map Chase

by Jeff Simonds

Published in Issue No. 187 ~ December, 2012

Photo by D. Robert Wolcheck (http://drobertwolcheck.com)

 

I found a grey hair today— and so I am dying. Found it while driving. It caught more of the aggressive white shine from the headlights of the asshole tailgating me than the rest of my hair. Saw it in the rear view mirror. I pulled it from just above my right ear. It was thin and grey and sinister, and it came to remind me that I’m going to be dead. I was born, then my hair will go grey, then I’m going to be dead. That’s the way it works (on occasion, people will skip the second step, but the first and last are, to my knowledge, always present in the sequence). That’s how it worked for Albert Einstein. How it worked for Charles Lindbergh. My father too.

Was Lindbergh grey?

No time for thoughts like that. Arrangements must be made. Wills must be drawn up. Coffins purchased.

Then again, the hair might not be grey. It looked grey in the harsh, angry light from the tailgater, yes— but what does that prove? He is flashing high beams now which cannot be trusted to accurately display the color of this strand (in his defense, I have dropped to thirty in a forty-five mile-per-hour zone— but I am a dying man). I held the hair in front of my nose. My focus on the highway grew fuzzy and distorted behind the grey bastard, like one of those magic-eye illusions from the newspapers. I could never do those (so many regrets).

The hair is probably brown, and I will not die. I will turn the dome lights on, and it will be youthful and thick and brown. I will sigh and think, “How ridiculous I have been.” Then, I will find someone to make love to in the backseat. Youthful, energetic sex like in movies, and it will be so good that my iPod will go rogue and start playing music through the car stereo. It doesn’t need my permission— it knows to fill the car with up-tempo indie music when this kind of sex begins. It is young and rebellious device for young and immortal men with chestnut brown hair. I turn the light on.

Still grey. Death’s icy breath hits my neck.

I place it against the black steering wheel. Still grey. Almost white by comparison.

I pulled a control strand from the center of my scalp. Drove with my knees. Tossed aside layers of hair to get one of the deep, new, youthful follicles and compared the two. The one was unmistakably brown while the other was whiter than white. Thin and almost translucent. Arrangements must be made.

I first noticed my father’s grey hair when he taught me to shave. He ambushed me when I stepped out of the shower. He held a razor in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. I assumed both were for me. Instead, he sat on the toilet eating his snack and instructing me on the grain of my facial hair.

“Start on your right side burn and work down and across.” He pantomimed shaving his face and ate his ice cream. I couldn’t get the nerve to put the razor to my face. “You’re not gonna cut yourself. Just do it.” I dipped the razor into the shaving cream, but not deep enough to touch skin. He laughed. He tried to distract me. “Think about this… women can’t eat an ice cream cone while peeing. I mean, they physically can… but it looks funny. It looks funny, doesn’t it? Men can eat ice cream while peeing. It looks like we have some control.” He stood up, turned around and faced the toilet. He held an imaginary penis in his right hand, and bit into the cone in his left. “See, this looks more natural, right?”

“Yeah, it does!” I laughed. I was thirteen and knew nothing about women, or their biology, or their ability to casually eat frozen snacks in the bathroom. I still don’t know much about any of those things, but I’ve learned to put the razor against my face. I practiced on my legs. He suggested it. I was the only kid in ninth grade whose leg hair started midway up the calf.

My father was a great teacher of terrible lessons, and consequently couldn’t be trusted to teach me anything correctly. I discovered this in third grade when I found out they are not called “smashed potatoes.” Boxed mashed potatoes were his specialty— cheap, quick, easy, and perfect for the two of us— but always referred to as smashed potatoes. I’d argue with the lunch ladies that they had misspelled it on the menu, and they’d fight back. I’d look at them with pitying eyes like they were trying to convince me the moon landing was faked or some other insane theory. My father would hold in laughs and encourage me to keep fighting. This lasted until the day the lunch ladies gave me a box to examine with my own eyes. My father told me the lunch ladies got together and made a fake box. He laughed and we ate our free meal courtesy of my school’s lunch staff. We still called them smashed potatoes.

His grey hair started at his temple— just like me.

The tailgater passed me the first opportunity he got. He slowed down just enough for me to get a good look at him and his middle finger. Behind the finger was a head of young blonde hair. He was young and fit, with slim, healthy limbs. He didn’t need to respect a dying man. Places to go. Years still in front of him. Birth, grey, then death. He wasn’t even halfway done with the sequence yet. Strangers look at him and ask him about what gym he goes to, or where the best bars are, or what kind of engine is in this youthful red car.

Strangers ask me about bus routes and directions to grocery stores. Society knows where you belong. They see you. They see my grey hair and they wonder if I’ll be alive this time tomorrow. They help me across streets at crosswalks. They wonder if I am fit to drive. They wonder if I have decided what I want on my grave stone yet. Arrangements must be made.

It will have to be something true. Something memorable would be preferred, but there aren’t many of those.

Here lies Jack Bennett, Jr.

(December 13, 1986 – As yet to be determined)

He practiced law and once met Kareem Abdul Jabar.

Shorter. They charge by the letter, and there’s no need to spend all that cash on this.

J. Bennett

86 – TBD

Met K.A.J.

Maybe I won’t even go with a burial plot. I will go with something more fleeting, more forgettable. I will be cremated. I will ask for my ashes to be put in a grocery bag and left on the side of the road. Even more mundane. I will ask for my ashes to be condensed and put as the graphite in a pencil, and I will be sold in the grocery store. I will be condensed into a briquette of charcoal. Someone will cook a burger over me, and I will grow hot, and burnt, and grey— fully grey. They can do that, right? They can turn ashes into diamonds. I heard about that somewhere. I haven’t earned that sort of lasting tribute. Einstein earned it. Lindbergh earned it (Grey? No time for that). My father earned it.

I hadn’t considered my father to be old, despite his grey hair, for many years. He was the same young man who played Nintendo with me well beyond the time any reasonable parent would expect their child to be asleep. He would holler at the screen and twist the black wire of his controller into spiral knots. He’d coach his digital driver to “take this left like a champ, not like some girl scout” and “knock this stinker [either me or my digital driver— it was tough to tell] out” and “I ain’t stoppin,’ kid.” I squeezed down the controller like it was trying to flee my hands. On our knees staring at the screen, we leaned with the curves of the track like invisible forces were being issued to us. He wouldn’t let me win.

I noticed his age for the first time a few Christmases back. He gave me a waffle iron, some jeans, and some books. I gave him an iPod. We spent the day making disastrous waffle concoctions out of batter, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Peppermint Patties and putting music on his new toy. He looked at the device in his palm. “I don’t think it worked?”

“How can you tell? You haven’t looked at the menu screen yet.”

“It doesn’t feel any heavier.”

“What do you mean?”

“I must’ve put three thousand songs on there. It’s not heavier.”

I laughed and cleaned the burnt candy smudges from my gadget. He bounced the iPod in his palm. Another smashed potato style joke? “You’re kidding, right?”

“Shouldn’t it get heavier?”

“How much do you think music weighs?”

A grin. He hadn’t been kidding, but he’d rather take credit for an unintentional joke than unintentional confusion. “Depends on what you listen to, I guess. Hendrix is pretty weighty, but most pop music is light as balloons.”

“What do you have on there?”

“Oh, lots of heavy stuff. Lots of Moody Blues.” His hair was mostly grey by this point. He never went bald. He held his device in the palm of his left hand and looked at it. It’s a young and rebellious device for young and immortal men. He held the same look as when he taught me to shave by holding an imaginary penis in his palm and eating ice cream. He was an old man— listening to the Moody Blues for fuck’s sake. Now it’s my turn.

The grey hairs along my temple caught the lights from behind me. The brown strands reflected a little of the light, but the grey hairs lit up with alternating blue and red like thin glow sticks. They illuminated like they were the source of the light.

They’ve come to check on the old man. They want to ask if this grey-haired, paper-skinned grandfather knows where he is going. They want an explanation. “Why are you going so slow? Were you studying your grey strands every time you crossed the double-yellow line? Do you know where you are? Someone will have to pick you up. Arrangements must be made.”

I wanted something true and memorable for the tombstone. Jack Bennett, Jr.— Got Born, Went Grey, Then Died. Jack Bennett, Jr.— Largely Forgotten. Jack Bennett, Jr.— Drove Too Slow ‘Til He Stopped Completely.

My father was better at starts than me. I would hammer the buttons down and my digital car would skid and grasp at the ground. My father would ease onto the controls. His green car would find its way into a rhythm before mine could find the road. I would spend the rest of the race cutting down his lead inch by inch. That wouldn’t work this time. I had to stay in front and see them in my rearview mirror. They expected me to pull over. Their feet were hovering over the brake, ready for me. I had an upper hand. When I hit fifty I had put a respectable amount of distance between my car and them. A good start.

They gave chase when I took a surprise left onto Rt. 142. It led straight to the freeway. They gained on me fast (I was rusty and dying and, this being my first police chase, had some adrenaline that made me hit the break harder than I expected). There were more people on the road than I hoped, and I had to slalom back and forth between lanes. I was better at turns than my father. His digital green car would slow down and take the inside track, but I would careen down the track and through the bend, sometimes bouncing off the walls and regaining my control on the ensuing straightaway. That technique wouldn’t quite work this time around, but I maneuvered through traffic and onto the highway like a professional. An aging racer looking for a big win late in my career. The siren went on behind me. I waited for my iPod to play some fast-paced chase music. It’s a young man’s toy— a rebellious machine. This is what it was made for.

He taught me to drive in silence. I had never seen him genuinely, undeniably nervous before that. He sucked his cheeks in and bit making his face look hollow. He took me out of our driveway and down the street. He pressed his foot up and down on the floor. With music I wouldn’t have heard his subtle stomping of invisible pedals, and I wouldn’t have gotten nervous, and I wouldn’t have hit the McKay’s mailbox when I overcorrected the way in which the car veered into the other lane. He gasped, bit down on his cheeks. His foot stomped on a hypothetical break peddle. I got the peddles mixed up, and sped back down the street while he screamed at me to stop.

The McKay’s weren’t home. He wrote an explanation on a blank page torn out of his car’s owner’s manual. He threw in fifty dollars. Left the note and the cash in the mailbox, after replacing the red plastic flag that had been knocked out, and returning the whole thing to its perch.

“I think we should practice driving in cemeteries.” He adjusted the seat back to where he liked it. “It’s got lots of turns, and it’s not like you’re going to kill anyone there.” He turned the car on and drove us to the nearest cemetery. I made trips up and down the curvy paths and my dad would read out the names and the descriptions of the stones. Each stone carved with some true and memorable phrase. Each coffin filled with some grey-haired person. “I hear people are dying to get into this place.” He made that joke every time we neared a cemetery.

More lights and more sirens. Police cars would surge up from my rearview ‘til they were right next to my car shouting commands into the air between us. Couldn’t they leave a dying man alone? Didn’t they see my streaks of thin white hairs glowing with red and blue and white headlights? Couldn’t they tell that I can’t slow down now. Not today. I’d hold down the peddle and eek ahead. I was good at this part. My dad could start strong, but I’d wear him down, and at the last second I’d crawl past him. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t slow down. My dad slowed down and I would surge ahead and leave him. I took the curves of the highway and the turns necessary to avoid the cars in my way like I was carving up the cemetery roads.

Jack Bennett, Jr.

12/13/1986 – ??/??/????

He was in a police chase.

I hadn’t expected the street signs to whip by so fast. That was not part of the video game, and my father certainly never taught me what to expect at ninety miles-per-hour (this being my first police chase, I was not ready for these little details). I thought about the chases on the news. A police officer (hereafter referred to as the chaser) tries to pull someone (the chasee) over— check. The chasee darts ahead— check. The chaser calls for backup— check. Then what? Road block? Helicopter surveillance? Should I get off the main road now, or wait for the news to pick up the story? Will they call me something cool and memorable? The Raging Aging Outlaw? And what about headlines? Father Time’s Terrible Crime?

It’ll probably be a road block. I made a sharp last minute turn off the exit (turns were my specialty, and I was getting used to overriding the adrenaline to put just the lightest bit of pressure on the brakes). I thought of the stateline. Maybe 45 miles away, if I could find it. Probably only going to get one shot at it. I examined my gas gauge, which was closer to empty than I had hoped. How many miles per gallon does a car get? Could I make it to the stateline? My father taught me nothing about miles per gallon, or how to make the calculations necessary to figure out if I could make it 45 miles. He taught me to shave my legs, to eat smashed potatoes, to drive through cemeteries, and to appreciate that girls can’t eat ice cream while on the toilet (a group of lessons that, when compiled in list form, seems rather useless in this instance). I passed the blonde tailgater and hoped he recognized my car before it screamed by him followed by New York’s fastest seven troopers. I hope he will think of me when he finds grey hairs, and he is met with the next step in the sequence. We’re born, we grey, and we die. I pulled another grey hair— I had to move fast. When I didn’t keep my concentration, my dad’s green digital video game car would stay ahead of mine. Either that, or I’d hit the McKay’s mailbox. I study the hair. The street gets fuzzy and distorted when I focus on the strand, but the lines of the road keep whizzing by.

“You need to look through the picture. Try crossing your eyes and moving the picture slowly closer to your face. Slowly.”

I held the picture right up against my nose. “Nothing.”

“Try moving it really quickly away from your nose.”

“Nothing.”

“Trying moving it back and forth very fast a few times.”

I did it twice before I heard him laughing. Twenty-five years and I still didn’t catch on to his smashed potato jokes until it was too late. The magic-eye illusion in the newspaper was wrinkled to begin with, though, and I didn’t have much of a chance.

“Well, it was a sailboat. You didn’t miss much.”

I put aside the paper and leaned into the chair’s shoddy upholstery. My dad lay on the bed. He was thin. He had the same hollow-cheeked look as he had during the mailbox incident. It wasn’t the same type of nervousness, though. It may not have been nervousness at all.

“Did you know they can take human ashes and condense them into diamonds?” He looked at the ceiling tiles.

“No.”

“Read that somewhere. Isn’t that wild?”

I nodded. It was wild. “Is that what you want?”

“No. I want to be buried in Glenmont Cemetery.” He grinned. “I hear people…”
“… dying to get in there.” I stood up and stretched my back. “I’ve heard that one before. You need new material.”

He never went bald. He stayed grey.

The state line must be this way. Two rights then a left, then straight on for twenty minutes maybe thirty. Maybe it’s not down there. Can’t be sure— I’ve never gone this way. Might not have enough gas to make it, anyway. Come to think of it, I’m not quite sure if that whole cops-can’t-follow-you-beyond-the-stateline thing is true or if that’s just something from the movies. The lights behind me don’t seem to be interested in slowing down or stopping when we get to the border. But, I can’t stop either.

How quickly can they put together a new gravestone? I want a new one for my father. One that will last. One that will stick out like a legend, so when people take their kids out to learn to drive in the cemetery, and they read it out loud, it burns a way into their brains. Something that will make Einstein’s stone and Lindbergh’s stone look like the same old forgettable markers in every graveyard around every dead grey-haired nobody.

Here lies Jack Bennett, Sr.

(Nov. 3 1955 – Apr. 14 2012)

Taught the Raging Aging Outlaw How To Drive

Maybe they’d discount us if I bought my own grave marker at the same time, but I’m not stopping. I’m not slowing down. I imagined the green digital pixilated race car ahead of me. “Take this left like a champ, not like some girl scout.” I eased onto the brake through the turn, then slammed down the peddle like it was trying to escape and take off out into the night. I imagined the green car falling behind me as the stateline approaches— maybe. A road block, probably. Maybe the chasers won’t stop, even if I get there.

I reach for my iPod. Kept my eyes on the road. Lights ahead? I needed something with a thumpy beat. Maybe European club music. At least some 80’s hair metal. Something distracting and exciting. Something young and light as balloons.

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Jeff Simonds teaches writing in Upstate New York, where he lives with his wife and two ill-mannered cats. His short story collection, "You Are Not Allowed To Come Back After," was printed through Pinewood Books last year and is available on Amazon. You can find more of his writing in his first collection ("The Idiot of Geniusland"), on his Twitter (@HeyGeoff), or by stealing his laptop.