As I said, our Austin trip was not without difficulties. Late Thursday afternoon, we were zipping westward on a rural stretch of I-10 somewhere in Southeast Texas. I was happily immersed in Fresh Air. The kids were quiet in the back seat. Sarah turned to me. "Do you smell something?" It was then that I noticed the faint trail of smoke streaming back from the engine and the temperature gauge buried in the red. We veered off at the nearest exit, stopped on an empty stretch of frontage road, exited the vehicle, and watched the huge plume of steam billow skyward. I opened the hood and saw glowing green puddles of antifreeze all over the engine. Hmm.
We waited. To pass the time, I inadvertently stepped in an ant colony. They swarmed up my leg until my Slappy Hands of Death delivered them to their maker. To pass more time, I read the owner's manual. Finally, I called John, the car-savviest guy I could think of.
"Can I put plain water in the radiator?"
"Yes. Just don't burn yourself."
I emptied all our drinking water into the engine, and while I did avoid burning myself, I didn't manage to avoid re-stepping in the ant colony. I was once again forced to send dozens of my little, six-legged brethren to the Great Ant Colony in the Sky. We restarted the engine and puttered down the the road to the nearest gas station.
Perhaps, I should mention that these events held a particular charge for me: "Oh no, the Curse of Texas strikes again!" You see, the first two vehicles I owned both died in Texas (on my first two trips into that cruel state). I thought last fall's evacuation had broken the curse, but the new events made me question this. "That was Annou's car, not mine, so maybe the curse didn't apply. Will I ever be able to drive a vehicle I own into the state of Texas and actually drive it back out again?"
At the gas station, I filled the radiator with antifreeze. After a silent, optimistic minute, it poured back out, gushing forth in a neon torrent from the engine block. A chubby man with sweaty, grey hair, overalls and a big, bushy mustache waddled over and took a look.
"Hmm, they sure got these engines packed in here. Might be the water pump. You can't get that fixed here. Ain't nothing in Winnie. You're gonna have to go to Beaumont. It's back east about ten miles. Take it real slow."
"Okay, thank you. We will."
"'Course, I don't drive anything that costs more 'an a hundred dollars," he said, pointing to his '80s Ford Escort of an indeterminate, splotchy blue-grey color. "That way, if it breaks, I just leave it where it is. Where you all coming from?"
"Oh, yeah? That's pretty bad. I still gotta blue tarp on my roof from Rita."
"Wow, yeah. I know how that is."
"The fellow I want to roof it says he's backed up for the rest of the year, and I oughta get somebody else, but I don't want one of these fly-by-night operations doin' it. I'll wait. Where you all headed?"
"I'm heading up to Oklahoma City. My wife's having surgery up there. I got about ten hours of driving ahead of me. Well, I'll be praying for you all the next hundred miles."
"Okay. We will be too. Good luck."
After deciding that we weren't headed anywhere that evening, we checked into the nearby Holiday Inn. The desk clerk informed me that Winnie was not, in fact, as desolate as our friend had indicated and gave me the number of a nearby mechanic.
We unloaded the car, and smuggled Penny (our dog) into the room. I called the mechanic and explained the situation.
"[incomprehensible cell phone garble]"
"I'm sorry, what was that?"
"[incomprehensible cell phone garble]"
"I'm sorry, can you say that again?"
"Have you been drinking?"
"No, sir. It's just a bad connection."
"I understand. I said our guy will be there in the morning."
"Okay, thank you."
We read the children stories, and tucked them in. They, however, found the prospect of staying in a random motel gloriously exciting and repeatedly untucked themselves, bouncing up and down on the bed. After lengthy, complex negotiations, we achieved a tentative victory.
Next we were presented with the daunting task of figuring out what the hell to do for several hours at night in Winnie when we could neither be in the room, lest we rile up the children, nor could we go anywhere, lest we be charged with child neglect. We decided the solution was beer. I cut through a hedge, past the neighboring RV park, and into a skeezy little Shop Smart (or some such thing). The small, burnt-out woman behind the counter twitched, smirked, and leeringly asked, "Are you old enough to buy that?" as if we were complicit in some low-grade crime.
"Yeah, I'm plenty old enough."
We sat on the sidewalk outside our room, discreetly sipping the beers. The children decided to reject our previous agreement and periodically screamed more demands. We considered filling their sippy-cups with beer. The night progressed. Eventually, everyone went to sleep.
In the morning, I snuck Penny out for a brief walk among the generic landscaping and mulch. Then the mechanic arrived. He was missing an eye and a tooth. He introduced himself as "Dane, D-A-N-E,"* but his shirt said "Patch," and he met every statement or question with the response, "Not a problem," doled out in a slow, easy-going drawl.
Dane, a.k.a. "Patch"
"Yep, it's your water pump. I'll get you a replacement, and we'll have you on the road as soon as possible." He left and returned. "Got one. You're lucky. Most of the time we gotta go to Beaumont for a part like this." He began dismantling our engine. I told him we would be hanging out at the pool if he needed us.
"Not a problem."
Louise splashed happily. June fussed miserably until we silenced her with an armload of snacks from the Free Continental Breakfast. Sarah read trashy magazines from the lobby. I drifted lazily in the whirlpool among the drowned insects, slowly spinning in circles and staring at the puffy white clouds in the blue Texas sky. One hour passed. Then two. Then three.
We ate lunch at Taco Bell. When we returned to the room, Penny welcomed us by vomiting on the carpet. Finally, in the early afternoon, Dane was done. We paid him and thanked him, loaded the car, smuggled Penny back out of the room, buckled in the kids, checked out, and hit the road.
I made one more stop at the gas station for a cup of coffee. As we returned to the highway and Winnie receded in our rear-view mirror, I sipped happily. We had escaped the curse, and shitty gas station coffee never tasted so good.
* Presumably he felt the spelling necessary since his thick East Texas accent rendered the names "Dan" and "Dane" near homonyms.