New Leaf

Rachel Hall

The new wood-paneled station wagon crosses into the States at Niagara Falls, not stopping for the wax museums, boat tours, the many gift shops. The car heads south and west to Missouri, passing fields of corn and wheat, and what the family guesses are soybeans, the chartreuse leaves fluttering gently in the wind. After three years in Canada, the Gordons are moving back. As soon as they bought this car, before they’d even left the car lot, Elaine affixed a green McGovern bumper sticker. And now, when cars pass, the people inside flash them the peace sign. This seems like a harbinger, a good sign for their future. Inside the car, there is a notable lack of complaining or whining (for snacks or bathroom stops), no bickering between the children about seating arrangements. Phoebe, age nine, her voice sweet and earnest, only slightly off-key, sings camp songs, some of them silly or gruesome like the one about the paratrooper who forgets to pull his cord. That one has lots of verses and can go on indefinitely, growing sillier and more gory as it goes.

“Morning has broken,” she sings now, “like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.”

“That’s pretty, Phoebes,” Elaine says, drowsy in the front seat. They’ve been on the road since morning, and before that she supervised the movers. Before that it was the packing. Elaine thinks of the empty house, her footsteps echoing as she walked through it the last time. She loved that house when they bought it three years ago, but she is glad to leave it now, glad for a fresh start, a new beginning. And why are there so many ways to say this (second chance, clean slate, new chapter) if she alone longs for such a thing?

Elaine’s reflection in the window reveals that she is a slim, pretty woman. Her dark curly hair is cut short, emphasizing her cheekbones and long, graceful neck. She is 32 years old, but might pass for 22, were it not for the vertical crease between her eyebrows, a crease that makes her look worried even when she’s not.

To pass the time, the Gordons play the license plate game. So far, they’ve seen mostly the predictable states–New York, Pennsylvania, a few Ohios. They play the alphabet game, too, even Jim who usually claims he needs to pay attention to the road. “There’s an X,” he says pointing to the exit sign. When they finish that round, Nat wants to play again, and no one groans, not even Phoebe.

“Look, look!” Nathanial shouts. “It’s our van.”

A moving van passes them. It is the same company that earlier loaded their belongings, a bit roughly, Elaine had thought. Nat can’t read, but he’s recognized the logo on the side of the van, a covered wagon pulled by a team of stocky horses. Pioneer Movers Gets You There Before the Rest, is spelled out in script that resembles rope.

“Is it, Mommy?” Phoebe asks.

“My bed is in there and my trucks and all my other toys,” Nat continues.

“Could be,” Elaine says, winking at Phoebe.

They have with them only luggage for the trip, and it’s on the roof, strapped down with bungee cords and under a tarp that flaps in the wind.

They stop for lunch at a rest area. Already the air feels different, heavier and thick. The bathrooms are stinky, so Phoebe waits for her mother by the vending machines, her nose pinched. She’d like a Coke, but when her mother joins her, she says, “I’ve got juice in a big thermos,” before Phoebe can even make her case. They take their picnic basket as far from the bathrooms as they can. The cement picnic table and bench are hot against their bare arms and legs. They watch other travelers walk their dogs–a coltish mutt and a stiff old black Lab, its grizzled face sad and dignified–in a grassy patch between the parking lot and the vending machines. Phoebe is about to begin again her petition for a dog. Perhaps the move might be used to her advantage in this.