We were on a brutal stretch of highway heading northward. The scenery hadn’t changed for over an hour and even the abundance of armadillo carcasses scattered the side of the highway remained a constant. The tragedy of these hapless animals was almost hypnotic, what was just as tragic was the fact that MAD was more than likely asleep in the HHR a couple of car lengths in front of me. My head bobbed my brain slipped for seconds and subconscious thoughts surfaced before I jolted myself awake. The energy shot I took at the last gas stop in Louisiana had no effect. There were five states and fourteen hours before I could even think about a bed. Anything could happen before I got there. The belt could break and the battery would die. A hard turn could a bearing could pop or a pothole could make it rupture. A tire could fall off the axle and the trip would end right there in a ditch on a desolate stretch of Mississippi highway. The water pump, the alternator, catalytic converter, or even worse the head gasket could go at any moment. Any type of problem I could think of ran through my head; it was easy because most of that already happened in that particular car. Once, while returning from a festival the motor mount fell off. Hell, it had been declared a Total Loss after a distribution collision. Once the beast was on the open road, I planned to push it as far as it could go before she sank. We figured out our gear, garb, merchandise and myself weren’t all going to fit in one solitary vehicle. Everyone told me not to bring the car. Maybe the good luck gods favored me after all, and I’d be able to take it down to the bottom of the country without too big of a price. Over the course of the voyage, The Curvy Dogs ceremoniously collected all the face-up pennies we could find and constructed a good luck alter with a gold Buddha and four-leaf clovers. At least I hoped for a handsome mechanic to give me a decent deal on repairs. The next day was Monday and if worse came to worse we could pass the night some place and get the problem fixed then. I decided not to think about it any longer, “we’ll deal with it when it comes,” I said to no one in particular and stared unblinkingly ahead.
We rounded midnight and I drifted in and out of sleep in the passenger seat of the HHR. Larry Sparrow had a movie cranked at full volume on the laptop and rolled his window down to keep himself awake. Over the racket, I heard his voice going on about what had transpired the previous day. “You’re still on that?” I said sleepily and rolled over as much as the laptop mount positioned pervasively in front of me would allow. That night couldn’t be more different than the last. It was early Monday and a completely different game. I was sad to put the tumult of New Orleans behind me but it was impertinent to move on. I glanced back to see the familiar headlights glowing unevenly behind us. I was half crazy from the road in a car that could fail at any moment. I relinquished my post behind the wheel and let MAD worry about it. I resigned to my fate of another sleepless night when over the din of the movie, I heard my phone ring. “She loves you. It’s just- well speak of the devil,” she called to say the engine was overheating, and had to blast the heat to keep it going. Even that wasn’t working anymore.
“I can drive more, I’m good for another five hours.” I could see it in MAD’s eyes, we didn’t call her Mad Anne Dandy for nothing, if it was up to her we wouldn’t stop until we arrived home some seven hours later. She astounded us the way she forged through to get there, pushing our crew straight through to dawn until the sky grew too red and heavy to see, and the lashing rains turned the interstate into a river.
After passing through Alabama without incident on the return trip, we pulled off the interstate and parked next to a rodeo themed gentleman’s club. It was one in the morning and we were somewhere in Tennessee. After some deliberation we decided it was best to park in a better lit area as opposed to Scary Town, USA. Across the lot and past the on and off ramps of the interstate a gas station glowed in the distance.
We scanned the aisles looking for a patch job- a can of something to fix my car but we came up empty handed. “I say we keep going,” MAD reiterated itching to get back on the road.
“I don’t know.” I said as we stood outside milling around, “I just don’t trust it.” I already told the gas attendant we might be passing the night in the parking lot. At that moment, a deluge of coolant flowed out from the undercarriage and we had no choice in the matter anymore. Larry Sparrow took it upon himself to keep watch the rest of the night. The poor pirate had to call his work in the morning and let them know he wouldn’t be making it in. Working the next day, resuming life as usual after what our crew went through was beyond my comprehension. Once we reached our destination, I planned to spend at least a week stationed in limbo between barely surviving in festival mode and resuming the rigors of the real world.
We bunked down for the night in God Knows Where, Tennessee. Hopefully, like my first night the bayou, the sun’s light might reveal something far less sinister. The local body shops would be open for business. Morning came many times as I drifted in and out sleep curled up in the driver’s side of my crippled ship while MAD and Larry Sparrow scouted the area for mechanics and called upon the GPS to find the nearest one. As luck would have it, we happened to make camp in an area that was teeming with them. There was a dealership no more than a block away that had a cheap diagnostic. Knowing the problem was better than speculating the hell out of it.
The climate changed greatly from the temperate weather of New Orleans and the cold snap that besieged Nashville. A bitter wind blew at my skirts as I made my way inside the dealership, navigating on unsteady legs. At that moment, even my shakes had shakes. ‘I’m the one with the busted up cavalier! That I obviously spent the night in!” I called out to the man who would decide my fate, perhaps a little too exuberantly. They took my car in and we awaited the diagnosis. Seated upright in the back of the HHR, stuffed amid the bedding and dirty laundry open-mouthed and unconscious, I dreamed I was hired on as part of a crew of a pirate magazine in California. At that moment, there was a knock on my window and I reluctantly roused myself and exited the vehicle with one last look to my compatriots. Slowly, I crossed the sales floor to await my sentence. Fate rested on his desk, written on the bottom of a single sheet of paper. My heart sank as I mustered the courage to look. Sentenced to hang for a week’s worth of transgressions. “Nine-hundred ninety two dollars!” I gaped and looked again, just to make sure I wasn’t cross-eyed.
“It’s the AC unit, miss, I heard it as soon you drove up. It’s completely shot. Pieces of it broke off. I’d advise you don’t drive it any further until you get it fixed. There’s a big stretch of nothing from here on up.”
“Is there anything you can do?” I bargained with my judge. “A patch job or something, I mean I had the money before I blew it all in New Orleans.” Ironically, I managed to scrimp and save roughly that amount to make the trip happen in the first place give or take a few dollars. “I have to make it to Ohio, and then Upstate New York.”
“I’m afraid you need a new one.” The car dealer said. Dejectedly, I crossed the sales floor again to tell my companions the verdict.
“Are you serious?” MAD gaped. “Your car isn’t even worth that!” She exclaimed obviously affected by the grave news. I spent the next half hour milling around the dealership, making phone calls. At work, they said that they’d spot me some cash in case of emergencies. But it was a rough time for print publications. We talked about refurbished parts, they did have one left but that would only knock off two hundred dollars off the bill. There was no other recourse than to call my parents and confess to them what trouble I was in. Seven hundred dollars was a lot to ask. Luckily, I could not quite remember my father’s work phone number and my mom didn’t have her cell phone on. While I drained my phone battery in a desperate attempt to gather the cash, MAD and Larry Sparrow used the dealership’s wifi against them to look for another mechanic. They also happened upon a short-belt bypass to wipe out the busted unit. It was practically snowing in Tennessee and it didn’t look like I needed my air-conditioning the further north I traveled. Of course, when Larry Sparrow brought it up to the car dealer, he denied that such a thing ever existed.
A short while later, I got my car out of there and followed my mates around the corner, down the road, and to modest mechanic who would do the procedure for roughly sixty bucks. It was a bloody miracle the thing still ran. I sat there in the waiting room, staring at the bulletin board. There were postcards of Jesus with prayers written in Spanish. With some consideration, I pocketed one; we weren’t out of troubled waters just yet. I still had the feeling that anything could go wrong; just to be safe I wanted Mexican Jesus with the golden Buddha, four-leaf clovers, and lucky pennies. About an hour later, the procedure was completed and deemed a success. Before we hit the road again, we stopped at the corner store to hit up an ATM to give the mechanic a $20 dollar tip for his troubles. My resources were wearing thin but it didn’t hurt to have karma on my side either. To celebrate our victory, my mates and I stopped for lunch: Cheap and plentiful fried chicken, the great redeemer and cure of all woes. Our reprieve, however, was short lived.
We were in Franklin, Kentucky just outside the Tennessee border. Our destination was in the next state. The mechanic said before we left that if the gauge goes into the red and the Cavalier starts to overheat to stop driving immediately or the whole engine could blow. Tensions ran high as we drove into Kentucky, rarely breaking gaze with the gauge. We were cutting it very close when we got off the interstate to find the nearest truck stop. “For Christ’s sake man!” I shouted into my phone. Of all the times, the editor had to call about work related business. “Do you think I know the ad changes to the theater! My car is running hot and my phone’s gunna die!” I shut off the phone and shoved it in my pocket as we pulled at the Flying J.
Our worst fear was that my car overheated for so long that the head gasket was going. We went inside to charge my phone and asked around for the fabled can of “stop leak.” We heard it allowed a trucker to drive 3,000 miles on a dying 18-wheeler. Once we made it to Ohio I had a 10 hour solo trek back to Upstate New York. As they sent us into town, they sky grew heavier and started to rain. When we reached the AutoZone, it started to freeze. The weather turned sour and the day grew late and it looked as if we reached the end.
“How much is a head gasket,” I mumbled when it finally sank in that a spray can of miracles wasn’t going to solve anything. “They’re expensive and a lot of labor.” MAD said outing the obvious. “Your car isn’t worth it. You’d have better luck getting a sledge hammer.” The idea of smashing the thing to a twisted unrecognizable heap of red metal made me smile. The sound of breaking glass and the mighty metallic crunch turned that smile into a gruesome grin. When my energy was finally spent, I’d let my mates have a go at it too. After all, who was I to have all the fun when we were in this current quandary together? One thing this town boasted was a junkyard. Both of our vehicles were filled to capacity. We discussed finding a cheap hotel for MAD and I pass to the night, unloading our gear and send the Captain Jack on his way. He couldn’t afford to loose anther day of work. We’d leave my car behind at the bone yard, and find a rental to get me home. Our financial aspects were dismal and an extra night on the road would surely sink us.
There was only a few car payments left. Once I returned, I hoped to pay off the loan, ride the thing to death and save money for a new one. Naturally, that wasn’t going to happen. After a week in New Orleans common sense finally took hold, which was something I hadn’t felt in an awful long time. Perhaps it was presumptuous to take such a foolhardy and ultimately treacherous trip, but the call of the Crescent City clouded our judgment. MAD and I prowled the streets like a pack of wild dogs, booze hounds, pirates. Guilt seeped into the cracks of common sense. “Bad dog…” I muttered. While MAD and I looked for sledgehammers Larry Sparrow had been talking to an employee and mentioned a bad thermostat, and the guy said it might just be the problem. Of course, it was something that Larry Sparrow had said all along but previous experiences led me to favor the worst possible outcome.
Slugs of freezing rain pelted the mechanic and the pirate as they flooded the lines. I cowered snugly in the back of the HHR. “I can’t do it!” I quaked, my voice muffled by the heap of bedding and dirty clothes in the heated car. “They wanted me to watch and yell when the car overheated… but it just kept looking like it was constantly overheating and I couldn’t do it anymore.” I abandoned all hope in Franklin, Kentucky.