Chapter VII

“It’s still not moving.” Jeanette rubs her temple – a sure sign she’s suffering a migraine. She rummages in her vast handbag, fishes out two Tylenol which she swigs down with a sip of water from a plastic pint bottle. Her orange-blonde hair, once such a vivid red, is plastered against her forehead. You had to turn the air-con off ten minutes ago to stop the engine overheating.

            You unbuckle your seatbelt and half-stand in the driver’s seat, feeling your shirt peel away from the leather, but you can’t quite fit your head through the sun roof. Shame we couldn’t afford something a little bigger than a baby Chevrolet.

            Nonetheless you can see enough: The freeway ahead of you is gridlocked with a vast cavalcade of cars, as if every car in Delaware County is on this particular stretch of freeway. The line extends all the way down the slope and up the other side to the top of the next hill – and maybe beyond it for all you know, perhaps past Philadelphia and onwards, all the way to the Atlantic.

            You switch on the radio, ignoring Jeanette’s irritated tut. The news stations seem to have switched to a diet of what passes for music: country rock on one station, more of that gangsta crap or whatever it’s called, then another country station, and finally a conversation. But these people seem to be living on another world, one where they can talk about bulb propagation while their country grinds to a halt.

            You keep flicking through channels until you come to one where the announcer says, “We’ll be going to the newsroom after this record,” and launches into Don McLean’s American Pie. Something about driving his Chevy to the levee touches a chord within you, although you can’t say why. At the end of the eight minutes and something seconds of the song there is only silence, and you wonder whether the station has gone off the air.

            Then the announcer intones, “It’s fifty years ago today that Don McLean first performed that song. America’s changed almost beyond recognition. If that was the Day the Music Died, today is the Day Freedom Died. We’re going to the newsroom now.”

            You take the opportunity of a gap to roll forward nine inches as the announcer says, “The headlines at three o’clock: US forces in the Gulf have surrendered to the Arabic OPEC Alliance. The President will address the nation at five o’clock, including further restrictions on gasoline rationing. Shares on Wall Street have fallen faster than on any day since the Wall Street Crash ninety-two years ago.” You switch the radio off.

            “Thought there might be some traffic news.” Your explanation comes out like a bird’s croak in your own ears, so that you clear your throat.

            “The only news is, that nothing’s going anywhere,” Jeanette whispers, still rubbing her temples. “Do you have any idea where we’re going to sleep tonight, assuming that we actually get into Philadelphia?”

            “Sign up ahead says it’s only ten miles.”

            “It’s taken us the best part of three hours to travel ten miles. At this rate it’ll take us a lot longer to travel the next ten…”

            “Then we’ll sleep in the car,” you say with exaggerated patience.

            “We can’t live in it forever,” Jeanette says. “It looks as if everyone and their dog are moving back into the city.” Her laugh is a bitter bark, devoid of humor. “It’s the Oklahoma migrations of a hundred years ago, in reverse.”

            “It’s been happening for some time.” You think of the increasing numbers of derelict, boarded-up houses that you hadn’t really noticed until about a week ago, when American forces moved into the Al-Dukkhan oil fields off the Kuwaiti coast. “The guys on the radio said we’ve reached a tipping point, whatever that is, in terms of keeping the country motoring.” Jeanette doesn’t answer, so you continue, “Hon, you know that we can’t afford to live in Bethel Township any longer. Even before this it’s been getting unbearable going in and out of Philly to work.” You’ve had this conversation before. You suspect that you’re going to have it again. Many more times.

            Jeanette sighs. “If we could’ve stuck it out a year longer, Jimmy, you wouldn’t have had to commute. Retirement’s so close.” She wipes away a tear angrily, then points across the central barriers at the empty lanes on the other side. “Look at it! The outbound side’s damn well empty – no one’s going out there! If only we could get across to it, we could go home!”

            There’s no point in arguing with her. She’s so deeply in denial that nothing you can say will convince her. Only your threat to leave her alone in the empty street was enough to persuade her to come with you and now that the shock of your threat has worn off, she’s reverting to her usual stubbornness.

            The central lane begins to move forward faster than those on either side, and for a moment you’re tempted to follow the lead set by several other cars and try to maneuver into the lane, but the line stops as soon as it starts. Car horns blare like maddened elephants.

            Several drivers get out of their stationary cars, then run across the other lines of traffic. Many stop when confronted by the sheer height of the side wall, but a few clamber over it and jump down into the adjacent gardens.

            Within minutes dozens of other drivers are following these pioneers’ example; leaving their possessions in their cars and abandoning them both, clambering over the barriers and running across the gardens toward the city center, like lemmings hurtling toward a cliff.

Back To Damage Time Main