SHORT STORY. 900 WORDS. APRIL, 2018.
PHOTO: CARS ON DISPLAY AT THE MARSHVILLE HERITAGE FESTIVAL, WAINFLEET, 2010.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN CLEVER MAGAZINE (US) MAY 26, 2018. VIEW IT ONLINE: Self Driving Test.
[Like Eighteen Dollar Shoes, this piece belongs to a series of linked but completely self contained stories I’m working on, all set in a small Ontario town on the north shore of Lake Erie in the 1950s. My dad lived these stories – all I did was transcribe and embellish.]
In 1954, my dad’s best friend in Port Colborne was the guy who issued driver’s licences. He was the lone examiner in town. My dad met him often and called one day to say he’d bring me along on Sunday.
“Could you give my boy his driver’s test?” he asked and the guy replied: “Why not? Come over any time in the afternoon.”
This was on a Sunday.
I asked my dad if he could get the paper stamped for me and skip the test altogether. I knew it all anyway.
“I don’t think he’d go for that. A car is a serious responsibility. You could do plenty damage. How do you think he or I would look if we faked it, then you smashed something or hurt someone?”
I wasn’t worried. I’d been driving my dad’s car two summers already. He worked shifts at the nickel plant, like half the dads on Charlotte Street, so he was in bed sleeping all morning. I used to say to him Saturday nights: “Leave the keys and I’ll move the car in the morning to wash it.”
And he left them. Simple as that. Course, I’d go for joy rides before giving it a wash. The goal was to have it drying in the sun by the time he woke. First, I’d pick up Monty, a few doors down, and we’d go to the drive-in for French fries. We weren’t hungry. Just wanted to order something. If we had no money, which was most of the time, we’d circle round and show off, or we’d look for girls at Nickel Beach, where you could park right on the sand.
One day we sped the whole way to the amusement park at Crystal Beach. We wanted to ride the Comet. Bringing the car back, Monty said: “Is that your dad on the front porch?”
He was supposed to be sleeping but that was him all right. “Heck. Should I face him or should we make a break for it?”
Monty asked the only sensible question: “How much money you got?”
I had nothing left – not one dime – so I parked in the driveway.
The old man hollered: “Don’t you know you’ve got no licence? You might get pulled over. If Frederick stops you,” – that’s another friend of his; everyone knew everyone in Port Colborne. “If Frederick stops you and throws you in jail, when he asks me what to do with you, I’ll tell him to leave you overnight and teach you a lesson.”
My dad would never do that. He yelled, that was all. What else could he do? I got no allowance. I still had to wash the car every Sunday but he never left the keys out again, not until after I had my licence.
Early fall, the first hot, dry day in weeks, we went for my driver’s test at the examiner’s house. He lived in the country, on Second Concession Road. Chickens were running round and a big black lab sat watching red and yellow leaves come down. My dad brought a cooler full of ice and beer and they sat out back on the patio, listening to a radio propped in the kitchen window. Perry Como and Kitty Kallen. The World Series ended the day before, across Lake Erie. Giants upset the Indians in four straight.
They drank all afternoon. I was allowed one beer and made it last; they kept going. It took a long time to empty that cooler and it was getting on supper time, so I finally said: “What about my licence? Is that gonna happen today?”
The Ministry of Transport guy – Harold his name was, Harold Fraser, brother was a mailman – he went in the house and came out with a clipboard and some typed sheets. “Think you can do it yourself?”
“Sure, I can,” I said. What was I gonna say? There were three sheets of instructions. Left on Princess Street, right on Elm. Parallel Park on Clarence. Three point turn in grocery parking lot. It was easy; I’d been driving two summers.
When I finished they were still on the patio, in the shade now. Cooler empty, ice melted. A dozen stubby brown bottles were clustered on the little white table between them. One lay on its side. “How’d you make out?” Harold asked.
“No problem,” I said. I meant it.
“Is that right?” He rubbed his chin and looked at me hard. “You signal every step of the three point turn? Shoulder check before changing lanes?”
“Yeah,” I answered both questions.
“Come here then.”
He had his stamp with him. Right on his patio, he stamped the paper and that was it. Knocked over another empty bottle but I had my licence. All official-like, he told me to give my dad a ride home.
At school, few kids had a licence yet. I was the only one who gave himself the driver’s test.
Within a year I totalled my dad’s brand new Studebaker, twice. The original and the replacement. Did plenty damage but no one got hurt. Neither accident was my fault, so Harold and my dad didn’t look bad on account of me. One driver ran a stop sign and the other crossed the centre line. Turns out, years back, Harold gave them both proper road exams. Lotta good that did.