Driving on Borrowed Time

I should have known better.

There I was, watching our current entertainment fetish, Breaking Bad, with my husband. We’re currently in the second season and everything’s a crisis, what with Walt’s cancer and Skyler’s pregnancy and an eight-year-old hit man. Walt and his sidekick-in-crime, Jesse, are stuck in the middle of the desert cooking meth when the battery goes out in their camper/drug kitchen.

I got tense, just watching them trying to start the camper. I mean, I’m not familiar with the desert or meth, but I do know the utter despair of turning that car key and hearing the engine cough and waiting for it to catch and, in the meantime, flooding it. I’ve been there many times.

But it occurred to me, sitting there, that it had been ages since a car had broken down on me. Was it because cars are made better today? Or because my husband and I no longer drive total junkers? Food for thought — or at least a snack — as Walt and Jesse finally lurched out of the desert to resume their drug careers.

So, if you believe in karma, which I don’t, but who knows, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the following morning when I jumped into my car, turned the key, and nothing happened.

“Probably a battery,” the car repair guy told me over the phone. “If it’s the battery, you can just get it jumped and drive it in here.

“But, you know,” he continued, “it might be the alternator. If it’s the alternator, then the car might start — but it could break down on the way here. You might want to get a wrecker to come out and haul in the car.”

God, I hate decisions like that. After 47 years of driving, I have no idea what an alternator is, but since it has more syllables than battery, it’s obviously more important. I got the battery jumped and drove to the car repair place, expecting the car to break down any second — a reward for my being cheap and optimistic.

That was a familiar dilemma, too, even if it hadn’t happened to me in years, either. When my husband and I were in grad school, we drove a series of battered VW bugs. Once, the accelerator line had broken and my husband tied a string to the engine; you had to yank it to get gas.

Another time, he’d convinced me the failing brakes would be fine, just fine, as long as we pumped up the parking brake with enough enthusiasm. I’d driven the car into the shop. On a downhill slope, the brakes failed and I had to crash the car into the curb.

We lived that kind of life then, when a faltering car was a full-blown economic meltdown and imminent disaster hovered at every corner and string and duct tape secured our safety until they didn’t.

But we were also young and energetic and heedless and life was supposed to be an adventure, right?

I thought about all of this as I lurched along and my car kept running till I navigated it into the repair shop. Probably a battery, the mechanic told me. “Your car’s six years old,” he said. “The battery’s probably given all it can. It’s time for it to rest.”

Huh. That’s a feeling I’m familiar with, too, these days.

I walked back to our condo. It was a gorgeous autumn day, with a fresh blue sky, after a long and brutal summer. I thought how fortunate we were to have returned to the same city we still loved, now bigger and bustling and vibrant. I feel a slight twinge recalling how it used to be and we used to be when we were all younger and less formed. It was a different world then.

But I also like the world we live in now and this time in our lives when — by and large — our bodies are still functioning well, but they’re of greater concern than any car we drive. Every age has its own precariousness.

“Sure enough, it was the battery,” the car mechanic said when he called.

Oh, yeah, the battery that had given everything it had and now had gone kaput. Luckily, batteries — unlike kaput bodies — can be replaced. I ordered a new one, just like that.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a post about birthdays and turkeys

7 comments… add one
  • M.K. Link

    If I could order a new body, I’d get a compact this time.


  • Cindy A Link

    Wish people could be jump-started and a new battery installed. I could use that.

    Remember in “Little Miss Sunshine” when everybody had to get out and push the VW bus in order for it to work up enough steam to go on its own? My boyfriend in 1976 had a VW bug that was exactly the same way. I made sure to wear comfortable shoes when we had a date!

  • I drove a VW bug back in the day, too. Up here in the North Woods of Michigan, the main concerns were 1) no heat; and 2) no defroster, so you had to stick your head out the car window to see if the temp got below 50 degrees. And if it’s below 50 degrees, who wants to drive with their head out the window? Sleet and ice smacking you in the face…

    Oh, and almost forgot 3) the accelerator stuck down every time it got colder than 40 degrees. Not a good car to have in a location that’s colder than 40 degrees much of the year. Still, I’d like a VW bug again. Only I’d just drive it in the summer.

    Oh, and I just can’t seem to get into Breaking Bad, though I’ve tried several times. I’ll give it another go… sigh…

  • As it happens, at the moment I am saving up to get a new alternator and battery for my VW Rabbit…
    I used to drive VW bugs, too. Jane, once I was at Newfound Gap (on top of Old Smokey in Tennessee, that is), well below freezing, loads of snow, and I’d gotten out to take some photos, as had many other folks. when I came back to my bug, it started up like a charm — as did none of the other, much newer cars nearby.

  • Steve Link
  • Sheryl Link

    If only it was so easy to replace our own parts…

  • Had it been raining, Ruth? Mechanics I know think I’m cuckoo but stuff always seem to go wrong with cars after the first big rain.

    Case in point: We had a storm early last week. The next day my ignition switch went. True story. Coincidence? I think not.

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