I no longer remember what the prompts were for this piece. I believe one was “The lizard crawled through the window,” another was “internationally recognized warning sign,” and finally, I believe the last prompt was “doodling in the margins of big yellow pads of paper.”
Sid sat transfixed by the digital clock on the dashboard of his ’87 Olds, the dark gray vinyl cracked and chipped beneath the hot Texas sun. It was 5:30 and he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. His blue Cutlass, wedged tightly between a Greyhound bus in front and a tanker truck behind, hadn’t moved ten feet in as many minutes. Trapped high above the city streets on the Pierce Elevated in the heart of downtown Houston, if Houston had a heart, he thought. His week had been hell and this day even more so. On the surface, this day was no different than so many others spent in this endless line of rubber, steel and glass, snaking back through the sweltering heat of summer, but that wasn’t the whole of it. Today was the day for which he’d waited and prepared for years, really for all his life.
He looked at himself in the rear view mirror, sweat dripping from his balding head and bearded chin. “Damn this Texas heat! Damn this traffic!” he said to his image, but he knew it wasn’t the heat, even though the AC hadn’t worked in this piece of crap for over a year now. No, it wasn’t the heat. He’d waited all week for this day, excited and afraid, ever since he’d gotten the email late last Saturday. There in the midst of innocuous prose were the words he’d hoped for and dreaded for so long, “The lizard crawled through the window.” The time had come. Now, hating every minute of delay, each hour an eternity, he crawled towards his destiny. This past week at the firm was spent doodling in the margins of big yellow pads of paper as paunchy old wind bags rambled on about projected losses and declining markets. Timing was everything. Look normal. Don’t draw suspicion. Still, he couldn’t focus on anything but today. All week long it was all he could think about. Could he do it? Should he do it? He was nearly paralyzed, caught between faith and reasoning. The whole city was caught in an urban paralysis, frozen in its tracks, unable to untangle from the knot of congestion and commerce. With all the warnings and all the news flashes, here it sat, frozen in place with nowhere to run even if it did know what lay ahead.
Somewhere ahead, unseen to Sid, wreckers towed away the last of the arterial blockage and the traffic began to nudge along, picking up speed bit by bit. Finally he reached his exit and trundled down the ramp to the city streets below, stopping in front of a dilapidated warehouse with a barely readable, century-old sign, on its side announcing some defunct company, and hawking a product long ago forgotten. The metal door screeched open, resisting him as though in some feeble attempt to stop the inevitable, a last and pitiful defense. With an almost casual glance up and down the street, he returned to the car and eased it into the cavernous hole, stopping just inside the door to pull it shut behind him, and locking it, now his defense against prying eyes.
From the trunk he pulled out a large toolbox and a crowbar. Strewn about on the floor in haphazard fashion were several large wooden crates marked “Machinery” and “Machine Parts”. All bore the address, Smith and Jones AG Equipment Company, Inc. and were marked, “Made in India,” or “Made in Germany,” or “Made in Belgium.” Sid attacked the boxes feverishly, prying the packing crates apart and laying the contents neatly on the floor. Every now and then he would move a part from one spot to another and replace it with some other piece freshly emerged from the packing material. Soon it was all unpacked and he stopped to survey the “ingredients.” Wiping his brow, he opened the toolbox and set about assembling all of this into one large, complex apparatus. Done, he grabbed up a broom and began to quickly sweep the packing material to the back of the room, where several heavy sheets of rusting iron leaned against the wall. Strewing the Styrofoam in front of them, he pried them away from the wall with a long bar from another pile of rusting metal scraps. They crashed with little noise, leaving the wall behind exposed. There the wall had fresh plaster applied and he tackled this with renewed fervor. Soon he had an opening a man could move through at a stoop. Grabbing a flashlight from the toolbox, he ducked into the low opening into the space beyond. It was barely a room, more like the bottom of a ventilation shaft. But there was room enough. In the corner, sat a black metal case, internationally recognized warning signs plastered on all sides. Sid lifted it with a grunt. Tired from the previous hour’s work, the thing weighed more than he’d expected. Gripping it with both hands, he shuffled back to the opening and heaved it through, following immediately behind.
Back at the apparatus, he carefully opened the box. Abandoning all caution, he lifted the dull metallic rods from the case, one by one, and inserted them into his machine. What did it matter to him? It would all be over soon. With the last rod in place, he closed the machine cover. From a velvet wrap, he removed a small palm-sized box, a thin wire trailing from one end. Connecting the wire to the apparatus, he unwound it several paces back.
“This will do,” he thought. He lay the box on the floor and returned to the car. From the back seat he lifted a small, well-used prayer rug. Slipping his shoes off, Sid returned to the box and unfurled the rug, laying it gently on the floor. After a moment’s reflection, he determined which way he should face, then knelt down, bending low upon the carpet, his head pressed against the course fibers.
His finger found the button.
“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”
He pressed and knew no more, his soul swept away in the nuclear blast to meet whatever destiny awaited the faithful dead.