Heather Dewar is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, New South, The Dirty Napkin, Utne, The Common Review, and the Chicago Reader among others. She lives in Minneapolis.
“It’s usually the easy answer.”
Billy looked up.
The girl sitting next to him smiled. “It was just that you seemed worried.”
He thought she might be making fun but her smile looked like she meant it. Billy opened his mouth to speak.
“No helping.” A man frowned from behind the front desk. Billy turned back to his screen. He was here to replace his license. He had been living in Chicago six months. Three weeks before, he had been walking home, late, when a man with a gun stopped him on the street and demanded his wallet and phone. Billy emptied his pockets onto the pavement. Afterwards, he vomited into the street.
The girl slid out of her desk. Billy watched her walk to the counter. He wondered how she had known he was nervous. He furrowed his brow when he was tense. Sometimes, he jiggled his leg. Now, he put his hand on his thigh to stop it.
A picture of two cars colliding appeared on the screen. To avoid an accident you should know where your vehicle will be in: a) 5 to 10 seconds; b) 10 to 15 seconds; c) 15 to 20 seconds. Billy chose answer “a.” Since the mugging he couldn’t sleep. When he closed his eyes the night replayed. The gun at his chest, the bile in his throat, the feeling that someone had kicked in his knees. They found the guy who did it. They picked him up at an ATM. The detective who had been working on the case called to tell him. One more asshole off the street, he had said, but Billy didn’t feel better.
He read the next question. When driving in a fog you should use: a) fog lights only; b) high beams; c) low beams. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the girl. She was standing behind a white line on the floor, smiling for her picture. In college he had played a game with his friend, Pete, called ID. When you saw a girl, you had to remember everything about her: the color of her hair, her eyes, her skin, how tall she was, the size of her boobs. You had to be able to pick her out of a line up. Billy got so good his nickname was Photo. After the hold-up the police had asked him for details. Anything you can tell us, they said. What did you see? Billy remembered only the gun.
The driving test came to an end. Billy stood and pushed in his chair. He walked to the counter. A man in a blue work shirt told him to stand behind the white line for his picture. “On three,” he said, when Billy was ready, and Billy stood and waited for the flash. There were things he remembered about the night of the mugging. The walk from the train had been cold. He’d wished he’d had gloves. Snow had been falling, silent and fast. He had come from a bar that was noisy and full and as he walked he’d felt glad for the silence, for the sudden feeling of space. He’d put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the sky.
“We’ll call your name when it’s ready,” the man said, and Billy walked to the end of a row of blue plastic chairs. The girl was leaning against a counter now, scrolling through her phone. That night he had felt a slow certainty, of himself, of his life. The gun had emptied his confidence onto the pavement.
The girl straightened up from the counter. She glanced in Billy’s direction.
“Okay Photo,” Pete said, each time they played. “What do you see?”
Billy thought of the fast falling snow. He thought of the cold and the silence and the open night sky.
“William Sims,” the man said, and Billy stood to retrieve his ID.