Nuclear

He had never seen anything quite so green in his entire life. The vehicle was about the size of a minivan but curved like a VW beetle. Its light green bumper practically smiled.

“Yeah,” Fred said, joining Bill. “They just started hitting the streets and word leaks out that they contain nuclear.” Fred tapped his cigarette against the battered lamppost. “The surgeon general’s very words. ‘The econo-car contains nuclear.’ Bit of a blow to the tree-huggers.”

“They’re pretty little things,” said Bill “It’s amazing how some of the things that seem so good can be so dangerous.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Fred ground out his cigarette and put it back into his pack. “Anyway, it’s total recall. We’ve only got one here, but the boss doesn’t want to truck anything else with it, with it being nuclear and all. He’s not all that happy with all the time being lost, but while you’re on the east coast he’s arranged some shipments for you to bring back.”

Bill laughed. “Do you think it’s lobsters? Remember the time a whole crate escaped in Carlos’ cab? When he called up it sounded like they had taken over his truck and pinched off his toes.”

Fred smirked. “I never could stand those clawed critters.”

“Oh, I love them, especially crawdads. They’re delicious.”

Fred snorted and kicked at the gravel.

Traffic was just beginning to pick up in the clear spring sunrise. Bill’s radio boomed “Jesus is Coming Soon” and he sang along with gusto. By driving through a good part of the night he had missed most of the construction hangups.

Bill squinted against the morning rays.

“It looks like breakfast,” he said to the approaching sign. As he neared the exit ramp, a ragged figure walked along the median, arm outstretched. Bill slowed down and pulled over. The man stopped and adjusted a sack thrown over his shoulder.

“Which way are you headed?” Bill asked.

“Most anywhere. I’m not particular,” the hitchhiker said.

“Hop on in,” said Bill. “I’m headed in for breakfast now, but I’ll be glad to have you along for the ride.”

The hitchhiker shifted his bag to his other shoulder and moistened his top lip.

Bill laughed. “Don’t you worry. It’s my treat.”

The man hurried over to climb in through the passenger’s door. “I go by Pete,” he said.

After a solid breakfast of ham, grits and coffee Bill hit the road again. The sun had risen enough that the visor helped.

Pete proved to be quite congenial. He sprinkled the day with anecdotes about trains and dogs and what happens when you leave pickle juice in the sun too long. He enjoyed the Southern Gospel music—Bill even managed to snag him into scraping along to one verse of Amazing Grace—but the preaching made him twitchy.

“They ride pretty high horses,” he said. “God’s more loving than that. I have a cousin who’s a real good fellow. He’s always helping out, willing to give his last cent to someone in trouble. He says the Jesus stuff is all right for Westerners, but the Indian gods have been around longer. He meditates for hours and is always praying; he even prays to the grass before he mows his lawn. You’ve never see anyone so earnest with worshipping.”

“Your cousin is sincere, but he’s sincerely wrong,” said Bill.

Pete frowned. “Are you trying to tell me—” he began, but let his words die down into a mutter as they drove into a weigh station.

Bill drove onto the scale, then climbed down from the cab with his logbook and headed for the nearby booth. Inside, he stopped short. The interior looked like no other weigh station he had ever seen. The desk counter was hidden in the straight, black fall of fabric topped with a surface of painted glossy black. A square, glass vase with pussy-willow and cherry blossoms sat smugly on a corner and the smell of incense dragged on the air.

The secretary looked up from painting her mails and tossed her loose, honey curls behind her shoulders. “What do you need from this establishment?”

Bill laughed and came the two steps forward. “I’m beginning to wonder if I came to the wrong place,” he said.

“Maybe you did.” Her smile glittered to match the rhinestones set in her black glasses frame.

“Well, ma’am, would you condescend to check my logbook?” Bill flopped the battered book on the counter, then settled his elbows on the glossy surface.

The secretary stared at him, her face unmoving and bland.

“Oh, please, Miss Secretary.”

She flipped the book open and ran down a few lines before stamping it and pushing it toward him.

“Thank you, ma’am, I’m much obliged.”

She replied with a brief quirk of the corners of her mouth that left the rest of her face untouched.

“What’s the occasion, anyway?” asked Bill, scooping up the book and pushing himself up.

“I just felt like it.”

“I’m surprised you don’t have one of them fancy phones, the kind that are all pink and silver and so skinny they look like they’ll break in two if you pick them up. Maybe your boss was scared that he wouldn’t be able to get you off it.” Bill snorted.

The secretary smiled in a pained sort of way. “I always keep up with what’s going on at work.”

Bill just chortled and said goodbye. “I have my road laid out for Rhode Island.”

“If you insist,” she answered.

The shadows were stretching like long-limbed gymnasts the next evening as they approached the Eastern coast.

“I know where to get the best crab in Connecticut,” Bill told Pete. “We should be able to get there before it closes if the traffic doesn’t get any worse.”

Traffic in their lane did seem unaccountably slow. The closer the border came, the slower traffic became as well until all forward movement stopped. Occasionally a car would whiz by from the opposite direction.

“We can’t be far from the border,” complained Pete. “If the left lane was only closed, I’d say whip ahead and get a peek at what trouble lies ahead.”

“I think I see someone coming,” said Bill.

A man in a fluorescent vest walked up along the shoulder of the road. He stopped at each car and spoke to its occupants. Once in a while a car would respond by scuffling back and forth until it could turn out into the other lane and turn around. The car directly in front of Bill’s semi did so. Bill started to reach for his shift stick, but the man outside held up a hand for him to wait.

Pete rolled the window up to the top.

“Let’s hear what he has to say about what’s ahead,” said Bill.

Pete looked at him dolefully, but lowered the window about an inch.

Now the man had reached the truck. He jumped up on the running board and pressed his face up to the window. Pete leaned away.

The man looked down at something in his hand and grinned. He looked back up and knocked at the window. Bill rolled it the rest of the way down.

“Connecticut’s closed,” the stranger said.

“Why?” asked Bill. “What happened?”

“The boss didn’t give details.”

“How can you close off an entire state?” snapped Pete.

The stranger grinned more. “You do what you need to,” he said.

“I think I’ll try another road,” said Bill.

“If you insist.” He hopped back down and went on.

Turning a semi around in such tight quarters was no easy job. The drovers on either side edged away as far as they could. No other cars came up the left side of the road, but that may have been due to the stranger on his two-way radio. At last they were off.

The next highway brought them close enough to the border to spot the “Connecticut Closed; use alternate route” sign ahead.

“I’m going to call it a night and get some shuteye,” said Bill, pulling to the side of the road. “Maybe it will open up in a few hours.”

Pete looked wistfully at the can of tuna Bill handed him, but dug in a tattered pocket for a jackknife.

Connecticut was still closed by the time Bill needed to hit the road again. He turned the rig around to look for a more north-bound route.

“I don’t know that it will matter,” said Pete. “If the whole state is closed off you might as well wait at one highway as hope another will be open by the time you get there.”

“I figured since I was headed for Rhode Island, I’d just go around through Massachusetts,” Bill said.

Pete’s door flew wide open and Bill trod hard on the brakes, weaving slightly as he pulled to the side of the road. Only Pete’s seatbelt kept him from being flung out, and he fumbled at it with shaky fingers.

“N-no, not Massachusetts! I’m a desperate man, but when he tried to shove that thing on me…It’s too dangerous! No wonder Connecticut’s closed.”

The seatbelt finally snapped open and Pete leaped from the cab and disappeared into the early morning gloom. Bill waited for a bit, but eventually shut the passenger door and went on alone. He couldn’t tell that Massachusetts, when he got there, was any crazier than East Coast states normally were. By the time he stopped for lunch in a seaside town, he had long since put that strange talk to the side.

Bill managed to find four adjacent parallel parking spots not far from a little seafood café. When he came out from eating, he was surprised to find a crowd around his semi.

Judging by the angry overtones, it was a crowd on the verge of becoming a small mob. They seemed to hold their distance from actually approaching the truck.

“We know you’re in there,” one fellow called, taking a half step forward. “You can’t hide forever.”

“Do we have to come fetch you out?” called another voice from the middle of the crowd.

Everyone in the front shuffled back and the man who had stepped forward leapt back.

“Come out.” This time it was a policeman. “This is the law.”

The driver’s door on the econo-car opened and a tall, bushy-haired man emerged.

“That’s him!” yelled a stocky, mustached man. “He came into my shop and tried to push that thing off on me.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” pled the man on the trailer. “All I did was open a great big crate I found floating in the bay.”

“Well, get out of here with that nuclear, and don’t come back no more!” the policeman yelled.

“I don’t have it!” The tall man raised his empty hands.

The policeman narrowed his eyes and laid a hand on his gun holster.

“I don’t, I tell you!” the tall man said again.

“Come down slowly and keep your hands in clear sight.”

The man carefully inched to the edge of the trailer, then paused to slam the car door behind him.

Fierce white light pulsed through the econo-car and glared throughout the street. Bill threw up a hand too late to shield his eyes from the blinding light. He blinked against the white that stayed, tingling before his eyes. The street shook and he stumbled backwards through the door.

Bill paused by the newspaper stand in front the gas station. The front of this paper showed a close-up of the econo-car on the semi-trailer. You couldn’t see the truck’s eighteen blown tires. The headline read, “Nuclear Containment Investigated.” Bill grinned and continued to his cab. The bright green econo-car still perched behind, though now on flat tires. “Almost home,” said Bill.

A few more miles brought him into the dusty truck yard. Fred stood there, waiting with a newspaper in his hand. It was a bit tattered, but the same edition as Bill had seen at the gas station.

“I thought the ‘Demands for Econo-Cars Explode’ was snazzier,” Bill said with a grin. “Or ‘Recall Recalled’.” He stretched and rubbed at his lower back “It’s good to be home.”

“It’s not the headline I’m looking at,” said Fred, tapping against the article. “Look at this. Now the surgeon general’s saying it’s the high lead content that makes the vehicle able to contain a nuclear detonation. The recalls been reactivated.”

Bill sagged a little bit. “Here I was hoping all my adventures were for a good cause.”

“Yeah, well, I say that econo-car is just trouble.”

“Well, I guess I’ll be back first thing in the morning to hit the road again with my little green friend.”

But Fred was shaking his head. “The boss wants you to leave tonight. He’s already steamed about not getting his return shipment.”

Bill sighed and turned back to his truck. “Who’d have thought such a pretty little thing could cause so much trouble.”

“Yeah,” said Fred. “Next time I buy a car, you can guarantee I’ll go for the battered, ugly clunker and never bat an eye.”

 

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