When the mechanic's teenage son asks me, "What year is this?" I tell him it's a 1997. I don't even notice my mistake until he laughs out loud, looks at me funny. "1997? I don't think it is." Yeah, oops, add a decade. Can you tell I know nothing about cars? Great way to introduce myself to a new mechanic.
He asks me to pop the trunk. I'm sure I'm familiar with this action, but momentarily flustered & forgetful, I tell him I don't know how to do that. He laughs again, ducks into my car & pops a lever under the dash, then lifts the hood. Man, this is getting better & better, isn't it? My hot-day sweat is supplemented by God-I'm-a-freaking-moron sweat.
"You can wait in the office if you want," he tells me, hooking my car up to gadgets that I assume will help him diagnose the problem. "There's air conditioner in there."
I make my way to the back of the garage, passing two mechanics along the way, both in grease-spattered cargo shorts & stained T-shirts bearing the shop's name. They look like car people, I think to myself, like the kind of people I used to know, like the kind of people I come from. No one is inside the tiny, cold office when I push the door open, & it's a good thing, because I start to cry.
It's not just my car troubles, though at the time, I still believe that those will be fixed at a relatively low cost to me (call me a dreamer). It's that nothing reminds me of my childhood or my dad quite like being in a garage or a mechanic's shop does. It's the memory of that smell, that stale, hard, old-car smell, exactly the opposite of a dealership's fresh, clean, new-scar scent. It's that metallic, oily, engine smell that seeps into everything, soaks it, hangs in the air & suffocates you. That smell brings it all back for me: being a kid in my dad's office, visiting the attached factor & garage; busying myself with a book in the corner of my uncle's garage while he & my dad built a rally car.
My dad loved cars - rally cars, NASCAR, the cars in other people's garages. I remember going to a garage sale together in a neighboring city, when I was maybe 7 years old. He took one look at a car hidden under a tarp & immediately pegged the make, model, & year; the owner joked that the only thing he couldn't guess was the color, so he made a (correct) go at that, too. His small headstone, which sits in a large, shady cemetery in Kent, Ohio, bears an engraving of checkered racing flags & reads "One of the good guys."
I've never been able to call my dad when I've had car troubles (he died six years before I got behind the wheel), but it always breaks my heart a little to know that he could've fixed it - or at least diagnosed it - in a snap. I never miss him more than when I'm waiting on some questionably trustworthy stranger to fix my car, wondering what it would be like to be able to ring him up & know he could take care of it for me. I worry I'm being swindled by mechanics who see a ditzy young woman who knows nothing about cars, so I'm always sure to tell them - part warning, part bragging - that I come from a family of car people.
The mechanic & his son quote me $900 - "busted compressor," they say. I text my cousin to make sure the price is legit (he says it is), then I make an appointment to bring it back, to hemorrhage money so that I can drive my car again without turning into a human puddle.
As I drive away, I notice a light on the dashboard that wasn't on before. I call the mechanic back. "I was just in," I tell him, "& there's a little light on now? It looks sort of like an orange helicopter?"
He laughs, just like his son did before. "That's the check-engine light," he tells me. "We'll take care of it."
When I hang up, I start to cry again, but I quickly find that it's too hot to dehydrate myself like that... especially without air conditioning. Windows down, sunroof open, I look to the sky & whisper an apology, stop thinking about it until the next time I set foot in that garage. No, I'll never know what it would've been like to have kept on being daddy's girl. Right now, the best I can hope for is an honest mechanic - maybe one who's got a daughter of his own somewhere.