Al’s Garage and Soul Repair Shop

Winner of the 2009 Middlebury Magazine Fiction Contest

Mayor Goodrum still has the first car he ever bought, or at least he did until he wrecked it into an overpass pillar on his way to Atlanta. He hadn’t gotten far—not more than two hours from here—when he blew a tire and lost control of his 1958 Impala. That car was a thing of beauty—big, boxy, and green, with a glittery shine in the paint and a white leather interior. The mayor rarely drove that car; he had others through the years but always kept his baby safe and sound in the garage. He used to drive it to church every Sunday to keep the engine in good shape. He still had the original tires on when he wrecked her, which of course was the problem. Lord knows what he was thinking when he decided to drive that beautiful old boat all the way to Atlanta on rubber more than 40 years old.

The most amazing thing is that he walked away from the crash without so much as a bruise. He ran that big car right off the road and punched her into the pillar of an overpass. He had his cell phone in the car with him, and it still worked. First, he called 911, then dialed information and asked for Al’s. When he couldn’t get anyone at the garage, he called me at home. He’s the mayor, after all, and I guess he’s pretty much used to getting what he wants.

So that’s how I found myself in my coveralls on the Sabbath, driving two hours each way to pick up a 1958 Impala and see what I could do. Turns out it was a beautiful day for a drive. The fall lasts a long time around here, and there was this sunshine warming all the leaves as they were falling; making them feel there had been some mistake; that they’d given up too early and turned their colors and dropped when there was still a day or two left of golden light. The fall always makes me hopeful in a sad kind of way. I rode down there in the tow truck listening to some Atlanta preacher trying to save my soul before it was too late. Seems to me most preaching is like the fall—hopeful in a sad kind of way.

When I got down there near the wreck, the traffic was backed up, even on a Sunday morning. I had to switch on my yellow flashers and run up the left shoulder to the crash. You wouldn’t believe how many people in that line of cars flipped me the bird—on the Sabbath no less—thinking I was just using my lights to get ahead of them in line. You could barely see the car from the road, but all those folks were rubbernecking anyway, slowing everybody up because there just might be something awful to see.

It was lucky for me—and for the mayor—that the car landed on her wheels. All I had to do was winch her out of the ditch onto the flatbed of my truck. I could tell by the way she fishtailed out of the mud that something was seriously wrong with the front axle. I couldn’t be sure, but my guess was she was pretty much a DOA.

You never know who you’re going to meet when you get called to a wreck. People you’ve known in ordinary ways for years get turned into wide-eyed strangers by the popping sound of steel and glass. The mayor was pissed off and late to his speaking engagement in Atlanta. He didn’t say a thing about the accident but was more than clear he wanted me to get that car on the truck and us back on the road ASAP. He always spoke like he was in a movie or something. Looking at him, it was easy to see he was a bit of a wreck himself: hands shaking, eyes sunk into his head. His loafers had mud in the tassels, but he’d straightened out his tie. Seemed like he’d drunk about 10 cups of coffee, too. The first thing he said after, “Morning, Al,” was, “you got to get me to the airport.”

“Where you flying off to, Mayor?”

“Not flying, Al, but I need a rental car ASAP. Got to get to that podium in Atlanta. I’ll miss the salad course for sure, but I just might get a bite of the salmon if you step on it.”

“So, Mayor, where’s this airport then?”

“How the hell should I know, Al? You’re the damn tow-truck operator. You’re supposed to know where everything is!”

“You’ve got me a long way from home, you know.”

“Shit, Al,” was all he could say, and we sat there in the cab side by side for a moment or two. Quiet like. People usually need some time to realize what they’ve done, and so I give it to them once I’ve got their car hooked to the truck. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they shout at me—as if I had anything to do with it. Sometimes they just stare out the window. Those are the good wrecks, of course, when the driver and other occupants of the car aren’t strapped to a board in the back of an ambulance—or worse. I can tell a lot about a person from how they react when they’ve just crashed their car. What they worry about tells me a lot about what matters to them. Who do they call first when we get back to the garage? Who picks ’em up? Is it hugs and kisses and thank-God-you’re-all-right or shouting and how’d-you-wreck-the-goddamn-car? Some worry about the money. Some are wracked by guilt. Some smile and laugh like they just got away with something. One guy even asked me to stop at an ABC store so he could buy some champagne to celebrate. “Always did hate that car,” he said.

The mayor wasn’t thinking about much other than his speech and how he could get to Atlanta. He deliberately did not look behind him at his wrecked Impala lying there just over his left shoulder. He’s a man who is used to prioritizing his thoughts and not letting on what he’s really thinking. I suppose you’ve got to be that way if you’re a mayor—or a card player. He’d have time later to think about that car, but now he had to get to the podium at the Southern States Mayor’s Association so he could deliver the keynote address, tell them all a thing or two. My diagnosis? The mayor was in serious denial.

He took out his cell phone and, just before the battery ran out, got directions to a Hertz rent-a-car joint at this small airport nearby. I wasn’t sure they’d be open, and I had visions of driving the mayor all the way to Atlanta, which I knew he’d not be shy about asking of me. So we pulled into the airport-arrivals lane, yellow lights flashing as required by North Carolina state law whenever you’ve got a car in tow, his banged-up Impala up there, on display for all the world to see. The mayor didn’t once look back as he jumped out of the truck, muddy loafers and all, and ran inside to the Hertz counter.

I saw the whole thing through the window. You should have seen the look on the face of the kid behind the desk. He looked right past the mayor at that crumpled Impala, my truck, and the flashing lights. His eyes bugged out just a little. He excused himself and walked all the way down to the end of the counter, where he spoke to someone on this red phone for about five minutes. Had to be his supervisor. Can I rent a car to a guy who just got out of a tow truck with his own wrecked car on it? The answer must have been yes because he was all smiles when he came back to where the mayor was standing—not so patiently, I might add. A few minutes later, key in hand, the mayor waved to me through the window, then hurried down the escalator toward the lot full of shiny new cars.

I waited till I saw him pull out of the lot in a big Cadillac convertible, and then I went off to find the highway, still shaking my head. Some folks manage to maintain a handle on their authority even when they’ve just about messed everything up.

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