Thursday, January 14, 2010

#9 - Running On Empty, Part II

Amazingly, the confession session with Mom did not turn out to be nearly as brutal as I had anticipated. After all, in the previous fifteen minutes, I had bellowed rude and hateful things, stomped away in anger to signify my displeasure with her existence, and then promptly wrecked two family cars. I was fairly certain that I was not her favorite child at the moment.

But she took things rather calmly. It would have been a perfect opportunity for her to unleash 17 years of frustration and provide unsavory commentary explaining exactly how I had ruined her life. Yet she did not take advantage of this understandable outlet, and instead again resorted to one of those mysterious Mom Things wherein they operate in a manner that is contradictory and confusing to the child.

Granted, she was far from pleased. And as I continued babbling, her mouth got smaller, which, I learned long ago, meant that she wanted to say more than she was saying, but was holding it back for now. As long as I didn’t do or say something else stupid, those particular words might never be spoken and there would be peace in the valley. I immediately shut up and tried to appear angelic.

She dismissed me shortly thereafter. The only form of punishment that she bestowed upon me was the decree that I could now ONLY drive the station wagon, assuming that my vehicular frenzy had not left the thing inoperable.

Wow, that was easy. So what if the wagon had a bashed-in door? I already hated that thing with every fiber of my being. It was ALREADY a completely humiliating horror show to drive. How could it possibly damage my reputation any further if the door was hanging off?

How wrong that thought proved to be.

From a functional standpoint, the station wagon was fine, just uglier. From an operational standpoint, things got a little murkier. From a frustration standpoint, I nearly lost my mind. Several times.

The driver’s side door, mashed in as it was, created a challenging new environment for the driver. While things on the dashboard remained exactly where they had been prior to impact, the position of the driver did not. With the door taking up more space than a door should, you were forced to take a seat somewhat to the right of the optimal location.

You had to reach slightly to the left for driving implements that should have been directly in front of you.

Let’s take the steering wheel. It was impossible to place your hands in the strongly-advised, clock-inspired positions of “ten” and “two”. It was more like “two” and “two”. Or whatever hour you could latch on to as you reached to your side.

The gas pedal? That was relatively okay. You could get at that thing fairly easy with either foot. The brake pedal was a different story. It was now in the “dead zone”, a difficult-to-reach space created when the door was re-located. Because the main portion of your body now rested in the wrong place, you had to snake your left foot in an awkward manner and stretch out your toes to reach the pedal.

And I was sadly mistaken about the humiliation level concerning the redesign of the station wagon. Yes, it had always been ugly, but in a benign and slightly sad way. People would avoid me, based on the appearance of my pathetic ride, assuming that my life was of little interest and I would probably die of alcoholism at a young age.

Now we had ugly mixed with crash-test-dummy accents. This combination brought the crazies out of the woods. People in neighboring cars at stoplights would point and show the kids. Other cars would honk while passing, as if giving me an aural high-five for surviving the crash. Old men at Piggly Wiggly would walk up in their baggy pants, scratching their butt and spittin tobacco, and ask “How’d you do THAT, son?”

That always killed me, all the people wondering how I “did that”. From a purely logical analysis of seeing the damage, it was clear that another vehicle had hit this one. Why did people immediately assume that I was somehow responsible? Shouldn’t they be feeling sorry for me, as the unfortunate victim, instead of assigning blame?

Of course, I couldn’t point out that another car had hit this one, because then I risked follow-up queries that might lead to further humiliation since, basically, I had been the one who hit ME. In my own driveway. Life was hard enough, I didn’t need to open myself up for further suffering.

Eventually, step-dad got one of his buddies to bang on the door for a few days, and things improved slightly. You could actually open the door if you were on level ground and the temperature was right. The driving experience became a little more tolerable. But it was never the same again.

And it wasn’t long before it didn’t really matter if the door opened or not.

You see, I really didn’t know much about the inner workings of a motor vehicle. I had the basic concept down, but that was it. I didn’t WANT to know any more. Because from the age of about seven, my real dad, who worships cars, had been trying to instill that same fervor and excitement in me.

This did not work out so well.

Because I really didn’t care. I had no desire to learn the specialized skill of adjusting a timing belt. This incensed my dad. A real man should be able to completely take a car apart, like he can, and then put it back together, like he can. Thus began many sessions of him schooling me in the art of automotive maintenance. These classes took place in his garage, on the weekends when my sister and I would visit him.

It was torture.

Every session went the same. I would stand beside the car for hours, aiming the stupid flashlight wherever he needed me to aim it, and getting yelled at every fifteen minutes because I handed him the wrong damn wrench again. (He had 500 wrenches. They don’t have THAT many wrenches at NASA.) This would go on for an eternity, until he was finally done doing whatever, dinner was ready, or I broke something. Hated every minute of it.

As a result, I learned nothing. (Well, except for the fact that you cannot cause a garage door to slam down on your dad’s vehicle using mental powers alone.) I didn’t learn about the timing belt. I didn’t learn about maintenance. I certainly didn’t learn about changing the oil in a car on a regular basis.

Which led to the downfall of the battered station wagon. I never even CHECKED the oil, let alone change it. It simply did not cross my mind to do so. Even when Mom would mention it every so often, because, well, she was a mom, and what person of high school age actually listens to their mother?

So there I am one day, probably headed off to a play or something artsy, because I was already showing that fondness for the humanities that so appalled the more macho members of the family. (I certainly wasn’t headed to the drag races, lugging bottles of Strawberry Hill and the one remaining cheerleader that wasn’t already pregnant.)

I’m innocently tooling along the road, obeying all traffic signals and driving friendly, when suddenly there’s an astonishingly loud bang, the car lurches and dies, and I am coasting along with no power.

In a slight panic, I crank hard on the steering wheel so the car will turn and roll into the nearest parking lot, which happens to be the local Wal-Mart. Well good, then. At least the car won’t look out of place while I figure out what to do.

I get out and approach the front of the car. Since that startling noise had come from this direction, and the engine had stopped running, chances were pretty strong that I might find something interesting under the hood. I popped it open, and peered inside.

That proved to be a pointless effort. Things looked okay to me. Then again, I had no idea what the hell I was looking at or for. There could have been a coal furnace in there and I would have thought, wow, I didn’t realize cars needed one of those. I dropped the hood back into place.

Based on some weird instinct that I couldn’t really identify (maybe something HAD sunk in during the evil garage sessions?), I dropped to one knee and peeked under the front of the car.

There was something sticking down. I didn’t know what it was, but it didn’t look right. In fact, it looked seriously wrong and reeked of impending doom. I started to get the first trickle of realization that this was somehow my fault. Oh boy.

I found a payphone (remember those?) and called my friend… um… we’ll call her Delilah, for legal purposes. Delilah was my bud, she would get me out of this if she could. I gave the details of what had just happened. Bang, power loss, rolling turn, Wal-Mart, thing sticking down. She needed more information:

“When was the last time you changed the oil?”

Why was everybody so damn concerned about the oil in this car? God. I seriously did not get a memo somewhere. “Uh… not lately.” (Translation: never.)

“You threw a rod. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Then she was gone. I practically heard tires squealing before the line disconnected.

Next thing I know, Delilah is roaring into the parking lot, her cute little car purring like a kitten and in perfect condition. She knew how to take care of HER car. Dad would love her. Maybe we were switched at birth? Might need to check into that some day.

Delilah takes about ten seconds to fully investigate the situation and then turns to me. “Okay, here’s the plan.”

“Plan? We have a plan? Why do we have to have a plan? Am I going to jail again?”

She sighs. “Look, there’s not a drop of oil in this thing. There’s no way you can’t be blamed unless we do this just right. Listen carefully.”

I was getting that surreal feeling again, where everything hasn’t registered yet and I’m waiting for things to click and make sense. Was it suddenly going to become necessary for us to run for our lives and hide out in Arizona?

Delilah gave me an exasperated look. “Quit being all drama queen in your head and pay attention.”

The movie soundtrack in my brain abruptly stopped. I faced Delilah and assumed a position of total concentration. “Ready.”

“Okay, run in to this Wal-Mart and buy a couple cans of recycled motor oil. RECYCLED, do you understand? Not the new stuff. Then come back out here and we’re going to pour some all over the engine and the rest under the car. Make it look like there was still oil in there and the damn thing just fell apart.”

I stared at her in amazement. First, how the hell did Delilah know that there was such a thing as recycled motor oil, and that you could get it at Wal-Mart? And how did she come up with a plan like that so quickly? What kind of life has this girl led?

But I had some concerns. “What if-”

“Just go! Now!”

I turned and scampered into Wal-Mart. She was kind of scaring me a little.

15 minutes later the deed was done. Operation Save My Ass was in full swing. Further phone calls were made, discussions took place, and the vehicle was eventually towed. I seriously doubt that anyone really believed me. I certainly didn’t. I don’t remember any direct accusations being made, but surely the family was a little suspicious of my story, at the very least.

If they DID believe me, then I might just be in a wee bit of trouble when I hit “publish” here in a few minutes.

Maybe I better find Delilah’s number. I’ve got it around here somewhere….

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