Taking License

    “Taking License,” New Era, Feb. 1995, 40


    Taking License

    Darcey passed the sobriety test easily. Good thing it wasn’t a stupidity test.

    Darcey closed the door behind her. Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table reading. She looked up and said, “You were supposed to be home by twelve.”

    Darcey nodded mutely. The expression on her mother’s face told her she was in more trouble than she had been in years. Yet at that moment she felt only an overpowering sense of relief that made her want to run to her and tell her how good it was to be home.

    But she could only stand there, her hair and clothes reeking of cigarette smoke and beer. She felt like a dead skunk.

    They said nothing more. Her mother got up and turned off the kitchen light. Darcey went up to her room. She undressed, climbed into bed, and stared at the ceiling, wondering how she could have been so gullible. How could Wendy be like that, she thought.

    When she woke up the next morning she was still exhausted, but she couldn’t go back to sleep. So she showered and dressed, then slipped out the front door and walked up the street to Wendy’s house. Wendy’s parents were on a trip to Seattle, so Darcey went around to the deck. Wendy inevitably forgot to lock the sliding glass doors when she got home. As she stepped inside the house, Darcey found Wendy slumped over the kitchen counter.

    “Morning,” said Darcey.

    Wendy stared and peered around at her, slowly bringing her hands up to her ears. “Not so loud,” she whispered, hoarsely.

    “You look awful,” said Darcey.

    “Just a hangover.”

    Darcey took the car keys out of her pocket and placed them carefully on the counter.

    “Thanks,” said Wendy. Her eyes narrowed. “You didn’t tell, did you?”

    Darcey shook her head.

    “Yeah, my dad would kill me if he found out. You know, you tell your parents; they tell my parents; everybody gets into trouble over nothing.”

    Me, tell? I’m the one who got the ticket.”

    “Oh, yeah.”

    “Wendy, this is serious. I’ve got to go to court. What am I supposed to say?”

    “That we were in my crummy old Escort, and no harm done. Okay?”

    Her voice had taken on a scolding tone. Darcey looked past her, at the design of the wallpaper on the far wall. When she looked back, Wendy had fallen asleep.

    Darcey left her and went home, heading for her room. The car was all Wendy cared about now, and that had been the first really stupid lie of the whole evening. How could she have thought that Wendy really had permission to drive her father’s sports car. But make one lie believable and the rest fall right in line. Darcey had been told they were going to a party at Steve Margerson’s, but somehow they ended up in Schenectady at Union College.

    “It’ll be great,” Wendy had insisted, over Darcey’s objections. “Besides, you’re in my car. So you’re stuck. Anyway, nobody’s going to make you do anything, and it’s about time you went to a real party, one that’s not for little kids. Besides, Glenn says they’re all really smart. You can talk about intelligent stuff with them.”

    Yeah, Darcey thought bitterly, intelligent stuff. Wendy had told everybody that her brother Glenn—a Union College junior—had invited them. She had told them she was two years older than she was. She told lies the whole evening, while Darcey hid in a dark corner of the living room, losing her hearing to the blast of the stereo, nibbling on potato chips, and not daring to touch anything liquid.

    Then in the momentary lull between songs, someone complained to Wendy, “I thought you said she’d be fun.”

    “Oh.” Wendy had replied. “She’s the designated driver.”

    At least they stopped trying to get her to drink after that. But by the time she had convinced Wendy to go home, she found herself with the responsibility of taxiing inebriated party-goers around uptown Schenectady.

    She had finally headed home across the I-890 business loop, thankful that none of her passengers had thrown up on her. In fact, now, on a bright Saturday morning, with an empty stomach and a headache, she could have written the whole episode off as a learning experience—if only she hadn’t taken the Broadway exit.

    Darcey sighed. Whatever was going to happen would happen. The one redeeming consequence of really messing up was that her parents would take a good long time figuring out a proper punishment.

    At school on Monday, Mary McMacken rushed up to Darcey and said breathlessly, “You really went to a party at Union and got stopped for drunk driving?”

    “I didn’t get stopped for drunk driving,” Darcey gasped. “Who told you that?”

    Mary was taken aback. “Wendy,” she said. “Anyway, how was it? I mean, the party. Were there any neat guys there?”

    “No!” Darcey replied, with a vehemence that stunned Mary into silence. And then she couldn’t think of anything to say, so she turned around and walked away.

    But Darcey couldn’t get away from it. All of her friends were just as inquisitive—or for reasons Darcey could not understand—just as impressed. The day was almost over before she caught up with Wendy. “Hi, Darcey,” Wendy said, pleasantly.

    “You said you weren’t going to tell,” Darcey burst out. “Everybody thinks I got stopped for drunk driving.”

    Wendy shrugged. “It was a drunk-driving checkpoint, Darcey.”

    “I wasn’t drunk!”

    “So what? For once in your life you’re actually an interesting person. I was only doing you a favor.”

    “I don’t want to be an interesting person,” said Darcey, biting her lip, knowing she hadn’t said what she meant.

    “Darcey,” Wendy said in an exasperated, condescending tone of voice, “I mean, sometimes you can be a real, uh, oh, forget it.” Wendy briskly walked away.

    Wendy’s words stung all the more because Darcey knew that for a brief moment the party had sounded daring and exciting. But all she wanted now was to be her uninteresting old self.

    Darcey threw her books on her bed. Then suddenly she caught her breath. The room was clean, too clean. Of course, it was wash day. She quickly rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, around the corner, down to the basement. She stopped before reaching the last step.

    Her mother glanced over her shoulder at her while folding towels. “How was school today, Darcey?”

    Instead of answering, she sort of nodded. She turned around and went back to her room.

    When her mother came in Darcey didn’t look up. Her mother sat on the bed next to her. She took a folded slip of paper out of her pocket and handed it to her.

    Darcey took the ticket glumly.

    “Darcey,” said her mother, choosing her words very carefully, “I know it must seem like your father and I go to great lengths thinking up reasons to discipline you. But we have very vivid imaginations, and we inevitably imagine the worst that could have happened. What we really want to know is that you’re all right.”

    Darcey turned to her mother, and the tears came. She explained what had happened, about driving home, the checkpoint at the Broadway exit, and the police. She’d had to do all those things she’d only seen before on TV—walking along a line on the pavement, touching her nose with her fingertips, trying to convince the police she wasn’t drunk. And she hadn’t had her purse with her, so she didn’t have her driver’s license.

    After what had seemed an interminable conversation with his sergeant, the officer handed her the ticket and said, “Driving without a license. Court date’s in two weeks. Bring a parent or guardian.”

    The whole time Wendy had staggered about shouting, “Darcey, c’mon. Let’s go home. Darcey, I wanna go.” The officer had escorted Wendy to the car, buckled her in and said, “Don’t let her have the keys.”

    This episode would have to go down in Darcey’s life as an unapproachable low in her definition of personal humiliation.

    Two weeks later she was in court as the bailiff called her name. Darcey and her father approached the bench. The judge examined her file briefly and then turned to his clerk and said, “Mel, there’s an attachment here.”

    The clerk shuffled through his papers and came up with a torn, half-sheet from a legal pad. He handed it to the judge, who read it and said, “Well, young lady. It seems we have some extenuating circumstances here. Let me see. The car belonged to your friend and she had driven you both to the party where a bit of drinking was going on—against the law for someone of your age, I might add.”

    “Yes, sir,” said Darcey, wondering how he had known all that.

    The judge saw her expression and held up the paper. “Note from the officer on the scene. Well, next time you might consider a taxi. The court appreciates the reasons you drove without a license, but ends don’t justify the means. Nevertheless, I don’t think we have an actionable offense here. Though I might suggest to your father here that a month or two wouldn’t be too long a time for your driving privileges, being what they may, to be suspended. And if you haven’t taken your defensive driving course yet, I will have the court require it.” He banged his gavel on the table and said, “Case dismissed. Next case.”

    “Well, let’s go,” Darcey’s father said simply.

    To her dismay, Darcey’s father took the judge’s advice seriously. She went six weeks without driving.

    As for Wendy, no one told. Not Darcey, not her parents. But a week after the incident Wendy’s father found a crushed beer can under the front seat of his car, and it was a brand he never touched. The cat pretty much worked its way out of the bag after that and Wendy ended up being grounded for a million years.

    And everybody agreed that it didn’t make her a more interesting person at all.

    Illustrated by Roger Motzkus