I imagined we might pitch over the edge of the mountain.
It was nighttime when our Jeep slid off the road. A child then, I had fallen asleep in the back seat during the five-hour drive to Reno.
Every year around Christmas, we’d go skiing—a sport my parents, both born to tropical climates, had learned after enough time living in the aspirational suburbs of Northern California. The drive through the Sierra Nevada was not new for them, or for me. Whenever we passed railroad tracks, my father would tell us with pride how they were built by Chinese laborers. Near Donner Pass, you can still see the wooden sheds running along the tunnels built into the granite mountainside. I thought this was where the men had lived and wondered how they kept warm in such flimsy shacks.
We always stayed at the same circus-themed hotel and casino, where downstairs my parents played slots. They liked to gamble. My mother was a strong believer in luck, both good and bad. Hauling their windfall—a plastic bucket heavy with quarters—they’d accompany me upstairs to the midway filled with carnival games, which they took almost as seriously as the gambling. My father hunkered down at the horse-racing game. He always sat at seat Number Two, which corresponded with a pint-sized jockey in a black-and-yellow uniform riding a tan horse. The horses bobbed up and down, “galloping” past their miniature competitors. Players rolled a red ball, aiming for holes that would move their horse ahead either one, two, or three spaces. My father won nearly every time he played, using his thumb to nudge the ball—not too hard, just enough.
Meanwhile, my mother excelled at shooting rubber cannons into the air toward ringed targets. Placing a stack of quarters on the counter, she’d sit on the stool for hours, firing away. I’d wander back and forth between my mother and father, hoping to find a game that I could be skilled at, but I never was as good as they were. My parents won so many prizes. I wasn’t sure if it was for my benefit or theirs. We’d leave with more toys than we knew what to do with. The stuffed animals wound up in garbage bags that sat in storage.
By the time my father pulled off to the side of the road that night, perhaps looking for a way around the holiday traffic, I was awake. I heard the engine revving as he tried to free the car from the snowbank we had drifted into. Strapped to the passenger seat, my mother shot tiny barbed words at my father.
I told you not to pass on the right. You never listen.
As the Jeep lurched forward, I imagined we might pitch over the edge of the mountain.
Tense, my mother quieted. My father climbed out of the car. Unable to see him, I struggled to differentiate between the shadows outside the window. Around us, the snow fell thickly.
The memory surfaces years later when my parents split up. My father comes home bearing a confession. He has totaled the Jeep after drifting off at the wheel. I understand he is not a man easily changed. But as my father learns too late, he can only let his eyes close for so long until the car spins out or a marriage collapses.
Confined to the back seat of our car that night long ago, I listened for any sign of my father. An approaching vehicle. Muted conversation. The clanking of chains being wrapped around the Jeep’s back bumper.
From the highway, slow-moving headlights penetrated the blackness. My father took his place in the driver’s seat, next to my silenced mother. As if shaken from a dream, we were towed back up to safety. Then, we resumed our long drive into the snowy night.