I promised to post the second half of my chapter from "A Clown in the Trunk."
I never did it. My daughter's husband developed a glioblastoma, and life took off in another direction.
As I prepare to post the second half (Chapter Two) of my story about The Ladies Road Trip, let me say first: I HAVE NEWS. "A Clown in the Trunk" is now an e-book, easily obtained from Amazon and numerous other e-book sites.
Here, then, is the second half of my Ladies Road Trip:
STILL ON THE ROAD
JUST BEFORE THE CAR went silent, the trip to Carson City had seemed magically back on track, with all of us radiating womanly bonhomie and a sense of feminine conquest . . . three triumphant women who’d thrown away their aprons. We are an amazing foursome, I thought, and found myself basking in woman power and friend power and granddaughter power, and thinking, Who needs men, anyway?
Then it happened—-a carbon copy of the earlier event. The car stopped running, flat-out quit, and now it was Betty-Jo who had to muscle the dead machine off the road. As the car came to a stop, Christy turned to her mother and said in encouraging tones, “We went much farther that time!” I guess she thought hop-scotching down the road is what travelers normally do.
Betty-Jo turned off the key and pushed open her door. But Carol and I shouted in unison, “No! No! Close it! Don’t let in the heat!”
Betty-Jo slammed it shut.
Carol said, “Didn’t the mechanic tell us we just had to wait thirty minutes?” and I said that’s what I remembered, so we all looked at our watches and began the countdown.
The Seville had come to rest this time in the high California desert. Since it was now almost noon in late August, our once-air-conditioned Cad slowly heated up like an Easy Bake oven, and in ten minutes sweat popped out on our brows. Within fifteen minutes we could hardly breathe. None of us felt like mentioning the fact that we could all possibly suffocate while we waited thirty minutes for the fuel pump to cool--which, considering the outside temperature, was an unlikely event.
After a mere twenty minutes, Betty-Jo said suddenly, “I can’t stand this--I’m opening the door!” and she flung it open and hot desert air poured over us. The heat was a jolt to my bare arms, but at least it was moving. Then something caught Betty-Jo’s eye and she squinted up at the sky. “Do you see what I see?” She was trying to stay calm. “Look up there! Vultures.”
“My God!” cried Carol. “Are they coming for us already?”
We all tittered nervously. Years ago I’d noticed that when men are threatened by the revolt of circumstances, they swear. Not so women. When life turns on us, we laugh.
Our womanly reactions to disaster had just started.
Betty-Jo began taking stock of our liquids. “We don’t have much,” she said, scanning the interior, “but maybe if we don’t have to wait here too long . . .”
Then Carol said, “Blame must be assigned. But I haven’t figured out who gets it,” and for no reason we found this amusing, and nothing, not the heat, the misbehaving car, nor the vultures, could dim our high spirits.
At precisely thirty minutes Betty-Jo tried the engine. No response. Carol said, “Maybe we should give it another fifteen minutes,” so we did.
But the car was mortally wounded, and all we succeeded in doing was once more grinding down the battery.
Nobody wanted to say it, but we all knew what was coming. “I guess we have to do something,” I said, so I got out and flagged down a car whose driver promised to call a tow company from the next town.
“How will I explain this to Rob?” I asked, and Betty-Jo said, “I’m glad it’s him and not Chris,” and Carol added, “Or Don.” Suddenly our men were back in the picture.
With all the doors flung wide, the four of us sat inside, cooking and waiting. I saw my Cadillac in a new light—-as little more than an expensive umbrella.
Forty minutes later, tow-truck number two pulled up, and soon we were watching an all-too-familiar routine. Out with the chains and bars and up with our car’s rear end.
But this tow came with a new wrinkle. The driver had arrived with two little blonde girls in his cab. We stared at the truck in disbelief. “You realize,” said Carol, “We’ll never get seven of us in that cab--no matter how many laps people sit on.”
For long minutes we stood there, wondering who should be left to fry by the side of the road--until the driver remarked that two of us could ride in the ailing Seville, that it wasn’t illegal if his cab was full, which it certainly was. Carol and I exchanged looks. We suspected it was both dangerous and illegal—-but the alternative was worse: waiting without shade while the sun reached Full Broil and cooked us perfectly for the vultures.
Gingerly, the two of us climbed into the Caddie’s back seat, now elevated like a throne.
All the way to the nearest town, which was Inyokern, we rode backwards eating potato chips and making lame jokes--the manic sounds of the near-hysteric. Only once did we stop, when I said, “You realize, if we’d managed to close our windows (which we’d tried to do and failed), we’d now be suffocating, unable to let the tow-truck driver know.” Yet even the thought of baking in the Caddie like slow-roasted pork only stopped our hilarity for mere seconds.
Carol and I were clearly dancing close to the snake pit.
Arriving in Inyokern was the desert equivalent of reaching Sitka, Alaska: one gas station, one rustic grocery store. We were all wondering separately, How do we get out of this place?
The local garage mechanic, who seemed an intelligent sort, agreed with expert number one back in Victorville that we indeed required a new fuel pump . . . except it was now five p.m., and not only was his garage closing, so was the parts house in Ridgecrest, ten miles away in the wrong direction.
Carol took me aside and whispered vehemently, “Look, Maralys, I know how persuasive you can be--“ she threw me an evil grin-- “I’m on this trip, aren’t I?” Leaning closer. “Talk to that man and persuade him to let you speak to the parts house yourself. I know you can make them stay open long enough to help us.” Her confidence in my begging was directly proportional, I realized, to her lack of desire to remain in Inyokern.
Unfortunately, my vaunted gifts of persuasion were never tested; nobody at the parts house answered the phone.
Calling another summit meeting, the four of us went off to huddle in private, by now our standard response to vexing situations. We agreed we couldn’t sleep in this nowhere town, but on the other hand, how could we leave?
Sensing our desperation, the mechanic finally asked, “How long did you go on that last fuse?” and when we said something under two hours, he said, “You could buy a box of four fuses, and that should take you to Carson City.”
It seemed an inspired suggestion.
However, when he tried to show Betty-Jo how to install the tiny fuse--somewhere under the dash in a spot you could neither see nor visualize--she found she couldn’t do it. “My fingers aren’t strong enough.”
I tried. But even with my very strong fingers I couldn’t do it. Carol tried next—-and failed. The spot was mysterious and miniscule, not easily penetrated.
We all went a second round, and it became a competition –-who had the best fingers? This time Carol, to my mixed admiration and jealousy, figured out how to angle herself off to one side, slide her fingers up behind the dash, and with great effort and her fanny mooning the sky, install the wretched little fuse. The mechanic’s plan was now feasible.
“Of course,” Carol said as she practiced once more and then extricated herself from under the dash, “my fingers just went numb.”
With that it occurred to her that four more fuses might not be enough, and in a survival frame of mind she insisted I buy eight. Very soon, with Carol purchasing the town’s only flashlight, we were back on Highway 395.
Thirty minutes later, to our horror, the Cad failed us again. “This car has a lot of quit in it,” I said.
Carol sprang into action, which involved the following steps: duck under the long wooden stake; grab our roll of paper towels as a kneeling pad; recite aloud the fuse-changing procedure; with head deep in the dash and rear in the air like a stinkbug, install the fuse; then duck back under the stake. It all took about seven minutes.
Like a miracle, the car started immediately and we were off again, though with fading confidence. We were all good enough at math to figure out that thirty minutes per fuse would not take us to Carson City, even with eight fuses. And now it was growing dark. Nobody spoke. Our situation had become too fragile for words.
In a very short time the car stopped again. A profound silence settled over us, broken only when Betty-Jo noted softly, “Ten minutes.” But we still didn’t open the subject for discussion. Instead, Carol gamely went through the six steps and got back in the car. Silently I started the engine and we were off.
The next leg was two miles. Carol worked her magic again and Christy, the only person still talking, burbled, “Carol should always come with us on trips!”
Our last jack-rabbit hop was good for no distance at all.
I wrestled the car part way off the road and this time Carol didn’t get out. Instead she sat quietly, hands folded in her lap.
“One mile,” I whispered into the gloom.
We looked around. Though it was now dark, our ailing Seville had brought us next to--but not quite into--a rest area, whose lights and trees and stone lean-to looked at least somewhat hospitable compared to the dark, empty road. Betty-Jo, our map reader, noted calmly that the next town was seventeen miles away, and though nobody said it, we all knew that, fuse-wise, the town was as far away as Kathmandu.
“Well,” said Carol, “we might as well have a look at the rest area.” But first, the four of us had to summon our combined girl-power to push the car off the road. And thus we left our wounded steed lying on its back with its legs in the air. “Don’t know why we locked the doors,” said Carol. “Nobody can steal it.” With Christy in hand, we traipsed off down the road to the rest area’s distant entrance.
There we found a cement bench and sat talking, while little Christy tight-rope-walked across a nearby retaining wall. The night air was warm and we felt reasonably secure. Overhead was a light. Around us, grass. Nearby, a drinking fountain and bathroom. A few steps away stood a telephone which didn’t require money for emergencies. The theme of our conversation was deceptively simple: “Above all, we must avoid another tow.” As if there was some punitive unwritten law---three tows and you’re out.
Rob would never understand this, I thought, and realized there was no getting away from a heavy-duty man like Rob; he was there even when he wasn’t.
Eventually a policeman came by and warned us that the area would not be patrolled again, and though we’d resigned ourselves to using a fifth fuse to get the car inside the park so we could sleep there for the night, the patrolman put a new light on our situation: suddenly the fear of being attacked by roving bandits loomed larger than the fear of explaining to Rob about three tows in one day. Alarmingly, all the other campers and cars were now leaving.
We looked at each other. Should we be towed again?
I made the call.
When tow truck number three arrived the man said, “You’ve got a key problem, eh?”
“No,” I said. “That’s not why we called. It’s an engine problem--the car won’t run.”
“Then you’ve got two problems, lady. The keys are locked inside.”
As one we chorused, “They are?”
He led us back to our disaster-on-wheels and began to get out his chains and bars. Sure enough, inside on the seat were the keys—proving there’s no mishap so bad I can’t make it a little worse.
As the Cad’s rear rose toward the heavens once more, we caught each other’s eyes and found none of us could speak; we were all cramming back laughter. Not that the scene was funny. But all the tow stuff was so damnably familiar, and three times in one day suddenly felt . . . well, kind of stupid. Don’t ask me why, but stupid can seem comical.
I’m the one who exploded and ignited the others. After that we couldn’t look at each other without gasping and turning red and holding our sides. Even inside the cab we couldn’t stop, and never mind that the driver was as solemn as peat moss and kept throwing us sideways glances. He must have thought we were drunk or on drugs, but his opinion didn’t slow us one whit.
Squashed into our tight space, we barreled down the road, and despite our driver’s disapproving profile we threw out quips, until Carol cried, “Oh my God, the fuses. I left them on top of the car.” Which set us off again.
For an hour the three of us carried on, until even our man got into the spirit and offered a small joke.
Carol said, “Maralys, I’m never going anywhere with you again unless we leave in a tow truck. And even then I’d insist on being followed by a back-up truck.”
“Maybe the truck people will take the car,” said Christy.
We kept wiping away our tears. “You realize,” said Betty-Jo, “we’re now being towed in the wrong direction. I just figured it out. In one day we’ve been towed thirty miles forward and forty-one miles backward.”
“Which translates,” I said, “into running up and down Highway 395 all day without ever getting more than 200 miles from home.” All thoughts of the elusive hang gliding meet had finally dropped off our radar.
“Right,” said Carol. “I’m about to inherit a Cadillac from my husband. I intend to warn him---I’ll never accept a car whose range is only ten miles per fuse.”
“After it’s fixed,” I said, “my car won’t know how to behave. From now on, the thing’s going to back up to the nearest big truck and stick its rear in the air and wait, like a chicken in heat.”
I never knew whether the tow truck driver considered us amusing or merely noisome, but for keeping him awake until eleven p.m. he charged us a hundred and twenty-five dollars.
Our driver found the Cadillac agency and then dropped us at a reasonably good motel in Ridgecrest, a town that we learned was built around a Naval weapons center. Just as I was falling asleep Carol nudged me. “I was just thinking . . . the Cad is closer to the ammunition dump than we are. In case of a Soviet preemptive strike, I’ll be consoled knowing the car will blow up first.”
A minute and a half later, she was nudging me again. “Get up, Maralys, and call the Cadillac agency.”
“You mean it’s morning?”
“Eight-thirty,” she murmured, and fell back asleep. I struggled to my feet and called the Cadillac people, who yes, had found our brown tow-truck accessory parked out front and who no, couldn’t look at it until after lunch.
Instantly I began to moan . . . that NBC was waiting for me in Carson City, expecting me to appear on TV.
“Listen Lady,” an irritable voice, “my mechanic’s out today because he had to take his mother to the hospital with her lungs full of blood.” He paused. “Two days ago his house burned down. You’re not the only one with problems.”
I quickly got off the phone.
I relayed his message to the others, which only served to set us off again. We weren’t normal anymore; our whole approach to life was sick. But the Cad had done it to us.
We looked at our watches. Nine o’clock, and only one meal since yesterday morning and we were all ravenous. But not one of us said, Let’s go eat. Instead, to a man, we said, Let’s get over to the Cadillac agency and hover.
So we did, with little Christy as sunny as ever, and found to our amazement that a mechanic was already sitting in our car. But he wasn’t one of the clean-cut, well-spoken mechanics we’d come to expect. This one had long, blond, stringy hair which hung over one eye, a pale mustache, and a struggling beard. With the added fillip of an unfocused stare, he gave the impression he couldn’t be trusted to put air in the tires. Our sense of his incompetence expanded as he spoke. “An hour ago I took the car for a run,” he drawled. “I thought I was gonna have to walk home. It took four fuses to get out and five to get back,” which already spoke poorly of his I.Q. Why would he keep going four fuses worth?
Knowing things were hopeless, we went off to breakfast.
When Carol and I returned, the drawling incompetent said our car was fixed. “All it was, was a wire burned on the exhaust pipe. The wire was hanging down too low.”
Unconvinced, I almost blurted out something about the fuel pump. Maybe that’s not a good idea.
Carol and I turned to each other with disbelieving looks. This . . . this unlikely person couldn’t have fixed the car when two intelligent mechanics had failed. Clearly we’d been mistaking a close shave for mechanical brilliance. Yet this man insisted the car was fixed and the charge was only thirty dollars.
Carol was still in a survival frame of mind. When the man turned away, she whispered, “I don’t believe him,” and she bought eight more fuses “just in case.” For Carol our trip had become a defining moment: a number of years later she admitted she’d kept fuses in her purse a full two years.
We retrieved the car, discovering that the mechanic had left two Cadillac trouble-sheets and a giant Cadillac manual on the front seat. With a gleam in her eye, Carol said, “I’m keeping them! We may need them!”
I said I thought they wouldn’t help much, they seemed to be written in Sanskrit.
So Carol trotted everything back to the fat man behind the service desk, who merely growled, “I’m gonna kill him!” meaning our miracle mechanic.
So Carol trotted everything back to the fat man behind the service desk, who merely growled, “I’m gonna kill him!” meaning our miracle mechanic.
We didn’t wait to see that happen. We hopped in the car and drove straight to Carson City.
At last we were there—with eight unused fuses. I looked around the flying site but it seemed deserted. With my three companions, I stood near what must have been the landing area, bewildered that the grassy field contained only one yellow folded kite. Finally a lone, jump-suited pilot appeared.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
“Gone home,” he said, motioning toward the distant mountain—-surprisingly free of butterfly sails.
“But why? Wasn’t the contest supposed to last two days?” I held my tall “Manbirds” sign, suddenly feeling like a supernumerary carrying a fake rubber spear, fooling nobody.
“We intended to fly today,” he said. “But this morning the wind came from the wrong direction and blew us out. No point in hanging around.” He seemed to notice my sign for the first time. “You came to sell books, I see.”
“Yeah, I did. My friends are keeping me company.” I introduced them and made a face. “Looks like I don’t sell a hundred copies after all.”
The man glanced at the sign and smiled. “I’ll buy one.” Then he added, “I’ve read the reviews. Make that two.”
WHY WASN’T I CRUSHED, I wondered as Carol drove us home. At first this had seemed like a vital trip, a chance to begin making my name as a writer. Now I was headed away from the hang gliding meet I’d never quite reached, a dazzling opportunity that vanished like a trace of perfume . . . and somehow it hardly mattered.
Thanks to Carol, Betty-Jo—-and yes, even Christy--I’d already had one of the most exhilarating trips of my life. Selling books, I realized, could never compete with two solid days of hilarity.
Like Christmas, it was an event that restored the soul . . . though Christmas, that year, would bring its own amazements.
Naively, I gazed at my private crystal ball and foresaw that literary fame would soon trump adventure.
How was I to know the crystal ball was a fake?
WHEN WE RETURNED HOME, Rob said, “You know why that wire burned out, don’t you?”
“Your rear was so heavy it dragged down until the wire touched the exhaust pipe.”
“I hope you’re talking about the Cad,” I said.
By then I’d decided the real heroine of the trip was tiny Christy, who hadn’t uttered the slightest complaint through our whole crazy ordeal. I said to her in profound gratitude, “Christy, you’ve been so good I’d happily take you anywhere.”
Christy thought a moment. Then she looked at me solemnly, her blue eyes bright and candid. Without a hint of rancor she said, “Well, I won’t go anywhere with you!”