It had been unmercifully hot. Temperatures had pegged above one hundred five degrees every day that week. They hadn't cooled until late in the evening, long after bedtime. John stepped out of the air conditioned building where he worked for the state's Public Broadcasting System into a blast of hot air plus the heat reflected from the sidewalk. He hated what would come next.
The inside of their car, an older model Volkswagen Fox station wagon, was hot enough to bake bread. He unlocked the doors and swung them open to let the accumulated heat escape. After several moments, he reached into the back seat for the bath towel that was kept there. He draped it over the driver's seat. The towel would insulate him from the hot seat material and absorb the sweat that was already pouring from his body.
"Might as well get it over with," he grumbled, closing the passenger side door and getting into the driver's seat.
He started the tiny four-cylinder engine and closed his door. After a moment, he turned on the air conditioner. The compressor almost stalled the engine when it kicked in. John rolled his window down a couple of inches to let the incoming cool air drive the hot air out of the car.
He engaged the gears and backed out of his parking place. He waited for an opening in the rush hour traffic on the side street beside the broadcast building. Several state government buildings stood in the business park next to the PBS offices, and everyone was going home at the same time.
Minutes later he was in a line of commuter traffic approaching the downtown freeway's on-ramp. He stopped at the junction of the on- and off- ramps, waiting for the light to clear. He hated this part. It was a steep climb up the ramp, in congested traffic. He'd have to merge into a downhill stretch of freeway that dropped off the foothill bench into the city center. If someone ahead of him poked along going up the ramp, waiting until the last minute to accelerate into the 70-mph traffic stream, he'd struggle with the under-powered VW to get it up to a safe speed to merge with traffic.
The light changed. He floored the VW into a hard right turn, and started up the ramp.
"Oh, damn! Today it's gonna be a sluggard holding me back."
The car ahead was a new model with a big engine. The two women in the front seat were chatting, turning their heads, and waving a cell phone. They crawled up the ramp at thirty-five miles an hour. When the ramp flared level to merge into the freeway traffic, the driver turned her head to see what was coming. When she did, she floored the sedan's gas pedal and sped away. John was left behind, trying to get the little VW to accelerate. He would soon run out of merging room and his car was barely responding.
A normally aspirated engine loses much of its horsepower in hot air. Heated air is thin with less oxygen for combustion. John frantically looked for an opening in the speeding traffic while watching the concrete barrier on his right. It began to crowd him into the traffic lanes.
"Ahhhh—yes!" he exulted, seeing an opening he could duck into.
The little engine was screaming in a lower gear. He shifted up and looked into his side mirror. This was a double-merge situation. He'd just merged out of the short lane that was the on-ramp, but he must merge to the left again. The lane would end in a quarter mile as the freeway pinched from four lanes down to three. He must get over quickly or he'd be scraping another concrete barrier. Sweat poured down his forehead into his eyes, down his neck, and his armpits felt swampy. The air conditioner blew cool air but the heat from the freeway pavement and the surrounding traffic was overpowering.
He frantically searched for an opening so he could merge. The speed limit in this section was posted at 45 miles an hour, but that was ridiculous. Nobody backed off from the 70 and 75 miles per hour traffic flow from the "flying wye" interchange at the main freeway, down this steep spur leading into town. A sea of brake lights would come on when people slowed during the last quarter mile before the connector stub ended at the main traffic lights, and City Boulevard began. John glanced at his speedometer: 55 and climbing. He was already over the legal limit, but 15 mph slower than the flow of traffic.
His attention was diverted by a loud roar beside him. A big man in a black biker's vest was crowding into his door, revving his engine with ear-splitting bursts and shouting at him. The bike crowded closer, so close the rider could kick the side of John's door. John tried to speed up, but it was no use. The little VW was already straining. The biker stayed right in his door, crowding against him. John glanced ahead. He was running out of lane! The biker was trying to run him into the wall!
"Shit!" John thought. He let up the gas and tapped his brake, looking for an opening, some way to veer to the left into the other lane and away from the approaching barrier wall. The bike moved ahead, but only briefly. The biker braked and dropped back beside John's door, shouting and raving. John could hear nothing over the roar of the bike, through his rolled up window.
"No time ... no room. Move over, damn it!" John thought. He had no choice. He steered to the left, easing his struggling car towards the biker. The biker veered off and suddenly pulled away in a deafening roar with the acceleration that only a massive V-twin motorcycle can manage. The bike was gone. John was left shaking with fear and rage. He barely noticed the bike brake for the big row of stoplights at the bottom, to take a hard right turn onto a side street. John went straight through when the lights changed and made his way home.
Later that day he'd calmed down and almost put the incident out of his mind. Jane had made a gallon of sun tea, now served up with ice, and a large chilled salad. They'd enjoyed a quiet evening with a few friends who had come to visit.
John was seeing his friends to the door when he noticed a city police cruiser parked by the curb in front. Two officers, a young man who looked to be in his mid-20s, and an older officer, middle-aged with graying hair, approached across John's lawn.
"May I help you, officers?" he asked.
The older officer moved off to one side, to observe. The young officer asked John:
"Mr. Smith, is that your white VW Fox in the driveway?"
"Yes. Is there some problem?"
"Were you on the freeway connector today just after five?"
The questioning went on for a short time. John explained that, yes, there was an encounter with a motorcycle. He explained how a demented biker had tried to run him off the freeway into the barrier wall; how the biker sped up and slowed down to stay in John's door when John tried to evade him; and how John was finally forced to veer to the left to avoid crashing against the barrier wall.
"Mr. Smith, here is a citation I've written out. You must sign at the bottom, and keep the original copy for yourself."
"Citation? For what? I've just explained that an aggressive biker tried to run me off the freeway! He assaulted me!"
"I'm sorry, sir. A citizen made a complaint against you, and this citation is for reckless driving. You can appeal in court. Have a nice day, sir!"
John stood rooted, frozen, horrified! How could this happen? He looked over to the older officer, for some reason, some sense. The older officer gave John a pitying glance, turned away, and walked toward the cruiser without looking back. The younger officer strode briskly away, tucking the ticket book into his belt pouch. In moments, the cruiser was gone. The fading day resumed its normal quiet of the older neighborhood. John stood shaking with anger and disbelief!
He was 56 years old. He'd started driving when he was 12 years old, when an old rancher taught him how to drive a WW-II surplus Jeep in his ranch fields. He'd been licensed and driving continuously since he was 16 years old; had never had an accident or a moving violation. He had a perfect driving record. Now he was faced with a reckless driving charge, one of the worst violations short of vehicular manslaughter.
"It will be $1,200 in advance to answer the charges," his lawyer advised, "and another $3,200 if we go to trial. Of course, that will be the first installment. If this thing drags on, it will cost more."
John was determined that he would fight this charge regardless of the cost. He was the victim. He had done nothing wrong except try to avoid that madman on the motorcycle, and he had a perfect driving record to defend.
"I want you to go straight to the Department of Motor Vehicles and get a certified copy of your driving record. We'll need that to go with the copy of the police report that I've requested. That's about it. Go home, get that copy of your record, and I'll call you."
It was a tough week for John. He found himself unable to sleep. The incident played over and over in his mind, with the cops on the front lawn, listening patiently while he poured his guts out to them, and getting the ticket handed to him in return.
"I should have lied and said I wasn't there. It was not me, and not my white VW on the freeway. Whatever that biker said was wrong. It was his word against mine! He had no proof! He got the license number wrong!"