Saved by a Sombrero


By Sally Holland

This story is fiction.

img_0356       A clean windshield, light traffic and reflective sunglasses all meant that Russell was having an easy day. He felt so relaxed that he considered rolling down his window, finding his Eagles playlist and turning up the volume. Take it Easy. The song fit his mood.

Instead, Russell straightened up in his seat, looked in the rearview mirror at the backseat of the minivan and saw that his six and seven year olds were sleeping. Rolling down the window would wake up Alexis and Roland. He turned up the fan on the air conditioner and settled for soothing, easy listening music on the radio.

Russell hoped that they would nap for another eighty-three miles until they reached South Carolina and passed South of the Border–a tacky, somewhat-faded establishment a few hundred yards into the Palmetto state. Regular billboards along Interstate 95 gave the precise mileage to the attraction and hence, he knew how far it was to the state line.

On the signs, a Mexican character named Pedro hawked South of the Border’s offerings in a not-so-politically correct way. Dressed in a sombrero and a Mexican poncho, Pedro was often seen sleeping under a cactus. Russell briefly wondered how the owners got away with promoting such a stereotype in the hypersensitive world of the 21st century.

As a kid, he had begged his mom and dad to stop under the giant sombrero-topped tower so he and his siblings could experience all the garishness the bright colors promised. The rides, the games, and the reptile lagoon called out to his youthful exuberance. His parents had seemed cruel when they refused with the excuse that the family needed to get to where they were going before sundown.

As an adult, Russell understood their position completely–the washed out paint job and hokey offerings looked like a big waster of time and money, the food couldn’t be more than mediocre, and the games would be passé in the age of digital.

For miles though, Russell kept himself entertained by reading the creative billboards. “Pedro’s Fireworks. (Does yours?)” “You never sausage a place.” “Too much Tequila”–with an upside down Pedro. A billboard of a drunk Mexican was probably not an appropriate image for the kids.

Russell glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure they were still asleep. As beginning readers, he doubted that they knew the word “tequila” yet anyway.

South of the Border was just one of his concerns about this trip through the Carolinas. His bigger concern was how he was going to handle it if they woke up and needed to use the restroom while they were still in North Carolina. This was a state with a law that said people were required to use the restroom for the gender they had when they were born. How would he handle it if Roland went to the men’s room and ran into someone who had had a sex change…someone who looked like a woman. Someone…like…say…Caitlyn Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner looked more female than male these days so Roland would definitely notice. How could Russell explain it?

The conversation would start with….

“Daddy, who was that woman in the boy’s room?”

“Her name is Caitlyn Jenner. She was in the Olympics.”

“Was she a gymnast?” Alexis would ask. She’d really enjoyed women’s gymnastics last time around.

“No,” Russell would say. “He…she was in the decathlon in the 70s. She threw a javelin and did a pole vault. She won the gold medal.”

“Girls can do that?” his son would ask.

“There isn’t actually a decathlon for women…”

“So, how come she got to do it?”

Russell didn’t want to have to explain sex changes to his kids. It really was a conversation the kids should have with their mother. She was much better at these discussions. His palms were sweating just thinking about it.

Caitlyn Jenner probably avoided North Carolina, Russell decided a few miles later. All transgender people likely did. Russell resolved not to worry about it.

The next South of the Border sign read–”Pedro’s weather report – Chili today, Hot Tamale.”

Twenty miles before they reached South Carolina, Alexis and Roland woke up. Russell tried to stall on their bathroom stop request until Alexis used the word, “NOW!” in a way that made him realize that she was on the verge of an accident.

He pulled over at the next fast food restaurant. While the kids used their respective facilities, he waited in line for a cup of coffee, some small drinks and fries to share. Roland returned before Russell had made it through the line. They were at a table when Alexis came back. Her cheeks were pinker than normal and her ponytail was off kilter when she sat down.

“I got stuck,” she said. “The door wouldn’t unlock.”

Her brother started to giggle. He picked up a French fry and dragged it through some ketchup.

“It’s not funny,” Alexis said. “I would still be stuck if a nice man hadn’t helped me.”

“A man?” said Russell. “A man was in the ladies room?”

“He told me to crawl out under the door. Then he made me wash my hands really well. Twice. With soap.”

“A man?” Russell repeated.

“Yea, a man.” She glanced around the restaurant and pointed. “There he is.”

It was definitely a man she pointed to. He had short hair and was stocky with male features. It took Russell a minute to place him.

“That looks like Chaz Bono,” he said.

“Who’s Chaz Bono?” asked Roland. “Is he famous?”

Russell skipped the part about Chaz being born as Chastity and having a sex change.

“He’s not really as famous as his parents. Sonny Bono and Cher. They were a singing group back in the 1970s known as Sonny and Cher. They had a TV show.”

“What did they sing?” Alexis asked.

“They did a song called, ‘Half Breed’.” Russell visibly winced when he realized what he had said. “They also did a song called, ‘I Got You Babe’.”

Russell stood up and picked up the tray with the fries still on it. “We should get going. We can finish these in the car.”

Seventeen miles further down the interstate, Russell was congratulating himself for avoiding an awkward conversation about offensive slang for mixed-race people when Alexis asked, “What is a half-breed?”

Damn, he thought.

“It’s someone who has one parent who is an American Indian and one who is something else,” he said. “Like a white or a black person.”

He checked her out in his rearview mirror and saw her considering his words.

“Sort of like a mudblood?” she asked.

Russell was thankful he had read enough Harry Potter to know that a mudblood was a wizard who had at least one parent who was not a wizard.

“Yes,” he said. “Like a mudblood.”

Harry Potter he could handle. Russell silently patted himself on the back for explaining it in terms she could relate to.

“In Harry Potter,” she said. “Some people think being a mudblood is bad. Is being a half-breed bad too?”

“Half-breed, half-breed, half-breed,” Roland started to repeat the word over and over like he sometimes did with new words.

Great, thought Russell. My son is going to create a racist incident next time we get out of the car.

“Half-breeds aren’t bad,” said Russell. “But half-breed is a word that we don’t use anymore. Roland, you need to stop.”

“Why don’t people use it anymore?” Alexis asked.

“Half-breed, half-breed,” Roland continued in a whisper.

“Because they just don’t. It’s not nice,” Russell said.

“Half-breed, half-breed,” The whisper seemed to be getting louder.img_0344

Russell needed an out from this conversation. Fast. He pointed out the window at the giant sombrero of South of the Border. “Look! You guys want to stop and play some games?”

“Yes!!!” The chanting stopped and was replaced with squeals of excitement from the back seat. Russell was so relieved that he didn’t even complain when he felt a happy kick on the back of his seat.

He merged onto the exit ramp. At the stop sign, he rubbed his damp palms on his jeans.

The kids chattered on. “Can we go up in the giant hat? Can we ride the rides?”

“Sure. We can even go see the Reptile Lagoon,” Russell said.


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