by James Morris
The man intending to operate the vehicle, hereafter known as Driver M, approaches the car cautiously, as if it may explode. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, a car did explode recently--the result of a gangland feud--and though Driver M has nothing to do with gangs he looks warily at the scorched parking place each time he passes it on his way to the post office. Of course, Driver M has no reason to believe that anyone hates him enough to kill him. Not really.
Driver M lives in a dim second floor apartment with yellowing window shades located above a laundromat that used to be an auto parts store. He often smells what he thinks is the odor of transmission fluid emanating from his newly-washed underwear, but this may be his imagination. He has been under a lot of stress lately.
Driver M circles Vehicle C slowly, keys in hand. Each scratch, smear, dent, ding, and scrape in Vehicle C's aerodynamic body reminds Driver M, achingly, of Former Passenger K, although she had no scratches, smears, dents, dings, or scrapes to speak of, unless one counts dimples as dents. He is lost momentarily in a memory that his visual inspection of Vehicle C has elicited: he sees himself standing with Former Passenger K at the rear of the car, in the dark, watching something. To get a better view, she gets behind him, climbs onto the bumper of the car, and puts her hands on his shoulders. Her hair falls on either side of him and tickles his ears as she bends to kiss the top of his head, a spot which has not experienced such gestures of devotion since he was three, and cute. What were they watching? Fireworks? An eclipse? An exhibitionist neighbor?
Entering the vehicle
Driver M inserts the key into the door lock on the first attempt, despite the fast approach of evening and a non-functioning streetlamp overhead. He turns the key. Vehicle C does not explode. Driver M is relieved: his viscera have avoided being turned to countywide cropdust. He does not escape injury entirely, however, smacking his temple with expert proficiency on Vehicle C's roof as he bends to climb inside.Soon Driver M thinks of another reason that Vehicle C reminds him of Former Passenger K: it is her car. She lent/gave it to him when his unreliable alarm clock and the maddening inefficiency of the local public transportation system combined to make him late for work with astounding regularity, threatening prospects for continued employment. It was thought that the acquisition of Vehicle C would leave him no excuse for being late ever again, Promise? Besides, Former Passenger K could now walk to her own job with the assurance of a martyr, accruing the additional benefit of staving off the continued accumulation of imagined fat from her legs and hips.
Since that time, however, the "unforeseen mutability of relationships" has engendered in Former Passenger K a mania to clarify her stance vis-à-vis Vehicle C's murky ownership status: that is, since their breakup, she has asserted in various phone calls that the car was a loan, not a gift--and that she wants it back.
Checking all mirrors
Vehicle C has one rear-view mirror, two side mirrors, two makeup mirrors in the sun visors, and numerous other surfaces shiny enough to reflect Driver M's face back at him. He avoids looking in any of them.
Starting the car
Vehicle C starts easily with a simple flick of the wrist, belying the false reputation given it by Driver M, who has implied to Former Passenger K that her gift/loan had been unreliable anyway, making it (and by implication, her) responsible for the continued lateness which did, eventually (compounded with other, too-small-to-mention offenses), cost him his job. The fact is that Driver M was not good at his job; he is, however, expert at convincing himself that lying to Former Passenger K can be, under certain circumstances, in her best interest in the long run. Over time, his criteria for judging what circumstances qualified for justifiable misrepresentation evolved at a rapid pace.
The new home of Former Passenger K is a small cottage in a quiet neighborhood free from exploding cars, situated on a countrified side street at the bottom of a long, steep driveway. On nights in which he has trouble sleeping, Driver M (in order to pass the time) sometimes speculates upon the financial arrangements Former Passenger K must have made to afford such a place. He is, of course, no longer in a position to judge the ethical or moral compromises she undoubtedly undertook; he has resolved to rise above such temptations.
Driver M pulls Vehicle C away from the curb and heads toward Former Passenger K's aforementioned cottage. He can locate it easily, as he recently found himself passing it while driving one of the various routes with which he experimented in order to add variety to his weekly trips to the unemployment office. He also practiced parallel parking in that neighborhood a few times and, on one occasion, embraced the serendipity of finding himself so near to the new residence of someone he once esteemed highly, walked up to Former Passenger K's front window, and peered between the blinds. She proved to be not at home.
Driver M parks Vehicle C a couple blocks away from Former Passenger K's house. He feels no regret at having bypassed her driveway; it contained a strange car he didn't want to block in, and anyway, Former Passenger K was always a champion of walking as exercise--surely she'll be glad for the opportunity to walk a few blocks to retrieve her car in the morning, despite tomorrow's expected rain. He strides up to her front door, holding Vehicle C's ignition key out in front of him as if it were every bit as disgusting as the world's most disgusting thing. Before he can knock, however, he hears a titter of laughter emanating from the shadowy stand of trees behind the cottage. Curiosity, of course, is one of man's noblest characteristics, so Driver M accedes to that fine part of himself and creeps around the house, staying close to the hedges--so as not to startle anyone. From an inconspicuous spot, he observes Former Passenger K sharing a bench with a man unknown to him. They each hold a glass containing liquid the color of iced tea. Former Passenger K, as always, looks lovely--she throws her head back each time she laughs and Driver M glimpses her slender neck momentarily in the last, weak rays of sunlight as dusk descends. Her companion's face is not available to be seen, but Driver M would be less than honest if he did not remark to himself, however unfairly, that there was something sinister about the back of the man's head.
Suddenly the pair stands and begins walking in his direction. Driver M, startled into indecision, freezes where he is, crouched behind a bush. He is conscious that it will be difficult to maintain his dignity in such a position for long, and hopes they pass by him quickly, without noticing.
Following at a safe distance
The man opens the door of the car in the driveway for Former Passenger K, then hops around to the driver's side and gets in. He backs the car up the dark, steep driveway and out onto the street in one smooth motion. He is a good driver, Driver M thinks. Perhaps a bit of a showoff. The moment they pull away, Driver M sprints from the bushes toward Vehicle C. Why did he have to park so far away?
Sweating from his two-block sprint, Driver M steers Vehicle C down the road in the same direction as the departing couple. He catches up to them surprisingly quickly; he finds himself nearly rear-ending their car before he knows it. Luckily, no one notices--from their silhouettes, Former Passenger K and her escort seem to be carrying on an animated, interesting conversation (of course, inanities look the same as profundities at a distance).
They drive into a parking lot. Driver M goes past, then pulls to the side of the road. He watches in the rear-view mirror as Former Passenger K and her associate go into a movie theatre. When they are safely inside, Driver M exits the car and approaches the building. The movie playing is "Casablanca," shown on the big screen to honor the anniversary of its original release. "Casablanca" is Driver M's favorite movie, or at least in the top ten. Well, there's not a lot of black-and-white movies that he likes, actually, but if he were to like one, "Casablanca" would be a candidate. The point is, why couldn't he go inside, and see a movie? Is that a crime?
Driver M checks his pockets. He does not have enough money for admission.
Exiting the vehicle
Driver M returns to Former Passenger K's house, parking Vehicle C at the top of her driveway. He then makes what would be a series of mistakes for anyone intending to park safely on a steep incline: he neglects to turn the wheels of Vehicle C sharply to one side, he fails to set the emergency brake, and he exits the vehicle without moving the gearshift lever to the "park" position.
Soon the driverless Vehicle C is rolling slowly downhill, headed for the bench behind Former Passenger K's cottage. Since the car recently had a front-end alignment, there is no reason to think it will turn away.
Running from the scene, Former Driver M contemplates with satisfaction the fulfillment of the promise he made to return Vehicle C to its rightful owner.
M has failed his test. He is now a pedestrian.
About the author:
James W. Morris is a playwright and fiction writer living in suburban Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Lynx Eye, Pangolin Papers, Nocturnal Lyric, and The Writers Journal, among others, and for a time he worked as a joke writer for Jay Leno. His short play, Rude Baby, premieres at The City Theater of Wilmington, Delaware later this month. .