By Marie Lathers
We were in the tan Ford Falcon waiting for our Mom to make a deal with the motel owner for all of us to spend the night in the same room for seven dollars. There were four of us kids: I was the oldest because I’d just turned twelve; Dennis was ten; Troy, six; and Laurie, five. Due to my advanced age, I had the front seat to myself—except for our mother, I guess—and it had been that way since South of the Border, that tourist attraction at the Carolina line. Dennis had been yelling that it wasn’t fair, that he was the oldest boy and didn’t that matter. But Mom said no, it didn’t, so he could just hush up. In actual fact, she’d said, “Keep your mouth shut.” But I’m presenting her in a positive light. Troy and Laurie had fallen asleep at the Border, once they understood we were not stopping for fireworks.
In the motel parking lot, they were still in little-kid dreamland. I was occupied with my magazine, which told stories about monsters from outer space. Dennis stared out the back window fuming enough to set the motel on fire with his anger, at least that’s what he told me later. It did smell like burning, but it was probably the ashtray full of Mom’s butts. They were decorated with red lipstick.
Before heading into the motel office, Mom reapplied Roses are Red (which I thought of as Roses are Dead), and I could smell that mixed in with the smoke. I got it in my head that it must smell like that on Jupiter, Viceroys and ladies’ lips.
On the page I was reading, Captain Nesbit and his crew had finally landed on the planet. Lieutenant Morrison and Chief Engineer Lewinski had been arguing in the spaceship about whether or not the atmosphere could support red-blooded American men. All the oxygen tanks were empty because the stowaway, Findley Morticus, had sabotaged them. He was locked in the utility closet, along with batteries and TV dinners.
Captain Nesbit said he’d had just about enough of their disagreements, and if he had to go out there on his own to test things out he would, that’s how brave he was. He said when the going gets tough, you have to stop acting like children and do what you have to do.
When Mom came back, she warned Dennis that if he started up with the yelling again, she’d put him in the trunk, that’s how frazzled she was. I folded over the corner of the page in ‘The Flames of Jupiter.’ It would be a while before I found out whether Captain Nesbit choked to death on ammonia and methane gas.
Mom started the car, but we didn’t move anywhere. She sniffled, and I wondered when she’d caught a cold. I gave her a Kleenex from the glove box, and she thanked me in a little voice. Usually her voice was louder than the TV at home.
All of a sudden, I got a stretching feeling, like part of me was growing. It felt like the exercises we did in gym class but inside my chest instead of my calves.
“Since I’m twelve now, Mom, I guess I can get a part-time job,” I said.
“There’s no reason we can’t find a decent room for seven dollars,” she said.
Maybe she didn’t hear me.
“Babysitting is fine, but a regular job, where I have to wear something special, would help out more.”
I’d wear an apron with ruffles and a name tag: Janice B. Smelton.
“He wanted nine dollars. I’ve never in my life paid nine dollars for a motel room on Route 143.”
We’d never stayed at a motel, so Mom must have meant when she was young and they’d go visit great-grandma.
Mom started to back up but then stopped, halfway out of the parking spot. She’d hit the windshield wiper button by mistake, and the blades went back and forth, wishing it would rain. Dennis was singing some dumb song to himself, and the little kids were still asleep.
Mom blew her nose and then straightened up as if she were sitting in a dining room chair. She didn’t look at me but she spoke to me.
“Now Janice, I need you to be perfectly honest with me.”
Her hands were twisting the Kleenex, and my aching chest stretched a bit more.
“Did you give me all your babysitting money or not? Do you have some in your pockets? Tell the truth now.”
The truth was I had two dollars and thirty-five cents, but the two dollars was for a pair of real platinum clip-on earrings that I’d seen at the store near great-grandma’s. Part of growing up was wearing accoutrements, and they might help me find a job. That left me with thirty-five cents for candy and the next issue of Super True Space Stories.
I stretched out my legs and looked at my bare feet. One day, I might want to try toenail polish, but that would be down the road. I took a deep breath and let it out.
“I have two dollars, Mom.”
I pulled them from my pocket. One had adhesive tape all across George Washington’s face, thanks to Dennis.
Mom turned off the windshield wipers and pulled the car forward.
“Honesty is the best policy, Janice,” she said, as she patted my knee.
I could tell Dennis was making faces at me from the back—my very neck could feel it—but I didn’t turn around. I’d have to give up my accoutrement but I’d find out what happened to Nesbit and old Findley Morticus. And Mom didn’t say anything about me getting a job, which was a relief. I wasn’t stretched out that far yet.