In the Terrible Heat of an Appalachian Summer

In the Terrible Heat of an Appalachian Summer June 3, 2023


It was one of those days where the air is poison.

The grass had started to go brown and itchy. The herbs in the front yard planters were falling over. When I went out in the late morning to check on both gardens, it felt like I was wading through a swamp– hard to breathe, hard stand up, hard to move forward.

The only thing summer is good for is swimming, or finding a forest where you can hike under a cool canopy. But the local pool wasn’t open yet, and we couldn’t get anywhere else with Serendipity still on the fritz. I resolved to stay cloistered in the house until the heat broke.

The first time there was a knock at the door, hot air billowed into the house as I opened it. It felt like the devil himself was on the doorstep, but it was only Jimmy and his son. His son smiled impishly at me, hoping to be invited in to see the guinea pig. Jimmy said he was walking by on his way to the market, and dropped in to tell me he was trying to rebuild our alternator. The Lost Girl’s family had swindled me by doctoring up the car with a 26-year-old dead junkyard alternator from a different kind of Nissan, but one that would have physically fit in my car if they’d known what they were doing. They’d stuffed it in all wrong, smashing the radiator gooseneck and nearly breaking the pumps. The spare parts company on Ebay had sold Jimmy a functional alternator that was the wrong one for my car and wouldn’t go on the bracket. He’d ordered us a third alternator that will be in Monday, Wednesday at the latest. In the meanwhile he was seeing if he could take the working machinery out of the new alternator and stuff it in the outer casing of the ancient one, so we’d have a convenient spare part.

“Are you sure the car will run once you put the alternator in?” I pleaded.

“I’m sure. Well, 90% sure. When I started it before, everything worked but the gas pedal!” he reminded me. The new throttle body had made the gas pedal work again; it was just that the alternator wasn’t powering the battery. There could be new surprises, but he doubted it.

I thanked him, and reminded him that I desperately wanted to get to Columbus in the mid-month, and said goodbye.

The next time Jimmy knocked, he was alone. His son was zipping back and forth on a scooter on the sidewalk. He showed me a display of motor mounts on his cracked phone as the hot air simmered all around us. He’d been dissecting and examining my entire engine so there wouldn’t be any surprises on Monday or Wednesday. That was how he found the motor mounts weren’t a little dry rotted, they were broken. They had been moved improperly when whoever put in my salvaged motor tried to put it in. I could still drive the car, maybe for months, even on the freeway, as long as he used the torque strap, but we’d need the mounts soon as. He could get them for eighty dollars, and he asked for a hundred for labor. I promised him we’d get it to him somehow. I asked if I could still get to Columbus in the mid-month, and he said I surely could with that torque strap. I said goodbye.

The third time, his son wasn’t there at all. The cool of the day was setting in, so the air barely hurt as I opened. He handed me an oily, greasy thing that looked like a bolt but wasn’t. It was a sparkplug. “You need four of these. See the tip?” he said.

I listened numbly as he explained what the tip of a spark plug was supposed to look like, and how these had been killed, and where I could grab four of them in town for twenty dollars.

I went inside, and made the mistake of googling “oil on spark plugs.” I read about blown head gaskets and remembered when the Lost Girl told me I had been bone dry of oil and coolant. Just when I’d decided that Serendipity was a lost cause, I looked outside and saw the sun was low. It was finally cool enough to go water my patch at the community garden.

I filled six water jugs at the sink, and put them in our grocery cart. I dragged them down the uneven sidewalk, past Jimmy’s house to the corner. As I dragged them by, his son zipped up on the scooter and introduced me to his friend, who was also on a scooter. She looked concerned; she told me they had running water at their house and I could have some if I wanted.

Jimmy opened the hood of Serendipity, revealing an engine that was taken apart and not yet re-assembled. I felt like I was watching a family member’s autopsy. He narrated the horror story for the hundredth time: how the car dealership in Pittsburgh had sold me a Nissan with some undisclosed junkyard salvage parts, and the only real problem was the motor mounts and the rotting wiring harness. How the wiring harness had gotten worse and worse, falling apart under the heat shield, making the sensors act up and the sparkplugs misfire. How eventually, it had killed the alternator the week before Christmas and brought the car to a dramatic halt. The motor mounts were cracked but the rest of the car was good. The brakes and exhaust were fine, the Lost Girl had lied about those. The junkyard motor was actually exceptional. It would be fine once he put it back together.

“I didn’t blow a head gasket?” I blurted out.

No, certainly not. He’d stood there listening to the engine, taking out the sensors one by one and putting it in. If I’d blown a head gasket there would have been a knock, water or smoke from the tailpipe, overheating, foamy oil.  There was none of that.

“Then why were the fluids low? And why was there oil all over the engine?”

Sometimes when the wiring is messing up the sensors, they tell the computer that the car is too hot. I probably ran down the oil and antifreeze that way. And the Lost Girl’s relative who topped off my oil instead of changing it had poured the oil all over the engine like pancake syrup. He had a spray that would clean it off. We would keep an eye on the fluids after I was driving again. He’d give us our regular oil changes for just twenty dollars.

I admitted that I was terrified over this and frantic to get to Columbus, and he reiterated that he was sure I could make it.

I promised him he’d be our regular mechanic for any maintenance forever.

In the terrible cold of a polar blast, I’d been informed my car wouldn’t run again. Now, in the terrible heat of an Appalachian summer, it was coming back to life. Slowly and in the most annoying way possible, but we were almost there.

I went to water the garden.

When I came back, it was dark and wonderfully cool.

Michael wanted to be picked up from Kroger a mile away, so Adrienne and I got in the borrowed car with the angry grinding brakes and warm air conditioning. We got all the way to Kroger just as it was closing. There was Michael, coming out. There were the clerks, locking the door for the night.

The borrowed car gave an agonized groan, and wouldn’t roll another inch.

The brakes had finally given up the ghost. One rotor was broken clean off.

Michael and Adrienne walked the groceries home, while I waited for the tow truck in the merciful cool of a summer evening.

We are grounded for a few days. The alternator for our proper car will be here Monday, Wednesday at the latest.

I’m not all right yet, but I will be soon.




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






Browse Our Archives