"A Driver's Education" is a story about a driving instructor longing for a lost time of joy with both his wife and voice.
Driving school should be illegal in the early mornings of February. Unfortunately, these kiddies wouldn’t wait for the weather to change. In the woods by the parking lot, a hairy woodpecker discovered a vein of ants in an aspen. It’s pecking had a beat Pinkus couldn’t deny. His foot tapped the car mat as he made up a song: a sapsucker’s delight, a bird will eat tonight, the ants go round, he gobbles them down, he may or he might.
A student would have far worse distractions than their teacher’s coffee breath. Pinkus adjusted the rear-view mirror to see how many blood stained pieces of tissue paper were still stuck to his neck. Two. He flicked them off and onto the floor. They disappeared into the muddy puddles of slush on the car mat.
A manila folder sat on his swivel chair. It had a pink neon post it note that read: She’s waiting! The office was warm but not quite stuffy. Pinkus didn’t want to go back outside already. His car reeked of mildew from the wet mats. He hoped to have his first student after the sun had a chance to work its magic.
Pinkus picked up the folder and looked at the paper clipped kid. Lydia. He had to chuckle at her sleepy brown eyes and defiant smile. She failed her last two driver’s tests but never held it against him. Pinkus used to have a better success rate. He shot a look up at the big board and saw his name falling off the bottom. The magnetic ‘P’ hung slightly below the ‘I’ and the ‘S’. It was sideways like a half eaten bowl of infinity.
The aroma of sweet wood seeped into the pores of the office. They worked out of a relatively residential neighborhood. Someone must have started a fire nearby. Pinkus wondered if his wife lit a fire in their home? He told Alice not to turn the heat up past sixty-four degrees. It was early when he left the house. Her bedroom door had been ajar as he tiptoed by, hoping not to have her hear the creak of the floorboards.
Now the wind died down enough to make the day feel more like fifty degrees than thirty. Pinkus looked like a grizzled cowhand with his tan ranch coat. The costume department of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers gave it to him as a parting gift. It was his last leading roll, fifteen summers ago in a small beach town in New Hampshire. He could still feel the spurs on his boots. It gave his walk a bit of a swagger as he moseyed on over to Lydia.
Lydia stood by an All Star sedan in an army jacket two sizes too big for her frame. She shivered when she saw Pinkus approach. It was a subtle hint at how long he’d kept her waiting outside. He resisted the urge to run back in to grab her a scarf. She’d tell him scarves were lame. Her long brown hair streamed down her back and she wore jeans covered in patches and safety pins. They might disintegrate at any minute. He rubbed his finger on the uneven grooves at the base of the clipboard and took the red inked pen out from behind his ear. She smiled and pointed at the back of his clipboard like a little kid at the zoo.
“Led Zeppelin,” she commented.
He was caught off guard and must have grabbed a coworker’s board when he walked out of the office. He flipped it over to see the bumper sticker of a blimp leaning towards the earth.
“Uhm, oh yes,” said Pinkus. “Not my clipboard, I’m more of a Broadway man.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Kind of figured by the Seussical bumper sticker.”
He rushed to the back of the car to look. “There is certainly no Seussical…oh, good one.”
She laughed, covered her mouth and pointed at him. “Good music is good music, you should branch out. Can we get in the car? I’m freezing.”
Pinkus rushed around to open the door for her. She slipped into the driver’s seat as he sealed her in. Slightly out of breath, he knocked on the passenger seat’s window and mouthed to her to wait one second. He lumbered back into the lobby and tapped the vending machine for a roll of mint Lifesavers (anything in a roll didn’t count against his vending machine diet). The last roll dropped to the bottom of the machine with the sound of at least two or three of the mints not surviving the fall. Pinkus shoved his hand in the slot, but his wrist was too thick to reach the mints. He puffed out his cheeks and grunted as he felt the skin on his arm get scraped. Two mints seemed like the most appropriate dosage. He wondered if he could make them spark blue at the right moment in the car. Not to show off but to give himself an aura of mystery. He grabbed a scarf from the lost and found just in case.
The walk back to the car was hurried by the snapping wind. A single dead leaf, too stubborn to fall off its branch, drooped over the path. Pinkus didn’t notice the black ice by the curb. Luckily, he grabbed the tow away zone sign by its perforated pole to regain his footing. Pinkus looked toward the car to see if she saw his clumsiness in the rearview mirrors.
The car felt like it was filled with unicorns and rainbows. She’d turned up the heat and found an 80’s station playing the Bangles’ Walk like an Egyptian. She snapped a pink bubble at him and giggled. He grabbed for his clipboard and read her file.
“Lydia, your birthday’s coming up, isn’t it?” asked Pinkus.
“Eighteen in two weeks.” She blew a strand of hair and continued, “God, why’d I wait so long? Dad said I had to earn the right to drive. If I had to wait to vote then by gum-” She stuck a finger in her mouth and pulled the thumb trigger.
He looked at his student and wanted her to earn her father’s love.
“Your dad probably just wants you to take it seriously.”
“No, he’s cheap. He doesn’t want to share the car. He leaves me and mom stranded at home most weekends. Bow hunting with jerk offs from the garage. Mom’s a throwback.”
“Mousy, lets him walk all over her. Ask your father, oh, I don’t know, if it’s okay with him. You know she’s never been to New Haven? I just want to get her the hell out this town and show her….maybe that pizza place. Pepe’s? You ever been? You have kids?”
Pinkus’ ears rang with the barrage of questions.
“No, I..we were focused on…” he stammered.
“Yeah, you never struck me as the kid type. Too well rested and young looking.”
She looked into his eyes. He held her gaze, his seat creaked as he adjusted a leg. She looked away and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Pinkus asked nervously.
“This car, never gets old to me.”
“Not sure I follow?”
“Driver’s Ed cars with two steering wheels. Built so you can control me if I get out of hand, hilarious.”
Lydia turned and leaned her elbows on the armrest. One of the sleeves started to slide down past her wrist. She quickly pulled it back up with a snap of her teeth.
“Please buckle up and adjust your mirrors,” instructed Pinkus. He clicked his seat belt.
She rolled down her window and adjusted the mirror by blowing it a kiss. A parked tow truck’s honk startled them both. The driver furiously banged on his horn until a little boy ran out of a sub shop with two hoagies. Mr. Pinkus shook his head at such horn abuse. He wondered if the driver knew her father. Maybe the tow truck sent broken down cars to her dad’s garage. They’d share a smoke and backslap each other about the eight point deer bagged last weekend.
Pinkus felt bad for the mother. How could you never even make it to New Haven? Stranded, the father left her in that house to stare out the kitchen window, waiting for Lydia to come home from school, waiting to breathe again.
Lydia was about to put the car in drive when she said, “Almost forgot.”
She leaned over Mr. Pinkus and rolled down his window to adjust the passenger mirror. Each crank of the window rubbed her chest deeper into the clipboard resting on his crotch. She didn’t seem to be aware or care about the unnecessary contact. He wanted to tell her that the side mirrors were electric but he couldn’t find his voice.
“I’ll buckle up on one condition.”
Pinkus caught his breath. “It’s the law, there are no conditions to safety.”
She let out an exaggerated sigh. “Sing me a song.”
“You said you’re a fan of Broadway. Sing a tune and then we can go.”
For some reason her request didn’t upset him the way Chip’s did. Pinkus did wonder if he still had it. His little ditty in the car before work helped warm the old pipes.
“It’s too early and I haven’t properly warmed up.”
“Come on. I won’t laugh. Promise. They say driving school cars have kick ass acoustics.”
A laugh popped out of him, it felt good. He remembered laughs like it from long ago in the green rooms of summer stock by the sea. Alice wearing a purple dress with white pearls, sipping a cola from a paper straw.
Lydia lunged into her bag and pulled out a topless Binaca. Its nozzle had belly button lint. A wrinkled photograph floated onto his lap from her violent search. It was Lydia as a little girl, sitting on a rough looking man’s lap as he pulled on a cigarette. A pale woman stood in the shadows of the porch. Little Lydia reached for her, but the man’s free hand gripped her legs in place.
Pinkus cleared his throat, chewed the mints down to dust and sang:
“Storewide sales come and go.
You’ll always know
my heart beats
a thump thump heat.
Scandals come and go
The screen fills with you
My only showwww.”
Lydia exploded with applause. Pinkus hadn’t felt so good in years. He wanted to tell her there was a whole second verse and chorus but decided to play it cool. She buckled up, and without waiting for further instructions, put the car in drive.
She reached the stop sign and looked both ways before pulling them out onto the main drag. It was an endless row of fast food on both sides of the street. They listened to the radio, something he never allowed while driving. He had her turn into a more residential neighborhood. Two boys about her age skateboarded on and off the curb in front of a tan ranch house. Mr. Pinkus saw a pretty easy opportunity for parallel parking a block down.
“Try and park up on the right,” he told her.
She slid the car in between a van and beat up pickup. “You should get your ear pierced. It would make you look even younger.”
Mr. Pinkus glanced at himself in the mirror. His ear lobes drooped. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know if that’s an option.”
Lydia dove a hand into her purse and came up with a button of Paul Newman stuffing a soft-boiled egg into his mouth. Pinkus was about to say how impressed he was when she took out a lighter and lit it under the sharp end of the pin until it smoked.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
Lydia winked and opened the door. She scooped up some fresh snow piled on a bush and brought it back into the car. “Hold this onto your ear.”
“It’ll numb the lobe. Don’t sweat it, I’ve done like a thousand of these.” She patted his knee and smiled.
Pinkus took the offered snow and held it to his ear. It crunched around his lobe. He watched her spark the lighter over the pin again. The point began to blacken and burn orange like a blacksmith’s anvil. Pinkus couldn’t stop this.
Pinkus let out a muffled scream into his scarf. A pearl sized drop of blood landed on his sleeve. He felt woozy but hid it with a look at his expanding lobe in the rearview mirror.
Lydia giggled. “Here, put some more snow on it to slow the bleeding. Wow, you’re a gusher.”
Gently, she rubbed his lobe with packed snow. Her breath warmed the back of his neck. Pinkus couldn’t muffle the deep sigh. He hadn’t been so delicately touched in how long? He couldn’t remember. She licked a piece of tissue and placed it on the lobe.
She shrugged and tapped on the dashboard clock. “Whoa, I have to get going or I’ll be late for work.”
Pinkus looked and saw they had only done twenty minutes of what was supposed to be forty-five to receive full credit for a session.
“I can drop you there,” offered Pinkus.
“That would be so cool. I totally forgot and dad said I had to bus it from here.”
“No problem, why don’t you drive us and I can take over from there.”
The coffee shop was attached to the Stop and Shop. Lydia almost hit a wayward shopping cart. She didn’t notice his subtle use of his brake to help avoid it. They pulled up in front. She rifled through her purse and found a sour apple chap stick. After a few rounds of puckering in the mirror, she seemed satisfied and absently put her hand on his knee. Pinkus felt the warmth from her palm spread across his thigh. She took her hand away as if it were nothing. Pinkus felt the fingers’ afterglow.
“Thanks so much. You’re a lifesaver. You should come in sometime for a free latté. Promise I won’t make you sing for it.”
She tilted her head and took the tissue paper off his ear. The dried blood peeled off like chipped paint. “You better get a stud in or it’ll close up,” suggested Lydia.
“A stud?” Pinkus went to touch his ear and then thought better of it. He felt it pulsate.
She raised a hand to her left ear and took something from the upper lobe. It was a small stainless steel circle with a bolt of lightning etched down its center.
“Here, let me.” She licked its pin and pinched the clasped behind his ear.
He heard a click and said, “Thanks.”
She smiled. “Don’t’ get all mushy…CVS has ‘em for like four bucks.”
He watched her walk into the café without turning back. He forgot to have her sign off on the session so he forged her signature. He wondered if she’d have a little heart shaped bubble over the ‘i’.
His front yard was patches of dirt with the occasional splotch of grass. The neighbors had little kids. They kept dropping hints about the house being too big for the two of them. The market for this part of town is going up.
It was getting dark. Mr. Pinkus was ready to plop onto the couch. Alice was in the mudroom, bent down, scrubbing some caked mud by the welcome mat. She wore his favorite pair of jeans, the ones that hugged her in just the right places.
“What are you doing?” He closed the door, took off his coat, and hung it on a brass hook. The coat slid off and onto Alice’s back.
“Hey! You don’t have to be so rude.”
“Those hooks are slippery.”
She stood and violently hung the coat. Alice’s hair was a tangle of black and white. Mating skunks that had no beginning or end. Her eyes were blue. Even in anger they reminded Mr. Pinkus of their last lovemaking experience.
“It was an accident.” He put his arms on her shoulders. “Sorry toots.”
Alice was caught off guard by his Sinatra and smiled. He thought of telling her about his singing but realized he’d have to lie about the circumstances. Would she be thrilled to hear that he wanted to get back into the musical game? Maybe even see about some summer stock in Stamford? He could reduce his hours at work. The money wouldn’t be as good but man, it would be the vitamin shot they both needed. She could be his “manager” again.
He kept waiting for her to notice the bolt of lightning in his ear but maybe it was too small. He looked in the mirror by the coat rack. His whole ear was beet red.
She opened the closet and took out the vacuum. “I need your help.” She rubbed her temples as she continued, “I’m too tired to cook dinner. We are out of everything. Will you take out the trash and pick up a couple buckets?”
Alice turned on the vacuum. Its headlight flickered on but was dirtier than the dust it tried to point out. She spoke quietly, the vacuum drowned her out but Mr. Pinkus learned to read his wife’s lips.
“Order only white meat. Don’t forget the honey packets. Last time you forgot the honey packets. Those biscuits require butter and honey or else they’re way too dry.”
Pinkus burst into the second verse of Storewide Sales of Love. As he sang, it felt like the boulder of Sisyphus rolled off his tongue. He never sang only half a song- even in auditions he always made it to the end. Alice’s eyes lit up. If they were in a musical, she would have twirled herself into an evening gown with the help of hidden stagehands. Instead, Alice gave him an unexpected kiss on the cheek and pat on the rump. He bent his knees into a slight squat so their hug became the perfect fit. He hadn’t sung for her in years. He always felt it had to be for something: an audition, a rehearsal, or a demo. Alice was always his first and sometimes only audience. Her smile, this hug, it was a thousand hands clapping. She pulled away. He could see the question what brought this on? forming on her lips until she noticed his ear. She gave it a gentle tug.
“Ouch! Careful.” Pinkus winced.
She laughed. “An earring?”
She leaned in with his lobe limp between her fingers. She held it with care. Then she stepped away to take him all in like a painting.
“Huh, I actually don’t hate it. You’re a little old for a mid life crisis but I have to admit, you kind of pull it off.”
“Thanks,” mumbled Pinkus.
Alice stared at him and asked, “Why today? Where’d you go? The mall? Better get some Neosporin on it.”
“Think we’re out. I’ll hit the drugstore near that café while I’m out. Better than the beard?”
She smiled. “Anything’s better than that beard.”
He touched his ear, put his jacket back on and opened the door. The cool air whipped his face. Alice hugged herself. She looked at him with eyes from much earlier in their marriage.
The sidewalk was a conveyer belt of power walkers, joggers, and bikes. He opened the door to the driver’s Ed car. Pinkus laughed when he realized he was sitting on the passenger side. He thought about that student today. Lydia made him feel fifteen years younger and he wanted more. When did she get off from her shift at the café? Maybe they should continue their lesson tonight? Why didn’t they offer night driving classes? Don’t people have to drive at night? A younger go-getter would propose this at work but he didn’t want to be hassled. He decided it would look cool and possibly British if he drove from the passenger’s seat.
The chicken joint came up on his left but he drove past it. Fried steam vented from its roof and shimmered as the sun sank like an oozing egg yolk. Mr. Pinkus clicked his wedding ring on the steering wheel but he pretended not to hear it. He pretended not to have enjoyed the unexpected spank by his wife, the smell of lilac from her shampooed hair. He turned into the café’s parking lot. The neon of a neighboring sport’s bar told him his next move. He needed a gimlet to steer him in the right direction, extra pearled onions.
Tony’s Bar and Grill was almost empty. Clinking glass came from the back. A row of dartboards leaned against the wall. They were replaced with a shiny screen with little pink words flying across its bottom. At least fifteen people were sitting around the little gray wooden stage as a middle-aged woman sang “9 to 5.” Her curly hair vibrated with each whispered note. If it weren’t for the microphone, no one would hear her. The crowd half paid attention, side conversations continued, drinks were sipped, and knees were rubbed.
The woman received some polite applause from a vigorously blinking man sitting by himself at the one round table. She stepped off the stage and sat with the blinker. Pinkus waited and the stage stayed empty, no one else looked towards it, but it called him. He threw a dollar into the machine and punched in E8432 on the glowing buttons. The screen behind him blinked off and back on with a carousel of battered zoo animals. Pinkus didn’t need the screen. He plucked the mic from the stand, and looked out.
Everything disappeared as the trumpet blared its opening note. All Pinkus could see was the washed light coming into the dirty window in the front, his spotlight. The small crowd stopped what they were doing the minute he opened his mouth. Even the bartender came out from behind the bar and bobbed his head with approval. Pinkus sang, gyrated, and added a little jazz dance during the instrumental. His khakis turned to leather, and sideburns became muttonchops. The years dripped off him. The crowd roared when he belted the end on his knees.
The manager told him he had to come back. They’d make it worth his while. Pinkus felt tingly. He wanted to call Alice. He found what they lost. He also felt younger and wanted to see what his new game could get him. He switched to the right steering wheel’s seat and moved the car four spaces closer to the café.
Pinkus saw her instantly. Inside the café, she laughed with a couple of high school boys. Their skateboards leaned against the display case. Lydia gave the taller one a hug. Her face was expressionless in mid embrace. She stepped back as if it meant nothing. Lydia giggled at their jokes, but Pinkus could tell she wasn’t really happy. She wanted that license. She wanted her freedom. Mr. Pinkus wanted to bust into the café and tell her she passed. He’d belt out Our Time:
“It's our time, breathe it in:
Worlds to change and worlds to win.
Our turn coming through,
Me and you, man
Me and you!”
Pinkus would change ‘man’ to ‘lady’ and she’d never no the difference. She’d weep with gratitude and run over to him. He’d have his hand out to offer a hearty handshake. She’d brush it away and hug the life back into him. He wouldn’t make her do a three-point turn or back into a parking space. He could unlock the office. He’d take her picture and wait at the DMV first thing in the morning with her by his side. He knew Carla, the regional manager. It would be like having a bouncer let them skip the line at Lydia’s favorite club. Carla would hoist herself off her chair and usher them to the camera and stool. Lydia would ask Mr. Pinkus to stand behind her with his hands on her shoulders. Highly irregular, but Carla would allow the photo to end up on her license.
Mr. Pinkus felt his phone vibrate in his pants. He dropped it in the crack between the armrest and his seat. The phone continued to ring, unearthing dirty pennies and gum wrappers with the light of its screen. He opened the passenger door and crouched on the pavement to get a better look under the car seat. His knees cracked. The car door swung back and hit him in the back. His neck pulsed as blood rushed to his head. His knees hadn’t crouched like this since high school. He couldn’t keep it up for much longer. The phone stopped ringing. The message light blinked it back to life, and then it started to ring again.
Pinkus jammed his arm under the seat. He felt for the phone when his watch got caught on hooked metal. Some piece of the car seat’s undercarriage kept his arm under the seat. He had the phone by the throat and used his thumb to answer it. Alice’s voice came from under the seat as he sat on the car’s floor. It was damp and his boxers weren’t thick enough to keep his ass dry.
“Where are you?” asked Alice. “Did you forget the honey and butter? We’re out of butter and ketchup so load up.”
“I’m stuck! I dropped the phone.”
“Hello? Why do you sound so far away? What do you mean you’re stuck?”
“My hand’s stuck under the car seat.” Pinkus tried giving it another good yank. He practically yelled towards his phone, “I need the fire department.”
“The fire department? Are you parked at the chicken?”
Mr. Pinkus didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want her coming out to help. He’d have to explain why he was in front of a coffee shop instead of the chicken. He took his free arm and moved it over the top of the seat to emulate the sound of freedom.
“Oh! Look at that! It’s OK, I’m free. I’ll see you at home in a bit. No problem.”
“You still sound like you’re underwater. Just quit fooling around and get back here. Oh, and Paul?”
“It was really nice hearing you sing again. I, I missed it.” Alice’s voice sounded so light. Something had thawed.
Alice hung up. Pinkus knew he was a fool. That woman was his everything. This girl was nothing but jailbait. Mr. Pinkus let out a monster sigh. Pinkus thought back to his musical days in New York. He remembered the breathing exercises the directors would have them do to start a rehearsal. They’d inhale as deeply as possible and release as primal a sound as they could muster. Whatever their emotional state, they’d put it all in that sound. It was an emotional exorcism. All personal baggage was crammed into that caterwaul. Pinkus closed his eyes and sucked every bit of air up his nose. He felt his ribs push his belly out and his diaphragm expanded. He put every bit of bullshit into a moan of release.
He kept it going for over two minutes. It was guttural. When he opened his eyes, his hand was free and then he saw the pair of Converse. They had blue Sharpie eyes with smiles on the white toecaps. The eyes looked freshly applied. One set of eyes had long eyelashes and the other had his bushy eyebrows. It had to be the both of them in puppet shoe form. He looked up and smiled.
Lydia wore a red apron with splotches of coffee on her stomach and thigh. The splotches looked like Rorschach tests. Two ladies kissed in one. The other had two coyotes back to back, trying to decide who was taller. Lydia crouched by him.
“To be honest. Little weird, you stalking me.”
“Stalking? Come on….we didn’t finish. I didn’t want you to lose the credit. You had like twenty-five minutes left.”
He tried to tilt his ear so she’d notice her earlier handiwork but her eyes were too busy rolling.
“Can’t you round up? I really need that license,” whined Lydia.
Blue light pulsed from under the driver’s seat. She sounded like a selfish teenager. Pinkus remembered that she was a teenager. He injected a fairy tale into her that wasn’t there.
The phone chirped in one ear while Lydia sighed in the other.
“Can I have someone else tomorrow?” asked Lydia.
Pinkus reached under the seat and managed to come back up with the phone. A dot of blood from the healing lobe smeared the screen. Alice’s voice was a homing beacon on the other end.
“If we’re going to do this again, you’ll need new ones, with and without your lightning stud. Don’t forget the Neosporin. We can wait until the swelling goes down.”