The Rambler. They were going to drive from San Diego to Groton, Connecticut, in a 1952 Rambler station wagon. The paint had faded to the washed out blue of the summer sky at high noon, and the engine made this coughing noise going uphill, cough, then cough-cough-cough. It either died, and they had to coast to a stop and let it rest, or something inside caught and they went on their way. She had been keeping track. About half the time the Rambler died.
“We’ll have a good time, drive across the country, see the sights. It’ll be like a vacation.” He’d brought the orders home to show her along with a couple of plums from the farmer’s market to celebrate the good news. “After submarine school, I’ll put on another stripe, and maybe we’ll have enough money to get a babysitter and go out to a movie on Friday nights. Get some pizza. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Plums and good news delivered, he pounded back down the staircase from their fourth floor apartment with a promise to tune up the Rambler.
She pictured a map in her head, one of those maps that showed the mountains and rivers and roads and bridges. How many bridges would they have to cross to get from San Diego to Groton? What about mountains? Those horrible Rockies. He knew she was afraid of driving in the mountains. She was even more afraid of driving over bridges.
“Well, I don’t know how else we’re gonna get there. You’ll be okay.” She had made enchiladas for supper, four for him, two for her, one for her big girl, just turned two. The new baby was three months old, liked to be held and rocked when she took her bottle. It was hard to find herself with ten minutes free and an empty hand. “Listen, it’s been three years since we came out here. You’re nineteen now, you know? You’re older. You’ll be okay. And I’ll drive real careful over the bridges so you won’t be scared.”
Three years since they had eloped from a tiny Texas town, run off to join the Navy and start their life. He’d been eighteen, barely, and she’d been sixteen and pregnant. And now wherever she turned in their small apartment were baby’s eyes, looking for her, and little chubby hands, reaching out for her like she was the sun.
She packed their things in the Rambler, made a nest for the girls in the big back seat. The baby was cozy down in the milk carton, resting on top of the towels, and her big girl held her doll-baby close against her neck. Fifteen minutes into the trip, and the back seat was asleep, lulled by the rocking and noise of four wheels on an American highway.
Early afternoon, and they stopped in Nevada at a roadside picnic table to eat the corned-beef sandwiches she’d packed for the trip. They were close to the mountains now. He was looking tired. They’d been driving since before dawn, and he wanted to get through the Rockies before nightfall. Her stomach was in a knot. The Rambler had been behaving, but just before they stopped she heard it again, cough, then cough-cough-cough. And now they were going into the mountains.
“You know they have Navy housing in New London. I’ve seen pictures of it. It’s real pretty, and they’ve got snow up there. I go to sub school, then sonar school, and get on a boat out of New London, we’ll be able to stay there for a while.” He was twisting the wheel, screwing it back and forth, and the narrow mountain roads didn’t have rails. Didn’t have lines. He glanced over at her. “You’re okay. These roads aren’t bad.”
He expected her to be okay. The Rambler gave a cough, then cough-cough-cough, and they were nearly up on two wheels, going around the last curve before the bridge.
The bridge spanned a river gorge that must have been a thousand feet deep, tumbled granite and gray-green scrub, an old suspension bridge that was rusty and narrow. She must have made a sound, some strangled cry caught in her throat, because the babies started crying in the back seat, and the Rambler coughed and died and they coasted to a stop.
He stared straight ahead through the windshield. She looked down, saw the river and the rocks with about a mile of air between the wheels of their car and certain death. Her babies were crying from the back seat, and she turned around, reached back. “All right, now. That’s enough. Daddy’s driving and he knows what to do. You won’t be afraid of bridges when you grow up. You’ll say, ‘Oh, this bridge is nothing! I was going over bridges twice this big when I was just a baby!’”
He reached down, gently turned the key, pumped the gas, and the Rambler started right up. She felt like she had a bird trapped in her throat, struggling to get free. He eased off the brake, and they drove slowly across. “How are my girls doing?” he said. “How about some ice cream next town we see? I bet we could all use some ice cream.”
Sarah Black is a fiction writer.