Guest Posts, Fiction

Jack-in-the-Box

December 10, 2023
car mph

The white car pulls up super close behind me at the light. Kind of a shit car, but hey, this ain’t utopia, we can’t all have fuel cell electric vehicles. It’s California. But in my California, cars space out at lights, often leaving room for a whole nother car between them, like they’re waiting in line at the doctor’s office or the bank and don’t want to intrude on, overhear the private details of whatever condition, slow burning contagion, almost negative balance, or end-of-life indicating pain in the side that has brought them to this crossroads. This guy must think he’s immortal. The driver’s head doesn’t move. What’s his problem? It’s a long light, no use in fighting it.

I open my window, smell cinnamon rolls on the breeze. A crow lands on a power line, inspecting us. There’s a lemon tree by the side of the road. Meyer lemon. The lemons, they look like breasts, they look like testacles, they look like grenades. The light changes. I power the window closed. Two lanes feeding the 101 ease to the left and down the highway entrance ramp. I’m in the right lane on a gradual acceleration. The white car doesn’t pass but stays locked on my bumper.

He’ll get bored with this game. Must be on his phone. Jackass. Maybe girl trouble or something. Or just trusting me not to run into something, keeping an eye on my bumper. Whatever. Yeah, probably girl or boy trouble. Lover trouble. Is it, the thrill is gone or raw jealousy? Poor guy either way. Like is it better to be settled and bored, or in-play and enraged by paranoid visions of infidelity? Apathetic or angry? Coward or paranoid? I’d like to think I don’t know which I am, that by intellectualizing it I can abstract myself from participating in this bullshit.

Still there. 45 mph and climbing. Could it be a woman, driving like that? But I can’t see him– them. It’s a basic white Kia with dark windows. Looks like they’ve got their seat reclined to full blowjob, ball cap on backwards, eyes just over the top of the steering wheel like a kid, like they’re in a swimming pool, raft deflated, or sitting in dad’s lap getting that first driving lesson. How big the steering wheel seemed.

I look ahead. 58 mph. Merge. Hit play. Tune them out. 60 mph now.

It’s a podcast called The 101 on the T-72. The T-72 is a Soviet Era tank still in use by the Russian Army, designed to be light and fast with an autoloader for the big artillery shells in the gun turret. It only takes three men to operate, where American tanks need four– the fourth guy loads the shells– no autoloader in an American tank. Slow American tanks.

I’m at 64 mph. I turn on the adaptive cruise control. Three lanes southbound through rolling brown hills. Other lanes passing. I’m taking my time. Is the moon stealing glances at us through the scattered clouds, or just appearing in the gaps like a zoned-out commuter in a bus window? The California sun heads for Hawaii.

I’ll probably catch the big truck in my lane in a couple of minutes and then draft behind the trailer, cutting my wind resistance, saving more fuel. Mindful driver. Slow exhale. I’d take the bus if it didn’t take three times as long.

The cabin fills with the smell of skunk. I swerve to miss the mangled corpse. Jackass hits it. I don’t know if I’m more annoyed by the lack of compassion, or the lack of self respect.

In the T-72, the autoloader holds the artillery shells in a big ring around the base of the turret. It’s like there’s a hoola-hoop sized necklace of explosives around the gunner’s neck. Talk about going commando, the shells are not separated from the crew by an armored locker like in US and German tanks. These boys have it all out in the open. If one of their own shells is hit when an enemy shot penetrates the Soviet era armor, the shell goes off inside the tank, inside the cabin where the three men are about to say whatever Russians say when they say Shit but don’t get a chance to because all of the shells go off and blow the turret off the top of the T-72. The Ukranians call it the Jack-in-the-Box.

The podcast says the burnout from all of the shells igniting basically vaporizes the Russian crew. Lots of Instagram posts of decapitated, burned out tanks these days. What does it feel like to vaporize someone? Can someone care that much, hate that much, that they could do that to another person with such passion and self-righteousness? Or do they even feel? What is the point of stealing land, of dominating local populations?

I’ve gotta wonder how many of these Russian soldiers are apathetic and would be just as happy to play chess, or drink vodka with their passionate Ukrainian peers instead of becoming steam and smoke and driving up the cost of gas in the world. Do they even know what’s going on? Is being a soldier just a job?

I check the mirror. Still there. My heart hits a bump and another and I put my hand on my chest and then it steadies. I’m not going to let this get to me. Maybe we should just have a vodka and a game of chess. Hah. We can talk about our romantic woes, or basketball, or some universal bullshit like that.

This guy, (it’s gotta be a guy, right?) doesn’t even know me. They can pass. I see the line of their eyes like they’re a tank driver looking through the “vision block,” the small rectangular window at the front of a tank. No mirrors, very little peripheral vision. What’s right in front of them. The target.

When you can control what’s in front of someone, you can control what they think about. It’s like that tank window is designed not to let your mind stray. The generals don’t want any sudden rushes of compassion. I wonder if there are women generals, women tank drivers in the Soviet army. I mean Russian. Are they measurably more or less compassionate than their male counterparts? Someone should do a study.

They pull out, come up next to me, pace me.

Don’t look over, I tell myself. Don’t look over. Pretend not to notice. Goddamn I’m getting sick of this jerk and their jealous rages! Take it out on someone else you fuck!

I flip the bird at the inside of my car door. Yeah, I wave it, wag it, and make that chicken sphincter grimace that says I really mean it. Adrenaline rush!

Then a sudden urge to side swipe, knock them into the next lane! He swipes me back and then I pin the Kia to the cement median, sparks and metal scraping, oh the movies in my head right now. My lips have moved from chicken sphincter to hissing cat, teeth bared and I’m elevated, elated, superhuman, so high on this feeling that I could slam into him. Do it! I look over, poised.

But there’s nothing to see through the blackout film of their passenger window. They probably didn’t hear me either. We’re all isolated in our steel and glass cocoons. I halfway wish it was just some miserable fuck in a Dodge Ram, who’d see me see him, flip me off vigoursly in return through the passenger window, mouthing the predictable prayers for my downfall, and leave me in a cloud of diesel soot. But this guy, I can’t even see. I don’t know what this is about. Why do I make up their story? What if there’s a kid in the back? God that would be a buzz-kill.

I slow down. Who cares. Let them pass. They do. Thank you Lord.

The podcast is saying that the Russian Army views its soldiers more collectively, as disposable when there’s a tactical advantage. Their tanks are faster, lighter, and they fire faster too. But at what cost? On some level you’ve gotta respect the warrior mentality that designed those tanks though. I mean, I’m basically a pacifist, but if you’re gonna invade, go all in. If your tank can shoot faster, roar across a field faster, it’s worth losing a few men in the short run. Not that that’s what’s happening in Ukraine. What are those guys thinking? Babies are dying, it goes without saying.

I’ve come to the narrows where the hills rise to a road cut at the border between two counties and the 101 drops to two lanes each direction. I merge over. The narrows condense and slow traffic as the hill climbs to the saddle. It’s where the worst jams happen. Funny to think of a tank in a traffic jam. Outta my way mothafuckas!

I pass, suspended from a green pole, a bell, a rusty bell. People used to walk this road. Ride horses. Herd cattle. It’s an old waypoint on the El Camino Real, and a reminder of the Mission era. Has our culture settled on these reminders, out of apathy, the way a person settles on a partner, or the way an invader settles the land? We embrace our aggressions, we make a culture of them. We know we are right, better than, entitled to.

Eventually people choose what’s in front of them in partnerships or in picking fights or invading a country. Because I can see you, I have a right to you and to your things. Settling is really kind of unsettling. Ring the bell. Cross the border. Get in someone’s face.

There are people who love these bells up and down California and there are people who don’t, and they’re at one another’s throats, the settlers and those who didn’t particularly want to be settled, and then there are those who are tired of thinking about it and just enjoy a fight. Do they justify their apathy by baiting the people who give a fuck?

I look at the speedometer and the car’s down to 58, but we’re still moving.

57mph.

56mph.

It’s the white Kia, in front of me now. Still there. Slowing without hitting the brakes. I lock my eyes on their back window. They’re just gradually easing off the gas, no one in front of them, and my car’s adaptive cruise control slowing me down, keeping me a safe following distance away. 56 mph. 54 mph. Everybody’s passing us in the left lane now.

55 was the national speed limit for a while. We saved a lot of gas by driving slower. And lives. Babies in back seats were saved, I remind myself. I’m in no rush. 53 mph. Say it again, I’m in no rush. I’m in no rush.

52 mph.

This fucker’s obsessed. I hope he hasn’t bred, the world doesn’t need his spawn.

The weird thing is that the Ukrainians have similar tanks from the Soviet era, but they don’t seem to be having the same trouble. That’s gotta piss off the Russians.

Do they expect me to tailgate them? That shit car probably doesn’t even have adaptive cruise control, or anti-lock brakes. I wonder if it even has airbags.

The Russians have lost more than 500 tanks in the invasion, Zelensky says more than 1000. Whatever the number, the Ukrainians have learned how to hit the T-72’s in their weak spot.

I’ve had it with this bullshit.

I watch the passing traffic for an opening, pull out, floor it: 60, 65, 70, 75

They’re speeding up too, staying ahead of me, not letting me pass. They cut me off but I swerve and go around them to the right, get past them.

I’m not saving gas anymore, I’m flying. 76, 77, 79 mph. I wonder how fast a T-72 can go. I’ll just burn like this for a while I tell myself, like everyone else, and leave old Jackass behind.

After a few minutes, we come out of the narrows. The road widens. I keep to the right lane and slow to 65, resetting the cruise control. I take a deep breath. A few cars pass and then the white car swerves right in front of me, breaking hard enough that a big red collision warning message lights up on my dashboard. It says BRAKE! I hit the brakes but ride their bumper, staying close now, they’re signaling for the exit ramp that’s right there. We’re close enough to be parallel parked at highway speeds.

I get this vision of myself from above as my cartoon rage head pops up through the sunroof like a jack-in-the-box, spinning eyes the size of grapefruits and a big drooly grin on my bobble-headed face.

I’m fully locked on. I’m all rage, and it feels freeing. What bliss to think about nothing else but this clear unambiguous purpose. I’m looking at their tail lights through a tank’s vision block. We go down the ramp and they lock their brakes in the shoulder gravel, sliding to a stop.

Even as I’m still rolling, I see myself opening the door, going to the trunk to pull out my softball bat. I hear the whoosh and crack of bones, the melony cartoon sounds of wood on head. I slide to a stop right behind them on the shoulder of the exit ramp, shift to park, hover my hand over the button to unlock the trunk, set the fantasy in motion. Their brake lights are still on, red as evil.

The podcast is describing the anonymity of much of the war, how the soldiers rarely ever see the enemy thanks to precision guided technology… I shut off my car and pop the trunk.

I climb out of the car and go for the bat. It’s like I’m a new man, twenty years younger, freed of the hesitancy, failures, ambiguities of experience. I.AM.CLEARLY.IN.THE.RIGHT.

Standing I can see the sunroof of the Kia is open– there’s a high-pitched buzzing sound and then a drone flies up and comes right at me. I swing and it feints, I miss. It comes at me again. What’s it gonna do with those tiny propellers, cut my hair? This time I connect, I can feel the heft of the battery pack bouncing off the bat as it tumbles through the air and flops in those scrubby roadside weeds that smell like licorice, the motors pulsing out a couple gasping spins before they die.

I stomp over to it and give it a couple of gratuitous whacks, then turn back and there’s a hand holding a cell phone through the sunroof, aimed at me. I assume the victory pose and let out a mighty roar, bat held high like one of those chimps with a bone at the beginning of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Then the hand retracts, the brake lights go out, the front wheels spin in the gravel and the car launches itself down the exit ramp, running the stop sign and back up the entrance ramp onto the 101. All so fast, I’m still holding the bat in the air. What the actual fuck?

I get back in the car and just rest my forehead on the steering wheel for a while before driving on.

About a week later I get a text from a friend with a Twitter link– is this you?! It’s an anonymous account. There’s video of a middle aged guy bashing and bashing and bashing the dirt with a bat for like a full thirty seconds, then he’s doing the victory pose, and he’s got an ape face superimposed on him.

I text back, Ha Ha that can’t be me.

Jack Derby is just back from his first trip to the southern hemisphere and he’s kicking himself for not looking at the night sky, especially after David Crosby just died, because, you know, the “Southern Cross”. He did look at the stars at Bread Loaf, at Sewanee, and after class during his MFA at the University of San Francisco. Derby’s short film “Wishbone” received best short comedy and best actress in a short film at the Oregon Independent Film Festival. His most recent poem was in Zyzzyva, most recent book review in Kenyon Review Online.

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