Photo by Tom Strecker on Unsplash

The Saint of I-75

My most enduring memory of the pandemic is and always will be that skinny, reticent, unemotional man who saved me.

My daughter needed me, so I decided to make the long trip from Alabama to Miami. Stupid, probably, in the first stage of the coronavirus pandemic. Hard to believe it was just a year ago.

I brought along yellow latex gloves, two dingy face masks retrieved from our garage, and an industrial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. I thought I was prepared.

The long trip progressed as planned. I passed through Columbus on the Georgia-Alabama border, then angled south past the tiny town of Plains, hometown of Jimmy Carter, and past acres of pecan trees. I was surprised that I wasn’t the only one on the road; in fact, quite a few people had apparently found pressing reasons to leave the safety of home.

Then, disaster struck. I was cruising on I-75, anticipating an uneventful but boring six hours or so until I reached my daughter’s apartment on Miami Beach. After I passed through Valdosta, Ga., and crossed the state line into Florida, I heard a loud thump. Then I noticed a faint trail of what I thought was exhaust behind me.

I should have expected the worst. I was driving what could charitably be called an “old junker.” My husband likes to tinker with cars and he doesn’t care what they look like, just so long as they run. This old white Toyota with a dent in the side did run and actually provided a decent ride.

I chugged into a rest stop just across the Florida border, stopped and watched with dismay as all the oil in the car drained out onto the asphalt, like precious black blood. Understanding dawned on me. My husband had changed the oil before I set off, and something went wrong.

My first call was to Triple A. The operator promised to send a tow truck to my rescue but cautioned me that I couldn’t ride with the driver. First the young man suggested that I call a friend or relative. I could hardly have been further from either, halfway between home and my daughter’s apartment.

Then he suggested an Uber. I snorted. What Uber driver was going to come pick me up out in the country in the middle of a pandemic? It is hard to remember the level of fear that gripped the country in the first weeks of the “plague.” I could almost hear him think, “Not my problem.”

The tow truck driver arrived in a massive flatbed truck. He clambered out of the cab, a skinny older man with a scraggly gray ponytail and a noticeable Adam’s apple. He was wearing a mask, of course, and repeated the warning that I couldn’t ride with him. I wore a brave face, but my mind was racing.

I told him what happened, and to my surprise he dropped down on the pavement and wiggled under the car. I was impressed by his agility.

“You must have hit a bump and knocked the plug out of the oil pan,” he said. That was all. He was a man of few words.

He scratched his chin and looked at me, then said he could fix it if he could get to an auto supply store before closing. I nodded my affirmation. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to spend the night on the floor of a rest stop.

Then he scratched his chin again, and made a decision.

“You can sit in the car,” he said. That was all. So I got in the car and he loaded the car and me onto the flat bed of the truck. I really don’t quite remember how that worked. I just remember being seated in that old white car, feeling like a queen high above the commoners and surveying my domain as we got off the interstate and drove back roads to a nearby town.

We got to the local AutoZone just in time, I gave him money, he bought the plug, and a friend helped him fix my car. I was on my way, and crossed an empty bridge to Miami Beach well after midnight.

I remember Miami Beach early in the pandemic. Shops were shuttered, streets were empty, beaches were closed. People were scared. My most enduring memory of the pandemic, however, is and always will be that skinny, reticent, unemotional man who saved me. In my mind, he is the Saint of I-75.

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Jacque White Kochak

Jacque White Kochak

I have been writing for years but more recently transitioned to writing grants. I have published extensively in the past and am just getting up to speed again.