Russ the mechanic said something about my steering rack leaking, and I just looked at him, raising my eyebrows and thinking, what the heck is a steering rackthe image in my mind an automotive-like dishwasher rack deep under the hood below the steering wheel. Long gone were the days my father taught me how to change spark plugs and fix a carburetor and get the starter to work. Now I only knew where the window washer fluid went and how to open its cap.
"How much does that cost?"
"It's under warranty. Go to the dealer. They have to take care of it."
"Lucky, because it's five hundred dollars to replace."
So I went to the dealer on my side of town and, while they checked, I sat on the edge of a lamppost in the parking lot reading a book. Then the woman at the desk stuck her head out the door, one eye looking straight out at me and the other looking up to the mountains beyond, and she told me I was all set.
"Already? You fixed it?"
She waited until I was inside and she was behind her computer, punching at keys. "There's no leak," she said, not looking up. "It's just the undercoating."
"Yes, the undercoating of paint. It happens a lot with this model. It just looks like a leak."
"The undercoating." An image of a first coat of paint on a dishwasher rack came to me.
"So there's nothing to worry about," she said, nodding and smiling me out the door, my receipt for zero dollars and zero cents in my hand.
I was happy for a while. No steering rack leak. No replacement job. Just an undercoating. I took my bike out and rode around for a while. Inspection, no problem. Just the undercoating. Just an under coat. Russ had it wrong.
I pedaled past the dealer, hearing the woman call someone over the parking lot speaker. Her face in my mind. Her nodding head. Then Russ, looking at me soberly. No nodding head. The woman again. Too much nodding. Russ. Having never lied to me, not nodding. Good old Russ. The woman not looking at me. Just the undercoating, she said, not looking. Russ looking at me. Warranty. And Russ not making any money from my car. And (I slowed down on my bike) the dealer not having to spend money on my car. I stopped my bike completely and stood straddling the cross bar, squinting accusingly at the mountains around me.
"I think she's lying," I said aloud.
A family-owned garage on the corner was just up the block from the dealer. Fifteen minutes after they took the car in, the wife of the mechanic came out of the garage into the office while I played with an old pinball machine.
"Well, you've got a leak all right. You need to get that fixed to pass inspection."
"It's under warranty, I think."
"It should be."
"The dealer said it was an undercoating or something."
The woman laughed. "Well, bring it back there and tell them to squeeze the boots."
"Squeeze the boots."
"Yes, tell them" She saw my knit brows. "They're like hoses that keep the dust out of the rack, but steering fluid is getting inside them, meaning your steering rack is cracked somewhere."
"Interesting. So...squeeze the boots."
"Yes, because when they do, the fluid will just leak right through the boots."
On the way back to my car, a lot of nothingness filled my mind because it immediately rejected the image of snow or walking boots attached to a steering rack that looked like it came from a dishwasher.
Often lately I wake up very early, sometimes from bad dreams. The night before, I'd dreamed I had placed a tip for a waiter or waitress under a glass on a table in an outdoor restaurant. But when I walked away from the table someone crept close to it. I turned and watched him snatch the money and I went after him, wringing him by the collar and demanding it all back. Others nearby stood still, then backed away. I was the maniac, and he was the frightened innocent, and I woke up suddenly, groaning, and looked at the clock. 2:30. And soon, I was up for the day.
At the kitchen table I explained it all to my wife, and our seven year old daughter kept asking, "What lady? What dealer? What rack? Boots, what boots?"
I slumped in my chair, glowering out the window.
"Just relax," my wife said.
"I can't when I'm lied to. Remember the builders? I hated those guys."
"What guys?" said my daughter.
"That was five years ago," my wife sighed.
"Still hate 'em. Money stinks."
"Russ doesn't stink, though. He told the truth."
"See? Just call the dealer back."
"Who's Russ?" my daughter asked.
When the builders were working on our house, it wasn't nightmares that kept me up.
I took a half-day to meet the electrician at noon, and he didn't show up. The builder, a short bald man who talked like he was an escaped Joe Pesci character, (curses and all, around my toddler daughter and infant son), called the electrician to yell and curse at him, and I stared sourly at the show he put on.
The siding guy took weeks to put up two strips of siding on the garage front. "This is all you did the whole day?" I said to him one Saturday afternoon.
"Well, maybe I'll just go hunting, then," he grinned, stepping toward me, then laughing and walking away down the block...
"Where are my phone jacks?" I demanded the builder with weeks to closing. So the electrician had to come back, and when he finally did, he stood against the kitchen sink, arms folded, looking at me. I looked right back, but after I went upstairs and came back down, he was gone...
The plumber, legs out in front of him as he hammered through the kitchen concrete and looking like a little kid playing with blocks, complained that the town code guy required different piping near the laundry room, and who did he think he was...
The builder cursed in front of my wife and kids when my wife wanted a flooring mistake fixed immediately, and I glared at him until he "effing apologized" and walked away...
Closer to closing, when I was alone in the car driving to work through the fog, I called out to my father. Dad. I'm not built for this, Dad. I hate this stuff. Why did you go?
I couldn't help but sob, driving between tall leafless trees, because three weeks after the building had started, days before he was to ride up from Long Island to help me look things over, help me plan, help me deal with people like this, he died suddenly of a heart attack. I'm not built for this, Dad, I wept. Where did you go?
"It's the undercoating," the woman insisted over the phone.
"It won't pass inspection."
"Bring it here, then. We'll pass it."
I was silent. Then... "No, I want it up on the lift. I want to see it."
"Sure, you can take a look if you like."
I was to be there in an hour. My wife gave me a worried look on my way out the door. "Are you all right?"
"I want to ride a little first."
"Don't get upset."
"I'm all right. It's the good kind of mad."
"There is no good kind of mad."
I drove off the highway down a path to the river where people sometimes fished. No one was there now, so I sat in the car, windows rolled down, with a perfect view of the Susquehanna rolling by fast.
It was the good kind of mad, I insisted to my wife in my mind, just as it was the good kind of mad when, after the builder cursed and "effing apologized", I slowed down the closing on the house, wanting everything just the way we wanted it, making them wait for a change, perfectly happy in our little one bedroom apartment for however long it took. Then when I held back five thousand dollars at the closing for the porch that hadn't been started, the builder came by to warn me that if I held back the moneyeven after he'd promised that they'd begin work on the porch by the weekendhe'd just stop.
"Stop what?" I said.
"I'll just stop."
I was silent. And when the kitchen ceiling started leaking, because the plumber hadn't tightened something under the upstairs tub, the builder crabbed back at my phoned complaint that I was on my own now, that I had a lot of nerve bothering him on Super Bowl night. The next day I grabbed the plumber at another building site, and he came, embarrassed, and fixed it, giving me his card on the way out, which I took and pocketed before tearing it in fours and throwing it out when he'd gone.
The dizziness started around that time, as I hated them all steadily, never having hated anyone, really, before. My wife looked on worried when I sat at my desk with my dizzy head down on my folded arms.
And now, for the first time since, years later, that feeling was back. I looked at the racing river and could see myself carried violently along with it if I so much as stuck a toe in. The builders' horrible faces...the man taking my tip money in the dream...the dealer woman's lying eyes.... "Stop it," I said aloud. "Count the people you love instead, stupid."
I imagined my father, looking the way he looked when I was a kid, standing by the river. He stood quite close to it,
Where's your camera, Dad? No pictures?
I closed my eyes and he turned to me. "What are you doing here? You're going in there knowing the answer already. So just go."
He stood there, confident the way he was about things, and I almost felt his playful smack in the back of my head. "Get over there and stop the nonsense."
I watched the river, then got out and walked near it, closing my eyes and listening for a while.
She was there behind the computer, looking at the screen as I came in glowering at her.
"We'll get you in soon and have another look, but you know, we've had this problem with other models"
"It's a leak. I know it's a leak," I spat heatedly, pacing away from her and then back. She started to speak"And when they check tell them to squeeze the boots!"
"Squeeze...the boots," she repeated slowly, looking down at the computer screen.
"That's right, squeeze the boots! And I want to watch them do it." I paced away again. "I'm not paying five hundred dollars for a leaking rack. I've got a warranty." A couple of mechanics stood still looking at me. "Bunch of bull," I said to them, then paced back. "Undercoating. Bunch of bull," I muttered to the wall.
I sat in the car, key in hand, smiling at the half-hour wait before going into the garage to ask if maybe it was time they got my car on the lift. A skinny younger man I hadn't seen in the office told me he'd be right out. When he drove my car in another twenty minutes later and got it on the lift I stood away, not under it with him, and watched him reach up to loosen something. I saw what looked like small vacuum hoses. The boots.
He loosened, and loosened, and I stepped under the car, looking up, and then both our heads dropped down with the red liquid that trickled rapidly to the ground.
"I would say that's a leak," he said to me quietly.
"Yeah, I would say that too."
Soon I was back in the office, not saying a word, while the woman made the appointment to replace it. I stared away from her. Finally, when a couple of the mechanics and one customer were in the office, I asked her, "Who looked at the car the first time I brought it in?"
"That would be John," she answered, not looking up.
"Is he here?"
"No, he finished for the day."
"Well, tell John he didn't check my car, he only looked!"
She was polite, this woman, as she made my appointment, so I settled down, thanked her quietly, and left with my appointment sheet.
The angry mask lifted the second I pulled away from the lot. I laughed aloud, passing the cemetery but looking at the sky. "How'd I do, Dad? How was that?" I laughed. "Squeeze the boots! Squeeze...those...boots."
Home was only a few minutes away, but I drove for a while first, circling town in my boot-leaking steering-rack-cracked car, chuckling every once in a while at having known the answer, for once, before walking into a room.
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