Sometimes there’s no explaining what makes someone put down all her self-confidence and suddenly cower in the back seat. That’s how I got when I started to grow up and leave my little girl years behind. All that talk-to-much candor went mute. I have my brother Frankie to thank for snapping me out of it. The cure was a little like the home remedy for a jelly-fish sting.
Most of the time, Mom took all us Magpies with her wherever she went. Except for grocery shopping. That was special, she only took one kid with her for grocery shopping. Everybody else stayed home and cleaned the house, or babysat, mowed the lawn, or helped out in the field or the barn. Unless you were one of the Little Kids;
Little Kids just played all day long. Big kids had to work first, then they played. I was a Big Kid. That’s why Mom started making me get out of the car and run into the store for small items, or order the Dairy Queen cones for a treat. I hated that, ’cause I got afraid I’d mess up, or the person behind the counter would start asking me questions that I couldn’t answer or didn’t expect, or I’d forget the change, or some other tragic thing would happen. Or worse, somebody would laugh at me and think I was dumber than dumb.
I came up with a plan, so Mom would never-ever ask me to get out of the car and do a chore for her.
When I was a little girl, nobody had to wear seat belts. Kids just got thrown in the back seat, scrunched together. Sometimes I sat on the floor, sometimes I climbed up in back window and fell asleep. The best of all places in the car: the Way-Back. The Way-Back, or the Back-Back as my friend Gee-Joe called it, was that flat, open part of the station wagon. If your dad had lots of money, he paid extra for carpet back there, or even a third seat. We didn’t have any money to spare, and carpet was a waste of money, ’cause kids shoes would be all over it, just getting it dirty. Dad said, if we wanted a to have a seat, he’d just open up the ‘well’ meant for storage, and we could stick our feet down there. “Just as good a seat as any kids could want,” he said, and he plopped Vickie down, just to prove his point to the suit-wearing salesman. Of course, we never wanted to do that, ’cause sitting in the Way-Back was kind of like sitting on the ground, just watching the world go by as fast as the cars could go. Besides, the Little Kids could pretend to be dogs and Bonita and I pretended to be their trainers.
Dad never got a radio in the car, ’cause that cost extra and just made more noise. We made our own music. I taught Bonita how to sing Cockles and Muscles Alive, Alive, Oh, just like Mr. J taught us in choir. My friend Beth sang the harmony part all by herself, ’cause she had a really loud singing voice, so she could belt it out loud enough to be heard above everybody else. Deanna said Beth was a show-off and a loud mouth, and she should be embarrassed to sing out louder than thirty other kids. Deanna’s voice was soft and sweet, and sometimes she got to do a solo. I got all nervous and jittery when I had to sing alone, so my throat got so tight my voice squeaked out like the air coming out of the pinched neck of a balloon. Not when I was in the Way-Back. I could belt it out just like Beth, and Bonita knew just how to make a sweet sound like Deanna’s. Sometimes Vickie sat back there, too, and she joined in with Bonita. I could belt it out over both of them. Most of the time, just the Little Kids sat in the Way-Back: Julie, and Frankie, and Loren-Dee-Dee-Bopper, with me and Deanna and Bonita and Vickie sat in the back, so our dresses stayed neat, on account of Mom spending all that time starching and sprinkling and ironing. Baby Marcia laid in the front seat beside Mom or between Mom and Dad, if he was there, but mostly he was working overtime, so he could put food on the table and shoes on everyone’s feet.
We got in and out of the Way-Back through the back flop-down door. Some kids got to climb over the seat, but not us, ’cause that just got the seat dirty. We used the Way-Back door. I figured out, if I sat in the Way-Back, Mom would never ask me to get out and go in a store, or order ice cream cones, ’cause it was way, way, too much trouble to let me out the back, so she just asked Deanna instead. Home free, right? My plan was fail-safe, or so I thought until Frankie messed things up for me. That’s when I learned one of the big differences between girls and boys. When a girl says she’s gotta go, that means better stop pretty soon; when a boy says he’s gotta go, he means right this very minute. Frankie had to go. Bad. He was only a half a year out of diapers, so ‘I need to go’, meant double-right-now, double-bad.
Mom passed a Gerber baby food jar back and told me to hold it for Frankie. The kind of jar for first time eaters: fruit and carrots and squash; smooth as silk in tiny jars with a picture on the label that looked a whole lot like Deanna did when she was a baby: all rosebud lips and curly Q hair.
“Stop,” I said to Frankie. He smiled at me, ’cause we were pals. “That’s enough. Stop,” I said again, like that would make a difference. “It’s full; no more.” Even back then, I always thought logic would help. Frankie just kept on a going until the baby food jar spilled over and ran down my hand and on to a spare diaper Mom threw back when she heard me hollering. Everybody laughed until they about split a gut. Every time we went somewhere, somebody asked me if I wanted to sit in the Way-Back with Frankie and a baby food jar. I laughed too, ’cause when you got right down to it, the whole thing was pretty hilarious.
I was far from cured of my shyness. Still, facing the potential ridicule of a salesclerk was much more tolerable than the humiliation of a toddler peeing on me. I sat in the back seat rather than the Way-Back most of the time, and learned to face my fears. Besides, doing something dumber than dumb can give people a chuckle for the rest of their born days.