Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Life is a four-letter word.

On Sunday night, either because random trouble just has to interrupt
fun plans sometimes or because fate really didn't want me to see JOHN
TUCKER MUST DIE, my beloved disaster of a '96 Saturn refused to start.
I turned the key. The engine revved and revved with intention, but it
never turned over. The trouble didn't appear to be the battery. The
lights worked, and the radio was fine. The caution lights were up and
bright. And, most importantly, the ignition chugged and chugged when I
turned the key. It didn't just cough once when the key was turned and
then, drained, abandon all effort.

I kept at it for about 15 minutes, trying to inspire my impotent sedan
to start its engine so that I could indulge in a really bad movie, but
the Saturn was having none of that. It'd already done its job for the
day, getting me to and from work at the bookstore, and it wanted to

So I left it, and I went back inside to my apartment. The choices I'd
have to make about the car were already echoing in my head, even
though I wanted to avoid them if possible. But, because the trouble
had already hit and my only real option was to respond to it, I called
the supervisor at my office and told her voicemail that whatever car
trouble I was having was going to be addressed first thing in the
morning. I thought about repair costs and if I'd be able to get the
money. I thought about whether the car would start in the morning or
if I was going to need AAA to tow me. I thought about whether AAA
would tow my car to my favorite mechanic, who is 45 minutes away, or
if I should get it done somewhere in the city, where they'd charge me
double. I thought about whether my office boss would be upset over my
audacity. I mean, how dare I have car trouble a mere five months after
my last car trouble?

Then, faced with wasting a weekend evening on stresses I could do
nothing about, I decided to withdraw. I did nothing that had anything
to do with my car and enjoyed the time that I had. I read Scott
Smith's THE RUINS until I fell asleep, knowing instinctively that I
would sleep soundly until the worry about the car - and not any alarm
- woke me up.

This, of course, happened at 6 a.m. on Monday. But, when I woke up, I
decided I still didn't want to deal with the car that might or might
not start. I went back to sleep and woke up again around 8. I still
didn't want to deal with the car thing, so I picked up my book and
read it. At that point, I only had 50 pages left, and I've not really
had time to devote any uninterrupted attention to it in a week. So I
read it until I was done.

I didn't want to have to deal with paying too much to get the car I
don't like and don't really want fixed so that I can go to the job I
don't enjoy and don't really want. It was petulant, childish and
irresponsible of me to lay there and read my book, but that is what I
wanted to do. I was in no real hurry to "stress out," "face the facts"
or whatever cliche suggests that I embrace my usually mature, mundane

At 9:23 a.m., I finished the book, and I was eight minutes late for
work. And I enjoyed that. Those eight minutes of "wasted time" made my
whole day, suggested that I somehow still had control of who I am or
where I'm supposed to be. (I realize, consciously, that I could break
away from the confines of my mundane existence at any point so long as
I'm willing to really risk losing my apartment or my financial
well-being. I'm not yet brave enough to live out of bounds.)

So I took a shower, then called my mom and told her, for no real
reason, what was going on with my car. I don't need her input or her
OK before proceeding, and I understand that. Still, it feels more
responsible if I fill her in. She has a genius way of guilt-tripping
me into better behavior. She usually comes up with some ridiculous
doozy that suggests, if I don't act immediately to fix the problem I
don't want to face, either I'll cause something disastrous or miss
something major.

She didn't disappoint.

"Benjie, you need to get your car fixed," she said. "If you don't,
you'll miss the birth of your brother's baby. It's coming in the next
couple weeks, and you need to be able to drive to the hospital."

"You don't think somebody will pick me up for that?" I asked her.

"You need to see if your car will start," she said, ignoring me.
"You're just wasting time for no reason."

"But I don't want to deal with the damn thing now."

"Well, too bad," she said. "That's life."

Later, after my car started and I'd dropped it at the shop, my mom
told me that I had to get a rental car, even though the rental car
agency is filled with rude employees and takes $250 away from your
bank account while you have their car.

"I could just not go to work today," I offered.

"What?" she asked. "You're just going to stay stranded at the strip
mall until I can come get you? Don't waste my time."

It turned out that I'm not allowed to rent a car because my debit card
was damaged last week and I had only a temporary replacement.

The rental car agent, upon telling me it was impossible while still
giving me a ride to his office, tried to cheer me up, though. He even
told me that I had to realize God only gave me bad times with my life
so that I'd become a stronger survivor and witness to His glory.

"Really?" I asked the guy. "The only thing I know about car trouble is
that it never really ends as long as you have a car. The only thing
certain about a car is that, no matter how often you take it to the
shop, it will eventually break again. And, when it finally breaks
forever, then you get another car that will also eventually break."

The rental car agent just glared at me.

"I don't trust anyone who tells me God's just trying to make me
stronger," I said. "I have cerebral palsy. If you tell me that I'm
afflicted because it'll help me get to Heaven or help me guide someone
else, I'm afraid to tell you that I'd rather God just spare me the
affliction and let me go to Hell. Can't be much worse than this,

I'm glass-half-empty.

The car agent dropped me at the curb. I told him that I'd see him in
his office if I was able to work things out about my debit card.

I called my dad and asked him if he had a credit card with $250 worth
of space on it so that I could get a rental car.

Dad did me one better. He offered to come pick me up and drive me to work.

I waited for him in a Dollar Tree at the strip mall. They were playing
Christian music on the overhead speakers, and I tried not to spend my
time seeking out irony in the lyrics.

I picked up a book there called IN SEARCH OF DEEP THROAT. The
nonfiction piece, exploring one of the "greatest mysteries of our
time," was written three years ago, so I looked first in its index for
any mentions of "Felt, W. Mark." There were six. The first mention of
Felt talked about Carl Bernstein's son giving away the secret to a kid
at summer camp when he was 6. At the time, Bernstein dismissed the
revelation as hogwash, something his son had made up. The author of
the book I was reading concluded that Felt could not, in any way, be
Deep Throat on the third page of the story. I smiled and put down the

Outside the store, where I stood to wait for my dad, the lady who
managed the Dollar Tree was outside puffing nervously on her Virginia
Slim. I told her about the Deep Throat book. She apologized to me
about their lack of quality stock. I told her that it didn't matter to
me, but she thought I was defaming the character of Dollar Tree. She
finished her cigarette in a hurry, then told me to come back inside if
I wanted to enjoy the air conditioning.

My dad arrived a couple minutes later, and he drove me to my office.
On the way, he talked to me about the little annoyances that fill our
days. He talked to me about the nine air-conditioning repairmen he's
had at his house in the last year and how they can never manage to get
their brand new system to work to my stepmother's exacting

"I have lost so many days, and I've wasted so much time just having to
deal with this bullshit," he said. "She has me call the repairman,
then the repairman comes and makes a suggestion about how to fix it.
Then, she decides, upon hearing the repairman's suggestion, that he's
an idiot who doesn't know what he's talking about. So she has me call
another repairman. And I have to miss work again. So I told her today
that I no longer give a shit and that, if she wants the damn air
conditioning fixed, she can sit around and wait for the repairmen

My dad uses foul language. My mother doesn't. I think it makes my
father seem more genuine than my mother, even though that might not be
exactly the case.

I told him about how I finished a book before dealing with my car. I
told him that, when I had to stop at a gas station, I was amused by
the fact that General Public's "Tenderness" - which is my favorite
'80s New Wave song - was playing on the speakers. It felt silly when
it happened, but I was actually so much happier being in the gas
station and hearing a verse of that song than I would've been if I'd
been at work in my cube, looking at a fax or counting the minutes
until lunch.

I asked him, "It's always going to be like this, isn't it? There's
always going to be something wrong. The eight minutes you take here
and there, that's all the joy you really get."

"Basically," my dad said, then he continued to espouse more
common-sense wisdom to me than I'd heard from anyone else all day.

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