Fiction: Stay in Your Lane

By James Hanna

Billy Babbitt and Joshua McIntyre were sitting in Flakey Jake’s, a dive bar on the outskirts of Putnamville, the jewel of Indiana. Both were unaccomplished men in their forties and long-term residents of the town. Billy, once an aspiring scribe, was a genius born too late. When a corporate-run publishing house dismissed his novel as an imitation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Billy burned his manuscript and swore never to write literature again. Had Billy lived in Paris in the 1930s, his work would have commanded respect; he would surely have dined with Gertrude Stein and gotten drunk with Hemingway. But Billy was now a reporter for the Putnamville Gazette, and his literary skills were confined to covering bake sales and high school football games.
Joshua, a high school English teacher, had been fired from his job after a CNN video showed him vandalizing the Capital building on January 6. He had been sentenced tothree years of federal probation for this unfortunate incident, and he regretted that he could no longer teach The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse Five. Joshua was also an Iraqi War vet and a self-appointed general—the waningcommander of a local militia known as the Brawny Lads. Since his arrest for invading the Capital building, he had placed his “generalship” on hiatus, but he frequently remarked that the only occupation he had ever felt comfortable with was when he had stormed into the Rotunda and emptied his bladder on the floor.  
Although the two men were on opposite sides of the country’s political divide, they had been friends since they were college roommates, studying world literature together. They disagreed on just about everything, but their spats kept their spirits alive, so it would not have profited either of them to change the other’s mind.
“Lemme tell you somethin’,” said Billy as he took a long swallow of beer. “If you wanna gauge the decline of ourcountry, you just have to look at its traffic.”
"Didja have another accident?” said Joshua.
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Billy. “My Dodge Chargerstalled in the intersection of Highway 40 and Vine. It had no businessstalling. It had just had its annual tune-up.”
“What’s that got to do with the decline of the country?”
“Plenty,” Billy replied. “Nobody stopped to help me. No one offered to give me a push. The other drivers just leaned on their horns and called me dirty names, and then some moron rear-ended me ’cause he was yakking on his cell phone.”
“Billy,” said Joshua, shaking his head, “you get inaccidents all the time. Maybe you need to focus on more than gauging the fall of the country.”
“When that fella that hit my car cussed me out for not staying in my lane, I shoulda focused on kicking his ass, but I was too shaken up for that.”
“You always want to kick someone’s ass,” sighed Joshua.
“Wouldn’t you have done the same?”
“That depends,” said Joshua, rubbing his jaw. “First, I’d have asked him who he voted for in the last presidential election. If he voted for Biden—yeah, I’d probably have punched him in the face. But if he voted for Trump, I’d have shaken his hand and offered to buy him a beer.”
“Everyone’s out for himself,” Billy said, a lament he now made every day.
“Billy, ya said that yesterday, and you said it the day before. Since you consider yourself some kind of Renaissance man, can’tcha try to say something profound?”
“America’s on a highway to hell,” Billy said. “That’s profound enough for this bar. Why must I take my life in my hands every time I’m behind the wheel?”
“’Cause ya drive like a writer.”
“So, what are you saying? That writers don’t know how to drive?”
“Now that’s an established fact,” said Joshua, “so don’t get your nose out of joint. It doesn’t take a social collapse for bad drivers to put themselves at risk.”
“The time is what’s out of joint—not me.”
“What that’s supposed to mean?” Joshua said.
“It means if my car stalls in traffic again, I’m going toset things right. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna keep on making myself a target for nihilists.”
“For a skinny dork quoting from Hamlet,” said Joshua, “you’re talkin’ mighty big.”
“I’m still gonna set things right,” said Billy. “Hell, somebody’s gotta step up. If Hamlet had carried some pepper spray, he might have come out on top.”
The following afternoon, as was their habit, the two metagain at Jake’s. Billy had bought a can of pepper spray which he displayed to Joshua. He was also toting a Louisville Slugger that he had named Bat Masterson. Since Beowulf had christened his cutlass before tempering it in blood, Billy considered it appropriate to name his weapon too. And what better name could he use than that of a paladin of the oldWest: a slayer of pillaging savages and outlaws on the prowl?
“Billy,” said Joshua, rolling his eyes, “don’tcha think you’re going too far?”
“I’m only doing what justice demands.”
“Why is justice up to you?”
Since Billy had channeled an outmoded lawman and not an eloquent muse, he had no problem uttering the dustiest of clich├ęs. He said, “’The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to sit and do nothing.’”
“Billy,” said Joshua, “you’re a crank in a bar. A modern-day Miniver Cheevy. A so-called author who flushed his talent because he couldn’t handle the heat. If ya ask me, you’re better off doing nothing because that’s what you’re most practiced at.”
Billy clutched his bludgeon as though holding a bull by the tail. “From now on, I’m lettin’ Bat Masterson write my history. If some ox is gonna lean on his horn and call innocent drivers names, he’s got some karma coming and it may as well come from me.”
“You took the law in your hands once before, and it didn’t work out too well. Remember last year when you pepper sprayed a coupla my Brawny Lads? Those boys I had watching a drop box to make sure it didn’t get stuffed?”
“They were trying to intimidate me—stop me from voting.”
“Naw, they weren’t,” said Joshua. “They were just twotowheaded boys making sure that box didn’t get stuffed.First, you blinded them with the spray then you kicked them both in the nuts. When that judge sentenced you for assault, didn’t ya learn a lesson from that?”
Billy recalled his year of imprisonment at the Indiana Penal Farm. He did not believe his incarceration might have offered him something more than the patented pride a martyr might feel for championing his cause. Released from the penal farm just a month ago, Billy, in fact, was convinced that Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were no less tested than him.
Joshua said, “What I don’t understand is your sense of entitlement. You write for a third-rate newspaper, you drive a broken-down car, and you still believe it’s your duty to dispense justice to the hordes.” 
“Are those assholes entitled to hijack the roads, poison the atmosphere, and fill Mother Nature with a murderousresolve? Yeah, maybe I take exception when they blast their horns at me, but if you’re gonna gripe about entitlement, you’re looking in the wrong place.”
“God’s punishing them as we speak,” said Joshua. “You’re not gonna improve on that. I hate to say it, Billy, but you’re kinda redundant here. Aren’t all those hurricanes,floods and storms proof enough that God doesn’t need any help?”
“Even God could use some support now and then,” Billy said as he topped off his glass. “After all, he asked Moses to issue a warning before unleashing the locusts and frogs.”
As he made this remark, Billy was forced to admit thepoverty of his intellect, the extent to which his mind had eroded when he stopped trying to seriously write. But even though he had lost his ability to turn an effective phrase, he never thought he’d be raking the Bible to beef up an argument.
Joshua said, “Moses shoulda saved his warnings for whenever you’re driving that car.”
“Moses’ time is done,” Billy shrugged, “and God has more work to do. So, if God gives me a signal, I’m gonna start kicking ass too.”
“Behold a pale horse.” This Biblical quote kept echoing in Billy’s mind—an assurance that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had an encore to perform. Yes, given the retributions with which God was pummeling the earth, these four gauchos—Famine, War, Conquest, and Death—would inevitably rise once more. Now Billy did not rank himself as a peer to this grisly quartet, but he believed he could, at least, be a deputy to them if he found some ass to kick. So,whenever the heavens grumbled and lightning split the sky, Billy swore he could hear dark hoofbeats thundering his way.
Still, God did not ask Billy to help him punish theerring human race. As hurricanes leveled Florida, as giant waves clubbed the West Coast, as Maui became an inferno,Billy was not summoned once. For an entire week, he drove around Putnamville hoping to champion God’s fray, but hiscar purred like a contented cat, failing to stall even once.Yes, other drivers still honked at him and shot him an occasional bird, but this rudeness was not enough to merit his pepper spray and bat.
“God has forgotten me,” Billy remarked one evening in Flakey Jakes’s. “At this rate, the planet is gonna be toast before I can get involved.”
“The Apocalypse does have its drawbacks,” said Joshua.
Shaking his head, Billy stared at the television perched above the bar. NBC News was covering a flood that was swallowing Pennsylvania—a torrent so brutal that capsized cars were floating upside down. The coverage then turned to New Mexico where record-high temperatures were smothering towns and cities and causing propane tanks to explode. 
“How dare you?” snapped Billy. As he watched the furyof nature’s retaliation, he could only lash out at the hubris and greed that was ending man’s reign on Earth. He felt no embarrassment at borrowing the tagline from Greta Thunberg’s UN address—the now acclaimed phrase with which she attacked the fat cats of industry. He was a little in love with this sixteen-year-old activist and, since God had stolen his pride, he could suffer no additional shame by stealing her clarion call.
“The end is near,” sighed Joshua, watching as fires consumed the Northwest. “You can do nothing to add or subtract from the judgment that’s come our way.”
“So how does one ride out an apocalypse? You got any bright ideas?”
“Let it go,” said Joshua, “and have another beer.”
The next morning, Billy’s Charger stalled at the intersection of Highway 40 and Route 231. Perhaps God was rewarding him for a spell of humility because Billy had abandoned his mission and was simply driving to work. To make sure God wasn’t teasing him, Billy tried to restart the car, but the engine was as silent as a gun on a kitchen counter. His car was blocking both lanes of northbound traffic on Route 231, and since it was rush hour, the eruptinghorns had the force of an avalanche.  
With his can of pepper spray tucked in his back pocket and Bat Masterson clutched in both hands, Billy jumped out of his car and glared at the stalled columns of traffic. His stare bore the singular contempt of a Cyclops, a focus so narrow and cruel that it would have terrified brave Odysseus much less these planet-polluting fools. Still, the chorus of horns persisted, and voices mingled with the blasts. “Get yer car fixed, buddy!” “Push that heap outta the road!” “Hey, it’s Billy Babbitt again! Chump, when ya gonna buy a new car?” The conceit of the drivers rivaled the gall of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Billy would not have been surprised if all of them turned into stone.
A huge oaf, wearing a MAGA cap, stepped out of a smog-spewing truck and waddled in Billy’s direction with a practiced scowl on his face. “Who do ya think you are—Babe Ruth?” he snapped, eyeing the bat in Billy’s hand.
Not wanting to appear the aggressor, Billy took a step back. “Back off, bozo,” he shouted, “or you’ll feel more thanthe wrath of God.”
“Whadya gonna do?” the oaf said. “Hit cherself a home run. Go find a Little League Park if yer gonna wave that thing around.”
As the fellow kept approaching him, Billy tightened his grip on the handle then he drove the tip of the bat into the man’s flabby stomach.
“Oof!” cried the jerk. His legs liquified and he toppled to the ground. “Buddy, what’d ya do that for—I was just gonna give you a shove.”
The man remained on his knees, but he was reaching for a rock, so without further comment, Billy raised the bat and clobbered the back of his neck.
“Ow!” cried the man. “You’ll owe me for this, buddy!” 
Billy kicked the rock aside. “Keep driving that guzzlerand I’ll see to it that you get covered with locusts and frogs.”
The man rolled on his back, holding his hands up.“Lemme be, psycho!” he bellowed, and Billy felt more triumphant than he had ever felt in his life. The thrill of glory was fleeting, however, as two more men were approaching him. The men were wearing red jackets with United Auto Workers insignias, and one of them was clutching what looked like a multipurpose knife.
“Ain’t choo Billy Babbitt?” said the man holding the knife.
“We know all about you,” the other man said, “and it looks like yer outta luck.”
Billy pulled the can of pepper spray from his back pocket and went into a shooter’s crouch. 
“Ah, Billy,” said the man clutching the knife. “We ain’t got no time that.”
Gripping the can as though palming a grenade, Billylocked his eyes on the men. “The time is outta joint,” he snarled, “so I’m gonna clean your clocks.”
“What’s he babblin’ about?” asked the man with the knife.
“He tellin’ us the time’s outta joint,” said the other. “His nose is gonna be too.”
The cluelessness of Philistines, Billy thought. I’m so far ahead of my time. He felt a flash of true pity for these hopelessly ignorant men, but when they kept walking toward him, he hosed them both in the face. 
Blinded by the biting spray, the men threw wildpunches at him, but Billy dodged the blows like Muhammad Ali and kicked them both in the crotch. “Who’s outta jointnow?” Billy crowed as he watched the men squirm on the ground, but he could still hear dozens of frustrated drivers hammering their horns.
The wail of an approaching police car overrode the sound of the horns, but Billy felt no inclination to wait around for the cops. Yes, the police would arrest his attackers and haul them off to jail, but since his mission was sacred, ordained by the hand of God, it would have been a letdown to share his glory with ordinary constables.
Reflexively, Billy hopped into his Charger and turned the ignition key. To his joy, the engine roared to life, proofthat his work here was done. Clutching the wheel as though choking a snake, Billy finished making his turn, and with his glory unpolluted, he sped north on Route 231.
Billy was not arrested until a month had passed. A series of Category Five tornados was tearing up the county, and the pulverized houses and uprooted trees required the full attention of the cops. So extensive was the damage, so vanquished were those without homes, that the county jail was now being used as a shelter for refugees.
Nonetheless, Billy was arrested one afternoon as he wasstumbling out of Jake’s. A city policewoman spotted him while driving past the bar. After citing Billy for public intoxication, she ran him on her data terminal and discovered that he had a four-count warrant for his arrest.
The woman said, “Sir, how about putting your hands behind your back?”
The iron in her voice suggested that, although God’s will had been done, Billy was the only one who had beencharged for the ruckus on Route 231. 
“How about making like Salome?” said Billy as she slapped the bracelets on him. “If you’re going to come after a prophet, honey, at least peel off your clothes.”
“You trying to be funny?” the policewoman said, but Billy was only half joking. Since the country was destined for ruin and the Horsemen were minutes away, there was no good reason for him and this babe not to have some Apocalypse sex.
“Let’s go to the Sunset Motel,” Billy said, but she drove him straight to the jail where, to Billy’s misfortune, there was still one available cell.  
The next morning, Billy appeared in the Putnam County Superior Court. Arraigned on three counts of felony assault and a count of wanton endangerment, Billy concluded that God was too callous to value his sacrifice. And since the judge recited his charges in an unsympathetic voice, Billy took the advice of his public defender and pleaded out to one count of assault. His sentencing was delayed a week so he could receive a psychiatric evaluation, and several days later, a portly shrink interviewed him in his cell.
“The world is ending.” Billy shrugged. “I hadda sound the alarm.”
“Of course, it is,” the psychiatrist said. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Three days later, Billy returned to court with his psych evaluation. The shrink diagnosed him as having a histrionic personality disorder with paranoid ideation, but since the world was actually ending, the report left too much unsaid. The judge gave Billy five years to be served at the Indiana Penal Farm and said he hoped Billy would use his time wisely and think about what he had done.
Later that day, a deputy sheriff drove Billy to the penal farm. After Billy completed his intake and put on his prison blues, the classification board assigned him to the body shop where his job was to wash and wax cars. The board chairman, a man with an ironic smirk, said, “Billy, I heard what you done. I heard you was quotin’ scripture while you was beatin’ Samitarins up.”
“I hadda sound the alarm,” Billy said.
The chairman folded his arms. “Billy,” he sighed, “don’t ya know that you’ve been beat to the punch? Hell, the prison is already crammed fulla prophets all sayin’ that Doomsday has come.”
The chairman shook his head stoically, but the irony did not leave his eyes, and Billy sadly concluded that Joshua was right. Despite the best of intentions, he was superfluous after all, and instead of announcing the end of the world, he’d have been better off learning to drive.

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. He is also a former contributor to A Thin Slice of Anxiety. James is also the author of six books all of which have won awards. Global Book Awards gave his recently-published anthology the gold medal for contemporary fiction.