Houston, You've Got a Problem

Christopher Allen

My partner and I have traveled together for more than ten years, so we’ve become a sort of poster couple for cheery, blame-free motoring. In this time, we’ve worked out a little trick for bringing harmony and relaxing bird sounds into our life on the road. We fight.

But it’s not that simple. A well-rounded and artful brawl must end with a humorous release phrase that punctuates the fistfight, saying, “I love you, Schnooky!” and “Stop getting on my tits!” all in the same witty quip. This of course works best if you have nerves as well as tits . . . but we do the best we can.

Let’s imagine a couple of vacation snapshots of the happy couple shortly after a fracas: here’s one of my partner blithely tooling along at about 150 mph on a dirt road in Brazil with a liter of Brahma in his hand. Oh, and here’s one of me in the passenger’s seat staring cutely at the map, contemplating the philosophical relationship between north and south. It’s Norman-Rockwell happy, folks.

“You’re holding that”—burp!—“upside down, Schnooky.”

“Philosophical relationship, Booger-bear,” I say through clenched teeth.

Can you hear the birds chirping? I certainly can. Harmony and birdsong, however, have their price. A couple has to work at achieving the balance between humour and hate. With a view to reviewing the tools of cooperative, blame-free driving, let’s revisit one recent road wrangle.

It happened in a Latin American country, which, in the interest of blamelessness, we’ll call Guatarexico. Exceptionally, I had to drive the entire four thousand kilometers because my partner, Claus, had temporarily lost his driver’s license just a week before we left. He had been tailgating a police car—the kind of police car that has blue flashing lights on top and the letters P O L I C E written clearly on the tailgate.

The trip started as all of our road trips do. We left the aeropuerto with our squeaky-clean rental car and drove around in circles for two hours looking for the autopista to Puerto Unpronounceable. Just as we were debating who should stab the other to death first, Claus thought it was high time we chose our humorous release phrase. In an adorable convulsion of desperation and a shocking amount of saliva, he blurted, “Houston, you’ve got a problem!” English is not his native language, so I didn’t correct him. He wasn’t even alive when Houston was (or I suppose wasn’t) having its problem.

When I thought about it, blaming Houston worked. Psychologically speaking, taking “we” out of the mix and blaming Houston for the mayhem I might wreak just seemed like the right thing to do. I’d never been to Houston, so what did I care? Sorry, Houston, but the following teensy-weensy infelicities on our trip to Guatarexico were all your fault:

1) driving through dusty little towns at breakneck speed, paying no attention to the speed bumps (or topes! as Claus often screamed). In Houston’s defense, most topes haven’t been painted yellow since Guatarexico was a Spanish colony; in Guatarexico’s defense, most topes are indicated by a sign (and Claus’s screams). But then I was very careful to take them at full speed only when Claus was sleeping—and it was a rental car. Still, curse you, Houston!

2) cutting large vehicles off to turn left when in the right lane. This happened only six or seven times, so it’s hardly worth mentioning. It was, however, a joy to hear Claus shriek like a little girl when he thought we were actually colliding with that 18-wheeler. I wish I’d been filming, but I had my hands full, obviously. Boy, it took Claus forty-five minutes to give Houston the blame for that one, but the birds did eventually start tweeting again. Thanks for nothing, Houston!

3) almost driving off a cliff because someone had closed his eyes to feel the fuego in the Guatarexican song on the radio. Houston, was that you? I think so. You really do have a problem, you know.

4) playing chicken with Guatarexican lorries on serpentine, mountain roads at night. Actually, as I remember it, this made me look sexy, so I accepted the blame for this one. Never mind.

You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not aware of anyone having met his Maker as a result of Houston’s reckless behavior. We were always driving faster than the policia, and the carnage behind us was rarely up for a chase. Blame aside, Guatarexico was a lovely country for a car fight—which, in the end, I won. You see, once we dropped off the car with its usual scratches and dents expertly concealed beneath a thick layer of dried mud, and once we were on our way to the airport in an unofficial cab, Claus—just glad to be alive—vowed never to lose his license again.

Houston, problem solved.


About the Author

Christopher Allen lives in Germany and writes all kinds of stuff. His recent work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People and Gathering: Writers of Williamson County, among other print anthologies. You can find him at Every Day Fiction, metazen, The Short Humour Site, Lowestoft Chronicle, Piker Press and Ruthless Peoples Magazine, among others. He writes about his travels at www.imustbeoff.blogspot.com.