The smallest bridge in New Smyrna Beach, rising less than six feet from Washington Street, might as well have been the Sunshine Skyway over Tampa Bay.
My shoulders bunched with tension and my knuckles whitened on the stick shift as I eyed the first “hill” in my two-day manual transmission driving stint.
I glanced at my ten-year-old brother as if he’d suddenly sprouted enough testosterone to become a gear-shifting Yoda. But R.J. sat on his knees, oblivious to the impending crisis, tossing fistfuls of candy out the window to the New Smyrna Beach Christmas Parade watchers.
Thus far I’d made jerky progress down Canal Street in the Simca Mom bought brand new after the divorce. The basketball orange car had spent most of its life in the shop waiting for parts from France and stunting my driver education.
The refrigerator box tied to the roof rustled in the wind. I’d covered it in wrapping paper to look like a book, emblazoned with construction paper Behrens’ Book Store letters to advertise my stepfather’s store. Tinsel streamers fluttered at the corners.
I chewed on my bottom lip.
Would the twine hold the box in place when I started uphill?
I squinted at the New Smyrna Beach High School barracuda mascot in the rear view mirror—a red Chinese New Year-like fish propelled by a dozen pairs of tennis-shoed feet. I hoped the feet belonged to the Cuzudas—the all-girl pep club—and not the delicious boys in the Key Club.
In what universe had it been a good idea to let Ralph talk me into this? I should have had a clue after he convinced me to dance in a Vaudeville review.
I bit down harder on my lip.
A Rotten egg smell of barnacles wafted from the low tide-exposed foundation of the bridge.
The Belgian horses ahead did a two-step, impatient with the slow parade pace.
I putted along in first gear toward the intersection and scanned the faces of the boys perched on the cement bridge railing—Jimmy Lane, Gil Chisholm, and Terry Pressley, three of the hottest boys at New Smyrna Beach High School.
Just shoot me now.
Too bad I couldn’t jump off the bridge like I had in Jupiter a couple years ago.
We rolled under the stoplight and I gunned the engine, mashed the clutch to the floor, and shifted into second.
The car lurched forward and started up the incline.
The Belgian closest to my bumper halted.
I jammed down the clutch and brake.
As if he’d heard me, the horse dropped a prodigious road apple on the pavement, sashayed another few feet and deposited a second.
I rested my elbow on the window frame, trying to pull off “cool” for the guys’ benefit.
R.J. looked at me. “The horses moved. Aren’t you going to pull up?”
“I’m not moving until the horses get over the bridge,” I said through clenched teeth.
Acid poured into my stomach.
I could feel Jimmy, Gil and Terry staring holes me—the new girl who gimped around on crutches the first month of school. There was no chance they didn’t recognize me.
I hit the gas. Popped the clutch.
I’d forgotten to shift into first and the car died.
I worked through my checklist—clutch, first gear, key—keeping my eyes on the Belgian rumps and off the boys as if that would minimize my humiliation.
I released the brake to hit the gas and the car rolled backward.
In the rearview mirror, the barracuda scrambled backwards to avoid getting run over.
I panicked and hit the brake.
The car stalled and the fish feet dominoed down till the whole barracuda lay on its side in a wreckage of crepe paper.
I wrenched the key in the ignition, gunned the engine, and flew over the bridge.
After the parade, stick-shifting kicked in thirty minutes too late and I returned over the bridge like a pro.
I pulled into the lot behind Behrens’ Book Store and rousted Ralph to help dismantle our “float.”
R.J. took off on his skateboard, a bag of leftover candy in his fist.
While Ralph extracted a dull pocket knife from his Mary Poppins’ shirt pocket and sawed the ropes loose, I launched into a litany of my stall-outs—minus the hot boy debacle.
Ralph looked down at me as he wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. “I could never have fixed up that box like a book.” He didn’t use his surly “family” voice. He didn’t use his syrupy bookstore voice. Though bass rattled in all his voices, this one was the real one.
He smiled. “And thanks for driving.”
We both knew he had to mind the store and Mom had to sleep off her night shift at the hospital.
He waved, and turned away toward the paint peeling off the cement block wall of the store.
I watched his six-eight, 270-pound frame schlep the oversized box through the back doorway and disappear. He was keeping my creation for another parade!
I didn’t see the real Ralph often. Mom had married him four years ago, and this was the first time I realized he was a decent guy under all the bluster. His booming voice made the neighbors think we had more drama going on at our house than we did.
Snapshots sifted into my mind. Ralph packing a picnic into the cooler for a family outing to Blue Springs. How he gazed at Mom like he’d won the marital lottery. Ralph—whether intentionally or not—let the balance of power in the family tip my way. I could happily do whatever I wanted, something that never would have gone down on Dad’s watch.
I buzzed the few blocks up Canal Street to Jackie Herold’s, collapsed across her bed, and dished the play by play of the parade.
Jackie gripped her stomach and laughed till tears seeped out the corners of her eyes.
I knew every one of my girlfriends would get a good guffaw at my expense. If Eric Bensen and Leroy Henry caught wind of my escapade, they’d rib me till graduation. But nobody would unfriend me over lousy driving.
I never did screw up the guts to talk to Jimmy, Gil, or Terry.
Diane Schneider—who was the first of the barracuda feet to fall over—had no idea I was driving the car ahead of the Pep Club.
The Key Club remained an untapped vat of testosterone.
I dug two butterscotch candies in gold paper out of my pocket and handed Jackie one.
As the sweetness dissolved on my tongue I glanced around Jackie’s room at the Raggedy Ann dolls, towels, cups, even sheets on her bed—stuff she’d been collecting since she was a little girl. And now she had a real-life Raggedy Ann for a best friend—complete with strawberry-blonde hair and freckles.
And I had her.
Even my worst day in New Smyrna Beach beat out every other day in my life.