"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

The Test Drive

The Test Drive

Mr. McCormack was skeptical when I told him I ain’t said nothing. “Nothing at all?” he asked, and I said, “That’s what I said.” He asked the same question four or five different ways, trying to make sure I knew what nothing meant. I get used to people talking down to me, thinking because I didn't finish school that I must be stupid and uneducated. I’m used to it, but that don’t make it better. Still, I knew he was there to help so I took it in stride. Mr. McCormack went on about how that’s a first for him. That everyone else always said something they weren’t supposed to say and that’s why it’s a right to remain silent. “It’s not just a right though,” he said, “it’s the smart thing to do.” 

That made him all happy and excited, that I ain’t said nothing. Excited like a car dealer is when you walk into the car dealership but before they figure out you can't afford anything they're selling and that you just wanted to test drive the new Camaro with your uncle, who also is poor.

Uncle Tait, he drove every Camaro there ever was but never owned one except a bronze '97 t-top he bought used from his neighbor when their boy got sick with meningitis. His neighbor had bought it used himself. Said it would help him if Uncle Tait would take it off his hands by giving them some cash until things got better. Uncle Tait fixed it up as best he could and ended up selling it when Aunt Boni got sick to pay for her medicine. Uncle Tait said the best Camaro to drive was the '67, first released in 1966. It was a restored car what he drove but to him it was the perfect motor car. Not the most smooth and in no way the fastest or most technical. But for him, something about it connected. It was real. It was the first. The Camaro. The first of six generations of Camaro—before air bags and other refinements turned the car into something it wasn’t born to be.

As for me, I’d been behind the wheel of a '79, '97 (Uncle Tait’s), an '03, and a '09. Personally, I would have preferred to drive Ford Mustangs but that would be heresy to speak in front of Uncle Tait. He loved making fun of Ford. “Found On Road Dead” was his favorite thing to say. “Fix Or Repair Daily” was another. To him, the only reason to drive anything other than a Camaro is so you could see by comparison how special the Camaro truly is. But for me, I’d give almost anything for a Ford Mustang. 

Uncle Tait, he knew everything about cars and, but for his arthritis, he'd still be a mechanic. He always thought of ways to share his love of cars with me. He'd explain to me the technical schematics, trying to teach me not just about cars, but about the love of cars. We read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books together just because of the flying car. He gave me Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and when I had finished reading it, he only wanted to talk about the jalopy they drove across the country. Same type of thing with Christine. 

So I was not surprised, then, when he took me to the Chevy dealer to test drive the newest model, just released. He planned it all out in advance. There's only two Chevy dealers in the whole tri-county area. One of them’s right here, just a few miles from my house. Uncle Tait would alternate between the two when cooking up schemes like this, though this was the first time he included me. We’d wear our church clothes on a Tuesday, he said. That way, they’d think that’s how we always dressed.

“We'd look like we had money,” Uncle Tait said. Only I don’t have church clothes since Mamma stopped taking me to church after Dad died. “In that case,” Uncle Tait said, never one to dwell on the negative, “wear your old soccer uniform so as to look like you’re coming off a soccer game with a league.” I didn’t have one of those anymore either, so I borrowed one from my friend Romey. Romey is still in school but is about my size and plays club soccer for Newport Community College. He asked me why I needed it, and when I told him, he laughed and said “genius” and to let him know if it works.

When we got there, the car dealer stood up from behind his desk the minute we walked in the door. He walked quickly across the showroom floor to greet us, smiling all the way. That was another time I wasn’t supposed to talk. Uncle Tait told me not to say anything, just to follow his lead. So, when he started talking, I just listened. Uncle Tait was confident and shook the man’s hand, telling him it was good to see him again. The man had to fake it. We’d never seen him before, but he couldn’t afford to act like we was strangers because paying customers expect to be remembered. Uncle Tait said he changed his mind, and that after thinking about it, he'd rather buy a Camaro after all, but that he still wanted to take one for a spin just to make sure.

“Of course, Mr….,” the man said, letting his voice trail off in that way people do when they don’t remember your name and want you to finish their sentence for them. Uncle Tait said “Bartholomew” and the man said, “Of course, Mr. Bartholomew.” We spent the next fifteen minutes photo-copying drivers' licenses—Uncle Tait said he valued my opinion when making such purchases and that I should drive it, too—and filling out various forms. That’s all it took, and I was sitting behind the wheel of a brand-new Camaro, less than two hundred miles on it. Uncle Tait wanted me to go first because they were likely to run us off the lot after he drove that baby, testing exactly what it could do. He was joking, ‘course. That’s not how it went. Uncle Tait drove it like it was precious, took it onto the highway and let it cruise up to seventy-five miles per hour before easing off and bringing it back to the dealership, all gentle and careful.

I had seen that look before, the way the car dealer looked at us when Uncle Tait told him he had more to think about. The smile left his face and it was like he knew, at that moment, that we don't got enough money between the two of us to buy a new Camaro. And like we was guilty because of it. That’s the part you can’t escape. Being guilty. When you’re poor, you’re always guilty, even before you did anything. 

Kennedy Braxton was at Romey’s house when I went to return Romey’s soccer uniform. Romey’s a good guy. All those times in grade school when I had no lunch, he’d share his with me, fifty-fifty, without me ever having to ask. He’d just sit down next to me and open his lunch and hand me half his sandwich like it was natural as can be. He’d set the bag of chips, opened up, right between us so I could reach them easily as he could. And he was always sure to talk about something other than lunch, which helped make the whole thing less embarrassing. But Kennedy’s a different story. His family moved into town when we were in high school. And to this day I can’t figure out why Romey liked Kennedy Braxton at all, except for the fact that Romey is always generous of spirit and seemed to be welcoming to everyone he met. Kennedy’s daddy is a lawyer and his mamma is a doctor and their whole family owned a fast food franchise in some city out of state. Having all that money gave Kennedy the right to be a first-class jackass it seems. 

“Too bad you’ll never get to Spain,” he’d say, before going on about his family’s trip there. Or, “You’ll never appreciate art until you’ve been to Paris,” before explaining all about his trip to France. Same goes for their second home in Aspen—he’d always find a way to make sure I knew about it, and, on the flip side, that he knew I’d never get a chance at those kinds of travels. Never mind that I'd rather stay here with my Mamma and Uncle Tait than travel anywhere with Kennedy and his parents, always strict and belittling and hitting the booze. 

Kennedy just loved talking down to me. And that’s why my heart sank when it was Kennedy, not Romey, who asked me how test-driving the Camaro went. I said fine, but he persisted with the questions. He didn’t care about Camaros, though. He just wanted to know about the trickery. Romey was curious, too, I could tell. But for Romey, it was like he was in on a funny joke and he wanted to know how it turned out. Kennedy had judgment in his every word. “That’s how you people do everything,” Kennedy said, “instead of getting a job and saving your money, you spend your efforts deceiving and tricking people and nobody’s the better for it once you’re done.” 

And I knew at that point, the best thing to do was keep quiet and so that’s what I did. But he persisted, turning his statements into questions, trying to draw me out and get me to admit that there is something wrong with us. When that didn’t work, he just started in with the insults. I could take what he was dishing me, but when he presumed to speak against Uncle Tait, well that’s all I could suffer. “The problem with your uncle’s plan,” he said, “was that his Sunday best was a cheap, poor man’s Sunday best and that anybody could see that the minute he walked in the door. Nothing but a fool would mistake his Sunday best for a rich man’s wardrobe.”

That’s when I broke my silence. I said, “Kennedy Braxton you are in the home of my good friend Romey and that’s all that’s protecting you right now. So I suggest you shut your mouth before things get ugly real fast.” But he kept right on with the insults, saying if my daddy had lived to see me he’d be ashamed and so on and so on. So, I told him to please step outside and when he did, that’s when it happened. It was like a dam gave way inside me, letting loose a deep reservoir of fury and resentment. I went after him like a feral dog. If Romey hadn’t stopped me, Kennedy Braxton would have had a lot worse done to him than a few chipped teeth, a broken jaw, and a cracked rib. 

The police picked me up just as I was finishing the two-mile walk from Romey’s house to mine. The walk did me some good, but my blood was still boiling. Little by little, though, with each step I took, my anger gave way to shame and regret. The cops told me I had the right to remain silent. And I did remain silent, but not because they told me to, and not because of anything Mr. McCormack would understand.

Mamma came running out the front door in her waitress uniform and saw them cuff me. I will forever remember the expression on her face. She yelled and cried that they had made some mistake, that I had been with my uncle test-driving cars and please let me go. They explained to her what had happened and put me in the back of the police car. She just kept saying over and over through her tears, “My boy, my precious, precious boy.” I sat in silence because what could I have said to her, working two jobs to keep a roof over our heads, always reminding me that there’s two worlds: the one the rich live in and the one we live in, and ours is dangerous and unfair and the best we can do is plan for the time when the chance comes to escape it, when we can enter into the other world where things are more fair, more fun, more plentiful? What would I say to my daddy, if he was living today, about how in a fit of rage over words and insults I just added a felony assault charge to the heap of shit the world already stacked against me and every other poor person to ever walk the planet? What would I say to Uncle Tait, who spent nearly every weekend with me, trying to fill in for my daddy, showing me the different ways to grow up and be a good man? So I remained silent because no words would work.

Mr. McCormack said he was from the Public Defender’s Office and that we drew Judge Santiago, which was good. “Not the best—Judge Stimpson would have been the best because he always suspends sentences pending community service. But Judge Santiago is fair and friendly and a lot better than Judge Montgomery,” he explained. “Just let me do the talking,” Mr. McCormack said. I knew what he meant. It reminded me of certain teachers from school. When I just kept quiet, the days always went better. In a court of law, anything I said would just dig me in deeper, so I should shut up and let Mr. McCormack speak for me. If I had only shut up with Kennedy Braxton, after all, none of this would even be happening. So, I did what he told me when we walked into the court room. I stood when they told me to stand and sat when they told me to sit. Through it all, I said not one word.  

I wasn’t surprised by the guilty verdict. Mr. McCormack did nothing but spin lie after lie in my defense starting with “he’s not guilty, Judge.” And never once did he say anything that would make them understand. Even called me the wrong name once and the Judge had to correct him. So, when Judge Santiago asked me to speak at my sentencing, I decided that what did I have to lose if I finally spoke my mind.

I told her about our ruse to get the chance to drive the brand new Camaro. I told her about Uncle Tait’s love of Camaros and his love of me. I told her about my love of the Ford Mustang and how all of it was just a pipe dream for us. That between rent and food and electricity and clothes, and even with Mamma working two jobs, there ain’t no way none of us would ever own the car of our dreams. I told her about the soccer uniform borrowed from Romey and Uncle Tait’s Sunday best. I told her about Kennedy Braxton and all the judgment and meanness dripping from his every word. 

When I was finished, Judge Santiago said she’d heard my story a thousand times but that it all came down to one question. Was I sorry for what I did? I thought for a long moment. I knew what she wanted to hear. She wanted to hear that I was sorry for hurting Kennedy and that I learned my lesson and how bad it all made me feel. But none of that was true. Or, it wasn’t the whole truth. I was sorry for hurting Mamma and Uncle Tait and for dragging Romey into court as a witness, but I knew that wouldn’t persuade her any. Kennedy Braxton got what he had coming, though I wish I wasn’t the one who gave it to him. Since I had just sat through all the lies Mr. McCormack spoke on my behalf, I decided I wasn’t going to add to them. Instead, I said I’d like to take my right to remain silent at this moment.

Mr. McCormack explained that I was already found guilty and that it would help me to cooperate at this point. Judge Santiago said it would benefit her in sentencing me if I would just answer the question and she nodded her head, real encouraging like, and raised her eyebrows as if to tell me to just play along. I said, “I remain silent!” with more bite in my tone than I expected. 

Mr. McCormack interrupted and said “Yes, Judge, he’s terribly sorry. Tell her,” he said real urgent, “tell her what you told me already.” But I just shook my head and clenched my fists at my side.

Judge Santiago said, “Sixteen months minus time served,” and smashed her gavel on her desk. Mamma cried. Uncle Tait hung his head real low. And I remained silent one more time.

Jaime Balboa holds a BA in English and Writing from Adrian College. His fiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Streetlight Magazine (forthcoming). An open water swimmer, many of his stories come to him in the waters of the Pacific. He lives in Los Angeles with his partner and their son. Twitter: @jaimerb

Cover photo by adrian on Unsplash

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