By Greg W. Taylor
As a human being, living in the world, I know it’s all a game. But what if I don’t know the rules?
This is the question I am asking myself as someone flashes their high beams in my rear-view mirror. The lights are so bright and close I tense for the impact. It’s almost five in the morning and I’m on Highway 401 driving back to Toronto from a business meeting in Montreal. The traffic is surprisingly heavy. My clients had insisted on wrapping up the day’s proceedings with a steak dinner at Moishe’s and then a few pops at a grubby strip joint where the actual gender of the dancers became awfully questionable in the hour before closing.
I’m anxious to get home to my wife and eight-year-old son. Susan hasn’t been feeling well and she made me promise to come home as soon as I could. Which is why I’m in the passing lane. I check my speedometer. Fifteen over the posted limit. I’m driving a 2011 Mercedes, one of the mid-sized models, and it’s got lots of pickup. Even though I’m in a hurry, with maybe a half-dozen drinks under my belt over the past six hours, I don’t want to tempt fate and blow my way into jail.
The guy on my ass flashes again. His lights are an odd oblong shape and high off the road. A truck or a big SUV.
I adjust the mirror to reduce the glare and gently push down on the accelerator. Instead of dropping back, the guy inches closer. His headlights now flood the interior of my car.
Now, I’ve got to admit something here. Ever since I was the timid, skinny, red-headed kid in public school, I’ve had a thing about being pushed around. Back then, it was something I came to expect, like I had a target on my back. Everyone remembers the kid who always got pushed into the pool or who fell over other people’s feet or who had pea soup poured into his backpack. Well, that was me.
When I hit high school though, everything changed. It turned out I was pretty fast on my feet. My eighth-grade gym teacher saw me playing in a pick-up baseball game and he talked me into joining the football team. It was the first real team I was ever on and nobody was more shocked than I that I loved the game. Besides the workout I got at the practices and games, I started lifting weights and running at least ten miles a day. All this coincided with my adolescent growth spurt. By the end of that first year, I was almost six feet tall and had bulked up with nearly thirty pounds of muscle. Not only was the target gone from my back but I started looking out for the vulnerable kids the bullies had turned to once they lost interest in me.
Now, twenty-odd years later, electrons still fire off in my head when someone tries to intimidate me. Like this SOB with the high beams. Well, back off buddy.
Not for the first time, my body’s reaction is faster than my brain. I touch my brake pedal. I can see the red glow of my own brake lights in my mirror. The headlights behind me grow suddenly bigger an instant before they waver and fall back. The sound of Bruce Springsteen pounding out “Dancing in the Dark” on my CD player gets fierce competition in the night from the blare of a loud horn. Satisfaction swells in my chest.
I’m pulling up by the cab of an eighteen-wheeler and I see the silhouette of the driver looking down at me. I figure he’s seen my little challenge to the tailgater and think maybe he understands. I give him a wave and he points to his head in a ‘you’re nuts’ gesture. Ok, so he doesn’t get bothered in the rig he’s driving.
I re-check my rearview mirror and the high headlights are gone.
Maybe a minute later, there’s another horn blast, this one from the long-haul trucker. A beaten up pick-up truck has cut him off and is now sitting no more than an inch or two from the passenger’s side of my car. I fight the instinct to swerve away and into the highway divider on my left. Instead, I keep my line and turn my head to get a look at the guy. I can only see what’s illuminated by the cars coming the other way. The driver’s face is hard to make out, not only because it’s dark but also because his middle finger is pressed against the driver’s window, fully erect, between me and its owner.
I make a hole with my hand, fingers to thumb, and pump it at him as I mouth, “Asshole.” Oncoming headlights reveal a meaty, dirt-smeared mug that would blend in perfectly at any construction site or low-life south end dive. He’s got some sort of bright yellow ball cap on over long dark hair and he’s mouthing profanities at me that require no translation. His wide eyes look ready to blast out of their sockets. Something solid appears in his hand. I have the impression it is metallic. Is he pointing it at me? He seems to be kissing it.
This is when I gun it. The pick-up is trapped behind another tractor trailer and, thankfully, there’s another car filling the gap right behind me. I pass a dozen cars and trucks and then swing through an opening and continue onto the far right lane. I assume the pick-up is going to fire up the passing lane to try to catch me and I want to get well out of his way.
My heart is pounding and I know the flush of heat in my face is more than the remnants of too much booze. I hear Susan’s voice.
“It’s your own damned fault,” she says, her anger fired by the fear I know she would have felt if she had been with me. “Why didn’t you just move over and let him pass?”
I know she’s right. That idiot move, hitting my brakes to back off a tailgater, is something I’ve done before. Hell, I figure everybody has.
A light drizzle has started and I turn on my windshield wipers. I check the other lanes and my mirror for signs of the pick up. Nothing. Well, that’s over, I tell myself. I need to cool down. I also need another coffee. I switch from the CD to the radio and search for something less angst ridden than the Boss, a guy who’s made millions hanging onto high school glory days well into his sixties. (Jealous? You’re damned right I am.)
There’s an exit to a service station with a Tim Horton’s up ahead. Perfect. The drizzle has turned heavy. I flip the turn signal on and glance into the side mirror. I freeze. Those high oddly-shaped headlights are following me, sitting maybe a hundred yards back.
I’ve got another decision to make. If I take the exit, I know he’s going to follow me. I could try to reason with the guy, in front of witnesses, maybe even apologize. I could also get his license plate number. I start to slow and inch to the right. He’s not signaling but he’s moving over too.
That’s when I remember the scene from the classic seventies movie. Dennis Weaver played a wimpy salesman being chased through southern California by a crazy but faceless trucker. At one point, Weaver has car trouble and he stops to call for help from a phone booth. The truck crashes over the booth like it’s a bowling pin and the hero barely escapes. One of the keys to the movie is that you never really know what triggered the trucker’s rage. Now though, I know exactly what sent this guy off. And I am sure that no damned apology is going to cool him off.
We’re both onto the exit ramp when I swing hard left and step on the accelerator. The Mercedes hesitates for an instant and then the engine roars. I cut in front of a station-wagon and hear a chorus of angry horns and screeching tires on the freshly slickened road but within a few seconds the road opens up in front of me. I am doing almost twice the speed limit now and passing everything on the road. I’m sure I can outrun the pick-up, which looked like it came from the previous decade and was in rough shape.
Some time later, I become aware of a tiny amber light nagging at my peripheral vision. Low gas warning. I swear and slap the steering wheel. Experience tells me I’ve got a half an hour to find another gas station. At this speed, maybe less. I see a u-turn service exit ahead but by the time I’ve decided it might be a good move, I’ve passed it. Nothing to do but keep going. I ease up a little on the accelerator but continue to pass the other traffic.
I keep checking my mirrors for signs of the pick-up. Nothing. I’m running on fumes and I tell myself there’s got to be a gas station coming up.
I’m straining my eyes through the rain for a sign when, without warning, the inside of my car is again filled with a brilliant glare. An instant later, I am jerked backwards by the impact from behind. My car fishtails and I swing the steering wheel, fighting for control. I touch the gas but the car’s rear-end jerks harder towards the guard-rail. I take my foot off the gas and brace for another hit from behind that doesn’t come right away. I try not to check my mirror, knowing I have to get the car under control, but I can’t stop myself. Behind me, I can see a lone pair of normal-shaped headlights pulling off to the shoulder, its brake-lights reddening the mist. The guy must have seen him hit me. Then a single oblong light swings around and closes the gap between us. “He must have broken the other one,” I think oddly, “when he hit me.” And then, “So they’ll know who killed me. They’ll have the evidence.”
The second impact is not as hard as the first, but the truck catches my rear bumper at a slight off-angle. The Mercedes’ rear-end lifts from the pavement and then drops. The world explodes around me and then disappears.
* * * *
“Hey, keep still, buddy.” I don’t recognize the voice and my brain tells me it’s the pick-up driver. He’s come to finish me off.
“It’s ok. We got you.” His uniform tells me he’s a paramedic. He’s strapping me down. There’s a lot of commotion and red and blue lights are flashing everywhere. I can feel the rain on my face.
“Is he going to be all right?” A policeman appears over my savior’s shoulder and, when he sees me looking back at him he says, “Oh, shit. He’s awake.”
The paramedic has a badge on his jacket. ‘Bruce’ I wonder whether it’s a first name or a last. And I think, “Springsteen.”
“Sir? Do you remember what happened?” the cop asks me.
I try to answer but can’t seem to push out more than a whisper. “A guy…”
“We gotta go,” ‘Bruce’ first-name-or-last insists.
I am floating towards a cluster of people lit up by the flashing lights. I see the twisted wreck I think used to be my car. There’s a large tow-truck backing towards it. I wonder how it got here so fast. I read the sign on the side. “Ray’s Towing.” The truck’s cab is lit by an interior light and I can see the driver. He’s wearing a ball cap. It’s bright yellow. As he turns his head, I see it’s got the same logo as the truck. Above the logo, it says, “I’m Tom.” I look away as a spasm of pain fires in my head. That is when I see him, standing at the tow-truck’s bumper. He seems to be giving the driver directions. I recognize the long hair. And the yellow ball cap. As they maneuver my stretcher, I see the silhouette of the banged up pickup pulled off to the side. Its distinct oblong headlights are off. The right one is smashed in. I notice the long antenna behind the driver’s seat and get a flash of the thing the guy had in his hand. A CB radio microphone.
“Officer?” I try to speak but the cop isn’t beside me anymore. He’s walking towards the guy with the long hair. I see the driver’s hand reach out and a broad smile crosses his face. The cop’s posture says he knows the guy. They’re friends. The pick-up driver is pointing at me and gesturing animatedly with his hands. Suddenly, he slaps them together, indicating a collision. There’s a huge look of surprise on his face and I know how his version of the story has gone. I slammed on my brakes, he is saying, completely out of the blue. Deliberately causing the accident.
The cop is nodding and pulling out his notebook.
Copyright 2015 Taylor