I've lived in the city all my life. I've had guns put to my head, knives thrust at my midsection, once I was threatened with a machete. I didn't drive until I was past 30. I'm a nervous guy anyway, or that's what people have told me. I'm not fearful; I don't normally approach the unknown with trepidation. I don't worry about the bomb, or the judgment of an unmerciful God, or my wife's old boyfriends. These are beyond my control.
But I'm a worrier. When I bought my first car, used, for 250 bucks, I got aggravation. I worried soon after, when I learned I was going to be a father for the first time. I've jumped away from cockroaches crawling across my body. I fear the reasonless intruder who, laughing, strangles me relentlessly in a nightmare. And in the four years I've been driving, I've been scared beyond reason of breaking down on the highway, being stuck in the middle of nowhere, on the shoulder, my child wailing in the backseat, cars and trucks whizzing by inches away at 90 miles an hour, while I wait, penniless, for a tow truck that never comes.
I don't usually read the horoscope--it's like a fortune cookie without the cookie, and longer--but it was the day before my birthday, a few hours before my one getaway weekend of the summer, so I checked Sydney Omarr in the Sun-Times. What he said gave me pause: "Automobile requires 'shakedown.' Check batteries, tires, steering wheel." How did he know? I went to the gas station and filled the tires. I checked the fluids, oil, and antifreeze, I pinched the spare for flab. I sat at the wheel, turning it left and right. With a sweaty finger I wiped the residue off the positive terminal on my car battery. As a result of a flat earlier in the month, I had one new tire on the car. We were ready to load up and beat it out of Chicago. First, though, we had to pick up my brother-in-law, whose brakes were so bad he was afraid to drive himself.
I'd had a total of four flats in four years of driving, three in the same frigid January that my wife was pregnant with our first child. Fortunately we'd been in the city. Once, on a subzero night, after I had changed the flat tire to a flatter mini-spare, we drove to a gas station that was only a block away. The attendant guffawed, "Gollee, looks just lahk a lil' doughnut on there." He looked and sounded just like Gomer Pyle. He gave us cakes and coffee while we waited. In fairness, he didn't shout "shazzam!" Even so, I made sure that the next car I bought came with a full-size spare.
Construction on 94 was murderous that weekend. They were stopping traffic for 20 minutes every hour, day and night. But my brother-in-law knew a shortcut. We'd slice right across the stopgap. I took it, skeptical, and, in defiance of all rational expectation, it worked. We'd left town at nine, we were halfway through Indiana at ten, and we'd celebrate my birthday in Michigan just as the clock showed midnight Eastern time. "We're making good time," I thought, passing another truck while going 75, 20 miles an hour over the limit. I was unconcerned. The kid was asleep. I lit a cigarette. Then we went around a lazy curve, and I saw it, ghostly in the headlights. I had just enough time to utter "oh"--it was whole, complete, unbroken, solid, sticking up half a foot above the road, hammered together with two-inch nails. Pallets, or maybe you call them skids, have to support thousands of pounds of freight, and they're built sturdy. They don't bust up easily. We found this out.
We were lucky. We didn't shimmy, or swerve into a big rig that could have balled through us like a boulder through a screen door. Slowly, moving as if we were being cradled in the arms of a giant, we drifted onto the shoulder. Pieces of the pallet were littered about the narrow shoulder and down the slope of the gully that serves as a highway divider there, ten miles east of Portage and two miles west of exit 26B. Almost the middle of nowhere. Our kid woke up, crying. I got out to check the damage--two flat tires on the passenger side, the highway side. Inches away from the lane. The flashlight, kept in the car for such occasions, didn't work, but what matter? I had two flats and, like most people, carry one spare. Full-size, yes. As I gazed out into the dark Indiana night, watching trucks play chicken three abreast across the lanes, I thought, without supplication, "Lord, who will come and help us now?" And just then a large American car pulled over about 50 yards ahead.
What kinds of people stop on the highway to help stranded travelers? Idealistic kids? Truck drivers? Poor folks? The Manson family? I remembered a study done in New York a few years ago that profiled the most likely person to stop and help someone stuck on the highway. It said that this good person would be a young black male, driving alone. I looked over hopefully. The people who pulled over didn't fit the profile. It turned out they hadn't pulled over to help us, either. They'd hit the pieces of pallet that remained on the road and had a flat. They were from New York, a family--an older man, his wife, and their two daughters, driving a rented car from Chicago to New Buffalo, the older man's hometown. They didn't know how to change a tire, and they didn't know what a pallet was.
While my brother-in-law changed their tire, he explained what a pallet was, but it was too loud by the side of the highway for them to hear his explanation. He went back to our car and I drove off with them to find a gas station. They asked me what a pallet was. The New Yorkers had a doughnut spare, but I did not laugh. Nice people, they were more concerned about my situation than theirs. At the gas station they bought ice cream bars and insisted that I have one. It dripped down my arm while I called every towing company in the area. After talking to a dispatcher from a towing service who promised he could find me a tire if I needed one, the family drove me back to my car. I would wait "a half hour to an hour" for a truck from a company called the Toy Fixer, and I wanted to get back in time to meet them. The woman, driving fine on the doughnut, said "ha." It was 11:30 PM.
Webster's definition of a pallet is "a low, portable platform, usually double-faced, on which materials are stacked for storage or transportation." Pallets look a little like squashed packing crates. When I returned to the car my brother-in-law was singing, "I'm on the top of the world, looking down at the pallets . . ." I asked him to stop. "Well, how about 'Benny and the Pallets,' or 'Whole Lotta Pallets'?" He sang, "Precious and few are the pallets that we have shared . . ." My wife chipped in, "I fought the pallet and the pallet won." I groaned, "I'd rather be in Palletine." This continued for an hour and a half. If a record exists for inserting the word "pallet" into song titles, they shattered it. It was one in the morning, and trucks flashed their lights and blew their horns. The Toy Fixer hadn't arrived. A pickup filled with guys spotted us and pulled over on the other side of the highway. My brother-in-law took off, jumping into the flatbed. My wife yelled, "Be careful!" As he vanished into the dark we heard him shout, "Don't be palletnoid."
We passed the next hour and a half quietly. No pallet jokes. I hunted for pieces of the shattered wood scattered about, and found one as big and heavy as a club. I kept it with me. Waiting, we spent each moment anticipating deliverance, staving off disappointment. My wife worried about her brother. I knew he'd be gone a long time. It wasn't the worst of times, it wasn't the best of times. We told stories. This wasn't a disaster. "Happy birthday," my wife said.
It was quarter to three. I looked in the rearview mirror again and saw the flashing lights of a tow truck. It was the Toy Fixer. I finally learned why the towing service had that name: a bumper sticker on the truck read "He who dies with the most toys wins." Despite that, the driver was contrite, and so pleasant he seemed to have come from another world. He went off to the gas station to pick up my brother-in-law and came back with him 15 minutes later. We were glad to see him, but my brother-in-law felt put out. He hadn't been able to contact anyone else. Spotting a sign on the truck that said "48-hour service," he asked the driver, "Yeah, so which two days do you work?"
Five hours and 15 minutes after we had hit the pallet we were back on the road. The guy from the Toy Fixer was an honest man; instead of selling me a new tire, he was able to fix one of the rims. I was not left penniless, though close. Three flats in one month. I told my wife, "This means you're pregnant." My brother-in-law expressed an invocation: "Hope it isn't a pallet." We said amen. She said, "Two flats in one blow, maybe it's twins." With 90 miles still to go, I'd lived through my nightmare. We all sang pallet songs--first from Magical Mystery Tour--"The Pallet on the Hill," "I Am the Pallet"--and then every song ever written, from every movie ever made, our child sleeping through it, visions of sugar pallets dancing in his head. I had a new respect for Sydney Omarr. Not that his warning had helped or that he'd predicted what was later confirmed. The flat-tire test hadn't lied; the nightmare had brought to light a bulging reality. Until this one is born, we're calling it "Pallet."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.