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 anybody 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. . .