I switched lanes to pass a horse trailer. Seeing another cop car ahead, I pressed the brake. A sound came out of my car, like a spatula slapping fan blades. Maybe something had fallen in the backseat, I thought. Had the kettle bell rolled over? I pressed the pedal again. Hello, spatula.
A sign for a rest area said one mile ahead. Approaching the exit, I turned up the music to drown out the noise, and pulled into the welcome center lot. The sound from the brakes had become a deep lurch, a grind, like dueling can openers.
I got out and circled the car to look, though to my non-mechanical eyes, I didn’t know what to look for. Frustrated, I threw my hands in the air. I’d planned to make Little Rock by nightfall. I was still two hours from Oklahoma City. It was now 2 pm.
I called my insurance company to request roadside assistance. I hadn’t seen a town in forever and could only hope there was help to be found.
The agent told me they would contact a tow truck in Altus, OK, but the driver would take me back to Shamrock, Texas, a 40 mile backtrack. And they wouldn’t be able to fix the car, at least not today.
I asked for the number of the tow truck driver and called him (his name was Jamie). “I can fix it,” he said. “If they’ll tow it to my garage in Altus.”
I called the agency again. Altus was out of the company’s coverage range. “I’ll pay the rest out of pocket,” I offered. Whatever it took to get back on the road.
“It will cost $90,” the agent said.
Fine. I’d spent so much during the past three weeks (trips to Michigan and Oregon, COBRA insurance, Lyft drivers, countless other things) that 900 had become just a number. I went inside the welcome center to wait … and wait.
“Is that it?” he asked, pointing to my car 20 feet away, looking so lonely, so underused. “The brake caliber fell off.”
Say what …. But he was already heading over to show me. He slid the brake back and forth. “The bolt come off. See.” Sure enough, there was a hole where metal should be present. “You’re lucky,” he said, his accent thick, with a drawl. “Could’ve clamped up on your tire on the road. Wouldn’t have been good.”
I assumed that was an understatement. Meanwhile, he drove the car up the ramp and began chaining it up, stretching out on the asphalt to connect the chains. His stomach poked out from underneath his blue t-shirt, a Cooter’s logo on the breast pocket. He received a call and spoke to the person while finishing. Motioned that I join him in the truck, as if it was a given that a passenger could step up those three feet to the seat.
The seat was covered with empty cups and papers. The window smeared with bugs, freckled with dried mud. And we pulled onto the freeway.
His phone rang. “Yes, sir… Yeah, just picked it up … We’re still 50 miles away … Keep a spot in the garage open. It won’t take but 15 minutes to fix this.”
I stared out the window at my car, bouncing slightly. 50 miles then a 15-minute fix. Little Rock was out of the picture, but I could still make Oklahoma City. In the meantime, probably best to make small talk.
“Do you own the garage?” I asked.
“Yeah. I have three people working there, including my son. He’s 16.”
“Cool. Is that what he likes to do?”
“When he’s not racing.”
Jamie upped our speed to 73 then hit a bump. I looked back at my car, visions of an interstate car splat filling my mind.
“You have any other kids?” I asked, still wondering what kind of racing he was talking about but not wanting to sound like a complete Californian by asking.
His phone rang. “Yes, sir. Naw, I didn’t want the job, but he begged me. Sounds like a fuel leak. He said there was a puddle. He walked out this morning and saw it.”
Again, he put the phone down. “It rings off the hook, doesn’t it?” I said.
“Awww, you don’t know the half of it. Third time today I’ve charged it.” He reached for the charging cord. “I got a daughter, too. She’s 15.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s into dancing.”
“Yeah? What kind.”
“Ballet, mostly. And tap. She dances all the time. I’m always having to go to some performance.”
I had to laugh. “My girlfriend loves dance too. I’ve been to a few of those.”
“Awww, man. I can hardly stay awake. I’d rather watch grass grow.”
“My girlfriend and I trade off,” I said. “She’ll go to a superhero movie with me then I’ll see a dance show with her.”
“That sounds like a good deal,” he said, lifting a finger to wave at a passing policeman in a patrol car. Another call came in. “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, love you too,” Jamie said and cradled the phone.
“That your wife?”
“Naw. My son.” He waved to another patrolman. “My wife was a school teacher. But Oklahoma don’t pay their teachers worth a darn.”
“I’ve heard about that,” I interjected. “It’s all over the news.”
“She always wanted to start her own shirt making business. That’s what she loves to do. I had a truck I wasn’t using, so I sold it and gave her the money. Told her to get her business up and runnin’. Now she can’t turn ‘em out fast enough.”
“What kind of shirts?”
“Softball teams. A lot of mom and grandmom shirts. Frilly type stuff.” He pointed to the Cooter’s decal on his shirt. “She made this one.” He grinned, a shake of his head. “She’s done 450 shirts this week.”
Before long, we passed the Altus sign. “Not sure why they didn’t tow you from Elk City,” Jamie said. “That’s where they usually send ‘em. Only a few miles away and still on the freeway.” He rounded a turn, his hand sliding across the wheel. “I almost didn’t take your tow. Was too far.”
“Glad you did,” I said, though couldn’t help regret that the insurance company hadn’t sent me to Elk City.
We cruised through the town square. He waved to another cop then pulled next to a building, larger than I expected, then jumped out of the truck and began unfastening the chains, as a guy whom I guessed to be his son, wearing dusty cowboy boots and a train track scowl, man came out to help. Jamie drove the car into the garage and his son set to taking off the wheel. A woman was watching, wearing a powder blue t-shirt with a frilly Oklahoma decal.
“From California?” she asked, a pep in her voice. “I got relatives in Hollywood.”
“Yeah. Are you his wife?” She nodded. “You make shirts, too? I heard you made 450 this week.”
“Yeah, I got my daughter helping me though.”
“She’s the dancer, right?”
“Oh, she loves it.”
She walked to a door at the rear, stopping to say, “If you want to wait in the front, we got coffee and water.”
I stepped outside into the sun to make hotel arrangements. The first hotel wanted $240 for its cheapest room. The next wanted only a touch less. The third, a Holiday Inn, offered me a queen bed for $100. I gave the attendant my credit card info then went to see the front of the building.
Hundreds of t-shirts hung like willows. Baseball uniforms. Pink and yellow shirts with catchy slogans plastered on front (I love my Mom; God bless America). A pit bull that reached to my waist trotted in my direction. “Awww, she’ll only drool on you,” the woman said. “She’s a lover.”
“My daughter went to buy a baby bottle,” the woman said, as the dog licked my hand. “We found a kitten this morning. It’s over in that box.”
I went to have a look. A black kitten with icy gray eyes stared up at me, an expression like, How did I get here?
I know how you feel, cat.
“I went over this morning and asked the neighbor if his cat had a litter. He said he wasn’t sure but he usually kills them when it does.” She gasped. “I grabbed this one and took it with me. He ain’t laying a hand on it.”
Jamie’s voice called from the entrance. “Car’s done.”
I handed him my credit card. He punched in the numbers and his wife gave me a receipt. “You’re a lifesaver,” I told them, suddenly spry, walking on air. I gave the dog a final pat and left the store.
Inside my car again, I tapped the brakes (Clean and tight. And silent) and left Altus, Oklahoma. I hadn’t made it to Little Rock and had been detoured six hours. But I’d made a connection. I’d seen a family in action.
With a grin, I turned onto the main road in town while lifting my eyes to the sky. Surely, this was the way it was meant to happen.