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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Over Retarded

In the space of approximately the last eight months, my Check Engine Light (CEL) has come on six times.

That's too many times.

Some people, when their CEL comes to visit, ignore it for as long as they can. "The only sign that it's time to take the car into the shop is smoke pouring out from under the hood," these folks might reason. I don't subscribe to that particular theory. I'm a mechanic's wet dream. As soon as that light comes on, I'm on the phone with Soly, my sixty-nine-year-old Israeli mechanic. I've been taking cars to him since I was sixteen years old. Eleven different cars. Everything from a 1989 Volvo 240-DL to a 2001 Volkswagen New Beetle done up as Herbie the Love Bug. I'll never forget the first day I drove into his shop behind the wheel of Herbie. He stared at it, suspiciously eyeballing the 53 on the hood and he looked at me.

"I don't understand it," he said, shrugging indifferently.

Now I drive a 2002 Volvo S-40, and the Check Engine Light just keeps coming back-- like a dog to its own vomit, or... herpes. It's pugnacious, and I admire it in a way. Every time Soly runs the diagnostic to see what the fault code is, it's always the same:

That's just a portion of what the fault code says. The whole thing reads "CAMSHAFT POSITION TIMING OVER RETARDED BANK ONE".

I didn't know something could be over-retarded. I thought that was the whole point of being retarded, that that particular situation is more under... than over.

But what do I know? I don't even know what a camshaft is, nor do I care what its position is. It was pointed out to me by Jack, Soly's Chinese assistant, that I have twin camshafts in my car, just like I have twin babies downstairs in my pack'n'play, but, more than that, I don't understand.

Soly has been saying, "The next time this happens, we'll replace the position sensor," for the last four times I was at his garage. Each time, he turns off the Check Engine Light, tells me not to worry about it, and sends me away without any money changing hands. This time, yesterday, he told me the same thing, and I said, "Look, I'm tired of this, can we just replace the fucking sensor already?"

"Sure," he said. He walked away to get a pen so he could write down my car's VIN number so he can order the part, and my phone rang. It was my father. He said the hospice nurses just told him that my sister's husband probably won't make it through the night. My parents went to see him the day before-- wasting away to nothing-- you can see tumors all over his body, through his skin. It's a horror movie, it's a nightmare. It's Hell.

"Fuck," I said, "okay. I love you."

"I love you, too, Mummy," he said, and hung up.

We say, "hang up" still, but these phones we use these days don't have receivers and cradles anymore. Funny.

Just as I was about to leave Soly's garage-- the part will be in in a few days-- he chanced to ask me how my brother-in-law was doing. I told Soly what my father told me on the phone and Soly clenched his jaw and looked away.

"Goddamnit-- he.... you know, it is-- this world-- I don't know. You call it luck or whatever-- it's. It's not luck, it's... it's shit."

I looked at this man-- this man who was educated by nuns in Egypt, who ran through the desert to fight for Israel in the sixties, the same time that my father did the same thing, this man I've seen scream and curse at customers who have accused him of ripping them off, and I watched in astonishment as his nose started to run, and two tears got lost in the depths of his thick, gray and black bristled goatee. He wiped his nose with an immaculate white handkerchief that emerged somehow pristine from his grease-covered work pants.

"Tell your sister from me that I am sorry for her, and that she has to be strong-- to take care of her son. She has to."

We stood there in his garage bay and looked at each other for what seemed like forever. Neither of us knew what to say. I don't know if I was embarrassed or awed or in love or depressed or what-- probably ashamed, though, that I had not been able to shed any tears for this man who married my sister and fathered my nephew-- this man I barely knew, and, frankly, never really wanted to know. But I expect my tears will come a plenty in time, when the shock of the moment has worn off, and the reality of what this man's untimely passing has done to our family and our lives has cruelly set in.

"I'll call you when the part comes in," Soly said. And I got into my car, turned the key, and the Check Engine Light was gone, but my camshaft is still over-retarded, and the world is still upside down. This morning, I texted my sister-- my brother-in-law made it through the night. How many more-- who knows? Who knows anything anymore.

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