James, the youngest, sat on a wooden box my paternal grandfather had made for him in the front between Mama and Daddy, and Patrick, Kevin and I squeezed into the back seat. The space behind us was always crammed full of suitcases and the toys we couldn't bear to part with for the few days we'd be in Liberty.
If you've never driven across the empty countryside of rural North Carolina, dotted with tiny towns boasting two or three stoplights, if that, with four children under the age of ten, in a car with a broken radio and no built-in VCRs or video games, then take a moment and watch this clip from what might be the best cartoon ever, Animaniacs. Now add an additional kid and Christmas and tired and cranky parents, and you've pretty much got it.
Mama loved to drive, though, and she had all of those towns between Wallace and Liberty memorized. "How many towns left, Mama?" I'd ask at some random part on the road, and she'd say, "Just five left now: Sanford, Gulf, Goldston, Siler City, and Staley." She kept the little triangle smoking window cracked open and smoke streamed from her like the clouds coming from the stacks of the factories we passed. She kept a glass bottle of coke clamped between her legs and she'd take a swig, balancing the steering wheel with her knee.
"I know what you can do," she said on one of these long Christmas day trips. "We used to do this when I was little. When we pass a field full of cows on your side, count them. And if you come to a graveyard, then you have to bury all your cows and start over from zero."
"Why do they all have to die?" Kevin asked. "Wouldn't some live?"
"Nope, when you pass a graveyard on your side, then they all die. That's the rule."
Kevin, as the second oldest sat by one window, the one behind Mama on the driver's side. He got Patrick on his team, though Patrick usually slept most of the way. I, as the oldest, sat by the passenger side window, behind my silent (at least in memory) father. I got James, the baby, on my team, though he would rather ramble on about nothing in his high-pitched baby voice rather than count. And we counted the cows as we drove through the rolling hills of central North Carolina.
I groaned as I had to bury the 97 cows I'd collected thus far, and Kevin pumped his fist in the air in triumph. I leaned over Patrick's sleeping body and punched him. He began to wail, and Mama threatened to pull the car over. We both shut up and went back to looking for cows.
I'd built up a sizable herd, and I was worrying about upcoming graveyards, when I saw the oasis in the desert of this deadly serious game: It was a veterinarian's office.
"Aha!" I cried. "I just got all my cows medicine, and now they'll survive the next graveyard!"
"What?!" said Kevin. "How did you do that?"
"We passed a vet's office. They got medicine. Now they'll live." I smirked at him. He was going to lose.
"Nuh-uh!" he said. "Mama, tell Amy that's not in the rules!"
Mama shrugged. "I guess it makes sense."
"But I don't have a vet's office. I don't even think she really saw one!"
"Just count the cows," Mama said. "I don't think the vet's office thing is really in the rules."
"But Mama! They can't die if they get medicine," I said.
The argument came and went like a tide through the car as we got closer to our destination. Our herds had grown. I was leading by a handful of cows. I was going to win.
And then we drove into town, past a graveyard that had grown so big it had crossed the highway. Both sides were studded with worn gray headstones and sad, wilting poinsettias. All the cows collapsed, died, and were buried in a final, hushed moment of defeat.
She knew it, I was sure. She knew that we were both going to have to bury our poor cows. And we pulled into our grandparents' circular driveway and Mama lit another cigarette, steeling herself against her in-laws, with their sad, tiny plastic tree and their nod for the sake of their grandchildren to a holiday they believed sinful to celebrate.
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