Street Lamps and the Four of Us

old brown sedan was already running and as we got closer the hushed voices of night radio breathed from the car.

“Street Lamps and the Four of Us”

I will always remember the way she woke me up that night. My mother kneeled beside my bed, and brushed the hair off my forehead. She whispered into my ear, her breath was heavy and smelled like menthol cigarettes and sugar, “Sammy, wake up honey. We are going in the car for a little bit.” I must have turned over in resistance, or squeezed my eyes shut, trying to keep the yellow glow of the hallway light out of my eyes, because she started to beg. “Come on Sammy, please, the car is nice and warm and you can keep your pjs on.” I couldn’t open my eyes; they just fluttered between the yellow light and the outline of her face. “Ok, I will help you, I know you are tired, I’m sorry,” my mother said, as she slid her hands under my arms and sat me upright. “Where are Robyn and Ryan? Are they coming too?” I asked, rubbing my eyes with my small fists.
“Yes, they are waiting in the living room, we have to go now.”
“Where are we going?”
“Not far, you can sleep in the car.”
“Okay, Mommy”
Just a few hours ago my mother was in her grey pajamas, watching Fraggle Rock with my brother, sister and me. She called us her “little soldiers”- we always walked together in a single file line and followed her every rule. My mother had all three of us before she was twenty seven, in the past six years she went from being the counter girl at a local spa and hotel to being a married mother with three children between the ages of five and three. It was everything she ever wanted. At 7:30, when Fraggle Rock was over, my older sister Robyn said, “Its time for us to brush our teeth, right mom?” At sixyears old, Robyn acted like a second mother to Ryan and me. She would boss us both around and do anything to please my mother.
As soon as I put my foot on the floor, my leg immediately retracted back under the covers, it was cold. I forced my foot back on the floor, then the other, it didn’t feel like I was in my room, everything, even my mother was a shadow. I followed her into the living- room; Robyn was sitting on the couch, wide awake, dressed in her yellow pajamas and pink winter coat. She was looking into a small pocket mirror, running her finger over the reddish-brown scabbing that seemed to be trickling out of her mouth. She had contracted Impetigo a few days before her first grade class picture. The morning the picture was taken, my mother did her best to cover it with foundation, but in the picture, the cakey-brown makeup actually makes it looks worse. In the picture Robyn looks tiny; her red -curly hair hangs limp around her frail face and her eyes are distant, sad and blue. Her lips barely lift into a smile, she is straining to be still and careful not to mess the makeup.
“Robyn, it will never heal if you keep touching it,” my mother said, as she zipped my coat up to my neck.
“I know, but it itches!” Robyn said, snapping the mirror shut.
My mother was no longer in her grey pajamas. She was wearing tight blue jeans, and a slim fitting blue and red plaid shirt that she tucked into her jeans. The sides of her straight brown hair were pulled up with small brown and gold flecked barrettes. Pink blush was streaked across her cheekbones and she had brushed black mascara on her top and bottom lashes. We don’ look like our mother at all. She has no freckles and her face and nose are long and angular. She has dark green eyes and thin hair. The three of us have round features and large, light blue eyes and little noses that slope up at the tip. In the summer, freckles dot across our noses and cheeks and our hair is thick and coarse.

“We should go,” my mother said, handing Robyn and I juice cups and small plastic bags filled with cereal.
Ryan was on the couch next to Robyn, he had fallen back asleep. Ryan is eighteen months older than me, but still looked like a baby at five years old. His cheeks were enormous and always flushed red and hot. His wheat colored hair was cut in a circular style that fell into his eyes and brushed the top of his ears. The first few teeth in his smile were brown and cracked like broken beer bottles. He had bottle rot from sucking on apple juice bottles for too long. But my mother couldn’t bare to hear him cry from his crib, so she gave him the juice bottles, and in the end, his adult teeth grew in straight and shiny. Robyn walked over to Ryan and pulled his chubby little hands.
“Ryan, its time to go,” Robyn huffed.
“Come on bear-hug,” my mother added.
Ryan slumped off the couch and followed Robyn, who followed my mother past the kitchen and through the front door. All I could see was Ryan’s hair and think how it looked smooth like honey. My mother held the screen door open with her right arm and let us, her little soldiers, pass under her left arm into the cold night air. I had never been outside in that kind of darkness. It was a moonless night sometime in early fall, the humid salty air of summer time on the Jersey shore had turned sharp and crisp reminding you that winter was coming. As I followed Ryan across the front lawn, towards my mother’s car, the wet grass soaked my slippered-feet and seeped towards my ankle. The old brown sedan was already running and as we got closer the hushed voices of night radio breathed from the car.
Robyn opened the door and climbed in; she slid to the far left, behind my mother and buckled herself in.
“Mom, should I buckle Ryan and Sam in” Robyn asked, tapping my mom on the shoulder.
“Thank you, my big girl.”
Robyn unbuckled herself and leaned across Ryan to pull the seatbelt across my lap, and then she attended to Ryan.
“We are all ready mom.”
“Thank you,” my mom said, turning around and placing her hand Robyn’s pale cheek.
In the few inches between Ryan and me the brown vinyl had torn and a billowy white material leaked from the hole. I did my best to stuff it back in with my left thumb. Condensation had begun to collect on the inside of the windows, my wrist grazed the wetness and I hated the way it felt; the way the coldness seemed to hold on to the back of my neck. I looked at my mother a few times from my low and limited view that the back seat provided. I couldn’t see all of her at once, just bits of the puzzle. I saw her lips wrapped tightly around a Virginia Slim Menthol cigarette in the rearview mirror. I saw her shoulders high up around her neck as if they were being pulled by some invisible strings. And I saw her eyes, her red, red eyes.
Once the car started moving, it seemed like the only thing left in the world were blurry street lamps and the four of us. Robyn remained alert and concerned with her Impetigo and my mother. Every few minutes she pushed herself up and stretched her neck to catch a reflection of herself in the mirror, than she would run her index finger over the impetigo, then place her hand on my mother’s shoulder to comfort her. Ryan slept the whole time. As soon as Ryan sat down in the car his head slumped to the right side and he fell fast asleep. He has never been much of a worrier, and still cannot recall that night.
After the last street lamp floated past, my mother turned in front of a short, white building that was covered in neon signs. Each time the door opened, loud music and laughing adults stumbled out.
“Are we here, mommy?” I asked.
“Shhh! Sam, mom is thinking!” Robyn snapped.
“Yeah Sammy, I think we are,” my mom said with a loud sigh.
My mother tipped the rearview mirror down and ran her fingers though her bangs. “Oh God, I can’t believe I have to go in there looking like this,” she said, her voice cracking. She turned around and looked at Robyn and me sternly and said, “Do not move from this car! Do you understand? I am locking the door, but if anyone comes near the car I want you to get into the front seat and beep the horn very hard, do you understand? I will only be a few minutes.”
“Yes mom, I understand. I will look after Ryan and Sam,” Robyn proudly said.
My mother looked at me, raising her eyebrows. I nodded in compliance. “Ok, then, remember what I told you.” She turned around, straightened her shoulders and opened the door. The overhead lights came on and Ryan flinched in protest, and then settled back into sleep. I watched out the window and watched as my mother’s thin body grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared behind the door. Once she was gone, I was scared she would never come back and Robyn would have to be my mother. Tears began to well up in my lower eyelids, I tried to shut them off, swallow them whole but it didn’t work.
“Why are you crying, Samantha?” Robyn asked.
“My feet are wet, it makes me feel cold,” I cried.
“You should go to sleep, I will stay up.”
I closed my eyes and pressed my head against the damp cold glass of the window but I couldn’t get the thought of my disappearing mother out of my head. Every few seconds, I opened my eyes to check if she was one of the adults stumbling out of the door. When she did come out, she wasn’t stumbling but crying. It was the first time I saw my mother cry, she looked horrible. Her mouth was wide open in a suspended yawn, as she got closer I could see the tears and snot rolling down her chin. Before she got to the car, she stopped, turned around and leaned her back against the car. She raised her left arm to wipe her face with the back of her hand. Robyn knocked on the window, which startled my mother, making her stand at attention. She shook her hands dry, then kicked at the ground and shouted at some unknown man in the sky. As she walked around to the driver’s side she dug into her pocketbook and retrieved a cigarette. She cupped her hands around her face as she lit the cigarette, and for a moment my mother’s face was clear in the bright, orange light. She didn’t looked young and soft anymore like she did in her grey pajamas. She got into the car and softly shut the door, and said, “Okay my soldiers, lets go back home.” After she started the car, once again, the world became only street lamps and the four of us, and we drove home without my father in the front seat.

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