by Jake Irwin
Me and two buddies, James and Jonathan, piled into my Chevy Cobalt and began our hour-long adventure back to Anderson County. Riding shotgun, James unzipped his hoody jacket, promoting his classic rock band of the day, while Jonathan folded his arms across his Star Wars t-shirt, propped his Converse clad feet across the backseat, and made himself at home. We were on our way back from watching some friends of ours perform in a marching band competition in Seymore, Tennessee. The three of us had just graduated high school, and our trip to see them was one of those intermediary moments between moving on and wanting to relive the memories of when we had marched in the same competition the year before.
Little did I know new memories were about to be made.
Minorly traumatizing memories.
I didn’t think twice about volunteering to drive earlier that day. Jonathan was in town from Lee University for the weekend, and we were about to see a host of other friends we hadn’t seen much of since graduating. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t going to be a good day—it was going to be a great one. I didn’t even think about the drive home. If I had, I would’ve persuaded one of them to take their cars.
I was eighteen and still in the infant stages of my driving experience and knowledge of downtown Knoxville. Unfortunately, in order to get home, I had to drive right through the heart of Knoxville. At night.
With all of its signs, jaywalkers, and one-way streets, it is no different than any other city, but like any good teenaged country boy, I had only driven through it a couple times in my life, so to me it might as well have been New York. Those few times when I had driven through it had been during the day with the help of my dad’s navigational skills. In fact, the one time I had done it on my own ended with me stopped at a red light ‘under a bridge, completely lost in a sketchy part of town.
So needless to say, I used my GPS.
I mounted that treacherous contraption onto my dashboard and listened to an Australian woman’s voice navigate me across the Tennessee River into a sea of light and danger. As we crossed the Henley Street Bridge, my friends and I chatted away. We discussed important issues like movies and videogames. Anything but the piece of modern technology that was plotting against us.
We were blissfully unaware of my GPS’s brewing scheme as we entered the traffic mess that is downtown Knoxville. I didn’t know where the ramp to get onto I-75 was, but the GPS map told me we had less than a mile before the next turn. So I went with the motions of letting my foot off the clutch and flowing with the traffic from red light to red light.
I didn’t bother trying to navigate through the city myself. It’s an easy enough thing to do if you follow the signs, but that night there was so much going on around me, from bicyclists to cars switching lanes, that I kept to the right and did what every good millennial does—I trusted technology. After all, weren’t computers smarter than people?
Well, if they are, mine wasn’t.
The picture on the GPS said the next turn was in three tenths of a mile. Had I used my eyes and looked up, I would have seen a sign over a lane that more or less reads, “I-275 to I-75 North toward Lexington.” However, instead of going straight through the intersection toward this sign, I listened to a robot.
“Turn right,” the GPS said.
It surprised me, but I snapped the wheel to the right and started up a blind hill that was two lanes wide.
A pickup truck horn blared at me.
I jumped in surprise and happened to look at the road as I drove over a thick white arrow pointing in the opposite direction than the way I was going. The GPS had sent me up a one-way street.
Now the street was wide enough that the smart thing to do would have been to pull over into a parking space along the curb and make a U-turn. Naturally, that’s the exact opposite of what I did. I kept thinking a semi-truck would fly over the hill and plow into us head on.
So I floored it in first gear.
Next to me, James freaked out and braced himself against the dashboard while Jonathan, who had wrecked his truck a year or two before, remained calm as if to say, “Eh…I’ve done worse.”
My engine roared at me to shift gears, but I’d forgotten that I was driving a manual. The first road I came to, I yanked the steering wheel to the right. My tires slammed into the curb, but I kept going. For all I knew, I had just turned onto another one-way street, but at least I could see straight ahead. I needed a place to pull over and check the damage the curb had done.
There was an abandoned parking lot about fifty yards away. I pulled into it, not sure where we were downtown and I didn’t care. I pounded my fist into the steering wheel and yelled. I still lived at home, and I was terrified at what my parents were going to say.
“It’s okay,” one of my friends probably said, but I was too worked up to remember.
I stormed out of my car, slamming the door shut behind me and marched around to the passenger side to check out the damage.
It could have been worse, but none of us knew what to make of it. Both the front and back tires on that side had chunks missing and the rear hubcap was chipped. We couldn’t hear any air rushing out of them, which was good, but it was dark and we couldn’t tell if there was any more damage.
I sighed and called my dad to tell him what happened. He took it well. His tone implied that there wasn’t anything that could be done to undo it, so it was best to move forward. He suggested that we change the rear tire since it had the most damage and see if it was drivable.
While I was on the phone, James and Jonathan went to look at the curb that I hit. When they came back, James said, “Dude, you’re lucky you still have tires.” And Jonathan said, “How are your shocks not broken?”
I grunted. Those were just the words I needed to hear to cheer me up.
“We need to change the tire,” I said.
They nodded and that became our goal. But here’s the thing about Chevy Cobalts that I didn’t know at the time. Unlike every other car under creation, whoever designed the carjack for the Cobalt also built the tire iron into it. Not only that, but they proceeded to do it in such a way that it all looks like one piece.
In short, I concluded that the car did not have a tire iron. A conclusion that James, who loves cars, refused accept. He continued searching the trunk while I got out the manual, and Jonathan tried to use the plyers on his Leatherman tool to unscrew the hubcaps. It was a creative, if not useless, attempt to make progress.
As I flicked through the pages, a man approached us. I gave him a stink eye him from the other side of the car, and Jonathan straightened. Meanwhile James was defenseless with half his body inside the Cobalt trunk.
“I just got out of the jail,” he said. “You all got any cigarettes?”
Jonathan, who had remained calm throughout my driving incident, yelled, “Nope. Nope. We ain’t got nothing you need.”
Yep. Turns out that I had chosen to pull over to fix my car only a few blocks away from the city jail. Thankfully, the man didn’t press the issue and continued on his way.
Jonathan and I exchanged glances. Then James stopped digging around the trunk and finally declared the search pointless. He couldn’t believe that a car dealership would sell a car without a tire iron. For what it’s worth, the manual does explain how to disassemble the jack to get the tire iron. I learned that years later in the safety of my own driveway. But right then, the former inmate had spooked us, and I thought the tires could hold air long enough to get out of town.
We jumped back in the car and eventually found our way to the interstate, but the whole drive home had me watching the electric air pressure gage in the dash. The pressure increased as we sped down the interstate. I thought that was a good thing, except James worried it might mean the tires were about to blow. If that is what it means, then we never found out. I am happy to say we made it back to their cars, and I returned home with a story to share.
Jake Irwin first fell in love with writing when his fifth-grade teacher taught him that it was more than a homework assignment. It was about telling a story. From then on, Jake began filling notebooks with character ideas, story concepts, plots, new places, and backstories. After writing several novel-length works as a teenager, he decided to pursue creative writing in college, and in December of 2014, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. However, upon graduating he realized he missed the feedback his stories received in creative writing workshops, so in the Fall of 2016, he moved south and enrolled in the English graduate program at The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. For the last two years, he has grown under the guidance of the English faculty at UTC, and he is confident that their lessons have prepared him to enter the workforce and face the next phase of his life.