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Driving 31 October 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Misc, Relationships, Travel.

We’ve been together for two and a half weeks now, the five of us, mistaken at the tollbooth for a family. The journey between Sharon and home is thirty-six miles; when we’re lucky, it’s forty-five minutes. When we’re not, it can take an hour.

Our games to entertain each other are evolving: what began with “twenty questions (animals)”, has progressed from “two truths and one lie” to “math jeopardy”. On Fridays we stop for pop or snacks (less than two dollar each), if they give me an easy time the rest of the week. Sugar is the currency of bribes.

Bahadur leans out of the back right window at the tollbooth and asks the man making change how he gets home. The man, tall, dark and young, looks uncertainly at me. “What?” “He is wondering about how you drive home,” I nod my head, and smile. “He can’t see your car, and he’s worried about how you get out here.” “Oh.” The man smiles, and turns to Bahadur. “Biggens,” the homeless man at the end of the exit in Cambridge calls him. Eight years of good eating and exercise have formed a muscular child.

The tollbooth operator’s accent is rounded. “My car is parked over there,” he explains, pointing. “I get home the same way your mama does. Driving.” Bahadur smiles. “Oh.”

“Thank you, sir,” I press the button to roll up Bahadur’s window from my seat. The collector smiles, and waves a broad hand. Bahadur holds up his, and presses his nose to the glass. “Put your seat belt back on.” I put my foot above the gas pedal. “Now.” A click from the backseat sends us on our way.

“Sister Anna, Sister Anna, give me a question,” Bahar leans forward from the middle back seat. “Tighten your seat belt, now, please,” I answer her. This is the fourth time this trip. “Or I will have to tell your mother that I can’t drive you.” She slides back. “I want pluses,” she says. “And no word problems. Just numbers.”

“Fifteen plus six,” I tell her. “Ten seconds. Go.” One monster in the dark. Two monsters in the dark. Three monsters in the dark. I keep time to myself. Beside her, Bahadur interrupts. “Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Your time is up. Sister Anna, give me a math problem.” “I’m doing the counting, please, Bahadur,” I flatten my voice. “It can be hard for your sister to concentrate when you are talking.” I take a breath. “I’m starting over.”

“Twenty one!” Bahar claps her hands in her lap. “Twenty one, Sister Anna.” I catch her eye in the rear view window. “Mumtaaz, habibti. Good job. You can work on thirteen plus twenty while I think of problems for your brothers. “It’s my turn,” Bilal moans from behind the passenger’s seat. “And I also want addition.”

“Fourteen point five plus fifteen point five,” I say to Bahadur. “And thirty two point seven plus sixty seven point three to you, Bilal.”

Briefly the back seat is quiet. I think about what the tollbooth man called me. Your mama. We do not look much alike, the children and I, whose ancestors spanned the Mediterranean Sea. Why did the collector take us for relatives? Our features and colors are nothing alike. Is Muslim an ethnicity? If I am confused, I am proud. Four children as lovely as these… Subhan Allah. I should be so lucky.

Bashirah stirs in the passenger’s seat. “Do you want to help me with my grammar homework?” she asks. “Of course,” I agree. I catalog parts of speech in my head. Shall we investigate pronouns, shall we find antecedents? Can we diagram sentences, driving? I glance across the front seat, to the blue pen poised above her workbook. She pauses at an exercise blank and filled with lines. The teenager pauses, and when she speaks, her next question surprises me. “Can you tell me a folk story?”

I am conflicted with delight. “Yes.” Folklore I’ve studied. Folklore I’ve read. Folklore I find captivating. But which story to tell my commuting family? Not Rose Red or Tatterhood. Perhaps not Baba Yaga. Do they know Clever Hassan? Should I retell the Princess Bride? What was the name of the hero’s whose heart hid in an egg in a box in a mountain? Kosciej?

“I will tell you the story of Kosciej’s heart,” I hear myself begin. “He was a mischief maker, a terrible pest, who hid his heart inside of an egg, inside of a box, inside of a mountain.” “What is mischief?” Bahadur asks. Oh honey, I want to say. You of all people should know.

“It’s making trouble on purpose. Kosciej made all kinds of trouble on purpose. He was the kind of guy who would sour your milk and burn down your barn and make all your cabbages rot.” “But didn’t he die when he put his heart in the egg?” Bahar wants to know.

Bilal scoffs at her. “No. It’s a story, Bahar. He is just made up.” “That’s right,” I agree with him. “You have to pretend. Kosciej put his heart in an egg in a box in a mountain so that no one would ever find it. The only way he could be killed was for someone to find his heart. So even when he got into bad situations, he was always really okay, until someone found his heart.”

“Oh.” The first grader agrees with me. “Well, there was a farmer who had three daughters,” I continue. “They reminded me a lot of Bashirah. You know, they were lovely girls, who were beautiful, and brave and smart. They were tired of Kosciej and his ways. So one evening, when they were supposed to be asleep, they began to plan their attack.”

“Kosciej was in their house that night. As the girls lay in bed, whispering, he crept into their room. ‘Ha ha ha,’ he cackled. ‘I know what I will do. I will go down to the kitchen, and get the baked potatoes out of the oven. Then I will put these on the girls’ toes, while they are sleeping.'”

“Why would he do that?” Bahadur asks. “Because he was full of mischief, habibi,” I answer. “And if you can believe it, he wanted to burn their toes.” The car shifts with indignation. Up ahead, the second toll plaza is looming. “So he crept down into the kitchen and he opened the oven door. Just as he was leaning in to take out the potatoes, he felt a swift kick in his backside.”

“He rocketed into the oven, where he would have surely been killed, except that he was Kosciej, who kept his heart inside of an egg…” “Inside of a box, inside of a mountain,” Bilal’s exterior is worn away. For now, he is not a young man, grumpy as a cactus, pushing us away. He is engaged, listening.

We slow down to approach the toll plaza. In the back seat, Bahadur is switching gears. “Ask the man how he gets home,” he pleads. “Sister Anna, roll down my window.” I feel in the change compartment for a dollar twenty-five, and ignore his request. “So he was dead?” Bahar asks, again too far forward, pigtails in swing.

“He wasn’t dead,” I correct her. “If you wait, my love, until we are done here, I will tell you what happened next.”



1. . - 31 October 2008

What happened next? Plz dont keep us in suspense:)

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