Good Times Roll
The car was the icon of a golden age. A Mustang. Fastback, vintage, the color of red wine. Two broad white racing stripes ran the length of its body. The exhaust note was a deep rumble that shook the windows in the sad, dilapidated buildings that lined the street on either side. A sound that grew sharper and more pronounced as the car slowed and turned across the oncoming lane.
It entered the lot of a roadside station and came to a stop beside a weathered pump. The driver revved the motor with a tap of his foot, the resulting blast of exhaust raising a cloud of dust from the ragged concrete.
He switched off the engine and in the sudden silence his movement was the only sound. It reminded him of how quiet it was. The road hardly harbored a soul. Not even the local pump rats, those impoverished kids who loitered under the shade trees beside the filling station, waiting to shake the hose for a few drops of juice after you hung it up. It gave him an uneasy feeling. The driver unbuckled the racing harness and shrugged out of its wide straps.
He unfolded from the cockpit. Tall and lean, and he crossed to the waiting pump with an ease of motion that bordered on art. A short pause while his link synced with the pump’s electronic interface. He waited for the message telling him to proceed, then reached for the hose and pulled it from its carriage. With his other hand, he flipped open the cover to the car’s fuel tank and thrust the nozzle into its gaping maw.
Gasoline rushed through the hose, echoed in the half empty chamber. He stole a glance at the display on his wrist, the one that synced with the larger wireless device in his pocket. The price of juice had nearly doubled overnight. Probably should have hung onto his mother’s electric.
The meter clicked like a metronome as the juice flowed through the hose. Pungent fumes drifted past his nose, shimmering in the hot summer air. He was young, fit in the way that only world class athletes are, and he stretched like a cat as he surveyed his surroundings. His hand tugged unconsciously at the brim of his baseball cap. The hat was cardinal, a shade more crimson than the car. It had the word Trojans embroidered across the front in gold thread.
On the other side of the pump was a pair of motorcyclists. He had noted them before but only now acknowledged them. They were looking at his car. Both wore armored suits of aramid and ballistic nylon, and their bikes were loaded with gear. The machines were touring outfits, European gas burners with Saskatchewan plates. Even when they weren’t this far from home, Canadians rarely had electrics. Both men had their helmets off and he could see their faces and the suspicion they harbored behind their grudging approval. The kind of look that would have left his buddy Lee incensed by, but Rogers did not let these misgivings disturb him. It was not every day you saw a twenty-year-old behind the wheel of some legitimate Detroit muscle, let alone one as well sorted as his.
The pump shut off with a loud click. It snapped Rogers from his reverie. What had been the slightest hint of a smile faded from his handsome face and he replaced the nozzle and the cover to the gas tank. His every movement was fluid and precise. There was something captivating in them, something sublime, like water going over a fall, mesmerizing. He grinned at the Canadians and touched an index finger to the brim of his cap and climbed into the racing bucket. He shut the door and slipped his arms under the wide belts, finding solace in the sharp click as the five-point harness snapped together. It felt reassuring, the mechanical surety. It gave him confidence.
His fingers were long and nimble and they found the ignition without looking. He could have linked it, added voice even, but Lee would have thrown a fit. Besides, Rogers liked the way it felt, the physical connection with the car when he pressed the starter. The small block caught fire the first time around, like always. Dust blew from beneath the car, raw exhaust echoing off the concrete.
He nudged the gas pedal with his toe, revving the engine. He could feel the horsepower. The whole car trembled as it eased away from the filling station and came to stop at a four-way intersection with the main drag. He could sense the motorcyclists watching and felt an unfamiliar urge. It started at his navel and welled upward, climbing his spine and into his shoulders, the urge to dump the clutch and stand on the throttle, light the tires and leave the Canadians choking on their envy in a cloud of smoke. But he fought it down, and, instead, his left foot came up slow and the clutch hooked up just off idle and the Mustang rolled across the roadway and into the far lane. Such a display was not like him, and certainly not worth it. Gasoline and good rubber were getting too hard to come by.
Still, he could not help but get into it a little, right on the edge of traction, and he pressed his foot into the pedal and watched the needle come up until the speedometer hit thirty, which it did in a hurry, and he was forced to pull out of the throttle. All the cops knew his car. Like most people in this small town, they idolized him, and when they did stop him it was usually only to brag about that time they beat Libby in football back in the day or half-jokingly challenge him to a race with their cop cars, but that was surely subject to change. Everything was subject to change. Even the cops had electrics now, and the world more rapacious than ever.
The sharp, reverberating exhaust note went flat and fell away with the needle of the tach as he shifted gears and the speedometer settled on a steady twenty-five. Power reverberated in his hands and he could hear the supercharger and the gear drive whining under the hood. He felt the little imperfections in the pavement through the suspension, the entire car just an extension of his own senses, and again a wisp of smile crept over his face. One thing was certain. No electric would ever make you feel like that.
The Mustang idled in third gear, which was more than enough to carry it along the section of state highway that doubled as the town’s main thoroughfare. The car was perfectly sorted, a beauty to behold, out of place among the empty houses and faded facades of businesses long since closed. They watched him with vacant stares as he passed by them. In contrast, Rogers was acutely aware, his eyes a piercing shade of brilliant blue that seemed almost to glow as they scanned every nook and cranny of the desolate town, noticing everything, searching for something he knew was there but could not yet see. It gnawed at him, this disquiet. Dismissing it, however, was not an option. Ignoring his intuition was something he had taught himself never to do.
Summer was nearing its end but still the heat rose in shimmering waves above the blacktop, a growing disease floating on the hot air that blew through the Mustang’s open window. Rogers adjusted his elbow on the sill and his fingers flexed on the steering wheel as the engine turned an easy lope.
The car traveled only a short distance before it broke out of the row of houses that lined the street and into the economic heart of the tiny hamlet, a broad sheet of macdam surrounded by the handful of businesses still in operation. He glanced to the left, at the big cinder block buildings that held the supermarket and general store. Their parking lots were largely empty, save for a few battered gas burners, mostly old minivans or pickup trucks clad with wood racks. A couple of overlanders, wealthy tourists like the Canadians he had seen at the gas station, stopping to buy souvenirs or perhaps some local produce. Hardly anyone from the outlying area, where most of the population lived, shopped in town if they could avoid it. Only when they needed something in a pinch and could not wait to have it delivered.
Suddenly, something caught his attention, and he pressed the brakes, decelerating, using the heel of his right foot, tapping the accelerator with the toes of the same. His left foot worked the clutch, his right hand the shifter, and all of this in perfect unison, like an orchestra of motion. The quick downshift matched the engine’s powerband to the car’s speed precisely, so that the volume of the exhaust remained a near constant. As his right hand came back to the wheel, he turned it sharply and the Mustang veered from the chip-sealed asphalt into the gravel strewn parking lot that fronted the bowling alley.
Loitering in the lot had never been permitted, but the practice could never truly be tamed. The affluent few still capable of observing the custom of cruising the town divided their time between this spot and a half dozen others. Only for a brief while did they linger at any one location before moving on to the next. It was a game they played, with each other, their parents, and the police. The latter were always on the prowl and happy to ensnare an easy mark. Even the slowest cops were swift enough to realize there was more to be gained from ticketing someone who clearly had the means than risking their neck breaking up some drunken domestic squabble.
Today, however, the parking lot was dusty and deserted, save one lone occupant. Rogers recognized the truck immediately, that being the reason he turned to join it. It was an old Toyota four-wheel-drive, a gas burner, heavily modified and lifted, towering over the Mustang atop aggressive off-road tires. Aluminum armor clad the truck’s corners and edges. Stiff steel bumpers boasting winches were mounted at either end, and the fading green paint was obscured beneath a thick coat of fresh mud.
Rogers stopped the Mustang beside the pickup, but the difference in the vehicles’ stances made it impossible to see its driver. As he killed the engine, the car gave a final shudder. Rogers tipped his head through the open window.
“Up to your nuts in it, eh, Guts?” he said. “Where did you get into that?”
“Reservoir,” the truck’s driver said. “It’s low as hell.”
The driver’s name was Brady Yargus, and his smile was constant and full of big, tobacco stained teeth that had rarely seen a dentist. He was a tough kid, who was starting at defensive tackle on the varsity team by sophomore year and who could have played college ball if he wanted to, but he didn’t. His friends called him Guts and he drove snowplow in the winter to finance one-night stands, cold beer, and wild adventures, or so he told it. The boonie hat he wore was camouflage, and he tugged at its floppy brim, clearly delighted that the coat of muck that covered his truck had served its purpose.
“Sticky up there, dude,” Brady said. “Pretty much perfect. Should go get that Ford of yours, fuck it up some.”
“No. Not today.”
Rogers turned away and gazed through the windshield. There was a short pause while he stared into the distance.
“Have you seen anyone around?” he asked. “I have not seen anybody all day.”
“Shit, man, you seen me. What more you fuckin’ want?” Spirited brown eyes sparkled with intelligence under shaggy chocolate bangs. Yargus continued. “We both know you wouldn’t do nuthin’ with it even if you had it, so...”
He left the jab hanging. Rogers was looking at him and Brady could see in his face that he wasn’t going to rise to the bait. Rogers wasn’t like the rest of them. Sure, sometimes he played along, but that guy operated on a whole other level. Brady raised a shoulder and leaned his head.
“Maybe the world ended and we missed it. Like I give a fuck. Wouldn’t change a thing in this shithole, and the elk don’t care. ”
That was his signature phrase, and to punctuate it, he lifted a can of cheap beer in salute. Tendons in his hand pulsed beneath bronze skin. Swiftly, he surveyed the scene then took a quick pull and lowered the container from sight. Neither of them was of legal drinking age, but the drinking wasn’t Brady’s concern. Getting caught was.
“Seems really quiet though,” Rogers said. “Even more than usual.”
“Ah, c’mon, College. Seriously. Who gives a fuck? I got me a half rack on ice, big balls of steel, and I ain’t scared of nuthin’. Quit trying to figure it all out and let’s get busy livin’.”
Rogers was again staring into the distance. Looking at something only he could see.
“You are probably right, you know,” he said. “About the world ending.”
Something was closing in on him. He could almost smell it, like Brady could smell an elk bed on the wind. He turned back to his friend. Brady shrugged, indifferent.
“I’m heading home, if you want to come out,” Rogers told him.
“Later, man. Right now, I’m lookin’ to run down a little something.” Brady flashed a disarming smile. “Didn’t burn all that juice paintin’ this fucker for nuthin’. Gotta try and, like, cut one from the herd.”
“You are an animal, Yargus.”
Rogers feigned distaste, and Brady’s smile widened. He scanned their surroundings again, and, finding nothing, took a long pull from his beer. Rogers leaned his head out the window once more, making eye contact.
“Laura is leaving for school in the morning, so she and some of the girls are coming out to the house tonight to grill and chill,” Rogers said. “You should roll out, if you got the juice.”
“‘If I got the juice’,” his friend parroted with a scoff. Somehow, Brady’s broad smile stretched even further, filling the window of his truck. From his perch, he nodded at Rogers and his eyes twinkled with mirth. Draining the last of his beer, he crushed the can in his hand and, without looking, launched the empty in an arc over the cab. It landed with a rattle on the metal bed. “I’m all juice, hero.”
Rogers rolled his eyes. He pulled his head back inside the Mustang and started the engine. Once it spun to life, he double clutched the transmission then slowly let the tension from the pedal lift his left foot from the floor.
The car eased forward. It circled around Brady’s vehicle and idled across the dusty lot. The high profile of the cam made the engine lope and the car rocked in time with it. Rogers rode the clutch a bit to keep it from stalling, tapping the throttle with his toe. The approach to the street had a slight grade and he pushed in the clutch pedal and let the Mustang coast. Out of habit, he looked right then left then back again, checking the road for traffic even though he knew there was none, and found the blacktop stretching empty in either direction. His right hand was on the gear shift, the other on the wheel. He slipped the clutch a little and made sure the car was hooked up as it rolled into the street. When the rear tires struck pavement, Rogers pulled his left foot from the clutch and squished the throttle toward the floor.
The car responded instantly, like some violent creature that had just been freed from restraint. It had torque right off idle and, even though the rubber was wide and sticky, the rear tires still lost the battle for traction and spun. The small block made well over five hundred horses and it snarled like a caged beast and the tail end slid out as Rogers drifted the Mustang across the highway on a slick of melting rubber. Smoke boiled from beneath both fender wells and a high-pitched squeal accompanied the thunderous roar emanating from within the billowing cloud.
The motor pulled hard through the whole band and the needle in the mechanical tachometer mounted atop the dash swept through its arc in a rush. The rear tires finally found some purchase as the torque dropped off and, when they hooked up, the Mustang launched forward with a leap. Rogers worked the pedals in concert with his right hand and he snapped the shifter into second gear and all this happened impossibly fast. The tires chirped when he dumped the clutch and yet he kept his foot in the throttle, the Mustang accelerating down the highway and away from the vanishing town.
Sitting in his truck in the bowling alley parking lot, Brady laughed and watched until the roaring automobile disappeared from sight and then he reached into the ice filled chest on the floorboard beside him and fished out another beer.