Smoke poured out the seam between the hood and the sidepanel as my Volvo crested up the slight incline of the Sunoco parking lot and, friction getting the best of the last burst of speed I could coax from it, stopped. That's when I turned the music off. Full disclosure: it was not my Volvo, and I was in deep shit.
Luckily the car had made it off the freeway and chugged out in a fairly out-of-the-way swatch of parking lot. That way I didn't have to feel bad about being in anyone's way. When I popped the hood a huge gout of white, oil-smelling air blinded me briefly, and the heat radiating off the engine was enough to tell even someone who doesn't know cars, someone like me, that this particular vehicle was staying put, thank you very much.
Hanging off the concrete poles of the station was a paper towel dispenser and a small reservoir of filthy water, the handle of a squeegee protruding jauntily to one side. I grabbed a mess of towels, soaked them, and used the wet lump of fiber to protect my hand as I twisted the lid off the coolant tank. Bone dry. Next the oil: bone dry. The extent of my car knowledge is that they need gas, oil, and coolant, and that one out of three is bad.
Inside the Sunoco I begged a phone book off the woman behind the counter.
"Car trouble," I said, handing over a few dollars. She looked at the Volvo through the window, whisps of smoke still trailing off the engine, which was clearly visible through the dusty windows of the gas station. "No kidding," she said, and gave me a handful of quarters. "There's a Shell up the street, on East Grand River."
The phonebook listed one Shell station, but the area code placed it back to Ann Arbor, where I'd been, and well outside of Lansing, where I was going. I dialed.
A crackle as the phone on the other side picked up, then: "Hold on." Over the line I could hear someone ordering a triple cheeseburger, lots of mustard, no pickles. Fries. Then: "Yeah?"
"Is this the Shell station on East Grand River?"
A pause. The Shell employee on the other line had, like all garage employees, a faultless college-boy detector, the kind that can tell, in a sample no larger than nine words, that the party on the other end of the line is an overprivileged twit who doesn't know anything about cars and, for the good of society, shouldn't be allowed behind the wheel.
"What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?" he barked. I hung up. Though he had me pegged pretty well, I wasn't in the mood.
The towtruck came and hitched the Volvo up at what looked like a precarious angle. I climbed into the cab and chatted with the driver as we drove no more than 2000 feet to the Shell down the road. $55 / 2000ft. ~= $0.03/ft, which is nice work if you can get it.
At the Shell, the mechanic popped the hood and took one sniff. "Head gasket," he explained. "They have a distinctive smell when they go."
"Pardon?" I said. The minute he said "head gasket" all my attention was drawn to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Dollarsigns, which was screaming full tilt past my eyes. The mechanic started leafing through catalogues and pounding numbers into his calculator while I watched fifties and hundreds pirouette gracefully into oblivion. The verdict: "$938, parts and labor, plus tax." I winced. "'Course, it could be something else," he went on, his tone implying that the something else was about as likely as me driving away under my own power.
"Could I use your phone?" Now was the great moment of truth. I had to call chancel at work and tell her that her car had just become a very large, very needy paperweight. I didn't have her number, but fifteen minutes and half a dozen calls later I managed to get her on the line. She asked if the car could be repaired where it was (yes), if I could get a ride home (yes), and if that ride could stop at the store and pick up some tomatoes and red pepper (yes). I bought some strawberries for good measure, figuring that it's harder to choke someone to death when one of your hands is busy with delicious red fruit.
Which, it turns out, is true.