TALES OF THE AUTOGRAVEYARD
(continued)

Back to Part One
Back to the Introduction



The Chariots Blaze Onward

 

DEVILLES

The big. square shape filled the eyes with a gleam of steal. From the sky blue sides, the borders of the body ran like giant slabs, and the blank vinyl roof more swallowed than reflected the late afternoon twilight. The four blackwall tires relentlessly gripped the cement and propelled the two-ton machine forward in a smooth, inexorable motion. Through the tinted, closed windows onlookers could see a shadowy figure obscured by the visors of the windshield. The coupe went forward.



***

"Holy ***!" was all that Tito could say when he saw the massive, old Cadillac rolling sedately down Angeles street. First Tito took one last confirming glimpse, and then he jumped to his feet. He did not use the sidewalk. Instead, he ran close to the fronts of houses while he tried to stay out of sight. He did this, not instinctively, but deliberately. Each step reminded him of the four boys who'd not had sense enough to stay away from strange cars in the neighborhood.

Swiftly, he passed by the dilapidated, two story apartment buildings that formed the bulk of his neighborhood. He carefully avoided the broken beer bottles, the dirt of lawns, and the discarded furniture that lay in his pathway.

After half a block, Tito had to settle for walking swiftly as his settling supper was starting to make him sick. He seemed to remember that once he'd been able to run better than this, but he told himself that it did not matter: Impala members did not run, they stood their ground.

As expected, he found his older brother's spare form draped over the side of his '64 Impala. The older boy's hair was, as always, slicked back with a generous amount of moose, and he wore his red suspenders over a white, greasy t-shirt and jeans. The lean, long-chinned face rose to meet his brother's face with a wolfish grin. Tito felt a certain sudden feeling of pride seeing the two things that mattered so much to him, his brother and the Impala, both shining.

"Jose," Tito said his voice accidentally breaking into a high-pitched squeak, but he sounded as old as possible when he continued, "There's a big Cadillac coming down the street, real slow. I think it's a DeVille."

"No," Jose said, the carefree grin still firmly in place. "You don't know what you are talking about."

"Yes I do," the boy grimly continued, "There's a big DeVille coming down the street."

The smile slowly faded as Tito brought his hands full of grease and tools up from the inside of the old, proud Chevy. The black eyebrows lowered significantly as he looked down, through, his brother.

"You'd better know what it is you say." His eyes blazed.



***

The massive mound of metal rolled onward. Behind it, a small Pinto suddenly appeared. The little econohorse moved swiftly up behind the Cadillac. A high pitched honking shattered the silence of the late afternoon, but the sound merely bounced off the rectangular tail lights of the Cadillac and faded off without an echo. The horn started the sound again, and then it was suddenly squelched by its owner.

The Pinto owner swung around to the left of the Cadillac. Just as it got halfway to the side of the larger car, suddenly the distance between them started to close as the Cadillac leaped forward. The Pinto stopped with a jarring motion of its manual brakes. The Pinto driver opened the window, and sweat poured down his dark-skinned face as, for a moment, he looked into the window of the big GM car. Then the Pinto owner put the little car into a tight circle, all the way through a "U" turn, and left swiftly.



***

 

Leroy and his cousins were just settling in from a long, easy evening of his favorite recreational activity, watching television, when he heard the phone ring. At first, he started to yell for his mother to answer, and then he remembered she was at work again. Then his velveteen voice, hypnotizing even at a yell, rang over the sounds of laughter and munching.

"Hit the phone somebody." The husky adolescent voices laughed as a black, big hand picked up the receiver. For a second Leroy's attention wavered noncommittally between the blaring television and the round, smiling face holding the phone. Then the boy holding the end of suddenly looked as though someone had punched him. Color drained from his face as he nearly whispered:

"It's Jose." He stopped speaking and a dead silence came over the group. Automatically, a big body moved to turn off the television, and the looks of the group all settled on their leader. An unpleasant pain in the stomach was Leroy's initial reaction, but he let no concern creep into his features. Instead he smiled as though he had just gotten the address of the prettiest girl in school.

"Well ask him wassup?"'

All watched as the younger boy did as requested. Leroy's hands unconsciously gripped the can of beer he was holding so hard that he feared he'd crush it, liquid and all. Finally, the boy looked back at Leroy:

"He says some 'black dude' is cruising Angeles Street in a old DeVille."



***

Jose slammed down the receiver. He did not even bother to wipe the grease stains off his friend's receiver. Tito watched Luis looking at his brother, the anger mixing with some fear. Those lines in his brother's face meant only one thing, action. Jose knew the duties that a leader of the Impalas was expected to perform, and protecting the territory was most important. Tito knew that Jose would do whatever necessary, and that was why they had made him the leader. Jose silently slammed his left fist into his right palm as he spoke to Luis and Tito.

"Call Juan, Spider, and Iceman," he said, naming the three neighborhood boys who owned telephones, "And have them get the others. We will get together in front of my car and do something."

"What did he say?" Tito said in his excitement forgetting that it was not his place to question his brother or his brother's decisions.

"Is it not enough," Jose snapped, reminding him, "that those *&^% spit in my face? Now my own brother will not do what I say."

Tito did not expect this reply. He'd always expected Jose to look out for him, and now Jose was turned on him. For a second, the angry, angular face seemed to show a white skull beneath glaring at him with flashing teeth. Then Jose's face relaxed:

"I'm sorry Tito, I am very angry now. Leroy says that the car does not belong to his homeboys. He is lying; he wants us to look weak without having to stand up like a man. I told him that if the car was not gone in ten minutes, we would take it." The last word rang hollow like a gunshot.



***

The DeVille reached the far end of the street. It's left blinker silently signaled for a left turn as its power brakes squealed. It turned, gracefully, in an 180 degree arch. A car, about to turn onto Angeles street, abruptly stopped as the big car turned; its blinkers flashed once, and then the driver, apparently thinking better of it, turned them off and continued down Breton Street, leaving the Cadillac in lone possession of the field. The two-ton leviathan completed its turn and started, slowly, back up the street.



***

"It's no use Leroy," Alexander said, "I've gone over it again and again. I've checked everyone out. None of them owns the car on Angeles."

"Well then," Leroy said with some hope in his voice, "Then if it ain't our car, we don't have to do nothing about it."

All the time the other boy had been talking, Leroy had searched frantically for someone missing. Only five or six of the boys owned cars, but as Alexander had pointed out, half of the cars over in this part of the neighborhood were Cadillacs, so one of the boys could easily have borrowed one or stolen one, but if they knew where everyone was, then--

"If we don't go help them out," Hollywood said challengingly, "Everyone's gonna think we're chickens."

Several voices started to murmur in agreement. Leroy stared at the big squared features of the boy everyone called Hollywood. The hard face never seemed to know how often Leroy was cajoling or making fun of its owner. Hollywood thought in a direct, simple way, and it was no secret whom he thought should be leader of the DeVilles. In most instances, of course, no would listen to the other boy.

"Shut your mouths," Leroy said finally asserting authority. He floridly pointed his hand to Alexander. The pudgy boy with glasses spoke while the other listened. He looked at Leroy apologetically before speaking:

"Well everyone in the neighborhood knows about the problems we've been having with the," he paused, searching for a proper word, "'*&^%.' And some people talk a lot about this 'treaty'," this time he glanced at Hollywood significantly. Alexander knew that as long as Leroy was leader, he could speak freely. "So they're going to think we broke the treaty, and couldn't back it up."

"Who is driving that car?" Flatboy wanted to know.

Leroy looked and considered. He let Alexander speak again. "Who knows? Maybe someone from another neighborhood maybe."

"Why doesn't the *&& just he park the thing?" Hotdog asked.

Alexander tried again, "Maybe someone's trying to create trouble. If they break the truce-" They all sighed in thought. The truce had not lasted long. On the other hand, they could remember the three boys, no longer with them, who'd died since the nearby block became, through a painful process, a Central American one. Before the neighborhood had changed, nothing had happened on that street anyway. Once the Central Americans came, however, business happened every day from a half-dozen parked and moving vehicle. Up until then, the DeVilles hadn't cared who lived in the area, but they had cared about losing their sales. The best plan seemed to give the Impalas what they wanted, their block, and simply do business everywhere else, or so it had seemed until today.

"We gotta go now," Hollywood said. Everyone looked at him, knowing he'd interrupted Alexander and waiting for Leroy's reaction. Leroy smiled and let the other imagine what he'd do next. Leroy watched the other's faces as waves of anger washed over them at the three DeVilles no longer with them.

"We going boys," he said with a mocking cheer, and then he pointed at Hollywood, "and 'pretty boy' here is going to lead the way!"



***

The DeVille reached the center of Angeles Street for the second time, directly in front of Jose's house. By now there were eyes in every window along the street awaiting the inevitable reaction. People who could had already left. The remnants hunkered down behind plaster walls.

A group of boys, armed with whatever available, scurried down to the north end of the street to form a human wall. They wore long coats and jackets despite the hot summer evening. Their expressions looked as gray as the twilight.



***

Now darkness silhouetted the long boxlike vehicle against the sun and surrounded it with a strange luminescence that was at once mechanical and, somehow, unreal. The car almost seemed to hesitate, or switch gears, as it passed by the Central American leader's house. The Impala sat deserted with its hood thrown open, doors ajar, and parts strewn over the ground like organs torn. The Cadillac went on.



***

With their eyes glued to the approaching car, Jose's friends did not see the rushing swarm of black faced bodies. When they heard a high-pitched war whoop, however, they turned to face the rush of the DeVilles. To Tito, this was what it was all about; now he could prove he was really a man. The firecracker pop of rifle shots gave an eerie unreality to the DeVilles opening round. As one, the Impalas yelled in defiance and set themselves even as one boy cried out in pain.



***

In their haste, everyone totally forgot the car slowly winding its way towards them. The sun had set now. The Cadillac's aqua paint seemed neither green nor blue but black. It was just a machine running under its own power into the darkness.

It's headlights suddenly lit up to blaze a path down the warn, oft-repaired cement. The quad beams of light showed the fighting bodies before like a scene from a Hollywood movie. It was a Technicolor triumph of brown, black, and, of course, oozing red played out before an unthinking mechanism. The figures rose and fell in comic-

tragic motions. The car did not swerve to avoid the collisions; it simply proceeded.

Tito held a handful of Leroy's hair as he felt the rush of air as the car passed him. Though their hands tightly gripped one another, Leroy pulled both from the path of danger in a strange, waltzlike gesture.

While the Cadillac passed stoically by, both spontaneously peered inside. They saw only a single, very tall man with a reddish face, black beard, and a forehead hidden from sight by the long visors still in position. The man's two eyes stared forward, unseeing, like headlights, but his mouth opened to reveal tub perfect rows of pointed teeth convulsed into an amused grin.

Leroy threw Tito to the ground as he heard a too familiar scream. In the light of the Cadillac's tail lights, he saw Jose standing over Alexander's lifeless body with a strange look that seemed out of place, considering he'd just killed his enemy's best friend. Jose looked at the smoking pistol in his own hand in apparent disbelief.

Still, however, the Cadillac moved forward, leaving the killers and the dead in darkness. When the car reached the corner, the right blinker began to flash accordingly.

Suddenly the night air was shattered by an odd sound. The driver of the Cadillac honked the horn three times, in a way that was so friendly it sent shivers down Leroy's spine. He saw then that the Cadillac's side window stood open and heard another sound: a long burst of pleased, hysterical laughter.

The car slowly rounded the corner. It had other places to go.

 

 

 

THE OLD CLUNKER

 

There wasn't much any one could say positive about Ray Thomas's '62 Fury on the day he bought it new; it wasn't the kind of car most people commented on. After all, Ray had always had a thing about Plymouths. From the aged '56 Savoy that lumbered off to trade school with him to the '58 he'd driven to factory, he liked the brand. Still, no one argued with the foreman, at least to his face.

In an era when most American car makers belatedly realized that selling big, square sedans might satisfy the family market, Plymouth produced smaller, baroque, just plain weird, cars that nearly drove the company into receivership. The car was supposed to be full size, but it measured more like an intermediate. Further, a basically clean body shape had been loaded with odd worm-shaped bulges near the headlights and convex body moldings along the side. To top it off, Plymouth featured a quad headlight front grille the leaned inward as though someone had already smashed it in. It was a car likely to doom any but a well-established manufacturer. Everyone that year, except Ray seemingly, bought the Ford or Chevy.

If the springtime of the Fury's life was hardly flowering, its long summer was little better. As the sixties wore on, Ray found sleek Mustangs parking beside in the lot or far more practical compacts. Beside the new intermediates and full-sized cars with their long flowing lines, the Plymouth looked like an over-ornamented box on wheels. Still, Ray drove it every day, despite his wife's comments or his friends advice.

The end of the sixties, brought about a kind of mid-life crisis for the car. Ray awoke one day to see smoke rising from the garage and painfully traced the source back to his engine bay. Later that same afternoon he found himself back at Bushwaker and Ripofs Plymouth-Chrysler dealership.

"Look Ray," Bushwaker began as he looked at the familiar sight of the Fury parked in a bay, "I'm afraid that 100,000 was all you could expect from that old 318. You can certainly afford a new car, so why don't you look around before you make any

decisions."

For an hour, Ray surveyed the state of auto art of 1970 before he returned to the office. Silently, he canceled the alternatives. The sexy Barracuda was too provocative, and he wanted more space than a Valiant or Duster provided. There were wagons, but Agnes already had one. All the "hot intermediates," like the GTX and Road Runner simply, had more power and gas-guzzling thirst than he needed, and this only left the stripped down Belvederes and Satellites. For an hour, he went over those alternatives. These medium cars had fine lines and modern conveniences, but they somehow lacked something. He looked again at the rusting, familiar lines of his aging Fury. Somehow, it seemed like it had more years left to it.

"Mr. Bushwaker," he said as the other chewed his cigar, "Let's see about putting another engine in my Fury."

So the transplanted Fury continued to run through a long autumn. As the seventies waned, rust started to eat away at its body even as the energy crisis subtracted from the practicality of its 383 engine. The car started spending some evenings away from home at the various garages. Still, there passed a brief year

or two of glory when all the automakers' down-sized their full-sized models, and the Fury looked the proper size next to its younger kindred. There was even a GranFury model that matched Ray's car almost dimension for dimension.

The moment, however, passed. By the late seventies, Ray found his machine

one of the oldest and the largest still lumbering around on the road. It wasn't looks, though, but the transmission that returned Ray to Bushwaker and Ripof's dealership for serious repairs.

John Bushwaker, recently returned from college, handled the order personally as his father generally spent more time in Florida these days than in his office.

"Now Mr. Thomas," John began differently, his quick eyes darting behind his glasses, "I've got to say I'd admire your dedication in keeping an antique like this going." Noting Ray's grimace, however, John face assumed a businesslike frown. "Still, this car is an example of out-dated automotive technology. A modern car, such as our K-car, relegates this type of vehicle to the museum. The reliant doesn't contain all that rust-attracting metal, so it's lighter and more durable. Further, the body panels can be easily extracted for replacement."

With a well-rehearsed motion, the young man flipped the hood of a nearby K-car to display the engine. "Your 318 probably had plenty of power, but our new four can provide just as much torque per pound of weight, so you can attain approximately the same speeds. Our new wind--"

The voice seemed to drone on forever. Ray felt not that he was driving a lesser car, but that he was driving a car that could somehow be understood. All these new features John was selling might meant never flipping the hood and knowing exactly what everything did or how to fix it.

"Well," Ray said, "I've got a kid in college. I think I can keep mine going cheaper than buying a new one."

At this point, John withdrew a calculator from his suit pocket and began deftly punching in figures to show the economic sense of buying a new car. All, however, proved in vain; Ray was already shaking his head.

"Let's see about that transmission."

Retirement and final rust-out seemed to come at nearly the same time. Ray found himself unable to cover the red patches any more than he could cover the gray streaks. Between a frightening series of trips to the hospital with his precariously

healthy wife, Ray felt as though the ground might slip away at any time. Suddenly, one day, he felt a falling sensation. For a second, he hung from the steering wheel over an enormous hole in the center of his floorboard

"Well," Mr. Bushwaker began, silently withdrawing an imported cigarette from his shirt pocket and lighting it with a silver lighter, "the floor often falls out of old Fords, Plymouths, and other cars with unit construction. What can you expect: Cars and people don't last forever."

This last remark called to mind that old Mr. Bushwaker had recently passed away, but the young partner in the dealership made no change in expression. Perhaps he was thinking about the third child his wife had just added to the crew.

Still, John Bushwaker had an aide guide Mr. Thomas through Chrysler's newest and lightest. Now that Plymouth sales had plummeted, the store was heavily pushing the higher mark-up Chryslers along with its imported Mitsubishis. Ray could

remember another time when Plymouths covered every corner of the market. He thought about the royal Imperials, once sold separately. More dimly, he remembered as a young man teenager how he'd peered through the windows of the old Plymouth-DeSoto shop just to get a glimpse of the mammoth tail fins that seemed ready to send those cars into orbit. That old building had been torn down the year before he bought the Fury. Imperial, Valiant, DeSoto, Bushwaker, all gone.

In their place, Bushwaker's man displayed the cars of the eighties. In all, there were 2 or 3 basic models, and all the others were variants of the K-Car, Omni, and the seventiesh Volare. Under the hood, turbochargers, lean burners, computers, etc., bristled in a spider-like maze of wires. On his pension, Ray well knew he could afford few cars above the bottom, but even these seemed meaninglessly complex.

Ray slammed the hood of the Omni, producing a plastic clunk. He walked rather slowly to Mr. Bushwaker's plush office. As he entered, Bushwaker scarcely looked up but put on a salesman's smile.

"Well, Mr. Thomas, have you decided on an Omni?"

Ray shook his head.

" "Good, I think the Reliant is within your budget."

"I want the floor fixed on the Fury."

The ten thousand dollar smile disappeared into a two hundred dollar frown.

"Now, Mr. Thomas, I can see you want to keep your car and even restore it, but as daily transportation, your car is just unacceptable. It handles poorly, it's over-sized and unattractive, the rust has nearly consumed its exterior, and it gets terrible gas mileage."

Bushwaker took a deep breath before continuing.

"Now, naturally that was a good car when it came out," he added, carefully clearing the company name, "but times have changed. That's yesterday's automobile. Face it, Mr. Thomas, your car is an old clunker."

"So am I, son."

Ray carefully watched to make sure the plate steel was properly welded into place. As he cautiously drove out of the lot, he thought about his ailing wife, perhaps good for many more miles, and started thinking of what he was gong to do on the next day. He moved to turn on the radio, forgetting it hadn't worked for years, so he settled to humming to himself over the grumbling of the venerable V-8.

He had a lot of things planned for tomorrow.

 

 

 

THE AMERICAN MISSILE

 

Their friends all agreed that Jack and Jill made a rather peculiar kind of couple while their particular choice of transportation, added to, rather than diminished, the potency of that impression. It was an odd tale, to say the least, a Hollywood story of a particular type.

In her defense, Jill would remind herself that neither of them had really intended any kind of liaison in the first place. One thing simply followed another with all the logic of a well-written drama. It was, after all, "the car", at the beginning that caused it all, and Jill could never think of the vehicle in any more animistic terms.

It had simply been a curious line in the neglected section of the Reclycler: it was something necessary because she desperately needed a ride away from her present circumstances. Maria had become increasingly idiosyncratic and insistently violent. While Jill had never heard of the model and barely heard of the make, AMC, its kind of isolation on the page held a certain appeal. White space seemed to imply uniqueness, even loneliness. This might not be another Chevy, and it might be a touch independent, offbeat, different.

"What's an AMX?" she guardedly asked after dialing the number."

"Come on over and find out," the bored, flat male voice on the other end answered.

"Don't take me for a fool," Jill replied defensively. "It had better run."

"All right," he laughed, "It's a smog legal, and it runs probably better than you do."

"Well, we'll see."

So it went. She took the bus over a couple of blocks to see this relic of another era. Much to her chagrin, the owner prefaced her test drive with a history of the car. The '73 AMX was something of an automotive orphan. Long maker of conventional cars for cheapskates and small car fanatics, AMC finally made a last effort to conquer the middle class, ordinary buyer with a line of vehicles designed to cover the full gamut of tastes and challenge General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, model for model.

Their spearhead, literally and figuratively, was the Javelin and the AMX. The former was a presumed Mustang rival, while the AMX took the same basic design down to two-seater dimensions, putting power to weight ratios into the Corvette territory. The public was unimpressed. AMC responded by discarding the two seater and applying the name to the top of the line Javelin. Racing success, Mark Donahue's driving, nothing seemed to make any impact on the car buying public. The unloved Javelin faded away, and AMC returned to its deviated path of building small, bizarre cars.

In its wake, AMC left behind confused and confusing fossils like Jack's AMC Javelin AMX 401. She always thought of it as "Jack's car." It was given to him by a well-meaning relative. It sported a long pointed tip and heavy, curved aggressive wheel-line. Indeed, the pointedness of the car, from spoiler to grille, made it appear truly like its namesake weapon pointing outward and forward.

As it turned out, Jack, the owner, proved less interested in making a quick sale than developing customer relations. With Jack on the horizon, minutes away, Jill soon discovered that disposing of her troublesome room-mate proved easier. The day that Jack appeared on the front doorstep with suitcase in hand and Javelin growling away at the curb, her cohabitant gracefully left out the back.

Jack, as it turned out, was equally happy to be leaving a roommate who was acquiring the odd habit of showing up with strange men.

Still the relationship proved a bit cold. Throughout the apartment and between the two, some things seemed permanently belonging to one or the other. The place was Jill's; the car Jack's; books were Jill's etc. There was a notable, and, to Jill, painful, lack of sharing. She often thought they only stayed together out of a kind of mutual fear of loneliness. She remembered again his thin face, his skinny, not unattractive, body, and his blondish hair. He was not a young man, but there seemed a certain chill about him sometimes made her think that years separated them or centuries.

She watched him handling that shifter, that wheel, with clinical, well-schooled precision. She longed to put her hand on his, but she wondered vaguely how he would respond or if he would even notice. His eyes glued to the traffic light as though he feared he'd turn the wrong way though they'd been to this same shopping center a hundred times before. She could say nothing.

"Hey faggot!" a voice screamed, "Wanna race."

Jack glared out the right window, in an angry, startled movement. Red covered his face in an almost guilty expression. Jill barely could make out a late model Pontiac Trans Am. Inside the heads of two teenagers leaned out with fashionably disheveled blonde hair. The car, silver, looked powerful and affluent undoubtedly someone's birthday present. She guessed these were college students out cruising West Hollywood for no particularly good reasons.

Jack's shoulders tensed. Any one of these well-fed youths could undoubtedly pulverize Jack, but the look on his face told her that with one remark they had gotten to him.

"No Jack," she whispered.

"It's my car," he snapped, unconsciously taking out his anger on her.

"Hey, look at the old piece of *&^% over there," one of the boys said. "Isn't that a Pinto?"

"This, little boy," Jack said in his best Jack Nicholson voice, "is a Javelin AMX."

"Oh," one bellowed in an imitation, "It's a Gremlin then."

"Yeah," the other joined, "A Gremlin GT!"

"Next light," Jack challenged.

"Jack," Jill pleaded "what will you--"

"Shut up," he said as his hand tensed on the wheel; "I'll show those little b*&%s."

Jill wanted to just get out of the whole situation, but she had to sit and watch silently.

At the next light, the two cars carefully let those in front go first, ignoring the honking of horns behind. Jill knew that smog and emissions regulations probably meant the Pontiac was not as powerful as previous Trans Ams, but Jack's car was fifteen years old.

"When I drop my hand," one of the collegiates yelled over the high revving of the engine of his car. Jack nodded grimly. Even over the sound of the screaming horses, Jill could hear his deep breathing. It was as though he were some brave soldier out to defend his mate or his honor. His eyes look directly ahead, but at the corner he focused directly on the upraised arm.

When the light changed, the Trans Am left, and only then did the signaler give the go ahead sign. Perhaps it never occurred to Jack that the other would cheat. Jill saw him slam the accelerator with more than necessary force as he realized the other two didn't share his stoplight ethics.

Still, the Javelin lived up to its name shattering the afternoon air with its roar. It flew up the street and the "g" force slammed both occupants into its upholstered cushions. 350 horses pulled the oddball supercar to within inches of its younger brethren before age and lack of driver experience made the difference. The odd engine noises of pain told Jill that Jack was likely shifting in all the wrong places while a distinctive and ominous dunking noise arose near the maximum speed. The Pontiac reached the next light a half second before the AMX and immediately disappeared in a quick right that left crossing drivers stomping on brakes and horns. A siren, at about the same time, reminded Jack that Hollywood's police always seemed to be around when you didn't want them and never when you needed them.

"Well, what do you know," the office said as he wrote the ticket, "So that's a Matador."

When this supposed piece of humor provoked no response from Jack, the police officer looked into his angry eyes, asking "Were you trying to prove something buddy?"

On the way home neither man nor woman spoke. Jack seemed remote, his mind in some foreign country. Reluctantly she forced her hand over his and whispered:

"You have nothing to prove Jack."

The next morning, Jill awoke and found herself alone. A quick search found Jack totally packed and gone. Not a thing of his remained inside, as if he'd never been there at all as though he'd made a wrong turn and wished to erase his tracks as completely as possible. A single white piece of paper was supposed to explain:

"You're right Jill, I shouldn't try to prove anything. Keep the Javelin. It's yours anyway. You've paid for it."

For a week Jill didn't dare come near the car. Then, she saw Jack at a party with a construction worker and a wide smile though not for her. This more or less determined that she would never touch the car, yet eventually she did admire it more and more often, from a distance.

One day, she rode home with a friend of hers from work. He was driving a brand new Ford truck. He stayed the night. After that, he moved in quickly. The first time he saw the Javelin parked out back he laughed it off as a gaudy display piece, with no real world purpose. He didn't bother with putting an ad in the paper; he drove it to the junkyard himself, so that he'd have room to park his rig. That night they celebrated and decided to get married or something.

The AMX still sits in the junk yard, prey for rust and parts scavengers.

 

 

 

THE MASTER BUILDER

 

 

Louis watched as the radiator slowly slid into its proper place. Then he moved back from the table to survey his handiwork. From a distance, he could hardly distinguish the small blue car from its original. The thin, chromed plastic grille featured the touch painted red "Studebaker" emblem he'd so carefully brushed. Over the whole, a pleasing sky blue paint accented with silver glowed with an enamel light that made its marker feel mysteriously happy.

He remembered now that his friends had built these sort of kits years earlier, back in high school. Now here he was, a grown man with a fine bachelor apartment, staring at a completed 1/25th scale Studebaker Lark.

Over the next three or four months, the hobby table slowly filled with more of his projects. In those leisure hours from work, he poured over sheets of poorly printed instructions and various guides to better modeling. After a time, and a certain amount of skill had been attained, he started to look with disappointment inside the hoods of his finished autos, knowing how little they resembled their running counterparts.

One day, he scoured the entire living area. Lengthy explorations produced spools of thread, odd pieces of plastic, and even pins and parts of metal. For the next week, he cut, proportioned, shaped these materials. When he finished, his '70 Plymouth Road Runner looked ready for the streets from hood to trunk.

Initially, his automotive prejudices limited him to American motorized products, but his daily drives from work constantly reminded him that trucks, foreign cars, and even motorcycles did not reflect the homogeneity of his collection. He finally responded by diversifying and building these other assorted inhabitants of the road. This forced him to spend some of those hard-earned free hours combing the swap meets and auto shows in search of long defunct kits, but Louis made the sacrifice.

By the fourth month of work at his new hobby, he could survey a table that matched a mighty Mercedes 300 SL with a humble Pacer wagon and faced a Ford EXP into a massive Mack truck.

One day, he started to give a final look at a Dodge pickup truck that rested, shining in his hand. The blue paint shone with a clear-coated luster. His hands shook as he suddenly lifted the vehicle to bring it down with a crashing blow. He continued this for another four hard knocks. Then he took out his dark red paint and a tube of glue. A few nights later, he stared at the bent, rusty looking truck that seemed ready to fall apart. When he lined the Dodge next to his other projects, he noticed a new kind of realism that made that uncrashed vehicles more handsome in contrast.

By the fifth month, he'd come to disregard all instructions whatsoever. In his mind's eye, he decided the shape that would arise. Then he looked down at the materials before him. With his hands then he worked the elements to his will. Though he could never entirely satisfy himself, he could still produce some tangible reminder of the shadow he's glimpsed.

On Friday of the sixth month, he arrived home from work and, as was his habit, rushed downstairs to survey his little world. He flipped the light switch and stood over the table looking down. His eyes passed over the five long rows that nearly covered the table. When he got to the edges of the table, however, he frowned over and over again. Finally, he started to clear the cars from their resting place and produced his paint brush. Slowly, a scene started to emerge around the silent autos as he set each into its own place. Late that evening, he stopped working. Now a superhighway covered the flat surface. Vehicles, each in its own lane, at appropriate speeds, moved towards exit signs and an invisible city in the far distance. Each car seemed headed somewhere.

Saturday, the next morning, he got up and took another look at his masterpiece. His rational mind kept telling him he ought to feel satisfied that everything was complete. but he kept thinking something was missing. All during the day, he tried to think of what it was.

The next day, Louis woke up early and went for a drive on the expressway. As he meandered from lane to lane, a sudden idea hit him. He clover-leafed around at the first available exit and headed quickly back towards the apartment.

He knew then that what all of his cars lacked. Could he do it? He wondered, though as he turned down the street. He imagined taking an engine block and rounding it into a chest, turning hoses into limbs, and making: plastic humans. Then, the highway would be complete!

He slammed on the brakes when he saw the big fire truck clogging the lane ahead of him as it spat water on the apartment building. He remembered hearing about the many arsons that had shaken his neighborhood.

Cautiously, he parked his car and moved in closer to watch the flames destroying the building. Suddenly, the fire leaped up in a mushroom-like form as the top floors of the structure exploded in a shower of debris. Louis felt a searing pain as pieces of something hit him in the back in head. As he tossed them away, he saw that they were made of plastic. For a second, he imagined flames consuming his little world, melting all of his creations into the useless vague shapes from which he'd formed them.

Cautiously, he blew out the tiny flickers from the pieces lying before him. Then, he lifted both from the ground and saw what remained of the sky blue clinging to the body of his Studebaker Lark. Ignoring the burning warmth, he took the crumbled car in one hand, and with the other tenderly placed its wheels back on the axles. Over his blackened face, a kind of smile emerged.

Slowly he started building again

 

 

 

 

THE LITTLE RED CORVETTE

 

It was another Friday, and Jim was a nerd: Nothing could change that fact. Grow his hair, style it as he might, it still slumped unfashionably on one side of his head or the other. Even though he'd bought those new contact lenses, his eyes were still so bad that most of the time they slipped through his fingers, and he simply gave up and wore his massive glasses. The face in the mirror looked plain and, with those thick frames, remarkably underattractive. Jim carefully placed the clip-on sunglasses over the lenses. The weight of the combined frames and shades nearly pulled the earpieces off his head, but Jim carefully ignored this. He took the pens from his shirt pocket and placed them in his pants. While he looked at himself, he produced his nearest approximation to a leer.

"Go ahead," he grunted, "Make my day."

Outside the building, Jim opened the door to his prize possession, his '69 Camaro. Though the car contained only a lowly 350 mouse motor, Jim had carefully attended to its exterior and interior garnishments. First, cans of paint had covered the black exterior and black vinyl inside, and then he'd located a set of long blue and white decals he draped from cowl to trunk. While other cars simply rolled along the streets, Jim's screamed at the passerby in giant letters: "Camaro SS!"

He turned the key, once he safely sat down without crushing the newly-vacuumed upholstery. Then he eased the car out of the neighborhood onto the freeway while his fingers injected his favorite cruising music, a chorus of old Bruce Springstein "Tonight the streets are lined with heroes on a run away American dream-" Dating schemes were becoming a kind of obsession with Jim. As he approached his mid-twenties, he became uncomfortably aware of a shortage of women his age. Maybe he couldn't match the competition, he thought; then he'd outsmart them. This was why he signed up for a special club that registered license plates. Flingholder Dating Service. Simply punch a suitable marked license plate number into a portable computer and, presto, instant phone number. All he needed to do to find a car appropriately marked or let one find him. This scheme had the added advantage of letting potential mates spy him in his newly purchased old Camaro.

He watched an old '59 Impala pass with the sign he sought plainly showing. He took one look at the heavy-looking Hispanic lady inside and her screaming kids and carefully moved a lane away. More cars passed the Camaro on the right. Instinctively, Jim swerved the car into the extreme right lane and held to it in a straight, undeviating path. He planned to drive about ten miles in one direction and back. If he found nothing, he'd surrender to another Friday round of Dallas and TV dinners.

Suddenly, a lane away, he saw a long, curved hood. The rounded portion of the tires seemed almost ready to jump beneath the deep high, bulges of the fenders, and a pointed prow cut through the air. In a few seconds, it passed, leaving Jim staring respectfully at the squared tail of a 70s era Corvette. With some surprise, however, he noted the tiny license that signaled to club members "available."

His legs, used to driving pepless econoboxes, slowly pushed the pedal downwards, and only the pained moaning of the over-revved motor reminded him to switch gears. By the time the Camaro started picking up speed, he'd almost lost the steaming Corvette.

He felt a kind of feeling of time passing him by, and he had no intention of succumbing so easily. Doggedly, he tailed the Stingray at a distance and awkwardly followed its trail through the assorted schools of Volvos, Fords, and Chevys. In a last gesture, he ripped the visors from his eyes and peered into the distance.

At first, all seemed lost. The roadster was slippery, but the 'Vette driver had enough caution to signal each lane change. If the Corvette's pattern seemed a bit, erratic, it was due to the frequent back and forth motion within a particular lane. Once Jim realized this had nothing to due with lane changes, he found he could follow the Corvette without any real problems.

As he pulled in directly behind the car, he began to try to imagine the driver. All he saw from behind was a long head of dark hair, but this wasn't enough. Finally, he pulled the Camaro into the left lane, adjacent to the Camaro and began to make a violent series of sign language and semaphore. He only saw a feminine head above the door, but the woman seemed to wave in his direction.

Suddenly, the face started to fade away, like the cover of a book closing; then he realized that the Corvette was exiting. He didn't see the Mercedes, but he heard its German horn wail as he abruptly cut into the right lane. The Camaro teetered onto the exit.

Now, Jim set himself to the methodical task of tracking the elusive red car through city streets. Left, it swerved around a corner. Jim kicked the throttle even as he yanked the steering wheel. Tires squealed in protest. The Corvette stayed in the left

lane as he held his breath.

What kind of girl, he wondered, would drive a Corvette and live in this section of L.A. dotted with expensive houses and condominiums? The Corvette slowed to a crawl before a mighty two-story mansion. Maybe: the girl lived here, and she'd emerge in the scantiest of mini-skirts with long, languid legs. She'd whisper in a voice trained in the best schools in Paris:

"I'm so glad to meet you."

Abruptly, however, the 'Vette moved forward again, picking up speed. The car in front paused before the next corner, and the turn signal went on again. The Camaro mirrored the gestures. By this time, two vehicles separated them, and the traffic was loaded with a crowd impatient to go home. On the yellow, no one turned. On the red, the Corvette daintily completed its turn. Behind it the next two cars trailed. No one really expected the Camaro to go also, but Jim hit the gas.

For a second, he watched in horror as a pick-up truck filled his right corner window. He braced himself for the sound of smashing metal, but instead heard a chorus of bellowing horns, the sound of brakes, and miscellaneous invective.

After a couple of blocks, the cars separating the two Chevys disappeared and Jim was directly behind, contemplating that black hair. Around them, the houses grew seedier.

A dark-haired girl emerged from the 'Vette in a bright, beautifully-colored dress. Despite the cheapness of the material, her ripe figure seemed almost to leap out of the tight material. Dark eyes and a Moorish smile greeted him. Her accented voice spoke:

"I'm so glad to meet you," she glanced around "but you must watch out."

"What is your name?"

"My name is--" her name suddenly turned into a high-pitched whine.

Jim looked into his mirror. A big-black-and-white police car flashed at him. He took one last look in front of him. As he slowed, he could see the driver in the Vette turn around briefly, trying to determine whom the police car wanted. Then, the girl turned back around.

Jim shrugged his shoulders. That's that, he decided.

The policeman, big and fat, lumbered to the side of Jim's car. The officer drew out his pad and asked: "Sir, can I see license, registration, and proof of insurance."

Jim produced the papers, and the officer took a moment to examine it. Then, he returned them to Jim and regarded him carefully. "Sir, have you been drinking?"

"No, I just left work."

"Hard day at the office?"

"No," Jim thought, "not especially."

"Then how do you explain the fact that you've been driving like a reckless maniac for, at least, the last five miles. I've been following you, and you still kept doing it. Didn't you even notice me?"

"Well," Jim started in disgust. Then he looked at the big, safe band of metal encircling the officer's ring finger. The explanation seemed something the other would not understand.

"I can't explain, sir."

The officer wrote the citation that would soil Jim's heretofore unblemished driving record. He leaned forward and looked through his front window. Then he looked in the mirror for a while and watched the cars full of families, couples, and groups passing his arrested coupe. He gave a resigned sigh.

Then a red dot appeared in the distance. Jim blinked, shook his head, but still it was there, closing.

The policeman deposited Jim's copy of the ticket into his hand and spoke crossly.:

"I don't know what your problem is buddy, but you'd better be more careful."

"Yes, officer," Jim replied absently as his eyes kept watching the Corvette. He looked at the license plate and quickly determined it was the same car.

Jim heard the police car fire into action. For a second its bulk blotted out everything in the mirror, but when it cleared, the Corvette still kept coming. Before he could realize what happened, the car parked directly in front of him. Swiftly, he donned his sunglasses and guessed the other had seen him pulled over and returned. He moved as suavely as possible out of the right hand door. Before he looked inside, his voice began:

"Excuse me," he said smoothly, "You were signaling to me."

For an instant, he thought the car empty. Then he realized the driver was crawling under the dashboard. A black head emerged with a plain, pudgy face underneath. When she sat up, Jim could see a small, stocky body dressed in a white, wrinkled dress and pink shoes.

"I'm sorry," she said in a nasal, unapologetic voice, "I didn't signal to you."

Her eyes looked at Jim and visibly squinted. She didn't wink, but she did blink several times.

"You have this symbol on your license plate," he said evenly.

"Oh that," she laughed pleasantly, "That's my room-mate's car. My Escort is at the shop, so she loaned me her Corvette."

"But, but you waved to me--" the words died.

"I did?" she began. "Oh, uh," she stuttered. "I did see one car pull up. I saw the driver, I think someone was waving, so I waved back."

Jim angrily took the clip-ons from his glasses and tossed them over his shoulder.

She looked at him again. "You wear glasses too. Well, I just got contacts this week. I managed to drop both of them on the floor when I got on the freeway. I practically drove home blind."

Jim couldn't help but chuckle. "Look, I don't have a girl friend or anything, but, well, I think, uh we could go out together." He paused, extended his hand: "I'm Jim-"

She finally withdrew her glasses from the glove compartment and looked at him squarely. A smile covered her features with a certain attractiveness coupled with it. She spoke in a low voice as she took his hand:

"I'm so glad to meet you."

;

 

THE COLD

 

The cold snow fell in blankets covering the stagnant grass in waves, until not a sign of vegetation remained except the stripped brown trees. Overhead, the blue gradually faded from the sky, and the black took its place. Only a few stars remained amidst the snowflakes, so that John, looking upward, could not be sure if the weather was changing or the stars falling.

"John, are you sure that heater is on," Emma asked.

"Yes, dammit," he snapped frigidly, "How many times will you ask that."

John also, though, felt the inadequacy of the blowing warmth. He glanced at the straight face of his wife. Even in their two weeks in Michigan, the fierce, sub-freezing weather had taken the brown California sunshine from her cheeks and replaced it with inflamed red. Over her features, the winds had carved little lines, like crevices on the moon. She seemed twenty years older now.

"I'm sorry," she replied, "it's the-the-weather--"

"I know I've been--" He didn't even bother to finish, she noted. He seemingly didn't have any energy left these days. Ever since the catastrophe struck, getting "let go," he seemed as lifeless as a stone. He had that same, "sorry I didn't get the position look" face she now knew so well. He stared rigidly northward, his hands lax on the wheel, letting the path guide him along. The dragging chains pulled along steadily.

"Look out," she screamed.

The snow lit up the scene as the white doe and its young offspring crossed onto the road. Their tan bodies stretched tightly over their bones from emancipation. John had hunted deer before and knew by sight the look of the weak, those better off dead than living in pain. The doe stopped squarely on the road, her head turned forward to shield the youth in a strange mixture of defiance, hunger, and stupidity. The tiny deer, born too late in the season for real life, stood ignorantly behind its mother in imitation of her pose.

Reaction seemed to take forever. John pumped and pumped the pedals, but even the chains barely delayed the inevitable moment of fate. All four of the Jeep's wheels tried to cope, but the body slipped on ward, loaded with food, gear, and passengers.

John could almost feel those two round eyes boring into him, awaiting. The four wheels, the four eyes, looked. Suddenly, John turned away. The tires skidded across the slick surface as he spun the wheel, For the next few seconds, he felt himself rolling, hurting, and falling like on a roller coaster ride. He closed his eyes and waited. Then when all movement stopped, he opened them again. For a second he held his breath, hearing nothing.

Then he heard the expected sound of wails and moans and catalogued the three voices required. As he painfully loosened his seat belt, he fell on the ground. Then he looked around to find the vehicle thrown 180 degrees. His wife sat still strapped into her seat above him. The world had been turned sideways, he thought, as he suddenly started to laugh.



***

Emma slowly watched her husband's methodical progress. Since the accident, he had moved so swiftly that it surprised her. Without a word, he had cared for the two little boys in the back and gotten all four out of the Jeep safely. Now, he stood quietly

stripping away his heavy coat and sweater and replacing them with his sweatsuit. Shivers from the freezing wind constantly shook her body, but the expression did not alter on her husband's face.

"Did you see that," Billy rambled, "It was really a deer wasn't it? Do you think it died? Why did it look that way?"

Emma didn't bother stopping the ten-year-olds stream of nervous chatter as it seemed to distract Jimmy, the eight-year-old, from the prominent cut across his forehead. Finally, though, she asked her husband:

"What are you doing?"

His only reply was to put a third pair of socks over his fingers. She could not remember him having ever actually worn that suit since he stopped running with that friend from work. She watched him take a last swig of coffee from the thermos his

aunt had brewed three hours and seventy degrees ago. She knew that he hadn't said a word since the spin.

"What are you doing?" Billy asked. His two guileless eyes did not catch those of his father.

"Daddy's going to get help," he said to the boy.

"It's twelve miles to the nearest town," she said, "What are you going to do, jog--"

Before she could finish, though, he shook his head as if tossing off the question.

With that, he started off moving, his first violent steps resolving into a steady pace. With each step in the long-frozen snow, she heard a crunch that somehow resembled the sound of breaking bones. Over his shoulder she called in anger,

"Why don't you just stay here until help comes!"

Then the moving arms, legs, and torso faded behind a curtain of cascading snowfall.



***

"One. Two. Three." he said to himself as his bundled feet made a soft sound in the new fallen snow. That distant feeling had slipped into his legs, and he kept glancing down every once in a while to make sure they still moved. He'd long since lost feeling in his face and cheeks, but he kept on. The bitter wind had formed his face into an unchanging grimace.



***

Emma looked at the truck in disbelief. The orange, striped four-wheeler appeared so suddenly that she hardly had time to signal her numb arms to rise. The vehicle slowly ground to a halt beside the Jeep, now so buried in snow Emma could hardly believe it had ever been there at all.

The two children ran past her, screaming as loud as their cold-choked throats allowed. She shook her head to clear her vision. Then the square door opened, beckoned, and a masculine voice called to her:

"Hey, come on, lady. I ain't got all day."

As Emma felt feeling painfully return to her swollen extremities, she looked over her shoulder. Both boys lay asleep in the back compartment. A feeling of warmth and security seemed to flow from the big, rangy figure holding the wheel comfortably in his rough hands. Emma forced her eyes to the road in order to keep herself from staring at the strong, bearded, silent driver.

Around a slight bend, her roving eyes saw something. Instinctively, she turned to the stranger; distracting him.

"Hey, what are you doing out here?"

She didn't really pay attention to his reply, but she watched as, for those seconds, his eyes strayed from the road. She knew then, he had missed the sight, and she repressed a shudder as she thought again of the lone figure she'd just seen trotting in the opposite direction, covered with snow, and an inhuman look in his eyes, like those of a wolf tracking its prey. The two had crossed, like strangers, on the road.



***

John raised his head for a moment, wondering if he'd really heard a sound. He felt his ears prick and listened to that wind howl like an engine. When he looked upward, through the falling snow, though, he saw only a pair of his eyes, staring into his. As they faded ahead, he knew whose they were. Somehow they waited for him, off in the distance. As he ran, then, he saw a white light.

"One. Two. Three. Four." he thought as he ran.

Somewhere, a doe trotted ahead of him with its young and a crystal light in its

eyes. He called softly:

"I'm coming, dear."

 

 

 

THE BOSS

 

The stoop-shouldered man lowered his head. He didn't once look back at the building or meet the face watching from the window. He simply shook his head in resignation and reached his hand down to open the door of the car.

Dirk watched the aged brown Rambler slowly roll out of the parking lot. The bright sunlight seemed to sink into the ancient, peeling paint, and fade away amidst the gray clouds trailing pathetically from the single exhaust. Dirk watched the man he'd just fired, Amos Jones, take his final leave from the factory. Now if only he could get rid of a few others besides this maintenance man, things could run better.

The left turn signal blinked on the aged brown car and started to fade only to



***

.....reappear as a pair of brown.

"You were sleeping," his secretary told him, and he realized he'd dozed off somehow. Her dark hair looked all the better under the dim moonlight, and he knew it was time to go.

"What are you going tonight?" he said.

She blushed even as a hand automatically moved to smooth her hair.

"Well, Mr. Davis, my car-"

"Isn't working. I remember, and I'll have someone attend to it tomorrow. Why don't you let me drive you tonight?"

"Well, I" she hesitated, as her white teeth flashed.

"Good," he added, "Come on."

Not a soul, save for maintenance and security, remained in the factory when Dirk walked outside with his arm wrapped securely around his secretary's waist. Cecilia Martinez had a way of running her fingers across a keyboard that seemed to almost caress its surface and made him forgive many a misspelling. Well he'd have to replace her soon, he thought, better to enjoy her while she lasts.

When they got in the underlit parking lot, Dirk guided her swiftly past her ailing EXP and to his masterpiece. For a second, Cecilia gasped, taking in the long hoodline, fastback roof, bulging white letter radial tires, and the matte black hood scoop. Since all these features fit on the lithe exterior of a 69 Mustang, the car looked like a bodybuilder bristling with muscles.

"What is it?" Cecilia signed.

"That my dear, "he paused significantly, "Is a 429 hemi-head-engined Mustang, better known as 'The Boss.'"

"Wow," she said with a trace of miscomprehension.

Dirk crossed to the right hand side of the car and opened the door in genuine gentleman fashion. Cecilia stepped in carefully over the silver rocker panels and nuzzled her amply curved body inside the bucket seat. Dirk carefully shut the door, so as not to harm the expensive repaint job. When he'd been thirty, he'd invested in a series of prestige cars, but now, forty-five, this powerful vehicle seemed a better expression of just who he was: an essence of raw power. He lowered himself into the cockpit, closed, not slammed, the door, and turned the key. For a second, he left the car in park, savoring the sound of that free-breathing engine. Then he shoved the shifter into first.

As the car lunged forward, he noted something a bit peculiar. Behind him, a set of headlights blinked on. Why, he wondered, would anyone-be here at this hour. He shrugged his shoulders, however, and sailed the car across the parking lot.

Now, Dirk automatically turned the car in the opposite direction of his home. He could imagine the hurt look on poor Cecilia's face should she come face to face with his wife of twenty years. He knew very well, though, that Sonia's face could no longer summon any righteous Norwegian anger. He was her meal ticket, and no divorce settlement could provide her the means to live in the style and comfort to which Dirk had accustomed her. Besides, some days, after one of his better-performed apologies, he could see something in her eyes he faintly respected.

The two lane highway seemed silent and devoid of traffic as the sky held no stars. Dirk painfully reached his arm over the Hurst shifter to stroke the hair of his quarry for the evening. His aching arm muscles made him thankful he kept this apartment nearby, ostensibly for business, because a drive any longer could become painful. He pushed his favorite cool jazz tape inside the player.

For a second, the bright lights blotted everything out. He swerved to the right and left before his hand finally reached the mirror dimmer switch.

"What the hell is he doing?" he said, seeing the car following his some fifteen feet away.

"I don't know," Cecilia answered, "Can't you just go slower."

Dirk's foot pushed on the accelerator, and the obliging carburetor below sucked in more air through the hood. For an instant, the lights disappeared, and Dirk felt a sense of righteous power. Then, just as suddenly, the two dots were back.

Dirk's foot sank lower as he watched the speedometer register seventy-five. On a flat, two-lane road, he hardly dared go faster; the heavy engine weighing on the front wheels of the Mustang precluded anything other than straight line performance,

Again, however, the two headlights re-appeared. Apparently the driver had not disappeared and, for whatever reason, remained glued to Dirk's car.

"Why don't you let the car pass?" Cecilia asked.

"Be quiet." he snapped. "Why don't you look back their and at least see what's chasing us, so I can figure out what to do."

His eyes glinted over the rushing road carefully as he clutched the vibrating wheel. Was it a Ferrari, a Porsche--

"It's kind of boxy. The metal part is kind of square up front, and it's got four doors."

"Never mind that," he said, guessing then the car must be some native muscle car, "What kind of car is it?"

"I can't make out the name without my glasses."

Derrick mumbled an expletive as he heard months worth of air suddenly leave his tires and brakes. He felt a sudden crunch and felt himself bouncing back and forth against the shoulder harness like a basketball. He could readily imagine dollars and dollars worth of expensive rear tail-parts going up on impact. The headlights from the tailing car bathed his car's interior in light, and he felt an anger bordering on hatred. For a second, he thought the car would not respond; then he heard the Boss 429 cough as the four- barreled carburetor fed fuel into the hemispherical chambers. The engine roared, and he pulled out.

Beside him, his partner said nothing.

"Well," he growled, as the car hit fifty, "What was it?"

"What-" she asked, "Is a Rambler?"

A cold chill ran up and down Dirk's spine as his foot stomped back towards the upholstery. Here an aged old Rambler was trying to beat the Boss! He watched the speedometer cross the lethal one hundred mile an hour marking and not stop. He dared not look in the mirror though a part of his mind said the crash a moment before should've knocking the Rambler's little engine inside its driver's lap. Then he heard a tiny, tiny sound that reached his ears even over the whine of four hundred horses.

"Beep. Beep," it said.

Then he looked. The brown sedan was running side by side. The little car's wheels spun so quickly that they seemed ready to spin off, and yet it held its position beside Dirk's classic Mustang.

"Beep. Beep," it repeated.

Then he saw the truck coming in the opposite lane. His mind told him that he had a decision to make. He could either slow down and let the Rambler pass or speed up. Mentally, he imagined a gigantic eighteen wheeler moving down the road, its driver wondering what strange debris he'd crushed. His hands held the balance.

"Come on," he screamed to the ponycar as he gave his straining powerplant a free hand and all the gas. The speedometer hit one-thirty as heard his companion scream. and one-forty. He laughed as he called:

"Come on! Come on!"

The speeds involved were so great that, for an instant, Dirk couldn't believe the evidence of his eyes. Still the Rambler ran by the Mustang's side, and the polite, tiny, blinking red light that meant the Rambler would like to pass. Gradually, the little sawed-off compact increased its lead over the Mustang to two car lengths, and then slipped gracefully back into the right lane.

The truck rushed by in a roar of diesel turned to almost a scream as its sound reacted to the high speeds. As the truck passed, the little brown car gave off a single toot that passed for a friendly wave.

The Mustang didn't exactly slow down. Instead Dirk heard a dissonance of angry mechanical sounds, grunts, blips, and wheezes as the engine, like a cannibal with no food, started to eat itself. Dirk left the brakes alone, knowing that when the car stopped this time, they would start walking.

He watched, hopefully, as the Rambler's square tail-lights disappeared for a few seconds. Then, the lights reappeared again, and he knew the car ahead was slowing up. He teeth clenched and he felt the ache in his shoulders. Spitefully, he hoped the little car's engine had also sustained terminal damage.

Finally, the Mustang settled on the shoulder. The Rambler halted some twenty yards ahead. Before the doors ahead opened, the driver politely switched on his four way flashers. From the passenger side, a blonde woman emerged in swaggering leather pants and jacket. Her blue eyes looked backward with a pantherian gleam of triumph. The driver wore matching leather garments accented by heavy boots and pair of goggles and helmet that hid his features. He nonchalantly approached the Mustang with the blonde by his side. Overhead, the Mustang's headlights silhouetted them against the darkness. Dirk could hear a drum roll as they moved. Finally, they stood by the side of Dirk's car, staring downward. Cecilia sprang from the right side to place herself, whimpering, at the man's booted feet.

"Please get me out of here, please," she said. "Don't hurt me."

The gloved hands removed the goggles. Dirk watched, too scared to move.

"Having any," Dirk sputtered, "troubles with your car?"

"Yes," the stranger answered in a friendly, familiar voice as the helmet came off, "I just can't get her into third any more. I knew I should've bought the eight."

Dirk gasped as he saw the sight of Amos Jones, and the woman, of course, was Sonia. A strange grin covered the former maintenance man's shaggy features. Sonia looked down at her husband, so that her form left Dirk caught in the shadows. Jones' hand reached out and touched him. Before he could recoil in fright, the other spoke:

"Do you want a lift?"



***

He felt the hand again, but the voice suddenly rose and he looked to Cecilia's face.

"Mr. Davis?"

"Go with Moses." he murmured and then caught her look of surprise.

"What are you talking about?" she asked. "Mr. Jones is waiting to see you."

As his eyes cleared, he noticed the afternoon sun still shining through his window. He turned and automatically picked out his red Mustang amid the sea of cars. Squinting, it seemed to have no dents. Then, he looked back at the beautiful face of his secretary. He admired the face, but now he saw how little vision the eyes shared with his own.

"You ought to wear glasses Ms. Martinez," he said ignoring her look of bewilderment. Momentarily, she moved to open the door. He watched the man With the goatee and overalls move carefully into the room. He did not sit until Davis motioned

towards the chair.

"You wanted me, sir," he meekly asked.

"Yes, Amos, I did. Your work has not been up to standards. I've thought someone else could work far more efficiently as head of your department.'

The eyebrows man's drooped. He spoke softly.

"Then you're firing me."

The look of total helplessness of not being able to do anything crossed between the two men. Dirk knew that feeling somehow.

"No, I'm not firing you. Our company needs men like you who work carefully, try hard, and always do their best. No, I'm going to sign you up for some courses that I think can help you improve. I think you're still the best man for maintenance."

Jones looked up, an easy smile covering his features as he spoke. "Thank you sir," he said, "I'll do my best."

"You always do, Jones, and, like I say, 'a man should help if he sees another man in trouble along the road.'

He paused, "Cecilia."

She came back into the room.

"Amos, could you give my secretary a ride home? I know you two live in the same direction."

"But," she protested, "I thought you were going to give me-"

"Sorry," he said, "I have somewhere important to go with my wife tonight."

"I can give her a ride," Amos added," if she doesn't feel too embarrassed about riding around in an old Rambler."

The three laughed.

A few minutes later, Dirk looked out the window as he talked on the phone with his wife. He watched Amos shuffle along to his little brown car. His hands remained respectfully distant from his companion. He carefully opened the door to the passenger side, to allow the lady inside.

"Yes honey," Dirk said, "I said dinner tonight. No, we won't be taking the Mustang."

The car below started in a cloud of gray smoke. It cautiously moved across the lot and signaled to enter the exit road. Then, there was a sudden violent roar of raw horsepower as burning tires launched the Rambler over the payment, followed by a little squeal, and a tiny sound resembling:

"Beep. Beep."

 

 

 

THE EXIT SIGN

 

The old voice trailed off as Rich heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He turned swiftly and saw only the old-timer's son.

"Are you two still here?" the man asked. "You aren't planning on staying all night, are you?"

Rich looked at his watch, and the hands had just passed 5:00. He could remember working overtime so often in the past. Under those factory lights, though, a man couldn't distinguish midnight from noon. Now, he could see the December sunset and feel that freezing wind cutting through his exposed hands.

To the north, despite the sun having set, he could pick out a faint glow against the skyline that might be Pontiac and to the south, the lights of Detroit. The Renaissance Center, he thought, always looked so much brighter and encouraging in pictures than against the backdrop of the polluted Detroit river, where ice winds ripped away at the retreating crowds. The city lights, from the junkyard, seemed feeble and fading.

"It's Friday, Rich," the old man reminded him, "You'd better get home to your family."

"Wait," said the son, "Why don't you tell that story with the girl and the match races." He made the story title sound like a fairy tale.

The lenses of the old man's face hardened as he looked at his son.

"I'm sure Rich has things to do."

Rich remembered again the decorations, the bills, the kids, and the house. He reminded himself, again, how lucky he was to have a job this year. Still, he felt no need to rush off, just yet.

"Just one last story," Rich said, "Please."

"Well now son, I'm not telling you to believe this, and I'm not saying it's true. Let's just say it's the kind of story you can believe if you need to--"



***

The feminine eyes bored into that of Mr. Youngerman. She looked in her middle thirties with limp blonde hair that hung in tame curls. The mechanic knew her only as his son's former English teacher.

"I'm telling you they were there racing, and I want to try it."

She put most of her stock weight into her high heel to emphasize her point. The sound did not carry over the machinery working behind him.

"Cracart Lane, you say." Youngerman repeated.

The mere mention of the place immediately brought to his mind again the picture of towers of flames and cars sailing off, burning, into space. He could remember when every young boy went off to prove himself over the winding road that let through

those Indiana hills. Later, a small drag strip became a kind of testing ground for would-be drivers and mechanics.

The look on her face changed to one of exasperation. She took a deep breath as she looked again at the underpowered Maverick he'd put back together so many times.

"Look," she said, "I was just driving along out there last night, and suddenly, I spotted this whole pack of cars lined up, two by two. I got off the side of the road, thinking they were going to run into me, and just sat there a minute. Some of them had these things sticking up on the hoods."

"Hood scoops."

"Yes, the others had like gigantic mufflers bulging right out from under the front fenders."

"Sidepipes."

"That would be an appropriate term for them. I watched them. They'd run in pairs. Then the winners would run against other winners."

The red lines in her eyes made Adam guess she'd waited until a champion emerged before leaving. He realized then she'd come to talk to him because he was probably the only person she knew that had any knowledge of these type of things. He

watched her become more and more excited as she retold the story, and wondered why she'd been driving out there, alone, in the first place. He took a deep breath.

"Well, what do you expect me to do about this?"

Her small hands met, suddenly, as she spoke more rapidly:

"Well, you're a good mechanic, so I thought maybe you could do something to the engine of my Maverick, so I could--"

He shook his head.

"What kind of car would you suggest for these races?"

"Now that depends," he said trying to talk as sensibly as possible in this kind of situation. "On how much money you have and what kind of fool you are. Drag racing is not a safe sport for anyone, Miss Sample. People get their feet flown right off; I damn near did myself. Then, there's Cracart Lane. Setting that place up for drag racing must've been an idea of stupid young men or the Devil. Not to mention the fact that you don't know a damn thing about setting up an engine. Your racing out there would be like, like, committing suicide."

She squared her shoulders and frowned.

"I can go elsewhere," she said significantly.

"Hold on," he called before she'd taken three steps. At least, he knew something about high performance engines, and he'd seen that look of determination before--in the mirror, "I've got a '69 Camaro out back."

Four weeks passed, and Adam felt relieved at not seeing Miss Sample back in the shop. One day, though, he watched a thinned woman wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt step lithely from a 440 Road Runner she parked in front of his bay. Through the

skin that just seemed to hang over the bones, he made out the features of his son's former teacher. She looked lean and, somehow, more alive. Her occupied voice contained a hint of gratitude that turned his stomach over.

"I'm so pleased to see you Mr. Youngerman," she said, extending an emaciated hand. He felt toughened skin as they shook. "I've been back to Cracart Lane."

He let go of the hand.

"In fact, that why I'm here. I'd like your help." she began. "At first, you see, I thought they raced every night, so I kept going back there. I saw no one. Then, I went last night, and, sure enough, they were all there again."

Adam could picture this woman waiting all night on the bench seat of the old Plymouth, waiting, anticipating, until she finally made the rendezvous.

"I guess," she continued, "They only race under the full moon. This probably gives the best lighting."

He thought, then, that the lights had probably not worked out there for years.

"Who are some of the drivers out there?" he asked, hoping to get some names to call an end these tales.

"I really don't know," she admitted.

"Well, don't you ever talk between the heats?" he asked angrily.

"That's just it, no one ever gets out of their cars. They just stay inside, I guess because of the cold. "She stopped, her eyes staring blankly. Then suddenly surged onward: "But I can tell you about the winning car. It's a 427 Shelby Cobra with a white eight painted on its black body. "You see, Mr. Youngerman, that's why I wanted to see you. I need to get a '69 Hemi Cuda. That's what I will require."

Adam watched the predatory look on her face and the sudden excitement that ran over her body. He knew then that she'd never be content with just running a few match races. Only winning would satisfy her. Somehow, he had to put a stop to this quickly.

"Do you know how many--" he began again.

"Fifty," she said, "Tom Ryan's says he'll tune the Hemi for me and find one."

The mere mention of Tom Ryan automatically triggered an impulse to reach for a fire extinguisher. The man's nitrous installations were infamous. Some said that he'd personally worked the engine in the catastrophe at Craca--

"Ten grand, maybe twelve," he said.

"Ryan can get one for eight," she said evenly, "But don't worry. If you have the car tomorrow, I'll have the money."

He watched her turn on her feet confidently. He picked up a rag and absently started to wring the stains from his hands. Suddenly aware of his movements, he tossed the rag into the corner with disgust.

Late the next evening, he watched the big Road Runner pull into his station under the dim lights. He tossed her the keys to the white 'Cuda and watched her deftly pull them out of the air. The hemi engine fired up, and he watched the fat slicks bulging from the rear of the fastback. She left the Road Runner parked vacantly waiting on the street, like a forgotten memory.

For a few minutes, he sat at his desk carelessly eyeing the keys and wondering whether to call the police. His eyes strayed to the long green coupe still outside. Slowly, he rose to his feet. He peered inside at the stark midnight black bucket seats. Then,

he jumped quickly inside and turned the key.

As he approached Cracart Lane, he spied a small group of headlights pointing over the hill in his direction, like eyes. He saw then the white 'Cuda, its tires up in anticipation, as it's engine howled from beneath the white hood scoop. To its left, he saw a low black sportster. From beneath its hood only a large square object hinted at the massive engine already belching out clouds of smoke. Some unseen signal fell, and the two cars lurched forward.

Instantly, he realized his Road Runner lay directly in the path of the onrushing Cobra. He tried to pull the car off the right shoulder, but, here, the road clutched the hill with no space on either side. Closer and closer, the two cars approached him. In the 'Cuda, he watched the wild look of triumph and delight as the teacher started to open a slim lead. Then he looked inside the Cobra and saw

nothing except the black upholstery.

Then, he remembered where he'd seen that car before. It's picture had fallen on the sports page of a previous month paper when it had crashed and been blown to smithereens. He felt an intense chill as the cars came closer and closer. He fought rising fear as the cars came nearer and nearer. He braced himself for a collision.

In a whoosh of air, both vehicles passed, and Adam instinctively followed them over his shoulders. He watched a flag signal the victory for the Plymouth. He waited for the squeal of the brakes that meant safety. He waited fully ten seconds as he watched both cars, still moving at top speed, approaching the end of the roadway and the precipice the gave Cracart Lane its lethal reputation.

Then he knew he'd never hear those 'Cuda brakes again, just as surely as he knew that the Cobra had gone through, not around, the Road Runner. His eyes slowly passed over the pack of cars lined in front of him with their slicks gripping, motors racing --and no one inside.

He gunned the engine of the Plymouth and pulled up off the road, where the shoulder started. It seemed like minutes before he reached the end of the line. There he saw a black Cobra with a number eight painted in white. Behind it, he saw only the outlines of a white car, but he could hear the unmistakable roar of a tuned 426 hemi.

For a second, his hands ached to take the Road Runner into a spot in this line. He wanted to beat that Cobra or at least take it on and the 'Cuda also! He beat his fist against the wheel even as his mouth formed an eager smile. Then, he remembered again his son and his wife. For a second, he remained motionless.

Slowly he swung the coupe around back towards home. He didn't dare look in his mirror until the Plymouth's keys no longer rested in the ignition.



***

His son laughed at the conclusion of the story. "What a whopper!" he declared.

Rich saw the old gentleman staring off, absorbed in his own myth.

"Come on, Dad," his son said, "My wife is going to wonder where we are."

"I'11 be along in a minute," the old man answered, "You go ahead tonight. I'm going to drive myself."

A few minutes later, the old man and Rich were at the gate. While Rich put chains on the big metal piece that encapsulated the automotive graveyard, Rich heard the man pull out. He turned over his shoulder and watched a big Plymouth coupe pull up by his side. He watched a slow smile cover the old man's features that stood out in the moonlight. As the car pulled out, Rich's curiosity got the better of him. He looked at the back of the green car for an emblem.

It read simply "Road Runner."

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Daniel Richard Fruit was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, the one-time car capital of the world. He went to a small liberal arts school, Albion College, where he majored in history and English and wrote a thesis on science fiction entitled,

"Another World: New Wave Science Fiction." He attended Indiana University on an American Studies scholarship where he published an article on Thomas Wolfs entitled "Of' Time and the Rhetoric" and pondered American popular culture a couple of years before receiving his master's degree in American Literature in 1984.

Mr. Fruit became a Los Angeles school teacher that same year and presently teaches English and creative writing at Stevenson Junior High School in East Los Angeles. In his spare time he jogs, reads excessively, builds models, and collects old

car magazine articles. He shares a modest half of an old duplex with his brother, his Barracuda, and eight other cars in various states of disrepair.

Mr. Fruit began writing in the seventies. He managed to write science fiction before it became profitable and gave it up. In his college days, he began writing more symbolically, just as a reaction to that started to take place. He claims his major influences include Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, and Brock Yates. Presently he has several travel books (in a style two hundred years out of date), a science fiction novel, another unfinished collection of stories, a drum corps novel, and

various other manuscripts rotting in his closet.

His ambition as a writer is to be the most famous obscure writer in the world and continue to be as far behind the times as possible.