When she was 16, my mother kept her horses at Kai Brown’s.
Over the years, I’ve heard Mom talk about Kai on countless occasions, and although I have a sort of picture of him in my head as a result of all her stories, I don’t know that I ever actually met him. But in any case, I get the idea that Kai was a fairly important fixture in her life. Although my grandfather lived until Mom was 20, I think Kai probably served as a substitute for him where Mom was concerned. Frankly, until recent years, I had heard many more positive stories about him than about Mom’s biological dad (notwithstanding the fact that he taught her to drive a beer truck with sixteen forward gears before she really even knew how to drive a car).
It turns out, however, that one of our family’s many cars actually has a connection to Kai that, until recently, I never knew about. Once, it seems, my mother also kept a goat at Kai Brown’s. A goat – to be more precise – that one day wandered onto Kai’s land, and one that he had fully intended to get rid of until my mother changed his mind.
At the time – my mother tells me – the goat was small and cute.
“A more sweet-natured animal never drew breath,” she explained. “He was black and white mainly – a little brown. I told Kai I would take care of him, and I did. I also took him for rides in the car. When he was really little he sat in my lap, but usually he sat in the passenger seat. Sweet William loved to ride.”
When the question finally occurred to me after twenty-some years of knowing about Sweet William’s existence, I asked her: “Mom,” I said, “did it not occur to you that there was a slight amount of irony in naming a goat after a flower?”
She laughed, but then she confessed that in fact, no, it hadn’t occurred to her. “He just looked like a William. And well, he was sweet, he really was. Also, he was little when I got him; it wasn’t like he stunk.”
I’m not sure if this falls within the realm of general knowledge or not, and so at this point I’m going to briefly explain the thing about billy goats: when they grow up, they get horns and they begin to reek, and regardless of the fact that they have heretofore spent most of their lives utterly and completely car-broken, at least borderline socially-acceptable, and not at all stinky, once adulthood descends, you don’t want them anywhere near your car, especially if it’s clear that they mean to climb inside.
Sweet William as an adult was no exception to this rule, and his life became increasingly unfulfilling from the moment he became an adult and my mother’s car became a goat-free zone.
As it turns out, William, although probably ever a sweet goat soul – did not take well to becoming suddenly land-bound. To begin with, he expressed his frustration by trying to enter my mother’s car regardless of the prohibition, a tactic which – while sometimes momentarily successful – always ended in him being dragged (despite his very goatly determination) back out of the car to what I imagine was a fairly unwelcoming and probably somewhat colorful reception from my mother. When William finally ascertained that this strategy was doomed to failure – that my mother was, in fact, an epic hard ass – he began stalking the vehicles of unsuspecting visitors, hopping joyfully inside whenever they tarried too long chatting from their enticing, partially-opened doors. This also failed to deliver the desired result. No cars drove away with William inside. Instead, Kai tired of warning off visitors, and Mom tired of the ever more difficult task of removing a stinky and stubborn William from virtual strangers’ cars. Toward the end of his stay at Kai’s place, Sweet William apparently became motivated by a very un-goat-like rage; his anger at not being allowed to travel manifested in various tap dances on the hoods and rooftops of any car that dared park on the property. Eventually, Sweet William went to live where there was a good strong fence and no possibility of automotive access, and despite the fact that my mother was a definite accessory to the ruination of this goat to traditional goat endeavors, I’m pretty sure she was happy to see him go.
Nevertheless, when my mom’s used car selling friend, Charlie, found her an old tan nine-seater station wagon almost twenty years after Sweet William had left for his car-free home, it was clear that his time in her life had served its purpose.
When she opened the door of our “new” four hundred dollar car for the first time, the smell reminded her. And even when the stench faded after a year or so, the car remained “the goat wagon.” The name was how we distinguished which vehicle we were driving on a given day (as in “we’re taking the goat wagon”), but I’ve come to realize that the name of our car was primarily yet another reference to how strange our family was in the grand scheme of things and also how proud we were of that strangeness. Normal folks, after all, would only have commented on the car’s stink, they wouldn’t have possessed the necessary frame of reference to also tie the car’s foul odor to the animal kingdom.
It turned out that many, many adventures took place in our humongous, stinky car. It had three large bench seats, the last of which faced the rear window of the car, and I’m fairly certain that my little brothers had multitudes of memorable moments while sitting in that seat, most of which were probably at the expense of some unknown driver behind us. Unlike the truck we had previously driven, the goat wagon had ample space for five people to stretch out and get comfortable; this was especially handy when my mother set out on one of her lengthy weekend drives. The four of us didn’t tire of riding nearly as fast when our siblings stayed out of our space. But like I said, there was still a decided element of adventure about riding in the car. In the winter time, Mom would have to stop, lift the hood, and manually turn the heater on and off. We also spent several summer afternoons on the side of the interstate, waiting for the engine to cool down so we could pour in some water. Sometimes my ten year old brother acted as mechanic, doing everything from repairing connections to removing thermostats. And these were all commonplace occurrences (albeit not ones you would expect from a single woman and four small children) as were our aforementioned weekly forays into the wild, outlying lands surrounding our small, Illinois hometown.
When I was 15, I learned to drive in the goat wagon, which by that time had stopped smelling like goat and started smelling like stale fast food and coagulated Coca-Cola (both of which my three brothers seemed determined to lose or spill into the back seats of the car every time they rode in it).
Despite the virtually untraveled back road and our collectively relaxed mood, when I began my very slow first drive, I remember feeling decidedly inferior, wondering if I would ever be any good at this thing which it seemed I was born loving. My mother was a lifelong good driver, and although I remember quite a few close calls over the years, I don’t think any of us were ever truly worried by her driving. She looked at us like we were nuts any time we cringed from the passenger seat, her glare clearly communicating that which she had told us at least eight million times before: “I grew up driving a beer truck with 16 forward gears. After the first week I didn’t bust a single bottle or my dad would’ve beat my ass. Nothing’s gonna happen. I’m an excellent driver. Even your dad says so.” My dad was one of those men who routinely commented on the perils of women drivers, so if he found nothing worrisome in my mother’s handling of a car, then it was safe to say that she was pretty much the best driver (man or woman) in the history of the world.
Despite my genetic pedigree however, I was nervous. Terrified that my mom would be able to tell from the instant my foot left the brake that I was never going to be the driver she was, mortified that an error of epic proportions (like ending up in the ditch) was not at all out of the realm of possibility. My not being good at this was not an option. Already I felt keenly everything my mother could do that I couldn’t; it seemed, in fact, that anything she decided to do, she did. I wanted to be a remarkable driver. Prodigious, even.
That wasn’t in the cards.
On initial take-off, everything was fine. I tooled along in our smelly beast of a car, topping out at about fifteen miles per hour. Mom was sitting calmly next to me, sipping her Coke, and the boys were in the back seat eating their much-coveted McDonald’s french fries with no hint of worry, occasionally cracking up as they asked me to please not plant us in the cornfield because there was nobody out here to help us if we got stuck. I’m sure I scowled, but my total attention was focused on the road in front of me, crawling along at a pace that felt elderly compared to the way Mom flew along these same country roads. I was too terrified of somehow falling off the road to push any harder on the gas.
When the turn first came into view, I was at least a half-mile away from it.
In Illinois, the country roads tend to move along the straight edges of property lines, which are generally clearly delineated by the end of one crop and the beginning of another. We were driving in the winter time, so there were no crops in the field; the roads, nevertheless, remained the same, and the turn that I was approaching at almost fifteen miles per hour was a near-perfect ninety-degree angle on a freshly-oiled and extremely gravelly road.
Since our nine-seater station wagon was not a driver education vehicle, it did not come equipped with an emergency passenger side brake pedal; that, however, did not stop my mother (who I had never known to openly express fear in any situation) from vehemently stomping on the floor under her feet. If she could have slowed the car by slamming her feet to the road Flintstone-style, I have no doubt that she would have done so. Meanwhile, I was blissfully cruising along at what I considered a snail’s pace, quite unaware of either her exaggerated movements or her increasing nervousness.
As soon as I entered the turn, however, I immediately recognized that there was an issue. And naturally, since I was neither an experienced driver nor educated on the perils of gravel and oil beneath tires attempting to turn, I seriously over-corrected.
What happened next has become – much to my continuing embarrassment – the stuff of legend. The car – in a maneuver that seemed virtually impossible given its monstrous proportions – stopped dead in the center of the road and rotated one hundred and eighty degrees until it was perfectly situated in the center of the road down which we had just traveled, only now facing the other direction. Because of my forceful treatment of the brake pedal, my brothers were all piled against one door, and their French fries were strewn across the back seat like confetti. They were wearing their drinks, and they were laughing to beat the band. Mom – after performing a cursory check of everyone’s body parts – also began laughing, one of those red-faced, wheezing laughs that require an inhaler and absolute quiet to stop. (In recent years, we’ve gauged the humor of various jokes or situations by whether Mom had to take one or two puffs off her inhaler before she could breathe again.) For my part, I sat stock-still in the driver’s seat (in what I imagine was a minor state of shock), unable to pry my hands from their perfect 10 and 2 on the steering wheel for five minutes.
Naturally, as a brand new, teenaged driver with exactly zero hours behind the wheel, I did not take too well to either the laughter or the ensuing jokes at my expense, but happily, my ire has faded over the intervening years to something not unlike pride. I don’t know that there could have been a better ending to my first driving experience. Nobody got hurt, I didn’t wreck the car, and there was abundant joy – both then and now – at the image of the Golden Child (which may or may not be what my brothers covertly call me to this day) making such a grand show of screwing up.
Regardless, I continue to hold my head high. While I will likely never drive a beer truck (or even a stick-shift), I have been an excellent driver since the day I got my license. In almost twenty years behind the wheel, I have never had either a wreck or a speeding ticket. But far more important to me than my good driving record (which probably has nothing to do with my genetic predisposition and everything to do with luck) is my absolute love of everything to do with being on the road. I drive because there is no other feeling that compares. I follow various yellow center lines out of town, always chasing the wind, but never quite catching that perfect feeling of freedom that I’m looking for, the one that maybe adults aren’t capable of finding, or that only children remember how to appreciate. On fall evenings, I roll down the windows and let the wind blow through my fingertips at 55 miles per hour while my favorite music blares through the speakers at absurd levels. I get lost on summer afternoons, my full tank of gas reassuring me that I’ll be able to find my way back to civilization before my resources run dry. Always, there is freedom on the road. Freedom before and behind, freedom to go where I may and do as I will.
I drive, and I remember poor Sweet William with whom I feel a sudden and undeniable kinship. We were ruined by the same love, him and me, and infected by the same person.
**This story was submitted for a creative nonfiction project nine or so years ago when I was living in North Carolina and more than a little homesick. I always try to be truthful in these stories, but it is admittedly a family trait to add a little inadvertent embellishment from time to time if the story needs a little something. I don’t know if I did that here, but it’s entirely possible.