Driving by Kristie Betts Letter

 Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.

(Hamlet III.ii.203)


             Mom’s one lifelong problem: drunk driving. Remarkably, my mother’s brain cancer manifested much like my mother’s drunkenness.  

            In both states, she always thought she was good to drive.


            Two days after the oncologist told her she could never drive again, we were at Target with my twelve-year old daughter.

“Mom, you can drive again,” I said.  “Target has those motorized carts!”

            “Cool,” the preteen said. “Those carts are awesome.”

            “I don’t need one,” Mom replied. We parked in handicapped parking, as close to the big automatic doors as possible. Still, her shuffle step took us quite a while and by the time we got inside she went straight to the motorized cart.

            Luckily, right next to the entrance, a red vehicle was charged up and waiting.  I gave Mom the basic lesson (push button to go faster, use brakes to stop.) When she started to go, she pointed herself in the direction of the far side of the store rather than into the shopping area. “Mom, don’t you want to shop? To get sweatpants?!” But she was already gone. At a pace simultaneously quite slow and way too fast, she motored across the front of all twenty-five checkout stands. I trotted behind her, yelping her name and instructions. 

            “Slow down! Hit the brakes! Turn left before you hit the shoes!”

            The left/right distinctions didn’t register. Neither did my instructions on braking.  When a display loomed in front of Mom’s unswerving cart, I ran out in front of her. “This way,” I said, waving like an air traffic controller pointing away from the pyramid of light sweaters. 

            “Brake, brake, brake, brake.” And finally she did.

            We sat still for a second while I caught my breath and Mom perused kids’ galoshes. My daughter slowly strolled up to us, standing at a distance.

            “You can ride in the cart with me,” Mom said to her granddaughter, patting the seat beside her. She hadn’t extended this offer to me. 

            My daughter laughed. “I’ll be in the music section.”

            “Don’t you want to walk around together?” I asked.

            She smiled big, all braces and sad understanding. “Nope.”


            I tried to lead, sprinting up aisles in front of the cart, attempting to show Mom sweatpants. Soon I was following, because she kept driving the cart forward until I repeated, “Stop, stop, stop, hit the brakes, stop pushing on the gas, stop, right here, stop, stop.”

            For a few aisles she had it, once even turning right when I said “right” without a visual confirmation of which direction that was. But then she made an abrupt turn in pajamas and plowed right into a rack of summer-y bottoms. She kept driving forward. The rack groaned and began to slide across the floor.

            “Stop, stop, stop,” I repeated. “Stop pushing the lever. Let up on the gas.” I tried to reach around her, but I couldn’t get to the brake because she kept lurching forward into a pile of pajamas. The rack now pushed into a row of summer-y nightgowns. 

            “Hit the brake, hit the brake,” I said but Mom did nothing of the sort. Soft fabric fell from hangers and spectators gathered.

            Finally, I climbed onto the motorized cart, nearly on top of my mother, to grab the brakes and pull her hand off of the accelerator. I tried to push the cart out of the jumble of metal and pastel cloth. The thing seemed as heavy as my Honda. 

            “Okay, I’m gonna need to back you up out of this mess, Mom.”

            I pressed down on the “Reverse” lever and a warning beep began, much like that of the school bus of my youth backing up to make the turn onto the road where a cute boy and his sister lived. 

            “Stop, stop, stop,” Mom said. I let go of the button and we stopped our backwards progress. 

            “Are you okay? Are you caught on anything?”

            “Don’t do that.”

            “We have to back up,” I said patiently. “It’s the only way out.”

            I hit the back-up lever again, and the beeping cart pulled out of the tangle of nightgowns.

            “Stop it!” she said.  I stopped again.  “You are embarrassing me.”

            It was all drunk driving from here on out. 



© Kristie Betts Letter, 2016

Kristie Betts Letter teaches Hamlet to teenagers and plays a mean game of pub trivia. Her fiction has been recognized by Best American Small Fictions 2017, and published in journals including The Massachusetts Review, Washington Square, The North Dakota Quarterly, The Southern Humanities Review, and The Chariton Review. KT literary represents her novel The Three Marlenas. 

Driving was read by Samantha Jane Gurewitz for the Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition on 3rd August 2016