Author: Louis Caru
Neighborhood: University City
Occupation: Wine salesman
I popped the hood. “Not now, please,” I whispered to the engine.
I had overdue DVDs and books to return, dry cleaning to pick up, groceries to buy, a package to send, a prescription to fill. The tailor called to remind me my suit was ready. And I was expecting a check at the post office.
Then there was work. I am an outside salesman, and a salesman needs his car as much as a cowboy needs his horse.
Neighbors gathered around the open hood and offered diagnoses. Out of gas. Dead battery. Bad starter. Bad spark plugs. Too much gas.
“Could be a number of things,” said Jack, the neighborhood sage. “Or could just be having a bad hair day.” That brought smiles on this dark and dreary morning. Jack, as usual, was wearing his maroon robe and black slippers, held a coffee cup, and leaned on a cane.
A new neighbor joined us. She was in a pink hat, pink raincoat, and pink rubber boots. Her poodle wore a pink bow.
“The most problematic aspect of automobile ownership is the unpredictability.” Her East-European accent was strong. “An expert could promptly ascertain the dilemma here.”
Yes, let’s bring in the experts, I thought. And the sooner the better, because it had begun to rain.
The tow-truck driver loaded my car and drove away. The mechanic called shortly after lunch. “We can fix your car, but it’s going to cost you a new engine. And they ain’t cheap.”
And just like that, I was in the market for a car.
I searched the Internet for used cars within my budget and within University City, cars I could walk to. I quickly found a silver Ford Taurus. The price was right, and it was near the post office. What luck. I could pick up my check in the same trip. I’d have wheels by the end of the day, and I’d be back in action. I left right after lunch.
Within a few blocks of walking I found that driving had turned me into a stranger in my own land. I never realized how steep some hills were or how many office buildings had sprung up or how soaked a pedestrian can get when a car hits a pothole or how warm are the diesel fumes of buses.
I walked by a high school, where a group of students huddled on the edge of the school grounds. I assumed they were doing something forbidden, like smoking cigarettes or sharing dirty jokes or cheating on tests. But as I got closer I saw they had an iPod with small speakers and were listening to music.
On a chilly street corner an angel held up a sign advertising hot coffee. Her scanty costume was a white bedsheet and a halo of coat hanger and tinsel. She wore sandals. As I neared the cherub, I saw goose bumps on her bare arms, and her toes were red from cold. You’d never see that driving, I thought. Or smell the espresso.
The silver Taurus was standing at the curb. The young man waiting for me quickly apologized — he knew little about the car because it wasn’t his car. A friend had asked him to sell it.
Other than the car had never been cleaned, it looked great. No dents, no cracks, no missing parts. The tires were good and the shocks firm. All the chimes chimed and all the blinkers blinked. On the freeway, it handled well in the rain. But on the way back the “check engine” light went on. And stayed on.
“Better look into that,” I said, and left the fellow scratching his head.
There was now just enough time to get to the post office. Crows squawked like clarinets with broken reeds, warning of an imminent downpour. I ran, and I almost made it.
Maria was behind the counter. I stood in the doorway, dripping.
“Bad time to be taking a walk.” Maria had a reputation as the post office sense of humor. She was observant, too. She noticed the disappointment when I saw my empty mailbox.
“Give me your phone number, and stay home where it’s dry. I’ll call you when the check arrives.”
“You’re allowed to do that?”
“No. So please don’t tell anyone.”
There is a large fountain on the edge of my apartment complex, and parked across the street was a black Cadillac convertible. Even in the dusk and drizzle that car had character, beauty, class. Now, that’s what I need to find.
DAY TWO. The next morning I found a red Volvo and a green Pontiac station wagon. In the photo the Volvo looked immaculate. It was at a used car lot on Miramar Road, and I left right after breakfast. When I closed my front door, crows hopped from the treetops and flapped eastward.
My walk skirted the Marine Corps air station, passed the water-treatment plant, and came to an overpass where the cars below looked like migrating salmon.
Someone had spent a lot of time detailing the red Volvo. The chrome was gleaming, the wax brilliant, the windows spotless, the tires shiny black. The seats and carpets had been freshly shampooed.
When I opened the hood, however, it was another scene. Frayed fan belts; rusty radiator water; gooey, gritty motor oil; burnt power-steering fluid as brown as cheap syrup. The salesman wanted me to go for a spin, but after I’d seen what was under the hood I declined.
At a strip mall near my apartment complex I entered a soup-and-sandwich shop and met the new neighbor.
“Has your automobile been restored to functionality?” she inquired.
I explained the situation.
“Oh. How unfortunate.” Then: “There was a nice black car parked near the fountain this morning. Perhaps you should venture a look-see?”
“I saw it last night, but I didn’t see a For Sale sign.”
After my sandwich I walked to the green Pontiac station wagon. The quickest route was through Rose Canyon, following the train tracks to Regents Road. I’d never been down there before. The air was cooler than at street level and smelled like wet wood. I passed the decomposing carcass of a coyote — no doubt the victim of a train, its pelt dried and torn, white ribs exposed.