[Short story won the 2003 Whitman Award for Fiction from Southampton College]
At first, the loud revving and squeaks were disturbances Sally hoped would go away. Thinking it possible that cars came with the ability to diagnose and repair themselves, she felt all she needed to do was avoid overstressing the vehicle, an old blue Taurus Marc had found in a used lot three years ago. The car didn’t cost much more than their monthly mortgage payment and Sally initially feared it would have constant problems, because of its age and cheap price. All it ever required, though, was regular maintenance and Sally gained faith in the Taurus as a strong car. Even when it began to exhibit signs of weariness, she had no doubts it could be fully revived with proper attention. So, she wasn’t surprised and was even a bit proud when some of her methods appeared to work.
If she let the car idle for three or four minutes, the engine would rev lower. A gas tank that was always at least half-full made for a smoother ride and a full, fresh tank prevented the loud coughs she often heard when the car was turned on or off. However, the squeaking persisted whenever she applied the brakes with any force beyond a tap and this caused her to drive slower and avoid the highways. She also stayed well behind any car in front of her, especially when her son was in the passenger seat. For a boy of sixteen, he frightened easily and Sally knew Peter wasn’t at all comfortable with his mother behind the wheel of any automobile, particular that one, with all its weird noises. On the days she met him at school, he would sit completely still in the passenger seat and hold his breath, never saying a word to Sally, not even on the day she figured out how to make the squeaks go away. She drove so slow through town and on the back roads that led to their home that a simple touch of the brake pedal would cause the car to roll to the speed of a wheelchair. At stops, Sally wouldn’t need to keep her foot on the brake at all, and when it was time to depress the accelerator, she did so gently and the car commenced with its Little Engine That Could routine.
Peter kept a hand over the side of his face whenever they were stalled at an intersection and once he even ducked when a group of boys wearing jackets from his school crossed in front of them.
“What are you hiding from?” Sally asked.
Peter shrugged and took his hand away once the boys had past. When the light turned green and the Taurus had driven safely by, he sat up, as if to show he wasn’t hiding at all.
“I’m fine, Mom.” His head stayed up, staring straight ahead.
A honk from behind startled Sally and she gasped as she shifted her gaze into the rear-view mirror. A line of impatient drivers waited for her to coerce the car up to at least the speed limit. “Okay, okay. What’s the rush?” she said and touched the gas just a little more.
These drivers tailgated and beeped, even though they couldn’t possibly have had anywhere important to be, not in that county far from New York or any other consequential city. When these maniacs found the opportunity to pass, they took it, crossing over the yellow line and speeding away in pursuit of whatever few seconds of their lives Sally had cost them.
Thankfully, the back roads were rarely busy and Sally never drove for too long, so she wasn’t a huge nuisance and, most importantly, the Taurus was better. The car, as unlikely as it might sound, did respond like a coddled patient: It appeared to do the best it could, seeming to believe in its ability to recover as much as its nurse.
The improvement in its condition lasted for almost an entire week, until this past Friday, when the squeaking came back, louder than before, causing Sally to think a weekend of rest would do the car well. But on Saturday morning, she noticed a dark fluid splotched on her gravel driveway and this morning, two days later, the messages the car had been sending for two months no longer could be ignored.
When Sally turned the ignition switch, nothing happened. No cough, no rev, no sounds at all, except for an impotent click and her heavy sigh. She tried the switch again and heard only the click, and there was another after she depressed the accelerator and turned the key a third time. Believing the thing to do was pop the hood, she reached below her left knee and stretched to find the release. She gritted her teeth and pulled on the square knob with the tips of her fingers. There was little give and Sally had to put more muscle into it, an action that reminded her of removing a plug from a sink full of water. Her left foot pressed hard to the floor and the rest of her body shook from the strain. When the release surrendered and Sally heard the hood pop, she sank back in relief.
After a moment, she got out of the car and wrung out the tension in her hand. She moved to the front grill and carefully placed her hands in the open groove between the car’s frame and body. The hood clanged like a heavy gate and refused to be raised. Sally winced when her fingers searched across the grimy groove for the tiny, oily latch that would free the hood.
Although at that moment she couldn’t breathe anything but the clean, April air of the country, she still curled up her nose and held her breath for as long as she could, as if expecting to be attacked by the smell most complementary to the icky feeling in her hands. Her premonition was correct because once Sally found the latch, she raised the hood and got a good whiff of the noxious combination of oil, acid, and electrical fumes. The smell made her lungs burn as if lit by a match. She turned her head to the side and coughed into her shoulder until the sweet scent of her perfume diluted the stench of the motor. When she looked at the engine again, she couldn’t understand it, everything seemed in order.
There was no huge hole for her to ogle at and say affirmatively, “A-ha, that’s what’s missing, an engine or whatever goes there,” and no havoc was being wreaked by the little creatures who often invaded her garden to ruin a vine of tomatoes or a crop of peppers. Why she would think they would be in the engine of her car, she didn’t know, except for the fact she knew nothing about cars and was holding this increasingly heavy hood above her head so she could tell herself and whomever might ask that she at least had tried.
Truthfully, in work clothes — white pleated pants and a denim top — she didn’t have the desire to get closer than necessary to the dirty engine and wouldn’t have touched the underside of the rotten hood if she thought it would disgust her so. It also didn’t help that she lacked the strength to keep the hood raised. When she felt her arms ache and the heel of her shoe threaten to snap off, she released the top, then shrieked and took several steps back.
The hood collapsed with a loud bang. A puff of green dust and rust seeped from the sides like ash from a flue, and the neighbor’s dog yelped, coaxing Sally to look in its direction.
The neighbor was an older man with no wife or children she knew of, just his noisy cocker spaniel and a red truck he always seemed to be driving some place. Sally suspected he might be the type of man who knew about cars and what might be wrong with them. Not once in the nearly three years they lived next door to each other had she seen him in anything but jeans and often he was wiping his hands on a rag the way men do when they’ve just finished working with tools and machines.
Occasionally, Sally and he exchanged pleasant waves and hellos, and a sentence or two about the weather, but nothing that she would term an actual conversation. Her son used to play with his dog, but had stopped and Sally assumed it was because Peter had grown out of such games. The man’s name was Craig. She knew this from Marc, who had spoken to the neighbor now and then. Sally had seen them from her kitchen window. While she washed dishes under soapy water, the men talked between the fence and thin branches of white birch trees that divided the two properties. The conversations took place during the summer, usually when Marc and Craig were both mowing and knew to take a break at the same time. Sally never asked what they spoke about and Marc never said anything to her or Peter other than Craig was funny. Sally took this to mean he was comical, not strange, and that he was also nice. Those assumptions she started to question this morning.
[To read the rest of “Repairs”, send an email with the name of the story in the subject line.]