Hit and Run
The last time I saw Mike I was a senior in high school. I’m a completely different person now, and I imagine he is too. I’ve been to college. I’m an HR manager. My wife, Claire, and I are the parents of a lovely five-year-old daughter. I don’t even remember the last time I thought about Mike – before tonight, that is, when I came home from work and read about him in the local paper. He was convicted of robbing a gas station with a gun – armed robbery – and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
When Mike and I met he was in third grade for the second time. He was what the teachers called a trouble maker. He had greasy black hair that he slicked back with a comb he whipped out of his back pocket. He chewed gum, and when a teacher made him throw it out, he’d wait a few minutes and then put another stick in his mouth, and if the teacher made him hand over the whole pack, he would shoplift more after school. Mike was not intimidated by teachers. He was not intimidated by anyone, as far as I could tell, and I admired that. What I admired most, though, was the way he could draw. He was the best artist in the school, better than the art teacher.
Mike had a playground gang. I kept to myself. One chilly autumn morning, he grabbed my math book, spun like a discus thrower, and launched it over the fence into the woods. His friends all laughed. The bell rang just as I straddled the top of the fence, and when the teacher asked me why I was late, I decided I’d better not say, even though she demanded I tell. I ended up in the principal’s office for the first and only time in my life. A few minutes later, Mike opened the door, walked into the office, and sat in the chair next to mine. There was a big grin on his face.
I think he decided to be my friend because I didn’t squeal on him, but he never said. We didn’t have much in common. He told me I was stupid for worrying about grades. “They’re just letters on a piece of paper,” he said, amazed that I worked so hard to get A’s. He seemed almost proud to be failing every subject but art. He showed me how to draw Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the Flintstones, and Bugs Bunny.
Sometimes Mike invited me to his house. It was more of a shack than a house. His mother was on disability, but I never found out what for. She looked healthy to me. On hot days, she wore nothing but a slip. She gave us soda and cookies, and she’d sit with us at the kitchen table and talk. She said I was a good influence on Mike. He would laugh and say I was a terrible influence. She said I could live with them if I ever wanted to run away from home. She made me feel a little nervous, but there was something about her I liked.
Mike and I had almost nothing in common, but we remained friends even though I left him far behind in school. He didn’t have internal debates the way I did. He liked playing practical jokes on me, afterwards insisting he was trying to loosen me up because I was too serious. He would tie my shoe laces together or tape a KICK ME sign to the back of my shirt or squirt toothpaste on my fingers and tickle my nose during a sleepover and laugh when I woke up, confused, with toothpaste smeared on my face. I put up with the jokes, but they didn’t help. I still took myself too seriously and I still do. My brain’s just wired that way.
The day after Mike turned sixteen he dropped out of school. I was a junior then, an honor student, checking out colleges, but I didn’t have much of a social life. Mostly I did homework, listened to records, read science fiction, watched television, and once in a while Mike drove over in his black Mustang, honked the horn outside my house, and we’d drive. He loved to blast the music and drive. It didn’t matter where. He had a job at Pearson Glass, rented a room in a boarding house in town, and spent most of his free time drinking with his old buddies.
At the end of my senior year, Mike helped me get a summer job on the assembly line. He picked me up every morning, and I stuck it out until two weeks before I went away to college. Then one morning we were stopped at a red light when he spotted a baby bird on the side of the road. He jumped out, cradled it in his hands, and told me to drive back to his room. He made a nest in a shoe box and told me to call the factory and say we both had a stomach virus. I put up a feeble protest, but eventually called. They didn’t believe me and the next day we were fired. Mike didn’t care. All he cared about was that baby bird. I remember wondering what I would have done if I had been alone and spotted the bird, and I concluded I would have kept driving, gone to work, and rationalized that it was too young to survive outside the nest. I told Mike as much, and I was right.
Not long after the bird died, I was home by myself on a Saturday night – my parents had gone to a late movie – when Mike called. He was drunk, agitated, and for the first time ever I thought I heard what might have been fear in his voice.
“You gotta help me, man,” he kept saying as he explained how he spent the night with friends, sitting on the hoods of their cars, drinking beer. Later, I learned that this part of the story was true. He said he was driving home on a wooded stretch of road as he hugged a curve and just as he came around the bend he glanced at the dashboard and when he looked up he saw someone crossing the road in front of him. I pictured Mike slamming on the brakes and turning the wheel hard. I’d seen him do this several times to avoid squirrels. Mike saw the man’s face in the headlights just before hitting him. He said from the sound of the impact he knew the guy was dead. But he was too scared to get out, especially since he’d been drinking, so he kept driving, went home, and phoned me.
“What should I do?” he pleaded. “What should I do?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“You gotta help me, man. You gotta help me.”
I tried to reassure him. Maybe things weren’t as bad as he thought. Maybe the guy wasn’t dead. We had to go back and see.
“No, no, no,” he insisted. “I killed him. I killed him. I’m sure I killed him.”
I said I’d drive over, and when I arrived at the boarding house I examined his car parked beneath a streetlight. I didn’t see any damage. A good sign. I went up to his room. He looked drunk and haggard. He kept running his fingers through his hair, saying, “What am I gonna do, man? What am I gonna do? I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I tried to calm him down. I said the man might be alive and we had to go back and see and finally I persuaded him to go. I said I’d drive. He gave me directions. On the way, I went over the options in my mind, and by the time we arrived I decided it would be best to call the police. I told Mike, but he said he wasn’t going to prison because if he ever went to prison he would die.
I parked the car and left the engine idling with the headlights on high beams. Wispy clouds drifted across a full moon. We pushed through tall grass on the side of the road and searched for the pedestrian. A car came around the curve and we dropped to the ground until it roared past and then we stood and continued our search. After a while I asked Mike if he was sure this was the place.
“Yeah,” he said. “The body must be around here somewhere.”
“Maybe he wasn’t hurt as badly as you thought,” I said. “Maybe he got up and walked away.”
As Mike shook his head I added, “Maybe someone took him to the hospital.”
“Or the morgue,” he replied in a hoarse voice, and then he pointed and half-whispered, half-shouted, “Over there!”
The man was on his side, his back to us, his head facing an overgrown bush. Mike followed me as I approached. I remember thinking how strange it was for him to be following me. I thought I saw the guy move, but maybe not, and then I thought I saw blood puddled on the ground, but no, it was a shadow in the moonlight. I was terrified that when we looked at the face the eyes would be open in a glassy death stare.
“Sir,” I said. “Sir? Are you all right?”
Right away, I realized how dumb this was to say, and later I figured out where it came from. Health class. Driver’s Ed. They made us sit in the dark and watch the aftermath of car crashes filmed by the highway patrol. The idea was to scare us into driving carefully. We watched in complete silence, horrified by the carnage, and as a paramedic pulled a mangled bloody body from a car, someone said loudly, “Sir? Are you all right?” and everyone laughed.
The man beneath me, lying on his side, looked nothing like the bodies in that film. He was intact and bloodless, from behind at least. Still, I was afraid to touch what might be a dead body, but I forced myself to kneel. That’s when I realized I was in position for a prayer, so I whispered, “God, please let him be okay.” I touched the shoulder and said, “Sir? Can you hear me, sir?”
Gently, thinking of Mike and the baby bird, I tried to pull the shoulder towards me, but the body was heavier than I expected, dead weight, almost as if resisting. Mike stood behind me, unusually quiet. I wanted to run back to the car and drive away, but I forced myself to place both hands on the torso, heave it towards me, and roll it onto its back. Two black eyes stared up at me from a smiling bearded face.
Mike fell on the ground, laughing, and the dead man sat up, laughing, and his friends, also laughing, came out of their hiding place in the woods. Everyone was laughing, but me. I was too stunned to speak.
Finally, Mike said, “You just won us a shitload of money, bud.”
He told me he had been bragging about our friendship, and his friends said I was a pussy, and if things ever got rough I’d ditch him in a heartbeat. Mike insisted I’d stick with him. They made a bet and came up with this test.
Apparently, I passed.
After Mike made the rounds, joking and collecting the cash, he put his arm around my shoulders. I pushed him away. He tried to give me half the cash.
“You keep it, Mike. You earned it.”
“Can I get a ride home?” he asked me.
I shook my head and walked back to my car. Mike went with his friends to their cars down the road around another bend.
That was the last time we spoke. He called the next day, but my mother answered and I refused to take the phone. He called again and then drove over, and I wouldn’t come to the door. A few days later, my parents took me to college. I saw him one other time. At the end of the fall semester, I was home for the holidays, shopping at the mall, and noticed him with some of his friends. I ducked into a store until they passed. After I graduated from college, I ran into his mother in town. I almost didn’t recognize her. She looked much older and heavier. She was worried about Mike, said he wasn’t doing well, and asked me to give him a call. I said I would, but I never did. She died of a heart attack a year or two later. I considered going to the funeral, but my life was very hectic then, I had just gotten engaged and a promotion at work, and I was really busy, and I forgot to go, and then I lost track of Mike until tonight when I saw that newspaper article. He stole a hundred and forty-nine dollars from a gas station. Nobody was hurt, but he threatened the attendant with a gun.
I wonder if Mike still draws cartoon characters. Will he draw in prison? Maybe he can give art classes there. I should probably visit him in a few weeks...after I finish the budget...and we get back from our vacation...and I get through all the paperwork that piles up after I’ve been out for two weeks...but what would I say to him? What could I say? And what would he say to me?
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