A Flash Fiction Collaboration with Process Notes
By Amy Cipolla Barnes and Sara Hills
Any second now, Dad will turn the car around and drive back to the Gemini Giant where we left Mom on the side of the road. He’ll race down the highway, not caring about speed limits or police, knowing the only thing that matters is Mom and how much we still need her.
When we reach the giant, Mom will be waiting: crumpled map in one hand, purse in the other. And Dad will be sorry for rushing Mom about the map, for revving the engine and speeding off when she stepped out of the car, saying, “I need some space, Lou.”
And Mom will say she didn’t mean that kind of space.
But instead of driving back and being sorry, Dad’s sing-song voice says, “Pass those sandwiches, Janie,” even though he knows Mom was saving them for later. Beside me, Billy licks his lips, and Dad reaches over the backseat like he means it.
Dad’s jaw works up and down as he chews, until the waxed paper wrapper gets—fwoomp—sucked out the open window, and Billy, his mouth ringed in mayonnaise, lets go his—fwoomp—as if they’re making their way back to Mom.
The car tires growl further away, and I see Mom in everything we pass. The corn yellow colors of her dress, the flat horizon of her mouth, the green road signs of her eyes that match the green suit of the Gemini Giant man with his football-sized rocket and his silver steel helmet and his muscled arms that can swoop Mom up and carry her off like King Kong, only instead of taking her to the top of a skyscraper he’ll take her to the moon where she’ll have his giant children who will be better than us, quieter, moon-faced and floating free, not seat belted in the back of a car speeding down the highway, complaining, hungry, wondering if we’re there yet.
When we leave Planned Parenthood and my parents’ house behind, Bobby tells me I need to dump stuff.
I wonder if he wants to dump me. There’s no baby to tie us together anymore.
“Get rid of something.” He tells me.
For the second time in three months.
I believed him more the first time he said those words, but I have nowhere to live now so I need to believe him again. His rusty Camaro is on its last legs and can’t handle two people plus their stuff. It wouldn’t have held a child – just a two-seater, not a family three-seater. We discuss what to leave behind. Should it be my prom dress, his 80s band tees, my Tiger Beat magazines, his rookie baseball cards?
We both fight for things. He’s suddenly sentimental. His Cub Scout uniform. My grandmother’s Sunday sauce on a stained index card. An annotated copy of Frankenstein. The heavier things go. His letter jacket and childhood desk are left behind at a hotel dumpster in Georgia. My marching band flute at a Four Corners rest stop.
There’s one thing we can’t give up; the tiny silver urn riding shotgun next to his Big Gulp.
“I don’t want to leave her behind.” I say.
“Does it really matter now?” He asks.
It does, but I try to be cavalier, gesturing at roadside kudzu for her possible resting place.
“Why can’t we keep her?” I ask.
I can tell he’s changed his mind about us because my cheerleader skirt won’t zip yet and there are milk shadows no matter how hard I try to cover them.
“This move was your idea.” He says with a mouthful of Stuckey’s divinity. “I want to be at football practice.”
I guess our planned apartment alone will stay a dream. He turns the car around while I’m sleeping.
I wake up and try to plead with him one last time, bargain for a hole-y sweater and a holy jar as I thrust the first sweater I made at him with its wonky-antlered deer and sleeves to his knees from a happy Christmas in matching pajamas and matching smiles for my mom’s Polaroid camera. I add her first sweater, unworn and knitted with my beginning Home Ec stitches and a blurred bunny on the front.
“Keep them,” he says.
I put both sweaters in the trunk before we scatter her under a random scraggly tree, a tiny gray streak that doesn’t lighten my load at all.
Mama honks for luck when she sees the black jackrabbit sign, despite the car’s wobble getting worse, despite the swirling desert dust, despite every time we ask where we’re headed she only says, “The future,” and beams, refusing to say more.
The good luck honk brings on a fuh-wump sound, and Mama steers us, juddering, onto the cracked verge where the future looks exactly like the past: beer cans and food wrappers, even a kitchen blender upturned in the weeds.
“Starting over always feels a bit rumpity-dump,” Mama says to Laurie and me.
While Mama checks the tire, I tell Laurie how jackrabbits are born running; how they hide by flattening their ears low to the ground; how, when scared, their tiny hearts beat 300 times per minute
Mama comes back sweating, saying, “Goddamn lugs are stuck.” She pulls on a red dress and paints her lips, instructing us, “When needing help, best look helpless.”
Fanning herself with the folded map, Mama leans against the hood until a truck stops.
Despite Mama saying we’re done with men, she grins at the muscly baseball-capped man in a sleeveless flannel.
“Where y’all headed?” he asks, leering at Laurie and me. Staring too long.
“Just need help with the tire,” Mama says, gripping the lug wrench like a cross.
The man’s uneven teeth are the color of boiled peanuts. He flicks his cigarette into the crackle of grass, then skims the ends of Mama’s hair with his fingers.
Jackrabbits can leap ten feet in one bound. They can swim like dogs and, when cornered, they shriek and kick and bite.
After the man’s truck peels out, Mama doesn’t insist everything will be alright. She only goes at the tire again. Heaving. Hands shaking. Giving it everything she’s got until the nuts finally spin free, her red dress billowing behind her.
The giant billboard baby has teeth the size of Volkswagen Beetles. I’m scared my baby will have teeth that big and white and shiny when she’s born or even that she’ll bite through my organs now.
Ahead of us, a man with a giant cigarette and a giant car litters ashes like he’s the Marlboro Man. A flick of a spark carries from his car window to mine like a hot dandelion whisker.
You have your feet on the dashboard, blanketed by the fold-out map. It is your side of the car like your side of the bed. You chose things for both of us the way you want them to be. I drove because I was meant to drive and sleep on the left side. You were meant to nap on the right side and eat beef jerky, your jerky little mouth gnawing at dried gas station meat.
Driving was more interesting than hearing you sing along with Johnny Cash about prison living, your tone deaf mouth splattering words and nicotine ash on the dashboard, pockmarking the map.
We end up at a rest stop before we reach our Motel 6 because you need a vending machine Coke and vending machine cigarettes and it’s forty-two miles to the next rest stop and you might need to pee and you might need to get a new map or wash your hands or get some fresh air or get some space.
As I wait for you, I Google search to find out my baby is the size of a walnut. I imagine the billboard baby as a gigantic nutcracker.
You get back in the car with your room temperature Coke next to my motion sickness slash morning sickness.
“Those billboard babies are scary,” I say
You pretend like you don’t hear me.
I pull onto the interstate. Another giant baby appears over our heads, a Burma Shave pro-life advertisement.
COUNSELING SERVICES AVAILABLE
Do the enormous babies do the counseling?
That sounds silly but they do look oddly comforting and wise. I wish my sixteen-year-old self had a gentle giant baby looking over her.
I giggle a bit. Because you’re not really listening to a podcast, you respond.
“Why are you laughing?” You ask.
I don’t explain because it’s too much to say out loud.
“I need to pee.The baby needs me to pee.” I say instead.
“We just stopped. The next rest area isn’t for forty-two miles.”
I realize this road trip before we become parents feels like a bad idea. I don’t admit that or tell you there’s blood pooling under me.
The next giant baby and the next and the next and the next are my new mile markers. I listen to them to counsel me on how to be a mother at twenty-four but all I hear is the muffled sounds of whatever or whoever you’re listening to again.
Around forty-two miles or forty-two hours, I try out various baby names from road signs. Orlinda. Odessa. Phoenix. I contemplate women on road trips and adventures and their names: Romy, Michelle, Thelma, Louise.
At the forty-mile gas station sink, I wash out my clothes and underwear, not knowing if my nut-sized baby is still there. Back on the road, I hold my still-wet clothes out the window, a white flag waving to all the giant judging babies.
On the way to say goodbye to my mother, I stop at the Flying J truck stop. There’s another three-hours to go and I need coffee and gas. I’m stretching my legs when the call comes. A call I ignore because I assume it’s the kids. Again.
Though my husband says he’s handling it, my girls have been calling nonstop since I left Albuquerque, weighted by important matters: Alice’s lost Lego in the sofa, Romy’s extra-wiggly tooth, and what if cats could talk? They’re hungry; they’re thirsty; they’re hitting each other and nobody started it.
So I don’t pick up. I order a coffee and a bear claw and play through the voicemails while I’m filling the tank. When the nozzle shuts off, I hear my brother’s broken voice saying, “She’s gone.”
I picture my mother’s soft hands, empty.
I should have left sooner. Sped. I should have been there.
My mother has traveled many roads, and on her final one I can’t see what awaits her. If there’s a bright light or a tunnel or only a bridge, where, like one of Durcan’s golden mothers, face lit by the setting sun, nightgown flapping in the ocean breeze, she dares to be swallowed.
Though she’s never been that kind of mother—carefree, reckless, open—how different our lives would have been then, that golden aura passed down through generations like the fearlessness of lions.
Instead, I’m half-chewed by the heat, choking on gas fumes somewhere in Arizona when she passes. Neither fearless nor lionesque, just human and small.
I pull onto the highway. No tears; not yet. If my mother taught me anything it’s to be steadfast and strong, like those Herculean mothers birthing enormous babies, lifting cars off loved ones, stilling a room with one stern look.
With powers like those, shouldn’t I have been able to race time?
Along the road, mothers are everywhere: mothers on motorcycles and roadsides, mothers clutching maps and big-headed babies, wrinkled mothers, too young mothers, mothers laughing and weeping and praying. All of us—golden, blown like pinwheels—ultimately headed west.
Collaboration Process Notes for “Mother Road”
Sara: I’ve admired Amy’s work for a long time—she’s so creative and weird, her ideas are boundless—so I was thrilled when she invited me to collaborate.
Amy: Same with Sara! For a long time, she was one of the few writers I had met in person. I snuck away to a SmokeLong writers’ workshop in London and met a wonderful group of UK writers. We had an earlier connection from a publication of hers I helped publish at Barren Magazine. In a full circle moment, both Charlotte and Meagan were at Barren then too. The fact our individual writing styles include surreality, wild characters, loss and tough looks at childhood made it even more perfect.
The initial step was to create the old stand-by: a Google Doc. We knew we wanted to write a narrative piece together, something flashy, but it was wide open. While our writing may feel out of the box, we both actually work best when presented with direction, a topic. Having the open-ended guideline of “collaborate with another writer” was almost terrifying in its broadness. That became our first task, to create a container and direction for our piece. Give us a box or a shelf and we’ll fill it: with pickles or a tiny baby urn.
We discussed ideas and directions in DMs, in between parenting and whatnot, and landed on traveling. Our earliest draft began as a title: The Barnhill (Barnes+Hills) Tales, The Canterbury Tales meets The Grapes of Wrath, focusing on individual characters and their part in a community. Amy had been doing a lot of driving this summer, and Sara was stuck single parenting at home, longing to go anywhere. There is nothing we love more than a good road trip. Amy mentioned Burma Shave advertisements which led us to iconic Route 66, which Steinbeck referenced as ‘the mother road’ in The Grapes of Wrath—a novel we both absolutely loved in high school. We both also incorporate a fair amount of travel or movement or exotic locales in our writing—both have published pieces at travel-oriented Scrawl Place. Like our individual writing, another one of our common themes is motherhood. We decided to try and infuse those two main themes into each flash in some way but we didn’t set any further parameters.
There was a fair amount of veering off track and a considerable amount of research as we explored different avenues, including history and roadside attractions. Roe v. Wade news dropped while we were contemplating ideas, and we knew we needed to include some reference to the pro-life advertising that seems to bombard/judge/guilt-trip drivers in certain states. We took inspiration wherever we found it, from iconic 1960s statues (the Gemini Giant) to existing truck stop names (Flying J), and Irish poetry (Paul Durcan’s “Golden Mothers Driving West”).
Our individual drafts went into a shared doc where we left notes for each other. Ideas, questions, insights. It’s great working like this with another writer, especially if you have different strengths; they’ll catch things you don’t see and vice versa. Editing on the fly was interesting. There was a merging of two flashes. We continued to watch the word count, adjusting as we touched up against the 2000 word guideline (which initially felt expansive but ended up being hard to stay under)—lots of “we have only 100 words to play with.”
When we’d narrowed things down to five specific pieces and felt closer to finishing, we had a phone chat to discuss the lingering big questions. Then we tinkered a lot. Tried to echo images or ideas to link the pieces. Rearranged. Fought with the titles. The original idea was to have advertisement titles playing against each other and guiding the story, but they diminished the pieces a bit. And then we considered having it be a lineage—repeating mother/daughter characters. But it really felt like they were their own people, so we decided to name them. We played with names a lot: Willa for O Pioneers!, referenced road women like Thelma and Louise, Sally Ride for her “space road.”
We also went back in and made sure there were little bread crumb moments. A jackrabbit was echoed as a bunny on a baby sweater. A character’s name is explained in one flash tied to another. The overall time span for the stories is also measured—it felt modern in reflection but also like our 1970s-1980s childhoods. Once we had the final draft, it was fun making sure we did the intentional (but hopefully not ham-fisted) connecting touch points. Ultimately, we ended where we started, our modern take on The Canterbury Tales with named mothers, journeys to a finally-named place, pioneers heading to undiscovered but now discovered places.
Then we did the necessary nuts-and-bolts editing, the not-as-fun part of nit-picking: grammar, spelling and tightening, expanding, ordering and reordering. We are both brutal self-editors and do beta reads/edits for each other’s writing, but we also experienced a little trepidation of not wanting to step on each other’s literary toes. Even this process essay was collaborative and edited together.
In the end, we both finally felt satisfied with our individual pieces. There are Google Docs after Google Docs and interesting comments/suggested edits. When we declared the piece completed and ready to submit, we were both still agonizing over edits but we also had that emotional connection, that resonant moment that meant we had found the right balance, the right characters, the right arc. There is a certain amount of delicious irony in us writing about travel. Even if we hadn’t met up in that London church basement, we would still be meeting up thousands of miles away from each other. An American in America and an American in England. Two mothers. Two writers. And ultimately, two travelers.
Sara Hills is the author of the award-winning flash collection The Evolution of Birds. Her stories have been selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50, Best Small Fictions, and the BIFFY50, as well as widely published in anthologies and magazines, such as SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, X-R-A-Y, Fractured Lit, Cease Cows, Flash Frog, and Reckon Review. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.
Amy Cipolla Barnes
Amy Cipolla Barnes is the author of three collections: AMBROTYPES (word west,) “Mother Figures” (ELJ, Editions) and CHILD CRAFT, forthcoming from Belle Point Press in 2023. She has words at The Citron Review, Spartan Lit, JMWW Journal, Janus Lit, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Trampset, Complete Sentence, Gown Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s and many other sites. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, included in Best Small Fictions 2022 and long-listed for Wigleaf 50 in 2021 and 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for NFFD, CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively.