Sunday, May 9, 2010

So Dark at This Hour

Late at night, a man stands on the sidewalk at the edge of his neighborhood. He's looking towards the lake across the road from the houses. Lightning flashes pierce the clouds on the horizon. Down the street, a lamp shines overhead. The man stands on the fringes of its illumination. The world is hushed, sleeping, but he's raging inside, angrier than he can remember being in a long time. He's stopped clenching his jaw, but his jaw muscles are still throbbing.

The man has a new car with a powerful engine. He hasn't yet dared drive as fast as it's capable of going. He's thinking about that car, and about a particular road. The road is on the outskirts of town, in one of few remaining undeveloped areas around. There's a stretch where you can build up plenty of speed if you want, and a beautiful curve that sweeps around in a lazy arc. Where the curve starts to straighten out again, the road passes under a highway. He thinks the highway is one of those privately-owned toll roads. He's not sure.

He visualizes the concrete supports and embankment of the overpass. He considers making a trip out there, just to scout out the angles and rehearse how the whole scenario would play out. He runs through it several times in his mind. Then another part of his mind says, in a voice that only he can hear, "Guess what, your gas tank is almost empty anyway." That's true, he concedes. The man shudders.

The street light chooses this moment to flicker out. Now it's pitch dark. Just as abruptly, the light buzzes and comes back to life. The man stares as a fox comes into view, trotting along the sidewalk on the far side of the lamp. It slows down and stops at the pole, about 25 feet or so away. The fox looks around, turning this way and that, hardly giving the man a passing glance. Then it lowers itself into a familiar resting pose, not quite on its stomach yet not completely on its side either, with its paws stretched out in front, like a dog. It's facing the lake and seems to be focused on the low-lying scrubby grass between the sidewalk and the lake.

The man hears some rustling behind him. He looks over his shoulder, and sees a slender form settling down outside the second floor bedroom window of a nearby house. He can see smooth bare legs and shorts, but the rest of the figure is hidden in the shadows. It's one of the neighbors' girls. OK, the man thinks, if the three of them are to share this quiet evening for a while, he won't mind at all.

The sound of an engine like a heavy-duty truck perturbs the night-time calm. The streets of this neighborhood twist and turn, so much that approaching vehicles are usually heard long before they are seen. The engine sound gets closer, and closer still. Illumination from headlights appears around a bend. It's coming down the street towards the three of them. Bemused, the man watches a truck roar past him and turn left around a corner into the neighborhood. It's a tow truck. Brake lights come on and the truck eases to a halt just a couple houses in on the side street. Sitting in the driveway that the truck now blocks is a fancy car, perhaps a BMW.

The truck idles for a minute. Then, the man hears the engine rev and the truck turns to block the street, headlights swinging around with a harsh glare. It slowly backs up onto the driveway just in front of the car. "Holy crap!" he blurts out loud, laughing. A stocky figure hops out of the cab, runs to the back of the tow truck, and pushes a lever. There is a noticeable whirring sound. The driver drops down and reaches underneath the front of the car. He fiddles around for a moment or two, then jumps up and darts (who knew a stocky man could be so agile?) back to the cab of the truck. He jumps in, and the truck engine revs hard. The car is yanked off the driveway and down the street, making a loud tire screech that surely wakes up everybody in the vicinity. The tow truck swerves back onto the main street, its quarry hanging precariously off the wheel-lift. Meanwhile, a light flickers to life upstairs in the house, and then the front porch light comes on. The tow truck driver jumps out of the cab and steps back to the car, fumbles around but gets the car door open, then reaches inside. He closes the door again and places some portable brake lights on the roof. The repo man jogs back to his cab, gets in, and the whole production rolls off into the night.

The man chuckles to himself in amused disbelief, but the grin on his face fades as he looks down at the sidewalk. The fox is gone. It probably snuck away at the first sign of trouble. Back across the street, he hears a dull metallic sliding sound and a thump. Looking up where the girl had been sitting, he sees that she is gone, too. The man glances out across the lake. What used to be a starry sky with flashing clouds on the horizon is now completely overcast. The man's inner voice speaks up again: "You need to get up for work tomorrow." He sighs. A few hours' sleep is better than none at all.