The Gas Bet
“Here’s the bet,” said Spider, who was driving. He craned his head around to look into the backseat where I sat. His hand found Cat’s knee next to him and he rubbed it for luck. Cat stared out the window at the miles of unrolling highway and tried to touch her tongue to her nose. “The bet is: if I can make it to the next town without hitting the brakes once, you have to buy the next tank of gas.”
“The ‘city limit’ sign?” I scoffed. “No way. Too easy.”
“Town center,” said Spider. “The first red light.”
We were passing through Black Ditch, Louisiana on our way south to New Orleans. The sign said the next town was twenty miles down the road: some shithole called Trebuchet.
“Alright,” I said. “But if you lose, in addition to buying gas, you also have to buy me some jalapeño chips and a Corona and I am going to sleep the rest of the way and skip my driving shift.”
“Those are uneven stakes.”
“So throw something else in there,” I said.
“Fine. If I win, Cat and I get the car alone for an hour. You can check out the Trebuchet public library or sit in a field and meditate on loss.”
“Deal,” I said. Spider stuck his skinny arm through the gap in the bucket seats and shook my hand, gripping it as tight as his grin.
Spider took his foot off the gas and the car drifted to a complete stop on the highway’s shoulder. The suicide bumps rocked the tires and we all grit our teeth. His foot never touched the brake. “I’m going slow,” he said. “It’s the only sensible way.”
The three of us were a team. We made bets. Mostly, we cheated. It didn’t pay our bills, and it was dangerous and addictive, but we did it every weekend and every vacation. This weekend, we were headed to New Orleans for the poker tournament. We were going to hustle the fans and those who lost early.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to be along this time. We’d been losing too much for too long and I was getting burned out. But they got me drunk and took me to the pool-hall and one thing led to another. I lost a bet about how many shot glasses Cat could balance on a cue ball, and she said I had to come.
We had rules.
One: Never bet against anybody with infinite wealth, such as a casino. You can’t win. The whole science of probability was developed by Christiaan Huygens to prove this scientific fact and win a bet against Blaise Pascal. The mathematical principle is called “The Gambler’s Ruin,” and sometimes you’ll see the formula scrawled on the wall in casino bathrooms. Even in a fair game, the person who can play longest and keep losing will eventually win 100% of the available money. And in a casino, even the poker tables are stacked with house players who bet without sweating, betting house dollars against your shaky savings.
Two: Never bet against anybody with nothing to lose, because what could you possibly win?
Three: Never get involved in a bet where you don’t have more control over the outcome than the person you are betting against. It gets tricky, though. If people feel hustled, they won’t pay. That’s why we’ve got rule number four.
Four: Never work alone.
Spider and Cat were the talent, and I took care of everything else. My own luck was terrible, but I had a knack for knowing if a bet was winnable or not. In side-bets, you always needed a witness and someone who could size up your competition. You needed somebody who could make the loser pay afterwards. In my dayjob, I was a paralegal, and so I knew a little bit about contracts. They called me Remora: I traveled with sharks and ate what they ate. Spider and Cat took care of winning, but we all got our cut.
Spider thought that I would just sit there with a dumb look on my face while we crawled along the highway at ten miles an hour, but he was wrong.
“Going this slow,” I said. “We might as well get out and walk.”
“Deal’s a deal,” said Spider.
“You know you can get a ticket for going too slow just like you can get a ticket for going too fast.”
“I’ll risk it,” said Spider.
“You are supposed to move at the speed of traffic,” I said.
“I hate relativism,” said Spider. “It’s a moral sickness.”
“I’m not going to call you chickenshit to your face in front of a lady,” I said.
“Ray,” said Cat.
“But I am going to think it in my mind while I stare at you in the rear-view mirror.”
I stared at him in the rear-view mirror. He rolled his eyes.
“Fine,” I said, considering my options.
I took off my boot.
I was able to roll one of the windows down halfway in back before Spider hit the power override and started rolling it up again. I wedged my boot in the window and the motor whined and struggled, but the window stayed open wide enough for me to stick my arm out.
“What are you doing?” asked Cat.
I stuck my face against the glass of the hatchback. A red tow truck was coming up alongside us. I looked into the cab and saw two gentlemen in fat, TV-square sunglasses peering at us and licking their lips. They had big sideburns, dyed-black hair, pasty fish-faces, and they were both wearing white sequin jumpsuits.
The side of their tow truck said “King Repo: “When You Gotta Be Cruel.” Underneath was a phone number with musical notation.
“Doo ya’ll need help, baby?” screamed the Elvis in the passenger seat as they matched our speed. And then Passenger Elvis spotted Cat. “Aw yeah honey,” he said, slicking back his hair.
“We’re fine, thanks,” said Spider.
I stuck my hands out the window and flicked off the tow truck with both middle fingers.
“Elvis was a gay male stripper!” I shouted. “He sang so well because he was trying to drown out the incredibly tuneful voices in his head that told him to get funky with male junk!”
Spider rolled the window down and my boot fell out. He rolled it back up, sealing me in.
“My boot!” I shouted.
Both Elvises in the tow truck snapped their sunglasses off, glared at us, and then snapped their sunglasses back on again.
The tow truck dropped behind us and then rammed into our bumper. Our rental car shot up to thirty miles an hour. Spider looked at me and I put my hands behind my head and grinned. They hit us again, bumping us up to fifty miles an hour. We swerved as our bumper took the collision, but Spider straightened out of the fishtail and changed lanes.
“Guess we can’t be in the slow lane anymore,” I said.
The tow truck pulled up alongside of us again, and this time Driver Elvis leaned out of his window to yell.
“What you said was unholy,” said Driver Elvis. “We demand that you pull over, get out, and fight.”
“I can’t,” shouted Spider. “It’s a bet. If I hit the brake, I have to buy the next tank of gas, a Corona, and some jalapeno chips.”
Driver Elvis looked at Passenger Elvis, who shrugged. Driver Elvis stuck his head back out the window and pointed at Spider with a hand so full of rings that the fingers were splayed as wide as an inflated rubber glove.
“If it was a matter of personal slight, then we would let this one ride, even though you got rental plates and we could have you busted for violating the spirit of your rental contract by engaging in vehicular harassment. But you had to let one rip on the motherfucking KING, and now you have to fight it out.”
“Can this be postponed?” asked Spider.
“Motherfucker: NO,” said Driver Elvis. “Time to take care of business.”
“You have to understand,” said Spider. “I’d love to fight you, but I can’t stop driving this car or I will lose an important bet.”
Driver Elvis bared his teeth and sneered. He karate-chopped Passenger Elvis in the shoulder, and Passenger Elvis saluted with a two-stage “aw yeah” hand-wipe and then a pelvis swivel. Passenger Elvis swung himself out of the cab and into the truck’s bed. His pantsuit was so tight that you could see the outline of his cellphone on his hip underneath the silk. He rummaged around underneath some burlap potato sacks and pulled out a mechanic’s trundle: a flat plank of wood with wheels attached that slid underneath cars so that mechanics could work.
Driver Elvis and Passenger Elvis counted to three and then they both ripped off their skinny, rhinestone-encrusted belts. PE tied one belt to the trundle and then started waving it back and forth like a hypnotist’s pendulum. He waited until we were even with the tow truck again, and then he swung the trundle around in a brutal circle that smashed the trundle down through our hatchback, covering me with safety glass and making the car skid sideways, nearly ending up in the ditch.
“Don’t you dare stop driving,” said Cat to Spider with her eyes blazing.
“Who’s going to pay for that,” asked Spider.
“Not me,” I said, brushing glass out of my hair. I picked up the trundle and examined it.
“Should we send it back to them?” I asked.
“No,” said Cat. “Look!”
PE took another trundle from the bed of the truck and tied the other belt to it. He attached the belt to the tow truck hitch, and then he tossed the trundle onto the highway below. It hit the ground with an avalanche of orange sparks, but the belt held. PE launched himself out of truck’s bed, did a flip, and landed in the middle of the trundle, where he planted his feet and brought his fists up into a fighting stance.
I passed our trundle into the front seat.
Spider glared at me.
“I’ve only got one boot,” I said.
“I’ll drive,” said Cat.
“The rules apply just the same to you,” I said. “I think we can agree that the penumbra of this wager extends to significant others of the parties involved.”
“Fine,” said Spider and Cat at the same time.
Police sirens started to wail as Spider and Cat switched places and then Spider climbed onto the trunk of the car. He motioned for Cat to open the trunk, and then Spider attached the trundle to the embedded spare tire, tossed the trundle onto the road, and slowly climbed out along the rhinestone belt to face the honky-tonk repo man.
“Cops,” I said. “Looks like two black and whites.”
“The tow truck is the aggressor,” said Cat. “We are just defending ourselves.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They are local boys. Local Elvises.”
PE crouched low and then came up fast in a jump-kick that Spider was barely able to dodge. As he came around, he slapped Spider in the face twice – back and forth – and then punched him in the gut. Spider held onto the side of the trundle for dear life, his face nearly scraping the rushing highway below.
Driver Elvis laughed like a loon, and began to crank “Viva Las Vegas” as loud as he could from the tow truck’s eight-track hi-fi.
“Motherfucker,” said Cat. “The little Elvis is trained in the martial arts.” She narrowed her eyes and put the pedal to the floor. Spider pulled away and the speedometer climbed to eighty. Cat weaved in and out of traffic and the tow truck followed, trying to catch up in order to bring PE within striking distance. The black and whites hung back. You could tell they wanted to see who would win.
Spider and PE came together again and traded blows. With each connection, their trundles swung wide and they had to scramble to stay on board. After watching in desperation for a few tense minutes, Cat had an idea. She stuck her head out the window and looked at the phone number printed on the side of the tow truck. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed. The phone number notes were the first seven bars of “Love Me Tender.”
Passenger Elvis was teetering on the edge of his trundle after throwing a punch when the phone rang in his tight, tight pantsuit. The sudden vibration in his groin surprised him and put him off balance – just long enough for Spider to bring an elbow down on his neck and send him rolling into a ditch. His sunglasses went flying and Spider snatched them out of the air.
Driver Elvis saw his friend fall and he slammed on his brakes and jackknifed the tow-truck in the fast lane. The trundle behind him spun out like a whip and slammed into a cop car, popping its tire, but the other cop car continued to follow.
Spider climbed in through the shattered hatchback and sat down next to me in the backseat. We passed the Trebuchet city limit sign.
“Lose the cop,” Spider said to Cat. “We’re almost there.”
Spider pulled out a butterfly knife and sliced off my safety belt. He gave me a malevolent grin, climbed back into the front, put on his own safety belt, and put on Passenger Elvis’s stolen sunglasses. Cat barreled down sidestreets and through subdivisions, twisting the wheel and sending me flying all over the car, slamming into both doors like a pinball.
We couldn’t hear sirens anymore, but Cat hopped the curb of an industrial park anyway and went zigzagging through iron-grey farming equipment and light-blue grain elevators. We popped over a scar of railroad tracks which made me slam my head on the roof, and then we ran a few red lights, made a sharp left, and tore through an empty parking lot until we were hidden in an alley behind a Piggly Wiggly.
The car stopped, and then it hit me: the motion, the damage, the speed, and the risk. I fumbled the door open with my last dizzy lurch, fell out into the street, and threw up all over the concrete. I felt my pocket picked and my wallet taken as I retched. The door slammed behind me and I stood up. I reached for the handle, but the door locked as my fingers closed around it. Spider and Cat waved to me and gave each other a big kiss as they rolled away.
“See you in an hour,” mouthed Cat through the glass.
Those sons of bitches.