Posted by Chiron on October 10, 2013 at 17:16:36:
Poster's IP was: 22.214.171.124
A Centaur Learns to Drive
My friend and I stood on the corner of Rt. 38 and Annie Glidden, on the western side of the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. We were waiting for the light to change so we could get to Molly’s, a local bar of some disrepute but great beer nuggets. Cars honked, flashed their lights, and occasionally someone threw something as we waited for the light to change. Maybe it’s because I was wearing my red-and brown striped Laplander hat. Maybe it is because my friend is a centaur.
The light changed and we started across, my buddy hopping on three legs as his game hind leg slowed him down whenever he tried to hurry. It was an old injury that, in the three years we’d known each other, he wouldn’t really talk about.
We were heading to the bars to celebrate the close of the first semester. He had just taken his last final and had waited for me in the lobby of Cole Hall while I wrapped up my Anthropology 102 final. Gen eds: a necessary nuisance. The professor was a sweet but goofy babe in her late 40’s who still wore flip-flops to class every day, even though it was now December. It was obvious that she dug the subject, but I couldn’t get into it. My thing was English lit, and particularly Poe.
We had made our slow way across campus, my friend’s hooves making hollow taps on the cold concrete. He had his hands stuffed into the pockets of an old navy peacoat that he had buttoned all the way up. It didn’t really do anything for his bottom half, a glossy black with one hind leg that was white halfway up. I wondered if he ever got cold; but I also knew there was really nothing he could do about it. He knew it too, I guess, and I figured that that was why he never complained. We were both done with finals and reveled in the pressure release. His big nightmare had been the organic chemistry final. He had started putting in long hours hitting since November, disdaining the chaos of the library for a quiet empty classroom in the law building. He felt confident that his efforts had paid off.
“That class, it’s like studying a second language,” he said, his voice puncutated by the light clopping sounds his footfalls made. “I mean, they told me it was gonna be difficult, but I had no idea. I’m used to getting A’s but I got a friggin’ C on the first exam and a B+ on the second. I started studying for the third one a couple weeks in advance and managed an A, but if I want an A for the semester I really had to have kicked butt on the final. I feel pretty good about it, but if I end up with a B I won’t be too pissed.”
I had fought with my “Interpretation of Classical Modes in Poetry” professor since the midterm and knew that he had it in for me. Getting anything more than a C in his class would have been a logistical impossibility, so I had blown off the final paper until the night before it was due, cranking out some drivel that I knew he would read with scrutiny he wouldn’t have used on other students. I got a D on the paper and a C in the class and was happy enough that I never had to deal with his crap again that didn’t worry about what it did to my GPA. I plotted what I would do to his prized germaniums and asked in my friend would be interested in using his good hind leg to shatter a couple flowerpots. He demurred with a grin.
“Come on,” he said. “Just be glad it’s over. First round’s on me.”
Crossing the streets and fully exposed to wind with no buildings to block it, he scrunched deeper into his peacoat. I felt sorry for him and his exposed bottom half. I tied the flaps of my hat tighter under my chin. We crossed Rt. 38 and entered Molly’s, where the bartender, a sweetheart named Lib, greeted us warmly. We were long-time customers.
“Hey, it’s Opie and Sugarfoot!” she cawed. She called me Opie because of my freckles and red hair. I don’t know why she called my buddy Sugarfoot.
“Hiya, Lib,” he said, and I waived. “Can we get our usual spot?”
“Of course,” she said, putting glasses in the dishwasher. “Who else would sit there?”
Our table was a slightly wobbly wreck in the corner. It had only one stool. We had no use for two. My friend took a small braided throw rug out of his pack and laid it out on the floor. He sat his hind end down on it carefully, the bad leg trembling all the way down. I hooked my own bag over the back of my stool and hopped onto it.
Lib approached before we could get back into our end-of-semester conversation. “I’ll have a Miller Light,” I said. “He’ll have a Bass Ale.”
My friend didn’t even look up. We knew each other fairly well by then. He’d have three or four Bass Ales and I’d have two Miller Lights before we got our first pitcher. He could drink me under the table and we both knew it.
“You got it, sug,” said Lib and returned within minutes. He was just taking his coat off and I had just stuffed my hat into my pocket. She thumped two frosty mugs down on the table and took off back towards the bar.
My buddy sighed and said, “No matter how many times I tell her Bass Ale shouldn’t come in a frosty mug, she never listens.”
“That’s because she thinks there’s only two kinds of beer: Bud and Not Bud,” I said. I took a huge pull and sighed happily. The first one of the day is
always the best.
He took a good-sized pull himself and took off his scarf. He leaned one elbow one the table. It lurched alarmingly, but we were used to that.
“When are you leaving?” he asked, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. With me on the stool and him sitting like a large dog on the floor, we were about at eye level. I had known him since we were freshmen, and we had become fairly close friends. I tended to forget the major differences.
“Saturday,” I said. “I’m waiting for my car to get out of the shop.”
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked, his brow furrowing. He had always expressed an interest in cars. He wasn’t quite a gearhead, but he knew his stuff. You could be walking down the sidewalk or riding the bus to class, and something interesting would go by. On the bus, he’d turn around as far as he could, which often wasn’t much. (There was never enough room for him to change direction in the narrow aisle between the seats; so he had to back out. He once confessed to me that he preferred exiting the bus this way, as the stairs down to the street were so darn steep. This was, of course, before college buses had lifts.) He’d make an exclamatory noise, and I’d ask what he was looking at, and he’d tell me about the Thunderbird that had just gone by.
“Fuel pump,” I said. “The mechanic told me that running out of gas is the kiss of death for most in-tank fuel pumps. They burn themselves out trying to pump what isn’t there. He said most GM cars are like that.” My car, a 1992 Grand Am, given to me by my grandmother, was a horrendous piece of shit. It, like most GM vehicles of a similar vintage, had begun to disintegrate before it had turned 100,000 miles. It ran well but looked horrible. I beat it mercilessly, its anemic four-cylinder boat-anchor of an engine the victim of regular oil-changes but frequent visits to the land of Red Line.
He took another pull. “Man, I wish I knew how to drive.”
“You do?” It had never occurred to me before.
“Yeah,” he said. “It looks like fun. Besides, it’s gotta be nice not having to walk everywhere, or wait for the bus.”
“Well, jeez,” I said. “Didn’t anybody ever teach you?”
“No,” he said glumly. “I can’t get into a car anyway.”
“Well, no,” I agreed, “but there’s gotta be something you can get into. You’re bigger than most people, but that just means you need a bigger car. Why don’t we look around for something that works?”
“Like what?” he asked, draining the last of his ale and craning around for the bartender.
“Whaddya mean, ‘like what?’ Are you telling me that, all your life, no one’s driven you anywhere? You walked everywhere? Especially once you got on the gimp?”
“Well, my aunt—the lady who raised me—had a big ol’ Dodge van she used to drive me around in,” he conceded. “We’d go downtown and stuff. She took out the middle seat and I just kinda climbed in through the side door.”
“So get a big ol’ Dodge van, then,” I said, tilting my head back and emptying my own mug. Now I was trying to catch Lib’s attention. She was schmoozing up some professor-looking guy at the end of the bar. I stuck two fingers in my mouth and whistled. She looked up and I pointed down at the table. She nodded.
“They’re so huge,” he complained. “And they get really shitty gas mileage.”
“Maybe a minivan, then?” I suggested.
“A minivan?” he screeched. “So boring.”
“Oh, most of ‘em are,” I agreed. “But they’re pretty roomy and they handle pretty much like a car. You could take out the front seat, and then you could use your front legs to work the pedals. You’d be all set.”
“Yeah, but…” he studied his hands for a moment or two. “How can you look cool driving a minivan.”
“Well, it’s either that, or hopping around on three legs whenever you’re late for something,” I said. “Look, man; you’re not going to be able to get into a Camaro or Mustang. Just face it. And you know you’re going to have to take out the front seat, and you know you’re going to have to go in through the side door just like in your aunt’s Dodge. If you wanna get some wheels, it’s either a minivan or something bigger.”
Lib brought the second round and thumped them down on the table. “Hey, Lib,” I said. “What do you think of minivans?”
“Oh, God, I hate ‘em,” she replied with a sneer. “Soccer mommies and mall-crawlers all drive minivans. I think they’re for pretentious, shallow people with no style.”
My friend was looking down at his hands again. Lib was getting all cranked up to continue, so I jumped in.
“It’s funny that you say that,” I said hastily, “because Secretariat here was thinking that he might wanna get one.”
Lib turned on him, hands on hips. “Why would you wanna—“ I lightly kicked the back of her knee with one toe.
She turned around, looking at me. Slowly, realization dawned. “I mean,” she said, backpedaling furiously, “they sure are roomy. And useful. And…”
“Lame?” my buddy suggested.
“No, not at all!” Lib stammered, eyebrows shooting skyward in feigned innocence. “Well, not all of them, anyway.”
Lib was a gearhead who knew her stuff. She was in the Ford camp, which was a shame, but she had good taste. She liked big iron and drove a ‘68 Galaxie. Only in the summer, of course; her daily driver was a high-mileage but well-maintained Lincoln Continental. With the 4.6 Intech V8, naturally. Her husband worked for Joe Cotton Ford in Glendale Heights.
Our buddy still looked crestfallen. Lib put a hand on his shoulder.
“You know, minivans aren’t so bad,” she said. “Though there are some you wanna stay away from. Avoid the Mopars—the Caravans, the Voyagers. They’re dog-slow with the four-banger and the V6’s grenade the transmission every 100,000 miles. Stay away from the Fords—you got the Aerostar, and those are pretty solid because they’re based on the Ranger, but the bodies rust away to nothing. And the Windstars have problems with the rear axle.
“If I were you, I’d go with one of the Japanese vans—the Honda Odyssey, or the Toyota Sienna. You wanna stay away from the older Japanese box vans—the Toyotas, the Nissans, the Mitsubishis. The engines are mounted in the middle and they’re underneath a cover that sticks up. I’m guessing you’re gonna go in through the side door and that wouldn’t work in one of those. Maybe a Volkswagen? They sold the Microbus here until 1979, and then the Vanagon. They’re rear-engined and really slow, but they’re so goofy they’re cool. Course, you get into a head-on with one of those and it’s auf wiedersehen. I always liked the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari twins. They look ballsy, they’ve got S-10 bones, they have big 4.3-liter V6’s, the engine’s in the front so they have perfectly flat floors. And—“ her eyes twinkled with a mischievous spark—“they were available for a few years with a manual transmission.”
My buddy’s eyes got far away. “A manual transmission,” he sighed. “I’ve always wanted to drive a car with a manual transmission.”
“You know how they work, right?” I asked. “You’ve seen one before, right? My Grand Am has a manual.”
“Nope and nope.” He grabbed his new beer—again in a frosty mug—by the handle and hoisted.
“Oh, man;” said Lib, turning to head back towards the bar. “Stickshift is fun. You can do burnouts in anything that has a stick.”
We sat in companiable silence, my friend looking pensive.
“Why haven’t you tried this before?” I asked. “It can’t be that hard. Driving’s easy. We can find something that works for you.”
“I probably could have before this,” he agreed. “I guess I was always afraid I’d find something always getting in the way. It really could work, couldn’t it?”
“Sure,” I said. “Unfortunately, we can’t teach you how to drive then find you a car. We have to find you a car first. Do you have any money?”
“I have some,” he said.
“Can you come up with at least a couple thousand?” I said. “Unless someone is planning on giving you something that’s less than a few years old, anything you buy for less than a couple thousand is probably gonna nickel-and-dime you to death. ‘Course, I’ve seen some heaps than run forever, and I’ve seen some total lemons that were only a few months old.”
“I think I can do that,” he said.
“Then let’s start shopping,” I replied. I clinked my mug against his and drained half of it.
I had a couple of days before heading home for the semester break. I grabbed a copy of AutoTrader on the way back to my apartment and started hitting the minivan section, wondering as I did so if minivans were the only option. The aforementioned Camaros and Mustangs were out. So were all other two doors. And four-doors, come to think of it. Convertibles? Maybe—if he didn’t mind having his ass out in the wind, literally. But what would he do in the winter? What about SUVs, like a Jeep Cherokee? On second thought, nope—never get around the B-pillar between the front and rear doors. Pickup trucks? No way. If only he weren’t so damn long…
My car was ready Saturday afternoon. I was loading the trunk when the lopsided sound of hooves signaled my buddy’s approach. The day was clear and bright, but cold. His hands were stuffed deep in the pockets of his peacoat.
“What’s shakin’?” I said, slamming the lid. It took two tries to get it to catch.
“Nothing,” he said. “When are you leaving?”
“I dunno…in a little while. I ain’t in no hurry,” I replied.
He looked at the ground, shifting his weight unconsciously to the left. Away from the bad side.
“What’s up, man?” I asked. “You look bummed.”
“Just thinking about stuff,” he said. He looked at my car. Jerking his head toward it, he asked, “Can you show me how a manual transmission works?”
I did a double-take. “Yeah, sure.” I was caught a little off-guard and tried not to show it. “Come on around to the driver’s side.”
I walked over to the driver’s door. He followed slowly, hooves crunching the salty residue left on the asphalt parking lot.
I pulled the door open on squeaky hinges. “Okay,” I said, pointing. “See that thing sticking up behind the radio? That’s the shifter.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ve heard that term before.”
“Cool,” I said. “How many pedals do you see?”
“Three,” he answered. “The one on the right is the accelerator.”
“Good,” I said. “Middle’s the brakes and the one on the left is the clutch.”
“Clutch,” he said, musingly. “What does that do, again?”
“You have to step on that to disengage the transmission from the engine,” I said. “See, what happens with a manual transmission is the motor and tranny are linked directly. If you’re stopped, the engine has to be decoupled from the wheels or it has to be stopped too. Pushing in the clutch pedal breaks the connection. You also have to use that when shifting, because the engine has to change its speed relative to the transmission.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “You push it all the way to the floor?”
“If you don’t want to burn it out, that is.”
“Okay,” he said. “Show me what to do.”
I sat down. “You want me to start it?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Show me everything.”
I waggled the shifter. “I like to make sure it’s in neutral before I start it,” I said. “Neutral’s here in the middle. When you’re in neutral, the engine and wheels aren’t connected, even if the clutch is out.”
I stepped on the clutch and keyed the engine. The starter cranked with a typical early-90’s GM garbagey-ness. The engine caught quickly and I let the clutch out.
“Okay, “ I said, beckoning. “Come closer and bend down here a bit.”
He moved into the wedge of space created by the open door and bent down with his hands on his knees. Well, whatever you call the knees on the front legs of a horse, anyway.
“See my left foot?” I said. I pushed the clutch back in.
“Now I put the transmission into first gear. That’s all the way over to the left and up.” I waggled the shift lever again, leaning far back in the seat so he could see what I was doing. Making sure he was watching, I moved the shifter into first gear.
“Now I’m in gear and the engine is running,” I said, “but it’s not connected to the transmission.” I blipped the throttle. The engine farted through the crappy exhaust system.
“Now, when I let the clutch out, the car tries to move.” I eased my foot back off the floor and the car nudged forward a bit. My friend straightened up a bit and prepared to back up. “It’s okay,” I said reassuringly. “If I keep my other foot on the brakes, the car can’t move forward and the engine dies.” Stepping hard down on the brake pedal, I let the clutch out all the way. The car gave a lurch and died.
He looked alarmed. “That happens if you let the clutch out too fast or not enough gas,” I explained. “You have to learn to be smooth.”
“Can I try it?”
I blinked. “How are you gonna get in here?”
“Oh, I can’t do that,” he replied with a wistful smirk. “I just want to step on the clutch pedal.”
“Oh, sure, no problem.” I pulled up on the parking brake lever, just to be safe. “Here, get in closer. “
He moved closer and put one hand on the roof and the other on the top of the open door. He stretched out one foreleg and pushed down on the clutch pedal. The angle was weird, but he made it work.
“Yeah, that’s not bad,” he said, sounding relieved. “I thought it would be harder.”
“Some are,” I said. “Truck have stiff clutches. My uncle’s Corvette was pretty bad too. This one’s okay.”
He took his foot off the pedal and backed up. “Cool,” he said. “Thanks for the lesson.”
“No problem,” I said, getting out and closing the door. “Want to come in for a beer?”
“Nah,” he said. “I know you want to get going.” He always said no whenever I invited him over. I figured it was because I lived on the second floor and he hated stairs.
“I’m not in that big a hurry,” I said. “Want to grab a beer at Molly’s?”
He wavered. “No,” he said finally. “I’m gonna get back.”
“I’ll drive you,” I said. “We can strap you to the roof.”
“I would but it’s so cold,” he said, one corner of his mouth lifting. We both laughed at the old joke, made many times before but with always with a new punchline. I would but it’s raining. I would but it’s too windy. I would but I don’t have any rope.
“What are you gonna do over the break?” I asked. I knew damn well he wasn’t going anywhere.
“Guess I’ll head down to the Video Villa and see what they have,” he said, absently clomping one forehoof on the asphalt.
“Yeah?” I asked, my tone one of mocking incredulity. “They let you back in there after you knocked over that rack of DVD’s?”
Two years ago, desperate for something to do, he had wandered into the local movie rental place and was dreamily browsing. He had backed up to avoid a lady with a stroller and had bumped into a swivel rack full of discounted B-movies. They had gone everywhere, and he had just finished the laborious job of getting to his knees when the owner “asked” him—if you want to put it that way—to leave. Two years later they would let him in but watched him continuously. I would have told them to go screw, but with nothing else to do on a Friday night and no car, what else was there?
We said our goodbyes and he clip-clopped lopsidedly back to his small studio apartment. When I saw him again two weeks later, he had a surprise for me.
Holidays over. Christmas presents given and received. Old year out. New Year in. Glasses well clinked, champagne drunk, and Auld Lang Syne sung. I got back to school the Saturday before the start of the next semester. I put away my stuff, said hi to my reclusive mole of a roommate, and walked three blocks over and two up to my friend’s ground floor apartment. He wasn’t in. He was around the back.
I heard the whine of a shop-vac and rounded the corner to see his black tail and hind legs on the ground while the rest of him was inside a 1988 GMC Safari. He was busily vacuuming and didn’t hear me. I slapped him on the rump and dodged a reflexive but weak kick. He hated that and I sure knew it.
He shut off the vacuum cleaner and backed slowly out, bent low as he knee-walked backwards on his front
half. It took him a while to get all the way out.
“You know I hate that,” he said. He wanted to be angry but was too excited.
“Sorry,” I said, not at all sincerely. “Whatcha got?”
“I bought this last weekend,” he said.
“This is yours?” My jaw hung. “Really?”
“Yeah, off the back of the Brian Bemis lot out on Route 38. They told me it was glued to the parking lot and were glad to see it go.”
“Why’s that?” I said, sticking my head in through the open driver’s window to look at the mileage. The stumpy shifter poking up from the floor between the front seats was enough answer.
“You actually found one of these with a manual transmission?” I was trying to keep the incredulous screech out of my voice and losing.
“Yeah,” he said. “I heard Lib talking about them. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s like it was waiting there for me.”
I pulled my head back out. “How does it run?”
“It sounds good and doesn’t smoke,” my buddy said. “The dealer said it goes down the road pretty well.”
“Waitaminit, didn’t you drive it?” It was out before I could catch it. Of course he didn’t. The driver’s seat was still there and I knew there was just no way. Besides, he didn’t know how to drive yet.
“No,” he said glumly. “I couldn’t. I had it delivered.”
“Well…” I cast about desperately for a new direction. “Well, jeez, we at least have to go for a ride. Help me take the back seats out.”
I showed him how to lift up on the lever and tilt the bench seat forward. We took both of them out and put them under the stairs. “You’ll have to find a spot to keep those for when you sell this thing,” I said. “Someplace high and dry.”
“I’ll ask the landlord,” he said, and we both giggled. The landlord was a little Polish guy named Nowicki who, I was told, screamed the first time he saw my friend and threw holy water on him the second time. Mr. Nowicki wouldn’t come to my friend’s apartment to collect rent, and he wouldn’t open the door when the centaur went over to his house. The rent, therefore, had to be mailed, and the nearest mailbox was six blocks away. Mr. Nowicki’s house was three buildings down. Luckily, in the apartment my friend had lived in for three years, nothing—other than the garbage disposal--had broken. After the third unreturned phone message and the second knock on a door that wouldn’t open, we realized Mr. Nowicki probably wasn’t going to be fixing anything in my friend’s apartment. We had fixed the disposal ourselves, both of us lying on our backs—no mean feat for my friend--and doggedly turning wrenches, figuring it out as we went. Oh well. It was a good learning experience.
“Climb on in there, Cochise,” I said, sweeping an arm grandly towards the open sliding door. He ducked his head a little and got both front legs in, then dragged the rest of himself in after.
“You’re going to have to move that or this door won’t close,” I said, tapping the leg that was sticking out. The white one. The bad one, as it turned out. He reached back and pulled it in. I slid the door shut and got in the driver’s side.
“This interior’s in nice shape,” I said, pulling the door shut. The seats and carpet were a dark burgundy, nicely offsetting the white exterior. “Only 68,000 miles. Not bad.”
I put my hand on the ignition key and put one foot on the clutch and the other on the brakes. I turned around. He was propped on his hands and gazing about wonderingly.
“What are you going to do with this captain’s chair when we take it out?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to use it.”
“You’ll want to keep it somewhere for when it comes time to sell this thing,” I said again.
“You keep saying that,” he retorted. “Why would I want to sell it? I just bought it.”
I really wanted this to work for him, and I didn’t want to tell him that I had my doubts that it would. So I kept my mouth shut and keyed the engine. It started with a familiar early-90’s garbagey-ness. I cocked and ear and listened with vile incredulity.
“That’s the other reason it was ‘glued to the parking lot,’” I said with a sneer. “It’s a manual and a four-cylinder. You won’t be winning any drag races.”
“I need to learn how to drive first anyway,” he said.
We let the engine warm up a bit. The heater had things cozy in no time. I pulled up on the lockout ring, put the shifter in reverse and got ready to back up.
“You want to check your mirrors,” I said. “All three, and do it twice. Once you’ve started moving, alternate between mirrors and looking out the back and side windows.” I nudged the throttle and eased out the clutch.
His lower half lay kind of on its side, one foreleg tucked underneath, the other thrown out and bent slightly as a brace. His hind legs lay neatly alongside one another, out of the way and forgotten. His upper half pivoted neatly so he was able to look out the back window.
“Wow,” I said, noticing. “Your spine must have ball bearings in it. Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Nope,” he said, turning back around as I brought the van to a stop and grabbed first gear.
“Now, when you’re starting off from rest, start letting out the clutch before you start giving it any gas. Otherwise you sound like a n00b.”
I demonstrated, bringing the revs to about 4000 as I let the clutch out much too slowly. The engine responded with a rough howl.
“Not only that, but when you finally let the clutch all the way out, the engine’s spinning so fast it makes the whole car do this.”
I let the clutch all the way out and the van bucked beneath us. He grabbed onto one of the seatbacks and said something quite rude. Grinning, I brought the van to a stop again. We were almost out of the
“Remember, clutch first till it starts to grab,then gas to keep it from bogging.”
We started off.
The van chugged smoothly along. We chatted. I made comments about the van, gave little tips, showed him some tricks. Finally, as we rolled up to a red light, I turned around myself.
“Your turn,” I said. “Grab this shifter.”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Of course,” I said. “It’s yours, isn’t it?”
He wrapped his left hand around the shift knob. I looked down. “Nope,” I said. “Right hand, please. That’s the one you’ll be using so get used to it now.”
He switched hands. I stomped on the clutch.
“First gear, please,” I said. “To the left and up.”
Snick. “Do I leave my hand here or can I let go?”
I smiled. “You can do whatever you want. I’ll let you know when it’s time to shift. But eventually you’ll need to learn for yourself. And this thing has no tach.”
“No what?” he asked.
“Tachometer. I’ll explain later,” I said as the light turned green. The van moved away from the light smoothly. I built up some speed and pushed the clutch back in.
“Okay, second gear,” I said. “Straight back.”
Snick. The clutch came out and we resumed accelerating.
“Third gear, please. Up to the middle, over one notch and up again.”
Snick-snick. I let the clutch out and the van began to shudder. The engine dropped into a basso-profundo groan. I stepped on the clutch again.
“Whoops, that’s fifth. You went over one too far. Back to the middle and over to the left, but not all the way, then up again.”
Snick. A thoughtful pause, then snick. I looked down, nodded and let the clutch out again. “Very nice.”
“Wow,” he said. “This is tough.”
“Trust me, it gets easier,” I said reassuringly. “Me, I can drive a stick through rush-hour traffic in the city while talking on the phone and eating a taco.”
We drove around for a while. I handled the shifting part of the time, but the more my buddy did it, the more confidence he got and the more he enjoyed himself. Finally we pulled back into the parking lot behind his building.
I parked, then got out and walked around to the sliding door. He managed to get it open before I got there and began the laborious process of extricating himself. His legs didn’t work too well in that position and it took him a while.
“You better apply for disabled plates,” I said.
“Why?” he asked, sounding indignant. “I’m not disabled.”
“No,” I replied, trying to sound soothing, “but you’re gonna need some extra space to get in and out of this thing. What if some jerk parks a couple inches away from you and you can’t get in? Or out? Trust me. Besides, I don’t think applying for plates will be a problem. Show them your bad leg and you’re in like Flynn.”
“I never thought of that,” he said, musingly. “I guess that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
“Look, I gotta hustle,” I said. “I need to get all my stuff put away. You need anything?”
“Nope,” he said. “Well, actually, help me put this seat we pulled out into the storage shed.”
Three days later I walked back over. The van’s engine was running, puffing plumes of fluffy white condensation into the crisp winter air. He was standing outside the open driver’s door, one foreleg propped inside the footwell and blipping the throttle.
“You think that sounds good, you should try it with a motor that isn’t a boat anchor,” I said as I strolled up. “Get you one of these with a warmed-up SBC.”
“SBC?” he asked, reaching in and turning off the engine.
“Small-block Chevy. A big ol’ V8,” I said in answer. “Never mind. Learn how to drive first and then we can talk hot-rod. You know you have to push the little button to get the key out, right?”
“Yeah, my landlord showed me,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I was standing here thinking I’d broken it, with the little buzzer inside going bong bong bong. I didn’t know what to do! I was gonna call you when he pulled in.”
“He actually talked to you?” I was all incredulous again. “I thought he was afraid of you.”
“I guess it just took having something to talk about,” he said, taking the key and putting it in his waist-pack.
“What are you putting that away for?” I asked. “I thought we’d look into removing the driver’s seat and getting you hooked up.”
His eyes gleamed. “Yeah, I’m ready,” he said. “But business first. I gotta go hit the books. I know if I get distracted with this thing I’ll never study.”
“Well, it’s your ass, Chief,” I said. “Me, I don’t think I’d be able to wait.”
“I don’t think I’ll get much studying done,” he agreed. “Too excited. But I’m going to make myself wait. When the time comes, I want to devote my entire attention to this.”
“Okay,” I said. “You got a lot more willpower than me.”
As it turned out, we weren’t able to put it together for a couple of months. Conveniently, Spring Break arrived and we both got a chance to breathe. I showed up Monday morning. I didn’t walk over this time, though; I drove. And I had my set of jumper cables in the back.
Of course the van was totally dead; he’d go out and start it every once in a while but the last two weeks before break had left us both totally swamped and he couldn’t get to it. I decided to use this as a learning opportunity.
We had both hoods up. “Black to black and red to red, and that’s it,” I said. “Leave the ‘jumper’ vehicle running while you start the ‘jumpee’. That way you can hear the alternator load up and then you know you’ve got a good connection.”
I turned the key. The white van roared to life. He smiled.
“Let’s let it run while we unbolt the driver’s seat,” I said. “Then we can see how you fit.”
“Sounds good,” he said. “I’m kinda nervous, though. What if it doesn’t work?”
“It will, don’t worry.” I said, punching him in the arm. “But even if it doesn’t, you sell this and we try something else. And we keep trying until we figure it out. Which we will.”
The seat was out in ten minutes. “Saddle up,” I said, stepping back. “Pun intended.”
He went around to the side door and worked his way in. It took awhile, but finally he ended up behind the steering wheel, forelegs out in front, hind legs off to the side. I open the driver’s door and assessed the situation.
“Okay, your head could be higher, but you look like you can see over the steering wheel,” I said. “Can you reach it okay?”
He reached out and grabbed the wheel. I nodded approvingly. “Not bad. Let’s look at your pedals.”
I saw right away there was a problem. Sitting on the floor like he was, he had to lift his forelegs to get them up to the pedals. That would be hard enough by itself, but it also meant that he had no leverage to exert on the pedals themselves. I was doubtful but held my tongue.
“The most important one is the brakes,” I said. “Step on the pedal.”
He could get his hoof on the brake pedal okay, so I said, “All right. Now the brakes and clutch together.”
He managed to get both forehooves on the pedals, but pushing the clutch pedal down was hard. He managed to get it to the floor, but then his hoof slipped off and the pedal popped back up.
“The angles are all wrong,” I said. “Your knees are way up in the air.” I paused. “What do you call the knees on a horse, anyway?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I’m not a horse.”
“See,” I went on, ignoring him, “when I’m sitting in the seat, I’m above the pedals and I step down on them. I have the advantage of gravity. You’re basically trying to push down on them, but from below. That’s gotta be tough. On top of that, your front legs are really skinny compared to mine. I guess you have more muscles in other places, but not there. That’s going to make it harder for you.”
He nodded glumly. “Yeah, and pushing out on the clutch like that makes me want to slide backwards. That, plus it’s hard to keep my hooves on the pedals,” he said. “They’re slippery.”
“Well,” I said, thinking. After a bit, I asked, “Do you think it’s impossible?”
He thought for a moment. “No,” he said finally. “But it’s going to be harder than I thought.”
“You had to get one with a stick,” I chided. “You can always try it again with an automatic.”
“You said automatics were for pussies,” he said in retort.
“Since when do you care what I think?” I demanded.
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I don’t,” he said, and broke into a grin.
“So we need to get you some more leverage, and we need to keep your feet on the pedals,” I mused. “Lemme think. In the meantime, I don’t think this is quite safe enough yet.”
“I wanna try it, though,” he said.
“How will we get it home if you put it in the ditch?” I asked. “There’s no driver’s seat anymore.”
“I’m going to try backing it out of the space,” he said, determinedly. “If it works, I’ll keep going. If not, I’ll stop.”
“I don’t like this,” I said. “But I heard centaurs were stubborn. If you’re gonna do it, do it. But I am backing up.”
He turned the key, brow furrowed in concentration. The solenoid clicked, but nothing happened. “You have to have the clutch in for the starter to turn,” I said. “There’s a safety switch in case you try to start it in gear.”
“I knew that,” he said. His voice had an edge of worry. His lips thinned with strain as he got the clutch pedal in. “Brakes,” I said.
“I am,” he said, now a note of exasperation creeping into his voice.
“Harder,” I replied. “The brake lights aren’t on.”
He let out a small grunt of effort and the brakes lights lit up. “Make sure it’s in neutral before you turn the key,” I yelled.
There was a clunk from deep in the van’s bones as he slid the shifter into neutral, then the lights dimmed slightly as the starter whined. The engine caught quickly.
I threw caution to the wind and walked back up to the driver’s window. “You can take your foot off the clutch, but stay on the brakes,” I cautioned. “You okay?”
He let out a sigh of relief as he released the clutch. “Man, that’s hard,” he said.
“That’s nothing,” I replied. “You won’t be driving any long-haul trucks, that’s for sure. But the leverage is all wrong with this one. We’ll figure it out.” I reached in and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Maybe we should wait, huh?”
“Just once,” he begged.
“Okay,” I conceded. “But you don’t have the option of screwing around. You have to get it in gear and get the clutch out before your leg gets tired or before your foot slips off. Remember…all the way to the left and up, then start letting out the clutch before you give it gas.”
“Okay,” he mumbled. “All the way to the left and up.”
I stepped back and waited for the reverse lights to come on. When they didn’t, I yelled, “Pull up on the lockout ring first!”
Another clunk from underneath, then the back-up lights came on.
I hurried back to the driver’s window. “Okay, start letting the clutch out slowly. Slooowly. Don’t touch the gas until you hear it start bogging.”
The van began to move backwards. “That’s it,” I said in what I hoped was an encouraging tone.
The van picked up a little speed, and the engine burped as he goosed it. “Not too much,” I said.
Things were going well when there was a pop from inside and the van lurched backwards. His hoof had slipped off the pedal and now the van was all the way in gear and moving.
“Brakes!” I yelled. “Brakes brakes brakes!”
His face, white and scared. The van’s rear wheels broke loose and spun as, in panic, his hoof stomped the gas by mistake.
The van ground to a halt inches from a telephone pole.
I ran up to the driver’s window. He was staring fixedly into space, seeing nothing. His hands had welded themselves to the wheel.
“You okay, man?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, the word coming out as one solid exhalation. He nodded, as if to confirm it to himself. “Yeah,” he said again, and that time it sounded better.
I looked at him for a bit. I grabbed his shoulder again and squeezed it. “We’re gonna make this work,”
I said. I hoped I sounded reassuring.
“Yeah,” he said again, still staring.
I looked around and spied a milk crate by the garbage cans. “Get out of there and let’s go get a beer,” I said. “I’ll park this thing and we’ll try again tomorrow.”
The next morning I went to his apartment and knocked. No answer. I went back home and screwed around for a while, then tried again around noon. No answer. Anyone else I would have left them alone, but I knew he was a loner and I knew he didn’t have anywhere else to go. I tried the door and found it open. That wasn’t like him at all.
I called his name a few times. After the last I heard something coming from the bedroom. I knocked on the bedroom door too and heard nothing. For a while. Then something muffled.
“What, man?” I asked, pushing the bedroom door open and sticking my head in. His response was muffled because his face was buried in a pillow.
The bedroom was small. It looked smaller because it was jammed with the largest mattress money could buy. There was just enough room between it and the wall to see what color the carpet was.
He lay sprawled on top of the covers. They were there mainly for decorum; he would throw on one of those big burlap baja-type pullovers and sleep on top. His lower half lay on its side, all four legs languidly occupying right angles, while the ball-bearing in his spine allowed his top half to be nearly face-down, and his face, as a result, could bury itself into a pillow quite well. What he was mumbling sounded a lot like “Go away.”
“Come on, man,” I said, coaxed. “Get up.”
He said nothing. He stretched, both forelegs stiffly extended, and drew his hind legs up close. He let out a deep sigh.
“Get up,” I said again, and pushed down on the mattress with my foot.
He rolled all the way on to his side, propped his upper half on his elbow, and looked back at me.
“I don’t want to get up.”
“Fine,” I said, and left.
Two days later I tried again. This time he came to the door.
“Sorry I snapped at you like that,” he said.
“You call that snapping?” I laughed. “I call that being politely depressed.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“Take out what? You’re angry because you confused the brakes with the gas? People do that all the time. Mostly in Toyotas. Then they sue. I don’t think you’re gonna sue anybody, do you?
“No, but…” He turned away. “Come on in, I guess. I don’t feel like going outside.”
Most college apartments had beat-up couches and stuff. His was full of pillows and beanbags. His comfy place was two big beanbags up against the wall, which had been hung with thick throw rugs. Anywhere you leaned up against the wall, it was fluffy. He liked to spread out on his beanbags, turn his upper body on that ball bearing, and relax against the wall. Facing his small entertainment center was a small night table. He leaned on this when watching TV, or, apparently, when sunk in deep depression.
“I know, dude,” I said. “Sometimes it gets to you. You change what you can and you deal with what you can’t, or you turn to drugs and alcohol. And you know how much alcohol it takes to get you drunk. You can’t afford to be an alcoholic.”
He collapsed sideways onto his beanbags, grabbed a pillow and leaned on the night table, chin on his crossed arms.
“I just…wish things were different, that’s all.”
“Different how?” I went to his refrigerator and grabbed two beers. The only two that were left. “Different shape? Different place?” I handed him a beer and sat down with the other. “Sure, wish all you want. See how far that gets you.”
I guess I could have been nicer, but I was young and I thought I knew everything.
“Look, man, there’s no quitting. Quitting means you lay down and die. If you’re gonna do that, get it over with. If you’re gonna keep fighting, keep fighting.”
“Yeah, you’re shaped funny.” I went on. “Yeah, you’re not gonna go skydiving or fly an F-15. Yeah, you’re a gimp. Yeah, stairs suck.”
He said nothing.
“And yeah, closed-minded people speak a lot more than they think. But words only hurt if you let them. The other stuff….well, you have to focus on the things you can do and ignore the things you can’t do. Rock-climbing? Bungee-jumping? I know you talk about these things but a) you’re crazy and b) why would you want to? Focus on the things that are worth the worry, the things within reach. Letting the other stuff get to you…man, that’s just making it easier for the other side.”
He said nothing. I tried a low blow.
“You think I like being diabetic?”
He turned around to look at me.
“I am a brittle diabetic. 100% dependent on insulin. I check blood sugar twice, three times a day and have to inject myself with insulin. Since I was seven.”
“I…I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t know that because I never told you that. There’s no point, except using it in a crappy way to guilt you into listening to me. I can’t change it, so I focus on the things I can still do and ignore the things I can’t do. I have to deal with it, so I deal with it.”
He sat up. “I’m sorry to hear that, man.”
“Don’t worry about it. But it you want to make me feel better, get up and come outside with me.”
He got up. “Lemme just go put on my pants.” He didn’t own pants and we both knew it. The fact that his sense of humor had returned somewhat was a good sign; I grabbed the ball and ran with it.
“Look, brother,” I said, “if I had an excuse to go outside without any pants on whenever I felt like it, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity. You think you got it bad, but man, you are living the life.”
We went outside. I grabbed a beanbag on the way and dragged him over to contemplate the white van again.
“I got me a couple of ideas,” I said. “I am gonna talk to some people, but in the meantime, let’s go practice.” I threw the beanbag in the back, then opened the driver’s door and saw my milk crate. “I’m driving.”
We found a deserted parking lot and drove all the way to the back. I hopped off the milk crate and slid into the passenger’s seat. “Come on, man,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “Assume the position”.
He worked his way slowly over to the driver’s side and grabbed the steering wheel. He looked over at me.
“With your lower body on the ground like that, it’s like me trying to drive sitting on the floor. It’s just not easy that way. So one of the things we’re going to do is find a way to get you off the floor so your front legs have more leverage. Besides, we get you off the ground so you push down instead of forward, and you don’t slide backwards every time you push on the clutch.”
I got out and opened the side door again, then went to the back and grabbed the beanbag. I poked it in through the door at him, then climbed back in the passenger side. He was holding it and looking at me quizzically.
“Can you get your front half on that?” I asked. “Put that on the floor and get it underneath you?”
He managed, but it took awhile. Kneeling on his front legs got his belly off the floor, but when he tried sliding the bean bag underneath, his forehooves were in the way. In the end, he stood up as much as possible, upper back and shoulders hard up against the headliner, and I pushed the beanbag into place. He lowered himself, then scrunched around a bit. It was crude, but he ended up with his head about where a regular ol’ two-legged human’s would have been.
“Try pushing the clutch in,” I suggested.
He looked down at the pedals for a moment, then lifted his left foreleg and stepped down gingerly.
Immediately, his face brightened. “Hey, that’s a lot easier,” he said.
“Good.” I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, but the ball was rolling. “Try them both.”
He was able to get both forehooves onto the pedals, but when he applied pressure, he slid back a little.
“No problem, no problem,” I said. “We’re making good progress. Just hold on to the wheel when you do that. And anyway, if you step on the brakes that hard while you’re moving, you’ll go right through the windshield, and I mean all of you. Do it gently.”
Holding the clutch down, he took his foot off the brakes, scrunched around a bit more, then gingerly
tried again. This time he stayed put.
“Excellent,” I said. “Really excellent. How does that feel?”
“Well,” he said, looking back and down at himself, “having half of me up in the air like this while the other half is on the ground will probably make my back hurt after awhile,” he said.
“Does it hurt now?” I asked.
“No,” he said thoughtfully. “Not yet.”
“I know it isn’t comfortable, but you gotta get used to the motions,” I said. “And we’re in a big parking lot with nothing to hit, and if it all goes pear-shaped, I reach over and turn off the engine. You’re 100% safe.”
He said nothing.
“You could always sell this and buy one with an automatic,” I said, in a last-ditch effort to get him to fight back.
He looked at me one more time, then grabbed the wheel, put one foot on the brakes, stomped the clutch in with the other, and turned the key. The engine caught right away and idled smoothly.
“Make sure it’s in neutral, then you can take your foot off the clutch.”
He waggled the shift lever, then eased off on the clutch pedal. He blew out breath as he did so. It was still a little difficult.
“Now, step on the brakes and put it into first gear.”
He looked down at his front legs, then at the shifter. He got one hoof on the brakes and the other on the clutch. With small grunt of effort, he got the clutch in and snicked the shifter into first.
“Okay, we’re not gonna touch the gas this time,” I said. “We’re gonna work on your clutch control. You gotta hard-wire your leg to respond by itself, without thinking. I want you to let the clutch out slowly until the car starts rolling, then push it in and come to a stop. Do that for me now.”
He braced his leg with one hand and let the clutch out slowly. The van drifted slowly forward.
Pushing down on his foreleg with his left hand, he pushed the clutch back in and brought his other foreleg to bear on the brakes. We came to a stop.
“Good! Can you do it without bracing your leg with your hand?”
“No problem. We’ll work on that. Do it again.”
He did it again, and again. Each time we rolled to a stop, his smile grew bigger.
“Okay, neutral. Now we’re gonna give your left leg a break.”
“Hey, smartass, what are you gonna do when it’s rush hour?”
“Pull over and wait it out.”
“That’s so not an option. We’ll worry about that later. What I want you to do is let the clutch out slowly, this time all the way. Don’t touch the gas, though. If you think the engine is gonna die, push the clutch back in. Clutch control before throttle control.”
He got his forehooves back on the pedals and pushed the clutch in with the help of his left hand. He snicked the shifter into first and took his right forehoof off the brakes. Slowly, very slowly, he began backing out the clutch pedal. We began rolling.
“Good,” I said. “Don’t get scared. Get comfortable.”
He put his left hand on the wheel and let his leg do the rest. It helped that we were facing slightly downhill.
“Keep going,” I said, waiting for the van’s speed to creep up just a little higher. When it did, I said, “Let it out all the way and put your left foot down on the floor.”
He glanced briefly at me, then did it. The van lurched a tiny bit, and the engine staggered a tiny bit, and then we were rolling with the van in gear and the clutch all the way out.
“Now what I want you to do is drive all the way down the side of this parking lot, and turn left at the end. Follow it all the way around, and head back towards the same spot we started from.”
We got to the end okay, but poking along at idle in first gear meant it took awhile. As he turned the wheel, I said, “Not too sharply…we don’t want to slow down too much and kill the motor.”
He made a gradual, shallow turn and continued to hug the grass at the edge. I waited for him to get to the next edge and turn, and then I said, “Are you tired of idling in first gear? This is pretty slow.”
“I…guess I am, yeah,” he said.
“Okay, here’s what I want you to do.” I put my seatbelt on. He looked at me with alarm. He didn’t have a seatbelt.
“I want you to take your front right foot and mash it on to the gas pedal as hard as you can,” I said.
“But…but…won’t that be dangerous?” he stammered, eyes wide.
“Not at all, because as soon as I tell you to let off, you’re going to let off.”
“Okay,” he said, sounding doubtful. “If you say so.”
“As soon as you get pointing straight ahead, I’m going to count to three, and then you floor it,” I said. "But as soon as I tell you, you let off. And if you don’t, I will reach down there and grab that knobby toothpick you call a leg and haul it off myself.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I think I can handle it.”
We turned. I waited until we were pointing straight ahead, then I counted down from three. On “GO!” he slammed his right forehoof down on the gas pedal with a clomp.
The van lunged and roared. It didn’t really feel all that fast to me, but it must have to him, because he let out a yell. Besides, he didn’t have a seat to lean back against.
I waited until we were close to what I thought was the redline, then yelled at him to take his hoof off the accelerator. I didn’t have to say it twice. The van’s front bumper dove towards the pavement, then settled into a nautical rocking as the engine returned to idle and the driveline dealt with the slack.
“You okay?” I asked, punching him on the shoulder. “You having a heart attack?”
“Hell no!” he said. “That was fun!”
You ever heard a centaur yell out a yee-haw? I have. It’s pretty neat.
“Let’s do it again,” I said, “and this time, hold it longer.”
He held it longer, then let off. Next time I had him shift into second.
“You’re gonna let off the gas, then push the clutch all the way in, shift to second and let it all the way out. Don’t worry about the gas pedal, and don’t worry if your hoof slips off. Once you’re rolling, none of that matters.”
Soon I had him starting and stopping in a straight line, turning corners, and shifting to third.
“The only hard part,” I told him, “is getting moving from a stop. Everything else is easy.”
He nodded agreement. “And that’s really the only time I have to worry about my foot sliding off the pedal. When you said it didn’t matter once we were moving, you weren’t kidding.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And I have an idea how to fix that. In the meantime, let’s worry about carrying speed through a turn.”
We got back to work. And when it was time to go home, who drove? Not me. He still had to brace his leg with his left hand from time to time, but as his muscles got used to the motion, he had an easier time of it.
We practiced whenever we got a chance. And eventually we contrived some fixes. A couple of heavy leather beanbags got him up off the floor a bit more and leveled him out. We put these into a steel framework a buddy of mine in the engineering department welded out of Unistrut®, and which we then bolted to the floor through the carpet. This setup worked pretty well; the beanbags didn’t slide around on the floor, and he didn’t slide around on them. We even put a seatbelt latch in so he at least looked like he had a belt on; hopefully the cops wouldn’t pull him over too often. Finally, the same guy I got to weld up the frame attached a couple of flanges to the undersides of the pedals. These did a pretty good job of helping to hold his hooves in place.
He got pretty good. Not great, but good enough to hop in whenever he wanted and go somewhere. And that’s really all that mattered; as Arnie Cunningham said in Stephen King’s Christine, there’s no finer feeling than being behind the wheel of your own car.
He got plates and insurance. All that remained was his driver’s license. And that, Dear Reader, is a story for another day.
A small epilogue
A parking lot covered in snow. Two friends, standing at the north end of a snow-packed parking lot. Two vehicles, engines running, exhaust putting forth white clouds that momentarily turn the glow of parking lamps to ephemeral orbs.
One of them, hands jammed deep in to the pockets of an old navy peacoat, hooves skittering nervously over the slippery surface. The other, a red-and-gold Laplander hat knotted under chin. The glowing red eye of a lit cigarette.
“Now,” said the one wearing the peacoat, “what’s this you say about drifiting?”
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