The new addition to the GE family had not yet completed her first test cycle when the phone rang. Normally, I do not ever answer the phone at home because it is either someone I do not want to talk to—which is everybody—or it is bad news. The problem with bad news is that it never comes when you expect it. I don’t know why that is. It just is. Perhaps if I were smarter I would expect bad news all the time and be constantly disappointed, but disappointment has its own way of producing ulcers and besides, it would be a lot of work as I tend to be absentminded. I wouldn’t remember what exactly I was supposed to expect. And really, how can anyone be disappointed over good news? It’s just too hard to fake.
So, I answered the phone, happy that the new dishwasher was running fine and happy that the job only required two, okay three, curses and no knuckle blood to complete. It was my wife on the phone, and the only thing she said was, “The transmission fell out of the van.”
I looked at her dumbly through the phone and said, “Right.”
I am a bit of a driveway mechanic and while I don’t know nearly everything there is to know about cars, I do know quite a bit about our cars—namely that it is highly unlikely that the transmission in our mini-van fell from the engine bay and was left spinning on the roadside. If it had, my wife would not have sounded so calm when she had stated this.
“The transmission did not fall out of the van,” I said, relaxed because I knew the situation had been exaggerated. “What happened?”
She told me that she was driving along on the highway when about two miles from her exit, there was a loud bang! and the car shuddered like she’d hit something. It then drove fine as she exited the highway where, a half-mile later, it refused to move under engine power but she was able to coast into the parking lot of an auto parts store closed early for Christmas. Ironic.
“I called triple-A, and they are on their way,” she said.
“Does it move it all?”
“Not in any gear?”
“No, it just makes a grinding noise.”
As I thought about this, I came to the abrupt conclusion that while the transmission may not have literally fallen from the van, it had fallen out just the same. It would not be limping home.
“Where are you?”
She told me again and continued to talk as I tried to figure out how I was going to cram seven additional people, my wife and four kids along with her sister and her kid, into my little five-seat Toyota and get them home.
“The tow truck can take two people.”
Two in the tow truck leaves six in the Toyota. We can put a little one on a lap like we used to do in the ‘70s when seat belts were optional safety equipment and drive the back way home where traffic is normally light but virtually non-existent tonight.
“All right. I’ll be right there.”
I hung up the phone and closed my eyes. A big, bare, cartoon foot swung down from the right corner of my mind and knocked the refrigerator and oven from beside the dishwasher and placed our aging, silver Dodge Caravan on a spinning carousel next to it. As it rotated in slow mockery, I saw myself sweating in the driveway this past summer replacing wheel bearings, cylinders, pads, rotors, drums, and last week, tires, and then I watched as the one critical part I had not replaced zoomed into the center, hovered and zigzagged like a humming-bird for a moment, before it zipped off for parts unknown. It looked strangely enough just like a transmission control solenoid. If transmission oil is the nail, the solenoid is the shoe, and our horse wasn’t going anywhere without it because he’d broken all his legs due to my neglect.
A bigger and bolder red X slammed over our indispensable mini-van with a transmission shattering bang!, blotting most of it from sight. I couldn’t help it. I redecorated the inside of the empty house with curses, curses for Dodge, their crappy transmissions, and my outright stupidity as the smiling Santa on the buffet watched, waving his arms back and forth in comedic buffoonery. I wanted to smash his stupid little plastic head right then, grind it under my foot and laugh while he lay helpless and waving his arms back and forth from under either side of my size twelve sneaker, but I didn’t. I knew it would change nothing. The van would still be broken, and I wouldn’t feel any better. On the contrary. My youngest daughter, who had just become a Santa Atheist this year, loved the stupid thing, so I took three deep breaths, grabbed my keys with one hand while giving Santa the finger with the other, and ran out the door without my coat, my mind now calm and focused. The thermometer on the porch said it was 23 degrees.
I arrived at the auto parts store without incident to find triple-A already there with a roll-back and everyone in the packed mini-van in high spirits. They poured out to load into my car, circus clown style, as I stood shivering next to my wife.
“We’re going to go to another church service that starts at five,” she said. “Unless you need me home…”
She was worried that I had finally flipped. Wearing nothing but jeans and a thin t-shirt and sporting what must of looked like a crazed look in my eyes because they had begun to glaze over with frost, she was right to worry.
“Nah, I’m okay. Go. I’ll take care of this.”
We traded keys, and I watched as she walked to my car with a skip in her step, got in, and drove down the block in my car that was now groaning with a pain-filled moan that sounded an awful lot like the dead GE after she was done loading it. I decided on a compromise, hoping for the best but expecting the worst as I turned and walked toward the tow truck, the skip hammered out my step.
“Hey,” said the mechanic as I approached. “I’ll have you loaded in a few and we’ll be on our way. Get in the truck where it’s warm.”
Wrong. If I were to do that, then I would be admitting that I had made a mistake by not wearing a coat in this weather—which I had—but I was not going to admit it and, anyway, I need to self-flagellate a bit for my neglect of the poor mini-van. Any other smart human, e.g., any female, would have listened to the man, but I didn’t, holding myself as rigid and nonchalantly as possible under the stiff arctic-like wind that had appeared since my arrival.
We arrived at my house at twilight, and I forced myself to once again stand aside the truck while the mechanic offloaded the van into my driveway in what was to be, perhaps, its final resting place. On the ride over, I had deduced that he was an Army veteran and while we didn’t talk about this, I was wary just the same of appearing weak by allowing the threat of exposure to unman me. I wanted to help him remove the straps and roll them to speed things up, but decided that would be unwise as I could no longer feel my fingers and I didn’t want to look like I was in a hurry because I was cold. He finished putting his things away, and then popped the hood of the van and kindly gave me a few tips on swapping the transmission with a junkyard replacement, patiently answering the few questions my frozen brain was able to think of and my thick tongue could process at the moment .
We finished by my thanking him, wishing him a Merry Christmas, and standing in the driveway until his tail lights disappeared down the road. As they twinkled out, I ran across the yard, past the thermometer which now read 19, and into the house where I shivered because I was cold and danced because I badly needed to empty my bladder which had a half-inch of ice around the outside edges and was working at a drastically reduced capacity.
With my bladder empty and my core temperature restored, I began to seriously consider the day’s events and grow worried. What next? I consulted my mental picture and the only thing I could see was our house engulfed in flames next to the spinning Caravan with the broken legs and the dead dishwasher as a finale to this eve of destruction.
I felt silly when I had the overwhelming urge to check the fire extinguishers, and I resisted this impulse with the consideration that no one but me and the dog were home and there was nothing in the house, except pictures and videos, that was not replaceable anyway. Everything I cared about was presently at Christmas Mass, happy serene, and content.
Oh my God!
I grabbed my cell phone, hoping for the best, expecting the worst, wishing this day would end soon, and knowing it would not end soon enough.
From his perch, Santa waved, grinning, the faux candle in his left hand a big middle finger.