He hadn’t counted on the sleet storm. It was raining lightly when he left Barrington, nothing he hadn’t driven in before. He loved driving. Had always loved everything mechanical. Had been a competent pilot, in his day, good enough to fly the company CEO to meetings, although that wasn’t his job. His job was trouble-shooter. After sales were made and the company’s hardware installed, he made it work. If anything went wrong, he came and figured it out and made it work. He was valuable.
By Otis the rain made little ticking sounds on the windshield. He slowed down from 80 to 60. As he climbed up toward Blandford, the highway became rutted snow. He was surprised that such a little elevation change made so much difference. True, there was a sign on the turnpike there informing him that the elevation, 729 feet above sea level, was the highest point on the interstate east of South Dakota. Seven hundred feet, and the road was ice.
He slowed more, seemed to crawl. He loved having the vintage Lincoln, heavy and stable. It guzzled gas, sure, but it was his kind of vehicle. Snow had accumulated enough that each lane had a pair of ruts and it was dicey leaving them to change lanes. But now and then he had to. Some chicken driver would be poking along fearfully at about 25, dangerously slow, he thought, and he would have to pass. He would feel the car leave the safe ruts and plane for a few seconds before gripping pavement again in the passing lane. He smiled; he could handle this; he could drive.
It was his greatest pleasure, really. Lot of things he couldn’t do anymore. Now sometimes he noticed how without thinking about it he braked just enough going into a turn, accelerated just enough coming out. How the wheel slid under his hands, slowing in perfect increments so the wheels described a perfect arc. This he could do. He was good at it.
What was it about driving, anyway? He’d been at it 60 – no, almost 70 years, and he still got that feeling any time he slid behind the wheel. The same feeling he’d had the first time he drove a convertible, with the wind fingering his hair. Not real wind, because he was creating the wind with his speed. God of the Winds. God of all Possibilities, because in that seat he was free, in charge, independent. All roads open to him. Driving was Youth. He couldn’t imagine a day when he wouldn’t drive.
The flickering in his vision started right after he passed the Ludlow service area. It was always the same: first a bright spot right in the center of where he wanted to look, then a curved line of black-and-white spottiness, flickering like a bad neon sign, getting bigger but moving to the edges of his eyes and finally disappearing. Sometimes it took a while. He knew what it was now, some kind of migraine, they said. He didn’t get the headache, just the annoyance of not being able to see right, to read or anything, for half an hour. This one was not too bad; he could see well enough.
A voice in his brain said, This is bad. I need to pull over. Until it goes away. That will take half an hour, he argued. Dangerous to stop on the turnpike. Illegal, actually. He kept driving. The tiny flickering lights expanded to a wider arc; the center of his vision cleared up. Now the peripheral wasn’t so good. He would have stopped for coffee, that usually stopped it, if he hadn’t been so close to home.
In less than an hour he dropped down into the river valley and the snow changed back to sleet and then rain. He stepped up his pace. Once off the pike, he decided to stop for a couple of groceries. Parked in the lot, he sat for a minute, fatigued. Why was he here? He remembered, but knew he needed to decide something. Oh right. It was still cold. Should he wear a snow hat and get it wet or the hat that would keep the rain out of his face? He pulled on his wool watch hat and perched his baseball hat on top, trying to pull it down.
He got his groceries and got back into the Lincoln and realized his baseball hat was gone. It was his favorite, a souvenir of the annual Antique Aircraft Rally in Wisconsin. He went back in and retraced his steps, looking for it. He tried to ask the clerk who had checked him out if he had seen it. Oddly, the words wouldn’t come. ‘Lost. Hat.’ he managed to say. ‘What did it look like?’ the clerk asked. He could visualize it: black baseball hat, red antique Fokker biplane logo. ‘Uh…’ he said. The clerk looked at him expectantly. He gestured, made a baseball hat visor over his brow with his hand. After staring at him for another minute, waiting, the clerk said, ‘I’ll let you know if we find it.’ There was a shrug in his voice.
He still had the watch hat. He pulled it over his ears and went out into the sleety rain. He put the groceries in the trunk and sat in the driver’s seat, thinking. Why hadn’t he been able to find the hat; it must have been on the floor? Who would want it, who would keep it when he was the one who wanted it? Mingled with the hat problem was another, What was he supposed to do next? He patted his pockets for his keys, didn’t find them, started to get out and look. But when he opened the door the car chimed, the chime that said the keys were in the ignition. He looked. He didn’t remember putting them there. He started the engine, backed out, drove home.
He liked to back into the garage. It saved time when he was going out. He had started doing it years ago, when he realized he could get out over six inches of snow if the car was moving forward. But not backing up. Now he seldom went out in the snow – nobody expected him to show up for work anywhere anymore – and he seldom needed to save the time. Still he backed in, just to prove he had the skill to do it.
Because of the rain, he couldn’t see into the garage. He put the window down, wiped off the rearview mirror with his hand. That was better. He lined up with the doorframe and went in perfectly. He couldn’t seem to find the switch to put the window back up. What the hell, he thought. Do it tomorrow.
The phone was ringing. Richie.
‘Where’ve you been, Dad? I thought you’d be home hours ago.’
‘Sleet,’ he said. ‘Hat.’
There was silence. ‘Sit tight, Dad. I’ll be right over.’
‘What for?’ But the line was humming a dial tone.
By the time Richie got there, he had made a sandwich. Peanut butter. Jelly. Coffee heated up in the micro. ‘I’m okay,’ he said.
‘You didn’t sound okay. You sounded like some wires got crossed.’
‘I couldn’t seem to get the words out. Same trouble at the store. Lost my hat. Couldn’t tell anybody.’
Richie stared at him for a minute. ‘Get your coat, Dad. I’m taking you to the hospital.’
‘Nothing wrong with me. Just starving.’
‘Check it out. Just to make sure.’
He fumed all the way to the hospital. Nothing wrong with him, he knew. He fumed when the nurse snapped the plastic bracelet on his wrist with his name, date of birth, known allergies. ‘What’s this for? My son just wanted you to check me over. There’s nothing wrong.’
‘Everybody gets one of these. Souvenir.’ She smiled at him.
He told the story, how he couldn’t describe the hat. How he had been hungry, maybe stressed from driving in the sleet. He told the story again to a guy at a desk; he told it again to a doctor with a stethoscope hanging from his neck. ‘I’m tired of telling this damn story!’ he said. ‘Just show me the way out.’
‘This is a symptom we have to check out,’ the doctor said. ‘Aphasia. It’s when the area of the brain that controls speech malfunc– ‘
‘I know what aphasia is,’ he snapped.
‘In any case. It could be a symptom of something serious. We need to keep you overnight.’
‘You damned quacks! I don’t want to stay in this damned hospital overnight. Everybody knows hospitals are where you get sick. Not where you get well. And I don’t have a fucking thing to do!’
The doctor eyed him warily. ‘I see you have no trouble speaking now.’ He had to laugh. ‘There are only three tests we need to run. We need to rule out stroke. Give us a chance.’
The voice in his head said, Stroke. Yeah. Let’s rule that out. He shrugged and let them assign him a bed. There was a specialist, a woman, who asked him what day it was, who was president, how old he was. There was an MRI, a cardiogram, an electroencephalogram. They couldn’t find anything wrong. It was laughable. They let him go home.
‘I worry about you driving,’ Richie said.
‘There’s nothing wrong with me. Nothing whatsoever.’
‘I mean, you had that scare. That mini-stroke.’
He tried to quell his anger. ‘It wasn’t a stroke. I passed every test. No stroke. Pre-migraine. That was the diagnosis. First opinion and second opinion. Not a stroke.’
‘Still. I worry.’ Richie’s always been a stubborn kid, he thought. Kid! He’s 59 years old.
‘Father knows best,’ he said. Calmly. But his teeth were on edge.
Not drive! The nerve of the kid. He was still mad about it a week later, on the way to the library, when he got to the intersection of Meadowlark and Rolling Lane. The bright spot suddenly nagged at the center of his vision. What the fuck, he thought, not again. He thought he’d better pull over until it passed. Didn’t see the boulder at the edge of the road.
The car was driveable, but just. There was no way of hiding it.
He could have predicted. Richie came and sat on his couch with his elbows on his knees. ‘Dad, I know how you love to drive – ’
‘I knew you’d say this. Look. It was that pre-migraine thing. Aura. Whatever. For just a minute I couldn’t see. I was pulling over, doing the responsible thing.’
His son sat frowning.
‘Think about it, Rich. What if you couldn’t drive? Huh? How would you get along? How would you feel, huh?’
Richie sat back, got to his feet. ‘Okay. But Dad. Consider yourself warned.’
Who did he think he was, anyway? Who’s the father here, and who’s the kid? Still, he was beyond careful when he drove. He hated that. Behind the wheel, nobody knew you were old. Nobody knew how painfully you moved, how gimpy you were. Unless you drove really carefully. And now he had to drive that way. Like an old fart.
It didn’t help. He was trying to get out onto Oak, and the traffic was thick. Couldn’t make a right turn to save himself. He was sitting, wheels cocked right, looking left, looking for an opening. There’s one. He stepped on the gas.
‘Watch it!’ He heard metal, stabbed the brakes. In front of him was the yellow jacket of a cyclist, glaring at him. Shaking, he killed the engine and got out.
‘The guy wasn’t hurt,’ he told Richie. ‘He came at me from the wrong side. Shouldn’t have been on the sidewalk; it’s illegal. Supposed to move with traffic, in the street. I paid for a new wheel for his bike.’
‘Yeah but – Three strikes, Dad.’
‘I knew you’d say that. Exactly that.’
‘Listen to me, Dad. You’re eighty-six years old. What if next time it’s not a rock. What if it’s a child. Pat and I will take you wherever you want to go. Anywhere. Anytime.’
But he would not be behind the wheel. He would not have that huge machine at his command, responsive to his skill. He would have to ask somebody. Like a little kid. He would give up the last thing that confirmed his manhood.
‘Could happen to anybody,’ he argued. ‘Could happen to you.’
‘Think about it, Dad. Three episodes in six weeks. The odds are against you.’ They stared at each other for a long minute. He felt the comforting weight of his keys in his pants pocket against his thigh, the reassurance that he still was master of his own life.
‘Fuck that. You can have my keys when I’m in the cold hard ground.’
Richie got up, tried to put his arm around his father’s shoulder. ‘Listen. Dad.’
He stood and fended him off with an elbow, a fist. ‘Shut the hell up. You’re not taking them.’ He raised his fists, glared at his son with an obdurate face. ‘You can wrestle me to the ground. You. Are. Not. Taking them.’
He knew, and Rich knew, his son could of course wrestle away the keys. He knew Rich, good-hearted, do-the-right-thing Rich, would not. He knew there were other ways. He would go to renew his license and be told it was revoked. Or he would see the cruiser in the driveway and sit stubbornly in his wing chair as the doorbell rang, a baby-faced patrolman there to tell him he couldn’t drive any more.
He still stood, belligerent, his jaw setting up like cement. ‘Don’t you get it?’ he shouted. ‘Don’t you know I might as well be dead?’
‘No, Dad – ’
‘Get the fuck out of here. You don’t know anything.’ Rich shrugged and walked to the door. ‘Seriously, think it over, Dad.’
‘Shut the hell up and get out.’
When the door closed, he sagged into the wing chair, trembling, furious. That they would take that last thing. Might as well be dead. He sat there a long time, his keys no longer a comfort but a lead sinker of doom in his pocket.
My fiction has been published or is forthcoming in American Literary Review, Griffin, The MacGuffin, The Madison Review, Old Red Kimono, RiverSedge, Phantasmagoria, Sanskrit, and Schuylkill Valley Journal; my work has also appeared in Hobart’s online publication. For almost 20 years, I was a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and other publications; more than 30 newspapers and magazines have published some 1,600 articles under my byline. I am author of two editions of A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston. At the present time I write for Sculpture and Landscape Architecture magazines, and I review fiction and nonfiction for the Internet Review of Books.
© 2012, Marty Carlock