On a summer evening not too long ago, my friend Doug was walking to his car after a night game at Victory Field, munching on a bucket of stale popcorn that had taken on a manna-like quality after the three cans of Sun King he had consumed over the course of eleven innings. He reached his parking spot, an on-street space way up on Senate, climbed into the driver’s seat of his Prius, nestled the popcorn between his thighs, and turned the key. As he swiveled his head to back out of his parking spot, he noticed it: a letter-size sheet of paper, some kind of flier stuck under the rear wiper, impeding the view of the area behind his car.
Being a responsible driver, Doug opened the door and got out, taking the popcorn with him. He jammed a dry, salty handful into his mouth as he stepped around toward the back of the car to remove the obstruction.
That’s when a white hot star exploded, blooming out from his right temple. His legs folded under him, and he coughed out a glob of partly chewed popcorn. The bucket rolled in a semi-circle, spilling precious kernels. He heard the tires squash softly as the Prius slalomed around the tight corner onto Indiana Avenue and glided quietly and efficiently away toward downtown.
But he still had his wallet and his phone and the popcorn that didn’t spill out of the bucket and also the bucket.
After waiting nearly an hour for the police to arrive and another half hour for them to take his report, Doug walked over to a busier street, hoping to flag a passing cab. Luckily one stopped right away. Doug got in the back and gave the driver his address.
“Carmel?” said the driver. “Long way by cab, my friend.” From his accent, he seemed to be from some part of the Middle East, though Doug wasn’t sure which part. “Better to take Meridian you think? Or go up Keystone or what?”
Through a mouthful of popcorn, Doug suggested heading up 65 and then jumping over on 465.
“You’re the boss,” the driver said. He eased the cab left onto I-65 and glided into the center lane. “My name is Kemal,” he said. “Having a good night so far?”
Doug explained that he had just been whopped on the side of the head with something that must have been a baseball bat or maybe a truncheon before having his car stolen. He told the driver about the piece of paper he hadn’t gotten close enough to read.
“Oh, sure. I’ve heard about that,” Kemal said. “It is usually a photocopy of a hundred dollars or maybe a flier advertising a party. When you get out to remove it, they crack you over the head and take your car.”
“You’ve heard of this happening?” Doug asked.
“Oh, sure. All the time downtown at night. But that is not the biggest thing you have to worry about. The worst thing that they do is they come up behind you on the interstate and bump you from behind. You pull over thinking to get their insurance, and instead you get a ten millimeter round in the face.”
“This is why I hesitate to come downtown,” Doug said.
“It’s all this new gang called the Goldenrods,” Kemal continued. “They wear yellow bandanas and do a drug called Zank that they brew from E85 flex-fuel and generic Zyrtec. They rule basically all of the area inside 465.”
At that moment Doug felt a jolt from behind, and his popcorn bucket flew abruptly from his lap. Turning to look behind, he saw a black Cadillac with two grinning figures in yellow bandanas hunched up high over the dash.
“What are you doing back there!” Kemal complained. “It’s raining tiny pieces of popcorn on my seat. The ones you only eat if you are terribly hungry or drunk.”
“But it wasn’t me,” Doug protested. “I think—
“Then it is happening!” Kemal cried. “And if I don’t pull over, they’ll hook onto my bumper and steer me into a retaining wall.”
“Then maybe you should pull over,” Doug said.
“Easy for you to say! If I lose this cab, it is my ass!”
“Then maybe you should speed up!”
“That is a good plan,” Kemal said. The cab surged forward and Doug flopped back against the seat. Kemal drove faster and faster, weaving around cars in all three lanes. Fighting against the G-forces, Doug twisted around and looked through the back window. No one there. He was about to tell Kemal that he seemed to have lost them when the Caddy swung into view from the left, forcing the cab into a fishtailing skid.
Kemal hit the brakes and Doug pitched forward into the seat back then backward against his own seat. He clutched the bucket tight against his chest. The world blurred by in streaks of neon.
The cab smashed through a guard rail and into a barrel-shaped cement protrusion halfway down the side of the embankment. Now Doug was in the front, his back against the passenger door and his head against the glove compartment, looking up at Kemal, still behind the wheel. “Your airbag didn’t go off,” Doug said.
Kemal blew a dry-sounding raspberry. “Do not worry,” he said. “I am pausing the meter. This portion of our journey is free of charge.”
The Cadillac backed into view on the shoulder above them. The two Goldenrods got out and looked down at them menacingly. Doug was trying to decide whether it would be safer to try to lock himself in the car or make a run for it when a cone of illumination from above—bluish white, as if from a giant penlight—fixed the cab, the Caddy, and the indigenous prairie grasses sweeping down the side of the embankment inside its circle. Surely, Doug thought, an alien invasion of some kind was taking place.
The Goldenrods scurried back toward their car and seemed inclined to get away from the aliens, but a quick succession of rifle shots rained down along the shoulder. The Goldenrods threw themselves to the ground, rolling for cover against the guard rail.
Doug, relieved that he had decided to stay in the cab, pressed himself hard against the floor.
A voice boomed down from out of the sky, amplified and fuzzed almost out of sense. “Stay in your vehicle. Everyone stay in your vehicles and keep your hands where we can see them.”
“Blessed God,” Kemal said. “I think it is a police helicopter. What a break of luck.”
“The police?” Doug said. He sat up. “Thank God.”
“They must have been cruising over the area, watching for any sign of the Goldenrods. We are safe.”
Doug tried to relax, but failed, and he dug once again into the popcorn for comfort as the chopper set down in a vortex of dust and trash. An empty White Castle sleeve, its blue logo partly leached away by weather, lit momentarily against the driver’s side window. Doug and Kemal stared at it for a second before a gust from a different angle sent it on its way.
A quartet of black-uniformed men got out of the chopper, their black vests festooned with black flap-pockets and matte black accessories attached to carabiners of brushed nickel. They fanned out across the highway. Two officers got the Goldenrods up off the guard rail and cuffed them with brushed nickel handcuffs. Another officer got into the Goldenrods’ Caddy and drove away.
Two remaining officers approached the cab. Kemal rolled down his window. “We are all right, officers. I think I may even be able to drive away from this, if you are able to give me a winch back onto the road.”
Both officers drew their pistols. “Get out of the car, sir,” called the closer of the two.
“No, really,” Kemal called back. “They’re the Goldenrods, and we—”
“Get out of the car slowly,” the other officer ordered. “Both of you. Then turn around and put your hands on top of the car.”
Kemal shrugged. “I guess they have to do this,” he said to Doug. “I mean, they have no idea what is going on. For all they know, we might be the bad guys here. I’m sure it will be fine.”
Doug nodded and got out of the cab. He turned slowly and put his hands on top of the cab. Kemal stared at him across the cab roof, looking nervous. Doug felt one of the officers patting him all around. Then his arms were wrenched behind him and cuffed together. He felt his wallet and his phone being removed from his back pockets.
One of the officers got into the cab, started the engine, and put it in reverse. The other went around to the front of the cab and pushed on the front bumper as the wheels began to spin.
The wheels got traction, and the cab backed up the side of the embankment and onto the highway. The other officer got into the passenger seat. The rotors on the helicopter sped to a blur, and it rose from the highway before banking off into the night. The cab headed up the roadway, its taillights descending behind the top of the rise.
“What just happened?” Doug asked Kemal.
The two Goldenrods, their hands still cuffed, came over. “I read about this on Facebook,” one of them said, “but I always thought it was a big load of Nair Bear. They pretend to be real police officers in a real police helicopter and then they take your car and your purse.”
The other Goldenrod leered at them. “Did you leave your purses in the taxi cab?”
“You are lucky that I am handcuffed,” Kemal said. He aimed a kick at the leering Goldenrod member, who hopped out of the way fast enough that Kemal slipped and fell on his ass.
The Goldenrods laughed and strolled off toward the next exit ramp. “Come on,” one said to the other. “I know a shop near here where we can scrog some Zank and maybe borrow a set of bolt cutters.”
Squatting awkwardly, Doug managed to offer Kemal a hand and pull him to his feet. “This is very hard for me to say,” Kemal said, “and I am grateful for your assistance just now, but did you happen to notice what the reading was on the meter before we got out of the cab and they drove off with it?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Doug said. “Plus my wallet’s been stolen.”
He promised Kemal that if they could agree on an amount, he’d make good for the total after he was able to get a replacement bank card or withdraw some cash.
“Well, I guess we had better start walking,” Kemal said.
As they started back along the highway toward downtown, Doug noticed the popcorn bucket, which must have tumbled out alongside him as he exited the cab. A few of the old maids at the bottom still looked crunchy, a residue of yellow salt clinging to them like an exotic rust. He knelt and picked up the bucket with his teeth.
Kemal shook his head. “You are having a love affair with that popcorn, my friend.”
“Don’t I know it,” Doug tried to say, around the bucket’s salty, waxy rim.
As soon as they could, they climbed over the median into the southbound lane and started trying to flag a ride. Which wasn’t easy without the use of their hands. Kemal’s technique was to stand with his feet planted along the shoulder, raising and lowering his eyebrows and jerking his head in the direction of the Chase Tower. Doug’s was to jump in place, keeping his head as still as possible so that the popcorn bucket wouldn’t go flying out of his mouth.
Not a car or truck so much as slowed down.
Between attempts, the two continued to walk. Kemal talked about his parents, his brother, and his sisters back in Afghanistan. With the popcorn bucket between his clenched teeth, Doug said little that could be understood, but he tried to convey his interest through expressions like “ahum” and “ho” and “huh.”
“What is even the point in getting a ride?” Kemal complained. “Whoever picks us up is just going to carjack us or get themselves carjacked as soon as they do.” He shook his fist at the skyline. “This city! I’d be safer moving back to Kabul!”
They heard a rumble rising behind them, the sound of approaching motorcycles. Doug ignored it. No one was going to pick them up anyway, so why bother turning around? Kemal seemed to feel the same.
But the motorcycles slowed anyway, and came alongside them in the breakdown lane. “You two Hoosiers in need of assistance?” one of the bikers asked. He smiled, and even in the dim glow from the city around them, Doug recognized that chiseled jaw, that sun-flecked face shadowed in the crescent of the black helmet.
It was former Governor Mitch Daniels. And the taut, graceful woman in the skintight yellow jumpsuit piloting the other bike was the former first lady, Cheri.
Realizing that Doug was not about to surrender the popcorn bucket in order to say anything, Kemal explained the evening’s misadventures. At once, Cheri dismounted her bike and removed her helmet. She reached behind her lustrous head of strawberry blond hair and withdrew a wire hairpin. “You poor boys,” she said. “Let me get you out of those handcuffs.”
With the aid of the pin, she got Doug and Kemal free in just seconds. “I was a magician’s assistant in Europe for several years before I married Mitch,” she told them. “Check my Wikipedia entry. You won’t find any information there to refute that.”
Released from the cuffs, the cab driver massaged his wrists. “Thank you, ma’am. I am afraid we ran into trouble with the Goldenrods this evening. And then a group of homegrown terrorists or something masquerading as officers of the law.”
Mitch nodded. “We’ve heard about that,” he said.
The former first lady pinned her hair back into place and nodded in agreement.
“That’s why we’re here, actually,” the former governor continued. “Meeting with Mayor Ballard tomorrow to put together a task force. Come up with a free-enterprise solution. I’m thinking maybe we offer the Goldenrods naming rights to Victory Field plus the concession contract. A ten-year lease in exchange for shifting their carjacking operations to Cincinnati. As for those guys with the copter, a statewide Helicopter Net will take care of that. To be built by a Belgium consortium. Enterprise technology. Private sector partnerships. Synergy. You can take that popcorn tub out of your mouth now, son.”
Doug removed the bucket, nodding sheepishly.
“Anyway, those are my ideas.” The former governor shrugged. “We’ll see what the mayor comes up with.”
Kemal gave a stiff half bow. “We’re very obliged to you sir.”
“Also thinking about stopping at Elmo’s tonight for a nightcap,” Mitch continued. “How ’bout it? You boys feel like splitting a couple of shrimp cocktails?”
Kemal climbed up on the back of Cheri’s bike and Doug got on behind Mitch. They started off.
“Lean into me, son,” the former governor said. “You’re throwing off our center of gravity.” Doug shook his head and gestured to the popcorn bucket in his lap. It was definitely disconcerting on the back of the Harley, holding on with only the pressure of his knees against the sides of the seat. At least the trip was short.
The former first couple drove their bikes right up onto the sidewalk in front of St. Elmo’s, where an eager pair of groomsmen took charge of their rides and gave both the Guv and his lady a quick spritz and a comb-through to relax their helmet hair.
In contrast, Kemal was looking as though he’d been rolled in a mixture of asphalt crumbs and crushed cement, and from what Doug could see of himself in the restaurant’s windows, well, let’s just say that better looking hairdos have been observed on the business ends of toilet brushes.
The former first couple breezed right past the maître d’, who offered them a practiced nod. Even Kemal got by with just a sniff of disdain. Doug, however, was detained. “I regret to inform you,” the maître d’ said, looking meaningfully at the popcorn, “that St. Elmo’s does not allow any outside … food … on its premises. Also, I should mention that we require advance reservations on weekend evenings of no fewer than two weeks—”
“He’s with us, Albert,” the former first lady said. She pronounced his name in the French manner.
Albert moved his arm. “Very well, madam.”
“However,” he added, as Doug began to pass, “I am afraid that I must insist.”
Doug watched with great sadness as the bucket was positioned above a stainless steel trash can, and, with the arch of an eyebrow, released.
He was surprised to see it fall at a completely normal speed. He tried to recall every second he had spent in its company since earlier in the evening. “We’ve been through a lot,” he whispered.
The former governor shook his head. “Forget it, kid,” he said. “It’s Naptown. Let me buy you a drink.”
Doug followed the rest of the party to the couple’s private booth.
After that, things became fuzzy. Later on, Doug would recall the former first lady splitting, from a distance of nineteen paces and with one throw of a steak knife, a bon chrétien pear balanced atop Kemal’s head. But he would never really be sure, because the last point he could remember with certainty was the former governor catching his eye and smiling.
“I dropped my napkin,” Doug would remember him saying. “Do me a favor and get it, will you?”
He remembered leaning over, searching the floor for the napkin. And then came that explosion again, a white hot star inside his skull. The mid-morning daylight was the next thing he knew, sprawled in the parking lot outside Fusek’s Hardware in just his underpants, his heartbeat throbbing in his brain. The smell of fresh-popped popcorn surrounded him, a cloud of golden heaven in the gray midst of hell.
Robin Beery lives and writes in Indianapolis. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Punchnel’s, The Roanoke Review, and elsewhere.