New Jersey Angel Photo of Melanie and family.

Melanie Gold
© Copyright 2001 by Melanie Gold

I loved that car. I loved being behind the wheel. And although I didn't own it long, the car etched an indelible mark in my memory and may have helped to save my life. It just seemed I was meant to have -- and then lose -- that car.

It was a used car; and although it wasn't funny at the time, I can now chuckle when I remember that we purchased this beauty from a company called E-Z Buy Auto Sales. But it was 1992, and my fiancé and I were in a credit crunch. It was an awful recession; I was working as a temp, and only too thankful that I even qualified for a car loan.

We soon discovered that the vehicle was fraught with problems. The air shocks needed fixing, the CV joint covers were ripped and oozing grease, and the engine was probably leaking fluids. But the cassette player worked well and the car looked sporty; and at that time, before marriage and motherhood, those were my priorities. That we didn't check the car thoroughly at the lot I can attribute to either stupidity or fate.

After having fixed the problems, I endeavored to take my car on its first excursion -- to upstate New York, where I'd been attending New Moon celebrations with the Cherokee Keetoowah Society. It was a two-hour drive each way, but I'd made the pilgrimage numerous times before, prior to buying the car. I'd learned a lot from those trips--not just about getting smudged by a Native American medicine man, or participating in the celebratory robin dance with a group of laughing New Yorkers, or learning the Cherokee language. I'd learned about my place, as a two-legged in a world of myriad creatures: four-leggeds, wingeds, and others. And I'd come to believe that there is no transcendent God. That if there is a power greater than we who were presumably created in the Great Spirit's image, then that essence exists in the trees, in the streams, in the animals, in all of nature.

So after missing several gatherings due to the lack of a car, I was pleased as Punch to take my new used vehicle to Pomona, New York. Alone.

But about halfway to my destination, in the middle of a flurry of suburban automobiles in New Jersey, I heard a rattle above the lyrical cadence of John Mellencamp. It was coming from under the hood.

"What could that be?" I wondered, then shortly dismissed it as paranoia. This was, after all, my first road trip in the car by myself. I turned the music back up.

And turned it down again just as quickly. There was a niggling doubt in my mind now that I couldn't drown out with music. I listened again, pumping the gas pedal several times. Like a metal card catching the spokes of a bicycle in a downhill race, its pitch increased whenever the car accelerated. Something was definitely wrong.

My heart beat faster. I didn't know anyone who lived in north Jersey.

As I pulled over and called my grandmother from a pay phone, I felt a sense of foreboding. "If I'm not back in an hour and a half," I said, trying not to sound scared, "that means there's trouble. Come looking for me on I-80."

I had a hunch that I should get back on the highway, even though it was abuzz with traffic. Taking back roads would only make the car work harder with stopping and starting. Plus, I had a hunch -- just a hunch -- that I had a better chance of getting home by taking the most direct route.

Somehow the noise seemed louder as I drove through a residential town I'd never seen before, looking for the entrance ramp heading west. The rattle under the hood was louder too, an ominous clattering of complaining metal. I wondered if people were looking -- or scowling -- at me. I, who had never had so much as a parking ticket, speculated whether noise pollution was grounds for arrest. But, I thought, if a ticket issuing policeman pulled me over, perhaps he could help me get home. Then again, this was New Jersey. How important could a stranded motorist be when there were rapists and murderers to be caught. Unless, of course, the stranded motorist became the victim of the rapists and murderers...

Now I was more scared than sarcastic, wondering what might really happen if I broke down. I didn't know anyone who lived in the area. I hadn't made it back to I-80 yet. If anything did happen, how would my family ever find me? And worse, I was nearly broke with only $20 and no credit cards in my wallet.

My wallet. At least I had identification in the event that...well, in any event. My overactive imagination and dark sense of humor made me think that cremation might be unnecessary if I died in a blazing car wreck. In that case, I might save my bereaved family some money.

So I floored it, backtracking to Pennsylvania, my heart palpitating, my blood pressure rising, and my throat dehydrating. When I pulled into my grandmother's driveway just over an hour later, my boyfriend, Sherman, immediately got behind the wheel. We drove toward his father's house, less than five miles away. Gary would know what to do about the car.

Two miles later, while traveling along a heavily wooded mountain road, BANG! The car suddenly seized up like an abused and overburdened heart, launching the two of us toward the windshield and scorching at least 25 feet of rubber in the asphalt. That we managed to avoid an accident was a testament to Sherman's quick reflexes and the fact that he was driving the speed limit.

It was clear that the car would not move any farther. My sport coupe was dead, but, thankfully, we weren't.

I thought to myself, if the car had given out while I was travelling 70 miles per hour on the highway, I would not have made it home -- or anywhere else. The car could have given up at any time over the 75 miles, and yet it failed less than three miles later. How had it happened that my boyfriend, who had driven the car so infrequently, was behind the wheel at the moment of truth while I, who drove the car 95 percent of the time, was the passenger?

Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps it was nothing more than inexplicable timing. But I couldn't get away from the thought that something or someone was looking out for me that day. A guardian angel, a higher power. Something.

I'm now married to Sherman, but I could easily be dead right now, never knowing the joys of marital happiness, the sweet fulfillment of motherhood, or the peace of making amends with my past.

But I'm very much alive. And so, to the Great Spirit -- or my New Jersey angel -- I am thankful.

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