Nebraska Center for Writers

from DRIVING LESSONS
by David Philip Mullins

THE OLD CAR rose and fell on its shocks, the hum of the tires filling him, growing louder inside his head until, soothingly, it diluted his thoughts. Then he heard Indra yell, “Fuck!”
Her leg kicked wildly at the floor of the Buick. He figured she was having a muscle spasm. “What?” he said. He blinked his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t feel the brakes. The brakes are gone.”
“Don’t screw around.”
“I’m serious, Nick, they’re gone!”
The speedometer read a hundred and five. A tear streamed down Indra’s right cheek as she kicked with both feet now at the brake pedal.
“Whoa,” said Nick. “OK, calm down. Let’s both just stay calm. The highway’s dead, and it pretty much keeps on going, so we’re not in any trouble yet.”
“Christ, Nick!”
Nick cracked his knuckles. He checked that his seat belt was still fastened. He began to chew at the nail of his thumb. With his other arm he braced himself, bridging it securely against the dash. He felt his chest tighten around him, tiny fingers of muscle clenching his bones. A wave of molten panic swelled in his throat: he had let things get out of hand. He pictured a horrible accident, sirens and twisted metal and bright pink flares diverting traffic, then his burial, his widowed mother mourning her only child. He tried to collect his thoughts.
“Whoa,” he said a second time.
As if she were extinguishing a small fire, Indra attacked the pedal with heavy feet, rising from her seat a little each time she stomped it. Frantically, she squeezed and shook the wheel.
“Calm the fuck down,” Nick said, his voice mousy. “Keep the damn wheel steady. We’re going very fast, so try to relax. And whatever you do, don’t step on the emergency brake. We’ll skid out of control at this speed. You’re gonna have to ride this out.”
With so few automobiles on the interstate, it was possible that the Buick would simply coast along, gradually slowing down in its long, unoccupied lane before coming to an eventual stop. What little Nick knew about cars he had gathered from a high-school auto-shop class, and he seemed to recall that an interruption of pressure in the master cylinder could cause a car’s brakes to fail — sometimes only temporarily, he thought. But he hadn’t a clue as to how to handle such a situation, and ahead he could see the interstate sloping left.

Reprinted with permission
from New England Review
Copyright © 2010
by David Philip Mullins


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