The busted passenger-side wiper flops across my nice new windshield. It started hailing about an hour back, before Albuquerque. Then, on a mountain curve, one-inch ice balls became grapefruit sized, smashing into the windshield of my brand new 1975 Buick Skyhawk like big slushy softballs hurled from the blackness. I honestly don’t know when the wiper broke.
They pummel the glass with a splat. I flinch when the larger slushballs smack the driver’s side. Do I pull on the shoulder? Keep going?
I don’t want to ask Mike, who’s sound asleep on a reclined passenger seat. He drove the last leg from Tucson to Albuquerque. He looks so angelic, oblivious of my situation behind the wheel. I don’t want him to think of me as weak. He said he likes strong women, and I want to show him I’m one. Desperately.
We’ve been driving in this car for an eternity. Left Illinois a week ago, heading to Arizona. I had friends to visit five miles from where Mike’s old girlfriend now lives. Mike finally decided to drop off her suitcase. They broke up, sort of, when she moved 5 states away. There was unfinished business so I kept it all neighborly and platonic on the way. But they finished it for real while we were there. I’m plotting, I mean hoping, that I’m the next girlfriend.
Mike is jaw-dropping good-looking. I’m almost 20, he’s 24. We are neighbors back where I go to school and where Mike used to go, before he dropped out to work construction for awhile. When we realized we both had a reason to go to Tucson we said, hell, why not, because that’s what you do in 1975, when you are in your 20s. And one of you has a nice new hatchback.
The slushball attack eases off. Now its just the monotony of the dotted line, the taillights ahead, the headlights behind. We are going to drive straight through because I need to get to class before I fail it and before Mike loses the construction job. Which is a bit disappointing because I figure a room for the night might be just the spark for that romance I am hoping to ignite. But for now, I’m feeling pretty wide awake, and I have lots of plotting, I mean planning, to do, while he sleeps.
Flash, flash. In the rearview. A truck’s been tailing me for about 20 minutes flashing his lights. No idea why. I’m following the dotted line, taillights far ahead, intermittent flashes behind. He pulls up close, then lags back. Again. I’m getting irritated. Somehow my solitary thoughts zig and zag to conclude there must be something wrong with my car. The trucker is trying to warn me. Flash, flash.
I signal and begin to slow, finding the shoulder. Behind me, his headlights drift over with me. Finally, he can tell me what the problem is.
The change in motion wakes Mike. “What the fuck? What’s wrong?” he asks, groggy, unhappy to be disturbed.
“No idea. This trucker’s been flashing his lights for half an hour. He’s getting out of his rig,” I say, eyes glued to the rearview. I can barely make out a manly silhouette in the trucks headlights, walking the distance towards my car. I start rolling down my window to say hello.
Mike sits up straight. He spins his head around, sees the approaching trucker, unlatches his door and leaps out of the car, fast, like he knows something I don’t. Mike is gloriously tall, broad shouldered, like I said, amazingly hunky. I’m glued to the rearview mirror, anxious for what the trucker wants to tell us. The trucker sees Mike, stops dead in his tracks, turns tail and runs back to his cab, leaps in, and pulls the truck off the shoulder in that lumbering 24-gear way of 18 wheelers. By now, Mike’s back in my car.
“You’re welcome,” he says.
“What for?” I ask, still piecing things together. Slowly forming a picture, not complete yet.
“For preventing a rape,” he says, like I am beyond naïve, which I didn’t think I was, but, yeah, I am. The picture locks in. The trucker saw me alone, winked his lights till I stopped. Thought he got lucky.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” I hit my steering wheel. Mike likes tough women who can swear. I heard his old girlfriend swear a lot. He likes smart women, too.
“I’m driving for a while,” he says and takes the wheel from me. I think of it as a slight demotion for my stupidity. He puts us back on the road like a rocket while I tell him about the size of the hail we went through back in the mountains. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, which I am not. The busted wiper is evidence. The trucker has really pissed me off. But I am trying to let it go.
“Look, there he is, your boyfriend,” Mike says as we catch up to the semi. It’s late and there are very few cars on the road. Mike has the accelerator punched and we are approaching the truck like it’s standing still.
I roll down the passenger window, extend my third finger and scream, as we pass, “You son-of-a-bitch, motherfu.” Before I finish my tirade, I’ve climbed half out the window, just to make sure he knows I am no victim, he better never mess with me, I’m pissed, and can swear like a truck-driver. I think Mike like’s my performance because he’s head-back laughing now and the trucker is so far behind us, I can’t even see his headlights.
An hour later I have to pee. So does Mike, and coffee seems like a good idea. There’s a sign for a truck stop ahead, the only thing open for miles at one in the morning. I buy us two black coffees, grab a booth, let Mike pee first, then me. We sit and debate if food is also a good idea, if we want to take the time, where the next stop might be. On the other side of the restaurant is a guy with a POW/MIA T-shirt, giving us a bad look. Hippies aren’t welcome. We decide to keep going after we gas up the car. By the pump, in the unflattering overhead florescent, I see small pock marks across my shiny hood.
“See, it was that bad,” I say pointing, wondering if this will be a permanent reminder of this trip. The Texas desert is ahead and we want to get through it before the sun is too high so we don’t dawdle. “I’ll drive,” I say and we are off. I keep thinking of the song about a horse with no name, and I think, that’s what I’ll call this car, No Name.
Back on the road, no more headlights behind or taillights in front, only a white dotted line to follow. But the dots are dimming. They go from white to gray. Almost hard to see, and then, it’s dark, the engine has cut and the power-steering is out, and the brakes are stiff, and all I can do is roll off to the shoulder, slow and easy. I try the obvious, but it’s as dead as the night sky, and the highway. The silence of the infinite desert stretches out on either side of our infinitesimal car; under a universe of tiny sparkles, and raging rivers of stars just above our heads. Mike opens one eye, then his door, then the hood of the car. I join him under the brilliant canopy, imagining a campfire, a guitar, one sleeping bag for two.
“That son-of-a-bitch cut your alternator belt.” He holds up a piece of rubber like a dead snake. Again, I’m slow to put it together. At the truck stop, of course. “He knew we’d be way out here before the battery died.” We both glance up and down the empty highway, expecting an imminent attack. The vastness invokes images of cowboys and Indians. Not one set of lights anywhere other than above us, like tiny white Italian lights and spilt milk. I keep looking up. In awe.
“Let’s sleep till first light, then we’ll hitch our way for help,” says Mike, already preparing a sleeping place in the back of the hatchback by pulling out a blanket, flattening the seats, and pitching our packs into the front. It looks kind of cozy. Maybe even romantic, till Mike climbs in and it’s clear he can’t extend his legs. Besides, we are too tired, and a little on edge stranded in the middle of Texas, in the middle of the night, with crazy truckers on the loose. We try to sleep.
Mike says its 5am and we need to get moving. I’m all sweaty, half asleep, feeling the opposite of romantic. He’s packing everything of value, leaving clothes behind. “No telling if the car will be safe out here. Take your good stuff,” he says. The desert, in early dawn, is even bigger.
“Maybe I’ll stay with the car?” I say, thinking of my monthly payments and protecting my only asset. He looks askance. Shit, I really am an idiot, aren’t I? I feel the opportunity of impressing him has nearly slipped me by. I’m way too stupid to be his girlfriend. I’ll be lucky to be his neighbor back in Carbondale.
I stand in front ‘cause I’m the girl, thumb out, because the first car in 30 minutes is approaching. We can see it about five minutes down the road, it’s that flat out here, and the sun is just peaking up, catching a sparkle off the approaching vehicle. Even with just a hint of sunshine, the heat is rising. The kind where we will need water very soon. We have none. I figure we are about to get mighty thirsty. What’s the chance of the first vehicle stopping?
Apparently 100%. It’s a pick-up, with a wiry fellow who tips his baseball cap and assesses our situation like a mechanic. Inside the pickup is only one seat and cartons almost to the window, filled with newspapers. He has a gallon jug of water behind his seat and we take swigs. It isn’t cold but it’s water.
“I’m a newspaper delivery guy. Work for the Amarillo Star. I’ll tow you,” he says, already pulling heavy chains and hooks out of his truck. “Town’s only bout half-hour or so.”
We are showering him with a profusion of thanks. He’s grinning, ear to ear. A nice guy. He and Mike have to rig something up under my car because there’s nothing other than an axel to hook the chains on. Then we play around with the length of the chain, how far away we can be from his bumper, because we will need to use our brakes if he has to slow up, otherwise we’ll just smash into him. Somehow, apparently because I own the car and because I’m still trying to act tough, I convince them to let me sit in the driver’s seat. My only control is the stiff powerless brake and stiffer, just as powerless, steering wheel.
The highway is still deserted at 6:15 a.m. I could lay right down on the dotted line and take a much needed nap, sizzling like a strip of bacon, if we didn’t need to get to civilization.
We experiment a bit before the real adventure. We take off slowly, about 35 miles an hour, and Daniel, our savior, stops a few times so I get the hang of stopping with him. He even practices a lane change, though I doubt we’ll be passing anyone. Even though Daniel is going slowly, it’s a challenge to maintain distance. After ten minutes, I’m feeling pretty confident, but that fades as traffic appears. We are approaching Amarillo about the time most people head into work.
Suddenly it’s a traffic jam as exits multiply and hills appear, up over city roads full of morning traffic. Who knew Amarillo was a city? I’m white knuckled and Mike looks very worried. He’s gripping the arm rest so hard, there will be marks. The hazard lights are flashing. I’m dangerously close to Daniel’s truck as we come up over a rise. Traffic is merging into our lane. I tap the brake when Daniel does. And something happens. The pick-up truck is moving away from us, down the hill, and behind it the tow chain is dragging, sparking a little on the highway pavement, unattached from our axel. The pick-up disappears into traffic. We are coasting, all by ourselves. Danielle hasn’t a clue we have uncoupled. I hit the turn-signal, I stick my arm out to signal that we are about to die, as we coast ever slower towards the nearest exit ramp.
Horns honk, a brake screeches, but our steady screams drown them out. We make it to the ramp, which has a steep enough slope to power us all the way down. I run right through a stop sign at the bottom and into a parking lot, where I firmly stop. Mike’s face is white, despite the intense heat. I look at him triumphantly because we are not dead. He bursts out laughing. We must be in shock because we can’t stop laughing. We both are thinking of Daniel checking his rear-view mirror. We laugh more.
We get out of the car and look around, while learning to breathe normally again. This is a warehouse sort of area. No people or shops or coffee places or car garages. Or water. Which we need again. Every few seconds we laugh, thinking of Daniel wondering where the hell we went. And then tires screech and Daniel’s pick-up truck rounds a corner into the lot next to us.
“Holy Christ, you scared the bejezuz out of me!” he says, igniting another fit of laughter, we are so tired, and thirsty and happy we didn’t just die. Between fits of hysteria, he says, “You picked a good exit, my buddy’s garage is just a few blocks ahead.” He’d taken the next exit and didn’t notice until he stopped that we weren’t attached. Then he high-tailed it back to the last exit hoping we weren’t still up there in traffic.
They rig up the chains again, but I refuse the wheel. Mike has the easy job of six blocks at 25 miles an hour into the garage. Daniel says, “I’d like to take you to breakfast after that ride!” He keeps laughing too, like us. I have no idea why this is so damn funny. I mean, my new car is almost a wreck and we are way behind schedule getting home. We insist on taking him to breakfast instead.
His friend says it will take about an hour or so to fix our car. There’s a diner about a block from the garage, so we walk over with Daniel. We order up lots of eggs and bacon and hash browns, and lots of coffee and they bring ice water right away. The food is delicious, like food is after a near-death experience. And then Daniel puts life in perspective for us, over Texas-sized portions.
He’s a Viet Nam vet, been back about five years but it’s still haunting him, he says. “I only knew about the desert before Nam, couldn’t wait to get out of that green hell-hole.” He evacuated an orphanage at the end of his tour, marched 19 children, all ages, out through the jungle. Carried babies in his backpack, a toddler on his shoulders, a sick five-year-old in his arms, for three days and nights. No rations. Every one of the nineteen made it but one. And after that, he adopted every one he carried. Brought home four Vietnamese orphans to his wife. The oldest is ten now, he says proudly. Mike and I pick up the check, and try hard to give him a twenty for his trouble. He won’t take it. We walk back to the garage. I see Mike slip the twenty in his truck. We all hug good-bye.
Mike and I were neighbors till I graduated, and romantic for a time. Then I went on to grad school and a few other boyfriends and we lost touch. But I bet he still tells the same story. I bet he remembers how brilliant the desert sky was that night when we were so powerless, how delicious that breakfast tasted, and how fundamentally good some people can be.
Banner Image: By Bradley L. Conley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons