Often, when I’m driving the quarter-mile remedial track, my instructor will make a reference to the founder. Like, “Mr. Wilton prefers that students not smoke in the cars.” Or, “Mr. Wilton watches from his bedroom window.” I’ve never seen this Mr. Wilton, except a black and white cartoon version of his face on a dusty package of graduation party napkins. These were on the kitchen counter in the main building. Inverted V-shaped eyebrows, a tiny Hitler mustache, a caricature of bonhomie. “Congratulations!” the face is saying, and in smaller print, “Better driving since 1949.” Which, I’m told, was the year Wilton bought a section of public highway, fenced it off and built this academy next to it. The only other road out here is a low-maintenance horror—County Road XX, loose gravel on a swamp. An inch of rain will flood it.
“Don’t drive the double X.” That’s what we hear from Giles Henderson, an 80ish retired banker with a big nose and sloping forehead, now doing his fourth gig at the academy. DUI this time, though Henderson doesn’t call it that. He says, rather proudly, “I must have nodded off for a split-second. Scratched a piece of bark off a maple tree that would have died anyway. No real harm to nature or mankind. It was my own front yard, for godsakes. I was still in my own driveway!” The people who run this academy let him get away with such remarks. This is not, evidently, a twelve-step kind of place, where they make you tell the truth. I’m not sure what the philosophy is at Wilton, and I have no idea whether I’ll come out of here a better person.
“Don’t drive it,” Henderson says.
But if we can’t drive County Road XX, how will we ever escape from Wilton Academy? On foot? By helicopter? I ask Henderson and he looks at me like I’m crazy. “What’s the hurry?” he says. “Do you have an urgent need that isn’t being met?”
A sprawling aluminum ranch house overlooks the property. Mr. Wilton emerges once a week, they say, and only for a few minutes, to present scrolls, diplomas, ballpoint pens. Last time, he merely tossed them from his bedroom window into a puddle, no names on them. No graduation party, no napkins. I fear I won’t complete the training. I’ve been here two and a half days. I’ve driven the remedial course twice a day, and each time, something terrible has happened. The employees of Wilton Driving School don’t seem to care. They stand with clipboards and walkie-talkies at both ends of the course, statue-like, making observations. Some of them, as it turns out, are statues, or, rather, two-dimensional wooden silhouettes. One of them is supposed to look exactly like Broderick Crawford, another like Erik Estrada. I have no idea who those people are.
“It was this, or prison,” Henderson says to me, without context. He just starts up talking. We face each other across the big yellow picnic table, eating box lunches, near the window from which the diplomas were tossed. A few commemorative pens are still stuck in the ground over there, like misfired missiles. I pick one up and read it out loud. “Better driving since 1949.”
“You don’t need a pen,” Henderson says. “Sit it and eat.” He has a good appetite. I nibble at the edges of my peanut butter sandwich, chunky peanut butter, which I don’t care for. It may even have bacon chips, made of cellulose and low-grade motor oil. I sip cautiously from my carton of one-percent milk.
“Prison? For you?”
“Oh no, not me,” he says. “They’d never send me to prison. I’d actually have to kill somebody. No person has ever died as a result of my driving.”
“Or even spent more than one day in the hospital.” Henderson sucks his dentures. “I’m talking about the big guy now. Wilton. He offered this contribution to society, this driving academy—as an alternative to twenty years at the Sand City Correctional Institute, which would have been his sentence.” Henderson laughs while food escapes from his mouth—noodles and meat chunks—bouncing off the table onto the ground.
“Why would he build it here?” I ask. “One hundred miles from nowhere.”
“This isn’t nowhere. It’s the scene of his so-called ‘crime.’ That’s the beauty of it.”
“Not a crime in ’49.” Henderson says, almost rhyming. “You have a lot to learn, young man. We should take a stroll by the Sculpture.”
“Let’s do it around sunset, when the remedial track is shut down and it’s safer to go walking.”
So I have a couple hours free time, during which I ponder my crimes: driving 63 past an elementary school while school was in session and children frolicked on the playground and mothers were pulling up along the curb in their minivans, double-parked, screaming, throwing apples, flipping open their cellphones and bringing the cops down on me. Fifty dollars for every mile per hour above the speed limit. My punishment was a $2150 fine, reduced to $1500 if I spent two weeks at the Wilton Driving Academy. How was I to know?
Clarice, another first-timer at Wilton, has come along for Henderson’s tour of the Sculpture. She’s sixty or sixty-five, a retired hand model. The hands may be retired, but they’re still way too active. On my first ride-along, sitting in the backseat (an instructor rode shotgun), I took notes while Clarice drove the course, not quite steering around the orange cones and road kill that had been set out to lend interest to that otherwise boring track. She couldn’t keep her hands on the wheel, knocked down two cones and ran over a dead cat that had an orange flag sticking out of it. She kept gesturing, pointing, touching the instructor (a stout young woman who did not appreciate the physical contact), and I noted all this on the score-sheet. Which is part of our punishment, to do ride-alongs in the back seat. They don’t call it “punishment.” They call it “your responsibility,” as if, once we returned to the real world, we would serve that world most responsibly by riding in the backseat of strangers’ cars, critiquing their driving.
The next day Clarice sat across from me at the picnic table and rubbed pink cream into the back of her hands. An age-spot remover. She had been avoiding eye contact all morning.
“Don’t take his critique too personally,” Henderson said, nodding at me. “Ever since he found a pen on the lawn, he’s been writing like there’s no tomorrow.”
“I’m upset,” she said.
“Learn from it, young lady, but don’t cry about it. I hear weeping every night when I pass the ladies’ dorm.”
“We all cry,” she said. “You men, you should be crying, too.”
And where were the professional staff, the clipboard people who observe us when we drive? In a room somewhere on campus, in a bunker perhaps, getting drunk, viewing student-driving films and laughing their heads off. They never take a meal with us.
We walk in the near-dark toward the Sculpture, Henderson in the lead.
“There’s the cat I ran over,” Clarice says, pointing. “Poor thing.” Her hands fly up above her head.
Two-dimensional. That’s all I can discern in this light. My eyes are shot. The cat is flattened, like a shape cut out of black construction paper lying on the pavement, a child’s idea of an unlucky cat.
“I always find it interesting,” says Henderson, shining his moribund flashlight at a shapeless wad of metal, a former car. The Sculpture.
“Are you sure this is okay?” Clarice asks. “Coming out here like this?”
“Absolutely,” he says. “I have a piece of paper in my pocket says it’s okay. Wilton and I happen to be long-time friends and acquaintances. Business rivals.”
“You had a driving school?” I ask.
“No. But Wilton once owned a bank.”
“That wonderful man took what could have been a tragedy in his life and made something positive out of it. He could have ordered this awful wreck hauled away to the crusher, but he left it here, as an inspiration to the rest of us. Too many of us drivers simply deny our guilt.”
“Like you,” I say.
“Is this the actual car he was driving?” Clarice asks. “Please tell me that it’s only a replica.”
The weak flashlight beam jerks around the edges of the memorial car, which would be a legitimate antique if it were not ruined. A shard of window glass glimmers, a piece of ancient chrome not completely twisted out of shape. Other surfaces seem to be made of rock, as if, like petrified wood, the original substance had rotted away.
“Wilton’s car came out fine,” Henderson says, briefly shining the flashlight under his chin like a kid on Halloween. “Cadillac.” His mouth is shaped like a pumpkin mouth. “Minor dents and scratches. He still drives that thing.”
“While this one is, of course, undrivable,” I say.
“Undrivable. That’s the word. Write it down.”
Clarice laughs nervously. “Oh my god. There are bodies inside. Can we look in? Is that allowed?”
“Nothing to see, young lady. The bodies of those teenagers were removed long ago. Boy and a girl. They’d be old like us if they’d lived.”
“But it was their fault, wasn’t it?” Clarice says. “Speeding, not paying attention, kissing, that kind of thing?”
“Nope. Wilton says the two kids were sitting in the car, pulled over on the shoulder. Sitting there with the radio turned off, talking about the wonders of the invisible world.”
“He actually said that?” I ask.
“He gave a talk about it, years ago. He used to give a talk every Monday night, for the students.” Henderson’s flashlight beam now points at the treetops. Blue spruce, mostly. “He plowed right into those kids, eyes open. Then he drove off, to a picnic. Church picnic, is what he says. Methodist camp meeting, with lunch on the grounds.”
We can hear a truck downshifting far away. A normal person driving it.
“So how old is Wilton?” I ask.
“Ninety, a hundred. You’ve seen him, right?”
“The face on the napkin.”
Clarice laughs, then covers her mouth.
Then I say, “I probably heard him cough once or twice, on the other side of a wall, that’s the extent of it.”
“I saw him naked,” Clarice says.
There’s a metallic sound, kerchunk, and Clarice steps back with a little yip. “What is going on here?” Her hands fly up. Often, they float above her head, useless, like hand-shaped balloons. “I think I got dropped off at this school by mistake,” she says. “It was supposed to be a different kind of rehab.”
“Damn thing happened again only a few days ago,” Henderson says with a chuckle. “A student crashed into the Sculpture. Wilton doesn’t know.”
“I won’t tell him,” Clarice and I say in unison.
Actually, I may be the errant driver. There have been several blackouts, these past three days.
In the Welcome-to-Wilton brochure, we were told it was okay to bring our own cars, “even if you wrecked it, as long as it’s drivable,” and my car was fine, mint condition—after all, I was guilty only of excessive speed—but when we arrived at the check-in gate our cars became part of a common pool, keys left in the ignition, and I was assigned a cream-colored Buick Regal from the mid-to-late Nineties, dark brown leather interior, and a phrase lit up on the dash: perf shift.
“What does that mean?” I asked the instructor.
She covered it with a piece of masking tape. “Just drive,” she said. “I’ll deal with the warning lights.”
Low tire, another phrase flashed, in yellow. She tore off another piece of tape. Trunk open. More tape.
I checked the rearview and noticed a child seat in the back, an oversize rag doll strapped into that seat. Smiley-face, red-yarn hair. “Is that who I get for my ride-along?”
“Sorry,” the instructor said.
“Is the child’s mother in the trunk?”
My instructor didn’t care for the joke. “Take care of Patty,” was all she said. “Patty trusts you like a father. Take care of her.” She nodded toward the back. “You need to work on that aspect of your driving.”
Ten seconds later a car bore down on us from the other direction, one headlight disabled, swerving and honking, I braked, lost control, ended up in the ditch—hardly a ditch, only three inches deep and full of beach sand.
“Was that Wilton?” I asked.
The instructor unbuckled her seatbelt. “No.”
“He still drives, doesn’t he?”
“After a fashion.”
“Come on,” I said, “be honest with me.”
An observer stepped from the shadows. This orange-vested individual held his clipboard in one hand, pointed at a tree with the other, to the low branch where “Patty” was hanging upside down, still smiling. She must have flown out the window. I didn’t know the window was open. I can’t be held responsible for things like that.
“I’m not riding with you again,” my instructor said as she got out of the car. “But don’t take it personally.” She started walking fast along the other side of the road, stuck out her thumb, and an unmarked vehicle came to a rolling stop and gave her a ride. The driver honked at me. It could have been Wilton. Could have been the original Cadillac. The orange-vested observer kept pointing at Patty. I reached up, grabbed that doll out of the tree by one leg and put her in the backseat, strapped her securely into her car seat, rolled up the window, and drove back to the parking lot, cursing. The hell with Patty, I said to myself. Let her real father take care of her.
Clarice has a female friend. The friend has been here at Wilton even longer than Clarice, six or seven months. But she’s younger and much more attractive. Crystal. She has glass beads woven into her straight blonde hair, gems embedded in her three-inch nails. “Yep, that’s my name. I’m perfect, but fragile. I’m a snow crystal. Don’t touch me. Don’t even blow on me.”
The name isn’t spelled the way you would expect. It’s more like Khrystle, which should rhyme with gristle. Clarice writes it out for me, but her hands are shaky. “This is not about romance,” Clarice says as she finishes writing. We’re seated at the yellow picnic table. “She’s not here to get a boyfriend. She’s here to get better, as all of us should be. And it’s been a rough time for her. She may never leave.”
“The course runs only two weeks,” I say.
“Seemingly? What is that supposed to mean?”
“You leave when you’re ready, is the philosophy. I know I’m not ready.” She rubs the back of one age-spotted hand, then kisses it. “I might never be ready. I have begun to accept that possibility.”
“You’re staying here permanently?” I ask.
“I’ve made friends. Crystal, for one. And I share a trailer with two very nice respectable women who were sent here by mistake. They don’t even drive. Erma and Berma. They’ve never driven. They were found in nearby abandoned cars, and it was assumed.” She puts down her pen, one of those over-long, bendable deals with a purple feather. Impossible to misplace. Like, certain people will tape a white plastic spoon to their pen and expect you to compliment them on their ingenuity. Or they walk around with a telephone pole strapped to their back, thinking you’ll notice.
“I should be leaving the academy in exactly ten days,” I tell Clarice.
“If you say so, dear.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I’m sleeping in the big house now,” she says, eyelashes fluttering.
“Sleeping with Wilton?”
“It’s nice for the winter, which is coming up faster than you realize. They heat the trailers, but still. If your head is next to the window you can get a terrible headache. And the infirmary is a medicine cabinet with a sign next to it that says, ‘You’re on your own.’ We have more serious things to worry about than getting sick.”
“I have it in writing.”
“What in writing?” she asks.
I frisk myself. I’m not even carrying a wallet anymore. I’ve had dreams like this, which, as I now understand, were rehearsals for what I’m going through.
There’s a live dog in the backseat of the next car they give me. That’s my “ride-along,” a longhaired greyhound-type that jumps around and scratches the upholstery and barks the whole time. The instructor is oblivious. As it turns out, the instructor is a mannequin—what they call a “crash-test dummy.” They really don’t like me around here, evidently. A long black vintage car tailgates for a while, then disappears. This drive feels like many miles. My pedals and steering are stiff, possibly sabotaged. All the warning lights are on, and I have no tape. Basically, I can neither brake nor steer. When I crash into a boulder, the dog flies out the window and runs into the woods. Soon as I shut off the engine, this professional observer appears from behind a bush and says to me, in a very kind voice, “It snowed last night, only fifty miles north of here. Lindbergh Falls.”
“An hour away?” I stutter.
“That hardly matters,” he says. “The driving time could be ten hours, depending on road conditions or the frequency of your panic attacks.”
“I don’t have panic attacks.”
The observer smiles and nods. He writes down observations. A tiny orange-haired troll doll clings to the top of his pen. “Stick around, buddy, and wait for that snow to move down the valley toward us. We plow the road as often as we can, but it gets interesting. It’s even kind of pretty after the first snowfall. You don’t want to miss that. People find reasons to stick around.”
“That’s right,” he says. “I started out as a student here. Everybody did. I’ve been here at Wilton since 1973.”
“Better driving since 1949.”
“Those are old napkins,” he says.
“I like your pen.”
“Personal property,” he says.
I have begun to think that I will never get better. I have met students who have been here as long as seven or eight months, students who remember the last snowfall. I have, of course, met the fragile and bedazzling Crystal.
“Don’t tell me,” she said, not long after we met. Driving conditions were unacceptable that day—cloudbursts, tornados—so we sat in the school lounge and watched a movie. Reel-to-reel, on a creaky projector, with frequent flashes of pure white, possibly representing death. The title of the movie was “Highways of Horror,” filmed in the 1950s. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “I know why you’re here.”
“Clarice always screws up the facts.”
“I just know.”
In one scene, a freight train collides with a convertible full of teenagers, dragging it for a half mile, sparks flying amongst the body parts. Crystal grabbed my thigh with her sharp fingers. “Whatever you did,” she said, “it wasn’t anything like this movie. I know that much.”
“Like a train colliding with a convertible? Me? I’m not a train engineer. I’m not a dead teenager.”
“Of course,” she said. “That’s why I said that.”
“What is it then? Why am I here?”
“Guilt doesn’t mean guilty,” she said. “You could be entirely innocent of any crime and still feel it. Guilt is a sickness, and being here is a symptom of that. Having to watch this movie is a symptom.” She reached for another handful of popcorn, but withdrew her hand, slapping it. “You may as well have run over every toddler in the free world, though you didn’t.”
“Well, wouldn’t you know?” she said, while popcorn hulls exploded from her mouth. “Wow, look at that. Poor girl. Her head fell off. Did you see that? It rolled right across the highway. Coulda been me. I’ll never drive again.”
“Those scenes are staged,” I said. “Nobody got hurt. It’s a re-enactment. They used motor oil for blood and dressed up pigs to look like people. In the old days they couldn’t have had a video camera going continuously at every dangerous intersection in the state of Minnesota. This movie is very misleading.”
“Highway porn.” She fingered a blond bangle. “I love this kind of movie.”
“Listen to the narrator,” I said. “I think it’s Orson Welles, from around 1971. He’s saying things like, ‘Last year more than thirty thousand teenagers died on Minnesota’s highways.’ That’s not true. It wasn’t even true for the entire country.”
“Cars were very unsafe back then.”
“How would you know?”
“I’m not quite as young as I look.”
“How old are you?”
“I could show you the ancient scars on my torso,” she said, buttoning her tan sweater, then hugging herself. “I almost died several times when I was a girl. I mean, a teenager could die quite easily, in the olden days. There were these sharp objects that would suddenly pop out and gore them right through the heart.” She mimed being stabbed. “Nowadays, for example, I have a car that drives itself. I can be talking on the phone, putting on makeup, eating a burrito.” She mimed these activities. “The car knows what I’m doing and compensates beautifully. My car gives me a total massage. Remember how, when we were young, we were told that we would live long enough to enjoy such innovations? Welcome to the future.”
Two weeks after Labor Day, it is snowing. I am seated in the dining area, sipping coffee with Crystal. Another couple lean toward each other across the next table, and there are three students in the kitchen, running hot water, knocking plates together. Kitchen police. I’ve avoided that assignment; Clarice has been excused from such labor because of her erratic hands. A few minutes ago we heard the old man cough—Mr. Wilton—and it was more than a light cough. He might have been coughing up a muffler. The door slammed, a phone rang, and the coughing stopped. An old man’s voice rambled for a while.
“How far north are we?” I ask. “Should it be snowing this early?”
“I’m pretty sure I drove south when I came here,” Crystal says. “Pointed the car toward the sun. I’m terrible with maps.”
The coughing starts up again, or I am hearing cowboy gunfire on TV, a more comforting sound. The bullets make that pinging noise they always do when fired in canyons where outlaws hide.
“It was a rainy day when I got in the car,” she says, taking her last sip and returning her aquamarine coffee mug to its nook. We have personalized nooks and hooks everywhere, like a day-care center. “It’s always raining or snowing where I come from,” Crystal says.
“Canada? The Maritime Provinces?”
“I kissed my husband goodbye. I guess we’re still married.”
“Where’s your wedding ring?”
“Oh, this was a long time ago. My husband stood in the kitchen and accepted my kiss, but didn’t return it. I wasn’t upset. He was supposed to drive me here but would not agree to it. Nobody would agree to it. Everybody in my town hated me, and it wasn’t just my terrible driving. We lived in a ruined trailer. A car had run into it.”
“Your car? Is that why they sent you to Wilton?”
“Don’t look now,” she says in a bright whisper, “but the founder of our great school is sitting over there, in that dark corner under the spice rack.”
“The face on the napkin,” I say.
“One thing different about this school, compared to the others I’ve attended, is that you rarely see a gun or even a rifle. No knives. The worst you see is a few very bad cars with sharp edges. But I don’t blame him.”
The old man stirs in his chair, drops several magazines. Hot Rod, Popular Mechanics. “We’re closing down the shop,” he says, his voice not much more than the garbled soundtrack of an old movie. He still has that trademark Hitler mustache, though it appears to be painted on and much too dark. The V-shaped eyebrows have gone white. “Get out of here, you’re all pardoned, I’ll sign the forms.” His hands shake in a blur. We have no idea where they keep the forms, nor does he. Most of us continue talking, and the snow comes down so fast we can’t make out the trees that mark the edge of the remedial track, elm trees, most of them, some leafless, others still fully leafed out and bending, breaking. We talk through the noise of trees crashing to the ground, the softer sound of Mr. Wilton sobbing in his dark corner.
I snatch my jacket from its hook, put it on, and walk out the front door toward the main parking lot. Every car has a key in the ignition, the philosophy being that we are free to take any one of them out for a spin, to drive away forever if that is our deranged intention. I find my Taurus, wipe the snow off the roof, the windshield. The engine starts right up, seat in the proper position, gas tank full, an unopened bag of French onion chips on the passenger side. The snow is only six inches deep, no problem. I’m not one of those faint-hearted folk who cannot drive in any depth of snow, who sit at home waiting for the plows to clear the streets. I like to get right out there and lead the parade. I like to fishtail, spin out on the corners. I like to have my passengers falling out of my car into the snow, laughing as they turn somersaults into oncoming traffic.
I drive north on the test highway, past the snow-bedecked Sculpture. Two or three children are climbing on it, sliding down, or lying next to it making snow angels. I am careful not to hit them. I do only twenty through that stretch. They wave to me, the way my children would if I had children, children whom I was sneaking away from on a driving adventure. They run behind me, but not fast enough. No child can run twenty miles per hour in snowboots. I think they threw ice-covered rocks at my car—or pieces of the Sculpture— but, again, no child could touch me, nor could Henderson in his tan overcoat and black ski cap, who has been mysteriously drawn into the fray, heaving ice-covered Frisbees in my direction.
I hear him yelling, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go! I told you to stay off that goddamned road. Don’t drive the double X!” And that must be Clarice behind him, waving frantically, or just her balloon-like hands, finally detached from the rest of her.
My odometer has been disabled, so I cannot measure how far I have gone, and I have been at the academy too long, and have not driven locally while snow was on the ground, but I begin to think that I have driven beyond the perimeter of Wilton, although this does not seem like a normal road typical of the outside world, unless all roads now feature observers with clipboards every hundred feet. I am certain that I have driven a half hour beyond Wilton, and not in a circle. I know the difference between a circle and a straight line.
The car has warmed up inside. It smells like cinnamon, with a touch of clove. My radio works, though the stations all play the same music. No talk radio. No weather report. No Emergency Broadcast System. Ukulele music, occasionally accompanied by the inarticulate cooing of high-pitched men’s voices. Am I really driving north? The palm trees are not especially beautiful, as most of their fronds have blown off, and the snow does thin out quite a bit, until it becomes indistinguishable from beach sand, if that is where I am. The children who now run ahead of me are dressed for cooler weather. Shorts and sandals, yes, but down vests, too, and ski caps and mittens. I honk but they ignore me. They seem happy. They act as if my car were only a fantasy of mine, a projection of unwarranted high opinion regarding myself and my inalienable rights. Like, they know I have not finished the driving course and never will. I won’t get far. I will be stopped and pulled out of my vehicle at the next checkpoint, divested of that most important human attribute, the right to drive, and made to walk the last mile or two—however long I have left.