Cars zoomed along each of the four lanes that connected the suburbs to the city, two in each direction. Three inches of snow from about a week earlier had melted and the ground was mostly dry. In the front, an old, oversized Chevy sat askew on one shoulder. The tip of its rear left corner jutted into the right lane. A small figure in a baggy brown coat was bending over the open suitcase. I could see both of his arms moving trembling towards getting what he was trying to remove.
I noticed the Chevy’s front end sink into the gravel bar. The car had a flat tire. The man standing at the back of the vehicle was too old to change it alone. A sigh started deep in my lungs and rolled across my lips. I pulled up behind the Chevy with my turn signals on so other cars would pull into the left lane, or at least not swerve into the protruding corner of a chrome bumper attached to a sharp-edged steel body that Detroit folks hadn’t done in decades.
I checked the mirrors. Another car sped past, honking its horn, letting us both know that the driver didn’t appreciate the obstacle on the way to his destination. Now that the coast was clear, I got out and headed towards the old man. He continued to fumble in the trunk. The lid was wide open and looked like the unhinged mouth of a hippopotamus.
“Are you in a bit of trouble?” I said.
“Got in a lot of trouble,” the old man said without turning around.
“She blew me away. I have a backup I just have to get them out of here and on from there.”
“Do you have triple-A or something? They will come out and take care of you.”
The old man’s arms stopped moving. He leaned on the trunk opening with his right hand and turned around. He had deep lines running down his cheeks, one on each side. Tatters of skin hung from his jaw, swollen streams of dried wax from a squat candle someone had forgotten to blow out before bed. His skull wore wide black-rimmed glasses. Gray eyes studied me through the veil of thick lenses. The brim of a charcoal felt hat cast shadows over a nose topped with curly white hair.
“Why do I need this when I have you?”
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m late. For court. I have an exam.”
“What, are you in trouble?”
I shook my head, a small grin spreading across a face that tried to resist it.
“No. I’m a lawyer.”
He turned to my Subaru. Blow air through your nose. The wind caught a drop of snot and threw it back against his coat.
“No car for a lawyer,” he said.
I had neither the time nor the inclination for jokes, although the old man held his own. I went back to the car.
“Was it something I said?” he asked.
“I’ll get my phone.”
“Do you have a phone in your car?”
I turned back to the old man and opened my mouth before deciding to just pick up the phone and get it over with. I took it from the passenger seat and returned, searching my contacts for Lou Rizzoli.
“This thing-a-ma-jig is a phone?”
“Yes,” I said without looking at him. His confusion piqued my curiosity, but the goal at that point was to end the interaction and go to court. I could already feel the sweat pooling in my armpits that weren’t lined with a moisture-wicking t-shirt.
I found Lou’s name and put my thumb on his number. I put the phone to my ear.
“I guess it’s a phone,” the old man said while I waited. I grinned as politely as I could.
“Lou,” I said when he answered. “I’m out here on Route 32, about a half mile from the Main Street exit. . . . There’s a man with a flat tire. Can you make your cousin come out and change it for him? He can bill me. . . . It’s an old Chevy. Light Blue. . . . The model doesn’t matter. It’s the only old light blue Chevy on any stretch of Route 32 today, I can promise you that. . . . OK thanks.”
I ended the call and wrapped my fingers around the phone. Cars continued to zoom past us every few seconds. Almost everyone had switched to the left lane. I worried it would continue after I left.
“You should turn on your hazard lights,” I said to the man.
“It’s a 1977 Impala.”
“The car. It’s a Chevy Impala. 1977. Lou, the man you called, he wanted to know. You could have just asked me.”
“His cousin is coming,” I said. “He will find you. But you have to get in the car and wait. You should turn on your hazard lights so other cars can see you here. Do you need me to help you find her?”
“I was hoping you would help me change tires.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t do this. Someone is coming.”
“You’re already here.”
“I know. But I really have to go.”
“Can’t you wait with us until he gets here? Now that you mention those other cars it would be nice to have yours back there. If someone hits you, maybe you can get something nicer with the insurance money.”
A short laugh escaped my mouth, though I could otherwise feel my mood sinking as I felt the precious minutes and seconds tick by.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Do you need me to help you turn on your hazard lights?”
“I know where the button for my turn signals is.”
“All right,” I said, waiting for the man to return to the car. I went to the trunk and started closing it for him, hoping he would take the hint.
“You have to push it down well,” he said. “It won’t snap.”
I placed my left palm on the lid and pressed firmly. It snapped into place fairly easily. The old man’s bushy white eyebrows rose and the corners of his mouth turned down.
“You’re stronger than you look,” he said.
I laughed again and waited for him to go back to the Chevy and get in, or at least try.
“Need help getting into your car?” I said.
“I need help changing tires.”
“He’ll be here soon. I promise. I have to go now. I wish I could stay.”
He looked at me as I said it.
“You don’t mean that.”
“You said you wished you could stay,” he said. “You don’t mean it. Why would you say something you don’t mean?”
“Really, sir, I have to go. I tried to help. I did everything I could. I just have to go.”
“You have this phone, you know.”
“This phone. They called the man to tell him to have his cousin come fix the tire. You could ring whoever you’re supposed to go to, the judge, I suppose, and tell him you’ll be a little late.’
I raised my right hand to my face and thought about the phone.
“Yes, I could. But I do not want to. I want to be on time.”
“Probably he would understand. You are a good Samaritan.”
“Lord, that’s me. I’ll pay for someone to come and fix your tire.”
“But you’re not staying until he gets here.”
At this rate, I figured he’ll be here before I go.
“Like I said, I’m sorry. I definitely mean that part. You have to get in the car, turn on the turn signals and wait.” I turned away from him and walked back to my car.
“Do you want to see her?”
“Your who?” I said without stopping.
“My wife. She’s in the car. She’ll be upset that she couldn’t thank you for not changing our tires.”
I laughed again.
“Tell her I’m sorry. And turn on those turn signals. The truck will be here before you know it.”
“I wish you would say hello to her. She doesn’t get to see many people.”
“Please give her my regards. And tell her I said Merry Christmas. Where are you going anyway?”
He smiled at me for the first time, flashing a hint of dentures worn a little too loosely in his mouth.
“We’re on our way home,” he said.
I got into the Subaru and watched the old man shuffle back to the Chevy. When he finally got in—it occurred to me that he was deliberately dragging his feet to annoy me—I started the engine, waited for a break in the flow of traffic, and drove off. I turned off my own turn signals as soon as I got the Chevy behind me. I could see two heads sticking out just above the dashboard in the rearview mirror. I noticed the outline of the old man’s fedora.
I hit the gas pedal, slid onto an exit ramp, and made my way across town. I drove as fast as I could, not with the police station next to the courthouse, under the circumstances, which included just enough other cars to necessitate the kind of zigzag and zag I didn’t want to do. I found a parking spot on the street, grabbed my briefcase from the back seat, grabbed my cell phone – mine phone— and hurried to the front entrance, once again forgetting to put a few quarters in the parking meter.
I would have jogged, and maybe even run, if I had known that the inevitable sweat would have been sucked away from my gently swaying torso by the magic of modern sportswear technology. I opted for modified race-walking, the kind of aggressively brisk movement that might scream “asshole” to anyone in the immediate vicinity who is moving at a more socially acceptable pace. I realized a little too late that one of the people who seemed to be reacting to me in this way was a juror at my trial. I winced, realizing that I might have upset someone who would be deciding Sandy Matherson’s case later in the day.
I wondered why this person was moving so slowly. If I was late, he was late too. Why wasn’t he in a hurry like I was?
I pulled out my phone and pushed the button to see the clock. I turned it off and on again to confirm the time displayed. I tried to do arithmetic in my head. I wasted at least ten minutes on the side of the road with the old man. It didn’t work.
I should have been late. Somehow I wasn’t.
(On the way home continues with Chapter Three on Saturday, November 26th. It is posted for free, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for it, buy a copy of playmaker instead of this. Make it between now and December 11th and get a free personalized bookplate.)