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Notes from the Midnight Driver



Boop. Boop. Boop.


I’m sitting next to the old man’s bed, watching the bright green line spike and jiggle across the screen of his heart monitor. Just a couple of days ago, those little mountains on the monitor were floating from left to right in perfect order, but now they’re jangling and jerking like maddened hand puppets.


I know that, some time soon, the boops will become one long beep, the mountains will crumble into a flat line, and I will be finished with my work here.


I will be free.





Last September


I. Gnome Run


It seemed like a good idea at the time. Yes, I know everybody says that – but I’m serious. As insane as it looks in retrospect, I was fully convinced on that particular Friday evening last September that stealing my mom’s car and storming my dad’s house was a brilliant plan. And not brilliant, as in, “That was a brilliant answer you gave in Spanish today.” I mean brilliant, as in, “Wow, Einstein, when you came up with that relativity thing, and it revolutionized our entire conception of space and time while also leading all of humankind into the nuclear age, that was brilliant!”


The plan had a certain elegant simplicity, too. I would drink one more pint of Dad’s old vodka, grab Mom’s spare car keys, jump into the Dodge, and fire that sucker up. Then I would speed through the deserted, moonlit streets, straight and true as a homing missile, or at least straight and true as a sober person who actually knew how to drive. When I skidded triumphantly into Dad’s driveway, I would leap nimbly from the car, race to the front door, ring the bell with a fury rarely encountered by any bell, anywhere – and catch my father with the no-good homewrecking wench who was once, in a forgotten life we used to have, my third-grade teacher.


Okay, perhaps these plans would theoretically work better if the planner were not already completely intoxicated. But I’d never gotten drunk before – so how was I supposed to know I’d get so smashed so quickly? And hey, if my mom had really wanted to keep me from driving drunk without a license at age sixteen, would she have gone out on a date and left me home with a car, a liquor cabinet, and some keys?


I rest my case.


So I downed some more booze straight from the bottle and lunged for the key ring, grabbing it by the wooden number one I had made for my “Number One Mom” in Cub Scouts. I threw on my Yankees jacket, slammed my way out of the house, got into the car and started it. Then I believe there was some drama with the gear stick and the parking brake, and probably a bit of fun with the gas pedal.


The next thing I knew, I was hanging out the passenger door, puking up vodka and Ring Dings. When I got my eyes sort of focused, I could see that the car was up on a lawn. When I got them even more focused, I could see that my last salvo of vomit had completely splattered two shiny black objects – the well-polished shoes of one angry police officer. He yanked me out of the car, largely by the hair, and stood me up. I remember him saying, “Look at that! Look what you did.” I also remember trying to follow his pointing finger. And when I finally zoomed in on what was lying in front of the car, I couldn’t believe it. There was a detached head about ten feet in front of the bumper!


The cop sort of puppet-marched me up to the horrific scene and forced my head down close to the carnage. This head was seriously injured, to be sure. It was upside down, smushed up against a tree stump. There was no body in sight. I whirled around so fast that the cop almost lost hold of me, and crouched to look under Mom’s car. Sure enough, an arm and a leg were sticking out from underneath the left front wheel.


“Officer, sir, did I – is he – is – ummm . . .”


I could feel the tears welling up. My eyes burned, and the next wave of acid was coming up my throat in a hurry.


“Yes, Son. You ruined my brand new shoes, smashed up your car, and decapitated Mrs. Wilson’s French lawn gnome. You’re in some serious . . .”


“Lawn gnome? LAWN GNOME?”


Now that I looked a bit more closely, I noticed that the head wasn’t bleeding, and that the ear had cracked off with inhuman neatness. I began to laugh like an idiot, but my relief came too late to halt my barf, which came out mostly through my nose – and landed on the officer’s left side, all over his walkie-talkie.


This was even more of a crack-up. I started mumbling, “Walkie-talkie-barfie, walkie-talkie-barfie,” which amused me almost all the way to the police station. You would think I’d have been pretty scared by this point, but because I had drunk so much vodka, so fast, I was still getting drunker by the second. Even with my hands cuffed behind my back – and the cuffs were REALLY tight, because the officer hadn’t been enjoying me much so far – I was like a little one-man house party in the back seat of the cruiser. The last thing I remember was getting bored of the dispatch radio, and shouting, “Change the station! Get me some ROCK!” Then the car turned a sharp corner, and the window was tilting and rushing towards my face.


You know what must really be a highlight of being a desk cop? Processing the arrests of drunk people. After several of my new pals in blue dragged me semi-conscious (I mean, I was semi-conscious; they were pretty alert) into the station, they left me cuffed to a scuffed-up old wooden seat across from some old guy with a badge. I decided his name was Sarge. He had that fingerprinting pad thing and a bunch of questions for me, and didn’t waste any time easing into things.


“Right thumb.”


I stared at the weaving, bobbing blurs that had replaced my hands, trying to figure out which was which. “I can’t find the right one; they’re too bloody.”


Sure enough, they were, because I had a cut over my left eye, which must have been hidden from view beneath my adorable mop of hair. Sarge apparently saw the blood, but not the source, because he sighed one of those big annoyed sighs that public servants make when they are forced to do actual work, reached into his desk, and pulled out a pack of wet wipes. “Geez, you must’a really banged your nose. Get your hands cleaned up, kid. I’ll be back in a minute. By the way, Genius, your right hand is the one that ain’t chained to the desk.”


He walked away to get a cup of coffee or whatever. I got my hands clean, then reached my free hand up to wipe the hair out of my eyes. Which got it all gory again. I repeated this at least three times, creating an impressive pile of crumbled, deep-pink-stained wipes. Then I got the marvy idea that maybe I could just wipe the blood off of my head first. I pushed my hair all the way up off my forehead, the alcohol-soaked wipe touched my wound, and I sobered up REAL fast, just as Sarge was putting his cup of steaming liquid on the desk blotter.


“Ooooowwwww!” I screamed. Up I jumped. Up jumped my arm. Up jumped the handcuff. Up jumped the desk. Up flew the coffee.


“Ooooowwwww!” screamed Sarge. Sarge was wet!


Eventually the sodden mass of paper, blood, wipes, and coffee was disposed of by a guy in rubber gloves. Sarge found a new pair of pants, and came back. He took a really long look at my forehead, the mixture of blood, snot, and tears that was flowing freely across my facial features, and the moist abstract painting that had been his desk blotter, and decided to use a trick which always works for my Dad: he would make me Somebody Else’s Problem.


Sarge shouted across the room, “Call me an ambulance!”


I couldn’t stop myself: “OK, you’re an ambulance!”


And so it went, until the paramedics accidentally banged my head against the doorway of the emergency room, and I passed out for good.

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