In sixth grade, my family’s brand-new minivan exploded. The smell of burning rubber blotted out the smell of concession stand burgers that evening from its parking spot across the street from the little league field. It kept the shape of a car, somehow, except it was filled with wild yellow flames that crackled and spat. The car’s frame held, but the fire covered most of the front hood and worked toward the back. The Nissan’s silvery color blackened under a telephone pole across the street from the town ballfield, which, ten years later, still bears a car-height char mark.
More than one little league game was happening that evening. Every Thursday, it seemed like half of Long Island gathered there. If you weren’t on a little league team, you had friends, siblings, or cousins who played. Aunt Gayle lived directly across the street from the ballfield, so we ran to her bathroom during time-outs or grabbed a Sprite from her fridge.
The Fucci boy saw the fire first. In the parking lot, he loitered on his flip-phone texting eighth-grade girls while his siblings were beating my siblings at baseball and softball, respectively. He noticed the chemical stink of plastic magma. He ran for help.
Everyone called a time-out. Boys and girls in color-coordinated t-shirts left their teams to press their noses through the links in the black chain fence.
Tiffany Mayer cried. My ten-year-old sister Laura cried. My brother James was eight and just understood that something was wrong, looking down and scuffing his cleats in the dirt. Aunt Gayle, always the doomsday prophesier, convinced I was inside, found my family in the crowd to tell them I had been cremated publicly right there on her front lawn. She would have screamed if she wanted to make the scene worse; instead she just put her arm around my mother’s back and said oh my god oh my god it’s burning right to the asphalt. My mother told her shuddup Gayle, Kellie’s at home.
I was. I was safe at home a short bike ride away, watching proto-YouTube on the desktop computer in my bedroom and avoiding homework, exhausted from a long day of being twelve.
At home, the phone rang. She didn’t say hello, but I knew it was our family friend Rona by her South African lilt.
“Is your mother home?”
“No,” I said.
“Tell her I have some insurance advice, and to call when she arrives.”
I didn’t even think about how strange the phone call was. Insurance advice?
The sun went down. In the kitchen, I emptied a can of Chef Boyardee into a bowl and tried not to think about how everyone should be home by now, even my father.
I watched the digital numbers on the microwave tick down. The front door swung open, immediately followed by the familiar sound of metal baseball bats landing on the tile floor inside the front door.
“You won’t believe what happened at the ballfield,” my sister said.
That day, the entire sixth grade had taken the forty-minute train ride into New York City from our Long Island suburb to see Hairspray on Broadway. My mother had pulled up at the train station a few hours before baseball practice in the minivan to pick me up.
Idling in the fire lane outside of South Ocean Middle School, she got out of the car. She saw the back of Jenna Sealis’ head, another dark-haired chubby girl in my class. She wandered toward Jenna. I knew what was happening and rushed toward them, hoping to intercept my mother’s incoming hug.
I was too late. My mother hugged Jenna from behind.
“How was the show, sweetie?”
“Oh hi, Mrs. Pendergast,” Jenna said. My mother looked at her then, confused.
“I’m over here,” I said, and we offered a quick apology.
I looked around the frenzy of parents picking up kids. The more popular girls, I noticed, didn’t let their parents out of the car, even though they were likely lucid. They just walked up to their minivans and sat in the front seat.
I couldn’t tell if any of them had noticed my mother hugged the wrong kid. Jenna had zero social clout—she looked like me, after all, being fast-food fat, still braless in sixth grade, and with braces stuck to plaque-y teeth that cut into our gums—but I was vaguely embarrassed anyway.
To be clear, my mother drove the entire family around drunk for almost three years: 2008, the year her father died, 2009, the year of the burning van, and the better part of 2010, the year she went to rehab. It was normal for me and my younger siblings. As the oldest, I had never heard of “drinking and driving,” and even if I had, I wouldn’t have equated it with the crumpled, stinking Poland Spring bottle my mother kept in her purse in between the drivers’ and passengers’ seats. The clear liquid she swallowed at red lights had an acrid smell, but it looked like water. I hoped that maybe Michael Kors handbags just stunk.
“You’re too young to sit in the front seat,” she always told me. “It’s dangerous.”
That night at the ballfield, cats fled their yards to hide in bushes. The Davis’ cockapoos barked like the world was ending. Nearly a hundred white middle-class suburbanites gathered in front of their house, after all, to watch, to figure out whose car it was, and whether anyone sat inside. Some of them dragged their camp chairs all the way to the street from beside the first-base line. At the fire department only two blocks away, sirens already wailed. Kids from the Ecuadorian immigrants’ part of town rolled up on their bikes to see about all the commotion. Some of the volunteer-firemen-slash-little-league-coaches-slash-dads stood around saying what they thought should be done, and some just watched their kids. The most prominent dads sequestered families in the parking lot so they didn’t get too close, and watched that no adjacent minivans caught fire.
I’ve pieced these events together based on what I know and what my family members remember. My mother must have realized it was our car by this point. Her car, the one with the automatic sliding doors. She must have left the sidelines of the field, gathered my siblings, pulled my crying sister away from the crying Mayer girl, and taken my eight-year-old brother James off the pitcher’s mound. She must have realized what she’d done, and that it could have been our house up in smoke.
No one seems to remember how long it took to burn.
“We just kind of watched it,” my sister said later, when we were adults. “I don’t even remember them spraying it with water. But they must have, right?”
Sixth grade was hard enough before our Nissan became a local urban legend. Math had letters in it now, and girls carried phones in their pockets now, and cars sometimes ignited now.
Mrs. Lynch was The Incredible Leather Woman. She wore a leather jacket every day, and her face looked like it was made of the same material, but in Long-Island-spray-tan-orange. Her cheeks were too stiff to smile. Something certified her to teach Social Studies and Science, and I hadn’t done her homework for the latter because of the ballfield incident.
New York State found it imperative that we learn the vocabulary of earthquakes and tectonic plates. Mrs. Lynch required that each student leave their seat to individually show her the fronts and backs of the index flashcards they’d made.
Students left their seats, row by row of desks. The rest of us filled in a workbook’s blanks in silence. I started scribbling on torn squares of lined paper:
Mantle // The region between the Earth’s crust and its core.
Convection // A circular transfer of heat due to density.
It was a shame I hadn’t begged my mother to let me wear deodorant yet. I could feel the wet stink percolating under my stubbly armpits. I squeezed my soft biceps to my torso and approached The Leather Woman’s desk.
I placed down my notebook squares.
She lifted one between her index and middle fingers like it was toxic. “This is unacceptable.”
I couldn’t meet her eyes. Looking at my stained Ugg-boot knockoffs, I said, “My car blew up last night.”
She leaned forward.
I tried again, now looking at the black denim covering her knees. “My car blew up. Faulty wiring.”
“I won’t tolerate made-up excuses. No credit.”
Christi Fucci stood up at her desk. She was a tennis prodigy, the tallest girl in the grade until high-school graduation. Her blonde hair was always pulled back tight. Mrs. Lynch liked her. “It’s true,” she held up her flip-phone. “I’ve got it all on video.” This was just about a year before Facebook became popular, otherwise Mrs. Lynch might have learned about my mom’s fuckup almost as soon as it happened.
The class muttered in agreement, and soon everyone wanted to share where they were when the Pendergasts’ Nissan went up in smoke. I watched Mrs. Lynch’s face twist into a frown watching our van smolder on the tiny, pixelated screen.
She said, “All right, enough.” The class hushed. Christi and I shut up.
Mrs. Lynch pointed a sharp acrylic fingernail at me. “I need those cards from you tomorrow.”
And to Christi, “Put that phone away this instant.”
We went back to our desks and our silent busy-work. Mrs. Lynch called on my bully, Daniel Newman.
“Newman, you’re next.”
He said, “Uh, my bike blew up.”
The class erupted with laughter. I laughed extra hard to prove that I thought it was funny, too.
Lunch, that day and every day, was in the cafeteria-slash-auditorium. The Cafetorium, we called it. Inexplicable murals of deer and babbling streams were painted on the walls. The beige room was filled with walnut-colored particleboard tables and attached benches. A stage, complete with red-velvet curtains, was at the front of the huge room.
I hadn’t shed my friends from elementary school yet, though they were rapidly surpassing me in social status. They wore deodorant and bras, after all, and their parents didn’t talk in church on Sundays or hug strangers at pick-up or cause scenes at the Rider Ballfield on Thursdays.
No one ever spoke this out loud, but the more socially acceptable you were, the closer you sat to the stage, the farthest from the lunch monitors in the back of the room. I started sixth grade in the first row of tables, adjacent to Ledman and his cronies.
Health class was later that day. Mrs. Monillo was young and clean-looking. In her classroom, I learned phrases like “carbohydrates” and “AIDS” and “vas deferens.” She knew her subjects were uncomfortable and alien to middle-schoolers, so she cultivated a laid-back atmosphere in her classroom. She let us choose our seats instead of placing us alphabetically by last name like Mrs. Lynch. I chose a seat in the center of the room, pushed against the overhead projector. On the rare occasion that the teacher called on me, she was blinded by its light.
We were allowed to talk during Mrs. Monillo’s busy work, which involved clipping photos and words out of magazines to create a “healthy lifestyle collage,” whatever that meant. In silence and residual frustration from Lynch’s class, I cut the arms, legs, and smiling mouths off of models and pasted them on photos of jars of Vick’s VapoRub or French’s mustard, not taking any of it seriously. By the way my classmates chattered around me, I could tell that the flaming van was still the topic of the day.
Someone said, “I heard Alex Fucci got a video of the whole thing.”
Someone else said, “Yeah, he sent it to everyone. They had to call a rematch for our game.”
“My dad told me a drunk driver left a cigarette burning.” This was Ledman.
I said, “You’re wrong.” It was the first and last time I’d spoken out of turn in class. Everyone, including the teacher, sat stunned silent.
“That was my car,” I said, “And it was faulty wiring.”
The teacher changed the subject.
Except he wasn’t wrong. They told me the faulty wiring lie to cover up my drunk mother’s fuckup at having left the lit cigarette right in the cupholder in the center console.
My siblings believed the faulty-wiring story. Ledman’s father was a fireman, and he wanted to be one, too. Mr. Ledman must have told his son all about the melted leather that was once the drivers’ seat, and the gaping hole where the floor of the car once was, and the carelessly dropped butt at the heart of the mess.
Ledman knew the truth, and I fought him anyway.
“For so long, I thought mom went to rehab to quit smoking cigarettes,” my sister admitted when we were adults. “That’s what they told me.”
But I knew. I was the oldest, after all. You can smell when something’s wrong. Just like later, I knew not to scratch at my head lice outside of the home, and later still, I knew to lie to Child Protective Services. Instead of telling our hideous truths, I squeezed my thumb and my forefinger together over and over. Instead of betraying my family’s toxic silence, I rubbed the hairs on my arms back and forth until they were numb in their follicles and the whole arm tingled. The knowledge permeates.
I shut my mouth about the minivan incident for years. We got a new one. This time, a slightly cheaper Hyundai without automatic doors.
A few weeks later, it was winter. I walked home from middle school in the chilly rain.
My mother lay on the faded blue couch like she just woke up from a nap. The TV was off. The only light leaked in from the kitchen, backlighting her coarse and frizzy hair in bronze.
Did she ask about my day? Did I soften the worst part for her, or did I push open the door, drop my bag, and declare what happened? There wasn’t much to gain by lying.
“Today, Daniel Ledman called me fat,” I said.
It was true. He was bothering the same friend he once bit in kindergarten, so I told him to buzz off. He pointed a pasty finger at me as he walked away and said, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re fat.”
The same moment I told my mother he said it, she was up off the couch.
And she barreled into the dim kitchen, and she turned on all the lights, and she grabbed the wireless landline, and she punched plastic numbers in.
“Your son is a bully,” she spat. And it was literal because she foamed at the mouth slightly, with a look glazed and wild at the same time.
“And what are you gonna do about it?” She slurred “do” into “about” into “it” so it sounded more like “doabboudit,” and the question was rhetorical, the conversation was one-sided, and my mother talked to an answering machine.
The rain poured down. She hurled words into the receiver, and I realized that this was desperation.
Katy Ledman might not have been home to hear the message on her answering machine. She might have pushed through the screen door, arms full of groceries, in an hour or two to see the red light blinking on the answering machine. At this hour the kids must have been home. Did Daniel hear my mother’s furious, rambling tirade? I knew nothing would come of it, but I wanted to watch her fight for me anyway. Through the receiver, it probably sounded tinny and sad, with only a fraction of her fury and none of the spit.
Kellie Pendergast is a non-binary writer from Long Island, New York who is currently living in Massachusetts. They teach international students at Northeastern University during the day, and are in the process of obtaining a Master’s degree in nonfiction writing.