Short Story Of the Day – Tailgate (flash fiction) by Bill Chance

“After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident.”
― J.G. Ballard, Crash

Car fire just north of downtown, Dallas.


 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#66) Two Thirds of the way! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Tailgate

 

Charlotte DeWhiskey moved to her left carefully using he turn signal and checking all the mirrors, twisting her neck and looking back.

“You never know who might be driving along in your blind spot,” she said calmly – to nobody in particular.

It was Friday afternoon, not quite Rush Hour yet, but the loop interstate’s six lanes going her way were full – but still moving fast. She glanced across the median and saw traffic was stopped going the other way.

“Whew! I feel sorry for those folks,” she said to herself while she adjusted her radio – pushing to the second button to call up the classical station, dialing the volume until César Franck’s First Piano Trio in F Sharp Minor filled the passenger cabin without quite drowning the sounds of the traffic outside.

“That’s nice,” she said and smiled a little at the familiar tune.

Charlotte waited patiently for one more gap to open to her left, applied her signals, and slid into the inside lane, right against the segmented moveable concrete barrier of he High Occupancy Vehicle Lane. She had seven miles to go on the Interstate Loop before she would have to exit on Walnut to get to the “Friends of the Symphony” offices. She was going to meet with Frieda and work on the upcoming fundraiser gala. Frieda meant well, but she was pretty useless for getting things done. With Frieda it was all, “This would be cool!” or “That will be fun!” – but ideas are cheap and Charlotte knew that if she didn’t take care of the actual work, the gala would be a disaster.

She felt a little butterfly of nerves – the gala was so important for so many people – and she wished it didn’t all fall completely on her shoulders – like it always seemed to do – but she had done it before and she could do it again.

Now that she was in the far left lane, Charlotte settled in and set her cruise control on sixty – the legal speed limit along that part of the highway. She kept her foot on the brake and her eyes alert.

“You never know when the traffic is going to come to a stop. If you hit someone from behind it will always be your fault,” she said clearly to herself. It never hurt to remind oneself of the rules of civilized living, especially in these troubled and confusing times.

There didn’t seem to be much danger of Charlotte having to slow down. As a matter of fact, cars were piling up behind her – moving to the right when they could, and merging back once they passed, speeding off into the space her relatively slow (but legal) progress created in the lane going forward. Charlotte noticed this, but it didn’t concern her in the least; she was used to it.

“Just because everybody else is speeding, doesn’t mean you have to,” she said, though there was nobody to hear.

One car, now, had pulled up, but it wasn’t passing. Charlotte could only see the front of the vehicle and she knew little about cars – didn’t recognize the make – but noticed the low-slung, streamlined, custom grill and the polished Navy blue metallic paint. The windows in the car behind her were tinted, but the sun was slanting directly through his windshield so she could make out the driver bobbing and gesturing behind his wheel. He flashed his lights quickly and moved forward until he was following only a few feet behind her rear bumper.

“Just because you want to speed doesn’t mean I should break the law,” Charlotte repeated out loud, directly at the image of the tailgater in the mirror – as if he could hear her. “You should have at least one car length between you and the car in front of you for each ten miles per hour you are traveling,” she added for increased effect.

The tailgater couldn’t hear her, of course, and had no intention of slowing down or going around. The left lane, the fast lane, was his. As a precaution, Charlotte pushed the little arrow button for a split second, shaving about two miles per hour off her speed, carefully and precisely regulated by the digital cruise control. The tailgater moved even closer and Charlotte could hear his horn blaring over the sounds of traffic – and “Finlandia” – one of her favorite pieces – which had only just started playing on the radio. She put on a little frown at this interruption and stared carefully into the mirror. She couldn’t make out the tailgater’s face due to the tinting but she could clearly see his arm come up in silhouette, waving his middle finger extended.

Charlotte picked up her cell phone, next to her purse in the passenger seat connected to a charger stuck in the cigarette lighter outlet. She didn’t like to use her cell phone when she was driving, it wasn’t safe.

“Sometimes,” she said out loud, “Things simply can’t be helped!”

Charlotte punched through the “F”s in her contact list and rang Frieda’s number. Frieda picked up almost immediately.

“Frieda, dear, how are you? Well, I’m doing great too! Well, Frieda, I am afraid, though, that I have one little problem. I’m not going to be able to make our meeting this afternoon, sorry. Oh, good, we’ll reschedule in a day or so. Why? Oh, no big deal, really, but I’m about to be involved in an automobile accident…. Toodles!”

Before Frieda could reply, Charlotte snapped her phone closed, disconnected it from the charger, and dropped it into her purse.

She checked her mirror again. The tailgater was still there – he had inched even closer. He was honking his horn constantly – he must have been palming it with his left hand, while he steered with it, Charlotte thought, because she could see his right hand violently waving his middle finger… only lowering for a second or two so he could use it to flash his lights before bringing it up again.

“Not a very alert or safe way to drive in traffic,” Charlotte said to the mirror as she raised her right foot off of the brake. She bent her knee as far as she could; the cruise control would keep her speed constant. Once her leg touched the back of the steering wheel she braced her back against the seat and shoved down as hard as she could, slamming her brake pedal to the floor.

As her tires locked and screeched, tearing hunks of rubber off onto the tarmac Charlotte smiled at the thought that she had carefully followed the manufacturer’s recommendations and had the brake system serviced – the best quality pads installed – disks carefully turned and balanced.


Melvin Turnbuckle was so angry at the crazy woman snoozing along in the fast lane and was so close to her bumper he never even noticed her brake lights come on – not that it would have made any difference at that space and speed. It seemed that the woman’s sedan had been shot backwards out of a cannon, slamming into the front of his car without warning.

The two vehicles locked together in a maelstrom of rending metal. They drifted to the left – momentum still hurling the hulks forward – until the rough concrete barrier wall tore chunks of screaming steel away from the driver’s side of each car. Power and impulse spent, they separated and stopped ten feet apart, steaming, smoking, spewing fluids black, brown, and bright green, creaking, popping, – the dire smell of fuel and burnt rubber blowing across the highway.

Behind them, thousands of brakes squealed and tires skidded as the entire six lanes ground to a halt for miles.

It all happened so fast Melvin never had the chance to quell his fury, no time to even feel the fear. He stepped from the wreckage and strode forward, seeing a slight woman pull herself from the pile of twisted sheet metal in front of him. She stood upright, weaving a tiny bit, a small trickle of blood running down past one eye.

“Lady! What the hell!”

“Oh,” Charlotte noticed him and replied. “God, what a sound! I’m always amazed at the music of these things, the sound it all makes from inside, from when you’re sitting in there. The screech at the start, the tires squealing… and at the end, the explosion of the airbags. in between the cries of the bending metal – it makes that astonishing noise, almost like a human voice in pain.”

“What are you talking about? Oh my God! You did that on purpose! You’re crazy.”

Charlotte’s eyes rolled. “I always follow the letter of the law. I can’t help it if you are following too close. If you hit someone from behind, it’s always your fault.”

The anger and the jolts of adrenaline felt like high voltage coursing through Melvin’s body. He could feel his eyes popping and his mouth going so dry he could barely speak. He doubled his fists in a primitive lizard-brain reflex and started to stumble toward Charlotte – not knowing exactly what would happen when he reached her.

Suddenly, blue and red flashing lights interrupted the scene and a patrol cruiser screamed past in the High Occupancy Vehicle Lane. He exited a quarter mile past and uturned into the vacant lane protected by their wreckage and sped back, parking at an angle to deflect the oncoming snail-like parade of commuters.


Officer Franklin Tenpenny was tired. He sighed when the call came in, another rear-ender along the Loop Interstate, his third one that day. Dispatch radioed that they were sending a couple wreckers so Tenpenny hit his lights and headed over that way.

When he walked up he found a man out of control, glaring, fists clenched, at a slight old woman – both standing between two steaming lumps of ex-automobiles.

“Sir, Sir! I need you to calm down. Calm down right now.”

“Officer, I am glad you are here. This bi… woman… she caused this accident. On purpose!”

“Sir, I was driving at the speed limit when I… I thought I saw a kitten in the highway.”

“A kitten! You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Officer, he must have been following too close – he smashed into me from behind – he must have been going too fast.”

Officer Tenpenny noticed the trickle of blood running down Charlotte’s cheek. He moved to wipe it with a clean handkerchief he always carried. “Ma’am, are you all right?”

“Yes, officer, it’s only a tiny cut. I’ll be fine.”

“Is She all right?” said Melvin Turnbuckle. “What about me? She caused this. On purpose!”

Tenpenny knew road rage when he saw it. Turnbuckle was getting more and more worked up and Tenpenny didn’t think he would calm down anytime soon. “Excuse me, Ma’am” he said to Charlotte as he moved away from her and palmed his radio. “Dispatch? I have an out of control driver here; better send a couple more cruisers.” He walked briskly toward Melvin, pulling his cuffs out of their case on his belt.

Charlotte watched Officer Tenpenny fold Melvin into the police cruiser. She flinched as Turnbuckle’s head bounced off the door frame. “You would think the police would have done this enough times to get him in there without banging his head,” she said out loud, but quietly, to nobody in particular. She was standing next to what was left of her car and she noticed the radio was still operating – the classical music still playing.

The disk jockey said, “That was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, one of my favorites. Now we bring you traffic on half-hour – If you are going home on the North Loop Interstate, dinner might be cold before you get there. An accident has snarled traffic in both directions, backup to the McDuffle Expressway Bridge.”

Explicit In This Colliding Metal

“He dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the heamorrhages of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reactions vessels.”
J.G. Ballard, Crash

LBJ Freeway and TI Boulevard, Dallas, Texas

Fender Bender

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway
—-Bruce Springsteen, Wreck on the Highway

I was driving home from the library after having dropped off a stack – the traffic was heavy and jittery in a late rush-hour need to get home right now way. Everyone was driving faster than they should. This is on a neighborhood artery – Arapaho Road – six lanes, lots of stoplights, lots of in-and-out. I’ve seen too many fender benders in this sort of tumult so I took a deep breath, slowed down, and kept my eyes open.

I could see a clot of cars ahead of me forming around the railroad tracks. Behind me, I saw a car coming up fast, winding between the commuters, swerving between lanes. It was an ordinary ambiguous American sedan, some unidentifiable dark color, with a long dent, more like a big scrape, all down the left side. I could see the driver’s smooth round head sticking up – at first I thought they must be very short but I realized they were simply reclined, sitting back, one hand idly resting on the wheel. I noticed the nonchalant aggression of the driving, the macho languid position of the driver, and the evidence of past indiscretions and said to myself, “This person is about to have an accident.”

They pulled up to within inches of my rear bumper and as I touched my brakes to prepare for the stopped traffic ahead the car immediately swung to the right into the parking lane and used it to dash if front of me. I slowed down some more and watched as the car darted back into traffic right in front of me and immediately smashed into the halted cars.

There is the ubiquitous sound of accidents. The sudden screech of brakes, the squeal of rubber sliding on concrete. Then a fateful  BANG! – a concussion wave that pushes against your head and drills into your ears. That is the crossing point when you know an accident, not a near-miss, has actually occurred. The irrevocable forces of chaos and entropy have been unleashed. After that the sound of rending metal as all three of Newton’s Laws of Motion work together to run up huge bills at the body shop. Finally, the tinkling coda as glass falls and shatters onto the unforgiving concrete.

I watched the crumpling as the rear of the car rose and then fell back. The trunk of the car in front flew open, forced straight up like a huge metal surrender flag. It wasn’t that bad of an accident, nothing more than the usual fender bender, thousands happen every day, but it is always such a shame. I’m not a car person, but when I see something like this I always think of the thousands of hours that went in to building the car and the tens of thousands of hours spent working to pay off a car loan. There is that beam of pride smile when someone shows off their new ride.

All torn asunder in a moment of testosterone.

A few years ago I was driving back home from the gym with Nick and Lee in the car. We were coming up Skillman and getting ready to cross the LBJ 635 Interstate. That’s a nasty little intersection, with a half-dozen busy roads all coming together in a confusing, curving snarl. Now that I think about it, it was the same time of day – late, evening starting to set in, not dark yet, everybody tired and in a hurry. Coming up to the light at the frontage road I saw that the green light was beginning to get the slightest hint of yellow. Looking ahead, I saw someone coming the other way in the left turn lane. He was accelerating, obviously going to try and cut me off, run the left turn in front of me before the light turned red. I’m not going to play chicken with my car so I started to brake.

Looking in my rear view mirror I saw a custom souped-up compact speeding up right on my tail. I could read his mind, “Oh shit! don’t tell me that asshole in the crappy mini-van is going to stop on that yellow light. I have places to be, I’m not going to wait.” I knew he was going to dart around me and run the light.

I think Nick had just picked up his learner’s permit and Lee was only a year behind. I told them, “Hey, watch this, there is about to be a car wreck.” They perked up, looking a little confused.

The car behind me roared as his glass-packs spewed exhaust when he stomped the accelerator and squealed around me. Meanwhile, the other car made his left turn toward the frontage road.

It was only a glancing blow. A quick POP! and a grind as the two scraped past each other. But the car from behind me lost his front right tire and careened in a quick curve until he smacked the bridge wall pretty hard. His car climbed the concrete and if it hadn’t hung up on the steel guard rail that ran a foot above the top of the wall he probably would have hurtled over and fallen into the eight lanes of heavy Interstate traffic screaming by thirty feet below.

Nick and Lee were flabbergasted. I glanced – their mouths were hanging open.

“How did you know that was going to happen?” they both said.

I did my fatherly duty and explained how important it is to pay very close attention to what is going on, to always check your mirrors, and to not be too aggressive or too fast.I don’t drive through that intersection very often but when I do I always make note of the bent guard rail about a third of the way across the bridge.

I’m afraid I didn’t stop in either case. I do feel bad about that, I kept on driving like nothing had happened. It was obvious that nobody was hurt – and there were plenty of others around that would be more than willing to get involved in a minor traffic brouhaha.

Plus, I may be going slow, but I have places to be too.

Today, I have to go to work. I hate slaving through the weekend. While I’m there, you can enjoy this video: