Next Exit: A Short Story

A family car trip takes a detour.

by Nalini Jones ’01SOA Published Winter 2012-13
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Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

The children needed school uniforms, Marian said. They would have to go downtown.

This was the third year that she and her family had lived in Ohio. They had a small house near the college where her husband Daniel taught.

She looked at her father. “We could take the bus into the city.” It sounded more like a question than a suggestion.

Francis had arrived a month before, his first trip to the States. “The train is costly?”

“Four of us . . . ” Marian said. “Or I suppose we could drive.”

Her father’s visit had catapulted her back into an uneasy space, between having daughters and being one. She could not clap her hands and say, hurry up, let’s go. She could not buckle the girls into the car with any certitude. Her father — she could not prevent herself from feeling — must be consulted, his authority guarded, his preferences laid bare. But what did he know of buses? What did he know of the six-lane expressway, its confusing loops of exits, the trucks that made her nervous? How could he predict the way her daughters would behave if the outing lasted too long and they were overtired? Six and eight years old, too big to carry, pulling at her arms as they waited for a bus. There would be shopping bags, she considered.

“You do want to come along, right, Dad? We can get you a few shirts.”

Was he enjoying himself? He would go back to India in another fortnight, his suitcase filled — everything that was easier to get in the States, cheaper or better-made, tinned foods that weren’t available in Bombay, gifts for her mother. Essie had stayed behind because she had come three times already, and the house could not be left unoccupied, even for six weeks. But she was constantly evoked, conjured between them in what Marian bought and her father would carry home.

“Should we go now, you think? Are you ready?” Her father had finished his tea, she saw. “We can drive, okay? That way the girls can sleep in the car on the way back if they’re tired. Or we can stop somewhere if there’s anything you want to see.”

But she would have to tell him what he might like to see.

“Yes, yes. Good,” he said. “Driving is better.”

“We won’t get tired,” announced Marian’s elder daughter, to whom the idea of rest had become an insult. Nicole was usually in motion. When she stood completely still, as she did now in the doorway, she seemed to her mother as solid and unmovable as a goat. Tara was quiet, generally willing to wait and see what understanding her mother and sister would hammer out. “Mom! We won’t get tired.”

“I’m glad,” said Marian. She wished her daughters had not picked up this mom, this slow, lolling American way of referring to her. She wished, in front of her father, that they still called her mum, as they had before they went to school. “These American accents!” she said to her father, laughing so that he would laugh too. Then she sent both girls, quick, quick, to wash their hands and faces and climb in the car.

She was, Francis thought, a competent but slightly distracted driver. She accelerated in quick bursts and did not always leave enough time for smooth braking. She memorized routes without quite knowing the logic of where she was going. But the roads were good, the traffic laws respected far better than in Bombay, where driving was a matter of nerve and horn blasts. He had grown accustomed to her way of drawing to an intersection. He sat in the front seat and twisted around occasionally to revel in the sight of his granddaughters. They sat with books open on their laps, looking out their windows and alerting one another when they saw dogs, cats, the sort of car they called a bug, the rare good luck of a horse. Tara sang to herself.

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