Well it’s been a while since I reached into my vast trove of ancient publisher response letters, so I figured it was about time to do so again. And what did I find this time? An acceptance letter from the old ‘zine “Mindmares”, for my old story “Rush Hour”. (See, it’s not ALL rejection letters in there.) Nothing to do with Jackie Chan or Chris Tucker, this is the story of a man who is stuck in traffic, reading the paper, and failing to notice that there’s a Very Bad Thing heading his way. Whoops.
Handwritten and everything! They don’t send letters like that anymore. Of course, the only reason it was handwritten is that Tracy’s printer was broken, but still, I appreciate the effort! The last time I wrote this much longhand was when I was working on Crows while in Florida on a trip—also in 1998, now that I think about it, the same year as this letter—for the lab where I used to work; I remember sitting in the hotel restaurant (on the Sand Key, no less) dutifully scribbling away instead of going out to enjoy the beach and the sunshine. Given my well-documented aversion to sunshine, this probably surprises no one.
Longtime readers with unusually good memories may recall a Random Rejection post from over four years ago that was also from “Mindmares”, for my short story “Feeder”. I included the text of “Rush Hour” in that post, but for those who don’t feel like taking a trip in the Wayback Machine, here it is again for your reading enjoyment.
by James Viscosi
Stuck in traffic, again. Cars bumper to bumper, gridlocking each other across at least the next three intersection. Horns tooting, engines revving, heads coming out of windows to scream curses at other drivers as though everyone in this mess isn’t equally at fault.
A hot day, early August. Been bone-dry and ninety degrees for over two weeks. Thank God for air conditioning. Without it this would be intolerable, sitting here with the sun glaring through the windshield. Even the dark tint doesn’t do much to block the heat. Cars become greenhouses in the summer. Maybe that’s why everyone gets so punchy.
Turn the radio up a notch, drown them out. Classical strings seem out of place on a midtown street, don’t they? One of those harsh, screechy metal bands would be more appropriate. Discordant music for the discordant sounds of honking, shouting, somewhere a radiator hissing as it pops. Don’t pay any attention to them. Just listen to the music and read the paper.
Hm, look at that. Another politician indicted. You would think there’d be bigger things to worry about than who shook down a lobbyist for a campaign donation or who was screwing his aides. Things like the street people who come out during traffic jams, who spread out among the cars looking for handouts, tapping on the windows, touching ninety thousand dollar cars with the same hands they use to wipe their runny noses and pick at their draining scabs. That ought to be front page news.
Flip through the pages. Horoscopes. Bunch of astrological hooey. Two or three vague sentences full of psychobabble. Where’s Libra? Ah, there it is. Your emotional detachment threatens your interpersonal relationships. As you find yourself in increasingly heated situations, your inattention to others becomes more and more critical.
Hey, that’s not a prediction, it’s a personality profile. An insulting one, too. What a load of claptrap. That’s the trouble with these newspaper astrologers. They make sweeping generalizations that are obviously untenable. Every Libra in the city behaves this way? Doubt it.
Sniff the air. Something smells funny, like burning rubber. Better not be another short in the electrical system or the air conditioner. Ninety grand for a car, there shouldn’t be a single goddamn thing wrong with it for at least five years. Glance at the dashboard lights. Nothing indicates a problem. That’s a good sign. Maybe the smell is coming from outside; the air conditioner is on recirculate but eventually odors penetrate. Probably homeless people burning tires in an old oil drum. Even in high summer they have their fires going. Hazardous. The city ought to do something about that before they start a great big blaze and do some real damage. Especially down here in the industrial sector, so sodden with old petroleum and volatile chemicals that even the ground burns.
What’s that noise? Sounds like a goddamn cat scratching at the windshield. Probably some seedy stain with a dirty squeegee, hoping for a couple of bucks for getting the glass all smeary. Don’t make eye contact, don’t let his presence register. Just go deeper into the paper.
Shouting now. Can’t make out the words, the thick windows muffle his voice pretty well, and if he gets too annoying, just turn the radio up until it drowns him out. That’s the only way to deal with these cretins. Complaining to the cops doesn’t help, that’s for sure. Been there, done that.
Pounding on the driver’s side window now, still shouting. Angry that he’s not getting a response. Trying the handle, even; these weirdos get bolder every day. Eyes on the paper; move it closer, make it a wall to keep intruders at bay. Reach out and check that the doors are locked. The deeply tinted unbreakable glass was expensive, but worth it. No one will be getting into this vehicle without an invitation.
Finally, he’s gone away. The car will need a thorough washing now, wipe away any schizophrenic homeless junkie freak residue. Turn the music down; it doesn’t need to be so loud to keep out the regular sounds of the city.
A lot of sirens in the distance. Nothing unusual about that. Some lunatic probably opened fire on a day care with an automatic weapon. Coming this way, it sounds like. Ha. Good luck getting through this gridlock.
Different sound audible over the music as well; a hiss that’s almost a roar. Lower the newspaper, take a look around. Smoke lies heavy over the street. Fire. Everywhere, buildings burning. The block has become an inferno. Vehicles are jammed so tight in the street that the blaze is spreading to them. Even the pavement is burning, feeding a firestorm. It’s coming. It’s coming. It arrives. Orange-red-yellow dancing sheets blot out the street like shifting veils. Trapped. Nobody could survive out there.
Heating up inside the car. Flames lick the paint, raising blisters across the hood. The fire roars louder than any rush hour traffic, louder than the highest setting on the radio. Somewhere out there sirens wail, water gushes, things explode. Maybe they’ll put this out before it completely engulfs the car, before the gas tank goes up. Maybe they won’t. The only option is to stay put. Opening the door would be fatal.
Turn the air conditioner on full-blast. Crank up the stereo. Pick up the paper. Start to read, not looking out the windows again. Just wait it out.
That’s the only way to deal with rush hour.
As noted in the earlier post, while I also have a well-documented aversion to being stuck in road congestion, when I wrote this story in the mid-90s we lived in upstate New York, an area with very little traffic. Here in So Cal? Happens all the time. But at least it doesn’t involve an onrushing inferno.