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FINALIST IN 2022 UNCONVENTIONAL LOVE STORY CONTEST™ JUDGED BY JON LINDSEY & ALLIE ROWBOTTOM

Lesson #6


    They crammed their bookbags, parkas, awkward jutting bodies into the backseat of Ed Donovan's Lexus LS430 for Driver’s Ed on Thursday afternoons from January to March each year. They were mostly polite, sleepy in the purple winter light, hormonal but subdued. Jewish kids from the town over, the fancy one with wide avenues named for the French. Kids with cars to drive in the first place.

This week’s lesson was on Adverse Driving Conditions. Maggie always liked that one. Ice-slicked roads, runaway cars, insurance fraud, road rage. The drama of driving. The perils of operating a motor vehicle. She loved the reenacted gore on the instruction tapes, the performative panic of a mother receiving the midnight call that her child had been in a fatal accident.

“Oh no!” She’d mime. “It mustn't be!” Hands cupping open mouth in embellished agony.

Ed called it Maggie’s Penchant for Madness.

When he was first starting out teaching Drivers’ Ed, after Maggie got sick in the mid-nineties and they needed the extra money, he would watch and watch and watch the instruction tapes in their cramped living room in order to memorize the lessons. And Maggie would watch and watch and watch with him, nestled under blankets, humming to the theme music.

“Which one we got today, Eddy?” She’d ask teasingly, shifting her hips painfully to make room for him on the worn, rose-colored two-seater.

“Take a guess.”

“Hmmmm,” drawn out over several seconds, “I hope it’s not Rules of the Road again,” she’d say finally. “That one’s a snooze!”

His finger hovering over the VCR. “And if it is? What are you gonna do about it?” Grinning, then hitting PLAY, waiting for the mechanical innards of the machine to start churning the tape on its spools.

The audio hissed and sputtered before the words LESSON #6: ADVERSE DRIVING CONDITIONS blared in bright, stenciled text on the screen.

“Ooh, good choice, Eddy!” She chirped, nudging him with a bony, sockless foot.

He took the foot and held it in his warm hand, pressing his thumb into the soft flesh of her sole. Her eyes were on the TV now and stayed there, even as Ed pressed harder and harder into her foot. She could hardly feel him at all anymore.

*

“Are you sure it’s OK for us to drive today, even though it’s, like, raining out?” Sarah Yarger murmured from the driver’s side backseat after everyone had piled in.

The route was always the same. Out on Boston Post and over to 95, south a couple exits and onto the Hutch toward Orchard Beach, cross over through Pelham Bay Park and finally onto the main drag of City Island. Down to Belden Point at the southern tip, switch drivers and retrace their steps back to the suburbs. Slipping like quicksand into the mauve night. Ed always sat shotgun, hands tucked at 10 and 2 on the secondary steering wheel that made the car look like a geriatric spaceship. Loafered feet hovering above the auxiliary brake in the footwell.

He could feel the heads of the other kids nodding in unison with what Sarah had said. The telepathy of it brought Ed back from the void he had slipped into.

“A little rain never hurt anyone,” he said with care of syllables. Three sets of shoulders sagged simultaneously in the back row. “Just think, you’ll be able to see today’s lesson in action.” 

*

When Maggie was fifteen it was 1959 and her parents decided to split. And Maggie told everyone she was OK with that, even tried to believe it herself. Really it was a turning point for her, the thin page that separates two chapters in a person’s life: one in which they give a shit, the other in which they don’t. It always happens, sooner for some. At night she started taking her dad’s old Pontiac out on Pelham Parkway, away from their little Irish hamlet and towards the Zoo, bottle of Seagram’s swaddled under her arm like a one-month-old. Into the thick heart of prewar darkness. She did this almost every night for two years, daring the devil to dance. Until she met Ed and he told her he didn’t drink gin.

*

Coming out of the roundabout at City Island Circle, the rain picked up and Ed asked Nick to switch the windshield wipers to a higher cadence. Double time to the low slung ballad on the stereo. He tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel, felt his breath start to swell.

“I love this part,” Danielle said as the car hooked a left at the sign for Orchard Beach.

“Mr. Fried told us we could do outdoor classes this spring,” said Sam.

“It reminds me of Montreal.”

“Or Tiananmen Square.”

Sam chortled at his own joke. Danielle turned away so her knees tucked against the door, her breath fogging a lily pad on the window.

Ed glanced up, looking out now from the same seat Maggie had sat all those years driving these roads together, for some cousin’s birthday, some niece’s graduation. If you squinted you could see the white tips of the last sailboats bobbing in the marina, abandoned for the winter like unpicked dandelions.

“I hope it rains everyday Mr. Fried promised to take you outdoors,” Danielle muttered.

They hooked a right onto the Avenue, slowed to 25 and passed Kilroe St., where the Brannigan house was tucked beneath elm trees and telephone wires. Down a couple blocks more was the cemetery, and a few more from there the shore.

For obvious reasons, Ed had never taken his students directly past the cemetery, and he wasn’t sure why that day should have been any different. But as the sign for Reville poked through the pulsing wipers, Ed perched up, pointed his finger. “Let’s take a left here today.” Nick looked over at Ed, into the oval of his face, the drooping folds of his skin. Tried to read some meaning in the expression of this quiet, reticent man who shepherded suburban teenagers to these old neighborhoods every week and barely said a word. Ed could feel the eyeballs on the back of his head as the car spanned the block before dead ending at the sagging cemetery gates.

The wrought iron hung like a heavy curtain hiding a stage.

“Right up there.” Ed pointed to the near corner as the car crawled to a stop. “You kids wait here a moment,” he said, door already open. Rain was bouncing off the soft beige leather interior now. No one said a word. Everything happened at once. “Won’t be long.”

*

They’d snuck their first kiss back there, Ed and Maggie, hidden by the shadow of headstones. Spring of 1961. The same year Adolf Eichmann stood trial and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Now he was left to walk the graves alone, careful footstepping to her eternal resting place in the Brannigan family plot.

He looked out at Hart Island across the harbor. Ed hadn’t thought about Hart Island in a long time. All his life that island had been changing, like seasons in hell. The soil rotting and mutating. Centuries of tragedy and shame churning in the mud. He looked down at his feet hovering over the bones of his in-laws. Two graveyards spread open like the pages of a book, the thin channel of Long Island Sound between them a spine. Ed crossed himself. Rain pelted through his coat. His toes danced in his shoes.

Eddddddddy, Maggie hissed then, her staccato ghost voice like paper ripping. Ed looked up at the sound. Eddy, I can feel you, his dead lover purred at him. Ed smiled. It had been a while since she’d spoken; he knew the cosmos had brought him here tonight for a reason. He pictured her peeking out from behind the grave, hair gold and in long folds over her desiccated, grave-aged face. Twinkle in whatever teeth remained. In another life, she’d wag her finger at him and he’d scurry over to whisper beneath the headstone of some long lost aunt. But she didn’t wag her bony finger, didn’t tell him she missed him. Didn’t ask after their daughter or the weather or his health.

Instead, she said all at once in a howl, Howcomeyoudon’tfuckmeanymoreEddy!

Like a roar of thunder. Ed did a double take. A branch snapped somewhere. Then it was silent again. He held the quiet like a cudgel in his hand. Strained his eyes to peer into the black corners behind the moss-draped stones. He wondered if his students had followed him from the car. But there was no one; just the cemetery empty, the night silent. Just an old man and his lost marbles and the wayward foul-mouthed ghost of his dearly beloved beckoning from the grave.

Headlights cast the old man in shadow when he reappeared after what felt like many minutes. Ed could see four sets of eyes fixed on him through the fogged glass. He knocked the mud off his shoes, brushed a small pool of water from the seat. The car was silent, music turned down. No one spoke. Ed didn’t either. Then thunder cracked again and Ed could hear Maggie’s whooping laugh through the glass and rain.

In the open mouth of silence, Sam said hesitantly, “Someone you know, Mr. Donovan?” It was the most anyone would ask.

But Ed didn’t answer. Just sat for a moment, hands in his lap. Then he looked around the car, making eye contact with each kid, neck turning like an owl. Knobbed the radio back up. Still didn’t speak. Wild women are the only kind that really get by, the radio crooned.

Ed fixed his eyes out the front window again, resetting the eternal gaze. Then he said finally, “Suppose we oughta get you kids back to your parents. Who’s driving next?”




Nick Plett lives and writes in Los Angeles.
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