When the Rubber Greets the Road by Michael Propsom

Pinned under a Harley-Davidson, Professor Levi reflects on his mid-life crisis.

Image generated with OpenAI
A tire with fewer than 300 miles of wear should not blow out. Yet here I am, lying within a jumble of post-consumer detritus, legs pinned beneath this 92-horsepower American icon. With my phone lost somewhere out in the darkness, my only companion, a new digital watch, cruelly updates me on each passing second I've been trapped. Considering its price tag, the damn thing should also predict the exact time of my rescue.

A summary scan of the surroundings confirms the hopelessness of my situation. Acres of knee-high corn flank the ditch on the right. I seriously doubt someone on a late-night walkabout will appear between the tight rows of stalks and deliver me from this fetid ravine.

The steep incline to the roadbed on the left holds even less promise of discovery, especially with such sparse traffic. In the past two hours, seventeen minutes, and a handful of seconds, only the Doppler growl of a diesel rig and nasal whine of two crotch rockets have interrupted the strident rasp of crickets. And with the moon playing more hide than seek behind the clouds, a body in black leathers isn't something a passing driver might catch a glimpse of - rather, of which a passing driver might catch a glimpse. Christ, even now, my internal editor won't allow me a fucking prepositional ending.

All I have to show for struggling to claw out from beneath the steel frame of this ironically named Softail is a matched set of torn fingernails. My legs have been no help. They feel so vague and distant that whatever has impaled my right foot is more of an impediment than a significant source of pain. Eschewing the stiff hide of Harley boots for the comfort of Rockport Trekkers was a major mistake.

My feeling of calm puzzles me. Of course, this might be more confusion than serenity. My emotions - fear, rage, guilt, self-pity - are so intertwined I don't know which to give priority. At least I'm alive. Bruised as hell but alive. And it could be worse. Had the bike tipped onto its right side, the muffler would have seared my calves like flank steaks on a Weber grill. Embrace the small victories, Professor Levi.

Whoever authored the myth that your entire life flashes before you during an accident must have majored in bullshit. From the moment I vaulted over the handlebars like a drunken gymnast until my bellyflop into the ditch, I barely had time to fling out a single obscenity, much less perform a retrospective of my past 46 years.

Of course, at present, my history is a lower priority than the mystery of what triggered my metamorphosis from a nose-to-the-whetstone English Lit professor to a horny, middle-aged runaway.

Until this past spring, the idea of sowing wild oats or any other metaphorical grain seemed less likely than pursuing gender reassignment. I felt only contempt for my colleagues who had capitulated to the siren song of a second adolescence. In truth, I secretly reveled each time one failed in his attempt to recapture youth, for example, when the chair of Humanities, Preston Wentworth, traded his Volvo wagon for a low-slung Corvette and ruptured a disc hauling his bulk out of the driver seat.

My wife Jan likewise found my fellow contemporaries' childish misadventures amusing. Yet, after my tale of philosophy professor Conrad Smith, who supplemented his combover with discount hair plugs that grew to resemble cornrows, she wondered aloud, "And when will your mid-life crisis manifest?" I smugly assured her that would happen concurrently with hell freezing over. Two months later, when I roared into our driveway on my new Harley, she flashed her singular 'I-told-you-so' smile and called out over the bike's rumble, "I'll bet this very moment they're playing hockey on the river Styx."

A crunch of tires on gravel and the metallic ting of a bumper kissing the speed limit signpost yanks me back from pondering fate, the symmetrical arc of life, and related existential wanking. I look left to see a female silhouette slip, stumble, and curse her way down the embankment. She skids to a stop maybe fifty feet away, drops her shorts, and squats. The moon, like some celestial voyeur, slides from behind a cloud and highlights her pale bottom. She lets out a hoarse moan as her stream hits the earth. Her phone chirps out the chorus of Achy Breaky Heart. Still squatting, she hisses into the phone, "Goddamn it, I'll be home when I get home. And the kid better be in bed when I do."

I wait until she reassembles her wardrobe before making my presence known. It's what a gentleman does. "Irrigating the crops?"

No scream, only a shrill, "Jesus fuck!" then, "What the hell?"

She approaches slowly, weaving through the maze of trash - around a discarded sofa, abandoned tires, and over a shopping bag containing who-knows-what. A blinding flash from her smartphone hits me in the eyes. "Holy balls, mister. What happened?"

"Just resting up for my ride to Sturgis."

She laughs. "More like you took the training wheels off too soon." Nonchalant smartassery. A disarming and slightly arousing quality in this potential guardian angel.

"Honestly, I was headed to the Knoxville Hyatt."

"Buddy, this old county road don't go any ways near there."

The news is a gut punch. Screwed again by my inherently poor sense of direction.

The moonlight allows a good overview of the woman. Judging from my vantage point, she stands at least 5-foot-10. A profusion of Farrah Fawcett locks cascades from beneath her cowgirl hat. Her jean jacket hangs open, revealing an almost cartoonishly overburdened tube top. She sports a pair of cutoffs so short that the front pockets peek out from their bottoms. And she's painfully slender in leg, hip, and torso. The woman plainly lacks the musculature to move a moped, much less a 600-pound motorcycle.

She edges closer. "Do I know you from somewhere?"

"Shouldn't that be my line?"

There is a generic familiarity about her. She could have been one of the long-stemmed lovelies boot-scooting across the dance floor twenty miles back at the Urbane Cowboy, where I made a quick bathroom stop.

She starts up the embankment. "I'm going to call for help and get my smokes."

A few pieces of gravel bouncing down the incline signal the woman's return. She's working her way down more carefully than her initial descent. "It'll be a while. The ambulance is on another call."

"What about police?"

"Pickettsville up the road is a one-cop-car town. It's on the same call."

She kneels at my head. Her scent is heavily floral with undertones of smoke and sweat. Pungent but not entirely off-putting. "Let me give you a little going over."

"Are you a nurse or other medical professional?"

"As good as." She removes my helmet. "I watch First Responders every week."

At this point, even that reassures me.

She runs her fingers through my hair. "No glass or cuts. That's good. What's your name, sweetie?"

"Call me Ishmael." Nothing but crickets - fucking literally. Apparently, she isn't a Melville fan. "It's Levi."

"Like the jeans?"

"Like the tribe of Israel."

"You can call me Willow." I find her casual demeanor and soft, cornpone drawl comforting.

As she eases my jacket off, I wince at the bolt of pain shooting down my right arm.

"Where's it hurt?"

"Right shoulder."

Her hand passes over the area, coming to rest on a hard lump. "You got yourself a separation."

"You learned that from a TV show?"

"No, my dumbass brother got one wrestling with our dumbass cousin. The men on my daddy's side are money-poor but dumbass-rich." She runs a palm down my back and whistles softly. "Honey, your back's knotted tighter than a couple of mating hounds."

Her homey colloquialisms and flashes of cleavage trigger a physical response inconsistent with my predicament. But the stirring of an erection reassuringly confirms my spinal column's integrity.

Willow begins making small circles with her thumbs on either side of my first cervical vertebra. The muscles almost instantly begin to loosen. She moves to the next vertebra. There's a confident, professional feel to her touch. "I don't think you learned this from a TV program."

"I worked in a convalescent center for a bit, and I'd give back rubs to an old fart here and there," she says. "So, why don't you tell Willow a little about yourself."

Since I have nothing else on my plate, why not? "My early years don't merit a deep dive. I was born to fundamentalist parents who allowed me less freedom than the neighbors' tetherball. Back then, my life was an unwavering routine of school, homework, church, and guilt."

"You can skip the wonder years when you lost your first baby tooth and copped your first feel," she says. "I'd like to know how you ended up going all Evel Knievel into this ditch."

By the time Willow's healing hands traversed down to my mid-back, I had covered nearly my entire unexceptional existence.

"So, Mr. Levis, you had a shitty childhood, became a big-time college professor, and married the greatest woman in the world." Her right thumb homes in on a particularly angry spasm. "But what made you go all Heck's Angels?"

A point-blank question I should have addressed long before I ended up here. "Late last winter, while shaving, I noticed a subtle slackness in the skin of my throat, the harbinger of an impending wattle."

"Harbinger? Impending?" Willow digs a thumb deeper than necessary. "Tenth-grade dropout here, teach. Plain English."

"Sorry." A burn rises into my cheeks at my unconscious arrogance. "I noticed the start of a chicken neck."

She eases up on the pressure. "That's better."

"Not long after, I noticed a nascent interest -"

"A what interest?"

"Sorry. A burgeoning interest -"

"For a professor, you're no quick study." She bears down on another knot. "Again. Plain English."

"Growing. A growing interest in several female students."

My Southern-fried masseuse strokes the back of my head and stands up. "Feeling better, sweetie?"

Better? Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and their predatory ilk should take a laying-on-hands tutorial from this Tennessee Willow. Other than my ankle, shoulder, and bumper crop of bruises, I feel damn-near reborn. I can't believe my relatively good fortune.

Willow lights up a smoke. "That's quite a story."

And it's quite a surprise how much I revealed to this stranger. If she worked for the CIA, they could shelf waterboarding as an interrogation technique and let her massage secrets from enemy combatants. While her hands made their therapeutic sojourn down my body, secrets surfaced I thought would accompany me to the crematorium. I nearly confessed that my ride of self-discovery was an excuse to reconnect with a former female grad student in upstate New York.

Otherwise, Willow knows everything: my drunk trip to a tattoo parlor for the barbed-wire tat, discreetly securing a sabbatical from the university, cashing out one IRA, and transferring half of our savings solely to my name. I even ran through the timetable of my subtly increasing discontentment with my marriage; how I grew to chafe under Jan's softly sibilant 's' and her overuse of buzz words du jour: takeaway, nonplussed, and - just fucking shoot me - surreal.

Willow scrambles up the incline at the sound of an ill-tuned car engine pulling onto the highway shoulder. She reaches the roadbed as the engine stops. I hear two voices but no content. The engine barks back to life. There's the chirp of tires spinning onto the pavement; then Willow picks her way back down the slope.

"They left?"

"A damned good thing they did," she says. "That was some rough trade in that car. It would've ended bad."

"If they were so rough, how did you get them to leave?"

"I said my boyfriend was down here waving his .45 and having a Desert Storm post-stress dramatic thing."

She kneels again at my head and reaches below my belt line. Her breasts mash against my upper back as she presses into the hollows of my buttocks with her thumbs. "Now I just have to release these two trigger points, and you'll be a new man."

My erection attains complete rejuvenation. "You're the doctor."

Willow's image is vague and smeared, as though I'm staring through a rain-drenched windshield. I never dreamed Mace could burn so badly.

"Yeah, my bad. Thought you were making a grab for me." She fans out the sheaf of hundreds pulled from my wallet and whistles. "Lord, that is a bumper crop of Benjamins."

"You're welcome to it."

She cocks her head as though to say, 'Well, duh.'

The woman's hands are more talented than I imagined. Not only a healing touch but also a stealing touch. She massaged my wallet right out of my back pocket while mashing her obviously augmented chest against my back - sleight of hand and sleight of boob.

"You didn't call for help, did you?"

She exhales a silvery cloud of smoke. "Afraid not."

"And that carful of 'rough trade'?"

"Some dumbass farm kid headed home from a beer party stopping to piss."

"Is anything you told me the truth?" I bet even Betty Friedan would have called this duplicitous Scheherazade a bitch. "Willow isn't your real name, is it?"

"I guess what they say is true, Professor Levis." She flicks her cigarette ash. "You're never too old to learn."

"Given what it's cost me, I deserve to know your real name."

She expels another lungful of smoke and shakes her head. "If I told you that, hon, I'd have to kill you."

Another vehicle crunches gravel up on the shoulder. Its headlights illuminate the woodlot across the cornfield. The engine backfires and dies, and a car door slams.

Before I can holler for help, Willow calls, "Down here, Bobby." Her relaxed tone isn't reassuring.

As the moon breaks completely clear of the clouds, a man begins a herky-jerky descent. He leans heavily on what appears to be a baseball bat. The guy could be the centerfold for White Trash magazine. One untucked shirttail hangs out from below his biker-cut denim jacket, jeans tucked into the tops of his boots. And he's sporting a mullet. A mullet in 2020?

He limps over to Willow and leans down to kiss her. She wraps one leg and both arms around him. He grabs her ass with his free hand. They vocalize and smack as they kiss. It sounds like a couple eating barbecue.

Willow pushes him away. "You took your sweet time getting here."

He shrugs. "Had to bolt on the winch. You think I was gonna haul the bike up by hand?"

She turns to me. "Levis, this is Bobby, my boyfriend. The Cardinals drafted him."

"I made it all the way to Triple-A." As though this would impress me. "I'd be playing Busch Stadium, except for this fucking knee."

"Not the time or place, baby."

Bobby, or whoever he is, pulls an apple from his jean jacket. He takes a few bites before offering it to his girlfriend. She dismisses it with a wave. He takes another bite, tosses the remainder into the air, and hits it into the cornfield. "It's well-hit. high and long!" He puts a hand to the brim of his cap. "The right fielder's back on the warning track -"

The harpy snaps her fingers in his face. "Earth to Bobby. Focus."

"Yeah, Bobby. Appropriate alias for a hillbilly."

"Oh, Levis." Willow's voice could scratch glass. "Bobby is his real name."

Her words wrenched my breath from me: "You have the money. Take the bike, too. I promise I won't say anything."

"Sweety," she says, "that conclusion is way the hell foregone." Willow kisses her idiot beau on the cheek and nudges him in my direction. "I'll be in the truck." She starts up the incline. "Swing for the fence, baby. Swing for the fence."


  1. The story of the last night on earth of a menopausal college professor. He is not the most likable character I’ve ever read about, talking to his “rescuer” as if she went an honors student in one of his classes. He seemed rather full of himself, although he did manage to be a little self-effacing for all that. The venal nature of Willow came as a bit of a surprise. Unlike her and Bobby, I don’t generally consider a few hundred bucks and the value of a Harley to equate to the cost of a man’s life, but I guess those folks are out there. This was an effective, thought provoking tale. “Swing for the fence, baby.” Yikes! Thanks, Michael.

    1. Billy, thanks for your comments and observations, especially about a few hundred bucks. Somewhere between editing the story and researching how thick a sheaf of 37 one hundred dollar bills, (.16”) I forgot to precede the sentence, “You’’re welcome to it,” with, "There’s 3,700 dollars there.” Dang it! Again, Billy, thanks for the positive comments.

  2. I can’t count the number of times I thought, “this is reallly well written” while reading this story. Maybe 20 times? The reality of the woman and the ending sort of broke my heart. I really had hoped he would get rescued. But your ending and reality is more engrossing. Such a clever narrator. I was sorry to hear the end of him. So good!

    1. Jane, thank you for that! As far as whacking the professor in the end. Yeah, I’m pretty heartless. I save my compassion for most of my critter characters. I’m in “as long as the dog’s alive in the end,” camp. That said, I do have some protagonists who survive my “creative” process. Thanks again for your encouraging comments.

  3. The story is very well written, but also a bit disjointed in pacing and tone.
    At first, I was wondering if Willow was a figment of Professor Levi’s imagination.
    I would have found the ending more satisfying if there was some foreshadowing.
    Bobby just sort of appears and murders the professor…
    (I am neither a horror nor nihilism fan, but I admire how this story well represents the genre.)

    1. Adam, I appreciate your comments. Getting outside opinions helps me look at my work more objectively, one might say a cold, dispassionate eye. Thanks!

    2. Join a workshopping group if you want to practice your critiquing faculties. This is a published story and your negative feedback is uncalled for and potentially damaging. Plus the author would like to promote it and use your imagination to whom. Do your homework on the publishing industry and if you can't say something nice as a writer yourself, don't say anything at all.

    3. Anonymous #2. Many thanks for your supportive comment! But, truth be told I find a strange comfort in finding my works aren’t everyone’s figurative cup o’ tea.

  4. As usual, I wonder how does a dead man tell a story? I do like a story that has no good guys. Mr. Mirth.

    1. Thanks for the thumbs up on my cast of characters. They are more interesting than nice folk. As far as the Professor Levi. Given the story is in present tense, he’s in a pre-whacked condition until Willow’s lover boy swings for the fence.

  5. I also was wondering how a dead man tells a story but then chose to believe that Bobby didn’t whack the professor after all, regardless of what the author of this entertaining story intended. In my mind, Bobby lets him live and lies to Willow about having killed him. This is like the ending to the Movie Inception (SPOILER ALERT: does the top fall or not?) It is up to the viewer to decide how the story ends. I am hoping that the author continues to tell the story of this flawed but intriguing character. I kind of like the jerk.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words about my story. Yeah, despite his flaws, I felt a little compassion for the jerk too.

  6. I love your writing, Mike!! Less commentary, and more words and actions for the reader to digest!! Keep it up!!

    1. Wow! thanks for big thumbs up! Another recent one is at Roi Fainéant: https://roifaineantarchive.wixsite.com/rf-arc-hive/post/on-good-terms-by-michael-propsom

  7. Another terrific story by Michael Propsom. When we grew up together, I never imagined you’d become such a prolific writer. This is about the 3 great story of yours that I have read. Your writing puts me at the scene every time.

    1. Hey, Sherry T! Back then when we were growing up together, I never dreamed I’d be so fond of stringing together words. In those days my primary source of fiction was Saturday morning TV. Hekyll and Jeckyll were as close to Poe’s The Raven that I’d ever gotten.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed the pace and dialogue in this one. It brings to mind slightly the kind of themes in David Lynch or Coen Brothers films to my opinion in that it's sharp, savvy, snappy and has quite cocky, yet reasonably elaborate and well-painted characters. I like that it was kind of a tale of comeuppance even though Willow and Bobby are certainly no heroes. I also enjoyed how Professor Levi slips in literary references into his dialogue and thoughts. My only very slight reservation is that the narrator seemed a little too lucid and sharp initially given he's just had an accident, but at the same time his smart voice is necessary for this tale.

  9. Replies
    1. Sorry, posted too soon. Anyway, it’s a very clever with a noir quality.

  10. No apologies necessary. I’m a master of premature posts.