IT'S 5 o'clock rush hour on Route 80 in northern New Jersey. My 1970 faded blue Mustang sputters and chugs its way into eastbound traffic off the Totowa cloverleaf. All six cylinders are firing today. I attribute their cooperative mood to the moist, prestorm air that the carburetor likes so well. I grin like a fool as I realize this is my last evening in the pothole state. T-minus 45 minutes and counting until my bald tires cross the Tappanzee Bridge and steer a homeward course for New England. Soon I'll be back in Massachusetts, where the highways are all velvety ribbons of seamless chocolate unfolding effortlessly into a sunset of candied oranges and peppermint sticks. I settle back into a well-worn bucket seat. A light rain begins to speckle the windshield. I have to turn the wipers on and off again once every 23 seconds. If I leave them on, the dry, cracked blades screech as they drag over the dirty glass. Danger appears on the horizon. A pothole covering half a lane looms 10 car lengths ahead. It appears to be widening as I get closer.
I check my side and rear mirrors for an opportunity to change lanes. A BMW is pacing me to the right, and an aggressive-looking Chevy pickup is coming up fast on my left. I'm hemmed in. I have no choice but to brave the jarring menace. My arms and shoulders tense as I grip the wheel hard. I slow down and drift to the left, hoping to miss the worst of the hole. The truck, thinking I have designs on his lane, sends an unfriendly blare. I mutter a few unpleasantries in return.
The right tires plunge helplessly into the savage roughness of mutilated tar and concrete. As they slam into the vertical face at the end of the evil canyon, the suspension coils scream piteously and the dazed headlights rock back and forth in their sockets. The double slam is transmitted to me through the seat and steering wheel. I catch sight of a mug, half full of cold coffee, dancing toward me on the dashboard. I make a panicked attempt to grab it, but the car's erratic gesturing sends the mug over my hand, soaking my arm, on the way to the floor.
A moment later I catch one last look at the pothole in my shaking rearview mirror. I still remember how the skyline of New Jersey appeared to collapse into the hungry chasm. Then the pothole curled the corners of its mouth up in a lip-smacking smile and bade me farewell. I don't slow down till I reach the Mass Pike.