Photo credit: kpishdadi

The voice, I thought, would get me girls. It didn’t. After my first girlfriend, Dee, there wasn’t a second one until after high school, until I was well into college. I was missing something, an essential part of manliness, which I could not identify. If I could have identified it, I maybe would have been able to fake whatever it was that I was clearly missing.

I was beginning to be able to control my voice, which initially, when it made itself manifest, came out as a hoarse croak, but through practice in my room, and sitting in Bob’s car behind the wheel, pretending I was in an episode of Mannix, I tuned it into a newscaster’s voice—specifically I was trying for Bill Kurtis. I said, over and over into the rear view mirror, “I’m Bill Kurtis. I’m Bill Kurtis. I’m Bill Kurtis.” I also experimented with singing, especially in low registers: “She drove a Plymouth Satellite, faster than the speed of light.”

But the voice, once school started again, and once I was on the stage, gained me something akin to popularity. I was not popular with the girls, or the boys. But I was popular with both in a way that allowed them to elect me sophomore class president in a landslide. I was trusted. I promised nothing and delivered the same. I had a thousand acquaintances and no friends.

At football games, I was trotted out with the other three class presidents at halftime, and was allowed to speak for us all at the microphone. Out of the speakers surrounding the stadium drifted a voice that was deep and mellifluous and exotic and familiar, as soothing to me as it was to everyone else. Who was this stranger, this me, this dull normal teenager with the refulgent voice of God?

Things came out of my mouth, tedious things, but the voice made them seem important. I once read an announcement that the Roach Coach, which served us hot dogs and hamburgers and lukewarm Sprite near the little chapel on campus, “broke down, and will not be coming today,” off a mimeographed sheet handed to me by our pinch-faced little principal, a Sister of Notre Dame out of Elyria, Ohio. Her face unpinched as I read the note, softened until I thought she may weep. I looked around the office, and people stood watching me reading the note, some with mouths wide open. “I’m Bill Kurtis,” I thought to myself. “I’m Bill Kurtis. I’m Bill Kurtis.”

I took two classes in high school that continue to serve me to this day: Driver’s Ed and touch-typing. The summer following my sophomore year, I took driver’s ed at Smithville High. It was not offered at Cardinal Mundelein.

I was reunited with Graeme, Carol, and Kenyon. Kenyon didn’t look any different following what we all understood was surgery to reanimate his junk, which he’d smashed on the bar of his bicycle following an attempt to be Evel Knievel. His voice hadn’t changed, was still a soft little boy’s voice. The rumor was that he was a eunuch of sorts. He was pretty, with blonde hair parted in the middle and soft eyes. He could have been a girl or a boy, dressed as he was in pastel hip-huggers and silk shirts and earth shoes.

I wasn’t focused on Kenyon, though. I was focused on passing the class. At the end of the summer, when I turned sixteen, I would be able to get my real driver’s license and I already had a car. A girl was sure to want me if I had a car. Me and my voice and my brother’s car: Unstoppable.

That summer, my mother was driving me to class every day, and every day the same Joe Jackson song came whinging out of the radio: “Is she really going out with him? Is she really gonna take him home tonight?” I was like: Tell me about it. This was my complaint about every girl in my class. Couldn’t they see that I was good and decent and sensitive? That with my voice I was going places? That I was sure to be elected junior class president and then in the following year senior class president? What girl wouldn’t want to date the class president, especially when all that power came with my special brand of niceness? Couldn’t they tell that I would hold them tenderly, and treat them as they wanted to be treated, and would morph into whatever kind of boyfriend they needed? What teenaged girl in her right mind wouldn’t want the boy that I imagined myself to be?

As it turned out, all of them.

“Stay the course, Georgie Boy,” I’d tell myself. “It will soon all come together.”

Driving my brother’s car, at that point, seemed like the final ingredient to social success, so I did my best to pay attention, even during the horrific car wreck educational films, which seemed to take up an inordinate amount of our class time. I sat watching these snuff films, grabbing at imagined wounds, my eyes welling up in the dark, my body quivering as if I had been crushed in a Hudson Hornet and my blood and guts had been smeared all over the highway, while a State Trooper in jodhpurs, riding boots, and a Smokey the Bear hat stood scratching the side of his head at the senselessness of it all.

Carol Jones poked me. “You okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Dandy.”

“You’re squirming a lot,” she said.

I turned around and looked at her. She had not gone in for the new look, the poofed-out hair and dozens of bracelets and big shoulders that girls had picked up from nighttime soap operas. Instead, she had her black hair cut in a pageboy and wore a sundress with candy-colored sneakers. She was smart and didn’t bother to hide it.

“These movies never seem to end,” I said.

We were organized into groups of three, along with an instructor. The cars were on loan from Fred Currie Dodge-Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep. Hands at ten and two, we drove up and down the streets of Smithville, a large sign strapped atop our gold four-door Plymouth Volare notifying the residents of our status as Student Drivers. We were all over-courteous drivers, deferential to a fault at four-way stops, notifying the drivers behind us blocks in advance of our intention to turn, allowing masses of people to enjoy the crosswalks despite the laying on of horns behind us.

When it was Carol’s turn to drive, she adjusted the mirror and checked her lipgloss, and readjusted the mirror and looked at me and winked. “Should I peel out?” she asked our instructor, a man wearing a Property of Smithville High School t-shirt that announced him as COACH.

“Not unless you want to fail,” Coach said. He had a whistle hung round his neck in case he needed to get our immediate attention. “Let’s get this show on the road,” he said.

Carol drove around town for a while before pulling into the Dog N Pop parking lot and exchanging places with Kenyon. Kenyon, too, gazed at himself in the rear view, futzing with his feathered hairdo.

“C’mon, Shirley,” Coach barked.

Kenyon turned and looked at him, hurt. “Was that necessary?” he asked.

“Seemed so at the time,” Coach said. “Let’s go, sweetheart.” He clapped his hands.

Kenyon took the key out of the ignition, stepped out of the car, and chucked the key into the woods. He walked away from us, down the sidewalk and into suburbia, and he didn’t come back to class that summer. I later saw him driving in an AAAA Driving School car, traversing the roads in much the same manner as my mother—speed up, slow down, jerk to a stop.

Coach organized us into a search party and we combed the woods and came up empty. He couldn’t have thrown the key that far, but it was gone, and so was our day’s worth of driving. While we were in the woods, Carol attracted my attention. “Hey, so, um…” and I thought, yes! anticipating that she would tell me how attractive I was, and it was about damn time. But she said, “So, your brother…” And the air went right out of me.

“I think Christmas is his next break,” I said.

“He looks just like Richard Dreyfuss!” Carol gushed, blushing. She giggled in a way that made me wish, for the first time in my life, that I was Bob.

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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