This Side Up

Nothing like a good book to dispel those nagging omens


The “check engine” light flashed on. I saw it happen; a mere coincidence when I glanced at the fuel gauge. Or was it?

Fuel was near the full mark and I thought I was prepared for the trip; my winter boots, Russian-style hat with pull-down fur earmuffs and heavy coat were in the back. The gloves were on the passenger seat beside me, along with the book on CD that I had picked up from the library on Friday afternoon. It contained 12 CDs, more than enough for the 240-mile trip to upstate New York and back.

Now I was wondering, with that orange light, if it made sense to wait. Maybe the light was an omen, although I don’t put much faith in omens. More likely there was a problem I should check out.

The light had done this before. In her 110,000-mile career – just coming into her prime, most Subaru lovers would say – the light had alerted me to a blown fuse that controlled the cruise control. More recently it led to a diagnosis of a failing catalytic converter. Converters are expensive propositions, so I thought I could just live with the light, and a twinge of guilt that I wasn’t doing all I could to help Mother Nature.

Then the car started performing strangely. She hesitated when shifting gears and idled roughly. In all those miles, she had never been tuned up. Maybe it was time. There was more to it than a few plugs. It was time for a new timing belt. When I got her back, she had her former zip and the engine light was off. Evidently, the misfiring caused the faulty catalytic converter reading. My conscience was clear and that nagging uncertainty, not knowing what was wrong, was gone.

I was good to go.

Now the light was on again. I could take Carol’s car, a Taurus, although with Saturday’s conditions the Subaru, with its all-wheel drive, was the better choice if I hoped to make the 1:30 p.m. appointment I had made with a contractor to go over some improvements to my father’s 82-year-old summer home.

My plan was to get on the road by 9 and, hopefully, outrun the storm moving up the coast. That didn’t happen. By 9, the flakes had been flying for more than two hours. Route 95 was a slushy mush, and when I got to 295 I fell in behind a caravan of a dozen cars dutifully following a sander lumbering along at 35 mph. Even if I made it, at this rate I wouldn’t arrive until evening.

Everything seemed to be adding up – driving 240 miles in a snowstorm with a car that might have mechanical problems didn’t look like a good idea. I could call Jim and see if we could meet in another couple of weeks, but doing that might delay the project for months.

Then I found the power of a good book –The Sixth Man

The traffic thinned. I lost the sander in the rear view mirror. Snow blew over the road ahead, yet there were a least two ribbons of black asphalt kept clear by the few daring souls.

The dashboard swallowed the first of the discs. Soon I was enveloped in another world. I was in a cocoon. The story kept me from thinking whether this was a foolhardy trek. By the time I reached the Massachusetts line, Route 146 was deserted. Windblown snow swept over the road and I had the highway to myself. The check engine light glowed orange but I paid no heed, now more convinced than ever, that I could actually connect with Jim at the appointed hour.

The Mass Pike was slushy and plows working in tandem threw geysers of it to the shoulders off the road and beyond. The occasional truck lumbered along sending a mixture of sand, salt and snow smacking against the windshield as I left the freshly plowed road to pass. There was that queasy feeling of chunks of ice and snow hitting the undercarriage as the Subaru transitioned from one lane to the next. But she held her grip. This was the car to be driving.

North of Springfield, the snow lightened and the farther west and north I went, the lighter it got. By the time I reached Route 20 west of Albany there was less than two inches on the ground. It swirled, but already the sky was brightening. I was on time.

A couple of miles from the house I stopped to pick up Nelson Saltys, who keeps an eye on the property. We headed for the house, trees on the surrounding hills bordered fields blanketed in white. Some had passed here but, obviously, at this time of year they were few and far between. We reached an intersection of farm roads and there wasn’t a car to be seen. I didn’t slow and skated through the stop sign. We had less than a mile to go.

Then in my side mirror I spotted the lights behind me, another nagging light. Had I not seen a cop; what would they be doing out in the middle of nowhere on a winter afternoon?

A black car fell in behind me.

“What does Jim drive?” I asked Nelson.

“Last I saw him, he had a truck.”

I pulled into the drive. The car followed. We both stopped. My feet crunched on the snow. Jim got out of the car from behind us. It was precisely 1:30. We shook hands and the three of us started a tour of the house, Jim taking notes with a gloved hand.

Two hours later, we were back at Nelson’s. His wife, Marie, served up a big bowl of kale and sausage soup, a Portuguese recipe she got from a friend in Hawaii, of all places. We traded stories and caught up on the news in the warmth of their kitchen wood stove.

I was prepared to spend the night. The snow had stopped. The evening sky was clear and so, I guessed, would be the roads.

I glanced at my watch – 4:30 – and decided to head back, another 240 miles. The check engine light glowed. What the heck. I pulled disc 5 from its sheath and fed it to the dash. I was back with The Sixth Man and the story was still playing out when I drove through the snow berm at the end of my drive and killed the engine.

The story would have to wait. There was shoveling to be done.

Oh, and the next morning, when I went to move the car, the “check engine” light was off.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment