When I think about my mother, I think about our car—a 1993 Ford Escort. It was the only thing we owned. I was ten when we bought it from a lot on West High Street. The salesman had thick leathery skin with lines crisscrossing his face as if a kid had scribbled on him with a Sharpie.
He kept telling my mother how everything about the car was deluxe. The seats, the windows, the wipers—even the blower for the AC and heat were all high-speed and deluxe. But he had a really big lisp so the word sounded more like de-lux-thh. I remember the visible splatter of spit. It was gross.
My mother didn’t notice, though. She was too busy admiring the car. Walking around it, coquettishly grazing her fingers over the hood.
“Do the seats go back?” she asked, batting her eyes, donning a fake Dolly Parton southern accent.
I don’t know how she did it, but if just one person from Lifetime TV could see her acting, she’d become a superstar overnight.
Her performance that day was so good it took her only ten minutes.
“A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do,” she said, emerging from his office, swaying her hips and dangling the keys off her fingertips. Back then I had no idea what that meant. “It’s just the way life works,” she added, which cleared up exactly nothing.
As I got older her explanations became less wordy. “I only blow them, I don’t fuck them. There’s a difference, you know.”
We stopped and sold what we could—Phil’s DVD player, sound system, and old laptop. The rest of it, the guy said, was junk. So we put it back in the car and made our way past all the neighborhood places—the laundromat where the owner shook her cane and cursed if you didn’t clean the lint tray, the cash checks here! and cell phones for cheap! place, and Glamour Glitz, where my mother once worked sweeping hair. Broken-down cars sat on cinderblocks in every other driveway. Engines, batteries, spark plugs, and cables were strewn about like guts. Brightly colored plastic baby crap cluttered the front yards of run-down houses. We rode by shacks and empty parking lots and a spattering of makeshift churches with hand-painted signs, jesus has risen! and jesus saves! and one that just had his name spray-painted at an angle across the door.
My mother loved to drive her car. There was a dent in the middle of the hood, a rattle in the trunk, and once in a while the car backfired. But she would steer it, palm open on the wheel, as if she were gliding down Hollywood Boulevard in a Cadillac.
That day, though, she looked as if she’d just buried a friend. She sat stiff and grim in her seat. The road in front of us, littered with garbage, reflected in her sunglasses. Her jaw jutted forward. She looked straight ahead but I could tell she was seeing nothing.
“You didn’t love him,” I ventured.
She shook her head. “What do you think, life is one big Hallmark moment? Pfft,” she sputtered. “Love, that’s a good one.”
She went back staring dismally out the window. I let some time pass before I spoke again.
“He had a pencil dick,” I reminded her.
“I could have dealt with that,” she said.
“His mustache was always covered with crud.”
“He wiped it off,” she argued.
“His crack was always showing and he had pimples on his neck.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Yes, he did. I saw one.”
She mumbled something to herself and shook her head again.
My mother’s mood could backslide fast. I waited, then tried a more subtle approach.
“You know what I think? I think our pool should have a slide.”
The mere thought of having a pool could bathe my mother with light. “A pool . . .” she’d sigh, a glint twinkling in her eyes. But this time, nothing in her stirred.
“We could build an outdoor bar,” I added. With this she glanced at me. “And we could get those giant umbrellas to set up everywhere.”
She considered this. “Would they tilt?”
“Of course!” I said a little overenthusiastically. “We wouldn’t think of having any other kind. And we could get those rafts—you know, the ones that have a place to put your cocktail.”
“I love those,” my mother said as I knew she would.
“It’s going to be awesome. We’ll put a cabana on one end and a snack bar on the other and maybe we’ll have a diving board, too.”
A few minutes went by. We were driving under the overpass to Route 57. The beams above were streaked with bird shit, some of it dripping and wet.
“You know what . . .” she said. She pulled the car over, put it in park, took her sunglasses off, and twisted in her seat to look at me. Through the seam in the pavement above us a sliver of light fell across her face. It flickered like a strobe as the cars thump-thump-thumped overhead.
“I’ve been thinking. You’re right. I think it’s time for a change of scenery. What are we waiting for? We have a car and we have money now.” It was true, we got $950 for Phil’s stuff and we hardly ever had that kind of ready cash. “And you know what else?” my mother added. “I think it’s time you and I head to Boston. We’re going to end up there anyway.”
My mother was not certain about much, but one thing she knew for sure was that I was smart enough to get into any college, and Boston, according to her, had all the best schools.
She and I had lived on and off the street, or in shelters. We moved in and out with boyfriends—sometimes with breathtaking speed. The few times that we could afford to rent our own apartment never lasted. Even when my mother worked four jobs, it was hard for us to pay our rent. And we never stayed in one place for more than six months. But I hardly ever missed a day of school. She made certain that every school system knew who I was and where the bus should pick me up.
“Yup.” My mother nodded, agreeing with herself. “Harvard is going to hand you a scholarship, I just know they are.”
I didn’t really see how I’d end up in college, but the thought of it could bring her out of any slump.
“Maybe when I graduate, I’ll become a doctor,” I said.
“Oh my God. I was just thinking the same thing. You’d make an excellent one.”
A smattering of garbage blew down the street and sprinkled the hood of the car. She grabbed her pack of cigarettes off the dashboard, lit one, then pitched the match out the window. “I’m even thinking that when we get to Boston,” she said, shifting the car into gear, “once and for all”—she took a long hard drag—“I’m going to quit smoking.” She blew the smoke sideways out the window. “Dammit, let’s do it.” She stepped on the gas and we drove out from under the dark overpass and into the light of the wide-open freeway.
We went from zero to sixty in no time. I was out of school and she was out of work. We had no place to be and not a thing to lose.
With the windows open, strands of my mother’s hair flicked and flashed in the sunlight, trailing behind her like ribbons. In between places was my favorite place to be. With the past behind us and the promise of better things ahead, few things ever felt as good.
I stuck my head out the window. The rush of air whipped around my face, flapped my lips, and made my eyelids flutter.
Gas tanks and power grids raced by. Mounds of gravel zigzagged across the earth and cranes punctuated the sky at sharp angles. When the city receded in my mirror, it couldn’t go fast enough.
My mother glanced over at me and smiled. She reached forward, pushed a CD into the player, and turned the volume up.
“We—are—fam-i-ly. I got all my sisters with me!” Sister Sledge—our favorite and the theme song to our lives—blared out. We swayed and sang the lyrics at the top of our lungs. The freeway widened, the landscape emptied out. The engine hummed and I pictured the car lifting off the ground. We’d sail across mountains and by clouds, we’d dip in and out with the birds. “Look, there’s China!” I’d shout. We’d hover just long enough to wave at all the people. Then we’d surge into orbit, leaving only the rush of sound and a white, wavy streak in the sky behind us.
This was how our story always went. With the wind at our backs we soared like bandits narrowly escaping through the night. And no matter where life took us or how hard and fast the ride, we landed and we always stayed together.
Daylight faded. The sky became a show of waning color. Yellows shimmered into blues. The sun singed the underside of clouds with orange. Poetry was everywhere.
Then, boom!—the car backfired. A burst of sparks erupted from the tailpipe.
“Oh my God!” I yelled. “We’re on fire!” My mother looked in her rearview mirror. When she swerved off the road and slammed on the brakes, an assortment of Phil’s shit went flying.
She grabbed her purse and we both jumped out. Smoke poured from the back end. My mother thought fast. She clicked in her heels to the passenger side of the car, ducked in the window, and grabbed her supersize Diet Coke from the holder.
“Stand back!” she yelled. In a single dramatic motion, she chucked the top on the ground and pitched the Coke at the muffler.
With a startling pop and a hiss, a giant vaporous cloud enveloped us and we doubled over choking. My mother took her bag off her shoulder, covered her mouth, and coughed into it.
Her purse was black vinyl, and oddly shaped like a giant pork chop. She never went anywhere without it and, like a man with a Swiss army knife, she used it for everything. She jammed parking meters and fixed vending machines by batting them hard on the side with her bag. I’d seen her use it as a weapon. She’d wind it up, let it go, and with the shoulder straps flying, it’d spin through the air until bam! she’d hit her target every time. She used it as a pillow on the bus. She swatted flies and shaded her eyes from the sun with it. I’d seen her hold it up against the wind and rest it on her head when it rained. And sometimes it just punctuated her mood. She’d fling it fast and hard on the ground, or lob it, tired and slow, on the couch.
“For Chrissake.” She flapped her bag up and down this time, using it as a fan.
“Really,” I coughed, “who knew Diet Coke was so toxic?”
Once it was safe, my mother inched her way forward. Clutching her purse, she bent over slowly and peered underneath the car.
It was almost dark by then. The freeway had quieted. A warble of insects pulsed through the air.
“The muffler’s dragging on the ground,” my mother reported from her bent-over position. She stood up and pushed her bag back on her shoulder. She put the key in the trunk. It popped and with a creak, slowly opened.
When we robbed Phil, we ended up with a lot of worthless stuff like his coffee mugs that said my love is like diarrhea, i can’t hold it in. “Collector’s items,” he’d claimed. We stole his blender that only worked when the kitchen light was on and his toaster that set the toast on fire if you didn’t dig it out.
But the only thing we took that I really wanted weighed a thousand pounds. In the patch of dirt and dead grass in front of Phil’s building I’d found a cement statue of the Virgin Mary. She was lying on her back with bird shit on her forehead.
When I grow up, I want to be a preacher so I can set the record straight. Religion is a hoax and when I read the Bible, I really did not like it. The characters were all flat, the dialogue was bad, and the imbalance of power cheapened the plot. In my version, Mary would play a bigger role. She’d rise up, take control, and set the world straight. As it is, she’s just written right out of the book, which for me was like killing off the movie star in the very first act. I wrote a paper on this topic for class and got an A-plus-plus on it.
I collected Mother Mary figurines. I had a string of plastic Mary lights that blinked on and off when you plugged them in. I found a porcelain one on the street in perfect condition, and I had a teeny-tiny hand-blown glass piece that I kept in a cardboard jewelry box. My favorite, though, was the Mary I had glued to our dashboard. Her eyes rolled back into her head as if she found life endlessly boring. There were others, but none as big as the one lying in our trunk.
The streetlight cast her cement-gray complexion a cold and stony blue. A swirl of lingering smoke drifted by her. A dog barked in the distance. A breeze kicked up on the freeway behind us and sprinkled Mary with dust. I picked up a rock and threw it just to watch it sail through the air and hear it drop.
“I’m sorry, Ruthie.” My mother laid a hand on my shoulder. “But the weight of her is dragging us down.”
We left the Holy Mother facing the road. Backlit by a line of trees, her outline glowed. She gazed upward toward heaven—waiting, it seemed, for a ray of light to deliver her from evil and take her home.
All We Had
For thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, life has never been stable. The only sure thing is their love for each other. Though Rita works more than one job, the pair teeters on the edge of poverty. When their landlord kicks them out, Rita resorts to her movie-star looks and produces carpet-installer Phil, "an instant boyfriend," who takes them in.
Before long, Ruthie convinces her mother to leave and in their battered Ford Escort, they head East in search of a better life. When money runs out and their car breaks down, they find themselves stranded in a small town called Fat River where their luck finally takes a turn. Rita lands a steady job waitressing at Tiny’s, the local diner. With enough money to pay their bills, they rent a house and Fat River becomes the first place they call home.
Peter Pam, Tiny’s transgender waitress and the novel’s voice of warmth and reason, becomes Ruthie’s closest friend. Arlene, the no-nonsense head waitress, takes Rita under her wing. The townspeople—Hank and Dotty Hanson, the elderly owners of the embattled local hardware store, and even their chatter-mouth neighbor Patti—become Ruthie and Rita’s family.
Into this quirky utopia comes smooth-talking mortgage broker Vick Ward, who entices Rita with a subprime loan. Why rent when you can own? Almost as soon as Rita buys a house their fortunes change. Faced once again with the prospect of homelessness, Rita reverts to survival mode, and the price she pays to keep them out of poverty changes their lives forever.
Accomplished visual artist Annie Weatherwax has written a stunning, heartrending first novel. Ruthie’s wry voice and razor sharp observations about American life in the twenty-first century infuse the prose with disarming honesty and humor. All We Had heralds the arrival of a powerful new voice in contemporary fiction.
ALL WE HAD
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Teetering on the brink of homelessness at the height of the housing boom, thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, load up their possessions (and a few stolen goods) in their battered Ford Escort and set out cross-country in search of a better life. When car trouble brings their journey to an end in the small town of Fat River, they unexpectedly find a home amid the town’s quirky residents. At its core, All We Had is a love story between a mother and daughter whose bond is irrevocably altered by their search for the elusive American Dream.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Ruthie and Rita’s relationship. How is it traditional and how is it unusual? Rita’s shortcomings as a parent are often evident, but in what ways is she a good mother? What kind of mothering do you think she had?
2. What is “fierce and smart” about Rita? Why does Rita hide these traits from men in particular? How do economic circumstances inform this behavior?
3. Rita and Ruthie’s car is central to their lives. For a long time see more