Hail Mary Pass
About a year after Mom died, when I was a freshman in high school, I had a weekend job as a cashier at a car wash. Customers pulled their Range Rovers and Subarus up to my window and ordered the type of wash they wanted from a menu, kind of like McDonald’s, except this historical town’s zoning laws prohibited most chain restaurants and franchises. People said they would ruin the aesthetics.
I was fourteen years old. My colleagues were mostly men in their twenties and thirties. They were the ones who did the actual washing. One of the guys used to shoot a BB gun at squirrels when it was slow and tease me about reading the bodice-ripper novels someone left in the metal filing cabinet in the office. I swore I wasn’t reading them, but my face always turned the color of a strawberry Blow Pop when he brought them up.
There was no public transportation in this suburban Cape Cod town, so Dad had to drive me to work. One morning, he pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot about a half mile away from the car wash. I thought he wanted a coffee or gas, but he idled by the side of the building.
“You can walk from here,” he said.
I looked at him to determine if he was joking.
He smirked and cut the engine, then sat back in his seat and waited for me to get angry or get out.
I knew this game well. He loved to provoke, to watch me lose control. It fed into the narrative that I was an angry, explosive teen, unable to respect adults. The opposing narrative: my 4.0 GPA, my job, and my spot on the high school swim team.
I got out of the car and started to walk.
There were no real sidewalks on the road, just grass embankments. The town’s obsession with historical preservation (at least history since its 1639
invasion establishment by English settlers) also meant that there were no paved sidewalks and no street lamps on its curvy back roads, no matter how many people wrapped their cars around telephone poles. How things looked from the outside meant the most.
Daffodils grew haphazardly along the sides of the road, almost as if someone had thrown thousands of seeds out of a moving car as their preferred method of planting. Everyone loved these flowers. They were a first sign of spring, and there was even an annual festival dedicated to the daffodils, but as I trudged to work, all I wanted to do was rip them out of the ground and whip them at cars while screaming.
It had been about six months since my father came home and handed us some trash bags. Go pack, he had instructed us. We were moving into my father’s girlfriend’s house. I had not even known my father had a girlfriend and found it incredible that someone would date him.
At work, I took people’s cash and pretended to care if they wanted their undercarriage cleaned while I contemplated whether my hatred for my father was justified. Maybe there was some lesson here? Was he teaching me to be a better person and I was missing the point? What was it about me that he so detested?
A few hours into my shift, he pulled up in his dilapidated mini-van, waving like a long-lost family member on the Ricki Lake show.
“Free car wash!” he exclaimed.
I peered into the van. Paul sat in the passenger’s seat where Dad could keep an eye on him, while Ann, Liam, and Emerson were in the back rows. They smiled and waved, excited about driving through the rushing water and soap suds in the car wash’s tunnel. Dad knew that if I was rude it would make me look like a surly bitch in front of them.
I plastered a smile on my face as I pushed the buttons to give him the cheapest possible wash.
As he pulled away and honked the horn, I knew for certain that he had dropped me off at Dunkin’ Donuts for the sole purpose of messing with me. Aunt Ella called them his fuck fuck games. He’d played the same games with my mother, and in my opinion, they had contributed to her drug use.
All my hope for escape rested on the pending application to boarding school that I had submitted earlier that fall.
I was going for that Hail Mary pass, which in New England was most often associated with Doug Flutie’s last minute sixty-four yard pass in a football game between Boston College and the University of Miami. Despite battling thirty-mile-an-hour winds, Flutie completed the pass and the Eagles won the game.
I had collected letters of recommendation from my teachers, written admissions essays, filled out the application by hand in my best penmanship, taken (and aced) the standardized admissions test, and visited the school for an interview. Nana helped me with the test fees, bought me an outfit for the interview, and drove me to the school. She had worked as a telephone operator for years, climbing the corporate ladder up to middle management back when that was an uncommon place for women, and she could be so damn charming in public. Without her, I didn’t have a chance at getting into this school. Dad did not object, which was the best I could hope for.
My father’s girlfriend lived on the other side of town in a house with a perilously steep driveway and a partially finished basement where Ann and I had bedrooms. Liam and Paul had a room adjacent to the bedroom Dad shared with Cindy. Emerson moved into the master bedroom where Cindy’s six-year-old daughter and her guinea pig slept. Cindy’s adult son Brian lived at home after dropping out of high school. He slept all day and played video games while smoking weed all night.
Dad was never home, and I also tried to stay away as much as possible. I went to school and swim practice, caught the late bus back to Cindy’s, and ate some leftover pasta with peas and parmesan cheese (Cindy was a vegetarian who refused to cook meat), and worked on the weekends. Dad let us know that he expected us to be self-sufficient and not to bother Cindy for anything. If she didn’t like something we did, she’d tell Dad about it and we’d hear about it during Saturday morning chores, all outlined on a chart that Cindy posted on the front of the refrigerator.
Dad let us know that he expected us to be self-sufficient and not to bother Cindy for anything. If she didn’t like something we did, she’d tell Dad about it and we’d hear about it during Saturday morning chores, all outlined on a chart that Cindy posted on the front of the refrigerator.
A classmate from my school dated a friend of Brian’s, so my girlfriends came over to hang out one weekend shortly after we moved. We crammed into Brian’s room and someone pushed a towel under the crack in the door. For hours, we passed around a bong and listened to music. If Cindy was pissed about it, she didn’t knock on the door to say anything.
Brian got high enough to tell me that he could hear my father and his mother fuck like bunny rabbits because their room was directly under his, and I took this as my sign to go to bed. I went down to the basement and left my friends upstairs, where they eventually passed out on Brian’s floor.
In the morning, as I was coming out of the bathroom, Cindy cornered me.
“Did you friends sleep upstairs in Brian’s room?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied.
She wrinkled her face. “You know that’s wrong, don’t you?”
Lady, there’s a lot wrong with this picture, but my friends are the least of it, I thought as I went back downstairs without answering her.
When Cindy started locking the snacks in her bedroom, she said it was because we ate too much. I’d come home from school hungry, and there’d be no dinner leftovers, but her daughter would be sitting at the table shoving her face with a Lil Debbie snack, and I swear I wanted to blow up the entire house.
The worst part was that my father sanctioned it. When we complained, he told us there was nothing he could do.
It’s Cindy’s house, he’d respond.
To see my father fail to support his own children filled me with seething rage. Who would look out for us if not him? That was his one job, yet he was so quick to throw his hands up in defeat.
None of my siblings wore the same deep shade of indignance as I did, and maybe their quiet resistance was strategically smarter than my slash-and-burn methodology. I ended up with no snacks, and eventually, no home. They waited until no one was in the house, then broke into the snack cabinet by removing the cheap back panel of the dresser, popping it back into place once they collected their snacks.
There was no bathroom in the basement; the closest one was on the first floor. One night, I went upstairs to brush my teeth around nine o’clock and found the door locked. I kicked the door and rattled the lock while hollering open up, open up.
“Why are you making so much noise?” Cindy asked after unlatching the lock, like she couldn’t fathom what my problem was.
“Are you fucking kidding me? You locked us in the basement! We need access to a bathroom!”
Later, when I told Aunt Ella this story, I’m pretty sure I embellished, adding in a bit about there could have been a fire while knowing the basement was a walk-out with a full door, and while our bedrooms were windowless, the sitting area did have two windows.
The lock did not reappear the next night, but I had been ready to call upon the wrath of all biblical beasts had Cindy once again locked us in the basement. I heard nothing more about the topic until the weekend.
“Why are you making so much noise at night?” my father asked me, as if that was the extent of the issue.
“Cindy locked us in the basement.”
“It’s her house.”
I’m your daughter, I wanted to scream at him, but I’d never win by pointing out this fact. It didn’t seem to matter to him.
“Get the fuck out of my room,” I told him.
In response, he picked up one of the speakers to my stereo—the last gift my mother gave me before she died—and smashed it on the ground in front of me, then turned around and went back upstairs without a word.
When the letter from the boarding school admissions office arrived, Aunt Ella read it to me over the phone while I was at work.
“Here goes nothing,” she said. I heard the ripping of the envelope, the unfolding of the page.
“Dear Kristin,” my aunt started with a neutral voice. “We are pleased to offer you admission for the class of 2001 WITH A FULL SCHOLARSHIP.”
She paused so the news could sink in.
“Oh my God! You got in!” she exclaimed.
I realized at that moment that my aunt had thought the answer would be no, at least for the scholarship part. Why would it be anything other than no? Things like this did not happen to our family. We did not go to fancy schools. We did not go to college. Nevertheless, I was in.
Things like this did not happen to our family. We did not go to fancy schools. We did not go to college. Nevertheless, I was in.
Now that it was official, I didn’t know what to say, so I stood in the carwash with a stupid grin on my face.
Free upgrades for everyone.
Nana came to move me out of my Dad’s house just a few days after school let out for the summer. Originally I had planned to work at the car wash until August to make money, but I think she wanted me out of Cindy’s house as soon as possible.
As I threw a couple of bags into Nana’s Chrysler Sebring, my siblings gathered at the end of the driveway to say goodbye. Liam played an invisible violin, and they hummed a sad tune, then broke into laughter. Any sadness they had about my leaving was expressed in this display of humor.
And while they may have felt sadness, I imagine they mostly felt relief. My siblings had managed to tolerate our father far better than I ever had. It seemed that sometimes they actually enjoyed his company. Without me there to fight with him, they might find more peace.
As I lugged my belongings up the driveway because Nana refused to drive down the steep incline, I thought about the last time I had gone out on a Sunday drive with my father and siblings. It had been during the previous winter after church when we bundled up and went to the beach.
Once on the sand, as the winter wind whipped around us, my siblings set out with intent, scouring the powdery white sand for hidden treasures.
What are you guys looking for?
They stared at me, as if to say, how do you not know the rules? Oh yeah, you’re usually not here.
Look for the best seashell, Paul offered. It’s a contest.
I joined in the search, and after discarding a few promising shells that upon closer inspection were broken, I found an intact shell that a small hermit crab would have been proud to call home. It was white with threads of dark green woven into its exterior. Its interior revealed a smooth, pearled surface the color of a coffee with extra cream.
What was clear at the end of the hunt: I had found the best seashell.
What was also clear: No one was happy about it. The interloper had won, and this was disappointing to all. I slipped the shell into my pocket and rolled it over and over in my palm.
I moved at least twenty times in the next fifteen years, but I held onto that seashell through every change of location. I wasn’t able to let it go.
After Nana’s car was loaded, I hugged all my siblings—arms at awkward angles combined with some taps on the back in order to avoid any real touch—and I climbed inside. As we pulled away, I felt heavy with guilt for having left them, but I pushed it aside. Weren’t they better off without me? Still, as Nana crested the Sebring over the Sagamore Bridge, I swore I’d come back for them. I’d make so much money and be a better sister. I’d solve everything.
Kristin is a writer from Boston who currently lives in South Florida. In 2021, she received a fellowship to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was named a runner-up for the Lighthouse Writers Emerging Writer Fellowship in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Qu, The Seventh Wave, and Brevity.