Thursday, January 12, 2006

It's Friday

I wrote this last night in a frenzy. I like it. It was the easiest story I have ever written. I hope that means it doesn't die, wanting.

Maybe Paul saw it coming, maybe he didn't - but Paul didn't stop, and they went off the road into the woods in one of those this-isn't-really-happening-is-it? moments, branches scraping Paul's birthday present, a new white-as-pearl Honda civic, the car so new the interior still smelled plastic, and the aroma of the air conditioning, cold as sticking an ice cube on your neck, was clean and fresh as a spring day just after a new rain.

Paul was yelling his lungs off, that he'd "just got the car for God's sake", but God apparently had other things to worry about, other calamities to plan out. So the car thundered through the patch of woods just off the strip on 30, where it wound around hills, getting steeper and steeper on its way up. Paul wrapped his big hands around his mouth, looked out the window at an old dead oak tree that gnarled its hoses out, nozzles dark and rotten right outside the window. That was it: they'd done it now. The world trembled, tilted, like watching an upside-down television.

"Dad is gonna' kill me," Paul said. He lay his head on the steering wheel, removing it when it honked, the siren loud and clear.

"Maybe it isn't that bad."

"Oh - it's bad. I knew I shouldn't have smoked. Knew it. I knew it, let me tell you. I shouldn't have smoked. Look what smoking's done to me."

"Is that what you were doing? Smoking? 'Cause it looked like -"

"I dropped my," - Paul twisted his fingers - "cigarette, I was going for it but it rolled in the back seat."

"'Cause it looked like, -"

"I don't care," Paul shouted. He unbuckled his seat belt, throwing the shoulder strap wide, and crawled into the backseat, looking for the butte. Davey Shaw averted his gaze from the wide bare crack between Paul's shirt, and his faded black jeans.

"Put it away," Davey Shaw said.

"Put -- what away?" Muffled.

"Your ass."

Finally Paul finished rooting around, and held the culprit up, a big Camel Light, the filter brown with tobacco. It was still smoking. Paul wet his fingers and pinched it. The cigarette died a lonely death.

When they backed the car up, branches shrieking in protest, the woods passing on either side (there was an uncomfortable second when Paul almost hit a trunk - which would be real bad news, since they'd lucked out and he hadn't on the way in) and reached the road, parking on the gravel to inspect the damage, both were surprised to find that the mortifying scream of branches on the car hadn't had any effect at all. With two sets of eyes on full alert, neither was able to find any scratches. Davey Shaw declared in his most strident voice, the one he saved for these sorts of occasions, this was a true miracle and proof that God, no matter how cruel his jokes, was okay on occasion.

All was right in the world: The sky clear blue, the temperature mild, the radio station which mainly traded in a currency of classic rock staples was actually playing the Smiths, Bigmouth Strikes Again.

Paul's driveway was muddy from the recent rain. The Honda swished in, and Paul spun the wheels and the mud blew up in great clods entwined with branches and leaves and muddy water. "A Paul Allen special," Paul boasted, the car slinging around in a 180', before coming to rest in a hackneyed parking job before the garage, sleek as space trawler in a science fiction movie, quiet too, no Millennium Falcon howl on its way between star systems.

No one was home. Paul led Davey Shaw to the kitchen, and they pilfered the turnaround cupboards for two bags of chips, sour cream, and a couple sodas. They brought the food to the den and Paul turned the television on with the universal remote. The television was big, twice the size of any television in Davey Shaw's house: here was a theatre system with twice the bells and whistles and the price tag to prove it. Paul flipped through the channels before settling on an old Addams Family episode. While Lurch creaked his dialogue Davey Shaw looked out the window at the sunny day and thought: ain't life grand, as he divested himself of his appetite, crunching chips followed by sips of his soda.It was Friday afternoon, school wouldn't come again until Monday.

Davey lived each weekend to the fullest, always believing Monday was too far away to effect him. It was, as his mother said, as if he'd gotten her and his dad's very worst qualities, no attention span, no willingness to stick with something beyond two days. He couldn't argue with that. Besides worries were far away, it was Friday, and even if his attention span did stink, even if he did leave off doing what he was supposed to do - what they wanted him to do - he still didn't have to do any of it, for two days. Mr. Brodehouse, his History teacher could screw-off. Brodehouse was always on him about something. The old man with the lazy eye that squiggled in his skull like a possessed marble, who wore suits a gravedigger wouldn't, who parted his silver hair with sour-smelling gel, considered Davey Shaw his special project. Forcing him to stay after school if he didn't complete an assignment, or when he failed a pop quiz (Brodehouse's specialty - the pop quiz, and they were mean ones, born in that Brodehouse smile, heaped with Brodehouse style, there to fuck you up, and keep fucking you long after you wanted it to stop). Brodehouse had a certain pitch he used with Davey Shaw: A high simpering and snide modulation, pseudo-caring, and it made Davey Shaw clench his ass cheeks to hear it, face grow hot. Fuckin' Brodehouse.

Paul flipped the channel to a show where various bikini-wearing models competed to see who would get a contract with a fashion empire.

"Look at that set," Paul said. For a second Davey Shaw thought Paul was talking about the television, somehow reading his mind. But no - the breasts were high and glossy, the woman, thin, with a face like an inquisitive bird.

Paul turned the channel to the weather channel. An anonymous-faced man in a dark suit was pointing at a computer image. "Another sunny day, folks. Not the kind of sun you sun-worshippers have been waiting for, but for the rest of us, it's going to be another comfortable day to let it all hang out -" Paul pushed mute. "He's right, let's go on a drive."

They whooped down the road, the earlier near-brush with disaster forgotten. Paul hit the accelerator until it was flush and they barreled down 30, each curve in the road Paul yelling a fierce curse as he spun the wheel and the transmission proved so tight the car handled the abuse with only a quiet purr. "I can't believe this," Paul told Davey Shaw. "I can't FUCKING believe this." Davey Shaw agreed. What the hell, he thought: it's Friday.


Smoking a Camel, Paul's concentration was focused on the radio, turning knobs, so it was Davey who noticed the car. The car was gaining on them. Looking at the speedometer, and judging it, taking the angle into account, he saw they were going at least 75, yet the car was gaining.

"Company," he told Paul.


"I said we've got company."

Paul looked at him like he was crazy, an inch of dead grey ash standing on the end of his cigarette. Then he looked in the rear view mirror. Paul burst out in a laugh. "Look at that car," he said.

The car was grey, the front end busted, the bumper tied on with nylon. Paul hit the accelerator. Even with the windows rolled up, you could feel the air, Davey Shaw thought. When Paul hit 90, the roof was buffeted, and there was no point in talking. But instead of leaving the car in the dust, when Dave Shaw glanced at his side mirror he saw it. The ass-crap dinosaur, like something welded from traffic safety school nightmares, stayed behind them.

Paul didn't notice, humming along with the radio. They were back to playing classics. This one was Pink Floyd. One of those songs with a woman wailing her somnambulant guts out. The song seemed extraordinarily loud. Davey Shaw was slightly unnerved by it.

He reached out and turned off the radio. Except for the wind, the car was filled with sudden grateful quiet. "That car's still behind us."Paul looked in the rear view mirror. "No shit," he said.

"You see it?"

"Of course I see it. I can't go any faster."

They were at 100, the fields speeding by.

"I thought this car was new," Davey Shaw said.

"It is new, asshole."

"Then why doesn't it go any faster?"

"Your piece of shit barely makes the speed limit. Hey, maybe that's your car. Should we stop and ask. Maybe they stole it."

"Maybe you're a dickhead," Davey Shaw retorted.

His car was a piece of shit. An old Ford Tempo, stick shift, white if you wanted to be objective, rust-colored if you didn't. "Anyways, your parents buy you everything."

Paul ignored him, watching the car in his mirror. "Do you see who's behind the wheel?" Davey Shaw looked out his own mirror but he wasn't able to make out more than there were more than two, obscured by sun-dazzle. He swiveled around and looked. "No way," he said. He turned back, mouth dry.

He'd had a brief idea when Paul had told him to look around, thinking for some reason that his eyes would meet the eyes of Brodehouse. That wasn't the case.

The bolt-bucket now only two cars of separation behind, was full of old people. Chock-full, there were four of them in the front, four old men grinning fiercely, no, the operative term here was laughter. Four old men laughing. And there were more in the back seat, maybe six more, could even be eight. Davey Shaw had seen heads and shoulders but hadn't looked long enough to count them, a creepy feeling in his chest, because they were looking back like that, and laughing.

"Paul," he said. It was a plea.

"I know," Paul said, soberly.

They passed Chad Dewer's place, a kid they knew. Paul abruptly spun the wheel in a smooth circle, the beat up car with all the old people not slowing, driving past. Davey Shaw wasn't certain but it looked like an old woman had her face pressed against the back window as the antique roared away, black smoke streaming from its exhaust. The woman's face had looked like a skull.

Paul pulled into the Dewer drive.

The Dewers were wealthy but you couldn't tell from looking at the house. It was an old farmhouse, similar to the animal's barns on the spread behind it, except it had windows, churchy windows, and a welcome mat. C'MON IN, the mat said. Paul knocked. Both were looking to the road.(Just some crazy old people, probably on their way to bingo at the American Legion).

That woman's face, though, it had looked like a skull. Davey Shaw was sure of it. Of course, he hadn't seen it in detail, and anyway, didn't you look more and more like a skull when you got old, just a waspish comb over, skin stretched tightly over cheekbones, like leather?

"Nobody's home," Paul said. He reached under the mat and produced a spare house key. "We're going to go in and wait."He unlocked the door and then slid the key back under the sunny welcoming mat. Shaw hesitated.

"Don't be a baby. It says to come in."

Can't argue with a welcoming mat.

Davey Shaw went in behind Paul, who didn't hesitate or take his shoes off, all the things you had to do at the Shaw house if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders. Paul went to the kitchen and started ransacking drawers. Shaw sat on a couch covered in yellow-flower print that had seen better days, maybe during the Great One. (See Brodehouse, he do know some history). Davey Shaw saw the remote control on a coffee table decorated with an exotic lion-headed lamp and a bowl of fresh flowers, their stems wading in an inch of water. He got a good whiff of the bowl when he grabbed the clicker. The water in the bowl wasn't clear, it was dark brown and it smelled rancid. Maybe it had once been clear, but it hadn't been changed in a long while. The flowers looked fresh, almost freakishly so, brilliant yellow and white wild flowers spread in a healthy glow of vitality and strength.

When the television turned on, the picture resolved into the weather channel. "I know I made a forecast yesterday that we'd have rain this weekend and it really feels good to be able to tell you I was wrong. Let no one ever say that this forecaster doesn't enjoy being wrong once in a while." The forecaster was wearing a jester's cap. "Gentleman this is golf weather. Ladies this weather is perfect to get the girls together and go have an ice cream sundae." Someone offset handed the weatherman a golf club. He swung the club in slow motion. "Hole in one folks. Go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather before," - the digital map behind him darkened into cartoony rain clouds - "You know who comes. Mister Rain!"

"These people must eat out all the time," Paul said. "Look in the fridge."

Davey Shaw went in the kitchen and studied the refrigerator. There were photographs of the family: had to be grandma and grandma Dewer on a sunny beach. It was held up by cow magnets. Next to it were pictures of Chad as a younger guy, next to his dad, behind them a pier and a fishing boat. There were a few magnets from hotels Davey Shaw had never heard of, The Apples Inn, Bedside Road And Breakfast, next to ones he had heard of: Holiday Inn, Econolodge.

"Did you see Chad's sister?" he yelled.

"Did I ever! She's a minx."

She was older, maybe her mid-twenties, but her senior picture held Shaw's attention. The photograph was glossy and over-posed but the girl had a natural light in her eyes and perfect features. She wasn't beautiful, as he supposed the models had been on television, but she had something more than that. She was fresh-faced, heart-shaped, and interesting. His eyes went back to grandma and grandpa Dewer. They had changed positions in the photograph, he swore, the old man who had been holding the old woman's hand had let the hand drop and was now staring at the camera, his tongue out, a wet trail of drool running down his sinewy jaw. He blinked and opened the fridge.

The fridge light was broken. The food jars, leftovers, were in a state of open decay. He put his hand over his nose. A plate covered in saran wrap had a cut of meat on it. There were maggots on the meat, interacting with the wrap, making noise horrible and somehow... contemplative. It sounded like someone squeezing huge chunks of packing Styrofoam. Even more terrible, the milk carton, quart-size, had flaps that hadn't been pushed down far enough and they were slightly open. A tiny green worm hung on the carton flap lip in milk residue.

He slammed the fridge door.

"I know man, these people travel too much."

Paul stood there, nodding. "Did you see the worm?"

Davey Shaw nodded."I've never seen anything like that," Paul declared.

Davey Shaw could only nod in reply. "Wonder where they went? I saw Chad yesterday."

"I don't know," Paul shook his head. "You know what's weird. That weather channel guy keeps talking how everyone should go outside. You have to see this."

Sure enough, the forecaster was now wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts and white stockings unfashionably pulled up to his knees. "It's the weather of the century if you ask me," the forecaster said. He had rid himself of golf clubs and now held a racquet. "This is tennis weather. I know you're out there, America, taking advantage of the weather, the score tied. I'll tell you what, when I get off," - the forecaster looked at his watch, - "I'm going to go for a nice swim."

"What a clown," Paul said.

"Yeah," Davey Shaw answered.

"I think we should get out of here."

"I couldn't have said it better myself."


They drove slow. The town of Liberty was just over the hill. The road here had a construction sign where the city had begun grading the gravel intending to lay down blacktop.

They passed the Gentle Sands cemetery on the right. Paul slowed. It looked like there was a parade, there. Hundreds of people mixed together, and there was even a cheerleading squad. Davey Shaw didn't recognize any of the people and he wondered why they would have a parade in a graveyard.

"I've never seen any of those people in my life," Davey said.

Paul squinted from the driver seat. "Me neither," he said.

It was strange, Davey Shaw thought, because the girls on the cheerleading squad were wearing Liberty Tiger colors, but the uniforms were not quite the same.

Paul put on the brakes, the car smoothly coming to a halt, and he turned into the Gentle Sands lot. They crawled forward. Davey Shaw got a much better look at the parade - which wasn't a parade at all. The cheerleaders close up had blank sunny smiles and he heard their chant: "Tigers always win, T-I-G-E-R-S, don't worry when you see them P-L-A-Y, Tigers W-I-N and are here to S-T-A-Y". The cheerleaders hurrah'ed. They jumped out of formation and continued to jump, spreading their legs, hands on their thighs.

"Look at her," Paul said. "Her" was a blonde, a real stunner, with leg muscles that were tan and fit and each time she jumped they flexed, the muscles sleek and shiny.

"We should go," Davey Shaw said.

Paul didn't argue, putting the car into reverse, backing onto the highway, back the way they had come.

When Shaw threw him a questioning look, Paul shrugged. "I'm tired of driving."

They left Gentle Sands behind them. The sun was creeping lower into the horizon, and Davey Shaw pulled the visor down. Still, his eyes were attacked by afterimages, the countryside multiplying and become a blot like a rorsach, scorching his retina. He rubbed his eyes. When he opened them he saw black spots in his vision. They seemed like ravens attacking his eyes, wanting to peck the jelly out. He rubbed his eyes. He looked in his driver's side mirror: the car.

It was covered in beads, like from a celebration. They were wrapped over the hood. "Jesus," Davey Shaw said.

Paul didn't reply, but hit the accelerator with all his weight. Shaw closed his eyes again. When he opened them the car was behind then - had gained on them. He looked in the mirror, paralyzed. An old man leaned out the passenger window and he was screaming and laughing, the wind blowing his white hair. But that wasn't the worst. The old man had a hammer, the sort you'd find in a tool box. He was holding the hammer like a batter ready to make a swing. The old man's face rippled. The hammer was the kind Shaw's dad used to drive in nails to hang pictures.

"Go faster," Davey Shaw screamed.

"I'm trying." The car speedometer was all the way up past the red.

"This car's a piece," Davey Shaw said.

"Shut the fuck up. It's going." The car was going faster, but now that it had reached its maximum allotted speed, the gain was slow. They ran along 30 this way, just behind them the car full of oldsters, "fucking bingo-players," Shaw thought. 30 was a highway that spun like taffy, the corners 90 degree death-traps.

"Here they come," Paul shouted. They were coming. The grey beater rode up beside them and Shaw briefly wondered if he'd left reality. The old man with the hammer was giggling. Shaw covered his head. The hammer cracked against his window, glass busted all over his knees, sharp pieces rang like chimes. He covered his lap.

"Jesus," Paul screamed and swerved. There was a grinding of metal, that sounded a lot like an impromptu shop class orchestra of saws, a conductor hyped on speed, pushing the orchestra to a frenzy. Davey Shaw opened his eyes, when he felt something wet on his cheek. He touched it: blood. He looked in his mirror. The oldsters had slowed. The old man with the hammer was gone.

"I got him," Paul said. "I got that son of a motherfucker." Paul grimaced. "I think."

Davey Shaw couldn't say, for along with his rapid heart beat, his brain was undergoing a tap-dance. The Liberty Tiger cheerleaders were in his head, the girls naked: "Tigers always win, T-I-G-E-R-S, don't worry when you see them P-L-A-Y, Tigers W-I-N and are here to S-T-A-Y". The cheer dissolved into a slap.

"Get it together," Paul said.

Davey Shaw kept one eye on the road ahead, one on his mirror.


They went to Davey Shaw's house. It was strangely empty. Davey Shaw forced Paul to take his shoes off and leave them in the front landing, under the busy white plastic shoe-rack. Paul did so, with a reproachful look. They went into the living room and both sat on the hydabed couch that had been in the Shaw house since Davey was born.

"What do we know?" Davey Shaw asked.

"We know you made us take our shoes off like little kids," Paul replied.

"Shut up, I'm serious, what do we know about these ... old people."

"I'll tell you what I think," Paul said. "I think they are escapees from a retirement home. I've heard about stuff like this."

Davey Shaw scoffed.

"Or," Paul scratched his ear. "Maybe all the old people in the world have rose up and said, 'screw the youth, fuck generation Z', and they're doing this everywhere, getting rid of us."

Davey Shaw wondered if Brodehouse would be considered young or old (the elderly in the beater car were ancient like yellowed newspaper). He hoped, if Paul was right, that Brodehouse fell in with the young. It'd almost be worth it. Almost.

Davey Shaw turned on the television.The screen was static. He flipped through the channels. Every channel had the same white and black noise, the same rainstorm of electronic ash. Except for the weather channel. The forecaster was dressed in a slicker now. "Looks like I made a bbbiiigggg mistake," the forecaster said. His hair was plastered to his forehead. "But then again, that's what we are here for. Your emails tell me all the time, Hey mister weatherman, why was the forecast Well, folks, I've got the same answer for you. I don't control the weather. No one does. The weather, hell, it's arbitrary." The forecaster giggled. "Can someone turn on the bleeper. Wait - can I say hell?" The television screen went black. The power was out. Davey Shaw looked out the living room window. It was raining. Lightning split the clouds, great big thunderclouds that swam in the sky like it was an aquarium.

"Let's go," Davey Shaw told Paul.

Paul shook his head. "It's raining."

"Look, I have a theory," Davey Shaw told him.


"You'll think I'm nuts."

"You're my best friend," Paul said. " I already think you're nuts."

"Okay, so let's go."

They drove from his house. Davey Shaw looked back wondering if this was the last time he would take his shoes off to please his mother. He wondered about tears. Had tears ever cured anything? Besides, he wondered what he had to cry about. The world was always strange, it hadn't changed, the strangeness had just come home, was all. Shoes were shoes.

"So what's the idea?" Paul asked.

"Follow 30, toward the Dewer's."

They drove under clouds that boiled in the sky, splashing and enraged. Paul hunched in his seat, his eyes close to the windshield while he drove. Davey Shaw was soaked: where the old man had broken the window the rain bled in, though most of it was kept out by physics, since the car was traveling at a pretty fast rate, most of the rain darted past his window harmlessly. He poked his head out the window, looking back. The dinosaur car full of old men had reappeared, just a few hundred yards behind them.

"Pull into the Dewer's," Davey Shaw ordered.

Paul did as he was told. He slowed and made the turn.

They hadn't locked the door the last time. The wind had knocked it free and it creaked back and forth. The power was off. Davey Shaw in the lead, they went inside the Dewer's house. Davey Shaw stood, dripping rain water on the floor. "What the hell, Shaw," Paul said. Davey Shaw looked at the drive, watching the old people turn in. Their engine whirred and popped like someone squeezing giant sheets of tinfoil into balls. The driver or the passenger, Shaw couldn't tell, flicked on the car's interior light. It was red. The pack of old people made maniac expressions, red light submerging their features so it looked like they were sinking in a car filled with blood.

Paul was busy looking for a weapon when Davey Shaw walked out in the rain. He strode right up to the front of the car, stood in the headlights. "I'm right here!" He shouted. "Come and get it." The old people cackled, resembling witches in some vehicular black mass, their faces strange, their motives stranger.

"What the fuck are you doing, Shaw!" He heard Paul yell.

He thought for a second about how he'd envied Paul's large television, his new car. An ancient stumbled toward Davey Shaw, his lips the substance of a pavement crack, drooling, a dribbling nectar: mix of what looked like a stool sample, blood, and spit, down the sides of his mouth, like a vampire who'd just finished sucking. The old man stopped a few feet away from Davey Shaw.

The oldster cackled, the sound worse than chalk on a chalkboard, try razors on skin, moist, the sound a snake skin makes in the wind, dry husk floating away from molted serpent.

"I get it, I think," Davey Shaw told the old man.

The old man nodded eagerly.

"We didn't make it without a scratch, did we?"

The old driver shook his head, still bearing his eager smile, though Davey Shaw saw it wasn't really a smile at all, not technically. It was more a clown's sad grimace.

"I get it," Davey Shaw told the driver. The driver nodded, turned to the car and put a hand up, open-faced. The headlights abruptly went off, leaving them in the darkness and rain. Why was the old man so much younger-looking now, Davey Shaw wondered. But then again, why not, it was a night built for mystery. The young/old man waved and went back to the car, whose engine idled in the throes of desperation.

Davey Shaw turned and saw that Paul was half-in the rain, half-out, his hands moon-white and folded at waist level. "We've got one more stop," Davey Shaw told him. "Then we can go."

"Go where?"

"You'll see."

They drove back on the 30. The rain had abated some, the storm clouds passing. "Here," Shaw said. Paul pulled off the road. "What did you say to that old man?" Davey Shaw ignored him, and got out of the car and walked into the woods. Paul waited, then got out, shut his door, pushed his keychain to make sure the Civic auto-locked and followed. The path was a sharp descent, the grass wet. Davey Shaw led the descent.

"There," he said.

Davey Shaw pointed.

There were bodies hanging in the trees. The cracked up remains of the Honda Civic, burnt out, still smelled like engine.

Paul cursed.

"Lets go," Davey Shaw said.

"After you."

They walked back to the car, up the slippery slope, the rain now sprinkling like an afterthought. "You drive," Paul said. He tossed the keys underhanded at Shaw. Shaw looked at him curiously. "Why the hell not?" They got in the car and turned the beams on. The night was filled with shadow, the road filled with more. It wasn't long before they were laughing and talking, and if Davey Shaw had any regret it was that they hadn't stayed for the parade, and that he hadn't ever met that beautiful girl on the Dewer's fridge, Chad Dewer's sister. But he whooped when they got to the cemetery, and Paul joined in. Their parade was just now coming to full-swing, trumpets blazing, a full brass band with legions of drummers marching to a joyful cadence as the parade wound among the stones of the departed, their passage well-rehearsed.


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