A Trip to the Country

Lisa Russ Spaar
"Driveway" adapted and licensed via CC by 2.0

It was the summer of 1968. It was the summer, for me, of unrelenting nose zits, breast welts, and excruciating menstrual cramps—the belt with clips, the bulky pads, the rank odor of mammalian rust I wondered if others could detect as well. It was a summer of backyard suppers at the picnic table, kidney bean salad and tuna casserole topped with potato chips. The mosquito truck spewing DDT sputtered up the street, leaving in its wake plumes of poison and a collection of kids on roller skates and Sting-Ray bicycles.

One late morning in mid-July, all of us—my mother; my father; my two sisters, June and Mae; my baby brother, Henry; and I—piled into our un-air-conditioned Plymouth Fury. We were heading for the countryside outside Philadelphia, where my aunt and uncle were watching their friends’ children. We’d never met the Lawless family, but we were looking forward to seeing our cousins, who would also be there.

As we pulled up in front of the Lawless farmhouse at the foot of a long, rutted drive, three kids surrounded our boxy sedan. A boy, a slingshot dangling from his hand, was framed by his sisters, a little girl holding a blue towel and a tall girl, older than me, in a see-through undershirt revealing pert, braless tits. A flicker of a sneer twitched at her lips as she stared through the back window at me. The girl’s sneer vanished when my mother climbed out in her green leather halter top and red lipstick, shooting a plume of smoke from her cigarette. My father, with his steamed-up glasses and khaki slacks, got out of the car, calling a hearty “Hello!” Our cousins, Lolly and Jamie, and our aunt and uncle came out of the house to welcome us, hugging our parents. Finally, nervously, my siblings and I alighted from the car.

Pita, the youngest Lawless, led the other little girls, Lolly and my sister Mae, to an upstairs playroom. The boys—my cousin Jamie and Andy Lawless—who were already friends, rowdy and rough with a whiff of sexual mischief, skeltered off, yelping, toward a pond behind the house. The tall girl, Lana, the oldest Lawless, trailed indolently off in the direction of the boys. My aunt stood in the Dutch door. “Come on in, you two,” she said to June and me. “I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.”

“You know,” she said, “that mother of yours is a piece of work.”

It was like a house in a dream—so different from our 1950s rancher—with secret rooms and heavy wooden doors fitted with iron keyhole plates. The floor was made of brick, the ceiling low, the walls whitewashed plaster and cool to the touch. A large mirror in an ornate gold frame leaned against one wall. Across from it hung the head of some sort of animal with horns. A cockatoo flapped past us and ducked through a doorway into a room where a blood-red oriental carpet trellised with coppery vines lay on the gleaming, wide-planked floor.

“Drinkie-drinkie! Drinkies! Now!” shrieked the bird.

Aunt Ruth led us into a small space, the “sewing room”—not that there was any evidence of sewing—where a camp bed had been pushed by the window. A pile of small fecal pellets lay on the floor. “You and June will share this cot,” she said, pointing. “The bathroom is down the hall. Watch out for Iggie. His favorite spot is behind the toilet.” We watched her head disappear down a flight of stairs. “Iguana,” she called back. “Harmless! Just don’t pet him. Oh, and the bird’s name is Bob. We’ll call you for dinner.” June set forth from the sewing room, bravely, to “see the iguana.” I sat on the low bed for a bit, eyeing the tidy pile of turds. The room smelled like mouse.

Later, I found June in the upper loft of the old barn, doing flips and aerial somersaults on a big trampoline. I was in awe of the things June could do with her body. In the summers at the pool, she’d toe the edge of a high dive and flip twice before slicing into the water.

Through the barn’s open window, I spotted Lana crouching down beside the house beneath the opened louvered windows of a sunporch, where, judging from the clinking of glassware, laughter, and occasional cirrus rafts of smoke emanating from the opened slats, the adults had convened. What was Lana doing there? Eavesdropping? What were the grown-ups talking about, I wondered. It was as though they had disappeared into another world and we were alone in ours, with only Lana in between. I watched her for a few minutes, a creamy crescent of her lower back showing between her shirt and her shorts. Smoke flared up periodically: she was lighting and blowing out a book of matches.

Behind me, now, the squeaking springs of the trampoline, as June jumped and flipped in the golden dust motes of late afternoon.

There is nothing worse in summertime than going to bed before dark, but with no one to tell us it was time to practice piano or to read after dinner, June and I didn’t know what to do. I made her come with me to the bathroom, where Iggy crouched behind the toilet beside a clump of old lettuces, flicking his long tail. June waited solemnly as I peed. The window above the bed was open, and we could see the pale greenish sickle of the moon.

After a while it really was dark. Stars emerged, so much closer and brighter here than at home. Sitting on the low bed in our clothes, we decided to go downstairs. On the landing, we got a look into Pita’s room, where the three little girls were passed out on the floor in half-zipped sleeping bags, a yeasty tumble of pajamas and bare feet. Somewhere on the ground floor a record played. Our Uncle Joel liked jazz. I could smell his pipe tobacco, faintly, and I imagined the grown-ups dancing. Earlier in the day, making my way through the house, I’d found my brother asleep, napping on the floor in a mahogany drawer lined with a blanket, a makeshift crib of sorts. Bob, the cockatoo, peered down through the shadows from across the room, where he perched on a pie chest.

We passed a big room lit by a large television screen that flickered blue light on Jamie, Andy, and Lana, who were sitting on the floor around an empty Coca-Cola bottle. Lana saw us. “Perfect,” she said. Her eyes and teeth gleamed. “Come here. We’re playing ‘Spin the Bottle.’ You can watch.”

“They should play,” said Andy. “We need more girls.”

Neither June nor I knew what Spin the Bottle was, but we soon figured it out. One rule was no matter at what person the bottle pointed, boys didn’t have to kiss boys, or girls girls—unless they wanted to. Which meant that Lana was doing most of the kissing, first with one boy, then the other. When Andy spun and got his sister, the kiss was just a peck, but when the bottle slowed and stopped at Jamie, Lana gave him a kind of kiss I didn’t recognize: slobbery, with tongue, as Jamie moved his jaw up and down as though chewing on an apple. On the floor beside me, June had fallen asleep.

“Your turn,” said Lana, reaching out for my hand in the semi-darkness and pressing it down on the bottle. Her palm was warm on top of mine, and her breath smelled like burnt sugar. “Spin!”

I shook my hand free and pulled it away from the bottle. “I have to check on our brother,” I said, pulling June up by her slumped shoulders. “That’s why we came downstairs. To check on the baby.”

I could hear them laughing as June and I made our way back upstairs in the dark. We took off our shoes and climbed into bed. June fell asleep at once, but I lay awake a long time, thinking about Lana’s mouth as full-blown night erupted outside the open window in a fusillade of peepers, owls, and crickets.

The next morning Lana found me. I was sitting in a splintery Adirondack chair in the grass, just off the patio behind the house, watching the boys shoot BBs at bottles down by the pond. I was trying to read Lord of the Flies but couldn’t concentrate on the plight of the stranded English schoolboys, still wearing their school sweaters.

I had changed into short black culottes and a striped T-shirt. I pushed my eyeglasses up my nose and turned a page of my book. Lana came out of the house in a long gauzy dress. There was a patch of black hair where her thighs met; her dark nipples also showed through the muslin. She flung herself in the chair beside me and tucked her knees under her chin.

“You know,” she said, “that mother of yours is a piece of work.”

Our mother had grown up in Detroit, whistling for taxis in platform shoes and stylish clothes she made herself on an old Singer sewing machine. Her hair was naturally blond and wavy, her skin flawless. Appearances meant everything to her, and growing up we were subjected to the poke of straight pins and patterns as she fitted us for school clothes and took stock of our waistlines, the width of our upper arms, the circumference of our armholes, our bust measurements, all confirmed with a long cloth tape. Just last week, measuring my hips for a corduroy miniskirt, she had said, “Getting a little broad in the beam.”

“She thinks she’s something special,” Lana went on, “primping and cross-legged. That big red mouth.”

We sat in silence.

“We should show her,” Lana said.

Down by the pond the boys had abandoned their BB guns and had gotten into a blue dinghy, carrying fishing poles.

“Are there any actual fish in that pond?” I asked.

“Don’t change the subject, sweetie,” said Lana. “I have an idea. I need your help.”

She licked her full lips. I felt a twinge in my belly.

“Help you how?”

“I need you to bring me her pack of cigarettes.”

“Which one?” I asked. My mother smoked at least a pack a day. She never went anywhere without two packs of Kents in her purse and a carton in the car. I waited.

“Okay, then, just bring me two or three cigs. No, bring three or four. Then we’ll fix them and put them back in whatever pack she’s working on.” Lana’s eyes, which I had thought were brown, were a deep, emerald green.

“Fix them?”

“Andy makes these bang snaps,” she said, pulling a handful out of her dress pocket. In her palm lay what looked like white paper guppies. “You wrap up some explosive powder with sand and twist it up in cigarette rolling papers. Look.”

She got up, walked back to the patio, and hurled one down at the flagstone. It exploded with a loud crack. The boys looked up from the boat, then turned back to their poles and lines.

“I’ve got some tiny ones. We’ll empty out the tobacco in one of her cigarettes, tuck in a popper, and repack. Then when she lights up, bam, surprise!”

I must have looked shocked, because Lana came over and sat back down. She lay a hand on my arm. She pressed down as she had last night during Spin the Bottle.

“It’s more noise than anything,” Lana said. “It’s not going to, you know, hurt her. I just want to shake her out of that ‘I’m so gorgeous’ crap. C’mon, c’mon. Don’t you want to?”

I thought of a bomb going off in my mother’s face. My pretty mother. Fearless, sullen, beautiful Lana, with her sugar breath and dragon eyes. I didn’t know what I wanted, but Lana reminded me that we didn’t have much time. It was already past noon, and who knew where the adults were and when they might reappear. Plus her parents would be home in a few hours. My hands shook. I slipped them under my thighs.

The torpor of the day seeped into me, the heat, the limbo of the past twenty-four hours. I stood up to do Lana’s bidding. “I’ll wait for you right here,” Lana said as I opened the French doors and went inside.

The grown-ups and baby were nowhere to be found, but there was evidence of their presence. Wine glasses, recently washed, on a broad marble counter in the sunken kitchen. Plates nestled upright in a bamboo dish drainer. Swiped-out ashtrays. A couple of baby bottles, upside-down on a dishcloth, rubber nipples and rims draining beside them. It seemed they had all gone off for a walk, taking the baby with them.

I headed upstairs in search of Andy’s room, where my parents were sleeping for the weekend. I found it on the third floor, under some eaves. The room was painted dark blue; a poster of Sophia Loren from Marriage Italian Style was taped over a small desk. A mobile of the solar system hung lopsidedly over the bed, stirring in the light breeze coming in from the window. The bed had been made up, and on an end table lay my mother’s pink compact of birth control pills, a little wheel of fortune. And on the windowsill, her big yellow-leather slack-jawed purse.

The look Lana gave me when I emerged from the house seemed grateful, even sisterly. Was she capable of being grateful? I wondered, as I handed over the cigarettes. For a second she looked like a little girl and not this boy-woman, nude beneath a muslin dress, leading me back up, barefoot, to her room.

I paused for a minute before following Lana inside. The room smelled of sweat and cinnamon, and a faint puck-puck-puck was coming from the LP left to rotate on the turntable in the corner. In the middle of the room floated Lana’s big, high, old-fashioned bed covered with an Indian cloth and saris. Dirty clothes were heaped in piles all around the floor. From the ceiling of her open closet hung a birdcage; inside it was a little statue of Michelangelo’s David with a fake cherry wrapped around its neck and a withered leaf taped over its crotch. Her vanity mirror was fringed with photos, including one of Lana herself, recent, black and white, completely naked, taken in this very room. And another of another girl, also naked, taken probably the same day, since the same open window backlit both bodies. Had they photographed each other?

On a brass tray below the mirror, a stump of incense was slowly burning to ash. Two tall, curtainless windows rose, wide open, one on each side of the bed, letting in the sharp odor of hot mown grass.

It was thrilling to sit cross-legged on Lana’s Indian bedspread, surrounded by the smell of patchouli, our knees almost touching. I was close enough to kiss her, if I had had the courage, or to be kissed by her, if she had wanted to.

We took the better part of an hour unpacking, loading, and repacking five cigarettes. As she worked with an almost ferocious intensity, Lana breathed more rapidly. This excited me. Again, I felt a twinge of something in the area of my navel. Lana was right. It was wrong for my mother to pinch the folds of my stomach and tsk. The tobacco, its little dank threads, reminded me of my mother’s hands, her arms, her pursed and smoking, perfect lips. My fingers trembled as I worked, trying to keep pace with Lana.

The results were a bit crooked, and one cigarette I was packing broke in my hands. “Shit,” said Lana. “Might as well smoke it.”

Lana withdrew a small box of matches in her dress pocket, lit a match, and touched it to the ragged tip. She inhaled deeply, then leaned over, touched her lips to mine, parting them with her tongue and slowly exhaled the smoke into my mouth. I could hear her chuckling as I scurried off the bed, gasping and coughing my quick way to Andy’s room, where I slid the unbroken cigarettes into the half-consumed pack and tucked it into the satin-lined maw of my mother’s pocketbook.

I didn’t know what I wanted, but Lana reminded me that we didn’t have much time.

When I returned to Lana’s room, she was still on the bed. Should I climb back up? I wondered. I must have made a gesture of doing so, but Lana held up her hand, stopping me.

“Now we wait.” She dabbed at some tobacco on her bedspread with a wet finger, put the threads on her tongue, and swallowed. On each cheek, a flush of pink. Her eyes were bright. They were brown again. She winked. “Let’s split up for now.”

I joined June and the little girls in the barn, my mouth and tongue still raw with their secret. June was back on the trampoline, somersaulting, cartwheeling, doing flips. The other three were seeing who could hold their breath the longest. From the loft’s high window, I saw the sludgy pond, dimpled with insects. No boys in sight. Maybe they were inside watching television; it had become a torrid afternoon.

Behind me, the little girls were now singing the ABC song, slurring through the letters, seeing who could finish first. A hot breeze from the window lifted the white hairs on my arms. Off to the left, at a distance, I saw the adults, my father holding the baby on his shoulders, making their way back down to the house from the road. I watched my mother, gesturing with her cigarette, her beauty visible even from far away.

When I was younger, five or six, I used to hide from my mother during the day. I wanted to see how long it would take for her to notice I was missing. To miss me enough to call or come looking. My favorite place to hide was her bedroom closet. In a pile of shoes, surrounded by the strong odor of feet and mothballs, with the hems of her skirts and dresses brushing the crown of my head, I’d watch through an open crack in the closet, which had a sliding door I could leave open just a slit as I sat or knelt among her high heels and flats in the faint aroma of Arpège, the perfume she wore. There would be long stretches of empty room, shadows crossing it, then a brief blur of her passing, folding something on the bed, retrieving a magazine, rummaging in her purse on the dresser for keys or a pack of cigarettes. I could see the small clock on the bedside table, but I couldn’t yet tell time. Sometimes I’d sit crouched until the light in the room darkened as evening came on. I can’t remember my mother ever once looking for me or seeming surprised when I’d reappear.

Was Lana also watching my mother from somewhere as the grown-ups approached the house, peering from a house window, perhaps the very window where my mother’s cigarettes lay repacked and waiting in her handbag? Was she crouched in some secret nook, scheming, imagining my mother’s disbelief when her hand, even her face, exploded with surprise? For Lana, there could be only one beauty in the house. And she was using me to solve that problem.

Then I was out of the barn, across the yard, and back inside the house, taking the stairs two, three at a time. Back in Andy’s room, I extracted the loaded cigarettes with trembling fingers. I crossed the field behind the house, heading for the pond. The cigarettes would not sink when I dumped them into the muddy water. They floated like miniature logs on the syrupy surface. With a splintered oar, I pulled them back to shore and wadded them into a sopping ball. I ran to the wood’s edge and tossed the whole mess as far into the weeds as I could. I rinsed my hands, now stained with tobacco, at the water’s edge and wiped them on my black culottes.

Back at the house, everyone was in the kitchen, including the just-arrived Mr. and Mrs. Lawless, suntanned and gleaming and smelling of coconut. They were old. Mr. Lawless had long white hair and was barefoot, with a rope bracelet around one of his ankles. He wore a long blue shirt over loose trousers. He had one arm around Mrs. L, her silver hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail, no makeup, in a simple gray shift and foreign sandals. Mr. L was lifting a snifter of something to his mouth when he saw me in the doorway, clutching my copy of Lord of the Flies. He stopped, as though amazed. “What an exquisite girl!” he exclaimed, coming over to me and giving me a kiss on both cheeks. “Where did you find this one, Ruthie? She’s a beauty!” In a corner, by the massive stove, Lana scowled. I wanted to rush across the kitchen and burrow my enflamed face in her lap. I wanted to turn and run away.

In the crowded kitchen, my mother sat at the long trestle table, her purse open on the floor beside her. She laughed and sipped her scotch. Lana, perched on a stool, watched closely when my mother finally reached down and pulled a cigarette from the open pack in her pocketbook. When she smoothly inhaled and exhaled, Lana’s face darkened.

Mae and June were asleep almost before our Plymouth reached the end of the long driveway and turned toward the turnpike and home.

“Well, that was exhausting,” said my mother, lighting up and tucking her legs beneath her.

“Weird family,” said my father, adjusting the rearview.

“But it was good to see Ruth and Joel,” my mother said, reaching forward and clicking on the radio. “I wonder how they know those people.”

The sky had begun to darken. I saw the crescent moon following our car above the highway, whittling toward the new. My mother sang along with the radio: “Maybe the sun’s light will be dim / And it won’t matter anyhow / If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned / Well, it was what I wanted now.”

I thought of Iggy, nibbling old lettuce leaves under the cool drip of the toilet tank, and of Bob, soaring freely over the highboy, the ladder-back chairs, the trestle table, the oriental rugs, the cool brick floors, dropping scat and calling for drink. I thought of freckle-faced cousin Jamie’s chawing kiss. I thought of bang snaps exploding like stars against gray flagstones.

And I thought of Lana. What was she doing right now? I had let her down. I hated my mother too, but in a different way. I could, because she was mine. I imagined pulling myself at dawn up off Lana’s patchouli-saturated, tobacco-flecked Indian bedspread, slipping into my culotte skirt and shirt, and pausing to look back at her naked body before turning away in the pale light.

My brother, who had been fidgeting in my lap, had fallen asleep against my chest. He drooled and smelled of baby. Suddenly I loved his weight, holding me in place. My mother, lowering the volume on the radio, turned around to show me her white, unbroken teeth, her beautiful red mouth.

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of fourteen books, most recently Madrigalia: New and Selected Poems and Paradise Close: A Novel. Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Library of Virginia Prize for Poetry. She teaches at the University of Virginia.
Originally published:
June 26, 2024


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Poem of the Week

Plum Madrigal

Lisa Russ Spaar

Paternal Leave

Caroline Gioiosa


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.