Beyond corroding my mental equilibrium, winter brings about the demise of my vehicle, which I blame on my father since he has instilled in my mind a fear of black ice that is allayed only by driving exclusively in four-wheel drive from Halloween till Memorial Day. Inevitably, my car breaks down as it only does in winter, sending me to the place I dread more than Purgatory or the return line at Walmart.
My loathing for the mechanic has amplified as my car has aged. When I first bought the Jeep, a very slippery salesman forced me into purchasing a comprehensive repair plan. Because he said words that I should known better than to believe, words such as bumper-to-bumper and lifetime warranty, I have taken to breezing into the dealer as though I’m the CEO of Chrysler. I toss my paperwork on the desk and say with a disinterested flip of my hair, “I’m covered, so do what you must.”
I like to be armed with a few verses of vehicular jargon so the mechanic won’t take advantage of me, like Diane Sawyer warned all women of in the early 90s. A typical monologue sounds like this, “I was cruising along when I noticed the ESP light illuminated on the dash. I pulled over to check under the hood. I could tell my spark plugs were fine because, you know, they weren’t sparking. I know the tranny is in good shape since I changed the fluids and flushed the system myself last week. For fun. See what you find.”
The man barely glances at me from behind his grease-smeared computer.
“And,” I begin cautiously. “Carburetor.”
He raises his eyebrows in a way that beckons for more information.
“That’s it,” I mutter. “Just carburetor.”
Then I saunter off to the waiting room after calling over my shoulder, “I’ll be reading some Motor Trend if you need me.”
The waiting room is packed with men, most of whom are actually reading auto magazines or are gazing through the window, acting as though they possess X-ray vision to bore into the garage so that they know exactly what the mechanics are doing to their car. They know what a carburetor is. They also know that ESP has something to do with steering correction rather than the ability to bend a fork, which incidentally, I’d be able to do sooner than identify a carburetor. I urge the kids to play with the one dejected toy that resides in the waiting room. It holds their focus for a few beats until they discover the vending machine. They turn their attention to straining to extract the low-hanging candy bars by forcing their bodies into the mouth of the machine. I consider telling them to stop, but allow it in hopes that the mechanic responsible for tallying my bill will read the scene as child hunger and poverty.
We sit in the waiting area for what seems hours before I notice the red beacon of Rite Aid’s logo through the window. I gather up the kids and we slink across the parking lot into the store.
We wander the aisles without purpose, grateful to have returned to a land in which I know the indigenous people and customs. I immerse myself in the language of hair clarifiers and skin toners, relishing the ease with which I can choose products I need and dismiss those I don’t.
I find myself recommending brands to strangers just to feel knowledgeable about something, anything, again.
Just as I begin to grab a second cart to fill, my phone rings. It is the dealer, beckoning us back to settle the bill. Not surprisingly my service plan has covered nothing. I meekly attempt to negotiate, but the kids have released the contents of the Poland Spring water tank onto the waiting room floor. I curse under my breath as I carry three water-logged children to the vehicle that has bankrupted us.
As I drive away I notice that it has begun to snow. The first flakes of winter. I massage my temples and summon the serenity prayer of women having to deal with their vehicles:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference between a transmission and a carburetor.