Behind The Wheel

It’s not long past sunrise and the sun is screaming through the windshield as Carl heads east down the interstate highway. He has a lot on his mind.

Carl Holland is a conservative man in every respect. He doesn’t spend money on a plastic card that he knows he doesn’t have. He doesn’t throw things away if they can be fixed. He saves nuts and bolts off things that are beyond fixing. He also wears a faded flannel shirt that has been sewn up around the elbow where it ripped out.

He’s comfortable in his choices.

Carl is always problem solving in his mind. Deadlines at work are pressing in on him. His bank account is teetering on the edge of college tuition disaster. His truck has over 400K miles on it and the steering feels a little loose.

But the one thing that occupies his mind the most is that he is a father of four and he has no clue what he’s doing. He never knew that being a dad could be so complicated. Two girls and two boys. Some days he thinks that he might just lose his mind.

Carl reaches down to adjust the heat. The air outside is cool but the sun coming through the glass is slowly beginning to bake him like a biscuit. He flicks the left blinker to pull out and go around a black SUV. The cruise is set on 72 MPH. He wants to go faster, but, like I said, he’s conservative to the core.

He and his wife have worked hard and done okay for themselves. But before his oldest went away to college a few months ago, he read an article that said the average college education was going to cost him $100,000 or more. Carl is wondering to himself if a college degree is really all that important.

The black SUV has been in his rearview mirror ever since he passed it a few miles back. Sometimes close. Sometimes a ways back. Now the SUV is right beside him in the passing lane, but it isn’t really passing him. It’s more like the two of them are riding along in tandem.

Carl checks his speedometer. Yep. Dead on 72. It’s not him.

After about a half a mile, the black car makes it on past him and pulls back into the right lane. The distance between them is expanding.

His kids all make fun of him for never playing the radio when he drives. He used to listen to music in the car. Loud music. But having teenagers has changed that for Carl. The house feels like he’s living in a zoo some days. Stereos blaring. Bedroom doors slamming. Other teenagers coming and going whom he barely knows.

Driving with the radio off has become his quiet space. He thinks how a dad is supposed to inspire his children to make the most of their lives. He thinks about how he’s going to fix the broken leg on the kitchen chair. He thinks about leaves in the gutter. The quiet in the cab of his truck is where he works things out.

Right now, he’s thinking, “What is this car doing?”

He’s creeping up on the black SUV again. As he goes around he looks over and the driver is on his phone. Carl is annoyed but not perturbed. Not yet.

In his mind, he goes back to when he was teaching his kids to drive. He’s thinking, “If I was 15, I would have hated having me as a driving instructor.” Gosh, his kids must have thought he was really uptight.

He did a walk around the car with them. He made sure they knew how to check the oil and check the air pressure in the tires. He showed them how to add coolant if it got low. He made them remove and clean the battery cables. He even made them jack up the car and change out to the spare tire. Girls included.

To Carl, driving was not just about having fun behind the wheel. No sir. Driving was more about being responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle. He can hear his instructions in his head.

Dad: “Who’s the driver of this car?”

Teen: “Is this a test of some kind?”

Dad: “You are the driver of this vehicle. No matter what happens. No matter what anyone else does in the back seat. No matter what another vehicle on the road does. A squirrel darts out. I don’t care. You stay focused. Your first job and only job is to be the driver of this car.”

No sooner had he heard himself say this, the black SUV comes around him again. He’s hoping it will just go on this time, but within a few minutes the guy on the phone was slowing down. And again, he has to pull out to go around him. Only, this time, he has to knock it off cruise and wait because he’s trapped in his lane by a passing semi.

The annoyance level is rising. His quiet and reflective mood is ruined by his tainted thoughts. “Idiot drivers.”

Within a few minutes, the black SUV starts gaining on him again. Carl’s world is coming unraveled. The car rides his tail a little too close, and then starts to shoot around him.

Carl has had enough.

A spirit of discontent whispers in his ear. His conservative shell is starting to crack. He swears under his breath, something Carl would normally never tolerate in himself.

“Dog-gone if I’m going to keep playing tag with this idiot.”

Carl eases down on the accelerator. He’s at 78 MPH. The black SUV stays right beside his window. He looks over. The other driver seems oblivious to the matter at hand.

By the time Carl looks down at his speedometer again, he’s running nearly 90 MPH. He holds it there for a while. He comes over the next hill, and there, way out front of him, is a set of blue lights. Some other vehicle pulled over. He backs off the accelerator in shock at what he let happen. A few minutes one way or the other and it could be him sitting on the shoulder with a State Trooper standing at his window.

“Mr. Holland. You have any idea how fast you were going?”

All the excitement has put a squeeze on Carl’s bladder. He exhales a long sigh and reaches for the radio. Maybe a little music would calm him down. The Soggy Bottom Boys are singing “I’m In The Jailhouse Now”, which Carl takes as a personal warning against driving 90 MPH down the interstate.

He pulls off at the next ramp and into the gas station to take a break. He’s thinking about what he might say to one of his kids should he ever need to call them to come get him out of jail. What kind of dad pulls a dumb stunt like that?

Leaning back in his seat, he shuts the truck off. He knows he dodged a bullet.

Just then, the black SUV pulls up to the pumps right beside him.

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