“All right, boy,” said my grizzled uncle, as we climbed into the truck. “I’m going to learn you how to drive, and I’m going to learn you good. Here, hold my beer.”
We pulled onto the road, the rickety truck clanking and sputtering.
“Now you pay attention, you hear?” my uncle said, accelerating. “I’m going to jump-shift. That means shifting without the clutch. You got that?”
“Why would you want to shift without the clutch?” I asked.
“In case your clutch goes out! Don’t they teach you nothing in that fancy school of yours?” My uncle gunned it. The engine screamed. “And here we go — shifting from second to third.”
He wrenched the shifter. There was a terrible grinding noise that made my spine stiffen. The truck lurched as my uncle grabbed the shifter with both hands and slammed it into third.
“Not that time,” he said, accelerating again. “I’ll get it going from third to fourth.”
The engine whined, and my uncle wrenched the shifter downward. The metallic grinding made me clench my teeth. The truck lurched again, and some of my uncle’s beer spilled onto my shirt.
“Dammit!” he said, slamming the knob downward with all his strength. The truck swerved again.
“Why don’t you just use the clutch?” I asked.
“Who’s driving, boy?” my uncle asked. “You or me?”
He pointed at me. “Don’t be a smart ass. Don’t need no smart-ass punk telling me where the cat shits in the cabbage patch.”
“Sorry,” I said, casting my eyes downward.
“You bet you are. Now answer the question. Which one of us is driving?”
“That’s right. And of the two of us, which one is licensed to operate a motor vehicle in the state of Nevada?”
“Right again. And this here’s my truck, and I aim to learn you the rules of the road they ain’t never going to learn you in school.” He clicked on the radio to a country station. “Now, hand me my beer before it goes flat.”
We slowed down to make a right turn onto a neighborhood street. My uncle tried to downshift all the way to second with no clutch, but the gears gnashed and grated. I heard a metallic “clink” hit the road and bounce along behind us.
“A clutch is only a convenience,” my uncle said. “A real man can make the perfect shift just by listening to the engine. It’s like riding a horse, you know? You have to tune yourself in spiritually to the vehicle. All harmonious and nature-like.”
“I think the engine’s lugging,” I said. “Going this slow, shouldn’t we be in first?”
“That don’t matter none. It’s a strong engine. Not like those compact, wussy pieces of shit they cram into cars nowadays.”
“New engines are efficient,” I volunteered. “We learned that in science class. They use a lot less gas.”
“A real man’s truck uses plenty of gas. And it belches plenty of smog. When I was your age, we weren’t so terrified of a little exhaust. If anyone sees your vehicle blowing smoke nowadays, they act like you’ve plowed down a dozen pedestrians on the sidewalk.”
He turned left on another neighborhood street and gunned the engine. A flock of boys was playing soccer in the road. They saw us coming and scattered like pigeons.
“Second to third!” my uncle yelled, flooring it. He shifted without the clutch, grinding the gears.
“Third to fourth!”
He shifted again without the clutch — again, grinding the gears.
“Brake check!” He slammed on the brakes with both feet. The tires squealed and left fat, twin skid marks scorching down the street.
Because I didn’t have a functioning seatbelt (there was no fastener; only a frayed strap where it used to be), I flew forward and hit the windshield. My chin caught the dashboard, ripping it open. Blood immediately started gushing.
“Brakes work,” my uncle said, sipping his beer.
I climbed into my seat, holding my shirt to my chin to stop the blood.
“There’s a lesson for you,” my uncle said. “You should always check the brakes. You don’t want to be driving downhill sometime and experience brake failure. Taking just a few preventive measures now can ward off potential disaster later.”
He flipped a quick 180 and raced down the street again. He shifted from second to third, then third to fourth, grinding the gears each time.
A worried-looking woman was standing on the sidewalk where the boys had been playing soccer. She started wringing her hands under her apron when she us barreling toward her.
“Please slow down,” she called as we raced past. “There’s children playing!”
My uncle stuck his head out the window. “Fuck you!” he yelled. He swerved and plowed down the turtle stand holding the “Slow!” sign that the woman had propped up in the gutter. It hit the hood and tumbled through the air, landing on the road behind us.
We flew around a corner, skidding on two wheels. This time when my uncle yelled “brake check!,” I clung to the bottom of the seat. My knees flew forward and hit the dashboard, but thankfully, my face was spared.
My uncle lit a cigarette. “Bet they don’t teach you none of that in driving school, do they?”
“Well, we’re only on chapter three of the book,” I said.
“Chapter three my ass. Ain’t nothing you can learn from a book that you can’t learn from plain old real life.” My uncle thrust the gearshift into first, then floored the engine. The back tires squealed, but the truck remained stationary. The potent odor of burning clutch filled my nostrils.
Then my uncle popped the clutch, and we raced forward. He slammed the shifter into second, then into third, screaming down the neighborhood streets.
“I never had to go to no fancy school to learn how to drive,” my uncle said. “In my day, we weren’t yellow-bellied pansies that had to be taught where the mules shit in the mulberry patch. Everything I know, I learned on my own. Can you believe that?”
“I can,” I said.
He sucked on his cigarette and let out of a stream of smoke. “Good. Because your next lesson’s going to be pulling 180s doing 55, like I just showed you. In case you’re being pursued, you want to be able to change direction fast.”
“Shouldn’t we wait until I get jump-shifting down, first?” I asked.
But we were already squealing down the neighborhood street, literally and figuratively taking a new road in my extracurricular driving education.
“And mop up that goddamn blood,” my uncle said, flicking his cigarette out the window. “You’re ruining my truck.”