Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Lot in Life

“Is a stick-shift hard to learn?”

“Nearly impossible.”

“Then why do we have to learn it?”

“Because maybe someday there will be an emergency.” They can always sense when I’m winging it. “Maybe the only car available to go get help will be a stick-shift.”

My twin daughters continue to look at me blankly while I think again. “All the best sports cars are stick-shift. More power.”

Without another word, they’re both in the back seat of my 1988 stick-shift Celica convertible. Learning to drive in a convertible is vulnerable: everyone can see your wild eyes, laugh at your jerking head and overhear your pleas to God.

I already had a good spot to teach them. There was a former horse-racing track in my neighborhood, that is now a giant, vacant parking lot with plenty of room for lurching and careening to and fro. Occasionally I’d see another parent there, teaching his kid to drive, but we’d stay well clear of each other in this giant game of car pinball.

“Ease the clutch out slo—”

Bam! The car leaps into the air, than lands with a bounce, the engine silent.

“—wly.”

I don’t know what we’ll wear out first: the clutch or the starter.

I’ve done this before, so I have some experience. I’ve even already made an appointment with my chiropractor.
“Give it a little more gas," I tell Kate. "Then gen—”

My voice is drowned out by the engine as it spins up to nuclear reactor velocity.

“Don’t—”

Screeeee! The front tires smoke and squawk. Our skulls bury into the headrest and the skin on our faces stretches taut. She panics, instinctively yanking her foot off the gas and hits the brake. Whap! We launch face first into the dashboard, then bounce upright like three wide-eyed bobble-head dolls, as silent as the dead engine.

“Is it Molly’s turn yet?” Kate asks, looking straight ahead.

I’m not stupid, I didn’t start them on a stick-shift. I had an old truck, white with rust accents, that I used to teach them the basics: how the steering feels, how to brake gently, where the ignition and turn signal are. One day after a hard snow I even took them out to practice skidding precariously, under the presumption that I was showing them how easily the truck will break into a death spin. Secretly I just wanted to spin cookies on the ice. I hit the gas and threw it into a tight turn. They shrieked and I grinned as the back end lost traction and passed the front end, and we were driving sideways. Then the tires hit a dry patch and gripped, tossing the truck suddenly sideways onto two wheels, where it teetered precariously while we all said silent prayers. It answered them by coming down upright.

“Um, that’s it for the skid lesson. You see what I mean. Who wants some hot chocolate?”

“Yeah, Dad,” they both said in unison, which sounds weird when it comes from twins.

I had an inspiration one day: parking practice. We drove back to our vacant lot, which still had faded yellow parking stall lines.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I explained. “I’m going to choose a parking stall and stand in front of it. You have to park in that spot without ever crossing any of the yellow lines.”

With foresight I had decided on using the old white truck for this exercise, because it would require using some of the brain cells that were currently being devoted entirely to keeping a jittery foot smoothly on the clutch. I did not want to be run over by my own lunging Celica.

This will be fun! Nobody ever gave me parking stall lessons. I was proud of myself as I got out and walked about fifty feet away, choosing a random spot. I stood there with my arms authoritatively on my hips, and nodded a go-ahead.

The truck sat silently for a long time. Maybe they didn’t understand the directions? I nodded again. I could barely make out their faces through the glare of the windshield. Were they were discussing something? Finally, the truck began to move, slowly, gently, down the aisle, carefully between the yellow guides. It kept going past the end of the aisle, turned away from me, drove down the parking lot, around the old abandoned stadium and out of sight.

A parking lot is surprisingly quiet when you’re not supposed to be standing alone in the middle of it. After a few minutes, I chuckled, “Heh, that was a good one. They’ll be back any minute.” Heh. Any minute came and went.

Molly is an irreverent little cuss. In a restaurant she jokingly loaded a straw full of Coke and aimed it right at me, an inch from my nose. I didn’t blink. “Go ahead,” I said flatly, channeling Clint Eastwood.

The brain can calculate a thousand possible consequences in a second. I saw all one thousand pass behind her eyes, then all I saw was Coke.

The look on her face as I regained my vision was a combination of “That was awesome” and “I am now dead.” It was the same expression I saw on her face as the truck finally crept back into view after a long ten minutes had passed. “Sorry, you get an F on that exercise.” I said. “You drove over the yellow line.”

Eventually they learned the important driving basics: how to cruise quietly down residential streets, creep carefully into the garage, stay off the crosswalk, and reset the radio buttons. With a scream worthy of Robert The Bruce throwing himself at the despicable British, they entered busy four-lane Leavenworth Street, so narrow that even experienced drivers often cheat two wheels into the wrong lane. “DAD!” they cried out at every oncoming car, as if I too wasn’t facing death head-on.

Because I cherished my little Celica, I bought them their own car, a perky little Honda, with a stick-shift they were soon flipping with the same absentminded agility as with a mascara brush.

I expected accidents. Molly, in particular, inherited her father’s lead foot. Forget the car—I prayed only that their precious, lanky, tan bodies would be spared. But not one scratch on any of those three cars could be attributed to them, save maybe the door scuff more justly blamed on the too-narrow garage.

They grew up, moved on to colleges where cars were impractical. It hurt to sell their sexy little red Honda. Last summer the transmission fell out of the old truck, now rust-colored with white accents, and the following fall the convertible caught fire and burned to the ground beside a remote South Dakota highway. Now I too drive an old Honda, more burgundy than red, and it doesn't have the same sass.

As far as I know they have never had a car crash of any kind. Last week I backed my girlfriend’s brand new truck into a light pole in an empty parking lot. I must have crossed the yellow line.

3 comments:

  1. Maybe you need glasses. I know I do.

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  2. my first driving lesson was from my father. He took me over the Blair bridge. This was before it was cement. At that time it was steel grooved and your car fishtailed easily. We approached the bridge and the minute the car started shimmying I refused to drive anymore. My father had to steer while I had my foot on the gas. That was the end to my driving lessons with my Dad.

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  3. My dad taught me stick in an old yellow Super Beetle. *wistful*

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