All Those Bumpy Roads

   by Terry Barr

            “Why do we always have to ride on this bumpy road? The super highway is smoother!”

            “The super highway takes longer; it’s out of our way.”

            Each Sunday night I’d ask, and each Sunday night my Dad would answer in the same way, completing the ritual our family began about 2:00 each Sunday afternoon:

            “C’mon boys, you need to get ready to go to Ma-Ma’s.”

            Without fail, my brother Mike and I would continue stalling, for at least another ten or fifteen minutes until he found us again: in the front yard playing tackle football or World War Two; in our bedroom watching the AFL on our portable black and white TV, the only set receiving the UHF band where Channel 42, that carried the upstart league, dwelled; or in the den reading DC comics, “Detective,” “World’s Finest,” or “Justice League.” His face would be a bit redder, his voice just a bit sharper:

            “Boys! I don’t want to have to tell you again. Now start getting ready!”

            In reality, no one ever wants a parent to tell him something again. Even at the age of seven or nine, though, a boy will calculate risks against rewards. And in the fantasy of a game of tackle, or in the mediated reality of the Jets versus the Bills, another touchdown pass might develop, a potential loss could transform into a last second win.

            All in another five minutes, until…

            “I’m NOT going to tell you again!”

            And so games end, TV flicks off, Batman and Robin remain at the mercy of the Outsider. We trudge to the car, after re-dressing in our Sunday best, and embark on the 30-minute ride to our grandmother’s apartment in the red-brick enclave just at the edge of Mountain Brook, a village “over the mountain” from Birmingham. This enclave was home to elderly Jewish people, some formerly well-off; others like my Ma-Ma living off her husband’s pension, with the aid of Dad and Aunt Carole. It’s not that we never had fun at Ma-Ma’s; it’s just that there was a certain ritual there that we had to conform to. Nothing bad, just watching the Bear Bryant Alabama football replay; eating cold cuts from Browdy’s, the village deli; and then making ourselves scarce while the adults played bridge or pinochle, though in our Sunday best, our scarcity was fairly constrained to casual walks around the complex or to simply sitting on the back steps and listening to MaMa’s transistor radio and the hits from WSGN. Sometimes the constraint was profitable, though, like the time we found my uncle’s stash of Playboys. My Aunt Carole and Uncle Leo lived in an apartment across the street and usually left their front door unlocked. So Mike and I became acquainted with certain months of the year, certain times of many seasons.

            That at least was some measure of control; another was the road we took home. If Dad did as usual and took us back the same way we came, on Shannon Road, we might be able to persuade him to stop at one of the drugstores in Mountain Brook village—Wal-Green’s, Rexall, or Rich’s—and buy us comic books or football cards. I’d say we were successful maybe four times out of ten. Dad would have said seven or eight. Whatever the number, there was often grumbling, and sometimes worse.

            But I’d sacrifice those comics and cards for the other choice: taking the super highway, which meant we’d crest Red Mountain and see the city glittering below us; descend into that city and drive down 20th Street pass restaurant row, and then turn left on Second Avenue, passing the movie theaters, the Melba and the Strand, and finally, the Ritz, where on one occasion its marquee announced the feature Village of the Damned, a movie my parents would never let me see, what with those alien children whose eyes glowed an eerie white light.

            On that smoother route—over roads paved with slick asphalt—we’d pass Rickwood Field, home to the Birmingham Barons, though in many of these racially-unrested years, Birmingham yielded its team to distant Mobile. Our true mecca, though, came just a bit later at Fair Park where each fall the state fair would camp for two weeks. In the other weeks of the year—save December, January, and February—Kiddie Land beckoned.

            Maybe one out of the every ten times I’d ask for the super highway, Dad would relent. And maybe out of every one time that we’d take this smoother route, on the fourth or fifth attempt, I’d succeed in getting him to stop at Kiddie Land where we’d ride the enormous Ferris wheel or the not-so-steep roller coaster or maybe attempt the tilt-a-whirl. One time we even brave d“Laughter in the Dark,” a three-seat car ride with twin clown faces over the entrance—happy, sad—welcoming all into a maze of werewolves, vampires, and ghouls, all contained behind cages but moving frantically as if to escape.

            One ride I could never get my parents on, though, was the Runaway Mouse, a one-car roller coaster that ran on an illogically sloping track, making abrupt u-turns at hill crests, and racing down those slopes with, as my Mom would say, “reckless abandon.” Nothing so smooth here: a ride I’ll always see in my carnival dreams but at this point in my life, will never conquer.

            Mom would only ride the Merry-Go-Round with me, Dad, all the others: the scooters, the swings, and even, at the end, the live ponies. Mike, being so little in those years, was usually relegated to the mini-coaster and tiny merry-go-round, but they were still rides and he loved them.

            This, the smooth ride home, was a ride well-lit all the way as we passed through the communities of Fairfield, Midfield, Brighton, and then through our own downtown Bessemer. After such a Sunday, I actually might not ask for a favor, a deviation, the following Sunday. I might be happy, content, the following week at kindergarten or school, and might not even wet my bed at all over the following days.

            A trip to Kiddie-Land on those smooth roads abated all my childhood anxieties of darkness and silence and of being alone, if only temporarily. If only my parents had understood; if only they could have felt the smoothness and the bumps within me.

                                                            *****

            Shannon Road was paved with gravel embedded into it, which was why I called it bumpy. How could a boy my age feel all those bumps, know the difference, or care? It also had twists and near figure eight turns that caused my brother car-sickness. Still, my Dad insisted on this main course, his habitual route.

            But these physical features weren’t the only or even the truest bumps; those were found more potently in the darker shadows of that lonely road once we passed Homewood, Edgemont, and Wildwood: once we entered the unlit, wooded stretches that for several miles were broken only by the occasional and random light pole stuck off on a hill next to someone’s isolated ranch-style house, the one with that sad speckled white horse drifting nearby.

I could imagine all sorts of terrors on those dark rides, but none to match what I saw on one ride home, the real reason why this trail was too bumpy for me—why I preferred the longer way back.

            I always wondered what would happen to us if our car broke down at night on Shannon Road; in the daylight once, on the way over, we did have a flat tire, which Dad promptly and expertly changed. I tried to calm these feelings, sitting in the back seat alone, my brother, when he was a baby, stuck up front between my parents. I’d hear the clicking sound Dad made by switching on the bright light button on the floorboard; I’d see the lights illuminate the trees lining either side of the road, a tunnel of trees in the middle of nowhere stretching on and on. And often, I’d close my eyes then while listening to NBC’s “Monitor” on the AM dial, wishing we were home.

            Sometimes I’d turn around and look out the back windshield and see the darkness of where we’d been. Sometimes another car would pass us, racing to some destination as fast as I’d wish we’d go. But Dad would never accelerate past the 45 mph limit. Except, in my memory, this one time.

            We saw the red taillights for at least a mile up ahead of us. A car going twice as slow as we were. It was certainly okay to pass on this road, and as we got closer, for once Dad took his chance. As we got closer, I saw the tail wings of this Chevy, a Bel-Air maybe, but I don’t really know cars. Never did.

            But we all knew this car, a fact confirmed as we drew alongside the driver’s window.

            “That’s Miz Becker,” Dad said.

            “It sure is,” Mom replied. “What’s she doing out on this road at this time of night?”

            As we passed, I could see Miz Becker driving alone, leaning over the steering wheel, struggling, it seemed, to keep her car steady on this bumpy road.

            “This isn’t safe,” Dad said. “What if she had a flat tire?”

            Miz Becker lived one block down from us. A widow now, her husband had been President of the Bessemer Public Library, a man much beloved in our town. MIz Becker was the first person to buy a ticket from me for the Cub Scout Jamboree. I remember this so well because when, a few years later, I began hearing the biting stereotypes of how Jews were “tight with money,” I’d remember that the first, and for days the only, person to buy a ticket was Eva Becker, the only Jewish person in our neighborhood, besides my Dad.

            I looked back at Miz Becker as we pulled past her and into the right lane again. The dome light was glowing in her car that night. Maybe that comforted her now that she was all alone out here, Mr. Becker having passed just the previous winter. I wondered whom she had been visiting, where she had been--something else I’d never know.

            It’s one thing to be scared for a seventy-five year old woman driving home late at night by herself down a darkened road. But I guess it would have been another thing entirely to have signaled her, to have stayed just ahead of her the rest of the ride home, a journey still of roughly nine or ten miles. We could have escorted her home, two cars moving as if attached over the remaining hills and through those crazy turns. Why we didn’t is just one more thing I’ll never know.

            I do know she made it back, for the next morning, there was her car in her driveway, like usual. Still, for every time after that we drove on Shannon Road—the exact number would be a product of 104 multiplied by fifteen or sixteen, and then having added to it some number of other excursions to the zoo, suburban theaters, or new shopping centers—amidst the darkness, the trees, and isolated radio voices calling in the night from distant worlds, or through even my night-dreaming of the clown faces from a house of thrills, I’d think of Miz Becker driving home by herself. Of all that that meant, all we didn’t do, and all that I had to look forward to one day when I got old.





    Terry Barr's essays have appeared in Red Fez, scissors and spackle, Blue Lyra Review, the Jewish Literary Review, and in Half Life: Jew-Ish Tales from Interfaith Homes. He teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College in Greenville, SC, with his wife and daughters.