Written in 2009.
by Andi Hagen
Willy loves speed. Junior high into high school, he tinkered on go-karts, later tricking out golf carts—his fastest cruised forty-eight down the soapbox derby hill at Shadyside Park. Then came his license and he started street racing, dominating with a 1977 Trans Am, black, bought from a friend of his dad’s—a fixer upper, fifteen hundred bucks.
After graduation, Willy stayed home in Anderson Indiana, outside of Indianapolis. A track rat in oily jeans and a leather jacket, he did demo derbies and figure eights. When Dad died in a motocross accident, Willy, twenty-four at the time, left Indiana. Going west, he toured the coast, the desert, occasionally up into Canada. His interests got more esoteric: midget cars, motorcycle ice racing (no spikes), and jet dragsters.
Cruising back from a rollover competition, Willy’s head beats hollowly from and eight roll jump. It is twilight. He is on a desert highway, outside of Gila Bend, Arizona. Through the windshield is a hazy world, tamarind-colored like the glow around a neon “open” sign. Low in the seat of his 1969 GTO Judge, skimming by at eighty, Willy does not notice the car on the shoulder until he is five hundred feet past. Reversing up beside it, his breath catches. Nice! It looks like a mix of Ford Falcon, Plymouth Roadrunner, and Dodge Charger. Must be custom—a smeared composite of every muscle car, all chrome and fat blocky corners. The paint is smoke-colored, with shadows of night sky purple and blue undulating beneath the surface, like water under ice.
Is it abandoned? Willy gets out, stepping across his headlight beams. The windows are tinted, shimmering with rainbows like spilled oil. He tries the driver’s side handle. The door groans open. Leaning in, his eyes adjust to the murky interior and he whistles softly. The shifter, suicide knob, and door locks are chrome, shaped like leering skulls, their eyes glowing with reflected twilight. Out of the ignition hangs a skeleton keychain. Weird—who would leave their car, especially this honey, and not take the key? Normally, he would never mess around with someone else’s ride, but he is mesmerized, mouth breathing at the thought of being behind the wheel. Maybe it is the stimulating scent of warm leather, or his brain is jarred from all the rollovers. He slides into the seat and cranks the key. The engine chants to life. The tank is full.
Willy’s palm massages the shifter. As the transmission clanks into gear, a seatbelt zips across his lap, clattering closed. Another slithers over his shoulder. The belts ratchet tighter, pressing him deep into the seat. His spine brushes the metal frame beneath the padding. Whoever heard of automatic seatbelts in a muscle car? His foot touches the gas. The engine grumbles, making the car’s body chatter. He eases back on the clutch, down on the accelerator, and the tires crunch away from the shoulder. Second gear—third gear—the engine sounds like a tornado. Straddling the centerline, the car’s pulse quivers up through the shifter into his arm. Fourth gear—the cracked asphalt zigzags under the headlights like a news ticker scrolling too fast to read.
Willy is unsure if he is just joyriding or actually stealing the car. He has not loved driving this much since—the chugging V8 sets his mind wandering—his Trans Am’s final drag race, a full mile for pink slips against Milo’s 1985 Mustang. Willy enjoyed that win more than anything, especially when Milo wouldn’t give up his car and Conner (Willy’s buddy, a Navy guy back in town for the weekend) had to push him around. At the time, Milo was dating Willy’s naggy ex-girlfriend Shelly, and leaving them both to hitch back to town made Willy’s teenage soul swell. He sold both the cars to pay for a series of dirt track racers he went on to smash up.
Willy roars into fifth gear. Something lashes across his legs—another seatbelt, biting into the muscle above his knees and squeezing his foot down onto the pedal. Accelerator against the floor, the car lurches. The speedometer glides forward like the timer on a bomb. One forty, one fifty, one sixty, buried but still accelerating, now doubling, quadrupling—like his first jet dragster race, but gone wrong, out of control. Through the windshield is blackness. Willy could be plummeting into a bottomless chasm. Oh god, this has to be road fatigue—a hallucination! His hands slip from the wheel and he cannot raise them again. His nose bleeds. The velocity loosens his gums around his teeth. The skin at the corners of his mouth, the rim of his jaw, along his ribs, and between his fingers, stretches and ripples. Hairs pull taut and jerk free. Fingernails wobble. Eyes sink into their sockets.
Willy hears tearing—his leather jacket shredding?—and realizes that the car’s thundering has gone quiet. Aside from the cool glow of the instrument panel, he could be in space, body being squashed by the vacuum. Clothing, skin, and hair blow off like layers of dust. His muscles untwist into wet strands. Cartilage liquefies and his bones fall away, hitting the car’s rear window, splintering and turning to powder.
The car chugs to a stop, rolling onto the shoulder of the highway. The windows wind down and the doors thump open. The particles of Willy’s body swirl out, blowing through the scrub brush with the rest of the desert dust.