At 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, I left my office in Springfield, Illinois, and headed south on Interstate 55 towards St. Louis. It was the last work day for four of my colleagues at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln (the Illinois state budget trouble had forced layoffs), and one of those unlucky colleagues, who also lives in the St. Louis area, was in the car with me. About thirty minutes into the trip, a woman in a van pulled up next to me in the passing lane, waving frantically. She rolled down her passenger-side window, and I rolled down my window, too. “There is smoke…it’s coming from underneath your car…pull over!” she yelled and gestured towards the back of my car. “Thank you,” I answered, surprised, and waved to her as she sped off ahead of me.
“Well that woman’s a little overwrought and maybe even crazy,” Mack’s voice whispered in my ear.
I looked in my rear-view mirror to see for myself. No smoke that I could see. No engine light flashing on the instrument panel, either. And the temperature gauge was settled far closer to the “C” than to the “H.” Mack was right. That woman was probably over-reacting.
Keep on drivin’ Momma Bear,” Mack said, “It’ll be ah-rite.”
I rolled down the window again and tried to smell the smoke. I thought I detected a hint of oil in the cold breeze, but not enough to be alarmed. “I think everything’s fine,” I said, “What do you think?” I asked Mark, my colleague. He didn’t see any smoke either, he was not convinced we were even smelling oil, and then he replied: “old cars burn oil.” When I informed him that the car felt fine and had just had expensive work done on the oil pressure system two days before, he agreed with me (and with Mack’s little voice inside my head) that we should just keep on driving.
About ten minutes later, a police SUV started to pull around me in the passing lane and then suddenly shifted into the lane behind me. The SUV followed for a time, making me nervous, and then the police lights starting flashing. “I was only going 75,” I said defensively to Mark, as I pulled off the road onto the right shoulder.
“The po-po’s come to get you, Momma Bear!” Mack’s voice chuckled in my ear.
The cop approached my car from the passenger side, and I rolled down the window. As he flashed his badge, he exclaimed: “There is a whole lot of smoke coming from underneath your car!” Mark and I were now convinced that we did smell burning oil, that the woman in the van was not crazy, and that the cop had probably just kept me from blowing out the engine of my aging but still very spunky Honda Element. The cop recommended that we pull off the interstate at the very next exit, which we did in Litchfield, Illinois, at a Conoco station. I popped the hood, Mark called his mechanic father and checked the oil dipstick, and I stepped to the back of the car to get the quart of oil I keep in an emergency kit. There was a greasy film thickly spattered over every square inch of the plastic bumper, the metal frame, and the window. Oil! Lots and lots and lots of oil.
“One quart ain’t gonna do it, woman,” Mack said.
I purchased three quarts of oil in the Conoco Petro Mart, right next to the drive-thru of the Jack-in-the-Box, which smelled far worse than the burning oil, by the way. My car’s oil compartment was totally EMPTY, and as Mark poured in two quarts of the new oil, I watched as it ran right out of the bottom of the car! I Yelp’d for a service station, and a quick phone call lead us to Neal Tire and Auto Service just a quarter of a mile up the road. “What in the world did people do before smart phones?” I asked myself.
“They got stranded in hick towns never to be heard from again,” Mack replied.
While three friendly mechanics investigated the problem for two hours (ninety minutes after their closing time) and made two trips to Napa Auto for parts, Mark and I spun worst-case scenarios for my car and speculated about how inopportune it was that he was performing as Renfield in a community production of Dracula that evening, and we were about sixty-five miles away from the theater located in the western suburbs of St. Louis.
“Don’t be all uptight and nervous, Momma Bear, and don’t be getting crabby either,” Mack suggested. “This ain’t no thing.”
Mark and I sipped on cups of the garage’s complimentary flavored Keurig coffee, charged our cell phones, chewed gum I dug out of my giant Pink Coach traveling tote, and laughed about how ridiculous it was that this last day we were sharing as colleagues had become such a damned fiasco. As the clock ticked and time passed, we realized the worst-case scenario was in play. And so at 5:30 p.m., I put Kevin on the road from St. Louis in his Jeep to collect Mark and me in Litchfield in case the mechanics failed to get us on the road by 6:30 p.m.—the time Mark had determined was the last possible minute departure that would give him enough time to drive to the theater, get into costume and makeup, and be ready when the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves raised the curtain for the 8 o’clock show.
“Daddio gonna get Irish mad about driving all that way for nothing,” Mack warned. “And you don’t even need this backup plan, because those three dudes got this.”
And just as Mack promised, at 6:20 p.m. those three dudes emerged from the garage bearing tidings of good repair news, I called Kevin to turn him back to St. Louis, I paid the garage $120.51, and they presented me with a receipt and a parting gift—the faulty auto part that was guilty for spewing out all of that damned oil and causing my car to smoke and spurring concerned citizens to my rescue. At the strong urging of Travis, the youngest of the three mechanics, I then drove my repaired but still oil-covered (and flammable) car through the car wash just a few doors down from the garage. Mark and I hit the on-ramp at 6:30 p.m., and I drove like a bat out of hell all the way to Mark’s car, which was parked at the Cracker Barrel in Troy, Illinois. As Mark gathered his belongings and stepped out of the car, he looked at me and said, “I think I will just make it to the theater on time.” “Oh my god, I hope so!” I answered, as he closed the door. “I don’t think he’s going to make it,” I said out loud as I drove out of the parking lot. “You stupid old car, you’ve ruined tonight’s performance of Dracula. How in the hell can you stage Dracula without Renfield?”
“You worry too much, Momma Bear,” Mack said. And then she gave me an evil “heeheeheeheehee.” It was a pretty damn good Renfield, if you ask me.
Despite the disastrous commute from work on that windy and cold Thursday evening, I smiled the rest of the way home. With Mack on my shoulder and in my ear, I am learning how to take life’s little dramas with more calm, and I am learning to infuse them with at least a little of Mack’s good cheer. I will never be as chill as my Macko, but I’m going to keep trying. And as long as she continues to perch on my shoulder and whisper in my ear, I will benefit from the talents of the best chill coach in the history of the world.
And here is Mack sticking up for my stupid car.