Jason: Mom, this one’s for you, and me

By Jason Offutt

The box tormented me. It sat on U.S. 71, an orange or strangely colored grapefruit printed on the side. The box was in the middle of the highway, challenging me to run over it with the minivan.
It was the type of box people moving into a new house pick up from grocery stores, and it made me slow down, memories of road boxes from my childhood poking at me like an annoying sister on a long trip. Yes, the ambiguous citrus box was that distracting.
“Don’t hit the box,” I heard my mother bark at me.
Her voice didn’t really bark at me – at least I hope it didn’t; Mom’s been dead for six years. The voice barked at my long-dead father who always drove on family trips.
“There might be a baby in it.”
I heard my mom say this many times; Baby-In-A-Box. I never quite got that. I mean, why would someone put a baby in a box? In redneck parts of the Midwest, can grocery-store boxes legally be considered car seats? Probably not without duct tape.
I was pretty close to Nebraska, a state that legally allows people to abandon children as old as 15 as long as the child is dropped at a hospital, so you’d think there are alternatives to leaving your Baby-In-A-Box on the highway.
Yes, this mental struggle was all because of my mother. My mom was a wonderful person, who encouraged my creativity, forced me to think, and taught me to cook. However, she did leave me with my share of problems.
Such as, I can’t just leave the house. Ever. Oh, sure, I can walk outside, get in the van, and even get so far as starting it without feeling a tug. But the tug’s there, it’s always there. The tug lurks somewhere in the back of my brain, waiting for me to try and leave home, then pulls me back inside. Did I check the oven? Is the coffee pot on? How about the back door? You locked the back door, right Offutt?
The tug drags me into the house to find that the oven is off (it always is), the coffee pot is unplugged and the back door as secure as a brick wall. Mom did that every time we went somewhere farther than a half-hour drive.
I wonder what level of insanity I’ll leave for my children to struggle through as they grow up? Whatever it is, I doubt it will have anything to do with babies on the highway.
As the box grew closer, I wondered if Mom was so worried about Baby-In-A-Box, why didn’t we ever stop to look? Well, I wasn’t going to make that mistake. If there were actually a baby in that box on U.S. 71, I could pick it up and abandon it in Nebraska as easily as the next guy.
I slowly depressed the brake and pulled next to the box. It was empty. Mystery solved. That was for you, Mom.

Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at

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