Stupid, stupid, stupid, Cora said as the car gained on us. I’d just thrown a liter bottle of beer out the window and it’d crashed into the windshield of an oncoming car and now Cora was scared to death and calling me stupid. My friend Mike was in the back seat. He didn’t say anything at all as the car chased us. He just had a dumb looking grin on his face because he’d been stoned and drunk for hours. Just like me and Cora.
I didn’t have any reason for throwing the bottle—it was still half full—I just wanted to see what would happen. The car by now had passed us and driven out of sight; it was then I knew we were in trouble. A couple of miles later, there was a roadblock of several large-looking cars. We were forced to slow down and take whatever it was that was coming to us. We didn’t have a gun or any other weapons to fight back with.
We stopped and even more cars came and lined up across the road. They seemed to storm out of the cars all at once and sort of trotted towards us: a whole group of black men and women, some children too. Cora was crying by now, and still whispering almost inaudibly, Stupid, stupid, stupid. I was afraid, but not nearly as afraid as Mike who, much to his dismay, had completely sobered up now that he was looking down the barrel of a nickel-plated revolver. It was pitch dark except for all the headlights so it was easy enough to see what was going on.
The guy whose windshield I busted came up to me where I still sat at the wheel of the car. He wasn’t very big and he actually looked sort of pleasant, like he held some kind of white-collar job. I rolled down the window and said to him with a slight tremor in my voice, Look, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to bust your windshield. He jerked open the car door and grabbed me and I kind of slumped to the ground, mostly on purpose.
Cora was still in the front seat with her head slightly bent down as if she was praying, which is exactly the kind of thing she would do in a situation like this—she still believed in God. I was already an atheist. I converted a few months earlier when I was in the hospital for six weeks after getting busted up in a very nasty car accident. Although I really wasn’t as afraid as I should’ve been, I slumped a little more toward the ground and shouldered the fender of the car, attempting to show as little confidence as possible. The man who was pointing the revolver through the window at Mike suddenly jerked open Mike’s door and pushed him down into a kneeling position outside the car. It was then I straightened up and said to the guy whose windshield I’d busted, I’ll pay for it, I promise! I’ll give you my license and I’ll have the windshield fixed tomorrow. This girl in the front seat is the Chief of Police’s daughter. We’ll all be in trouble if you don’t let us get out of here now.
He calmed down some and went to his car and a moment later came back with a scrap of paper with his phone number on it and his name. He demanded my license and I reached into the back pocket of my cut-off jeans and handed it to him. He said, I’ll give this back to you when I see you tomorrow to have the glass replaced. Then he went back to his car and got in and everyone else did the same thing at the same time. The one pointing the pistol at Mike was one of the last ones to leave. Before he put the pistol away, he said loud so we could all hear him, It’s a good thing that girl is with you two, you’re a couple of lucky motherfuckers.
On the long, dark ride home, Cora was cold and silent. Mike lit a joint, and after taking a very long drag from it, passed it around and Cora finally took a hit and she began to warm up some. I kept going on about how quickly they were able to get all those people together to form a roadblock. Even the cops couldn’t have worked that quickly, I said. Mike kept going on and on about how he had never been so scared in his life, and Mike was no stranger to such situations, having already been arrested several times for shoplifting, petty drug offenses, even stealing cars, and he was just barely sixteen years old, two years younger than me and Cora. A couple of miles before we made it into town, Cora finally spoke up for the first time since the incident, and said, How, Lucas, could you not believe in God after what we just went through? What happened to you just a few months ago should make you believe in God. I replied, I died four times in the hospital. Do you understand? Four technical times I was dead. And I’m here to tell you, there’s no such thing as God. There’s just a kind of thick darkness you don’t want to go into, that’s it. No light, no tunnel, no clouds and harps and all that shit. Just nothing. Just darkness. I’ve seen real Nothing. Certainly someone who’s been as dead as I’ve been should know a thing or two about God.
The next day, Mike and I left early in the morning to check our crab traps. Cora was back home still sleeping soundly to the drone of the big window unit that kept the house freezing even during the hottest parts of June in Slidell, Louisiana. It was my father’s house, and the three of us had been staying there since he’d beat his second wife to a bloody pulp and gone back into the Navy for the first time since 1972, two years after I was born. Cora and I both moved in after dropping out of high school together, and Mike had just recently moved in to help me run the crab traps I’d stolen and set out in the bayous and lagoons along the Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans East. June is the best month of the year for crabbing and we had plenty enough money to pay back the black man whose windshield I’d destroyed the night before.
Mike and I ran the traps and baited them and sorted the crabs in the wooden hampers before we got back to the boat launch. It was a good catch and the prices were still good because it was early in the season so the market wasn’t flooded yet. We weighed in at the seafood market where we’d been taking our catch and Mike and I both walked away with a hundred dollar bill apiece. By the time we got back home to my dad’s house in Slidell, it was only noon. Cora was up and I told her to call the black guy about replacing his windshield. I wanted my driver’s license back. For the first time in my life I was worried about getting stopped and not having it.
The three of us drove back to Pearl River, where we were the night before. We found his house and drove up almost to the threshold of his door. It was a new house built of red brick with a sizable carport and an enormous above-ground swimming pool, plastic flamingoes, and all the other little entrapments of a wannabe suburbanite. It was a quaint looking place, warm looking. The black guy and his wife were at the door. They looked friendly enough, and they invited us in. The black guy shook hands with me and said his name was Sylvester. We all sat down in the clean but sparse living room and his wife came in with glasses and a pitcher of tea. Cora sipped her tea nervously; she was a nervous girl no matter where she was or what she was doing. She was very shy around strangers, but it seemed to me that she was making a conscious attempt to talk with the wife. I leaned forward toward the coffee table and got down to business.
I pulled out a pocket full of twenties and laid them out one by one on the cold wooden table. It was two hundred dollars to replace the windshield. Sylvester reached down into his front shirt pocket and came up with my driver’s license. He flicked the license down on the table, and I took the license and slipped it into the back pocket of my cut-off jeans that were worn and faded from crabbing every day for a month straight in the summer sun. Mike dug around in a gray duffel bag he carried with him wherever he went. Sylvester looked me up and down for a moment and said, I didn’t know you had only one arm. I said, Yes, I was in a car accident not long ago and the bones in my arm were crushed into many pieces and they had to amputate it. That was only about five months ago, but I’ve made a quick recovery. He’s tough, Mike piped up. Luke is the toughest son-of-a-bitch in the world. Then Sylvester, who seemed a bit taken aback by this newfound knowledge about my arm, said, in a slightly tremulous voice, I wouldn’t have pushed you around last night if I’d known you were crippled. I didn’t notice last night you were missing an arm. You see, we look after each other in this neighborhood. Hell, we can even feel when someone’s in trouble. This whole neighborhood’s got eyes, we’re all real close. The fucking Klan lives only a mile or so down the road, but we keep them in line, we don’t take any shit from them. I thought you were one of them. I said, It was just a stupid thing I did last night, that’s all. I was just drunk and showing off to Cora. I had no idea you were black. All I saw was a chance to break glass. I just can’t resist the sound of broken glass, there’s no other sound like that in the world. You see, I died four times on the operating table in the hospital and I haven’t been the same since. I sometimes think I can walk on water and air; I don’t give a damn about people at all since I died and came back in pieces. Yet, I’m always happy. I can’t explain it at all. You being black had nothing to do with what happened last night.
There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence after I finished talking. Mike rolled a joint right in front of everybody and he passed the joint around and all of us got high. We talked about the night before, already the distant past. As we were leaving, Sylvester ordered a hamper of crabs from me and a quarter bag of weed from Mike. Sylvester said we were welcome to the neighborhood anytime. As we drove back home in the very same car we were in last night shaking with fear, Cora leaned over and kissed me hard on the mouth and said I wasn’t stupid anymore. I could see Mike in the rear view mirror. He was smoking a cigarette and looking well.