AUTHOR'S NOTE: Today my wife drove by a Wendy's and found herself remembering a true story I once told her. When she mentioned it at dinner, I had an urge to put pen to paper. Usually I write fiction, but sometimes it's fun just to tell a silly story about something that happened long, long ago.
THE KARATE TOURNAMENT AND THE BAKED POTATO
I sit in the back seat of a faded yellow car surrounded by five black belts. The car rocks back and forth coasting on the slick asphalt as the radio stutters in bursts of music and static. Lightning flashes white and gray. For a moment, we see silhouetted telephone poles against storm clouds. Streaked rain drops scatter in parallel incandescent headlight beams as the metronome whirl of the wipers goes click-clack, click-clack.
Michael is driving. It’s his car, and he’s still wearing his gi. We’re thirty minutes into the ninety-minute return drive from the Coal Kickin’ Karate Tournament. A few gym bags rest at our feet. Some have gold trophies poking out. Mine does not.
The car hits a bump and the wipers freeze mid-stroke. Through the windshield I see the headlights extinguish. All of the dashboard interior lights wink out and it seems the car is speeding much faster than it was when I could read the speedometer. We are a four-thousand pound ballistic missile ploughing through the darkness. No one reacts to this but me, and all I do is a slow double-take, reading everyone else’s expressions.
Michael raises a fist, hovering it high by the mirror. I wonder if he’s angry. Fonzerelli-style he smashes the dashboard, and, to my surprise, the interior lights snick back into existence. The road ahead is awash once again in the gold arc of high beams. The wipers are frozen, still, mid-windshield.
His fist is curled, poised for another strike. He adjusts it two inches right, slightly forward, raises, smashes down. Nothing. One inch right, slightly back, smash. Nothing. The downpour is relentless and splatters the windshield. Reflections from the road twist and turn in curlicues, bending reality like a fun house mirror.
Our driver curses, leans forward to improve his visibility. I feel blind, lean backwards, pushing my feet against the front seat. He squints. Both hands are at the twelve-o-clock position on the steering wheel.
I look at my watch, press the backlight button. It reads five past eight.
He shifts his weight, reaches for something with his left arm, then the rhythmic clunking of a window manually rolling down. The sound of rain and highway escalates with the cabin breach, and spatters of water splash their way into the back seat, cool on my cheek. Michael sticks his entire left arm and head outside the driver’s window, right hand still in the twelve-o-clock position. He’s getting soaked.
Far up ahead on the right side of the road is an oasis of light, red and white. I can’t read the sign through the drenched windshield, but I recognize the logo. Wendy’s.
The black belt next to me stirs. “Okay, I know what to do.” He’s a big guy, and has been quiet the entire trip. “We need a potato.”
No one asks what he means. We all just wait.
He holds his hand palm up, explaining. “We get a raw potato, cut it in half, rub it all over the windshield. The starches in the potato will repel the water, and we’ll be able to see through the windshield.” We stare. He shifts. “I saw it on Oprah.”
I think about it. It seems plausible. Scientific, really.
We pull into the Wendy’s drive-through.
The speaker crackles, “Welcome to Wendy’s. What can I get you?”
Michael’s hair is matted to his head, beads of water streaming down his face. He glances back at us, questioning. We silently egg him on and he sighs. His voice is gravely. “I’d like one potato.”
“Would you like that with sour cream and chives?”
“No. Not a baked potato. I’d like one raw potato.”
The expected pause occurs. “Uh. I don’t know that we can do that.”
“Sure you can. You must have potatoes, which you bake, to make baked potatoes, so, give me one of those. Just don’t bake it.”
“Uh, yeah, okay, I’ve got to ask my manager about that.” The rain patters on the roof while we wait and the group exchanges glances. There’s a shuffling of background noise from the speaker, then the cashier comes back on. “That’s one forty-nine. Please pull forward to window two.”
So, we drive to window two. The cashier eyes us briefly. Michael deposits a dollar and two quarters, and the cashier relinquishes a white bag. Michael tilts it forward to inspect, and we all peer over his shoulder.
One potato, one white plastic fork, one napkin, ketchup packet, salt and pepper packet, receipt.
We find a space in the Wendy’s parking lot. For a brief second, I wonder what we’ll cut it with, but one of the black belts has popped the trunk and produced a samurai sword. He bisects the potato.
The honor of potato application goes to the idea originator. He slathers it across the windshield. He’s the Bob Ross of starch painting. We all get back into the car.
The rain splashes onto the windshield, and we wait. Bits and clumps of potato pulp slide down, casting shadows in the orange wash of the street lamp. Through the windshield, reality is still bent into curlicues, but now the bend has taken a fuzzy smear, like a sixties television show using a soft lens to portray beauty. It’s even worse.
The driver gets out, grabs a towel from his bag, and wipes all of the potato starch off the windshield. He climbs back in, leans his left arm and head out the window, and drives back onto the road.
I glance again at my watch. Fifty-eight minutes to go.
“Maybe slow down a bit?” suggests someone.
The driver says nothing. Our speed doesn’t change. For the next five minutes we drive, no one talking, just bursts of radio music and road noise.
Then, for no reason whatsoever, the windshield wipers wake up, continue their stroke. Click-clack. It’s like the scene from Close Encounters when the UFO leaves and everything in the car works again. We nearly jump.
Michael rolls up the window, wipes his face, and puts his hands back at the top of the wheel. I can see the whites of his knuckles from where I sit.
No one mentions the potato idea, or the wipers, or the drenched seats for the rest of the car ride home.
Here's the one picture of me at the same tournament, still sporting my 80's hair: