21. The Purple Impala

Denny Wilcox was a police officer. He served with Metro for almost fifteen years. The end of his career started with a simple enough traffic stop–four Mexican kids in a twenty-year old Impala painted bright purple rolling on rims that were weighted to stay still when the car moved, giving the illusion that the car was floating.

“They were obviously gang-bangers,” Wilcox told me. “Covered in tattoos. I was giving them shit, all ‘Hey, ese’ just to see if it would get a rise out of them. The little one in the back seat said, ‘You know, we speak English,’ but the driver said, ‘Let it go.’ I didn’t have a good reason, other than that they looked like trouble to have pulled them over. And they didn’t give me a good reason to keep them stopped. I wish to God either thing would have happened. Either make it so I never pulled them over or give me a reason to keep them a little longer. But I let them go. They said, ‘Thank you, officer,” and then, as I was watching them drive off, right when they crossed Thompson Lane… and they had the green… a car comes out of nowhere and just plows into them.

“You’ve got to know those Impalas are like tanks. Still, it was nothing but a pile of twisted metal and broken glass. I have seen my share of dead bodies. But I had never seen someone die right in front of me. And they all died–those four guys and the driver of the other car. We never did figure out why she didn’t stop. Tox came back clean.

“I don’t know.

“I went to tell their families. Guillermo Cortez? His mom fell to the ground when I told her. She didn’t even make a noise. She just laid there like she was waiting for the earth to swallow her. His cousin Jose was the scrawny one in the back. His girlfriend had just had a baby. When I showed up, she said, ‘So, he’s dead,’ like she was just expecting it. ‘Who did it?’ and I told her it was just an accident. She looked at me like she couldn’t make sense of what I was saying. ‘How can that be?’ Frankie Hernandez’s family wouldn’t even open the door for me. I knew they were home, but they wouldn’t answer. I found someone three doors down who went and talked to them. They never did claim his body.”

“Weird,” I said.

“No, I get it,” he said, “They were afraid to even be on our radar, afraid they’d be deported. And the fourth one was just called ‘Sarge.’ If he had a name, we never learned it. If there was someone to tell he was gone, I never found them. Of all of them, that was the worst. Someone out there must have given a shit about that kid, you know? And, as far as I know, they never knew what happened to him.”

Wilcox was silent a long time. I’d come to expect that from folks. Men, especially, seemed to need long silences in order to get their stories out.

“Here’s the thing,” His voice startled both of us. “Four months later, I’m driving down Nolensville Road and I see a purple Impala, just like theirs. And it’s raining, not hard, but still and they don’t have their headlights on. So, I flash the car over and before I even get out of my car, I run the plates and they come back to Guillermo Cortez. I’m still thinking this has got to be the biggest motherfuck of a coincidence. But, hey, maybe there’s a cousin and he’s got himself a purple Impala in honor of his dead relative. So, I get out of the car and I walk up to the window.

“And there is Guillermo Cortez. As real as you are. And he looks at me and he gives me a sly grin and he says, ‘Officer Wlcox, you need a ride?’ and Jose says, ‘It’s okay. We speak English.’ and I can’t even scream. I’m just standing there, my hands shaking and my mouth open and as I’m watching them, not an arm’s reach away from me, the car just fades from view. Like a fog lifting.”

“Holy shit,” I say.

“Well, you can bet that, once my captain hears that I ran the plate of a dead kid, thinking I was pulling him over, I got a free trip to the shrink.”

He paused again, to take a long drink of beer. “It happened again. Not just once. I saw that damn car all the time. I just never told anyone I was still seeing it. But one night, I said yes.”

“Wait, what?”

“I pulled them over. Cortez asked me if I wanted a ride and I said yes. I got in the car with them.”

“You got in the ghost car?!”

Wilcox took another long swig off of his beer.

“I can’t really explain it. You know how it is, sometimes, late at night, when the traffic lights are all blinking yellow? How it feels like everyone in Nashville has vanished and it’s just you and the useless traffic lights telling you to be careful, though there’s nothing left to be careful about? How it feels like the whole empty city is yours?

“That’s what it was like. They had cold beers. We all drank them. One of them had a bottle of tequila. We passed it around. After a while I could smell the odor of marijuana mixing in with the cigarette smoke, but I didn’t care. They told stories about some guy they’d beat up or about some girl they saw who was so beautiful they couldn’t stand it. And that big old purple Impala just floated over the city, slid in between cars, took turns down roads that haven’t existed in years. And there were all these people, some living, most dead, just walking down the street, or driving in their cars, a city of ghosts, a whole city of ghosts, everywhere you looked, ghosts right next to us, passing through us. Some trying to get our attention. Some trying to ignore us.

“And we just drove by them, our windows down, our music blaring. And those that turned to see us, they saw how beautiful we were and we could see how beautiful they were.

“These guys, they saw everything. One or the other of them would notice just the most random shit. ‘Oh, hey, watch the bounce in that guy’s step.’ ‘Shit, have you ever seen a little kid that pissed?’ or whatever. it was just you couldn’t see enough.

“I said to them, ‘I am so sorry,’ and they just laughed. ‘It’s all good,’ Sarge said. I know that sounds stupid, but it blew my mind then. It was like words were more, bigger, fuller. I don’t know. Everything was just more beautiful. Seeing it from that car let you see that.

“Eventually, they dropped me off. Again, I said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and Guillermo grabbed my arm and said, ‘It’s not important. Being sorry isn’t important.’ I patted the roof of their car and they drove off. I thought I had been gone for hours, but, when I got back in my car, only like ten minutes had passed.

“I quit right after that.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I just couldn’t stand what a god damn waste people make of it all, you know?”

Oh, I Forgot to Tell You About My Walk this Morning!

So, I hook the dog to her leash, we all head outside, and immediately, I can see that she’s got the scent of something. And she’s curious but cautious. She’s sniffing and looking and her ears are at full alert. I sense NOTHING but I take from Mrs. W.’s behavior that we have just missed someone. So, she’s following its scent in our back yard, through the neighbors’ and into the AT&T yard. She even stops and points, like a pointer, one paw up, tail straight, at one point. And then I can see she’s completely focused on the culvert that goes under the road.

She doesn’t want to go near it but she does not want to let it out of her sight.

And then she did something I have never seen her do before: she made huge slow running loops around me.

But wait, you say, doesn’t the dog make big loops around you all the time?

Yes, but always playful loops, where she’s focused on me.

This was, on the surface, the same thing, but in person, very different. She was making slow, running loops around me and keeping her eye on that culvert the whole time.

I think she was saying “This is mine, don’t fuck with it.”

She didn’t seem freaked or anything. She seemed like she knew exactly what she was doing and was not nervous.

But man, it ran a chill up my spine.

Never did see what it was she was smelling, though.

It must have decided to keep its distance.

Still, man, dogs are amazing. I don’t hunt, obviously, so I rarely have an opportunity to work with my dog as a team on a task more complex than taking a walk. But this morning… I don’t know. I just trusted that there was something we needed to be mindful of, both of us, and that we both understood that Mrs. W. had a bead on it that I didn’t and hence, that she had a job to do that I wouldn’t be able to guide her at.

I don’t know how we both knew, but we did.

And, man, the people who first domesticated dogs must have had an enormous advantage over their enemies. Today, I really understood how that revolutionized the lives of humans–giving you a whole other set of senses we otherwise don’t have, not like that, anyway.

Two Photos from Last Night