Hot Tin Roof: Air Time

Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of three Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine, with financial support from M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art.

Hot Tin Roof

By Stu Hartlep

The rush began outside Coralville, the stream of Cedar Rapids traffic angling in on 218, cars shouldering their way off I-380. More, from 10th Avenue, 1st Avenue, Hawkins Drive — Iowa City drivers who had waited, staying cool indoors until they barely had time to get to school or work. Rolling smoothly, seemingly under control. Forgetting how small the margin of control often is — one car length, or the width of a yellow line.

For Joy DiLorenzo, driving east on Grand Avenue, nothing had gone wrong so far, despite the day’s many opportunities for disaster. Her interview with the overnight emergency room doctor was in the can, four good minutes by her estimate. She had even drawn out a comment on the unusually high number of ER cases in the past month, and the question was stuck in the middle, hard to snip out. Little things they never covered in Advanced TV Production.

Iowa City stories were hard to sell. Fields had predictably tried to convince her to do the piece at St. Luke’s instead. He had only called her, finally, when the 2nd-anchor crew was going down anyway for an arraignment story. In return for driving, she got the spare cam. Period. Joy filmed the doctor, then her own lead-in and trailer, alone. She headed back to the Johnson County courthouse a good hour early.

At home on the Iowa campus, she caught the light perfectly at Highway 6 and took the Burlington Street bridge. Uphill now, with the parking ramp to her left. Both eastbound lanes were full but moving well, most of the real traffic was behind. Slowing a fraction, aiming for an opening to her right, when a gray Corolla crossed the centerline, coming straight for her.

Sideways, actually. Sliding and spinning at the same time. Joy saw it in slow motion, with time to appreciate the lighting and focus. Good camera work. She flicked the wheel hard left, sensing the gap without needing to look. The oncoming car swept toward her right front, past it. No impact! New headlights staring close. You’re in the wrong lane, cut it back. Tensed for collision; hoping. Going to miss? Within a foot, in the clear, then her front wheels broke loose, darting right, just as the first car tagged her in the rear. Bang and a shock, spinning her faster, vision dissolving in a centrifugal blur. Sliding on something, her mind blandly reported, hear it? Tires are rubbing, not squealing. She hit the right hand curb and half-spun to a shuddering halt.

Pointed downhill, braced tight for the next crash that didn’t come, she had spun uphill and was out of the melee. The Toyota was sideways across both eastbound lanes, t-boned by a pickup. A tangled string of cars blocked the other side, rear-enders, mostly. As she watched, another car edged gently into the mess. People rubbernecking, unsure whether to stay in their disabled cars or chance getting out. Ought to …

Joy suddenly came to life. She snatched the videocam out of the rear, foot slipping on a greasy film coating the pavement. No time to reflect, already setting up the initial shot in her head. Get a wide one from here and back up. Make sure the station logo shows on the van; they’ll love it. Cross over. She held her position as a car broke over the crest, obviously too fast. Through the lens she saw the driver’s eyes widen in close-up. Panning with it as the car slid, jumped the curb and caught a pole. Come on!

Now, Joy DiLorenzo ran, blindly trusting that no other cars were coming, keeping the film button down, framing the scene. The men in the car were stirring, and she came around, pointing the camera uphill again. She could see smoke, steam, smell the hot antifreeze and something like soap. Gasoline, too. They were waving at her, waving her away, and Joy had time for one step back before orange flame burst out everywhere, filling the lens. The concussion knocked her back, but she landed in a crouch, cradling the precious camera. Scrambling up. Her face stung. If I’m burned I don’t want to know, yet.

The fireball rose and swirled away in a black pall. She heard people, high-pitched, a sound she knew without hearing the words. She saw where they were looking. Somewhere in the center of the pileup a gas tank had exploded, and at the base of the leaping flames a small SUV was roasting to a metallic cinder. Inside, a man, or woman, impossible to tell already; Joy fervently hoped they were already dead. But this was not so, and she filmed it to the last, knowing what would be said if she didn’t.

Enough memory left to grab a word with the unwilling fire commander, and a small bite with the police. Yes, there appeared to be some foreign substance on the road. No, it was too soon to assess. The officers were too wary to say anything definite on camera.

Done, except for one thing. Joy turned to the crowd and held up the camera.

“I need someone who knows how to use this,” she told them. “I can show you most of it.”

She found a media student who had been filming with his own minicam. Someone lent her a mirror. The burns were slight, like a bad sunburn, and Joy tugged the crisped hair on one side into place, reeling off her trailing piece in one take. The damn van even started, and she drove it away.

Carr and Ellman and Bobbi Grissom were standing outside the courthouse, watching the column of smoke as she pulled up. Then they noticed her scorched cheek and torn suit, and the long crease in the van’s tail. And the strain, mixed with triumph, on her face.

“Can somebody else drive?” asked Joy DiLorenzo. “I’m not real safe just now.”

Stu Hartlep is a retired teacher and long-time Cedar Rapids resident. He published a short piece in Hemmings Classic Car magazine and worked for an educational publishing firm in his college days. Currently, he is conducting a fiction writing workshop at Kirkwood Community College. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 243.

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