On My Children

On My Children May 16, 2023

 

Jimmy finished taking the old alternator out of Serendipity, the ill-fated Nissan I bought in October.

He kept knocking at my door to narrate his progress as he did so. I kept on getting up to look at the engine parts and nod my head. I didn’t know anything about cars, that was my downfall. Now, I feel like I’ve had quite the education.

Yes, there was a junkyard motor in my used car. He could see the blue markings.  No, it wasn’t a problem that there was a junkyard motor, not as such. He’d turned it on and started to drive before the battery died. It ran fine. His old Honda had had a junkyard salvage motor for years and years. No, there was no gasket leak, no leaks at all, no problem with the transmission, everything’s fine but the wiring. I could drive this car for years once the electrical parts were fixed. As soon as he put in the new alternator, he’d be good to go. The alternator would come in the mail early in the week. For now, he’d leave the car jacked up with one wheel off, and two bricks under the back tires.

He narrated how I’d been had by the car dealer and then by the Lost Girl’s family.

I listened, nodding, my stomach curling in a knot.

I had paid the Lost Girl back ninety dollars for a rebuilt alternator she ordered from her favorite parts store, but I never saw the alternator. She was the one who texted me after the car died, to say that it was an alternator problem and she could get one for cheap. She knew just what to look for.  She wanted to help me because we were friends.

She’d brought her father to Steubenville to check on the car that night on the solstice, and apologized that they didn’t have the tools to fix it with them but would be back the next day. The next morning, she texted me that her father and her children had come down with the same terrible flu that put her mother in the hospital, and I didn’t have a ride to go and get the alternator, so I had it towed to a mechanic. The mechanic saw the wiring and said he couldn’t fix it, so the Lost Girl offered to have it towed to her apartment building. Her neighbor would watch the car. Her uncle the tinkerer would come and fix the wiring if he possibly could. I could pay him back for parts through her cash app. And I trusted her, because I didn’t have any other ideas– and also because we were friends.

“Mechanics lie all the time to get more money,” she had reassured me.

I never saw the uncle. The Lost Girl was my liaison. She said that the uncle found the problem was “the plug that goes between the alternator and the battery is totally fried,” and I sent her money for her new plug. She said that “you’re bone dry of oil and antifreeze” because “the alternator was making you go through fluids faster” and I sent money for fluids. She said “the bracket on top of the alternator is loose and the bolt is completely stripped” and I sent money for a bolt. She said “one of the wires was melted after all” and I paid for a wire. I paid the uncle for his labor. She told me that the brakes were metal to metal and I could pay her back for brakes in a few weeks when her uncle came through town again, but tap the brake instead of riding it for now. She told me there was a hole in the exhaust that a local shop could fix. She said that her uncle would put in a new wiring harness when he put in the brakes, because the car would need one eventually. This all happened while she was in the middle of finding a house and moving in to avoid an eviction. She asked if she could drive the car back to me on one of her trips back and forth across town. I said no, no one but me should drive the car, I’ll walk out from the bus stop to her place and get it when it was ready.

I was shocked, one January night, when she texted me “Surprise! Your car is here in front of my new house!” She’d deliberately done the opposite of what I’d asked with the only expensive thing I owned. But I thanked her and gotten the car, which still had the brake and battery light ominously on.

I drove the car downtown exactly once, where it died. I managed to get it back to my house, with the help of Adrienne’s martial arts sensei. I talked to the Lost Girl, who said she had ridden all around the countryside in the passenger seat as her uncle test drove the car to make sure it was roadworthy.

The uncle never did come to finish what he started. I never heard from him again– or at all, come to think about it, just the girl, my friend.

I helped the Lost Girl rescue her children and get ready for her baby, as best I could. I never got to meet the baby. I wanted to. She kept on asking for help– her food stamps had been meddled with and she needed new paperwork, the WIC-available formula wasn’t at the local store. I helped where I could. I got together canned goods from my cupboards to feed them when we were hurting for groceries as well. And she always said “leave it on the doorstep, I’m busy upstairs” so I couldn’t even peek at the new baby. She sent me pictures.

She admitted, eventually, that her boyfriend had come back. She promised he wasn’t living with her and the children, just visiting and co-parenting. She wasn’t going to take him back. “I swear on my children, I wouldn’t do that,” she said. She asked me to keep it secret until she announced it to her friends, and I did. She’s done so now.

Her needs increased. There was always something. She needed gas money or her children would be truant and she would go to jail.  The Welfare department had messed up her SSDI benefits that week and she didn’t have enough for rent. Then there was the electric, and then the gas. She showed me photographs of her bills, though, so I believed her, and I still do. She is a poor young woman with five children and a dog, and can never make ends meet. Our country’s social safety net is nothing but holes. But everything got exponentially worse after her boyfriend came back. I tried to help as much as I could. I split off bits here and there from my shoestring budget. We got further behind on bills.

Which brings me to last weekend, when I was standing in front of my house with vertigo, listening to Jimmy diagnose my car. No metal-to-metal brakes, he said, that was a lie. The brakes were brand new. The jerking was the sparkplugs. No hole in the exhaust, just old oil on the crank case. The oil hadn’t been changed, it was filthy. No new wires; the alternator was attached to dry rotted wires that were completely snapped in half as if it were a practical joke. The bracket on top of the alternator may or may not have been installed recently, but the threads were totally stripped on the bolt as if a child had tried to install it. The new alternator, if one had been purchased, had not been installed at all. This alternator was ten years old at least. Someone had taken off the heat shield and seen the extent of the damage. They may or may not have played with that bolt. They had put the heat shield back on without doing any more work and claimed it had been fixed.

The Lost Girl had driven the car back to my house without my permission on just the brand new battery from the first mechanic. It lasted that long.

It died downtown, when we were only going fifteen miles an hour on a side street.

What if I’d taken the car to Weirton?

What if it had died on the bridge, on 22 where everyone speeds and honks at you if you only drive the limit?

What if there’d been a truck behind me?

I had put my only child in that car. She’d ridden in the back seat.

My child, who I love more than anything in the world, who had spent the whole winter in her room watching movies, because we didn’t have a car to get to Pittsburgh to the museum or to Columbus to visit Aunt Holly. We didn’t see her friends. She couldn’t go to Martial Arts much of the time. She’d have missed the soccer season if I hadn’t eventually borrowed the car we’re still driving now. We were waiting for an uncle who didn’t exist. We haven’t gone anywhere just for fun since our mall trip the week before Christmas.

It could have been even worse.

Jimmy went home, promising to come back when the alternator came in the mail.

I went to the backyard to pull weeds for awhile.

The pigeons and the new cardinal sang to me from the lilac bush.

The winter is over. Spring is halfway done.

Time for some changes.

 

 

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

 

 

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