Fifteen minutes earlier, I said a three day/two night good-bye to my children. Liberation had shone on their faces as our oldest teen closed the front door on me and my casserole of stuffed shells. Their father wouldn't arrive home for hours.
Baggage in the back seat and pocketbook in the front, I had put the dish in the trunk to ensure no saucy casualties. Hours later this would save us a towing fee, and cause a wild goose chase.
As I drove the New Jersey Turnpike, a hissing started to my left. I focused due north. Should’ve called Mom and told her not to prepare anything for lunch.
That car with the problem was traveling next to me at the same speed. But why bother checking my mirror to see if they needed help? Other than not owning a cell phone, I knew nothing about cars, which released me from any responsibility. I left enough of that behind for a weekend visit with my doting mother.
Two drivers waved at me as they passed, pointing to my front end. I held tight to denial. There’s enough time to get to Mom’s apartment and bake the shells if I don’t need a rest stop.
The front of my car dropped and grating replaced the hissing. Crap. Serves me right for wishing ill on others.
Mile marker 3.19 had greeted me when I stopped. So that was what they were for. Roadside assistance probably needed the number to locate my car. Doing what I reprimanded kids not to do, I wrote the decimal down on my hand.
So up for this challenge, I reviewed the problem and its possible repercussions. Forgetting to call Mom before leaving the house was a plus. She lived in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and would have been monitoring my ETA. After two hours and no daughter, she'd worry. I breathed deep with assurance that she‘d remained clueless.
A state tow truck, which sweeps the turnpike for hazardous vehicles, was sure to arrive. I had seen these many times, stopped or moving at grandma speed, with their flashing yellow lights. If it took my car while I walked to find a phone, my husband would receive the towing bill. And insist I take his cell phone with me on future trips. Old school principle was at stake here.
I ripped a white paper from the jam-packed glove compartment and stuck it out the driver's side window as a flag. I'd seen other people do this with cloth. I wondered where they had found their alerts. The only light-colored cloth I had, was undergarments in my overnight bag behind me.
Since other vehicles used cloth, I didn't think it necessary to write a note on the paper.
Taking only my pocketbook, I left my locked car thankful for nice weather, flat shoes and that I blew out only yards from exit five. Then I started power walking to contact roadside assistance and beat the tow truck. The challenge had become an adventure.
Approaching a toll booth on foot excited me. Not sure of the decorum for getting the person’s attention from atop a cement median, I peeked into the toll collector's booth. I waited until she was done with a customer, so she wasn't startled closing her money drawer.
"Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you, but I need to call a tow service. I have no phone."
Evidently this experience was new to the collector too. She scanned me, as if visually patting me down.
"There's a Best Western across the street." She kept staring at me as she pointed. "You could call for assistance there."
I thanked her and walked away, but knew she still stared as I crossed the highway. No one traveled without a phone, so I'm sure she was suspicious of my intentions. Her reaction thrilled me, along with the wind in my face, as I targeted the motel for the next leg of my vehicle-challenged adventure. I pretended I stole money from her booth and was on the lamb to hid out in family lodging.
After using the Best Western's restroom, I called Allstate. "Are you sure you don't want to meet me at my car?" I asked Mel from Allstate. "It'll save time if I walk back. It's not far at all."
"Don't go to the car. I'm coming to pick you up." How nice, Mel must be concerned for my safety. He didn't know about my adventurous spirit.
He called several times for directions to the Best Western. The staff talked to him on their service phone while I relaxed on a comfy southwestern style sofa.
I watched daytime TV, and used the bathroom again while waiting for Mel. Gripping denial again, I kidded myself that the tow truck hadn't hauled my Taurus from marker 3.19 as I watched the beginning of another show.
Mel arrived. The communication and directional devices in his car impressed me. I seat-belted myself next to him and his noisy gadgets. He used them to supervise other Allstate roadside assisting staff on their missions to stranded motorists like myself. But the adventure really took off when he entered the turnpike overshooting the position of my car.
"You'll have to exit and re-enter," I said. "You overshot the mile marker."
My Allstate rescuer pulled to the side of the turnpike.
“The police will tow the car by then,” he said.
It wasn't my fault he took so long finding the Best Western and entered at the wrong place on the turnpike. Amazed his technology didn't help him more, I kept quiet, not knowing what else to suggest.
As he focused through the windshield, I read determination in his profile to complete the job before the state stole his business. Mel put the car in reverse.
I childishly hoped his amazing car had flight capabilities as he focused on his rear view mirror. My head bobbed forward as he drove backwards along the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. I had lost control of my adventure, and watched in fear as the mile markers ascend on my side of his vehicle. Crap. Mel backed across the on-ramp. Craaap.
“Is that your blue car behind us?” he asked, stopping to gauge rear traffic.
“I don't know,” I answered, afraid to move my neck to check the side view mirror. "But what other blue car would be disabled this close to exit 5 on the northbound side of the turnpike?"
All I could do was squint at the mile marker in front of me, and do simple math off my hand. My head bobbed again.
Mel braked in front of a four-door blue Ford Taurus.
My life stopped flashing before my eyes in reverse.
"Where's your spare?" Mel asked, as he exited his car to the whoosh of traffic.
Not wanting to be alone in his fun car, I opened the door and got out, wondering how the vehicle behind could really be mine after all that time.
Shimmying between the cars and roadside ditch to my trunk, I lifted the shells out and put them on the floor of my passenger's seat.
Mel dug out the donut spare and rolled it to rest in front of my car. He spread out his gear a fraction of an inch from speeding cars and truck on The New Jersey Turnpike. Squatted among his tools, traffic sucked at his hair and clothing in their drawing draft. As he rose to switch the flat tire for the spare, the mat he knelt on inched into the outer lane.
Recovered from southern exposure in the northbound lane, I saw that Mel could be the same age as one of my children. When he swooped his upper body into the right lane of the turnpike, snatching his mat, I thought of my child endangering himself for me. I distracted Mel, increasing his danger: "That's not worth your life, you can always get a new mat but not a new Mel."
He smiled, whisking a wandering lug nut off the pike before an equipment truck ran it over. CRAP. Once again, he hadn't listened to me. He totally controlled my adventure. I covered my eyes. Visions of us making the twelve o'clock news reeled through my head on old school movie film.
Mel rolled the flat tire to the rear of my car and heaved it in. It didn't fit in the wheelwell where the donut had rested, and took up most of the trunk. He scooped up the rest of his materials.
I took a cleansing breath, reality setting in. The car wasn't towed, the flat was fixed, and I could be on my way.
All business, Mel stood in front of me with a clipboard, clearly wanting to go since the fun was over.
"Can I continue to Pennsylvania on the donut?" I still intended to travel another hour and forty-five minutes to the mountains of PA. I had promised Mom the shells. Even with the delay, they'd still be okay to eat. We could have them for dinner.
Mel explained, "You shouldn't drive over fifty-five miles an hour on the spare."
I signed my rescuer's paperwork and got into the Taurus, shaking. At 65mph, the turnpike was no place for a lopsided car. My poor mother would have to cook for herself. I had to remain in New Jersey, and return to my responsibilities.
Mel manned his command station vehicle in front of mine. I wondered in which direction his next rescue was calling him. Did he plan to drive in reverse again? No way was I going to back up, even the short distance, to exited five.
I pulled out and passed Mel. If he wanted to exit south in the northbound lane, what could I do but get out of his way? I waved a 'thank you' with my pen-stained hand. Then signaled with my blinkers that my car was disabled.
Mel approached my car. He passed me. I'm sure he would've preferred his tip in money and not parental advice. But I had no cash.
Other cars and trucks passed me, until a tow truck paralleled my Taurus, steady on my left. I watched for it to signal me to pull over. Maybe I was being paranoid, or still ruffled from my backwards ride, but I thought the vehicle's driver stared into my car too long. But, the tow truck continued its patrolling as I took exit six. He probably wanted to make sure that I exited to clear the roadway.
In half an hour I was home again, and smirking to myself as I got out of the car. Scheming how to catch my kids off guard, I tip-toed towards our home to surprise them.
Before I got to the front steps, the door flew open and all three kids hung out of it. “Where were you?” they yelled.
“What?” I grinned, confused at their odd behavior.
“The police called. Daddy's looking for you in Pennsylvania,” replied my daughter. “Grandma's worried and is gonna call Uncle Dan to help look for you.”
Praying he'd answer his cell, I called my poor husband. He had worked a sixteen-hour shift that day and was searching the PA Turnpike for our dusty-blue Ford Taurus that had never left New Jersey. I thanked God that my husband owned a mobile phone.
"Where are you now?" I asked, using our home phone.
"In Allentown. About forty minutes from your mom," he said when I reached him. "I'm stopping at the rest stop for water and a burger."
I dialed Mom next. And just in time to keep my brother from joining the police-initiated wild goose chase.
Listening to my stammering teen, I pieced together that while I lounged at the Best Western waiting for Mel, the police had found my Ford with luggage in the back seat. The car wasn't towed because they thought foul play was involved, and were investigating my disappearance. They tracked the plates to my husband at our home phone number. He was at work when the police called the kids to say they found his car but no occupant. The kids had frantically called their dad's cell phone to make sure he was okay. Then everyone realized it was Mommy‘s car, which is registered in Daddy‘s name. After calling Grandma, panic ensued.
"Why didn't you call the police back to find out where the Taurus was to let Daddy know where to look?" I asked.
"I did," accused the teen who had closed our front door on me hours earlier. "But the police said they couldn't release any information at that time."
My family in two states thought I was abducted, and in Pennsylvania somewhere. All because I had no cell phone for them to contact me to make sure the police were wrong.
Now when I travel, I borrow someone's cell phone. Not because I may need help, but in case the police, with their modern technology, can't figure out that it's possible a stranded motorist didn't have a cell phone to call for help and had to walk to a nearby Best Western. Or that she needed a lady's room while waiting for road assistance. Granted, the police couldn't have known that I hadn't put my overnight bag in the trunk because of the sloppy tomato sauce. Or that I'd forgotten to hide the bag before walking to a Best Western in which I didn't intend staying.
And, I'll never take for granted that an Allstate service car, sporting all kinds of bright shiny gadgets, can find a Best Western, or locate mile marker 3.19 on the northbound side of the New Jersey Turnpike.