The first time I flew, I was 7 and sick with a bad cold. Knowing now what I know about cabin pressure, I'm surprised my little head didn't explode like a frog with a firecracker up its ass and splatter the entire cabin with snot. It certainly felt like it would. My mother, who was a little useless at conventional mothering, was commonly at a loss when her kids were sick. Whenever it happened, the most we could hope for was a show of odd courtesies, such as the time my sister got to choose the cartoons we could watch after she came home from the hospital after shoving a button so far up her nose it almost reached her brain, and this time, when being sick somehow afforded me special seating priority.
"Your sister's sick," my mother reminded the rest of the family. "Let her sit by the window."
The flight lasted 500 years, or at least it seemed that way. We were leaving to live in Florida, where my mother had scored work designing rockets for NASA. Until then, most of our nomadic lives had been confined to the state of California, which is luckily a large state. In my seven years, we had moved nine times, from Northern to Southern California, but nowhere in between, just lots of different places jumbled at either extreme.
Before my mother landed that contract, we had been living in a somewhat dilapidated apartment project in Costa Mesa, and before that we had lived in a minor mansion on 17 Mile Drive in Monterrey. When it came to contract work building missiles and rockets for the government, my mother's income would ebb and flow in accordance with each administration. Either there would be a huge demand for bombs and rockets or hardly any at all, with our lifestyles inevitably reflecting either extreme and nowhere in between.
Right before we packed up to move to Florida, my father had been selling Silver Streak trailers at a big convention down at the fairgrounds. The Silver Streak brand was the poor man's answer to Airstream, or the "affordable option," as my father used to put it, though we couldn't afford one ourselves. My mother was between contracts then, and she helped decorate the different types of trailers. There were four, so she chose the four seasons as a theme. I remember the fall-season trailer the best because she had literally sprinkled the small kitchen table with dead leaves.
Even at 7 I questioned the aesthetic of dead leaves, but it was a motif that would stay with my mother for the rest of her life. Years later, she decided to "go tropical" with our living room one day by festooning the walls with giant palm fronds and circling bamboo place mats around a centerpiece that turned out to be a large ornate opium pipe she'd picked up at Pier 1. That happened after we'd moved yet again, this time back to California, because when it came to locales it was always the east or the west, one coast or the other, and nowhere in between.
In the fall-season trailer, the kitchen table converted into a double bed after you dismantled it, dropped it down, positioned it to fill the space between the booths flanking both sides, and evened it out by adding the cushions that formerly made up the backrests. In the end, you had a bed that was every bit as comfortable as a bag of broken glass, but my mother seemed to think that feature was amazing. Somehow the trailer slept six, though nearly all the sleeping areas required similar convoluted conversions before you could actually sleep in them.
"Really, it's simple," my mother would say as conversationally as possible to any passers-through. "You just pull this out, push this up and anchor it here. Isn't that amazing?" Turns out what's simple for a missile scientist isn't necessarily so overall, which might be one reason the poor man's answer to Airstream faded into oblivion with hardly a blip on the history of trailer consumerism. But until then, my mother was trying like hell to help my father sell one.
On top of the trailer's kitchen table, in the middle of the leaves, she had placed two carved decoy ducks. The Silver Streak company folded soon after the convention, and none of the decorative accents my mother had personally provided the four show trailers were returned to her. Of considerable value, she complained, were the decoy ducks in the fall-season trailer. She still lamented their loss even as she sat next to me on the plane ride to Florida, where she was due to start her new job and we our new lives. Again.
Today, I keep remembering my mother in the trailer, marveling at the many inward conversions it was capable of in order to sleep six. We were a family of six, she joked. We could all live there. "Really, it's so simple," she'd say to customers, who scurried away from her like aloof, pampered cats. They could sense her hope, I realize now, that if my father could just sell a trailer, then maybe my mother wouldn't have to convert inwardly again in order to sleep a family of six. Maybe all of us could just stay in one place for once, and stop moving to extremes.
Hollis Gillespie will host a reading and signing of her second book, Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories, at 8 p.m., Oct. 7, at Bound to be Read, 481 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-522-0877.
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