Al’s Garage and Soul Repair Shop

A day or two later, when he finally got back to town, I got a call from the mayor. He said the salmon was good, as was the tiramisu, but neither was as good as he was at the podium. “Told ’em the whole thing about how I wrecked my car because I was so eager to speak to them. They were rolling in the aisles.”

“You always did know how to spin a yarn,” I said.

“So, Al, how long until I can pick up my car?”

“I need you to come down here, Mayor. We can’t talk this out over the phone.”

“What do you mean? Can’t talk it out on the phone? You think I’m crawling under that car with a wrench, you’ve got another thing comin’. I keep telling you: You’re the tow-truck guy, not me! Fix my car and tell me when I can come pick her up. I love that car, Al! You take good care of her. She and I got a lot of fine memories together.” And he hung up.

Now a man like the mayor is used to having things his way. He’s pretty much arranged his life so the folks who might say things he doesn’t want to hear don’t get a word in edgewise. I figure he’s the kind of driver who doesn’t use his rearview mirror all that often. Doesn’t see the need to signal before he changes lanes. He probably doesn’t look at the odometer much either. I used to have to call him to remind him to come in for an oil change. He always paid me extra for that kind of service, and he’d have an intern or somebody drive his car over and sit in my waiting room while I changed the oil, did the state inspection, or tuned her up. Now, hearing him on the phone, I was thinking he might not be ready to see what was left of his beautiful car, but there was nothing I could do for him till he saw her in the flesh. I figured he’d call back sooner or later.

Turns out I had to wait three months before the phone rang and the mayor was on the line. It was cold, there was an inch of snow on the ground and North Carolina just isn’t prepared for that kind of natural disaster. School was closed for the day, but my tow truck has four-wheel drive and chains. People need me more when things get slippery, not less. So I was up early, sitting by the phone, waiting to pull somebody out of some kind of mess.

“Al, say, how ya doin’? Did Santa treat you all right this year? I tell ya, this snow is somethin’ else! Gotta get the taxpayers to buy us another plow attachment for a dump truck or somethin’, that one plow we got just can’t keep up when it really decides to dump on us! Listen, Al, spring will be here before ya know it, and I’m dreaming about riding around in that beautiful car of mine. How’s she lookin’?”

“Well, sir, I really think you need to come down here and take a look.”

“Wonderful! I knew you could fix her up! You’re a miracle worker, Al. I’ll be over later today, once we get these roads cleaned up. Get the paperwork ready; I’ll bring my checkbook.” And the mayor hung up.

I knew it was time for me to buckle up and brace for impact. I put his car up on the lift in the garage, turned on all the lights so you could see her real good, and waited in my little office for his arrival. It seemed our town had collectively decided to stay in, watch TV, and wait for the snow to melt. The phone only rang for the mayor, that day, which suited me just fine. I figured it was a good time to get caught up on my paperwork.

Dusk was approaching when he finally slid into my lot. He jumped out of his black Buick sedan, leaving her running with the door standing open. He raced across the parking lot, his loafers slip sliding on the snow. He was talking on his cell phone, gesturing wildly with his hands as he swung open my glass door and marched into my waiting room. I stood up behind the counter.

“I know that’s what she says, but what she needs to know is that is NOT going to work at all, so you tell her that. Hear me? Tell her THAT! . . .  Right. OK. I’ll check in with you later.” And he took a deep breath and smiled at me. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this, I need some good news today, Al. Thanks for all you do!”

“Come and see,” I said.

I don’t often let my customers back into my garage. The guy who sells me my insurance says I shouldn’t do that because of what might happen if someone slips on some grease and falls or something. But the truth is, I couldn’t even roll this car out into the lot if I wanted to. It was all I could do to winch her off the tow truck and onto my lift. I went into the garage and turned to face him while I held the door open. The smile on his face cracked like shatter-glass on the highway when he saw his car on the lift. He shook with rage.

“What the hell is this all about? You told me she was ready. You’ve had her here for months! What the hell have you been doing, you lazy ass!”

I let the door to the waiting room swing shut. I stood my ground and waited. He walked around the front of the car, squinting up at her mangled body. The entire front half of the car was bent in half, sucker punched by that pillar. The right wheel was dangling below, the axle snapped like a twig. Her heavy steel frame was crushed like a soda can. The mayor shuffled, his mouth wide open. He reached for the handkerchief in the breast pocket of his sport coat and wiped his brow. For a while he watched that car. I heard him sniffle; saw him raise the handkerchief to his eyes. He ran his fingers through the thin hair he always combed over the top of his head. He sighed.

When the mayor turned to look at me, his face looked as if he had aged at least 20 years, as if the life he’d been running from had finally caught up with him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked sheepishly.

“You had to see her for yourself,” I said.

“God, she was a beauty,” he said.

“Yessir,” I answered.

“Well,” he said as he thought for a long minute, “What the hell am I supposed to drive on a Sunday afternoon when this town thaws out in the spring? Answer me that, Al.”

“Depends on what you want,” I said. “We can talk about it.”

“Answer me that,” he said again, shaking his head.

“You’re lucky you weren’t hurt,” I said.

“I hurt plenty,” he said.

He crept over the threshold between my garage and the waiting room, leaning on my counter for support. His spine was rounded slightly. He looked like my grandfather, walking carefully, breathing deliberately.

“Depends on what I want,” he said again. “You’re a good friend, Al.”

Sometimes things get broken beyond repair and the loss of someone or even something we love brings to an end the life we thought we were living. You can try to run away from the wreckage, but somewhere somebody’s got an accident record attached to your VIN number. You’ve got to learn to drive differently or risk causing more of a mess.

The mayor of my hometown walked gently out to his Buick, door still open; engine still running. Slowly, he climbed in and shut the door. He turned the key and let the engine die. I saw him run his hand gently across the dashboard.

When he started her up again and eased her back out onto the road, I made a note on my calendar to call him in a month—more than likely, that shiny, black Buick was in need of an oil change.

An Episcopal minister, Michael Hunn ’93 is on the staff of the Bishops for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

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