Sometimes I let the kid drive.
First, I pick up the boys from school. My 9-year-old flumps into the front passenger seat.
My 8-year-old twins careen giggling into the back seat of our little Honda, where they argue about which of the “Madagascar” penguins they’d each be.
(My 11-year-old is at swimming practice so he’ll have to sit this episode out.)
“I think I’d be Skipper,” says the big, sweet twin.
“Nuh-UH. I’d be Skipper. You’d be Private,” retorts the little, feisty twin.
“Nahh. I’ll be Rico,” says Big-Sweet. Private is a real wuss, even for a penguin.
The 9-year-old swivels around, knits his copper eyebrows together and snaps “SHHH! Don’t stress Mom out.”
“What penguin do you think you’d be?” replies Big-Sweet, who is oblivious to rebuke.
“Doesn’t matter. Now stop arguing, so Mom will let me drive.”
For a 9-year-old to be given a Honda Accord, the interior conditions must be perfect: brotherly harmony, mild heating, minimal flatulence.
“I think you’re Kowalski,” continues the twin.
The 9-year-old slaps his own pearly forehead with his pink-knuckled hand.
Exterior conditions also decide whether a 9-year-old gets to drive. The day must be dry, clear, not too trafficky. The national headlines can’t be too disturbing. It also helps if no one went to Walmart or heard country rap that day.
I turn onto Main Street.
“Now?” asks the hopeful driver.
“Goodness no,” I say. “We’re still in town.
The boy chews his lip and cranes his neck. He’s watching me flick the turn signal. He’s judging other drivers.
“Now?” he asks again.
“Not yet,” I answer. “We’re in a school zone.”
He nods under the thick copper mop I should have cut last week.
We clear the school zone and head north. The sidewalk falls away, leaving sheer weedy barrows and sassy little prairie dogs.
“Yes, honey. Now.”
My seat whines as I power it backward to make room for him. He scrambles over the center console and drops his full weight onto my lap, then grips the steering wheel in both hands. His left foot rests on my right foot, which is poised just next to the brake pedal in case I have to make an intervening “urch.”
“It’s only a 35 zone here,” I warn.
“Dad says you can go four miles over the speed limit and not get in trouble.”
“Dad’s not 9.”
That’s fair: he slows down.
Sunlight catches in the fuzz of his arms, revealing innumerable soft bristles. His back straightens; his arms tense into the angular hold of every man who ever steered any vessel, anywhere.
And he’s happy. Gone is the surly boy who won’t sit for pictures. Gone is the bossy brother; the prankster, the vegetable-hater. When my boy drives, he’s just a soul under the sun, forever accelerating on a road that belongs only to him – and that road’s end will evade him until he’s run out of places to go.
But he can’t simply drive straight. For him, “straight” is a constant quiver from left to right.
I try not to get involved.
See, the trick of the good driving-coach parent is calmness. One must be so chill, so relaxed, so –
“DON’T HIT THAT TRUCK!”
He swerves right. I grab the wheel to get us back on course. He jiggles his soft cheeks in shock.
“I wonder who was in that truck anyway.”
I wince. “Ummmm, the county sheriff.”
Big-Sweet decides to have an existential crisis.
“Uh…. Mom?” he asks.
“Are we OK?”
“Of course we’re OK. Your brother’s a great driver. That’s the first time he’s ever almost hit the sheriff.”
“But what if we die?”
“We’re not gonna die.”
But the twin is not convinced. Secretly he wonders if he’ll ever have another pickle quesadilla. If he’ll ever break his jump rope record. If he’ll get home in time to –
“I gotta go potty.”
The driver speeds up.
“I gotta go potty right now!” bellows Big-Sweet.
Little-Feisty encourages his twin with some spontaneous singing. “OHHHH, WE’RE HALF-WAY THERRE!”
We race onto a bridge.
“WO-OHH! LIVIN’ ON A PRAY-ER!”
We drift around a sharp bend.
“Not the ditch, not the ditch,” I plead.
The driver straightens the wheel; we miss the ditch by a few song lyrics. Big-Sweet dances in the back seat. Not from the music, but from the same burning urgency that powers my car.
The house whips into sight. We barrel down the long driveway, swerve around the elm tree, skid to a halt at the garage, throw the car in park and let everybody out.
Big-Sweet trots to the bushes. Little-Feisty skips to the house, still singing.
The driver turns his large green eyes on me. “Thanks, Mom.”
“You bet, buddy.”
He pulls my key from the ignition and carries it to the house like a trophy, imagining himself the all-time NASCAR champion, striding through a rain of tossed roses as his heart downshifts in his chest.
See – it’s just that easy to let a kid drive.