|Chapter 21: Road Debris
Sometimes it seemed to take forever to get anywhere.
Cruising down the I-96 highway at a more-or-less constant speed of 100 miles an hour may have been all right for tired old folks with tired old cars that could do no better. For Glen Kaiser sitting without a function in the drivers seat of a van built for twice that speed, it was so irritating that it bordered on intolerable. He felt like a passenger on a choo-choo train chugging uphill.
He grumbled to himself, wishing there was a way to override the Interstate Highway Commissions fail-safe Traffic Flow Regulator system. It was, indeed, analogous to a centrally controlled railway system. He had to admit that the TFR wouldnt be fail-safe if anybody could speed up, slow down and change lanes as they pleased. You either had a satellite-tracking, computer-coordinated system or you didnt. If you did, it had to accommodate the slowest vehicles that used it.
To Glens way of thinking, the solution to that was to ban those dogsleds from the Interstate the way old cars with inadequate obstacle-avoidance equipment were banned. It was physically impossible for vehicles without the proper equipment to go down the entrance ramp without crashing the gates. It was a proven technology. It could have worked. But no, those silly-ass Democrats and Republicans in Congress would never let that happen. The dummies always have a combined 55 to 60 % majority in the House and the Senate. They could beat the Americans almost every time if they stuck together on real issues like New Economic Zones and bad shit like that. But the only things they can get together on is dumb shit like horse-and-buggy speed limits on a highway built for rockets! Probably because most of them are tired old dug beetles!
Glen wasnt truly as upset with Congress or old people or slow cars as he was with himself. He shouldnt have taken Vera to that bar. She hadnt wanted to go. She never wanted to go to places where she had to hide her eyes. He had insistedand the two of them had been practically the only ones there wearing Daylights. That was like trying to hide a wart on your nose with a big, round, Day-glow red, clown nose. Jesus! he thought, If stupidity was booze, Id be as unconscious as Euel Gidarb!
Glen tried to shake the thought of that man and his wife, which was like forgetting why he and Vera were going to Detroit, and why Paula Quin and Maxine Lattamer werent. While the nurses had decided to return to the hospital to see what they could find out about Euel, Glen and Vera were going to see what they could do for their friendsand to attend the funeral of a friend.
Friends, thought Glen with a heavy heart. Blue Monday was my friend. Now hes dead. Kimberly Fleetwood is my friend. She might as well be dead. Andrea Urlan and Leah Flores are my friends. They were publicly humiliated, financially ruined and professionally destroyed. Vera is my friend and my lover. She hates me. And the goddamned Gidarbs have a hand in all of it! If I dont have to think about those horrible people for another zillion years, itll be too soon.
How was he going to do that on a highway to Detroit that passed right though the city where Estelle Gidarb was killed? How was he supposed to get around thoughts of what might be missing from Estelles body when the thought of what was missing from her husbands body was synonymous with their name? How was he supposed to stop thinking about what she had tried to do to his friend, Blue. And what else could he do but think if Vera wouldnt talk to him?
Listening to the vans radio was out, because shed told him that she didnt want to hear it. Listening to the radio in his ear plug was also out because all he could get were stories about Leah and Andrea, which ridiculed them and stores about Hector Clay, the nigger that killed the white woman. Oh, they hadnt actually used the n-word, but no one could have missed hearing it. It was almost as if the media were doing their best to rally the Klan. He had seen one distant fire already that made him wonder if it could have been a burning cross. Now it appeared as if another one might be ahead.
Ordinarily, Glen and Veras interest in the scenery would have been nil, because they would have been playing in the back with their T-window and VR development equipment, if not with each other. Ordinarily, they would not have been traveling in the dark on the 96 Interstate to bail two friends out of jail.
Of course, the vans Daylight windshield and side glass gave darkness a purely abstract meaning to the man and woman inside. They saw the sparse traffic ahead and the snow-blanketed countryside on their left and right as they would have seen them 6 hours earlier, except that everything rolling had its lights turned on. The only thing Glen could say about the unidentified light was that it probably wasnt on wheels.
He checked the message center for possible road hazards.
The message center in Glen Kaisers van was nothing more than an ordinary telewindowwith fewer tuning options than mostlinked to an ordinary computer. The standard background color for travel advisories was black with green letters for routine messages, amber letters for cautions and red for emergencies. The display sat far enough forward on the deep instrument panel for him and Vera to read what it said: Howell 3 miles.
"Hmmm," said Vera, "Isnt that where the KKK Gidarbed a black kid last week for peeing on the side of one of those back roads?"
Glen cringed at the imagery her words evoked, the ease with which they rolled off her tongue and the timing of her reminder that vehicles unfit for the interstate had to take the back roads. For the last 30 miles shed said nothing. Now this.
Glen decided to treat it like the latest words in a normal conversation that hadnt been separated by 18 minutes of silence. "Thats not how I heard it," he said.
"Im not talking about the one outside of Brighton where they lashed the guy to the cross and set him on fire when they torched the cross."
"I know," said Glen. Im talking about the same one you are.
"Oh," she said, "what did you hear?"
"Well...The boy wasnt exactly a boy. He was a teenager...and he wasnt exactly innocent. I mean...They didnt say he raped a young girl. But he definitely committed a sex crime. Nobody disputed thatand there was a young girl involved. I know that much. I think she was only 6 years old."
Veras dark brown eyes blazed with anger. "Where the hell did you here that?" she snapped.
"...I... I dunno...Radio, telewindows. Lotta places. I think I read it somewhere, too. I didnt pay much attention. I hate shit like that."
"You now. The whole thing."
"If you had heard the hole thing youd know that peeing on the side of a country road is considered a sex crime in Michigan. The boy was 14. The girl was 16. She saw him through a Daylight telescope from a mile away and told her little sister, who told their father, who belonged to the KKK. He called his friends. They blocked the road. They stopped the car. They hauled the boy out. They butchered him in the worst way in front of his parents, stanched the wound with a touch, burned the parts they removed"
"Stop! Damn, Vera. I told you I cant stand that kinda shit."
"Oh," she said coldly, "I wasnt sure what kind of shit you meant."
Glen loved Vera dearly. But the woman was a terrible liar or a terribly good one, depending on how you looked at it. She could invent stories with such detail and passion that you had to believe her. After you did, youd find out that she made it all up. Or part of it, to achieve some noble goal, to get out of trouble or simply to win an argument. What was it this time? He wasnt even sure about the amateur Gidarbing part, the part that he couldnt bear to think about. The hell of it was, as soon as he said, "Liar! No way!" one of her tall tales would prove to be true down to the last minor detail. His only defense was knowledge of the facts. In this case, he had no defense.
Following another 18 minutes of silence, the message center again told them how far they had to go to rescue their friends: Detroit 23 miles.
Despite Glens calculation of the slow pace at which his van was moving toward Detroit, it seemed to be approaching an unidentified glow, which became an unidentified fire in a frightful hurry. Then, as if to match perception with reality, the van began to decelerate with an announcement in the message center flashing red for an instant then changing to amber: ROAD DEBRIS BLOCKING 2 LANES.
Glen and Vera looked at each other with the same knowing expression. Somebody was making sure that travelers on the I-96 got a good look at something.
As the traffic thickened and slowed to the speed of a camel caravan, Glen and Vera got a small taste of what it meant to be in Klan country. They could now see the fire on Veras side of the van as a burning cross as high as four tall men and half as wide as its height. The impact was harrowing, even without the effect that it would have had illumining the darkness and the circle of fifty or more people at its base in white sheets. That was partly because of the inescapable fact that such an event could not have been staged without the support of local authorities and the passive consent of federal law. It was a scene out of the 1880s or 1920s...or 2020s when the values of anonymous men with customized feed sacks and pillow cases over their heads were enforced by the terror of incurring their displeasure.
Hell, was there ever a time since Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest put his violent stamp on the Ku Klux Klan, that ceremonies like this hadnt been performed? Only now, there were three giant flags in attendance; the American flag flanked by the battle flag of the Confederacy and the Nazi swastika; honored symbols all in the mainstream American culture.
Vera lowered her side glass several inches bringing down the blackness of the sky like a star-strewn velvet shade.
"Jesus!" cried Glen, recoiling from the sharp blast of arctic air that introduced the narrow band of night into the cockpit. "Havent you seen enough of those?"
Vera ignored him and the biting cold on her face as the TFR system guided the van into a single file in the left lane behind a white Buccaneer with a Black Glass cockpit. The other fires had burned on Glens side of the van too far in the distance to see what was fueling them. Suspecting what was burning was not the same as seeing it. Seeing it in person was not the same as seeing it in a telewindow. They were now close enough to the flaming cross for Vera to feel the kind of heat that always came with a noisome smell from the roiling bowls of the collective human unconscious.
Funny how the ugliest of human traits could attach themselves to the most beautiful of natural and man-made spectacles, beauty which aroused the most sublime tribal passions. The savage swirl of yellow and orange flames, red sparks and black smoke devouring the wooden cross in the center of the cold, brown earth, had an aesthetic appeal of its own. Apart from that, the ghostly figures in the halo of the holy cross casting long shadows on the newly fallen snow, enhanced the aesthetic on a level too deep to be consciously evaluated. Much of the effect for Vera had to do with the terror it evokedthe feeling of helpless dread in the presence of a destructive, malevolent power greater than ones self.
She imagined that the effect was exactly the opposite for the white-sheeted hate worshipers in the warm glow of the holy fire. She imagined herself as one of them. But to feel the part, she had to picture herself and her companions, not as villains dancing to the tune of the devil, but as Christian soldiers marching is step with the will of God. That was an identity, a group identity, that few people would surrender easily. How in the name of God do you fight that? she wondered. The thought triggered another one. Thats exactly what Hector Clay was trying to do...!
Glen watched the back of Veras head unable to tap into her thoughts as the van crept forward until the fiery ceremony on the hill had receded past their line of sight behind them. He wanted to raise her window but wisely stayed his hand from the switch until she raised it herself.
"So," said Glen, feeling that he had to make some reference to the cross-burning if only indirectly, "Do you think he could have done it?"
Vera glared at him as if he were a stranger. What the hell was he talking about? Who was he talking about? Was it the 14-year-old boy they were talking about before or could he have meant Hector Clay, the "he" that everybody was talking about? She decided that it didnt matter.
"Fuck no!" she barked.
"Jesus, Vera. I didnt say I thought he did it. All I did was ask a question."
"What kind of question is that to ask me about a cross burning? That is what the question was about, wasnt it?" Glens sputtering was all the answer she needed to continue. "We dont even know what we saw back there. It could have been murder or mutilation or both and all you wanna know is, did the nigger do it?"
Glen chaffed at the n-word and the mimicking tone shed used to imply that it had come out of his mouth. Neither of them had used it before in each others presence. They may have thought it from time to time, but it had never crossed their lips.
"I dont deserve that," he said softly. "Ive got a black grandson, remember?"
Vera did remember. She had been with Glen when he drove his 15-year-old son to the hospital to see the newborn child. While the boy was visiting the infant and the 14-year-old mother, she and Glen had talked to a nice black couple in the waiting room about the baby of their 14-year-old daughter and the father they had never seen. What a comedy of errors that had been! With neither couple sharing their last names or the names of their children, when they went their separate ways, it never occurred to Glen or the black couple that they were grandparents to the same child.
With the black couple thinking that Vera and Glen were married until she told them they were both married to other people, the black couple had said things about sex and marriage that they shouldnt have. Out of embarrassment, they had taken different routs to the mothers room, neither couple realizing that Glens son was the father of the baby until they met in the same room with father, mother and child. Vera remembered how frightened the two new parents had been, how dumbfounded the two older couples had been and how peaceful the baby had been in his mothers arms. Most of all, she remembered the teenaged parents and the four adults waking the baby with laughter which began with the young mother when the absurdity of the situation hit home.
What a wonderful moment that had been for all of them.
"Im sorry," said Vera. "I know how much you love your son and your grandson."
"Its not about love, Vera. Well, in a way it is. Its about family. Chucky lives with a black family in a mixed neighborhood. Were not exactly in-laws because our kids are too young to get marriedCome to think of it, what kinda...in-laws would we be if they were married?"
The music of her laughter lifted Glens spirits, as it always did, no matter how far down he was or how serious the situation. "Anyway," he said, "theyre great people, the kind of people anyone would want for friends or relatives. Theyre" Ken hesitated as an old mattress blocking part of the two lanes to his right caught his attention and the thought of picking up speed diverted his attention momentarily. "Theyre smart," he continued, "funny, open, generous, good neighbors. Chucky callsem Mom and Dad, and it seems...right. I mean, Im still his father. His mother is still his motherunfortunatelybut now he has another family and so do I. And here are these losers who dont think these good people are good enough to live. And theyre trying to do something about it by restoring the Klan to its former gory glory. And theyre getting away with it!"
"Are they?" asked Vera, suddenly animated by a new thought. "How many black men have the KKK taken credit for lynching in the last two years?"
"Hundreds," said, Glen, expanding his arms to indicate an indefinitely large number. Theyve gotten some white people, too, and non of them has been convicted."
"Yeah. They got away with killing some Jews and Moslems, and a few women and kids, but mostly black males to defend the purity of white womanhood. Thats all the murders theyve committed in all the states of the Union in two years. I betcha its less than the number of black people whove been murdered by other black people in one year, in only one NEZ in a city like Detroit."
"...Whats your point?" ask Glen wondering why the traffic ahead was taking so long to pick up speed now that they were past the discarded mattress. If anything, it seemed to be moving slower.
"Think about it, Glen. How could that be if the people who were running things didnt want it that way?"
Her words stuck a familiar cord. "Youve been watching that WQST series on New Economic Zones, havent you?"
"Yes. Obviously, you have, too. So has half the country. Now I see what Hector Clay meant when he said the NEZ system was a weapon of mass destruction and the Klan was only a decoy."
Glen bristled. "Only a decoy? You said that like it was nothing. These sons-of-bitches have got to be stopped!"
"Of course they do, Darling. But you cant fight hate with hatewell, you can, but it doesnt workand you cant legislate against stupidity. The point is, stopping the Ku Klux Klan wont solve any great social problem because the Klan doesnt control anything that matters overall. It was the Congress of the United States that made it legal for Klansmen to murder anybody they wanted as long as they covered their faces and did their killing in their own backyards. In the NEZs, the killers dont even have to hide their faces cause nobody gives aSweet Jesus!"
Glen saw what Vera saw but reacted with a noise like a man with a sock in his mouth whod planted his bare foot on a thumbtack.
The lifeless thing which had once been an African-American man, lay twisted on its side in the road, bound hand and foot with barbed wire, its battered head bent unnaturally to one side. Its bloody black legs rested on the right lane with the rest of its naked, bloody remains in the center with a hangmans knot kissing its jaw. A four foot length of rope ran straight up the highway from the hideous things neck, which was stretched well past the limits that an intact spinal column would allow. It bore a closer resemblance to the neck of a goose than that of man.
Mercifully, the hips were turned away from Glen so that he couldnt see the front of the body below the waist. The entire body passed beyond his line of sight fairly quickly. Never-the-less, the horror of what he did see crept up his back like a living thing, while the grisly sight passing slowly beside Vera took involuntary hold of her attention. It was like staring into the eyes of a vampire; no matter how much she may have wanted to look away, there was no way she could.
Glen struggled against his unrelenting fear with every mental trick he had ever learned to combat it. Picturing himself as a protector of the weaker sex helped some, but not enough to insure that his fear wouldnt grow into an all-consuming concern for no one and nothing but himself. He could think of only one thing left to try, a trick hed learned from Hector Clay that he had hesitated to use out of fear that it wouldnt work. The thought of that made him angry. Anger was the tool he needed to conquer fear. Only one of those powerful emotions could be dominant at any given moment. To starve the fear, he had to feed the anger.
Vera had her own coping mechanism. She disconnected herself from what was happening as a participant and took notes as an observer from the latent image seared into her memory forever. She noted an absence of flowing blood, an absence of frozen blood, and no indication that the body had been dragged or dropped from a speeding vehicle. She allowed that she might have been wrong about the frozen blood, but not the rest of it. No, this was a display piece, dropped from a slow moving vehicleprobably a vanjust as the mattress had been dropped, to slow traffic but not to stop it.
The van switched lanes again to avoid another old mattress as the traffic ahead rushed forward. In the next 30 seconds, the TFR system brought the speed of their van gently up to 120 miles per hours, leveled it of there for three and a half miles, then brought it back down to 100.
Glen and Vera stole looks at each other, confirming the reality of what had happened and the fact that their lives had been profoundly altered once again by a shared experience. Vera could see that Glen was more angry than shaken, but he was still plenty shaken. Glen could see that Vera had detached herself emotionally, to some extent, but not completely.
"Well," said Glen, "you still wanna talk about decoys?"
Vera ignored the question and the tone of the question. "I wanna know what happened to the State Police."
"Theyre probably on their way," said Glen
"From where, the moon? Maybe nobody called it in."
Glen put his knuckles to his lips. "Oh shit!" he breathed. "Do you suppose were being watched?"
"The State Police get satellite reads on highway debris before we do. It has to go through them to get to us. I know Jack Fleetwood, remember. His wife and my wife went to school together. I gave him hell for what he tried to do to Blue Monday and you gave Kimberly an excuse to leave the house so she could be with Blue."
Veras insides tuned to jelly, the image of the dead man in the road breaking through her detachment barrier to superimpose itself on everything she saw and heard and thought. She was scared and sick to her stomach. For the first time ever, she was truly and deeply afraid for her life. She looked to Glen for strength. Not because she saw him as a great reservoir of strength, but because her reservoir was close to empty. "You think, that display was meant for usspecificallyme and you?" she asked meekly, feeling like a specimen in a Petri dish about to be washed away.
Glens fear was now beginning to show more than his anger. He nodded, his chin going up and down like a jig saw blade as his face broke out in a soaking sweat. "I wish I knew. But right now, I cant think of what else it might be. Can you?"
"No," said Vera meekly."
If they had switched on the radio or opened a news window in their message center they would have gotten a better idea of what was happening. They would have known that it was bigger than they were. Much bigger.
The world as they had known it since they were children was about to come to a violent end.
Contact the author: Jasper Garrison