Maps in a mirror, p.9

Maps in a Mirror, page 9


Maps in a Mirror

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  Today Stanley was relaxed, there was no rush for him to get back to Salt Lake, and so, to ease the boredom, he began playing freeway games.

  He played Blue Angels first. On the upslope of the Sierra Nevadas he found two cars riding side by side at fifty miles an hour. He pulled his Datsun 260Z into formation beside them. At fifty miles an hour they cruised along, blocking all the lanes of the freeway. Traffic began piling up behind them.

  The game was successful—the other two drivers got into the spirit of the thing. When the middle car drifted forward, Stanley eased back to stay even with the driver on the right, so that they drove down the freeway in an arrowhead formation. They made diagonals, funnels; danced around each other for half an hour; and whenever one of them pulled slightly ahead, the frantically angry drivers behind them jockeyed behind the leading car.

  Finally, Stanley tired of the game, despite the fun of the honks and flashing lights behind them. He honked twice, and waved jauntily to the driver beside him, then pressed on the accelerator and leaped forward at seventy miles an hour, soon dropping back to sixty as dozens of other cars, their drivers trying to make up for lost time (or trying to compensate for long confinement), passed by going much faster. Many paused to drive beside him, honking, glaring, and making obscene gestures. Stanley grinned at them all.

  He got bored again east of Reno.

  This time he decided to play Follow. A yellow AM Hornet was just ahead of him on the highway, going fifty-eight to sixty miles per hour. A good speed. Stanley settled in behind the car, about three lengths behind, and followed. The driver was a woman, with dark hair that danced in the erratic wind that came through her open windows. Stanley wondered how long it would take her to notice that she was being followed.

  Two songs on the radio (Stanley’s measure of time while traveling), and halfway through a commercial for hair spray—and she began to pull away. Stanley prided himself on quick reflexes. She didn’t even gain a car length; even when she reached seventy, he stayed behind her.

  He hummed along with an old Billy Joel song even as the Reno radio station began to fade. He hunted for another station, but found only country and western, which he loathed. So in silence he followed as the woman in the Hornet slowed down.

  She went thirty miles an hour, and still he didn’t pass. Stanley chuckled. At this point, he was sure she was imagining the worst. A rapist, a thief, a kidnapper, determined to destroy her. She kept on looking in her rearview mirror.

  “Don’t worry, little lady,” Stanley said, “I’m just a Salt Lake City boy who’s having fun.” She slowed down to twenty, and he stayed behind her; she sped up abruptly until she was going fifty, but her Hornet couldn’t possibly out-accelerate his Z.

  “I made forty thousand dollars for the company,” he sang in the silence of his car, “and that’s six thousand dollars for me.”

  The Hornet came up behind a truck that was having trouble getting up a hill. There was a passing lane, but the Hornet didn’t use it at first, hoping, apparently, that Stanley would pass. Stanley didn’t pass. So the Hornet pulled out, got even with the nose of the truck, then rode parallel with the truck all the rest of the way up the hill.

  “Ah,” Stanley said, “playing Blue Angels with the Pacific Intermountain Express.” He followed her closely.

  At the top of the hill, the passing lane ended. At the last possible moment the Hornet pulled in front of the truck—and stayed only a few yards ahead of it. There was no room for Stanley, and now on a two-lane road a car was coming straight at him.

  “What a bitch!” Stanley mumbled. In a split second, because when angry Stanley doesn’t like to give in, he decided that she wasn’t going to outsmart him. He nosed into the space between the Hornet and the truck anyway.

  There wasn’t room. The truck driver leaned on his horn and braked; the woman, afraid, pulled forward. Stanley got out of the way just as the oncoming car, its driver a father with a wife and several rowdy children looking petrified at the accident that had nearly happened, passed on the left.

  “Think you’re smart, don’t you, bitch? But Stanley Howard’s feeling rich.” Nonsense, nonsense, but it sounded good and he sang it in several keys as he followed the woman, who was now going a steady sixty-five, two car-lengths behind. The Hornet had Utah plates—she was going to be on that road a long time.

  Stanley’s mind wandered. From thoughts of Utah plates to a memory of eating at Alioto’s and on to his critical decision that no matter how close you put Alioto’s to the wharf, the fish there wasn’t any better than the fish at Bratten’s in Salt Lake. He decided that he would have to eat there soon, to make sure his impression was correct; he wondered whether he should bother taking Liz out again, since she so obviously wasn’t interested; speculated on whether Genevieve would say yes if he asked her.

  And the Hornet wasn’t in front of him anymore.

  He was only going forty-five, and the PIE truck was catching up to him on a straight section of the road. There were curves into a mountain pass up ahead—she must have gone faster when he wasn’t noticing. But he sped up, sped even faster, and didn’t see her. She must have pulled off somewhere, and Stanley chuckled to think of her panting, her heart beating fast, as she watched Stanley drive on by. What a relief that must have been, Stanley thought. Poor lady. What a nasty game. And, he giggled with delight, silently, his chest and stomach shaking but making no sound.

  He stopped for gas in Elko, had a package of cupcakes from the vending machine in the gas station, and was leaning on his car when he watched the Hornet go by. He waved, but the woman didn’t see him. He did notice, however, that she pulled into an Amoco station not far up the road.

  It was just a whim. I’m taking this too far, he thought, even as he waited in his car for her to pull out of the gas station. She pulled out. For just a moment Stanley hesitated, decided not to go on with the chase, then pulled out and drove along the main street of Elko a few blocks behind the Hornet. The woman stopped at a light. When it turned green, Stanley was right behind her. He saw her look in her rearview mirror again, stiffen; her eyes were afraid.

  “Don’t worry, lady,” he said. “I’m not following you this time. Just going my own sweet way home.”

  The woman abruptly, without signalling, pulled into a parking place. Stanley calmly drove on. “See?” he said. “Not following. Not following.”

  A few miles outside Elko, he pulled off the road. He knew why he was waiting. He denied it to himself. Just resting, he told himself. Just sitting here because I’m in no hurry to get back to Salt Lake City. But it was hot and uncomfortable, and with the car stopped, there wasn’t the slightest breeze coming through the windows of the Z. This is stupid, he told himself. Why persecute the poor woman anymore? he asked himself. Why the hell am I still sitting here?

  He was still sitting there when she passed him. She saw him. She sped up. Stanley put the car in gear, drove out into the road from the shoulder, caught up with her quickly, and settled in behind her. “I am a shithead,” he announced to himself. “I am the meanest asshole on the highway. I ought to be shot.” He meant it. But he stayed behind her, cursing himself all the way.

  In the silence of his car (the noise of the wind did not count as sound; the engine noise was silent to his accustomed ears), he recited the speeds as they drove. “Fifty-five, sixty, sixty-five on a curve, are we out of our minds, young lady? Seventy—ah, ho, now, look for a Nevada state trooper anywhere along here.” They took curves at ridiculous speeds; she stopped abruptly occasionally; always Stanley’s reflexes were quick, and he stayed a few car lengths behind her.

  “I really am a nice person, young lady,” he said to the woman in the car, who was pretty, he realized as he remembered the face he saw when she passed him back in Elko. “If you met me in Salt Lake City, you’d like me. I might ask you out for a date sometime. And if you aren’t some tight-assed little Mormon girl, we might get it on. You know? I’m a nice person.”

  She was prett
y, and as he drove along behind her (“What? Eighty-five? I never thought a Hornet could go eighty-five”), he began to fantasize. He imagined her running out of gas, panicking because now, on some lonely stretch of road, she would be at the mercy of the crazy man following her. But in his fantasy, when he stopped it was she who had a gun, she who was in control of the situation. She held the gun on him, forced him to give her his car keys, and then she made him strip, took his clothes and stuffed them in the back of the Z, and took off in his car. “It’s you that’s dangerous, lady,” he said. He replayed the fantasy several times, and each time she spent more time with him before she left him naked by the road with an out-of-gas Hornet and horny as hell.

  Stanley realized the direction his fantasies had taken him. “I’ve been too lonely too long,” he said. “Too lonely too long, and Liz won’t unzip anything without a license.” The word lonely made him laugh, thinking of tacky poetry. He sang: “Bury me not on the lone prairie where the coyotes howl and wind blows free.”

  For hours he followed the woman. By now he was sure she realized it was a game. By now she must know he meant no harm. He had done nothing to try to get her to pull over. He was just tagging along. “Like a friendly dog,” he said. “Arf. Woof. Growrrr.” And he fantasized again until suddenly the lights of Wendover were dazzling, and he realized it was dark. He switched on his lights. When he did, the Hornet sped up, its taillights bright for a moment, then ordinary among the lights and signs saying that this was the last chance to lose money before getting to Utah.

  Just inside Wendover, a police car was pulled to the side of the road, its lights flashing. Some poor sap caught speeding. Stanley expected the woman to be smart, to pull over behind the policeman, while Stanley moved on over the border, out of Nevada jurisdiction.

  The Hornet, however, went right by the policeman, sped up, in fact, and Stanley was puzzled for a moment. Was the woman crazy? She must be scared out of her wits by now, and here was a chance for relief and rescue, and she ignored it. Of course, Stanley reasoned, as he followed the Hornet out of Wendover and down to the long straight stretch of the highway over the Salt Flats, of course she didn’t stop. Poor lady was so conscious of having broken the law speeding that she was afraid of cops.

  Crazy. People do crazy things under pressure, Stanley decided.

  The highway stretched out straight in the blackness. No moon. Some starlight, but there were no landmarks on either side of the road, and so the cars barreled on as if in a tunnel, with only a hypnotic line to the left and headlights behind and taillights ahead.

  How much gas would the tank of a Hornet hold? The Salt Flats went a long way before the first gas station, and what with daylight saving time it must be ten-thirty, eleven o’clock, maybe only ten, but some of those gas stations would be closing up now. Stanley’s Z could get home to Salt Lake with gas to spare after a fill-up in Elko, but the Hornet might run out of gas.

  Stanley remembered his daydreams of the afternoon and now translated them into night, into her panic in the darkness, the gun flashing in his headlights. This lady was armed and dangerous. She was carrying drugs into Utah, and thought he was from the mob. She probably thought he was planning to get her on the lonely Salt Flats, miles from anywhere. She was probably checking the clip of her gun.

  Eight-five, said the speedometer.

  “Going pretty fast, lady,” he said.

  Ninety, said the speedometer.

  Of course, Stanley realized. She is running out of gas. She wants to get going as fast as she can, outrun me, but at least have enough momentum to coast when she runs out.

  Nonsense, thought Stanley. It’s dark, and the poor lady is scared out of her wits. I’ve got to stop this. This is dangerous. It’s dark and it’s dangerous and this stupid game has gone on for four hundred miles. I never meant it to go on this long.

  Stanley passed the road signs that told him, habituated as he was to this drive, that the first big curve was coming up. A lot of people unfamiliar with the Salt Flats thought it went straight as an arrow all the way. But there was a curve where there was no reason to have a curve, before the mountains, before anything. And in typical Utah Highway Department fashion, the Curve sign was posted right in the middle of the turn. Instinctively, Stanley slowed down.

  The woman in the Hornet did not.

  In his headlights Stanley saw the Hornet slide off the road. He screeched on his brakes; as he went past, he saw the Hornet bounce on its nose, flip over and bounce on its tail, then topple back and land flat on the roof. For a moment the car lay there. Stanley got his car stopped, looked back over his shoulder. The Hornet erupted in flames.

  Stanley stayed there for only a minute or so, gasping, shuddering. In horror. In horror, he insisted to himself, saying, “What have I done! My God, what have I done,” but knowing even as he pretended to be appalled that he was having an orgasm, that the shuddering of his body was the most powerful ejaculation he had ever had, that he had been trying to get up the Hornet’s ass all the way from Reno and finally, finally, he had come.

  He drove on. He drove for twenty minutes and came to a gas station with a pay phone. He got out of the car stiffly, his pants sticky and wet, and fumbled in his sticky pocket for a sticky dime, which he put in the phone. He dialed the emergency number.

  “I—I passed a car on the Salt Flats. In flames. About fifteen miles before this Chevron station. Flames.”

  He hung up. He drove on. A few minutes later he saw a patrol car, lights whirling, speeding past going the other way. From Salt Lake City out into the desert. And still later he saw an ambulance and a fire truck go by. Stanley gripped the wheel tightly. They would know. They would see his skid marks. Someone would tell about the Z that was following the Hornet from Reno until the woman in the Hornet died in Utah.

  But even as he worried, he knew that no one would know. He hadn’t touched her. There wasn’t a mark on his car.

  The highway turned into a six-lane street with motels and shabby diners on either side. He went under the freeway, over the railroad tracks, and followed North Temple street up to Second Avenue, the school on the left, the Slow signs, everything normal, everything as he had left it, everything as it always had been when he came home from a long trip. To L Street, to the Chateau LeMans apartments; he parked in the underground garage, got out. All the doors opened to his key. His room was undisturbed.

  What the hell do I expect? he asked himself. Sirens heading my way? Five detectives in my living room waiting to grill me?

  The woman, the woman had died. He tried to feel terrible. But all that he could remember, all that was important in his mind, was the shuddering of his body, the feeling that the orgasm would never end. There was nothing. Nothing like that in the world.

  He went to sleep quickly, slept easily. Murderer? he asked himself as he drifted off.

  But the word was taken by his mind and driven into a part of his memory where Stanley could not retrieve it. Can’t live with that. Can’t live with that. And so he didn’t.

  Stanley found himself avoiding looking at the paper the next morning, and so he forced himself to look. It wasn’t front-page news. It was buried back in the local news section. Her name was Alix Humphreys. She was twenty-two and single, working as a secretary to some law firm. Her picture showed her as a young, attractive girl.

  “The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel, according to police investigators. The vehicle was going faster than eighty miles per hour when the mishap occurred.”


  Hell of a word for the flames.

  Yet, Stanley went to work just as he always did, flirted with the secretaries just as he always did, and even drove his car, just as he always did, carefully and politely on the road.

  It wasn’t long, however, before he began playing freeway games again. On his way up to Logan, he played Follow, and a woman in a Honda Civic smashed head-on into a pickup truck as she foolishly tried to pass a semitruck at the crest of a hill in Sardine
Canyon. The police reports didn’t mention (and no one knew) that she was trying to get away from a Datsun 260Z that had relentlessly followed her for eighty miles. Her name was Donna Weeks, and she had two children and a husband who had been expecting her back in Logan that evening. They couldn’t get all her body out of the car.

  On a hop over to Denver, a seventeen-year-old skier went out of control on a snowy road, her VW smashing into a mountain, bouncing off, and tumbling down a cliff. One of the skis on the back of her bug, incredibly enough, was unbroken. The other was splintered into kindling. Her head went through the windshield. Her body didn’t.

  The roads between Cameron trading post and Page, Arizona, were the worst in the world. It surprised no one when an eighteen-year-old blond model from Phoenix was killed when she smashed into the back of a van parked beside the road. She had been going more than a hundred miles an hour, which her friends said did not surprise them, she had always sped, especially when driving at night. A child in the van was killed in his sleep, and the family was hospitalized. There was no mention of a Datsun with Utah plates.

  And Stanley began to remember more often. There wasn’t room in the secret places of his mind to hold all of this. He clipped their faces out of the paper. He dreamed of them at night. In his dreams they always threatened him, always deserved the end they got. Every dream ended with orgasm. But never as strong a convulsion as the ecstacy when the collision came on the highway.

  Check. And mate.

  Aim, and fire.

  Eighteen, seven, twenty-three, hike.

  Games, all games, and the moment of truth.

  “I’m sick.” He sucked the end of his Bic four-color pen. “I need help.”

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