George was half way home from his meeting in Oxford, MS, swerving around a hefty piece of blown out tire, when, up ahead, he saw Bill on the side of Highway 78 leaning against a broken-down, old car. He thought about passing on by, but some lure of former friendship, now that the hard feelings were no longer fresh to him, made him pull over just past the old Buick, tires skidding a little in the gravel. In his rearview mirror, he saw Bill come walking up through the dust halfway between the cars. His shaven head and large hands were dirty. His T-shirt was stained with sweat, rust, and dust. George took a deep breath as he unclasped his seat belt and then opened his door and stepped out into the heat. The expectant, grateful expression on Bill’s face turned into a sour grimace as they regarded each other’s faces from behind sun glasses. The grimace said clearly, even from behind the sunglasses, “It is you, the one that I hate,” but no word actually passed Bill’s lips. He just stood there shaking his head at George’s shorter, broader, pudgy frame.
“You look as if you could use some help,” George observed, offered, moving slowly toward his erstwhile friend. On the ground next to the front, driver’s side wheel was a rusty, old, tire iron/lug wrench combo alongside one of those jacks that works by being ratcheted up in the most cumbersome way possible. There was no spare tire in sight. The tire on that wheel appeared to have had a fairly amazing blowout. Very little of it still clung to the rim, though the rim was not really damaged. Bill must have pulled over as soon as the blowout occurred.
“I’ve got help on the way,” stated Bill, backing away.
Somehow, George doubted that. He paused about ten feet away. He asked, “Are your sure, because I’m here right now aren’t I?”
“I’ve changed a tire before. It’s no problem.”
“An extra pair of hands never hurts. Do you mind if I wait around? If your spare is good, or your other help arrives, I’ll move along. If not, well, I can drop you off somewhere or even bring you back here with a new tire. It’s no big deal. Saturday and all. I’ve nowhere to be just now.”
“No, really, I’m good,” Bill said firmly.
“Alright, then. Well, goodbye.” He was sure that what he said was lost in the rush and roar of a passing tractor trailer. He returned to his car and stood with the door open, tapping his fingers on the roof, then stopping, because the roof was hot. The sun was glaring down.
“Look, Bill,” he began again, “Jahmal’s been trying to get you, but he suspects that your phone has been turned off. He even drove by your house, but it appears that you’ve moved out.”
Bill turned back, his expression astounded. “Why,” he spat out, “What the hell does he want? It’s his fault and your fault that I’ve been evicted, that my phone’s been shut off, my car’s been repossessed, and I’m standing here next to this broken down, old junker on the side of the stinking highway, baking to death.” His voice rose several octaves over the course of this speech, and the last few words were an explosion.
George didn’t flinch. He knew all of that quite well, though he differed on the opinion of whose fault it actually was. He pressed on, “So you don’t really have help on the way?”
“How could I?” asked Bill, shaking his head miserably, his voice settling down some.
George drummed his fingers on the inside of his car door, debating whether to go or stay. He asked, “Do you have a spare in there?” pointing at the Buick’s half open trunk.
Bill shook his head, resentment flowing out of his expression, his posture, and his clenched fist.
“No?” George asked, not sure if Bill was answering his question or just holding back his rage.
“No,” Bill clarified as if it should have been unnecessary to ask.
“You want a ride somewhere?”
“Not from you.”
“Who else have you got?”
Bill looked away, his bitterness etched in every line of his face and form. He watched the traffic passing by, as he had for only he and God knew how long before George came along.
“C’mon, I can’t leave you stranded here. You could die of thirst before a stranger stops to help.”
George observed, “It could be hours, and then who knows how much help it’ll actually be. I may be one of the ones who caught you in the act, but you know me, and you know I’ll stay until this old car is rolling again. You know that.”
Another tractor trailer roared past, drowning out Bill’s response.
“Sorry, what?” George asked, coughing on exhaust fumes, suddenly.
“Do you?” George asked, confused for a moment.
“Do I know that, really, after all you did to me?”
George let the rest go and just stated, “I won’t leave until your car is rolling again.”
Defeated, Bill said, “Alright, let’s go then.”
“Do we need that rim?”
“No, my spare’s at home.”
“Hop in. We’ll go get it.”
Bill walked over to the passenger side door of the BMW and looked at it for a long moment before finally muttering something obscene and getting in.
Once the doors were shut, and some of the highway noise blocked out, it was uncomfortably quiet. George turned on the ignition as Bill buckled up. They didn’t look at one another. George pulled out onto the highway and accelerated quickly.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Memphis first,” said Bill, slouched in his seat and leaning tiredly against the door. He had not bothered to buckle up.
“I suspected that. What part of town?”
“It’s near Knight Arnold and Perkins. I’m renting a place.” The emphasis he placed on “renting” spoke volumes.
After a few moments, George asked, “You want to stop and get something to drink at the next exit?”
“No, I don’t want to be any more in your debt than is absolutely necessary.” Bill wiped the sweat off the top of his head and onto his shirt.
“There’s no debt incurred, but if you’re not thirsty, then fine.”
“Nice car. Nice Beemer,” Bill noted, sarcasm thick in his voice, “Brand new is it?”
“I bought it last month.”
“Work must be going oh so well for you.”
“Business is good.”
A few moments passed in silence, and George wondered if Bill had gone to sleep. They were well past Holly Springs when Bill sat up a little straighter and turned toward him.
“Caught me in the act of what, exactly?” Bill asked, pointedly.
“Absconding with company funds, weren’t you?” said George, not really looking at him.
“No. I was not.”
“Do we have to rehash it?”
“Does it hurt you conscience to talk about what you did?”
George took his eyes off the highway for a moment and pulled off his sunglasses too. Looking right at his former friend, he stated, “What I did was not wrong, so no.”
“Watch the damn road!” Bill barked.
George was edging over into a lane already occupied by a bright orange Volkswagen Beetle. He corrected.
“’Not wrong,’ you say,” Bill continued.
“Do we have to go over it all again? What’s left to be said?”
“A lot. It was my company and my money. I had every right to do with it as I pleased.”
George just shook his head. “If you say so, but Jahmal and the others are really glad that the law was on their side, and me too, having invested a substantial amount of money in your company.”
“I do say so, and just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s right.”
“That is true, but-”
“I’m glad you see it my way. It’s too bad that you didn’t see it that way when you told my employees about my plane ticket to Belize. I trusted you.”
“Your employees trusted you with their livelihoods. Who was I supposed to protect, them or you, your plane ticket, and your suitcase full of cash?” George looked at the highway mile markers. It was about thirty miles from Holly Springs to Memphis and they had over twenty to go yet.
“You were supposed to protect your friend. I thought I was your friend. High school. I’ve known you since high school,” Bill said, acidly.
“Did you ever ask Father John about who should be protected?”
“I didn’t have to. From what I heard, you already had. I had no need of Father John or the church after that.”
“You’ve stopped going to church then?”
“I just said it, didn’t I?”
George let it go, and Bill didn’t say anything for a few moments.
“How about some music?” George suggested.
“Whatever,” responded Bill, staring out the window.
George pushed the power button, and the CD he had turned off halfway between Oxford and Holly Springs came back to life. The soothing sounds of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik started up again. They rode several miles, just listening.
“Beethoven, right?” Bill asked in a voice that said he wasn’t really asking.
George only knew about three other people who could identify classical music and composers with any certainty. One was his wife. The other was his brother. The last was his mother.
“Close. Mozart, actually.”
“Oh. Well, it’s not bad.”
“I’ve always liked it. It’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. I’ve always liked Mozart’s serenades.”
“Right.” Bill resumed staring out the window. Later, when they were passing the first exit for Olive Branch, he spoke up again. “Do you know when it was that I first knew you could be dangerous and unpredictable, even toward an old friend?”
“I wasn’t aware that I am so, but go ahead and tell me,” George responded, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.
“It was the day after we graduated high school, and we were heading down to your uncle’s place near Pickwick. You remember that day?”
“I don’t remember betraying anyone that day or any other day, but go ahead.”
Bill gave a short barking laugh, “You betrayed an old friend. You threw him right out the window. It was that CD with the choral music. All those people singing. The soundtrack to that King Arthur movie. You got annoyed with it for some reason, so you ejected it from the CD player, lowered your window, and tossed it right out onto the highway. It hit another car, shattered on its windshield. The driver swerved and almost crashed. You remember that?”
George had forgotten, but it came back to him. He laughed. “Yes, I do remember, we had to hightail it to get away from those angry rednecks. They waved a shotgun at us, but their truck couldn’t do much over sixty.
“Well, that was when I knew that you could betray an old friend,” Bill stated, his voice thick with emotion, maybe contempt.
“You certainly were laughing about it at the time,” George commented.
“I was, but after I thought about it for a little bit, I remembered how you used to listen to that CD all the time, you almost knew all the words, even though they were in Italian.”
“Latin,” George corrected absently.
“Whatever, but you announced that you’d listened to it a million times and were tired of it, so you threw it out the window and almost go us killed.”
He didn’t know how to respond to the charge. He tried to recall the day more clearly. He had listened to that CD a lot in the year or two prior to tossing it out the window. He couldn’t remember exactly why he threw it out the window, except that he had been in a mood to cut himself off from the past and to move on to things new. It was a sort of symbolic act. He’d just graduated high school after all and said goodbye to a lot of things, whether he wanted to or not. Tossing out the CD had been entirely of his own choosing.
He told Bill, “Look, an old CD and an old friend aren’t the same thing. I’m here now, when you need me, aren’t I, despite what happened?”
“Yeah, right,” Bill said, but he said it sourly.
George glanced at the mile marker on the side of the highway, slowly counting down to the Tennessee state line. There were plenty more to go. Several more of them grew larger before them and receded away in the rearview mirror before they spoke again.
George asked, “Do you mind if we stop by my house for just a few minutes? I need to let folks know that I’m okay.”
“Can’t you just call them?” Bill asked, rousing himself from his sullen silence.
“I would, but the battery died on my phone, and I left my charger in the other car.”
Bill favored him with a yet more sour look. “You didn’t trade that Lexus in when you bought this?”
“No, it never hurts to have a backup vehicle, in case one has to be in the repair shop.” He almost winced. The bitterness in Bill’s voice was palpable to him.
“Must be nice, having business going so well?”
How was he supposed to downplay his good fortune in the sight of a man who had lost almost everything? He swallowed back his resentment, and didn’t mention to Bill how lucky he was not to have done jail time for his crime. I should have driven on by, he thought.
He only said aloud, “Yes, it’s going quite well. Speaking of business. The reason Jahmal’s been trying to get a hold of you is that he wonders if you want some freelance work, if you’re not too busy.”
Bill let out another short, bark of laughter. “I’m on government assistance, George. I’ve nothing but time.”
“Well, then do you want me to tell Jahmal that you’re interested?”
Shortly, Bill answered, “I don’t know if I want his scraps.”
“He says no one knows the systems better than the guy who first designed them. He’s past hard feelings and wants to know if you’d be interested. You can name your price.”
“Tell him, I’ll think about it. He shouldn’t hold his breath though.”
“May I tell him how to contact you?”
“I’ll think about it.”
George let it drop. It seemed an intolerably long time before they drove into the city limits and finally arrived in Bill’s new neighborhood. Their only conversation consisted of Bill giving directions as necessary. His curt “Next left,” and “First right,” and “Stop here,” left George cold and annoyed. They arrived at a house on a dead end street. The paint was peeling. The yard was full of weeds. The neighborhood wasn’t really that bad, but there were a lot of properties that had “for rent” or “for sale” signs in the yards. As Bill stepped out and fetched the spare from among the weeds in his front yard, George wondered why the spare wasn’t in the trunk and contemplated just driving off. He’d given his word though, so as Bill hefted the spare and approached the car, he pressed the button that popped the trunk and jerked a thumb toward the rear of the car. Bill didn’t nod, but went straight to the trunk, tossing the spare in and slamming the lid with more force than was required. George was about to start the engine again, but Bill strode past holding up one finger, “Wait just a minute, old pal,” he said.
George rolled down the windows and sat, waiting, drumming his fingers. Moments later, Bill came out his house with a plastic cup in hand, swigging something down. The cup had no lid, and George bit his annoyance back. Bill got back in, saying nothing, taking another drink. George turned the ignition, and they proceeded on their way.
When they were most of the way to his house, Bill asked him, “How’re the wife and kid?”
“Martha’s fine. She’s thinking about going back to work, now that Becky is starting middle school.”
“You don’t make enough money for the three of you?” Bill asked sarcastically.
George ignored the sarcasm. He thought he was getting to be pretty good at ignoring these comments. “She just always liked her work and wants to do it again.”
“Good for her.” Bill took a long drink then set his empty cup in a cup holder in the console between the seats.
They arrived at George’s house just a little later. George pulled the BMW into the drive and said to Bill, “I’ll be back in just a moment.”
“What? I’m not allowed in?”
“I’ll only be a moment, but come in.”
They proceeded up to the front door, George wishing he had been able to warn Martha about their visitor. He opened the outer door as noisily as he could without being obvious about it and took his time with the key in the lock of the inner door. Martha was there before he had taken two steps inside their spacious entry hall.
“Has your phone been off? I was wondering when you would get in.” Her eyes flicked over him and then over Bill, narrowing warily, full of questions.
George wanted to say, “Guess what the cat dragged in,” but thought it would be a bit more than Bill’s mood could take, so he just said, by way of explanation, “Bill’s had a tire blow out down on highway 78, but lucky thing, I was driving by.”
“Hello,” said Bill, smiling but letting his face tell her that he was a wronged man, all the same.
“Hi,” she said, carefully.
“We’re heading back to change his tire, so I’ll be gone for another hour or so,” George explained further.
“Why didn’t you call?” she asked.
“My phone died, dear.”
“You left your car charger in the Lexus. I told you not to forget it.”
“I know you did, dear.”
“Well, if you going to be helping change a tire, you should change into some appropriate clothes.”
They started toward the living room. Bill stood behind, with his hands in the pockets of his grubby pants, looking about. From the living room, there came the sound of a book closing, following immediately by the sound of running feet, and little Becky trotted up, having torn herself away from what she was reading.
“Daddy!” she cried out.
As George reached out and ruffled her hair, she threw her arms around his waist. At the same time, Bill stepped up with a big smile on his face and his arms spreading wide for a hug.
“Hey there, Beck-a-Beck,” he said, grinning, “long time, no see.”
Becky’s mouth opened in surprise, and she took a step away. Bill let his arms drop and his mouth turn back into the thin, angry line it had been before.
“Dad,” said Becky, “I thought you said-”
“Becky,” interrupted Martha, “show Bill into the living room and be a good hostess.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Becky. Bill, an eyebrow briefly flared up, followed her into the living room.
George changed his clothes as fast as he ever had and was back in the living room in four minutes flat, having briefly explained further to Martha when she returned from the garage with his car charger for his cell phone. He kissed her his thanks and all but ran to the living room, slowing down to compose himself just before entering. Bill was sitting on the sofa alone. An expression more sour than any George had seen adorn his face yet was set upon him as though carven in stone. Becky was returning from the kitchen, a glass of fruit punch in her hand.
“Here,” she said offering it to Bill, “just like old times.” She was making a good show of it, but Bill rose without taking the glass.
He glanced at George, favoring him with that thin-lipped anger, and said, “If you’re ready, we should go.”
George patted his daughter on the shoulder. “I’ll be back in an hour or two,” he told her.
They returned to the car and drove away, George waving to his wife and daughter who stood in the doorway waving back.
“You turned your daughter against me,” Bill declared.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You told her I was a bad person.”
“Yes,” Bill contradicted vehemently.
“Sweet Jesus, Bill, I told her – back during the law suit – I told her not to speak to you if she saw you, but that was because you said some pretty awful things about her and Martha back then. Hell, you said that you hoped my house burned down with me and my two whores in it, remember? And you called me and them every name in the book.”
Bill scoffed, “No, I was only angry at you. I cussed about Jahmal’s family. You don’t remember right. I’ve always loved your little girl, whatever you did to me. I can’t believe you turned Becky against me.”
George stared at him in disbelief.
“Watch the damn road!” Bill barked.
George corrected, almost swerving into another car.
There was naught but icy silence for miles.
Eventually, George felt compelled to add something, “I invested in your company,” he said, “Some of that money you were taking to Belize for you ‘business opportunity’ was mine.”
“You said you didn’t care if you ever got it back, just so long as I made a good go of the business. You said that, because we were friends since high school.”
“Oh, sweet mother of God. An honest go of it, Bill. A good, honest go of it was fine. Cutting and running off to Belize with your investor’s money, no warning, and leaving your employees to rot didn’t qualify in that category.”
Bill turned in his seat, livid, “I explained it and explained it and explained it,” he said, “My employees were disrespectful and always complained behind my back. They didn’t deserve my respect in return. I saw an opportunity, and I tried to take it. I’d have made your investment pay, given the opportunity.”
“A few personality conflicts aren’t a good enough reason to have families lose their livelihoods and homes, which is what would have happened if you had gotten away with it. Where was your conscience, man?”
Bill fumed for several seconds, then stated, “They had it coming.”
“For men who wronged you so and had it coming, they’re awfully forgiving. Jahmal’s offer is serious.”
“I don’t require forgiveness, and you can forget my forgiving all of you. Some things are unforgiveable.”
“Oh, come on. In the first place, nothing is unforgiveable, and in the second place, we weren’t in the wrong by any standard but yours.”
Bill said nothing but sat there with his eyes boring into George.
He really does hate me, George thought.
There was silence for several minutes.
“Are you just going to pass on by?” Bill asked, “That’s my car over there.”
“Turning around at the exit,” George explained.
Bill sat turned in his seat, back pressed against the door, continuing to stare daggers at George until George had made it onto the exit ramp, passed over the highway, gotten back on heading west, and pulled up behind Bill’s Buick.
Before he had turned the car off, or even really come to a full stop, Bill was already slamming the passenger door and stalking to the rear of the car. George took a deep breath, lowered the windows, and took the key out of the ignition, noting that his hand was shaking with rage. There was an impatient knocking of knuckles on his trunk. In the rearview, he saw Bill waiting angrily, throwing his arms up in a gesture that eloquently stated his grievances. Would he have to wait forever in the heat for George to open the trunk? George hit the button that popped the trunk open and barely squashed the urge to put the key back into the ignition and drive off. Instead, he stepped out of the car and went to help his very erstwhile friend change a tire.
Bill hefted the tire out of the trunk, slung it angrily over a shoulder and swept righteously past toward his Buick. He dropped the tire to the ground, cursed as it started to bounce away into the passing traffic, and caught it. George stood back, seeing no reason to get close to the tantrum. Bill glanced George’s way.
“You really don’t need to stick around. I’ve got it from here,” he announced.
He lined the holes up and then, with a violent shove, tried to put the new rim on the wheel.
The result was fairly spectacular and quite worthy of the day the man had been having thus far. It reminded George of Bill’s, and his own, juvenile fits of anger from high school. The car shuddered slightly with the impact of the spare. It slid slowly off the jack, and Bill, cursing more, tried to catch it, the car, the spare, the jack, all of it. Somehow, his right hand ended up under the spare tire rather than anything else. Predictably, Bill, howling with pain and frustration, leapt up, his inarticulate roars gradually turning to barely articulate curses. Shaking his head, George approached.
“It could’ve happened to anyone,” he said, keeping private his real thoughts, that it happened this way only to angry stooges. He added, “Wrap something around that hand to stop the bleeding, while I see if I can’t jack this car up again.”
Bill’s hand was scraped up, and he had pieces of sand and gravel stuck to it. He opened a door on his car and yanked out a dirty shirt, which he wrapped around his hand. The cussing was getting on George’s nerves. Bill had always used a lot of bad language, but the use had sunk to new lows. George went to his own trunk, sweating in the heat now, and got his own jack out. He headed back to the Buick and found a spot to place it and got to work with Bill standing behind him. In a few minutes, he had the Buick elevated appropriately and leaned back on his heels for a second, realizing how much he needed more exercise than he was getting these days.
He asked, conversationally, “How is it that turning thirty-something slows a man down so much? I feel winded just from using this jack.”
Bill, still standing behind him, didn’t answer, so George kept working. He pulled the spare over and lined it up. Carefully he placed it on the studs and began screwing the lug nuts on, one at a time, just hand tight. Maybe Bill hadn’t heard because of the passing traffic on the highway.
“I haven’t changed a tire in years, but I guess one never forgets how. It’s kind of like riding a bike, huh?” George asked. There was no answer. He asked, “How about that wrench now?”
Still, Bill was not answering. George turned his head and looked at the man. He was standing there in the sunlight and the dust, sweat running off his shaven head down his nose. He was holding the rusty old tire iron/lug nut wrench in his bloody, wrapped-up, right hand, slowly patting the wrench end into the palm of his left hand. His eyes were fixed on George in a way that left George very unsettled.
After a moment enduring that fixed, glaring stare, George asked, “You okay there, pal?” Why am I pretending, he thought, we are not pals, anymore.
“Just don’t move a muscle, George,” said Bill, harshly, “Just don’t give me a reason, okay?”
George grunted, his eyes flicking back and forth between Bill’s wide, fixed, staring eyes and the lug nut wrench patting rhythmically into Bill’s left palm.
“I suddenly know how you felt, George,” Bill stated in that harsh voice.
“How’s that?” George started to ask, but had to stop and clear his throat.
“When you held me in your power, George, when you decided not to trust me, decided to discard me like an old CD that had started to bore you.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” George said, keeping an eye on that lug nut wrench.
“Did you decide to swat me, because you were afraid I’d be more successful than you? I don’t know if I’ll ever understand your reasoning for it. Was it because you had to choose between Jamahl and me, because we weren’t getting along, and you always preferred the new to the old?”
“You were stealing from us,” George said, his eyes following that lug nut wrench up and down, in and out of Bill’s palm, making a slight, patting sound that barely carried to his ears, what with the noise of passing cars and trucks.
“Don’t you say that! That isn’t it. We were friends since high school. Loyal! Don’t give me that high and mighty crap! Friends stick together right or wrong, remember? It wasn’t about the money. You said the money didn’t matter. I would have paid you back if at all possible. You knew that. You knew that!”
“I never wanted to do it, Bill,” he said, “but what choice did I have? It was because you were stealing.”
“I said don’t give me that damned crap! It’s a lie. A lie. No, it was because you never understood friendship.” Bill brandished the tool in his hands like a weapon, holding it over George’s head.
He’s going to swing that thing at me, George thought, he’s going to try and kill me. Why did I ever stop? Why didn’t I drive away once he got the spare out of the trunk. I never knew he could be like this, but I guess I should have known.
He realized that his legs were so cramped and stiff, he’d never be able to run. Somehow, I’ll have to fight him. Kill the SOB if I have to. I have to get home to Martha and Becky again.
The two of them, both breathing hard, were poised for a moment. The one a taller, leaner, fitter man with the high ground and the sun gleaming off his sweating pate, the other a shorter, fatter, out of shape little man, his skin already burning, unaccustomed as it was to the sun. George prepared to stand or roll away or ward off a blow, but suddenly Bill went back to patting the lug nut wrench into his palm again.
“Why’d you do it to me, George? Was it because it felt so good to hold someone else in your power? Damn, it feels good. It feels better than sex to have your life in my hands right now. You always did like a power trip, didn’t you? Always had to be right. Always had to be in control. Now, I know how it feels. Now, I understand. Getting some of my own back. This is why you did it, dispensed with that music you loved, so you’d be in control. You couldn’t be loyal to anything, because that gives it power over you. Is that why you control your wife and daughter to the extent that you tell them who they can and cannot befriend? So you are in command and they can have no hold on you? What’s a little money between friends, huh, George? Got rid of me on that pretense so you’d be in control, just for the damned power trip.”
“No,” George protested, suddenly as much bemused as frightened and angry, “It’s just that you were stealing from us.”
“You haven’t even got the decency or sense to ask forgiveness even now,” raged Bill, shaking his head, “What you did was unforgiveable. You betrayed a friend. It may be too late, because I will never forgive you, but you could at least have the decency to admit it right now, when you might die here on the side of the stinking highway.”
Bill paused his tirade, fuming, breathing hard, staring at George, who stared back, eyes wide, breathing hard himself, wondering if he had any chance to fight back from the position he was in.
Bill began again, “This is how it feels to be on the receiving end of someone else’s power trip, George,” Bill stated, “You’ll never forget it. Nothing you did to me can ever undo this moment, this humiliation you’re enduring right now, and the only thing keeping me from spilling your brains on the side of the road here is the fact that you’ll have to live with this moment engraved in your memory until you die.”
With that, Bill walked around the old Buick to the driver’s side door, got in, turned the ignition over, put the car in gear, and pealed out, spraying George, who was stiffly trying to rise off his knees, with sand, gravel, and dust. Staggering away, George fell against the hot hood of his own car. After a moment, shaking with the adrenaline rush, he got into his Beemer and started the engine, desperate for some air conditioning. He stared at the abandoned jacks. One of them was his. Both were somewhat smashed by being run over. He got out and collected his anyway, tossing it onto the passenger seat as he got back in.
“He’s was just wrong about it all,” he said aloud, wondering why he was talking aloud to himself. “I guess one feels the need to be expansive and dramatic after something like that,” he mused, trying to decide if he was angrier, more bitter, or just glad to still be alive. Suddenly he laughed, “I guess I should be grateful to have escaped that and be able to go home.”
But, he waited until the shaking stopped before putting the car in gear and getting onto the highway. He pulled the BMW out into traffic and quickly got up to highway speed, feeling his breathing easing, and his pulse slowing. The mile markers enlarged and receded, and he watched them going by, thinking of things he should have said in response to Bill’s accusations and assertions.
He was halfway between Holly Springs and Memphis, swerving around a wheel lying loose in the middle of the highway, when he saw Bill on the shoulder, leaning against the broken-down, old Buick. He didn’t even think about stopping, not even to deliver the searing retorts he had thought up in the last few minutes. It wasn’t due to hard feelings so much as his sense of self-preservation and a sure knowledge that he just didn’t know how to help. Their eyes didn’t meet, but he saw Bill’s head turn as he drove past. In his rearview mirror, he saw Bill raising his arm and extending the middle finger of his right hand. Bill, in his self-righteous wrath, had swept right on past the fact that the lug nuts on the spare tire and wheel were only tightened down by George’s pudgy fingers. Before his thoughts turned fully toward his wife and daughter, George asked aloud, shaking his head and running his fingers through his hair, “How could he have been so wrong?”