For three days Robert chased fun in the Bay Area then realized he had nowhere to go but the home he’d been so anxious to leave. Driving back on blistered and dreary Interstate 5, he repeatedly inserted and ejected rock and classical CDs that no longer roused but irritated and urged him to conclude seventy miles per hour was too slow: seventy-five would be all right, even eighty for a few seconds, enough to get away from slow drivers then catch more he’d also have to pass. Soon he didn’t need the speedometer anymore. He was fleeing through an endless headache zone when a California Highway Patrol officer materialized by the freeway and began frantically swinging his arm. Robert thought, rather hoped, the officer was motioning to move on get out of here quick there’s a bomb or something just get away. Nevertheless, he eased from the fast lane, where he’d long confined himself, into the slow and decelerated to sixty-five. The CHP didn’t remain standing but entered his cruiser and passed those Robert had, then pulled in behind and turned on the lights.
Sure, Robert complied: here’s my license, registration, and proof of insurance; I’m a middle class guy, and a well-scrubbed young man like you knows there won’t be any problems with me.
“You were going ninety in a seventy mile an hour zone,” said the officer.
“I guarantee I didn’t know.” Several times hitting eighty must’ve later made ninety feel like eighty.
“Twenty miles over the limit, you’d have to go to court in Firebaugh.”
That sounded like some place between Neptune and Pluto.
“I’m really sorry.”
“I’ve got to give you an infraction. But I don’t want you to have to drive way out here, so I’ll write you up for eighty in a seventy.”
“I appreciate that. By the way, how fast can you really go, legally?”
“The speed limit is seventy. But you can usually go seventy-two or seventy-three and be okay. A good way to judge things is if everyone’s passing you you’re fine.”
“So will traffic school. You can take it online. If you’re eligible.”
“Now, before you reenter the freeway, build up speed on the shoulder then check over your left shoulder to make sure you’re clear.”
Robert moved slower than everything but big rigs and, preoccupied and embarrassed, didn’t notice the fecal fumes from massive cow pens all mortals dread passing on I-5.
Online the following week, he paid a hundred eighty-eight bucks for the ticket and a sixty-four dollar administration fee for traffic school, of which there are scores charging under twenty for online courses. Blessedly, there were no glitches or he’d have had to use those institutional phones whose automated voices keep nailing you with inane instructions when you need something else that can only be explained to humans too often sequestered behind cold technological barriers.
Robert scanned instructions and concluded the course would be easy. He could probably select the right answers from four choices without studying but the computer warned it required every page to be read and otherwise irrelevant data would be buried in most chapters to ensure line by line reading and every chapter test had to be completed with a perfect score. He noticed the first obstacle, about how many cows were slaughtered to supply the NFL with enough leather for a year’s supply of footballs, then answered all six driving questions correctly but forgot the number of cows sacrificing for gridiron glory. He guessed five hundred, an incorrect response that sent him back to the start of the chapter with the admonition state law required all material be read again. No way. Robert scanned through the pages a few seconds each, hammering the page-down key with his left hand and clicking the next-page arrow with his right. Okay, it must’ve been fifteen hundred. No, not that, either. He shrieked and again ripped through the chapter in two minutes. Now he had a fifty-fifty chance. No way was the NFL offing seventy-five hundred cows a year; it had to be three thousand.
On to chapter two. This time he didn’t notice the sentence about which is the only fish that can blink both eyes. It’s probably the catfish, a uniquely cool character actor. No, then perhaps it’s the eel. All right, zip through the chapter and guess the shark. Fine. He was assimilating the driving material, which contained a number of things he hadn’t known, but not seeing insipid little sentences his mind instinctively excluded. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have needed three attempts to determine tigers have stripes on their skin as well as their fur.
In chapter four Robert missed his first driving question, one he can’t remember, but was proud he deduced, since he hadn’t seen it before the quiz, that in most advertisements the time display on a watch is 10:10, a mellow two-handed spread rather than both-hands-together times like 12:00, 6:30, and 5:25. Whatever the elusive driving answer was, he nailed it only by process of elimination, on the fourth guess.
He’d probably agitated the school computer by circumventing review requirements for it presented a video that made his computer go round and round trying to open the video before the enemy computer shut his down. This happened several times, forcing Robert to reboot and say unquotable things before he began calling the customer service representative who denied such a phenomenon was possible and noted their records showed Robert was spending no time at all on most chapters. Evidently, no clock credit accrued when studying was followed by a whiff.
Robert began reading more slowly, and though he hadn’t seen the critical information in chapter five he got it by concluding “I am”, of the available choices, is the shortest complete sentence in the English language. What’s the world’s most common name? He consummated chapter six by selecting Mohammed over John and Mary. He actually saw, and wrote down, that the legendary voice of many cartoons, Mel Blanc, was allergic to carrots. That sealed chapter seven. In chapter eight he likewise discovered Donald Duck’s middle name is Fauntleroy and in the ninth that every time you lick a stamp you consume one-tenth of a calorie. The final chapter culminated with a query about where Winston Churchill was born during a dance. Robert remembered: the future warlord debuted in a ladies room.
The state exam had to be passed in order for the Department of Motor Vehicles to be notified and penalty points removed from Robert’s driving record. The state proved manifestly more merciful than the private school, requiring only twenty-five questions with three choices each and a score of eighty percent. Robert registered ninety-six, and soon by mail received his official Certificate of Completion he as ordered mailed to a court in Fresno.
Now he’s monitoring speed on rural stretches of freeways and reminding himself that grumpiness affects judgment behind the wheel.