I wiped some sand out of my eyes, realizing I didn’t have plans, except a vague thought of asking a pretty college student from India that lived across the street on the second floor apartment if she wanted to take a ride in my car out to the New Jersey Balloon Festival an hour away. She lived with her uncle and even though I was only two years older than her, there was still a lot I didn’t understand about her family’s ways.
Adam bounced from leg to leg much more animated than I’d ever seen him. He was overdressed for the start of summer, wearing a flannel shirt with a pack of smokes in the top pocket but claimed he ALWAYS had to wear long sleeves when working on his car to keep the grease off his arms. His hair was in a ponytail and his jeans were in a permanent wrinkle but he wore thick glasses and this gave him the air of a scientist.
“Do think you have it working?”
“Come along, you’ll see,” he said.
“Adam, you’ve been saying it works for years.”
“Would you stop saying that?”
I could sense his disappointment and would have said something to assuage it, but I was just wearing underwear and a T-shirt when I opened the apartment door.
“Just a sec. I have to get something on.”
Adam followed me through the small empty living room and watched me put on a pair of jeans in my bedroom before he turned and said he’d meet me outside.
I saw him standing on the sidewalk next to an Indian teenage boy who was wearing just a white t-shirt and jeans. They were looking at his car, a late 70s Dodge Road Runner, a muscle car that looked new when his uncle gave it to him and had nice shiny silver wheels. He'd taken it apart several times to accommodate his experiments and now it looked unfinished, with just a black coat of primer.
They were talking among themselves and the Indian kid seemed ambitious because he was asking questions in rapid fire succession. Most of the other cars that lined the sidewalk were relics from the early seventies, and even sixties, like an ugly brown Ford Pinto, a beat-up American Motors Gremlin, and, worst of all, a rusted out small orange Dodge Colt that hadn’t seemed to move from the curb in front of my bedroom window since I’d first moved in. That one seemed like it should be used for a plant holder rather than a car.
I nodded to the teen and walked around to the front of the car. There was an orange coated plate attached to the grill. "So, the orange plate is the only difference?”
“Ha! The car can still go from 0 to 100 mph in less than 20 seconds, but now no one will know! It’s completely under the radar,” he said this for the benefit of the onlookers and also knew I would get his drift. “That’s what the plate is for.”
I raised an eyebrow as if to say ask, are you sure?
Adam said he hoped to apply his coating to the whole car, but it was so time-consuming that not everything was finished.
“This should be enough to make it work,” he said confidently.
I tried to be encouraging. “It’s a neat disguise,” knowing full well people were not going to want to drive around with a huge ceramic coated plate affixed to the front of their cars. His invention would have to be applied easily, like paint, for it to have widespread appeal. I thought of the cost.
“We're not going to make money unless we can charge a lot,” I said looking at the car.
“We can charge a lot,” he said as he put the flat of his hand on the hood. “My coating even absorbs the heat of the sun. Isn’t it brilliant?” It was obvious he was in no mood to get sidetracked by details.
“I need to know all the other benefits,” I said.
“Imagine a car that didn’t require air conditioning!” Adam mused.
After I walked around to examine the orange plate one more time, he said, “OK! Don’t get caught up in how it looks. Just get in.”
I grunted and opened the car door and asked whether something that big attached to the front grill could fall off. He shook his head and looked ahead in a fog.
“Are you ready? You want to see it in action or not?”
Adam moved his right hand off the top of the steering wheel, and he shut his door. He turned the key and started the car. The engine roared to life loudly.
The Indian kid stepped back and listened to the car idle. Adam seemed to like the audience and declared proudly that the engine was 410 horsepower. I got in and moved the passenger seat a little forward to give a muffler that was leaning against the back of my seat some room to settle.
“Don’t worry about all the stuff. It accumulates from three weeks of work.”
I looked at the back floor and there were more trademarks of Adam: candy wrappers, this time, Sugar Daddy’s, Tootsie Rolls and Hershey bars. He had a habit of eating junk food when he didn’t sleep.
I shut the door and the teen moved on. Adam explained how the car he really wanted to apply his coating to was a limited edition Jaguar XJ12 with the turbo as an add on, and with it, he said that car would be “...capable of going from 0 to 100 and back to 0 again in only 15 seconds. This car is nothing like that.”
He took his foot off the brake and with just a single tap to the gas, my head bucked against the seat. He steered us out of the nearest exit. The car coughed and sputtered as we took a left onto Johnson Road and headed to Roosevelt Park. We passed the pond and the entrance to the bike path, and I thought of other Indian neighbors I often saw there but figured it was more important to tell him to slow down because of speed traps. He told me not to worry; he had no intention of going fast, “right now.”
We passed under a pedestrian bridge in the middle of the park and then exited the park and got onto Route 1 South. The traffic picked up. Adam adjusted quickly, passing a Volkswagen Beetle from the sixty's that was in the right lane. After a mile, we took the ramp under the signs for the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike and 287 North. Adam got over to the far right and banked the car around a turn that put us onto 287 North.
We whizzed past a power station with its metal high rise structures holding dozens of wires. Adam moved to the middle lane and passed a few eighteen wheelers and a gas truck. Two girls drove by and the one in the passenger side turned around and looked at us. Adam noticed right away.
“Look, this car is all it takes for the ladies to pay attention.”
“They’re looking in disbelief, Adam.”
He ignored my comment.
“They want to hear the engine roar!” he yelled.
“Don’t scare them.”
He didn’t heed my advice, and we screamed by them in the right lane. There were big brown sound fences on the side of the highway. After a mile of driving, I started to feel like we were making some progress. I always wanted to be busy on Saturday mornings with work rather than trying to fill the weekends with mindless pleasure.
After a few miles of driving, we went past the exit sign for New Brunswick.
“Wait, don’t you want to go to your apartment?” I asked.
“To see your demonstration.”
“No, I want to demonstrate the car where you grew up.”
I immediately worried about him driving with no sleep and said this much.
“I can make it a little further,” he said. “I’ve come all this bloody way.”
In the road ahead, below the sky, a white mist rose above the highway. If it was smoke, fog or clouds, I didn’t know, but it was cool to look at, and so I settled in. After passing through the fog, someone in a Mercedes Benz pulled up right behind us within inches. Adam looked in his rear-view mirror with a frown and said he didn't like being tailgated. He tapped the gas pedal. Within seconds, his car was in the clear, way ahead. My heart sped up with the car.
We came to a major highway intersection, for Route 78, and Adam got off going west, towards Pennsylvania and our college.
“Here?” I asked.
“You’re the one who told me about this exit.”
It was the way to get to my mom’s new house, a road I seldom used. Adam drove off the exit and took a right onto Remington Road, where white horse fences marked the “gentleman” farms that lined both sides. My mom moved to the area with her new husband and lived in one of the estates, a fact that still filled me with resentment because she left my dad on his own in a small house in Elmwood. I mentioned it to Adam again, but he didn’t seem interested, or more likely, was more interested in the movement of the car. I cracked the window and smelled manure from cows on one of the fields.
I liked the roar of the car, but when I looked at the speed odometer and saw were doing eighty miles an hour, I got nervous.
“Adam, be careful,” I said, “they put lots of cops here in the last few years; this is where they hang.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he said.
With that Adam stepped on the gas and the car lurched to one hundred miles an hour and within 30 seconds, we were doing 120. We hit a bump in the road and the car was airborne for a few seconds.
I clenched my teeth to try and remain silent as Adam kept his foot on the pedal and gripped the steering wheel tighter. I noticed the bags under his eyes. I looked for something to distract myself. I put my right hand on the dash, leaned forward and grit my teeth harder.
After a mile, I saw a policeman on the side of the rode in a crouched position and my heart raced.
“Adam, there’s a cop!” I shouted.
The cop had his radar gun pointed straight at us. However, Adam did not slow down. He did not look at me or even notice I was yelling. He just tightened his muscles and gripped the wheel and continued to speed. We flew past the policeman. I burrowed my fingers into the plastic dashboard and leaned over and checked the speed. We were doing over one hundred and thirty miles an hour. We flew past the cop and only after a half mile did Adam take his foot off the gas. The car slowed down.
We pulled into a Texaco station at the junction of Remington Road and 206. The entire distance we traveled was just three miles, tops.
With his foot on the brake, Adam instinctively reached into his top pocket for a cigarette but thought better of it. I waited for flashing lights behind us, my body contorting, my stomach in knots.
When there were no lights, Adam took his foot off the brake and pulled the car forward and parked in front of the air pump and cut the engine. He smiled. There were two cars getting gas.
“You’ll see,” Adam said.
He lit a cigarette and put it in the ashtray. “If the policeman was going to come…”
He trailed off. I could tell he was exhausted and was using the last of his energy.
“He’ll be along any moment,” I said. “I saw him holding the radar gun, plain as day. Couldn’t you see him?”
“I saw him.”
My heart was pounding. I started to concoct a story in my mind to tell the police officer. I had to make it sound like there was a reason we were driving so fast. I decided I would say that I told Adam that my dad lived alone, and he had just fallen.
The cop car came pulling into the parking lot of the gas station without its lights on. It pulled behind us and only then turned on its strobe lights to let us know not to move. I watched the door open and saw the lettering of the town on the side door, “Elmwood.” Elmwood was the town I grew up in which also covered for neighboring towns with less than a thousand people like the one we were in.
When the cop walked towards us, I couldn’t help but smile. I knew him. He was a high school wrestler like me, the smallest guy on the team, our 101-pounder, Mikey Gaborsky. Mikey was one those big-hearted competitors that believed in the team above his own record. For this reason, he was happy just showing up for practice all the time and not winning like most of us.
Mikey stuck his head in the driver’s side window. Adam's car had New Hampshire plates and was registered in his uncle’s name.
“Mikey, this crazy guy is my friend from college,” I said immediately.
He stooped down to see who was talking and looked at me. He was still small and tentative like he was in high school. His blonde hair was now in a crew cut.
“Owens?” he said.
“Who do you think?” I answered. “Mikey, you still have that wrestling belt?”
He stood up, looked around then walked around the front of the car and over to my window.
“This is a science experiment, Mikey,” I said. “Seriously, my friend here works at Siret Labs. You’re not supposed to be able to see anything. I mean you’re not supposed to be able to see us on your radar gun.”
I wasn’t sure if Mickey heard that or not, but when I saw him frown I figured he did. I thought that might be too forward even for Mikey so I tried to smooth it over.
“It’s not like he’s asking for the wrestling belt Mikey.”
Mikey finally cracked a nervous smile at the memory of the match. “That was the championship, remember?”
Adam saw the opportunity to find out to prove his experiment worked or not. He didn't seem scared he'd go to jail. He looked up at Mickey and interrupted him. “Did you get us on radar?”
Something inside Mikey seemed to snap, like he made up his mind and would be open with us.
“It’s the weirdest thing," he said. “I suppose you can take a look.”
I started to open the passenger door and looked over to make sure Adam understood and could do the same. “Thanks Mikey.”
“Only because you helped us win the match against Bound Brook,” Mickey said.
My match was the team’s first win. For the team’s benefit, I lost an extra six pounds and surprised everyone by wrestling in the 135 weight-class when it was hard for me to make weight at 141 pounds. Even back then losing weight was hard, but I did it so we could pick up a win and get us onto the championship.
We followed Mickey back to his police car. Adam took the radar gun from him and studied its small screen while I looked around, watching the cars whizz by on the two lane road that ran perpendicular to us, Route 206. I read the sign for an insurance broker across the road, recalling seeing it on my bike rides after I first got my 10-speed and made the trip, a good five miles from where I grew up.
I didn’t know what Mickey was thinking only supposed it was his job to catch people on radar. I tried to explain.
“Seriously, you weren’t supposed to pick us up at all,” I said.
Mikey just stared at me.
“I swear,” I said. "It's kind of a secret."
Adam pushed a button under the screen several times until it was blank. He knew what he was doing because he owned several radar guns himself.
“There are still imperfections," Adam said, “but the general concept has been proven.”
I looked at Adam doubtfully. He handed the gun back to Mikey.
Mikey seemed relieved the screen was blank. “I thought that was strange because you were the only car on the road. I just didn’t get any reading.” He looked around again before settling his attention back to Adam. “That’s what happened, I swear. Usually, I get lots of warning. I’ve gotten trucks from two miles away.”
I squinted and thought what would happen if Adam could find a way to deliver these results consistently – how fast Adam and especially his uncle who was a race car driver in England before coming to the United States, would drive down the highway.
I thanked Mikey profusely and was about to ask him if we could set up another test in a few weeks but didn’t get the chance. He said he wished we'd conduct the next experiment someplace else. I promised we would.
When we got back in the car, Mikey was still behind us, but Adam couldn’t control himself. “I know I can make this work! You heard what he said. He did not see us.”
When Mikey pulled away, the implications of Adam’s experiment hit me. “You’re trying to turn the United States’ roads into a version Germany’s autobahn! You, your uncle and all his customers will be able to drive as fast as they want.”
“Exactly!” Adam said.
“But how much will someone pay for radar protection?” I asked.
I still wasn't sure of the business angle. It had taken him months – years if you counted college - to apply the coating to just this one car.
Adam took out another cigarette from his top pocket and lit it thoughtfully. I watched him blow smoke through his nostrils.
“I need to see what Irwin says," I said after a while. “He might think the idea is weird unless it's packaged properly.”
“You said Irwin doesn’t even know about it.”
“There’s a few reasons for that,” I answered, pinching my lips, moving them to one side.
The reason I never mentioned Adam's invention to Irwin before wasn’t because I was afraid that he wouldn’t understand it or even scoff at it. The opposite was true. I was afraid that Irwin would take a small kernel of the idea and start telling the world about it before we were ready. He did this with everyone and everything. That was his nature.
"Just don't quit your job," I said to Adam. "Whatever you do - do. not. quit. your. job. We need to figure out what we can legally do with this coating of yours."