Driving with Dead People

Driving with Dead People

by Monica Holloway


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Small wonder that, at nine years old, Monica Holloway develops a fascination with the local funeral home. With a father who drives his Ford pickup with a Kodak movie camera sitting shotgun just in case he sees an accident, and whose home movies feature more footage of disasters than of his children, Monica is primed to become a morbid child.

Yet in spite of her father's bouts of violence and abuse, her mother's selfishness and prim denial, and her siblings' personal battles and betrayals, Monica never succumbs to despair. Instead, she forges her own way, thriving at school and becoming fast friends with Julie Kilner, whose father is the town mortician.

She and Julie prefer the casket showroom, where they take turns lying in their favorite coffins, to the parks and grassy backyards in her hometown of Elk Grove, Ohio. In time, Monica and Julie get a job driving the company hearse to pick up bodies at the airport, yet even Monica's growing independence can't protect her from her parents' irresponsibility, and from the feeling that she simply does not deserve to be safe. Little does she know, as she finally strikes out on her own, that her parents' biggest betrayal has yet to be revealed.

Throughout this remarkable memoir of her dysfunctional, eccentric, and wholly unforgettable family, Monica Holloway's prose shines with humor, clear-eyed grace, and an uncommon sense of resilience. Driving with Dead People is an extraordinary real-life tale with a wonderfully observant and resourceful heroine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416955122
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 03/04/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 227,278
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Monica Holloway is the critically acclaimed author of the memoir Driving with Dead People. She has contributed to the anthology Mommy Wars, from which her essay "Red Boots and Cole Haans" was described by Newsday as "brilliant, grimly hilarious." She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It changed everything: a school picture printed on the front page of the Elk Grove Courier, the newspaper my father was reading. I was eight. Sitting across the breakfast table from Dad, I pointed. "Who is she?"

"She's dead."

He kept reading.

"What happened?" I asked.

No answer.

I leaned forward to get a closer look. She looked like me: same short cropped hair with razor-straight bangs, same heart-shaped face, same wool plaid jumper. I looked at Dad: bloated, smudged glasses slid halfway down his nose. Why wasn't he telling me what happened? He loved talking gore; lived for it; documented it, even.

Dad drove his Ford pickup with his Kodak movie camera sitting shotgun just in case he saw an accident. If he was lucky enough to come upon something, he'd jump out and aim his camera at whatever was crumpled, bleeding, or burning. And every Thanksgiving he lined up Mom and the four of us kids on the gold-and-brown-plaid studio couch, hauled out the Bell + Howell reel-to-reel, and rolled his masterpieces.

Images jiggled past, scenes from our tiny Ohio town of Galesburg. Christmas morning, four beautiful children in color-coordinated Santa pajamas, squinting; summertime, my older brother Jamie's first home run; a station wagon hideously wrapped around a telephone pole, blood dripping down the passenger door and plop, plop, plopping onto the road; my two older sisters and me in hats with wide ribbons hunting for Easter baskets; a dead cow smashed on the front of a Plymouth. Our childhood was preserved among the big fire at the Catholic church, a Greyhound bus accident on Fort Henry Road, and a tornado twirling up Martha Whitmore's bean field. We all sat watching the movies and eating buttered popcorn made in the black-and-white-speckled pan that was always greasy, no matter how many times you scrubbed it. The disasters took up more reels than we did, and Dad narrated them like a pro.

So why was Dad skimping on the details about this dead girl? Maybe it wasn't bloody enough for him.

I couldn't get that school picture out of my head. I needed to know what had happened to that girl. If she was dead, something had killed her, and I wanted a heads up just in case whatever it was might be lurking nearby.

That night I casually swiped the newspaper off the cluttered coffee table and headed down the hallway to find my brother, Jamie. Nothing scared him.

He was sitting on his bedroom floor putting together a plastic model of a '69 Shelby Cobra Mustang.

"Can you read this out loud?" I held up the paper.

"Why can't you read it?" he asked, looking up from his project. He had most of the chassis put together.

"I can read it, but I want you to." He stared at me. I held up a Milky Way left over from my Easter stash.

I couldn't tell Jamie I didn't want to read the details of that girl's death by myself, especially with her staring out at me from the front page. I didn't want him thinking I was chicken.

"It has to be right now?" he asked.

"Mom says I have to go to bed in a minute," I said.

He twisted the lid back onto the blue-and-white tube of Testor's glue and wiped his hands on the filthy dishrag he kept in his supplies shoe box.

"Let's go," he said. I followed him to the dark landing of our musty basement, where the four of us kids congregated for secret business.

"Here," I said, handing him the paper and the candy. I was glad Jamie wasn't too curious. He hardly ever asked questions about anything.

We sat crouched on the landing. I held the silver flashlight with the words "Black and Decker" printed down the side. Dad owned a hardware store in downtown Elk Grove and earned the flashlight selling ten hammers in two months, but he tossed it to me when the lens cracked. Jamie and I sat facing each other cross-legged with our foreheads touching, staring down at the white circle of light. He began to read: "'Driver Faces Charges in Bike Rider Death' — "

"Bike rider? She was killed on her bike?" I craned my neck to see the paper right side up.

"Do you want me to read this or not?" Jamie tore open the candy bar wrapper.

"Go ahead," I said, thinking of my own bike, a gold Schwinn with a leopard-skin banana seat. I'd spent hours running it up the wooden ramp Jamie had built beside the alley behind our house. Cars ripped through there without ever slowing down.

Jamie took a bite and began reading again: "'Mason County's fourth traffic fatality of the year occurred Tuesday afternoon with the death of Sarah Rebecca Keeler, eight-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Keeler.'"

Eight years old? I was eight. I grabbed the paper to take another look. She was my age, but I didn't recognize her from school. I felt a pang of disappointment as I handed back the paper.

Jamie continued, "'Sarah Keeler was a member of St. Mary Catholic Church and was a third-grade pupil at St. Mary School.'"

That's why I didn't know her; she was Catholic. Catholics were considered the equivalent of snake handlers in our small Ohio town. I didn't know much about them except that they made Methodists like my parents nervous. This made Sarah more mysterious. Anyone who unnerved my parents was interesting to me.

"'Sarah was en route on North Highway 26 when struck by a car driven by Nowell Linsley, sixty-one. The report states death was apparently instantaneous, due to a basal skull fracture and a broken neck.'"

"What's a 'basal skull fracture'?" I asked.

"I guess her head broke open," Jamie said. He knew death. He'd buried dozens of small animals he'd found dead in the field behind our house, or cats and squirrels squashed by cars speeding through town on Highway 64.

I contemplated how hard I'd have to be hit by a car to have my head crack open like an egg. My oldest sister, JoAnn, had her head split open on the corner of the coffee table when we were little. Dad deliberately stuck his foot out and tripped her. He thought it was hilarious until bright red blood began trickling down her face.

I was trying to picture someone's whole head laid open, hair and brains and blood on the asphalt, when I began feeling woozy and sweaty.

"Hold the flashlight still," Jamie said. I shook my head and steadied the light. "'A Breathalyzer test was taken on Linsley, and he was charged by the sheriff's department for driving under the influence of alcohol.'"

"The guy was drunk," Jamie said, handing me the paper. I thought of Uncle Ernie, the only person I'd ever seen drunk. He'd come to our front door one night after running down the street from the dilapidated Galesburg Tavern, where another drunk had been hitting him over the head with a pool cue. Dad wasn't home.

Ernie's forehead was bleeding and Mom looked pale and nervous, especially when he asked to use one of her good bath towels. The next morning I heard Mom call him a "sweet drunk," so he'd probably never kill anyone on a bicycle. Even so, I'd be on the lookout for his white pickup.

That night I lay in my small wooden bed and relished the attention Sarah Keeler must have received. I fantasized that it had been me on that bike and I'd been struck from behind. I hoisted my arms above my head on the pillow and pretended to be lying on the road. In my fantasy my dad drove by and stopped, not because he recognized my bike (my dad had no idea what color my bike was); he stopped because it was potentially gory. He jumped out of the truck with his movie camera but realized it was me lying there — bleeding and dying. Double jackpot, he thought: one less mouth to feed and he'd get all the attention. People would feel so bad for him.

Dad resisted the urge to film the scene, opting instead to bend over my limp body, pretending to be struck with grief. He was surprised when he could actually squeeze out tears. Everyone closed in around him...and that's when I canceled that fantasy.

If Dad shoved me out of the limelight even in my death scene, if he couldn't even love me while I was lying on the asphalt, there was no hope.

Maybe others would have been sad to see me dead in the street. I thought of Mom curled up in the nubby orange chair reading Rich Man, Poor Man. Surely she'd have been devastated. But Mom was a human cork; she floated to the top of any awful situation. My mom, who'd told me the earth was flat, always created her own reality. She would have been fine.

I was beginning to wonder if dying was such a good idea.

It wasn't as if I wanted to be dead; it was just that I was miserable and felt in the way most of the time. There was something wrong with me. I always knocked over my milk, I got sick every time we drove long distances in the car, and I wet my bed every night, even though I was in third grade. But when Dad started in on us, knocking Jamie across the kitchen and then kicking him in the side, or jerking my pants down in front of strangers, that's when death seemed possible, even preferable.

If God could make me normal like everyone else in my class, or pull me out from under the rage of my own father, I might be happy instead of nervous and ashamed all the time.

I remembered the funeral details Jamie had read:

Friends may call on Saturday at Kilner and Sons Mortuary between 4:00 and 8:00 P.M. On Sunday there will be Mass at St. Mary's, with burial following at Maple Creek Cemetery.

Until Sunday, when Sarah Keeler was sunk in a deep, lonely hole and the world forgot and moved on, I could pretend I knew her. I could wallow in the glow of her spectacular departure. Sunday was years away.

I woke up the next morning to sunshine and bushy green trees rustling outside my bedroom window. I rolled over and felt under my pillow for the newspaper. Still there.

I crawled out of bed to change my wet sheets and pajamas. Bed-wetting kept Mom from buying me a spiffy twin bed like the ones my older sisters, Becky and JoAnn, had.

Their fancy twins were on either side of mine, decorated exactly alike with smoky blue comforters trimmed in fluffy white ball-fringe. Their white wrought-iron headboards twisted into elaborate curlicues that mirrored each other.

My bed was narrow with white wooden rails that went halfway up on either side. The mattress was slick, quilted, and smelled of urine. It was a bed to be embarrassed by. A baby's bed. A peed-in bed. I'd slept in it my whole life.

I walked into the bathroom and threw my pajamas and sheets into the tub.

I thought of Sarah Keeler as I looked in the mirror and imagined my own face on the front page of the Elk Grove Courier. More than anything else, I wanted to see her on Saturday between four and eight P.M. lying in her pink (I imagined my favorite color) coffin, her freshly washed hands folded over her lap, shoes double-tied for oblivion. I had to find a way to go to that viewing. And I knew the person to take me there was Granda.

Granda was my mother's mother, but the opposite of my mom in every way. Granda was a realist, and that's how she needed to be approached. She could be very sentimental and loving, but she'd also killed her own cat. He bothered her. She had a bad hip and she'd gotten tired of getting up and down out of her chair to let him in and out of the aluminum door of her trailer. So she'd locked him in her freestanding garage that the pole barn company had built for her right beside her trailer; she'd lured him in with a raw hot dog, closed the door, and left the Buick running for three hours.

I felt she could be persuaded to attend a funeral.

After breakfast I walked across Whitmore's back field to Granda's green-and-white double-wide. Granda was sitting at the kitchen table peeling new potatoes. I needed to be convincing but not too eager. I sat down across from her.

"A girl I knew died," I said.

"Oh, honey, who was it?" Granda stopped peeling.

"It was in the paper yesterday."

"That little girl on the bicycle?" she asked.

I nodded. I was glad I didn't have to say her name as if I really had known her. "Mom doesn't think I should go to the funeral home." Granda started peeling again. "I feel like I should."

"If your mom says you can't, then you can't." Granda pointed the silver potato peeler in my direction for emphasis.

"Yeah, I guess so. The whole town's going."

Granda salted a piece of raw potato and handed it to me. I ate it slowly, the salt stinging my chapped lips.

"I was hoping maybe you could take me over there." I looked at the table as my face flushed red.

"Honey, you don't want to see that. It's a terrible thing, very upsetting."

"Well, I might go with Suzanne Beckner's family, but I'd rather go with you. Mrs. Beckner said the entire county's going." I rested my hands on the table and put my chin on top. Granda was scrutinizing me.

"Didn't that girl go to the Catholic school?"

"I guess so."

"And you knew her?"

"Not very well," I lied, "but enough to feel like I should go. Suzanne does too." I ended with the one line I knew would really get her. "Mom can't understand." Granda prided herself on wholly understanding me.

She said she'd think about it, which was a good sign. When Granda had to think about something, it usually meant yes sirree. Besides, Granda rarely passed on any kind of local drama. It ran in the family.

Saturday night Granda and I made the eight-mile trip to Elk Grove in her cat-killing Buick.

The line of mourners outside Kilner and Sons Mortuary snaked down Main Street, past the Liberty Movie Theatre, and ended in front of old man Conroy's pharmacy. Mrs. Beckner had been right; the entire county was there.

No one said a word. If someone caught someone else's eye, it was just a somber shaking of the head as if to say, It can't be. It just can't be. I shook my head too.

Granda and I took our place at the end of the line. I felt a kind of personal satisfaction with the huge turnout, as if I'd had something to do with it. I was sure that Sarah could see all of it and was secretly smiling and enjoying the attention. My tights itched the back of my leg right behind the knee, but I tried to ignore it. This was a dignified occasion and I would refrain from scratching.

We waited as the line snailed closer to the front doors with the initials k & s etched in script on the frosted glass.

As we pushed through the fancy doors and climbed the plush purple steps, my breath was coming in short spurts. Granda saw my pale face and gave me one last chance to leave before we turned the corner and entered the main room. There was no way I was leaving. I craned my neck and saw the flower arrangements stacked floor to ceiling and heard the soothing Muzak dragging above the voices.

Where's the coffin? I wondered as my stomach fluttered with fear and excitement. I shifted my weight.

Suddenly we turned a corner, and there she was. I could only see the top of her head because the casket was resting on a high platform with a maroon pleated skirt. It was pine with (and I'd called this) a pink interior. I looked at Granda with pleading eyes. "Could you please pick me up just for a second?" She was uncomfortable. She lifted me quickly and then — boom, back down on the carpet. I saw Sarah Keeler for one second. It was all the time I needed.

Her hair was cut exactly like in the picture in the newspaper, but her features didn't look the same. As often as I'd studied that picture, I wouldn't have recognized her. She was wearing a softball uniform, which threw me. I had imagined something tastefully frilly. She must have liked sports — another stabbing disappointment. I hated sports and was myself dressed in something tastefully frilly. We were not the same.

My gut clenched. I looked around and recognized no one. I looked back at the coffin. Sarah Keeler was going to be wearing that softball uniform forever, and she was not coming back, because there was no way back from wherever she was.

Granda was handing out condolences as I waited in the back of the room near an enormous gurgling coffee pot. She was right, there was no mistaking death when you saw it face-to-face, and Sarah's face kept flashing in front of me, her skin thick and powdery. Jamie told me later that it was makeup used to hide the bruises, which gave me the creeps. Her eyelids had been glued shut with what looked like rubber cement, and her lips had been smudged with light pink lip gloss that didn't even stay in the lines. I wasn't allowed to wear lipstick. Her hands were small like mine.

My mother was right; I shouldn't have seen this. And now I couldn't even tell her I had. I stared at Sarah's coffin, and I knew I could not choose death, because nothing, not even Dad, could be more frightening than ending up in a coffin with your lips sewn shut.

Even with Dad the way he was, always hitting and humiliating us, and even if Mom never noticed, I didn't want to die — not really. And besides, there was always Granda. Granda still took the best care of me and loved me more than anyone. She walked up beside me, and I grabbed her hand for reassurance.

On the way to the car we stopped to chat with Etta Mae Shaw. I waited, looking at my feet. It wasn't until then that I realized that somewhere between the coffin and Mrs. Shaw, I'd peed in my shoes. My socks were yellow and wet on the inside of my ankles, and the familiar stickiness of my soaked panties confirmed it. Granda kept an old brown furniture blanket in her trunk for just such occasions. I sat on it all the way home.

The next morning I woke up around five A.M.

I got up and peeled off my wet pajama bottoms. Don't throw those wet pants on my hardwood floors, Mom harped in my brain. I tossed them on the wet sheets and rolled the whole thing up into a ball. The house was silent. I tiptoed to the bathroom and threw the whole mess into the bathtub. On the way back to bed I peeked in Jamie's room.

With his hands resting on top of his blue-and-red-striped sheets, eyes shut, and breath barely noticeable, Jamie looked dead. I panicked. "Jamie!" I screamed. "Jamie!" He jumped out of bed, grabbed my arms, and jerked me into the dining room in one move.

"What? What is it? What's going on?"

"I thought you were dead," I mustered.

"I almost died when you screamed," he shushed me. I was shaking like crazy as we listened to hear if the fuss had woken up Mom or Dad. No one. "Shit, Monica, you freaked me out. I think that dead girl tweaked your brain. Come on."

Jamie tiptoed me back to my room, where JoAnn and Becky were peacefully sleeping. I pulled on another pair of pajama bottoms and he helped me with my early morning ritual, putting a beach towel over the pee spot and a dry sheet on top of that. With luck, it wouldn't soak through.

I climbed into bed in my mismatched pajamas: pink hearts on top, blue rocket hand-me-downs on bottom. I longed for a time when I would eat breakfast in matching top and bottom pajamas. No one else seemed to notice. My clean pajamas and sheets just regularly showed up, no comment. I managed in silence along with everyone else. That morning I wanted order in my world. More than anything else, I wanted my pajamas to match.

Jamie started out the bedroom door. "That girl gets buried today; they'll be digging the hole this morning," I said. He turned and looked at me. "Yep, today's hole day," he said. I shot him my Please don't leave me look. He came over and sat down on the floor beside my bed, leaning his head against the wooden side railing. The top of his hair was bristly from the buzz cut Dad had given him earlier that week. I patted it in thanks. "Go to sleep, Monica." I curled up in a ball.

Odds were, with Jamie there, I could sleep. If the planets aligned, I also might stay dry until I woke up. Just as I was settling in, my stomach tightened. Out my window the sun was coming up, but not for everyone. Some of us were dead.

Copyright © 2007 by Monica Holloway

Chapter Two

The morning of Sarah Keeler's burial, I sat in the Galesburg Methodist Church between JoAnn and my father, whose heavy arm rested on the back of the pew right above my head. My legs were too short to touch the floor, but if I pressed my toes down, I could almost reach it. I was growing.

The church sat kitty-corner across the street from our house, but we were late every Sunday. The service started at nine a.m., and at nine ten my family would be running across the street in uncomfortable dress shoes, Dad calling us "idiots" as the opening hymn, "Love Lifted Me," wafted out the church windows.

The service that morning, led by the small and dreary Reverend Morse, was a dull drone, and I found myself staring at the large stained glass window on the left side of the church. I loved how the sun moved across that window every Sunday and how by the end of the service it was centered right in the middle of Jesus's face. This depended on where you were sitting, but we always sat in the exact same pew, so as long as it wasn't cloudy, the sun ended on Jesus.

I wasn't attached to Jesus, exactly, but I had heard about him since birth and held a kind of respect for all he'd been through. The hymn "Low in the Grave He Lay" pretty much told it all: He'd had a difficult life and a pretty rotten death. So I gave him the inner thumbs-up as I watched the sun and prayed for it to cross his left cheek, which would mean I was almost out of there.

Church was the only place where I sat close to my father. He felt less prickly there, and as much as I hated him, I wanted him to love me. In the silence of church I tried to steal closeness.

He seemed almost friendly in church because of his expression while singing hymns he knew by heart. His head would tilt to the right, eyes closed, forehead lifted. He looked so relaxed. When he took a breath, his head would dip with each inhale. His voice was beautiful. How could he sing so well and be so mean? The voice didn't fit the man, but it gave me hope.

The ending prayer finally came and I wiggled off the pew. Free — sort of. We still had to go to Sunday lunch at my grandparents' house.

After walking home and changing out of our church clothes, my family piled into our white station wagon and drove three blocks to Mammaw and Papaw's house. We could never just walk down there because there were too many hot covered dishes that had to be hauled along. I spent many Sundays sitting in the backseat holding a kitchen towel around warm baked beans with bacon sizzling on top, or a rectangular metal pan filled with cream cheese and lemon Jell-O mix meant to pass as a cheesecake.

Sundays with the Petersons, my dad's side of the family, were a recurring nightmare. Every weekend Mammaw and Papaw's six sons (my dad being the oldest) came with their large families in tow. My uncle Carl rarely came, but his family, Aunt Evelyn and the three boys, did.

Carl drove a Greyhound bus, so we hardly ever saw him. When we did, his eyelids were sleepy and droopy from driving strangers all over the country. Uncle Carl was the only one of us who traveled, and his sons, Ben, Tim, and Paul (who also had droopy eyelids), were the only cousins we liked.

The other cousins, whom I knew only because we shared the same pathetic gene pool, poured out of station wagons with scowls on their faces. Uncle Bill's son Troy talked like he had a sock stuck in the back of his throat, and my cousin Karen looked sad, even when she was laughing. All of my cousins were scared of my dad.

Dad took special pleasure in humiliating children; all of us had been the butt of it at one family event or another. Today it would be my turn again.

Uncle Ernie got out of his truck. The night before he'd been drunk again and someone had tossed him through the front window of the Galesburg Tavern. He was covered in cuts and bruises. I watched everyone talk to him as if his nose were still firmly attached.

Mammaw, oblivious to Ernie's injuries and our sour faces, loved a crowd and was always glad to see us. If we came right after church, she still had her teeth in, but if it was later in the day, she was all gums, and her shoes were long forgotten.

Mammaw rarely bathed, which bothered my overly bathed mother, but if you spent the night there, you didn't have to bathe either. And forget having to brush your teeth.

Mammaw embarrassed me with her red SOS-pad hair and her yellowed toenails. I was ashamed to feel that way because she loved all of us — fiercely. Mammaw never forgot a birthday even though there were more than thirty of us grandkids.

I felt sorry for Mammaw. I suspected she'd seen her share of tragedies. One Saturday afternoon we were standing on her back porch when the front tire of my gold bike exploded from the heat of the sun. It made a loud boom and Mammaw thought someone had fired a shotgun. She dropped to the kitchen linoleum and lay down flat, her thick arms protecting her head. The speed at which she hit the floor told me she'd been shot at before. It didn't surprise me.

Dad told us that when he was little, Papaw would drink whiskey and then sit down at the dinner table and say, "I can't stare at you bunch of lazy asses anymore. I'm gonna blow my goddamn head off." He'd scoot his chair back, grab his shotgun, and head out to the barn. Mammaw and the six boys would sit silently at the table waiting for the gun to go off. It never did.

Today for the Sunday get-together, I saw Papaw setting up card tables in the garage and on the lawn. Extra chairs were borrowed from the Galesburg Volunteer Fire Department across the alley. There was always a table heaped with food and a big orange plastic container with a white screw-on lid filled to the brim with iced tea laced with plenty of liquid saccharine.

Mammaw and Papaw lived in town now, but they used to manage a farm out on the county line. My dad grew up on that farm, killing chickens right before he cooked them, and butchering hogs in the barnyard. They'd been desperately poor, but Mammaw and Papaw, uneducated and fertile, kept having sons one right after the other. Those boys slaved away on that farm under the eye of my ferocious papaw. He was thin as a rail and bent over by the time I knew him, but I saw pictures and heard stories of what a big man he used to be and how he used to beat his kids, and Mammaw, too.

At these family get-togethers I usually stayed outside the house to avoid my father. I also considered my personal safety at risk whenever Mammaw cooked.

Her kitchen was an exotic and dangerous place, the main culprit being a pressure cooker that sputtered and splashed on the stove. If I had to be in the kitchen while she was cooking, I was always ready to duck if that thing exploded. It actually happened once, and my uncle Bill was scalded all the way down the left side of his body. No one but me seemed to be worried about a second occurrence.

Mammaw was a creative cook, concocting meals of squirrel, brains (any animal), pig's ears (which were actually the pig's scrotum), and greens pulled right out of her yard. She pickled anything standing still and jellied anything on a vine. Her egg noodles were thick, creamy, and delicious. I enjoyed them as best I could, considering I didn't know what was in them.

She stored all kinds of vegetables and relishes she'd canned herself in a dirt root cellar that Papaw built for her below the kitchen. The only way into the root cellar was a wooden door stuck right in the floor of the pantry. Sitting at Mammaw's kitchen table, I'd sometimes hear a jar explode down there. After the CRACK-and-SPLAT sound, Mammaw would look toward the pantry and say, "Fermented," and continue chopping carrots. When she finally pulled open the door in the floor, the stench would be unbearable. I assumed "fermented" meant "explodes and stinks like hell."

But this Sunday, as Sarah Keeler was being lowered into the ground, I walked into Mammaw's backyard. I was trying to figure out the best place to disappear to, when I saw my dad staring out the window at me. I felt that familiar jerk in my stomach. He was mad at me for something, and I had no idea what it was. I turned and walked in the other direction, feeling his eyes on me the whole way.

The world wasn't safe today. The truth was, this world was never safe.

I walked around the back of the garage where Dash, Mammaw's dalmatian, sat chained to his house. Dash had one blue eye and one brown eye and wasn't overly friendly — due to the chain. He sat there staring at me with those crazy eyes. Feeling crazy myself, I decided to take a load off.

I pretended to pet Dash, who never wanted to be petted, in case someone saw me sitting out there alone, though no one would. He smelled like shit. The nub of his tail was dabbed purple with some kind of cure-all that Mammaw had used on the farm to castrate pigs.

Mammaw invented her own medicines. She created a salve for drawing out splinters that was made up of three different poisons. It would have killed you if you ate it, but slap a dab on a splinter, and your worries were over. JoAnn joked that if you used too much, it might actually pull up an organ.

I sat down next to Dash and looked up at the sun. Sarah was probably under dirt by now. I thought of her eyes, nose, and hands in the airless pitch-black grave. I looked at Dash and the mud-splattered doghouse and wasn't sure which was worse — a shitty life or a shitty death.

Plucking up blades of grass, I wondered if I'd be able to see Sarah's grave when my school bus rolled by the cemetery tomorrow. Maybe...unless she was buried in the back somewhere. I started to feel better, thinking I might be able to sneak a moment with Sarah on school days. Maybe I could even get Granda to take me over there some weekend to see her grave up close.

I was used to seeing graves because there was a cemetery right behind our house. It wasn't as big as Maple Creek, but it was big enough. A stone cement bench sat up there, perfect for playing rummy or jacks on, and an enormous beige hornets' nest dangled from one of the elm trees. The spookiest feature was a sunken grave that dipped six inches lower than the ground. I imagined a bony finger poking up through the soil and slowly but steadily digging itself out. I hated that grave, but I never went up there without looking at it.

Dad started yelling for me to get my ass into the house. They were saying the prayer and filling plates. I jumped up and ran for it. If Dad had to call you twice, you got spanked.

Inside, I grabbed a plastic orange-and-white-flecked plate, a fork, knife, and spoon, and a white paper napkin, and bowed my head for the prayer Papaw was about to recite. My nose started itching, and when I went to scratch it, Dad slapped the back of my head, causing my plate and silverware to clatter to the floor. "Clumsy ass," he hissed. Everyone looked over for a second and then bowed their heads again. One of us kids being slapped was no reason to stare. My uncle Larry and aunt Betty smiled at me.

Larry, the youngest of the Peterson boys, was always sweet to his small son, Steve, holding his hand, sitting next to him while he ate.

Papaw continued the prayer, but the cousins got tired of waiting and started lining up for food. "Respect the goddamn Lord," Papaw bellowed. Everyone stopped in their tracks until he finished with a soft "Amen."

If there is a Lord, I thought, my chin starting to quiver, he sure created a bunch of losers when he pooped out this clan.

After the food, Dad decided he wanted a picture of his four kids. We lined up according to height just as he ordered us to, facing directly into the sun. The scowling cousins were watching.

It was four o'clock and the sun was directly over my dad's head and right in my eyes. I tried to smile in his direction as my dad clicked off four pictures on his new Polaroid camera, but the sun was too bright. Each time Dad clicked the shutter, I accidentally covered my eyes with my hands at the last minute. For the sixty seconds it took for each of those Polaroids to develop, I had plenty of time to imagine what punishment was in store for me for ruining Dad's "perfect family" pictures.

"You're a goddamn idiot," he yelled at me. "Can't you stand still for one minute? If you blur one more picture, I'm going to blister your ass."

My face was bright red. He'd spanked me many times, not caring where we were or who was looking, and usually he jerked my pants down right there in front of everyone to do it.

I tried to explain that it was because my eyes were light blue that I couldn't look directly at the sun, but he interjected, "I'm not wasting any more film on you. Get the hell outta here." He dragged me out of the line by the front of my shirt.

What was so confusing was that everyone looked at me as if I had caused the whole mess. I had somehow ruined everything.

The minute Dad turned his back, I ran for the station wagon, where I lay down on the backseat with tears and spit rolling off the gray vinyl. I cried so long, I forgot why I was crying and fell asleep.

When I woke up, it was dark. The family get-together was still going strong, so I climbed out of the car and walked home. The lights were on; Jamie was already there. I opened the screen door and headed to my room. I was hungry again, but it wasn't worth the effort to scare something up.

I lay on my bed, searching under my covers for my Casper the Ghost doll. Pulling him up by his arm, I could feel a hole torn in his fur and some fluff poking out. Granda would have to sew it for me. I pounded down his stomach, making a dip to lay my head in.

Hearing the station wagon pull up, I wondered if Mom would look in on me. She didn't. Becky came in, tossed a sweater onto her bed, and threw me a disgusted look. I had ruined their day again, by making a scene, by causing Dad to get mad, by so many things I didn't understand. I was ashamed and angry.

When I heard Dad open the tailgate of the station wagon, I got up and looked out the window. He pulled his Bell + Howell Super Eight movie projector and his fold-up home-movie screen out of the back. Dad must have shown movies at Mammaw's. I wondered what I'd missed.

I lay back down.

I closed my eyes, but just as I was drifting off, images from Dad's collection flickered through my head: a tornado demolishing Willard Bank's outhouse; a train explosion in Dunreath; my uncle Ernie in black rubber fire boots up to his hips wading through a flood near Pattonville, waving at the camera.

I sat straight up.

Maybe Dad had filmed Sarah Keeler's accident. Hers was huge compared to a cow being hit by a Plymouth.

Dad could hear an ambulance, police siren, or fire truck from a dozen blocks away, and when he heard one, he followed it. Lucky for him, he didn't have to strain his ears because the police and fire department were within one block of his store. He never missed anything.

I bet he was there, and if he was there, I bet he filmed it. My heart was racing as I wondered how I could find out.

I heard the screen door slam shut. I jerked my pink quilt up over my shoulders and tried to quiet my breathing. If he was still mad at me, I didn't want him knowing I was awake.

The next morning I walked into our yellow-and-white kitchen in a plaid skirt and bare feet. Mom was in a good mood. "It's about time you got in here," she said, dumping a spoonful of white sugar across the top of my oatmeal. She was pretending I hadn't spent yesterday sobbing in the back of the car. She was good at pretending.

I walked into the bathroom, tossed my pee-soaked sheets and pajamas into the bathtub, and headed back to the kitchen.

Dad was reading the Elk Grove Courier and slurping Maxwell House instant coffee he'd made by adding warm tap water to the coffee crystals in his mug and whipping it up with a metal spoon. I'd seen him do it a hundred times, his thick fingers choking the mug.

I sat down at the table and stared at Dad, who continued reading the paper. I wondered where he stashed his home movies. Dad titled and dated each one by writing on the rim of the plastic reel with a Magic Marker. If he'd filmed Sarah Keeler, the reel probably had her name on it or at least the date.

Dad dropped one corner of the paper and snapped, "What are you gawking at?"

I looked down at my oatmeal. I heard Dad flip the paper back up in front of his mean face. He hated me.

I thought about Dad standing by the side of the road filming her crumpled bike, her body lying on the asphalt. I imagined that he'd filmed her shoes, blown clear off her feet from the impact, lying in two different places.

I looked at Dad cutting through sausage patties with a butter knife. I was surprised he hadn't run over any kids himself, considering how fast we had to scramble out of his way when he sped through the alley behind our house, the wheels of his blue pickup spewing gravel in all directions.

If he ever did, the police would arrive with sirens blaring and I'd watch as they hauled Dad away in handcuffs, hauled him away forever to Cincinnati or Cleveland or even farther. Someplace he could never come home from, a place where he could never yank my pants down again with everyone staring. Someplace he deserved.

"Eat it, don't play with it," Mom said, jerking my head back slightly as she ran a brush through the back of my hair. I looked up to see Dad staring straight at me.

He probably knew what I was thinking.

Copyright © 2007 by Monica Holloway

Reading Group Guide

Driving with Dead People Reading Group Guide

  1. The first story Monica tells is of reading about Sarah Keeler's death and attending her funeral. Why do you think, as she says in the first sentence, that this "changes everything" (1)? How does it set the stage for the rest of the memoir?
  2. Monica's dad loves recording other people's disasters, and creating disastrous circumstances for his family. What did you make of his odd hobby? What about his penchant for violence and putting his family at risk? Do you think there's a link?
  3. Discuss Monica's mother. Monica describes her as "a human cork; she floated to the top of any awful situation" (7). What are some examples that support her description? Are there any instances when her mother behaves differently? Did your opinion of her mother change at all over the course of the book?
  4. Monica is in an almost constant state of anxiety. What are the physical effects of her fear and uncertainty? What effects are less obvious?
  5. In order to protect herself, and because she is left to her own devices, Monica learns early on to be a close observer and to draw her own conclusions. How do those skills influence her writing? What nuances or details might be different if she had been a less attentive, and perhaps happier, child?
  6. Monica's childhood and adolescence are punctuated with death and she is both attracted to and frightened by it. What does she learn about herself when confronted with the possibility of death? Why does she like to imagine being dead? Is her reaction to Wendy Johnson's death different from her reaction to Sarah Keeler's?
  7. The Kilner household (and funeral home) becomes a haven for Monica — a home away from home. What does their family — especially Julie and Dave — offer her? How do they influence her?
  8. "While Joann made me feel challenged and excited," Monica writes, "with Becky I always felt comforted...Becky felt like an extension of me" (131). Describe the relationship Monica has with each of her sisters. How does each relationship evolve? Why do Becky and Monica grow apart in high school, at a time when they need each other most? How does JoAnn take over that role in Monica's life?
  9. Monica becomes a talented actor early in high school and she pursues it through college and into a career. What attracts her to acting? How do you think her childhood experience might help to make her an especially gifted performer?
  10. Given that their family life was so harrowing, one might assume that when the Petersons divorced Monica's home life would improve. Is that the case? How does Monica's mother act after the divorce? How does her father? Were you surprised?
  11. Discuss Monica's relationships with men. Is there a pattern in the type of man she gravitates to? Do you think it would ever have been possible for her to have a fulfilling relationship with a man before she remembered and dealt with her sexual abuse?
  12. The trauma of their childhood affects all of the Peterson children, but it propels them in different directions as they grow older. How does it shape each of their adult lives and choices? Did their ways of coping as adults change or remain the same from when they were young?
  13. Were you surprised when, as an adult, Monica grew close to her father? Why do you think this occurred when it did? Do you think that closeness made it harder or easier for her when she discovers what he did to her and JoAnn? Although she intends to confront him about JoAnn's molestation, ultimately she "let him go without words" (276). What do you think of that choice?
  14. When JoAnn's therapist suggests her mother is culpable, Monica is "incensed" (292). Yet her mother's denial and some of Monica's memories make her question what her mother knew. Do you think that she was aware of the abuse?
  15. Monica's childhood is colored by two tragedies — physical and sexual abuse, and neglect and betrayal. Is one more damaging than the other? After reading Driving with Dead People, do you think that her parents genuinely loved her? Do you think she continues to love them?
  16. What character traits — both good and bad — do you think that Monica developed as a result of her early years? How do you think those traits shaped Monica's life?
  17. Monica is a character in her own book, as well as its author, but Driving with Dead People documents the experiences of her whole family. In writing a memoir an author strives to be as accurate as possible, but must rely on her own recollections. How might the memories of other members of her family differ from Monica's own? Do you think she presents an objective portrait of the Petersons? Discuss how she handles writing from JoAnn's perspective in part five of the book.
  18. Why do you think Monica chose to write her story and share it? Which parts were the most difficult to read and which did you enjoy the most? Discuss her writing style and how she confronts the most sensitive and personal parts of her past.

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Driving with Dead People 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 153 reviews.
Mom2ThreeGirls More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was easy to read. I felt as though I was in the room with Ms. Holloway and she was just telling me her story. When you have a rough childhood and an equally difficult adult life, it takes great courage to tell your story. Perhaps even greater courage to admit it was hard to handle. My favorite parts of the book were when Ms Holloway and Julie were at the Funeral Home.
I agree with the last reviewer who compared this book to The Glass Castle.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. Glass Castle is one of my favorites, and while this was not quite as good, it is still well worth your time. It takes a lot of courage to spill your family secrets, and admit to the world that you have a hard time handling it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was one of the best reads i have had in years. having gone to school for funeral directing and having a crazy family myself, i understood moninca's character and related on a personal level, and we are in two totally different generations. this book made me laugh so much and almost brought me to tears at other times. i will be looking for other books by hollaway, after reading this one i can only imagine what her other books must be like.
harstan More than 1 year ago
When Monica Holloway was a little girl in Elk Grove, Ohio, she sat in the passenger seat of her father¿s pickup truck while he would cruise the neighborhoods searching for accidents that he could film the gorier the better. Her ghoulish father had more movies starring strangers in gruesome situations than he had of his children. Thus it is not a shocker that with her Adams family-like beginnings, when Monica turned nine years old she became fascinated with a funeral home, befriending the daughter Julie Kilner of the mortician. Monica and Julie play together in the casket workroom. When they get driving licenses, they obtain jobs driving the hearse. However, although life at the mortuary is fun, at home it proves otherwise as her father is abusive and her mother is too busy taking care of herself to care. Her siblings have their own issues trying to avoid their parents and each other. Yet through this dysfunctional family upbringing, Monica remains a Pollyanna especially when she is with Julia, DRIVING WITH DEAD PEOPLE, or just hanging around the funeral home. That is until she learns how damaging her parents are with one last betrayal. --- This is an offbeat but engaging memoir of an optimistic person who finds salvation in a funeral parlor that enables her to overcome growing up amidst a dysfunctional family. Told with humor and intelligence, Monica Holloway's autobiography provides an inspiration that a person can overcome almost anything by setting goals and thriving to achieve them like this author has even if it means DRIVING WITH DEAD PEOPLE. --- Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
Monica Holloway writes a stunning story. The story begins with her childhood with two parents equally horrible. Her quest to be loved will break your heart and bring you to tears. Monica's will to survive and to do so with humor will inspire you. This is a book I will not soon forget
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wish this book would never end. I related so well to the characters and the author's story. She writes wonderfully and you sort of float through the book. I read it in 3 sittings, I was hooked!
MsErlybird More than 1 year ago
I left a lot undone because I couldn't put down this book. A must-read for all who had horrible childhoods and have not been able to face the dragons. I rejoice in her triumph, and am proud of myself for choosing it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a very fast read, and quite a good book, I enjoyed reading the struggles and the revelations.
AvidReaderElizabeth More than 1 year ago
Seeing the title of this book and reading the jacket, I was prepared for some light reading and humorous accounts of a young girl who got to ride in hearses with her father. As one gets into the story, one discovers that this true story is really a heartrending tale of a too familiar account of childhood abuse. The author conveys with grit and humor how she was able to escape her family and come out triumphantly on the other side. Shame on me, I bought the book for other reasons. This becomes more and more a dark tale and left me feeling emotionally heavy. Not for those who just want a little book for summer relaxation.
imnotauser More than 1 year ago
This book left some thoughts and images with me that have refused to leave....
SlowreaderSA More than 1 year ago
Eye-opening experience into the lives of a broken family. After reading the inside flap and purchasing the book based on the limited information provided, was surprised by the depth of the author's torment. She does an excellent job at drawing the reader into the nightmare that was her past. It's a must read for anybody who thinks they came from a dysfunctional family.
Lallybroch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! It seems that a lot of the memoirs I've read lately have had main characters who did nothing but whine and complain about their terrible childhood and how it wrecked their lives. This was not the case in Driving with Dead People. Monica Holloway was brutally honest in telling her recollections of growing up, but she was also fair. Her story was told with a matter of factness that was refreshing and often funny. Holloway never pointed a finger at any of her family, nor did she adopt a "you ruined by life" type attitude. Her changing perceptions of her family member's were wonderfully portrayed, and I found my own opinions of her parents, for example, changing over the course of the book.This memoir was beautifully written and I would recommend it to fiction and non-fiction readers alike, especially those who enjoyed The Glass Castle
hammockqueen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
although a dark book, Monica Holloway told it with the humor often found in the hurting. Such a tragic family.....talk of dysfunction! I don't know how people even survive these situations. Father an abuser, mother denies any problems and leaves at first chance, leaving kids at home with no money. How can parents do this? Siblings end up with tragic adulthoods as they do all they can to survive. A really tough book to read and yet not. It was written so skillfully that I had to keep with it. Good luck and blessings in your life, Monica. You surely deserve the best.
etxgardener on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Memoir of a woman who overcomes her father's abuse & her mother's narcissism to forge a life for herself. This book should be sold in a boxes set with Running With Scissors and The Glass Castle
maryintexas39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very moving memoir; at times hilarious and at others heart breaking.
ForSix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I first picked up Driving with Dead People: A Memoir, I was expecting a comedic tale about two friends working at a funeral home. Man, that is so not what this book is all about. This memoir covers Monica Holloway¿s life beginning when she was about four years old until she was 43. She writes about what happened in her daily life, growing up with a father who was violent and a mother who was in denial. With parents like that, it¿s no wonder Ms. Holloway and her siblings grew up with a certain amount of dysfunction. Oh, and did I mention that she was totally obsessed with the death of a nine year old local girl? One of the reasons I like memoirs is because it¿s the truth as the writer knows it. Is it what really happened? I don¿t know. What I do know is it¿s what Ms. Holloway believes. She was very inspiring to me from the beginning. I¿m amazed at how a person has the strength to overcome something as debilitating as abuse, be it mental, physical or sexual. I don¿t know how they get up each and every day and deal with it. How they resist the urge to crawl up in a little ball, buried under the cover and actually get out of bed and face whatever comes to them that day. And that¿s exactly what she does. She finds ways to escape, to cope. The most awe-inspiring thing about her is that in spite of how insignificant her parents make her feel, she doesn¿t believe it. She may have her doubts, but she¿s a fighter. There are many good quotes in the memoir. Here are some of my favorites: ¿The outside now matched the inside ¿ damaged beyond all repair.¿ Without getting too much into my past, this line affected me the most. It¿s one thing to have physical signs of abuse, but it¿s quite another to carry it all on the inside where no one knows about it but you and your abuser. I think she explains it best with the following quote: ¿I wish there had been obvious signs of destruction on all of us kids: bruises or burn marks, something that indicated how violent our house was, but words and neglect don¿t leave visible marks. And that confuses even the person who knows better.¿ She had her struggles too, as you can see from this brutally honest quote: ¿My whole life, I wanted to be dead, but I didn¿t actually do anything about it. I guess I didn¿t want to be dead: I wanted relief. I wanted to be happy and peaceful.¿ Finally, I think she sums it up nicely with this: ¿I would work on trying to forgive myself, and I would ask others for forgiveness too.¿ I recommend this book to anyone as a study of resiliency. It doesn¿t matter if you were personally touched by abuse in your past. Everyone can learn a little something from this, even if it¿s just how to forgive and find your peace.
artistlibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another memoir. I didn't read the book jacket and somehow got the impression that it would be funny. Growing up around hearses and morticians seemed somehow funny. But when Monica's grandmother gassed her own cat in the first chapter, I knew I wouldn't be laughing for many evenings.Like many people who tell their story, Monica must have told hers as part of a therapy breakthrough. It's gritty and still a bit raw, but we certainly can't shut her out. It's a rather quick read so give her a few hours of your attention and you just might come away thinking differently about the similarities between life and death.
sunfi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of a girl from a dysfunctional family, she finds a way to escape her life into a funeral home as a child and then working at the establishment in her teen years. The story took an unexpected twist and I think at that part the writer really stretched herself and her true abilities really came out. Glad I read this one.
TheLoopyLibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Driving with Dead People is a brutally honest memoir with heart. The author recounts a dreadful childhood without any ounce of self pity. Instead she intertwines happy and humorous memories with the unhappy ones, and the result is good storytelling that ends with hope and possibility.
burnit99 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A memoir by Monica Holloway, who as a child is fascinated by the local funeral home, and with her best friend loves to take turns lying in their favorite coffins in the casket showroom. Hers is a dysfunctional family, with a violent, abusive father and a mother who denies and covers it all up. Monica grows up with a shattered self-image, to say the least, but also a strong survival instinct and a sardonic humor that protects her. She will need this later in life, when she finds out the true extent of her parents' abuse. This is a memoir of family abuse, emotional destruction and the long journey into the light, and I've read many, but this is a good one.
lcrouch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought this book beautifully written and moving. How the author/heroine is able to overcome the family dysfunction and sexual abuse is truly amazing. Her salvation turns out to be the local undertaker's daughter. That family provided a safe a sane haven, possibly without even suspecting the problems in her home. My heart breaks for the brother, who was truly the tragic casualty of this family.
lizard_qn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book!! And I am so sad that I have finished it already, because I will miss Monica and her family, her friends, and her life in general. I could read this book again, and probably will eventually, but this is a book that I would love to hear what happens later in her life, besides what is in the epilogue. This book was recommended to me by a friend, who thought that it was o.kay. I found that the book is more than o.kay, it is awesome! It wasn't what I thought it was going to be, a memoir of crazy high school days made interesting by driving a hearse, it went much deeper than that.In this memorable memoir Monica tells her story, from childhood into adulthood, in a candid and humorous way, but you also found all of the horrors and felt her pain in her blunt sentences and matter of fact writing. It is not a sugar coated tail of a fairy tale childhood, but a twisted ride through life, where many times she felt dead, worthless, and wanted desperately to dull the pain... she just wanted someone to notice her and care for her in her childhood, and after years of neglect, she found it in many different ways growing up in lonely house, sleeping with a schizo boyfriend who holds a rifle to her head, a grandma who killed her own cat by locking it in the garage with the car running, picking up dead bodies at the airport, cruising down Main street in the hearse, a father who lines the kids up to watch the home videos, which are mixed with images of dying animals and disasters... trying out coffins in the town morturary (her best friend Julie's dad owns the town mortuary)...and ironically enough, a hearse is always in the background, like her ride through life. Until she confronts the abuse and neglect, says good bye to the lost childhood in Ohio, and moves on into her adult life and finds out what love is. It is amazing she made it through this crazy and twisted childhood and her memoir shows how humor, resiliancy, and determination can make you stronger. Just like the author's picture on the back of the book; shoulders back, head up, smiling, and strong looking. She is a survivor.
TRS1 More than 1 year ago
Great writing, hard to put down. A very honest look at a dysfunctional family and how just because the abuse is over doesn't mean that life is normal. I felt for the author and what she and her siblings went through. Even though the undertone of the book is quite serious, there are still some funny moments. A great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago