Fiction: Driving Lesson

Second Prize in Lilith’s 2020 Fiction Contest

CELIA SASSON stopped the car. A dirt road twisted around tall pines. It was morning, still cool, the sun just a glint of light on metal.

“Your turn,” she said.

Seated next to her in the passenger seat, Sam ran his hands up and down the front of his trousers.

“Are you sure about this?”

“I told you, Sam, I can’t marry a man who doesn’t drive.”

It still shocked her. Here was the broad-shouldered boy who’d tended his family’s farm in Kokomo, Indiana. The man who was so good with numbers, he became the bookkeeper at the largest lumberyard in Mobile, Alabama. The man the Bank of Michigan had employed less than a week after he moved to Detroit last year. He stood six-foot-one, dwarfing the other Jewish boys she knew in brains as well as inches. And yet, he had never driven an automobile.

He didn’t have a father, he explained. There was nowhere to drive to, where he was from. Still, it was unacceptable. And so, when he’d declared his intentions, she’d set him straight. “Not until we fix your problem.”

“Why does it matter so much to you?” he had asked.

It was like asking why wings mattered to doves. Celia remembered the day, almost two years earlier, when she bought herself a Tin Lizzie. She had saved six months’ profit at her hat shop on Woodward. Then she went to the Ford dealer’s and placed a stack of bills on the counter. The sum was $825.

“Your husband didn’t want to see it before he sent you?” asked the dealer, a baldhead in a suit with a glass eye.

She smiled. “No husband. This motorcar is not for any man.”

“Oh! Well, let me show you this fine electric automobile. Henry Ford himself just got one for his wife.”

“An electric car might be right for Mrs. Ford, but I’m here for a gas automobile.” She had no intention of purchasing some dainty car for the “fairer sex.” She wanted to feel the speed and smell the gasoline.

When the dealer hesitated, she held up her green wad.

She drove her Model T back to Hastings Street. How it pleased her—the horrified look on Papa’s face. Nafka, he yelled. Tramp! The same slur he used when she told him she was opening her shop.

“Nu, Celia?” her mother lamented. “What kind of man will want you?”

Her parents didn’t know about her nights dancing with a gambler named Alan. Alan went once a week to the whiskered bubbe who ran the numbers behind the Yiddish Playhouse.
His numbers never won, but he was as determined as he was unlucky. She didn’t care. She adored his brown curls, his brawny frame. He loved to dance the Turkey Trot as much as she did. Most importantly, he didn’t try to restrain her.

Mama and Papa wanted her to marry a man like Sam Perlman, someone who might save her from herself. Not unless the boy learned to drive. And even then, she’d made no promises.

Now, Sam wedged a cigarette between his lips and pulled a brass lighter out of his pocket. He turned to light hers first. So polite, this one! Alan would have leaned over and pressed his
lips against hers.

Sam’s hands—his large, smooth hands—were shaking. She let him take a drag and blow smoke into the crisp air.

“That’s enough,” she said. “I don’t have all day.”

He opened the door, letting one leg dangle off to the side as though he were testing the temperature of bathwater. He stepped out and extinguished his cigarette on the trunk of one of the great pines.

“OK, I’m ready.”

“So what are you standing over there for?”

She handed him her spare pair of goggles and buttoned her duster. It fastened at her neck and came down below her ankles. She had designed a veil that held her auto-cap firmly in place. The sign in her shop window read: “Becoming AND Practical— For the Well-Dressed Motorist.” She hadn’t sold many—yet—but as more women drove, it was sure to be a hit. With Sam’s eyes on her, she tied the ends under her chin.

“I hope you brought gloves, like I told you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He reached inside his jacket and held up a leather pair.

He looked at her like a Labrador who’d fetched her a bone and now wanted a pat on the head.

She yanked open the door on the driver’s side. He took slow strides toward her, put a foot on the running board. He might have looked elegant with his long legs and slender build, if only
he weren’t so stiff. She had noticed it the first time he showed up at her store.

“A man’s here from the bank,” Rachel, one of her shop girls, had whispered.

“The tall one with the serious face?” Celia had asked. Rachel nodded.

In an instant, she was cloaked in his cologne. He wore a blue tailored suit. He had the mouth of a pouting child, little, round, and puckered. She would come to learn that his expression rarely changed, even after sex.

“I’m up to date on my payments,” she said.

He removed his bowler hat. “I’m not here about your payments. I’m Sam Perlman. Your sister Ethel sent me? I thought you might like to have dinner sometime.”

“Oh.” That was so like Ethel—her beautiful, blonde baby sister—to give Celia one of her throwaways. Ethel had so many suitors she could fill her dance card every Saturday for a year. Even the boys from the German families—the first Jews in Detroit who considered themselves superior to the later arrivals from Eastern Europe—wanted her. But Ethel couldn’t marry until Celia did; their parents, still tied to the traditions of the shtetl, forbade it.

At night, in the bed they shared, Ethel would beg. “Come on, Cele, you’re practically an old maid!”

“I’m twenty-two,” Celia told her. “There’s still Time before my hair turns white.”

She was prepared to turn him down, this Sam Perlman. She could tell right away he was too quiet, too intellectual. And yet there was the gold watch, the tailored suit, the promise of comfort. There was, too, the earnest way he looked at her. Unlike Alan, her partner in adventure, he was a gutte neshuma, a good soul.

She reminded herself of his goodness as she stood in front of the car. Why shouldn’t she want a man like Sam Perlman? She had to overcome the uncertainty that stirred her awake at three o’clock in the morning. Every other night, she rose from bed and ran to the outhouse to scream where no one would hear.

She got in position to crank the engine, always a gamble with a possible broken arm. This was her brother Ernie’s job on Sundays, when she made her weekly trip to Belle Isle. Last weekend, someone from the Detroit Free Press had snapped a photo of her on one of her jaunts around the island. “Young Milliner Drives Automobile on Belle Isle; Scares Horses,” the headline read. Papa had nearly dropped dead.

“When I get in,” she yelled, “move the hand break forward and put your foot on the clutch pedal.” He gave her a weak wave.

She cupped the crank with her left hand, grabbed the fender with her right. She was four-foot-eleven and barely ninety pounds. In her shop, she lifted boxes, built shelves, nailed wooden signs above displays. “Men’s work,” Papa said. He didn’t see that so-called “women’s work” was harder on the body. Just look at Mama, her youth gone at forty-three, already stooped over from chasing after her children, slitting chickens’ throats to feed them, grinding soiled clothes against the washboard. Sometimes, when she stared down, Celia pictured Mama’s hands—cracked and calloused—attached to her wrists. The vision made her shiver.

After one vigorous half-crank, the engine started and Celia climbed in. “Now, Sam. Go!”

The car lurched forward. With the sudden jerk, her shoulders knocked against the back of her seat.

He turned. “Are you alright?”

“Of course,” she shouted. “Keep your eyes on the road.”

Sam faced the path ahead, pressing onwards. Dirt flew into their faces, and Celia brought her own goggles down over her eyes. Although he maneuvered the road’s sharp turns, she felt him hesitating, even after she urged him to go faster or else the car could stall.

It was his first time, she reminded herself. He would grow more confident after another lesson or two. And yet, she couldn’t forget what the Ford dealer told her before he handed her the keys to her brand-new Tin Lizzie: “People drive the way they live life.” The man could tell Celia was the type to drive without inhibition. And he was right. She had pushed down the throttle lever—and the wind, the dust, the speed had been the most thrilling feeling of her life. “Like flying,” she told Alan later that night. They were parked behind the ballroom. It was pitch-black. There were stars in his eyes. And so, the day of her first drive was followed by another first: She had taken Alan’s hand and guided him up her dress to stroke her breasts.

How those exhilarating moments contrasted with what she felt now, with Sam at the wheel. He drives the way he lives his life, she thought, with no fire.

There was nothing ablaze in this godforsaken place with its endless rows of pines. How could she live out here with him, miles away from the loud Yiddish bursting through the opened windows on Hastings Street, or the tumult of her shop on Woodward?

“Enough!” she yelled, placing her hands over her ears.

Sam pulled over. “My god, Celia, your face is white! Now, just breathe…That’s it.”

She did as she was told, following his instructions, this time.

“Just picture it,” he whispered. “Where those trees are now, we’ll build a beautiful brick home. Can’t you see the fireplace and the mantle?”

She did like the sound of it. In fact, she could think of little else since meeting his mother just a week earlier, when Sam decided it was time to bring Celia home.

“Don’t you know who his mama is?” Ethel had asked as Celia brushed her sister’s hair. “Mrs. Greenberg, you know, the landlady who lives in the big house on Elliot Street?”

Of course, Celia had heard of her. The Raycha Mrs. Greenberg. The Rich Mrs. Greenberg. But Sam’s name was Perlman, not Greenberg. Was she really his mother?

As they’d approached the stone steps of the landlady’s home, Sam had told her the whole story: “My father died before we left the Old Country. She married a farmer and moved us to Kokomo. Then he died, so she married Greenberg and moved to Detroit. Now, Greenberg’s dead, too.”

“Did she kill all of them?” That was one way to deal with a husband who bored you.

Sam didn’t laugh. He had no sense of humor, as far as she could tell.

They found the Raycha Mrs. Greenberg on a velvet seat, her own private throne, fox furs draped around her shoulders. On her pinky was a ring adorned with an enormous sapphire.

“Mother, this is Celia Sasson,” Sam said.

The woman clucked in Polish, A skinny little chicken, this one!

“Even a little chicken has wings to fly,” Celia said.

Mrs. Greenberg’s eyes widened, surprised Celia had understood. She must have assumed the Sassons were a lower kind of Jew. In fact, they hailed from a village near Warsaw, though they retained the Sephardic name of their ancestors who’d been expelled from Spain long ago.

Sam’s cheeks reddened, but he stood there without a word. A kuni lemel, he was. A fool. And Celia knew in that moment that she would never respect him, not because of his cowardice, but because he was simply incapable of outrage.

And yet, as she looked around at the paintings in their gilded frames, the polished silver candlesticks, the maid scurrying into the room with a china bowl filled with sugar cubes, she thought she might go through with it anyway. She was a milliner, after all. She had the taste for beautiful things. The possibilities tantalized her.

They tempted her still. She sat in the car with Sam, picturing the home Mrs. Greenberg would build them, imagining a life she wanted but didn’t want.

She put her hand on Sam’s arm.

“Would you like me to show you how it’s done?”

He got out and she took her place at the wheel, her throne. She watched him bend over and place his handkerchief over the crank to protect his hands from the grease.

When the car started, she did not wait for Sam to join her. The moment he stepped back, she was “off to the races,” as Alan would say, Alan who had shown up at Sam’s office with a rifle. It was the last time she saw him, the day two Irish officers dragged him, beet-faced, from the Bank of Michigan shouting, “Celia’s my girl! Mine!” Alan, her love. But what good was love, really? She was never his. Celia Sasson belonged to no one.

She drove off, gaining speed until the pines were only streaks of green and Sam was a speck of dust in her mirror. With one hand, she loosened her veil.

She couldn’t see the end of the road, but she could see her future hedging her in, her old life flying at her like pieces of dirt kicked up from the tires. What if she simply drove on to wherever this path led?

She could leave him there in the field, she thought. He got out of the car to relieve himself and disappeared in the woods, is what she would say. His death was an accident. Mrs. Greenberg, with her three husbands in the ground, might know a thing or two about spinning these kinds of yarns.

Reaching the clearing, she thought of what Mrs. Greenberg had said that night, when Sam left them to have “ladies’ talk.” Mrs. Greenberg was stunned to hear Celia had no intention of closing her Woodward store after she married, even though, with Sam, she wouldn’t need the money.

She pointed at Celia with her pinky, the one with the sapphire ring. “I know your kind. You’ve been fighting your whole life, haven’t you? But wouldn’t it be nice to rest?”

Celia Sasson stopped. She considered her 12-hour workdays. Difficult customers. Mama’s calloused hands holding a pot of boiling water, trying to keep them warm in a house without heat or plumbing. Mrs. Greenberg leaving the Old Country with a baby, alone. And this: a house with a fireplace, silk curtains, a vase of fresh lilacs on top of a grand piano. And him. Every day, him.

SAM WAS SITTING at the base of one of the pines, near the spot where she had left him. He was reading his pocket dictionary. His goal was to memorize every word, he had told her on one of their first outings to Belle Isle.

“Oh, there you are.” His politeness exasperated her. What a kuni lemel.

The clouds had retreated, the sun unleashed. Celia took off
her goggles, squinted at him.

He got into the car, handed her another cigarette. Before she could take one, he grabbed her wrist so hard it startled her. “Listen Celia,” he said. “There’s something I want you to know about me.” His nails were too long. She felt them digging into her skin. “You know, I spent my childhood till I was 18 working my stepfather’s farm in Kokomo. It was my whole life, that farm.”

“Yes, you’ve told me.” She tried to wriggle free, but he tightened his grip.

“Well, my mother sold it behind my back after my stepfather died.” Celia stared at him, surprised by the bite in his voice, and listened to his story:

When his mother told him the farm would never be his, Sam had kept quiet. But the next morning, at the rooster’s crow, he’d packed a bag. He carried his boots by the laces, crept down the hall. His mother’s door was left ajar and he found her snoring underneath her quilt. He lifted the mattress where he knew she kept a cloth pouch and took all the money inside. Then he made his way outside to the barn. He turned over an empty pail and began to milk Dora, his mother’s favorite cow. He dipped two fingers in the pail and sucked them dry, and he knew he’d remember that sweet taste. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing his rifle from behind the barn door and shooting Dora right between her large brown eyes. The sound of his shot, of animal screams, had surely reached the house, so he scribbled a note and left it on the blood-soaked floor where Dora lay: “Your son is dead.”

Heading south to Alabama, he let Mrs. Greenberg believe the worst for five years until he decided she’d been punished enough and showed up at her doorstep in Detroit.

Now it was Celia who couldn’t speak. Even on the days when Mama had slapped her with a wet dishrag and Papa had called her a whore, she couldn’t have dreamed of such an act. Sam Perlman, who knew? Maybe he had invented the tale, but still, he had more chutzpah than she realized. She was a little afraid of him, and this, she understood, was what he wanted. Or rather, what she wanted: an undercurrent of danger.

“Shall I try the drive again?” he asked, releasing her.

Celia Sasson gazed out at the road, scanned the treetops, the
stranger’s eyes.

For the rest of the afternoon, she did not let go of the wheel.