Chuck’s challenge for the week: The car chase.
The fact is, I am not that thrilled with car chases. All they ever seem like is another tool to demonstrate how clever the chasee is and how inept the chasers are, and usually that’s just a big game of cops and robbers but with explosions and smashed fruit stands and millions of dollars in collateral damage. So I tried something a little different, a sort of Walter Mitty glimpse inside a familiar scenario.
The Bag Man
Wednesday mornings are the best. I get left alone most of the time, only occasionally getting called upon to fetch this or that. Mostly I hang around trying to dig up dirt on the neighborhood offenders, a couple of crazy cats that like to loiter around and cause trouble for the locals. Makes me sick, really. Dunno why they can’t keep that stuff in their own neighborhood. It’s sort of a little game we have: one of them will set up shop in a shady spot until they see me coming, and then they just bolt. Truth be told, I don’t know what I’d do if I caught one of ’em, but I chase ’em to send the message: this is my turf, not yours. But before too long they hop a fence or scramble up a fire escape or something, and well, I’m not in the shape I once was, so that’s usually the end of that. I can’t help but get the sense that they’re laughing at me, but this is my turf — it’s not like I’m going to STOP chasing down the no-goodniks.
But there are none of them hanging around this morning, which is good. Leaves me undistracted so I can focus on the big kahuna.
I’ve been chasing this guy for years, but I’ve never truly had a good chance at catching him. He always catches me unawares, showing up and dropping off packages for his associates, and clearing out before I can question him. He doesn’t wait around for payment, so I’m guessing he’s just some sort of bag man for some even bigger, more sinister syndicate operating right under my nose. I’ll hear the roar of his engine as I’m sitting down for a nice bowl of chow, or while I’m hunkering down for a midday nap, and by the time I can get on the road to look for him, all I can see are his taillights going around the bend. He’s been dodging me for years, and all I’ve got is his vehicle; a flat white truck with blue stripes. Inconspicuous. Blends right in. Vanishes quick.
But not today. Today my superiors have been a little lax with the call-ins, and as a result I’ve been ensconced in this sweet little spot all morning. I’ve got the whole road staked out, from the Johnsons’ place with the absurd little Cupid fountain out front, to the Smiths’ down at the end of the block with that gorgeous picket fence. The kind the neighborhood toughs want to pee all over. Sleepy little town. My town. When this guy rolls through today, he’s gonna feel the heavy weight of justice as I clamp down with my —
Son of a bitch. There he is.
I hear him before I see him, the peppy little coffee-grinder sound of his engine betraying him from around the corner of the Johnsons’ yard with that low-hanging Magnolia tree. He’ll lurch into view, turn this way up the street, and then I’ll have him. And, sure as sunshine, there he is, the boxy front end of his little white truck poking into view, before he makes his move…
He turns down my street and I turn from my post, hopping down from my window seat — its comfortable shape, molded perfectly to my butt, forgotten as I fly into action — and down the stairs. I skid out of control when I hit the linoleum in the diner — they must’ve just waxed — and crash into the kitchen wall with a decidedly unheroic yelp. Not my proudest moment. I spin around in a jiffy, though, and dart for the back door, which crashes open as I barrel through it and bangs shut the moment I am clear. Its clatter sets my teeth on edge as it does every time I give chase, priming me for the hunt.
The truck is almost at the Smiths’ by the time I careen onto the road behind him, my tail end swinging wildly out into the far lane as I fight for traction on the rain-slick asphalt. Then everything catches and I am flying, hurtling through space toward him, his white-paneled exterior growing large in my vision, the absurd red-and-blue eagle taunting me from the back hatch. I see his arm withdraw, empty of packages, and I know it’s him. Another successful drop. The wind of my pursuit flows like fingers through my hair, whistles in my teeth, tastes of paper and diesel and lunch meat on my tongue.
His engine growls and he lurches away from the curb, that tinny grinding sound like a nest of angry bees infuriating me. He’s not getting away, I silently vow, not today. And I am certain that he can hear my growl from behind, because he’s picking up speed, scattering tiny pebbles like living, malevolent marbles and causing me to slip and fall further behind.
He can’t get away. But he’s going to. If he makes the turn onto Oak, he gets away every time. I can’t keep up with him in the open.
I call out for backup, barking out in short, clipped phrases to my colleagues, trying to get them to join the chase — The bag man! He’s on Studebaker Street! I’m in pursuit! — but I know, in my heart of hearts, that nobody will help me this time. I’ve roused them too many times, I’ve made this my own personal crusade, I’ve exhausted them with my tales of my great chases after this guy. I can see them now, elbow-deep in piles of trash looking for leads, asleep at the desks catching a nap before their shifts, lazily munching a snack of congealed bacon and beef from last night’s leftover burgers (probably going bad, but some guys will eat anything). They’ll hear my call, think to themselves, Rufus is at it again, and start laughing, already anticipating my tale of another failed pursuit.
Not this time, boys. I dart forward and just miss his bumper, go sailing into the road as he clips the turn short. An oncoming wood-paneled wagon slams its brakes and skids, its occupant just visible above the wheel, squinting through glasses that make her eyes look somehow twice as big as her head. She stares at me and I shout at her, “Get outta the way!” but she’s frozen behind the dash like a deer that’s just scented a predator, and I have to take to the sidewalk to get around her.
She’s helped this monster get away without even knowing it — Oak Street is a long stretch of straight road, and the white truck has opened up a tremendous gap on me. I slide back onto the asphalt, ignoring the honks of the angry motorists I cut off, and continue halfheartedly down the street. His taillights are tiny in the distance. He’s going to get away, I think, but then his taillights light up like great red eyes, and they stay lit. He’s stopping.
I’m renewed. Adrenaline surges into every inch of me as I open all the way up, cannonballing down the street, shocked motorists swerving aside and shouting out at my passage. He’s only a hundred yards away now. Fifty. I’m actually going to catch him. It’s happening. I can taste my victory. My tongue slides out across my teeth and hangs there.
I close the last twenty yards in a frenzy, sliding in sideways on the glossy black street to block his escape. I stare at him through the windshield, my weapons out, howling at him. Out of the car! He looks out the window, sees me, and jumps in surprise back against the door. Never expected I’d catch you, did you, you lowlife? He looks panicked. His eyes dart from me to his steering wheel, to the traffic stopped all around, onlookers gaping in dumbfounded wonder. I hear the chatter of my colleagues echoing in the background. They can’t believe I’ve done it, and they’re rushing to the scene to get a firsthand look. This is how it’s done, boys.
With a sudden movement, he slips the vehicle into low gear and tries to dart past me into the oncoming lane, but I lurch sideways and head him off. He backs off and tries to take the sidewalk, but I’m there in a flash, shouting at him now louder than ever. His eyes are wide, terrified. I can smell the fear washing off him in waves. He eases his hands off the wheel and holds them up, in the universal “nothing to fear here” gesture.
Horns are sounding all around, people are shouting. This has gone on long enough; they want to get on with their business. I realize, suddenly, that I have never actually thought of what I would do if I caught this man. I can’t kill him. He won’t talk to me — probably doesn’t even speak my language. We stare at each other in silence for a few moments as I decide, as slowly as the leaves turning, that there’s nothing for it. I have to let him go.
It’s enough, I think, that he knows I caught him. That I could catch him again, any time I wanted to. It’s enough that he knows this street belongs to me. It’s enough to let him go, terrified of what might happen next time. I pull my lips back in a snarl and move out of the road to let him pass.
He slides by with terror in his eyes, but he can’t resist having the last word. Through his rolled-down window, he shouts in a tremulous voice full of defeat: “Nice doggy.”
Then his wheels spin and in a spray of mist from the road, he’s driving off into the distance.
I lick my paws, as if this was my plan all along: to catch and dismiss this man. I move to make an explanation, but nobody’s even looking at me now; the cars are just sliding past, moving on with their own respective Wednesdays. I see my colleagues, gathered at the edges of fences, tugging at the ends of their leashes, trying to get a better look. Their faces are a mix of amazement and wonder. I know what they’re thinking. He caught the bag man. It’s enough. I pad back to the house, my head and my tail held high. Smells like lunchtime.