The Driving Lesson
The Ultimate Patient — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. This is part 2 (out of 3) of the excerpt entitled The Driving Lesson. Olga and Kostea are the main characters in the book. Andy is a friend and a restaurant manager. The year is 1964.
Eager to help with the clutch and accelerator coordination problem, his upstairs neighbor Eugene Voicu, built Kostea a contraption which consisted of three wooden pedals mounted on a common shaft about two feet long, supported at each end by low trunnions. The pedals turned on ball bearings. Three hidden springs caused them to offer resistance when pressed downwards.
“If this device will not teach you, nothing will,” Ina laughed.
“How did Eugene know about this?” Kostea asked Olga.
“My mother told him and now all the neighbors are rooting for you.”
“That’s a little embarrassing,” Kostea said, but he practiced with the pedals every day in the morning before going to work, and again in the evening.
A few weeks later the was ready to take the driving test. Captain Albu met him 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 print below.
“Have you taken any classes with us, Comrade Doctor?” Albu asked.
“No,” Kostea said. “I practiced with a friend and I passed the written test, no problem.”
“Good. Let’s proceed to see what you’ve learned.”
Something in Albu’s tone made Kostea wonder. “Comrade Captain, are you suggesting I should have attended the driving school?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. Please, get behind the wheel. This car has a brake pedal on my side, so that I can stop it in case of emergency. We’ll drive on Uranus, a large street with a lot of traffic at this hour, and you must follow my commands, no exception.”
“Understood,” Kostea said.
The cabin of the Pobeda was tighter than the truck and the speed stick was by the wheel. He looked in the rearview mirror and switched on the ignition. The pedals felt softer and engaged differently. When he pushed down on the accelerator pedal, the car jerked forward and stalled. Albu didn’t react. They moved again, a little smoother this time.
“At the next corner,” Albu said, “take a right on Uranus.”
Kostea nodded and remembered to signal. He let two cars pass him on the left.
“Drive faster,” Albu ordered. “Get in the middle lane and be ready to turn left in a few hundred yards.”
Kostea checked the rearview mirror and signaled again. He changed lanes.
“See that store on the other side?” Albu asked. “There is a street right behind it, and that’s where I want you to go. Pay attention to traffic signals and the oncoming cars.”
“All right,” Kostea said slowing down. One car passed him on the right, and more gathered behind him. The line of oncoming vehicles was continuous. Kostea came to a stop waiting for them to pass. The last thing he wanted was to have his car stall in the middle of traffic. He focused on the pedals, and when he saw an opportunity, he took it. The street on which he turned was completely deserted.
He drove for about a hundred yards when Albu said, “Make a U-turn and park. I’ll take it from there.”
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 in the wrong way.”
“You told me to drive there,” Kostea 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.”
Marius had purchased a second hand Opel in West Germany on one of his delivery trips. Kostea practiced driving it a few times to get more comfortable with the Pobeda’s size and controls. Then he took the test again. This time, Kostea started the car perfectly, but forgot to signal, and Albu failed him in less than a minute.
Upset and embarrassed, Kostea told everyone that he had never failed an exam in his whole life; obviously he flunked the test because Captain Albu sabotaged him. At work, the doctors teased him. At home, Ina and Olga walked around him on tippy toes. Even Toddy, he thought, watched him with a condescending grin.
More important than his self-esteem was his practical dilemma. The deposit he had made for the car was coming to term in another week — it had ‘aged’ enough — and he had pulled some serious strings to get ahead of other people waiting to receive their cars. The vehicle distribution center was located a little more than 100 kilometers from Bucharest, in Colibași. Without a driver’s license, he would not be able to drive his car home; and if he didn’t pick it up on time, he would lose his turn and be pushed to the end of the line for God knows how many months.
“Ask Andy and Marius to take you there, and one of them could drive your car back. Even with your new driver’s license, it would not be wise to drive by yourself for the first time,” Olga suggested.
Kostea frowned. “And then what? Leave the car in front of our building for everyone to see it sitting there?”
“Yes, for a while.”
“People would know that I failed the driving test and laugh at me,” Kostea said.
“Nobody will laugh at you.”
“The guys at work did,” Kostea said.
“Tell them to shove it,” Olga said.
Kostea grabbed the wooden pedal pusher and ran into the kitchen where Ina was giving Toddy his dinner.
“Take this back upstairs, with a million thanks.” He put the accent on ‘a million,’ to indicate his unhappiness.
“Do you want me to return it to Eugene?” Ina asked.
“Give it to Anna, maybe she can mash potatoes with it,” Kostea growled, and let the contraption fall on the floor. He later said it had slipped through his fingers, but Ina swore he had smacked it down as hard as he could. The thing came apart, ball bearings bouncing high on the kitchen tiles and rolling any which way. One pedal flew under the table and sent Pissu meowing out the door.
Toddy crouched on the floor to chase the small jumping balls.
Ina grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled him back to his chair. “They’re dirty and greasy, and not a good toy.”
“Stop acting like an idiot!” Kostea yelled.
Later he explained that he had meant Toddy, while Ina, fuming, insisted he had said that to her.
The next morning at the hospital, Kostea had just completed his rounds when he was paged. “A Captain Albu is here for you,” the receptionist told him.
“Captain Albu?” Kostea repeated confused.
“He’s in the main lobby in line to be seen.”
The waiting patients formed a long, winding queue. There must have been at least sixty of them. Albu stood at the end of the 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 and distorted, her eyes closed.
“Comrade Doctor,” he said when Kostea stopped in front of them. “This is my mom. She’s in pain.”
“I’ll get you help right away,” Kostea said.
A few minutes later two nurses came with a wheelchair and took her to an examination room. Dr. Max diagnosed her with acute gallbladder stones and admitted her on the spot. Albu spent the afternoon at the hospital.
When Kostea stopped by her room, Albu told him that his mother was feeling better. “Like night and day,” was the expression he used. “Comrade Doctor,” he continued. “I can’t thank you enough, and please stop by the precinct later today with a two by two photograph for your license. Or have someone deliver it.”
“But Captain, I didn’t…” Kostea started.
“Comrade Doctor, I know you can drive,” Albu said.
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