Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ramps in the Night

Last night I had an extraordinary dream.

I was driving down a four-lane road through forested hills when suddenly I came upon a ramp set up in the middle of the road. It was a ramshackle thing, made of wood, rising steeply up about five feet. I pulled over to the shoulder. As I got out of my car a hot rod raced by me and took the ramp, shooting into the air and landing on a matching ramp 30 feet or so beyond. Then the whole road was crowded with ramps, and there was no way through but by taking them one at a time. So I put my foot to the floor and went through, sailing into the air several times.

I passed into an old industrial town, perhaps in western Pennsylvania, with derelict factories, dreary houses, and new convenience stores at crumbling intersections. It was in the grip of ramp fever, or maybe some sort of underground ramp festival. Ramps kept appearing on streets, and cars would shoot over them and then disappear. The town was full of leather-jacketed guys in souped-up cars, revving their engines, exchanging mysterious signals. Once I was sitting at a traffic light when a bunch of guys appeared and pulled pre-cut sections of asphalt out of the road and arranged them into a ramp heading off into a parking lot, and I realized that this was something that happened regularly, that was part of life in this strange town.

I tried to investigate, or at least find out what was going on -- sometimes it seemed I was an official authority, sometimes just a confused citizen. But nobody would tell me anything, and when I asked about the ramps they clammed up. I ended up talking to the police chief, who insisted that nothing was happening and told me to go back where I came from. I could not decide if he was ignorant or complicit.

Then the climax of this mad festival came, the Death Race. Two battered old hearses drove in, painted matte black, one missing a front fender. I saw close-ups of the kids who were driving them, one made up as a zombie, the other as a clown with a carrot-shaped red nose. This part of the dream was especially cinematic, the made-up faces, the cars on night-time streets, the shine of wet pavement under streetlights, scene after scene shot in the dark palate of a Batman movie. People drove around, racing their engines, acting tough, but a sense of doom hung over everything. I knew something bad was happening but I could do nothing about it. I was too much of an outsider, a spectator, to have any influence on events. I followed the action to the edge of town and saw that it sat on a steep bluff with a river a hundred feet below. I understood that in the Death Race the cars would shoot off a ramp at the top that was wide enough for both, but that the ramp at the bottom was only wide enough for one. At least one of the drivers would surely die. I knew they were volunteers, though, making some kind of wager with death out of mad, hopeless boredom, and I knew that everyone else involved greatly respected their courage.

I did not see the jump; the dream passed straight on to the aftermath. The town had emptied, the hot rods and their drivers all gone, the atmosphere dim and sad. I met the police chief again and I knew that one of the drivers in the Death Race was his son, who was either dead or dying. Still he denied, angrily, that anything had happened. I rose up out of the town and saw the riverbanks lined with abandoned factories stretching away toward a distant bend, each one grimmer and more fantastically shaped than the one before.

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