The Judge

Breaking each minute by the length of a track, measuring time by the mark of a chalk. The few hardcore fans in the stands at Raceway Park sized the speed by the block of an engine, and bet on the skill of the driver behind his rolled-up window. An open track morning. Idling with impatience, the line of cars revved intimidation, their lacquered color and chrome signaling their driver was no man to mess with, on the road or off. Dante lit a cigarette and blew the smoke toward the shotgun seat. A gray, shifting cloud, but it didn’t bother Remy, who thrived on any kind of exhaust. Not so strange for a man who’d caught fire.
            Dante would have offered to pool his overtime with Remy for their motel, one with a star for an “i” in its neon sign, but somehow the bill, served on a plastic tray, was taken care of, down to the Dum-Dum lollipop with the question- mark wrapper. Across the street, there was baseball on the TV above the bar, a team they hated playing a team they hated more, and a round every couple of innings until it was time to cut himself off. For he had not driven down to drink in a dreary part of New Jersey. The drive was dedicated to Dante’s Buccaneer Red 1970 Pontiac GTO. The 455 was finally large enough for Dante to contend, and he knew because he’d built it himself. But Remy found it for him. He had hustled the GTO off an old man whose kids wouldn’t let him drive anymore, even though the state had declined to press charges. His rheumy eyes gawked at the car, as if he was trying to remember what 1970 had been like. It still smelled like an electrical fire, the worst kind. A hatchet had caved in the passenger’s side door. Dante paid the man with a few hundreds and a six-pack—also Remy’s idea, a nice touch.
            Remy showed him pictures from Hot Rod about how fine the car could look, even without a bikini model sliding across its hood. Dante ordered antique parts from states where he would never drive. Rebuilding encompassed an entire season of baseball games broadcast on the car’s original AM radio. In the coldest part of each morning, dressed in oil-stained flannel, Dante worked underneath the car. He could almost believe that some morning he would turn a wrench just enough that he would arrive at the year before he was born.
            Now the other street racers twisted behind him, Dante almost had to lean forward to peer around Remy in shotgun, to evaluate the competition. Dante could tell Remy wanted to get out, walk around, shake hands with the other drivers, and say “beautiful” a lot. He leaned across him, with a “ ’scuse me buddy,” and unrolled the window by hand. With a smooth wave, Remy seemed to slide out the window even as it unrolled. Especially now that the line was motionless except for double exhaust pipes roaring every few seconds, rivals jumping out of their restorations to raise other hoods. In their impatience to get to the track to test their engines, some cars were still stripped to primer. Those would be the most ferocious.
            Dante stubbed out his cigarette and studied the rearview mirror at those prowling behind him, and back at the windshield to study the start line, to which the GTO gunned ever closer. There were his prayers on the radio and his bare hands on the wheel.
            This was what Dante wanted. “I don’t care about winning. I want the numbers. I just gotta drive a quarter mile. The Olds 442. That or the Camaro. I can take them.” Did it matter that everyone else was sleeping off their Saturday night? But memory, elusive as smoke: he and Remy collecting Hot Wheels cars, driving them through custom-looped tracks lit by sparklers, and when a car caught fire, they watched it burn black.
            “You’re in the Judge, man.” Remy chewed on a striped straw; he’d quit smoking before he died. They roared forward, the idle running like the heat of his apprehension. As always, somehow he slid beneath every competitor’s hood. “One 350 after another, and you get the 442.”
            “You useta bring me luck.”
            Remy laughed. “It got burned outta me.” Indeed, it had been a spectacular crash. Around the track were flags and speakers, the bleachers echoing with incomprehensible introductions, and then the starting line ahead. No music, no cheering. Just the clock and the speedometer.
            Remy stuck out his hand. “This is where I get out.”
            “Why? You don’t weigh nothing.”
            “Yeah, but you weigh twice as much. I like how you kept buying me beers last night.”
            “Waste of money.”
            Dante caught the taillights of the Olds, glassy as his eyes. He didn’t say “goodbye” or “thank you” to Remy, and then he wished he did. Remy was loping by the other cars and drivers, taller than most of them, so Dante followed him through the rearview, and then he lost him for good in the crowd, the way you can try to catch smoke in your fist, and end up without an ash.
            Remy had never asked to drive the Judge. He was just content to watch the highway blow by. And the last time the GTO broke down (and all old cars do, nothing against Dante), Remy was the one who stuck his thumb out and got a Chevelle to kick open a door on the shoulder of the road for him. A wave of marijuana smoke nearly knocked him back, but he dove in, laughing already. Remy left Dante and the Judge resting, both of them wishing it was 1970 again. But sorrowful and sad, Remy vanished on a distant highway in a cloud of fire. A tow truck showed up for Dante around sunset, and the driver wouldn’t take a dime, as if Remy had paid him in full first.
            Dante’s impatience stopped him with a traffic light almost at the starting line, and the echoes from the engines before and after him were so loud as to be almost physically impenetrable. The acceleration through the lowering sky guided by his hands on the wheel. This was the piece of him that would go out into the world, a quarter mile of time and space, and chalk him with a number. The Judge shivered with high-octane fuel, and Dante could feel it coursing through his own veins. He thought he could see Remy open the passenger-side door, laughing at his fake-out, that he would leave Dante on his own before the race they’d both been waiting for. Dante shut the door for him, right before an official arm waved him forward.
            Dante’s hands slid over the wheel. He wiped them on his jeans, and gunned the engine, felt it reverberate through him, as if he were just another part of the car. He shot a look at his right. It would be the 442. He tried not to choke on his own exhaust. This was his chance, Remy gave him a blackened thumb’s up.
            The light turned green and the vast roadway shrank to the size of an alleyway. There was a roar, louder than it could have been, amplified by an equally jacked competitor. There was Dante’s heart, flat back against the seat, the oxygen sucked out of the car. The windows were shut against drag. Smoke planed off the car, and the body shimmied at this speed, but any car would. There was a radio playing, and then it stopped, ready for its sonic boom, like he’d broken the sound barrier. He could feel Remy dissipating, who did not need to win this race, for he had his own key to immortality. The Judge’s vinyl interior sweat each second, pulsing its own desire to be the car to cross the finish line. Into the hurtling digital seconds and under a wave of a checkered flag, the Judge made the race its own. The 442’s chrome tailpipes would not reflect anything but an empty track.
            The smoke had not cleared past the Judge, now palpitating, so Dante couldn’t even punch his fist at the final time, but the man with the chalk was there, inscribing his victory on the back window. Dante would mark it later, shake hands, victory lap through the parking lot, change the oil, and check the Hoosier tires. He would’ve thanked Remy, but there were no words and there was no more Remy.

Alison Ruth, MFA, is a poet, short story author, and novelist. Her poetry is published in Harpur Palate, Ellipsis, Common Ground Review, The Helix, and in anthologies Meta-Land and On the Verge (Poet’s Press, 2016 and 2020). Her short stories, nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, are published in J Journal, CutBank, Confrontation, Chagrin River Review, Curbside Splendor, Southern Indiana Review, G.W. Review, and Tulane Literary Magazine. Her novels are Near-Mint Cinderella (Aqueous Books, 2014), nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and Starlight Black and the Misfortune Society (Prizm Books, 2015).