Dead Last

 

For Jacel and Karen, sacadoras de almas

 

"The game is done! Iíve won! Iíve won!"

Quoth she, and whistles thrice"

-- The Ancient Mariner

 

The law dogs in the pit at Albany Motor Speedway hike themselves and spit, pivoting on one foot like it was nailed to the asphalt, eyeing each other sideways. This is the practice run for the Celebrity Legend Auto Race at Albany Motor Speedway. Head honchos of the APD, DCP, DNR, GSP and Lee and Dougherty Co. Sheriffs Departments, plus me.

Itís for the Special Olympics, the law dogs tell the media, good clean fun, heh, heh. We donít care who wins, but I know better. DCP Chief Kicklighter has taught me to tell when a man is lying, and these cops are lying to the man. At practice they circle the track like theyíre mowing the lawn. When the start-flag drops, theyíll all have blood in their eyes. There ainít nobody more turf protective than a sheriff or police chief, unless itís a DA or the head of the DNR.

"Iíd feel a heap better it was a Crown Vic instead of a clown car," Kicklighter confides. "We all need to just make a couple of circles and be careful not to skin up Paffordís cars." He saws his eyes, indicating he may not be telling the truth."

"I couldnít agree more," lies Jamil Saba, Dougherty County sheriff.

"Weíll drive safely and courteously to set a good public example," Chief Bobby Johnson adds, gazing at the toe of his Wingtip. A lie detector would come alive like a seismograph on Mt. Helen.

Breeden nods, tugging his earlobe and gnawing his bottom lip, a sure signal of mendacity. DA Ken Hodges doesnít say a word, but heís dressed in an expensive racing suit covered with flags and patches. Ashley Darley is nearby on a grassy knoll watching the competition with binoculars.

"Hereís what I want you to do," I tell Tim Pafford, racetrack manager. "Interview everybody and add a newcomer, a deputy named Dick Lawlessóa buddy from Lakeland. After the interviews, Dick and I will forget something, meet Skip Pannell in the tech shack. Iíll put on "Dickís" racing suit and dress a pro in my helmet and cape. Heíll take my car, come up from dead last." I hook my thumbs in my belt and put on my best dirt-track voice, "Lap everybody and whup they ass." Iíll drive the Lawless car and hep box in Frank Farley."

"Heís the one to watch," Pafford agrees. "Heís been out here practicing for two months." Farley heads the Georgia State Patrol station on US 19.

Skip, owner of Skip Pannell Racing, is the pro Iíve asked to drive for me. Skip, whoís been racing since he was a kid, likes the idea. "What the heck," he says. "Itís all in fun." The idea came to me when I was naturally drawn to the prettiest blond woman at the track. Before I could open my mouth, A husky guy in an orange jumpsuit showed up to ask me what I wanted with his wife. "Iím looking for Skip,í I stuttered, reading his name patch. The cops asked me to race just to make them look good, I rationalize. Somebody to stick in there so none of them will have to come in dead last.

"Let me get this straight," Pannell says. "I just have to drive my own car and win?"

"All you got to do is wait for me in the tech-shack., put on my jumpsuit, and suck the po-lice up the tailpipe of the car with BULLET MAN decals on the door, yes your car decorated like mine." I show him the cape my friend Mary Hood made for the race. It has a silver glitter underside with BULLET MAN lettered big across the camouflage back.

"Bullet man?"

"Yeah, thatís me."

"We donít have enough cars," says Tim Pafford.

"I could ask Brian Reynolds to lend us Dirty Bird," says Skip. "He might if Iím the one driving, but I ainít wearing that cape."

"Just wear it to the car and hand it to the cheerleader with the big hair and gold-heel boots. Everybody will think youíre me, anyway," I assure him.

"Cheerleader?" says Tim.

"Theyíll find out who I am if I win the race," Skip worries.

"Naw, weíll keep our helmets on, rush back to the tech-shack, change back. Iíll come out and accept the prize. Nobody will catch on to a thing."

"Thereís no prize. This is for charity, but Iím just worried about my cars," Tim admits. "You already crashed one Legend against the wall practicing."

"That was due to mechanical malfunction," I explain. "The tie-rod broke and the car drifted wide." When I told head mechanic Jacky Powell a broken tie rod caused the crash, he sighed, wiping his forehead with the back of his knuckles. "Happens all the time. You reckon the front wheels come off before you hit the wall too?"

"A loose wheel couldíve caused the drift," I say, "a freak accident."

"It drifted to the tune of $700 in parts," he informs me.

"Thatís racing," I say. Craig Mathis taught me to say that. Of course I wasnít going to drive his car. Ken Hodges would be driving Craigís racer. "With Skip driving the BULLET, I wonít have to hard-charge, hunker down, or raise hell. I can just stroke it in the BIG DICK LAWLESS car, enjoy the spectacle."

"Big Dick?" In thirty seconds the appellation has accrued an adjectival addition. It will be "Tricky Dick" by Saturday morning and "Dirty Dick" in time for the race.

"I canít afford another crash. These cars cost $12,000." Tim is still reluctant to let me back on the track at all.

"We got to do something to jazz this up," I advise him. "Nobody wants to watch a bunch of cops circle a track."

"Itís for the Special Olympics," he offers., a charity race. Just 10 laps."

"All the more reason," I assure him. "The celebrity race needs to be special."

"Iíd rather Skip race than you," Pafford admits.

"Oh, Iíll race too," I say. "Iíll wear Big Dickís overalls and drive his car."

"Whoís providing Big Dickís car?" says Tim.

"You, but Iíll just follow the pack in drafting position, riding the vacuum until I can make my move."

Pafford thinks it over. "I would like to see Frankís face when BULLET MAN laps him, but if you drive another one of my cars, I donít want you making moves. Just stay on the inside behind everybody else, as far as you can get from that wall."

Lee County sheriff Harold Breeden, who learned to drive running Georgia moonshine when he was 14, is slated for poll position. Heís the favorite, but Farley has been practicing obsessively. State troopers have a reputation of speed to uphold.

"The cops will feel better about Skip beating them instead of me," I add. "You know how sensitive they are about their driving."

Tim and Skip study me with raised eyebrows. "You werenít ever figuring to win, were you?" Tim asks.

"Well, itís possible. Skip here gave me a crash course, a lot of good tips. I mean, why not? It ainít over till itís over, right. Itís dog eat dog out there, and anything can happen."

"Crash course?"

"Sure," I wink, "like power sliding, hard-charging, and rooting them out of the groove."

Skip says, "I told him to get behind somebody and keep turning left Ďtil he passes a checkered flag."

As we rumble from the pit to the lineup, my cheerleaders jump like frogs, waving checkered and American flags. Mary Hood, the accomplished novelist, has journeyed from Woodstock to be my head cheerleader. She wears gold-heel boots and a silver chain bandoleer with a whiskbroom and a bottle of Windex attached at the sag. She has big blond hair and a cordon lettered MISS GOODWENCH. The other cheerleaders wear Bullet Man T- shirts with my picture sketched on the front. The Bennett sisters, Ashley and Catherine, kick up their pretty legs with Kimberly Hammond. Dana Gill, Skipís daughter, works for the DAís office. Her place on my team should undermine Kenís morale. I try to draft Martha Kicklighter but she backs away. Bethany Hannah, chosen for her voluptuous figure and precarious English grades, represents Dartonís student body, as do Karen and Jacel, whom Iíve T-shirted and placed with Terri Moncus, my favorite nurse, in the stands. Itís a good thing Iíll be going too fast to see my cheerleaders. (name and describe cheerleaders) All the girls wear silver antenna and metallic sunglasses. All flash Pepsodent smiles and distort my T-shirt portrait in different ways, making it jiggle, flap, stretch, lump, wobble, or face the sky.

When the cops line up to race, only one man is absolutely satisfied. Howíd Breeden get poll position. The other law dogs rolled their eyes, except Jamil, who sits stoically beside him on the front row. Everybody, including Jamil, is unhappy with the lineup, which violates some secret pecking order of police, whatever that is. Kicklighter is behind Breeden with his bottom lip poked out and Bobby Johnson by him snarling in the outside lane. Ken and Ashley make the next row, followed by Steve "Dirty Dick" Ellis and "Flying" Frank Farley. Iím dead last according to plan.

Of course, at the end of the race everybody will say they came up into the finish from dead last. Crammed in a kid-sized racer without rearview mirrors, unable to turn their heads to see behind them, everybody but Breeden and Saba will claim they came up from dead last, or near enough. "My damn!" exclaims Kicklighter as we get out of our cars to be presented to the crowd, "they Ďre starting me off nearbout dead last."

During the introductions, passing the microphone and standing together in the floodlights, the law dogs act humble, pretending noncombative fellowship, shaking hands, patting shoulders, nodding affable as pigeons, but I know better. Each lawman has figured a way to fix this race. Theyíve made private deals, alliances and pacts to be honored only in the coincidental event of self-serving expediency, to box in, buy off, team tag, wall out, cut off, bump, squeeze in, bully, cajole, blackmail, coerce and root from the groove. Arm in arm, they seal schemes and hammer home last minute bargains out the sides of their mouth as they grin like barracudas, lean and hungry, for the photographers. Itís down to the nut cutting, down to the wire. Ken Hodges is smiling like he just sent somebody to the electric chair.

Iím not about to let them get away with it. Dead last is the story of my life, even when I get a two-week head start. I was born with a silver spoon and Iíll be lucky to buy daisies when the VA buries me. Of course with Skip driving my car, this story is going to have a different endingóthey picked the wrong whipping boy this time. I set the stage, running my mouth to the crowd about how Iíve been outrunning the police and the DNR all my life, just never on a track. I even try to bet Ken Hodges, $100 my car will beat his. Ken drives Craig Mathisí racer and wears that gaudy racing suit. Heís got everything Iíve always wanted: position, youth, fancy overalls and beautiful women working for him. I hate his guts and canít wait to watch the BULLET eat his ass alive.

While the police are individually politicking, I locate Dirty Dick and give him a wink. He looks at me like Iím either crazy or heterosexually challenged. Nobody has told him we are supposed to sneak into Tech-shack together and take off our clothes. "When we getting together?" I whisper.

"Who are you?"

"Bullet Man," I wink. "Whereís Skip?

"Skip who?" Steve dons his helmet, shaking his head.

"DRIVERS, START YOUR ENGINES!" the loudspeaker blasts. The night explodes into deafening flatulent, blasts of unmuffled racers.

"Oh shit!" I exclaim stuffing myself into the souped-up clown car with Bullet Man decals, the only unmanned car on the track . "Somebody screwed up." I put on my helmet, but canít squeeze through the doorway with it on. I take it off and Craig stuffs me in. Thereís hardly room for my cape, which he wads up and packs in behind the back of my neck .

We rev our engines and the referee drops the flag. Just then it occurs to me in a flash of fear and horror that Iím the one whoíll drive the Bullet. Somebody blundered. Oh shit. Oh no. Skip is nowhere around.

As soon as I touch the gas, my car wangs off like a slingshot. Whoa! and before I can find the brakes for the curve, Iíve passed everybody but Harold Breeden and Jamil. Of course, this is the pace lap. Weíre supposed to stay in position, but I havenít bothered to listen to the rules. DCP Chief William R. Kicklighter doesnít understand pace laps. We are neck and neck when a red flag stops the race and the officials put us back into positions. "My damn!" Kicklighter will later complain, "if I jumped the light, everbody did. They put me back at dead last with Bobby. They left Harold and Jamil up front. "My damn," he will say again and again. "My damn!"

The green flag starts us off again, and Kicklighter and I jump position again, this time even more determined to avoid dead last. This time the officials give up on us, although a black flag tries to pull me over as I careen by. Whatís a black flag? Did somebody die? I see yellow flags, checkered flags, Confederate flags and American flags too, but some of the flags, I realize, are brandished by Bullet Man cheerleaders, the only girls on the field.

We squall around the first curve, tires smoking. Iím hugging the inside, well away from the wall. In the straightaway I realize my car, the one Skip borrowed from Brian, is a heap faster than the other racers, except maybe for the DAís. Nobody has let the air out of my tires to slow me down or screwed bite into the left rear wheel to keep it from spinning out. I get a little manic, I confess it, when I feel the power surging under my ass. I realize for the first time in my life Iím chasing cops. Aw right! I give the Bullet a goose in the straightaway, passing Kicklighter and zipping up alongside Jamil going into the curve, but I miss the brake, sideswiping the sheriff, swapping paint and nudging him out, screaming like an eagle as I splash into the infield, spinning rooster tails of muddy water. I lurch back onto asphalt in a power slide that causes Bobby Johnson to slam on brakes to keep from killing us both and everybody behind us, jamming the pack and rendering impotent any threat from the rear.

I pull away, my tailpipe farting a mist of gray mud. Iím humming with adrenaline, caught in a pure, brave moment. I lose myself in the thrill of competition and before I know it Iíve got a clear field. I look back to watch Ashley Darley spin out and see that Harold Breeden and the pack that follows him is behind me now. Howíd that happen? Who cares? I did it! My cape gets sucked out the window and goes to flapping. I think I have a flat tire, but I scream past my cheerleaders, a blur of glitter and flags, and keep on keeping on. I moan win, I tell myself. I moan win.

Breeden and the others are pushing me hard as I squall through the final curve and cross the finish line, the checkered flag waving behind me. Hooray, hoorah. I jump from the Bullet as it rolls to a stop. I sling my helmet bouncing across the track and take some bows, flipping my cape behind me, The others stand by, pivoting on one foot, arguing like guineas among themselves as they smile for the crowd like insurance salesmen passing gallstones. I gallump past the bickering to the winnerís circle, where a crowd circles Breeden and Hodges, making a fuss over second and third, I guess. I approach grinning modestly, anxious to be a generous winner but not past rubbing Kenís face in a little crow pie. I elbow into the circle, but Harold, Ken, and Frank Farley shoulder me out. "Whatís going on?" I ask Tim Pafford. "Didnít you see me win?"

They lapped you," Tim said. "You came in dead last. Well, except for Darley, who spun out. Ashley mustíve got confused with everybody going the same way." According to Jeff Swift, his assistant, Ashley learned to drive competitively playing "chicken" with other DNR officers in the woods with their headlights extinguished.

The Lee County sheriff accepts victory cutting his eyes guiltily as heís surrounded by mumbling, disgruntled lawmen. "Ken Hodges rammed me from behind," protests Jamil Saba. "Iíve got a potential whiplash suit here," he tells Craig Mathis, whoís afraid to take the case since Hodges is the DA and Hodges drove Craigís car. Afraid not to because, well, Jamil is the sheriff. Kicklighter protests he was unduly penalized him for jumping position during the pace lap. "Pace lap? My damn. Whatís that?"

"You saw me win?" I shout to Bill Kicklighter. "I rooted Jamil from the groove!í

"You? I was way ahead of you," Bill brays, "and they started me off dead last! This is flimflam and Iím fixing to register a complaint.! My damn!"

Any hint of a moral lesson in my misadventure with the law dogs would indicate itís not wise to try to outrun the police, especially when they are hell bent on outrunning each other. Youíd have to see to believe the extent of repressed aggression that builds up when you take a lawman from a motorcycle, a cruiser, or a horse and tether him to a desk. Pitted against each other and unleashed on a race track, they make a feeding frenzy of requiem sharks look like lambs foraging on a hill. Gentle Jekylls transform to hellish Hydes, and any unsteeled civilian who ventures foolishly among them in the name of good clean sport can expect to finish dead last.

(end)

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