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Downhill All the Way

 

By James Boyle

 

 

          Bart Eberle was running right on time. As long as traffic cooperated, he should be able to get to the West side of Eugene by a quarter after 2:00, in plenty of time for his 2:30 interview. He wanted to get there early enough to show he took the opportunity seriously, but not so early that he seemed pathological. It was a fine line.

          Heading west on 126 out of Springfield, he moved into the left lane to pass a little old lady in a Cadillac who seemed terrified by the rain. She was doing just barely over forty. Everyone else around her was driving above the posted speed limit of 55, closer to 65. Bart glanced down at his speedometer, saw he was traveling just a hair above sixty and let up a little on the gas.

          The last thing he needed now was to be stopped for speeding.

          What he needed was something to go right in his life for a change. It had been a tough year. He’d lost his job as a branch manager for a small bank when his company had been bought out by a bigger bank. His position had been deemed redundant. Redundant. He’d devoted fifteen years of his life to that bank, only to be deemed redundant and shown the door. That had been almost nine months ago. Since then, they’d burned through his unemployment and his 401k savings. The bank was threatening to foreclose on the house. They were at least a month behind on all their bills, just scraping enough together to keep the lights on.

          Last night Melinda had let him know that if he didn’t get this job and start bringing in some money she was going to end their marriage. She’d had enough.

          Well, he’d just about had enough too.

          He turned the windshield wipers to high speed as he approached the bridge crossing the Willamette River. The rain was getting thicker, splashing into a three-inch layer of spray just above the pavement. He was used to driving in Oregon monsoons though and remained in the fast lane. He didn’t want to get stuck behind another timid Grandma.

          This job would be the first step of his comeback. It had to be.

          As he crested the hump of the bridge, his car seemed to lurch, stumble even.

          “What the hell?”

          He glanced down at the dash panel and immediately noticed the temperature gauge. The needle was buried in the red.

          “No!” he screamed and slammed a fist on the dashboard, as if that would help.

          It didn’t. The car lurched again, made kind of a whump sound and clattered to a stop, a cloud of steam pouring out from under the hood. He was still in the left lane, the passing, fast lane, on a bridge over the Willamette River.

          Someone honked behind him.

          Bart switched on his hazard lights.

          The honking continued behind him, now with more than one car joining in, like a choir.

          Feeling like he was moving in slow motion, he found his cell phone. He needed to call the company he was interviewing with. He needed to let them know his car had broken down and he would be late, maybe not there at all. He woke up the phone, then watched the display with growing despair. It said “no service.”

          His service provider had cut him off. He was behind on that bill too, but they could have waited until tomorrow.

          Bart set the useless phone on the console of his useless car. It seemed fitting.

          Bart looked up at the flashing red and blue lights filling his car’s interior. The police were here. A glance into the rearview mirror confirmed that a patrol car had taken up a position a couple of car lengths behind him. The officer, wrapped in transparent rain gear, stepped out of the squad car and walked toward him.

          Bart dropped his eyes and waited, keeping his hands in clear view on the steering wheel, just in case. Such a good citizen.

          A few seconds later, he looked over as someone tapped on his window. Bart pushed the button to roll the window down.

          “Good afternoon, sir,” the cop said, rain dripping from the bill of his hat. “Are you okay?”

          “I’m fine. My car isn’t.”

          “Want me to contact AAA for you?”

          “I don’t have AAA,” Bart told him. “I don’t have anything.”

          “We need to get this car off the highway. Do you prefer any particular tow company?”

          Bart shook his head. “I still don’t have any money.”

          The cop peered at him for a moment, nodded once, and tapped his window sill. “Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”

          Bart rolled his window up again. The rain had been cold against the side of his face.

          A few minutes later, a canary yellow tow truck pulled in between his car and the police car. The driver, bundled up in a filthy raincoat the same color as his truck, climbed from the truck’s cab and met the cop on the shoulder. They stood there for a few minutes in the rain, chatting.

          Finally, the cop left the tow truck driver and walked toward Bart’s car.

          Bart rolled down the window as he approached.

          “Okay, sir, this is what we’re going to do,” the cops said. “We need to get your car off the freeway before someone gets killed. This gentleman,” he gestured toward the tow truck. “will tow it to his company’s lot.”

          “I can’t pay for it.”

          “You’ll have to work that out with the tow company.”

          Bart shrugged. There was nothing to “work out.” He had no money. He couldn’t pay for anything.

          “Please step out of the car, so we can get started. You can sit in my car until he’s ready to go.”

          Bart didn’t move.

          “Sir, please step out of the car.”

          Bart stared out the windshield. “I’d prefer not to.”

          “Excuse me?”

          “I’d prefer not to.”

          Before the cop could react, Bart pushed the button again and powered the window back up. The cop tried the outside door handle, but it was locked. He stepped back, away from the car, talking into his shoulder microphone.

          Bart watched the rain falling through his windshield. It was peaceful in a way. The river was hidden by the bridge from where he sat, but he could see the lush foliage of the trees lining the banks. He could even feel the slight flexing of the bridge as traffic passed by on his right, especially the larger trucks.

          Several minutes later, a second squad car arrived and parked behind the first. The second cop walked up to the first and they talked. The tow truck driver had retreated to the cab of his truck. The two cops talked for a while, then both—lead by the second one—turned and walked toward Bart’s car.

          Bart returned his eyes to the rain-drenched scene in front of his car.

          Again, a cop tapped on his window.

          Bart powered it down.

          “I’m Sergeant Ramirez,” the new cop told him. “Officer Brewer tells me you’re refusing to exit your car. Is that true?”

          Bart shrugged.

          “Now why would you do that?”

          “I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of losing.”

          “But sitting here on the freeway is dangerous. Every minute you spend here increases the chance of someone getting killed in an accident.”

          Bart shrugged.

          “Look, I don’t want to forcibly remove you from that car, but I can. This car is a public hazard. People could die. Do you want that?”

          Bart didn’t respond. He couldn’t.

          “What’s going on? You have a bad day?”

          Bart laughed, a short, derisive laugh, that almost sounded like a sob. “I’ve had a bad year. No, I’ve had a bad life and I’m tired of fighting the universe, so I’m just going to sit here and let the universe do what it wants.”

          “Well, see that’s the problem,” the cop said. “I can’t let you do that.”

          “Why not?”

          “Because it’s dangerous.”

          Bart shrugged. “No one has been hurt so far.”

          “I’m not going to debate that with you, but we can talk about the rest. How about we go somewhere dry and talk about it over a cup of coffee? My treat.”

          Bart looked at him. “Can I ask you a question?”

          “Sure.”

          “Are you married?”

          The cop shook his head. “Divorced. Almost two years now.”

          “So, you’re fighting too. Going to work every day, slaving your ass off and never getting anywhere. You’re just fighting. Every day you put on that uniform and fight again. Haven’t you ever wanted to just stop?”

          The cop nodded. “Of course. I think everyone has at one time or another.”

          “So why fight? Why bother?”

          “Well,” the cop paused like he hadn’t really thought about it before. “If I don’t go to work, I’d lose everything. Without a paycheck, how would I feed myself?”

          “And if you break your leg skiing? What happens then?”

          The cop smiled. “Things would get tough.”

          “Exactly. You’re fighting your life away and all your effort evaporates in an instance of bad luck. So, what’s the point?”

          “I understand what you’re saying,” the cop said. “But can you imagine what would happen if everyone just quit working? The entire country would collapse.”

          “Maybe. Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. Maybe the millionaires wouldn’t be quite as rich. Maybe everyone else will just be happier.”

          The cop straightened up.

          Bart turned back to the front and the view out his windshield.

          “I’ll be right back,” the cop said.

          Bart nodded and powered the window back up.

          In the rearview mirror, he watched as the Sergeant walked back to talk again with the original cop. What they were discussing, he didn’t know and didn’t care to guess. He honestly didn’t care. He was done. Finished.

          The rain beat a gentle tattoo on the roof. It was peaceful, calming, almost sleepy. If it weren’t for the cars and trucks flying by on the right, he might have been able to curl up and take a nap.

          Motion drew his eye to the right and he looked over as the Sergeant leaned down and tapped on his passenger window. He mouthed something and made a gesture of turning a handle.

          Bart nodded and pushed the button. The passenger window hummed down. “Unlock the door,” the Sergeant said. “I want to talk some more about what you said, about stopping the fight.”

          Bart pushed the button. The door locks released with a solid thunk. The Sergeant waited for a break in traffic, opened the door and slid into the passenger seat.

          “You agree with what I said?”

          “It made me think,” the Sergeant said, then smoothly reached over to unfasten the clasp to Bart’s seatbelt.

          “What—?”

          The door beside Bart swung open and a pair of strong hands seized him by the upper arm and pulled him out of the car. Before he could react, he slammed face down on the rain-soaked asphalt and laid pinned down by a knee in the small of his back, while handcuffs snapped shut around his wrists. There was no point in resisting.

          “What did I do?”

          “Failure to obey a lawful order,” someone said above him.

          He lay like that for a couple of minutes, ear pressed to the pavement listening to the hum of vehicles crossing the bridge.

          “We’re going to lift you,” another voice—the Sergeant’s, he thought—told him, “until you can get your feet under you.”

          Hands slipped under his arms and lifted him until he could stand on his own. The cops were beside him, one on either side.

          “Are you hurt?” the Sergeant asked.

          “I’m okay.” In truth, his left elbow and hip throbbed. They must have taken the brunt of his fall to the pavement. The front of his shirt and trousers were soaked and smeared with road grime. He would look great at the mythical job interview now.

          In the street, the tow truck driver had begun dragging out the chains he’d use to secure Bart’s car during the tow.

          “Sorry to manhandle you like that,” the Sergeant told him. “You didn’t leave us much choice.”

          “I know.”

          The Sergeant stepped behind him and removed the handcuffs. “Don’t make me regret this.”

          “I won’t.”

          Bart stood in the steady rain and watched as the tow truck driver expertly hooked his car onto the towing lift. The police officers stood watching beside him. He made no further attempt to resist. What was the point?

          Below the bridge, the Willamette River, just audible above the sounds of traffic, flowed on toward the Pacific Ocean as it had for millennia, downhill all the way.

 

 

The End


James Boyle grew up in Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound before moving at sixteen to the Oregon coast. The rain, forests, and restless waters of the Pacific Northwest provide the backdrop and mood for much of his fiction. He has published short fiction in Los Angeles Review and other journals and is the self-published author of seven novels, including his latest: A Game of Shadows. He lives in Gold Beach, Oregon, in the United States, about a hundred yards from the Rogue River and a mile from the Pacific.

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