I wasn’t banking on charm. Not this time. I’d studied, practiced, and worried myself into an arrhythmia in preparation for D-Day: the Class B CDL Inspection, Maneuver, and Road Test that stood between me and the semester to come. Yes, I said “stood”. I’m not going to make you work for that one. I passed, my darlings, praise the high holy ones, but it wasn’t easy. Charlene made sure of that.
Her grey perm was as tight and controlled as her three pack-a-day rasp. Her little head barely cleared the computer terminal in front of her, as she barked out orders from behind it without a glance in my direction. “Hi, what’s you’re name?” I ventured, determined to make a human connection. Surely if she saw the desperate look in my eyes, noted the strong upstanding citizen vibe I was trying to ooze for her benefit, it might thaw her glacial tone? No dice. Charlene was all business, and really, I couldn’t fault her for being professional. Charm doesn’t keep people safe on the road. (Her nametag also advertised that her name was “Charlene”, so my overture may have hurt me in the end. How was I supposed to read bridge clearance signs if I couldn’t read a dang tag?)
She led me out into the parking lot for the dreaded pre-trip inspection part of the test. I used my best YouTube instructional video tone, angling for enunciation and elocution points. Just kidding. Charlene’s expression plainly showed that I would be most welcome to shove my elocution and enunciation up my own tailpipe.
I squeaked through the inspection and maneuvers, edging around orange cones and trying to read Charlene’s shades of displeasure as she barked and scowled. She had the humanity to let me know when I passed each portion, though she made it sound like the very stroke of doom for my fellow motorists. We set off on the road test, her rusty voice crackling in my ear like crumpled aluminum. She shouted “No!’s” and “That way!’s” at an alarming decibel, which confirmed my oversensitive suspicion that Charlene was not a fan of me, my driving, or the necessity of being locked up in an oversized projectile with me while I plied the roads.
At the end, I made my way back to the parking lot, powered off, and turned to the seat behind me to receive my sentence. I had passed, she grumbled, which meant I’d passed it all. I wanted to screech with joy and sweep Charlene up in a joyous hug, but she was very busy going through the mistakes I’d made and tallying up the fees for the day, so I contented myself with my first delicious deep breath of the day. Charlene thrust the completed forms into my hands with a few brusque words about going to a DMV to collect my new license, and then she was gone, back into the bureaucratic bowels of testing office to be dwarfed once again by her computer terminal.
I drove away, whole body shaking as the adrenaline in my veins petered out and the knots in my neck and shoulders slackened. I could still hear Charlene’s voice in my ear, critiquing every turn and traffic stop, and her ghost made my motions jerky. She was tough and taking the test under her broken glass gaze had felt like being dragged over said glass naked, but I’ll never know the burdens that sit heavy on Charlene’s mind and heart. I’ll never know if she’d just gotten bad news before I walked through her door, whether her life has been one ceaseless cycle of struggle and loss, if her body pains her, or if someone she loves is hurt, sick, or dying. There is a lot that goes into making a Mean Charlene, and I don’t know any more about that than I did before spending an hour in her company. But as I made my way down the road, I caught myself wishing that I’d given in, and given her that hug.