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I’ve been praying since before I can ever actually remember learning how. Mama says I took to praying like baby ducks to their first dip in a pond, my “please” and “thank you” delivered in a voice so sweet that she didn’t see how God would ever be able to say no to me.
Mama says my praying voice is my singing voice, and that any-body listening would know right off that the Father himself gave that voice to me. Two human beings, especially not her and one so flawed as the man who was supposedly my Daddy, would ever be able to create anything that reminiscent of Heaven.
I’m praying now. Hard as I ever have. “Dear Lord, please let this old rattletrap, I mean, faithful car Gertrude, last another hundred miles. Please don’t let her break down before I get there. Please, dear Lord. Please.”
A now familiar melody strings the plea together. I’ve been offering up the prayer for the past several hours at fifteen-minute intervals, and I’m hoping God’s not tired of my interruptions. I’ve got no doubt He has way more important things on His plate today. I wonder now if I was a fool not to take the bus and leave the car behind altogether. It had been a sentimental decision, based on Granny’s hope that her beloved Gertrude would help get me where I wanted to go in this life.
And leaving it behind would have been like leaving behind Hank Junior. I reach across the wide bench seat and rub his velvety-soft Walker Hound ear. Even above the rattle-wheeze-cough of the old car’s engine, Hank Junior snores the baritone snore of his deepest sleep. He’s wound up in a tight ball, his long legs tucked under him, his head curled back onto his shoulder. He reminds me of a duck in this position, and I can’t for the life of me understand how it could be comfortable. I guess it must be, though, since with the exception of pee and water breaks, it’s been his posture of choice since we left Virginia this morning.
Outside of Knoxville, I-40 begins to dip and rise, until the stretch of road is one long climb after the other. I cut into the right hand lane, tractor-trailer trucks and an annoyed BMW whipping by me. Gertrude sounds like she may be gasping her last breath, and I actually feel sorry for her. The most Granny ever asked of her was a Saturday trip to Winn-Dixie and the post office and church on Sundays. I guess that was why she’d lasted so long.
Granny bought Gertrude, brand-spanking new, right off the lot, in 1960. She named her after an aunt of hers who lived to be a hundred and five. Granny thought there was no reason to expect anything less from her car if she changed the oil regularly and parked her in the woodshed next to her house to keep the elements from taking their toll on the blue-green exterior. It turned out Granny was right. It wasn’t until she died last year and left Gertrude to me that the car started showing her age.
What with me driving all over the state of Virginia in the past year, one dive gig to another, weekend after weekend, I guess I’ve pretty much erased any benefits of Granny’s pampering.
We top the steep grade at thirty-five. I let loose a sigh of relief along with a heartfelt prayer of thanks. The speedometer hits fifty-five, then sixty and seventy as we cruise down the long stretch of respite, and I see the highway open out nearly flat for as far ahead as I can see. Hank Junior is awake now, sitting up with his nose stuck out the lowered window on his side. He’s pulling in the smells, dissecting them one by one, his eyes narrowed against the wind, his long black ears flapping behind him.
We’re almost to Cookeville, and I’m feeling optimistic now about the last eighty miles or so into Nashville. I stick my arm out the window and let it fly with the same abandon as Hank Junior’s ears, humming a melody I’ve been working on the past couple days.
A sudden roar in the front of the car is followed by an awful grinding sound. Gertrude jerks once, and then goes completely limp and silent. Hank Junior pulls his head in and looks at me with nearly comical canine alarm.
“Crap!” I yell. I hit the brake and wrestle the huge steering wheel to the side of the highway. My heart pounds like a bass drum, and I’m shaking when we finally roll to a stop. A burning smell hits my nose. I see black smoke start to seep from the cracks at the edge of the hood. It takes me a second or two to realize that Gertrude is on fire.
I grab Hank Junior’s leash, snapping it on his collar before reaching over to shove open his door and scoot us both out. The flames are licking higher now, the smoke pitch black. “My guitar!” I scream. “Oh, no, my guitar!”
I grab the back door handle and yank hard. It’s locked. Tugging Hank Junior behind me, I run around and try the other door. It opens, and I reach in for my guitar case and the notebook of lyrics sitting on top of it. Holding onto them both, I towboat Hank Junior around the car, intent on finding a place to hook his leash so I can get my suitcase out of the trunk.
Just then I hear another sputtering noise, like the sound of fuel igniting. I don’t stop to think. I run as fast as I can away from the car, Hank Junior glued to my side, my guitar case and notebook clutched in my other hand.
I hear the car explode even as I’m still running flat out. I feel the heat on the backs of my arms. Hank Junior yelps, and we run faster. I trip and roll on the rough surface pavement, my guitar case skittering ahead of me, Hank Junior’s leash getting tangled between my legs.
I lie there for a moment, staring up at the blue Tennessee sky, trying to decide if I’m okay. In the next instant, I realize the flouncy cotton skirt Mama made me as a going away present is strangling my waist, and Hank Junior’s head is splayed across my belly, his leash wrapped tight around my left leg.
Brakes screech and tires squall near what sounds inches from my head. I rock forward, trying to get up, but Hank yips at the pinch of his collar.
“Are you all right?”
The voice is male and deep, Southern like mine with a little more drawl. I can’t see his face, locked up with Hank Junior as I am. Footsteps, running, and then a pair of enormous cowboy boots comes into my vision.
“Shit-fire, girl! Is that your car?”
“Was my car,” I say to the voice.
“Okay, then.” He’s standing over me now, a mountain of a guy wearing jeans, a t-shirt that blares Hit Me – I Can Take It and a Georgia Bulldogs cap. “Here, let me help you,” he says.
He hunkers down beside me and starts to untangle Hank Junior’s leash. Hank would usually do me the service of a bark if a stranger approached me, but not this time. He wags his tail in gratitude as the big guy unhooks the snap from his collar, tugs it free from under my leg and then re-hooks it.
Realizing my skirt is still snagged around my waist, my pink bikini underwear in full view, I sit up and yank it down, nothing remotely resembling dignity in my urgency.
“What’s going on, man?”
I glance over my shoulder and see another guy walking toward us, this one not nearly so big, but sounding grouchy and looking sleep-deprived. He’s also wearing cowboy boots and a Georgia Bulldogs cap, the bill pulled low over dark sunglasses. His brown hair is on the long side, curling out from under the hat.
He glances at the burning car, as if he’s just now getting around to noticing it and utters, “Whoa.”
Mountain Guy has me by the arm now and hauls me to my feet. “You okay?”
I swipe a hand across my skirt, dust poofing out. “I think so. Yes. Thank you.”
Hank Junior looks at the second guy and mutters a low growl. I’ve never once doubted his judgment so I back up a step.
“Aw, he’s all right,” Mountain Guy says to Hank Junior, patting him on the head. “He always wakes up looking mean like that.”
Grouchy Guy throws him a look. “What are we doing?”
“What does it look like we’re doing?” Mountain Guy says. “Helping a damsel in distress.”
“I’m not a damsel,” I say, my feathers ruffling even as I realize I could hardly be in much more distress than I am currently in.
Gertrude is now fully engulfed in flames, from her pointed front end to her rounded trunk. Cars are keeping to the far left lane. Surprisingly, no one else has bothered to stop, although I can see people grabbing their cell phones as they pass, a couple to take pictures, others more likely dialing 911.
“So what exactly happened?” Mountain Guy asks me.
“I just heard this loud noise and then smoke started coming out of the hood.”
“Good thing you got her pulled over fast,” he says.
“I didn’t know they let vehicles that old on the road,” Grouchy Guy says.
“She belonged to my Granny,” I fire back in instant outrage, as if everything that has just happened is all his fault.
Grouchy Guy starts to say something, presses his lips together, maybe thinking better of it.
“Don’t pay him no mind,” Mountain Guy advises. “You live near here?”
I laugh then, the sound popping up out of me under the sudden realization that with the exception of my dog, my guitar and my lyrics notebook, I now have no other earthly possessions to call my own. Even my purse has been incinerated inside Gertrude’s melted interior.
The shrill whine of a fire engine echoes from down the Interstate, and a couple of seconds later it comes roaring into sight, lights flashing. It rolls to a heavy stop just behind Gertrude, brakes squealing. Men dressed in heavy tan uniforms grab hoses and run at the burning car.
The water gushes out with impressive force. The blazing fire is a joke against the onslaught, and in less than a minute, the flames slink into nothingness. The only thing left is the charred framework of Gertrude’s once sleek exterior.
As soon as the water hoses cut off, I start to cry, as if some sort of transference has turned on the flow inside of me. I cry because I’ve ruined Granny’s car, her most prized possession. I cry because I now have no money, no means of getting any closer to my dream than my own two feet will carry me. And I cry because everybody back home was exactly right. I was born with dreams way too big for somebody like me to ever make come true.
“Hey, now.” Mountain Guy pats me on the shoulder the same way he had patted Hank Junior on the head a few minutes before. “Everything’s gonna be all right.”
One of the firemen walks up to us. “This y’all’s car?”
Grouchy Guy points at me. “It was hers.”
“Sorry for your loss, ma’am,” the fireman says. “Guess you’ll be needing to call a tow truck.”
Even Mountain Guy can’t help laughing at this, and maybe if you were removed from the situation, it would be pretty funny. Me? I’m anything but removed, and I’m suddenly thankful for Mama’s faithful Triple A membership and the insurance she’s paid up for me through the end of the year.
“You can tell them the car is just short of Mile Marker 320.”
“Thank you,” I say. “And thank you for putting out the–”
“No problem, ma’am,” he says quickly, as if realizing I can’t bring myself to finish.
I glance at Mountain Guy. “Do you have a cell I could borrow?”
“Sure thing.” He pulls an iPhone from his shirt pocket and hands it to me.
“You mind if I get the number for Triple A?”
Hank Junior’s leash wrapped around my wrist, I walk a few steps away and tap 411. A bored-sounding operator gives me the 800 number and then connects me free of charge. The woman who takes my “case” doesn’t sound the least bit surprised that my car has burned to smithereens or that I need a tow truck to come and get us both. I wonder if she gets calls like this every day.
In between her questions, I can hear Mountain Guy and Grouchy Guy in a low rumble of discussion that sounds like it has disagreement at its edges. I know they’re talking about me, and while I want to swing around and scream at them both that I don’t need their help, I know the last thing I can afford to do is look a gift horse in the mouth.
The lady from Triple A tells me that Ray’s Towing from Cookeville will be coming out to get the car. She asks if I will also need a ride. I tell her both my dog and I will.
I return the phone to Mountain Guy.
“Get it all squared away?” he asks.
“I think so,” I say, not even sure in this context what that could possibly mean.
“How long before they get here?”
“Well, you can’t wait by yourself. It’ll be dark by then,” Mountain Guy says.
“I’ll be fine,” I say. “But thanks for stopping. And for letting me use your phone.”
“Not a problem,” he says, glancing over at Grouchy Guy who is still wearing his sunglasses and has his arms folded across his chest in a stance of non-compliance.
I pick up my guitar case and give Hank Junior a little tug before backing away from them. “Thanks again,” I say and head for my charred car.
I’m halfway there when Mountain Guy calls out, “You going to Nashville?”
“What gave it away?” Grouchy Guy throws out, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
I pin him with a look, then turn my gaze to his friend. “Yeah. I am.”
“Well, so are we,” Mountain Guy says. “No point in you staying here when we’re going to the same place, now is there?”
Relief, unwelcome though it is, floods through me. I am feeling kind of sick at the thought of waiting with the car while dark sets in. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Disappeared.My imagination has already started heading off in directions I’d just as soon it didn’t.
But then, on the other hand, I don’t know squat about the two I’m getting ready to ride off with. They could be serial murderers thinking it was their lucky day that my car caught on fire, and they happened by.
Hank Junior seems to think they’re all right though. He’s no longer low-growling at Grouchy Guy. And besides, what choice do I really have? I have no money, no credit card, no clothes.