Previously published in “A Project that Needs Tweaking” e-book
My tired legs trudged the short walk across the Arnie’s Restaurant parking lot to climb into my 1997 Chevy Lumina underneath a black Michigan sky. The inside of my car was dark as well because the interior lights were broken. My four older brothers had driven the car for years before I finally got my chance to drive it to work and school. Between the hundreds of wrestling practices, stuffy gym bags, and dirt-clad football shoes, the car permanently smelled like putrid, stale sweat.
The brakes were so worn that to stop at a red light, I had to push the pedal down all the way to the floor. We were all thankful that at least the radio lasted throughout the years, even if that was the only surviving feature.
Once while my older brother carpooled me and three others between middle and high school in the early morning, a deer sprinted from the side of the road and slammed into the hood before catapulting to the other side of the road.
The massive dent of the burgundy car was a constant reminder that it had seen better days. The car had suffered two car accidents—totaled once—and the back door was replaced with a junkyard door.
I drove in fear that the thing was going to blow up mid-drive.
That evening’s shift, chock-full of one hungry customer after another had set my feet on fire with the ache of a thousand hours of walking. I sank into my gray driver’s seat and mentally unwound from hours in a fast-paced environment.
I loved this job. It was perfect for me but hot trays of food burning my hands, full tables and the nightly cleaning regimen were exhausting. The night was finally over, and I breathed deeply in gratitude to be on my way home. I couldn’t wait to peel off my food-stained black apron, count the dollar bills I had shoved in my purse, shower, and climb into the comfort of my bed.
I glanced at the clock. Friday nights were the latest, but I usually still made it home well before midnight. My parents usually welcomed me home after my weekday shifts, chatting casually as I stuffed leftover salads in the refrigerator. But tonight the clock read 11:45 pm, and I knew no one would be up when I finally stepped into the quiet house. Mom would leave the kitchen light on for me.
I turned right out of the parking lot and stopped at the first of many street lights on the main road I follow home. When the light turned green, I pressed my foot down on the gas pedal and felt nothing. I panicked at the abnormality. I tried again, pushing my restaurant grease-lined shoe down on the gas as far as it could go, but the car only gently coasted through the green light. About thirty feet from the light, my precious car simply stopped in the left lane of a busy road.
At first, I had no clue what to do. I didn’t even know where the hazard lights were, because I had never used them before. I fumbled across the steering wheel in the darkness, searching for anything sticking out that resembled a HELP sign. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw headlights coming at me from behind and knew I was in trouble.
A man walked up to my window while I was scrambling around. A second before I rolled down my window to greet him, I found the hazard lights. I flipped them on and then turned to him.
“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” He asked calmly, his eyes peering into my dark, dark existence.
“Yeah, thanks. I just found my hazard lights.”
At the moment that’s all I cared about. I should have asked him to help me get out of the road, but I had no idea what was wrong with my car. After he left, I turned around quickly and grabbed the scratchy orange quilt that I kept in the back seat to ward off the brutal winter weather. I knew it would get cold quickly with the heat off. I shivered under the blanket and reached for my phone.
“Mom? Something is wrong with the car. I am on the East Beltline just beyond the mall. I passed the light, but I am stopped and there are cars coming at me. I turned on my hazards, and I have a blanket, so I am okay.”
“Dad’s on his way!”
After a few minutes, I hung up the phone. Dad was out of bed and on his way just like that. I barely got out a few words to my Mom, and she sensed trouble immediately. My dad, who sleeps like a bear, quickly dressed and left in a hurry. When he passes out for the night, he is out for good so I didn’t expect him to react like lightning.
Tonight was different.
He’s coming to get me. A gentle wave of peace washed over me.
The headlights kept showing up in my rearview mirror and then disappearing at the last second as the drivers behind me switched lanes to pass my dead car. I imagined the disaster of someone hitting me from behind. I braced myself for a jolt that I felt sure would come. I waited impatiently, praying that my little blanket would keep me safe and warm until my Dad arrived. I stopped looking in the rearview mirror to avoid unnecessary stress.
I saw our big maroon van barreling down the opposite lane heading towards me. My heart skipped a beat, and I drew a long breath of relief.
My dad. Thank God.
Somehow we managed to get the Lumina to the side of the road, and I hopped in Dad’s van. He asked me what happened, and I explained to him every detail. We doubled back to a nearby gas station to pick up a can of gas. Dad figured that was the most logical explanation, but I was slow to believe him. I sat in the passenger side of the van as he took care of the car.
He pumped the car full and the engine revved to life.
Out of gas? Seriously? I know I am a teenage driver, but am I that stupid? It couldn’t be.
But it was true. My brothers and I filled the cars up as we needed. Sometimes we had a lucky $20. Sometimes we paid with whatever we had with us, often a measly $5. We didn’t want to pay for each other’s gas.
Everything else in the car had broken, so even though I could see that the tank was on E, I didn’t believe it. Surely it was just another thing we laughed about along with the dent from the deer on the hood.
I wasn’t laughing, though. I felt so foolish.
We went home, and that was it. My dad didn’t mention anything. He didn’t scold me for not filling up or not paying attention to the gas gauge. He could have capitalized on the teachable moment. He could have shaken his head in shame and shared the story at the dinner table the next day.
For whatever reason, he let it go.
All I can ever think about now is the simple fact that my dad came to rescue me when I was scared to death in a cold, broken car. He ignored his tired body, sprang into action without a second thought, all without complaint. All he was missing was a cape.