Jan '04 [Home]


Behind the Wheel
by James Simpson

Winner of the Spring-Summer 2003 Fiction Contest (Long)
. ...
John Fleet was in the garage installing new plugs and wires on the old truck the first time he met the boy. It was Friday afternoon in mid-October, and John—bent over with his head under the hood, seating the last sparkplug—sensed he was being watched. He swiveled around to find the boy standing there, staring froglike at him behind thick glasses, wearing a tan corduroy jacket with grass stains on the front, and bits of straw clinging to the worn collar. John said hello, and the boy waved as if swatting a fly. A sharp scent caught John's nose and he automatically checked the bottom of his shoes, lifting up one sole, then the other.
          "That would be me," the boy said. "Can I borrow your hose to wash it off?"
          "Sure, son. It's around the corner there."
          As the boy turned to fetch the hose, John saw moist brown clumps like peanut butter smeared onto the back of his black jeans. He put his wrench down on the red shop cloth lying over the truck's quarter panel, stood straight and stretched for a moment, then grabbed a cleanish towel from the hook on the wall and went outside.
          "You'll need something to wipe with," John said.
          The boy stood on the lawn by the wisteria vine at the side of the house, his upper body twisted back toward John, the hose gushing water and drenching his pants from his right thigh on down.
          "It came out much faster than I expected."
          "Here, take this and I'll turn it off."
          John handed the towel to him and reached through the tangle of branches to shut off the spigot. He watched the boy dabbing awkwardly at the wet mess of his pants, and he realized this was the boy he had seen only recently in the neighborhood. He was the one loping to and from the bus stop mornings and afternoons—friendless, always alone—shielding his face from dirt clods and pine cones hurled at him by some other boys. He was also the one with the same grin—or was it a grimace?—on his pudgy, dusty face.
          John took the hose from the boy and coiled it back over the reel on the wall by the bush, then helped him wipe the rest of the dog shit from his pants.
          "Thanks, Mr. Fleet."
          "You know me?" John half smiled, wondering what the boy was up to.
          "I overheard some kids talking about you, the old guy with the cool old truck."
          "Old guy?" John said louder than he intended, making the boy's eyes go to saucers behind the thick lenses.
          "Their words, not mine, sir. You're a big guy and you could probably squash me, but you're not nearly as old as a grand dad, but a little older than a dad, I'd say." His teeth began chattering. "That really didn't make much sense, but I get a bit nervous around new people. I should be going home now anyway."
          "Okay then."
          Aware of the dirty towel in his hand, John waited for the boy to leave, and apparently the boy was doing the same for him, so the two of them stood momentarily still in the fading afternoon light, the thin scrape of dry leaves skittering across the driveway behind them.
          "What's your name, son?" John asked, trying to break the spell he thought the boy must be under.
          "Louis." He adjusted his glasses that had slowly slid down his nose, and stood taller, squaring his shoulders. "Louis P. Ralston. The 'P' is for Phillip—that was my dad's middle name, too."
          "I'm Jonathan. Jonathan Joseph Fleet," he replied in kind, playfully. "But you can call me John." He had the uncanny feeling of being sized up, but for what he could only guess, with this strange boy who didn't appear to be afraid or slow—he seemed rather bright, actually.
          "Can I see your truck, John?"
          "Sure, Louis, come into the garage. Let's get you out of this chill."
          "Tomorrow, I mean. Can I see it tomorrow? Like I said, I have to go home and get cleaned up, have something to eat, maybe read a little before Carl comes over. That's my mom's boyfriend. I don't care much for him." He made a flipping motion with his hand near his mouth. "Drinks like a fish and he gets belligerent."
          "Sorry to hear that. Tomorrow, then. I'll be here."
          "Around eleven?"
          John nodded. "Fine."
          Louis smiled and gave his quick wave again. "See you, John." He walked down the driveway slightly hunched over, his hands jammed into his jacket pockets like someone heading out into a storm.
          John pitched the dirty towel into the garbage can. "Take care!" he called after him.
          Louis only nodded, and John stood in the garage doorway watching him until he disappeared down the street.

It was Indian Night, and John's wife Nora was serving tandoori chicken with vegetable biryani and tamarind chutney. Since retiring the previous year, Nora had kept busy learning to cook exotic, foreign dishes, and once every few weeks she would fix a meal from a different part of the world. (John had once nearly dumped a small bowl of cardamom in the trash, thinking it was dirt from the African violet on the kitchen windowsill.) She would light candles, put on some music from that night's featured country, and during the meal enlighten him with obscure facts on the customs of other cultures that she had gleaned from her collection of travel books.
          Often these meals were small affairs, with Nora preparing one or two simple dishes, but some nights she went all out, cooking for most of the day. John endured these dinners with a mixture of guilt and trepidation: Nora's presentations were unspoken reminders of the trips they discussed but had not taken, or a prelude to a trip she would later suggest. It wasn't as if they never vacationed, either—John was a reluctant and unlucky traveler. He hadn't fared well on the handful of summertime trips in the past, suffering constant diarrhea in Mexico, debilitating migraines hiking in Alaska, and a severe sinus infection while boating down the Rhine.
          That night, though, their dinner conversation included Louis, whom they had both seen being teased by other kids in the neighborhood. In Nora's experience teaching fifth-graders, she recalled at least one child every few years who suffered relentless cruelty from the other children simply because of his looks, his weight, his intelligence or lack of it. Usually it was a boy, some years a girl. She could still picture some of them:  red-haired Charlie Shoemaker, tall and gangling; lazy-eyed Leonard Overbee; Jane Bakehouse with scoliosis; and fat little Johnny Boyle who always smelled of oatmeal.
          Nora always said she could never forget these sweet little children with their individual imperfections, and the terror in their eyes when confronted by their stronger, more normal counterparts; her heart ached for them whenever she remembered those days.
          "I suppose Louis is a target." Nora said.
          John agreed, but added "Schools are different these days, so crowded and all; I'm sure he's not the only kid who gets picked on."
          Nora rolled her eyes. "Well, isn't that a relief."
          "He's a rather big kid, though. Matter of fact, take away the goofy glasses, lose some of the chubbiness and he'd look almost like John Jr. at that age. Hell, he could probably take out most of those boys with one punch if he wanted to."
          "Oh, stop. Maybe he's not a fighter." Nora's voice began to rise. "And he probably can't see well! Did you see how thick his glasses were?"
          "I couldn't miss them."
          Nora sighed. "Poor thing."

The next morning John gave Louis the bumper-to-bumper tour of the old truck. It was a 1949 Chevy 3100, hunter green with a lacquered oak half-ton bed, original stock six-cylinder engine, chrome grill and bumpers, radio, heater, and metal sunshade visor tilted slightly over the top of the windshield like the bill of an old-fashioned baseball cap. It had taken John five years to get it to this point, and it was complete except for the tires. Modern ones were currently mounted, but he was expecting a set of Goodyears cured in the original tire molds from 1949—whitewalls that together with the lever-action shocks were accurate, right down to the bone-rattlingly bumpy ride.
          "When will you get them?" Louis asked.
          "The tire dealer says they should ship any day now."
          "Bet they'll look fantastic." Louis eyed the gleaming truck beneath the glow of the garage's shop lights. "I've seen pictures of my great-grandfather's car, a big old Cadillac that had whitewall tires, too. They made the car look so slick and regal."
          "I don't think regal would be the word I'd choose, but it should look pretty sharp when I get them mounted; authenticity is what I'm after, anyway. I want to get as close as I can to the experience of driving this truck off the lot in 1949."
          Louis stepped onto the running board and peered in through the driver's-side window. "Wow, these radio knobs are huge! And everything's so shiny and clean. Are you sure it's all the original stuff in here?"
          "Most everything, yes. I installed new padding and Naugahyde on the seats, put in a new headliner, fuel and temp gauges, updated the electrical system, refinished the floorboards. Inside and out, where possible, I've used original parts from this and other trucks of the same era. The dash is good quality steel; a magnet will stick anywhere you set it."
          "Must have cost a fortune."
          "I've been careful with my money over the years, saving whenever I could, and not buying much on credit. It pays off in the long run."
          "Well, it sure is a beauty," Louis said stepping off and exiting the garage to view the front of the truck again. "It looks so strong and sure of itself, but in a friendly sort of way. Almost like it's just about to smile."
          John had always thought the exact same thing.

One Saturday in early November after Louis had finished raking leaves in the back yard, John stood in the garage doorway in front of the truck and took a swig of his Coke, while Louis sat on the bench against the wall just outside the door. He was polishing off his second ham sandwich and squinting at a group of four boys slouching up the street toward the house, his head cocked slightly at their approaching voices. He took one last bite, wiping his hands on his pants as one of the boys pointed at Louis and shouted "Hey Purina Boy!" Another yelled "Hey Doggie, fall into any shit lately?" among other remarks, including some about Louis's mother.
          Louis watched them over his glasses which had slid down his nose again, but he made no effort to push them up. Louis's lips were moving, and at first John thought they were quivering. As he continued to watch him, however, he realized Louis was whispering to himself, as if he were repeating their taunts, taking inventory, or merely concurring. There seemed an overpowering determination about Louis's face, something almost sculptural, that made John believe the boy was absorbing the words to refute later in his life, to ultimately prove everyone wrong.
          John stepped from the garage toward the street. "Got a problem boys?" to which they replied no, mumbled obscenities—John was sure—and then ambled down the street.
          He turned and noticed Louis grinning.
          "Purina Boy?" John said, smiling himself now.
          "Ralston. You know, add Purina to my last name and it's Ralston Purina, the dog chow people."
          "Oh, right. Clever."
          "Utterly and blindingly brilliant," Louis said shaking his head.
          Louis seemed older than he was, not just because of his vocabulary and his size (he was at least two inches taller than the other boys; and, though chubby, solid), but because of his outlook: nothing seemed to bother him. He took things as they came, accepted them with a crooked smile, never lost his temper or cried. Maybe on his own time he exploded with rage or wept into his pillow at night. Who knew?
          John had offered to pick up supplies for Nora at the farmer's market (she was attempting a trial-run soup recipe for an upcoming Thai Night), so he asked Louis if he wanted to come along. The boy was in the truck before John could fish the keys from his pocket.
          They drove the longer, scenic route—becoming less scenic every day—on two-lane back roads that meandered alongside the busier main arteries through town, past older homes on multi-acre lots in a region that had been rural just twenty years ago. John and Nora's own neighborhood had been one of the earliest in the area, at a time when houses were built with enough space between them that when you looked out your kitchen window you couldn't see into your neighbor's bathroom.
          The current landscape was changing fast, however, and these modest little houses that he and Louis passed were now dwarfed by much larger ones in treeless subdivisions that seemed to appear overnight with names like Forest Trace, Woodbury Hills (in an area flat as a plain), and Smoke Rise Estates. Even Louis commented on the trend to create new words by cramming two together:  EverWood, FernHeights, BridgeHampton and WoodGlen. They had both laughed, but John thought, at this rate, the developers would run out of land before they ran out of names. It seemed like anything but progress to him.
          Louis had been otherwise quiet during the ride, but when they reached the frontage road out by the highway he perked up some and said he had driven out this way a few nights before.
          "Your mom shops out here, does she?"
          "No." Louis looked out the passenger window, but John glimpsed a sly smile on his face. "I drove."
          "Tall as you are, who lets a 12-year-old drive?"
          "My mom doesn't know." Louis's eyebrows danced above the magnified globes of his eyes, a full-out smile on his face. "I've taken the car out a few nights when she and Carl were asleep. Fridays mostly." He looked ready to burst.
          "How many is a few?" John wondered how in the world the boy could see. And at night.
          "Thirteen times. Exactly."
          John made a silent and tiny 'o' with his mouth as he turned into the parking lot.
          Inside the market—between the ginger and the lemongrass—Louis said that the first dream he could ever remember (clearly, and at four years old) had been about driving a car. In the dream he and his mother were returning from a day of clothes shopping, and she began falling asleep at the wheel. When Louis offered to take over, she eased the car to the roadside, stepped out, opened the trunk and began stacking boxes and bags on the driver's seat for Louis to sit on. Then she climbed into the back seat and said Take us home, Louis, and curled up and went to sleep. He recalled, in the dream, that the pedals floated up to the soles of his feet as he and his dozing mother glided safely back home. He always awoke from these "driving dreams", as he called them, smiling and alert, with a sort of buzzing energy, not unpleasant, coursing through his body in the few minutes before he got out of bed. As wonderful as these dreams were, Louis said they paled when compared to the sheer power, the resplendent joy of striking out alone at night behind the wheel.
          Carl only spent weekends with them, beginning on Friday nights after work, when he and Louis's mother would smoke and drink and listen to loud music all night, then pass out in her bedroom. Sometimes Carl got mean and slapped his mother around, or yelled at Louis, telling him he wasn't so smart and should stop acting all high and mighty or he'd teach him something that wasn't in books. On these nights Louis often slept in the garage, either on an old rollaway cot or (if it was cold out) in the back seat of their ten-year-old maroon Buick. It was on one of those nights spent in the car that he first decided to try his moonlight drives.
          "Weren't you scared out there by yourself?" John asked. He actually felt more afraid for the other people on the road during Louis's nocturnal excursions.
          "Backing out of the garage with the lights off took a while, but once I got onto the street I did fine. I've found I have excellent night vision," he said, "and I'm very defensive. Always watch out for the other guy."
          "I'm impressed." John was truly amazed. Maybe Louis really was a good driver; he sure seemed born to it, with the recurring childhood dreams and all. Now that he thought about it, John's own father let him drive when he was 13; albeit never alone, and never at night.
          John pressed Louis for more details about his home life, for he wondered what kind of mother couldn't keep track of her son through the night. Louis, though, seemed more interested in learning about John and Nora: why they had decided to have only one child, and was he a Junior or a Second, and what was the difference; did Nora ever miss teaching fifth graders; how long had John been retired, and what kind of engineer was he; what was college like; questions asked so quickly that John hardly had time to answer one before another popped out.
          "I met a woman from Thailand once," Louis said, nodding excitedly. "Down in Florida when I was in the third grade, before we came to Georgia. Our school had a folk fair and there were all sorts of exhibits with people dressed up in their native costumes handing out free food. Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Hungarian, Mexican, German, I felt like I was eating my way around the world. The Thai woman was the best, though; very mysterious, like she was a dragon from another planet."
          John took some dried chili peppers, a few cayenne and jalapeņos from a large bin and put them in separate little paper sacks, folded the tops closed and set them into his basket. Louis ran his hand across a pile of smooth, polished green poblanos that shone in the market's bright lights, then followed John to the checkout counter.
          "Did you always eat such interesting foods," Louis asked, "back when your son was my age?"
          "Hardly ever. I think Nora feels we've missed out on a few things, lived too conservatively." He surprised himself with this frank reply, and almost elaborated, but let it drop. After all, Louis was still just a boy, no matter how mature he seemed.
          On the drive home John tried, delicately, to find out why Louis allowed the other neighborhood boys to tease him so, when it was obvious—at least to John—that Louis was large enough to defend himself.
          Louis shrugged. "I was in a fight last year, the only one ever, and I didn't like it at all. I'm just not cut out for it."
          "Maybe these guys would respect you if you stood up for yourself," John said gently. "Who knows? They might even back down without you having to throw a punch."
          "If I smile and make them think it doesn't bother me, they'll stop eventually; it's worked before," Louis sighed, his voice trailing off as he turned and gazed out his window. "Smiling disarms people. I've read that somewhere."
          "Yes, you do smile a lot."
          They spent the balance of the ride quietly. There was something vaguely familiar about Louis, especially in the way he sat: his shoulders a bit rounded, peering out at the scenery rolling away, blinking, his eyebrows darting up occasionally—a nervous tic? John had a vague notion of it in the driveway the day before, but now it was clear: Louis reminded John of his high school basketball team's student assistant, Walter Wanderly.

[Continued this issue]