By Sam Pierstorff
The engine never failed on our mother’s rusty 1962 Studebaker Lark that drooled puddles of oil onto our driveway and shot black smoke from the tailpipe like an old musket, but most days I hoped it would so that my mother could shoot it dead like a crippled horse, and my brother and I could take the school bus instead.
My mother was only 4’9,” standing somewhere between a Hobbit and an Olympic gymnast but without the physical strength. Mental strength, she had. Intimidation, check. A vocal range that could break champagne glasses when she yelled at us or my father before their divorce, double check. But we didn’t drink champagne. Or I should say, she didn’t drink champagne or any alcohol for that matter. (My dad, on the other hand, was an alcoholic, and I may have tried a sip or two from the Jack Daniels under his desk, but that’s another story.)
My mom was Muslim. We all were or tried to be. But she was the best at it. Her hijabs matched her long floral blouses. She carried a misbaha, a string of prayer beads, and thumbed each bead, reciting one of God’s 99 holy names as she cooked or sat idling at a stoplight—if you could actually call whatever gasping sounds that the Studebaker’s engine made idling. I think she mostly prayed to get us to the next stoplight without a breakdown. And it worked. Every time. “Subhan’Allah,” she would mumble as she pressed the gas pedal to the floor with the tip of her shoes, “Glory to God.”
Mom drove us to school every morning. My brother Ahmed was a freshman at Lincoln High and I was an 8th grader across the street at Parkview Middle School. Somehow I made a case for my mother to turn into the long horseshoe parking lot at Lincoln and drop us both off. That way I would not be seen by my peers. My brother, on the other hand, was in full view of the high school crowd that gathered in the grass near what appeared to be the world’s largest American flag while they waited for their busloads of friends to pour out onto campus.
The worst part wasn’t feeling like an outsider among the car lot of pickup trucks and vintage Ford Mustangs that everyone seemed to have restored with his father or grandfather. The worst part was parking the Studebaker. There was no way I could avoid participating in the morning ritual of parallel parking between two buses. My mother never just pulled up and let us run out of the car. She had her list of demands—du’as to be heard, prayers to be read, reminders to recite Al-Fatiha, the Quran’s opening chapter, before every math test. Then came the big hug, the kiss on the lips that always felt slippery and gross. But before all that could occur, the car had to be parked, and it took all three of us to make that happen.
The 1962 Studebaker Lark did not have power steering, at least ours didn’t. It had quite the opposite. Powerless steering? A steering column injected with lead and small rocks in order to make the wheel nearly impossible to turn? It was for this exact reason that my mom made my brother and me sit alongside her on the slick vinyl front seat. In those days, we were seatbelt-less and slid from end to end as the Studebaker weaved through traffic. Turning the car while in motion was not the problem. Turning the car while stopped required Herculean strength.
“Okay, habibis, give me your hands,” Mom said. That was our cue. We scrunched in close together, all six of our hands on the wheel. “Yulla, hurry.”
We yanked and grunted, one hand over the other, slapping each other’s wrists as we pulled on the wheel. I was the strongest, the last to let go before readjusting my hands at the top of the wheel and pulling downward again.
“Sammy, you are such strong boy. Mashallah.”
Only my mom called me Sammy because it sounded more Arabic than Sam or my real name, Samuel, given to me by my English-professor father who named me after Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer and his favorite writer (but that’s also another story).
My knuckles turned white from their tight grip on the steering wheel, face reddened with determination. Outside the car, all eyes were on us—blue eyes, confused eyes, the kind of eyes that you can feel crawling all over you, but I never stared back. I tugged and heaved until the car’s tires were angled just right. Mom gave the Studebaker some gas and we jerked backwards just far enough into the spot between the buses. Now the front wheel had to be rotated the opposite direction to get us snugly against the curb, closer to the eyes.
“Come on. More helping, please, sons. My hands is hurting.”
We grabbed the wheel. “Go, go, go!” Mom shouted like a cheerleader in the final seconds as the winning shot arcs toward the basket.
As my mom jolted the car forward, the front tires hit the curb, bouncing us slightly over the yellow-painted “Loading and Unloading Only” lettering, then rocking us back down to the asphalt where we finally parked.
“Alhumdulillah,” Mom gasped as she tucked her dark hair back under her hijab, wiped the wrinkles from her blouse, and turned her body toward us.
There were small applause outside the closed window as I sunk down as low as I could. Ahmed wasn’t embarrassed. He sat tall and opened his palms like a hardcover book, placing them in his lap to catch all the words that my mom began to pray. This was one of the many ways I knew Christians and Muslims were different. When I had seen Christians pray on television, they pressed their hands together as if smashing a mosquito, resting them just under their chin, elbows on the edge of a bed. Us Muslims left our hands open, only the sides of the pinkies and palms pressing against each other the way you might offer someone a gift or teach a child how to first catch a ball.
Before we were allowed to leave the car, Mom recited surahs, the last three short chapters from the Quran, and then made us lean in for kisses, first Ahmed who maintained his composure, and then me who squirmed and cringed as Mom ironed my face with her lips.
We finally exited the Studebaker. Ahmed walked dutifully to his first period class as my mother waited for the front bus to leave so that she wouldn’t need to turn the tires in order to drive off.
With the bus out of her way, she didn’t need us anymore. She could simply drive straight back to an empty house where the shards of her broken marriage remain scattered all over the kitchen floor, but not before her 1962 Studebaker Lark lurched and fired its shots of black exhaust—dark clouds that followed me across the street into junior high and ever since.
Sam Pierstorff was born to a Syrian/Muslim mother and an American/military father from Kentucky. After their imminent divorce, Sam was raised alongside one older brother, a tough-as-nails mother, and a parakeet named Tiki in Orange County, California. After moving to three homes in three cities over the next seven years, Sam finally graduated from high school, moved on to college, and eventually received his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from CSU Long Beach before going on to become the youngest Poet Laureate ever appointed in the state of California when he was selected to the position in 2004 by the city of Modesto. Sam has published more than 200 poems in journals and magazines across the country, including Slipstream, Rattle, Nerve Cowboy, Spillway, The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, and many others. He is a prize-winning performance poet, recently winning UC Merced's Grand Slam championship in April 2013 and the Fresno Beat-Down slam in 2015. His non-fiction has recently appeared on The Huffington Post Blog and in the Beacon Press anthology, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy. Sam currently teaches English at Modesto Junior College where he is also the founding editor of Quercus Review Press, a small press poetry publisher, and host of Modesto's annual, sell-out "ILL LiST," a poetry slam invitational. His debut poetry collection, Growing Up in Someone Else’s Shoes, was published by World Parade Books in 2010, and most recently, he co-edited More Than Soil, More Than Sky: The Modesto Poets, which launched to #1 on Amazon's Poetry Best Seller list upon its release. Last season, he was a contestant on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, certifying him as the world’s first #NinjaPoet.