THURSDAY: Stuck in the Starving Light of the Past

BY THOMAS HEALEY

Copyright is held by the author.

“On your right!” Ryan Grundy blurted suddenly. “What?” the anxious student driver asked.

“Slow down. A shuttle bus is pulling away from the curb into your lane.

Mistakenly the rattled student pressed down on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. “Brake!”

“I am.”

“No, no, you’re not, Henry.”

Just then the student knocked over the orange traffic cone that represented the shuttle bus in the practice test Grundy had set up in the empty parking lot of a fire-gutted grocery store.

“So, I guess I probably would have failed if this were the actual driving test?”

“Afraid so.”

“I figured as much.”

“If that were a real bus you plowed into, you’d also be liable for damages.”

“I suppose I need another lesson.”

Grundy smiled faintly. “That sounds like a sound idea, Henry.”

***

Sipping the strong Somali blend of coffee furnished by Malik, a recent immigrant from that combustible country, Grundy sat in one of the weather-beaten rattan chairs set up behind the garage of the Hillcrest Driving School. His next appointment was not for another thirty minutes so he had plenty of time to have a cup of coffee and get some sun which had been absent the past four days. He was the newest instructor at the school, having come on board only a couple of months after Malik was hired. He took the job after the floral shop he drove a delivery van for closed when the owner became ill and retired. He was there for almost a year and before that he drove a taxi for close to two years. He was always going from job to job, “changing lanes,” as one person described his itinerant career behind the wheel. A month shy of turning thirty-four, he had never worked longer than three years at any job and doubted if he ever would. Certainly, he hoped to find something soon that was more lucrative than a driving school instructor and a lot less aggravating.

“You ever going to settle down,” a veteran cabbie asked when he heard Grundy had given his notice to leave the company after just two years.

“Not if I can help it.”

“Why’s that, Ryan? You afraid someone’s going to find out something about you that you don’t want found out?”

He chuckled. “There are no deep secrets in my life.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Pretty sure.”

“You’re lucky,” the cabbie said. “I’m not like that. I hold onto things I should let go.”

***

“Damn, where did he come from?” the student gasped when Grundy alerted him that a bicycle rider was approaching on the right side of the car.

“He came out of the coffee shop we just passed.”

“I didn’t see him.”

“Not everything behind you is visible in the rear-view mirror,” he pointed out, “especially bicyclists. They often fall into what’s called a ‘blind spot.’”

Promptly the young man turned halfway around in his seat, and as he did the car started to edge over into the adjacent lane until Grundy grabbed the wheel and nudged the car back on course.

“Just take a glance over your shoulder. That’s all that’s necessary.”

“But what if I still don’t see the blind spot?”

Grundy clucked his tongue. “What’s behind you can always be seen if you look hard enough.”

***

A cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, Grundy stood near the entrance of the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot, waiting for one of his students to return from taking the behind-the-wheel test. Her name was Larissa Wheeler, a pediatric nurse close to his age, who recently separated from her husband who did all the driving in their household. She had never learned to operate a car but believed she needed to know that she was on her own. She was a pleasant enough person but a little scatterbrained, forever asking him questions while she was driving instead of concentrating on what she was doing, so he was not optimistic about her chances of passing the test.

As soon as she got out of the car, he walked over to her, smiling thinly to conceal his apprehension.

Glumly she shook her head. “I didn’t pass.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not half as sorry as I am, believe me.”

“What did the examiner say you did wrong?”

Idly she brushed a strand of hair out of her right eye. “A few things but the main mistake I made was I missed a Stop sign.”

He grimaced. “You do that you’re going to fail even if it’s the only thing you did wrong.”

“So he told me.”

“Well, you’ll pass it next time.”

“I don’t know, Ryan.”

“You will,” he insisted, trying to encourage her, even though he continued to have serious reservations about her ability to concentrate.

“I understand I have to wait at least a week before I can take the test again.”

“That’s correct.”

“I think I should wait longer. I don’t want to fail again.”

“You should do whatever feels comfortable to you.”

“What I probably should do is forget all about learning to drive but I can’t now that my husband and I are no longer together.”

Nodding, he was sure she would take the test again because she seemed the sort of person who once she decided to do something did it. If she felt she needed more lessons, he was just as certain she would ask for another instructor. Since he had been working at the school, it was not unusual that students who failed the practical test blamed their instructors for their lack of success and often asked for a different instructor if they signed up for another lesson.

***

Leaning across the front seat of the car he was assigned that day, Grundy swept out the interior with a bristly whisk broom. All instructors were expected to clean their cars at the end of their shifts, and if they didn’t, they were docked ten dollars. Grundy never failed to clean his car because he could not afford to lose any money.

He had nearly finished washing the back window when Hashim, an immigrant from Pakistan, pulled into the lot and parked almost right behind him. A smile as bright as a newly minted coin wreathed his narrow face, and Grundy was surprised because Hashim seldom ever smiled even when he picked up his paycheck.

“You’re not going to believe what happened on my last lesson.”

“Your student get into an accident?”

He shook his chinstrap beard. “She probably should have but, no, she didn’t. Thank God.”

“So, what happened?”

“We were out on Kloster Drive,” he said, grinning with all his teeth, “and this possum started to cross the road. I was worried Roslyn, my student, might lose control of the car if she tried to swerve around it so I told her to hit it if necessary. By the time we got near the animal it was almost off the road but, instead of continuing on, she turned left and started to chase after it. I couldn’t believe it and stomped on the double brake and asked her what the hell she was doing and she said, ‘You told me to hit it.’”

“No way,” Grundy said in disbelief.

Hashim, laughing heartily, placed his left hand over his heart. “I swear it’s the God’s truth.”

“I hate to think someone that naive might one day get a driver’s license.”

“Oh, she’ll get one, all right, if it takes her a dozen times to pass the test. Her parents already have bought her a car for her graduation from high school and, believe me, she intends to drive it.”

Grundy smiled. “God protects us all.”

“Protect us from what?” Tinker, one of the senior instructors at the school, asked as he approached them with a stadium seat cushion tucked under his left arm.

Quickly Hashim repeated what happened with his last student, and Tinker just shook his head. He shook it so hard the cushion dropped to the floor.

“Before you guys came to work here there was an instructor by the name of Kransky,” he recalled after picking up his cushion. “Just an incredibly obnoxious person who always had a scowl on his face as if to make it clear he didn’t want to be bothered by anyone about anything. What he was doing in the teaching business I have no idea because he had absolutely no patience. Anyway, one morning he was giving a lesson to some older woman when they were nearly sideswiped by another car. He was so outraged he ordered the student to chase after the car.”

“Are you serious?” Hashim asked somewhat skeptically.

“I am,” he insisted. “Ask some of the other instructors if they remember Kransky, and they’ll confirm what I just told you.”

Hashim, arching an eyebrow, remained skeptical. “So, what happened then?”

“The student did as she was told and, not surprisingly, hit another car. Kransky then got out and slugged the driver of the car she hit as if he were the one at fault. Needless to say, that was the last day he worked here.”

Hashim looked at Grundy whose eyes were almost shut. “I should hope so.”

“As I said, Kransky was a very curious guy, and I guess all the demons inside of him couldn’t be contained any longer and he just snapped.”

Three years ago, he was Kransky, Grundy thought, as he resumed cleaning his car. Maggie, his girlfriend, had just broken up with him after nearly two years together, frustrated she claimed by his lack of ambition though he knew the real reason was she had met someone else with a much better job. He tried to change her mind but she was adamant they were finished as a couple and he became very depressed and started drinking a lot more than he should. At times, he felt so sorry for himself he became someone he didn’t recognize, someone he disliked almost as much as the guy who took Maggie from him.

One night at the bar that had become his home away from home some guy he had never seen in the place before started heckling him about the baseball cap he was wearing. It was a Giants cap and apparently this guy was a Dodgers fan. He paid no attention to him but the guy kept it up for a couple of minutes until he got up to go to the rest room. Then, on his way back to his table, he walked behind Grundy and knocked the cap off his head. Almost before he knew what he was doing, Grundy spun around on his stool and clocked the drunken guy square in the face with a closed fist. Immediately a spray of blood burst from the guy’s nose as he staggered back and fell to his knees, groaning in pain.

Grundy stared at him for a moment, absolutely mortified. He had never struck another person in his life, not even as a kid scuffling on the playground, and could not believe he did what he did. Urgently he ran out of the bar, worried if he stayed a second longer he might do something more to the guy whose face he shattered. Sometimes he wondered if he had never stopped running because he was fearful if he stayed anywhere too long he might lose his temper again and do something he would regret.

***

“What in the hell do we have here?” Tinker bellowed as he and Grundy and Malik walked to the cars they had been assigned to drive this morning. Stretched across the windshield of one of the cars was a foot-long cow’s tongue.

Malik chuckled as he lifted it off and chucked it into a trash bin. “The father of a student I had a couple of days ago said he was going to put some kind of spell on me. So, I guess this is it.”

Tinker glared at him. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m serious, and obviously so was he.”

“He’s pissed because his kid failed to pass the practical test?” Grundy asked.

Malik shook his head. “His son hasn’t taken the test. I don’t think he’s ready to take it and I told him so and I gather he went and told his father who called me up the other night and said I had no business telling his son that and said he intended to put a spell on me.”

“Damn, that’s a first,” Tinker said, smacking his hands together. “I’ve been at Hillcrest close to seven years and I’ve never heard of anything like that happening before.”

Grundy nodded in agreement.

“Every month or two you have folks demanding a refund because they didn’t get their driver’s license but, no, I’ve never heard of anyone casting a spell on an instructor.”

“I just hope it doesn’t work,” Malik said, sounding a little concerned. “Well, all I know is, I wouldn’t want you to be my instructor today.”

He laughed. “I wouldn’t want me, either.”

***

Shortly after he got home from work, the telephone rang and a little reluctantly Grundy answered it, half suspecting it was another scam call claiming he owed someone money. So far, he had had three such calls this week, always around dinnertime.

“Hello.”

“Ryan?”

“Yes,” he said, not recognizing the caller’s voice.

“This is one of your recent students, Larissa Wheeler.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, clearly surprised. “What can I do for you, Larissa?”

“After I failed the test last week, I didn’t think I ever wanted to take it again,” she said with a slight tremor in her voice. “But I’ve changed my mind.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“I believe I better have another lesson before I do, though.”

“Sure, if that’s what you think you need.”

“So, I’m calling to see when I can get an appointment.”

“With me?” he asked, surprised again.

“Of course with you. You’re the only instructor I’ve ever had, Ryan, and I don’t see any reason to get a new one. Do you?”

Flattered, he said, “I can schedule an appointment with you anytime tomorrow afternoon if that’s all right with you.”

“Tomorrow would be fine.”

Grundy arrived at her apartment building promptly at two o’clock and, as he did with all students, he began the lesson by having her drive on some back streets. He wanted his students to get comfortable behind the wheel before they tackled any serious traffic. She was a little fidgety at first, looking repeatedly in the rearview mirror as if worried she was holding up other cars, but after a few blocks she relaxed and proceeded with her eyes fixed on the road. He had to caution her to pick up the pace every now and again but other than that she drove as if she had been operating a car for many years.

“That was well executed,” he complimented her after she navigated around a stalled panel truck.

She smiled.

“You know, I’m really surprised you didn’t pass the practical test.”

“You probably say that to all your students who fail.”

“No, not at all,” he said, dragging a fingernail across his left eyebrow. “Some deserved to fail because they lacked the patience and ordinary good sense to drive a motor vehicle. But you have the patience and common sense as well as the skill to have a license of your own.”

“I wish you could be my examiner, Ryan, then maybe I would pass.”

“Oh, you’ll pass the next time you take it.”

“I don’t know.”

“You will. I’m sure of it.”

“You know, after the test, the examiner I had asked if I forgot my glasses. I don’t wear glasses and I was so angry I wanted to slap him.”

“Oh, no, you mustn’t do that,” he said, still haunted by what happened in that bar three years ago.

“I know. I’d never do anything like that, Ryan. I’m not a violent person.”

Don’t be so sure, he thought to himself, as he directed her to cross the Rosemont Bridge which he knew would have a lot of traffic even this early in the afternoon.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing,” he answered, not realizing he had spoken out loud. “I guess I was talking to myself.”

“I do that sometimes but never when someone else is around.”

“I guess I’m a little different.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

Neither do I, he thought, balling his right hand into a fist.

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