Scattered, Smothered, Covered, and Chunked

It’s Kotei season, again – the official yearly tournaments for the Legend of the Five Rings collectible card game. Due to prior engagements, I will only be able to attend one of these fun, but tiring, events. It took place outside of DC a couple weeks ago. I made the cut, but lost my first game after that. Which is better than I’ve done in the past.

Quite a few years ago I was driving down through Georgia to attend one of these events. The trip didn’t exactly go as planned. I keep a notebook and pencil with me at almost all times, and kept good notes about what happened. Later, I wrote it down. Attending this most recent event got me thinking about that old story, so I pulled it out, edited it, and now here it is. Everything here is true.

As I’ve done more times than I should admit, I call into work sick on Friday morning so I can go play games. I have my Google Maps directions in hand, a red Sheetz mug full of coffee, and am on 85 South for the seven hour trip to Douglasville, GA. CDs in the passenger seat have not been listened to, and CDs on the passenger side floor have been. The Sheetz mug, too big for my cup holder, balances precariously on the parking brake. In the back, a folding card table rattles under the weight of a suitcase, two blow-up mattresses, and probably twenty pounds of Legends of the Five Rings cards.

I leave Durham, NC around 3:00 in the afternoon and should get to the La Quinta hotel in Douglasville, GA by 10:00 for an evening of playing cards and drinking sake before tomorrow’s tournament.

It has been raining all day, and the drive is a little more than tense. My tires are old and aren’t exactly prepared to go 80 mph in the rain. More than once the car hydroplanes a bit, or twitches one way and then the other. I had been told it was raining in Atlanta, so I am expecting to meet this resistance for most of the trip. Two hours in, however, reaching Charlotte, NC, the weather turns to drizzle, and then just overcast. I relax back into my seat and turn the music up to a volume I will probably regret in twenty years.

I cross into South Carolina. That’s really all there is to say about that. Oh yeah, SC has a water tower in the shape of a giant peach. So there’s that.

I cross into Georgia, and watch the signs count down the miles to Atlanta. It is dark, now, but the rain hasn’t returned. I’ve been on the road for a little over five hours. The Sheetz mug is empty, the passenger side floor full. In an hour and a half I’ll be at the La Quinta.

—-

The check engine light blinks on, then off. Then back on, then back off. I turn the music off and take my foot off the gas. It blinks back on. I wait. When I press the gas back down the engine spits and sputters loudly. I let the gas up, it stops. I need advice, and I need an exit. One of my friends lives not too far from me, and if anyone is going to be able to come out to Georgia and pick me up, it’ll be him. I pull out my cell phone and dial the number. While the phone rings the engine starts sputtering louder and continues to do so even when I’m not pressing down on the gas. The phone stops ringing.

Muffled noise.
“Hello?” The engine gets louder and louder.
More muffled noise.
“Sorry, man, I can’t hear you over my engine… Oh, wait, there. It stopped.”

A burst of smoke shoots out from under the hood and fills the car with noxious fumes. I cough. The engine clunks once, then quits. I had never found an exit. Before I lose too much momentum I steer the car off the side of the road – my tires buzzing over the noise strips – hit the brake, put the car in park, turn the key, and hit the emergency flashers.

“Jack, that you?”
“Yeah. Let me call you back.”

I make another call.

“Triple A Roadside Assistance; are you in a safe place?”
“I certainly hope so,” I say, realizing how close I am to the highway. Every truck that screams by passes within feet of me and shakes my Subaru from side to side. I decide that the one place I wouldn’t want to be if a 16-wheeler were to smash into the back of my car was in the car itself, so I wait for a pause in traffic, hop out, and walk twenty or so yards away from my car.

I give AAA my membership number (which will expire in 2 months) and they say they can send a tow truck. I get five free miles of towing, and it’ll cost me four dollars a mile after that. It’s that or push it.

“Ok, sir, tell me where you are so I can send the tow truck.”
I look around. “Well, I’m on I-85 southbound…” I-85 spans the East coast. “In Georgia…” That’s a little more specific. I consider saying On the side of the road.

There is no exit near me. I start walking. There is no exit in sight of me, either. Next to my car is a steel post in the ground that looks like it may have, at one point, held a green mile marker, but such is not the case at present. I tell the AAA lady that all I know is that the billboards near my car all say that I’m coming up on exit 149, but that I could be way ahead of that. That seems to be enough for her. The truck will be here within an hour.

I sit down on the guard rail near my car. My phone bleeps to let me know I have about a half an hour before it will die. It also reminds me that my charger is five hours north. “Wonderful,” I say out loud.

Then it starts raining again.

—-

My phone rings. A number I don’t recognize.

“Hello,” I answer.
“Mr. Bennett?”
“That’s me.”
“You call for a tow truck?” Thick southern accent. Male.
“I did.”
“Where you at then, buddy? ‘Cause triple A said you was at 149 but you ain’t there.”
“I told them I was before 149, but I don’t really know where because there are no exits or mile markers near me.”
“You got your flashers on?”
“Yep.”
“And you were headed southbound?”
“Yep.”
“Alright then, I’ll find yas.” And he hangs up.

Twenty minutes later I see a white tow truck with “Bailey’s, Inc.” in red letters go barreling past me on northbound 85. A couple minutes after that he’s headed southbound and I see him cut on his lights and slow down to pick me up. Turns out I am just past exit 164.

The driver’s name is Larry Beck. He’s wearing a baseball cap and a camouflage jacket and he probably hasn’t shaved in 3 or 4 days. He backs up to my car, lowers the back of his truck, attaches the chains, puts my car in neutral, and turns on the wench. A couple seconds later my car is on the back of his truck and I’m in the passenger seat. It’s warm.

“Where do ya need ta go?”
I have no idea. I need a place to get my car fixed and a place to sleep. Larry says there are no 24-hour service stations around here, and probably the only place that would be open tomorrow morning to even take a look at my car will be the Chevrolet dealer over on exit 149. There are hotels there, too. Oh, and an ATM so I can pay Larry, in cash, four dollars for every mile we go over five. Larry says he can take me to the ATM, and then leave my car at whatever hotel I decide to stay at. In the morning, if I call triple A, I can get five more free miles to have the car taken to the Chevy dealer.

“Let’s do it,” I tell him.

I pull 100 dollars out of the ATM (which costs me $102.95 since this isn’t a Cash Points). Larry hauls me and my car down the road towards Wal-Mart and the hotels.

“Where you gonna stay?”
“What’s cheapest, you think?”
“Probably the Scottish Inns, that’d be my guess.”

I look for the sign. Big green and white letters say “SCOT IS IN.” I don’t know who Scot is, but the rest of the sign says “Rooms starting at 36.99,” so I decide I don’t really care as long as he isn’t too loud and I don’t have to share a room with him. Larry drops me off, charges me 36 dollars for the fourteen mile trip and says he’ll probably see me in the morning since he’ll be the one working. I thank him. My phone bleeps, again.

—-

My room costs me a little over 41 dollars after tax. My key is credit card sized with a Pizza Hut advertisement on it and “139” written on the other side in faded permanent marker. The lady at the desk tells me I’m in Commerce, GA and circles the number to a few service stations in a phone book.

The hotel room is hotel room sized. A bed, with cigarette burns (non-smoking room) in the sheets faces a TV on the other wall. In the corner is a microwave resting on a refrigerator next to a lamp that doesn’t work. Above the bed hangs a print of a painting of men with red vests and black top hats on horseback surrounded by hound dogs, and, I can only assume, chasing a fox, although the fox isn’t pictured.

I find a lamp that does work, set down my suitcase, close the blinds, and then promptly leave again. Wal-Mart is across the street and I’m sure they sell phone chargers.

On my walk I decide to call one of my friends because he will at least find this amusing, even if I don’t. He answers; I can smell alcohol. I tell him, and a few others, my story over speaker phone.

“Dude, that really sucks.”
“Yeah.”
“This one time some friends were meeting me in Atlanta to go to a Radiohead concert, but they never showed up. We caught up with them after the show and their car had broken down and they had told the towing guy to just keep it and rode home in our trunk.”
“Wonderful.”
“I’m just saying. Atlanta’s not a good place to be a car.”
“Apparently.”
“Well, man, they just opened up this new bar over on Commerce St. (note coincidence) that has a lot of good Belgian beers on tap. The kind of place that makes a point of serving every beer in the right glass. We’re gonna go try it out. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Night.”

Wal-Mart is packed. People are there buying paint a 10:30 at night or getting pictures developed or buying cell phone chargers. The charger was 14 bucks. I also decide to grab a book to read while I stay at the hotel. Of all of the novelists who publish 6 or 8 books a week, Stephen King is the only one I can really stand, so I pick up one of his called “Lisey’s Story.” The back of the book says $9.99 but the sticker says $7.49. The front of the book says “Their love was only the first chapter.” Good, I think, then it’ll be over fast.

I walk back to room 139. Still haven’t met Scot. I plug in my phone and turn on the TV; something I haven’t done in years. I watch five minutes of Myth Busters, and five minutes of a rerun of House, and then cut it off and get the book out.

Lisey (pronounced Lee See) Landon is a widow. Her husband Scott (there he is!), a Pulitzer prize winning author, died two years ago, and she starts the book off by beginning the task of cleaning out his writing space located above an old barn on their property. She has three sisters, one with OCD. And, I notice, she never uses the four-letter “F-word.” She, instead, says “smuck.” This happens often enough and without explanation that I begin to wonder if this is some sort of censored version of the book that they sell at Wal-Mart. At least it was two dollars cheaper.

Eighteen pages down and I decide to go to bed. I sleep on the unburnt side of the sheets even though it’s not the side of the bed I’m used to sleeping on. I fall asleep thinking about Belgian beer, the chance of a service station being open, and the word “smuck.”

—-

At 8:00 in the morning my phone begins to play Highway to the Danger Zone to wake me up. The first thing I do is call triple A to get the ball rolling on getting Larry back out here to pick me up. This time I know right where I am.

There are two service stations open Saturday morning in Commerce, GA. One is Pritchett Tire and the other is Wayne Neal Chevrolet. Pritchett Tire is only open four more hours and is short three mechanics. He says he might be able to take a look at it, but nothing more than that before Monday. That instantly becomes option two.

So I get a hold of a man named Thomas at Wayne Neal. I’m driving a Subaru, but “an engine’s and engine” he says. “Bring it on by.”

I hang up the phone, turn off the lights, throw my book in the car, and go to turn in my key. It’s snowing outside.

The kid working the desk is probably 18 or 19 years old. The Weather Channel is blaring from one corner of the room. Supposedly the northeastern United States is being covered in snow (also, according to the meteorologists, they’re being “pounded” with snow, “caked” with snow, “drenched” in snow, and, my guess, “being snowed on really really hard”). The Scottish Inns offers doughnuts and coffee to their loyal customers in the morning, but I don’t expect much, as charging $36.99 a night doesn’t leave much extra money floating around to buy breakfast foods. The coffee is lukewarm and the doughnut is stale, but I haven’t eaten since I left so it was passable. The kid takes my key and looks back at the television without saying a word.

I get a call from a friend. He’s on his way to Douglasville for the tournament and just got into Georgia. He can pick me up and take me. I think about it for a minute, but I turn him down. I need to stay with my car until I know what’s going on with it and I can get it fixed and get home. It’s at this point that I finally get that I’m not going to be playing cards today.

A half hour later the tow truck shows up. Bailey’s, Inc. I walk outside to meet him, and he unrolls his window. It’s not Larry.

“What’s wrong wit’ it?” Same thick southern accent spoken through a cigarette.
“Doesn’t work.” I can change my oil and my starter, my car knowledge stops there. Oh, and fill up my gas.
“Is it the engine?”
“Dunno. It started rattling and sputtering, and then quit.”
“Does she turn over?”

Honestly, I hadn’t tried. And then comes the idea that maybe I just needed to let it sit there for a bit and cool off and everything’s fine. I hop in the car to start it up and let the truck driver get a listen to it. I would really love for my car to be fine (I could still make the tournament if I left now), but luckily, at least for the sake of this story and my embarrassment, the engine sounded the way it would if someone rolled it down a hill.

“Yep,” the driver yells out his window. “That’s your engine. Chevy dealer’s not gonna be able to do anything with that.”
“Well, neither is anyone at this hotel. Got any other ideas? Pritchett Tire said they could take a look at it.”
“Nah, he’s not gonna be able to fix it either. It’s your engine, see?”

No, I don’t see. Aren’t these people paid to fix engines? “Well, I don’t have any other options so let’s at least get it to someone and see what happens.”

The driver nods, rolls up his window, and backs up to my car. He loads it up and I hop in.

“What’s yer name?”
“Jack. Thanks for the pick up.” I hold out my hand.
He swaps his cigarette from his right hand to his left and shakes my hand. “Larry, nice to meet you.

A few minutes (and one wrong turn) later, we’re at Wayne Neal Chevrolet. The entrance has a small desk with a man (Thomas) in a camouflage hat. Tires, car parts, and tools decorate the walls. Behind the desk is a large poster for the movie Dale, narrated by Paul Newman. Larry and Thomas talk a bit; they seem to know each other. Then the three of us head outside to take a look at the car. It’s still snowing, and the wind has picked up significantly.

I climb up on the back of the tow truck and get in the car.
Thomas yells through the wind, “Pop the hood and then start ‘er up when I say.”
I pull the hood release lever and Thomas lifts it up. I wait.

“Want me to start it?” I yell.
Thomas looks around the open hood at me. “Don’t bother.”

I get out to take a look. I wouldn’t know a working engine from a hole in the ground, but a hole in an engine isn’t too difficult to spot. Oil coats the whole thing and runs down the inside of the hood. It looks like it’d been in a fight with some sort of rabid jungle cat and the cat walked away unscathed.

Thomas closes the hood. “You’re gonna need a new engine. I don’t have anything now. Best I could do is get something from a junkyard and drop ‘er in. Take about a week.”

Well, smuck.

—-

The person I trust the most about cars is our mechanic back in Durham, Charlie. I don’t know his number, but my mother takes her cars to him, too. I give her a call, and tell her the story up to this point. She gives me the number to Charlie’s and says I should ask him what he thinks I should do with the car. While I do that she’ll call around and see what other possibilities there are.

I have a few options:

1) I can tow the car back to Durham. The trip is 312 miles and would normally cost me four dollars a mile, but Jim Bailey (owner of Bailey’s, Inc.) says he’ll knock it down to three a mile.

2) I can leave the car here (Bailey’s, Inc. will store it for $20 a day or $10 a day if I had them eventually haul it to Durham) and get a ride with my friend back to Charlotte once he leaves the tournament. I can then decide later what to do.

3) I can sell it, catch a ride with my friend, and buy a new car.

4) I can find a nice little house in Commerce, GA, settle down, start a family, and just start walking everywhere.

Charlie listens to my story and says he’ll make a couple phone calls and call me back. He calls around and finds that his own guys would charge me the same to tow the car up there, so at least Bailey’s, Inc. is being fair. He also says it’ll probably cost me somewhere around $2,000 dollars to fix the car, plus the $936 to get it towed. And since there is no guarantee that, after I fix the engine, the transmission won’t just fall out of it, he says I should probably put that money into getting something else, and leave the car in Georgia.

Mom calls me back and says, if I like the car, then I should just go ahead and get it home. She also says that U-Haul has two things that can haul a car. One of them isn’t safe on the highway; the other can’t haul a Subaru Legacy

So I decide on option two: not deciding yet. I tell Larry to just take me to the lot and leave the car there. I’ll hang out in Commerce until the tournament is done (late) and catch a ride to Charlotte and then have someone come get me and we’ll figure out what to do with the car later.

But, in the time it takes us to get to the lot, I decide I want to keep my car, and just want to go home.

“Larry, let’s just drive this thing home and be done with it.”
Larry nods. “That’s what I’d do.”

Larry takes us to the Bailey’s, Inc. office and I get to meet Jim Bailey. Jim figures out the mileage to Charlie’s shop and charges me $936 for the trip. He’s supposed to charge me $1,248. He also doesn’t charge me for all the towing around town this morning. He also would have charged me less to store my car if I had them haul it. He also gives me a diet Dr. Pepper.

It’s 11:00 am. The first round of the tournament just started.

“Jim,” I tell him, “you’re a good man. You guys have been really great, I appreciate all the help.”
“Not at all,” he says through a grin, “Once Larry swaps your car over to Larry’s truck we’ll get you on your way.”
“Is that the Larry that picked me up last night?”
“No, it’s a different Larry.”
“You have three employees and they’re all named Larry?”
“Yep”
“Is it a requirement for working here?”
Jim laughs, but that doesn’t really answer my question.

Five minutes later I’m sitting next to Larry (the second one from this morning at the hotel) with half a bottle of diet Dr. Pepper, Lisey’s Story, my phone which has started bleeping again, and my car riding in the back seat. It is still snowing.

—-

Larry Baxter, 61, smokes Winston cigarettes (he had 13 during our 312 mile trip), doesn’t wear a seatbelt, drinks diet Coke, usually stops at exit 14 to eat at the Huddle House, answers “yes, dear” when the GPS tells him where to turn, and has an enlarged prostate (apparently; I did not confirm this). He married at 20 to a wife of 16 and had a daughter ten years later, who is now 31. Her daughter, Larry’s granddaughter, turned one year old last month. Larry plans to retire in a year or so.

Larry’s tow truck is loud and sounds much the way my car does at the moment, difference being that his is supposed to sound that way. Floored, the truck does about 80 mph downhill. It bounces around like a roller coaster at 75 mph, but not at 74 or 76.

During the trip, Lisey Landon recounts the memory of her husband Scott at the groundbreaking ceremony of a library. During the ceremony Scott is shot in the lung and Lisey beats the guy over the head with a shovel which stops him from putting a second round in Scott’s heart. This isn’t the event which eventually kills him, as far as I can tell at the moment. Her sister, Amanda, with OCD, has a “tantrum” and cuts herself on her arms and legs. And we start to get little glimpses of the strangeness that will certainly turn this from a love story about a widow to a King novel. I do find out that “smuck” is in-joke in Lisey and Scott’s marriage. Other characters still use the original spelling. I read to page 108 before we get home.

Around one o’clock, Larry says he’s getting hungry. He drives past six or seven miles worth of fast food places before he finds the Waffle House he’s looking for. He parks the truck sideways over two spots and we hop down and shuffle through the wind and snow (which has almost stopped) to the front door. I head towards the back and as I open the door to the men’s room I hear Larry call out behind me.

“That a two-holer?”
I glance in. “Nope.”

When I emerge, Larry is nowhere to be seen. I sit down at the bar and order water. A couple minutes later, Larry comes out of the women’s bathroom and joins me. The wind is blowing “really really hard” and the resulting whistling accompanies us throughout lunch. Our waitresses are named Mindy and Leslie. Mindy spends most of the time writing notes in large letters and holding them up for her boyfriend, parked in a car outside, to read. I only catch sight of one: “Why NOT?” Then she checks her cell phone for a text message reply. Apparently it’s not two-way.

I have a double cheeseburger and hash browns. Larry has the same only on Texas Toast and has his hash browns “scattered, smothered, covered, and chunked,” which means with onions, cheese, and ham. Mine are just “scattered,” which means cooked.

Larry wonders out loud if we are in a non-smoking section. After glancing around, he pats my arm to get my attention and points at the no smoking sign next to our chairs. Then he lights a cigarette. I pay four dollars for my meal and we climb back into the truck.

In Charlotte we notice a strange sight. For ten or twelve miles we see a fire engine, lights flashing, parked on every single overpass. There must have been twenty of them. Larry wonders out loud if it’s a memorial service: “Maybe it’s for 9/11. What month was that?”

I stare blankly out the window for a moment. “September, Larry.” I open my book. “On the 11th I think.”

—-

“Turn Right,” says the GPS.
“Yes, dear.” Larry puts on his blinker.

A few moments later we’re backing in to Charlie’s Automotive in Durham, North Carolina. We leave my car in the lot and I drop the key in an envelope into the slot on Charlie’s door. I leave everything except Lisey’s Story in the car.

My mother is there to pick me up and take me home. She pays the $936 for the tow, which is great since I skipped work yesterday. I shake Larry’s hand and thank him for the ride and the good company. He just nods, climbs back into the cab of his truck, lights his fourteenth cigarette, and drives off.