5 At an exit just past Blythe marked Gas-Food-Fuel she aims the car into the first filling station she sees. Under the alluring sign sixty feet high it turns out to be an unappetizing dump but she's too numbed by road weariness to seek another.
A punk-haired teen-age hoodlum slams the nozzle into the filler pipe and leaves the pump ticking while he checks the oil and smears bugs across the windshield with inadequate swipes of a long-handled squeegee. She stands in the shade waiting; the kid darts his furtive eyes toward her and she wishes she were wearing something that had more practical armor than this thin cotton print.
She pays in cash and drives around the side to park in the shade while she visits the Ladies'; it's not until the tires crunch that she notices where the filthy pavement is strewn with the glittering remains of broken beer bottles.
It's a choice between broken glass and the hot sun: she chooses the shade, steps out with care, and picks a path away from the car, tiptoeing through shards.
The stifling bathroom is repulsive visually and olfactorily. She departs in record time. Nevertheless the upholstery is so hot she can't relax her spine against it. She sits bolt upright when she backs the car out.
Watching her, the young hoodlum stands beside a gas pump with a bottle of beer in his hand. His very lack of expression seems malevolent.
The desert has been carved into farms here, kept alive by the trickle of water at the bottom of tapered concrete canals; past the irrigated area there's nothing but scrub and sand and the heat against which the air conditioner struggles.
She has gone only a few miles and she's doing about seventy when the wheel begins to pull to the left and she hears the rapid flubbing tattoo of the collapsing tire. With more stoical resignation than anger she takes her foot off the gas and fights the wheel, hauling it to the right. Thank God for power steering. Prompted by a fragment of memory from her teen-age years she forces herself not to touch the brake pedal.
The car chitters all over the road. It feels as if it's ploughing through thick mud but in fact the speed is still high-fifty miles an hour now and only dropping slowly. She thinks: emergency brake? Does that operate on the back wheels or the front ones? But she's not sure; she knows only that if she does the wrong thing it may flip over, as her mother and father found out.
She lets it coast, weaving from lane to lane. She's very lucky there's no traffic.
Finally the momentum comes off the charging automobile and she is able to horse it onto the shoulder.
She steps out into the blast of heat and examines the damage.
The car droops over its flat tire.
She's no mechanic but she knows this much: drive any farther on it and the wheel rim will be destroyed.
All right then. What are the choices?
You're supposed to wait for help. She knows the procedure. Open the trunk and the hood; tie a scarf on the door handle and lock yourself inside the car.
In this sun with the engine idling and the air conditioner blasting-how long will it be before the old car overheats and dies?
And who wants to sit here for six hours expiring of dehydration before the next highway patrol cop drives by?
And do you really want to take the chance that a cop won't ask to see some identification?
Change the damn tire, then.
There must be tools in the trunk. She opens it and sees the spare and realizes she's never paid any attention to it before. Suppose it's flat?
Leaning in under the useless shade of the upraised trunk lid she unscrews the butterfly nut that secures the spare. Just this little effort drenches her in sweat. Now to lift the thing out and see if there are tools under it.
She hoists it over the bumper and lets it bounce when it hits the ground. What do they make these things out of-