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Things have quieted down. The police announced on the TV news that motorists driving in Duke City would find that they must have mufflers which muffle. Drivers attempting to enter Duke City without functioning mufflers would be stopped near the edge of town. The announcement didn't make clear who or what would stop them. The City Council passed an ordinance increasing the fines for obstructing traffic.

I received a telephone call from Clyde at dawn one morning. Sorry to bother you so early, Marta. I need a ride. Car broke down again.

Sure, I answer. Come on over and I'll take you to school.

No, I'm not at home. I've been out here all night. I waited to call 'til I thought you'd be up.

Where are you?

Golden Inn.

My God - It's an hour's drive, over on the other side of the mountains. O.K. But you'll be late for school.

I know. But I didn't wanta bother you any earlier.

So I drove to Golden, to the country music night club. The parking lot was full of cars, which seemed odd so early in the morning. A few were pulling away as I drove in.

Clyde was waiting for me beside the highway. Hi, Marta, he says. You're not gonna believe this.

That your wreck of a car broke down again? Sure, I am. You ought to trade it in.

No, listen to this.

Get in. You can tell me while I drive you back.

I don't need a ride after all, he says, a little sheepishly.

Don't need a ride? I don't understand.

I don't either. Lemme tell you what happened. I drove out here to listen to the Jug Band. Remember? I invited you, but you couldn't come. One of the players teaches with me at the school. They're really good. We were drinkin' beer and enjoyin' the hell out of it - 'til closing time. Then we came out, and no one could get his car started. We were all stuck, except the gal that plays the washboard for the jug band. The band all piled in her car and drove off. And the customers just stood around in the parking lot. No one could get a car started.

How can it be everybody's car at once? I ask. Mufflers! You all need new mufflers!

You know I just got a new muffler, and so did half a dozen other guys!

So you spent the night out here in the parking lot?

The owners locked up and left. I didn't sleep much, and called you at the first daylight.

You sure did. But now you tell me you don't need a ride, I say, a little cross.

That's right. Damn thing started a coupla minutes ago and runs fine. Same for some of the other cars. See! They're leaving.

What was the matter last night?

I sure don't know. But it wasn't just my car - it was all of 'em. He looks at me, pleading. I'm sure sorry, Marta. Sorry to bother you and drag you all the way out here.

Yeah, well, I am, too, I say. So you're O.K. now? You don't need me, then?

No. I'll drive on in, since the car's working fine.

O.K. See you. I begin to pull away.

Sorry, Marta! he calls after me.

I was really cross. Clyde has become a colossal pain. A pain where a pill won't reach, Dad would say.

I drove a little way, feeling mostly angry at stupid Clyde, before I realized that I was going on beyond Golden, instead of heading back toward Duke City. I decided to continue, and make a circle and return to town on the main north-south freeway. A couple of miles beyond Golden I came to a gaggle of cars and pick-ups, all heading toward me, stopped beside the highway. It looked almost like an impromptu meeting. Some of the vehicles were still on the south-bound lane, not well-parked. As I drove by slowly, I noticed people sleeping in some of the vehicles. It was strange. Not exactly a traffic jam, but what could become the beginnings of one.

Later, over on the freeway, I was thick in the commuter traffic coming down from Santa Fe, and found myself in another similar tangle of parked cars, heading south as I was. One lane was open, moving slowly. Police were investigating the stalled cars. I got through it and stopped and walked back.

A policeman was knocking on the window of a parked car. Open up, Mister! Wake up! As the car window is lowered, the policeman jerks his head back suddenly. What's the trouble, Mister? I'm close enough to hear it all.

Oooh, my head! the driver moans.

You had too many last night, Mister! the cop says.

Yeah, I guess so, the man groans.

You needed to stop, I must say, but why'd you stop here? the policeman asks. You shouldn'ta been driving in that condition.

Car stopped. Wouldn't run. Couldn't start it.

You were too drunk to tell what you were doing, the cop suggests.

No, it stalled, and wouldn't start. So I lay down and musta passed out.

Probably a good thing. But not out here on the freeway, the cop says.

No, I needed to get home.

See if it will start now, the cop orders. We need to clear this area.

The hungover man sits up a little straighter and works foot pedals and turns the ignition key. The motor roars to life. Works fine, now, the man says. His smile is a grimace. Oooh, my head.

Get going, Mister. And be careful, the cop says, stepping back and waving his hand.

Excuse me, Officer, I say, showing my press card. Could I ask you a question, please?

Not a good time, Lady. I gotta clear this area.

I know. Just a second. What's causing all the stalled cars?

That I don't know. Most of 'em are able to get going now.

Do you know of other places where this is happening?

Radio says there's a jam-up like this south of town. And another one up in the canyon. And another out near Rio Puerco. He waves his hand at the western horizon.

I passed something like it, not so big, over near Golden, I say.

I'm not surprised. But it's strange. Every driver is hungover.

No kidding! Well, thanks, Officer, I call after him, as he's walking away to confront the driver of the next stalled car.

from the short story, "Duke City Alchemist"
© 1986, Harry Willson

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