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RVs, road trips, White Sox, peach ice cream, corn palaces, mini golf, garden gnomes, Jiffy Pop, mothers & empty Walmart parking lots.

Our childhood: a thirty-six-foot RV with an orange kangaroo decal bounding across its side. The beast beeps as Dad reverses it into our driveway, steady and slow, the roof swiping the basketball net. The vehicle is so high, you need a ladder to see the top. Mom gets to work with the Windex and vacuum, trying unsuccessfully to scour away the plastic odor inside. It smells like a mixture of bleach, mildew, wood chips and soap.

Lainie, Willie and I load laundry baskets with swimsuits, towels, flip-flops, VHS tapes, dog food, marshmallows, flashlights and detergent. We stuff our gatherings into cabinets in the RV, claim our spots on the couch, chair or bench. If you get the couch, you’re lucky. You can stretch your legs as long as you’d like.

We always mean to leave on time, but where we’re going, time doesn’t matter.

We stuff firewood into an outdoor compartment. Baseballs, Frisbees, footballs and bats go in the compartment next to it. Shoes are stored in a drawer beneath the couch. The radio blasts a Chicago White Sox game from the garage as we prepare our vessel. Cicadas wail and the fluorescent light from the RV intensifies as the sky darkens. We always mean to leave on time, but where we’re going, time doesn’t matter. There are no deadlines on the open road in the middle of summer. We have enough Kraft Mac & Cheese to last a week. Everything we need is corralled into our thirty-six-by-nine. Three hundred twenty-four square feet.

Five minutes before we pull out of the driveway, Dad washes bug guts and bird poop from the windshield. It is a giant’s eye, our communal pupil.

The door shuts and the automatic metal steps retract. Raggs and Griffey pant and curl up on the floor. The White Sox score a tying run right before we pull out. Dad lets out a celebratory bellow and leans on the horn. Here we come! Then we’re lurching down a shady street, cabinet doors opening, the bathroom door clanging shut, us getting out of our seats to secure everything.

We roll through our town as our behemoth carrier creaks and groans—Dad at the helm, Mom his first mate. There is a tingle at the bottom of my stomach that, even when I breathe slowly, I can’t suppress. I bet Lainie and Willie have it too.

We slide onto the on-ramp and pick up speed. White lines become blurs. The RV is cruising now, smooth and regal. We’re going to Cape Cod. We’ll catch fish and drain cold Atlantic seawater from our noses. Gravelly sand in our shoes.

On another trip, we go south to Florida to see our grandparents. We get peach ice cream at a haunted restaurant in Savannah on the way. We look for alligators in the swampy waters of a campsite way past dark. Spanish moss feels like dust in my fingers.

Northwest to Minnesota, all five of us wear matching T-shirts Dad made on the home printer: “Lake Itasca or Bust!” Angular fish form a frame around the words. We cross the headwaters of the Mississippi on a bridge made of stones. In Wisconsin, we watch the birth of a baby cow.

Farther west to South Dakota, we find an entire palace made of corn. Buffalo roam as far as we can see. Dirt, mountains, grass and sky…

Every night, we find a place to sleep—KOA or Jellystone campsites, sometimes an empty Walmart parking lot where we can stay for free as long as we buy something in the morning.

Every night, we find a place to sleep—KOA or Jellystone campsites, sometimes an empty Walmart parking lot where we can stay for free as long as we buy something in the morning. The sides of the RV slide out to give us more room. The box grows and grows, the widening belly of our beautiful home.

At the campsites, we eat s’mores and hamburgers and explore mini-golf courses and general stores. Mom heats baked beans on the stove. Dad boils corn on the fire. We race with other kids we meet, up and down small gravel roads, catching fireflies in Tupperware, casting fishing poles toward the sound of singing frogs.

We can distinguish transients from permanents—people who live here all year long and have entire lawns in front of their RVs, with garden gnomes, hand-painted signs and rock gardens. We, too, settle in, unfurling our awning over the front door, pulling out the AstroTurf to spread near the campfire, setting lawn chairs in a circle around the flame. We will not stay forever like the permanents. We are on the road—explorers, travelers, destined to move. There is too much out there to see.

Sometimes, after we hand-wash dinner dishes in the sink and Dad makes Jiffy Pop over the fire—after the stars have come out and the 10 p.m. quiet hour arrives so that you can finally hear the crickets and the distant hum from the highway against the fire’s cracking—Mom gets on the bed.

“Dance!” we say. “Dance!”

And she does—standing on the full mattress she and Dad share. She turns her neck so her head doesn’t hit the ceiling. And then her hips are wiggling and her head is back; she moves her hands across her face like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. We crack up, and she does too. She looks at Dad, smiles, flirts by rolling her eyes. The five of us are crammed into the back of the RV, hollering and laughing, her full, tan calves at my eyes, her gorgeous painted toes. The four of us whoop and cheer for her. She is our star.

After the show is over, Dad folds down the kitchen table and turns it into a bed for Willie. The couch slides out for me. Lainie turns the bucket seat and passenger seat toward each other to form her bed, then puts on the green sheets we use only in the RV. Dad turns the lights off, and we hear him brushing his teeth in the tiny bathroom.

“Goodnight, kiddly bumps,” he says once he squeezes out of the bathroom. “Goodnight, my babies,” Mom calls.

“Goodnight,” we say back in varying degrees of almost asleep, but my eyes are on the ceiling. We’re in Kansas or Connecticut or Tennessee. We are nowhere but here, in our 324. The five of us so close I could practically reach out and touch each one.

Compass Rose

In the final spring of our mother’s life, three weeks after her fifty-third birthday and three months before she dies, my dad will drive her to my brother’s college baseball game in Iowa. Family trips have come and gone. The drawers of the RV are empty. The linoleum grout is gray and the scent of bleach and wood chips has dulled. My brother is the starting pitcher. Mom refuses to miss a game, even with her disappearing bones and the thermometer dipping to thirty degrees. She cannot remove herself from the role of mother.

Dad drives her five hours in the RV and parks it near the outfield. That way, she can escape to the bed any time she needs. My mother, in her fur hat and wig, withering the way cancer shrinks a body. She watches strike three from the RV’s automatic stairs, eyes wide at her baby boy, her gloved hand clutching the handle of her chariot. Our chariot. All of us, forever thinking about the ways it carried us.

Maggie Pahos is a writer living in New Orleans. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. “324” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress about the year she spent traveling through Ghana, South Africa, and Europe following her mom’s death to breast cancer when Maggie was 22.

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