Wrong Hat

by Peter J Stevens

It was a nine year old Chevette that had been through its glory days. The doors and fenders were rusted through, the windows leaked and the paint was faded and discolored. But the mechanics were in good running condition, and since she earned little more than minimum wage, she could not afford to replace it.

Ann had tears in her eyes as she drove alone. She had just left her boyfriend of the past 6 months and she had terminated the relationship. He took it well but was visibly moved and distressed. Even so, she found the emotions overwhelming. She drove carefully to compensate for her lack of attention and concentration. She slowed the car and allowed it to coast to a stop at the red light. There were no other cars on the highway and she debated whether or not to go through it. But she was content to just sit for the moment and rest her mind. Driving and thinking simultaneously was proving very strenuous.

A light in her rear view mirror caught her attention. It was a single headlight coming towards her at a speed obviously greater than the posted speed limit. She kept her eyes on it since she wondered if it was a drunk driver or a motorcycle. Besides, it gave her something to concentrate on instead of her pain.

She could now hear the whine of an engine being pressed into service well beyond what it was designed for. Correctly, she concluded it must be a motorcycle.

It was drizzling now. The night was damp and cold and now the heavens began to spit on the road. Not a steady rain that would wash away the oil and grease from the asphalt, but an intermittent, light rain that caused the road dirt and oil to lose tension, which would make the road surface slippery.

She watched the motorcycle approach the intersection. Her attention was in the mirror and she did not notice the headlights approaching from her left. She shifted in her seat to watch the motorcycle approach. She was aware that the light was still red and not about to change - and the motorcycle showed no sign of slowing down.

As if it were a lightning bolt, the motorcycle flew past her, went through the intersection and disappeared down the highway. The fires in the taillights were all that remained of the encounter. The screeching of tires snapped her out of her trance. She then noticed the other car had just missed hitting the cyclist. The driver had slammed on his brakes and came to a panic stop. The tires smoked and the car jiggled from the release of kinetic energy. He sat directly in front of the Chevette as if it were these two vehicles that had just narrowly escaped a collision.

Ann was visibly shaken. Her nerves were frayed to begin with. But to see a stationwagon suddenly appear directly before her, as if a magician had materialized it, caused her to lose her composure and she let out a sudden scream.

Ann put her head on the steering wheel and collapsed. The other driver jumped out of his car and came over to her window. She could hear him but she could not make out a word he was saying. She rotated her head and looked up at him. She then, with great effort, rolled down the window.

"Are you all right?" He was almost yelling.

"I will be in a minute," she managed to say.

"Well, I hope they catch that bastard," he went on. She just rolled up the window and leaned back in the seat.

"Hey! Watch it!" Her car suddenly jolted to a halt. When she collapsed in her seat, she had released the pressure on the brake pedal and the Chevette idled into the Ford.

She slammed the transmission lever into park and lets out a brief groan of frustration. The man looked down the highway, shook his head and walked back to his car. He backed his car away from Ann's, then continued on his way. In a couple of beats of Ann's heart, he was gone.

Ann got out of her car to get some fresh air. The cool night stung her flushed face and the rain refreshed her senses. She began to relax and gain her composure. Her thoughts were random but they were beginning to solidify. She climbed back into her car when she suddenly realized what had happened. Even though the cyclist was visible for less than an eye blink, the image was forever embedded in her memory.

The bike was a large Harley Davidson. The man was bent over in the classic racing egg-tuck. He had on dress slacks, a white dress shirt and his tie was outstretched behind him as if it had been starched and ironed. He was the man she had just kissed and said good bye to no less than ten minutes ago. That was her lover - no, ex-lover, who had just flashed by. It was Frank!

Frank's reflexes were never sharper, thank God, for his mind had switched off. He realized that he had had a close call at the intersection, but he had no concept of how close to meeting the Grim Reaper he had actually come. "I promise, I will be more careful," he lied to himself.

Since the crisis had passed, Frank's mind returned to the thoughts of the last hour.

"Let's take a walk. Walk off some of this dinner," she said.

"Did you enjoy it ...?"

"Yes, it was very good. I always enjoy grilled chicken. Is that your own recipe for the sauce ...?"

"Yes, well actually, it's my dad's."

She walked ahead, quickly. Frank tried to rest his hand on her hip but she walked quickly through the damp grass towards the paved walking path. He let her go. He knew what was coming but denied it. She stepped up on the foot bridge and turned facing him. She waited for him to catch up. He was still in his suit. He was going to take her dancing but she was "too tired, lets just take a walk."

"I care about you," she said. Frank gunned the throttle. He was running in third gear because the gear ratio responded to the sudden increase and decrease of the engine rpm's better than fourth. The bike leaped forward momentarily, the engine crying out in pain. With it, so did Frank.

"I care about you," she said.

"I care deeply about you," she said.

"But I do not love you!"

He gunned the engine again. The bike bucked trying to throw off its rider.

"I thought if I gave it time, I would," she said.

He gunned it again. The rain drops exploded in his face like BB's, leaving welts where each hit.

"But I don't, and I do not think additional time will make any difference," she added softly.

The bike's speed was approaching triple digits. Frank must back off the gas or up shift. The engine was well above the red line. Besides, he was not wearing a helmet and the air around his glasses caused his eyes to tear which, at that speed, was blinding.

"What did I do ... what did I not do?"

He jumped on the footpegs and the bike leaped. His grip on the handlebars was the only thing that kept the bike from running out from under him.

"Nothing," she said.

"You couldn't have been sweeter," she said.

"You have been perfect," she said.

"It's not you, its me," she said!

"You deserve better than me," she said!

"Don't put yourself down," he snapped, his voice reflecting his hurt.

"You're sweet! You're special! You deserve better!" He knew what these phrases meant. He had heard them all before. It's BULLSHIT!!! He hit the gas again. The bike winced in pain but responded as demanded.

"Do what you must; what you have to do, but don't put yourself down doing it."

Frank kept the throttle held wide open. The bike was at the edge and the engine began to ping. It was then he became aware of the siren and flashing red and blue lights that had been chasing him since the last exit. He then noticed the tach. He shifted into fourth and the tach dropped to a reasonable rpm. The pinging stopped. "There is an exit a mile ahead; I can lose the cop there and head home," Frank verbalized, thinking out-loud.

He backed off the throttle and brought the speed down. The turbulence around his eyes subsided, the tearing stopped and he could see better.

Frank dropped his speed down to a manageable level as he approached the exit. He switched off the lights as he entered the off ramp. When he reached the intersection, he let his momentum carry him onto the entrance ramp. He pulled off right away and dumped the motorcycle against the cement overpass. At no time did he hit the brakes so no tell tale flash of lights gave his position away. He sat quietly for what seemed like forever, until the black and white squad-car passed under the overpass and continued on his chase.

Frank went up to the intersecting roads. There was a gas station about a quarter of a mile down the road. "I need a cigarette and the walk will do me good," he thought.

"Pack of Camels, please," Frank mumble several minutes later.

"Filter or naked?"

"Unfiltered," Frank responded without thinking.

"You wouldn't believe the excitement. Some cyclist almost kills himself and causes a wreck about 20 miles south of here. They've got a roadblock at the next exit and they're gonna bust his ass. I've listened to the whole thing on the Bearcat back there" pointing over his shoulder at a radio on a shelf. "Only thing that makes the graveyard shift bearable."

"So, how would you lose 'em if it was you?" Frank said as he lights the first of many butts.

"I'd turn my sorry ass around and gently go the way I came. By the way, friend, if you don't mind me saying so, you look like shit. Two to one a woman's behind it."

Frank turned to leave and momentarily, turned back and looked at the attendant. He smiled and gave Frank a thumbs up. Frank extended his right hand with the palm up. "There always is," Frank says as the attendant slapped Frank's palm in a hi-five.

If they had fought, Frank could have understood. If it was only physical, he would have understood. If they did not have so much in common, similar likes and goals, Frank could have made sense out of all of this. If they had not had so much fun together ...!

"Magic," she said!

"I ran into an ex-lover and there is magic with him," she said.

"Always was," she said.

"And although I am strongly attracted to you, there is no magic!"

"Magic! The things illusions are made of. The things tricks are made of. Magic! The chemistry that breaks more hearts. Magic!

Frank righted the motorcycle and rolled it down the ramp. He pressed the starter and it leaped to life. Frank crossed the grass covered meridian and headed in the direction from which he originally came.

"I know he's not good for me," she said.

"But I have to explore this," she said.

"Don't wait for me," she said.

"I won't," he feebly replied.

Magic. It's all done with mirrors. All sleight of hand; all tricks.

Frank drove for a mile or so before he pulled over and stopped. He lit up another cigarette and sat for a few minutes before he continued on his way home. A light breeze blew the cinders and ash into his beard trying to set it on fire. But the wind that blew it there also blew it out before the hair could ignite.

Frank was tired and emotionally spent. He was tired of replaying, over and over again, the dialogue he and Ann had previously that night. His mind began to wind down. A series of new thoughts began to filter into the vacuum of his mind. Thoughts he had not thought of in decades. Thoughts of a happier time, a happier place, a happier ...

"And now, for my next trick, a rabbit out of my hat," announces Bullwinkle J. Moose to the TV audience.

"That trick never works," groans Rocky Q. Squirrel, (who is about to be pulled out of the hat).

"Nothing up my sleeve." Bullwinkle tears the fur off his arm as if it were a shirt sleeve. He reaches into the inverted top hat that is sitting on the magic table and pulls out Rocky. "Wrong hat," exclaims a surprised Bullwinkle!

"And now for something we think you'll really like," announces Rocky.

Frank shook his head in disbelief. He flicked the spent cigarette out into the night air as the lone voyager droves through the velvet night.

"Magic," she said.

"Magic," he heard her say.


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