another chapter from the novel

CHAPTER FOUR

Once we knew that we would be working after August, my taking Corinne home got to be an understood thing. Nobody yet had started making remarks like they always do about anything at all between a man and a woman, no matter how innocent.

We talked about Dawson's chances of making money after August. Everybody at Dawson’s talked about that. The people from the Blue Dolphin and the Jade were talking about it, too. Times were changing on the Beaches, but people who had lived with tourist seasons all their lives distrusted interruptions in the rhythm.

It was after Labor Day when she asked me to teach her how to drive a stick-shift car.

We had just finished one of the new short eight-hour shifts, down from the summer twelves. She had been reading the Florida driver's manual and said she was going to buy a car as soon as she could get her license and save the money. But she knew she couldn’t afford an automatic transmission model.

I told her sure, I’d show her how to drive a stick shift.

She wanted to know when.

"Right now, if you want to," I said.

So instead of taking her straight home that night, I took her out on Penman Road and let her get under the wheel. She stalled the Chev three times before she managed to bump us along, riding the clutch, half a block.

The first time she tried to grab second, she almost got reverse and ground the gear teeth pretty bad. She panicked and backed off into neutral with her foot on the gas. That big old V-Eight let out a bellow and I got excited and yelled at her to get her damn foot off the gas. She tried to get it back into first gear, and it sounded like she had ripped the whole gearbox loose. Then she slammed on the brakes and I nearly went down in the floorboards under the dash. At least she had got off the accelerator.

She looked at me.

"Jesus Christ!" I said.

"These gears aren't right," she said.

"There's nothing wrong with the car," I said.

I didn't like her criticizing my car. I didn't mind helping her out, but if she was going to tear the damn clutch out, it didn't seem right for her to badmouth it, too.

"The gears are all wrong," she said again. She said it in that same flat voice she used when she was arguing with the other waitresses. It was the first time she had used it on me.

"Listen," I said. "They're not in the wrong damn place..."

"What kind of car is this, anyway?"

That stopped me. If she didn't even know cars apart, it was a cinch she had never been behind a steering wheel before.

"It's a Chevrolet," I said. "I thought you knew all about cars except gearshifts."

"I never told you that," she said. "I don't know nothing about cars except that they're better than walking and you have to know the gearshift. I told you I've driven one before. One!"

"Did it have gears?"

"I bet it had more than this one!" It was like she had won the argument.

"That's not the point. What kind of car?"

"It was a Plymouth, a 1937 Plymouth, and it didn't just have this little dooflingy on the steering wheel. It had a real gearshift."

I couldn’t keep up with her. "What are you talking about now?"

"The gearshift was on the floor, just like on city buses!" she said, like that should shut me up for good.

I was through being mad. I wanted to laugh. I thought laughing at her was a bad idea right then. Of course I couldn't fool her.

"What's so funny all of a sudden?"

"You're absolutely right," I said. "You're talking about a real gearshift."

"Of course I'm right. My brother let my drive the panel truck he drives for that parts house in Macon, too, before we moved down here. I drove one car and one truck, if you must know. The truck had a real gearshift on the floor, too. It was a Dodge, if you must know. D-O-D-G-E. Just like Dodge City, on Gunsmoke on TV."

"Let's start again," I said. "Here's where first is, and here's second, and here's third. This up here is reverse. That's why it scraped. You tried to put it in reverse going forward. It's really the same gear-pattern, it just seems different because the knob sticks out to the side."

"Reverse," she said. "That's why it scraped."

"Yeah."

Headlights were coming up behind us.

"Wait until this car goes by and we'll try again," I said.

The car came up alongside and stopped. It was a dark blue Plymouth Fury with a white five-pointed star painted on the door.

"You folks havin' trouble?" The driver was a big, big-hatted shadow behind the steering wheel. His voice was soft in the night, but big too.

"No trouble, Billy," I said. "I'm just trying to show her how to use a gearshift."

"Oh--that you, Walter?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Dawson's started closing early, huh?"

"Uh-huh."

“Gettin’ much city trade by staying open?”

“Not yet.”

“Word’ll get around.” The big hat shifted slightly. "Is Walter teachin' you good, Miss?"

"It's Mrs.," she said, cold as ice on the Ohio River in February. "I'm beginning to catch on."

The hat shifted again. "Nice night for it. Maybe you should try workin' his gearshift out by the jetties. Less traffic.”

“Thank you ever so much for your suggestion.” Still the freeze.

Billy kind of chuckled. “Evenin', missus. You too, Wally."

"See you, Billy," I said. He pulled on down the road.

"Uppity cop!" she snapped.

"Billy's just being polite," I said. "That was the town marshal, not a cop. He doesn't like the word cop."

"Well he sure ain’t no cowboy, even with that hat. I know what he is, and you know what? What he likes is tough titty. Where I come from we call a spade a spade, and a cop a cop."

"Billy's just a good old guy who sometimes jumps to conclusions."

"Like what?"

"Like he doesn't believe we're just out here to teach you to change gears."

“Why, that son-of-a-bitch,” she said. The perfect outrage in her voice tickled me, and I started smiling again.

Her tone pretty much put me in my place, or showed me I didn’t even rate having a place, but still it tickled me. She could be so perfectly high and mighty without even trying. Like that queen in the storybook: off with his head, the son-of-a-bitch!

She got the gears pretty well straightened out in her mind that night, and then I drove her home. She wasn’t ready yet to try driving through town. But she was over the nerves and ready to do more driving, now she had the hang of it, if I would let her. I said sure, and she was kind of quiet, and bubbly as a kid just before Christmas, when I let her off. I was halfway back to my place before I realized I pretty much felt the same way myself.