A few hours later, I got caught in heavy, stop-and-go traffic near midtown Sacramento on Business I-80 and rear-ended a vehicle as I attempted to pass. I swear, we were going slow, so it wasn’t that big of a bump. Instead of pulling over, the guy gets out of his car while we’re still in the slow lane! Who gets out of a car in the middle of traffic? Annoyed, I waved him over. I remained calm as I followed him to the side of the road. I remained calm as I bent down to retrieve the insurance information out of the glove box underneath the passenger seat. I must have noticed the smoke just then, because I got out of the car without the paperwork, but I am not sure, because in all my calmness, I may have actually been going into shock.
We stood next to my car—me, the guy I hit, and his wife. I watched the flames shooting out beneath the bent hood, and I was mesmerized, like watching a campfire. The other woman started freaking out, jumping up and down and screaming at her husband to move their car away from my burning vehicle. I calmly watched the flames, until I heard my inner voice yell, “THE CAR IS ON FIRE!” I jumped into action then, reaching back into the car for my phone and purse. I walked away, a little worried the car might explode, because that’s what happens in the movies. But I really had nowhere to go. Behind me, the roadside disappeared into a freeway bridge and that wasn’t safe either. I stopped short of the bridge, putting a little distance between me and the car fire, to start making phone calls. First, I called 911 to report the fire.
Of course, the operator wanted to know where I was. I knew exactly where I was. I had driven this stretch of road hundreds of times. I had done this commute for years. But I struggled to tell her the location. My brain had shut down. First, I told her the wrong freeway, then I told her the wrong direction. Finally, I managed to blurt out that the Sutter Cancer Center was behind me. Then I called a friend to come pick me up.
Meanwhile, a semi truck pulled over and the driver ran to my baby with a fire extinguisher, but it did nothing to dampen the flames. The next vehicle to pull over was a fire truck! A waterless fire truck, it turns out. The firefighters jumped into action anyway, opening all the doors to my vehicle and throwing things onto the side of the road. They grabbed my case of CDs and I wondered why they would risk their lives for old CDs. I still thought the car might explode. But, while they were at it, I called out “Get my portfolio! Get my briefcase!”
Then the police and another fire truck arrived. I missed the excitement of watching them put out the fire because I was talking to the police and the other driver. Soon, everyone was gone, except for me and one police officer. I was feeling a bit shaky by then. Someone had called a tow truck and the driver came to ask me for my keys. Meanwhile, my friend was trying to find me and was on the wrong side of the freeway. The cop didn’t want him pulling over at the scene and made arrangements for the tow truck driver to drop me off at a nearby exit where my friend would be waiting.
It was sad to see my lovely car up on the racks of the tow truck and I averted my eyes from the damage, the ash, the blackened engine and hood. As I heaved myself and all my belongings up into the tow truck, I realized then how sore I was from the accident. And then I started to cry. (It’s what girls do.)
I knew I was making the tow truck driver uncomfortable, but I couldn’t stop sobbing. By then, the shock had worn off. He kept looking at me anxiously, evidently nervous about having a crying woman in his cab. To make matters worse, he was getting radio calls from all the other truck drivers in the area.
Apparently, my car fire had caused quite a stir among the other tow truck drivers. Embarrassed by all the radio chatter, he denied rumors of having my car while glancing worriedly at me. I felt sorry for him. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting me riding shotgun that day. Although I was still crying, my inner funny bone was taking it all in and somewhere inside I was laughing hysterically. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized the tow truck driver hadn’t returned my keys. It seemed like a long story to explain how I lost my keys.
“Just say you lost your keys, mom,” my daughter advised. “No one is going to believe this story.”