Frank Swanton was driving down Route 53 when the car he’d had for a year started making a loud clanking noise and was pulling hard to the right whenever he stepped on the brake. He had noticed that there were some problems early on after he bought the car but they didn’t seem too bad so he didn’t bother to have them checked. But today they were bad and there was a brake or transmission smell and he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. He remembered there was an auto repair shop about 2 miles up the road. He’d never been there before but he decided to stop.
Melissa Brandon picked up a rag and was wiping the grease off her hands as she hurried away from the car she was working on when she heard the bell announcing someone had entered the shop. Ever since she was a kid she loved cars. When she was small she played surgical scrub nurse to her father who slid around under the old Buick he drove, barking out, “3/4” socket wrench!” “Vice grip, the big one!” He took pride in his young daughter who had learned the names of tools the way his friend Ralph’s kid could name dinosaurs. “Stegosaurus, smegosaurus,” he’d wink at her, “that kid doesn’t know the difference between a crescent wrench and an allen key,” and she flushed with pride because she knew that by the time she was five! If she did get it wrong it was only once. After placing the tool in her father’s outstretched hand it would disappear under the car, reappearing in seconds accompanied by a single word, “Nope,” he’d say and she’d hand him her second choice. “That’s better,” he’d mumble. She had worked nights to pay for two years at technical college and busted her knuckles at the Audi dealership for 3 years in their service department before deciding to open her own shop.
“What can I do for you?” she asked the obviously distressed fellow who had called out, “Can someone help me please?” as soon as the door close behind him.
“There’s something wrong with my car,” he replied. “It’s making this clanking sound as though there’s someone in the engine with a hammer. There’s a bad smell, I’m not sure if it’s coming from the engine or the exhaust, and it’s hard to turn the steering wheel to the left if I put on the brake.”
“Did you want to leave it and have me get one of the mechanics to check to it out, or did you want to schedule an appointment and bring it back?” she queried.
“I need it fixed, he insisted. “Can you tell me what to do to fix it? Can’t you just give some suggestions? Or what about a book or a website?” he was practically pleading.
Melissa looked at the car, a late model sedan, similar to the cars she’d worked on during the course she had recently attended to learn about the new electronic systems being installed. She’d spent three, eight hour days studying the schematics of the computer boards, and had invested several thousand dollars in equipment for the shop to help perform diagnostics in situations like this. She knew where to start to teach someone to fix a car, but she also knew that a few tips and some random advice were not likely to solve this car’s problem.
“It would make more sense to leave it or bring it back so one of the mechanics can look it over and make the necessary repairs,” she politely replied.
This was when Frank threw the first verbal punch. “Oh I get it,” he snorted, “I thought you loved cars, but I can see you’re only in it for the money.”
Mrs. Brown, who had dropped her car off this morning as pre-arranged and agreed to pay for parts and labor, would be coming in at 5pm to pick it up. Melissa had left it up on the lift when she heard Frank come in the door. Mrs. Brown worked two jobs and had found someone to give her a ride after her first shift to return for her Camry that needed new brake pads, a job Melissa was only half-way through. If she was going to get paid for that job she’d need to get it finished. Last week she had discounted the work they’d done on the van for the kid’s club, the senior center’s mini-bus and Roger Ferris’s old VW. She had been friends with Roger’s wife who was dying of cancer, Roger had taken leave from his job at the soda packing plant to take care of her.
The monthly nut for the mortgage on the shop, including taxes and insurance meant Melissa had to work 5 days, sometimes 6, to cover it. Then there were the weekly salaries of the 2 other mechanics she hired, along with withholding and insurance, and she couldn’t forget that someone had been heavy handed with the sink in the men’s bathroom and the threads in the handle of the hot water faucet were stripped and she needed to replace the entire unit, and she was still not sure what happened to the wrench set she had to special order to work on a foreign car one of her customers had recently bought.
“If I can get it home can I give you a call tonight to talk about what I should do to fix it?” he suggested, seeming to forget his previous insult.
Two days a week she volunteers at the high school, an after school program to teach kids how to work on cars. She has to leave the shop early, but Buddy the part-time mechanic is happy to pick up more hours. She thought about Ellie Barton who had been giving her mother so much trouble, and how she had turned into a wiz kid with hybrid engines, and was able to explain some of the tougher information to other kids who were willing to pay attention. Billy Frankel, the kid who’d been suspended 3 times last semester had a knack for body repair. When he was done with a fender or hood even a professional had to look twice to notice a repair had been made at all. He’d even asked Melissa to help him pick out an old car from the salvage yard to fix up, and they’d left towing an old Impala that if he followed through on would be worth a pretty penny.
“I’m sorry I won’t be available,” she apologized, “my son has a recital tonight.”
“If I leave it how much is all this going to cost me?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “I bought this car at a fundraiser for the community food kitchen, I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on it.”
Two weeks ago a woman had brought her car in, convinced that the problem was the same one she had heard described on a call-in radio show. Two clever and funny mechanics diagnosed car problems on the air every Saturday morning. When the mechanic had a look at the car she discovered the problem was entirely different, a large part of the exhaust system had rusted out and would need to be replaced. When Melissa explained this to the car’s owner the woman wailed, “It’s even the same make and model as the one they talked about on the radio and they said it only required a $25 part to fix!” grabbed her keys and drove off. There were shops in town where they would happily take the woman’s money, replace the $25 part and send her home with a car no better, and maybe worse off than when she’d brought it in. But Melissa would never even consider it, though it meant that she lost a potential customer.
“First I’d have to have someone take a look at it to know what needs to be done, then if we need parts I’ll have to put in an order for those.”
She did some quick calculating, knowing that she couldn’t guarantee anything without having even looked under the hood but he was insistent. The range of how much time it might take to work on the car was wide, and the lowest cost possibility was still high enough to make him visibly cringe when he heard it. “Nevermind,” he huffed as he turned to walk out the door, “I thought you could help me.”
She stood for a moment as he got into his car and worked hard to turn the steering wheel as he pulled out of the lot. The sinking feeling in her stomach would pass, this wasn’t the first time someone had complained about the cost of repairs or expected her to take the time to explain, step by step, how to replace a fan belt, or figure out whether it was a fuse that needed to be replaced or something else in the electrical system. She did what she could, suggesting the easiest things that could be checked, repaired or replaced by an owner, and it felt bad to be accused of being mercenary.
As the car faded into the distance, smoke billowing from the tail pipe, Melissa turned and headed back to Mrs. Brown’s car. If she hustled she should be able to have it ready by five.