Rubber On Wheels

by jim kelly

Side by side at a stoplight, engines revving, roaring. “Teach them a lesson?” Fat Leonard shouts. My big brother, riding shotgun, nods. Turning, he hollers for me to “hold on.” Fourteen, drunk, I have nothing to hold on to. Below me, cement, the floor having long since rusted out, fallen away. For safety’s sake my feet rest on a single, hopping-around piece of jammed-in two-by-four. Junker with a crap paint job, a scrounged joke of a thing with a monster engine dropped in. Engine with more power than this stripped down, rattly ass car was ever meant to handle. Beside us a shiny new, daddy-bought, big engine Buick. Front seat and back, it’s full up with shouting guys. Pointing at us, laughing, calling names.

It’s summer 1964 and the muscle car is king, faster the better. Late nights in a shut down Shell station. The one Fat Leonard runs. His call when to quit pumping gas, close down, then open up for his friends to work on cars. Allowed, if I keep shut, I watch, all eyes, all ears, as my brother and his buddies turn junkyard finds into hotrods. Dross into dreams. A tiny, greasy front radio with a single, broke-tip antennae plays and quits, plays and quits. Somebody shakes it. Somebody punches it. Off and on rock and roll, at no set intervals, all night long. Ragged bits and howling, truncated pieces. Blue air thick, molten at the top of the tire racks from all those cigarettes, one after another. Drained, stomped flat beer cans kicked out of the way, piling up.

“There are,” Fat Leonard instructs me, “only two kinds of cars in the world, built and bought. Built cars are righteous. Every piece, every part has your greasy fingerprints on it. Win a race and you own the win. Your dream, your sweat, your nickels and dimes. Bought cars are for rich kids. They don’t know Jack about engines. How cars run. They  can’t change a spark plug. Can’t even change the oil. Moron can change oil. Daddy buys it, they drive it out of some dealer showroom all shiny and new. They know nothing, flat nothing about what makes it run. Goddamn crime if you ask me. Come Friday, Saturday night we cruise around, teach these candy ass hot shots a lesson. One day, if you’re good, if you keep your yap shut, we just might take you along. Show you how to make a car full of rich kids shit their pants.”

Big Leg Ken is a bully. A sucker puncher. Kind of guy walks up behind you real quiet then kicks you in the back of the knees, makes your legs give out. Soon as you drop he has you in a scissor hold, squeezing the life out of you and laughing. Laughing when you can’t breathe because of his goddamn big legs squeezing you around the middle, forcing all the air out of your lungs. His father is a fireman. Big ugly guy with a busted up, mashed out nose and a short fuse temper who wrestles semi-pro. Big Leg’s goal in life is to get a beer company to sponsor him, buy his costumes, then be a star on Motor City Wrestling. Make a fortune beating people up on local tv. His favorite wrestler is Leaping Larry, a short guy with animal-thick legs. His signature move is to stand on top of the top rope in the ring then leap at his opponent, clamp his legs around the guy’s gut, drop him, lock his ankles, then squeeze until the guy passes out. Big Leg doesn’t have a built car but likes to hang out at the Shell station late at night, drinking and shouting. After races, when the fights start, he likes to step out of the shadows, look some punk rich kid in the eye and frown. Watch the kid turn to jello.

The Bat is legally blind. He has no driver’s license. His father, The Fly, does. How the man got one is a mystery. His glasses are as thick as his son’s, his sight even worse. When The Bat pulls up behind the Shell station under cover of darkness in The Fly’s ancient Nash Rambler he gets a round of applause. Anyone who risks their life in a car for no good reason is always welcome. Story has it that one Saturday night late, well after midnight, The Bat got his wish, he got to drive a hotrod full out. It was on a backcountry dirt road. Terrible place to drive fast, what with the teeth rattle washboard bumps and unpredictable pot holes, but it had the one thing necessary, no cops ever patrolled it. Nobody was going to pull them over and throw The Bat in jail. He’s been a new man ever since. Bragging, when he gets drunk enough, how he broke the speed of sound that night, speed of light too maybe.

The Bird Brothers have a car that is half bought, half built. They got it new off a showroom floor but tore out the engine and dropped in a bigger one. A much, much bigger one. They switched out the shifter so they could bang gears with the big boys. They put in reinforced shocks so the back end won’t bounce off the road when they take off, snapping the suspension. They have been part of the group since grade school. Twins, they were born scrawny and stayed that way. They have identical, drink-straw thin necks and bugged-out eyes that look, when they close them, like the bruised eyes of baby birds. Don’t let appearances fool you. What they lack in size they make up in sudden fury. Anybody picks a fight with either one of the Bird Brothers and doesn’t throw the first punch is finished. They don’t waste time trading insults or talking back. They snap. Get crazy. Slug the nose, the face again and again until you’re on your back howling in pain, begging for mercy.

“Leonard,” my brother explains, slipping me a beer, “always hated school. Hated school and loved cars. He started in working here pumping gas when he was only fifteen. Back then he was a real go getter. Guy would drive in with a fancy car, Caddy or Lincoln say, and Leonard was all over it. Wash the windshield, check the air in all four tires, check the oil without even being asked. Show his respect for the machine see? Did the guys driving those cars give a shit? Care that they were being given world class service? Fuck no. They acted like Leonard didn’t even exist. Like he was nobody. Less than nobody. When he got to be a certified mechanic it only got worse. Same kind of guys show up and tell him to fix their cars. But, they don’t know what’s wrong with them. Don’t have the words to say. To Leonard, see, if you don’t understand a car you don’t deserve it.”

Built car taking off from a dead stop is a terrifying thing to hear. Roars like it’s going to explode. Tires squealing, rubber burning, hot fumes everywhere, thunder loud racket. More terrifying is being inside one just then. Light goes green and Leonard pops the clutch. We fishtail, then fly. We’re three, four lengths ahead of that Buick right from the start. That Buick though is one fast car. It’s gaining, coming up hard on our right. Turning, grinning that maniac grin of his, my brother shouts, “It’s lesson time.”

They just call it “the move.” Something they’ve perfected over time. You’re going neck and neck with a trash mouth in a daddy-bought letting him think he can take you. Then, when the RPMs are just right, you bang a gear, shoot ahead, yank the wheel hard right or hard left, depending, landing directly in front of the hot shot’s car. That’s when you stand on the brakes. Stand on the brakes and watch in the rearview. Kid driving panics, yanks the wheel, spins out of control.

Me, I’m thrown this way and that, all arms and legs, trying to not drop out the bottom of the car, not get squashed flat on the flying by concrete inches below my feet. Then, calm as can be, we do a U-turn and drive slow by the dead-stopped Buick, on its side in a ditch. Crawling out, crying and puking, the guys who, minutes before, had been hollering out insults. Letting Fat Leonard know, in a collective shouting, what they were going to do to his “shit mobile” as soon as the light turned green.

After that night, I lost interest in hanging out at the Shell station. Thrown left then thrown right, unable to see a thing, I knew I was about to die. Crash, burn and die. Crushed, maimed, done for. Knew it and couldn’t do a thing to stop it. Would I make fifteen if I kept sitting solo in a backseat, directly over a gas tank, while drunk guys with great big chips on their shoulders slammed, stood on their brakes, a crazy fast car right behind, closing fast?

The last time I saw those guys all together was at a wake for Big Leg Ken a few years later. He never did get to wrestle on TV. He got drafted first. Drafted and sent off to Vietnam. The Bird Brothers say they heard it from a guy was in the same outfit as Big Leg, how it happened. The Bat says it’s a lie, that Big Leg would never die like that. No way in hell. Fat Leonard says it sounds about right for a guy who was always sneaking up on people. Sneaking up and jumping them from behind. Story has it he was working in a field kitchen, peeling spuds, and walked outside to take a leak. To keep the enemy from sneaking up on them at night they used to shoot up huge phosphorus canisters that instantly illuminated an area the size of two or three football fields. That, according to the Bird Brothers, is how Big Leg bought it. He was off having a quiet piss in the dark when a spent thick metal canister dropped out of the night sky, killing him on the spot.

Heard an ancient, scrunched-down blues singer in a coffee house once. Just voice and guitar. He was so old he kept falling asleep on the stool, his face slowly drooping, moving for the microphone. When he made contact the microphone howled and shrieked. A terrible electronic squall. He’d come awake with a jerk and start furiously playing and singing. The line he always woke up to, began howling out, was memorable. “Rubber on wheels, faster than rubber on heels.” Perfect, I thought, for the guys.


 Jim Kelly is a retired traveling salesman,  has been writing for over forty years. His work has been in War Literature & the Arts, Harvard Review and is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review and Olivetree Review.