few spent casings and shells on the ground nearby.
We never wondered about it. Some person was forever in the mood for target practice. There was always someone skulking around with an itchy trigger finger. Those babies never had a chance.
One time we even found a bullet hole in our car. It had pierced the hood and must have lodged somewhere in the motor because we couldn’t find the bullet or exit hole.
When did this happen? I wondered. My mother said on the day we discovered the clean hole in the steel with a dark ring of residue around it.
We never felt it.
People are hunting cars these days, she said. That’s a joke. It must have been a stray.
But we both knew this was not unusual. In our part of Florida things were always being gifted a bullet just for the sake of it.