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West of the Autobahn
The battered ’68 Transporter hurtled towards the Swiss border amidst a thick cloud of black exhaust and the thin tin-can whine of ZZ Top turned too-loud on a lousy stereo. The five men inside were Americans, but you’d never know it by the way they drove—fast and wild enough to put anyone on the Autobahn to shame. After many hours of driving over the winding mountain highway, the speedometer finally broke 170 km/h, and Tom peered over an old edition of AutoWeek at the driver.
“Maybe we should slow down,” he suggested.
The driver, Steve, wrenched the car around another turn and licked his lips.
“Why’s that, Tommy?” he asked, his grinning eyes shifting rapidly between his friend and the road.
“Because you’re going over a hundred miles an hour. We’ve survived a whole month; let’s at least make it to the airport in one piece.”
Steve licked his lips again, and his grin widened—the old engine moaned and the speedometer crept up another ten miles. There was snickering from the back seat.
“You tell him, Steve!” Dennis crowed from the backseat. Steve glanced at him in the rearview—all that was visible of him was his orange hair and an inch of his pasty forehead, but he winked at it anyways.
“Tom, you gonna take that?” John said, immediately siding against his friend. “No brother of mine’s gonna get walked on like that, man.”
“Cool it, hotrod,” Paul said, shoving John good-naturedly. “If you’re gonna waste your energy sticking up for something, at least waste it on something worthwhile.”
“Thanks, Paul,” Tom said, turning back to his magazine.
Their tour across Europe had been the lucky break of a lifetime—when Tom, Paul, and John’s elderly grandmother had passed away, she had left the three brothers a generous sum of money which, as she had directed in her will, was to be put towards something to further their education. So, with Steve and Dennis, they’d taken off for Europe—the trip had hardly been a cultural experience, though. They were just there for the beaches and the bratwurst. Finally though, their month of adventures had come to a close, and the long flight back to Montana was leaving from Zürich in six hours. Until then, they were stuck in the Transporter together, with the stinking A/C tousling their hair and the thick blanket of empty cans and chip bags crackling operatically beneath their feet.
The car careened around another bend.
“Hey,” Dennis said suddenly. “Hey.” He leaned forward and cranked the volume even higher as ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man came on. “I love this song.” In the rearview, his ginger head began bouncing back and forth. Then, he began to bawl, “Silk suit, black tie, I don’t need a reason why...” Steve looked slowly around at Tom, and raised his eyebrows. Tom grimaced back. Taking his hand from the wheel, Steve reached over and turned the volume as high as it would go. The stereo wailed in protest, but Dennis beamed—obviously, the kid just couldn’t take a hint. Joined by John now, he hollered at the top of his lungs, “They come runnin’ just as fast as they can, ‘Cause every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man…”
“Can it, guys,” Steve shouted over the music.
“Gold watch, diamond ring, I ain’t missin’ not a single thing…”
“I said can it!” Steve bellowed, flicking off the music. “There’s a tollbooth up here.” The speedometer plummeted to 110km/h as the station neared. A man came out from the booth and waved the car towards the next lane. The guys threw each other a swift glance.
“They didn’t do that at the other tollbooths, did they?” Paul asked after a beat.
“Just customs,” Steve said, waving his hand. He pulled the car over into the lane and was immediately waved into another. He shifted the Transporter into park and the car rolled to a stop. Instantly, a massive white van screeched into existence beside them. The heavy door flew open, and a dozen lithe soldiers piled out, brandishing automatic guns and shouting in rapid French.
All five men in the vehicle yelped and jumped, Steve recoiling so violently the old Transporter finally gave, and his chair collapsed beneath him. The soldiers threw the door open and tore the guys out, dragging them from their seats and slamming against the side of the vehicle, patting them down and cuffing them up like they’d done it a thousand times—and, no doubt, they had. Above the pandemonium, Dennis’s voice was shrill crying over and over again, “No habla… no habla…!”
Several of the soldiers hopped into the Transporter and began tossing down luggage. The bags were ripped open, the contents scoured, and tossed into a pile. Duffle bags of clothes, bags of cameras and personal belongings, beautifully wrapped gifts, souvenirs from the Vatican. The pile grew. Meanwhile, the contents of the Americans’ pockets were undergoing a similar process—stripped, examined, sorted. Stripped, examined, sorted. They were too shocked to be anything but petrified. Too scared to do anything but stare at each other with wide eyes.
The soldiers flipped through their wallets, found their passports and visas. Once, the word “American” was audibly muttered in a flurry of French, but still no one spoke to them.
John began to blubber. Paul nudged him with a toe.
“Don’t worry, Johnny,” he whispered. “It’ll be cool, we can take these guys—”
“Take these guys?” Steve hissed from John’s other side. “Are you out of your mind?”
“C’mon, I still got some fight—”
“Will you at least act like you have a brain?” Steve snapped, wriggling beneath the heavy presence of the French soldiers.
“Hey,” Dennis piped up, “That’s not cool, man, don’t snap, we’re all scared…”
“Don’t snap?” Steve’s voice rose half an octave, yet somehow still managed to stay at a low whisper. “We’ve just been… ambushed by the French, we’re being held at freaking gunpoint—”
The voice was calm and mellifluous, and at its sound, the five guys turned around. The shortest of the soldiers stood behind them, his weapon hanging at his side. After a moment of quiet, he said, “You may get off of your car. They will not shoot you.”
Realizing they were still plastered against the Transporter, the Americans tentatively pulled away and faced the soldier.
“So... what’s going on?” Paul asked uncertainly.
“Problem,” the soldier said. “Problem is that you were driving 180 on a 140 road.” The guys took a long moment to process this.
“Speeding?” Steve finally said. “That’s what this is about? We were speeding?”
“But…” Dennis said weakly, “There were no speed limits in Germany…”
“This is not Germany. This is France.”
“Right,” said Tom. “So, will we be ticketed or something?”
“You must pay the fine. €50. If you cannot pay the fine,” he continued monotonously, “Your driver will have to come with us.” He glanced at Steve, who shifted uncomfortably and licked his lips again.
“€50…” Tom murmured. “That’s like… 70 bucks.”
“Listen,” Paul said, “Our flight leaves back to the United States in a few hours. You can bill us. But we’ve really got to go catch our flight.”
“You four may go,” the soldier said coolly. “But he stays.” He nodded once again towards Steve.
The five looked forlornly into the still-growing pile of searched luggage.
Beautifully wrapped gifts… souvenirs from the Vatican.
Suddenly, all their wallets felt incredibly empty.
“Ah, can we talk a second?” Steve grabbed Tom’s elbow and dragged him around to face to other three.
“Alright,” Dennis said. “So Steve will stay, I guess, then as soon as we get the money we can—”
“No way, man!” Steve snarled. “There is no way I am going with those creeps—you might never see me alive again! Why don’t you go with them, Ginger? It’d make the car ride back a whole lot quieter!”
“Hey—” John started, but Tom was louder.
“Enough,” he said. “No one is staying behind.”
“But we can’t pay that fine, man,” Dennis said. “We’re broke.”
“We are not broke. We’ve gotta have some loose change somewhere, we can’t have spent it all. Go through the car or somethin’, I dunno,” Tom said. “It’s not that much. We’re gonna find that money.”
The Americans spent the next hour combing through their every possession, from the scattered piles the soldiers had extracted from their pockets to the darkest regions of the Transporter’s barren floor. Each coin they found brought a short burst of excitement, and bills amounted to pure joy—finally, though, the men were forced to admit they had scavenged every last cent from their belongings, and turn to the meager pile of cash they had accumulated.
“What do you think?” Paul asked after a moment. “We got enough?”
One of the soldiers grumped as he circled outside the group eying the money irritably.
“Whatever,” John sighed, approaching the money. “Let’s just count it. Get it over with.” Together, the five pushed the coins aside and stacked the bills. It took several minutes to properly sort out all the foreign coins and papers, but at last, the men stood back from their work. The short officer walked over, placing one foot in front of the other, gazing unsympathetically at each man one at a time. He stopped before the stack and began recounting it, running his fingers over each coin slowly… he almost smiled as the Americans grew more and more agitated. Before he could finish, though, there came a shout from where the soldiers were still sifting through their things. The short officer barked an answer and hurried over. The American threw each other a nervous glance.
“What now?” John whined.
The short officer turned around, and held for them to see a small, brightly colored ball.
“What is this?” he demanded.
“…It’s a hacky sack,” said Tom. “It’s a game. It’s fun.” At this, the officer grunted, and rolled the hacky sack between his thumb and forefinger, letting the beans inside hiss and crackle against each other. He put it to his nose and took a whiff, narrowing his eyes and pinching the hacky sack again. He said something in French, and one of the other soldiers pulled a pocket knife from the air and took the ball.
“Hang on!” Steve stopped them.
“Steve,” Tom muttered.
“No, look, let us show you,” Steve pressed. He laid his hand on the hacky sack, and slowly pulled until the soldier released it. Steve turned back and faced his friends, who met each others’ eyes once again.
Dennis grinned. “Circle up?”
“Circle up,” Steve replied. They stepped back, and Steve dropped the hacky sack.
The soldiers watched in silence.
The Americans kicked the hacky sack to each other. Knee, to foot, to elbow, to knee… this was a very serious sport, and they didn’t usually get the chance to perform for an audience. The hacky sack bounced expertly between them, hissing each time it bit flesh. Finally, Steve caught it again, and looked back over at the soldiers hopefully. He said simply, “Hacky sack.”
The short officer sighed and rolled his eyes.
“You have enough money,” he said, waving a hand. “You may go.” He said something quickly in French, and the soldiers began piling back into their huge white van. As the short officer breezed past the Americans, he pocketed the cash. The door slammed shut, and the van sped away.
The guys stood silently outside the Transporter for several seconds. Finally, Dennis began to grin slowly. Tom clapped Steve on the back, and they all laughed and exchanged a few high fives.
“Guys,” Paul said, “We’ve got a plane to catch.”
The five climbed back into the Transporter, Steve sitting a whole six inches shorter on his broken chair. He revved the engine a couple times, and after much grumbling, it was coaxed to life. He jerked the shift back into drive, and took off back down the highway. After a few minutes of silence, he flicked Sharp Dressed Man back on. He began singing, “And cufflinks, stick pin, When I step out I’m gonna do you in…” Dennis and John began singing, then Paul and Tom. “They come runnin’ just as fast as they can, ‘Cause every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man.”