I stared out the window at the thick fog speeding past. It was late Sunday night, or maybe early Monday morning, in November. I was battling sleep in the passenger seat of an ancient Chevy Malibu Classic. It was roughly the same size as an aircraft carrier, and got comparable gas mileage. It did, however, move a hell of a lot faster. That was half the reason Bruno owned it. The other half was that it was cheap to buy, almost free to insure, and you could get spare parts at any Seven Eleven.
The reason we were tearing along this backwater road at this ungodly hour was that he was giving me a lift back to the University of New Hampshire, after a weekend at home. My only expense was gas money, but in the USS Malibu, that was a pretty penny.
"Foggy out tonight," I commented.
Stating the obvious, perhaps, but I was tired and well loaded down with Mom's home cooking. After two months of wretched cafeteria fare, I took the opportunity to gorge myself on my trips back to the ancestral homestead. After Marine boot camp, I thought nothing could scare me, but I had yet to encounter UNH cuisine. A few samples from the latest batch at the brewery my uncle managed were nestled on top of the wonderful meal, sending feelings of warmth and contentment through my veins.
"Yeah," he replied, "have they ever heard of streetlights up here?"
"Hell, I don't think they've heard of electricity out here. They probably consider Thomas Edison a witch doctor and his light bulbs tools of the devil."
He chuckled, "Well, visibility is about six feet," he squinted through his glasses.
I disagreed. It was at least nine feet, but the mist and grime on the windshield made the point a moot one. The working wiper was, naturally, on the passenger side. I noted but did not criticize the fact that despite his claims of poor visibility, he still had the accelerator mashed to the carpet. I was happy for the ride back and didn't want to seem picky.
I was well aware that Bruno's car had two speeds: mach 2 and broken down. I was happy for the current alternative and swallowed my protests. Life is too short for petty complaints, particularly if one's chauffeur is Bruno Skiba.
He and I were friends going back to about second grade. I watched him as he leaned forward, his hulking, square jaw almost touching the wheel which he manipulated with vast hands. He wasn't particularly tall, just built on a massive scale. His wide face was handsome in a jolly, Slavic way. He had the exact look that Lech Walensa would go for if asked to play Santa Claus at the G'Dansk Mall. He was heavy, but not flabby. He was just a solid, immobile Polish Rock of Gibraltar. He was also proof of Newton's law that an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
That law was clearly illustrated by our current position. It was late because it had taken me all night to get Captain Inertia moving, and we were testing Einstein's theories on the relativity of speed and time because once he got moving, damn little was going to slow or stop him.
The few landmarks I glimpsed through the soup surrounding us indicated that we were in the teeming metropolis of Lee, New Hampshire. This town was so small, the police station closed for the night. I discovered that the previous winter when my car went off the road in a blizzard. I hiked to the station for assistance only to find the tiny structure dark, with locked doors and the phone number for the State Police taped to the glass. I don't know the exact population of Lee, but a fairly accurate calculation can be made by taking the number of pickup trucks and shotguns and dividing by three.
We soon came upon the one remarkable feature in town, the Lee Traffic Circle. The first sign we had of it was the large orange and black chevron which marked the island in the center of the circle. It emerged from the grey depths of the fog at the limit of our vision, which I have already indicated wasn't terribly far away.
Bruno responded instantly, removing his enormous hoof from the gas pedal and bringing it crashing down on the brake.
He had not, however, purchased his car for its ability to slow down. It was soon clear that we were not going to stop in time. He wrenched the wheel violently to the right, hoping to negotiate the circle
We entered what a fighter pilot would call a flat spin. Traditionally, such a maneuver in an automobile was referred to as a "donut", but as we were traveling at speeds usually reserved for aircraft, I think "flat spin" is more appropriate.
To our immediate right, a gas station stood beside the road at the junction of the Traffic Circle. I realized with horror that we were now heading towards it instead of the sign on the grass of the island. I did not consider our change in targets a good choice, and I mentioned this to my old friend in a terrified shriek.
The nails of my left hand dug into the dashboard. I jammed my right hand against the door and planted my feet at the extreme corners of the floor beneath the glove compartment, bracing for the inevitable impact. I stared straight out the windshield as images flicked rapidly across my field of vision from right to left, caught in the glare of the headlights as we spun through the gas station parking lot.
Building! Pumps! Picnic table! Whiskey-barrel planter! Street!. Parked car! Tree! Pumps! Building! Parked car! Support beam for the awning of the station! Mobil sign! Pumps! Gas price sign! Forest!
I wrested my gaze from the passing scene to the author of my woe. Bruno stared ahead, arms locked on the wheel. His expression was almost calm, but his eyes were three times their normal size.
Eventually, we came to a halt. The engine stalled. In the silence between hammering beats of my heart, I heard the radio blaring the New Hampshire seacoast's only rock station through its one working speaker.
"Huh," said Bruno. He shook his head and turned the key. The engine lurched back to life. He slowly turned the car around, eased out onto the road and we continued on our way.
I turned and looked back at the gas station, anticipating carnage. To my disbelief, we missed everything. A professional driver with a degree in physics couldn't have coaxed this behemoth through that station on dry pavement at five miles an hour without a glancing blow to something. We spun through at high speed and missed everything.
At that moment, I was too thrilled with the awareness of being alive to berate Bruno. That was only the first of many times I found myself looking at my old comrade amid the cataclysm, stealing a quick glance over his left shoulder expecting the Grim Reaper.
The following winter, I got the next reminder of my mortality. We were once again traveling in Death's chariot, the Malibu. The floorboards had long since rusted through, and every puddle of slush and road salt we crossed soaked the carpet. Eventually, the carpeting began to rot from the bottom and hung down in tattered shreds, gently brushing the white hot exhaust pipes.
The predictable result was brought to my notice one February afternoon when I noticed smoke wafting up from between my feet.
"Jesus Christ!" I shouted. I still insist that I was not blaspheming, merely trying to get His attention. "Pull over! Abandon ship!"
Bruno obediently steered into a convenient snowbank and I leapt from the vehicle as small flames began to appear in the rug. We frantically shoveled snow into the car's smoldering interior. After the fire was extinguished, we stood in disbelief, gasping and shaking with unused adrenaline.
"Shit," Bruno mourned, "now the whole car's gonna smell like smoke."
I looked at him for a moment, wondering what would have happened had the fire occurred in summer, or on the highway at high speeds, or one of us had actually been hurt. Before I could say anything, I saw the genuine pain in his eyes. He was wearing the expression the Native American Indian used to wear when he looked out at the trash on the highway in those old commercials. I started to giggle, then collapsed in helpless laughter.
"What?" he demanded.
That only made me laugh harder. His sorrow changed to indignation that I, his lifelong friend, would find mirth in his great loss. It was too much. I had to put my head down on the oxidized green hood of the car and shake with silent spasms of laughter. He eventually joined me, but I don't think he ever grasped just how funny the situation was.
It turned out he was right. The car did smell like smoke. That spring, he bought a brand new Dodge Shadow Turbo. It wasn't much of a sports car, but it was new and red and shiny. It was also equipped with turbo and a pretty girl mentioned that it was cute, so he bought it.
It may not have been a Ferrari, but after the vast, gas guzzling two ton monster in the color scheme of the flag of the Republic of Ireland, it may as well have been.
I put my first nail gouges in the dash around the middle of May.
We were on the road between UNH and home yet again. The two lanes of route 111 twist and wind through sparsely populated sections of rural New Hampshire, surrounded by woods, fields, hills and swampland. There is only ever one other car on the road, and that is always in front of you, traveling at exactly the speed limit. Passing zones are few and far between on this road, and occur at the exact points when the handful of cars going the other way appear.
We were stuck behind a tractor trailer, so our visibility was even worse that usual on 111. Bruno hunched further over the wheel. Grinding his teeth, he muttered death threats against all truckers, highway designers and legislators. A brick red hue crept upwards from his collar, and his brows furrowed. His hackles rose.
I sensed that he was displeased.
We finally entered a passing zone. We couldn't see through the truck, or around the curve, or through the woods to the loop of road beyond, but it was a passing zone. Bruno apparently ran through these conditions and offered his estimate.
"Fuck it!" he snarled, jerking the wheel to the left.
I think the commander of the Polish cavalry came to the same conclusion before drawing his sword and leading his men in a charge against the advancing German panzers.
I know how his men must have felt. As we changed lanes and began to overtake the truck, I saw a pickup coming the other way. I was convinced it had my name on it. I swear Valkyries were circling above it. Awareness of my own mortality became personified and closed icy skeletal fingers on my heart. My stomach sank into my shoes, but I don't know if that was terror or just our six-G acceleration.
One thing the Corps had instilled in me was the ability to keep my composure and think clearly in a crisis. I slapped Bruno in the ear with my left hand, my right extended rigid before me, pointing at the oncoming vehicle.
"AAAAHHHH!!!" I bellowed valiantly. I was going for "Look out for the truck, asshole!" but that was as close as I could get. Bruno, lost in fantasies of Slavic do-or-die, finally noticed the pickup.
He stiffened, aware that our lives were in danger, then took swift and decisive action.
A lesser man would have hit the brakes and pulled back in behind the tractor trailer, but not Bruno. Gritting his teeth, he forced the car to speed up by what I can only guess was an act of will. God knows he already had the thing in top gear with the pedal floored.
Our craft shuddered as we neared the sound barrier, loosening my fillings. In the nanosecond that we passed the big rig, Bruno hauled the wheel back to the right, bringing us into our lane easily six or seven feet ahead of the approaching vehicle.
Ok, maybe it wasn't quite that close, but I could see the pores in the other driver's face, and clearly make out his uvula as he bellowed at us in rage and terror. My comrade flashed a kielbasa link of a middle finger at him in response, but soon had to return that hand to the wheel to correct for the fishtail we entered as we regained the travel lane.
It took me some time to regain command of the English language. At first nothing came out of my mouth, then strangled gibberish, followed by a minute and a half of unbroken profanity. When I had exhausted all the curses with which an Irish Catholic family, public school and the Marine Corps had enriched my vocabulary, I turned to Bruno and formed an actual sentence.
"Why the hell didn't you back off, you demented fuck?"
He shrugged and smiled slightly, "We were committed."
"You should be!"
He laughed at that. I think it summed up the situation nicely, myself. He still tells that story at parties, illustrating my rapier wit. It's hard to stay angry at someone like that.
My scowl faded. I think I had said all there was to say, and relished the sheer joy of being alive. I was so happy to have evaded death that I enjoyed the feeling of sweat standing out on my forehead and my heart hammering against my ribs. These are sensations you can only feel alive.
Bruno was present at my next brush with destiny, although only as a spectator. I can't bring myself to blame him for this one.
We were riding home from the beach in a pickup truck. Steve, another lifelong friend and my favorite sociopath, was at the wheel. His girlfriend was sitting next to him in the cab. Bruno and I, because we weren't sleeping with Steve, were banished to the bed of the truck.
The roar of the wind made conversation impossible, so I watched the scenery. To our flanks, it was just a greenish blur beneath a bluish blur, so I turned to look ahead between Steve and his passenger.
At that moment, we were traveling in the right lane. The car in front of us was moving far too slowly for Steve's liking. I watched him look to the left, taking note of the car in the adjacent lane, matching our pace exactly. Whereas he could have slowed, waited for the other car to pass and then pulled out into the left lane, that would show weakness. He fell back on his alternative.
He pulled into the breakdown lane.
I was only mildly concerned. I knew Steve well enough to expect such behavior, so I settled down to watch the drama unfold.
All seemed well until we went under the overpass. Upon emerging from the shadows, we saw a car- brace yourself- broken down in the breakdown lane. Of all the gall.
Steve was clearly indignant. I saw him stiffen in his seat. He glanced quickly to the left, but that route was closed. The car we had passed was still partly abreast of us. I swear to this day that he shrugged at that point, and steered to the right, onto the grass. I remain reserved in my criticism of that choice, it was that or hit the disabled vehicle.
Then things got scary.
The mother of all light poles loomed up in the windshield, centered perfectly between Steve and his girlfriend. It was one of those massive, steel columns set in a concrete footing of the kind which usually supports a statue of Lenin.
Steve came up off his seat four inches. His entire back was visible in the rear window. His hair stood erect.
I was convinced that we were dead. It wasn't a fear, or suspicion, just a cold certainty. In some reflexive instinct I turned away and hit the deck, covering my head with my hands. I knew this was futile, but it was how we were trained to react to a nuclear explosion, and that seemed equally pointless, so I imagine it was strangely appropriate.
As I dove for cover, I caught a glimpse of Bruno, apparently suspended in midair a foot above the bed of the pickup. I know we were bouncing around, and it may just have been my altered perspective, but he was floating like a mildly distressed dirigible, an expression of slight concern on his broad features. This image burned itself on my brain. It remains crystal clear to this day.
Well, I thought, that's something to have seen. I was strangely comforted. I did regret dying at twenty, unmarried, without children, in a beat up pickup rather than storming some exotic beach for Mom and Apple Pie, but damn few people had ever seen Bruno Skiba airborne. I prepared to meet my fate with dignity.
It seemed to me that death was taking its sweet time. I hesitated to look, assuming that the delay was a quirk of the same perception which allowed enormous Polish Americans to defy gravity, or that Death was merely stuck in a chess match in a black and white film and would be along presently. Eventually, the truck came to a halt, without the expected hellish collision.
I slowly raised my head and peered over the tailgate. We were parked on the side of the road, just off the exit ramp. I climbed out on shaking limbs and stood on the blessed, firm ground.
"Wow," Bruno opined. I nodded dumbly.
The only damage we sustained was a flat tire. I did not attack Steve, as his sweetheart was already delivering a vicious critique, and had no need of my assistance. When we discussed the near accident later, Steve had no more idea how we missed that pole than I did.
After a long talk and a good deal of alcohol, we decided it was because of Bruno's presence. He had defied destruction too many times to be merely lucky.
"God must have great things planned for him," I theorized, "he's being saved for something."
"Or," Larry philosophized, " the gods are constrained by their own rules."
"Huh?" said Steve.
"Beg pardon?" I clarified.
"Didn't somebody say 'those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad'?"
"Well, yeah, but--"
"Have you ever seen Bruno's composure waver? For even a second?"
That was a good point. I hadn't though of his luck in terms of literature. In fairness, Larry had not had as much to drink as I, so his theory has to offer a handicap of sorts.
"Maybe it's you," suggested Steve. "You've been along on all the death rides."
"Well, that leaves Larry's theory out. I lost my composure and damn near the contents of my bladder."
I wasn't present at the death of the Shadow, which cuts the legs from under Steve's theory.
Accounts differ wildly, but I have reconstructed the accident to the best of my ability.We decided to go to a movie. We took two cars. I was not in Bruno's. I may be slow on the uptake, but I catch on eventually. He drove three of our other friends. They never arrived at the show, so we called the house afterwards and heard the official version.
The car went off the highway at excessive speeds, rolling sideways at least five times, and end over end twice. None of the passengers were even hospitalized. Not a scratch, not a sprain, nothing. The car was totaled.
I have determined that the fault for the accident lies squarely with our friend Jeff. He knew Bruno too well to make this mistake, but he asked "How fast does this thing go?"
The gauntlet thrown down, Bruno rose, or sank, depending on one's perspective, to the occasion. They saw 100 mph and scoffed. Differing accounts place their speed at anywhere from 105 to 125. They were attempting to pass a car when it changed lanes in front of them. The consequent attempt to brake, steer and downshift resulted in a spin across three heavily traveled lanes and a spectacular departure from the roadway. The vehicle came to rest on its side, rocking gently. The damage was such that witnesses blamed "a red compact" for the crash, but did not connect that description with the tangled mess at the bottom of the hill.
All four passengers made it to safety, engaged in petty squabbling as to the cause of the accident. Bruno clearly blamed the car he tried to overtake.
Jeff was incensed that his friend was screaming "Oh, God not my car!" as they rolled down the hill.
Dean had the gall to be insulted that the first policeman on the scene had muttered to his partner "Goddamn kids gotta learn they're not Superman". "Not that he was wrong," he explains in indignation, "but he shouldn't have said that without seeing the accident."
Paul had no comment, but has since exhibited deep psychological instability. I draw no conclusions from this, I merely offer the information.
I don't hold with any of their accusations, but I try not to criticize them, since I wasn't there. Well, I try not to criticize when I'm sober, at least.
I am just biding my time, waiting for Bruno to be named Pope, or elected President or discover a cure for cancer.
Mark my words, he's being preserved for a reason.
I suppose staring at Bruno, waiting to die has had an effect on me. A man could be unhinged by such a series of events. I prefer to view it as proof of some plan for the universe.
It's a comforting thought, really.
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