Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
Point of Impact
Scott Lindsey – 1996
Mark Davis thumps the top of the steering wheel with both hands as the big rig barrels down the asphalt center of the tunnel his high beams carve in the Arizona night. On either side the desert landscape flashes past, monochromatic in the halogen glow. Now and again glowing eyes appear on the side of the road, visible in the darkness a second before the animal they belong to materializes behind them. When these disembodied eyes appear, Mark tries to call out the name of the animal before it comes fully into view, as if in the naming he is summoning it from the darkness. It is a game he has become adept at; it is almost always a coyote or a jackrabbit, and the two are easily distinguished.
Another set of luminous eyes appear on the right shoulder, and Mark sings out “Jackrabbit!” just as the large desert hare leaps from the void directly into the path of oblivion. Before Mark can react, he feels it thump against the underside of the cab and winces. In the rearview mirror he catches a quick glimpse of its broken body cartwheeling limply out of the taillight’s glow. It might not be dead, he tells himself. It might be suffering. But he does not stop.
“Even if it is still alive,” he says aloud to the desert, “what am I going to do? Try and back over it with the tires?”
By the time he remembers the gun under the seat, he is already far down the road, and the thought of stalking up and down the desert highway in the dark, gun in hand, trying to find a wounded jackrabbit so that he can put it out of its misery strikes him funny. He laughs aloud until he is wheezing, but the incident unnerves him.
A few miles down the road, he stops and rolls a joint, sprinkling the marijuana liberally with crystal methedrine before twisting it up. He pulls back onto the highway, smokes half of it, and puts the roach in the box of Marlboros in his T-shirt pocket. He lights a cigarette, reaches for a can of beer from the small ice chest just inside the sleeper, and resumes his rhythmic thumping of the steering wheel, roaring through the night in four-four time while Joe Walsh sings to him of the good life.
Mark likes this graveyard desert run. No traffic, no hassles, no cops. Just miles and miles of open road, empty but for the rabbits and coyotes. He thinks about the rabbit he ran down, wondering if he should have stopped, wondering still if he should go back.
“If I were lying mangled on the side of the road, I’d want someone to put me out of my misery,” he says.
But even if it was not killed outright, he reassures himself silently, the coyotes would make quick work of it. His thoughts turn morbid as he contemplates death and his own mortality. He is thinking of this when the coyote appears in his headlights. Standing motionless on the shoulder, it watches him approach with casual indifference, the eyes glowing like molten copper. Mark steps on the brakes quickly, the truck shuddering beneath him, tires locking up briefly before he is on it and past, knowing there is no way he could have stopped if he’d had to. But the coyote never moved, even when the brakes locked. Nervy little bastard, he thinks.
Soon he returns to his self-indulgent contemplation of his own death. Speaking to Don Henley, who sings “Driving with Your Eyes Closed,” Mark says, “You know, at thirty-seven years of age I have already used up half the time allotted to me on this earth, statistically speaking – significantly more than that, I’m afraid, given my particular lifestyle. And everyday that I don’t die increases the odds that tomorrow will be the day that I do.”
He takes a deep drag off the butt of his Marlboro and crushes it out in the ashtray. “Live each day as though it were your last,” he proclaims to the darkness around him, ”because it just may be.” He thrusts his head out the window into the night. “Seize the day!” he screams into the wind. “It is a good day to die!” He lets out an indian war whoop as the wind snatches the Skoal baseball cap from his head.
When he pulls his bare and wind-blown head back into the cab, out of the comer of his watering eyes, he just glimpses the figure, arms raised to flag him down. The truck has drifted onto the shoulder, and he jerks the wheel sharply, over correcting just as he feels the sickening thump against the side of the cab. The truck careens across the highway and back, tearing up dust on both sides of the road before he manages to bring it to a stop.
He shuts the engine off and sits motionless in the cab, watching the dust billow silently in the headlights glow. “Oh shit,” he chants to himself, his favorite mantra. “Shit shit shit shit shit! I didn’t just hit someone, did I? Please, sweet Jesus, tell me I didn’t just hit someone.” He takes a long drink of beer, then stares at the half-full can in his trembling hand. “Oh shit!” he says again.
He climbs down from the cab and hurls the open beer into the desert, splashing himself as he does. Retrieving the rest of the six-pack, he flings them after the first one, the silver cans pulling apart as they arc out of the light. He begins to trot down the shoulder of the road, emptying his pockets as he goes.
“Hey! Are you O.K.?” His voice is strained and high-pitched. “Hey, where are you?”
He stops, winded, and listens. There is no sound but his own labored breathing. “Oh Christ,” he pants, starting to run again. “I killed him sure. Hey mister! Where the hell are you?”
He comes to the spot where his tires tore up the dirt on the shoulder and looks around. In the faint glow cast by the running lights, he can see both sides of the road back to the truck. Clearly enough, anyway, to be certain, there are no bodies lying anywhere on it. He walks on another fifty yards or so and spots something lying in the road. It’s not big enough to be a body, but he trots over to investigate, his heart in his throat. It’s his hat, a black lump lying on the white line in the center of the road. He returns to the truck, brushing it off and settling it back on his head.
“Maybe,” he says, thinking aloud, “the impact threw the guy into the bushes.”
He retrieves a flashlight from the truck and searches through the scattered chaparral alongside the highway. Twice he mistakes a low outcropping of rock for a body, his stomach tightening until he realizes his mistake. When he has worked his way back to the truck, he reaches for his cigarettes, puzzled. As he takes one out of the pack, he sees the half-smoked joint and quickly drops it into the dirt, grinding it beyond recognition with the toe of his boot and glancing around nervously. His hand shakes as he lights the cigarette.
“0.K.,” he says aloud, trying to sort things out. “I hit the guy. Some poor transient son-of-a-bitch is hitching along the highway in the middle of the night, and I hit him. I don’t mean to hit him, but I hit him. It’s not my fault. It’s an accident.” He takes a deep drag of his cigarette and exhales slowly, playing the flashlight across the desert. “So what the hell is he doing trying to flag me down like that anyway? Asshole. And more importantly,” he raises his voice momentarily, “where the hell is he? He’s not lying on the side of the road. He’s not stuck on my grill like a bug . . .” He pauses as he considers this new thought, then walks around to the front of the truck just to be sure, as if thinking it might have made it so. Then another thought comes to him, and he squats down and checks the underside of the cab.
After checking beneath the cab, Mark walks the length of the trailer, stooping over, doing the same. When he’s circled the entire truck twice, he stands in the light spilling out from the open driver’s side door, smoking his cigarette and trying to piece things together.
“0.K.” he mutters, starting to pace. “I hit the guy, but I knocked him farther than I thought, and he’s still lying out there somewhere. Or,” he stops and wags the flashlight, “I hit the guy, but I didn’t kill him, and he stumbled off into the bushes and collapsed. In which case he could be anywhere, though he can’t have gotten far.”
He shines the powerful flashlight out across the low scrub in a full circle but sees nothing. The desert brush is about three feet high and loosely scattered, with low rock outcroppings and an occasional saguaro cactus thrusting up above the brush line. He begins to search a larger area, starting from the point of impact and ·walking quickly, his breathing loud and labored in the still desert night. Before long, he establishes a regular search pattern, coveting as much ground on both sides of the road m, he feels an injured man might have traveled.
Striding through the brush, he startles a jackrabbit, which explodes out of the darkness at his feet, disappearing back into the shadows as Mark stumbles back and falls on his ass. “Shit!” he screams, his hand on his heart. ”Don’t do that! Jesus Christ!” He stands up and brushes himself off, threatening the empty night. “I’ll run your ass over, you do that again.”
As he searches on the far side of the road, he comes across a beer can lying in a damp circle in the sand, and when he returns to the truck, he carries the three surviving beers. Sitting on the running board, he cracks one open, foam running down his fingers, and takes a drink. He looks up and down the highway. The desert is dark and till. After a moment he stands and slowly retraces his steps along the roadside, shining the light on the desert floor. He stops and bends over three times, retrieving the ziplock baggie, the pack of rolling papers, and, after a little more looking, the small. tightly folded paper bindle.
Returning to the truck, he rolls a dollar bill and snorts the last of the crystal right out of the bindle, his eyes watering as his sinuses burn. He licks the empty bindle, wads it up, and throws it into the brush.
“Now what do I do?” he asks the desert. “Am I going crazy? Did l imagine the whole thing, or, what? I mean, if there was someone out there, I should have found him by now. Unless … ” Mark stops in the act of lighting the cigarette, the flame of suspicion firing behind his eyes. “Unless he doesn’t want to be found.” He lights his cigarette, and pockets the lighter, looking around through narrowed eyes. “It wouldn’t be the first time a truck’s been hijacked by someone pretending to need help.” He stands and begins to pace again. “Oh, man,” he sniffs repeatedly, pinching his nose. “I can’t find the son-of-a-bitch because I didn’t hit him. He just wants me to think I hit him. I know how it’s done.”
He stops and glances around, then backs quickly to the door of the truck, retrieving the flashlight from the floorboard. The flashlight is eighteen inches long and solid, and he hefts it like a short club as he fumbles under the seat with his other hand, unwilling to turn his back on the desert.
“That’s right,” he mutters under his breath as his hand encounters what he’s looking for. “You’re messing with the wrong guy.” The .38 is wrapped in the leg of an old pair of blue jeans, and he lets it fall from its wrapping onto the floorboard, snatching it up and pointing it at the desert. “O.K.” he mutters, “you want a piece of me now?”
He steps out from the cab and begins to walk around the truck, the gun and the flashlight held stiff-armed in front of him. As he walks, he pivots slowly. crouching frequently to peer under the truck, then leaping up and spinning around. He circumnavigates the truck in this gymnastic fashion and stands by the driver’ door again, puzzled. Then, with a look of sudden understanding, he whips around and points the gun into the cab.
“All right, man. Come on out of there.” His voice is loud in his own cars. and he tries to keep it even. “I know you’re in there. The one place you knew I wouldn’t look. I’ve got to hand it to you, pretty smart.”
When there is no response, he steps slowly up to the cab, keeping the gun pointed at the curtained entrance of the sleeper. “I’ve got a .38 with a full load here, pal. I’m counting to three, and then I’m bringing it in.”
He places his right foot on the running board and shifts his weight onto it, leaning into the cab. “You make me come in there, and I swear to God I’ll unload this gun in your ass!”
He drops his cigarette into the dirt. “O.K. I’m coming in. One, two, three!” He rocks forward with each count, then lunges up and into the cab, his right knee on the driver’. seat, pushing the curtains open with the gun, firing into one corner of the berth, then the other. The sleeper is empty, and Mark stumbles down out of the cab, covering his ears.
“Shit!” he screams at the top of his lungs. He takes his hands away from his ears, shakes his head and climbs back into the cab. He sticks his head into the sleeper, still hazy with gun smoke, and peers around, even checking under the rumpled sleeping bag that hasn’t been used in two days. Then he slumps down behind the wheel breathing rapidly.
“Oh man,” he says. “I don’t need this shit.” He takes one of the two remaining beers off the floor and opens it. “This is too weird,” he says. “I saw someone. I know I saw someone. I felt a thump. And it wasn’t any fucking coyote, and it wasn’t any fucking jackrabbit. I am not fucking crazy.”
When he’s caught his breath, he takes the keys out of the ignition and climbs down, securing the truck but leaving the headlights on. He stuffs the gun in the front of his pants, takes his flashlight and beer and walks slowly down the road, head turning nervously. When he reaches the point of impact, he plays the flashlight across the torn up, scattered dirt on the shoulder, the tire marks cutting across the asphalt. There is no blood, no distinct footprints other than his own, no evidence of any kind of another person. He squats down, setting the beer and flashlight on the ground to light a cigarette and glancing over his shoulder at the truck. As he does, he just glimpses the figure looming up behind him, coming at him from the edge of the brush. He scrambled. forward with a muffled yell, rolling painfully on his shoulder. The gun falls from his belt, but he comes up on his feet wielding the flashlight. He is panting rapidly, his heart pounding as if it would tear itself free, a quivering bundle of survival instincts.
He is alone. The dese1i stretches out endlessly around him as he stands facing a small saguaro cactus growing at the edge of the brushline, its needle-covered arms raised to the star-filled sky. When he has more or less stopped vibrating, Mark glances around and picks up the revolver, letting it dangle from his hand as he shines the light up the length of the eight-fool cactus. The beam comes to rest on afresh wound on the cactus arm closest to the road. It glistens in the light at about the same height as the side mirror of the truck. Mark begins to laugh, silently at first, the internal mirth shaking his thin frame, then lets out a choking guffaw and begins to roar.
“I knew I hit the son of a bitch!” He points the gun at the plant. “Stick ’em up,” he says, laughing until he is doubled over and wheezing. “A goddamn cactus. Jesus Christ!”
He straightens suddenly, silent and grim, and pumps four slugs into the unsuspecting cactus, blowing fist-sized chunks out the back of it. “Motherfucker,” be mutters. Turning, he squints unnecessarily at a distant set of headlights that have appeared on the horizon behind him. He turns again and sees that the sky behind the mountains is beginning to pale.
“Christ,” he says softly, taking off his bat and running his hand through his hair.
“I’m getting too old for this shit”
He walks back to the truck finishing the beer and tosses the empty can into the brush. When the approaching car has passed, he pulls slowly onto the highway, signaling even though there is no one else in sight He cracks the last beer, and as he raises it, he sees that he is still trembling. A coyote trots across the road some distance ahead of him, and Mark honks the powerful air horn at it. As he passes, the animal stops at the edge or the brush and watches, eyes glittering.