Madame Defarge Saves the

by Issa Eismont

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE TRIPS THAT SEEMED JINXED FROM THE START. We'd postponed it several times for several reasons—the dog-

sitter was unavailable, my wife's boss reneged on previously approved vacation time—but now Amie and I were finally on our way to a well-deserved (if budget-minded) vacation. It was a sunny and seasonably warm October weekend in the Bay Area, and we looked forward to a straightforward nine-hour drive to her parents' house in Boise, Idaho. Not the most romantic destination, granted, but we were desperate to escape the daily grind, and the price was right. We loaded up our 2002 Ford Focus and hit the road at 7 a.m. on Friday morning.

Around noon we stopped for lunch in Winnemucca, Nevada, a sleazy little town of two-bit casinos and cheap motels. Having made this trip many times before, we knew two things about the remaining two hundred desert miles between Win-nemucca and Boise: 1) there was no cell service, and 2) there was nowhere to eat. So we enjoyed a gourmet meal at a truck stop (chili dog with cheese for me, beef jerky and a Diet Coke for the missus), stocked up on bottled water, and called the in-laws to let them know we'd be there in four or five hours.

It was Amie's turn to drive. Just outside of Winnemucca, as we crested the hill beyond which cell service disappears, she made a face and muttered, "The clutch feels weird." Then, almost immediately: "The clutch is gone!" As she pumped her left foot up and down, trying to get the clutch to react, I heard the hollow, harrowing sound of the pedal hitting the car's carpeted floor mat. There was zero resistance.

She shifted into neutral and turned the wheel slightly to the right. As the Focus coasted to a stop on the shoulder of the desolate highway, the only sound was the wind blowing sand and tumbleweeds across the bleak landscape.

Oh, and from Arnie: "Shit."

Fortunately, we were only a quarter mile into the no-phone zone. We walked back till we had reception and called Ford roadside assistance. Their response was less than ideal. Because of our remote location, it would be at least two hours before they could get a tow truck to us.

At this point my wife, who never cries, was shaking with frustration; she looked like she might explode.

Okay, time to do something. We ran back to the car and I contorted myself into an impossible position on the floor of the driver's side to see if I could figure out what the hell had gone wrong. I spotted the problem immediately. The metal pin attaching the clutch pedal to the actuator (a small plastic thingamajig under the pedal that continues under the floorboard, and that is a key part of the larger mechanism that engages the transmission) had completely severed. The pin was rolling around on the floor of the car and couldn't be reat-tached without a welder. Now, I've worked on my fair share of motorcycles and know my way around cars, but I'm not in the habit of traveling with a welder in my trunk. On the bright side, the weld had failed cleanly, leaving a perfectly round hole in the clutch pedal. All I needed was something to fill the hole and serve as a replacement pin. Then I'd be able to reconnect the pedal to the actuator, giving the pedal the ability to engage and disengage the clutch and actually allow us to, you know, maybe shift gears.

I walked around to the back of the car and began rummaging through the trunk, waiting for my Eureka! moment. At first, nothing. But then my eye fell on one of the incredible number of bags Arnie insists on traveling with: her knitting bag. Hmmmm. I rooted through it until I found a needle that looked about right.

"Honey," I said, "how attached are you to this knitting needle?"

Now, while I'd been trying to figure out the problem, Arnie had walked back up the road and called Ford again. They repeated that it would take at least two hours for a truck to get to us, but this time they informed her that once the truck arrived, it would need to tow us back to Reno—two hours in the wrong direction. So Arnie was now a ticking time bomb of rage.

"Not as much as Madame Defarge was attached to hers," she hissed.

Somehow the reference to the bloodthirsty knitter from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities didn't comfort me. But if I could just pull this off, all would be right with the world.

I folded myself once again onto the floor of the driver's side. My back and neck voiced their objections. I was definitely going to need a chiropractor the next day, but first things first. I held the needle next to the pin and compared the diameters. They were nearly identical. I threaded the needle through the hole in the clutch pedal and the hole in the actuator, then maneuvered the actuator up the needle. I snapped the excess needle off, leaving just enough room to bridge the gap between the pedal and the actuator. The head of the needle would keep it in place, preventing slippage.

"I think this is going to work," I muttered, though not loud enough for Arnie, who was pacing frantically outside the car,

to hear. I uncontorted myself from the floor of the car and sat in the driver's seat. Arnie climbed in the passenger side. I started the car and gently depressed the clutch pedal. Tension! (Though maybe not as much as the tension in the air.) I stepped on the gas and slowly moved along the shoulder until I had enough speed to attempt to shift. I don't think either one of us breathed until the clutch pedal completed its journey the floor, allowing me to shift smoothly into second. "IT WORKED!" I shouted.

Amie's face lit up into a huge smile. "You are soooo my hero!"

One great big kiss and a few minutes later, we were sailing along at seventy-five mph. We called Ford and told them we no longer needed their services. (They seemed unimpressed.) And we made it to Boise by cocktail hour.

Issa Eismont lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and two dogs. They've made several incident-free trips to Boise since the one described here, probably because they now take their motorcycles instead of the car.

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