A dead deer in the shoulder should always be taken as a bad omen, and a reminder of how in an instant, life can be permanently altered—especially when you fly by the carcass at 94mph en route to New York City from Vermont. Unfortunately for Cal, he was passed out drunk in the passenger seat when his driver with a couple screws loose, McKinley, changed three lanes without signaling and narrowly avoided clipping the maggot-laced deer as Cal’s car drifted into the shoulder.
The rumble strips shook the car violently, and McKinley swerved back into the slow lane. Cal woke up to the sounds of Howlin’ Wolf singing, “I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat just crossed my trail.”
“Well look who’s up,” said McKinley, staring at Cal. He looked back at the road, and then again at Cal. “I thought you would be out the whole ride.”
“Huh, wuh. Where are we?” asked Cal.
“About three hours outside of New York City.” McKinley took a swig from a bottle of water and handed it to Cal. “Here, drink up. You need to rehydrate. You’re a real mess, you know that, Quinton?”
Cal drank from the bottle, the water getting more and more refreshing as it poured down his throat. He pulled the bottle from his lips to catch his breath and then finished it off.
“What are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about? Jesus, man, don’t try to flip it around. You’re the one, who managed to get pulled over on bike. A fucking bicycle!” McKinley laughed and went on, “I found you lying on the bathroom floor in your underwear. It was a bitch getting you dressed and in the car. I felt like I was dealing with a toddler.”
Confusion washed over Cal’s face for a second, and after rubbing the gunk from his freshly opened eyes, it all came back to him.
He had just finished a long afternoon and early evening of drinking on Willard St. After getting spotted a slice of overwhelmingly stinky California weed, Cal made his way out of his friend’s house. The uneven stairs, which were steep enough to almost be a ladder, claimed yet another victim—its fifth that day. Well, five and a half if you count the girl that Cal nearly took with him as he caught the edge of a step with his heel and tumbled down the last six. She shot him a dirty look, and he mumbled something that resembled an apology.
The cool breeze brought a slight clarity of mind, but not enough to remember the nearly empty fifth of gin in his backpack and the bag of weed in his front pocket. With his bike unlocked, he set off towards his apartment, a 2.8 mile ride, which was all downhill. Music blared from his tiny portable speaker, and before long he was in that zone where one becomes invincible and the world is theirs, if only for a brief moment.
Pedaling in sync to the rhythms of his tunes, Cal soon realized there was a motorcycle riding alongside him. He figured it would move past him soon, but when that didn’t happen he looked over at the hefty man driving next to him.
“YOU’RE DOING THIRTY MILES PER HOUR!” yelled the man. “GOOD JOB!”
The motorcycle sped off, but the man’s words of encouragement only worked to psych Cal up. His legs began churning faster as he flipped the bike into high gear, each rotation bringing him closer and closer to going as fast as he always wanted to on a bike.
But all good things come to an end, and red and blue flashing lights appeared behind him. Still pedaling like a lunatic, Cal inched as far into the shoulder as possible, grasping the handle bars to maintain control as the tires of his road bike kicked up gravel and glass.
With each second, the anxiety grew and Cal was forced to scrub speed and tap the brake. The cop wouldn’t pass and Cal began waving him past while yelling, “Go around! Go around!”
As he looked back, he noticed the blinding menace creeping up on his back tire. No fucking way, he thought.
Cal eased his bike to a halt and placed one foot on the ground as he frantically worked to turn off his music before the officer made his way up to him. He succeeded, but soon smelt the pot in his pocket, its scent pungently floating freely in the crisp autumn air. And in that short moment, a vision of the gin appeared in his head, followed by the realization that it’s all too possible to get a DUI on a bike.
When the cop stood beside him, he asked what cops usually ask, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
And for once Cal had no idea. “No, sir, I don’t.”
“You were doing forty miles per hour.”
Call it panic, call it being drunk, call it a combo of both, but Cal neglected to mention his bike lacks a speedometer.
“Isn’t the speed limit thirty five?” he asked.
“You’re not in trouble,” said the officer, “but you were doing forty miles per hour on bike. I thought you should know that.”
“Ok, get home safe.”
The officer turned and walked back to his car, stopping for a second as Cal’s music turned back on and he pedaled off.
“Cal. Cal?” asked McKinley. “You fucking going sideways on me again?”
“Nah, nah. Just waking up, you know?”
“Yea, well I should tell you something.”
“Promise not to freak out, ok?”
“Wait, why? What did you do?”
“Calm down, man. You’re already freaking out.”
“Of course, I’m going to freak out when you start out by saying, ‘Promise not to freak out.’ Tell me already.”
“Ok, ok. So that bottle of water you chugged had two tabs of acid in it.”
“What! Are you fucking kidding me, man? Are you fucking kidding me? Pull over, pull over, pull over.”
“I really don’t see what good pull…”
“Pull the fuck over!”
McKinley slowed down, edging the car far into the shoulder. Cal rushed outside and hopped over a guard rail. He stuck his finger down his throat and began dry heaving.
“Hey man,” yelled McKinley from the car. “Dude! That shit’s probably absorbed by now. No need to make yourself throw up.”
Cal turned back around, his eyes glassy and his gag reflex contracting in his throat, “Fuck you.”
“Aww c’mon, man. You drank it so fast I didn’t have a chance to warn you. Get back in the car, I drank one of those too. I’d like to get to New York before it hits me.”
Cal walked towards the car in an angered hurry, “You drank one of those? What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you trying to get us killed? If you crash my car you’re paying for it.”
“That’s why you should get in the car. These are precious minutes, man. Each second we’re not driving, I’m closer to total loss of my senses. Besides, it’s Halloween. Let’s have a little fun.”
Cal got back in and closed the door. “I would like nothing more than to strangle you right now.”
“I love you too, buddy.”
The pair drove on in conversational silence, the only noise being the mix of Howlin’ Wolf and Hendrix that McKinley had dug out of Cal’s seat. McKinely kept sucking on his lip while Cal watched the glimmering dotted white lines.
“How long does this stuff usually take?” asked Cal.
“Depends,” said McKinley.
“Are you feeling it?”
“The fucking acid, man,” snapped Cal. “What else would I be asking about? The breeze?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“Wait, ‘Maybe, you’re feeling it,’ or ‘Maybe I might be asking about the breeze’?”
“Maybe you were asking about the breeze.”
“All right, I’m just going to stop talking.”
“That’s cool,” said McKinley as he turned up the volume on the radio as the song Machine Gun came on. “Yo! Listen to this song. It’s going to blow your mind.”
“I know Machine Gun very well. And I’d appreciate it if this time you didn’t make the guitar sounds with your mouth every time he plays the part that sounds like a machine gun.”
“Dude, I fucking rip it on the mouth solo.”
“You sound like you have a strange speech impediment.”
“All right, whatever, just shut up and ease back and listen to the wizardly alien known as Hendrix.”
They arrived in the city just around midnight. Cal had been examining the lines in his hand for the last hour of the ride, and McKinley kept making popping sounds with his mouth.
“All right, enough of this shit,” said McKinley as he pulled over to a curb.
“I don’t think we can park here,” said Cal nervously.
“What? Why? I just did.”
“But there’s a fire hydrant.”
“Here, watch. I got this.”
McKinley got out of the car and walked over to a pile of trash, grabbing a tall cardboard box. Cal watched in amazement as McKinley slipped the box over the top of the hydrant.
“Problem solved,” said McKinley to Cal through his closed passenger window.
“I feel sludgy,” said Cal.
“You look sludgy,” replied McKinley. “Come on, get out of the car. You can’t just sit there all day.”
“Give me a second. I just got here.”
“Oh ok, you just want to take in the sights of this parking spot? Come on you freak, let’s go. Come on, come on, come on.”
“ALL RIGHT!” boomed Cal. “Jesus Jewbag Christ, man. You ever hear of this magical thing called patience?”
“Jesus Jewbag Christ? Really?”
“I don’t know, man, it just flowed out of me.”
The two began laughing, and the laughter followed them down the street about two blocks before Cal finally got his bearings.
“Hey, do you have the keys?” he asked.
“No, I thought you did.”
Cal turned and sprinted back towards his car, which was still running with the passenger door left open. He grabbed the keys, locked the car, and made his way back towards McKinley, who sprinted one block and then decided to stop for a bag of hot nuts.
“Every time I come to the city in the Fall, I always smell these nuts and they always smell so good,” he said while chewing the sugar glazed almonds. “I never get ‘em, but today I did. I did and I’m happy.”
“I’m happy for you,” said Cal. “Now I feel really tingly and warm and everything seems to be breathing, but I feel like we’re here for a reason. But I don’t know that reason. Do you know the reason?”
McKinley picked a chunk of nut out of his tooth before answering. “Do you know the reason for anything? No, right? I mean, we’re here. We can go to those protests on Wall St. if you want?”
“Yea, let’s go to where every cop in the city is and chant Marxist slogans about the bourgeoisie and proletariats. Then we can get a nice falafel and shit in a bucket.”
“Shit, man, that’s harsh.”
“Sorry, but I don’t want to go to a protest. I don’t even know why I let you take me and my car to New York City.”
“You were pretty drunk, honestly. People do weird things when they’re drunk.”
“Listen, let’s go to the MoMA or something.”
“Yeahhhhhhh. Now you’re thinking!”
“Wait, there’s no way they’re open this late.”
“Fuck it, let’s just go. Maybe they got something for Halloween or whatever.”
Cal and McKinley walked for an hour before realizing they had completely lost track of where they were going. They soon found themselves on a dark street, with smoke rising from the manholes. A group of zombies emerged up ahead. Well, a group of drunk kids dressed like zombies. They were stumbling, and their voices were inaudible from a distance, breaking into a jumbled mess.
“You don’t think?” asked McKinley.
“Can’t be real zombies. No way, no how.”
“I don’t know, man. I got a really bad gut feeling about this.”
“I don’t think, I mean, Halloween. Fuck it, run!”
In an all out sprint, they ran for about five minutes before collapsing on the sidewalk where they rolled around laughing.
“I can’t,” McKinley began to say as he tried to catch his breath, “believe we thought they were real zombies.”
As Cal was beginning to respond, a light hit him square in the face.
“What are you two doing?” asked the stern voice coming from behind the light.
Shocked and paranoid, the two didn’t say anything and just laid there like frightened deer.
“You need to get somewhere safe. There are freaks running around the city tonight attacking people,” the man said. “Apparently they’re biting people—all over—necks, arms, genitals. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
The man took his light off of them, and Cal and McKinley saw a lanky police officer with a shit-eating grin plastered across his face.
“Oh man, the look on your faces is priceless,” he said. “I’m just fucking with you. Saw you guys running for your lives, figured I’d see what was wrong.”
“Not cool, man. Not cool,” said McKinley. “I’m not even joking, I think I shit myself a little.”
McKinley and Cal both got up off the pavement, brushing themselves off before facing the prankster cop.
“So what’s wrong?” he asked.
“We thought we saw zombies,” said Cal.
“You thought you saw zombies? You do know this is Halloween.”
The cop’s demeanor shifted from friendly to suspicious at this point, and he flashed the light back on Cal’s face.
“You sure have some big pupils,” he said. “Unusually big.”
The jig was up. They knew he was onto them. They shot the cop panicked blank stares, and in a moment of strange and unspoken solidarity, McKinley and Cal decided to make a run for it. Their hearts raced, and their brain was convinced that as long as they didn’t look back everything would be all right. Just as Cal was starting to hit stride, he felt a quick jab to his back, which sent electricity coursing through his body causing his muscles to seize up. He crashed to the pavement like a comet hitting the Earth. McKinley momentarily considered trying to help his friend, but he decided against it and ran straight to Harlem.
Don’t really know what happened to him after that. Cal spent the night in jail, getting injections of anti-psychoactives. He was the released the following morning, but never did find his car.
written: Oct. 25th, 2011
This short story appears in Life On a Treadmill: The Collected Works of a Successful Failure