Bird and Whaler Street Race
By Emily Coon
“In tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Edie felt like she was going to puke before the race even started. Standing at the side of the road, she cupped her hands under her cantaloupe belly and swayed, choking bile back down. Peg-legged and pregnant, there’s a laugh. She balanced on her homemade prosthetic.
Trash pockmarked the gulleys five miles up from the state highway on Skunk Hollow Road. It was senior year, the last dusk of Memorial Day weekend, first street race of summer. Bonfire smoke suffused the air. Lite beer and bottled strawberry daiquiri mix, stolen from parents, sweated in closed coolers in the backs of pickups.
Brandon turned the key, revved his engine. On his keychain, a foam cow defecated brown pellets as he squeezed it with sweaty palms. It made a constipated mooing sound. He looked across the starting line, where the pavement turned to dirt, at A.J, who leaned on his elbow out his driver’s side window to talk to his friends. Brandon’s chest tightened every time he slapped A.J. on the ass as they walked into the dugout: pitcher, catcher. Sometimes, at night in his room, he got a semi thinking about the pileups they had — all the guys on top of one another after a championship game. Grossed-out, he torrented girl gangbangs and watched them until he fell asleep.
“Hello dudes! This is the Whaler, going around the world! Tell them to address all future letters to the Atlantic Ocean, fool!” Brandon broadcast from a mike mounted to the top of his car. Usually he used it to catcall women, with his friends, in downtown Burlington on the weekends.
On one shoulder of the road, A.J.’s friends gave Brandon’s friends the side-eye. A.J.’s friends repped Sunnyside — his more-drunks-than-dads neighborhood down the back of the big hill past the elementary school. Brandon’s side returned the glares: Edie with her baby-belly pressed against her pink tank top, the fat pair of Fandon twins with the steel-toed boots they used to kick ankles in class. One twin yanked on the other’s long beard. Marcus adjusted his camo cap and hooted at A.J.
Brandon found the can of beer that was in the cupholder in the center console, fondled the rim, and took a swig. He revved his engine again. Where the hell was Michelle? Let’s go already! He looked out over the course: a straight slope downward into the valley, with a sharp turn near the finish line. The curve hugged a white boulder two guys’ tall, spraypainted with winking eyes and pursed lips, nicknamed the White Whale.
Skunk Hollow’s been a point of debate in Bethel for close to thirty years: to pave it or to leave it dirt. Old people needed something to argue about. Yesterday, machines had graded the road. Scattered gravel made for more exciting racing. A.J.’s car (Pequod, nicknamed Whaler due to A.J. being a fatty) was blue, with racing stripes down the side; on the left, Brandon’s car (Albatross, nicknamed Bird due to Brandon being a thin guy with high, hollow cheekbones). A.J.’s weird little sister, an assistant clerk at the town library, named the cars. Albatross was a white rustbucket traced with long reddened channels, handpainted to cover up the rust spots, with a thick spoiler made from the trunk of a maple. Brandon poured his summer little-league-umpire money into this car. After a night shift unpacking toys for a chain store, A.J. bought a donut and deposited his own earnings into a special bank account.
“Earth to Michelle, earth to Michelle, come in Michelle. Michelle, where are ya? Miiiiichelle, we need ya!” Brandon broadcast over his mike.
Edie gave Brandon a wan smile, but he was looking away. He had told her after he pulled out that he’d been wearing a condom, but it was broken. Are you going to be like my dad, she said, a deadbeat? Real shocker. Leave your kid here to grow up alone. I was just telling my friends they have to stop calling me a queer now, he’d said. Look at how I made you come. She hadn’t, just squirmed, uncomfortable.
Michelle waltzed out from the woods, flicking her roach into the drainage ditch. Her muddy rainboots left splattered leg under her denim cutoffs. She stood in the middle of the road and waited for the assembled kids to make some noise. After a few seconds, she pitched her arm high, then swept down the flag: part of a flannel shirt tied to a stick. With that, the race was on.
A.J. mashed his accelerator to the floor and pulled away, spattering gravel over Brandon’s pockmarked windshield. As A.J. peeled off, Brandon glanced at the portrait photo of his grandfather tucked in-between the inside part of the windshield and the dashboard. Grandpa liked a good race. Brandon’s muffler rattled, the exhaust spewing from the line.
Once the cars were off, their friends ran toward the finish. Edie tried to run, then stopped and walked.
As they flew down the slope, Brandon shifted into a higher gear, his foot on the clutch. A field strewn with Morgan horses stretched away on his righthand side. As he rode by, some of the horses lumbered along with the car. One chesnut horse tried to keep pace. Her sturdy chest muscles flexed in the sunlight, her hooves outstretched as she ran. She tossed her head and buckled down, sprinted alongside the electric fence.
As Brandon kept his hands steady on the wheel, his stomach twisted. What to do this summer, after he turned eighteen. His parents already sat him down in the living room, which reeked of secondhand cigarette smoke, to tell him that he was on his own after his birthday. Maybe he’d finally get out of here, back only on weekends maybe to check on Edie and the kid. Out there, at sea, and long absent from home. See ya, shitheads.
A.J. rammed the accelerator. He caught up to Brandon. Then, he rolled down his passenger side window.
“You think you’re better than me?” he said. “Better than me, huh? Well I’ll show you, you motherfucker! I’ll show you who’s boss now!”
Brandon rolled down his drivers’ side window, strained to hear. Ears perked for an insult that could spur excitement; a fight. Most of it lost over the engines.
Another few long seconds.
“Yeah well your mom’s so fat that when she gets into the pool everybody says ‘Ship ahoy, have you seen the white whale?’”
Brandon’s epithets also lost in the roar, pounding surf. They sped on.
Something fell off of the bottom of Brandon’s car. A large metal tube, connected to a smaller tube. The muffler and exhaust. Smaller pieces rolled off of it into the dirt. Didn’t he need that? As the dust cleared and the assembled friends could see up the road, dread sprouted in their bellies. The girls screaming for Brandon fell silent, then took up screaming again.
Edie watched as the horse running next to Brandon’s car turned and sprinted in the other direction. Some kind of omen. She paused, hugged her arms to her chest. The smallest things are meaningful, she thought.
A.J.’s car slowed as he hit the just-graded washboard potholes on his side of the road: thump thump thump thump. Made your teeth chatter. Just behind Brandon, catching up. Almost to the finish line. Now just gotta take this curve, a little slower, then speed up for the finish.
Just before the curve around the boulder, Brandon started veering back and forth. He’d pulled shit like this before: heading straight toward the White Whale, scaring everyone, then pulling out of the way at the last second. But this time was different. He kept his foot on the pedal and held his hands up in a V. Fists wound tight as clocksprings.
A.J. looked over. “Watch out, dude! Watch out, Brandon! Slow down!” He honked his horn, beep beep beep bebeep beeeeep.
Brandon flipped him off. The gravel caught under his tires, spinning, spinning.
Brake-screech and smash, Brandon’s car an accordion against the White Whale. Then the awful silence.
A.J. slammed on his brakes, then they locked and he went off the road and rolled twice, three times, barbed wire from the pasture caught in the axle of his car. Still conscious, he hung dazed, suspended upside-down in his seatbelt, staring at the backsides of the fleeing horses.
Edie turned and puked on Michelle. Her vomit pooled inside Michelle’s rainboots. Michelle took her boot off, tried to shake it out.
As Brandon faded from consciousness, he listened to the throaty noises of contented chickens, a neighbor’s thwack of axe on wood. He imagined the big, white whale, gliding through the depths of the dark ocean. His engine clicked as it cooled.
I’m out of here, he thought.