“I may be old but I’m not deaf,” groused Grandpa into the phone. “There’s no need to shout.”
“What did he say?” said Grandma one ear over.
“Yes,” repeated Dean softly.
In accepting a small, old, hand-me-down 1967 Mercury Comet, Dean had, in turn, freed his grandfather’s hands to take the reins of a large, new, moving-on-up 1978 Chrysler Cordoba replete with rich Corinthian leather.
Before the bestowal, Dean relied, like most students in Medville College’s class of ’78, on Boston mass transit. What choice did he have? Every time his parents called from Braintree—still smarting from the ’73-74 OPEC oil embargo, ’73-74 bear market, and Nixon—Dean gathered that one of their sixteen kidneys and counting had been handed to the Bursar’s Office once again. And as a senior working twenty-five hours per week, Dean comprehended the cost of gas (up from 38 to 65 cents per gallon in a span of four years), parking, and insurance made even a used car smell of luxury.
Nonetheless, when Grandpa called from Worcester—where he and Grandma, like generations fore and hence, only wanted better—the contemporary beneficiary hadn’t stopped to think. As soon as Dean drove away with his new old car, however, dispirited animals jump-started him to attention. The dashboard quacked for a quart of oil. The second of two flat tires whinnied for the replacement of all four. A screech insisted on a new fan belt. A bray budged only after a new battery.
If only the car could bark. Grandma and Grandpa traded in the family car every 10 years or 30,000 miles, whichever came first. Because time always won, the car was deemed to operate under little stress, obviating maintenance. This mindset did not apply to Espo, Grandma and Grandpa’s terrier, who replicated the car’s 10 years and low mileage while receiving meticulous annual checkups.
As more-than-minimal driving unmasked the Comet’s ill-maintained health, Dean ran into an already feeble checkbook. How was he supposed to budget for typewriter ribbon, typewriter correction ribbon, beer, pizza, and other necessities? How was he going to take the guys on a road trip to take in the Grateful Dead someday, somewhere, as planned?
The guys were all right. The guys were going to be all right. Dean’s brown bangs, narrow nose, small mouth, and lanky frame stacked Emerson Compressed Air canisters as a prelude to law school. Bill, tall and rangy himself, with the biggest, blackest, non-swashbuckling beard in the quad, piled pallets at Pilgrim Castparts in the buildup before medical school. Hank, dirty blond with brown eyes, full lips, and blunt nose (kept clean, along with a forklift’s teeth, at Herrick Cement) would soon head for dental school.
Working nights and weekends with mutual recognition at the mass-transited station of return, these blue-collar offspring owed their pale faces to off-campus grunt work that paid a good $1.40 over the $2.65-per-hour minimum wage of ivory tower busywork. It was a good way to get the most out of working one’s way through college.
* * *
“Want to join us for a beer?” asked Dean after a series of sightings of a thin guy with thick glasses in the wee hours at the gates of Medville.
With foam hanging from his chin, nose, and frames, Arnold held court on how: how he collected dead-of-night data from Boston area computer banks for an economics professor; how economics made for a cheerful, not a dismal, science; how graduate school wrongly assumed debt equals equity, wasting time and money when anyone with half a brain could go straight to work on Wall Street; how a yet-to-be-invented company would invent a way to fix eyeballs in such a way as to do away with glasses; how such a yet-to-be invented company would be a good investment; how a day would come when the stock market would perform so well people would flock to careers in securities, as free from care as those who believed they would be free from care in careers in medicine and dentistry and law, thereby flashing the signal to get out.
Dean, Bill, and Hank laughed. Arnold the Contrarian looked like a Hungarian who missed far too many meals. He was blind as a bat, hopeless as a dreamer, and little as a brother.
Funny, Arnold never mentioned what his family expected of him.
* * *
“How’s it going?” asked Grandpa.
“Can’t complain,” said Dean on the other end the morning after meeting Arnold.
“Not you. The car.”
“Great. I took it out for a beer—I mean pizza last night.”
A receiver clanged against plaster. “You’d better pick up the other extension.”
“Heaven help us,” said the other extension, clearing her throat.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“He asked if he did something wrong.”
“Go ahead. Tell him.”
“Why don’t you?”
Dean heard a grandfather clock ticking.
“Your grandmother and I kept it in the carport.”
“You must have driven it once in a while. It’s got 29,000 miles.”
Tick, tick, tick.
“Where did we drive it?” asked Grandpa.
“The grocery store,” answered Grandma.
“Did you hear that?” trumpeted Grandpa. “The grocery store.”
“Just the grocery store?”
“Your grandmother’s right. Sometimes we get gas.”
“Is that all?”
“Is that all, Ma?”
“Don’t push me, Pa. Besides, it’s your turn.”
“Yes, dear. Hmm. Let me see. Say, Dean, could you repeat the question?”
“Is that all there is?”
Tick, tick, tick.
“Did I mention we took it to the vet?”
Of course, Dean knew he had done nothing wrong. And yet, nothing made the grinding stop until he poured two cans of fluid into the transmission. Only then could he drive down the Massachusetts Turnpike in no particular direction amid uninterrupted lines, broken lines, retaining walls, speed limits, semis, and voices.
“Hi, nice to meet you … Hi, nice to meet you, too … What’s your major? … What’s yours? … Wanna go for a pizza? … Okay … Wanna go to the game? … Gotta work … Wanna go for a beer? … Okay … Wanna go to a movie? … Gotta study … Wanna go celebrate? … Okay … Well, I guess that’s all there is … Guess so … See ya … See ya … Before our 25th, right? … Count on it.”
* * *
“Ready?” asked Dean.
“Ready,” said Bill.
“Ready,” said Hank.
“Check,” said Arnold.
The guys climbed into the Comet. A rare night off coincided with the spring mixers at Hanniford College, the all-girl school seventy-five miles away.
“Which class should we pick?”
As Dean got the ball of rust rolling, the guys were far from having their pick. To be sure, they flitted through flings—even Arnold with a townie who strayed to the college in protest the night of her high school prom—but none led to more than emission. Then again, if there was such a thing as something more, who had time?
“Freshman,” said Bill, combing his beard in the shotgun seat.
“Junior,” said Hank, expanding his shoulders in back.
“Excuse me,” said Arnold, readjusting his glasses in what remained in back. “I think we should look at this issue in terms of demographics.”
“Give him a chance,” said Dean.
“There’s no senior mixer,” said Arnold, “because seniors have set their sights on the future or hooked hockey players from Harvard or …”
The car hissed.
“As I was saying,” said Arnold with a conspiratorial grin, “seniors are out. Juniors know—no, think they know—too much. Freshmen, conversely, are too fresh, not as in rude, but as in not ready to get crude.”
The car snorted.
“That brings us to sophomores,” said Arnold.
“I’ll drink to that,” said Bill. “Especially if it’ll dull this smell.”
“Me too,” said Hank. “I’m not sure which is worse, the old vinyl or your new cologne. You smell like a musk ox.”
“I wore it so I could cover up your aftershave. You smell like a flower arrangement.”
“What would you know about plants? I wore it so I could cover up your animal.”
“I’ll stick with vinyl,” hazarded Dean.
“Ditto,” said Arnold.
“I’ll drink to that,” reiterated Bill.
“Me too,” said Hank. “Can I pop your can, captain?”
“No, thanks,” said Dean. “Not while I’m driving.”
“That never stopped you before.”
“Yes, but we’ve never gone this far before.”
“We only brought four.”
They rarely brought more, imbibing and inhaling sparingly under the specter of their work schedules.
“Sorry,” said Dean. “I’m listening to this old car.”
“Talking to you, huh?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“How about a brew, Arnold?”
“Later, guys. Dean might need a hand.”
Fifty miles from Boston, the grinding started.
“Down a little oil,” said Dean, pulling to the shoulder. “I’ll be back in a sec.”
Why couldn’t the car stick to hissing and snorting? Dean hustled to the trunk, raided his hoard of transmission fluid, and disgorged two cans under the hood.
“Sounds like the transmission,” said Bill.
Dean started the car.
“Sounds like the transmission,” said Hank.
The car ground to a halt.
“I’ve got a Triple A card,” said Arnold.
“What are you doing with a Triple A card?” said Bill.
“I’ve never seen you with a car,” said Hank.
“Who says a car is a prerequisite for a Triple A card?” said Arnold.
“Who says?” Bill parted the hair around his mouth. “Who does it look like who says?”
“Only an asshole,” observed Hank, “would own a Triple A card without owning a car; only an asshole would drive a car without being a card-carrying member of Triple A.”
“Shut up,” said Dean.
“What’s with you?” said Hank.
“We’re trying to cheer you up,” said Bill.
“The Triple A magazine has lots of interesting articles,” said Arnold.
“Shut the hell up,” shouted Dean. He snatched the Triple A card from Arnold’s undeniable hand, triggered the emergency blinkers, opened the door, hurtled out, slammed the door, ripped his handkerchief, lashed the shreds, kicked the bumper, and fumed.
“Dean, it’s best we wait in here,” said Bill, hairy growth flapping.
“Don’t worry,” said Hank with his chin. “We’ll take turns on point.”
“Arnold,” said the windows on the way up, “tell us more about the road to that ranch in Nevada.”
After the cop instructed Dean to instruct his charges to crack the windows without opening the doors and sniffed to his pot-free satisfaction, an AAA-approved truck (from the nearest service station) came and towed everybody on the cop’s orders (over the truck’s objections) to Tommy’s Transmissions. Once there, Bill, Hank, and Arnold flopped in front of the lobby’s color TV to watch the Bruins face off against the Blues, leaving Dean to follow the signs.
* * *
“Welcome,” said a middle-aged man with graying hair, wire glasses, gray overalls, white oval, and cursive “Tommy.” “I didn’t catch your name.”
Absent an insignia, Dean searched for his identity. “D-dean.”
“Nice to meet you. Have a seat.”
The converted crate with crimson cushions in the back office proved basic but pleasantly different. And despite his Boston accent, Tommy didn’t sound dumb the way a townie could sound dumb the way a Southerner could sound dumb the way a Californian could sound dumb the way a Parisian could sound dumb the way, come to think of it, anybody from anywhere, with or without an accent, could sound dumb. No, Tommy sounded kind, kind of like somebody putting up with a brainstorm that sounded dumb.
“The grinding wouldn’t stop,” said Dean, “even after I added two cans.”
Tommy folded his hands on the metal desk complementing his metal chair.
“I should have poured more,” added Dean.
Dean slunk behind his bangs.
“That’s okay,” said Tommy with an easy smile. “Your friends must be enjoying the game. By the way, I just ordered some of those new TV tape recorders, so my customers can play back their own instant replays while they wait. Have you ever used one?”
“Only in the library.”
“Hey, that’s a start. Was it in color?”
As four years shrank into four minutes, Dean sank in the cushion across from Tommy’s momentarily vacated space.
“Sorry I took so long,” said Tommy.
“Don’t mention it,” said Dean.
“Something wrong, kid?”
“There’s something in my eye.” Dean blinked furiously, his handkerchief yet another sacrifice. “Could you spare a Kleenex?”
“Sure.” Tommy pulled a box out of his desk and walked it over. “You might find this hard to believe, but many of my customers grow attached to their transmissions.”
Dean wiped and watched as Tommy walked back to his rightful space.
“Actually,” said Tommy, “your transmission fluid is running high.”
“That’s because I topped it off with two cans.”
“It’s up three.”
Tommy rested his chin on one hand. “I’m afraid you need a new transmission.”
Dean’s eyes slammed. “How much?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
The Kleenex turned into a compress. Upon reopening, Dean’s eyes landed on a lone shelf bearing Chilton’s, Consumer Reports, Security Analysis, and The Fountainhead.
“Have you always been in the transmission business?”
“Twenty-five years. Ever since I graduated from high school.”
On the desk, Dean’s expanding vision found a framed photograph of Tommy, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and wire glasses, and a gorgeous girl with golden hair without glasses.
“Is that your daughter?”
“Yes.” Tommy smiled. “Looks just like her mother, doesn’t she?”
Dean scratched his head, crumpled Kleenex along for the ride.
“She’s in college,” said Tommy.
“Where do you go?” continued Tommy.
“That’s a fine school.”
“Uh, thanks,” said Dean. Medville launched him to law school, all right, but not Harvard’s. “You must have been proud when your daughter won a scholarship.”
“Harvard awards scholarships based only on financial need.”
Dean leaned forward. “She’s not even on work-study?”
“Heck, no. College is supposed to be fun.”
“How long did you say you’ve been in the transmission business?”
Tommy laughed. “Transmissions have been very very good to me.”
Dean had to laugh. “What happens to the car if I don’t come up with the money?”
“There’d be little to do except sell it for scrap.”
“But you can fix it?”
“I can fix it, all right. No pothole or pillar of salt has licked me yet.”
Tommy and Dean laughed together.
“You can pick up your car here or at any of my other locations,” picked up Tommy. “With respect to Medville, my shops in Malden, Everett, and Arlington are more immediately equidistant.”
Equidistant? Shops, as in plural? What was so funny? What exactly was a fountainhead?
“Is there something you want to ask, son?”
“If you fix it, will the grinding go away?”
“You’ll never know it existed.”
“So there’d be nothing to remind me of it?”
The car hadn’t come with an owner’s manual.
“You don’t have to give me an answer right away,” said Tommy. “Where were you headed?”
An automobile graveyard.
“Excuse me, I didn’t hear what you said.”
“A mixer at Hanniford College.”
“Beautiful campus. That was my daughter’s safety school.”
“Shut up, Tommy,” said Tommy with a self-inflicted slap. “I’m trying to say the night is still young.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“My boys have a call out that way,” said the font of knowledge. “They can drop you and your boys off.”
* * *
“Ah.” Hanniford College did indeed have a beautiful campus. Upon arrival, four appreciative bladders watered four budding trees.
Unfortunately, spring had not entirely sprung. The open-bedded, wind-chilled ride from Tommy’s focused the dimness at the entrance to the sophomore mixer on four soon-to-be graduates with icicles sticking out of their heads. Bill’s beard sported three inches of black ice, too, but it formed only the tip of the berg. Faces, jackets, jeans, sneakers, and glasses, where applicable, had been spattered with dirt, salt, spit, mud, gravel, eye goo, and nose run. What’s more, all prior brushes with musk oxen, floral bouquet, and vinyl formed pungent combinations with the collective quasi-roadkill. Arguably, with one handkerchief out of commission, there was some solace seeing the remaining three do so little good. Inarguably, there was no solace seeing the long line inside the entrance waiting to enter the afterthought closeting the visiting gender’s head and sink.
“I don’t know about this,” said Arnold.
Crimson-coated Harvard boys stood stiffly in the cold air. Strains of deejayed Grateful Dead broke against vapored breathing. Bereft of stars and moon, the night sky transmitted nothing.
“Come on,” declared Dean with one fluid motion. “Let’s go in.”