Mary Ann McGuigan
I’m in the passenger seat of my sister’s ’54 Oldsmobile. No seatbelt, no airbags, just Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” playing loud, though hardly loud enough to compete with the noise of her three kids in the back seat—a four-year-old and a pair of Irish twins—squawking and laughing, tumbling and screeching. They pound at each other, then giggle their demands for justice. Her half-hearted pleas for quiet don’t even register.
We’re in a hurry. Alice is late. She’s supposed to pick up her brother-in-law at the place where he works, a mechanic’s shop that smells of grease and dust and mice droppings. He’s due in court. Drunk driving. If she doesn’t get him there on time, her punishment will be worse than his. Maybe not, but it will come sooner. Her husband doesn’t hold back his anger, or his fists.
My sister is all of twenty. I’m not even ten yet, still secretly in awe of her curves and cologne. She’s wearing dungarees and a short-sleeved pastel blouse, like she does every day. She’s got fair skin and freckles that her kids like to count. She doesn’t look like a mom. But she’s been doing the job since long before she had kids of her own. Mom relies on her. Alice is the second oldest, the one who does what Mom can’t get to, or just doesn’t get to when she’s drinking.
Alice pushes the lighter into the dashboard and tells me to get her a cigarette from the pack of Kents between us on the seat. She turns toward the back seat, trying again for control. “Quiet down, I said.”
They don’t. I hand her the cigarette and she presses the hot coils to its tip, takes a drag, lets the smoke out through her nose. It rises like an injured cloud and smells like something mysterious. I can’t wait to do that. We go through a yellow light, coming awfully close to a kid on a bike. I think she’s nervous or something, because she keeps putting her fingers through her hair and her eyes are darting from one side of the street to the other, as if she’s afraid she might see someone she knows, like this mission she’s on is a shameful thing.
On most days, Alice finds things to laugh about. She says it’s easy. All you have to do is pay attention. She even pays attention to me, listens when I tell her about school. No one else in the family does that. I’m pretty sure that’s because there’s never enough of anything, so I’m worse than superfluous. The only thing my parents have more than enough of is kids.
My oldest brother, whose smart about stuff, says I don’t pick the right moments to ask Mom for what I need. But sometimes I’m confused that I have to ask. The school sent home notices for parent-teacher conferences. I put the first one on the kitchen table, the second one I put in her hand. She never showed up. Kids in class compared notes about what the teacher told their parents. I made up a story that my mother was sick. Alice tried to make it seem like no big deal, said I was so smart in school there was no need for Mom to go. I know that’s not true, but I like that she noticed. Sometimes I think that’s all it would take to make things better, for somebody to notice me.
An Elvis song comes on and Alice reaches to turn up the volume, because the kids are even louder now. “Will you quiet down?” she says. The noise subsides for a moment but builds again.
The boys are punching each other now, and my niece pleads for intervention. “Make them stop, Mom.”
Alice angles the rearview mirror slightly to see them better. “Dennis, that’s enough,” she scolds.
A toy tank comes flying at her from the back, and Alice ducks too late. She turns toward the backseat, reaching to smack whoever’s in reach, so she doesn’t see the light change and she doesn’t stop the car in time. There’s a shiny red Chevy in front of us, sun glinting off the back window, and we smash into it. I’m thrust forward, and my forehead hits the rearview mirror. I’m stunned but there’s not really any pain until I see the look on my sister’s face. I pull down the visor to look at myself in the mirror, but she slams it back up, tells me not to. “You’re all right,” she says. I want to believe her.
The Chevy driver is at her window, and she rolls it down, starts apologizing. He’s a very large black man with a big neck and big dark pupils circled in white. “Things happen,” he says, “things happen.” He gives my sister a half smile, like he’s seen more than his share of such things, and this is hardly the worst of them. Alice digs in her bag for her license and I look in the mirror. My hairline is distorted by a huge lump. There’s a slim red line along the front of it that looks as if it wants to bleed.
“Let me write this down,” the big man says. He lumbers back to his car, leans in and rummages for something, a pen, I guess. He’s slow and Alice keeps checking her watch. She’s sweating, upset, her chin trembling like she’s going to cry. The kids have settled down. They know they’re in trouble.
The big man finally comes back, returns Alice’s license. “Better get her looked at,” he says, glancing at me.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “We’ll do that.”
But we don’t. Because I’m the least of her worries. We don’t get to the courthouse in time, and that night, when Mom finally notices my head, we tell her I fell. We don’t bother to explain Alice’s bruises. Everyone knows how she gets them.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Word Riot, the New York Times, Wilderness House, and other journals. Her fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, and other journals. Her collection Piecesincludes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. That Very Place, her new collection, is due out in 2025 with Unsolicited Press. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels, about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups leave in their wake, are ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. For more about her fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com.