Curbside Fiction: All-Points Bulletin

(first posted 11/16/2011)

CRACKKK! The thunderbolt ripped through his spine, and rattled out through the top of his head, like the sound of red hot steel dipped in icy water. Pete awoke shivering in a cold sweat. The dream; again! The peal of the thunder was so loud, surely his wife must have heard it. But her delicate kitty-cat snoring was as steady as a metronome. He debated opening his eyes to look at the alarm clock; the chance of getting back to sleep within a reasonable time after the recurring dream always dropped below 50% whenever he did so. But the tingling aftershocks had him so awake, it didn’t matter; the reverberations were still bouncing around the walls of the bedroom. Might as well go to the john and let them escape.

He saw the yellow on the inside of his eyelids before he opened them. The room was bathed in a delicate warm glow, as if a dozen wicks were burning in an ingot of melting gold. Sunrise? No way; this recurring dream always ended at 3:17 ,with a clap. But the light always ended along with the dream. What the? He turned his head towards the alarm clock, and was met by a blank screen. He pulled open the nightstand drawer and fished out his old reliable REI wrist watch; 3:17, sure enough. But the second hand was frozen somewhere between the 9 and 10. He stared at it for longer than necessary. Can’t be! He’d just put in a fresh battery recently. His hand flew over his wife’s head and grabbed her beloved mechanical-movement Rolex, which was now literally glowing gold; he was almost afraid to touch it: 3:20; but then it was always fast a few minutes, for which he ribbed her endlessly, but its second hand was ticking off the seconds faithfully. Suddenly he remembered the part of the dream before the finale, more vividly than ever before.

He bolted out of bed, ripped back the curtains, and was bathed in the eerie golden glow. It emanated from a point of concentrated light, out there, somewhere across the East River in Queens, maybe near La Guardia. A crashed jet? He had to force his eyes away, and as he scanned the expansive (and expensive) view from the 34th floor apartment, except for the glow, there was not a light to be seen anywhere: buildings, bridges, even the streets were deadly dark, except for some car headlights…but…they weren’t moving! All were frozen in their tracks! Pete’s eyes darted up and down the avenues: yes; there! One car was moving, slowly weaving its way through all the others. Pete stared at it, and suddenly a mini twelve-volt version of the thunderbolt cracked through his head.

This was a more familiar and almost welcome visitor, and more like a brain earthquake. Since it always happened when he was awake, he wasn’t really sure about the crack he “heard”, but the result was always the same. The internal dialog was instantly muted, and he found himself totally in the moment and saw whatever was presenting itself with  perfect clarity. Very handy, when it happened in a grueling exec-com meeting about what to replace that dying sitcom with. Maybe that’s what he owed his whole career to: brain cracks; the more useful kin to brain farts and brain freeze. If only he could do it on command.

It had happened often enough to make him golden the first time around in the black art of network tv programming, back in the eighties. There were times when he’d pick the winner from all the pilots without a moment’s hesitation, and predict its future ratings within half a point, one way or the other. But then the dreams started. They were vaguer then, but he knew what he had to do.

He just up and quit one day, before his rising star had begun to reach its peak trajectory. Moved the family to Vermont, started an organic farm. Struggled, but after some years, it began to turn a modest profit. And the dreams were left behind.

But two years ago, Pete got the call: Global TV wanted him back; desperately. Made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Three kids to put through college; never mind the retirement account. Three years maximum, he told himself. His oldest son was eager to take on running the farm, and his two younger kids were equally eager to experience life in the big city. His wife less so.

And then the dreams started again.

As Pete stared at the ball of golden light somewhere out there in Queens, the brain crack ended and he instantly put it all together. The recurring dream was coming true.

He turned and yelled: “Get up! We have to go, right now, in the Galaxie!” Within minutes, he was practically pushing his barely-dressed family down thirty-five flights of emergency stairs to the underground parking garage. “Don’t ask; just run!”

He slid the key into the baby-blue 1966 Ford Galaxy 500’s driver’s door. “Why can’t we take the Highlander?” his daughter implored. “Your car smells like the inside of an old purse, and it rides like our old John Deere B tractor back home”. “Because it won’t start!” The seventh grader gave him a puzzled sneer as she slid into the Ford’s big back seat.

He stabbed at the gas pedal to set the choke, and turned the key. The 352 V8 grumbled to life almost instantly, thanks to his ministrations last Saturday morning, especially to the points in the distributor. The Ford had been running a bit rough when he got it, and everybody on the old car web sites and forums told him to stop messing with the points, and change over to solid state ignition. A Pertronix Ignitor kit cost all of eighty three bucks, and fit inside the original distributor cap. Why not?

For the same reason they were running for their lives.

Pete hadn’t been able to put his finger on why he resisted the ignition upgrade; he was just following his intuition. But back there, up in the bedroom, as he was looking at the distant glow and the brain crack subsided, it all just fell into place, in an unholy moment. Half a century ago, there had been talk about the little-understood but bizarre Kappa rays. Predicted by Einstein, the elusive cosmic rays would be blocked by the atmosphere from reaching Earth, if they even really existed. But after Apollo 18 mysteriously lost all its electronic systems and drifted off into outer space, the talk about Kappa rays picked up again, this time about their ability to destroy solid state electronic devices. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all; in higher doses they were deadly to all life forms too.

Rumors about the Russians developing a Kappa bomb bubbled up from time to time, until the end of the Cold War. They pleaded innocent, but would never explain a mysterious forty mile dead zone around an abandoned “research center” in Siberia.  And there was talk of the head of that program having been offered big bucks to move to Zyzygstan. The US government swore up and down that it couldn’t be done, and there was nothing to worry about…

The head of Engineering at Global TV, “Flash” Flatoh, was an old friend of Pete’s, the two of them having having started out at the same small little UHF station in Pennsylvania. Flash had the most brilliant mind in the business, but his interests were hardly limited to radio-frequency radiation.  He understood as well as anyone how Kappa rays worked, and after a recent dream, Pete met him for lunch to press him further. Not in the abstract, but how such a Kappa bomb would work, if it could be made to work at all.

“There would be two distinct phases, once fission starts. During the first, the emissions would be harmless to humans, but every solid state device within a wide range, possibly hundreds of miles, would be wiped out, instantly. Of course, that includes taking down the power grid, since everything that controls it is solid-state. During the second phase, the radiation levels jump exponentially, and is fatal to all life forms as we know it. The only gold lining in that cloud, if you can call it that, is that the range of deadly radiation is much more severely limited, say maybe a hundred miles, give or take fifty.”

“Gold; why do you say gold lining?” Pete asked, suddenly agitated. “Because the only color given off by the fission is in the yellow spectrum. Of course, that’s just an artifact of our atmosphere.” Pete suddenly grasped the arms of his chair as a tremor went up his back.

“How much time before the second phase starts?” Pete pressed. But all he got from Flash was a rise of his bushy eyebrows. Flash’s expression was what Pete saw in front of him now as he dropped the long chrome-tipped gear lever into Drive, and gunned it. The front tires screamed for mercy as the big Ford plowed its way through the maze of the parking garage, and headed up the ramp to the exit. As he approached the top of the ramp, nose high, the first glimpse of the big garage exit door to the street came into view of the headlights. Shit! The reinforced-steel ram-proof security door that the paranoid hedge-funders in the building had dropped a half-million to install last year was down! As it always was, late at night, until the code was punched. Ha! And the power is out! We’re dead.

As the Galaxie crested the ramp and the nose returned earth-wards, the headlights followed the the door down, until suddenly there was no more. It wasn’t all the way closed; it must have been closing behind someone when the power cut. But the gap was narrow; much to narrow for any modern car to get through. Pete doubted the Galaxie would clear it, even having been lowered by several inches.

His family couldn’t believe it when he first showed them the 500, after buying it some weeks back. They knew how much he loved old cars, but this boxy barge, riding low in the water as if it had sprung a leak? Dad had sold his beloved M5 sedan so that this hulk could take one of their two parking spaces?

Little did they know that Pete was even more surprised at his decision. Big Ford sedans of this era had been the butt of his derision ever since he was a kid. Jan Norbye weighing in the vagaries  of the Ford’s front suspension in a Popular Science comparison sealed the deal. Never mind that Norbye spurred the Galaxie from zero to sixty in 8.9 seconds. Ford must have slipped him a “ringer”.

But when the nuns at Immaculate Contraception bought three new ’66 Ford sedans (Custom 500s), two of them this same baby blue and one a similarly chaste light green, all powered by the the 352; well, it was an image from that very impressionable stage of life that he could never quite shake. The objectivity of the seventh grade mind is the only thing more labile than the Ford’s steering.

Pete had been in Red Hook one day, walking around while his wife was shopping, when he encountered the Galaxie sitting at the curb across the street. Normally, he might have just given it a quick once-over, like any other interesting body walking down the sidewalk that was worth the mental energy to expend on a quickie analysis, despite knowing already that it would be rejected for further fantasy consideration due to its all-too obvious faults. But he suddenly stopped, turned to face it, got bumped by a pedestrian’s bulging shopping bag, and his head cracked.

For the first time in his life, he really looked at a 1966 Ford. But not just any ’66 Ford; this one, with its distinct character enhanced by the way it was sitting down on its haunches, with those old Cadillac wheel covers; it suddenly spoke of a certain possibility that was utterly essential, despite Pete having not the slightest notion of what that would be. He just knew he had to buy it. And as he stood looking at it, a young guy came bounding down the front steps of the house directly behind it, and headed for the driver’s door. Pete dodged the traffic, and caught up with him. Within minutes, the deal was sealed.

The seller had found it hiding in a carport out somewhere on Long Island; it had forty-two thousand miles, and had never been driven in the snow. When and why it got lowered somehow never entered into the line of questioning; it was just accepted for what it was.  “Rides a bit harsh” was all the seller said.

Pete now eased the Ford up to the solid steel beam on the bottom of the door, and tilted his head up to follow its increasingly inevitable collision course with the car. He was afraid it would hit the top of the windshield, but cleared that by a hair. Clunk! Steel met steel, and the Ford stopped cold in its tracks. The front edge of the car roof was solidly up against the I-beam. It was useless. He looked out at the yellow glow in the street; was it getting brighter, or was it his imagination? A trio of cabbies were standing out there probably having the same thought, but they didn’t have a clue.

Pete jumped out of the car, grabbed them and made a mostly-futile effort to explain; Just get in the car! But on some instinctive level they felt his urgency, and they piled into the car; two in back, one in front. No time for formalities or personal space.

The Ford dropped down an inch or two lower yet, but was still wedged against the beam. Without another moment’s hesitation, Pete floored it. He could feel the engine twisting to the side; straining at near-maximum torque against the Cruise-O-Matic and its engine mounts. One of the rear wheels broke loose, and in the screeching and smoke of burning rubber that quickly engulfed the Ford, it was impossible to tell if it was moving or not. But Pete kept the hammer down, and felt himself rhythmically rocking against the steering wheel, as if it would make a difference. Suddenly, with a piercing shriek, the Ford shot out of its cage, like a wild animal being released.

Pete almost ran into one of the driver’s stalled cab as the Ford barreled into the street. If this hadn’t happened at three in the morning, if it had been almost any other time of day, the streets of the City would have been utterly impassable. What traffic there was had all come to a halt, thanks to their suddenly brain-dead electronic controls. Cab drivers were looking under their hoods, or talking in small huddles, utterly confused. The Galaxie’s tire-squealing slalom run around them only added to their confusion. The only other vehicle he saw moving was a couple of old Mack garbage trucks.

The drive through the pitch-black tunnel was utterly unnerving, not knowing if they would ever make it out the other side. Twice, he had to push brain-dead cars out of the way in order to clear a path. Not like he asked politely either; he just eased up behind then, and Ford’s big chrome battering ram was put to good use.

There was no panic in the streets, since no one had a clue what was happening, although the golden glow had those folks stuck out in the street wondering…and not in a very good way. Seeing the crazed Ford racing through the obstacle course only added to their growing sense of dread.

Once in Jersey, things were a bit better. Most of the stopped cars had coasted off into the shoulders of the freeway. And there were now a few other old cars and trucks on the road: a 1960s Dodge pickup, a 1968 Chevy, a W123 Mercedes, a couple of old Mack dump trucks, a vintage Freightliner. The number of pre-transistorized ignition cars or non-electronically controlled diesel engine trucks left was mighty few indeed. It reminded Pete of the sixties and early seventies, when he traveled out West on the brand new interstates: traffic was so light then, minutes would go by before another car came along.

As he headed north on I-87, Pete kept the hammer down. The Ford was riding on its rubber suspension stops half the time, and the steering geometry was none the better for it. But traffic was so light, staying in one lane was the least of his worries. Flying along at between 95 and 110, he was worried about the ancient FE motor staying intact. But then he remembered the old ’65 F-600 truck he had driven for his uncle’s construction business one summer during college. He’d hammered that 352 wide open for hours on end. He even jiggered the governor so that it would rev higher. It wailed its heart out, every shift right at the point the valves started bouncing, all summer long. Last he heard, that truck was still running for a farmer.

For the first time since 3:17, Pete felt the adrenaline rush subside, just a hair. A huge flash of light in the rear view mirror caught his eye. Another car? The whole mirror was now filled with golden light, and the interior of the Galaxie was fully illuminated. He looked at all the sleeping faces in the Galaxie, family and three strangers. And as quickly as it appeared, the light was gone again. And the Ford kept hammering along.