The Pilgrimage to See Jesus in Pancakes
Here we go again, only this time we aren’t pulling a runner in the middle of the night from someone’s house, no, Mother’s gone one better—we’re pulling a runner from a whole town. Luckily, it’s a podunk place in the middle of the Midwestern United States. A place where we’ll be legends. The crazies from California. We’re fortunate that Maitland is such a speck in the middle of nowhere. The town gossip will never reach us.
“Wake up, it’s time to go.” Mother says while shaking my sister and me. Exhausted and begging for more time, we moved around and rubbed the sandy sleep from our eyes. The three of us had spent the past two days stashing our belongings in a friend’s cellar and putting together whatever we could fit into little duffle bags; clothes, special trinkets, and for me, my books – my only escape from this roller coaster reality that is life with Mother.
According to Mother, we were leaving town to take a road trip back to California to eat at a cafe where miracle pancakes with the face of Jesus fly off the grill. “We’ll be back to get our things. Don’t worry,” she said, attempting to convince herself as well as the two of us that everything was fine. “It’ll be great. Just the three of us.” Nothing but open road and a miracle waiting for us at the end.
To tell the truth, Mother’s husband number four or five – I lost count – was on another binge. This time he wasn’t coming back. He’d been M.I.A. for three months. We’d run out of money, town charity, and the will to live in a place we didn’t fit in, it was time to leave. The town oddities – right up there with the incest family with five children that killed puppies. As city dwellers from Los Angeles, we were as wonky as the Golden State we crawled out of – prophesied to fall into the ocean taking us and all the tree hugging granola freaks with it.
“Get the map sweetie, we’re going to plan our trip,” she said with a smile, trying to rally the team.
“Can we see the Grand Canyon?” I asked. I wanted to see if it was the same as the photos I saw in my View-Master. Every picture was full of color and wonder and I wanted to experience it first-hand. My sister chimed in “Can we see the Painted Desert?” Thank you, Disney. What would we have learned without TV? The best educator and babysitter – ever.
Mother promised we could see anything we wanted – there was no schedule. Just us and the open road. Luckily, school let out for the summer. I’d just finished sixth grade and my sister just finished second. Three months of freedom and warmth. We never acclimated to the cold-ass winters in that place. Frankly, I would take an earthquake over a blizzard any day.
We packed and got out the road maps of the good ole’ US of A and plotted our route to see Jesus–full of hope and promise. The southern route was the fastest and warmest way to go. On the way to Missouri from California, in July, we took the northern route. Mother wanted to see Pike’s Peak. We ended up in the snow in the Rockies without chains, an epic decision that almost sent us careening over a ridge. That time we had mother’s (then) husband with us. Yea, he had a few beers. Yea, we almost jettisoned over the edge of the mountain. “Bad road conditions,” he said. The tinkling sound of empties on the floorboard provided ambient background music as he tried to gain control of the car and trailer in tow. She didn’t want to risk that again while driving alone. Smart thinking.
I was the designated navigator. By ten years old I could read a map. Let’s just say Mother couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag with both ends open. We got lost every time we got in the car so learning how to read maps was a survival skill along with memorizing every landmark ever passed. I knew the LA freeway system from the San Fernando Valley to Anaheim. I also had to learn them both night and day. The landscape changed depending on the time of day. Every once in a while I had to help guide the way home from whatever hole-in-the-wall bars mother and her boyfriends frequented to gig, play pool and drink.
She couldn’t afford a babysitter and she didn’t trust anyone. Mother was sure we would be taken away from her so we spent many nights with pillows, blankets, and flashlights in the car waiting until they came out. We were trained to honk the horn if anyone approached the car and to lay low so no one could see us and report her – or worse. We were also taught how to swing the tire iron kept under the seat. Sometimes we would get lucky and have a Doberman with us in the car. Her boyfriend (husband number 2) was training the beasts for the OPG yard. Better than a tire iron and pretty damn scary. Fun times!
I have to say this was one of her more sane plans for a ‘road-trip.’ One brainchild of hers was to join a bunch of hippies on a trip from Kansas to Oregon in a covered wagon, “just like the original Pioneers!” she said. Living within a community of like-minded nuts, being home-schooled, learning about America first hand like the original settlers on the Oregon Trail. Donner Party anyone? We spent months preparing for this big adventure. We learned how to bake sourdough bread – in the oven of course – but at least we had the basics. We canned food like preppers waiting for the end of the world because this was going to be our vittles on the trail. We also sewed pioneer dresses for the full authentic experience right down to the clothes on our backs. I read every Little House on the Prairie book to get the true flavor of life as a pioneer. I began to worry I would end up like sister Mary and go blind – we weren’t the luckiest of families and the chances were pretty high that some kind of shit would happen – it was inevitable.
Well, shit did happen. My little sister got a severe form of anemia and the doctor’s bills broke the bank. We soon found ourselves on the street. Mother scrapped the prairie plan and we spent that winter, one of the coldest on record in Los Angeles, freezing our asses off while living in our convertible GTO. I really loved that car. Not sure if it was a loaner or donor but it was cool on warm days. It was primered – whoever had it before us was thinking of restoring it. I’m sure they regretted giving it to us as I hear they’re highly collectible.
On one particularly cold morning, some cop had the balls to give us a ticket for having a rear window you couldn’t see through because the plastic was old and murky. We were parked – not even moving – but I guess every cop has a favorite pastime when things are slow. While he wrote up the ticket, Mother crawled in the back seat and cut out our window with a box cutter. Tears streamed down her face. She was silent while she finished the task. “Sorry babies – it is going to be cold but the law is the law and the officer is doing his job. We’ll just have to make due,” she said as her breath hung in the chill morning air. We couldn’t afford rent so there was no way we could afford a ticket. If it went to warrant they’d impound the car and we’d definitely be in deep shit. One more idealistic American dream up in a puff of reality before we could even circle the wagons.
So we piled our bags, my books – some of which are missing from the local library indefinitely – and anything else we could cram into our old Buick, Betsy (every good car gets a name), and headed west. We even got to bring my sister’s parakeet Tweety which gave her the security she needed to mentally deal with all of the sudden changes. The bird was a good call – he saved our asses like a canary in a coal mine during the drive.
Mother wasn’t a great cook. Hamburger Helper was her go-to. One time she got a great deal on tuna – or what she thought was tuna. I tried to tell her not to use it ‘cause I saw the checkerboard Purina label on the ca,n but she insisted she’d got it in the food section. We were living in the Midwest, for God’s sake, where they sell food in the same aisle as the feed and tack. Anyway, in it went and on went my sweatshirt with the big pocket in front. This was my secret weapon. The pocket in front was perfect for shoving the inedible grub into. Afterward, it got dumped it in the toilet. Burial by flush was the only humane thing to do. My sister gagged and cried – huge tears rolling down her cheeks – maybe her tears salted the food. I’d tell her to stop crying or she’d give us away. Sister fell apart at the word ‘boo.’ Her fear was so ingrained she wouldn’t protest no matter how bad things were for fear of Mother’s retribution. I scooped up the Tuna Helper goop (which contained tiny bones) and excused myself for the bathroom and burial ritual. Then into bed with rumbling stomachs until instant oatmeal in the morning. Sweet blessings.
Off we went, leaving the little town in our dust just before dawn. Mom gave the courtesy one-fingered wave over the steering wheel at farmers on the road as we headed west. Everything was pretty bland the first state or two; Missouri, Oklahoma then Texas. Mother brought her favorite 8-track tape, the soundtrack to the musical “Paint Your Wagon.” How apropos. By Texas I was numb. She didn’t even turn on the radio, she just played the tape over and over until it broke – sweet mercy. My sister hardly made a peep in the back. We played “I Spy” and other road games to keep us occupied. Most of my memories revolve around time in the car. Mother trained us to ride well without the threat of ‘I’m gonna pull over …” She wasn’t pleasant when she was mad. Her shrill screaming in a closed space could peel paint.
After the first few station stops she started to shake her leg and chain smoke. I noticed she followed certain rigs on the highway. She disappeared at truck stops for about a half hour or so and came back with cigarettes and snacks. Without a word, she pulled up to the pump and filled the tank. At least her leg shaking slowed down for a while. In between these stops, my sister would watch the gas needle like a hawk. As the needle crept to E she would start asking if we should stop for gas – every two minutes – until Mother’s leg started shaking and the next truck was targeted.
The excitement really started around Arizona. First, we never made it to the Painted Desert. We did fly by the Petrified Forest, though, and we got a little souvenir of petrified wood at one of the truck stop gift shops. My sister cried silently in the back. She never did get used to being let down. Next was the Grand Canyon. We parked near the rim and slept until Mother woke us at 5:30 to watch the sunrise. With a little complaining, we got ur shoes on and wrapped ourselves in blankets to step outside and witness nature at her finest. It was spectacular – for a second. The minute the sun was over the horizon she stepped on the gas and my sister and I were left looking out the back window at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Well, I will always have my View-Master.
Now through the Mojave and to Jesus.
One early morning while Mother was puffing away as we slept peacefully, Tweety squawked like crazy. Here is the part where the bird saves our lives. Mother’s hot cigarette slipped between the ashtray and the console of the car. and lo and behold, there was some kind of flammable material in there. Our car was turning into a disaster film – The Rolling Inferno. “Quick, hand me the bologna out of the cooler.” She shoved the slices of greasy meat into the console. Fuel to the flames. Panic kicked in and I tried to pour the melted ice onto the flames but it only got into the ashtray. Smoke filled the car.
By some miracle, there was a gas station ahead. Mother pulled up, and we all jumped out – squawking Tweety included. Mother took a hose, shoved it down the console and turned it on full blast. The gas station attendant just stood there with his mouth open watching the spectacle. Mother asked him for a rag, wiped her hands, handed the rag back and we all piled into the car. Water poured out the sides of the car as we hightailed it down the highway.
A small detour off the freeway in California and we were at our destination. The reason for the whole adventure. The one place in all the world that Jesus chose to show his face on Good Friday. A good luck omen for this little band of unfortunates.
The three of us piled in the booth, road-weary with rumbling stomachs, and ordered a short stack of pancakes. When they arrived at the table, we searched each one for our miracle. We picked up the pancakes, turned them around and held them up to the light. He wasn’t there.
We ate the pancakes in silence while Mother smoked. She finished her cigarette and stubbed it out in the puddle of syrup left on the plate. Curls of smoke rose and a sickly scent of burnt sugar and dirty ash hung in the air. Oh, the smell of disappointment. Mother went to pay the check. And there it stood mockingly on the side of the register – a newspaper clipping of the man whose stack contained the face of Jesus. Mother asked for directions back to the highway and the three of us piled back into the car and headed down the road.