Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
AROUND THE BEND
If there's one thing I abhor, it's chewing gum. Not only does it lurk in the strangest places, just waiting to snag your unsuspecting fingers with its sticky grasp, but everyone who chews it makes the most disgusting smacking noises. My student today, Kelsey Jasper, is no exception. From the minute she flounced into the driver's seat she was chewing away like a cow with her cud. That is, if cows were blonde and wore Varsity Cheerleading sweatshirts.
As I check the appropriate boxes on my Certified Driving Instruction sheet, I try to ignore the sight of her mastications. Even though it's been yet another long day, I still remember to adjust my seat belt to the approved tightness, fitting it snugly across my chest with absolutely no bumps or twisting. A quick correction to the angle of the pine tree air freshener, and the cabin check is complete. Under Kelsey's impatient gaze, I position my clipboard neatly on the exact center of my lap.
It's been barely a minute and she's already agitated; antsy to start the car, her fingers are tapping on the edge of the steering wheel. If there's anything else that can come close to my loathing of chewing gum, it's my hatred of fidgeters. Finger tappers, kids who drum their feet on the floor or blow wisps of hair out of their faces, all leave me feeling slightly itchy, as if I can feel tiny grains of annoyance landing all over my face and hands like so much irritating pollen.
Just the thought makes me run a finger under my collar to loosen it. As always, I am wearing my crisply starched white shirt buttoned exactly to the top button. Positioned precisely in the center of my left pocket is my polished name tag reading Harold J. Arlen. I doubt, however, that any of my students appreciate its spotless, gleaming surface, especially those of the gum-chewing variety. To my left, for example, Kelsey gives an exaggerated sigh and rolls her eyes when I finally hand her the keys. As soon as they jangle into her perfectly manicured grasp she jams them into the ignition, guns the engine, and stomps down hard on the accelerator. The force of pulling away from the curb almost jolts the clipboard off my lap, but I grab it instantly and resettle it as gently as a mother placing her only child into a car seat.
Sometimes I think my clipboard is the only thing that keeps me going at the end of an exhausting day. The crisp white paper and perfectly straight black lines are soothing, day in and day out. They remind me of lane markers on an endless highway, stretching into eternity with perfect symmetry. Unfortunately, there's nothing perfect or symmetrical about Kelsey's driving today. Not only can I imagine my cheeks rippling back from the G-force when she accelerates, but I live in constant fear of getting a little too friendly with the glove compartment whenever she brakes. And as if that wasn't enough, she can barely drive in the center of her lane; she seems to enjoy flirting with the white dotted lines on either side.
Calmly, I remind her to turn her indicator on when she changes lanes. Quietly, I inform her that pedestrians have the right of way at all cross walks. Even after she makes an illegal U-turn in the middle of a busy intersection, I correct her in only the most soothing tones. My doctor once told me that a calm exterior is sometimes the best way to deal with minor irritations. Trying to ignore the vague urge to scratch my leg, I wonder whether or not he would consider Kelsey a minor irritation?
At the next traffic light, I glance towards the car clock. It's hard to believe it's only been 20 minutes when I feel as if I've been held captive for hours. I swear her gum smacking is getting louder by the minute. Whenever I glance to my left, I can just barely see a glimpse of that hideously artificial green disappearing into her lip glossed mouth. Yet somehow I can never quite catch a full view of it. I try to distract myself by rolling down my window slightly and looking out at the trees zipping by all too fast. I move my clipboard aside slightly in order to scratch my wrist.
I've also noticed that whenever we are stopped at a traffic light, the finger tapping begins again. Her fingers dance up and down on the wheel, like the blinking lights of the emergency flashers gone mad. It's fascinating to watch, a demented guessing game of "which finger will land next?" Even as I'm forced back into my seat when she zooms off after the light turns green, I find it hard to tear my eyes away. The fresh air blowing from the window doesn't help much either; it seems to be blowing in some horribly uncomfortable pollen as well. Sometimes it takes all the exactness of my rectangular clipboard to remind me that there is at least some order in the universe.
When my doctor first questioned my decision to teach driving lessons, I reassured him that there's nothing wrong with driving at all. In fact, the straight lines, the numbers and precision always manage to remove me from the nervous tics of reality. Really, it's only the students that are the problem. And with students like these, who wouldn't begin to question even the faultless proportions of an octagonal stop sign? As Kelsey fails to stop at yet another one, smacking all the while, I begin to feel my left eyelid twitching. As I correct her yet again, I can't stop looking at the corner of her mouth. I know the gum is in there somewhere: its fruity scent is filling the whole car. In fact, if it weren't for that stupid pollen, I would have rolled the window all the way down already and stuck my head out like a dog tasting the wind.
I glance at the digital clock one more time. Only 45 minutes have gone by? I'm sure those glowing numbers are taunting me, just like that wad of gum. I know the minute I glance away, the digits will start counting backwards, or that girl will be blowing an impertinent bubble at me. I hardly know which one to watch. Every time I glance toward the clock, I fight an urge to snap my head back towards her, knowing that gum is so tantalizingly close. I finally manage to focus on my clipboard. I stare at the 90 degree angles and the parallel lines as if they could mesh together into a miraculous cocoon of geometry, a mathematical protection from gum-chewers and fidgeters everywhere.
But that tapping is starting up again. Even if I can distract myself from her gum-chewing tricks with the neatly checked boxes on my clipboard, I can't keep that senseless patter out of my head. The rhythm is impossible to define; her tempo speeds like a formula-one race car, only to slow to the haphazard, drunken weaving of a truck driver on a Friday night. Up and down, over and around the steering wheel, on her knees, on the side of the door, it's a high-speed chase between her fingers, and I wildly fantasize about sirens blaring, DUI arrests for Driving Under Irritation, and wonder why did I forgot to take my medication this morning?
My patience is thinner than the tires underneath us and I feel as if my nerves are stretched to the braking point. My left eyelid is twitching, and my whole upper body is intolerably itchy. That damn pollen again! Her smacking won't stop, and neither will the numbers on the clock. My eyes flit back and forth between them, while the clipboard on my lap becomes a blur of black and white. I watch as we make turns without indicating, speed past bicyclists and motorcyclists, and narrowly squeak through intersections, but I don't say anything. How can I when the squishing sounds of her gum and the drumming of her fingers drown out the sound of my own thoughts?
But surely it can't be my imagination that the windshield is becoming blurry. How strange that it should rain now, when we left on such a beautiful morning. The whole windshield is hazy and streaming but she doesn't turn the windshield wipers on. I wonder when the rain began? That tapping noise must be the drops beginning to fall, drumming on the roof of the car, on the windows, on my face and hands, on my clipboard. Why are they falling inside the car? I can't hear anything over their incessant beating. The windshield wipers really should be on. Can't you hear the tires making that horrible smacking noise against the ground? This storm must be a big one; what a shame the weather forecasters never saw it coming. Will the drumbeats never end? Those wipers have got to go on. I'm reaching across the wheel, fumbling for the switch but I can't find it and then the pounding noise is all around and the wheel is spinning away from me, the colors on the windshield are swirling in a dizzying spiral, the wipers are certainly broken now because the world is cracking and splitting and I'm on my back, the clipboard flying out of my grasp, the papers fluttering up into the air like so many flakes of snow and how odd that the sky is such a brilliant blue when i was sure it was raining but wait here comes the thunder, the flashes of blinding lightning. I've never seen the sky so dark before.
Three weeks later, and I'm sitting peacefully in the warmth of a bay window, the sun tracing dark patterns on the inside of my eyelids. My head leans against the back of the wheelchair that I will soon be leaving behind. My cast will be off in a few days, and after a quick checkup my doctor says I will be free to go. I don't remember much about the first week I was in here, but he says that's probably a good thing. From what I understand I was in a pretty bad way, but I feel renewed again. The crispness of the hospital sheets and the spotless uniforms of the nurses have worked their calming wonders once again.
If there's one thing I abhor, it's chewing gum.