I don't have a license.
I took the test, and the chubby little woman in my passenger seat checked the "pass" box just to get away from my little brother who was sucking on the window, but I never got my license. That was three years ago. All over the yellow slip of carbon paper that was my temporary right to drive (while I awaited true laminated officiality) it cautioned not to call the DMV. They don't like phone calls and I don't like to make them. The only reason I had gotten around to taking the test was that my sophomore year I was given the opportunity to live off campus in a six-bedroom riverside house all by my lonesome for almost no money. So I just slipped the carbon copy behind my permit, bought my dad's old car for a dollar and started commuting. I don't know what would happen if I was pulled over or in an accident at this point, but it should make sense that it is a concern of mine.
On a very fine December day just before Christmas I was sitting on one of my porches, overlooking the river and waiting for just the right time to make the three hour drive to Boston for the annual family thing. It began to snow. I listened to some Wagonchrist. The snow continued. I ate the leftovers of yesterday's Ramen. It snowed two feet in four hours. Perfect!
The plows had not yet arrived. Living out in the boon-docks has its merits, but among them is not the local concern for your mobility. It seemed, however, that plenty of cars had attempted to drive, because a number of deep-cut rows had been created in the snow, even if they were in the middle of the road and only thinly veiling black ice. Seemed like a good idea to me, so with the amount of skittering and spinning you would expect I found my way out to 9G, the nearest two-lane route. 9G had not been plowed yet either. Two cars passed by while I tried to decide my fate at the intersection. Ignoring the fact that they were both Explorers and so much better equipped for inclement conditions than my light little sedan, I took them as a sign that all was well for driving and pulled in to the slow train. The three of us went down a hill, over a bridge and started climbing the hill opposite. The Explorer in front careened off the left side of the road, hit a telephone pole and burst into flames.
Shocked that some idiot in an SUV going only thirty miles an hour could find his way into a telephone pole I rolled to a slow stop, cranked the e-brake and got out to make sure everyone was OK. The other car in front of me had made the emergency call already. After saying a quick hello and confirming everyone's safety the passengers kept a safe distance from their flaming car and the spectators, like myself, who just wanted to make stupid comments about the quality of the burn. And it was quality. Different parts of the car were burning at different colors and brightnesses, the snow was still falling pretty steadily and soon the police showed up to cast their flicker on the quiet flakes. Bored with the spectacle, somewhat incensed that I would not get to see the gas tank blow, and quite sure that if anybody was keeping this thing under control it was not me, I decided it would be best to continue my journey to Jesus' birthday, one wise-man down.
I made a precarious U-turn, re-crossed the bridge, passed back by my house and took a side road that would loop me around the wreck.
The event had happened far too quickly out of the driveway to make my trip epic, but it was quite a sight nonetheless, and to celebrate the experiential quality of Christmas carnage I popped in Coltrane's Olé. The smooth bass tones infused the moment with meaning. So much meaning that I forgot the here-and-now until I was doing well over forty, looking down a hill at a sharp curve.
-Better slow down, my brain
-I'm on it, replied my brake
-Nothing!, my brain said.
-I'm on it harder!, replied by brake foot.
I know better now. When you lose traction, whatever the surface, it is exactly wrong to slam on the brake and jag the wheel left and right with your legs and arms flailing, and putting most of your energy into the scream. You should calmly press and release the brake, hoping to God for some contact and letting the car's weight keep it in line rather than trying to correct its trajectory, which will only make things worse. Not intuiting this at the time I was completely out of control in two seconds flat. To my credit when I saw the van come around the corner from the other direction I knew it was time to stop dicking around. To my discredit I followed the lead of the idiot SUV driver and cranked the wheel full to the left.
It was a very slow one-hundred and eighty degrees. I was riding an ass. Backward. I could see where I had been. The van sailed smoothly past out of my left window. Then a grating, vibrating rumble and a smack. That would have been me knocking over a random pile of cinderblocks as my car found its way into a drainage ditch and nestled up against a strand of young saplings.
This is where the camera would fade to white, and then readjust contrasts to signify returning to a bright world from some nether region of unconsciousness. In this case mere seconds after the crash. The van had stopped ahead, framed nicely in my windshield. He backed up and I could see that it was a flower delivery vehicle. Coltrane was still playing, although the jolt had skipped it ahead a few tracks. Come to think of it my car was still on and running. An old little man descended into the culvert and I lowered my window to greet him. I didn't know if I should joke around, asking "What kind if an ice-pop would you like young man?", or if I was about to have shit-bricks thrown at my head.
-That's a close one!, he chuckled in at me. I smiled and turned off my car.
-You're gonna be needing a tow eh?, he continued -come on, my friend Ralph has a place just up the road, prob'ly the only place open s'afternoon.
His van smelled of fresh-cut botanical wonder. He laughed me all the way out of my static horror and back into a sense of awe, leaving me on Ralph's stoop. A back-lot corrugated metal warehouse adrift in snow, Ralph's apparently doubled as a school-bus depot. Upwards of twenty yellow buses gleamed from under their snowy caps. Inside it was greasy and warm. Ralph himself was slightly more surly than his flowery friend, but he was more than willing to send a tow truck after my ride. I asked how long it would be.
-'Bout half an hour. There's only one truck out, and he's up at another wreck. Gotta wait till it stops burnin' though. 'Bout half an hour.
Alanis has tainted the meaning of the word 'irony' for the whole world. I took a seat on an empty sheet-rock bucket. Ralph went back to his CB conversation with Darla. A pimply teenager clad in Carhartts arrived and started talking to no one about how everyone was off the road and should get some chains. He happened to mention, by way of example, how some lady in a purple sedan was in a ditch just up the road. My car was maroon, well burgundy if you like. He was eager to share, and explained that yes a maroon car with a roof rack had been driven off the road and that if it was my car some lady was trying to get inside it and maybe steal my gifts or take a nap or something.
Meanwhile Ralph's CB activity had taken on a less chatty tone. Apparently Darla was in charge of the transportation for the local middle school, and one of the school buses had just caught on fire in the parking circle and could he, Ralph, bring up one of the spares so the kids could get home. If I hadn't been so pissed at myself for leaving the car unlocked I might have been dumbstruck by the seemingly random acts of mechanical violence that were overtaking the holidays. Instead I told the pimply kid that when the tow truck returned he should send it my way, and asked Ralph if I could hitch a ride back to my car to defend it against vagrants.
And that is how, as dusk began to settle on the winter landscape, I arrived by school bus at a bend in the road where my car sat idly, tilted up to look at the beautiful softening clouds, front left wheel two feet in the air as if in salute of the close of another day. And I descended to the street through the damp vinyl smell of nostalgia, and passed back through the pneumatic doors whose sibilant goodbye I did not believe I would ever hear again, and the bus faded into swirls of drifting snow, leaving me once again to the world as I still know it today.