They Tell Me You Are Wicked
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
Carl Sandburg (1878–1967). Chicago Poems. 1916.
A car. All the boy wanted was a car.
For their sixteenth birthday, most guys on the North Shore got their own ride. They’d cop their driver’s permit then drive to New Trier High the next day in a restored Mustang, a cherry Camero, a convertible MGB, and slow roll through the parking lot. It was tradition along the lakefront of Chicago. The only exception were families either too tight or too punitive.
To the boy it was a mystery which label applied to his dad. He had plenty of money and no reason to Bogart it. Still, for his sweet sixteen the boy got an Apple II, to “help him with his homework,” his mom said, like that glowing box could make him care about school.
Which explained why he hung back in the night shadows, smoking a joint. The suburban street was lifeless, and in the house across the way all the lights were out, but out front the Cutlass glowed under the street lamp like a lightening bug: high-gloss yellow paint on the doors and roof, hubcaps to match, black air vents on the hood, a spoiler on the tail. It had been buffed out to mint condition, could be on the cover of Car and Driver.
He took a final hit off the roach, looked both ways, and crossed, a dozen silent steps on pavement still damp from a misting rain. He test tugged the driver’s door, and it opened on squeaky hinges. The bench seat was hard vinyl, slick and cold. A leather skin bound the steering wheel, but it turned viscous as oil.
Could he? The owner must have been asleep, wouldn’t even know it was gone. Borrowing it wasn’t stealing, especially if he refilled the gas tank. It was no more than a test drive.
Behind, an El train screeched by, but once it passed everything was chill. He lowered the window to take in the vibe; the air smelled of tar and pine, but the only sound was the buzz of the street lamp.
The ignition popped with a flat head screw driver, and behind it he found the two wires – black and red – as his friend said. On first touch the engine woke with a grunt. He eased the ball-head shifter to neutral and rolled back in the street, just like with the family’s station wagon when he snuck out at night. As he switched into drive, a window lit up across the street. No sense waiting for a hand to part the curtains. Time to motor.
With a tap on the accelerator, six dials stood up on the dash. The engine rumbled loud in his ears, so he kept the tachometer under 2K and waited for the end of the block to pull the plunger on the headlamps.
At the intersection with Emerson he idled, feeling the pants of the motor, the shudder in the flanks. Sheridan Road had fewer traffic lights, but Green Bay was a straight shot, primo to test the 350 Rocket engine. He tunneled under the railroad that pointed downtown and turned right. Lights flashed yellow as far as he could see, shining off the wet pavement. On the right, the berm of the train tracks formed a barrier like the grandstands at a speedway, while to his left lay the pit row of gas, food, and tire shops, their neon signs the only evidence of habitation.
He punched play on the 8-track, and the BeeGees sang “Night Fever” in a flaming falsetto. Eject. He was about to throw the tape in the back seat but instead pocketed it as a memento. Nobody was going to miss Saturday Night Fever. On the radio dial he found the Loop and the vibrato of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar.
I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
And all I’ve got, I had to steal
He amped up the volume, then stomped on the gas. The car leapt, and the tachometer climbed to 4K then slapped down as the engine shifted into second, third, fourth. Its noise blew away even the music, while the windshield pinched the world into a rectangle of onrushing lights. Soon his hands numbed from the vibrations of the steering wheel.
He leaned back into the hard vinyl and squinted at the wind raking his face. The pot was taking hold, dragging the corners of his mouth into a permagrin, filling his head with helium light. He passed the music studio where he took guitar lessons – the chrome of Stratocasters glinting in the window – the A&P where his mom shopped – its parking lot big and vacant – the stony Presbyterian church his family dragged him to. He imagined wheeling the Cutlass past them, how people would turn at the hum of the engine, stare at the gleaming paint, wait to see who stepped out, then nod at him, no longer the boy in his parent’s back seat.
At every manhole the car bottomed out, dropping his stomach with it, and on every crack in the pavement it bucked him off the bench seat. It was nothing like the pathetic AMC Pacer from driver’s ed. or his family’s wood wagon, which creaked and swayed like hammocks. This ride was tight as a guitar string.
He didn’t even see the pothole, only felt the car dip and lurch toward the curb as for a second the Olds was driving him. Then the tires grabbed and straightened. The city streets were rotten with these gopher holes, but he’d never hit one in a ride this taut.
It was no sweat, until his left leg started to shake. At first it was just a tremor, timed with the vibrations of the engine. Then it found its own rhythm, bouncing like it was playing a bass drum. He tried to restrain it but couldn’t. Luckily, it wasn’t the foot on the gas.
When he looked up again, a garbage truck was crawling round the corner just ahead. With three lanes open he didn’t need to slow and ticked left a couple degrees. Only the Cutlass didn’t want to reset, fixing itself on a line to the curb and a huge elm, the trunk thicker than a phone pole. He stomped the brakes and tugged the wheel right with both hands, but the car fought back, fishtailing and mashing him into the door. As it spun, his head rebounded off something both firm and spongy. Then everything was a blur.
A jolt ended the slide. Lights trailed around him. He groped for something solid but found only the smooth and slick. All over his body felt bruised. He heard himself panting like he was recovering from a run powered by bone and muscle rather than gas and steel, but still couldn’t tune into his other senses. Finally, he grasped something cold and metallic then held on until the dizziness faded.
He revived on the passenger side of the bench seat. The Cutlass was in the other lane and facing the wrong way. In the headlights, black skid marks stretched beyond his sight. Scorched rubber mixed with the scent of his sweat.
He slid back to the driver’s side and checked all his mirrors. In the wing, he saw the curb that saved him from wiping out into the tree. Other than the tire tracks, he couldn’t see any damage. Still his stomach burned orange and acid.
Behind, the garbage truck was stopped too, its brake lights glowing red. Inside its cab was dark, but he could tell somebody was watching.
The Olds was idling low and ready, so he eased on the gas, but the tires turned only once and locked. What was the hang up? He tried again, with more gas this time, but the car lurched and fell. On his third attempt the wheels only ground, metal on metal.
Another look at the side mirror told him the truck was still there: the garbage man would see if he stepped out. Inside the cockpit at least he was anonymous.
If his dad found out, he’d freak. The old man acted like everything was irreplaceable. Once, when the boy accidently knocked over a lamp taking batting practice, his father grounded him for two months. After a wreck like this, he’d probably be banned from driving, and definitely wouldn’t get a car of his own, ever. He’d be walking to school until graduation.
He stared at the little reflection of the garbage truck in the mirror. “Go on, this is nothing to you,” he told it.
Maybe the driver wanted some sign he’d given up. He threw the shifter into park and waited for the truck to move on. It just sat there, its exhaust drifting in the window, a sweet scent that made him nauseous and dizzy again.
The dashboard clock ticked fifty times at least during the standoff. Then the driver’s door opened, and a round man stepped onto the ladder, hanging there like he couldn’t decide what to do.
His deep voice echoed off the street, trying to wake up everybody within a mile. He sounded mad, like he knew what had happened, but that was impossible. Nobody even saw the boy swipe the Olds.
“Hey!” the guy repeated even louder.
He descended a rung and waited like he expected someone to step out and meet him.
The lights! They threw a pair of cones on the asphalt. The boy reached for the plunger to drain them, but his wrist cramped with a spark of pain from finger to shoulder. Since his hand wouldn’t obey, the boy punched the toggle with a knuckle, killing all illumination inside and out. Once his eyes adjusted, he checked the side mirror again. The man hung half out of his cab.
“Hey, flyboy, you okay?”
Now his voice sounded friendly. Maybe he’d push start the car, get it over the curb’s hump and pointed back to the duplex. Because right then, all he wanted was a do over.
“Hey, if you’re hurt, don’t move.”
The boy flexed his fingers, but they wouldn’t stretch more than an inch, and his forearm ached, every movement winding the muscles tighter around a spindle. What if he couldn’t drive. In the wood wagon he needed only one hand to steer, but the Cutlass was way too potent for that.
A glance back, and the garbage guy had descended to the lowest rung. How far away was he? Like the fine print said, the mirror distorted the distance, especially in the dark. He could have been right there; but looking over his shoulder the boy saw the driver was at least 25 paces away. Think fast. Don’t count on help from this gawker.
A siren slid through the open window, and the boy’s mind went tense as his hand. Was it the paramedics or the police? Would one come without the other? The cops would definitely want to see his license, check who owned the Cutlass.
In the slow crescendo, he locked eyes on the trash man, who was walking toward the Olds, his head cocked to one side. No sense waiting on him or the fuzz. Hesitation meant fessing up, humiliation with his friends, and who knew what hell from his dad.
He clawed the door handle but couldn’t close his grip, the cord in his forearm so taut it had no slack for movement. Instead, he worked the lock with his right hand, then shouldered the door open, lost his balance, fell to one knee, and instinctively reached out the bad arm. The pain paralyzed him in that stance like a runner on the blocks waiting for the gun. Behind, he heard the sani-man striding toward him heavy and slow.
“Don’t move,” he said.
Up close, the garbage guy looked old and rotund, way stronger than him, but slower, too. The boy forced himself to his feet, and the ground shifted. He stumbled and nearly fell again, but freezing gave him back his legs.
“I’m cool,” he said.
Running was impossible, so he race walked off cradling the lame limb.
“Hold on,” the dumpster driver said.
At a half jog, the boy passed the windows to a flower shop with a neon yellow rose and a record store with a spinning disc. He couldn’t hear any steps or breathing behind but didn’t want to look back in case he lost his balance again. Up ahead, the sidewalk ended at an intersection, the crosswalk glowing like a ladder under the street lamp. Even stoned and scared he knew enough to get off the main drag. To his right lay the darkness of suburban homes, their black lawns and big backyards an escape, so he took the side street. It held a dozen places to hide – high bushes, shadowy corners, tall gates – but these were all still too close. And what if someone heard?
He scanned the street for a gas station with its lights dimmed or a restaurant with a side entrance but saw only more homes. All the businesses were behind him with the Cutlass, the trash trailer, and the siren.
Which had stopped now, he noticed. It was quiet again, as though the sani-man and the alarm, all those officious gnats, had given up. Still, he wasn’t about to stop. Luck had landed him there, and he couldn’t count on it to save him.
If he could just get out from under this, if no one found out, not his dad or his friends. “Please God,” he said, “Let me walk away, and I’ll get you back.” It wasn’t like he meant to wreck the car. It was just a joy ride. The irony of that term ricocheted through his thoughts, his arm throbbing, head spinning, heart banging. How much could it cost to fix? Didn’t matter. He’d save his allowance for months, if he had to, and drop the money (anonymously) through the owner’s mail slot.
It could be like this had never happened.