Jan '04 [Home]


Behind the Wheel
James Simpson

. ... Walter weighed 300 pounds and was embarrassingly uncoordinated, but he desperately wanted to play basketball. He was tall enough, knew the game intimately, and had a head for statistics and strategy, but he could barely dribble the ball without tangling himself in his own arms and legs; and he talked nonstop. When other classmates saw Walter for the first time, John remembered, they seemed to immediately lock onto him as if he were emitting some inaudible signal to which they responded, making the most insecure of them want to unleash their own frustrations on him. Walter certainly wasn't the only student who exuded this unfortunate energy, but his seemed to be the most powerful. Initially, the other boys had teased Walter unmercifully, but once they got to know him they grew to like him. John wondered if Louis was so lucky.
          "Any kids at school you like to pal around with?"
          "There's a guy in my science class who's okay. We eat lunch together sometimes. He doesn't live near me, though, and I don't have a bike so it's not like I can ride over to see him, but I've seen his house from the road." John suddenly pictured Louis at the wheel of his mother's car cruising past the boy's house in the dark.
          "On the bus going to school," Louis added, smiling.
          John drove Louis to the house he and his mother were renting: the old Inman place just around the corner from the Fleets. The house had sat idle for nearly a year after Frank Inman died—a widower at 88—before his son decided to remain up north and become an absentee landlord. He had come to town once, but hadn't done much to prepare the house for tenants beyond emptying it of his father's belongings, leaving only the furniture behind. Gutters were now pulling away from the roof, the yard was a weed-choked mess, and the dingy white paint crumbled and flaked, falling to the ground in a scattering of egg shells.
          "You want to meet my mom?" Louis said as they reached the curb.
          "Sure." John thought someone should tell her about the moonlight drives; it really wasn't safe, and she probably needed to be aware of it. Louis would be crushed, and perhaps punished, but it was for the best.
          Louis's mother sat in a lawn chair in the driveway outside the detached garage sipping a bottle of beer, a magazine resting on her lap. The garage door was open and John could see the Buick sitting quietly in the shadows. She set the bottle and magazine down, and stood as they walked up the driveway. "Hey, Sweetie, welcome home," she said giving Louis a big hug. "This your new friend you've been bragging about?"
          Louis blushed. "Yes, this is Mr. Fleet."
          "Please, call me John." He shook her hand.
          "Lydia Lewis. Good to finally meet you."
          John's confusion must have shown, because Lydia then drawled, "Different names, yeah. I took my maiden name after his father left, but Louis kept it. 'Louis Lewis' is just not possible, you know?" Her laugh was hoarse like an old dog's bark, and her limp brown hair hung thin and lifeless just to her shoulders. She seemed tired, not just from a day's work or lack of sleep, but permanently so. She had a handsome face, but when she spoke her eyes—suspicious and searching—didn't match her syrupy voice.
          The screen door opened and a man and a young boy stepped from the back porch, each carrying a beer. The boy handed a bottle to Lydia, then glanced at Louis and smiled menacingly. "Purina," he said, almost to himself. Louis stiffened noticeably, then seemed to relax again.
          "Tommy," said Louis, his mouth moving only slightly. "Hello, Carl."
          "You two know each other?" Carl said, motioning back and forth between the boys with the neck of his bottle. His hair was wet and slicked back as if he had just finished a shower. He also looked younger than Lydia, and in good physical shape.
          "We ride the same bus," the boy said. "He sits up front though, I sit in back."
          "Small world," said Carl. "Tommy's dad just started working with me at the warehouse. Shoot, I didn't even know he lived in the neighborhood until this afternoon. Why don't you two go over to Tommy's and play for a while."
          "I told you…they don't…" Lydia muttered to Carl, inclining her head towards Louis.
          "Aw, Tommy and the boys were just having some fun with him, is all." Carl took a long pull from his beer, eyeing Louis down the bottle. "Well, never mind then. Whatever."
          "I'll see y'all later," Tommy said, starting to leave. He took a pocket knife and a small wooden block from the side pocket of his black windbreaker, and began carving the wood as he walked toward Louis and John.
          "What are you whittling?" said John.
          The boy flashed his teeth as he walked past them. "A doggie."
          John introduced himself to Carl, and while Carl made small talk about his job at the warehouse, John couldn't help thinking about the man's scars. Louis had told him that Carl had large ugly scars all across his chest and stomach from a fight when he was sixteen. His father had been drunk out of his mind one night and demanded that Carl move out of the house immediately, either for some vague infraction of the rules or because his own father had done the same to him at that age. They scuffled, and the father sent Carl crashing through a window, landing on top of a bicycle laying in the yard.
          "I'm a Dodge man, myself," Carl said. "Never did care for Chevys."
          "He seems to be a Buick man these days," Lydia said to John. "He drove mine every day last week."
          Carl glared at her. "And I drove you to work every morning and picked you up. Not my fault the shop had my truck longer than they said they would." To John he said, "You work on trucks, don't you? How long's it take to fix a transmission?"
          "A week or so to do it right, depending on how neglected it was."
          Carl seemed to bristle at this remark. "Well, it's an old truck. I haven't had it that long either."
          "I'm certainly no master mechanic. I mainly just tinker and ask experts for advice."
          "Your truck looks pretty good," Carl said, his eyes narrowing, "for an old Chevy."
          John was continually amazed at the complexity of other people's lives; the messes made that invariably had to be cleaned up by a sheriff's deputy, a judge, a paramedic or emergency room doctor. Minor setbacks in his own life (leaky roofs, minor automobile accidents, John Jr.'s sports-related broken bones, dental emergencies) seemed insignificant compared to things other folks faced: divorce, abuse, eviction, alcoholism, brushes with death. His and Nora's life together had been steady and quiet, with no great disasters or hardship; nothing overt, at least.
          John decided it was best to keep quiet about Louis's secret drives; the boy had enough to deal with. Nevertheless, John would ask him to keep his trips to a minimum, and buckle up. He said goodbye to the three of them and headed for home.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, Louis was sweeping the Fleets's front walk when John got the call that the tires were ready. They both hopped into the truck and took off for the tire dealer downtown. It took over thirty minutes to mount and balance the tires, and another ten for the young mechanic, a guy named Vic, to regale them with tales of his own restoration of a 1967 Pontiac Tempest. Even a few customers came over to admire the oversized whitewalls that seemed to glow in the dusty bay.
          On the drive home, John was smiling so broadly his face hurt. He snapped on the radio and found a station playing an old Benny Goodman tune. Perfect, he thought. Louis seemed excited, too, although John wondered if it wasn't just his own excitement rubbing off. Regardless, it was fun to share this with someone who appreciated the old truck. They bounced over railroad tracks, dipped down hills, and rattled around corners; more than once John noticed Louis patting the truck's door and dash.
          A small bump sent a jolt through the truck. "It's a rough ride," John said laughing.
          Louis nodded eagerly, laughing too. "Yeah, but it's okay."
          "You ought to feel this steering wheel going down the road." Louis looked at John, and John thought Why not? Maybe when they got near the house he could let Louis take over for a block or two. Slowly.
          Once in the neighborhood, he pulled over to the curb and stopped, set the brake and left the motor running. He got out and went around to the passenger side while Louis slid over and took the wheel.
          "Now remember, this steers much rougher than your mom's Buick. Both hands on the wheel at all times, and you will have to put some muscle into it."
          Louis already had the brake off and was putting the truck in gear.
          "Look behind you! Always check your mirrors, son."
          "I did, John; there's not a soul in sight."
          "Okay, sorry. Didn't mean to yell. Just pull out slowly."
          Louis gripped the wheel tightly as they glided away from the curb, his face serious and his eyes suddenly alert and clear, concentrating so fiercely that John thought he might actually bore holes through the windshield. He reminded him to watch his speed, check his mirrors. Louis nodded silently, his face brightening. He eased into his turns safely, braked with finesse at just the right moments. John had been right; Louis was born to this, and he was doing fine, so John settled back to enjoy the ride.
          They were heading down John's street toward home when he noticed a group of boys walking along the roadside—with whittling Tommy smack in the middle—about 500 feet away.
          "You might want to slow down some."
          Louis sped up and pointed the truck to their side of the road. He took his left hand off the wheel and quickly rolled down the window before John could even open his mouth and remind him to keep both hands on the wheel at all times, very important.
          "Pull over, Louis." They were 100 feet from them. Fifty feet. "Pull over to the other side of the road, Louis. Away from the boys, Louis!"
          Louis laid on the horn and shoved his arm out the window, pumping his fist in the air. His thick middle finger popped out as they roared past the boys, each one a slackjawed blur on the curb with Doppler-effected shouts of Hey! and Purina Boy! standing dumbfounded while the truck and its obnoxious and unbelievable occupants rumbled furiously and triumphantly down the street.
          John ran a sweaty hand through his hair. "That was really fucking stupid, Louis!" His heart pounded wildly, fearful of what might have happened to the truck had Louis lost control. The looks on the boys' faces, though, was such a hilarious sight he began to laugh; a deep, booming sound that bounced around the old metal cab.
          Louis—his face full of fire, huge eyes swimming behind his glasses—laughed so hard he made no sound, just kept slapping the seat next to him like a bongo drum.
          "They'll probably kick your butt for that," said John.
          Louis shrugged. "Most likely."

For two weeks John didn't see Louis in the neighborhood; not walking to and from the bus stop, not dropping by the house to perform odd jobs, nowhere. Curious, John had driven by their house a few times, but had seen no signs of life. Once he had even gotten out of the truck and walked up the driveway and peered into the garage only to find it empty, and he wondered if Louis and Lydia—and perhaps Carl too?—had stolen away in the night, fleeing some lurching danger from their collective past.
          On Friday afternoon, the first of December, Nora was in the kitchen most of the afternoon fussing over the supplies John had picked up for Greek Night: cucumber, fresh parsley and mint, feta cheese, chick peas, garlic, coriander seeds, pork, red wine, grape leaves, and smoked mullet; all for dishes with names like taramosalata, tahini, hummus, dolmades, afelia, and moussaka. John was in the garage—far from the kitchen as usual—replacing the truck's heater hose when Louis suddenly appeared.
          "Hi, John." He wore a new Navy peacoat that made him look like a chunky sailor.
          "Well, hey there, stranger. Where've you been?"
          "We just got back from a week and a half at my aunt's in Raleigh. That's in North Carolina."
          "Yes, I know where that is." John wiped his hands on his overalls and smiled. "I've been there a time or two in my life. Didn't know you had people there."
          "Actually, she's not really my aunt, but a friend of my mom's named Barbara; they went to high school together."
          "Friends are sometimes better than relatives anyway."
          "I guess." Louis frowned and picked at his dark blue coat. "She's the one who bought me this jacket. Thoughtful and everything, but I haven't seen anyone else wearing one like it."
          "That makes it unique. Come to think of it, I used to have one of those when I was in high school, thought I was really something whenever I wore it; very smart it was." John was trying very hard to cheer him up, but Louis looked skeptical. "Classics like that never go out of style."
          "Right," Louis brightened, "just like the truck. Do you think I could drive it again?"
          "Well, Louis," he sighed, "I have to say no this time. You see, after our little jaunt that last afternoon the father of one of the boys paid me a visit."
          Louis's eyes widened.
          "No, he was very cordial, just concerned that there was a young boy out there driving around the neighborhood trying to run down his son and his friends. I assured him it was my fault, my lack of judgement, and that it would never happen again; even told him you were my grandson and I was teaching you how to drive."
          "I didn't know," Louis gasped. "I'm sorry I got you in trouble."
          "Don't be. Really, it's fine. Although," John began to chuckle, "it seems little Tommy put it into the man's head that it was my idea for you to scare the boys that way, but I was able to set him straight."
          "Funny thing, I saw those boys the next day and they didn't say a word to me. It was like they were scared of me!"
          "They probably think you might actually run them over some day!" John laughed hard.
          Louis asked if he could at least sit in the truck one last time.
          "You make it sound like you're leaving town or something."
          "To be honest, I am. Mom liked it up in Raleigh so much and had so much fun with Barbara that she wants to move up there. Barbara said we could stay with her for as long as we needed, and she could get Mom a job assembling circuit boards at the plant where she works."
          "So when do you make the big move?"
          "Monday," Louis said sheepishly.
          "This Monday? You're kidding. That's three days from now." John was astonished. Who could pull everything together, change a life that quickly? Who would want to?
          "When Mom gets an idea in her head there's no shaking it loose. We've done it before."
          "What about all your things? Can you pack everything up that fast?"
          "The house was already furnished when we moved in, so we just have our clothes and some kitchen stuff; what we can't fit in the car she told Carl he can have. He gave her some money anyway, which was rather decent. Still don't like him though, but I guess he's got problems he can't deal with very well."
          "I'll sure miss you." John was stunned. "It's been a pleasure knowing you." He suddenly felt weak and tenuous next to this unusual and strong boy; John thought if he had to go about the grinding business of living the life of Louis P. Ralston, he might crumble under the sheer weight of it. But there Louis stood, smiling back at him.
          Louis hugged John, then quickly waved goodbye in his quirky way, and trudged off down the street.

Around two o'clock Monday morning John suddenly awoke. He tossed for about twenty minutes, finally getting up for a snack. He went into the kitchen and filled some pita bread with bits of Friday's Greek Night leftovers, which, surprisingly, he quite enjoyed, and a glass of milk.
          He ate at the table in the darkened dining room, soft fluorescent light from under the kitchen cabinet filtering in behind him. From the window in the living room dim headlights spread slowly across the wall. He padded over in time to see an anonymous sedan glide past the house, then sink back into the night. He couldn't be sure. Still, he remained by the window a moment longer, staring out at the quiet street before going back to bed.

A native Floridian, James Simpson now resides near Atlanta, Georgia, where he works as a writer and graphic artist. "Never Had It So Good," his first published story [Jan '02], was nominated for a Pushcart..