Ryan’s mom smiles as she drives us to school; blond, energetic, and crazy-faced. It could be a normal, pretty, mom-face, but when it smiles it ages and goes bonkers. The mouth opens and exposes her small white teeth and her wet tongue. What it does to her eyes, though, is fascinating. They get wide and frantic. The smile of an asylum resident making an escape and driving two third-graders to school. Ryan’s mom smiles often: Ryan’s mom smiles religiously.
We are on the Jesus-Train. Actually, a brand-new Lincoln Continental that Ryan’s mom drives while talking, singing, praying, smiling and sometimes crying. She never uses her turn signals. I don’t know if it’s because she doesn’t now about them or because they would distract from her talking, singing, praying, smiling and sometimes crying.
Ryan sits in the back, ignored and ignoring. I sit in the front, engaged. I like Ryan’s mom. She is one of my fans, and I’m one of hers.
I am newly enrolled at Whittier Christian Elementary. The staff and parents of my new school believe in the power of prayer. They believe in corporal punishment. They believe focusing on our salvation will have greater rewards than focusing on how to pronounce it, or spell it correctly. Jesus will teach me to read. I’m not sure if they believe in Mexicans. I haven’t seen any yet. I’m trading cucaracha dancing for worship clapping.
My life in Mountain Grove was full of white people- working class white. My last school in Fullerton was 80% Mexican. Whittier Christian is 95% rich white people and 5% who identity as though they are.
Driving us to school Ryan’s mom smiles and sings along with her favorite 8 track, Slow Train Coming, a Christian album by Bob Dylan. “Did you know that he is born again?” She asks (me?/herself?/Bob?), but defiantly not Ryan. Ryan is not a participant in our early morning chatter. She continues, “His song, Nashville Skyline, was playing when Ryan’s dad and I decided to get married.” She glances over at me and smiles, mouth open. I’m not certain what it means that they “decided to get married”, like deciding to have a bologna sandwich for breakfast. I also don’t have an opinion on any Bob Dylan songs not played on repeat in her Lincoln Continental. I do like that she talks to me like an adult… or maybe her imaginary friend.
Most grownups talk to me like they are hiding something. Ryan’s mom doesn’t seem to hide anything. She talks about how tedious her life feels; she talks about a boyfriend she had in college; she talks about how she wishes she would have waited later to have children. I glance back at Ryan to see his response; he looks like he agrees. Sometimes, I lose track of the conversation and focus on her face to see if she ever takes a breath while talking. She doesn’t. It’s like a superpower. I like she needs little encouragement to keep talking. I approve of this approach to conversation, and I return her wide-eyed smile, my mouth open.
She brings her monologue back to Bob Dylan, still without taking a breath, “I’ve always been a fan, but Ryan’s dad said I needed to throw out all my secular music: The Who, The Doors…” The Lincoln Continental is stopped, in the left-hand turn lane, at a green light. I point at the light. She is frozen, frowning, her hands gripping the steering wheel. I look back at Ryan; he shrugs his shoulders. After a few seconds she steps on the gas, smiles, and when she asks, “Do you like Jackson Brown?” I see that her eyes are shiny; she’s about to cry.
“I like Barbra Mandrell and the Mandrell Thithterth. Thaturday nighths at Eight on N. B. Thee.”
She smiles and nods a recognition that I’m listening and I have spoken. She continues, “I’m just really happy that Bob has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior”. I’ve heard other adults refer to Bob Dylan as “Dylan” but never “Bob”. Maybe now, that he’s “one-of-the-saved”, Ryan’s mom feels less formal about this mush-mouthed-singer.
When “Brother Bob” sings, Gotta Serve Somebody, a song about making a choice of serving the Devil or serving The Lord, she closes her eyes and alternates lifting her hands up in worship between shifting gears. At the next red-light she lifts both hands up and keeps them lifted even after the light turns green and she steps on the gas. She doesn’t touch the steering wheel again until we start to veer into the next lane. I know she is planning on going to heaven; I wonder when.
She has a pretty voice, and she is passionate about what she is singing. She is so passionate, sometimes, a little bit of spit hits the inside of the windshield. I stare at these little love offerings trying to figure out what the lyrics are. For most of it, I have no idea what Bob Dylan is singing.
When the next song comes on, I listen intently, happy to know that someone with a speech impediment can have a recording career. But I would like to sing along. Is he singing about his love of Jesus? Valerie Bertinelli? It’s hard to tell. There is one song, my favorite, that I do know the words to, it’s about man giving names to all the animals titled, Man Gave Names to All the Animals.
Ryan’s mom sings along,
“Saw an animal as smooth as glass. Slithering his way through the grass. Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake.”
I sing with Dylan,
“I think I’ll call it a ththnake”
Ryan’s mom laughs and smiles; she pats the back of my head. She likes me better than Ryan. He sits silent and still in the back seat. Like the turn signals on the Lincoln Continental, she makes no effort to engage either. I look through the window as we arrive. I can see the school chapel through the glass, where I’ve added my own little thpittle.