As I eased into Denver around nine or ten at night, I needed gas again. For hours, in the searing light of the empty sunset, calculations of miles to go per remaining dollar had tumbled around my head with the awkward regularity of sneakers in a laundromat dryer. By the time I took a random Denver exit off the freeway I knew that the only way I was going to make it to L.A. was with the help of some dastardly deeds. Needless to say, I refused to be stupid enough to run out of gas or money somewhere in the guts of the desert.
What I needed was gasoline at a steep discount. I admit that I didn't have any real idea of how exactly I was going to arrange this. I figured the simplest and most obvious way was just to gas up the car and drive away, hope I got out of the area quickly. I'd never stolen gas, or even decided to steal gas, before. Since I hadn't driven very much, I hadn't ever given it much thought, either.
I very much did not want to go to jail, but I had hopes that my most sincere, these are not the droids, apologetic manner would get me somewhat off the hook. You know, on the road all day, you're kidding, officer, I'm so sorry, why don't I go back and pay right now? Which would almost certainly not work, but might help make it less serious. In any case, the idea was not to get caught.
I drove around Denver for a few minutes, down one long commercial street, lined with boring used car lot hardware paint stores, and then I turned around, pretending to myself that I was not about to steal some gas, just as soon as I got everything straight in my head.
Fear wasn't going to give me a full tank, or more money, but I still felt a moment of hesitation as I pulled up at a red light behind a police car waiting to turn right. My stomach jumped but I drove smoothly through the intersection after he turned. The thought of hours of tense paranoia for something so stupid, with nothing else to fixate on but the long grey horizon singularity, was unpleasant.
Fifteen minutes later, I was still driving and looping around, thinking, worrying, trying not to get lost, when something curious appeared. A green van dully flashing emergency lights pattern of brake lights, turn signals, and a police car's frenetic blue red lights blocking the left lane of the boulevard ahead. As I drove slowly past the vehicles I saw in front of the van an overturned wheelchair and a man lying flat and still on the concrete. People standing around, afraid to move him, perhaps he's dead, poor bastard, trying to cross the median at night that way. I heard sirens hurrying toward him, an ambulance and two more police cars.
The van and wheelchair blinking lights shrinking in my rear mirrors, and my sorrow for that luckless person filtered past the feeling of shock into a slow, sly impulse. Probably those three police cars, only ones around here, next few minutes at least, can't do anything, anyway.
There was a gas station on my right a few blocks up, and I pulled in. I realized as I watched someone fill their tank before heading inside to pay that the pumps were always on. Quickly, and less frantically than I expected, I got out, switched on the pump, unscrewed the cap, seated the nozzle, and held the handle until it stopped. I hung the nozzle back up like I was any good citizen and screwed the gas cap back on.
I resisted looking around, just barely, got back in, started the car, and pulled out of the nearest driveway. Which is where I fucked up.
The driveway emptied onto a side street which joined the main road at a traffic light, and that light was red. There was a guy in front of me with his right-hand turn signal on, but who wasn't moving, now remembering earlier cop waited, no turn on red here. I just bit my lip and watched my rear-view and tried to keep my head empty. Shit, shit shit....
Green light, someone in a bright orange vest moving, running toward the car, but in the best perfect timing I ever got, the guy in front turned, my foot slid against the pedal as a flailing arm reached out for vanishing brake lights. Sorry, I don't see anything, accelerating, and I'll tell you later.
I grinned until I was a perfect match for my rictus passenger. Sure, I could still get pulled over at any moment, but I sensed, I knew, that I had pulled it off. Could they, would they, trace a license plate for such a thing? Some other fate would hang me. And even if not, merely to have gotten out of there, at the last second, like that, was a thing of Loki beauty that would last till I got busted for it, at least, and maybe after.
My mind was clear and my instincts electrified my spine, as the freeway on-ramp appeared where it should, gently veering up the concrete escape ramp, and lift-off.
My thoughts hummed and skipped, now is the instant that the wheelchair will roll in front of me, not just going to get away with it, am I? Why should I escape when some poor fucker, already paralyzed, lying on pavement lifeless, sick little deity watching us both. And on through the fifteen minutes it took to glide through those city freeways with all the other night-town headlight ghosts, as the infinite black mile-high sky hovered overhead.
story index - iv