“First order of business on any long drive is to find yourself a shield,” I say to no one in particular as I rev up my car. I can still hear my latest, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend screaming in the background, but whether it’s at me or about me, or just residual echoes in my head, I can’t be sure.
My heart is pounding, so I take a breath and look around. I’ve done a pretty good job considering the circumstances. There’s food and soda in grocery bags in the backseat (underneath the pile of random presents for my nieces and nephews), a stack of CDs for the stereo in the glove compartment (mostly jazz), and, as it turns out, I have a half-full tank. Beautiful. Breathe.
It’s chilly out but the car sounds smooth, and I back out without hitting anything, all those white lights I personally hung for her twinkling and shimmering away in my rearview. I tug those groceries over my shoulder and into the passenger seat, kick into first gear, hit the gas, and don’t look back.
The on-ramp leads west, smack into the low hanging sun. I attach clip‑on shades to my glasses and ease onto the 5. We curve south, and now it’s time to pan the horizon and find the shield that will accompany me for the first leg of the journey.
An extra 10 miles per hour saves 10 minutes an hour. Why it is so vital to me to save a handful of minutes I just don’t know, and I’m certainly not gonna figure it out on Christmas Eve, not in this state of mind. I rush. OK? I rush. I’m always a few minutes late getting started, I’m always trying to make the time up on the road, and I don’t get away with it at all.
In fact, if I get pulled over right now, I’ll lose my license, and at this very moment, it feels like my license is all I have left. But tonight I’m ready to lose everything if it’ll just get me South.
Fortunately, I’ve done this enough to know the best methods for finding a shield. If I’m lucky, someone will overtake me right away, about five to 15 miles over the speed limit, and I’ll just follow him at a distance of 200 yards or so until he exits, slows down, or another shield moving faster passes us both.
I’m not in the mood to wait, so I pick a riskier method. I speed up myself, catch up to the next wave of cars, and search for someone pulling out of the pack. All I gotta do is follow that guy at a safe distance, and I’m golden.
What I need tonight is a clean stretch of road, uncluttered. Fresh asphalt, smoothly paved, the kind that when you hit a stretch of it, your wheels go silent, like you’ve just taken off in a plane.
A car ahead of me looks swift so I steady my speed to match its pace. My speedometer reads 69 miles an hour. But when the speed limit is 65, I want someone going at least 75. I move toward another car, farther ahead. I wish I could use a radar detector, but they are useless nowadays, what with VASCAR and laser and helicopters and unmarked, moving cops. Besides, I’m driving through a bunch of cities where detectors only attract cops with sensors. Nothing beats a good old‑fashioned shield.
Fingernails of the sun scratch their way through the trees and between my visor and dash. The sun is a deep burgundy, and the clouds swirl around like pockets of silky oil in a puddle. I look away. The sun will be gone soon, and I don’t wanna be lonely for it. Especially because, when she’s gone, in comes the cold. Tonight, heat will shimmer up from the asphalt like freed ghosts, rattling their chains in December’s Northern California cold.
Just as the sun leaves me, two red dots take its place on the horizon.
I accelerate to within a couple of football fields, then simmer down to match the car’s pace. Seventy-six miles per hour. Perfect.
I settle into the leather seat and focus on my food and the music. The road rushes by like water from a fountain. Goodbye, Mt. Shasta. The shield leads me into the night.
We’re making great time. It’s after midnight.
I switch off my CD and turn on the radio, testing my luck; it’s been Christmas songs for a month now, and I don’t want to hear about snowmen or hot chocolate or lonely holiday hearts. I smile when “Always and Forever” by Heatwave comes on.
“Always and forever, each moment with you / Is just like a dream to me, that somehow came true …” When Johnnie Wilder jumps up an octave for the chorus, the lyrics get no more original, but he explores every syllable for all the expression he can find: “Every day, love me your own special way / Melt all my heart away, with a smile …” By the time he gets to the end, he places dozens of musical notes in each syllable, like a pianist. I’m so lost in it I almost don’t notice that my shield’s lights have gotten brighter and closer; he’s braking.
We’ve stumbled across something as mysterious as an oasis in the desert: a traffic jam late at night. A huge line of cars plugs up our side of the highway, and a trickle comes the other way. The night glows red from taillights glittering in the fumes and the heat off the road. We trudge along between zero and five miles an hour for the next mile; then, a train running out of steam, we collapse to a halt.
I shut off the radio. I’m in no mood to be placated. It’s late and I’m finally starting to feel tired. There’s a fine line between serenity and fury, and I watch my hands grip the wheel more and more tightly. I look at my shield. I close my eyes briefly and wish and wish and wish. I open my eyes, and the wish comes true.
My shield hits the gas and turns his wheel sharply to the right, spinning up gravel. I don’t hesitate a second. Next thing I know we’re reaching 30 miles an hour in the breakdown lane. It’s illegal. We’re nailed if we get caught. It’s invigorating, playing with fire. If you add up all the cars and all the people and multiply that by the number of hours, you are talking about an entire lifetime being wasted by this one traffic jam.
I keep looking in my rearview mirror, knowing I’m going to see a sudden eruption of lights and sirens as a cop pulls me over. But soon a bunch of cars are following us, stupid, reckless souls, totally irresponsible. If it turns out that the backup is caused by an accident and the road is blocked, we’ll keep emergency vehicles from making it through. But we keep going, reveling in adolescent selfishness, bulletproof for the moment.
As we near the heart of the congestion I realize we’re safe. It is an accident, but on the other side of the road! We’re not endangering anyone, the emergency vehicles are on the other side. This entire traffic jam is unnecessary! Nothing blocks the southbound lanes! Everyone is piled up for miles just to rubberneck! Waves of righteousness swim over me; serves them all right. If they want to pay a toll of two hours in dead traffic to satisfy their thirst for gore, let them. I’ve wasted no time, and I’m still not going to take a peek.
At least that’s what I think until the last possible moment. But when I actually pass the spot, I gawk. I see a man with a hose spraying away the blood on the road. I see four or five cars that look like crushed cans of Coke. I see a thousand swooping lights overhead. I see a woman with a blanket over her shoulders shaking with hysteria, and a group of firefighters trying to pry open a stack of metal that used to be mobile. Sparks fly. The air is foggy and damp, and reeks of burning oil.
The lanes ahead of us are perfectly clear, and the road is freshly paved, built for speed. My shield and I slow down to 55 miles per hour and stay there for a long time. My radio remains off. My thoughts collect morbidly. My neck aches. I look down at my fuel gauge and take the next exit; so does the shield. We go to different gas stops for whatever reason, but when I get back on the highway, he’s right ahead of me.
He picks up the pace a bit. The speed limit is 65, after all.
Still, for the next hour, he never goes much faster than that. Instead of speeding to make time, he has started driving perfectly. Weaving into the inside lane of every turn, anticipating congestion and selecting lanes carefully, long in advance. I begin to admire his intelligence, try to match his thought process. We sweep carefully and gingerly through several groups of cars, without touching our brakes, without speeding up. We sift and sort, like waves over rocks, in perfect formation. I drive with my fingertips.
As soon as we pass Sacramento, we hit a construction detour that takes us through some local roads. Now we have to deal with stoplights. Great. For the first time all night, someone passes us, and I size him up to see if I should switch shields. But he’s a moron; he can’t even figure out that the lights are timed. He guns his engine, passes us, reaches 90 miles per hour or so, and then has to slam on his brakes at the next light. Then he floors it again. We stay steady at 45, scoring green lights all the way. When we reach the highway again, I decide to let the idiot go off on his own.
Sure enough, about a half‑hour later, I see him in his black macho muscle car pulled over on the side of the road next to a few similar idiots in their cars, their embarrassed, bowed necks illuminated by the bright lights of a phalanx of California Highway Patrol’s best. My shield and I pass by at a clean 65 and I say aloud, “There, but for the grace of God, go we …”
It’s the dead of night now. Not many cars on the road. We move the way ships do on the ocean, making tiny adjustments to our course and velocity, getting no closer, no farther apart. At this point I’ve memorized the rear lights of my shield. I could recognize this car anywhere; it’s like my best friend’s face. The space between the lights matches the space between eyes, just as specific. The location of the foggy exhaust, the color of the brake signals, the speed of the turn signal are imprinted on my brain.
When I was younger I used to share the burden with my shields. I’d pull ahead for a bit out of sheer politeness. But I’ve learned not to go out in front anymore. It’s not worth the risk.
I realize that it’s been silent in my car for hours. I flip on the stereo, and the incredible Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us” greets me. At least from a musical perspective, this is a beautiful night.
“We look for love, no time for tears / Wasted water is all that is / And it don’t make no flowers grow.” I love that image. “Good things might come to those who wait / Not to those who wait too late / We got to go for all we know.” When I sing these lines, I always change the words “wait too late” to “masturbate.” Gives me a kick every time.
During Grover’s saxophone solo my shield starts to sway in rhythm with the soloist. Back and forth in time with the song. We’re listening to the same station! But then I look to see what signal we’re picking up and realize the CD player is on. I’m listening to a burn I made years ago. So I suppose it’s just coincidence. Oh, well. I let loose on the gas; I’m following him too closely, anyway.
We’ve been together for most of the night by now, but I still can’t decide whether my shield is a speed hound or just a smart, swift driver with confidence. Pretty much all I can tell about the car is that there is only one person in it, judging by the shadows inside.
I realize that I’ve slumped low into my seat. The night is so empty, and this trip is just taking me backward, back to L.A., back to the town I supposedly outgrew, back to my childhood home.
A warning light flicks on in my dash. Shit. I’m running out of gas again, and I haven’t noticed. Shit, shit. I don’t want to lose this guy. An all‑night shield! I’ve never had an all-night shield!
Should I pass the guy, roll down the window, scream “Thanks”? Honk so he’ll pull over? The exit appears on my right immediately, and I don’t have enough time to decide. I bear left, think better of it, swerve right, then left again, decide I’m nuts, what, I want to end up stranded on the shoulder? I take the exit, bumping the curb.
With the engine cut, there is silence. My ears hum the echo of the road. The keys shiver with a passing truck. I elbow the door open, permitting the car’s warm air to rush around me into the night. I stretch to my full height, walk to the bathroom stiff‑legged, then feed my car and exchange my trash for new snacks.
Can’t believe I’ve got to start all over again. This late, cover is scarce. The enemy has only me to make his quota.
Back on the 5, I drive the bitter speed limit. I drink but my throat stays dry.
Suddenly, in my mirror, I see a car pull up behind me and then pass me. It’s my shield! I’m ecstatic! I click into his speed and it’s just like old times. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” comes on the radio, and I sing it loudly with the window down to refresh me. The wind slaps my cheeks and the song fills me up. My shield must have gotten gas at the same time. Maybe he’s even going to the same place as I am! The earliest bits of dawn dip into the horizon like toes into chilly water.
Now, with every exit I pass, I start to worry I’m going to lose my shield. The stars are still out, so is the moon, but the sky is dark blue. It’s Christmas morning, barely; in the houses far away from me, far from the highway, presents are waiting under trees. Silhouettes of hills in the distance inform me for the first time all night that I have been following the rim of the Sierra Mountains South.
Soon I realize there are more mountains, and more vistas, than there should be. I come out of it to check a passing exit sign—and realize I’m no longer on the 5. Son of a bitch has led me onto the 41, to the 101. That’s like 30 extra twisty, beachfront, single-lane miles! How did I miss this? What’s wrong with me? All that time we saved, lost! And for what?
While I’m simmering in this, and just as we hit an especially narrow but admittedly elegant bridge, with an inlet on one side and the platter of the ocean displaying the first fragments of a sunrise on the other, a car comes up behind me and passes at about 80 miles an hour. My shield is strumming along at about 70. I am aware, now, of how long I’ve been on the road. I’m tired, bone tired, defeated tired. I want to get where I’m going.
There’s a true and tested rule about shields. You always pick up a newer, faster one, whenever or wherever you find them. By picking up the new shield, you offer your old shield a convoy. And if you lose the new shield, you cut back to the speed limit and wait for your old shield to show up. But almost invariably your old shield never catches up, they never make the right pace; it’s always advantageous to move on.
So I move to pass my old shield. As I get closer, I start feeling this huge, sentimental disappointment. Come on, play tag, follow us! But he’s not picking up the pace.
As I move closer, I’m vastly curious. Who is in that car? Could it have been a lifelong friend? Could it be a woman—a beautiful woman, even? What is she like? Where’s she heading? During this entire night, when we two might as well have been alone in the universe, what was she thinking about, what was in her head? Did she think about me? Did she even know I was there?
Or … perhaps she took me on this detour because she knew about me. Maybe this is one more gift, after protecting me during so many dark hours.
As I pass my shield on the right, slowly, I stare as closely as I can. Desperate to see inside, to catch a glimmer of her face, to see her smile, for her to give me some kind of clue about what all this means.
But all I see is the sun glaring back at me off her windows.
As I follow the new shield and the old shield falls behind, I keep hoping beyond hope she knows the rules and will catch up. At this point, we reach the inner elbow of the California coast, turning east toward the City of Angels, and my hometown’s sunrise greets me like I’m some prodigal son. I want my shield to share this experience. The sky shyly opens up before me like a woman undressing, radiating the promise of something exquisitely gorgeous and warm. I gape at her with unabashed relish. And I have to admit that I’m crying as I sing along to the great old hotrod rock song, “Maybellene,” on the radio.
“Maybellene, why can’t you be true? / Oh, Maybellene, why can’t you be true? / You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.”
I give my shield one final wave—what else could I do?—and we both fade away into the distance.