Off Highway 75

by Laurah Norton Raines

My husband's father was a stockcar driver, or a mechanic, or something. His mother can't say for sure. She knew him only by a nickname—Buddy or Skip, depending on her mood. If this insults my husband, he doesn't tell me. He knows that his father had large, veiny hands like his own, and that he could fix anything. That's what his mother remembers.

She tells us, drunk on margaritas, that, when she was pregnant, her whole body smelled like motor oil. No matter how many times she bathed, she couldn't rid herself of it. She resorted to scrubbing her skin with blocks of orange Go-Jo, but the odor never left.

Now she has brittle, dyed-red hair and fewer teeth than she should. Her lipstick is nearly lavender. She opens her mouth so wide when she laughs that I feel like I can see her insides. We are unsure around her. My husband was raised by his grandmother, a slim, not-very-old woman with congestive heart failure and a little oxygen tank she pulls around like a pet. She is always kind, if a bit forgetful; my husband blames that on the grain alcohol that she hides in the oven. She always offers us sweet tea, and asks us to watch her soap opera with her. I don't mind those visits. Her oxygen machine pumps in a way that's quite comforting. She keeps her tiny apartment cool.

They live in a town sixty miles from Atlanta, but we don't see this younger one, the mother he calls Darla, often. She works second shift at a plastics plant, and takes weekend trips to the Cherokee casinos. When we do visit, we take her to the only restaurant in their small hometown—Mexican and run by a Chinese couple with dark, searching eyes—to buy her a meal we can't afford. He wants to seem far away from the trailers that dot his mother's neighborhood like abandoned shoes. She doesn't notice him pulling the bill over to our side of the booth, or the too-large tip he leaves. She doesn't comment on our new wedding rings, but she does ask me if I'm getting fatter. My husband tells her I have earned my master's, and have been hired on at a university—that I will have my own office, practically. I know from his voice that he is proud.

She doesn't say anything for a while. Finally, leaned back against the burping vinyl, she levels her gaze on him and sniffs. She's too classy for you now, huh? She shows cleavage that's too middle-aged to be on display. Her bosom hangs low, skin fragile, used tissue paper. She's only sixteen years older than we are, but her face, its drooping curtains, seems a century away.

We sit politely as she eats basket after basket of free chips and picks