“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”
— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”
Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.
It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.
“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.
Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.
It happens when I’m about half a football field behind her. A beat-up brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move around a white panel truck and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.
I see this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself for the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it. The picoseconds stretch out and I start thinking about how I’ll stop behind her, prevent cars from running over her, stop the bleeding, call an ambulance, watch them load her into the back.
She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.
And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.
She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.
Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.
My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.
And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.
I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.
Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.
We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.
But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”
I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.
Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.