by Ben Wolf
Percy should have known better. Truth be told? He did know better. He told me better, he told us all better every chance he got.
“Ain’t a road on Earth that ain’t killed a man.”
He always said this in his office with the city map hanging over him looking real official. A lot more official than the wood paneling, a lot more official than the yellowing “No Checks!” sign under the clear plastic desktop. He’d sigh and lean back and tell me all about how many auto fatalities occurred each year and how many drunk drivers were the
source of however many deaths and blah blah blah. Then he’d lean in real close so I could smell his teeth.
“And you know what? It’s a good thing they do. Otherwise we’d all be stackin’ boxes down at the Hairy Peter.”
The Hairy Peter is what Percy called the Harris Teeter over on Sycamore. I worked there once. It was the second worst job I ever had. The worst one is whatever one I’m doin’ right now.
Percy called it Hairy Peter so much that it’d get stuck in your head. I don’t know why, it wasn’t funny the first time he said it and it sure as hell wasn’t funny now. It replaced the words Harris Teeter in my brain, though, and eventually I began to use it totally by accident.
“Mom, I’m goin’ down to the Hairy Peter.”
It’d come out all by itself and right then and there you’d close your eyes and hate Percy Ray like you’re supposed to hate the devil.
But still… he knew better.
On any given Friday or Saturday night I could head out to the strip and watch the people filing out of the bars and into their respective automobiles. I could point at each person and tell you whether or not they were going to make it home that night.
Overalls and baseball cap over there in the Malibu is getting pulled, he’ll spend the night in the tank and pick up his car in the morning. Shirley Temple in the micro-mini is gonna hit either a sign, a person, or a mailbox. Mr. Camaro will be dead before the hour is up.
It’s not just the people who’ve been drinking either. You can see in a driver’s face whether or not they’re really paying any attention to the road or if the rest of their life has intruded upon the most dangerous thing they do all day: their commute.
And Percy could have done the same thing all night long. When you see it day in and day out you just know. Do you think that the dentist really needs to look at your x-rays to tell you how fucked up your teeth are? No. That’s not to say our job’s a science but… we’re damned good at it.
Percy knew better. Percy knew better, he knew we were on rotation and he knew I’d be driving.
Percy knew I was going to be picking up his pieces that night.
The wrecker business is a lot more civil than you’d think it would be considering every one of our customers hates us. It all becomes so routine you forget how much people wished you didn’t exist. You forget that they’re screaming right in your face and you just start to take it in stride.
You got two kinds of calls; the private ones and the city ones. The private calls are the bulk; apartment complexes that don’t have enough damn parking to begin with, lawyers offices that don’t want us to come through the front door to handle any paper work. Private calls are a fifty-fifty shot, they’re either completely civil business transactions or they’re lying, screaming assholes.
“You took my Nissan.”
“Shouldn’t have parked there.”
“Do you think I’d do that to you?”
“If you had my job you would.”
City calls are a whole different animal. Every wrecker in the area is on what’s called the “city rotation.” Instead of picking a single yard to handle all of the city’s towing needs they rotate responsibility each night. Every third night Chip’s Towing is responsible for anything and everything that the city may need.
Taking a call on the city rotation is like playing Russian roulette, most of the time it’s an empty chamber. Someone took a judge’s parking place, fender benders on Elm with the drivers yelling and spitting at each other in the middle of traffic.
My favorites are the rich kids, though. The kids up on pill hill have this way of destroying Dad’s Beamer/Boxster/Benz. If you come up on a call that involves one of the three Bs and a driver under twenty you are the fortunate witness to the finest free entertainment in the county.
Allow me to paint the scene:
t’s always late at night and it‘s always in a ritzy neighborhood. I see the cruiser’s lights flashing up ahead and by the time I pull up along side them I know the story better than they do. Little Mr. Privilege is sitting on the curb. His eyes are glassy, he’s wet with sweat. The airbags might have knocked the wind out of him.
Dad’s Porsche Boxster is a mangled mess on the side of the road. So sad. You know those big brick mailboxes that rich folk have? Their kids just love to slam into them.
I step from the cab and the fun begins.
Cops love this game as much as I do.
“Ever seen anything quite like that, son?”
Of course I have, officer, I see one just about every third day. “No,” I say, “What a damn mess.”
If this isn’t said loud enough we won’t get through to the kid on the curb because he’s wondering how his father is going to kill him and that’s a pretty important thought.
“Do you think you can get it out of there?”
“Gosh! I don’t know. I’ll give it a shot.” Of course I can get it out of there. It’s a featherweight piece of foreign shit leaking radiator fluid all over some poor bastard’s lawn.
“Boy, oh boy. What a shame.”
“This is the nicest car I’ve had to pick up in a long time.”
“What do you s’pose it costs?”
“Oh, six figures.”
If little Mr. Privilege isn’t bawling like a girl scout by now then this one will get him there.
“Hey son! This your car?”
I already know whose car this is.
Right here. The expression on their face right here is just… I don’t even know. I’ll have to take a Polaroid some day, pin it up on my bedroom wall because it is just… indescribable.
“It’s my Dad’s.”
And then little Mr. Privilege weeps. Weeps and weeps and weeps. I usually turn my back on him to give him a little privacy. The officer and I are sharing a look right now. Little Mr. Privilege thinks his life is over. The rest of his days will be but a sad, sad reflection of those good times, the times before he messed up Dad’s car. Nothing will ever replace the hunk of metal I’m hauling away.
It’s all so agonizingly dramatic.
Except it’s not. Dr. Privilege will be there momentarily. He’ll be so happy that Little Mr. Privilege isn’t hurt or killed that he’ll hug him right there on the spot like a Lifetime movie. What Little Mr. Privilege doesn’t know is that Dr. Privilege wouldn’t have let him take that car out of the garage if he didn’t have insurance to cover it. He’ll have a new cock
extension by next weekend.
Little Mr. Privilege isn’t going to die.
Little Mr. Privilege’s life hasn’t changed.
But later that night I’m going to spin that barrel and the city rotation will drop a real tragedy in my lap. I’m going to wander up on someone whose life has changed in ways that Little Mr. Privilege couldn’t understand.
That’s why I need him, though. You have to keep a sense of humor in this business. Whatever it takes to ignore how much actual, true life tragedy you’re being exposed to. We all have our own unspoken way of distancing ourselves from the disasters. You never try to find out someone’s name after an accident, for instance. If you wanted to tell someone about what you saw it was done in a different language.
“…So the Civic flies over the center island and just ploughs through the Aerostar. It reminded me of that time that the Beamer hit that bus. You remember that?”
Pick your car wisely. Do you really want someone to remember you as Touareg
Our other favorite is vanity plates. You ARE your vanity plate if you die in that car. We still joke about 2COOL4U. 2COOL4U rolled her Jeep off an overpass at four in the morning one night. No alcohol in her system. Nothing wrong with the car as far as any of us could tell. 2COOL4U just rolled it straight over the side. 18 foot drop.
And now she’s remembered as 2COOL4U.
Percy had been living with Alicia since I started working at Chip’s and they were the worst couple I had ever met in my entire life. Not worst couple as in he beats her and she’s cheating and they got a bunch of kids named after sitcom characters, worst couple as in they had the most disgusting relationship I’ve ever seen.
Alicia worked at a tanning salon and she is exactly what you might think a person that works at a tanning salon should be like. She’s a bitch. She’s as tan as leather, her hair is this hideous white-blonde color and her makeup kit is the Crayola marker 12 pack. Her clothes come in one size: too tight.
Every day when her shift ended Alicia came by the yard to hang around the office. Percy even kept a chair for her there. We weren’t allowed to sit in it. It just sat there in the corner except for the two hours between when her shift ended and Percy’s did.
She’d sit in that chair and watch fuzzy television for two hours. Chewing gum and watching TV. Bored. She’d always tell us how bored she was. How dull this place was.
Go home, bitch.
She’d borrow money from us to get food from the vending machine. She never
brought her own money and she never paid any of us back. I don’t know how Percy afforded her vending machine addiction, he must have given her at least a few hundred dollars in quarters just during the time I worked with him. I don’t know where all that food went either. I always suspected that she’d puke it up in our john right before they left every day but I don’t know. The point is Alicia never weighed more than 105 pounds in her
That doesn’t mean she didn’t bitch about being fat.
They’d been together for so long that in the next couple of months they were going to be married, common-law. That didn’t sit well with Percy.
“If I wanted to marry her I would’ve done it.”
To Percy it was some sort of government conspiracy to get them to pay higher taxes or something. I didn’t care but he told me.
“Fucking intrusive liberals.” He’d probably slam the phone book on the desk here, he liked to do that. “Tryin’ to tell me how to live my life.”
So Percy got an apartment and moved out. He got the cheapest place he could find, which was this scummy thing on the other side of town. He drove a big V8 Firebird, too, so he was pretty broke between paying rent and gas and vending machines.
Alicia was furious. A common law marriage wasn’t the big wedding with six or seven over-tanned bridesmaids she was probably picturing, but it was better than nothing and as long as Alicia was furious the mood around the yard was pretty ugly. She still came every day and sat in the chair and watched our TV and bummed our change but she wouldn’t say a word to Percy. The whole two hours she wouldn’t say a word to the man she had been living with for… however long you have to live together to be common-law. At
the end of his shift they’d leave and head home in opposite directions.
And then one day Alicia didn’t stop by. No gum, no fuzzy TV, no bitching. Percy took it in stride. The next day, same thing. The day after that, same thing.
The day after that, Percy started telling us all about his relationship. In the wrecker business it’s always feast or famine, you either sit on your duff and watch the clock for an hour or two or you got more calls than you can handle. When it’s famine you got nothing you can do other than sit in that office and wait for your manager to get a call for you to go out on. As soon as Percy started talking about his relationship with Alicia the world
changed. Morons found their turn signals, the world followed parking regulations with a smile, every broken brake light in the state fixed itself over night. We didn’t have so much as a fender bender for three days. And Percy talked the whole damn time.
“When I first met her… Boy! I knew… I knew right then and there. There was
somethin’ special, some magic to her. Did I tell you how we met?”
“She was waitressin’ at that Ruby Tuesday off of Moore and my friends and I
headed over there after Wes’ bachelor party, must’ve been two or three in the morning. And I’ll be damned if she wasn’t the prettiest thing I ever laid eyes on. So… so…”
I’d wince during these pauses because I knew Percy wasn’t great with words and whatever he was about to say was gonna be just as stupid as all hell.
“So full of life. She looked so good, I just…”
“I just had to KNOW her. And it wasn’t just her body neither… I respected her. Totally respected her… Somethin’ in her eyes told me...”
“Told me this is the girl for me.”
He’d pause here and try to make eye contact with us. I hated that.
“Boys, I been a fool. You never know what you got till it doesn’t come back no more.”
He driveled on like this for three whole days. He told us everything there was to know about them. Private stuff, too. He only stopped a couple of times and only when his eyes got misty. He held it together. Barely.There was no point in talking to him about his problems, either. No matter how much sense you might make he’d just say, “Thanks, Ernie, but…You
just don’t know her like I do.”
On day four of his constant monologue Percy made a decision.
“What the hell am I doin’? I mean, what the hell am I doin’ here?” He stood up so fast his chair rolled into the wall with a bang. “Alicia’s the best thing I ever had going for me. My whole stupid life… She was the one thing I ever had worth livin’ for! Worth dyin’ for! Hold down the fort y’all… I got to go get my girl back!”
He grabbed his jacket and ran outside. I looked out the window just in time to see that big red and black Firebird rev up and fill the lot with dust.
In retrospect we probably should have gone after him. We should have stopped
him. He really wasn’t in any state of mind to be hauling around town but… at least he’d shut up. Doesn’t seem right saying that now, though.When Percy got to the tanning salon his presence was not… unnoticed. He slammed the bird into the lot, squealin’ tires and blowin’ smoke. A few overly dark women scrambled out of the way as he jerked the classic car into a handicapped space sideways. He was a man possessed. He leapt from the car
with a bouquet of wilting carnations he had picked up at a gas station on the way. He burst through the door like a SWAT team holding the flowers high above his head and shouting Alicia’s name so loud that everyone just sort of assumed it was some sort of robbery.
In my mind’s eye the scene could only have looked like someone dropping a bucket of fried chicken; brown, crispy and naked bodies rolling every which way. Bodies leapt like vampires from their brightly lit white coffins. High pitched screams shook the windows. There was only one door out of the store and Percy was guarding it with a disintegrating handful of less-than-fresh flowers and a wild look in his eyes.
I’m sure that if I had somehow found myself in this situation I would have been confused as well but these women just sort of lost their shit. According to the police report, Percy became involved in a fairly physical confrontation with the bear of a woman that watched the front desk. Specifics of this are hazy but at some point Percy fell (or was thrown) through a large metal shelf of tanning oils so, as if the situation needed to be any more dangerous, he was now skating on a brown and orange sea of lubricants blocking the only escape for about a dozen near-naked women.
So they organized and attacked.
Obviously, I wasn’t there but according to the stories I heard this fight was something more than a battle between one man and 14 self-conscious females. I can only assume that there was some sort of connection formed in their collective psyche between his gender and their location. All of the money they spent on their appearance, all the waxing, the exercising, the plucking, the preening, the pain… they had done all of these things for men. To be attractive for men. Was this how they repaid them? Embarrassing and frightening them like this? Forcing them into a moment of mortal clarity?
No. That was unacceptable.
I’m writing this several weeks later so, by now, the stories have all been exaggerated. There’s no telling how long Percy suffered at their hands but even the lowest of estimates are around seven to ten minutes. When they finished beating him with their hands they used improvised weapons like they were cave men. They stoned him nearly to death with heavy, full bottles of Aloha Tan, Island Heat, Aloe Gold, and Hoss Sauce. The mess was unbelievable. Bruised and bloody Percy scrambled across the slick floor to the door and slammed into it head long. He bled there for a moment or two while being pelted by European Gold, Nuvo Bronz, Kava Kava and Jamaica Me Crazy. He pushed on through the door and into the parking lot on his hands and knees.
Alicia wasn’t even there. Percy forgot that she had Thursdays off.
I can’t be sure what sort of state of mind he must have been in at that point but I know that I would have felt incredibly vulnerable. Luckily, most of the bleeding had stopped by the time he coasted the bird into the parking lot at Alicia’s apartment.He was a mess. Sticky, sweaty and battered he stumbled from the car with what was left of the carnations clutched in his fist. I picture his legs locking and unlocking, pushing him slowly across the asphalt towards his destination, Alicia’s third floor walk-up. Each flight of stairs must have been their own separate marathon to his broken body but he climbed them like a champ. His mind must have been singularly focused. He had an undeniable urge to see his girl. I don’t
think anything could have kept him from her at that point.
He reached her landing and slid against the wall the entire length of her hall towards her door, a drippy brown streak following him the entire way. Finally, mustering what strength remained in his body he pulled himself to her door and leaned quietly against it. He keyed the lock and threw open the door.
It was at this point that Percy died. Not literally but… he was dead from there on out. Filling that doorway like a greasy, brown madman his heart effectively stopped. Alicia lay on his coffee table getting rammed by some guy he’d never seen before.
I don’t care who you are- that’s a bad fucking day.
When a man covered in tanning oil walks in your bar bleeding and crying you don’t wait for that man to order. You fill a glass. According to the police report Percy spent a good two and a half hours at McDugal’s on Sycamore. He sat at a dark and lonely end of the bar and wept into bourbons, whiskeys, vodkas and whatever else he could get his hands on. He smoked and cried and drank. Alone.
This is the part that makes me mad. He knew what day it was. He had to. He knew we were on rotation. He knew I was driving.
He knew what he was doing.
Percy drank until he was cut off and then slid out the door with his tail between his legs. He stumbled across the street and walked in the Hairy Peter. I remember from when I was working there that there were all sorts of laws about selling alcohol to drunks. You were supposed to turn away anyone who looked like they had already consumed alcohol that day but… I don’t know. I can’t blame what happened on whoever checked him out. From what
I heard Percy was so broken by this point that he didn’t even look drunk, just tired. Sad and tired. Percy bought a case and lugged it back across Sycamore and put it in the passenger seat of his Firebird. He used to call it Alicia’s seat. I always hated that but… That was Percy. He buckled it in and sped off.
I got the call at about 11:45 that night. They didn’t give me a make on the car and they never give you a name. I never would have guessed.When I got there I knew it was something a little different. The street next to the reservoir was filled with black and white sedans, their lights flashing. Cops love a nice gory accident just as much as anyone else
but they sort of have an advantage at finding them. They crane their necks at a mess just like you but I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like this before. Both sides of the road were full of cruisers.The crowd was gathered at the edge of the water. It looked strange from
the road but I couldn’t really tell why until I got there. A car lay quietly at the bottom, not seven feet below. It had backed in and its headlights still illuminated the cop faces above the water.
An officer took the tow line off the front of my truck and swam it down to the front axle. He came up with a grim look that pretty much told us what we already knew. There wouldn’t be a happy ending.
Percy had backed his car into the reservoir and killed the engine. He had blasted some Lou Reed through the tape player until the water flooded the speakers. He sat there waiting for the car to fill with his windows up. He wanted to see it coming I think. He sat there listening to music and pulled a beer from his case. I picture him sitting there with a cold Bud in one hand, the other tapping out the rhythms on his steering wheel, his legs submerged up to the knees and climbing. Maybe he listened to “Perfect Day”. I used to really like that song.
You made me forget myself.
I thought I was someone else.
It took him three beers for that enormous car to fill. I remember thinking that if he had driven a Honda it wouldn’t have taken even one bottle. He might have had the reflexes, the fine motor skills, maybe even the will to roll down his window and slip through. Float to the surface. But he didn’t. He lay down there staring up at the moon through the city’s water supply and waiting to die.
Percy knew I was going to be hauling him out of there and I’m never going to
forgive him for that. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why he did it though. Part of me would like to believe that the scene was for my benefit. Like he was saying, “Get out of here, Ernie- Go find a real life. The yard just eats you up. No time to really live. It just eats at your time until you’re old, you’re tired and you’re in too deep to get out. Don’t end
up like me. Drunk and dying. In the reservoir.” Sadly enough I think that would have been his style.
I winched the ‘Bird out. The cops pulled him from the car and I strapped the ‘Bird onto the back of the truck. It was short ride back to the yard and the car sloshed the whole way.
When I got there I didn’t waste any time. Percy couldn’t be remembered like that. I couldn’t let him become on of the jokes. For all his faults, his shortcomings… Percy was still a person. He deserved something. I couldn’t let myself separate the man from the tragedy. I grabbed a wrench from the little metal box beneath the seat and took off
his vanity plate. I walked to the edge of the lot and tossed it into the bushes. It twirled around in the air and caught a street light. It shone down at me before landing in the woods on the other side of the barbed wire. It said: WRECKER.