The Chatauqua

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Fall 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 3

Mom threw a package of Lady Diapers on the kitchen table. “Okay, girls. Suit up.”

I froze. My eyes darted from my mother to the plastic underpants.

“Chop-chop.” She snapped her fingers twice and shoved the package toward me. “Suit up.”

My younger sister, Mel, walked into the room, her eyes glazed over from a marathon day of gaming.

“What’s up?” Mel rubbed her eyes with the backs of her thumbs. I pointed at the Lady Diapers. She picked them up, read the label, and handed them to Mom. “Sorry,” she said. “Must be rough getting old.” Mel turned and opened the fridge.

“They’re not for her, idiot!” I waved them in Mel’s face. “They’re for us!”

She looked at me and then at Mom. “I don’t have a problem with that.” She hesitated. “You know.” She pointed at her crotch. “That.”

“No, darling.” Mom laughed. “They’re not for you for that.” She ripped open the package. “They’re for all of us to wear, for the ride.” She held one out to me. “I’m not stopping for anything ´til we get there.”

Mel’s eyes widened. “´Til we get where?”

“There,” Mom said. “There.”

“Oh, no.” I put my head in my hands. “We’re not going there again, are we?”

“Where?” Mel´s thumbs started to work an invisible game controller, her anxiety beginning to kick in.

“We’re going on a Chatauqua!” Mom clapped her hands in glee. The lamp on the sideboard turned on.

“A Cha-what?”

“A Chatauqua,” I groaned. “It´s something she read about in a book a thousand years ago. We went on a friggin´ Chatauqua right after she and dad divorced.”

“I was three when they divorced,” Mel said.

I smiled. “Remember the horsey and the hamburgers?” I pulled out one of Mel´s recurring nightmares. She turned white as a sheet. “Yeah,” I said. “That was the end of that Chatauqua.”

Mom took Mel’s face in her hands, scrunching my sister´s cheeks together. “Oh, you’ll love it. We´ll drive and drive and we won’t stop until we get there.” Mom kissed her on her wrinkled nose.

Mel shook mom´s wrists. “Where is there?”

“There is a mystical land of rainbows and unicorns,” I said, “where everyone is happy and there’s lobster every night for dinner.” I sat on a chair, tossing a Lady Diaper back and forth from hand to hand.

“Sounds like ´My Little Pony,´” Mel said. “What? Are we going to PonyCon?”

“PonyCon?” Mom’s eyes lit up. Rainbows and unicorns was exactly what she was looking for. “What’s PonyCon?”

“God, Mom,” Mel said. “It’s some lame convention where these geeky teenagers go to talk about their love of ´My Little Pony.´”

“Ponies?” I smiled. “Can you say ´horsey burgers?´”

Mel shot me a look. “We’re not going to PonyCon, Mom,” she said.

“Well,” Mom stuck out her chin. “We’re going somewhere. We’ll find out where when we get there.” She walked around the kitchen table, grabbed a diaper and swatted Mel with it. “Suit up.”

“Mom. It’s six o’clock. How far do you think we’re going to get tonight? Where the hell do you think we’re gonna go?” Normally, I leave the swearing to Mel, but at the age of eighteen an occasional ´hell´ let Mom know I meant business.

“Sweetie, don’t worry your pretty little head.” She walked toward the bathroom with the pants. “Leave the driving and the worrying to me.” She closed the bathroom door behind her.

Mel looked at me and then at the Lady Diapers. “You gonna put those on?”

I picked mine up. “I’d like to say no, but I have a feeling it might be best to wear it. God only knows what she´s thinking.”

“She’s not.”

“I know,” I said. “Besides, what´ll come first, the need to pee or get gas?” Mel frowned. “Our elusive destination, There, exists at the end of a tank of gas,” I said.

“What is this Chatauqua thing, anyway?” Mel´s thumbs were flying.

I stood up. “We get in the car and drive without a destination, just to see where we end up.”

“We’ll get lost.” Mel´s brow furrowed deeper.

“Well, that’s kind of the idea,” I said. “Only, if you have no destination, you can’t get lost. Right?”

Mel rolled her eyes. “If you don’t have a destination, why bother going anywhere?”

“For the ride,” Mom said, walking back into the kitchen. “For the ride.” She hugged Mel. “Sometimes, honey, it just helps to have a change of scenery.” Mom tugged at the plastic pants under her jeans and did a half squat, sticking her butt out behind her as far as she could. “Sometimes you just have to feel the wind in your hair, you know what I mean?” She stood, sliding her hands down her jeans to smooth them, and smiled.

Mel looked at Mom, then at me. “I guess it’s time to suit up.”

I smiled. “Yup. Let’s put these babies on.”

Mom loaded the car with bottled water and granola bars, but most of our sustenance would come after we arrived wherever it was we ended up. Although most of the time we were poster children for Whole Foods, road trips were Mom´s excuse to let go. “One burger isn´t going to kill you,” she would say. Mel, however, only ate the fish sandwiches, never having completely let go of the horsey burger nightmare.

“Shotgun,” I called, heading for the garage.

Mel groaned. “Okay, but at the first stop, we switch.” I laughed. She still didn´t get it. We weren´t going to stop.

Mel climbed into the back seat of the faded white 1982 Ford Country Squire station wagon Mom refused to get rid of. “I’ve had it longer than I had your father,” she said. “You don’t just get rid of something that reliable.” Thus its name – Old Reliable.

She turned the key, counted to three. Turned the key again. Counted to three. Turned the key again, and a plume of black smoke choked out of the tail pipe. “Bingo! We have lift off!”

I rammed the earbuds of my iTouch deep into my ears and turned the volume up as high as it would go. I peered into the backseat at Mel. She frantically thumbed her DS, the old headphones Dad gave her covering her ears. Despite our attempts, we both knew that we would have to suffer through Mom’s newest musical fascination.

As if on cue, Mom pressed play on the CD player she had installed under the ancient dashboard, filling Old Reliable from dash to liftgate with music. Yup, we´d be making our way through this Chatauqua with Josh Groban wailing in the background. “Perfect!” Mom was in heaven. Mel and I sunk deeper into our seats.

Putting the car in reverse, Mom backed Old Reliable out of the garage, shoved it into gear and headed down the long driveway.

The car stuttered to a stop before we reached the street. Evidently, Old Reliable was less enthusiastic about this trip than Mel and I were.

Mom turned the key again. “Come on, baby. Come on,” she pleaded. Old Reliable sputtered and choked, pinged and rattled. A soft, almost apologetic hissing under the hood was her last gasp. “Shoooooot.” Mom let the word out long and slow, like a balloon with a small hole in it. She leaned her head on the steering wheel.

Mel sat up straight. I turned off my iTouch. Josh Groban was the soundtrack to the death of our Chatauqua.

“It’s a sign from God.” Mom moaned.

“We don’t believe in God.” Mel was very black and white.

“I believe someone is screwing around with my life!” Mom pounded a fist on the dash, popping Josh Groban out of the CD player, stopping him in mid croon.

Mom opened the car door and walked back to the house. Mel and I sat in the car, in our Lady Diapers.

“Now what?” Mel always needed to know what was supposed to happen next.

I was at a loss. “I guess we’re not going anywhere.”

“I was just getting used to this whole stupid Chatauqua thing.”

“Me, too.” I opened the car door and started to follow Mom. I turned to Mel. “You coming?”

“In a minute.” She scrunched back into her seat.

When I got to the house, Mom was already upstairs in her bed, the TV on, watching a documentary on bees.

“You okay, Mom?”

“Did you know that honey bees can fly as far as six miles and go as fast as fifteen miles an hour?”

“Nope.” I sat down on the bed next to her. “Didn’t know that.”

She smiled at me. “That’s farther and faster than Old Reliable.”

“Maybe we can rent a car tomorrow?”

“No,” she sighed. “That’s too much work. Too much preparation. That’s not the point of a Chatauqua.”

“What is the point of a Chatauqua?”

She leaned back into her pillow. “Just … to go.” She closed her eyes.

Mom had just broken up with her latest boyfriend, one of a string of helpless middle-aged widowers she seemed to attract. Going on a Chatauqua probably meant she was rethinking her life.

I hugged her. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

“It’s okay, honey.” She rubbed my back. “Just a little restless is all. I’ll be okay in the morning.”

I walked back to the kitchen. Mel hurried through the door. “I have an idea,” she said. “Come with me!”


“Don’t ask questions. Just get a flashlight and come!” She grabbed one of the Lady Diapers still on the kitchen table and ran back out the door. I searched a drawer for a flashlight and followed her.

She ran to the car and got in the driver’s side. “Good.”

“What’s good?”

“Mom left the keys in the ignition.”

I had a sense of foreboding. “That’s good?”

“That’s great.” She fiddled with the key. The engine turned over, but then stalled.

Her face glowed in the dark as she held her iTouch close and fingered the touchscreen. “No,” she said, finger scrolling down the screen. “No. No. Yes! This one!”

“What are you doing?”

“What was your grade in science last year?”

“D. Why?”

“Yeah, well, mine was an A. I like to know how things work. How things are put together. What makes things do what they do?”

“I need a science lecture why?”

“You don’t need a science lecture.” She popped the latch, springing open the hood over the engine. She got out of the car and lifted the hood as far as it would go. “Here,” she said, slapping the Lady Diaper into my chest. “Hold onto this. And hold the light so I can see.”

“I don’t feel good about this.” I wasn´t at all sure what a thirteen year old science geek might be able to do to fix Old Reliable. I was sure, though, that whatever she did would probably kill one or both of us.

“Oh, don’t be a wuss.” She leaned the top half of her body deep into Old Reliable’s gaping maw. “Hand me the diaper!” Her voice echoed through the engine.

“What? Why?”

“Just hand me the diaper.” She extended her hand up and out of the engine, waving it at me blindly. “Trust me!”

“Jeezis.” I put the diaper in her hand.

“Duck tape,” she called. “In the glove box! Get it!”

“Jeez. Hold on!” I opened the car door, found the duck tape, and handed the roll to her.

Mel handed it back to me. “Rip a piece off. Gimme a foot.”

“A foot?”

“A foot! Twelve inches! Gimme a foot of duct tape!” Her feet lifted off the ground the deeper she sank into the engine, and she was batting them back and forth. She looked all-the-world like the last visible bits of a Great White´s meal, about to enter the first stage of digestion.

“Keep your shirt on.” I ripped a length of tape and handed it to her, pulling apart the pieces that kept sticking together.

“Okay.” Mel was mumbling.


“Nothing. Talking to myself. Stuff it in there. Okay. Wrap it around. Around. Around.”

“How’s it going?”

“Almost there!”

“Almost where?” I fought the urge to ask her what it was she was doing with a Lady Diaper and duct tape. I might not be a whiz at science, but I was smart enough to know that no matter what she did the plastic pants would probably melt from the heat of the engine.

“Ha!” She shimmied herself out of Old Reliable and jumped to the ground. “Fixed!” She brushed her hands on her jeans as she walked to the driver’s side and got into the seat. “Please, God, let her start,” she said, eyes closed.

“We don’t believe in God.”

“I believe in anything or anyone that will get this car started.”

She reached for the key, hesitant. “You better stand back,” she said, a bit too ominously for comfort. I backed away, then backed away some more.

“Okay,” she said. “On the count of three. One, two, three.” She turned the key.

The engine caught, turned over, roaring to life. Black smoke billowed out of the exhaust pipe, turned to white, and then became clear.

“Whooooooo hooooo!” Mel hit the steering wheel so hard that the CD player shut and Josh Groban once again filled the night air.

I hopped up and down, fist pumping the sky.

Mom came running down the driveway.

“What the hell?” she yelled. “What the holy hell?”

Mel jumped out of the driver’s seat. “I got her started, Ma! I got her started!”

Mom stood by the car, looking at Old Reliable as if it was a gift from the God she said she didn’t believe in. “How?”

“It was magic, Mom,” I said smiling. “Just go with it.” Who cared about the possibility of melting plastic pants? For now, we´d see how far believing in magic would get us.

“Sarah, go shut the lights off and lock the door!” Mom was laughing. “We’re going on a Chatauqua!”

I closed up the house, stopping before I shut the door. The rest of the Lady Diapers lay on the table. I picked them up, shoved them under my arm, and headed back down the driveway.

“So,” Mel said, as mom pointed Old Reliable down the road. “What say we change the name of this heap?”

“Change the name? To what? Why?”

“I’m thinking of a better name,” she said. “How about we call her Old Dependable.”

I laughed. Mom gave me a look.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you two, but I don’t care.” The window was down. Mom´s long, gray-streaked hair blew over the back of the seat. “We’re on a Chatauqua and we’re not stopping until we get there.”

“Are we really not gonna stop, I mean, to pee?” Mel shifted back and forth in her seat with a sound of rustling plastic.

Mom smiled and scooted her butt back and forth. I smiled and did the same. There we were, in our rustling plastic pants, heading who knows where.

“Not until we get there,” she said, as we drove off into the night. “Not until we got there.”


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