I was a morning person.
So when JJ Carlson rang me at 6:00 A.M. that Monday, he caught me on my second cup of black coffee and the last page of the Wall Street Journal.
He had something to show me, he said. Something neat. No clues. I was just to get myself to the corner of East 80th and First. I knew it was going to be special, worth the journey. It wouldn't be JJ's vacation snapshots.
I was with him in no time. I stood and stared.
My God, it was a beautiful car.
I ran my hand along the silver paneling. The headlights glared from the foot of a massive hood that reared up into a subtly tinted sweep of windshield. A thousand car magazine clichés ran through my mind as I fought to find a single word that might do justice to this piece of machinery.
"A McLaren F1," I murmured.
"Yup," said JJ Carlson. His tanned and manicured finger tapped lightly on the bodywork. "Only one in Manhattan, least that's what the guy said."
He was probably right. In my five years in New York, I'd never seen an F1 weaving through the clutter of yellow cabs and buses or stuck in a line headed for the Lincoln Tunnel. But JJ would've wanted it in writing. He never left anything to chance.
He towered over me, sleek as the car. He opened the gull-wing door and signaled for me to get inside. I wanted to look casual, cool. But it wasn't easy as I squatted down low and eased a leg over the sill. I was then confounded by the sight of the steering wheel on a console sticking out from the center of the dash. Where the hell was I supposed to go?
Then I noticed that there were three seats. The driver's was in the middle.
I eased myself back into the rock-firm leather. The seatbelt was like a parachute harness. JJ slid behind the wheel and turned to buckle me up.
I scanned the dash -- utilitarian, serious; portholes of precise data.
"Two hundred and forty miles per hour," JJ said, reading my mind. "And before you ask, a million and change."
A million dollars for a car.
I whistled appreciatively and JJ seemed pleased. He turned on the engine. To my surprise the noise wasn't anything special, neither a purr nor a growl. JJ put the car into first gear, brought up the clutch, and gently pressed on the accelerator. The light caught pricks of sweat on his temples as he tilted his head back a fraction.
He rammed his foot down.
I was thrust back into my seat. We headed down East 80th, hitting one hundred miles an hour in too few seconds to count.
JJ's arms stretched out, locked on the stubby steering wheel at an unyielding three o'clock. Eyes glossed by a film of adrenaline.
The world outside was a blur. Before I could begin to assess the likelihood of bowling over a pedestrian or atomizing another car coming out of a parking space, JJ slammed on the brakes and came to a dead stop at the junction of East 80th and East End Avenue.
I felt the steel grip of his hand on my shoulder.
"What do you think?" he asked.
I thought of those gut-wrenching roller-coaster rides I'd never completely enjoyed as a kid. "Awesome," I managed.
pard"It's only a car," he said, then started to listen intently to the rumble of the idling engine. "I heard a noise."
He toed the throttle a little.
"Sounds okay to me," I ventured.
"Maybe you're right," JJ said after a moment. He pressed something and my door opened. "But I just want to give it another run." He turned to me with a grin. "No distractions this time."
As I got out, JJ leaned over and gave me a helpful shove. His eyes were cold blue now.
"Chill out, Fin," he said. "When I get back I'm going to let you have a go behind the wheel. You like?"
"Oh, yes, I like." I smiled.
"Cross over East End Avenue and wait for me at the end of East 80th. I'll be with you in two minutes."
JJ waited for the light to turn green before easing the car from a standstill and turning right to head around the block.
"What the hell was that?" a dog walker asked, rocking back on his heels and yanking at about ten leashes like he was auditioning for the chariot race in Ben-Hur.
"A McLaren F1," I said.
"Never heard of it," he said. "But I guess it goes pretty fast."
"About two-forty miles an hour."
The dog walker thought for a moment. "What's the point of a car like that in Manhattan?" he said.
"I'll get back to you on that," I replied.
I looked up East 80th and could make out headlights flashing about two blocks up. I ran to the other side of East End Avenue.
East 80th at this point was a dead end. A sign made that quite clear. And to emphasize the fact, there was a stoplight showing a permanent red. The street ran about twenty yards before terminating at a steel barrier. Beyond the barrier there was a sheer drop into a deep gully, about thirty feet across. Beyond the gully lay the FDR Drive. I could hear the hum of early-morning traffic nose-to-tailing it down the southbound lane. Beyond the FDR lay the East River.
I headed toward the barrier so that I could stand facing up East 80th and get a full frontal view of the McLaren as it approached. I noticed that there was some old burlap and a few strips of lumber lying on the sidewalk. Unusual in this part of town; the residents would not be pleased. Two pieces of lumber were laid up against the barrier.
I heard the shriek of an engine at full throttle. JJ was about a hundred feet from the junction. He covered the distance between us in a blink and I realized he wasn't going to stop. I threw myself to the side and looked up in time to see the front wheels mount the lumber. The wood snapped, but the car had cleared the barrier and spun out over the gully.
There was silence.
I watched the sun flash against bodywork as the McLaren rolled and revealed its dark underbelly. For a second, the car held still at the top of its arc, as if it had a decision to make.
Then it dropped.
There was an ear-splitting crash as it landed in the midst of the traffic on the FDR. I could hear the helpless thuds of vehicle after vehicle piling into one another.
Then, again, silence.
I got up and looked over the parapet. The nucleus of the impact was an insoluble puzzle of twisted metal, shimmering in a haze of gas vapor and boiling coolant. Farther back, the zigzag of wreckage was more intelligible, somehow retaining more familiar shapes, badly bent but still recognizable.
For a moment, there was nobody to be seen. It was as if dozens of vehicles had decided to stage a mass suicide and just gone out and done it, leaving their owners at home.
Then I heard the screaming. Cars don't scream. People do that; hurt, trapped people. And then those who weren't trapped -- or dead -- started to emerge, stooped, bloodied, like blitzkrieg survivors venturing from their bunkers.
Drivers and passengers from the cars in front of where JJ had landed were running toward the center of the conflagration that had missed them by less than the jolt of a second hand. Those in their wake had been doomed by an extra spoonful of cereal, the clean bra they couldn't find, the lazy gas pump attendant.
"What the fuck happened?"
It was the dog walker again.
"I don't know," I said weakly.
I stared at the carnage, trying to make sense of it.
Then the sirens came.
The noise rose, the cranking up of the emergency service's cacophony. Time dissolved into shouts and the scrape of cordons being dragged into place. The rattle of helicopters vied with the drone of generators powering lifting and cutting equipment. A news reporter, one hand cupped over his ear, yelled real-time commentary at a camera set up next to a van gored by a transmitter mast as tall as a tree.
I didn't bother to check my wristwatch. Time was now the allotted slice of satellite uplink.
I wanted to go back to my apartment and hear the seconds lazily clack by on the simple kitchen clock.
Copyright © 2002 by Philip Jolowicz