Thursday, December 21, 2006

Exhibition of Speed

When I was living under your roof I was obliged to tell you when I was caught, really caught, doing senseless things. I still feel the embarrassment of having to tell you about that moronic ticket.

I'd been out cruising that night. I'd probably told you I was going to the drive-in or a movie. No doubt I'd driven by a movie theater and certainly I'd driven through the drive-in. Teenage veracity at its best.

Cruising' with my high school buddies, Big George, Danny Moore, Robby Brown, and Mark S. Letter. Robby was down, really depressed over the death of his cousin. His cousin had been a junior at Notre Dame. Suddenly we all knew someone who'd died in the parking lot at the Safeway just a few blocks from school. I stared at the death spot in the parking lot every time I drove by.

Robby's cousin had been riding his motorcycle (why do I still remember it was a blue Triumph 650?), he hit a puddle, skidded out of control, struck the curb and shot through the front window of a parked car snapping his neck and ending his 17 year old life in an instant.

Everybody at school was shocked. There was a memorial mass. Death had touched one of us, we didn't feel as immortal for awhile.

I felt a special responsibility as driver to cheer Robby and everybody else up that night. I was driving your '64 Chevy Impala. It was a two-door, metallic silver, with black bucket seats and wire wheel covers. A cool car, except for the automatic. Instead of 4-on-the-floor, there was a hand wide chrome automatic shifter, although you could still get rubber if you revved the engine and dropped it quick into drive.

We cruised the valley that night, rolled through the Bob's Big Boy in Toloucca Lake, radio blaring, goosing the engine, pounding the sides of the car in challenge to all. I was way out of myself, driven by the need to shock and elevate by pal's mood. We all were trying to cheer Robby up, trying to forget that death had taken someone we actually knew. It was all the justification we needed.

Of course we finally found some other guys out cruising in another car --they'd taken up the challenge. We drove side by side, door handle to door handle, motors roaring, accelerating briefly from light to light-- Challenging and sneering. Doing the dance, feeling the adolescent thrill of competition and speed.

I was never one to race, it scared me, I was always afraid of wrecking the car or getting caught. But tonight was different. We had something to forget. I had a friend to cheer up--all this without a thought about risking our lives in a car to forget the death by motorcycle of a friend.

We rolled to a stop side by side in front of a traffic light. I revved the motor and pounded the door, shouting a challenge to race. Strangely the guys in the other car they seemed suddenly subdued. All the bravado had leaked out of them. They sat at the light, hunkered down, engine silent-they didn't even want to look at us. I thought we'd cowed them and continued to rev the engine.

The light changed, I dropped it into drive, punched the accelerator and burned rubber. A high satisfying squeal smoked from the tires as we left our opponents standing still at the light.

"Yeeee Hah! WE BLEW THEM AWAY!" I couldn't believe I'd won!

Then I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the motorcycle cop with his lights all spinning and the siren going. He?d right behind us, watching the byplay, taking it all in.

"Don't you feel like an ass?" The cop grinned a mean, tight, strained smile down at me. It seemed like he was wiping a thin mist of exhaust and burnt tires off his mirror sunglasses. "Gimme your license and registration kid." I handed it over and slunk down in the seat -mortified, embarrassed, self-conscious, certain the whole adolescent world was cruising by us slow and laughing hard. My pals were dead silent while the cop wrote out the ticket. That little yellow official message of doom read: Exhibition of Speed.

I signed the promise to appear. I meekly said, "Thank you sir", eased the car into gear and, slowly, cautiously, checking all the mirrors and glancing over my shoulders into the blind spot, pulled away sheepishly into traffic. The cop cruised a few cars behind me for miles, while my buddies exploded with screams of laughter, howling over my grim fate, pointing, chuckling, slugging me in the arm, calling me names --and generally having a good time at my expense. I had to laugh at myself. I did feel a bit of satisfaction at having cheered up Robby.

But at the end of the evening I had to come in and face you. You had guests over for cards. I walked in, nodded hello and quickly headed straight for my room. I was amazed that you could read my face so easily.

"What happened Dennis?"

A version of the story trickled out. The ticket said it all. You were disappointed, I was grounded. I felt relieved that you'd taken it as well as you had.

Thanks again.

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