Replacing the Drive Train

Bryan_Meador_Still_Life_3a

“Still Life” by Bryan Meador

Heather was cruising down the two-lane road that curved around the small lake near her house when she hit the duck. She’d been thinking about onion bagels, staring at the slips of blue water through the trees as the radio played the local weather report. The forecaster mentioned localized thunderstorms, but the morning was cool and the sky was bright and promised a hot afternoon. Her favorite bagel shop was on the way to work. She hadn’t decided whether she wanted to wait in line just to indulge a sudden craving—but then maybe she’d pick up some bagels for the office, too? Then the duck had slammed into her grill. Droplets of its blood flecked onto the windshield. The sun had shown through those spots and dazzled her; turning them a wild, incredible color.

Even though Heather knew she hit a duck, part of her wondered if she accidentally hit a person. She pulled into the parking lot next to the lake, scrubbing her hubcap against the curb. A travel coffee in her middle console splashed over its lip and doused her lap. The lot’s pavement was fresh – the kind of sticky black that collected tire marks like fingerprints. She quickly cut the engine. Unbuckling her seatbelt took a few minutes. When she stood up outside the car, her legs didn’t want to hold her weight. She leaned back against the door for a moment to steady her nerves.

It was a relatively new car. She’d bought it the year before when her partner Mandela had moved out and taken their beat up green Subaru. Heather still missed it.

Wisps of smoke came from under the hood. She could smell the hot tar baking in the heat, coupled with the deep, peppery smell of cut grass. Because she didn’t know what else to do, she climbed back in and bucked her seatbelt again. For a minute she just sat there and looked out at the lake. It was hot in her car. The air conditioning was acting up.

Heather turned to the front of the car; looked out the windshield at a group of kids throwing mulch at each other near the edge of the lake. Their mothers sat on a nearby park bench watching them, but their bodies were facing each other, focused on their conversation. The kids threw more mulch until one of them tossed a big handful into the water. One of the smaller girls got splashed and began to cry; a high, thin sound that Heather could hear even in the closed up car.

A man tapped on her driver’s side window. He wore khakis with a brown belt, the edges cracking where the leather had worn away from overuse. His crotch was directly at eye level. Part of his zipper was undone and she could see a slip of his blue button down shirt peeking through the gap.

“Hey,” he said. “You ran over a duck.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He crouched down beside her car so his face was even with hers. His hands curled over the lip of the window and she could see that he was wearing a scuffed up wedding ring. For some reason this reassured her.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Heather tried smiling. The movement pulled her lips awkwardly over her teeth. She could taste the leftover coffee on her tongue and wondered if he could smell her sour breath.

He smiled back at her. “That was crazy,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

She realized she really was fine. Not wonderful, but okay. She had killed an animal and that was terrible, but it had been an accident and she wasn’t hurt. Maybe she would call in a little late to work and pick up those bagels on the way in to the office. She could put them out by the coffee maker for everyone. Food always made people happy.

When Heather restarted the engine, an unfamiliar noise came from beneath the hood of her car. Pressing down on the gas did nothing except produce a longer, deeper growl and a terrible squealing. There was a hot, burnt smell.

“Your drive train’s done.”

The man still had his hand cupped over the top of her window and she had a sudden urge to stab his fingers with her keys. The car rumbled louder and she could feel the vibrations beneath her seat.

“Turn it off,” he said. “You’re killing the engine.”

People in the parking lot stared at her. Heather cut the car off quickly and it sat clicking and hissing like a wounded animal.

“Do you have Triple-A?” he asked.

She did not. Heather wondered what a middle-aged man was doing alone at a park on a weekday morning. Then he waved at a young girl with dark hair swinging nearby. The girl waved back, and when she took her hand off the chain, the swing twisted sideways. The man leaned into Heather’s window again.

“You’re gonna need a tow.”

Heather pulled out her phone, but she just sat there and didn’t dial. She had no idea who to call. The last time she had car problems, Mandela took it in and brought it back two days later. Heather’s ex-girlfriend knew how to parallel park and which direction was northeast and which was southeast. Mandela also had the number for the mechanic stored in her phone.

“I know a guy,” the man said. “Let me get you his number.”

He unearthed a gray business card from his wallet that read HOWARDS TOWING & AUTO REPAIR – AMERICAN MADE CARS in all block print with no apostrophe in the word Howards. There was an embossed red sports car on the front, like an old vintage car, maybe a mustang. Heather fixated on the missing apostrophe. She wanted to talk to the person who made the business card and ask why they’d spent money on something so blatantly wrong.

“They’ll treat you right. Tell them Patrick sent you.”

Heather grabbed a pen from her purse and wrote the man’s name on the back of the card. It ran out of ink half way through.

“Thanks very much, Patrick.”

“I’d get on that.” He stared at his daughter, who was swinging high now, hair stretched out behind her as she went up and then blowing back over her face on the trip back down. “Later in the day, longer the wait.”

Heather dialed the number on the front of the card. She talked with a receptionist named Sylvia who claimed to be the owner’s wife. Heather gave the woman the name of the park.

As she sat and waited, she people-watched. The man, Patrick, was near the yellow slide with his daughter. She’d fallen into the dirt and he was dusting off her knees. Heather wondered if he was a stay-at-home dad. Her own father had been a high school history teacher. He’d died two years earlier of a heart attack from living off of freezer foods and beer. If he were still alive, Heather wouldn’t have called him about her car. He’d never known anything about them—he’d once told her that he took his car to a mechanic who overcharged because he hadn’t wanted the hassle of looking for a new place.

The tow truck arrived forty minutes later. It had a wide, flat bed, and the name HOWARDS printed on it like the business card. Heather got out of her car and wished she’d worn a lighter dress instead of the black wool with the high collar. Her hair was damp and there was an odor she’d always associated with walking outside, a musky scent that made her wonder if she smelled funny. She kept her arms pressed to her sides, just in case.

On the off chance that this was something that could be fixed right away, she smiled as she walked over to the tow truck driver. He was crouched at the front, peering beneath the car. Little drops of blood hung from the grill.

“I ran into a duck, Sylvia probably already told you. Isn’t that crazy?” She realized that sounded callous. “No, not crazy, I guess, but upsetting—on my way to work and a duck flies into my car, like something on TV.”

“Is the car in neutral?”

“Oh, I’m not sure.”

“Can you check?”

He was wearing a red baseball cap that sat high on his head and dark hair curled from the bottom. When she looked in through the partially opened window, she could see that the car was still in park.

“No, it’s not. Should I turn it back on and move it out of gear?”

“Yeah, go ahead and try.”

She got the engine to turn over, but it made a horrible screech that got progressively louder the longer it ran. Heather put the car in neutral and turned it off, climbing back out and locking the door, though she remembered she’d left the window down and it was stuck that way unless she turned the car back on again. She stood awkwardly next to the tow truck driver as he poked around. When he finally stood up, he was much younger than she anticipated. There was a dark shadow of beard on his jaw and over his lips, which were very smooth and pink. When he moved past her to push the car out of the parking spot, she could smell the laundry detergent coming from his t-shirt. She wondered if his mother still did his laundry for him.

Once the wenches and pulls and straps were slapped out on the pavement, the man hooked up her silver car and dragged it onto the flat bed. She wondered how old you needed to be to work for an auto mechanic, or if it was a kind of an apprenticeship, like how someone might become a blacksmith.

Sun beamed off the side mirror and her car suddenly looked very small and fragile, lifted up above them both onto the platform of the truck.

“Are you riding with me?”

“I don’t know. How far is it?”

“About twenty minutes.”

The man walked back toward the cab of his tow truck and Heather followed along behind him. He opened up the door and climbed up into the seat and Heather scurried around the front of the truck, her pantyhose snagging on some bushes. When she got around to the passenger side, she could see that she’d have to lift herself up. She wedged one of her high heels into the step and then opened the door. It swung wide and let out the smell of motor oil and sunshine baking the dashboard. The man started the truck as she wrestled the black seat belt. It slumped loose around her waist.

“Seat belt’s broken.”

Hard vibrations started up beneath her seat as the engine turned over, making her feel like she was riding in a big yellow school bus. It was hot in the truck and the man flipped on the air conditioning. It blew lukewarm air in her face and she wanted to ask if she could roll the window down, but she didn’t want to seem like she was nagging him when he was already giving her a ride.

Music played low, but she couldn’t make out the words—just small slips of sound, a man’s voice that was nasal and high at parts, like someone was crying. As the tow truck turned out of the lot, she saw a little boy waving up at the truck. The man honked the horn and the kid yelled and turned to press his face into his mother’s stomach.

There was a silence after that. Heather mostly stared out the window and watched the scenery float past. She didn’t go very many places except to work and to her house, with the exception of a few stores, and a local pastry shop where she bought the coffee she liked. The man sneezed, abruptly, and it was so loud that she jumped in her seat. She realized that she didn’t know this man’s name, that she’d been riding in a tow truck with him for ten minutes and had no idea who he was.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.” She laughed and it came out high pitched and strangled.

“Mark.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Heather was out of things to say.

She stared out her window. They were nearing a rundown section of patchy fields; a refinery with big white cylinders arranged like children’s stacking cups. A high fence ran all the way around it with signs stapled up that said no trespassing in big black letters. They stopped at a red light and a few feet ahead a train crossing came down and the bell clanged. There was no one around. Even the refinery looked abandoned with its empty parking lot. One of the white cylinders had the name DENNIS at the top of it, and Heather stared hard at the letters as the freight train came down the track in front of the light. The silence in the cab felt louder than the sound of the train, and she wished she could roll the window all the way down and just let the sound fill her ears.

“This one’s long,” she said. “And slow.”

When she was young, she and her father gone down the street from their house to the railroad track. They laid four quarters on the rail, three inches apart. Then they crouched down in a ditch nearby to wait on the next train. It had taken awhile to show up. They ate ham and tomato sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and shared a bottle of lemonade made from powder. She liked it extra sweet, so he put in a lot of the mix. It hung cloudy in the liquid, but it tasted delicious, and he gave her most of it. When the train finally came, it was so loud her father put his hands flat over her ears. She’d shrieked, but hadn’t felt scared. When it passed, they collected their coins, which were no longer round, but had smashed into smooth metal tongues.

The arm came up. Mark drove the truck slowly over the tracks and Heather looked down to see if she could spot any coins, but she only saw bits of rock and gravel and an empty chip bag that had faded to a fuzzy white.

After ten more minutes, he turned down an unpaved drive set between stands of bare trees. Heather rocked side to side and clutched her seat belt as Mark drove to a squat cinderblock building. A few cars were parked in sections of the yard, with grass and weeds shooting up high in patches between them, as if rain had only dripped in those small spots.

“Is this it?” She’d expected something like the Jiffy Lube where Mandela had taken her Subaru—a place right off the main road where everything was visible from the street and the mechanics all wore matching coveralls. The Jiffy Lube signs blinked neon yellow around the black background, reminding Heather of a busy nest of wasps. Here there was a sign tacked up over the front window that claimed they were Open for Business, but otherwise it looked empty.

“Garage is around back.” Mark pulled to a stop at the front. “Go on in and talk to Sylvia.”

Heather gathered up her purse and jacket and hopped down. Her skirt caught on the seat behind her, and she smoothed it down quickly in embarrassment. Mark drove off almost before the door was all the way closed. Heather watched her car bob around the corner of the building, then stood there feeling like she had accidentally left something in the cab of the truck.

On the wall above the front door there was a large split in the cement block. There were pine needles and leaves stuffed inside it. Heather wondered if there was a bird living up there with a clutch of blue eggs, or maybe even a squirrel. Walking underneath it made her worried that something might jump down onto her head, so she hurried through the doorway. Inside there was a laminate counter covered with an assortment of uncapped pens and paperwork. Near the end of the counter sat a large stack of manila folders with a black stapler balanced on top. The phone was ringing, but there was nobody to answer it. Heather wondered if she should go back outside, or call another mechanic, but her car had already rolled away from her to a garage she had yet to see.

“Just a second.” The voice came from behind a pine-veneered door at the end of the hallway.

The air smelled of lemon disinfectant and motor grease. There was a key rack hanging up behind the desk carved to resemble deer antlers. It held numerous key rings, and each set had a white plastic tag. Heather counted the sets of keys and had gotten to number seven by the time someone emerged from the back room.

“Sorry about that.” The woman was carrying a large stack of rectangular cardboard boxes. She shuffled forward, her chin digging a dent into the top box. “How can I help you?”

“I’m Heather Walters. I own the silver Ford.”

“Right, Mark towed you in.”

The woman dumped the boxes onto the countertop. They tipped sideways and then most of the papers inside spilled onto the floor by Heather’s feet. The woman didn’t move to gather them, so Heather reached down and grabbed a handful.

“Just leave them. I’m Sylvia.” The woman wore khaki pants and a red t-shirt. It stretched across her breasts in a way that turned the fabric shiny white where her bra showed through.

“I’m Heather.” She realized she’d already said that. “Sorry.”

“Why don’t you go ahead and have a seat in our waiting room.” Sylvia gestured toward another door at the other end of the hall that Heather hadn’t noticed. “We’ve got coffee, I think, although that might be yesterday’s still in the pot.”

“Thanks.”

“Unless someone’s gonna pick you up?”

There wasn’t a single person Heather could think to call that would drive twenty minutes to collect her. She couldn’t even think of what she’d do once she got home without her car. There wasn’t public transportation near her house. She imagined walking fourteen blocks to get to a bus top, then sitting on a bench in the humidity, then walking into work reeking of sweat and exhaust from the bus. Then she’d have to do the same thing to get home. Her underarms began to preemptively sweat.

“How long do you think this will this take?” Heather asked. “Can it be done today?”

“Bobby will come find you once he’s done an assessment.”

“Okay.” Heather remembered the card. “Oh wait, I’m supposed to tell you that Patrick sent me.”

“Patrick who?”

Heather dug through her purse but couldn’t find the card. She thought maybe it had slipped out during the tow truck ride and fallen somewhere in the seat or on the floor. “I’m not sure, I just met him today. He told me that I should say that he referred me, for a deal?”

Sylvia looked confused. “We don’t really do that here.”

“Okay, sorry.” Heather laughed to cover her nerves, worried she was making things worse for herself. “I’ll go find that coffee.”

She walked down the short hallway and made a right into the waiting room, which was set up like somebody’s rec room. There was a scratchy-looking plaid couch and a coffee table with milky lacquer in one of the corners, as if someone had spilled something hot and then left it there to warp the wood. Aside from the fluorescent in the ceiling, one small window lit the room. Heather went over to look outside. The view was mostly trees and the sides of the few cars she’d noticed on the drive in. She still couldn’t see the garage.

A dark, smoky smell was coming from the coffee maker, which held an inch of liquid. There was a stack of small Styrofoam cups beside it, and packets of pink and yellow and blue sweetener were sprinkled across the counter like confetti. She poured some of the coffee into a cup and it was strong enough to paint the side a murky black. There were no stir sticks or spoons, so Heather dumped in some powdered creamer and stirred it with her finger.

Sunlight slanted in through the venetian blinds and shone in stripes on her arms and legs. She sat down on the very edge of the couch and felt uncomfortable, gripping the coffee cup in both hands. The burnt taste was terrible, but it helped clear her head.

The last time she took the car to a repair place was for an oil change. She had never changed a tire, though her father had once tried to show her how to do it on their family station wagon. It had taken over an hour. His face had glistened with sweat, red and strained as he hoisted the jack and tried to lift up the back end of the car. Heather had stood with her arms crossed as the sun shone hot on her head and stared at her dad, embarrassed to see him struggling with something other men did so easily. He peered around with a small plastic flashlight, rump high in the air. Then the neighbor had walked over carrying an icy beer that dripped circles of condensation on the asphalt near her father’s head.

“Phil, changing a tire?”

“Yeah, just teaching Bunny.”

Heather was mortified by that nickname. “Dad, seriously.”

“Let me take a look.”

Then the neighbor had taken the flashlight from her father. Heather’s dad just sat there, kneeled down next to the neighbor’s leg like a faithful dog. Heather couldn’t stand it. She had gone inside the house, back into the air conditioning, and taken a long shower so she wouldn’t have to hear her father fumbling around outside.

Now she couldn’t check to see if her oil was low, didn’t know how to gauge if a tire was running flat on air. She took cars in to the mechanic and had to trust that they knew what they were doing and that they would treat her respectfully. Or she’d had previous partners do it. Mandela had known how to do all of that stuff and had tried to keep Heather updated on the maintenance, but all Heather didn’t want to think about it.

“I just want it to run,” she said when Mandela tried to show her how to jump the battery. “That’s all. That’s it.”

Time passed slowly in the waiting room. Heather sat on the couch drinking the last of the coffee, then made another pot with grounds she found in a small cabinet beneath the coffee maker. She drank half of that pot, too, and played around on her phone until the battery ran low, and then she flipped through a copy of Woman’s Day someone had left on the couch. There was a picture of a cake on the cover, smothered in peaches, and it made Heather’s stomach growl. For a solid minute she contemplated ripping out the recipe, then stopped herself. What if it was Sylvia’s magazine and she bought it specifically for the cake recipe? No one else had been in the waiting room. Sylvia would know that Heather had been the one to rip the pages out.

The room was warm and Heather found herself nodding off more than once. She fanned herself with the magazine and drank another cup of coffee, surprised that she hadn’t needed to use the bathroom. As soon as she thought about it, she had to go, so she crossed her legs and sat forward. Maybe they didn’t even have a bathroom.

Voices sounded in the hall. Heather’s heart thumped wildly from a mixture of caffeine and stress. The door opened and a tall man walked through. It wasn’t Mark. He was wearing loose jeans and a white t-shirt with the neck stretched out, and he had the kind of hair that looked like it had been crushed under a baseball cap for most of the day.

“Heather?”

“Yes, hi.” She got up and stuck out her hand and the man shook it strongly. She gripped his hand solidly back, willing force into it.

“Okay, so I have a few things to tell you about the car. Good news and bad news.”

“How bad is it?”

“Well, you’ve got some real damage to the drive train. There also seems to be some problems with the alignment of the car; maybe it had previously been in an accident?”

“No, absolutely not.” Heather chafed at her arms, unsure what to do with her hands. “It’s nearly brand new.”

“That’s going to need to be fixed. Also your front tires are rotted and will probably blow out any day now—so those will have to be replaced.”

“Tires can rot?” She’d never heard that before.

“Yep. The steering column needs rewiring, but I have the parts for that—and that’s good news, because that usually can cost a bundle, but I’ve got a used one in a car out back that I can pull for a replacement.”

“How much is all this going to cost?”

“Total, service and all, is going to run you at about forty-five hundred dollars.”

He was smiling at her, his eyes wrinkling up in the corners, and all Heather could think was how can he smile at me when he just said something so terrible?

“That seems like a lot of money,” she said, groping around behind her on the couch for her purse, as if she might locate that much money in her pocketbook. “I haven’t even finished paying off the car yet.”

“Gotta be done.”

“How long will it take?”

In her head, she was already calculating how much money she had in her savings account, enough that she could pay the bill, sure, but then what if something else happened after she left here? What if she had a medical emergency? Or what if something else happened with the car, what would happen?

The man shrugged and scratched at his face, his nails dragging through his chin whiskers and making a skritch-skritch sound.

“Maybe three, four days.”

“But I have work, what will I do?”

She hated that she sounded so terrified. There was a thrumming in her chest that sped up scarily, like nausea but also like hysteria, that she might actually breakdown and sob over this situation – and how this man might think, oh isn’t that just like a woman. Crying over a car.

“We have some loaners, if you’re interested.”

“Yes, please. Let’s just figure this out and get it over with.”

Relief flooded through her and she wanted to laugh at how happy she felt at such a terrible situation. The man led her out front. He said his name was Bobby, the mechanic, Bobby Howard who owned the shop. He had Sylvia ring her up on a swipe machine that looked about twenty years old. As her card ran through the reader she had a sudden fear that it would be declined, that maybe there wasn’t actually enough liquid in her checking account to make the transaction. Then what, would they have her make coffee for the next forty years to pay the bill?

“We’ll just you need you to sign here and here.” Sylvia tapped a fingernail on the receipt, a huge packet of paper with paragraphs of typescript. It looked like she was signing a legal contract, but Heather didn’t want to read it. She just wanted to get out of there and go home, maybe heat up one of the frozen dinners she’d been saving for a bad day. One with thick gravy and cheese and the microwavable brownie that cooked simultaneously in one of the small plastic pockets.

Bobby grabbed a set of keys from the rack and Heather followed him outside, her work heels sliding over the pine needles in the driveway. The car was a small red sedan with dark tinted windows. Its winged spoiler made it look capable of flight. He unlocked the door and heat wafted from the interior, thick enough to see it waving lines into the air.

“You’re gonna need to put some gas in it pretty quick.”

“That’s fine.”

She climbed in and put on her seat belt. He was leaning in over her and she felt trapped; her hands clenched and unclenched on the wheel. The heat baked into her palms.

“The air conditioning’s a little rocky, so just crank it.”

The engine turned over, loud, until she felt like she might rev right out of her seat. Bobby stayed there, leaning in over her, talking to her about all of the car’s eccentricities—how the power steering was going out, that she needed to take it slow over any bumps because the frame might scrape. When he finally moved away, she mumbled thank you and shut the door in his face.

Backing down the long driveway was excruciating. Sweat broke out on Heather’s chest and thighs as she maneuvered the car over gravel and pine needles, the tires swerving gently right and left. Someone had left the radio on in the car and the speakers were pumping aggressive rock music where the singer screamed at certain points. When the back tires finally hit the road and she was able to turn around, she nearly flooded the engine. She drove blindly until she realized that it had been five or ten minutes, maybe longer, and she had no idea how to get back home again because she hadn’t thought to ask for directions.

In the distance, she heard the call of a train. It was hot in the car and it didn’t have automatic windows. She worked the crank with one hand until the wind was almost smothering her. As she pulled up to the tracks, the red and white arm was coming down, the lights blinking dully in their sockets. The train was closer now, chugging slowly—a freight train, the kind with flat beds people jumped on to ride. Heather leaned her head down on the steering wheel as the hot air puffed along her neck. She remembered what her father had said about the transcontinental railroad; that when they’d finally finished building it, passengers had been able to cross the country in days instead of months. That it had taken nearly seven years to construct. She didn’t know if her father had ridden many trains. She’d never been inside one.

When the train finally passed and the bar lifted up, Heather let her hand dangle out the window. She cupped the hot wind in her hand and let it feather through her fingers, and wondered if the bagel shop was still open.

By Kristen N. Arnett

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