Usually Frank had a giggle at signs in suburban neighborhoods that warned “Slow Children At Play.” Naturally the signs were meant to mean “slow down because children are playing and might dash out in front of your car,” but the semantic ambiguity was always mild amusement for an Usway distributor who spent a lot of time in cookie-cutter suburbs. It was the only use his moldy old English Literature degree got, at any rate.

Upon entering one neighborhood in East Hopewell, Frank saw a sign that seemed like a model of linguistic efficiency and purity: “20 MPH Children.” Clear an succinct, it warned of children and set a 20 MPH speed limit rather than using the relative term “slow.”

Partway to his destination, though, Frank was accosted by…something…darting in front of his car. He couldn’t for the life of him make it out, as it was moving fast enough to be but a blur in his slightly rheumy vision. Craning his neck and stutter-stopping his car through the area, Frank’s knuckles were white on the dashboard and his eyes were wide as saucers in fear of hitting one of the…whatever-they-weres…before he had a chance to unload his Usway merch and get the money he needed to make rent (and cover any repairs or insurance rate hikes).

Eventually he eased his way past the obstructions. Arriving at his destination, Frank asked about the mysterious blurs. “Oh, that’s just Bryan’s kids,” said his local distributor, as if that explained everything.

A few blocks back, the McClintock kids had just wrapped up their game of tag. “Dad! Hey Dad! Did you see that guy come through here? He looked pretty scared!”

Bryan McClintock, once known as Lightning Runner before he’d retired the cape and leotard, shrugged. “I put up the sign warning people that the children here run at 20 miles per hour; I guess that gentleman just didn’t know how to read.”

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This post is part of the January 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s challenge is a “winter nightmare.”

Making good time despite a late start from my brother’s, I was thinking about what I was going to post for New Year’s on Facebook and LiveJournal. I was thinking how much I’d miss my brother and his crazy kids after spending a week with them. I was even thinking about my priorities at work this coming week.

The one thing I wasn’t even remotely considering was a massive doe jumping directly in front of me.

All I can remember is a flash of brown in the headlights, a terrific crunch, and being showered with shredded glass as the driver’s side window shattered. I must have had the presence of mind to immediately pull over onto the shoulder and park the car, since that’s where I found myself.

I sat there, staring at the broken glass and what I could see of the mangled fender, listening to hooves on asphalt somewhere behind me. I actually had to take a deep breath, look at myself in the rearview mirror, and say–as calmly as I could muster–“That just happened.”

All those previous concerns were wiped away, replaced with just two notions: “I’m lucky to be alive” and “What am I going to do now?”

The 911 dispatcher might have been surprised at how calm I sounded, but I think that was just shock talking. While waiting for the police, I found myself focused on the glass. It was everywhere, in bite-sized yet razor-sharp chunks: on my seat, in my clothes, in my shoes, in half-a-dozen tiny cuts on my hands and back. Methodically, I picked the stray pieces up with my gloves and threw them out the window.

Guess I really needed something to focus on, something that I could control in a situation that was otherwise pure chaos.

The night guy at the Knights Inn was bemused but sympathetic when he saw a mangled Honda dragging bits of bumper pull in escorted by a county sheriff’s car. I had to keep telling myself that I could handle this, that I was an adult, that this was just another kind of reference question and as a librarian I had to do was find an answer.

I returned to the Honda and managed to cut away most of the really mangled portions of the bumper and wheel well, which was easier than it sounds due to the car being mostly plastic. Duct tape and a garbage bag served to keep out the wind and the dew until the next morning.

Not knowing how the day would turn out, I went to the motel office for their “continental breakfast”: a loaf of bread and a toaster, a rack of Little Debbie cinnamon buns, two boxes of cereal, and one pitcher each of milk and orange juice in a minifridge–all tucked away in a dark corner of the motel lobby. I took two of everything, and sat in a rickety chair pulled up to a cheap pressboard table, watching the sun rise out the window and friends post jubilant New Year’s photos on Facebook.

It’s been a long time since I felt that pathetic, or that alone.

Lord knows what those people must have thought, seeing me hacking away at a clear plastic storage tub lid with a hacksaw and shears in the Wal-Mart parking lot the next morning at 9am. It took me an hour to get the plastic cut to size and taped in place. It seemed to hold well enough, and the car seemed to run all right.

Then the window came off entirely a few miles down the road.

I was able to grab it in time to hold it on and pull over to the shoulder, but three-quarters of the tape had come off, and freeway traffic was whizzing by at 70-80mph, to say nothing of the chill wind and light rain. Made sitting in the motel lobby seem like paradise, to be honest. Desperately, I reattached the window with latticed strips of duct tape, one over another, and damn if that roadside patch job on I-70 didn’t see me through to Memphis.

I skipped lunch, skipped dinner, and drove the entire ten hours with nothing but snacks, cinnamon rolls, and Red Bull. The stereo still worked; perhaps in the spirit of danger and adventure I keyed in the complete Indiana Jones series to see me home.

Almost kissed the pavement at home when I finally limped in.

Fired up my old Escort to serve as a stopgap, went for a few quick essentials at the store…only to find as I pulled out that the Escort’s brake pedal had gone completely slack. Worse, the emergency brake, which hasn’t worked well for some time, completely failed too.

Luckily traffic was light on the way back, and I was able to coast home at low speed. I refilled the reservoir with fresh brake fluid, only to find that there was still no pressure and that the fluid was leaking out of the line. I immediately set out for the tire and brake place across the street–carefully, using park, my hazard blinkers, and what little braking power there was judiciously.

The mechanic said the problem was irreparable. My Escort’s brake line has rusted through, and with the car now eighteen years old and eligible to vote or be drafted in time of national emergency, the spare parts aren’t made anymore. I drove–well, coasted–the Escort home and took stock. Two cars, both with working engines, both crippled by other problems. It’s such a cruel coincidence I would have laughed if I hadn’t been crying.

Happy New Year indeed…

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Alpha Echo
Diana Rajchel
Ralph Pines

“I suppose you could say that made him a little bitter,” said Cliff. “Skilled metalworker and engineer getting laid off like that without so much as a how-do-you-do. Worse, the union told him that if he went to work for one of the other Big Three and switched locals he’d lose all the progress toward his pension.”

“So he started customizing cars after that?” said Wills, laying her hand on the vehicle’s fine–yet somehow unplaceable–lines.

“Whoever said that this was customized?” Cliff laughed. “I had to put something in the form, sure, but this isn’t just some rat rod. My uncle built the car from scratch.”

“You mean he made all the body panels himself?” Wills said. She whistled, impressed.

“And the frame, and the seats, and most of the engine,” said Cliff. “He used a few stock parts here and there, like the engine block, but nothing from the Big Three. Most of the stock parts came from wholesalers after car companies went out of business.”

Wills took a step back. “Are you serious? Why would anybody ever do something like that? It would cost more than a new one!”

“Maybe to prove to himself–and anybody else that was paying attention–that he could do everything the Big Three could do by himself, and better,” Cliff shrugged. “They were living off Aunt Milly’s salary anyway; maybe he needed something to do. But it’s a one-of-a-kind car, and after he finished it in 1963 Uncle Wilt drove it every day until he died. I guess you could say it’s the one and only ’63 Culbertson there is.”

Mikey had long been accustomed to the old wagon–falling asleep to the gentle humming of its tires as heard from the cabin at speed, listening to the faint pitch changes as the automatic transmission shifted as it carried Mom away to work, the little pieces of meals and toys long past that would sometimes resurface on or under the seats.

But the new car was alien.

It was far too quiet, meaning Mikey was distracted by the beating of his own heart when he tried to nap. It glided unnaturally up and down the driveway without any of the comforting sonic cues that spelled out M-O-M. Its interior was cold, sterile, with a clinical smell and none of the stains with stories attached. Worse, Mom wouldn’t allow any eating or drinking anything but water.

It wasn’t long before Mikey was throwing tantrums and demanding the old wagon back. He fancied he saw it downtown sometimes, moldering in a used car lot or bearing a new family of usurpers.

Ever since he’d bought his first car, a dilapidated ’46 Plymouth, Evan had taken immense pride in the feeding and grooming of his automobiles. If he hadn’t shepherded a car to the very end of its useful life, it was a personal failure. So the ’46 had lasted two years longer than it should have, followed by a brand-new Packard that outlived its brand by a considerable margin and a Ford that, when given to Evan’s son, was old enough to be considered retro hip.

He met his match, though, in the Vega.

Evan had always maintained two or more cars, but in the 70’s he expanded the garage and bought a Chevrolet Vega Panel Express, intending to use it to quickly dart into town for groceries or to move small items between the construction sites where he was foreman. From the beginning, it was a difficult match: the Vega blew its first transmission scarcely a year later, even as the salt-lined roads of the Midwest took a fearsome toll on the car’s underbody. Scarcely two years after it had been delivered,i t began leaking oil everywhere it was possible to leak, and ate through cylinder walls in the engine at an alarming rate.

Gamely, Evan attacked each of the problems as it arose, either by himself or with the help of friends. Empty Bondo containers piled up in the garage as the bodywork grew more and more rusted; Vegas that came into Sal’s junkyard were ruthlessly scavenged for cheap parts. As spare parts and oils can’s accumulated in the garage, Evan refused to concede defeat; his wife Sandy could only shake her head and mutter about how that machine was nothing but lubricated discord.

She didn’t know the half of it.

Indeed, it’s not often that two cars of similar power come together on the road, and less often still that both drivers are in an equal hurry and take equal affront to being passed.

So when that BMW passed my new Audi on the right, it was on.

Accelerating to pursue is one thing, but a true master of the automotive duel uses the terrain to their advantage. A long curve in the road can by a few seconds, but the real trick is to pin your nemesis behind an 80-year-old or, better still, a truck. Putting on steam to get just close enough that they can’t swing in front of you, and then watching gleefully as they have to break and fall behind…few rushes in the workaday world can equate. Better still if there are cars in the passing lane behind you to put up a buffer.

We dueled all the way, for the entire hour and a half, trading advantages several times. In the end we were neck and neck when I reached my exit; I saluted my worthy adversary by giving them a jaunty salute.

With a single finger.

The consistency of the earth between his front door and his Toyota always irked Rodney to no end, but he could take solace in the fact that his path would be shortened by the absence of his children, who were celebrating that institution of youth known as the ‘Saturday’ by sleeping in.

Additionally, the road to the University was paved, which was more than could be said of many of the local roads. The country was actually quite well off as African nations went; the U.S. State Department had informed Rodney that the people were in fact the most privileged and wealthy people on the African continent. This helped Rodney to avoid leaning out his car window and dispensing buckets of quarters to the downtrodden masses, as had once been his fantasy.

The tough, warm concrete floors University-side also helped shake off the red earth that always caked Rodney’s dress shoes on his brief walk to the car each morning. Rodney vainly tried to knock the crimson soil from his shoes, but the damn stuff was caked on with a consistency that only a trained shoeshine boy could dent it.

The tiny car shuddered, and Lowell could feel the accelerator begin to go limp.

“No!” he cried. Lowell pressed the pedal to the floor, and systematically pumped it., as beads of sweat dripped down his pallid features. If he could only get over the crest of the next hill . . . But gravity wasn’t cooperating, and neither was the car. With a final spasm, the engine fell silent, and the car began to roll backwards. Lowell guided it onto what passed for the shoulder and threw the parking brake.

“What’s the matter?” Deacon asked from the passenger seat. His tiny glasses were fogged from the lack of air conditioning, and perspiration plastered his sandy hair to his head.

His only reply was a stream of inventive invectives, as Lowell hammered at the steering wheel.

Some time later, Lowell looked up. “We’re out of gas.” he said, as if Deacon had just asked.

“What?” Deacon glanced at the dashboard. “It says we’re half full!”

“It always says that.” Lowell muttered, opening his door and stepping out.

“Then look at the odometer!” Deacon cried.

“It doesn’t work either.” was the reply. “I just have to guess.”

Deacon flung his door open and leapt out, just as Lowell popped the trunk.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“I’ve got a gas can in the trunk.” Lowell said.

“Thank God.”

Lowell slammed his hands down on the trunk’s rubber seal and swore. “An empty gas can.”


“It’s like a game of chicken–either I lose and fill the tank, or the car loses and stops.” Lowell said, holding up the empty can. “I used this the last time I won.”

Deacon gave the car a halfhearted kick. “What now?”

“We walk.”

Dark winter nights, filled with drifts of snow and gusts of wind, are a fine time to spend behind an antique picture window with a blazing fire in the hearth.

They are not the best time to be on the road.

On this particular occasion, the prayers of thousands of schoolchildren had given the asphalt a sheath of ice and a sprinkling of snow. The moonless night had sheathed the hazard beneath a light crystalline dust.

Harry, preoccupied, didn’t even notice that his Buick had begun to spin out of control until the front tires had already skidded off the road. By the time he stood on the brake, the hydraulics were snarled in the foliage and snapped.

A cold sort of darkness closed in; Harry’s last conscious thoughts turned to the package on the seat beside him.

“I’ll be blunt,” Ken says. “I can’t fix this. Have you got a cell phone?”

“No,” you say.

“Perfect. Wonderful. Great. Fantastic.” Ken mutters. How far do you think it is to the nearest gas station?”

“I haven’t seen anything but wild grass for a long time,” you say, “I get the feeling it’s a long walk in either direction.”

Ken swears thickly and fluently. “Well, what do we do now?”

You look up at the approaching dusk. “Got a flashlight?”


“Then we stay here. At least until morning.”