I had spent most of the afternoon putzing around in the garage, as is my wont. It had been an especially unfocused putzing session. For some time I’d been vaguely aware of some issues at the back end of the car. Mainly I was trying to figure out why, when I test-fit the old rear fenders, bumper, and deck lid, there were all manner of gaps and unevenness. Was it the deck lid that was askew? Were the bumper mounts wonky? Or was the whole damn car cattywampus, and therefore only of use as a vessel for that last great act of self-immolation that this scenario would of necessity require?
To address the issue head on, I sniffed around trying to ascertain why the entire garage smelled like mustard. None the wiser, I gave up and swept the floor of several months of metal shavings, dust, and leaves, most of which blew right back inside every time the wind picked up. Next I changed the oil in my compressor. Then, since it was a sunny day and I’d been curious about this, I put on my welding helmet, walked out onto the driveway, and proceeded to stare at the sun for a full five minutes, at least. Such is the productive life I lead. A few cars rolled past but of course I couldn’t see them so I don’t know who they were. I just kept my hands in my pockets and did not wave hello.
Then I was aware of an idling motor, the blub-blub-blub-ing of a big V-8 with a less-than-complete exhaust system. I shifted my gaze from the sun and flipped the visor up.
Once the spots cleared away the battered old pickup came into focus. At first I thought it was animal control, because the Dodge was county-government white with locker compartments in the bed. Then I noticed the paint-shadows where various identifying numbers and emblems had been removed. This, and the overall seen-better-days appearance of the vehicle, forced me to amend my initial impression, and decide that this must be a former animal control vehicle — but with a twist. New, bright red lettering graced the driver’s side door. It said: MARVIN’S MEATS.
“Your mom or dad home?” the man at the wheel (Marvin, presumably) said.
I glanced behind me, wondering if I were invisible and there might be a hitherto unannounced toddler wandering about in the shrubbery. Then, seeing no children in the immediate vicinity, I turned back to Marvin. “Fucked if I know,” I said.
No, I didn’t really say that. Would have been pretty funny though, don’t you think?
Actually I said something like, “huh?” because I didn’t know what else to say. I heard him fine. I’m forty-two but believe it or not I’ve had this happen before. I have no idea why. Once a couple of Mormons, or Jovies, or whatever they were, came by and asked me the same thing. I said sorry, you just missed them. They’re on their way down to the clubhouse to enjoy an afternoon of group sex with the neighbors. You might be able to catch up with them if you hurry.
Another not-so-long-ago time, at the coin-op car wash, a gray sedan pulled up with two snappy-looking recruiters from the Army inside. The one at the wheel rolled down the window, called me over, and asked if I’d ever thought about joining up. My first thought was relief. His question was the proof I’d been seeking that the government was not trailing me; or if they were, they had no idea what an unstable misfit I am. Because the only thing worse than an unstable misfit is an unstable misfit armed with a high-powered assault rifle. Ergo, if the government were really onto me, they would have sent a Marine recruiter instead.
But they’d still be off by over twenty years. My second thought was, damn, son. I’m old enough to be your daddy for Chrissake! Maybe the pajamas threw him off. But these were really nice L.L. Bean jammies, thick flannel, Black Watch tartan — not some cheap-ass Walmart knock-offs that some slacker young’un would wear to the car wash on a Tuesday afternoon in April. These were the pajamas of a man who has reached a certain station in life, a man who has grown accustomed to the finer things life has to offer. Damn, son. Didn’t your mama school you on these things?
But Marvin the Meat Man was a quick one. You could see the all-of-a-sudden-comprendo moment wash over his face. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Could I interest you in some steaks?” he said. “Got some excellent ribeye, tenderloin —”
“I’m a vegetarian,” I said. True statement. My next move would have been to remind him of the NO SOLICITING sign at the entrance to the subdivision. But this was not necessary
“Okay, then,” Marvin said. “You have yourself a nice day.”
Marvin drove off in his animal control meat wagon. But the interruption had spoiled the mood for my little solar experiment. I withdrew into the garage.
I spent the next hour occupying myself with my new tap-and-die set. Really, I don’t know how I’ve made it this far without one. It makes life a helluva lot easier when you have clean threads that let you screw things in finger-tight, easily, and you only need a socket for the final snugging up. I was finishing up the last of the rear fender captive nuts, wondering when that fender I ordered months ago would arrive, when I heard the familiar sound of the FedEx truck.
Perfect timing. I put away the tap-and-die set, replacing everything neatly in its respective compartment, and walked around to the front porch. There, in a large cardboard box, was the second fender I’d ordered from Mid America Motorworks. I originally ordered two rear fenders — left and right — about five months previously. They sent me the left one almost right away. But the right one, for some reason, was back-ordered. I had called a few times to pester them about it. Once I was told that they had indeed received some from their supplier, but had rejected the entire shipment because there were “quality-control issues.” Gotta respect that, I figured. But damn, given the quality of some of the aftermarket stuff I’ve been sent, these fenders must have been really, really bad.
Without further ado I brought the box around to the garage, tore it open, and bolted the fender contained therein to the car. The fit was about what I’ve come to expect from an aftermarket piece. “Acceptable” would be a good word. The good luck I had with the dusty Mexican hood that I dug out of the old man’s decades-old cache (as chronicled in A Place For My Mediocrity) had been a notable exception. My enthusiasm for these fenders, however, was about the same as when I’m confronted with the choice of beers at the hotel by the airport:
“Bud, Bud Light, Coors,” the waitress recites, with a local accent appropriate to wherever in the great wide U S of A this particular hotel by the airport is situated.
“Got any microbrews?” I ask, with little hope.
“Killian’s,” she says.
“Heineken. And, um, Corona.”
Usually at this point I just decide to go with the local offering: tap water, no ice. But just like you can’t send your kid to school without any pants on (more than once), I gotta put fenders on the Volksie. These would have to do. I unbolted them and tossed them in the back of the Subaru, intending to drop them off at the media-blaster’s on my way to work the next day. I needed to get the “protective coating” crap they spray them with at the factory off of there.
Last spring I had the front fenders blasted at an outfit not far from here. It was an impressive setup they had, and they were quite busy. Actually, they were in the process of moving to an even larger shop when I last visited. So I was surprised when the number I called was disconnected, and a second number I dialed went unanswered. I did some online searching and asking around. Nobody seemed to know. So either they went out of business, or they’ve made themselves so difficult to find in their new digs that one must question whether it is worth one’s while.
So I dialed the number for another place that I found online. A voicemail picked up on the first ring. Somewhat promising. But for some odd reason the voice felt compelled to append a superfluous tidbit about their being a “Christian-based establishment.”
(Here I go again.)
And I need to know this because why? What if I were looking for a Hindu-based media-blaster? Would I not be welcome if I were a Buddhist, or worse — (gasp!) a Muslim?
Later I asked a good friend of mine — a native Southerner — what it all meant. According to him, I might not have been too far off. He explained that the term “Christian-based,” as well as the little fish seen on business cards, billboards, bumper stickers and such, have their origin in racism. He claims that what “Christian-based” really means — or at least, used to mean — is whites only.
Having lived in the South for more than half my life, little surprises me anymore. But this! Could this be true?
Think about it, he said. Think about, for example, an ad in the classifieds seeking a nanny, or cleaning services. They couldn’t just come out and say, “White family seeking white nanny for the care and feeding of our very, very white children.”
No, I admitted. I suppose they couldn’t.
Still, I’m skeptical. Maybe in a very small minority of cases this is indeed true. Or maybe my friend was pulling my leg. I simply find it hard to believe that so many people would use the wise and timeless teachings of Jesus to justify and foster hatred. Maybe I’m just naive.
But I didn’t have all these extraneous things to worry myself over when I dialed that number. I just know that it’s a put-off when a business feels the need to foist their personal political or religious views upon my person. I hung up without leaving a message, resigning myself to hours of hard labor with a can of aircraft stripper.
He called me right back.
This irritates me, too. I hung up for a reason. If I wanted him to call me back I would have left a message to that effect. On the other hand, I’m trying not to let anger congeal in my headspace. I have only so much room in there. One thing at a time, take it as it comes, roll with it, count to ten. I’m learning to be more agile, mentally.
Yes, some minor irritants arising, that’s true. But I still would like those fenders blasted. He wants the work that I don’t feel like messing with. What the big deal?
“Ron” sounded nice enough. Professional, even. Pretty sure he was driving, though — another irritant that I let pass. I was given to understand that Ron was the proprietor; as such, his work day consisted of driving around in an oversized pickup and yapping on a cell phone. But he didn’t try spreading any gospel on me, in any way. Just the facts. He listened while I told him what I had, what I wanted. We discussed various options. He quoted me a reasonable price, told me when they’d be done, and gave me the directions to the shop. Said he wouldn’t be there, but I could leave them with “Ernie.”
It was all I could do not to say I’d drop them off tomorrow, on my way to work — Allah willing.
It turns out the shop wasn’t that far from my house. But I wasn’t familiar with that particular stretch of the highway. Turn left at the light and go a quarter-mile down the road. Just past the Mexican restaurant is the weed-and-feed. Turn into the dirt drive between the weed-and-feed and the storage units, and go on through the gate. Don’t let the dogs bother you — they don’t bite. The shop’s just past the power lines on the left. If you come to the creek you went too far. But you can’t miss it.
I didn’t. The overhead door to the prefab steel building was open. Various car parts in various stages of decay lay strewn about. To the left, pushed into the corner, was the main body section of what appeared to be an early 70’s Malibu. To the right, just inside the door, was a dust-covered workbench piled high with miscellaneous tools, small parts, cardboard boxes, coffee mugs, a discarded piston used as an ash tray, and a transistor radio of similar vintage to the Malibu, delivering an angry, bloviating, high-volume rant from a political talk-show host. Not being a connoisseur of such highbrow intellectual fare, I do not know who it was — Hannity, Beck, Boortz, or that consummate and esteemed pioneer himself, Mr. Limbaugh. They’re all the same to me. I give myself a pat on the back for letting yet another minor annoyance pass without reaction.
The back of the shop was dominated by a giant exhaust fan. Just in front of the running fan, a man in a respirator was firing short blasts of media upon a small part that was clamped to a rack. With all of the din he didn’t notice, at first, the silhouetted figure standing in the doorway, silently watching in his black Unabomber hoodie.
It was a warm morning, but I can’t bear to be seen in the public with my uniform on. Since changing in the car in the employee parking lot is a royal pain in the ass (although I have, on occasion, done just that), I often wear that hooded sweatshirt if I have to stop somewhere on my way to or from work. Failing that, I remove all of the identifying accoutrements possible. This still is not foolproof.
“You a pilot or something?”
Sometimes I just reply with a flat, simple “no” and leave it at that. Sometimes I say I’m a bartender on a cruise ship, but that just leads to further interrogation. Most of the time I just wear the hoodie. It looks ridiculous with navy blue polyester pants (as does everything), but it’s all about choices, isn’t it?
I guess he was finishing up because before long, Ernie put the gun down, peeled the respirator off, pulled a pack of Marlboros from his breast pocket, and was huffing along with great and evident satisfaction before he noticed me and walked over. I keep wanting to call him “Luke” because that was my first impression as he came closer. It was as if, post-Star Wars, Mark Hammill’s career had taken a slightly different turn from bit parts and voiceovers. Add thirty years of chain smoking, gray hair, a dusty gray jumpsuit, a dusty gray workshop, and a slight stoop. Keep the clear blue eyes. That’s Ernie.
I retrieved the fenders from the car and stood by the workbench as Ernie examined them. He was quite friendly and talkative but with his very thick Southern accent, the cigarette dangling from his mouth, the exhaust fan, and the radio blaring in my ear, I’d say that the successful transmission rate was somewhere around ten percent. I think he was trying to decide the best material to use. Pretty sure he was trending against soda-blasting, and was considering a second option: strawberries.
The tortuous and disjointed schema of the way I imagine how things in this crazy, mixed-up world are supposed to work was quickly reconfiguring, trying to make sense of this. I went from incredulous (can that be right?) to scientific (are strawberries acidic?) to open-minded (well, as long as they’re organic strawberries, I don’t see why not) and right back to doubtful (that cannot be right!).
“What was that?” I said.
“Schwahr-blith,” he repeated.
I have probably mentioned before my partial hearing loss. I don’t know how it happened, but it was gradual. After a while my wife starting pressing me to go get my hearing checked. I saw no reason to do this. It would only confirm what we both knew anyway. Did she want me start wearing a hearing aid? I didn’t think so. I think what she really wanted was for the results to offer proof of what she secretly suspected: that my hearing was fine, and that I’m just a shitty listener.
So when I finally broke down and had it checked, it was no surprise that I do indeed have some hearing loss. I won’t say I offered up a great big falsetto “Woohoo!” to the heavens over this, but I did feel somewhat vindicated. Luckily for me, my wife has just enough tact not to point out the obvious: that I have hearing loss, in addition to being a shitty listener.
Actually, she might have pointed that out. I can’t remember.
I was starting to get frustrated, both with Ernie’s marble-mouth and my inability to filter through all of the other racket.
“What?” I said, louder, leaning my good ear towards him — hoping he’d get the idea.
“Stohr-blash,” he said as he stood to full length and arched backwards, stretching. An inch-long cylindrical ash drooped from the end of his cigarette. “Used fridges,” he mumbled. The ash broke free and tumbled earthward.
I was completely bewildered. What in the living hell was he saying?
Store-bought, starboard, Star Wars? I silently ran the iterations through my muddled head. Shot blast? This last interpretation sounded a bit more violent than strawberries. Too violent, maybe. And what did second-hand refrigerators have to do with anything?
I was about to ask him to spell it out or write it down but quickly discarded the notion, reasoning that this likely would have embarrassed both of us. Maybe a little bit of trust was in order here. The stakes weren’t very high — these were not genuine German fenders. And just because I couldn’t understand him didn’t mean he didn’t know what he’s doing. So I just went along with it.
“Oh, schwor-blass!” I said, enthusiastically.
This seemed to please him. He smiled and nodded and pointed at me knowingly. You got it. Then Ernie began to expand and expound on whatever it was we had agreed upon. I still missed most of it, but at least one thing was clarified. I was given to understand the he, or somebody a lot like him, used the very same mystery media on bridges (not fridges). Again, I thought of shot blast, and hoped to God Ernie knew what he was doing.
He took down my number, we shook hands, and I drove off.
I enjoyed a good night’s sleep courtesy of Google. I logged on before turning in. I learned about Starblast, a commonly-used media from our friends at DuPont. It’s a combination of staurolite (sourced, I learned, from mines in Florida) and titanium. There are a variety of formulations, some of which sound like they might be appropriate for bridges, and others more suitable for thin automotive sheet metal. Of course, if I had any idea what I’m doing, I would have recognized what he was trying to tell me right off the bat.
So how did Ernie do?
They were done early and under budget. On the phone, Ron had quoted me in the range of $100 to $120. Given what I paid the other guys to do the front fenders, I figured this was reasonable. But when I went to pick up the rear fenders from Ernie, I thought I was hearing him wrong again.
“Did you say thirty dollars?”
“Yep,” he said, cupping his hand around a cigarette he was trying to light.
“Three-zero, right?” I said.
“Yep,” he repeated. Then he said something a little more involved; which, judging from his raised eyebrows and expectant look, may have been a question.
“Sounds great,” I said, handing him cash. This seemed to satisfy him.
In short, Ernie did a great job. Granted, the thin coating they lay on at the factory is often cruddy enough to scrape off with a fingernail. In a way, though, this would make media-blasting more of a challenge: you don’t want to overdo it. Maybe that’s why, in his professional assessment, the Starblast was the way to go. The coating was completely removed, and there seemed to be just enough “tooth” on the surface to gladly accept primer with good adhesion.
As for the fenders themselves, yeah, they’re definitely aftermarket. They’re gonna require a bit of tweakage. But I think they’re gonna work:
Say, what’s up with that deck lid?
That’s a story for another time. A story of promise and a brighter future. I hope.