King of the Hill
By Roz Milner
“It’s so damn hot,” said Meg across our dinner table. We were picking at bowls of pho I’d grabbed on my way home from the paper. “I cannot believe how hot it is today.” That’s Meg: my girlfriend and general voice of reason.
“You’d better believe it, babe,” I smiled as I shoved a spoonful of broth into my mouth. “And the folks at Environment Canada say it’s going to be even hotter this weekend.”
Meg sighed. “Why can’t we do something and get out of this.” She gestured wildly at the table, walls and me. “Get away from this heat.” She had a point. The AC was on the fritz and we can only drink so much beer before we get sleepy. The humidity felt like something we could scrape off with a spoon. And in our cramped apartment, we could only take so much. I leaned back on my chair while Meg flipped through her phone. “Let’s go somewhere,” she said “Let’s out of here for the weekend.” Where, I asked. Meg walked to the window and gestured vaguely north.
“Outside!” she said with a huge grin.
My hatchback is not a fast, sporty girl. She’s more like your friend who is always there to listen to you complain and will commiserate over a coffee with you. Dependable, I’d call her. When Meg and I piled in, she fiddled with the aux cord and I steered my way into the snarls of traffic and smog that are the 401, cutting right through the top of our city. Traffic was, as always, brutal. The engine had blown out on a big rig, causing the truck to jackknife violently across four lanes of traffic. Cars were smashed and bits of glass made the road sparkle. Squad cars blocked almost the entire freeway while a bunch of police drank coffee and walked around the carnage.
“Come on already!” yelled Meg. “Get a move on!”
Our car vibrated as we idled in traffic. Meg queued up something from the 90s, loud guitars and women screaming about waking up and smelling coffee. A bro in wayfarers next to us smiled and threw a thumbs up. “Show some respect! I yelled. “Can’t you see a car just crashed here?” He flipped us off. We rolled up our window and watched him yell, flail his arms around and froth at the mouth. We continued, slowly.
We both looked on in silent respect as we slowly drove past the flaming rig, the broken glass and the officer sitting on a detached fender, sipping his double-double. Meg shot him a smile, and he tipped his coffee, spilling it onto his uniform.
The drive out of Toronto goes something like this: Meg and I went down the 401, merged onto highway 400 and tried to keep in one of the lanes that keeps moving north. She turned down the music so I could focus on staying out of one of the lanes that suddenly swerves off, catching drivers unawares and sending them on a Robert Moses-inspired trip through their sanity. With the touch of an experienced driving hand, I steered my hatchback from lane to lane, dodging old men in huge, smoke-belching New Yorkers, delivery drivers in vans yelling into their earpieces, and SUVs full of kids.
After 45 minutes of this nonsense, Meg pointed at the offramp and told me to make a move for it. There was a small hole, just big enough for maybe my car to fit through. I turned the four-ways on, to make things legal, and wildly lurched the wheel to the right, slamming through the hole and taking us out onto a typical stretch of strip malls and discount clothing stores. We barrelled down this street, the only car headed away from the highway, when Meg spoke up.
“Doesn’t Yonge Street run, like, all the way north?”
“What? You mean to like Steeles?”
“No, it’s like the longest street in the world or something.” She flicked a butt out the window and put another in her mouth in one smooth motion. “It like runs all the way up like the highway does or something. Let’s give it a shot.”
I jerked the wheel to the left, doing that thing where it’s okay to turn left on a red if you’ve been waiting patiently for an opening in oncoming traffic, tires screeching and my poor car groaning, and we were travelling north up through the suburbs. The traffic here moved a little more smoothly, in that any time there was a red light, cars would make a U-turn and try to swing up through adjacent streets. Eventually, nearly everybody had turned off of the street and we had it to ourselves, so it wasn’t long before we made it out to the countryside.
“Ah, I love the country,” moaned Meg as she lowered the window. “I mean smell that fresh air!” I could—I’d grown up in a small town, and I recognized that smell as fresh manure. Doesn’t smell that different from the bus station. She leaned back and enjoyed all the countryside had to offer: big fields, lots of corn and occasional hand-painted signs reading “Back off government! This is Our Land!” She turned and smiled: “It’s so quaint!”
Meanwhile, I was trying to keep the Mazda pointed north, away from the city, with the pedal depressed all the way. Tractors appeared out of corn rows and I swerved to the left, surly teens in camouflage jackets wandered onto the road and I’d jerk to the right. It took all I had just to try and focus, and keep pace with Meg commenting on everything she saw: cows with a big stripe down their middle, emus that ran like the dickens, what was possibly a raccoon driving a truck full of garbage. “They’re so resourceful,” she said.
We were going like this until Meg saw a sign that said “RACING TONITE” and jerked the wheel to the left. The car swung and shuddered, skidding to a stop in a parking lot between two beat-up Ford pickups with something like eight wheels on each axle. “We’ve got to check this out,” she said. “Got to!” I mean, I used to watch sports and stuff as a kid, but racing? But it seemed like before I could even put the parking brake on, Meg was at the gate, signing papers and flashing bills. She handed me a sheet: “King of the Hill Registration Form.” It looked like it’d been photocopied about a thousand times, and she’d already filled it in. “Just sign here, here and here!”
“It’s called King of the Hill and it’s really simple,” explained Meg. “Down at the racetrack, during the intermission between races, they will let anyone race on the track in whatever kind of car they’ve got kicking around. And look: the prize is half the total of the entrance money!” I wasn’t impressed, but seeing how Meg’s eyes lit up as she surveyed the form and parking lot convinced me.
So that’s right, for $50 cash and a signed waiver form, I learned that I too can be a stunt-driver-slash-racer-slash-freelance journalist, just like I always dreamed of. And so, I, Kathleen “Kate” Thompson, being of mostly sound mind, signed up to race my four-door Mazda hatchback in this race between races.
“I can’t believe we’re going through with this,” I sighed. “It’s just ... such a bad idea.” Meg stick her tongue out. “Spoilsport.” I returned her grin: “What if we get hurt? What if we crash?” She looked at me, head askew. “That better not happen, Kate. How am I supposed to get home if that happens?”
While Meg wandered off to watch the races, I tried to figure out how I was going to race a four-door hatchback, especially one that I needed working if we wanted to get back home. I got into the car and pulled it onto a back lot with some of the other racers: 80s sports cars with lightning stripes, a camper van with a big wolf on the side, a handful of trucks whose suspension was jacked up to some ridiculous height. I saw a handful of people smoking and wandered over with my pack of Winstons.
“You sure you’re in the right lot, lady,” one of them smiled as he reached to light my smoke. When I said I was, they all leaned back and looked at each other for a moment, regarding me suspiciously.
“Look, I’m basically just trying to impress my girlfriend here,” I said, “and I barely know how to drive, let alone race. I don’t really care about winning. I just want to get out alive.” A couple of them nodded: they knew all about doing stupid stuff to impress a woman. One took a deep drag and leaned back on his truck. “Just try not to wreck, and you’ll do fine. It’s the idiots that try to keep up who smash their cars.” The others chuckled. “The way it works, lady,” said another, “is one pedal makes you go forward, and the other makes you stop. Try not to get them mixed up.” They all had a good chuckle over that, and I made note of which truck was his.
Meg came sauntering over with an enormous bag of popcorn. “Ready sweetie,” she laughed as she jumped into my car. “Almost go time!”
“You’re not going to eat that while we race,” I sputtered as I got into the driver’s seat. “You could choke! Like, to death!”
“C’est la vie,” replied Meg with a shrug. “So it goes.” She thrust a handful at my face. “Wanna taste?”
I started the car and followed the trucks to the track. The closer I got, the more intimidated I became. Cars with custom exhausts, engines that sounded like an airplane. What was I getting myself into? Then I looked over at Meg. With a huge grin and mouthfuls of popcorn, she was positively radiant, as happy as I’d seen her all summer. And shit, I’d done stupid stuff to impress her before. I looked up: a set of lights was working its way down to green. I put one hand on my transmission, the other on the wheel. I was ready to launch.
I found myself in a cloud of dust as everyone else launched into gear. I had the pedal down, and the engine was roaring, but I was barely keeping pace with the cars at the back. Up ahead of me, I could see the chaos in the main pack: a truck with six wheels on its back axle was trying to pin a sports car against the wall at 80 km/h; a convertible was trying to get ahead of a pickup, but the driver chucked a half-empty coffee out the window and it exploded on the competitor. The guy in a Ford to my right looked over at me with a smirk. I barely had time to react when he charged into my line. “Watch it!” yelled Meg at him. “Where’d you get your license, the Pacific Mall?”
Reacting almost on autopilot, I took my foot off the pedal, moved to my left and punched it down again. The Ford was left in my dust. I was coming around on the first lap, now, only nine more to go. I moved in front of a camper van, cutting them off and making them veer to the right, stalling the traffic behind me. I looked at Meg “This is easy,” I laughed. “It’s just like driving downtown.”
With some luck from the people in front of me battling it out, and some deft moves from my hatchback, I found myself trailing just three cars as we entered the final lap. I weaved, bobbed and kept trying to swing past a Dodge in front of me. I was able to get head to head, but no closer: his car couldn’t handle like mine, but it was a lot faster. Meg make a yelping sound. “I got this,” she shouted. Leaning out the window, Meg took her popcorn and chucked it at the pickup. It hit the windshield and burst, making him slow down and pull to the side.
“Only two left!” cheered Meg. “You can do it, Kate!” We were in the final stretch and the two cars in front of me were neck and neck. If I could find a way, though, I might be able swing past them and win it all. I bit down on my lip, narrowed my gaze and pushed the pedal as far as it’d go.
“You did pretty good,” he said, “especially for your first time. What’d you say your name was again?”
“Kate,” I replied, as I handed him a beer. I leaned against the wall of the garage and looked at the rest of the racers, all here hanging out after the race.
“David,” he said, tipping his can my way. “Gave me a pretty good scare there! Too bad you blew out your tires.”
I looked past him at my sad Mazda, sitting suspended on a rack while a mechanic fiddled with a new set of tires.
“So who’d you say won, David? Howard?”
He nodded, pointing to a swarthy guy in a Hawaiian shirt and a giant gold chain. “Yeah, Howie tends to win a lot of these. I guess most of them, if we were to keep score.”
“I hope you’re not mad,” said Meg to a guy wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. “I didn’t like, scratch up your windshield with my popcorn or anything?”
He just laughed. “Nah, that was a pretty smart idea. Wouldn’t you say so, David?” He turned to me. “So, Kate, tell me, where’d you learn to drive like that?”
I took a sip of the lukewarm beer. “Well, you ever driven on the 401?”
Roz Milner is a freelance writer and media critic. Her work has appeared in Exclaim Magazine, The Toronto Review of Books, Aquarium Drunkard and many other places. She lives just north of Toronto, Ontario.