We were pushing the car like a white comet, streaking over the wet pavement at speeds that kicked off evaporation.
U.S. Interstate 35 lay open before us, a long vein, and we rode it like a razor. Behind the car, there was the sick sound of moist flesh parting, and blood coated the world. Ahead, just yellow lines and off, in the mist, Dallas. Gunshot wound next to the asshole of the United States, a scabby place for blood-clot people. And, incidentally, video game conventions. That was where we were headed. For video games and a tour of the big scab.
“There’s no signal,” said Brian, my co-pilot. He was holding a silver device through which he could divine information out of the air. Our speed or location had cut the flow.
“Fuck that thing anyway,” I said.
Bob Dylan thundered with the rhythm of the wheels. Oh, Mama, can this really be the end …
“Fuck you,” said Brian.
“What’s the next exit?” I asked.
“I’m not checking the map again.”
The lanky motherfucker was pulling his old routine.
“Look, asshole. That map contains vital information. At this speed, we see things long after they pass, spatially, so this checking is vital. I must calibrate.”
“You’re being paranoid. We have another three hours until the exit.”
Fucking Brian. Asshole. Hate monger. Nazi. Housewife. He just wouldn’t understand. His eyes always had that flicker of faked sentience. But he’d let the facts slip, I could see that he was hollow.
Brian continued fiddling with his silver device. I watched his bony fingers and contemplated taking the fucker and pitching it into the hole we were slicing down the road. Brian lit a cigarette. “Keep your eyes on the road, asshole.”
We ran up alongside a big semi-truck, still pushing 90. There was a stiff lurch of machinery, and then the long cut went ragged. I heard a short burst: “Shit—!”
The car swerved wildly out of control, threatening to grind our bones into either the monolithic truck or the cement barrier on our other side. All the equipment got loose from the back — flying into our laps like the remnants of Krypton. Old Godzilla magazines, bags from dead beer runs, the stereo system and Brian’s specially built computer — all swinging and tumbling around the cab. Bob Dylan jumped and died in a loud report of static.
There was a screech. The wheel moved on its own, outside of my ability. I thrashed at it anyway, letting instinct do my talking. If there was any effect, my perception didn’t catch it.
There was a final, silent instant where we both felt death get an icy boner beneath his robe. It was a quiet moment. Nice. But the quiet became a hiss, and light turned on again. Wheels stopped their ragged orbit, and the machinery fell in place again.
The car sat, breathing heavy, on the side of the road. The truck thundered on.
“My computer!” Brian was screaming, “You asshole! You nearly killed my computer!”
In between panicked breaths, we decided to make our way to the next truck stop. There we would correct the backseat imbalance, work out driving plans and decide on the fate of our doomed shot at Dallas.
The ride was slow and jittery. My muscles, remembering the earlier terror, jumped at everything. Odd shadows became spasms. And spasms became that sick feeling that it was only a matter of time until we lost control again.
“Cigarette?” Brian asked, offering up a pearl cylinder.
“I don’t smoke anymore,” I told him as I took it.
At the truck stop, we fixed his computer and my magazines. “We’re lucky,” Brian said. “We’re damn lucky.”
I asked why, neatly stacking some mid-90s G-Fan.
“With a psycho like you behind the wheel, you need luck to stay alive,” Brian shot out.
I was insulted. “I’m a fine driver, bald-dick. I was doing great until now.”
“When you almost slammed us into the side of semi-truck at 90 miles per hour. Are you high?”
“No,” I said. “And you have insulted my honor.”
“Well, whatever, I’m driving the rest of the way.”
“Look at you, man. You’re in no shape for driving.”
I looked at myself. I was fat and twitchy, and clothed like an escapee from a mental institution’s bowling team. I looked as I wanted to look, plus shot nerves and 20 pounds. “You’re right,” I said.
We went into the truck stop and ordered three bacon cheeseburgers apiece. It was a silent agreement that the roads meant a long mile to execution, and our probable last meal should be sumptuous.
As dessert, Brian suggested we get all the pep-pills we could get our hands on, so that we could be as awake as possible for what would surely be our final moments. I agreed, and then took a long and tortured shit.
After emerging from my chrome chrysalis, I intercepted Brian at the front of the store. His vacant eyes held something this time. I had seen the look before. The fucker was in a frenzy. What would it be this time? Theft? Arson? Statutory rape? In his normal state, Brian had no respect for law. But when he shifted down into this primal gear, that changed completely. He saw laws as a sort of backwards list of suggestions for a fun night on the town.
I had agreed to let him drive. What madness had I brought on?
“Look,” Brian said. He held up a matte black butane lighter. On it was a large number “3” and the words: “Dale Earnhardt Tribute Concert.”
My face cracked too. Thank Jesus! That look was glee, not sadism — as close as the line may be drawn inside my fractured companion.
This lighter. It was it. The essence. It was freedom, liberty, America — and all those other buzzwords we use to brand some nobility on the big minefield that stretches like a skin infection across the American continent from one ocean to the other. This was a nation where a man dies in a car wreck, and people wring their hands in rank despair. Where a guy slams his car into a cement fixture, and people repeat with fevered tempo: “God needed a driver …”
Imagine the scene. A heavenly waiting room, all mist and good vibrations. A beautiful naked blond with legs proportioned like shotgun stocks walks out from a billow and calls: “Next!”
Dale Earnhardt comes up from his seat and sheepishly walks into the big office.
This place is huge, an expanse of black lit by light of many colors and a warm sheen. Behind a big black desk sits God, his tendrils writhing in the solar wind. “Hello, Mr. Earnhardt. Please sit down.”
Dale does as he is told, sitting on a ragged cumulus at the bottom of the ebon tower. “Let’s get right into it,” thunders the big man. “What are your qualifications?”
“Well,” Dale fidgets, “I was a NASCAR driver for 20-some-odd years. I’ve been working on cars a lot longer. And, aside from that, I was a God-fearing Christian man my entire life.” Dale hits a bold streak: “All things considered, I think I’m perfectly qualified to be your driver.”
God thinks a moment. “That sounds fine, Mr. Earnhardt. It really does. How did you die, anyway?”
Dale looks down at the steering column poking bloodily from his chest. “Well, you see, that’s a funny story …”
Fucking Christ! It’s madness of the first degree. It’s the spirit of America. A spirit that says you earn eternal pleasure by driving fast, branding yourself with hot irons and ending it all in a automotive fireball.
Brian and I saw the humor. Dale was us, plus faith and a NASCAR contract. What if we had been run over by that truck? What if we had hit the cement? What if our bones turned to poison and we collapsed from the sudden lack of support?
What then? Lighters and tribute concerts and God needed a driver. Sweet Hell, sometimes the liberty is just too much to take.
We bought two cases of bottled water, three pairs of gawky sunglasses, two lighters plus assorted butane refills and half a rack of trucker pep pills. The cashier was a fat Indian with a face that couldn’t function without a smile.
“Where you boys heading?” he asked as he rang up our stash with time-honed precision.
“Dallas,” I said. “The big scab.”
“We’ve got a convention,” Brian said.
The pace of the checkout slowed as he got to the lighters. “You NASCAR fans?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Huge fans.”
We left the store, pausing to take in the big glare of Texas. The sun was drying the long paved shot that would lead straight to Dallas and the convention beyond that. Three hours, at a reasonable speed.
It was going to be fun, if nothing else.
Brian lit a cigarette with his new lighter. “Ready?” he asked.
We hit the interstate with confidence. Our nerves had been soothed, cutting down the shakes significantly. And the lighters provided far greater insurance. Because, hey, what the hell? What’s the worst that can happen?
Live, and toil in obscurity. Die, and kick off a marketing campaign. When the two options are brought into such sharp relief, you can’t help but get that weird look. In a world ruled by gibbering schizophrenics, the sociopath is king.
As speeds topped 90, I strapped on the new sunglasses.