Chapter One: Road Rage
“Dammit, Chrissy …” Bad idea. I took a breath and tried again. “Chrissy, I do love you. But you’ve seen how my mom ended up. Do you want us to get caught in that trap?”
Christine didn’t answer. Focus, Paul, Focus, I chided myself, this is for all the marbles. But then I realized the vehicle in front of me had stopped. And I was doing sixty.
I stomped on the brake pedal in a panic. Rubber squealed and my sunglasses went flying as the steering wheel shimmied in my fists. The force of the skid pushed my forehead to the windshield, which gave me a perfect view of the tailgate I almost caved in.
The vehicle was an ancient SUV with oxidized beige paint and Scout II in pitted chrome letters. And of course the owner had added the ubiquitous icons of redneck America: an I’m-a-holy-Christian fish with TRUTH inside, a National Rifle Association decal, and a Family Values are MY Values bumper sticker.
Religion, guns, jacked-up trucks with big tires, and obsessive family values… all the things that embarrass me about being an American. Not to mention my own family.
“Paul … ” Christine’s voice over the ear bud brought me back to the matter at hand. “I love you too. But I want … more for us, Paul. You’re forty. Do you want to miss out on so much because you’re afraid of ending up like your parents?”
Her voice wasn’t wavering, but was that desperation I heard? Traffic started moving as I recovered my Oakley sunglasses from the dashboard and considered her challenge. Christine was the best girlfriend I’d ever had, but did that mean she should be the last girlfriend I ever had? If …
Brake lights flared. Again I squealed rubber to keep from ramming the redneck billboard in front of me. I tasted blood and realized I’d bitten my lip. Never mind the driver’s lack of consideration for people in a hurry, how could that rattletrap be allowed on the road? And it’s speed limit plus ten, moron!
I had to buy some time to deal with Christine. “Chrissy,” I forced a loving tone, “listen honey … I’m getting into traffic. But we can figure this out. Let’s go to that Italian place you love with the neon Pagliacci sign. We’ll get that back booth in the fireplace room – and we’ll talk. Just let me go slumming with Mom this afternoon and we’ll figure it all out. Okay?”
There was a moment of silence and then a firm intake of breath. “Going out to dinner is not an answer, Paul. It’s avoiding the issue. I have to have an answer.”
My mind raced as I struggled for something brilliant to counter with. But I couldn’t say what she wanted to hear, and nothing else would make her happy. In the silence I felt something slip away.
“Well, Paul …” When Christine finally spoke again her voice was flat and resolute. “I guess that no answer really is an answer.” The line went dead.
I yanked the ear bud out and threw it down as nausea rose in my throat. It was as though a rug had been pulled out from under me and I was falling. Should I call back? Text her?
Then for the third time I had to crush the brake pedal as the jackass in the Scout slowed to let a car merge in front of him. Frustration turned to anger as I licked my lips and tasted blood, a primal reminder of how badly I was losing at everything.
Christine was beyond my control, but the idiot in the truck was about to find out who he had just pissed off. I am Paul Archer, and I may have been raised in a trailer park, but I’m the lead partner in a start-up importing company with connections to China. I kick ass at everything I do, and dealing with rude drivers on the highway is no exception.
I brought my breathing under control and cleared my mind of everything but the vehicle and the road. I imagined a Ninja about to strike. Visualizing a victory and how to achieve it is critical in battle. I think that’s in The Art of War, but I never finished that book.
My first attempt to pass failed as a BMW forced me back into my lane. A white mini van followed, the urchins within staring at me through the windows. My frustration and blood pressure soared. I should have a Beemer.
Instead I had a luxury SUV, just tall enough to give me a good view of the junker truck holding up traffic with that damned Family Values sticker. Why do people think that choosing to breed makes them special? The only thing it did for my parents was give them a chance to mess up somebody else’s life.
The green and white sign that announced my exit in a half mile flashed by but there was an opening to pass. I jammed the accelerator to the floor and the powerful V6 beneath the hood sprang to life.
I swerved sharply over and glanced in the general direction of the jerk driver as I passed. Using peripheral vision and careful not to make eye contact I caught a brief glimpse of a gaunt unabomber face obscured by mirrored sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low. The after image of the face struck me as familiar. Perhaps a memory from an episode of America’s Most Wanted?
My blood pressure peaked. If I missed this exit the redneck had won. But my 4Runner gained speed and at the last moment I pulled the wheel hard over and gritted my teeth. Thankfully there was no sound of metal on metal as I cut across the lane in front of him and through the yellow triangle to my off ramp.
“That’s how we do it DOWNTOWN hillbilly boy!” I shouted out loud, the feeling of victory too intense to do less. As I did a celebratory fist pump I wished the jerk could see me – it must suck to be him today! My imagined ninja knelt over his slain foe, disdainfully wiped the blood from his katana, and disappeared into the woods.
Tension flowed out of my back and arms as quickly as it had built up, and for the moment my concerns about Christine were forgotten. Still celebrating, I took my hands off the wheel and raised them high to signal a touchdown.
But a glance at the rear view mirror turned victory into a knot in my throat. The old truck had followed me off the highway. My heart palpitated and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Breathe slowly, I reassured myself, there’s nothing to worry about. It was just his exit. No reason to think he’s following me. Yet.
The traffic light at the end of the ramp was red with a line of cars stopped in front of it. I slowed to make sure I didn’t get to the light before it changed and end up trapped with the ugly truck behind me. With the eyes of the junky truck driver making the back of my neck tingle I reached up to flick the door lock switch.
The light changed before I had to stop and I breathed a sigh of relief. As long as I was moving I was safe. Around the corner I checked my rear view mirror. The Scout was still there. But with only two directions possible it was fifty-fifty he’d go my way even if he didn’t intend a redneck assault. And he wasn’t honking or gesturing, so maybe I was okay.
I angrily smacked my hand on the steering wheel, careful to do it so that the driver behind wouldn’t see and be further provoked. Dammit! Road raging hillbillies should not be allowed on the streets.
When I turned into mom’s trailer park three blocks later the usual muffled music thumped and groups of kids played on the road. I struggled to find the courage to look at the rear view mirror, and what I saw made the lump in my throat grow larger. The mirror was filled by the bottom of the Scout’s grill and a huge roll of steel cable, probably a winch, mounted on the high bumper. Why didn’t he just flip me off and get on with his life?
If I drove to the back side of the trailer park I could flip a U-turn and head back out, but I’d have to pass right by him. And I’d feel like a coward. There were a few more corners to mom’s space and he might still turn off. The Scout was a trailer park kind of vehicle and he probably lived there. So why was my mouth so dry?
I crawled along at the park speed limit of five miles per hour with the beat up vehicle in slow pursuit and took the first left. The Scout followed. My breath was shallow and I realized I was biting my bloody lower lip again.
There was now no room to turn around. Mom’s trailer was around the corner with a dead end just beyond. I imagined running for mom’s door with the angry driver behind me and flashed back to Junior High School and racing from the bus to avoid the park thug. Not this trailer park but one like it. I kick ass in the corporate world but I’ve never been much good at throwing punches. With cold sweat in my armpits I pulled my iPhone from my belt and held it ready.
One last turn and I stopped in front of my mother’s place. But there was no way I was getting out right away. The street was barely wide enough for one car and turning around would be an ordeal of several back and forths. I was trapped by a barbed wire topped chain link fence ahead and the road rager behind.Without turning my head I watched through the side view mirror as the door of the Scout swung open and a thin man jumped out. He was too tall for me to see his face, but he was wearing a torn T-shirt with an unbuttoned, loose fitting denim shirt over it. The wind blew his shirt open and my heart froze. Tucked in his waistband was the distinct shape of a gun.
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