WE'RE SOUTHBOUND ON INTERSTATE 75 when an oncoming pickup truck veers into the grassy median without slowing. “Look at that,” says Gordon. “Fell asleep,” I say. It’s over in seconds, yet the whole crazy thing seems to play out in still frames. The truck barrels across the narrow strip and broadsides the car in front of us, a little silver import. The driver either doesn’t see the truck coming or has shitty reflexes. Either way, the little car does a series of roof-over-undercarriage flips before coming to rest on its wheels a short distance from the forest. Gordon pulls to the side of the road and we watch as the truck driver, a ruddy man of prodigious girth, hops out and checks the damage to his rig. He shakes his head, looks at the crumpled car and then leans into the truck to converse with his passenger, a woman of similar density. Gordon and I exit his father’s Cadillac and make for the scene. He calls the authorities on his cell and relays the mile marker, somewhere in the blue-grass bowels of Kentucky. The fat man and his passenger are puffing away. When he sees us he discards the cigarette and leads the way across the ditch and down a depression. He moves with purpose, as though he meant to do this the entire time. Fifty paces later he leans down and peers into the vehicle, panting. “Everyone all right in there?” The driver, a dark woman with golden cornrows, makes a point not to look up from her cell phone. “… came across the way and ba-yum, just like that. Toyota like a motherfuckin’ accordion.” The woman seems unharmed. Gordon and I walk around the front of the car. In the passenger’s seat a kid about our age is holding his arm at eye level. His fingers are bent all the way back and hang limply against his forearm, a knob of white protruding through the pulpy mess of his wrist. The kid stares through the front window, trancelike. “In shock,” I whisper. Gordon reaches out and runs a finger over the exposed bone. “The hell?” I say. The kid turns and looks at us. His eyelids droop. Gordon takes the skin of his neck between thumb and forefinger and twists viciously. The kid’s eyes spring open and he shoots us a death glare. “Stay awake,” Gordon tells him. “What, a black family can’t get a motherfuckin’ ambulance up in this backwater?” says the woman. “Ma’am,” says the truck driver, “there’s no need for that language.” “Oh, redneck motherfucker tell me to watch my language? Hey-yell no.” The truck driver straightens up and hitches his trousers. Sneering now, he says something under his breath, all hard consonants and venom, and the kid says, “I heard what you said. No one disses my woman that way.” Gordon and I exchange glances. Perhaps the kid is older than he appears. The kid shoulders the door and steps out, only to collapse to the earth. He shrieks when his injured hand hits the ground and then his eyes roll back in his head and he’s still. On his T-shirt Bob Marley smokes a jay. “Passed out,” I say. “Or something,” says Gordon. “You killed my baby!” shrieks the woman. She pushes on her door but it’s wedged shut, so she crawls out the window, moving with impressive speed and agility. “He’s still breathing,” I announce, watching the kid’s chest rise and fall. This is no matter, apparently, as the woman takes a wild swing at the fat man. He ducks and holds up his hands in a whoa-there fashion. We look up to see a sheriff’s deputy waddling down the hill. He’s fat like the man, black like the woman. “Not in my county,” says the deputy. “Junior,” says the truck driver, “you need to get this individual under control.” “Never mind all that,” says the deputy. “What’s the damage here?” “He killed my baby,” says the woman. “Hello?” I say. “He’s not dead.” “Might as well be,” says the woman. “Look at him, in a motherfuckin’ coma or what not. Goddamn bone stickin’ out his arm.” “Ma’am,” says the deputy. “I’d ask you to watch your language.” “Ah, hey-yell no,” says the woman. Gordon nods toward the Cadillac and we slip away. As we climb the slight hill, I spot the ambulance arriving, along with a second patrol car. “Wait there a minute,” shouts the deputy. He’s holding a notebook and licking the tip of a miniature pencil. “Who you boys got in the car with you, ma and pa? Send them on down.” “Yes sir,” says Gordon. “On our way to Disney World.” Two blue-suited paramedics retrieve their equipment from the back of the ambulance and hustle through the weeds. The new cop exits his patrol car and begins waving on rubberneckers. Gordon and I take our positions in the Cadillac, shut the doors and fasten our seatbelts. Gordon starts the engine and eases the Caddy along the shoulder and into traffic, making sure to use his turn signal. I’ll admit he’s the better driver—prone to obeying the speed limit, at least—even though I’m two months older and will get my learner’s permit first. Down in the ditch, the argument has resumed. The truck driver is thrusting a fat finger at the black woman; the black woman’s cornrows are whipping around like vanilla snakes. The deputy, meanwhile, glances up at the Caddy as we pull away and points a finger of his own.
by David Martin
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