“I’m an excellent driver. And I’ve been driving the Los Angeles freeways for fifty years. I know them better than my GPS does.”
“So how did you end up like this?”
“Like this” was upside-down, hanging from a seatbelt. This apparition that had appeared at Thompson’s car window, whatever it was, was asking too many questions.
“I…I don’t know. Somebody hit me, I think. For crissake, get me out of here.”
“I can’t open the doors. They’re jammed. Can you unfasten your seatbelt?”
“I can’t move. Everything has caved in. My head is against the roof.”
“You wouldn’t be able to get out, anyway. You’re going to need a can opener or something. But help is on the way. You should take your mind off your problems. Tell me your story.”
“My story? What the hell… Where are the police?”
“They haven’t arrived yet. The fifty years. Tell me what happened during those fifty years.”
This was crazy. Was it a man or a woman? The voice was husky but not deep. It could go either way. Or was he hallucinating? Thompson twisted his head to look out what was left of the side window, but his vision was blurry from blood dripping into his eyes. All he could see from his position in the Ferrari, now sitting on what was left of its roof, was a shadow.
He looked out the other side window for potential rescuers, but all he saw in that direction, through the fog in front of his eyes, were what looked like tires of other stopped cars. It had obviously been a multi-car accident. Scrap iron all over the place. The blood blurring his vision was streaming down his face—or up his face since he was upside-down—and undoubtedly spoiling the expensive upholstery of his beloved car. It would cost a fortune to fix it and clean up the mess. Maybe if he kept talking, help would arrive sooner.
“I first came into L.A. on a smoggy February day in 1961 on the San Bernardino Freeway. I was driving a brand new Ford Falcon with three forward gears, a pronounced engine knock, and a dent in the left-rear fender, already…”
Why had he said that? Now he felt compelled to explain it. “I got the dent in a fender-bender as I was leaving my army post in Indianapolis for the last time. There was no damage to the other car.”
The shadow outside his window didn’t comment. Thompson realized whoever or whatever it was had to be lying flat on the concrete roadway to be able to see inside his car. He was terrified of being left alone again, as he had been for what seemed hours but was probably only a few minutes, following the accident. He had to keep this…shadow from leaving him.
“As I drove into the heart of L.A., I was wondering what the hell I was doing here in this sea of millions of strangers where I would undoubtedly sink without a trace.”
“Why did you come?”
“I grew up near Buffalo, New York. I wanted to get away from the cold. I did have two things going for me. I had just completed six months of active duty in the army reserve, thus ending the probability that my 1-A draft status upon graduation from college would fetch me a two-year sentence in the service of our country, especially since the warmongers were waving the flag again and would soon have us embroiled in the Vietnam suicide mission. True, I had a six-year commitment of meetings and summer camps, but the Los Angeles unit I was joining was so ill-equipped it would never be called to active duty.
“The other thing I had going for me was my college degree. Even though it was in psychology, of all the useless subjects in which to major, corporations were scooping up new graduates like power shovels scooped up dirt, and placing them in management training programs, because they could get us cheap.” Thompson stopped for breath, which was coming in gasps.
“So you came out here to make your fortune.”
“Hardly. At that time I was just worried about surviving. After spending several days in a state of depression, wondering whether I should hightail it back to the farm in Western New York, I landed a job with a bank and found a low-cost apartment, the latter with the help of a guy I’d met on active duty who lived in L.A. I also got the dent in my car fixed for just under the insurance deductible.”
“Sounds like things were looking up for you.”
Thompson wondered how much longer he could wait to be rescued. He was losing blood, and hanging upside down was making him nauseated. His cramped position made his neck and other parts of his body ache. He understood that this person—if it was a person—couldn’t extract him from his trapped position without help. Perhaps the Jaws of Life, famous on Los Angeles freeways, would be needed. He was glad he was in a place where equipment like that was available. He decided to attempt to go on with his story.
“The job didn’t pay much to start, and a healthy part of my paycheck went to repay loans from my father for the car and part of my college costs. Fortunately, the amount I owed him was a pittance compared to the debt load of many of today’s graduates, but Dad kept track of every penny and charged me interest to boot, so I didn’t have much spending money for a while.
“The apartment was in EchoPark, north of downtown L.A., and close to the Hollywood Freeway. A stranger in a strange land, I cruised the freeways at night, alone, although occasionally I went to reasonably priced jazz joints on Sunset with a new acquaintance who worked for the bank, still naïve enough to ask why George Shearing, the jazz piano player, wore dark glasses at night. I found out he was blind—”
“It sounds like you were having fun, even though you didn’t have much money.”
“I missed my family and friends back home, so I tried to keep busy and not think about them. I couldn’t go back as a failure. As I said, I went to the Sunset Strip, but I avoided the high-priced strip clubs—strip clubs on the Strip, get it?—except for the time Dad came to town on business and I talked him into taking me to one—something he never could have done at home.
“One night, I was driving south on the Hollywood Freeway, alone and lonely and stone-cold sober, almost to my turnoff, when a man in an expensive car I didn’t recognize cut in front of me so sharply I had to spin my wheel to avoid him. The Falcon, never known for its handling ability, did a 360, taking out the car in the next lane in the process.
“There was a chain reaction of collisions—bang, bang, bang—that continued for several seconds, mixed with the screeching of brakes, after which all was silent as the freeway became a parking lot. Although shaken, I didn’t appear to be injured, even though my car wasn’t yet equipped with seatbelts.”
“Sounds like you were very lucky.”
“Yeah, well I’ve always been lucky. I was surprised to see that the sports car that had been the cause of this mess had stopped. I must have clipped him when I spun, although I didn’t remember doing it. Fury boiled inside me. Although my car was severely damaged, I was able to get the door open. I got out and strode toward the expensive machine, determined to give the driver a piece of my mind and maybe my fist.
“That’s really maddening when somebody does something like that to you.”
“I was livid. As I approached, he apparently saw me in his rear-view mirror and decided not to stick around to exchange pleasantries like driver’s license and insurance information. He took off down the wide-open freeway with a screech of tires and a roar and probably set a speed record for that stretch of concrete that still stands. He was also weaving, and I suspected he didn’t want the cops to test his blood-alcohol level. Speaking of blood, that’s when I noticed that the sour taste in my mouth was blood from a cut on my face.”
“You were hurt, after all.”
“Yes, but not badly. Although I still have the scar. This was just another Los Angeles sig-alert on the news. My insurance paid for totaling my car and repairing the one car I hit, and of course jacked up my rates, but I was glad to get rid of the Falcon. I purchased a Volkswagen Beetle with seatbelts and four forward gears, including synchromesh in first gear. The police never found the driver of the sports car, even though I said I thought I’d hit him.”
“Did that put you off driving the freeways?”
“When you live and work here, the freeways are your arteries. You can’t live without them. Not long after this incident, my army buddy living in L.A. approached me with a proposition. I’d finished the training program at the bank and was a loan officer in one of the branches. I still wasn’t making a lot of money. Walt was working as an auditor for one of the big accounting firms. They audited some of the multitude of smaller cities that inhabit Los Angeles County in addition to the city of L.A.
“Walt said if I could authorize loans to certain cities where he was in charge of the audit, a cooperating employee would channel the money into purchases of goods that could be quickly resold for a profit. The loan would be repaid and all three of us would get a cut. I asked what kind of goods he was talking about, but Walt said it was better if I didn’t know. I asked him why he needed a bank to get loans, and he said the alternative was loan sharks who charged a fortune in interest and broke your kneecaps if you didn’t pay.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to authorize loans like those at that time, but by working, diligently, and getting my MBA at USC at night, I got myself promoted and transferred to the proper department within a couple of years. We started slowly and gradually stepped up the operation. Financially, things began to look up for me then.” Thompson stopped, panting.
“And you were okay with this?”
Why was he telling his life story to a stranger? He had never told anybody these things. He felt a need to defend his actions. “Sure, why not? Everybody around me seemed to have an angle. I deserved the good life as much as anybody. Nobody was being hurt. Is help coming? I can’t stop this bleeding.”
“Not yet. Go on with your story.”
This person, or whatever it was—was it even human?—was judging him. Maybe he was talking too much. However, he knew if he stopped talking he might pass out. He decided to keep going.
“I got fixed up with a girl named Nicki who was a telephone operator with big boobs. She didn’t like to kiss much, but guys—and gals—looked at her when she walked down the street. I figured she added a certain cachet to my world, so I married her.
“We bought a small house in the Echo Park area. She wanted a big car so I bought her a station wagon. Then she started wanting more things. She became sort of a pest. As I already hinted, she wasn’t that great in bed. I couldn’t really divorce her because California is a community property state and I didn’t want lawyers digging into some of my assets that I had carefully hidden.”
“You had reached the big time.”
“Well, not that big, but I was ready to have some fun. And Nicki was dragging me down. Fortunately, fate intervened. One evening, we were headed south on the Harbor Freeway toward San Pedro to attend a party. We were in the station wagon—Nicki didn’t like to ride in the VW because it didn’t have enough status—and I was driving. It had an automatic transmission, which I didn’t care for, but Nicki insisted on it. It was a big boat of a car. I’ve mentioned that my Falcon didn’t handle all that well. Well, this car was worse.
“A situation similar to the one I encountered with the Falcon occurred. A car cut in front of me; I swerved to the left to avoid it. Somehow, Nicki’s seatbelt wasn’t fastened. In addition, her door must not have been latched, because it flew open. The G-forces sucked Nicki right out of the car and onto the busy freeway.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Miraculously, there weren’t any cars nearby in the lane the wagon went into; it wasn’t hit. Not so for poor Nicki who fell onto the lane where we’d been driving in a sandwich between two other cars. The car that was following us rolled over her, and she was hit by other cars before the drivers realized what was happening.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Yeah, well that was a long time ago. With the help of the auto insurance and a policy on Nicki’s life, I sold the VW and the wagon and bought a Porsche with five forward gears. It was great for zipping in and out of traffic on the freeways, around the suckers who still had cheap cars like the Falcon. It also proved to be a good babe magnet, and it helped me land my next wife, Sonya, who not only had a voluptuous body but was a great kisser as well. Now I figured I really was moving up in the world.”
“It sounds like you had the world by the tail.”
“I’m bleeding more. Is help coming?”
“Soon, soon. Keep on with your story.”
“Meanwhile, my business dealings with Walt were expanding. No red flags were raised in the cities Walt was working with because they weren’t losing any money. The bank’s books were in order, and the bank was making money on the loans. It was a winning situation for everyone. I even turned down a promotion so that I could keep things going.”
“Did you have any children?”
“Naw. Sonya had all kinds of tests, until we finally found out it was my fault. I was the bastard who was sterile.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“We decided it was okay. It would have put a dent in our lifestyle. We were living large. We bought a house in one of the cities the bank was doing business with. Got a great deal because of my connections. The City Council took it over using eminent domain.”
“How does that work?”
“The City Council concocted an excuse for condemning that house and a number of others nearby. Urban blight, or something like that. Of course, the city had to pay for the properties, but the council members knew how to work things and they got them on the cheap. They said they were going to make it into a commercial area. Nothing happened for a year or two and everyone forgot the original purpose. They finally sold the houses. I got one of them. Beautiful old house, just needed a little work. City Council members ended up with a couple of the others.”
“What happened to the folks who originally owned the houses?”
“Who knows? They got paid off. Although they weren’t very happy about it. Said they got the shaft. Nothing they could do about it, though. That’s how the system works. Crybabies. We also bought a cabin in the mountains. We’d zip up there every weekend in the Porsche.”
Thompson was feeling weak from hanging upside down and loss of blood. “Say, when are the damn rescue folks going to get here?”
“I hear sirens now. Should be soon. Keep talking. It will help you forget your situation. Are you still married to Sonya?”
“Hell no. Sorry, I didn’t mean that. She was a good wife. We were married for many years. What happened was, I was asked to run for the City Council. Walt encouraged it. He said that would make me an insider and we wouldn’t have to pay off so many people. It was a part-time job. I continued to work at the bank. Walt was right. Our little side business really got humming after that. The money rolled in.”
“You were going to tell me what happened with you and Sonya.”
“Right. What happened was, I was elected mayor. Nice position. Good pay for a part-time job. Other bennies too. I was able to help other people. One day this blond honey comes to me, needs a favor, see? It wasn’t exactly above-board according to the municipal code. I told her that. She said if I could swing it she would be very grateful to me. I did and she was. Only problem was, my wife found out about us. She threatened to divorce me.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“I didn’t like it. She’d been a good wife. She should have been a little more flexible, you know what I mean? After all, I’d been mostly faithful to her. We got into a pissing contest and she hired a lawyer.”
“Did you get divorced?”
“I didn’t want to for reasons I told you before. Couldn’t have her lawyer nosing into my personal business. Well, once again, fate intervened. There was a place on the Palos Verdes Peninsula we liked to go. Do you know Palos Verdes?”
“Yes. It’s on a hill and it’s got a lot of cliffs.”
“Right. There was a place we liked to drive to that overlooked the ocean—we could watch for whales and stuff like that. The gray whales migrate past there each year, going south, and then going north with their babies. I took her there in the Porsche, trying to patch things up between us. As I said, I didn’t want a divorce. We sat in the car above a cliff at sunset, watching the sun sinking like a golden ball majestically into the sea. God, I’m a friggin’ poet.
“I got out of the car for a minute. It was in neutral but I swear I always put the hand brake on. I don’t know what happened but it started rolling toward the cliff. Sonya screamed but she couldn’t get the door open in time to jump out. I ran after the car, but of course you can’t stop a moving car with your bare hands. It was awful when it when over the cliff. I can still hear Sonya’s screams. Haunt my dreams, sometimes. And I lost my Porsche. That car was a classic.”
“You seem more upset about losing the Porsche than losing your wife.”
“Well, that’s a crock. But it was a beautiful car. I’d kept it in perfect condition for many years. However, I had a pretty good policy on Sonya’s life. I was able to upgrade to this car.”
“It must have been a very good policy if you were able to upgrade to a Ferrari.”
“It was. And I got a deal on it. Amazing what you can swing when you’re a mayor. When are the fuckin’ police coming? I’m bleeding like a stuck pig.”
“Soon. They’re almost here. Tell me what happened after that.”
Thompson was feeling weak. He struggled to talk. “The blond girl I told you about—her name was Sassy. Kind of a silly name for a woman, I think. But it fits her because she can be a silly girl. Anyway, I married her. Of course, she was younger than I was, but I figured at that time in my life I deserved her.”
“So she was your trophy wife?”
“I don’t like to call her that. But I have to confess she’s kind of dumb. Beautiful but dumb. Long on looks and short on brains.”
“Are you still married to her?”
“I am. However, I recently met this other chick named Robin. She’s beautiful and she’s smart.”
“Are you thinking about divorcing Sassy?”
“Well, I’ve told you the problems. I can’t really do that. The guys in my position who got divorced have gone through hell and been taken to the cleaners. I’ve made a study of it. I don’t want it to happen to me. I’m too smart to let that happen.”
“Maybe fate will intervene like it did with your other wives.”
Thompson gave a feeble laugh. “That would really be a miracle. But who knows? Miracles do happen. I do have a large insurance policy on her life. Only one problem. Some damn agency is investigating me. Me. After all these years.”
“Tell me, how did you get in the situation you’re in now? How did this accident happen?”
“I can’t really remember. I was driving along the freeway to visit Robin; beautiful California Saturday, everything was going great, when this semi cut in front of me. I-I put on the brakes…I tried to put on the brakes.”
Thompson suddenly remembered what had happened. “When I pressed the brake pedal, nothing happened. I couldn’t stop. I was in the right lane, so I swerved to the right. I hit the back of the truck and went up the embankment beside the freeway. Then it’s just a jumble in my mind, but I think I hit a concrete bridge support or something. I remember…flying through the air. For a couple of seconds I thought I was a bird. Then I came down to earth and ended up like this.”
“I’m in deep shit. I really need help. Can’t you do something?” Thompson hated to beg, but his situation was getting desperate.
“I already did.”
“What? What did you do?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see. I have blood in my eyes.”
“Who do you know who’s a broad with a silly name?”
“Don’t play games with me. My God. No. It can’t be. Sassy, is that you?”
“Good guess, Craig. Maybe you should be on Jeopardy.”
“But…but…you were going to the hairdresser this morning.”
“That’s what I told you, yes. That’s what dumb blonds do. They go to the hairdresser. But I had a premonition that something was going to happen to you, so I followed you in the Mercedes.”
“My brakes! Did you…?”
“How could I do anything to your brakes? I’m just a dumb blond. But I did manage to check on some things. Your life insurance policy is paid up. And I know where all the assets are. I’ve had some help from a sweet financial guy named Marvin. He’s got great buns.”
“That bastard? He’s supposed to be my friend. Sassy. Look, I love you. I need help. I would never do anything to hurt you. Please help me.”
“Of course you need help, Craig. You’ve always been good at getting the help you needed. Just like you’ve always been good at getting everything you wanted, including all the women you wanted. I’ll go and get you some help. Sit tight. Or should I say, hang tight? Ha ha. You didn’t know I was smart enough to be a comedian, did you? Ta ta.”
“Sassy. Sassy, are you there?” She was gone. Thompson couldn’t see anything. He listened for noises that would tell him help was coming, but his senses were shutting down. He had always been lucky. Help was sure to come. He had to hang on a few minutes longer. Hang tight, like Sassy had said. She did have a sense of humor. She wasn’t so dumb, after all. Maybe he’d keep her. Of course he would. She was…what was the word? They’d be happy together. Hang on. Just a few more…