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?”

11 thoughts on “21. The Purple Impala

  1. Okay, the idea of ghost roads may be too awesome for words. So on one of those nights when the border between our world and theirs is thin, do living people ever find themselves doing down the ghost roads?

  2. I think the eternal riding around and seeing things is a version of Valhalla: the low-rider version of feasting in the mead-hall, I don’t suppose that’s the way you meant it, but it works for me somehow.

  3. Once again, a story that literally brings tears to my eyes. It sort of reminds me of the Charles de Lint story about ghosts and the people who help ghosts find their way across the border.

  4. Carter, I think it would explain a lot about Nashville traffic if, every day, at dusk and dawn, people were finding themselves on roads they were unfamiliar with. Ha ha ha ha ha.

    I really like this one, too, but I waffle back and forth about whether it’s true. At least two of these guys have families who deeply love them (I’d like to think we can assume the same about the Hernandezes, even though they were caught in an untenable position). And yet, they don’t haunt them?

    They instead haunt the guy who feels most responsible for their deaths and not to get even, but to make sure he’s okay about it?

    Don’t get me wrong. When I wrote the story, I wrote it with the intention that they were real and that this ride really happened.

    But now, I’m just not sure. There’s enough in it for me to suggest that this is just what Wilcox needs to see in order to be okay with what happened, for him to come to terms with feeling like he killed them on accident.

    And that’s actually why this is one of my favorite stories. I wrote it. I know what I wanted to write and how I wanted people to feel about it. And I read it later and I was like “This is not quite the story I thought I was writing and there are things going on in it I was not quite aware of as I was writing it.”

    That’s weird and cool.

  5. “… there are things going on in it I was not quite aware of as I was writing it.”

    Yeaaaaaah. I’m thinking you had some co-authors you didn’t see on that one, missy.

    I adored this one. It’s like saying which of your kids is your favorite, though; you don’t want to slight the others, because they’re all perfect in their own ways.

    Thank you.

  6. I like this one a lot. There are so many lyrical moments. The city of ghosts lines, the blinking yellow lights. Wilcox was a good voice for you.

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