“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I’d venture to say that whoever coined this statement wasn’t along for the ride as I attempted to make it home from work on June 23, 2014. In fact, I’m sure that this was the case. I distinctly remember thinking that death would be a welcome respite from the trials and tribulations of this past Monday. It all began with a red light in the predawn darkness…
I was driving to work on a Friday morning when the battery warning light flashed to life. I chose to adhere to my time honored method of dealing with issues involving my car: ignoring them and letting the vehicle work out its own problems.
In truth, I did spend some time that day worrying about what was going on with the car. Using my legendary reasoning skills, I assumed that the battery light flashing on meant that there was a problem with the battery. But after speaking with some co-workers, I was made aware that the battery light could signify any number of problems. In fact, my well informed friends told me, it could mean anything from a bad alternator to the death of civilization as we knew it.
Unwilling to facilitate the end of existence, I stopped at an AutoZone that afternoon in order to have things checked out. Immeditately upon entering the store I “got in the zone,” that is the “stand in line for some indeterminate amount of time while people who have no idea what they want or need step up to the counter and answer every question with a blank stare” zone.
When I finally made it to the front of the line, I informed the guy behind the counter that I needed a battery test. Moving with all the speed of a crippled glacier, the man picked up the tester and headed outside. I followed, already dreading what I might soon find out.
But at first, it seemed like things wouldn’t be too bad. The test revealed that I needed a new battery. I followed the AutoZone guy back inside. I chose a battery from the list he brought up on the computer screen and asked if the price listed included installation.
The man sighed deeply and admitted that yes, it did. I made the purchase and waited for him to gather the things he needed. When he finally had everything, I followed as he trudged out to my car with the air of a condemned man taking the final few steps to the electric chair. He took out the old battery and replaced it with the new one. When I turned the key, the car started right up. It seemed that things were going to be okay.
The battery light was still on. In fact, it was now flickering on and off every few seconds. When I informed the installer of this fact, he agreed to test the alternator, which he seemed almost certain the test would show needed replacing as well.
But it didn’t. To Mr. AutoZone’s amazment, the alternator passed the test. Twice. I slammed the hood and went on my way, hoping the light would go off in time.
Over the weekend, I didn’t drive the car very much, as I spent the majority of time watching televsion, writing blogs, and eating Blue Bell “Happy Tracks” ice cream. But each time I did hop in for a quick trip somewhere, the light was still there, mocking me with its intermittent flashing.
By Monday morning, I’d decided that I should really take the car somewhere and have it checked out by equipment a bit more sophisticated than that which AutoZone had to offer. I made a mental note to search for a garage later that day after work.
The work day went as expected, with no major disasters. Toward the end of my shift, I even got some good news. I’d gotten the promotion I was hoping for! For several weeks, I’d been unsure of how things would go. But now I knew that, like George Jefferson and his family, I’d be moving on up! As you might expect I was in quite the good mood as I punched out and headed for the door. Time to go home and celebrate!
When I got into the car, the battery light was still playing its tricks, only now it was on steadily rather than flashing. I’d only gone a mile or so when I looked down and saw that the “service engine soon” light was now on as well. As I watched several more lights blinked on! Then they began to flash and blink randomly.
This wasn’t good. I reached over to switch off the radio, but before I could it went off on its own. Despite all of these issues, so far the car’s engine was still running okay. That changed however, when I stopped at a red light at the top of a little hill. When the light turned green, I pressed down on the gas. The car didn’t move! I could hear the engine revving, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I pushed down harder and finally, the car gave a great lurch and surged ahead.
At this point, I decided I’d fought the good fight long enough. I called Dena and asked her to find a garage for me. I’d simply take the car straight to the repair shop and have it checked out right then.
When I hung up the phone and looked at the instrument panel again, the speedometer had stopped working. Before I had time to consider the ramifications of this development, the car began to gradually slow down. I gave it more gas, but to no avail. Slower and slower we went, until I finally pulled onto the shoulder. The car gave one final lurch and died on the spot.
I turned the switch off, then immediately tried to crank the car again. Nothing. I sat where I was for a moment, debating the best course of action. Eventually, I got out of the car and stood in the weeds which grew unchecked along the side of the road.
Then it hit me: I had roadside assistance! Some of you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t, roadside assistance is that $2.99 charge that is on your cell phone bill every month. Yeah, I know. You’ve never actually read your cell phone bill. I never have either, but during an upgrade the previous month, the guy at the AT&T store informed me that I still had the service. Now, it would pay off!
I got back into the car and dialed the number I’d been given. An automated voice answered, asking what type of help I needed. When I responded that I needed a tow, I was transferred to someone who could allegedly help me. A man answered and asked me where I was. When I told him, he assured me that he would get a driver out to me ASAP.
It was going to be okay, I thought. Even though I was stuck on the side of Highway 129 with a car that wouldn’t even attempt to start, help was on the way! In no time at all, I’d be on my way home, where I’d have a nice dinner and a drink and forget that this day ever happened.
When the tow truck driver called to get my exact location, and I asked where he was coming from, he said Toccoa. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the geography of Northeast Georgia, Toccoa is about 50 miles away from where my car broke down. I must say I found it a little ridiculous that somone from so far away had been dispatched to help me.
I glanced at my watch, saw that it was 2:45 pm, and resigned myself to a wait of at least an hour. Not a big deal, I thought. I’ll simply pass the time by doing some online research on my phone.
When I picked up my phone, there was a warning on the screen stating that I now had only 20% of battery life left. I put the phone down and sat there, wondering just what atrocities I’d committed in a previous life to get myself in such predicaments. It was one of those obscenely hot, humid days to which Georgia seems particularly susceptible, and after a few minutes it began to get hot in the car.
I got out and stood on the shoulder, watching traffic hurtle by. I’d been standing there for some time when a car slowed and pulled up beside me. A woman of perhaps fifty sat behind the wheel, peering at me through the open window.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Just waiting on a tow truck. It should be here soon.” I would later remember this statement and shake me head at my own naivete.
“Okay,” she said as she pulled back out into traffic.
The sky was mercifully becoming overcast, and with a bit of a breeze blowing, the heat wasn’t nearly as bad as in the car. I’d simply wait outside until the tow truck arrived.
At that exact moment, the first rumble of thunder sounded. Seconds later the sky began to sputter a few raindrops. When the next bolt of thunder cracked directly overhead, I retreated to the car. I slammed the door just as a torrent of rain exploded all around me.
Cut off from any source of air, I immediately began to sweat. I glanced at my watch and saw that over an hour had passed since the truck driver assured me he was “on his way.” It appeared that I wouldn’t be home for quite some time, so I elected to use a bit of my phone’s precious remaining battery and call my wife.
Dena answered on the first ring. I informed her what was happening, and we exchanged a quick “I love you” before another battery warning popped up. I now had only 10% left. We hung up, with Dena promising that she was searching for a garage that could look at the car the next day.
The interior of the car became hotter still, and the windows began to fog up. Desperate for something to take my mind off of the heat, I began digging in the glove compartment, console, and backseat for something to read. I ended up with an old oil change receipt, a Saturn owners manual, and the liner notes to “The Beavis and Butthead Experience” C.D. Absolutely riveting reading!
4:00 came and went with no sign of the driver, and still the rain continued to pour. Now and then I would open the door in an attempt to let in some fresh air, only to slam it shut again when a gust of wind blew a gush of water in my direction.
At last, the rain began to slow down. At around that same time, I received another call from the tow truck driver, who this time identified himself as “Billy.” He was finally in the area. I spent the next twenty minutes alternately opening and closing the door, wiping sweat from my brow, and looking over my shoulder for the truck.
At long last, it rumbled into view. Rarely have I been so happy to see a vehicle, under any circtumstances. I grabbed an umbrella from the backseat and practically jumped out of the car, excited that my long afternoon in purgatory was mercifully coming to an end.
Billy had another car on the back of the truck. Not what I wanted to see. But just as I was about to ask him just what the hell was going on, he mentioned that the truck had the ability to raise one car up and store another below it. Relief washed over me; a feeling which lasted approximately 1.7 seconds before Billy continued:
“But I’m not sure if your car will fit under there,” he said.
This is where a less patient man would have lost it. As it was, I had to fight the urge to grab him by the front of his shirt and inform him in no uncertain terms that he would by God find a way to make it fit, even if it meant dropping the other car off on the side of the road and coming back for it later.
In the end, it was a non-issue. My car fit okay beneath the other one, and Billy and I were off, joining other such famous duos as Lewis and Clark, Harold and Kumar, Hall and Oates, Bill and Ted, Brooks and Dunn, Abbott and Costello, Jordan and Pippen, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Montana and Rice, Bonnie and Clyde, and Cain and Abel on the adventure of a lifetime! Then again, probably not.
As we approached Athens, I looked at my watch again and realized that it was 5:50 pm. At this point, I’d been attempting to commute home from work for nearly four hours. But now, I was almost there. Just a few more miles, and I could drop the car off and head home.
The repair shop closed at 6:00. Dena had texted me the name, address, and phone number of a place on the East side of town that could work on the car the next day, but we now had less than ten minutes to get there. I urged Billy to drive faster, but it seemed that he’d never driven with more than one car on his truck before and was reluctant to push it. Some roadside rescue this was turning out to be!
As we raced against time (actually, crawled, is more like it), I was beginning to feel as if some great force was working against me. Perhaps fate never meant for me to make it home. Could it be that I’d somehow slipped into my own private hell, where I’d been condemned to continue this trip forever? Then again, maybe life just throws some messed up s**t at us sometimes.
We pulled up in from of Bass-Mimbs Tire and Auto at 5:59. I grabbed the assorted jumble of stuff I’d brought from the car and sprinted for the door. I was certain that it would be locked; that the mechanics had decided to pack it in a little early on a Monday afternoon. I was so sure that I wouldn’t be able to pull the door open that at first, I couldn’t. Just as I was about to unleash a stream of curses that would offend a marine drill sergeant, I saw a man sitting behind the counter, watching me.
I tried the door once more, and this time it opened! I gave the man my keys and information, and he stated that the problem was most likely the alternator. If this was indeed the case, he continued, the car should be ready by the next day. Good thing too. If the repairs were to take a week and I’d been forced to rent a car, this is most likely how that transaction would have gone.
By the time I walked back outside, Billy had the car off of the truck and was preparing to continue on to Atlanta, or Little Rock, or Mexico City. With roadside assistance, you can never be sure. I thanked him for the ride and bid him farewell. I can neither confirm nor deny that he drove away in tears over the end of our fantastic voyage.
It was over! I’d done it! My Saturn was set to be checked out the next day, and I was finally ready to go home and crash. I could almost taste the huge dinner I would eat after my day of trials and tribulations.
I’d forgotten to call a cab.
I had the phone number for a cab service in the area, and had meant to call as we approached Athens. But in my worry about being late to the garage, the call had slipped my mind. With the final smidge of life left on my phone battery, I dialed the number.
Fifteen minutes later, I was standing out on the sidewalk in front of Bass-Mims, waiting for my ride. By now it was nearing 6:30, and the day had cooled considerably. Restless from spending so much time sitting, I began to pace up and down in front of the garage. At some point, I also began twirling the umbrella I’d used earlier while Billy loaded up my car. I didn’t realize I was doing it until I noticed passers-by looking in my direction.
I looked down and froze. With slowly dawning horror, I realized what I’d been doing. No wonder people were looking at me! For God knew how long, I’d been walking up and down the sidewalk, twirling the umbrella in my hand like some kind of demented Gene Kelly.
Mercifully, my cab arrived before I had time for an encore performance. As I settled into the front seat, I felt that, at last, my day was nearly at an end. We were only three or four miles from my house. I opened my wallet in preparation to pay the driver.
“How much will I owe you?” I asked.
“Fifteen dollars,” he replied.
There were only a couple of singles in my wallet, so I slid out my credit card. I’d charged everything else during my ordeal, why not one thing more? In half an hour, it wouldn’t even matter anymore. I’d have too much to drink and forget the whole thing.
I looked at the driver and saw that he was glancing in my direction.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you say something?”
He looked at me for a long moment before shifting his gaze back to the road.
“My card reader is out of order,” he said.