One Good Deed Deserves Another

Bucharest, 1965

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

Virgil learned how to drive in the delivery truck of an acquaintance who owed him one. He was a doctor, but in those days, even for him it was a big deal to own a car and to get a driver’s license. As he prepared for his driving test, his acquaintance assured him that the test couldn’t be half as bad as the exams Virgil had passed for his medical license.

Police Captain Albu met Virgil in the street in front of the precinct. A tan Pobeda sedan with a prominent ‘Student Driver’ sign above the rear bumper stood parked by the curb. ‘Bucharest Driving School’ was written in smaller font below.

“Have you taken any classes with us, Comrade Doctor?” Captain Albu asked.

“No,” Virgil said. “I practiced with a friend, and I passed the written test, no problem.”

“Good. Let’s proceed and see what you’ve learned.”

Something in Albu’s tone made Virgil wonder. “Comrade Captain, are you suggesting I should have attended the driving school?”

“I’m not suggesting anything. Please, get behind the wheel. There’s a brake pedal on my side, so that I can stop the vehicle in case of emergency. We’ll drive on Uranus, which is heavily trafficked at this hour, and you must follow my orders exactly. No exception.”

“Understood,” Virgil said.

The cabin of the Pobeda was tighter than the truck and the stick shift was by the wheel. Virgil looked in the rearview mirror and turned the key in the ignition. The pedals felt softer and engaged differently. When he pushed down on the accelerator, the car jerked and the engine stalled. Albu didn’t react. Virgil took a deep breath and started the engine again.

“At the corner take a right on Uranus,” Albu said.

Virgil nodded and remembered to signal. He let two cars pass him on the left.

“Drive faster,” Albu said. “Get in the middle lane and be ready to turn left in a few hundred yards.”

Virgil checked the rearview mirror and signaled again. He changed lanes.

“See that store?” Albu asked. “There is a street right behind it, and that’s where I want you to turn. Pay attention to the traffic signals and the oncoming cars.”

“No problem,” Virgil said slowing down. One car passed him on the right, and more gathered behind him. The line of oncoming vehicles was continuous. Virgil came to a stop waiting for them to pass. The last thing he wanted was to have his car stall in traffic. He held his breath and focused on the pedals. When he saw an opportunity, he took it. The street on which he turned was deserted.

After about a hundred yards, Albu ordered, “Make a U-turn and park and I’ll take it from here.”

Virgil let out a sigh.

Albu got behind the wheel and when they reached the corner with Uranus, he pointed at the street sign. “What does it say?” he asked.

“It’s a one-way street.”

“Exactly, and you drove the wrong way.”

“You told me to turn into it,” Virgil said.

“Had I told you to drive into a river, would you have done it?”

“No, I guess not.”

“I’m sorry, Comrade Doctor, but you’ll have to retake the test.”

Virgil was angry. He couldn’t believe he failed because he had obeyed the misleading command of the instructor. What were they? Children?

*

A friend of a friend knew someone who owned a second-hand Opel, purchased in West Germany. Virgil decided that driving that car would get him more comfortable with the Pobeda and, for two packs of Kent cigarettes, the owner of the Opel let Virgil practice.

When Virgil took the driving test for the second time, he started the car perfectly but forgot the signal and Albu failed him again.

“I’ve never never flunked a test in my life,” Virgil told everyone willing to listen. He argued that Captain Albu had sabotaged him. That Albu expected a gift. A demeaning demand, for sure. The doctors teased him at work. At home, his wife and his mother-in-law walked around him on tiptoes. Even his fourteen-year-old son seemed to be looking at him in a condescending way.

*

Virgil was completing his morning rounds at the hospital when he was paged. “A Captain Albu is asking for you in the lobby.”

The patients were waiting to be seen in a long, winding line. There must have been at least sixty of them. He saw Albu standing at the end of that line. An older woman, wearing a long, full skirt and an embroidered peasant’s vest, her hair covered with a thick, colorful kerchief, sat next to him on a folding chair. Her face was ashen, her eyes closed.

“Comrade Doctor,” Captain Albu said when he saw Virgil, “this is my mother and she’s in great pain.”

“I’ll get you help right away.”

Two nurses brought a wheelchair and rushed Albu’s mother, ahead of the other waiting patients, to an examination room. Virgil and the ER doctor diagnosed her with acute gallbladder stones, gave her pain medication and admitted her on the spot.

The captain spent the early afternoon at the hospital, pacing the hallways or sitting by his mother’s bedside. When Virgil stopped by their room, Albu told him his mother was feeling much better. Like night and day, he said. “Comrade Doctor, I can’t thank you enough. You should stop by the precinct later today with a two by two photograph for your driver’s license. Or have the photo delivered to us.”

“But Captain, I didn’t…”

“I know,” Albu said. “No worries, Comrade Doctor. I know you can drive.”

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.