a short story by
A. James Hindle

Chicago — That Toddin’ Town.

No idea what that means, but we were looking forward to finding out. Lennard Todd (Lenny) and I, Kelan Hart, were on a two-week Midwestern U.S.A. adventure from Canada to Florida to visit a friend.

Travelling secondary highways had provided a scenic and relaxing trip so far. But now, nearing Chicago, in our eagerness to experience the big city, we were headed onto a Chicago-bound interstate with our old but so far reliable VW Beetle. Traffic didn’t seem that bad for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, heavier and faster than we had been experiencing, but it would provide a quicker arrival to the Windy City, and for that, it seemed worth it.

It wasn’t long before the reality of travelling an American interstate highway reared its true nature. The highway grew increasingly crowded. As we drew nearer Chicago, it morphed into multiple lanes of teeming, high-speed vehicles, passing us on both sides like we were a bicycle in a motorcycle race. The weather was warm and humid, and with the windows down, the traffic noise became intense. Speeding vehicles rushing past, the wind whipping into our open windows, and the constant crowding roar of transport trucks edging by us added to an already pressured driving atmosphere. Where could all these people be going in such a hurry? They were anything but forgiving of our slower pace. Scowls of anger and disgust shot our way from motorists forced to change lanes to get past us — most with an erect middle finger and a blast from their horn. I had the gas peddle to the floor. The VW was going as fast as it could. We were the dawdling Clampetts, and traffic was no fan of our Beverly Hillbillies driving skills.

I was amazed at how this maze of chaos moved like a flock of starlings in almost poetic harmony —  fast, bumper-to-bumper, switching lanes when there seemed no place to move into. Signal lights were non-existent for those changes, just horn blasts, which were apparently the more valued driving aid.

I had never been so nervous driving. If the approach to the city was a sample of Chicago’s traffic, perhaps I should save my visit for another time.

I had to find an escape route from this harried experience. The further we progressed, the worse it became. I did not know where we were or where the exits would take us, if, in fact, I could reach one of them. With so many lanes of traffic, I was always one lane short of the exit ramp.

“Lenny,” I shouted, “I think we should find a slower route. I don’t know where we’re going. Find our location on the map and get us out of here “

My eyes moved from the traffic in front to the rearview mirrors and back. As I checked the right-side mirror, I glanced at Lenny to see if he had heard me over the roar of traffic. I swear, his colour had faded from tan to a muted shade of grey. His hands hugged his knees in a security grip; his eyes darted from left to right as vehicles sped past.

“LENNARD!” I shouted, hoping to snap him back to reality. He jolted to consciousness.

“Do you think you could grab the map and figure out where these freeway exits will take us?”

“Yeah, uh, sorry,” he said. “Right away.” He fumbled for the map, stuck between the seats. “Glad you’re driving.”

“Yeah! Me too . . . , I think,” I muttered.

We passed another exit ramp.

“A guy could run out of gas trying to get off this stupid road,” I shouted over the traffic noise. “Hang on, I’m going to take that ramp up ahead. If we make it, we can figure out our location later.”

The off-ramp coming up was two lanes to my right. I put on my signal light and checked over my shoulder for an opening.

I don’t know if it was the confusion of seeing an actual signal light or the relief of hopefully getting rid of us, but traffic in both lanes to my right slowed to allow me to cross. I wasted no time at the invitation. The VW shot across the two lanes and onto the exit ramp without incident and with no one following.

‘Oh, my Gawd-I’ve done it!’

To show my gratitude, I tooted my horn and waved a Thank You to the freeway traffic.

“Well, that was fun?” Lenny quipped. “If we decide to try one of those again, let me out first.”

“If it’s alright with you, what do you say we just skip the rest of Chicago? I don’t know if I could handle any more of that,” I said.

Lenny grimaced with a smile. “Yeah! I’m all for that. This ain’t no Edmonton!”

“Once we know where we are, find us a route south. But . . not an expressway.”

We needed to find our exact location before we could plan a leave of Chicago, but the first two streets we came to had no name signage. We’d have to stop and ask the locals where we were.

We were in one of the poorer Chicago neighbourhoods. Two and three-story tenement buildings bordered both sides of the street, some with shops on the main floor garnished with either metal gated coverings for security or closed and boarded over. Few people were in the street, mostly of ethnic background, all showing growling looks of suspicion as we slowly passed, in search of a friendly face we could ask directions from. Life was obviously hard for these people. There were no vehicles on the street , other than a car abandoned against the curb on blocks of bricks, its wheels missing, and windows smashed.

It felt like a set for the movie, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ We were like visitors, touring a local attraction, but this was no tourist lure. Another intersection, again no street signs, but at least traffic was not a problem. We continued looking for a sign of where we were.

On the street ahead, a group of locals had gathered around a Lincoln Town Car, parked curbside, facing us.

Lenny was nervous. “That looks a little threatening.”

It had the feel of a crime boss who had taken the time to come out and flaunt himself with his peons, and we were driving into it. I had already passed the corner; there was no altering course.

I picked up speed, thinking I could travel past the gathering without arousing concern. The small crowd turned their attention from the Lincoln to face us. The driver was giving instructions to those at his window. As we approached, three large members of the group stepped away from the Lincoln into the street, blocking our passage.

“Should we stop and ask them for directions?’ I said, glancing at Lenny.

“Jeez, no!” Lenny shouted. “Are you serious?”

I wouldn’t have stopped if all the tires went flat.

This was obviously not the neighbourhood welcoming committee. An individual near the driver’s door picked up a brick lying in the street and stepped into our path. I assumed the brick was intended as a weapon to make us stop. We were closing in. I was travelling well over 30 mph and was now about forty feet from the gathering. Three others, intending to block our path, had moved to safely behind the Lincoln. I swerved toward the one holding the brick. He had remained in the street near the front corner of the boss’s car — his weapon raised over his shoulder, prepared to launch. With the VW veering directly at him, he panicked, leaping over the corner of the Lincoln’s hood toward the front of the car. As he did, the brick slipped from his grasp, sailing through the air, landing on Lincoln’s windshield. We zipped past the car, missing it by inches, but close enough that the driver reflexed to his right to get out of the way of a collision.

It had been enough distraction; we were past them and still picking up speed. I heard the windshield smash when the brick landed. As we sped away, there was an array of shouting. The VW’s gas pedal remained against the floor as we skidded around a corner, then made a right a short distance further. I knew the Lincoln would be after us. Hopefully, the smashed windshield and having to reverse direction with such a large vehicle would slow him down enough for us to make our escape. Approaching an on-ramp to a major thoroughfare, my flight path was set. If we could reach it without the Lincoln’s driver spotting us, we’d possibly be safe. The VW shot up the on-ramp — no one was following us yet. Pulling into traffic, my view of the ramp disappeared from my mirror.

“Watch behind us for a bit to see if we lost them,” I said to Lenny. But he was already looking out the back window.

“I think we’re safe. Nothing so far,” he said. “Excellent driving, Mr Bond!”

We had entered a freeway with a lot of traffic, but at least it was no interstate, just busy enough that we could get lost in the bustle. I wanted to put as much distance between us and that neighbourhood as possible. We continued for several minutes, then exited onto a less busy street. At last, Lenny could see street signs and find our location on the map.

“Should I just keep going in this direction?” I asked.

“Uh! Yeah! We should be able to get on Highway 1 if you turn right at the second light up ahead. Some of these highways south are marked as a ‘Dixie Route,’ and that’s one of them. They look like they run all the way to Florida.”

Dixie Route had a nice ring. At the traffic light, a Hwy-1 sign, pointing to the right, confirmed Lenny’s navigation was correct, but, once again, I was in the wrong lane to make the turn.

“Dang, Lenny. Sorry, I couldn’t make that corner. Maybe I can take some side streets up ahead and get back to it.”

“Don’t sweat it,” he said. “We can take Highway 41. It’s just a mile or so up ahead. It might be better anyway.”

A few minutes later, we were on Highway 41,  leaving the hustle of the City of Chicago. We pulled into a McDonalds. It was time for a quick snack — my first break from Interstate travel and that Chicago gang that still had me looking over my shoulder. It wasn’t time for lunch, but we had started our day early and I was hungry. It gave me a chance to check out Lenny’s planned route to Florida.
There it was. A straight line to Florida.

“Looks like a good choice,” I said. “Kinda sad we’re not going to see Chicago, but it sure feels good to be leaving.”

Lenny nodded with a grin and a mouthful of burger. “Mmm! Yeh!”

We finished our brunch and returned to the car. I checked the map one last time and pulled out into traffic, southbound for Florida.

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