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  • Monday Excerpt: January's Thaw by J. Conrad Guest

    Excerpt Monday: January's Thaw
    by J. Conrad Guest



    For the next several miles, leaving downtown behind, we played cat and mouse; I managed to gain some distance at what seemed alternating intersections only to lose it at the others, always maintaining a lead of between a half-block and a block. I was relieved that traffic in this small suburb of Indianapolis was but a fraction of what it would’ve been had I been playing this high-speed game back in Manhattan.
    The track suddenly sprang up on our right—I caught sight of the walkway Melissa and I had used yesterday to cross over the backstretch too late to negotiate the necessary right turn to access it.
    Improvise, I thought, and kept going.
    The next right turn would take us into the infield, where the Stinson T was parked, by crossing the racetrack. I was getting us closer to our getaway vehicle, but unfortunately I was no closer to losing our tenacious pursuer.
    I stood on the brake pedal and turned the wheel hard to the right; the cab’s tires screamed their protest as we slid around, fishtailing wildly several times while I fought to keep the car under control; I stepped on the gas and the cab straightened out. The German would have more time to slow for the right turn I’d taken, and I knew I’d lost precious distance. But that seemed secondary in the face of the wooden barricade that suddenly appeared in front of us, designed to regulate the flow of cars entering the infield. Beyond the moveable barricade, the wooden swinging gate that spanned the gap in the concrete retaining wall of the track during the race was, thankfully, open.
    “Oh, no!” I heard Melissa whisper.
    “Joe!” Lance said, bracing his hands against the dashboard.
    “Hold on,” I said, slowing to give the barricade’s attendant the illusion we were coming to a stop. As soon as he neared the cab’s window I stood on the gas again—through the open window I heard the attendant call, “Hey!” his voice fading out with distance even before it finished its single syllable exclamation—and I drove through the barricade in a shower of splintering wood.
    The German was right behind us. While I’d slowed to nearly a stop, he’d been able to keep his momentum, and I felt his bump from behind just as I drove onto the track. He caught me on the left corner hard enough to cause our cab to spin in that direction. I heard Melissa stifle a scream.
    Improvise.
    I steered into the spin to keep us from doing a complete one-eighty, and at ninety degrees I hit the gas again and headed off down the brick racetrack toward a broad sweeping turn to the left. Glancing in the mirror I could see the German bringing his cab around to continue pursuit. I’d bought us some time but now I heard and felt something amiss—our cab had sustained enough damage in the collision to cause a fender rub.
    As we picked up speed the sound of the tire rub grew louder. The sweeping turn emptied us out onto the backstretch. I saw the walkway that spanned over the track and beyond that, better than half a mile distant, the brick surface of the track seemed to dwindle to a tiny dot on the horizon. On our right, lying up against the outside retaining wall, I caught a glimpse of a rabbit. I surmised it had been struck by a practicing racecar, and an image of the racecar as a dog in pursuit of the rabbit in front of a bloodthirsty cheering crowd came to my mind’s eye. No blood, the rabbit hadn’t been run over and crushed but instead struck and sent flying into the wall, at the base of which it now lay in a fetal position; yet it didn’t really matter, dead was still dead, despite its appearance of mere peaceful repose.
    Hell of a place to take a nap, I thought, checking the review mirror. The German was gaining on us at a rapid pace. I could see his murderous glare above the steering wheel of the cab, and I wondered if the swollen black eye I’d given him last night might affect his depth perception.
    As we picked up speed the sound of the tire rub seemed to lessen: its pitch had either reached a higher decibel, or the fender was fast removing rubber, alleviating the pressure of the tire against its surface. The cab wanted to veer left; I fought the wheel to keep it going in a straight line.
    The walkway flashed over us as we continued to pick up speed; I saw the end of the long straightaway begin to curl to the left as a new sound came to my ears. I glanced up into the mirror to see the German still gaining on us, but bearing down on him was a blue and white racecar. I inched the cab over closer to the inside of the track, away from the wall, to allow the racecar to pass us on the right. A moment later it thundered past us, a rocket on wheels, its shiny body dotted with colorful decals, its big narrow fenderless tires gliding over the bricks while its driver, in the open cockpit, clutched at the big steering wheel and looked over at us from behind goggles, leaving us behind in a wake of high octane exhaust as if we were standing still, despite our speedometer’s claim that we were traveling at nearly ninety miles per hour.
    “Joe ...” I heard Melissa squeal, nearly hysterical.
    I hazarded a glance at Lance, his hands braced against the dashboard, eyes big as portabella mushrooms, and I wondered if the poor rabbit we’d passed had seen the speeding car at the last moment (I saw the oncoming car reflected in its eyes), and whether they, too, had grown to such overwhelming proportions.
    We were fast approaching the next turn and I guided the cab out toward the middle of the track. I wanted to take the turn at the highest speed possible, and I reasoned that to do that I’d have to take the longest possible arc through the turn; not the shortest route, but the fastest. I glanced up into the mirror to see the German had slowed noticeably, perhaps in deference to the approaching turn or unsure of my intention, and I noted also, with satisfaction, that he was still close to the apron of the track.
    We had reached the end of the long straightaway. Without lifting my foot from the gas, I gently aimed the car back down toward the inside of the track. I heard both Lance and Melissa call out “Joe” at the same time I heard the professor’s more formal “Mr. January …” all three tones rising slightly at the end, as if we were on a rollercoaster anticipating our stomachs dropping as our car topped the next crest. I reminded myself that this was no thrill ride.
    The tires squealed as they fought against the cab’s desire to slide back up toward the wall. Halfway through the turn I remembered to exhale and felt the cab drift back up toward the outside wall. I risked a glance into the mirror to see we’d put considerable distance between ourselves and the German, but I also noted that he’d moved over to take a similar line through the next turn, hoping to make up the distance he’d lost.
    We were halfway down the short straight to the next sweeping turn that would lead us onto the long front straightaway and toward the south end of the track—away from where Lance had parked the Stinson T. Still with my foot to the floor on the gas pedal, I pointed the cab toward the apex of the turn; a moment later the tires again voiced their displeasure at being treated with so little regard.
    Halfway through the turn we began to drift toward the concrete retaining wall I was certain had claimed the life of many a racecar driver. The sound of the tire rub had further diminished and, grateful that it was a left side tire and not one on the right side—the side that had borne most of the stress as we raced through the long left turns—I wondered how much tread might yet remain.
    We came out of the turn in the middle of the track with another five-eighths’ mile of straightaway in front of us. In the rearview mirror I saw the other cab fishtail wildly. The German steered into the slide, which took him to within inches of the wall; still he was gaining on us rapidly. In front of me, to our left, was the entrance to the pit area, where during the race the cars received their service—fuel, tires and whatever maintenance might be required during a 500-mile marathon.
    Improvise.
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