“Did I say you could turn the ignition? No, I didn’t, did I. Step out of the vehicle and look for hazards. You must say it: ‘No glass, no gas, no fire, no wires.’”
Jackson said it and the driving instructor was pacified.
“Now we’ll start the practice test. Pull out of the lot and turn left at the lights. Make sure the light is green, like grass. Not the color of tomatoes or the color of oranges.”
“Why not just say ‘the color orange’?”
“Don’t be smart, Jackson. By the way, you just failed your test by not checking your mirror. Sink or swim, Jackson. We both know I’m the best driving instructor in this city.”
Jackson agreed. After botching his practice test through taking a hand off the wheel to scratch his earlobe, he entered the grey, Lego-block Ministry of Transportation building. When his number flashed across the screen, he told a receptionist at the front desk that he was ready to attempt his full Level 3 license. She handed over forms to fill out, hiccupping, “Don’t p-park your c-car f-facing the building.”
Jackson parked facing the street and waited for an evaluator. A short-haired blonde woman hopped into his grey Pontiac and requested a demonstration of the blinker functionality.
“The brighter the better,” she said, in a thick Cockney accent.
As they pulled onto the street, Jackson decided to experiment with small talk, reckoning it a possible shortcut to passing the test.
“Have you visited Cornwall, ma’am?”
“Certainly,” she replied, cold as ice.
At the lights, the light turned the color of oranges when Jackson was half-way through the intersection. He was not sure if this was OK, but the rest of the test was smooth sailing, notwithstanding two minutes of torrential rain, an accidental turning on of blinkers instead of wipers, and his unfruitful persistence with small talk. He returned to the Ministry and parked his car facing the street.
“I’m sorry, but today you failed to meet our criteria.”
“You should’ve stopped at the yellow light!”
“But I was half-way through the intersection!”
It was no use: she fled the car and in doing so fled Jackson’s wrath.
Jackson was hurt. First was the failure, which ricocheted through his undersized, diamond-shaped head. Second was the blow to his ego — the Cockney woman had waited for the perfect moment to award him with the full Level 3 license, the tension taut as if she was going to fail him, but then she had, in fact, failed him and bolted the scene. Third, and worst of all, was the fact that his limited Level 2 license expired tomorrow and the Ministry would force him to restart the whole licensing process, beginning with a Level 1, or what was known as a “juvy license.” He assumed the fetal position on his beanbag chair and breathed the cruel air. If only he’d shunned Cornish topics and hit the wipers instead of blinkers, he’d be able to legally drive on the highway right now.
He lay back on the beanbag chair, Googling “LEVEL 2 EXPIRE TOMORROW” on his laptop, which he held in the air over his head. Zonked from weeks of practice tests, he could barely wield it. He clicked onto a WordPress blog with a seemingly randomly generated stream of words: “FREE VIAGRA PILLS A.M. RADIO WK888 YOUNG DRIVERS LOUISE VUITTON SAN FERNANDO DRIVERS HOTLINE PENIS ENLARGEMENT PILLS DISCOUNT EVERY DAY 4:30.” He went on a few more websites and turned on AM radio. Then he dropped the laptop on his head and fell asleep. Out of the static he heard a voice, almost like his cousin Mindy’s, that was all pimples and braces: “Like, I didn’t, like, want to become a juvy driver after, like, screwing up my test. Then I heard I could, like, have one more chance at my big test even though my, like, license had, like, expired, hehe.”
He opened his eyes. Was it a dream? The radio was playing an infomercial for disease cures sponsored by the Church of Latter-day Saints. Unconvinced, Jackson scoured the FAQ on the Ministry of Transportation site. Unsuccessful Level 3 testees are granted one more road test if their failed test falls on the last week before Level 2 license expiration. It was right there — yes! — he could have one more try! He didn’t know whether the radio hotline with Mindy’s voice existed or whether he had tapped into some kind of clairvoyance, or maybe the Ministry had always offered an extra try and it didn’t matter either way, but he said a prayer to Joseph Smith, or at least had positive, vaguely spiritual thoughts (with scrolls and trees of life) towards him. He rebooked the test for two weeks later and called a new driving instructor named Lorenzo.
Enzo was a suave, Jerusalem-born Cuban who donned enough cologne to make Jackson gag the first time they met. He insisted he was the most grueling driving instructor and Jackson, in no position to try his luck, sheepishly agreed. In Enzo’s hybrid, Jackson was so exhilarated by Enzo’s parallel parking technique that he suggested Enzo write Parallel Parking for Dummies. “Not because your technique is dumb, but because it’s not dumb, if you know what I mean.”
Amid the cologne and Delphian dreams, however, Jackson had reservations. He had started to suspect collusion between the Ministry of Transportation and the driving instructors. After all, there was a fortune to be made in this business and the evaluators and instructors all knew each other on a first-name basis. Jackson figured that after his “orange” smart-Alec comment, the first instructor had tipped off his Cockney evaluator: “This boy is incompetent, plus he talks back, so fail him! He’ll pay for another test and buy more lessons. Everybody’s a winner! Except him. Heh.”
He wasn’t sure if Enzo was in on this scheme, but he told himself, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
On the morning of the big retest, Enzo was gloating about Jackson’s vehicular pedantry. He even gave Jackson a noogie, in a big-brotherly way. “You all set for success, ese.”
The two of them sat in Jackson’s Pontiac in the Ministry parking lot, talking about chicks and fast cars, in a way Jackson felt did not show too much toxic masculinity according to his diversity training in community college. A shadow swept over the car as the Cockney woman trotted past.
“That’s her! She failed me,” cried Jackson, pointing.
“Amigo, she got in a accident five month ago on a road test and we says, ‘Lady, retire,’ and she a say, ‘Never!’ and she fail everybody this days.”
Jackson and Enzo shared a glorious laugh. But it wasn’t true that she failed everyone. Jackson recalled how she’d passed a kid in an old boat of a Chevy who’d parked facing the building. But it was no time to ruminate, so Jackson presented Enzo with a fat tip: $8 in change.
Enzo nodded. “I see what I can do for you, ese. I see who your evaluator is,” and Jackson knew he was in good hands.
He entered the Ministry building and told the hiccupping woman he was ready. She typed his name into the computer.
“I’m afraid you haven’t paid,” she said.
“I paid when I rebooked the test.”
“We have s-s-software problems. But it’s o-out of my c-control.”
“Can I use your phone to call my mom? Or can I get change for this bill? I need my mom’s money.”
“No and n-no,” she said. “Now sh-shoo.”
Jackson breathed in the cruel air and started to hyperventilate. He sprinted through the doors and down the road to a box factory, where he traded a ten-dollar bill for a quarter with a grey, ponytailed worker. He called his mom on a payphone and she drove out to pay.
In his Pontiac, he sat nervously waiting for the evaluator. A bald man with a massive, shiny head got in and requested a blinker demonstration. When they hit the road Jackson vowed to himself there’d be no small talk. But the bald man persisted in asking questions that circled around and probed Jackson’s socio-economic status, his parents, his societal prospects, the ownership of the old Pontiac. Jackson responded curtly, wondering if his answers were of import. For example, if he said the car belonged to his crack-head father and that he spent his days collecting food stamps to bring Mother, would this affect his chances?
He did pass the test and later that day when he explained his secret to a couple pals over a round of Coca-Colas, he summed it up as, “You have to pay off Enzo.”