The bestselling novel and deeply affecting story of a young girl who comes to terms with her father's death in Vietnam two decades earlier
Mary Mackey,San Francisco Chronicle
- HarperCollins Publishers
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"I have to stop again, hon," Sam's grandmother says, tapping her on the shoulder. Sam Hughes is driving, with her uncle, Emmett Smith, half asleep beside her.
"Where are we?" grunts Emmett.
"Still on 1-64. Mamaw has to go to the restroom."
"I forgot to take my pill when we stopped last," Mamaw says.
"Do you want me to drive now?" Emmett asks, whipping out a cigarette. He smokes Kents, and he has smoked seven in the two hours they have been on the road today.
"If Emmett drives, I could set up front," says Mamaw, leaning
forward between the front seats. "I'm crammed in the back here like a sack of sausage. "
"Are you sure you feel like driving, Emmett?"
"It don't make no difference."
"I was just getting into it," says Sam, irritated.
It is her new car. Emmett drove through the heavy traffic around Lexington, because Sam wasn't experienced at city driving, but the interstate is easy. She could glide like this all the way across America.
At the next exit, Exxon, Chevron, and Sunoco loom up, big faces on stilts. There's a Country Kitchen, a McDonald's, and a Stuckey's. Sam has heard that Stuckey's is terrible and the Country Kitchen is good. She notices a hillside with some white box shapes-either beehives or a small family cemetery-under some trees. She shoots onto the exit ramp a little too fast, and the tires squeal. Mamaw gasps and clutches the back of Sam's seat, but Emmett just fiddles with the buttons on the old Army jacket in his lap. Emmett dragged it out of his closet before they left. He said it might be cold in Washington, It is summer, and Sam doesn'tbelieve him.
Sam pulls in at the Sunoco and springs out of the car to let Mamaw out. Mamaw has barrel hips and rolls of fat around her waist. She is so fat she has to sleep in a special brassiere. She shakes out her legs and stretches her arms. She is wearing peachcolored knit pants and a flowered blouse, with white socks and blue tennis shoes. Sam does not know Mamaw Hughes as well as she does her other grandmother, Emmett's mother, whom she calls Grandma, but Mamaw acts like she knows everything about Sam. It's spooky. Mamaw is always saying, "Why, that's just like you, Sam," or "That's your daddy in you, for the world." She makes Sam feel as though she has been spied on for years. Bringing Mamaw along was Emmett's idea. He is staring off at a bird flying over the Sunoco sign.
"Regular?" a blond boy in a Sunoco shirt asks.
"Yeah. Fill 'er up." Sam likes saying "Fillup." Buying gas is one of the pleasures of owning a car at last. "Come on, Mamaw," she says, touching her grandmother's arm. "Take care of the car, would you, Emmett?"
He nods, still looking in the direction of the bird.
The restroom is locked, and Sam has to go back and ask the boy for the key. The key is on a ring with a clumsy plastic Sunoco sign. The restroom is pink and filthy, with sticky floors. In her stall, Sam reads several phone numbers written in lipstick. A message says, 'The mass of the ass plus the angle of the dangle equals the scream of the cream." She wishes she had known that one when she took algebra. She would have written it on an assignment.
Mamaw lets loose a stream as loud as a cow's. This trip is crazy. It reminds Sam of that Chevy Chase movie about a family on vacation, with an old woman tagging along. She died on the trip and they had to roll her inside a blanket on the roof of the station wagon because the children refused to sit beside a dead body. This trip is just as weird. A month ago, Emmett wouldn't have gone to Washington for a million dollars, but after everything that happened this summer, he changed his mind and now is hell-bent on going and dragging Mamaw along with them.
"I was about to pop," Mamaw says.,
That was a lie about her pill. Mamaw just didn't want Emmett to know she had to pee.
When they return the key, Mamaw buys some potato chips at a vending machine. "Irene didn't feed us enough for breakfast this morning," she says. "Do you want anything?"
"No. I'm not hungry."
"You're too skinny, Sam. You look holler-eyed."
Irene is Sam's mother, Emmett's sister. They spent the night in Lexington with her in her new house--a brick ranch house with a patio and wall-to-wall carpeting. Irene has a new baby at the age of thirty-seven. The baby is cute, but Irene's new husband has no personality. His name is Larry joiner, but Sam calls him Lorenzo Jones. In social studies class, Sam's teacher used to play tapes of old radio shows. Lorenzo Jones was an old soap opera. Sam's mother's life is a soap opera. The trip would be so different if her mother could have come. But Sam has her mother's credit card, and it is burning a hole in her pocket. She hasn't used it yet. It is for emergencies.
Emmett is in the driver's seat, with the engine running. He is drinking a can of Pepsi. "Are y' all ready?" he asks, flicking cigarette ash on the asphalt. He has moved the car, but it's still close to the gas pumps. A scene of a sky-high explosion, like an ammunitions dump blowing up, rushes through Sam's mind.
" Give me a swig of that," says Sam. "Did you pay?" She takes a drink of Emmett's Pepsi and hands it back.
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