“The car is making a funny noise.”
My husband will tell you that this is one of the most terrifying statements a wife can make to her spouse. According to him, it rates just above, “I ran into your old girlfriend today.” And just below, “I’m leaving you and I’m not taking the children.”
While the color had drained out of his face, I was serenely calm. Cars and I have always had a complicated relationship. I had owned quite a range. My first was a 1973 Dodge Charger with a V8 that would purr to me, “Wanna pass that truck? Relax, I’ve got this.” It was baby poop green and one day gave birth to a herd of tiny squirrels in the parking lot of my college.
Many years later, while working for a non-profit organization, I pulled into the parking lot of a dealership to pick up a donation. The owner and his father watched me turn the car off, then, as was its habit, the car sputtered and rocked and choked for several moments more. As it did, I skillfully crawled over the passenger seat and exited, the driver’s door having long since rusted shut. (Considering I was in a dress at the time, I thought I was the very vision of grace.) Just as I reached the door, the car gave one last heave and threw up most of the contents of the radiator before falling silent.
Presenting myself to the owners, I was taken aback when the elder of the two turned to his son and said, “I’m not going to sleep tonight if she leaves in that car. Do something.”
It started when I needed it to. It stopped somewhere in the vicinity of where it should have. What was the problem?
Crappy cars were just a way of life for me during my salad days, which consisted of lots of lettuce and not much else. I once had to sign a disclaimer before a repair shop would let me leave. I had gotten all the repairs I could afford, far fewer that the ones they recommended for, you know, “safe operation” and all that technical mumbo-jumbo.
So, it was a treat to have a nice car, sold to me by that horrified and sympathetic car dealer. I loved that car and drove it for years. And years. It was that car I presented to my husband with my concern about noise.
I told Bob my ride would squeak when the brakes were applied. He offered to listen for himself, and I watched him pull away from the house. The first stop sign was not more than fifty feet down the street, so I could watch as the car shuddered to a halt. For a moment, it just sat there. Bob just sat there. I was bewildered.
Then the back-up lights came on and the vehicle rolled in reverse at a much slower pace. Bob got out and I immediately noticed that the color had returned to his face. It was gray.
“How long has it been doing that?”
He braced himself against the hood, as if the power had gone out of his legs.
I shrugged. “A month or so.”
In a whirlwind matter of minutes, we were off to our neighborhood mechanic, but Bob insisted on driving my car with me following in his. Odd.
Bob and Kenny had a brief conversation and the car expert promised a prompt look-see.
We hadn’t been home ten minutes when Kenny called and requested that “both of you come back right now.”
There sat my two-tone blue beauty, with the rear right tire removed. The car seemed to be balancing on a stack of concrete blocks, which I thought was the weirdest stand-in jack I ever saw.
Then I noticed that Kenny’s face had the same dingy tinge that I had seen earlier on my husband. What is it with these guys...a bladder infection?
“Maggie,” Kenny began in a strained voice. “I can’t repair this car.”
Before I could respond he brought me to the open rear hatch and pointed down.
“I wanted to put the back seat down to get a better look at the wheel wells. When I pulled the release tabs on your seat, the entire wheel fell off!”
Sure enough, the concrete blocks were doing what the tire used to: hold up the car. All around the blocks I could see clear to the floor of the garage.
“Okay,” I said, before noticing that my husband had put his hand over his mouth. “So, fix it.”
Kenny’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times before his voice emerged. Or rather the voice of a ten-year old girl who has just been invited to a sleepover at Taylor Swift’s house.
“Fix it? I can’t fix this! Henry Ford couldn’t fix this!”
He dropped to his knees and rolled under the car, his face appearing in the gaping hole where the tire had been.
“Can you see me?”
“You’re not supposed to!”
Another technical conversation followed, something about the shock tower rusting right out of the thing and taking the wheel with it.
I repeated my earlier shrug and offered a helpful suggestion.
“Just weld the tire back in.”
Kenny was starting to look like that cartoon illustration of what a heart attack victim looks like. His eyes bulged; his chest billowed in and out. The man should really cut down on the caffeine.
“Weld it?” He bellowed. “Weld it to what? There’s nothing there!” Again, I watched his grease-stained hands frantically wave under the car.
The diagnosis was tough to take. This vehicle had never let me down. It started every single time. It had the soul of a warrior. It had character and courage. The body had simply worn out. Was it not human? If you pricked it, would it not bleed black 10-30? After a talk with Bob about the full life my blue beauty had had, I decided to donate the car to research. The guys from the auto shop class at the high school came with a flatbed. I cried.
Today, I tool around in a pretty SUV with a dashboard that looks like I could launch the missiles at NORAD from it. It glides along with power-this and auto-that. I’m cocooned in a cockpit of surround sound, side airbags, and cruise control. My current mechanic has clean hands, a spotless uniform, and a computer that tells him when my magic carpet has so much as a head cold.
What’s the fun in that?