As I peered over the open hood of my car a few Sundays ago, I thought of the furnace-days of my youth spent hovering near my father in our garage in Phoenix. Coated with sawdust, his homemade work benches lined the walls with assorted treasures like tools, materials and tinkering supplies. Our driveway was both his auto bay and carpentry shop.
A dead battery such as what brought me to Auto Zone last month would have been something that my father handled—I came from a family of Detroit mechanics, after all. Instead, I got a jump from USAA and drove north to Shoreline to charge the battery before giving it a test. I was banking on needing a new one, as it was eight years old, the factory original.
In place of my father, I found Fred Jones, an elderly customer service agent who reminded me of the men I grew up with. With a puffy shock of white hair, he was polite but absently gruff, pushing his equipment out to my car on a cart. It felt odd to stand there, a perfectly able woman watching an old guy labor over my vehicle. I wondered if he worked for fun or simply to feel useful. Maybe he needed cash to pay bills that Medicare didn’t cover.
As soon as he hooked it up, the machine flashed the words “BAD BATTERY.”
When he unbolted the battery with shaky hands, I noted that Fred wore two chunky gold rings. Most mechanics I knew never wore jewelry for fear of losing fingers or irreparably damaging their wedding bands. My father never wore his, either; he stored it around the top dial of his bedroom alarm clock for so long that I assumed it was part of the machine itself.
Perhaps Fred hadn’t always worked in an auto shop and didn’t think of removing them. Or, maybe his wife was dead and he never took them off, no matter what.
I debated looking for a seat inside, but I was more interested in observing Fred as he worked. It had been years since I accompanied my father out into the shop, which served as our only connection growing up. Old behaviors like these never really die, only fall to the bottom of the lake until they’re dredged up unexpectedly. I felt a little shy when I asked, “Do you mind if I watch?” as if he might decline.
“Not at all, young lady,” he nodded, narrating his process for me step by step. I could barely restrain myself from helping as he struggled to lift the clunky old battery out and put the new one in. It took him two hands and a haphazard thrust from the cart, which I feared might strain his back.
“Whoo, these are heavy!” he exclaimed, mostly to himself as he tossed the battery on top of the tray. I wondered if he was too old to be doing this.
He pulled out a rachet wrench to secure the new battery in place, reminding me of the first time I helped my father change out spark plugs in his ’76 Firebird Trans AM in the blistering Arizona sun. Just as Fred went to secure the second bolt, he knocked it into the open chassis where it clattered inside.
“Well, shoot,” he sighed, squinting after it.
He felt around for a few minutes as I tried not to appear concerned. Would the same thing might happen to my father some day, working for an auto parts store as his last means of connecting with people, if only in a small way? I wondered how he’d feel performing in front of strangers who watched his every move and foible. Maybe that’s why it never really worked when we tried it.
Fred and I searched for the bolt on our hands and knees, thinking that it might have slipped through, but it wasn’t on the alphalt. “I need my flash light. It’s too dark to see anything in there,” he muttered. Minutes of probing later, Fred came up with nothing. “I’ll go find a bolt that’ll work,” he shrugged.
When he went inside to seek a replacement, I dipped my hand into the chest cavity of my Camry. I wasn’t sure if he had heard the muffled clang at the front of the vehicle, but I had a feeling that the bolt was sitting on a shallow lip just inside. It didn’t hurt that I had slender forearms and dexterous hands that could search more surely than Fred’s gnarled digits. Within seconds, my fingertips found the bolt.
“Fred!” I called into the store. “I have it!”
“Well, I’ll be. You’ve got eagle eyes on you,” he said as he tottered out to retrieve it. “Let’s just see if we can get her to stay put this time.”
Driving back to Seattle, a new heart pumping inside my car thanks to Fred, I discovered that I had lost all of my station pre-sets and the clock setting. Eight years of memory had been erased although the mileage was still there, not unlike what happens to our brains and bodies over time, I suppose.
Like countless others that I’ve spent in Seattle, including today, that Juneuary afternoon was alternating clouds and sun, humidity and restlessness. June is a month of frustration where the weather attempts to be summer and spring all at once, thrashing against itself with sheets of rain and steam rising from the sidewalk. Open-toed shoes leave one’s feet chilled and wet, yet boots and jackets bog up the busses with perspiration.
June is the month before real vacations start, the land of doldrums. It’s impossible to appreciate the small pause between squalls even though we know that June is temporary; we’re eager to get on with the clear and sunny weather that we believe is ahead. This edge-of-midlife time that I’ve recently entered makes sense when I consider it that way. Mid-life, however long it lasts, is a June-like purgatory in which we wait for our imagined future to become the present.
I can’t help but also think of those last years in Tucson when I struggled to envision what I might become. Back then, I had no real home. I was unsure what to do with my life; I wasn’t a scientist (or a writer) like I thought I’d be in college. In June 2001, I moved to Seattle on a very different path, my heart then set on becoming a graphic designer without a clue as to how my life or relationships would develop in a new city.
Watching the burning embers of the sun set the Space Needle’s rim afire last night, the present day’s trajectory makes more sense. In retrospect, the road to now appears logical and almost fated in an unbelievable fashion. Still, when I wonder where it will lead from here and when that future will arrive, it continues to feel pleasantly hazy and just outside of reach.
Today may feel like June, but sooner than I think, it won’t.
(To read the first post on Juneuary from 2011, click here.)