By Ron Yates
Me and Johnny’s going to The Hickory Hut for smoky charred pork slathered with sweet vinegar sauce, Brunswick stew, creamy cole slaw, and buttered Texas toast. We’ve got the evening to kill before we clock in on the graveyard shift at Weinraub Manufacturing, and we’re happy over not having to go to Viet Nam. The lottery results have just been announced and our numbers are both high, 274 and 302. Hot damn! We beat it.
Johnny’s ’64 Impala with new headers and glasspack mufflers sounds strong cruising down highway 61. I can tell he’s itching to let it out on the Hominy Creek stretch, but as we come around the curve before the half-mile straightaway, we see flashing lights down near the bridge. The V8 pops and cackles as Johnny takes his foot out of it.
“Shit,” he says, “what’s happened down there?”
“I don’t know. Guess We’ll find out.”
As we approach we see two Georgia state trooper cars. The sheriff’s department and the police are there with lights flashing. The whole highway’s blocked.
Johnny turns off onto a little dirt road, slides to a stop, kills the engine. I look at him. “Might as well see what’s going on,” he says. We hop out and start jogging toward the commotion.
Cars are pulling off onto the shoulders. People, clustering at the bridge, shout and point down into the gully. State troopers holding clipboards study the shoulder of the road, look up and down the highway and over the bridge into the creek. I notice a small plume of black smoke coming up from down there.
Now I see what happened. Some fool managed to run off the straight road, just missing the bridge, and land upside down in the creek. The car—it looks like a Plymouth Barracuda—rolled as it skidded down the steep embankment, making a path through the kudzu and pine saplings. I smell broken earth and foliage along with the oily smoke.
The flames, mostly around the engine compartment, seem lazy—fed, I figure, by oil trickling out of the engine—but they’re starting to spread. Me and Johnny are winded from running. Over the roaring in my ears, I pick up snatches of conversation. One guy with a gray flattop and a cigar in his mouth says, “Yeah, damn hippie. Got out and ran off through the woods. Probably carrying drugs.”
One of the troopers asks, “Did you see the driver get out?”
“Well, no. But that guy over there said he did.”
Another trooper is leaning against his car yapping on the radio. All around us people are talking, shouting, pointing, and the flashing lights are going like crazy.
One trooper tells another, “We’ve got to clear the highway. Fire truck’s on the way.”
Johnny looks at me, raises his eyebrows.
Then we see Eddie Lafitte running into the scene from the opposite direction. Eddie’s a tough son-of-a-bitch. Used to be varsity fullback when we were in eighth grade. He’s running stiff-legged with a knee that won’t bend. He came home from Nam a while back with a Purple Heart.
Eddie pushes his way through the crowd and looks down the embankment. “Anybody in the car?” he asks the crowd in general. Several shrug their shoulders. The guy with the cigar looks away. A fat woman holding a child says, “I don’t think nobody knows for sure.”
Eddie throws his arms up. “The damn car’s on fire and nobody knows if there’s anybody in it?”
This gets the attention of the deputy. “Sir. We need you to calm down. The fire department is on their way. We’ll dowse those flames, then we can get close enough to inspect—”
Eddie shouts back, “I don’t see no truck coming. There could be people dying in there.” Then, before the deputy or anybody else has time to react, Eddie’s over the guard rail, sliding down the embankment, his stiff leg acting as a brake.
The deputy shouts, “Damn! You get back up here. That gas tank could blow any minute.”
The bank gets really steep near the creek. By the time he’s able to stop himself, Eddie’s almost on top of the burning car. Then he’s beside it in the creek, water not quite up to his knees. He squats down into the water and mud, trying to see inside the car. He starts yelling. “He’s in there, dammit. There’s a man in there!” The front of the car is engulfed now, and I figure the person Eddie sees must be baking.
Eddie tries to reach the door handle, but it’s too hot. He starts slinging handfuls of water and mud onto the car. “Throw me a bucket,” he yells. “Somebody throw me a damn bucket!”
A red-faced man with knobby elbows produces a five-gallon plastic bucket from his pickup. “Here, use this.” He tosses the bucket over the rail. It bounces and flips end over end, lands on the other side of the creek. Eddie slogs and crawls for it, grabs the handle, starts dipping and slinging water at the burning car. He’s gone primitive down there with his stiff leg, wrestling against the current and the weight of the bucket as he tries to reach the flames with water.
The fire truck’s coming now, siren blaring and lights flashing, but traffic is still backed up. A trooper waves cars through. Others are parked in the fire truck’s way. It takes a long time to get the truck into position and the hoses ready. Eddie keeps fighting the flames with his bucket. Me and Johnny, along with everybody else, watch him slipping and falling, wearing himself out.
Finally the pumper’s ready. Water gushes from the hose over the edge. Eddie gets soaked and falls a few more times before he can get back up the bank. I lose track of him when I see a new set of flashing lights coming down the highway, a wrecker. The firemen keep pumping water over the bank. The stubborn flames finally die. More time passes as firemen, troopers, and the wrecker people talk about what to do next. They want to be sure there’s no danger of that gas tank blowing while they’re down there trying to hook the cable.
Johnny elbows me. “Where’s Eddie?”
“I don’t know.” We look through the spectators and up and down the highway.
A guy with rubber boots and heavy gloves finally starts down the embankment with the cable unwinding from the wrecker. Men talk in guttural grunts. Eddie’s gone.
The burnt Barracuda slowly rises from the mud, dragged on its top through vines and broken saplings. The crowd, quiet now, gathers to see what’s inside.
Some turn away as the dead man starts to show through the driver’s side window. I hear gasps and moans, exclamations of “Oh my God!”
His hands are talons clawing at the crazed window glass, and his face—or what’s left of it—is pressed against it. His teeth seem huge in his wide, lipless mouth.
Firemen and ambulance workers pry the door open and lift out the carcass, wet and gooey, with a cracked layer of black char over oozing pink meat. One of the ambulance guys brings a body bag.
I turn to Johnny. “Let’s go.”
We don’t talk on the way to the car. After we’re rolling down the highway, Johnny says, “I guess barbecue’s out of the picture now.”
“Yep. Definitely out.”
“Get a six-pack, I guess.”
“We gotta clock in afterwhile.”
We get some beer and start guzzling. We ride over familiar back roads with Johnny’s foot light on the pedal. After a while the beer starts sloshing inside my empty stomach as we wait for our shift to begin. Wondering about Eddie and why he took off like he did, I see the burnt man’s death grimace. From where we were we didn’t hear the screams, but poor Eddie—he’d been right there.
Copyright Yates 2016