Mel and I took our Mazda to Oil Can Henry's in Lebanon, Oregon for an oil change. The sand stone colored siding with bright white trim around the doors, the attendant wearing a small black bowtie and a white collared work shirt with blue stripes, the black wool driving caps, all of it, every detail was to establish the wholesome feel of a full-service 1950’s gas station.
We pulled up to the main door, heard a ding inside the shop, and were greeted by an attendant. He had a mustache and I got the impression he grew it to match the uniform. He waved me into the shop with both hands, occasionally pointing to the left or right, helping to guide my green Mazda Protégé over the pit. Beside me was Mel, and in the back seat was Norah, our four-year-old daughter.
Last time I went to Oil Can Henry's I got really frustrated with the way the attendant bombarded me with requests for upgrades, so I swore I’d never go there again. But time was short. We were between matches at Tristan’s soccer championship (Socctoberfest!), and Oil Can Henry's was the only oil change place in this small town. Also, Mel had nagged me to get the oil changed for over a month, and things had finally come to a head on the drive to the championship.
“Why haven’t you gotten the oil changed yet?” Mel asked. “What I am supposed to do if the car explodes?”
“The car is not going to explode,” I said. “Stop being dramatic. It’s a Mazda. Built to last.”
“If you don’t get the oil changed I’m cutting you off.”
Mel is a small and soft-spoken woman with brown hair and thick academic style glasses. She smiles a lot. But when she threatened to cut me off, like she often did, she was not smiling. I knew she was serious.
I went silent for a moment. Then I agreed to get the oil changed between matches.
The irritating thing about Oil Can Henry's is that they don’t let you get out of your car. The first thing the attendant did was lean his arm against the top of the car door and ask me to roll down the window. I did, and he handed me a newspaper and a list of services and prices. He was friendly. He smiled. His words carried a whistle followed by a slurp. I assumed this was because there were no teeth in the right half of his mouth, and as I gazed at his lopsided smile, I couldn’t help but think of Lube-N-Go back home, in Provo, where my older brother Ryan changed oil after high school.
Most of the men he worked with were in their late twenties and early thirties, high school dropouts that knew almost nothing about cars, or life, or social etiquette. On lunch breaks they smoked pot behind the shop and then tried to trick coworkers into seeing their genitals. They were single, still lived with their parents, and spent most of their time discussing how the high population of Mormons in Utah was keeping them down. “This town sucks!” I once heard James say, a 30-something with smelly dreadlocks and a beard that mostly grew from his neck. “Damn Mormons. I can’t even get a beer on Sunday because of their shit laws. If I could get to LA, things would be different. People would treat me with respect.”
More or less, they were morons posing as car professionals. And although Ryan changed oil in Utah, thousands of miles away from where I was, and it was years earlier, I couldn’t help but assume that things were the same in this small Oregon town. Within a few moments of meeting the attendant, I already didn’t trust him.
|January 2013 Employee of the Month: Graham, WA|
“Let’s go ahead and check your lights,” he said.
The attendant gave me a number of directions. Turn on this. Blinker that. Pop the hood. I could hear another man yelling check from behind the car. I waited for it. I waited for him to mention the light, the one that was out above the license plate. The one they always mentioned.
“Lights out above your plate,” the attendant said. Then he told me it could be a $250 ticket if I didn’t replace it.
“I can do that myself,” I said. Even though I had no intentions of doing so. I just wanted him to leave me alone.
“That light has been out for a year,” Mel said, her eyes a little slanted with frustration. “Every time we get the oil changed, they mention it. Do you want a $250 ticket? It’s just a few dollars for a light. Stop being lazy.”
Mel seemed to assume that car maintenance was part of my manly duties and she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t on it. Why I wasn’t gung-ho about fixing the car. And when I didn’t keep up the maintenance, she assumed it was because I was lazy, but in fact, it was because getting the car fixed was an emotional event.
If I were to strip back the layers of my mistrust of the attendant, I’d find that the real problem I had with him, and car maintenance in general, was that I didn’t really trust myself. I wasn’t a car guy. I had no idea how to fix anything, mechanical or otherwise, let alone something as complicated and intricate as a car. I once tried to put a fabricated bookshelf together and Mel had to take the kids to the park because I was cursing so much. The instructions said to expect 20 to 30 minutes for assembly. My ass! That shelf took over an hour of my time and one of my fingernails.
Cars were a mystery to me, so whenever I took my car to get fixed, weather it was a clutch repair or an oil change, I felt like I had to really trust the person doing the work. When we were in Utah, I didn’t have this problem. There my mechanic was my former scoutmaster and current Mormon bishop. I really trusted the guy. But ever since we left home I’ve never found an affordable mechanic I can trust. I always assumed they were the same caliber of dumb ass that worked with my brother all those years ago. I’d tried to explain this to Mel, but I couldn’t seem to find the words, so I long ago decided to just let her think that I was lazy by getting on the defensive.
“This is why I hate taking you with me to get the oil changed. It turns into a lecture. Look at this guy. Do you really think he’s a viable source on how much a license plate ticket will cost? I mean really, $250. Sounds more like the fine for hitting a unicorn. You’re stressing me out.”
“I’m just asking you to look into it. I’m not saying that you need to have them fix it. Stop getting angry.”
“Sure. Whatever. I’ll look into it.”
It was at this point that Norah started getting involved. She always backed up her mother. No one was ever on my side.
“Stop being mean, daddy,” Norah said. “Stop talking. I need quiet time.”
Mel went silent and so did I.
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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University.