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Rant #506
(published September 30, 2010)
The Next Story
by Deborah Reed
I have a lot of stories in my head—all writers do, I guess. Some of them are pure flights of fancy, but many, perhaps most, are gleaned from events that actually happened to me. It recently occurred to me that many of my stories revolve around either cars or emergency room visits. This is a story that involves both a vehicle and an emergency room visit. It happened the night my mother and I went to the theater.

Now, the word theater implies that I come from a cultured family, that we patronize the arts, dine at classy restaurants, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our little town has no "arts", and steak at Applebee's is about as fancy as our dining gets. But it does have a community theater whose manager sometimes gave us passes to the dress rehearsals. The show this particular night was Harvey and the main character was played by our veterinarian.

The performance began at six and it was a little after eight when Mom and I left the building, chatting excitedly about how wonderful the show was and who could have imagined that our vet was such a good actor. We continued to talk as we crossed the parking lot and got into my red Toyota. Looking back on it, I realize how carefree and happy we were. The happiness lasted about two blocks.

Keep in mind that I was driving a used car, with all the little quirks and foibles that this term implies. Only two of these quirks/foibles are pertinent to the story, however. The first one was the large hole in the dash. Because it was there when I bought the car, I have no idea how this hole came into being, but it wasn't bothering anyone and I had long ago come to ignore it. The second one was a little more problematic. About a week before theater night, the driver's side door handle became inoperable, forcing me to roll down the window and open the door from the outside every time I left the car. When my son-in-law became aware of this situation, he jimmy-rigged a coat hanger as a substitute handle until he could find a replacement part.

So here we are, happy and carefree, driving home in a car with a hole in the dash and a coat hanger instead of a door handle. We had only gone a couple of blocks, were still on the access road in fact, when I smelled something. Now, I am no mechanic, can barely change a flat, but I am a fairly good diagnostician because I have had first hand experience with just about every car problem imaginable. And the sweet odor I smelled made me think that my car was leaking transmission fluid. Transmissions are expensive and if mine had suddenly sprung a leak, I had a serious problem on my hands. I turned to my mother to express these concerns when something on the dashboard caught my eye. Huge blue flames were emerging from the aforementioned hole.

I quickly pulled to the shoulder and cut the engine, experiencing that absolute terror one feels when confronted with even a small fire. I had it in my head that the fire would go away as soon as I turned the engine off, but it continued to burn, consuming more than half the dash in a matter of seconds.

I turned to my mother. "Get out of the car!" I screamed, but she remained in place, transfixed by the colorful flames, a look of total disbelief on her face. "Get out now!" I screamed again and she opened her car door and turned to face me. "You get out, too," she said, but I stupidly said no, I'm going to put the fire out.

Now only a moron would think this situation was salvageable. What did I think, that I would extinguish the fire, Mom would get back in and we would just drive off as if nothing had happened? That a scorched dashboard was the only problem I would have? But moron I was because once I ascertained that my mother was a safe distance from the burning car, I picked up my purse and actually tried to use it to quell the rapidly growing flames. It only took a matter of seconds to realize that a small purse was no match for this kind of fire. I decided it to give it up as a lost cause and join Mom on the side of the road. Now, I could not reach the passenger side door because there was a fire between me and it, nor could I unlock the back doors because the selfsame fire was between me and the button that undid the safety feature. The only way out was the driver's side door, so I reached for the door handle.

But it wasn't there.

I had completely forgotten that there was no door handle, only a coat hanger. I was trapped in a burning car, unarguably one of the worst situations one can find oneself in. The fire continued to burn merrily as I helplessly sought for a door handle that didn't exist, praying like I had never prayed before.

It seemed like hours, but in actuality was probably only a matter of seconds, before my hand finally found the coat hanger and I opened the door and exited the car. Mom was now about a half-block away and I walked over to stand beside her. We just stood there helplessly, watching my car burn to the ground, making happy little popping noises as it did so.

A fully-engulfed vehicle attracts attention, of course, and every passing motorist stopped to ask if we needed help. At this point of my life, I was cell phone-less, so I pressed those who were fortunate enough to possess one into calling 911 and it wasn't too long before we heard wailing noises in the distance.

A patrol car and a fire engine arrived at the same time. The firemen, employing these really big hoses and some kind of neat foam, had the fire out in a matter of minutes. The patrolman directed his attention to me.

"Did you get out of the car immediately?" he inquired.

"Yes," I lied, reluctant to reveal that I had attempted to extinguish a vehicle fire with a purse.

"So you're not burned anywhere?" he pressed as he allowed his flashlight to roam over my arms. "What about your hand?"

I glanced down at my hand. The moment I noticed it was bright red I felt the pain, pain that I had heretofore ignored in the excitement of it all. The policemen continued to inspect me with the flashlight.

"You have smoke tracks around your lips. You need to go the Emergency Room. (Remember? This is an Emergency Room story, too). So off we went in an ambulance, me in a gurney in the back and Mom chatting with the driver up front.

Mom parked herself in the waiting room while I was taken to an examination room. A nurse applied a white salve on my hand, which did little to alleviate the pain but drove me to distraction with its stickiness. A doctor appeared and began to interrogate me about my medical history. "I see you have asthma, he said, "so you're not a smoker." Actually, I am, but I let the moment pass rather than endure another the-perils-of-smoking lecture. "I've ordered some blood work," the doctor informed me as he departed, leaving me with only my own thoughts as company.

It was about this time that it occurred to me that neither my mother nor I had a ride home, what with my car sitting torched on the side of the road. There was nothing to do but to ask for a phone so I could call my daughter. After several moments of panic on her part, I was able to assure her that I was basically okay, that I just needed her to pick up Mom and then join me in the examination room. She agreed, and I thought everything was settled, unaware of two pertinent facts.

Fact number one: Beck thought by "pick up Mom" I meant for her to go to Mom's house and bring her to the ER. Why she would think this is beyond me. If Mom had been blessedly unaware of the fact that her child had been in a car fire and was now in the hospital, I certainly would not have informed her of these facts until the whole situation was over.

Fact number two: Beck was almost out of gas. She had planned to fill up on her way to work the next morning, a plan now gone awry by my phone call. Before she could do anything, she had to waste time stopping at a gas station.

The trip from Beck's house to the hospital was a short ten minutes, so I figured by the time she got dressed, drove to the ER, and found a parking space, Beck would arrive in about twenty minutes tops. After twenty minutes passed, I informed a passing nurse that my daughter might be in the waiting room, could she go check. I don't know if she checked or not, for I never saw her again.

After another ten minutes, I began some serious worrying, convinced Beck had been in an accident, and it was all my fault because I had dragged her out of bed to pick me up, that I should have called a taxi instead. For the next half-hour, I manhandled every human that walked past me, asking them if my daughter had arrived, unaware of the fact that she was filling her gas tank or wandering around my mother's house wondering where she could possibly be this at time of night.

Eventually Beck figured out that her grandmother must be at the ER with me and she arrived about the same time the doctor appeared with my blood work results. It seemed that I must have inhaled more smoke than they thought because the tests revealed a high level of something, I never did understand what. Now, if I were a smoker, the doctor informed me, the tests would be about normal and I could go home. But I wasn't a smoker, so a hospital stay was necessary.

My little omission had backfired. I now had to admit that not only was I one of those horrid smokers, but that I was a liar as well. I guess the doctor figured I had been through enough that night, for he was kind enough to forgo the lecture and simply signed my release papers.So what about the car? you ask. It was towed the next day and signed over to the tow company for scrap. Beck's husband appeared at my office a few days later and handed me a set of keys. "Found a good used car for you," he said, "the owner said you can test drive it over the weekend and then get back to him." I drove this vehicle for over six, years and, while it proved to be a good little car, did manage to get itself stolen about two years later, which is of course another story.

Deborah L. Reed currently resides in a small bedroom community in Central Texas with her daughter, grandson, and two dogs. She is a retired Science teacher who now works in Code Enforcement.

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