It was 6:15 Sunday morning when I picked up Sammy, an old grade school buddy, from the converted garage in which he lived behind my mom’s house. We were headed for Pacific Palisades, where a half-finished paint job awaited us. I had another job to start Monday morning, so I was trying to stay on schedule. Sammy? He was late with this month’s rent.
“Want some coffee?” With one hand I poured myself a cup from the thermos; with the other I steered my pick-up over the Pasadena streets still wet from last night’s rain. The dark skies over the mountains and surrounding areas looked foreboding.
Sammy shook his head. He didn’t look well, slumped down in the seat, his black, walrus mustache, two-day-old beard, and droopy, bloodshot eyes peeking out from the hood of his paint-splattered sweatshirt.
“No.” He sniffed. “I god a co’d and I’m gonna miss the Raiders’ game. Why do you always hab to work on the weekends?” He rested his head back against the head rest.
“There’s aspirin in the glove compartment.”
I got on the 210 freeway and headed west to the 134. Even without traffic, we had a forty-five minute drive, so I was speeding a little, checking the rearview mirror for CHPs. “What’s the spread on today’s game?” I sipped the steamy coffee.
“Raiders plus six-and-a-hapf.” Sammy coughed. “Oh-h. My troad is killing me.”
I gave him a cough drop from the box in my jacket pocket. I was getting over a cold myself. “The Raiders stink. They won’t even beat the spread.” The rain-soaked sod of the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum would offer no home field advantage today.
“How much?” Sammy loved to gamble, even if he had no money.
We bumped knuckles, just as a camouflage-painted SUV sped by us on the left, doing about seventy-five. The four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee sprayed water from the wet concrete onto my windshield.
“Whad’s their rush?” Sammy complained.
I flipped on the wipers. On back of the Jeep, a bumper sticker read: “Army Reserve.”
“Weekend warriors. Formerly. Now probably headed for Iraq or Afghanistan. Bummer.”
Sammy took out a piece of toilet paper from the pocket of his overalls and blew his nose. “I god this from you, ya know.” He sat back and closed his heavy eyelids.
“It’s flu season.” It started to rain lightly, so I left on the wipers. “Just your turn, bro.” I turned on the radio to an old Nirvana jam—“Teen Spirit”—and turned it up.
Sammy reached over and turned it down. “Do you mind? I’m trying to sleeb.” He shoved his hands defiantly into the pouch of his sweatshirt and closed his eyes again.
“Hey, what’s that?” I pointed over the steering wheel.
Up ahead, a smoke-like mist rose from the wet freeway and brake lights flashed red from the few slowing cars. I slowed, too, and turned off the radio. In the far left lane, a black Camaro with a large dent in its fender was stopped sideways. A teenage guy got out of the driver’s side. On the right, the camouflage Jeep was upside down on its roof, having spun to a stop against the freeway guardrail. It was impossible to see its occupants through the fogged windows, so I pulled over to the right.
“Hey! What are you stobbing for?” Sammy asked.
I got out of my truck and ran back through the light rain. Traffic had already started to back up, with everyone wanting to see what had happened as they cruised slowly past the crash scene. When I reached the Jeep, a crew-cut young man in Army fatigues was already crawling out the broken back window. Blood ran down his face. I got down on my knees to help him. As he crawled out, I could see another soldier upside down in the passenger seat, trying to undo the seatbelt that harnessed him to what was now the ceiling. I climbed in over the shattered safety glass. But before I could reach him, he got the seatbelt unfastened and fell on the roof, which was now the floor. I grabbed his arm and pulled him, backing over the shattered glass and out through the back window. A siren grew louder. I leaned him against the upside down Jeep. There was no blood on his face or Desert Camouflage Uniform, but he sure looked dazed.
Sammy walked up behind me. “Is he okay?”
“I don’t know.”
An ambulance with flashing lights stopped behind the Jeep. Two paramedics jumped out. One ran to the bleeding driver, who sat against the concrete wall that had prevented the Jeep from sliding off the freeway and onto the on-ramp below. The other, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and carrying an Emergency medical bag, ran toward us. He already had on rubber gloves.
“Get back,” he told me. “Let him breath.” He took hold of the soldier’s arm and checked his eyes. “Any headache? Nausea?”
Sammy grabbed my arm. “Led’s ged outta here before the cobs show up.”
He was right. We could already hear their sirens distantly approaching. I didn’t have time for the million-and-one questions the police would ask—we had our own job to do—so we headed back to the truck and both fastened our seatbelts before I drove back onto the freeway for Pacific Palisades.
Sammy coughed again, then shook his head. “Wow. ‘Dat was weird.”
“Yeah.” I turned the radio back on. The palm of my hand was sore from leaning on the shattered safety glass, so I rubbed it on my damp Levis.
Sammy took the crumpled toilet paper from the pocket of his overalls and blew his nose again. “I hade it when you dribe fast.”
Outside, the light rain continued to fall, as the wipers—back and forth—slapped the raindrops off my windshield. Hell, I was only doing sixty. But Sammy was right again—because it suddenly felt much faster.
© Copyright 2010 Mark Barkawitz. All rights reserved
Mark Barkawitz has earned local and national awards for his fiction, poetry, essay, and screenwriting. His work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, anthologies, underground ‘zines, and is posted on numerous websites. He wrote the screenplay for the feature film, “Turn of the Blade” (NorthStar Ent., ’95) and has taught creative writing classes at the community college level. He coaches a championship track team of student/athletes and ran the 2001 L.A. Marathon in 3:44:42. He lives with his wife, has two kids, and breeds golden retrievers (Woof Goldens) in his backyard in Pasadena, CA.