Untitled (the story about Josh Pearson)
In the end, Popular Science was what started it.
They found the July edition in Josh's room after they arrested him, opened to a page about new research into traffic patterns, jams, and accidents.
It was beneath a stack of papers filled with thousands of numbers arranged into neat arithmetical echelons and regional maps embellished with four hues of highlighter marker.
The inspector was also a subscriber and had found the article interesting when he read it a few months ago.
It described how researchers out at Los Alamos, in an effort to keep their post cold-war jobs, had begun studying the very complicated problem of traffic flow around cities.
A host of technology had been applied to the task--advanced mathematics, supercomputers--but nothing substituted for real experimentation.
For this, scientists would drive out onto the highways and attempt to synthesize conditions that led to real jams.
The inspector had wondered whether this was really ethical--what if someone had to give birth in traffic?--but after a few minutes of thought had moved onto the next article, one about swordfish in the North Atlantic.
Josh, on the other hand, had highlighted the paragraph and filled the margins with illegible notes.
Aside from his desk and everything on it, Josh's room was uncomfortably sparse.
It looked out onto the backyard of his three-story duplex, which, after a fair distance of open space, tucked itself beneath four tall oak trees and a few scraggly conifers and then climbed a steep embankment to meet Interstate 44.
Josh had moved there with his mother after his father, who was as un-Native American as most people of German Lutheran heritage, ran off to a reservation in South Dakota to escape alimony payments.
At night he was sometimes awakened from unsettling dreams by drowsy semi drivers suddenly applying their Jake brakes to avoid plowing into minivans.
Josh had two modes of existence: one in which he didn't do much, played Nintendo, and smoked; another where he frenetically pursued for weeks any subject that somehow caught his interest.
It was never school.
Once, in the space of two weeks, he had three three-day nonstop sessions of molding and painting miniature lead figurines, filling the house with fumes and alarming the two married professors living downstairs.
The weeks leading up to Josh's arrest had seen him at his most obsessive, culminating in a days-long vigil in front of the window.
He never sat, and when he needed to urinate he merely lifted the bug screen and relieved himself onto the flowerbed.
He breathed with his mouth open and never spoke.
His mother, once she was convinced that Josh wasn't contemplating suicide, resorted to feeding him with portable foods she could slip into his hands; burritos, bananas, string cheese, coke cans, and so on.
Litter collected at his feet.
Still, it was better than the days before that.
Josh had installed himself at the window after returning from a two-day disappearance.
It wasn't the first time, or even the fifth.
His mom hadn't been especially worried anyway, and since she worked at the National Supermarket two blocks away, she didn't especially mind that Josh had taken the old Dodge Aspen with him, about the only thing his father had left behind when he went away.
She hadn't noticed either the unusual ebb and flow of traffic on I-44 during rush hour: how it would often be near empty for half an hour, and then a stampede of cars would rush up, clot, ease forward in a viscous ooze, and then vanish completely to start the cycle over again.
She couldn't have seen how the I-40/I-170 and the I-40/I-270 interchanges oscillated proportionally between periods of extremely high and moderate volume, or how the I-55 northbound on ramp in front of the brewery was starting to see around two minor auto incidents per day, one around 8:00 AM and another at 3:30 PM.
The tieups were horrible.
Some busy thoroughfares like Watson Road emptied out far earlier than usual, while others, like Lindbergh and Manchester, seemingly began to bear the traffic of the highways that replaced them.
Anyone who drove knew that something had changed drastically--they had ample time to think it over in traffic--and that the seemingly endless jam that caused then to eschew I-70 westbound for the usually manageable Natural Bridge Road was unlike anything they had seen before.
What was apparent to only a very few, in any case, was that the city's grand pulmonary system--the huge network of bronchi that inhaled fresh minds and labor from the County every morning and expelled their spent, tired husks in the evening was exhibiting the signs of massive, self-sustaining alteration.
New and intricate patterns emerged linking distant areas of the city in ways that couldn't possibly be coincidental.
Pulses of congestion, generated by the morass of construction in the sprawling Metro East highway junction, amplified themselves as they crossed the crowded Poplar Street Bridge and radiated outward from the city center.
At busy intersections, vehicles entering and exiting the highways modulated them in subtle ways, changing their amplitude or frequency or sometimes (as in front of the brewery) stopping them all together.
Large trucks pulling out of factories and warehouses on the north side altered their phase.
Suburban traffic lights buffered cars and vans into packets, each with its own complex way of altering the progression.
Smaller roads were a cacophony of similar interactions.
In its bustling and surging, the municipal roads system was no longer just breathing--it was vocal, working itself into a low, throaty howl.
And, critically, along I-44, a patch of concrete roadbed was failing.
A cavity in the limestone underlying the highway collapsed beneath the endless thrum of the increased truck traffic, and the weak loam above it was slowly sinking downwards.
Eventually one corner of the concrete slab would give way at a crucial moment.
Josh knew this, and the night he returned from his disappearance he staggered upstairs to watch and wait, leaving the Aspen scratched and dented, missing a headlamp, parked vaguely on the duplex driveway.
When it came at last, it started as a tiny speck of brilliance madly flashing in and out from behind the guardrail supports.
Most of the trees had already lost their leaves, and the bright spot zipped between their branches like an angry hornet.
When it finally hit...
When it finally hit the hole, Josh had counted out twenty degrees of arc from where it first appeared.
The speck bucked skyward, and soon the tardy sound of a distant, muffled thump drifted through the window screen.
As it continued on its stately ascent, it rose beyond the tops of the oak trees in the backyard.
There, suspended beneath the 3:00 PM autumn sun, the gleaming chrome fairings and bulges of a waxed, black 1956 Cadillac flashed against the cloudless blue sky like new coins.
Josh gasped, and time caught itself in a slow, lurching rallentando.
The Fleetwood rolled lazily, a giant, black hog on an invisible spit.
Josh had glanced briefly at the shadow creeping nearer across the brown, leaf-covered backyard.
He looked up, and suddenly he was aware of great detail.
He saw, inverted, the special "CLASSIC CAR" license plates.
White sidewall tires were spinning furtively in the air, and he was reminded of upended cockroaches squirming their final moments in the bathroom sink.
The car continued its ponderous roll, and when it reached its apogee at last Josh clicked the stopwatch.
An ephemeral blue-gray contrail from the exhaust--the engine must have been burning oil--marked the Fleetwood's path through the sky, and all the while the sun's glare off of the windows obscured any sign of the car's unfortunate driver or passengers.
Now arcing downward, he saw the massive, black snub hood and envisioned its birth as a sheet of rolled steel, stamped into shape thirty eight years prior in a giant press, affixed to the frame by company men, shrouding the huge V-8 underneath.
It was beneath him now; Josh glanced away from the ridiculous Jet Age taillights soon enough to watch the car meet its shadow and then crush the piteous tar-paper roof of the garage underneath.
It would all be over soon.
He tore downstairs, through the back exit of the yellow duplex, and out into the mild afternoon.
He heard in his mind the sound of a retinue of independent probability estimates reverting one by one to the unity; they each made a gratifying "thap!"
sound like the stacking of heavy fish.
I-44 murmured in the distance with the sound of idling engines in freshly-cemented gridlock.
Surprisingly, the garage was not entirely destroyed; it had adopted a quizzical rightward cant, and then there was the two feet of Cadillac trunk jutting out from the top.
Josh crouched behind a wood pile and stared.
And then the air was jerked out of his lungs--
It took a minute for Josh to regain his sight.
He emerged from behind the wood pile breathing shallow, rapid breaths, his heart racing.
At last he dared to check the stopwatch, whose bezel had fractured from the concussion.
"Four one five nine," he said, slowly and breathlessly.
His eyes widened--flames bounced off of dilated pupils--and he sank to his knees.
"Four one five nine!"
He was shouting it over and over again, raving over the crackling flames.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and the fall sky clotted over with thick, black gasoline smoke.
[ Back to top ] [ Author's Works ] [ Skein home ]
Content © copyright 2001 by Thomas Stepleton. All rights reserved.