by Brian Kerstetter
THE DRIVING TEST
Having banked fifty sick days over the years at my television job, I figured I could toss one away to accompany O. upstate to take his driver’s test. He’d driven for years, in Switzerland, but was out of practice and needed moral support. Not owning a car, O. rented one from Hertz and before picking it up, we met for breakfast at Balthazar, where he’s been a fixture for over a decade. I arrived first and, mentioning his name, received a pleasant smile and a scenic corner table. O. arrived shortly after, took a seat, and regarded me askew.
“Problem?” I asked.
“You’re in my spot,” he announced, right off, jutting his chin in my direction.
By anyone’s definition, O. is a serial complainer, a walking encyclopedia of real and perceived woes. He’ll file through a litany of grievances before you’ve had time to stir your coffee. And no one, I mean no one, has been on the receiving end more frequently than I. Yet, I found myself glancing at my watch to see if I could hop in the subway and still make it to work on time.
“That so?” I responded, folding my hands like I’d once seen the Dalai Lama do. “In your spot, am I?”
O. nodded, unsure if I was questioning or confirming the fact. “Sit there each morning,” he added to bolster his case.
“And I see why,” I remarked, admiring the view.
“Thanks…” he mumbled, and got to his feet to change seats.
I felt my buttocks tighten into a vice grip on my chair. Like two chimpanzees, we eyed each other. I swallowed my saliva. O. blinked, grated his cuticle, blinked again. We stuck it out like that for, I don’t know, 30-seconds, until O.’s $8 dollar grapefruit arrived and he slithered back to his seat facing the wall.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
An hour later, as we pulled out of Hertz, O. handed me a box containing a Nokia GPS navigator, purchased specifically for the trip. I input “Peekskill, New York” and a woman’s voice began caressing us through Manhattan’s 200-year-old grid.
“Don’t like her,” O. announced bluntly, peering straight ahead.
I scanned the horizon. “Who? Don’t like who?”
He made a face in the direction of the GPS attached to the front windshield. “Her. That accent. Quack, quack, quack.”
Again, I looked at my watch. We were a few blocks from my office, he could just drop me off and there’d be no hard feelings. “Oh, like my accent, you mean…American.”
O. reached behind his seat for the GPS instruction book. “Must be a way to make her British? No, German. I need someone smart… for the test.”
I closed my eyes, martyr-style, steadied my breathing, searched out my happy place. Or I could just respond naturally and tell him I didn’t give a rat’s ass.
“I got enough to think about…can’t worry about that too,” he continued, his right hand jockeying around the dashboard looking for the windshield wipers.
“Remind me what you’re worried about,” I sighed.
He shook his head at the stupidity of the question. “Getting lost, of course, during the test. I don’t know Peekskill from…from a pig’s ear.”
“Let me get this straight, you — pig’s ear? — you plan on using the GPS during your —”
“Scheiße!” O. blurted, slamming on the breaks, snapping us forward like crash test dummies. He’d activated the cruise control on 59th Street.
By the time I’d found a German-accented English speaker in the GPS menu, every hair on my scalp ached to the point of turning gray. And we were going in circles in Spanish Harlem.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
In downtown Peekskill, we had cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes for lunch at the Cheyenne Diner on Main St. Leaving through the double doors, we nearly collided with two 300-pound black women, upholstered in matching track suits, hustling to the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $9.99. O.’s mouth fell open wider than a golf ball. He clutched the railing, partially in awe, but mainly for his own safety. “Twins!” he whispered, bubbling over with glee. “Big black twins!”
Being white in Switzerland, I guess, means you’re all related. With black people, I broke it to him, that isn’t always the case. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He was certain they were sisters. I told him they weren’t. In retrospect, arguing about it in the parking lot for the next half hour would’ve been better spent practicing his parallel parking.
We did manage a few practice loops through a drab allotment coated in 1970s aluminum siding. This served to consolidate O.’s Stop Sign technique. He’d barrel to ten feet of the intersection, jump on the brakes and propel me toward the dashboard. I don’t condemn him for this. But I’m not an adventurer. Some people are born to take one physical risk after another. They thrive on the adrenaline rush. I’m not one of those people. When my body feels adrenaline, it means that I just did something extraordinarily stupid. For twenty-minutes, O. tenderized my abdominals with my seat belt, until I slapped him on the thigh and declared him fit for locomotion in the state of New York.
We idled in a line of other cars, all awaiting the DMV instructor, while O.’s armpits secreted a spicy cocktail of cardamom and Worcestershire sauce. Despite the rain, I cracked my window.
“That’s right, I’m freaking out!” he erupted, wiping his forehead in the rear-view mirror. “God’s sake, I’m a grown man and…and…look at this!” He spread his arms like chicken wings.
“Sheezus H. Christ!” I blurted, confronted with two super-sized eggplants decorating the armpit region of his T-shirt.
Alarmed by my response, O. stuck his nose inside his T-shirt. “Truffles?”
“Take a Ron,” I suggested, referring to the Lorazepam proscribed for stress relief by our friend, a shrink, named Ron.
“Isn’t that illegal? I mean, like drinking and driving?”
“You’re not driving, exactly,” I pointed out. “I mean, you’ll be supervised…think of it like drinking alcohol with your parents as a kid.”
“And my reflexes? Don’t wanna turn into a potato, like you…”
O. never misses an opportunity to call up the last time I took a Ron. It was in Papua New Guinea, to get through an internal flight in a rusting tin can with a propeller strapped to it. I popped a 4mg tablet and used my saliva to swallow it. When we landed, I babbled gibberish to a tribe of indigenous Mudmen, my lips like rubber bands in a gust of wind. Ever since, no matter the peril, O. has forbade me the solace of a Ron.
“It’s a driving test,” I reminded him. “Not Formula One. Your reflexes’ll be fine.”
“Well, at least I won’t get lost,” he mumbled, resetting the GPS for our current location. Again he caught sight of the mossy patch under his arm. “You can’t tell, or…?” he asked, flapping his shirt for ventilation.
“Tell what?” I said, staring at the dark continents covering his pits.
“I’m sweating like a pig.”
“What? That? No, Hell, no,” I reassured him.
Out of nowhere our potbellied examiner appeared and registered our license plate. Not overburdened with personableness, the civil servant went about his paperwork like a prison guard registering a couple of inmates.
“Hullo!” O. called out, running the back of his hand across his glistening forehead.
“Afternoon, Sir!” I chimed in, extending my hand.
The civil servant was in no mood to play ball. He grunted at me to vacate the vehicle and plopped himself in the passenger seat like a walrus. From outside, I watched the two of them staring straight ahead. O. clutched the wheel with both hands, like a lifeline. Then, out of the blue, he reached across the examiner and activated the GPS suctioned to the windshield. Only then did the instructor turn and take the full measure of his student.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
“Come get me,” a voice growled into the phone. “I failed.”
“W-who is this?” I answered, having just watched O. activate his head lights and merge into traffic.
“Goddammit, just come get me!” the voice bellowed, causing my phone to shimmy.
I found O. marching back and forth next to the car, ranting like a mental patient. “That fat mother*cker … that fat mother*cker failed me!” he fumed, eyes bulging like cherry tomatoes.
“You just left four and a half min-…” I said, consulting my watch.
“Said I hit the curb, the goddamn curb, you believe that!” And throwing open his arms like a fisherman lying about his catch, “Said I went over the curb that far!”
I glanced at the car. Then at the state of his T-shirt — now a fetid pool of misery. I imagined the worst. “You had an accident. You hit someone. You ran over an old lady.”
“Goddammit, I didn’t hit an old lady! That motherf*cker —”
I’ve known O. for the better part of fifteen years and not once has he uttered the word “motherf*cker.” But it must’ve felt good, for he was churning them out as if he were making foie gras. “So you…bumped…the curb?” I ventured.
“How the Hell should I know, Motherrrr-Fuckerrrr!”
“Well, did you feel the wheels hit something?”
Based on his account, I informed him that he had, indeed, overrun the curb. Hearing this, the veins in his neck jiggled around like night crawlers on hot pavement. “Sherlock, don’t you think I — Motherf*cker? — I’d havefelt the curb if I ran over it? No, I can’t take this…” And off he marched into the Peekskill gloom.
What followed, I witnessed from a BP gas station across the street. O. found the examiner in the passenger seat of an idling Mazda Miata belonging to one Jimmy Stieglitz, aged 16. He stuck his head in the window and downloaded on the instructor with such ferocity that the windows fogged up. Then he threw himself to the ground, on all fours, and pounded the curb to dramatize his claims. Both the instructor and Jimmy Stieglitz craned their necks out of the window to take in the performance. Stomping back to our car, O. abruptly spun around having recalled one final outrage, fired his hand in the air, and punctuated the exchange with the Italian Vaffanculo! (vah-fahn-KOO-loh).
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
When I say the drive back to Manhattan was the longest two-hours of my life, I’m exaggerating, of course. But not by much. O. settled into a low burn in the passenger seat. “My life is in limbo! My life is in limbo! That fat motherf*cker. That fat motherf*cker,” he muttered, as though reciting a Mother Goose rhyme. On the Taconic Parkway, he concluded I was partly to blame for his collapse, having debated him about 300 pound black women when he could’ve been polishing his curb-side parking.
Crossing into the Bronx, O. turned to his “only remaining friend in the world,” as he put it: his iPhone. He googled “Driving Test ASAP” and found The Carducci Driving Academy, on Staten Island, a company large-hearted enough to accept $399 dollars in fees and rush charges, in advance, over the phone, in return for rescheduling his test in 1-4 weeks. Not since a storefront in Chinatown trimmed his bank account by $199 to customize his iPhone in yellows and greens have I seen him so giddy. He rolled down his window and let the wind whip his hair, as he hollered his American Express card number and expiration date into the phone.
Back in Manhattan, we returned the car to Hertz and walked to Union Square, where I catch the subway home to Brooklyn. I asked O. if I could keep the instructor’s evaluation of his road test, as a memento of our day upstate. Fishing in his pockets, he realized he’d lost his temporary New York State driver’s license. Last I saw of him was through a hotdog cart, zigzagging through the crowds back to Hertz, putting the wraps on a day in which he managed to unburden himself of not one but two driver’s licenses.