My daughter, Katya, is learning to drive. That is, she’s taken and failed the written test three times, with worse scores each time. So learning might not be the right word for whatever she’s doing. Can you leak knowledge? I tried standing next to her and listening for whatever noise leaking knowledge might make — a steady hissing, maybe — but she just started drawing on my arm. A unicorn rearing up on a cloud, and lots of hearts.
Katya’s not stupid; she’s a demon at every card game she plays, she can brandish an analytical wit at a moment’s notice, and she can smell hypocrisy from a mile away. But she won’t study driving.
Have you ever known someone who detests work? So much that they’ll go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it? Meet my kids. I once caught my son, Dima, pushing the vacuum cleaner over the living room carpet. The vacuum wasn’t on; it wasn’t even plugged in. I didn’t say anything at the time, and when I asked him later if he had run the sweeper, he shrugged and pointed at the vacuum tracks on the carpet. I laughed and dragged my fingers through the thick layer of cat hair on the carpet, then tucked the resulting wad of fur into his hand. He muttered something and pulled out the sweeper again.
Katya isn’t as tricksy as her brother; rather than working up some fakery, she dawdles and delays. She is the Maestra of Deliberate Procrastination. One evening we agreed that she’d take a practice test and then we’d go over it together; I came back after half an hour to find her staring at pictures of magical horses and candy and puffy clouds. The practice test sat open, unstarted.
She asked me, “Do unicorns really poop rainbow marshmallows?”
She’s a young sixteen, but I think — I hope — she knows unicorns aren’t real. I couldn’t come up with any kind of parent-level response to a unicorn poop question, so I went with a dad answer: “Yes, of course, unicorns poop rainbow marshmallows. Duh. That’s why they all have night shift jobs pooping into cereal boxes. Marshmallows gotta get in there somehow, right? How’s that test coming?”
“Fine.” She brushed back her hair, lolled over to the computer, and gave a lazy, defiant click. “I’ll get you when I’m done.” Teen-to-parent translation: not happening, Dad. It was that click — a small sound, but echoing like an exclamation point on my moment of clarity — that told me she had no intention of opening the driver’s manual, ever. Not even a little bit.
But she does want to drive. We’ve sneaked in a few surreptitious lessons in the school parking lot, and I caught her enjoying it. She isn’t bad, just a little unconcerned with physics, inertia, spatial relationships, and hitting stuff. And even so, she hasn’t hit anything yet — just come really, really close.
“The point of practice is improvement, Kat,” I said, during our latest lesson. “You have to get the feel of the car, of how it moves when you turn the wheel, of how much room it takes up when you park, all that. You need to pay more attention.”
Katya glided the car squarely over the line between two parking spaces. “You know the car is supposed to go between the lines, right? Not on them?” She laughed, and I shook my head. “You’re lucky Granddad isn’t teaching you.”
When my father had given me driving lessons, they weren’t just an ordeal, they were verbal abuse. From the moment I turned the key in the ignition, an unbroken torrent of anger spewed forth. “Go,” he’d start. “I’m getting older here. Turn right. Okay, I guess we’ll take the next right. Turn here, dummy; you almost missed this one, too. HERE. The car can go faster, you know. It’s the pedal on the right. Why are you going so slow? Now you’re too close. SLOW DOWN. You can turn off that blinker any time. And now you’re too slow. Speed up. God, you drive like your mother. Faster! GOD DAMN IT, TURN HERE. WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GOING?” By the end of each lesson, every muscle in my body would be locked, sweat running down my face and back, fingers clenching the steering wheel in cold, stunned fear.
I had vowed to not teach my kids the way my father taught me. “Seriously, Kat. Granddad would have you in tears within two minutes. You haven’t seen it, but there’s a lifetime of stifled rage locked inside that man. He seems sweet and kind with you guys, but driving lessons are when it comes out. If he were in this seat, you’d never want to drive again.”
Katya rolled her eyes; I could see the whatever on the tip of her tongue. To her and her brother, Granddad was a dear old man who gave them money and presents, and let them drive his golf cart at breakneck speed around his ridiculously large hillside yard. And he also maintained that the studies saying sugar was bad for kids were bullshit. How could such a man ever be mean?
Just then, watching Katya adjust her hair in the mirror, I figured out what bothered me: respect. She didn’t have respect for driving. It was a mix of desire, awe, and fear that I’d had for the road since I started driving. For one moment, I wished the father of sixteen-year-old me could give Katya just one driving lesson. If anything could shake her up, make her understand that she was driving a high-speed projectile of death, and maybe instill that respect, Granddad would be it.
Katya backed up, giving herself plenty of room to maneuver, sang a tuneless version of some candy-pop song, and drove onto exactly the same spot as before, perfectly straddling the line between two spaces.
“Really?” I sighed. Katya just laughed again. Of course, she’d be fine. As long as she stuck to roads where no other cars drove, ever.
I played through the phone call in my head: Dad, come visit, stat. Your granddaughter needs you. She needs your anger.
* * *
Sixteen. It’s the great awakening. It’s the age where awareness, arrogance, and raging hormones meet to hotrail meth and steal street signs. I’m the father of a sixteen-year-old girl, and I live in perpetual dread that she’ll do the things I did when I was sixteen, or worse, that she’ll date someone like sixteen-year-old me.
At sixteen I got my first ticket, and it was a good one. Only two weeks after I got my license, I was driving with my friend, Stacy, after midnight in small-town east Ohio. I veered into a left-turn-only lane to blow past a stopped car at a red light, and to blow through the red light as well. A police car happened to be stopped at the light going the other way. This was one proof, among many throughout my life, that I definitely had a superpower; and that superpower was Very Bad Timing. The cop I had just driven by flipped on his lights and started a u-turn to follow us.
“Quick, turn here,” Stacy said. “Take that left. Turn your headlights off. Now go down this alley…” She led me through as labyrinthine a pattern as small-town east Ohio would permit — and it worked. We lost the police car. We waited in an alley for a while, pondering our next move. Ten minutes seemed like enough time that the cop would have moved on. We drove slowly back to the main drag, a twisted route that took us to the far edge of the neighborhood before leading back to the main road.
“Stacy, you are awesome,” I said. “We totally ditched him.”
Stacy smiled. “Well, I know this place. I’ve lived here my whole life. My aunt lives here, and I used to stay with her after school when my mom was working, so we learned all these streets pretty well — uh oh.”
There were two police cars waiting for us on the main street, exactly where we came out. Their lights turned on and one siren briefly wailed: you’re ooooours-OOOoours.
“Well, great.” I pulled to the side of the road and glared at Stacy, but she wouldn’t look at me. I stepped out of the car and waited, hands in my pockets, figuring the policeman would saunter over and strike up a conversation, maybe politely ask if I knew why he had pulled me over. Instead, a floodlight blinded us, guns came out, and the air filled with shouts of DOWN ON THE GROUND, NOW! It occurred to me that my father had never really gone over what to do in these situations. And if there had been anything in the driver’s manual about this sort of thing, I couldn’t remember it. So we took the hint and lay down next to the car.
The police seemed very angry. “We got you cold. Running that red light? That was stupid, boy.” a beefy young cop shouted into my face, his breath smelling like long-dead flies. “And running away? More stupid. We could add speeding, reckless driving, evading arrest, too.” He had the regulation cop mustache, but something green hung from one side of it. It looked like lettuce. A thin strand, maybe shredded iceberg lettuce, the cheapest lettuce that a cheap cafe would pile into its cheapest sandwich. “We could lock you up for a few months,” Lettuce Mustache hissed into my face. “What do you think, boy? Think you’d like that?”
All I managed was a dry-throated, “No, sir.” What I really wanted to do was pluck off that lettuce and wipe it on the ground. I didn’t, but I couldn’t look away from it.
The police quieted down after checking my license, and let us sit up while they talked things over. But Officer Veggie Stache wasn’t done yet; he hovered over me, pacing like a caged tiger. “I don’t know what you were thinking, but when an officer of the law turns on his lights, you pull over. When you drive like you done, you put a lot of people in danger, including the people in the car you passed, and including yourself.” At each “p” sound — put, people, and passed — the lower end of the lettuce strand flew up. But still it clung to the mustache.
You know the old shave and a haircut gag? Five knocks, and then the answering knock two bits? In the cartoons, when someone knocks out the first five, the next two have to happen — the character must knock the response, and consequences be damned. It’s an inexplicable compulsion.
That goddamn lettuce strand was the same thing — an inexplicable compulsion. Actually, it was worse. The pale green string flailing up and down…it was maddening. Terrified, gut-wrenched, sixteen-year-old me couldn’t help himself: “I’m sorry, Officer, but there’s something stuck in your mustache.”
A stunned silence fell over the scene. Three seconds…four…five. Ten seconds passed before Officer Romaine-Iceberg recovered. “What did you say to me?”
“On the left side. It looks like…lettuce.”
“What in the goddamn hell did you say to me?”
“Hey, Koontz, settle down,” one of the other officers chimed in. “He’s right. You’ve had that thing hanging on your face all day.”
The third one laughed. “I been wondering what the hell that was.”
The second officer laughed, and they all gathered around. “Is that from your lunch today? You got a sandwich, right? Damn, Koontz, do you ever wash your face? Did you get sloppy seconds on a cabbage or something? Hey, Koontz, I’m kind of hungry, you gonna eat that?”
“Little Tony’s uses lettuce like that on its subs,” Stacy said, helping. “I used to work there.”
“Have you ever tried their steak and cheese?” Cop Three asked.
“Ooh, it’s good,” Stacy said. “They use smoked hot peppers and — “
“SHUT THE HELL UP, ALL OF YOU!” Officer Koontz straightened up. “Mr. Penfold, I am writing you a ticket for failure to stop at a red light; unsafe use of a turning lane; reckless driving and wanton disregard of safety; exceeding the posted speed limit by less than twenty miles per hour; and willfully eluding a law enforcement officer. You’re lucky we’re not arresting you and impounding your vehicle, Mr. Penfold. After your court date, I promise you, you will never drive in the state of Ohio again.”
He didn’t brush off the lettuce strand. It was still there, flapping with his every word that smelled like death. I managed to not say anything except yes, sir. He gave me my ticket and let us go. Stacey and I didn’t say anything to each other except good night, don’t help me anymore, okay, and see you later when I dropped her off.
Officer Koontz was wrong; my license was suspended in Ohio for just six months. But the worst thing about the whole incident was the icy aura of fear it had instilled; the knot of fear tightened up at any sighting of a police officer on the road. It was still alive three decades later: fear of police, and revulsion for stringy food stuck in mustaches. Maybe sixteen was too early for kids to be driving. After all, I am living, screwed-up proof.
* * *
I want Katya to have respect for the road, but I don’t want her to have my same fear in her head. Fear can be instructive, but Katya can overreact. She once saw a video clip of a thoroughly evil-looking spider that dug itself out of an unpeeled, intact banana…and after that she wouldn’t eat bananas. For over a year, not a single banana. Because of course, all bananas now had spiders in them, ready to jump out and eat the face of any human foolish enough to peel one. So if her first police stop was anything more intense than a pleasant talk about why kittens were so darn cute, the possible bad outcomes boggled the mind. I dreaded the worst — a traumatized Katya shivering in the corner of the bathroom and clutching a ragged but nonjudgmental teddy bear — who knows.
We came to our neighborhood’s worst-kept secret, the Rolling Stop Trap; an intersection the police staked out near the end of each month. When I saw the police car waiting, a deceptively simple thought occurred to me from the Stupid Idea Lobe of my brain; my neighbor had said the cops were giving warnings for residents…what if I hedged the stop sign on purpose? He’d pull me over, give me a warning, and Katya would get a nice easy introduction to being pulled over. The rest of my brain shouted NO NO NO RISKY TOO RISKY STUPID STUPID ABORT YOU IDIOT, but I had already made the turn.
It wasn’t a tire-squealing, two-wheels-in-the-air, crazy turn, but it worked. Lights flickered to life, the siren wailed, and the police car pulled into the road behind me. So now I could show Katya How To Survive Being Pulled Over after all. I stopped and rolled down the window. Yeah. This was a really stupid idea.
“Now we wait,” I said. “Speak calmly and respectfully. Call him officer or sir, and keep your hands where he can see them, so he doesn’t think you’re reaching for a gun or anything. Don’t make any jokes, okay? Police don’t really have a sense of humor with traffic stops; they don’t know what will happen. Could be a harmless, everyday driver, could be a deranged nutball with fifty guns. They don’t want to get shot any more than we do. I mean it about the jokes, okay? Don’t be a smart alec, even if his face looks like the south end of a northbound moose.”
She frowned. “What does that mean? South end of a northbound…”
“How have I not used that expression with you before? Well, consider: if a moose is going north, then its opposite end, the south end, is…what?”
After a few seconds: “Ahh… that’s his — “
“There you go.”
“Moose ass.” She giggled. And again. It went on a little too long, but finally she got control.
“It wasn’t that funny.”
“I know,” she caught her breath.
The officer appeared at my window. “Hello, sir. I pulled you over because — “ At the sight of his face, Katya burst into laughing again, and the officer stopped. “What’s funny, young lady?”
Katya couldn’t stop, and I sighed. “Uh, officer, It’s a couple of things, I think. My daughter’s nervous — this is the first time she’s been pulled over — and I think she’s laughing at me for getting pulled over, too.”
“Uh…well, sir, we’ve been getting complaints of people running stop signs. I stopped you because you failed to come to a complete stop at the sign back there. May I see your license and registration, please?” I handed them over. Katya found this even funnier, and laughed even harder. The officer frowned at her before heading back to his car.
“Katya,” I said, louder this time. “Shut up, right now. I mean it. Katya…STOP LAUGHING. NOW.”
She nodded. I’m past the point where I can inspire fatherly fear in my kids, and they know it. But good old fashioned yelling still occasionally throws them off balance enough to get their attention. Maybe it had been enough.
The officer appeared outside my window again. “Sir, as I was saying, you failed to stop at the four-way intersection, turning from Trowbridge onto Rooker southbound.”
Katya laughed again at the word southbound. The officer frowned, waiting for her to quiet down, but she didn’t. The uncontrollable giggles had set in.
“Katya, stop,” I said. “Sorry, Officer. I don’t know what she’s laughing at, I really don’t.”
The officer leaned down to look at her. Her face was completely red and a bubble of mucus had puffed out her nose. “Young lady, I was going to let your father off with a warning, but since you seem to find this all so funny, I think I’d better write him a ticket after all. This way, maybe you’ll get a better understanding of the situation. Congratulations; you just cost your father two hundred and fifty dollars.”
Katya stopped laughing and her mouth dropped. “Really?”
“Really. Of course, he’s free to dispute the charge in traffic court.” The officer went back to his patrol car. It took him only three more minutes to bring back the ticket. “Sign here, sir. Your signature is not an admission of guilt — thank you. Have a nice day, and please fully stop at those signs from now on.”
Katya wiped her nose, but didn’t say a word. It was the most expensive silence I have ever bought.
* * *
When a father’s daughter doesn’t talk to him for a few hours, it’s quiet time, maybe a welcome peace. But half a day of not talking? He misses the chatter and starts to worry. A full day, and he’s driven to distraction. What have I done? Will she ever speak to me again? Will she move out of the house tomorrow?
Katya didn’t talk to me for three days. By then, I was a pathetic mess. Nothing worked: jokes, questions, calls for help, outright bribery; all were met with stony silence.
On day three I asked her if she was ready for another school lot driving session. She shook her head, no.
“Kat, when you fall off your horse, you have to get right back on it. So you control your fear, and you don’t let it control you.”
She shook her head again. “I’m not afraid.”
“It’s okay. The policeman was a jerk, definitely, but he — “
“I’M NOT AFRAID, ALL RIGHT?” she yelled. “I JUST DON’T WANT TO DRIVE ANYMORE.”
I blinked. “There’s no need to yell.” This was the silliest, the most pointless sentence ever uttered, and I knew it as I was saying it…but it came out anyway.
“I’M NOT YELLING!” Katya yelled. I left the room, and the door slammed shut behind me.
Later that day, she slid an envelope under my door. Inside was a stack of bills, ones and fives; two hundred fifty dollars. So here it all was: fear, anger, and shame. The teenage trifecta. I had somehow managed to become my father, only worse.
I wrote on the envelope: Katya, I was driving, not you. I broke the law, not you. Thank you for trying to pay for my ticket, but this is your money. When you get your first ticket — and you WILL get a ticket — pay it with this. I pulled a five dollar bill from her cash and tucked it in my pocket before I slid the envelope under her door. A processing fee? A test? I don’t know.
* * *
A few more days into our mostly-silent war, Katya and I drove to get groceries. She didn’t want to be in the same car with me, but as she was out of shampoo and I never quite managed to get what she wanted, she had to come along or suffer weeks of Wrong Hair Product. We passed a man thumbing for a ride. She looked back, then broke our uneasy silence. “Why don’t we ever give people a ride?”
“Are you talking about hitchhikers, like that guy? You hear crazy stories…It’s just safer not to risk it. Most people are probably nice, and all that, but it could be some guy who’s looking to steal your money, take your car, or hurt you…or worse.”
“But it’s not breaking a law or anything?” she asked.
“To give someone a ride? No.”
“Huh.” Katya pulled up her knees and hugged them. “I’d pick him up.”
“You’re not allowed to get your license until you’re forty-three.”
My grandmother used to tell a story about her cousin, Henny, driving on the interstate one night with her roommate, a woman named Lita. A car pulled even with them, and the driver motioned that they should pull over. But Henny didn’t. He motioned again, and still she didn’t. He held his hand up to his mouth, like he was talking on a radio, and still she ignored him. ‘Henny, he wants you to pull over,’ Lita said. But Henny replied, ‘That’s not a police car and he’s not wearing a uniform. I will not pull over for him.’ Eventually the man sped off, and Henny and Lita drove to the police station. You did exactly the right thing, the police said. He would have robbed you and murdered you.
That story shook seven-year-old me to the core, and left me uncertain about everything. First, that police could be anyone in disguise: robbers, murderers, con men, serial killers, or even politicians. Second, how could anyone name their daughter Henny? It was short for Henrietta, of course, but why that nickname? Why a name that conjures up images of plump chickens clucking about? Third, did anyone ever find an actual victim of that drive-by killer? And finally, if Lita and Henny were practically married, like Henny joked from time to time, why didn’t the two women have kids? My grandmother shushed me at that point. I think she regretted telling me her stories sometimes. She shushed me a lot.
“That story isn’t about hitchhiking, though,” said Katya. “Is it even real? It sounds made up.”
“Does it?” I asked. “I don’t know, to be honest. Grandmother was inscrutable; I never figured her out. She had lots of stories, and I’m still not sure what the point of half of them was. But that story, I definitely believed. Scared the bejeezus out of me.”
“Tch.” Katya wasn’t convinced.
I do have one hitchhiker story, the only time I have ever picked one up. By accident. I know, ‘accidentally’ picking up a hitchhiker sounds ridiculous; it’s like ‘accidentally’ building a brick wall or ‘accidentally’ playing a whole game of scrabble. At some point, it’s no longer an accident- you are choosing to play. But the Accidental Hitchhiker Incident is even more ridiculous than that; I polited myself into it. It was a comedy of manners.
It was in college. I don’t remember where I had been or what I had been doing, just that it had not been fun, and I was driving home at night. I pulled up to a stoplight and looked back; there was a discarded chair on the roadside, and though it probably wasn’t anything I’d want to put into my apartment, there was always a chance that it was. And if it had been, to a college student, free is a magic word. But it turned out that it wasn’t a chair, in the end; it was Phil, a lanky man with a newsboy hat. Phil saw me looking back his way and thought I was offering a ride. I wasn’t — but before I realized it, he had pulled open the door and flumfed into the front seat.
How did I know his name was Phil? “Thanks for the ride, man. I’m going…uh…I’m going the same way you’re going. I’m Phil. You want a popper?” He grabbed my hand and shook it, flashing a broad, winning smile. There was something about Phil that was easy to like.
“Hey, Phil, call me Pen. Look, I don’t think I can really give you a ride — I’m going over to University Ave and then up on Birch.” I feared confrontation, and lying was always the easiest way out.
“All right, all right, that’s perfect! That’s where I’m going. Hey, I’m Phil. Great to meet you, man.” We shook hands again, the light changed, and I drove on. Phil told me I needed a popper again, and then shook a huge plastic bag filled with different colored pills at me. “You gotta try a red.”
“I don’t want any pills or anything, thanks. Uh…Phil, I was thinking, any chance you could keep the pills and the poppers out of sight until we get to… wherever we’re going?”
“Hey, sure, man. I got you. I got some weed instead, that sound better anyway. You got a light?” He brandished a baggie stuffed with green, fished out a thick, tightly-rolled joint and pushed it at me.
“No, I mean no weed either. Like anything illegal, you know? Keep it in your pockets, or whatever, so we don’t get caught by the cops. Okay?”
“Oh, hey, I got you. That’s all right.” He tucked the bag into the front of his pants and pulled out the bag of pills again. “Hey, you got to try a yellow scream, here. My name’s Phil.” He grabbed and shook my hand, then tucked a pill into my palm.
“Hi, Phil,” I held my hand open so he could take the pill back, but instead, he dropped another onto my palm. “I don’t want anything, thanks. You can go ahead and keep all the pills, okay? Look, tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re high as a paper kite right now, right?”
He laughed. “Why you think I’m smiling? Hey, you need a red devil, man.” He dropped another pill out, then shook the bag. “Ain’t nothing to worry about, I got a ton of these. You can have whatever you want.” He shook the bag at me again.
“No thanks, Phil. Just put them away until we get you home, okay? Can you do that, please?”
“Oh I ain’t going home, man. I need to get to Oakmont Street. I got to go see Jimmy K.” He pulled out the joint again, lit it up, and took a long hit. He held his breath and passed the joint over to me. I had to give Phil credit; he was not stingy.
“Phil, come on, you’re going to get us arrested, all right? You’re going to — “ Phil took another deep hit, and I stopped talking; it was pointless. Besides, Phil was focused on loftier matters, like holding in all that smoke without coughing. “You know what, never mind. How do we get to Oakmont?”
Oakmont, it turned out, was a lonely road hacked out of a wooded hillside. It had a mystical aura that fogged its location once you had left it; or maybe Phil couldn’t remember where it was because all the chemicals sloshing around in his brain were turning it into a gray puddle. Hard to know which, really. But finally, finally, after far too many twists, turns, backtracks, and runarounds, we found Oakmont.
Phil stopped me about five houses in, where a party was in full force. “All right, man. Wait here, I’ll be back.”
What the…? “No, Phil, I’m not waiting for you; I’m going home. I’m not driving you all around the city. I’ll see you later, you have a good one.” I drove off, not waiting for an answer. Better not to argue; Phil would manage somehow. Hell, at this point he might be able to float to wherever he needed to go. I felt a twinge of guilt, but I shook it off. Phil would be fine; the next passing car would get him there. If he even remembered that he was supposed to be going somewhere. Which I doubted. Phil seemed a whither bloweth the wind kind of guy.
Oakmont wound around the hillside, and the houses got older, fewer, and more run down. Eventually they stopped, and so did the road. Or rather, it shrank and became not so much a road as a forest path. It officially ended when I drove into a young but substantial tree in the middle of it. There was not enough space on either side for a car to drive around; this was it. Oakmont, a well-named street, for the trees that tended to grow in the middle of it, vanished into the woods.
I backed down until there was enough room to turn around. There were no side streets. Which meant I had to pass by the party house again. The party was even louder now, with people packed throughout the house and spilling outside. I stopped to let a car drive through the other way — the road was narrow — and then, suddenly, Phil was at my door again. He opened it and got inside.
“Hey, thanks for the ride, man. I’m Phil.” He held out his hand. When I didn’t take it, he recognized me. “Hey! How you doing, man? Thanks for coming back.” Out came the bag of pills: “You know what you need?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want any Red Dragons, Yellow Zippers, or Pink Murders; I didn’t want to deal with Phil re-introducing himself every time he thought I needed chemical assistance; and I didn’t want to haul an entire illicit pharmacy across town, even if its owner was hellbent on downing it all before the ride was over. I didn’t move. I wondered how to convince Phil to get out and take the next ride home. Maybe I could ask him to go get me a beer.
“Hey, man.” Phil shook the bag at me. “You need a popper, right? Hey.”
He shook the bag in my face, and I put up my hand to push it away. “Phil, damn it, can you just stop with the — “ I pushed at the same time he was fishing something out, and the bag tore open. Pills flew, fell, bounced, and rolled everywhere. The round, plastic rain seemed to last forever.
The chemical shower slowed, and I looked at Phil — his hand still in midair, clutching the now-empty bag — and he looked at me. I felt a shout boiling up inside; an angry, raging rant was filling my reptilian brain and about to explode. But Phil laughed. He slapped his legs and stomped his feet.
“Aw, man!” he said, turning on the ceiling light. “Did you see that! Now I gotta pick all those up!”
“You’re god damn right, you gotta pick — “ A tap on the window stopped me.
A police officer was standing outside the car, tapping on the glass with his nightstick. Oh, great buckets of crap. I rolled down the window. “Hello, Officer.” Phil froze and looked up. The smile melted from his face.
The policeman looked at me for an uncomfortably long time. He looked around at the interior of the car. I waited for that moment — the arrest, the simple and direct sir, please step out of the car — that would signal the beginning of the end. There was no way the policeman could miss the pills all over the place. It wasn’t possible.
He cleared his throat. “Do you come around this place often, young man? Are you familiar with the area?”
“No, sir. This is the first time I’ve ever been here.”
He paused and looked around the car again. What the hell was he waiting for? “Do you know a guy around here named Renato, by any chance?” the cop asked. “Do you know which house is his?” Was he trying to trick us? Maybe Renato was the dealer the cop had planned to bust before he found us swimming in the pillmobile.
“No, sir. Like I said, this is my first time here. I was just giving this man a ride.”
On cue, Phil leaned over. “Hey, man! How you doing? I don’t know no Renato, but Jimmy K lives right here at the house with all the people, so I bet he knows him.”
The cop looked at the house and nodded. “Jimmy K, you said? Thanks.” Oh my God, was he going to let us go? Oh please, God, please, please, please, just don’t let any other stupid —
“Hey, man,” Phil waved at the cop. “You need a popper. Or maybe a couple of screamers. Right? Good stuff, man, here.” He stretched out his hand, a small but respectable mound of pills in his palm.
Dear God, please tell me Phil isn’t offering illegal drugs to the policeman. Please. I didn’t usually pray, but this seemed like an appropriate time to start. It seemed to be a special night, and maybe special nights brought special results. Please, God.
The cop smiled and took the pills that Phil poured into his hand. He looked closely and stirred them with his finger. This was it. I gritted my teeth, ready to be hauled out, handcuffed, beaten, arrested, mocked for sheer chutzpah, and who the hell knew what else. There was no more college, no more job — not with enough pills in my car to get a medium-sized European nation high for a week.
The policeman slid the pills into his front shirt pocket and said again, “Thanks.” He reached into his other shirt pocket and pulled out a small paper card. “Just in case the need…arises.” He handed me the card and walked around the car, toward the party house.
I hadn’t exhaled, blinked, or even dared to think that we might not be getting arrested; there hadn’t been time. But when the cop passed my car’s headlight beams, I noticed that his pants…had no backside. They were tight black leather and showed his very trim buttocks, clear as day and pink as a baby pig. I watched, spellbound, as he walked through the yard, up the stairs, and to the door. I couldn’t look away; they were hypnotic. He turned and waved from the front stairs of the party house. Phil and I waved back.
And then I remembered his card:
“Phil,” I said. My head felt like it was rapidly deflating. “Phil, did you know that guy was a stripper when you gave him the pills? Or did you think he was a cop and you gave them to him anyway? You know, like just being nice to the guy who could put you in cuffs, haul you downtown, and throw you in jail for five years?” There was also a third option, that Phil was so frazzed he couldn’t see straight, let alone think straight, but I didn’t say that.
Phil just laughed. I don’t know why I actually expected an answer. We drove to his next stop, which, oddly enough, was exactly where I had first picked him up; as usual, Phil punctuated the ride with helpful pharmaceutical advice and pending excitement of going to a party that may well have been the one we had just left. But then, close to our final stop as a two-man team, he leaned back and said, “Can’t let fear change who you are, man. That’s when you die.”
I loved Phil in that moment. I still do. I always will.
* * *
“So you see the point,” I said to Katya.
She shook her head. “There’s a point? Why ruin it with a point?”
“You know I don’t like picking up hitchhikers. Scares the wibblies out of me. But think of Phil. If I had never accidentally picked him up, I never would have met this man who is chaos and destruction in human form — as crazy, as brave, and as unexpectedly wise a man as I have ever met.”
She didn’t say anything, but I caught her giving me a sidelong glance. We pulled into the school lot and I parked the car.
“Kat, for me, driving changed everything. And I know it will for you too, and I’m worried — I’m afraid. You’re growing up so fast; it feels like we’re just getting to know you, and here’s the first sign that you’ll be leaving home soon. I’m not ready for it. I’m terrified of it. But then I remember what Phil said.”
“So I’m trying to say you need to be cautious, but not afraid; be ready — even if you can’t be prepared — for the unexpected. Police, hitchhikers, or other drivers: people are weird. And unpredictable as hell. And you won’t always be able to just laugh and say it’s okay and expect everyone to be kind and understanding — you know what, I don’t know what the hell I’m trying to say. I’m just worried about you.”
She brought out her talking to silly old man voice. “Dad, I’m fine, okay? And I’ll be fine. Trust me.”
I turned off the car and dangled the keys at her, giving a meaningful look toward the steering wheel, then back to her. Katya nodded, we switched seats, and around the lot we went.
She bumped the back tire into a curb, then narrowly missed the trash dumpster at the far end. “You’re doing fine, but you really have to pay attention to other big heavy things. Give it some gas here, then park next to the dumpster.”
We barreled down the back half of the lot. “Okay, slow down a bit, Kat, the dumpster’s coming up faster than you think.” She tapped the brakes, not enough. We were pointed straight at the dumpster, and turning now would only point us toward brick walls. “Kat. Slow down, please…slower. Kat. Stop. STOP! NOW!”
Katya slammed on the brakes, and we stopped just in front of the dumpster. Maybe six inches away.
“What the hell? You have to do better than that. You have to be aware of what’s coming, dammit. You have to pay better attention. Are you even listening to me?”
She put her face in her hands and I heard a sniffle and a sob. God damn it. Who needs Granddad? I’ve got all the verbal abuse anyone could want, right here.
“Katya, look — “
“Just SHUT UP!” she yelled.
The car lurched forward; she hadn’t put it into park. We ran into the dumpster at whatever speed a car can muster in six inches from a complete stop — but it felt like a lot. There was an unholy clashing and scraping sound at the front of the car. Katya recovered enough to put the car in park and turn it off.
And we just sat for a while, wondering what came next. What would Granddad do?
“Well, come on, start the car and get us off this thing. You didn’t kill anyone, so congratulations on that. Back up, and let’s take it around the lot again.”
She sniffled, wiped at her eyes, and started the car.
It comes down to this; I have to trust her, that she will be fine. And she probably will be. But you try telling fathers of daughters that, and then expect them to calmly accept it. We won’t. We can’t. All any of us can do is smile, make horrible jokes, and pretend the seething maelstrom of doubt and panic inside our chests isn’t there.