Fifty-eight

The George Washington Bridge was a near thing.  The police had actually shut it down when they’d figured out where Lexi was going, about four minutes before she got there.  She found five lanes of probably irate, backed-up commuters separated from them by a line of patrol cars, and the usually bustling tollbooths emptied of potential innocent bystanders.  They’d left a tollbooth open, the crossbar raised.  Lexi giggled when she saw it, and aimed Rainier at the closed one to the left.

“Why?” Glen asked as the car crashed through the gate with a violent crack of wood on bodywork.  His voice was barely audible over the radio, through which the Bangles were singing about the sky being a hazy shade of winter.

Lexi grimaced at the noise of impact, but was relieved to see she hadn’t lost a headlight or done any serious damage to Ren’s car.  “There’s a Stinger in the open one!” she shouted.  Glen looked in his mirror, then out the back window, and could just barely see the glint of the tire-puncturing strip the police had laid out.  “Besides, it’ll look good on World’s Scariest Police Chases,” she added, referring to the helicopter that had nailed them with a spotlight about ten miles back and hadn’t left them since.  “It’s like having our own parade.”

The bridge had been emptied of traffic going into the city, although the outbound lanes were as busy as they usually were at eight in the evening.  New York City spread out in front of them, an endless wall of orange and white lights in the falling snow.  There was about a half-inch of snow on the ground, and it was still falling.  And at the far end of the bridge, a roadblock.  A row of city vehicles blocked the end of the bridge.  The assemblage of garbage trucks and construction vehicles was apparently intent on calling Lexi’s bluff.

But she didn’t slow down.  Glen pushed himself involuntarily back in the seat as the impact sped closer and closer.  Lexi had her eyes nailed to the line of trucks and flashing lights.  Rainier feinted left and right, then slid wildly sideways, tires scrambling for grip on the snow.  The car turned completely broadside to the roadblock.  Glen saw bewildered cops between the trucks, less than ten feet away and closing, uncertain hands on guns and radios, and then Lexi romped on the gas pedal.  Rainier slid to within two inches of a garbage truck, then shot forward, parallel to the line, and then somehow they were through it, having slipped through a car-wide crack with a wild, rally-style four-wheel drift.  Lexi cackled with laughter as they raced down the on-ramp to the West Side Highway.

“Nice,” Glen said, again mostly drowned out by the music.

“I always used to get on it too quick in turns like that, and clipped the apex with the inside rear wheel,” Lexi said.  “I must’ve rolled four different rally cars that way.  Ren, on the other hand, was too patient.  He was always going too deep.  You could always tell which one of us crashed the car–if it was me, we clipped a rock or some other suitably undeformable object on the inside and rolled.  If it was him, we were going too goddamn fast and ran off the outside.  Usually upside down.”  She laughed again.  There were three police cars behind them, at a discreet distance, and Lexi surfed happily through the traffic.  She had slowed somewhat from her interstate speed, and they were only going about a hundred now.

Lexi was also curiously more relaxed.  Although the potential for disaster was greater, she seemed more at ease ripping through traffic.  “Way back in the day,” she said, “Ren had a problem with people speeding up and down the street he lived on.  There were kids living all up and down the street, and he was really worried about someone getting hit because of all these people blowing through at fifty, sixty miles an hour.  A neigborhood street!  He called the cops, but they wouldn’t patrol it regularly enough for them to stop.  So we got a radar gun, and bolted it to the back of his truck, and on the front of the truck we put together a sling that would trigger if the radar registered more than 50.  And on the sling, we put a dummy.  It was basically a set of Spiderman pajamas with feet,  and a big plastic bag full of leavings we got from a deer processing center and a thin wood structure, to give it that solid feeling, and a head made out of a cantaloupe, with a blond wig on it.  And so, if  someone sped up Ren’s street, this dummy would jump out in front of them, too late for them to stop of course, and they’d splatter this ‘kid’ all over  the place.  We scared two speeders straight with that thing.  One guy practically fell out of his Camaro, puking all over himself and crying.  I like to think we did the neighborhood a good service that day, but partly it was just funny watching this bag of deer guts explode.”

“You should have filmed it.”

“Ren said the same thing.”  Rainier wandered through the traffic seemingly at random, always selecting the fastest lane and the most convenient hole in traffic.  The snow was slowing down everyone except Lexi.  “What happened to Jewel?” Lexi asked suddenly.

“She died,” Glen said.  He was too caught up in enjoying the ride and being deeply, deeply concerned about the police chase to stop and think about wanting to talk with Lexi about Jewel or not.  Only a shred of his desire to leave her buried and in the past showed in his voice, which was an uninterested monotone.

“That’s what I thought.”  Lexi downshifted and made a hail-mary dive between two SUVs, getting in position to hit the 56th Street exit.  “It was in the way you talked about her.  How long ago?”

“Two and a half years,” Glen replied.  She was tearing him away from having fun, making him think more about the consequences of the chase than enjoying the ride.  He braced himself with his feet as Rainier made the turn onto 56th without slowing down.  The Department of Sanitation building loomed; 56th went through it.  The mini-tunnel yowled at them, echoing Rainier’s engine back at them as they went through.

“Did you have a phase where you had to talk about her all the time?”

“No.”

“I’m going through one with Ren.  It’s like if I talk about him enough, then he won’t really be gone.  I guess that’s too sappy for your article though.”

“It’s like trying to save a snowman anyway.  The weather gets warmer, and you can rebuild it, or put pieces of it in the freezer, but it’ll never stay the same, if you manage to save it at all.  When I was a kid, I used to knock mine down as soon as they started to melt,” he said incongruously.  “I couldn’t stand watching them rot.”  Glen’s voice was tight with lateral acceleration as they made a hard right onto Ninth Avenue.  The wider road gave them more room to maneuver.  They were actually going slower than they had in hours, but the heavy traffic and pedestrians ensured that their sixty-mile per hour drive was no less exciting.

Lexi said nothing for a few moments, which might have been irritation or might have been the sudden appearance of a lit-up police car from the right which sent them into a diving left turn down 52nd.  Rainier’s tail hung out, hopping the sidewalk briefly. The cop braked to avoid a bus which was sliding on the snow, and all but lost them.  “I would have thought they’d have backed off by now,” she said.  The helicopter’s light was still on them.  “If we go through Times Square, I’ll bet we can lose the chopper.”

“You think?” Glen asked, eager for the fluttery sensation that talking about Jewel had caused to recede.

“Is your tape player still on?”

“Yes.”  He doubted it was picking up much, with the music so loud, but didn’t say so.

“Good.  I hadn’t planned to play so much with Ren’s car, but now it’s starting to seem like a good idea.  Did I tell you how my mother died?”  She dodged back and forth to avoid hot dog vendors’ carts without slowing down, and left angry shouts in several languages and shaken fists in her wake.  A block back, another police car had found them.

Glen thought back.  “You said it was a freak accident.”

“It sure was.  An IGA sign fell on her.  I was six, and we went to the grocery store on the night of a big winter storm.  We wouldn’t have gone, except that we were concerned about being snowed in and there wasn’t much food in the house.  Mom was very organized like that.  Bert told her not to go, but she was a stubborn German like me, only more so.”  Rainier cut across an unoccupied curb to hop onto Seventh Avenue and headed south.  The helicopter stayed with them, and a second police car on Seventh joined the chase right on their bumper.  It was helpful, actually.  Even though the New York drivers didn’t get out of the way, the flashing lights slowed them down a little, which made it easier for Lexi to navigate the congested road.

“Do you remember much about her?”

“Nah, I was six, but I’ve formed a good picture of her since.  Bert was never shy about telling me when I was acting like her.  Anyway, I went with her, because I was an equally stubborn little one.  When we came out of the store it was sleeting, or freezing rain, something crazy like that.  I guess there was an ice storm.  Anyway, she left me by the door with the groceries.  This was 1977, remember, so it was still more or less okay to do things like that, leave your kid by the door while you went to get the car so she didn’t have to get completely drenched in ice.”

“I remember,” Glen smiled.

Times Square suddenly loomed large in front of them, neon-splattered buildings on every side.  Lexi didn’t glance up at them.  They forced a tour bus to stop halfway through the yellow light it was running with a shattering hiss of air brakes, then narrowly missed a crowd of pedestrians.  Glen was convinced they’d plow into the people in a tangle of limbs, but there was no sound of impact.  Lexi managed to barrel through the car-choked mass intersection with only a faint slackening of pace, then immediately spun Rainier into a violent right turn behind another tour bus, ran quickly down 42nd Street.  Lexi giggled, then resumed her story.  “Anyway, Mom went out to get the car–it was a ’75 Ford Country Squire, white with wood paneling–and as soon as she got it started and started to pull out of the parking space the wind blew the big IGA sign down, right on the car.  Squash!  I seem to recall that she died instantly, but I can’t remember if I actually read that or if I made it up in a dream at some point during puberty.”

Lexi’s morbid cheerfulness was unnerving.  “And you saw it?” Glen asked, trying to hide his shock.

“Well, I didn’t see blood everywhere, just a lot of light and sparks.  I was six.  I remember being scared at the noise, and then I was upset that my mom wouldn’t come and get me after I was scared.  I think all the people in the store put all of these grown-up spins on me crying, that I knew it was all over for her or something, but really I was just upset because I screamed and Mom didn’t come to find out what was wrong.”  At Tenth Avenue, Lexi headed north again, ignoring the red light in a cacophony of horns.  “I don’t think that the whole episode really meant anything other than that to me, not for a few years.  But then, I was six, I think I can be forgiven for being a little self-centered.  Oh, now that’s weird,” she said.  The music on the tape had changed from perky synth-driven pop to jarring industrial, heavy with guitars and distorted vocals.  “This is a song that I like, not that Ren likes.  I wonder why Cygnet put it on here.”

“If it’s for Ren, I’m sure he’d like a reminder of you, too.”

“That’s way too metaphysical for me to think about right now,” Lexi said off-handedly.  She attacked the traffic, terrorizing Tenth Avenue all the way up to 70th Street and then hanging the car’s tail out in anticipation of a tight right-hand turn that turned them almost all the way around.  Glen thought for a moment that she had lost control, but Rainier gathered itself up and ended up pointing directly down Broadway.  The police car didn’t have a hope of making that turn at speed, and went straight.  Lexi hammered it down Broadway, cutting from one side of the road to the other.  At Columbus Circle they came within inches of sliding into another police car.  Rainier never put a wheel wrong though; the cop went into a one-eighty and the Crane-Packard continued.  Soon they were going through Times Square again.  “You have to cut across the median to stay on Broadway here,” she said when they got to 44th Street, doing so.  Pedestrians shouted and screamed, but once again she didn’t hit a single one.  She laughed loudly, then jinked back across two lanes, almost clipped a taxi, and went left on 38th Street. 

The helicopter’s spotlight had disappeared.  They’d lost it.  Lexi braked hard, a good thing since 38th was fraught with massive potholes, and actually stopped for the next traffic light, which obediently changed for them in a few seconds.  Lexi joined traffic and headed sedately north on Madison Avenue.  She turned off Rainier’s foglights, to change their light signature slightly, and looked up at the buildings forming a canyon on both sides of them.

“I used to think I could live here,” she said.  “Things should be quiet for oh, three or four minutes or so.”

“Are we going to the Packard estate?”

She nodded absently, looking upward through the windshield.  She turned onto 58th Street and continued east.

He was scanning the mirrors for police cars.  “Are you going to let me out at some point?”

“Why?  Do you want out?”

“I haven’t decided,” he said honestly.

“You should learn to make decisions more quickly.  Want to hear a funny story about Ren?”

“I’d love to,” he replied.

“Good, because I couldn’t decide between telling you a funny story and seeing how long I could hide in the park.  Which would be amusing, but ultimately counterproductive.  So once upon a time, Ren had six cars.  A completely full driveway and garage, he was at that point where he had to decide if he was going to pave the backyard to make space for more cars or what.  Anyway, he was out there working on this ’59 Continental he’d picked up one fine summer day, when he discovered, probably inadvertently, that it had no brakes.  It rolled over the chock, like a five-thousand pound convertible will, and headed down the driveway.  And Ren’s drive had a pretty good slope to it.  The car behind it was his ’58 Edsel convertible.

“So Ren jumps up on top of the Lincoln, scrambles over it like a circus monkey–I’m speculating here, since I wasn’t there at the time–and gets between the two cars.  He manages to slow the Lincoln down enough that it doesn’t crash into the Edsel or kill him, but he ends up stuck, with his back to the Lincoln and his feet on either side of the Edsel’s very expensive horsecollar grille.  And that’s that.  He can’t push the Lincoln up, and he can’t move without letting these two cars run into each other.

“That’s where he was when I called him.  We were still in the getting-to-know you phase at that point, and Darron hadn’t blown up yet.  I just called to ask what he was up to, since Darron was working that day and I had nothing to do, I thought I’d drop by and talk cars.  So yes, bonehead is sitting there stuck between two cars, and has the cordless phone in his hand, and talks to me on the phone for half an hour, but does he tell me he has problems?  No!  Finally I say that I should come over, and he says that’s a great idea.  Does not mention being stuck between two cars.

“When we get off the phone, does he call the police?  Does he call a tow truck?  No!  He orders a pizza.  I got there about ten minutes before the Little Caesar’s guy did, and Ren was still stuck like a big fleshy bushing between these two cars.  He waved when I drove up.  His thighs swelled up so much the next day that he looked like an Olympic speed skater.”

Glen chuckled.  As they were crossing the Queensboro Bridge (and leaving the part of New York he was familiar with) he was about to respond with a story about getting his foot run over by a wayward Austin-Healey when the police found them again.  The lights nailed them from the left as they reentered traffic on Queens Boulevard, and even as he was taking breath to warn Lexi, she was gone, gone, gone.  Rainier sat back with a V8 scream and they were propelled forward like they’d been struck from behind, the chase begun anew.

“Well, that couldn’t last forever,” Lexi said.  “Nothing does, I suppose.”

“I wish you’d stop for them.”  Glen kept his tone carefully neutral.

“You stay out of it.  I promise to let you out before you get in trouble.”  She was up close to a hundred again, weaving into whatever lane was convenient and ignoring red lights.  Glen clenched his teeth and butt as they sped through a narrow gap in cross-street traffic, glancing at Lexi as they went through.  Her face was a dirt-smudged mask, and the streetlights flashed on her glasses, turning her eyes into unreadable white discs and then back human again.  She ducked right, then said, “Shit, that’s east, I’m lost,” and ignored the on-ramp she was driving toward.  Rainier dove into a small blue-collar neighborhood and began hunting through the streets.

“Are we lost?” Glen asked needlessly.  The police cars seemed to be everywhere, at every cross street.  Sooner or later they had to box Lexi in.  It didn’t happen, though.  In fact, she lost them all again.

“A little bit–oh, wait, here we go.  I haven’t been to Queens much.”  Lexi drove across a yard, and then they re-found the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  The road was covered, and the helicopter promptly lost them again.  The airborne light didn’t reappear when they climbed onto the main roadway a mile or two later, and soon they were crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge onto Staten Island.

“How far is it to the estate?”

Instead of answering his question, she told him another story.  “One summer, when I was about nine or so, I was out riding my bike.  Ellwood City is kind of rural, at least the part where we lived, so you sort of rode along the side of the road because there was no sidewalk until you got downtown.  Anyway, there was a family that lived in a trailer back in the woods not too far off, and their dog came out and chased me.  It bit my leg, and snapped at my heels for what felt like the whole way home, although it can’t have been more than a block or so.  Anyway, I go home crying, and Bert asks what happened.  I tell him about the dog, and he goes outside and gets on my bike, which was a lavender girls’ three-speed that was just barely too big for me and way too small for him, for the record.  Bert rides down to where I met the dog, and sure enough, it comes out and barks at him, too.  Snaps at him.  I wasn’t being a baby, it was really a mean dog.

“The way Bert always told me the story, and the way our neighbors told it too, he sees the owner sitting on the porch, and he calls out to the guy that his dog is chasing kids, and he ought to have it tied up.  The owner stands up, scratches his chest, spits in the dirt, and asks Bert what the problem is, he’s afraid of a little dog?

“My father pulls his pistol out of his pocket and shoots the dog.  Twice.  All falls silent.  Bert doesn’t say a word, just gets back on my bike and rides back home.  The police came by later.  He got some huge ticket, I think, and a stern talking to about taking matters into his own hands.”

Glen would have laughed, but there were four police cars behind them now, and the helicopter’s spotlight had found them again.  “Why do you call your father Bert?” he asked.

“Because it was short for Albert.  Did you know that all of our names started with A?  Albert and Anna, Alison and Alexis.  Isn’t that too silly?”

“No, I meant that it’s unusual to call your parents by name.  Why was that?”

“I don’t know exactly.”  Lexi sawed the wheel back and forth, and Rainier executed yet another flawless four-wheel drift on the slick pavement.  The sirens had receded behind them somewhat.  “We were close, especially after Alison died and we went to Michigan.  He talked to me like I was an adult from about the age of twelve.  At some point I started calling him Bert, like all the other adults did, and he seemed to like it.  So it stuck.”  She struck the steering wheel with her hand.  “Now it’s your turn.  I’ve been talking too much about myself and I want to hear a story about you.”

“I could argue that most of your stories have been about the people around you, not about you.”

“You could, but that would mean you think like Molly and I’d nag you about all the reasons you ought to go out with her, and you don’t want me to do that,” Lexi said, hitting the brakes hard enough to bring spots to their vision as a bus abruptly blocked their path.  She threw the car into reverse and backed up for two blocks without turning around to look, using only the mirrors to keep from backing into the cars behind them.  Cars and police cars shot past them on either side.  When she received some unseeable indication that it was safe, she spun the wheel and straightened Rainier out, heading down a side street that was actually more of an alley.  The car humped and bounced over frozen, rutted pavement and finally found a clearer road.

“Okay, you win,” he said.  Lexi’s lightly teasing tone didn’t carry the seriousness that it had when she’d asked about Molly earlier, and during a car chase was not the right time to be arguing with her.  “Let me think.  Oh, here’s one.  I worked at a garage while I was in college, you know.”

“The sports car shop?”

“It was all sorts of British imports, not just sports cars, but yeah.  I didn’t know much about fixing cars at that point, I was still learning.  As a result, I got to run the cash register and deliver cars quite a lot, which at the time was more fun than trying to figure out what was wrong with them anyway.  Comes a day when the boss tells me to take this Rover 3500 we’d just finished an engine rebuild on back to its owner, in Ypsilanti.”

“Where did you go to college?”

“University of Michigan.”

“Really?  How stupid–me, too.  We might’ve seen each other and had no clue.  But anyway.”

“Anyway.  I go to the address, and it’s a walk-up apartment over a store in downtown Ypsi.  I can smell the incense before I even get to the door.  As I get there, the door opens and a woman comes out, giggling.  In her early thirties, I suppose.  Reasonably attractive.  She’s wearing a T-shirt and not much else, and one side of her head is completely shaved.  Judging by the shaving cream on her temples, she’d just done it.  The other side was still waist-length brunette hair.  She stops and looks at me, and says ‘You’ve seen my true face, now I’ve got to kill you,’ and starts laughing again.  Then she asks if I’d like a drink.

“I was kind of hoping that she was from a different apartment, but I look, and sure enough, she’s from the place I was going to.  So I just hold the keys out to her.  She looks at them for a moment, then takes them and leans into me, so close I’m backing away out of respect, and she says, ‘That’s what I always loved about you.’  Then she turns around and passes out, right there in the hallway.  Her shirt rides up, and I can see she’s not wearing any underpants.” 

“Sounds awkward,” Lexi said.

“Just a little bit.  I have no idea what to do.  This woman is the most drunk or high that I’ve ever seen anyone, and I’ve got college kid hormones to boot so my mind is going in about twenty different directions at once.  Not to mention the fact that I’m supposed to get a check from her for the repair work.  Hey,” Glen looked out the windows, “we must be getting close.”  The city had given way to trees and walled estates, almost without his noticing.

“Very,” Lexi said.  “Which means you’ll have to tell me the end of the story later.”  Rainier swerved extravagantly into a drive and stopped before a gate crested with a gold-painted, elaborate “P.”  “Be a dear, Glen, and tumble out and tell them to let me in, would you?  That’s a good snotling.  Oh, take your tape player,” she added, taking it from the console where he’d left it.  “You’ll have to wait here for me now.”

“Snotling?”

“It’s a term of endearment.  Go, hurry, before the coppers drag me out of this car.”

The air was cold; he’d been in the car since before the sun had gone down, and it was a surprise how much the temperature had dropped.  Glen ran to the gate and pressed the call button, hunching his shoulders against the blowing snow and cold.

The police cars Lexi had lost were closing fast; he could see the lights beginning to flicker down the street.  There was no response from the speaker box to his ring, but the big wrought iron gate began to swing soundlessly inward.

Rainier was already pushing past him, nosing through the opening as soon as it was wide enough.  Lexi had the good manners not to spray Glen with snow as she went past.