My boyfriend laughs when I tell him that Minnie, my car, is my best friend. I try to explain to him that she’s been dependable and trustworthy for years. He’s new. Besides, she and I’ve circled the globe together six and a half times. Her odometer says so.
Today Minnie goes in for a check-up, a harrowing experience, but not because of anything she’s done. It’s the host of characters I’ll be forced to encounter at the dealership to successfully complete this gauntlet of hot coals.
First, I spot a perky receptionist perched in the middle of a room where other folks, whose faces reflect the possibility they’ll soon be paged to board a bus to Siberia, are milling around. Because of the nifty telephone wand wrapped across her cheek, the receptionist, who looks like a high school sophomore home for the holidays, can greet the public and continue a private conversation with her best friend with only minor interruptions. I represent one of those interruptions.
Her eyes cut down to the desk and she whispers, “Hold a sec, Jenn.” Then, like a miracle, her face fills with sunshine and she says, “Welcome to Empire Beach Motors. May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m Tricia Evans and I have an appointment to have my car serviced.” She peers at a clipboard for a moment and chirps, “Yes, of course.” Her eyes squint as she peers through the window behind me. “Um, that little one in service lane one?”
“Yes,” I say, “the blue car in lane one.” Minnie would feel insulted if she knew that a condescending voice had addressed her as “that little one.”
“Please take a seat, Ms. Evans, and I’ll notify your senior automotive technician you are here.”
From all I’ve been able to gather over the years, the senior automotive technician is a guy who initially greets you as if you’ve just been chosen to appear with him on a network television show and he’s overjoyed to discover you’re the lucky candidate who’ll appear with him on camera.
On his second trek in to see you, he resembles a chaplain in a hospital who’s there to console you on the shocking news that your car, your baby, died on the operating table in service bay twelve. They did everything humanly possible to save her, but to no avail. Now the good news: The salesman of the day, a young man recently spirited away from a lucrative position in the distribution department of a local pizza parlor, is anxiously awaiting your arrival in the new car showroom. You’re about to discover a marvel in automotive design and technology, a deal that will plunge the dealership deep into red ink if you opt to accept it. If you should decline this magnificent new baby equipped with an intoxicating aroma dealers fondly call “I need this car now,” then your senior automotive technician will magically appear on the scene and escort you back to the service department. Once there he’ll ask you to wait a moment while he responds to the lure of hearing his name paged over the intercom. And presto, he’s back with great news. Bob, who resides in the bowels of the service bay area, has just discovered a new machine the dealership acquired this morning that can revive your car for the mere sum of twelve hundred gold doubloons. Eureka, you’re saved, I’m told. And that’s my take on the average Southern California run-of-the-mill senior automotive technician.
“Thanks,” I say to the youthful Ms. Sunshine and wander into the designated space for anticipated disappointment. Our room of detention is inhabited by perhaps twenty more people than the fire marshal would approve for this area, including a child with a hacking cough and runny nose. My best guess is that there’s only one child in the Los Angeles basin with this condition, but somehow he always manages to be where I am, especially if it’s in a confined space.
The décor in my surroundings is accented with signs that stifle any sprouting hopes: DIAGNOSTIC MINIMUM FEE $110, CREDIT CARD PAYMENTS LIMITED TO $500, CHECK RETURN FEE $30, and my favorite, NO SMOKING. I know smoking inside buildings has been prohibited for years. So do others, but does the rug? The rug does not know this. Aromas from this tasteful Berber cover a wide range of coffees, tobaccos, colas, and various other touches of “oops art.” No doubt the rug predates the NO SMOKING sign by a decade or two.
Also, every dealership waiting room sports a coffee corner with yesterday’s roast and a sprinkle of non-dairy creamers and sugar substitutes across the bar. FREE is the operative word in this corner. And any senior automotive technician will tell you, after he delivers the news it will cost you a fortune to get your baby back, “Just sit tight, read a magazine, and, oh yes, have a cup of coffee. It’s free.”
My eyes scan a table of aging magazines, all of them apparently focused on the casual reader who’s just strolled in from a session with her analyst. One issue shows a group of women in athletic tees, shorts, and running shoes, all of whom look as if they’ve not eaten in a week. This periodical is aptly entitled ME. Strewn about are other dog-eared issues encouraging the reader to spend more time thinking about themselves. And there’s the usual array of movie star titles with photos of distraught actors who’ve just discovered their one-and-only is cheating on them, or they’ve just come from divorce court with a final decree. The only connecting factors I can discover for these various magazines is a circular coffee cup or soda stain embossed across the cover. Why is that? I wonder.
“Yes?” I look up at a fellow in a khaki jumpsuit with a big red patch that announces he’s MITCH. This has to be my personal senior automotive technician.
“Welcome, Ms. Evans. Mind if I call you Trish?” He declines to wait for a reply. “Here at Empire Beach Motors every customer is treated as family, Trish. Just make yourself comfortable. We’re gonna take good care of your car.” He pats the top of my hand in hopes he can assure me my Minnie will come through this ordeal with flying colors.
“She needs an oil change and tire rotation,” he says, “and, of course, with your approval, we’ll do a thorough diagnostic examination.” He holds a clipboard and pen under my nose. The only print on the form big enough for me to see is the “X” where he’s pointing and I’m to sign. My signature is what the legal birds tell the dealership, “This is her approval, you’re off the hook.” I blink twice and sign. How bad could it be? Minnie purrs along every day without a squeak or a cough.
Mitch smiles and nods and is gone. Now it’s just the piped-in elevator music, other noises, the aromas, and the child who just looked at me and sneezed. How long is the wait? I don’t want to think about it, but before I can thumb through the first magazine article that promises to remake my entire social future by having me eat carrot sticks and celery for a month, my name is called over the intercom. She’s died, her engine was D.O.A. at the service bay, all is lost. I grit my teeth.
The receptionist beams on my approach, looks down, and whispers into the phone wand, “‘Nother sec, Jenn.”
“Ms. Evans, Tom Barker from our showroom is on his way over here to see you. It’ll just be a moment.”
I nod, swallow hard, and return to my seat. It’s worse than I thought. They’re sending someone from the new car showroom, the only place in the entire dealership that’s clean enough for human habitation. Minnie, my baby, I never even got to say goodbye.
“Ms. Evans… Tricia Evans?”
“Yes, that’s me.” I return the smile of a fellow in wide lapels who’s followed his macho cologne into my personal space.
“Trish, I’m Tom Barker and you’re in luck today.” His eyes sparkle, his teeth gleam. My car’s good for another half million miles, I’ve won the jackpot lottery without even entering, the owner of Empire Beach Motors has passed away and left his entire fortune to me. Nope, none of the above.
“Trish, our dealership is hugely overstocked right now, especially with the newest model of your car.” How can this be? I ask myself.
“You’re probably asking yourself, how can this be? Well, the trucks rolled in here last weekend with twice our monthly allotment of new cars. Don’t know what the factory folks were thinking, but the boss has issued a mandate: ‘Those cars have gotta be outta here by the end of the week.’”
Tom the barker has earned his name. His voice would carry the length of a football field, and while he pauses for his first breath, a room full of morose faces stare at me as if I’m a fool if I don’t race over to the showroom and claim my prize. And just to throw me off stride, he leans in close and in a soft voice says, “Because you’re a good customer, Trish, I can make you a great deal, and you can drive your new baby right out of here today.”
Joining him in this semi-private tête-a-tête, I say, “But I like my old baby.”
“Well, of course you do,” he booms. And without hesitation he proceeds to outline all the bells and whistles on my new car that has everything I need or will ever need, especially when I drive it into Washington for the reception at the White House in my honor, a future experience I’ve yet to enjoy. And all that Tom the barker needs to make all this happen… is my signature.
“No,” I tell him firmly regarding a deal and, “No,” to the itty bitty favor of accompanying him to the showroom where I know the air is laced with an odorless, addictive new-car toxin, something I won’t realize I’ve inhaled for another couple of weeks. By then I’ll be too embarrassed to tell my friends that all I’ve said about my new baby was babble.
Tom, with the lapels, the bright tie, and the eau-du-oui bends closer with a stern look. I can tell from his countenance that if I refuse to sign this agreement now, I’ll have to face a firing squad at sunrise. During the pause before he begins his final plea, I squeak, “No.” He’s defeated, washed up, he’ll be fired at the end of the day in front of the whole dealership staff, and the money his kid was counting on for summer camp has just disappeared.
“No,” I say again to a blank stare. And, poof, he disappears.
Before I can finish the miraculous carrot and celery diet article, Mitch is back. What he says at this time is now a muddle, but I do recall some of the words I heard: cam shaft, piston rings, axle, valves, and carburetor. And sprinkles of intimidation here and there: sluggish, weak, grinding, of major concern, and—the icing on the cake—dangerous and not our responsibility if you drive out of here without these repairs being completed now.
While he describes the prognosis, he stares at Minnie’s rap-sheet on his clipboard and quotes Danny, the shop mechanic who’s uncovered all these malfunctions. Danny is lurking behind a grease mask somewhere in the shadows of the service bay area. The dealership knows better than to let Danny face the customer about any concerns regarding the high costs of repairs because Danny will just shrug and say, “Not my job.”
Mitch hands me the incriminating evidence with Danny’s fingerprints all over it. I stare at the bottom line in disbelief. Mitch himself knows not to verbalize the costs to a customer. There’s not a single defibrillator in the dealership.
“What about just the oil change and the tire rotation,” I say. I’ve delivered him an unexpected kidney punch. An ashen face peers at me. “Dangerous, risky, not our responsibility, and I wouldn’t drive it out of here myself” all spill out of his mouth.
“Maybe I should get a second opinion,” I say. I see the defeated look I witnessed on Tom the barker’s face. I’ve insulted him, questioned his manhood. Then all I see is the back of his head shaking as he shambles back through the door toward the service bay area.
Forty-five minutes later I have my Minnie back purring for me in her most professional, contented manner. The only change I can detect is a new car brochure on the seat beside me.
Late that night I hop out of bed and peek out the window, just to assure myself she’s nestled in her spot where she should be. All is well… almost.
Dreamland is full of horror. A cam shaft falls out of Minnie’s trunk on a lonely desert road. An axle breaks and a wheel sails over the median on I-5 in busy Los Angeles traffic. I wake up in a sweat. Something new has taken up residence in my imagination. The clock strikes 7 AM. What time do they open, I wonder.
Fred Miller is a California writer. He has published numerous short stories over the past few years. His stories are available through his blog at https://pookah1943.wordpress.com
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Minnie’s Demise”
Raise your hand if you been in Tricia Evans’ position. Yes, we thought so. And that’s why we published this delightful piece. And even if you haven’t been there personally, author Fred Miller takes you there and lets you experience it yourself.