Years ago, I was puttering around the room, trying to avoid a looming English project, when the phone rang. My mom’s bright, bubbly voice echoed through the receiver.
“Ryan, will you do me a favor?”
Of course I would. She knew that. I was in the middle of my after-school routine—wandering the house, eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream, and humming a tune I’d heard on the radio. My backpack was still shoved into the cramped backseat of my pickup.
“Will you make me cookies?” I retorted.
“Oh shush. I’m at Albertson’s and the van won’t start. Do you know how to jump it?”
It seemed like a stupid question. I’d had to jumpstart my buddy’s car after school just the day before and told her the whole story as soon as I’d walked in the door.
“Ok. Good. Could you drive down and help me? I still need to run a few errands before all the stores close.”
“Sure. See ya.”
I finished my ice cream, set the bowl in the sink, wiped my chocolate-covered lips on the back of my hand, and walked out the door.
Stepping into the garage, I couldn’t help but smile. The freshly washed silver paint on my Toyota pickup gleamed in the florescent light. The chrome sparkled, and I grinned at my scantly-dressed-mermaid-babe-holding-a-surfboard sticker on the tailgate—a souvenir from a trip to Hawaii.
I pulled the handle, stepped up, and slid into the driver’s seat—the upholstery still smelled of the car wash earlier that week. Piña Colada. The cute girl at the gas station had said it was her favorite. Leaning back, I wrenched the keys from my jeans pocket and started the ignition.
I always drove with the windows down and the volume up. Mom often complained that she could hear my “ruckus noise” from half a block away. I usually told her that what she called “ruckus noise” was more precisely a “public service”. As I arrived, I remembered our conversations and tuned the radio to 101.7, the local Tejano station. I twisted the volume knob until the terrible discordance of Flamenco guitar, trumpets, and Chicano voices echoed across the parking lot. Pulling into the spot in front of the minivan, I tapped the brake and smiled at my mom.
She rolled her eyes.
Laughing at her response, I turned the radio off, jumped out of my truck, and walked around to the van with my casual, long-legged gait. The dusty hood shot straight into the air, almost pleading for help. I glanced at my mom, still smiling broadly.
“At least you know how to open the hood.” I snickered.
I was surprised the van had held together for so long. I got the distinct impression it had been designed to fall apart one piece at a time—no doubt part of some grand scheme to make us buy another. I smirked at a crooked dent in the sliding door, a long, handlebar-high gash in the paint and at least one basketball-shaped crater in the back hatch.
Looking at the hood, I realized how dirty her car was. When she’d bought it years ago, it was a brilliant shade of crimson—though you’d never be able to tell now. Dust, specks of mud, and who-knows-what-else coated the rims, doors, windows, and (I groaned) the engine block. I grimaced at the grime under her hood and turned around.
I pushed my fingers between the hood and grill of my Toyota and tripped the latch for the hood. It rose an inch and I seized it with my free hand. Lifting the hood, I stared at its polished contents. Beautiful. I was about to say something sarcastic when my mom, still seated behind the wheel of her filthy minivan, yelled at me to stop fooling around and get her car started.
“I still have to pick up your brothers!”
I strolled back to my door. Still shaking my head at her mess of a car, I reached under my seat and pulled out the jumper cables, shining and new. I glanced at the rubber-coated clamps in my hands.
Red on red. Black on black.
My hands struggled to open the crisp metal clamps. I found strength, and clipped them to my battery. When the clamps seemed firmly in place, I moved to the minivan. Unlike my truck, its battery nodes had no shiny, colored covers. Both nodes were coated in a decade’s worth of rust. I took a long look and planted the red clamp on the redder node.
Red on red. Black on black.
I stood outside the truck’s driver-side window, stretched my arm around the shining synthetic steering wheel, and turned the key. The engine gave an angry roar and faded to a soothing purr. Sliding between the bumpers and ducking the jumper cables, I moved to stand beside my mom. She had her doubtful eyes fixed on mine.
“And I just turn the key?”
“More or less.”
So she turned it. Nothing happened. There were no rumblings, no churnings, no clanking metal discordance. Something might be connected wrong, I thought, but I was sure I’d hooked up the cables right.
Red on red. Black on black.
I was certain I’d done it right. Maybe, I decided, it just needed to warm up.
With all of my usual authority, I said, “Just give it more time to warm up.”
We waited. We gave it time. It warmed up.
But the van still wouldn’t start. She tried turning slowly, quickly, with, and without gas. We crossed our fingers, said our amens, and tried again. Still, nothing happened. We were doing something wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“I’ll try giving it a little gas with my truck.”
I sat there, leaning out the window, stomping on the accelerator, yelling at my mom to “Turn the key! Turn the key!”
She turned, and I pushed, but nothing happened. I kept pushing. She kept turning.
And in an instant, the sweet scent of Piña Colada was gone. A raunchy, acrid stink floated in through my windows. My eyes darted up. What was burning? What was wrong? It couldn’t be my truck. It wouldn’t be my truck. Leaving the keys in the ignition, I leapt from the cab and scrambled around to the front of my car. An image raced across my mind as I ran—a cloud of smoke rising from my shining engine, sparks leaping from the insulated clamps. And to my horror, I rounded the hood to see the worst of my fears.
A column of smoke hovered just above my engine block and sparks flew in every direction. The clamps were sizzling—the bubbling insulation began to melt, dripping on the metal frame. Red and black drops of oozing plastic stained the Toyota’s polished insides. I can’t remember what my mom was yelling. Somewhere beyond the wall of shock and disbelief that held me captive, she must have been screaming for me to stop the smoke, stop the sparks, stop the fire. I panicked. I’d screwed up, and now my gorgeous truck was being laid to ruin by the two black snakes in front of me. I couldn’t let anything happen to that truck.
I had to stop it. I had to stop the burning. I had to stop the smoke. I had to save my truck.
I grabbed the clamps.
I grabbed the metal clamps. With my bare hands, I grabbed their sizzling metal and half-melted insulation.
At first, I didn’t feel it. I was worried, scared, afraid. I had to stop the burning.
In a moment, searing pain shot through my hands and up past my elbows. My arms were on fire, my fingers were blistered, my skin peeled! I threw myself away from the scorching clamps, and screamed in agony.
In a rage, I ran to my door and tore the keys from the ignition.
Still, the smoke rose higher. I rushed to find something I could use to pull off the clamps. I searched my truck with quick, darting glances and found something that might work.
Again, I faced the scorching pain and sizzling terror under my hood. In my blistered hands, I held my aluminum-coated windshield cover. I’d slip the clamps off. Red and black. I forced my throbbing hands to touch the red-hot metal one last time. Immediately, piercing agony ripped through both arms. I struggled. I pulled. Fighting my pain, I tugged at the clamp. It didn’t move.
More heat. More pain.
I let go and fell back. I couldn’t move. For a moment, I held my hands in front of me and stared with disbelieving eyes at their grotesque discoloration. Blotches of white coated my blood-red hands. My palms and fingertips were searing, angry boils. Crying alone, kneeling on the crumbling asphalt, my overconfident grin was gone. Frustrated and angry, I shut my eyes to block out the pain. Behind those closed lids, I tried to hide from my mom, from the smoke and burning, from the people walking by, from myself.
I didn’t see my mom pull the floor mat out of her car and remove the clamps. I didn’t see her skirt swaying in the cool breeze as she stepped closer to me. It wasn’t until she knelt down beside me and held her arms around my trembling shoulders that I saw her, smiling at me through tears.