The morning after my father’s big blow-up, he said we kids could order anything from the motel breakfast menu. We all chose blueberry pancakes, except for my youngest sister, Bessie, barely three, who made the waitress smile when she asked for a bowl of strawberry ice cream and a glass of orange juice. When my father went up to the cash register to pay, he grabbed a family-sized bag of Twizzlers that he’d stashed in the glove compartment for later that afternoon.
“It’s going to be another scorcher,” he said, catching my mother’s eye as he loaded the red metal picnic cooler into the trunk.
Eight in the morning in a motel parking lot near the Alabama/Mississippi border, and already the Ford Maverick’s upholstery was on fire. I slid into the passenger seat, commandeering my mother’s rightful place. I got carsick. Through the rearview mirror, I saw the rest of them—my mother, Sheila, Johnny and Bessie—shoehorned among all those pillows, toys and paper grocery sacks. I cranked down the window and fished out the Mobile Travel Atlas from the glove compartment—it was right under that surprise bag of black licorice—and draped it over my knee. In exchange for permanent dibs on the front window seat, I was supposed to navigate. 1967. No air-conditioning. No seatbelts. Occasionally, my brother even napped on the shelf right below the rear window.
As the car merged onto the highway, my father began whistling “Camp Town Races.” Today, his deep brown eyes were as soft as a deer’s, last night’s anger all leached out, as if he was trying to telegraphically signal he was sorry. Right then, he was a penitent, and at times like this, I felt protective towards him. All those offerings: the Twizzlers, ice cream for breakfast. You could bet we’d stop for bathroom breaks today.
Six months earlier, my father arrived home with three bottles of ginger ale, a carton of vanilla ice cream, and a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums for my mother.
“What are we celebrating?” my mother asked, as she lay the flowers on the kitchen counter and removed the jar with my sister Sheila’s pet frog from the dinner table.
“We’re going up in the world, Mrs. Martin,” my father grinned, as he took down six glasses from the pine cabinet by the kitchen sink.
He announced he’d gotten a big raise at the pharmaceutical firm. Each time we clinked our glasses and cried out “skol,” I heard the fizz of the ginger ale hitting the ice cream.
I was fifteen, in the tenth grade. Overnight my father’s income doubled, but in the months that followed his promotion, there was no bigger house or second bathroom or red convertible in the driveway. My parents, children of the depression, banked the money.
My parents’ only concession to conspicuous consumption was to plan a vacation during spring break. If we couldn’t be a two-bathroom or a two-car family, by God, we could be a two-vacation family, augmenting our customary summer travels to Canada with a holiday to somewhere completely new.
In the evenings, my father read aloud from the World Book about the places we’d visit. The Gulf of Mexico! Cypress Gardens! New Orleans! Never having been anywhere south of my New York home, sunny places sounded exotic, but I wondered how my mother would tolerate the heat. Unless she dabbed little ice cube filled plastic bags on her neck, she broke out in a rash.
On the day of our departure, my father got up early to load the car with a half-dozen suitcases, boxes of beach toys, pillows, bags of charcoal, a toolbox, a spare tire and a gas can. Inside, mother crammed cans of pork and beans, bottles of catsup, tins of hi-C, packages of hot dogs and bologna, loaves of Pepperidge farm bread, cookies, chips, apples, carrots and tomatoes into the red metal picnic cooler. While I spooned up the last of my milky cornflakes, Sheila counted out the crickets her menagerie of frogs and turtles would require during our absence.
Car travel in the 1960s was an endurance test. Highway rest stops consisted of a dozen picnic tables, several rusty grills, a water pump and a primitive toilet. Fewer superhighways meant more opportunities for breaking down in remote areas. For my family, two weeks in a car was a recipe for disaster. Six people crammed like clowns in training including three active children under the age of nine, one moody teenager who suffered from motion sickness, one heat-sensitive woman, and my father whose pyrotechnic outbursts could be triggered by stimuli as trivial as poorly designed highways, unclear signage, Providence, Rhode Island, or the lack of decent radio stations outside large metropolitan areas.
We had been driving forever. Outside my window, trees covered in Spanish moss flashed by. The last time I’d walked on solid ground was at a rest stop in South Carolina where a lizard had squeezed under the bathroom door.
But that was hours ago, and now the light was dimming. Through the rear view mirror, I watched Bessie doze with her head in my mother’s lap and her legs sprawled out across Sheila and Johnny’s laps. Every couple of minutes, my brother jiggled his knees until Bessie woke up sobbing, her cheeks stained with red rings.
“John,” my mother said to my father, “we’d better stop for the night soon.”
Bessie’s cries slowed, each sob followed by a rasping snuffle and the accelerating staccato of my dad biting his nails. I handed him a stick of gum; I would have done anything to keep him calm.
We exited the highway and drove down a quiet road to a bright honky-tonk oasis of motels and restaurants. Establishments lined both sides of the street, the lettered signs of the mom and pops competing with garish neon of the chains. Motel Units. Snack Bar included. TV & Pool.
My father didn’t believe in making reservations. He said it would “crimp our style,” so tonight as we cruised down the garish strip, “no vacancy” signs were already lighting up. It was so late. Everyone was hungry. Below the surface of my father’s consciousness, a rage smoldered like a slumbering dragon, and I sensed it blink, recoil and fall back to fitful sleep. All I wanted to do was to get out of the car, before my father’s dragon sprang to life. I knew my father would never harm me. He was a scientist, unconditionally devoted to my mother and us kids. Of this I was certain. His temper was neither malicious nor vindictive, a private sorrow that mocked only him, and if I forgave him every time his dragon sprang to life it was because he’d do the same for me.
Just as my father turned into the parking lot of a modest motel, my five-year old brother said, “I don’t want to stay here. Let’s go somewhere with a swimming pool.”
Then we were off, 50 mph in a 25 mph speed zone, the dragon at the wheel. My father gripped the steering wheel, his eyes bulging under his heavy brows.
“Do you think I’m made of money?” he shrieked in the strangled cadence of a Kabuki actor.
The interior of the car fell silent.
“Nothing is ever good enough,” Kabuki voice screamed, “How about that motel over there? It has two pools. Or the one down the street with the restaurant?”
The car roared down the commercial strip, all the neon signs blurring into a kaleidoscopic wash of color. Right outside of town, my father veered onto the narrow shoulder, quickly u-turned and came thundering back. I felt woozy. His guttural voice howled out a torrent of curses he’d learned in the army. I didn’t even know what most of the words meant.
Then all of a sudden, the car slowed down to its normal speed, and he pulled into a motel with a pool and a restaurant. Already he was a penitent.
The next day, we stopped at a rest stop. It was lunchtime, but our car was the only one in the lot.
My father lifted the red metal picnic cooler from the trunk while my mother and I dragged a table down a hill until it rested under the only tree. While my mother laid the paper plates and plastic spoons, my father opened up the pork and beans with a rickety can opener that left jagged zigzags around the perimeter of the lid. He smiled and told jokes. In school, we’d learned nothing could be created or destroyed. But how could this be true? After all, animals go extinct; people die and turn to dust, and here was my father washed clean, whistling “Yankee Doodle” as if last night’s anger hadn’t happened.
I took a bite of my limp sandwich and pushed the cold beans around my plate. After a morning of snacking on Twizzlers, who wanted to eat?
Sheila took off her shoes and ran across the lawn. Grasshoppers and bees hummed in the clover. My father chased Bessie and Johnny up and down the hill, caught them and swung them high in the air. By the trashcan, a couple of crows tussled over a crust of bread.
Suddenly, Sheila shouted, “Guys, you won’t believe what I found.”
I ran over to where she was staring into the grass. The lawn was teeming with chameleons. After my eyes got used to the green, I could make out an army of emerald lizards threading their way through the grass. We had salamanders and lizards back home, but they were all brown or black. Sheila picked up handfuls of the exotic creatures and let them crawl up and down her arms and legs. Later, we placed several of them on a rock and watched the lizards change from grasshopper green to biscuit brown.
By the time my father called us to leave, my sister already had placed the ones she wanted in a brown paper bag.
“This one is Greenie,” Sheila told me, cradling the slender creature with its reptilian smile in her palm. Greenie blinked back at her like a baby doll.
“You can’t take them home,” my father said. “What would you feed them?”
“Grass,” my sister answered, “And grapes from the cooler.”
“They eat bugs,” my father said, “They’re cold blooded and they need the heat. That’s why you don’t see them up our way. Just dump them out. They belong in the south.”
Usually, I sided with my father. I knew he was right. Up north, the chameleons would miss trees dripping with Spanish moss, all those camellias assaulting their eyes. But today, I admired my sister defiant next to the cooler, clasping her paper bag while our parents cleaned up the picnic site. After my father returned the red cooler to the trunk, she finally slid into the back seat. Her paper bag was gone.
We settled down for the long afternoon drive. Unless my father made a surprise stop for ice cream, the rest of the day promised little excitement. As my mother flipped through a magazine, I heard the steady rise and fall of my youngest sister and brother’s breathing, their heads resting against her shoulders. My father absentmindedly chewed on his fingernails. Sheila was uncharacteristically silent, probably sore about her magical lizards.
As I drifted into a meditative state, I thought about my father’s temper. After he’d died, the rest of us discovered his own father had beaten him as a child, but that afternoon, I believed I was partially to blame. I felt guilty about the overcrowding in the back seat, and in exchange for my permanent place in the front, I vowed to keep things running smoothly.
Suddenly, I caught sight of an emerald flash in the rear-view mirror. I glanced over at my father. His eyes were on the road. The flash was followed by an almost imperceptible click like a needle going through thick cloth. What was it? In the mirror, I watched the first chameleon enter the car through a concealed opening below the rear window. The creature crawled up the slippery glass on the interior of the rear window where it delicately began its upside-down journey across the ceiling, its sharp claws clinging to the fabric. Years later, I read how chameleon’s feet have sticky pads and special hairs that bond with the molecules of solid surfaces, but there in the car, I gave myself up to enchantment. One by one, a dozen other lizards entered the car at regular intervals directly behind the first one. Each new chameleon mimicked the movements of the previous one until they formed a single-file reptilian battalion. By the time the tenth chameleon had clambered up the surface of the rear window, the first one had just passed over my sisters’ and brother’s heads and into their line of sight. In the back seat, Sheila was the first to see them. She nudged Johnny and Bessie. They all gazed upwards. I didn’t need to turn around. Through the mirror, the whole scene unspooled before me.
I watched my father’s face. In no time, the lizards would be directly overhead. Sweat collected in the crevices of my palms. In the back seat, my mother dozed; three pairs of eyes stared upward, their expressions a mixture of horror and satisfaction. The parade of reptiles advanced across the ceiling, and it came to me that these lizards must be just like the ones that squeezed under the bathroom door at the rest stop. Sheila must have dumped her lizards into the red cooler. After the lizards slithered out a tiny opening in the metal, they must have entered the car’s interior through another gap in the trunk, from where they began their cross-car trek.
As the first chameleon reached out to place its delicate foot on the front windshield, I thought of the king in a legend my father read to me who appeased a dragon by feeding it sheep. When the king ran out of sheep, he fed it children, and when the children were all eaten, the king was forced to sacrifice his only daughter. I would’ve sacrificed anything to make the chameleons stop because the glass’s downward slope was too slippery for their special hairs; the molecular bond would not hold. The first creature faltered and slipped, and the lizard fell on my father’s head, bounced off the steering wheel and landed in his lap. Then the next chameleon fell, and in quick succession, they all cascaded down, bouncing across the front seat like verdant balls of hail. Today would finish without a happy ending, a redemptive moment too easily won. My father never learned to control his temper just as I never recognized his behavior was out of my control. But as I braced myself for his angry words, my father’s shoulders began to shake, and for one brief moment, he started to laugh, and my eyes filled up with grateful tears.
Interview with Marilyn Martin
Border Crossing: “Chameleons” is a beautifully detailed piece of memoir. How long did it take you to write and edit this piece to get it where it is now? How did you choose the particular details, of the car ride and back story to create a piece so vivid 50 years after it occurred?
Marilyn Martin: Thank you! The piece started out four years ago as a tiny segment in a much longer essay about motion sickness. The motion sickness essay didn’t work, but I couldn’t let go of the chameleon section. For me, it’s one of those mythic, family stories, but when I tried to write it as a stand-alone piece, my early drafts sounded like nostalgic children’s stories. Then two years ago, I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and there were all these black striped lizards with blue tails. Watching them squeeze under the tiny space at the bottom of the studio door was a Proustian moment, jogging my memory until I actually felt like I was back in the car on a long trip with my father. It’s funny. You know that sensation you get when you try to go to sleep after spending the whole day in a car? The way you close your eyes and it feels like the car is still moving? Well, for the next seven days that’s exactly how I felt when I went to bed even though I’d spent most of the day sitting writing in a chair.
BC: That’s fascinating. How do you know when a moment, or a collection of moments, has enough resonance to become a piece such as “Chameleons?”
MM: At least for me, it’s a process of trial and error. Some people have the notion that memoir is easy to write because the events have already happened, and all you have to do is write them down. But unadulterated life can be pretty boring so the moments you decide to leave out are as crucial as the ones you put in. A while back, I read a craft essay in Creative Nonfiction where Tim Bascom argues that while fiction writers typically need to invent from scratch “adding and adding, the personal essayist usually needs to do the opposite, deleting and deleting.” My first drafts are often unwieldy, sometimes forty pages long, so it really resonated with me the way Bascom describes a personal essay as a “figure locked in a too large lump of personal experience.” It’s as if the nonfiction writer is analogous to the sculptor chiseling away at that lump of marble trying to free the statue trapped inside.
BC: In your opinion, what distinguishes creative nonfiction from a piece of journalistic reporting or other forms of essay?
MM: I think of creative nonfiction as an umbrella term that encompasses autobiographical writing like personal essays, lyric essays and memoir where the writer relies on memory to reconstruct the story. Maybe someone should come up with a better term because many general readers believe the “creative” part implies the writer can make up details and take a lot of liberties with the story.
Actually, creative nonfiction writers should be as committed to portraying the “truth” as a journalist or biographer, just not as literal a truth. The problem is that memory, particularly childhood memory, is terribly unreliable so what the creative nonfiction writer sets out to do is write as faithfully from memory as possible. I know when my siblings read Chameleons, they’re going to say: that’s not exactly how I remember it. We each have our own version of the truth.
The role of the narrator is the other big difference between creative nonfiction and journalism or a more academic essay. Think of all those five-paragraph essays you wrote in high school, and how the teacher forbade you from using the word “I.” Not so in creative nonfiction. As Phillip Lopate says, the personal narrator needs to be able to think “retrospectively on the page” so she can simultaneously remember and interpret an experience for the reader. Sue Williams Silverman calls this double vantage point “the voice of innocence and the voice of experience.” Even though “Chameleons” is told in my teenage voice, I never could have written the piece the way it is at age fifteen. Hopefully, what makes the piece interesting is the way my more experienced voice looks back and interprets the events for the reader.
Marilyn Martin is the author of Helping Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities to Flourish, a book based on her own experiences. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Gulf Coast, Chautauqua, New Madrid, Southern Indiana Review and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Bennington College. Born in Montreal, Canada, brought up in New York, she now lives in northern New Jersey after decades of residing in the Chicago area.