We’re glad to see the Buick stop. Five of us thumbing back to our dorm well after midnight on the fringes of Fredonia — the odds are not good. The night has pretty much sucked so far, and the Buick is the first good thing that’s happened since we left the Fred State campus. A big barn of a dance hall with kegs in the corner and hundreds of Fredonia girls on the loose — low SATs and easy pickings supposedly — but none of us have managed to get hooked up.
Even Sweikert — a.k.a. Face, for his Brad Pitt smile — has not scored. Robby Caruso is blitzed on keg beer and fading. He’s heaved twice already. Every 30 seconds or so, Doug and I have to steady him as the stoplight turns and he sways in the winter cold, his breath puffing frost. Belch is drunk too. Steady on his feet but sad and sullen, as Sweikert tells us how he’d been making out with a blonde who was absolutely not a pig.
Minutes pass with no traffic at all. We watch the light turn, and Sweikert starts to say something about a Plan B when, finally, coming toward us is a big Buick Roadmaster, turquoise and white, a ’55, I think, white sidewalls and spinners to boot. The car looks like a cross between a little kid’s cartoon car and a beast from the deepest part of the ocean, but he’s slowing down. Hallelujah.
We all jump in, just happy to get out of the cold. Sweikert, Robbie C, and Belch in the back, and me jammed in the front middle next to the driver, with Doug riding shotgun. It’s only after we’re rolling that I really notice the driver. A young guy, broad and beefy, with a terrific start on a beer belly and an Elvis-style duck’s ass hairdo. A townie for sure.
“Where you boys headed?” he says with a grin. Something about that grin makes me check him out again. This time I see he has no left hand, just some kind of hook contraption clamped on the steering wheel where a hand would be.
“Meadville,” says Sweikert, as always our spokesman.
“College boys?” Elvis asks. Yep, Sweikert explains, headed back to the dorms after a bad, bad Saturday night. He begins to tell his tale of how things went wrong.
“Well, you boys are in luck,” Elvis says, real friendly. “I’m headed down to Pittsburgh. Going right through Meadville.”
By this time we’re out in the country on two lanes of Route 19 south of Erie. Farms whizzing by in the dark, a single bright light in every barnyard. Another 20 miles to Meadville.
I admit I’m the kind who likes to see how fast a car will go. But this guy has the nads of a test pilot. A glance left tells me he has the Buick up to 85, which feels plenty quick on the roller coaster hills.
Elvis never does stomp the throttle. No, it’s like he’s trying to set a land speed record without having anybody take notice. Slowly, steadily, he keeps cranking it up. By the time we hit the dark little town of Cambridge Springs and blow through the single blinking red light at 100-plus, you can’t help but notice. Nobody says a word, though. A freight train rolling with a heavy load, we hum along that ghostly main street, and I’m guessing we all know we’re in the grasp of a maniac.
Why doesn’t somebody say something? Robbie C is out of it, Sweikert and Belch frozen in place somewhere in the back. Doug and I exchange a look. Big, big eyes. What the fucking fuck?
There’s a long, straight hill out in the country about three miles north of Meadville. As the Buick starts down the slope, I vow not to look — absolutely I should NOT look at the speedometer — but halfway down, I do. The needle is pinned all the way to the right. And Elvis is still flooring it.
My eyes flicker to his face and he turns with that terrible grin and looks at me, straight on. Please, I beg with my eyes, please, please keep your hands — oops, I mean hand — on the wheel. Still looking me in the eye, he lifts his right hand off the wheel, pulls a cigarette from behind his ear, and puts it in his mouth. I can’t turn away. Elvis one-hands a lighter out of his shirt pocket and fires up, the hook on the wheel steady as a fence rail.
He leans toward me and whispers but so everybody can hear, “I hate skinny little boys.”
Uh, okay, I think. I turn forward and try to brace myself. A thought floats into my brain — so this is how you die. Pretty God damn funny when you think about it. Bug-splatted one dark night in February while out hunting pussy. I can see my parents getting the middle-of-the-night phone call. And the headline on the front page of the Meadville Tribune Monday morning — “Five College Students Die in Route 19 Crash.” It’s a riot.
But the gods who watch over skinny boys have decided this is not the night. Coming down off that hill the road flattens out into swampland, and just as we hit bottom, I spot a possum skittering across in the headlights. Elvis doesn’t even have to swerve. There’s a hellacious THWUMP, and then a clattering sound and, Jesu Maria, Elvis is slowing down. “You boys might’ve just got lucky,” Elvis says.
When the steaming Buick craps out, four of us spill onto the shoulder, dragging Robbie C. We haul ass on foot through the outskirts of town and then down North Main and we finally hit the cozy warmth of good old Baldwin Hall and still nobody says a word. It isn’t till the midnight bull session a day later that Doug says, “So that townie guy — was he nuts or what?”
George Clack is an ex-magazine editor who lives in Columbia, MD. He’s been writing stories for years and has a drawer full. He also blogs on creative writing under the name RasoirJ at 317am.net, teaches courses in literature at Howard Community College, and serves as a consultant on social media to the U.S. State Department.
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