If there is such a thing as reincarnation and Dante has found himself back among us as Joe Blow, US citizen, he is undoubtedly kicking himself.
Sure, back in 1300, Dante-Joe no doubt figured he had cataloged every last gruesome, eternal punishment possible. His Hell assaults sinners with violent windstorms (Circle 2); icy rains and mud (Circle 3); perpetual weight lifting (Circle 4); swamps that swallow you to your nostrils (Circle 5); flaming tombs (Circle 6); rivers of fire and blood, ravenous Harpies, deserts of burning sand (Circle 7); whippings by demons, burial in excrement (Circle 8); and imprisonment within huge blocks of ice (Circle 9).
But, today, Dante-Joe can’t help but see that there is more to the whole sad, harrowing tale than he had any idea when he first put quill to parchment 814 years ago. There aren’t nine Circles of Hell. There are ten.
And the Tenth Circle of Hell is the Department of Motor Vehicles. Pick your state.
* * *
Mine was Missouri. I had waited not too long at one of its versions of the DMV, located in a suburb of St. Louis called Clayton, when my number was called.
“Good morning,” I chirruped at a pretty young woman with dreadlocks and gorgeous skin. “I’m here to pick up one of those placards for handicapped parking, please.”
The pretty young woman – let’s call her Brunhilde – scanned the form I had set before her but, then, almost instantly pushed it back at me. “The doctor needs to complete this.”
“Oh!” I oops-ed, rummaging in my purse for a pen. “I forgot about that. Dr. Schlafly mentioned that we would need to fill in my mother’s name and driver’s license number. Sorry about that. Here, let me do it now.”
Brunhilde shook her head, the beginnings of a mulish cast forming about her frosted chartreuse lips lined in an equally neon purple. “No, the doctor has to complete it.”
“The doctor,” I echoed.
“It’s in-com-plete,” she said.
My inner bitch began whining and chasing its tail. “I know it’s in-com-plete,” I enunciated back. “I’m attempting to rec-ti-fy that.”
A long, silver-sparkled French manicured fingernail tapped the offending section of the page. “The doctor should have filled this part out along with the rest.”
I peered over the counter at the sheet, wondering briefly how her mani would look on me, or if I was too darn old even to consider such a thing. “Which section are you talking about?” Perhaps the doc had indeed messed up and there was something he had missed.
No, Dr. Schlafly was in the clear. Her nail circled solely the top third. “But it’s just standard stuff,” I protested. “Name, address and driver’s license number.”
Brunhilde shrugged, indifference dripping off her like yesterday’s snowfall from the office’s gutters. “The doctor should have filled it out.”
I closed my eyes briefly to keep my inner bitch from springing free through them and clawing out hers. “You’re telling me that I have to drive all the way back to the doctor’s office in Chesterfield, just to have him write in my mother’s name, rank and serial number?”
“As I’ve told you, ma’am, the doctor has to complete the entire form for us to process the request.”
My temples began to throb. I took what meditative types call a cleansing breath.
“Yes, I understand you have rules,” I conceded. “But think about it. We’re not breaking any vehicular code, governmental edict or religious commandment or something. The doctor’s signed the thing. See? He’s filled out all the medical stuff. We’re totally legit. All we’re missing is my mother’s information.”
Silence, except for an arpeggio of sparkle fingers – all five of them – across the countertop.
“Look,” I said mid-arpeggio. “My mother is waiting for me in the car; I’ll bring her inside. You can verify who she is and watch her write in her name and address.”
“The form must be completed in full by the doctor.”
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve said that. You’ve made your position abundantly clear. But has it occurred to you that you might possibly be becoming a tad bit annoying and way too anal retentive?”
Brunhilde’s brow furrowed. “What’s that mean? Anal preventive? Are you insulting me?”
“No,” I replied steadily. “I’m simply asking you to work with me here.”
“It’s-the-rule, ma’am. The doctor – “
“I know, I know,” I sighed. “The doctor needs to fill out the form…Look, you’re trying to do your job. I understand that. Well, I’m trying to do my job, too – which is to take care of my 89-year old mother. (I added a few years for effect.) Do you realize that what you’re asking will be incredibly difficult for her? Sure, I can drive to kingdom come and back a dozen times and be just fine. But my mother is fresh out of surgery; she tires in like five minutes.”
Brunhilde cocked her head to one side, considering…”She doesn’t have to go. Or you could have the doctor fax us the completed form.” She reached for a post-it note, scribbled across it. “Here’s our number.”
Our eyes met. In Norse Myth, the goddess Brunhilde wears the hat with the horns. Lucky me – this Brunhilde had taken on not only her name but her bullheadedness too.
And I had the headache from butting heads with her to prove it. “You’re not going to budge on this, are you?”
“As I’ve told you, ma’am, the doctor must complete the entire form.”
“Hey, lady,” said a fellow behind me, wearing a fringed leather jacket with the slogan From My Cold, Dead Hands across the back of it. “Just admit you’re whipped and fax the fucking form. You can’t fight City Hall, okay?”
“Thank you so very much for that marvelously innovative perspective on my dilemma,” I replied.
He grinned. “Any time.”
To my surprise, I found myself returning his grin, albeit mine was not so much amused as rueful. But, yes, yes, yes, YES, he was right. I was whipped. So whipped you could package me in a carton and spread me on a bagel.
I folded the form in two, stuffed it into my purse, and turned to leave.
“Well, that’s that then,” I told Brunhilde.
“Good luck,” called my mentor as he took my place.
I sent him a thumbs up, wondering as I left whether WC Fields had ever locked horns at the DMV.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” WC had urged us. “Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
* * *
“What happened?” asked my mother as I hurled my purse into the back seat of the car. “Did you get the permit?”
“BUREAUCRATS!” I spat.
“Where’s the placard?”
“Still inside. Brunhilde wouldn’t give it to me.”
“Who’s Brunhilde? And why not? Last time, that little blond haired gal who helped me had no problem. She came in and picked it up. Lickety-split. Just like that.”
Breathe in, breathe out…”Well, the little blond gal wasn’t an idiot. I am.”
Mom twisted in her seat to peer at me. “What happened? Why are you on the phone?”
“I’m on the phone because I’m calling your doctor. We need him to fax the form.”
“But he gave us one.”
“He didn’t fill out the top part. And neither, blast it to hell, did we. We forgot to. And the 10 year old handmaiden of the Gestapo who drew my number is insisting that the doctor complete that part, too.”
“Ten year old who?”
“The DMV employee. She claims every blank line on that form must be filled out by the DOCTOR.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. The doctor told us to do it.”
“Well, that line of reasoning is not going to work. Not with Brunhilde.” Belatedly I noticed the sound of an alarm going off. “Is that us?”
“But I left the car unlocked. Why’s the alarm going off?”
“I locked the door on my side after you left.”
“Mom!” I wailed.
Ear still to my phone – of course, of course, of course, I was on hold – I scrambled out of the front seat, opened the back door and clambered in, banging my head in the process as I reached for my purse.
”Where are my keys? I can’t find my keys.”
“They’re up here. In the cupholder. With your phone.”
I reached between the seats, grabbed the keys and punched the unlock tab… Silence.
“So what happened?” my mother asked as I slid back behind the wheel.
Mama tsk-tsked. “Do you want me to go in there and ask them why they’re being like this?”
“I don’t think that’ll help, Mom, thanks. You know how these people are.”
“I do…I don’t understand what their problem is.”
“They’re stupid, that’s the problem. Or power mad. More than likely, both. You know, I really don’t know who’s more loathsome. Traffic cops, the airlines, or bureaucrats.”
“So tell me again why you’re calling the doctor.”
I hung up the phone. I would be on hold for hours, I just knew it.
“Mom, what’s your driver’s license number?”
Obediently Mama reached into her purse for her wallet. “I thought you said the doctor needs to fill it out.”
“Oh please. That’s bullshit. If they bitch at the next place, I’ll just lie. Tell them the nurse did it.”
“The next place?”
I was already punching buttons on my phone. “We’re going to try a different DMV.”
“Oh, for goodness sake. Let me go in there and talk to them.”
“There’s an office nine minutes away, according to Google. In Maplewood. Do you know that one?”
A little, I soon learned, meant damn near not at all.
“Do you remember if it was south or north of Manchester, Mom?”
“I think it was north.”
“But north the road is still Hanley. We’re looking for Laclede Station Road.”
A sigh. “I don’t know. I remember it being close to Manchester. To the left.”
“But the directions, Mom, said to veer right.” Not for the first time, I cursed myself for not taking the time to learn how to program the GPS in Mama’s car. Google Maps was proving worthless.
Mama shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. If that’s what the directions say…But I could swear it was to the left.”
“No…No, it’s to the right. Look, Mom. The sign. It’s Laclede Station now.”
We drove a while.
“I hate to burst your bubble,” Mama ventured, “but none of this looks familiar.”
Kindly I refrained from mentioning that, even in her 30s, Mama had not been exactly what you would call a crack navigator. Neither am I, actually. But now was not the time to delve overly into that.
“This has to be the road,” I mused a mile or so later. “It’s the right name. Except the numbers are way wrong. We’re at 500 and I’m looking for 3000 something. I guess we just keep heading south.”
“I know it was closer to Manchester than this.”
We drove another two or three miles further.
Mama twisted in her seat to look out the rear window. “I’m telling you, this isn’t right. We’re in Webster. We keep going, we’ll wind up at Ted Drews.”
Ted Drews is a popular St. Louis attraction that hawks Frozen Custard in the bowels of South St. Louis.
“I know,” I sighed. “I guess we missed it somehow.”
“It’s close to Manchester, like I said. But you won’t listen.”
“No,” I admitted, swinging sharply into a U-ie, mid road. “I haven’t. But I will now. You’re in charge, Mom.”
We headed north. Mama had her head pressed close to the window, reminding me of a dog on a spring day. The steam out her nostrils was leaving nose prints too; I rolled the window down a crack. A shopping center loomed ahead. “It’s behind there,” she said, pointing.
“But, Mom… How can a DMV office on Laclede Station Road be in a shopping center parking lot?”
“That’s the place, I’m almost sure.”
“This is crazy,” I muttered. “The website said Laclede Station Road. Not a parking lot.”
“Look,” Mama countered, “you can keep saying that until the cows come home. But I find my way around St. Louis by landmarks. And it works a helluva lot better than that damn phone of yours. Now, TURN.”
Fine. Have it your way, Mama. When you’re whipped, you’re whipped.
“Keep going. Go on. Around the corner. That building looks familiar.”
“It’s a MALL, Mom.” Slowly we made our way along a row of shops. “This can’t be right.”
But then I saw it. The Missouri Department of Revenue, tucked tidily like the cream in an Oreo between an optometrist and a shoe store.
“I KNEW it was here!” crowed Mama.
“But how can a parking lot be Laclede Station Road?” I wailed. “This makes no sense.”
“Oh, WILL you get OVER it?” said Mama. “Just go get my permit.”
* * *
My cell phone beeped. The Maplewood office had a cool way of managing things that I could only hope my local DMV back in LA had adopted as well. You type your name and purpose on a large computer screen mounted in the back of the room, then receive text alerts as to your progress. I had 15 minutes to go.
I decided to head back to the car, where Mama waited.
“Did you get the placard?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I replied. “I’m still in line. I have 15 minutes to go. Do you want to come inside?”
But as I was stepping aside to hold the DMV door open for a mother with two toddlers and a stroller, I heard the sound of a horn and slammed brakes. And there, in the midst of it, were Mama and her walker.
I hurried to her side just as she finished crossing the lot. “I thought you – “
“What? I can’t change my mind? Have you ever asked that therapist of yours why you’ve become so inflexible?”
“I’ll ask him,” I promised.
Mama looked a bit disappointed. Back in the day, before my father hauled all of us off to St. Louis, Mama was an honest to God opera singer who sang in the chorus at the Met. Though her career effectively ended with the move, and I don’t believe she had yet tackled The Ring, life with Mama continued apace with Wagnerian moments. The entire neighborhood loved it, for instance, when she hollered at us kids. Byron Radcliffe swore you could hear her ‘project’ two miles away at the Dairy Queen and, 40 plus years later, Carole Zeuschel still remembers the crystal shaking. But, for today at least, I was done with drama – or so I hoped.
Silently we took our seats and settled in for a wait. A couple minutes passed.
“Isn’t it time now?” asked Mama.
I glanced at my phone. “About 7 minutes left.”
“Who are they kidding? It’s been at least a half hour since we sat down.”
Mama is a terrible waiter. “Do you want me to look for a magazine?” I asked.
Irritably, Mama shook her head. Her gaze moved about the room, then circled back to zero in on one of the employees – a blond woman in her mid 40s who was typing busily behind the counter.
“She should never wear blocked stripes like that,” Mama commented.
I put a finger to my lips. “Mom, what if she hears you?”
“Well, maybe she should. Her bust juts out like the storefronts in the Red Light District.”
“You’ve never been to the Red Light District. Or to Amsterdam, for that matter.”
“There was this show on PBS.”
I smiled. “Well, maybe that’s her point. She wants people to notice.”
“Then someone should clue her in. At her age, especially. Men like a chase.”
I shot her a look.
Mama nodded. “It’s the nature of the beast. How many times have I told you that?”
About ten trillion. My phone beeped. “Saved by the bell!” I said cheerily.
Which about summed up what was coming next, although considering my adventures thus far, this shouldn’t have surprised me.
“You’re in the wrong line,” the gal at Window A told me.
My temples throbbed anew. “The wrong line? But I signed in, in exactly the way that man over there – that guy, right in front – told me to. I asked him twice, verifying it.”
“I’m sorry.” She nodded to her left. “You apply for permits at Windows C and D.”
“You can’t just walk over there and grab the handicapped thingy? The form’s all filled out. See?”
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “That’s not the way it works. I can’t do that.”
I inhaled deeply. “You’re saying that I have to wait all over again because an employee here gave me the wrong instructions?”
“I’m so sorry. But, yes, I am saying just that. I’ll sign in for you, though, okay?”
“Okay,” I echoed weakly. No point in being a damn fool about it.
I returned to where Mama waited. “There’s been a slight adjustment to our schedule,” I informed her. “We wait over by C and D now.”
Mama’s brows shot thunderously skyward. “Did you goof up again?”
I pointed toward the chairs beneath a sign that said Titling and Registration. “Over there, Mom. Please...”
Twenty minutes passed.
“We’ve been here over an hour. Let’s call it a day. I’ll get Jackie to do this next week.”
My lower lip was in shreds, I’d chewed on it so much. “Mom, we’ve put in this much time already. If we leave, it’ll have all been for nothing.” I glanced out the window. The wind had picked up.
Mama followed my gaze and gave a little shiver. “They’re predicting more snow. I don’t understand what’s going on. Why it’s been so cold this year.”
“It’s winter, Mom. Winter’s cold.”
“Easy for you to say. You live in LA.”
“Well, not right now I don’t.” The morning I had driven Mama to the hospital, it had been 1 degree.
“You know, Mom,” I added, “I kind of look forward to snow now. It’s so beautiful. Have you watched the way it dances in the wind as it falls? Or decorates the earth like sugar sprinkles on a bare cookie?”
“No, really,” I protested. “It makes the mundane marvelous. The ugly, exquisite.”
“It’s those people you hang out with in LA who make you like this, isn’t it? Weirdoes, all of you.”
“Perhaps. But I’m having a good time.”
“You are.” She spoke it with a question mark hovering beneath. “Good for you.”
I laughed. “I’m going to have a good time here, too, Mom. Right here, yes, at Hell Central. I wasn’t. But I will now. It’s all in how you view things, you know. Finally, after forever, I’ve learned that.”
A second snort. “That therapist of yours…he’s obviously not helping you. You’re not only strange. You’re delusional.”
Leaning over, I kissed my mother’s cheek. How papery it had become. Ethereal, as if readying her for her upcoming encore.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and forced myself to smile. “Hey, Mom, how about I apply for a handicapped permit, too?”
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