Good Night, Sweet Babe MagnetBy Jason Peters for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Ingham County, MI
“When I was first getting started in this business,” says the engine-repair guy on the other end of the line, “guys used to tell me to spin the flywheel by hand first. And I’d tell them . . . ”
Here, for delicacy’s sake, I interrupt my transcription of the telephone conversation I’m having, but I can tell you that what this guy I’ve never met before says next rhymes with “shuck that fit.”
“So don’t feel bad,” he says. “I had to learn the hard way too.”
What I have learned the hard way is that when you change the coils on the V-twin 27-hp Briggs engine that runs your John Deere 62-inch zero-turn mower, you shouldn’t crank the engine without first spinning the flywheel by hand to see if you have set the gap properly. If you haven’t set the gap properly, the flywheel is likely to break the coils right off the block, snap the ears they mount on, and leave you with a broken block on an engine that is now as useless as tits on a boar hog.
And I, being the alpha Dumb Ass of Dumb-Ass Acres, have made this very mistake and left myself in this very situation.
“You might as well just drop a new engine in that,” my faceless interlocutor tells me. “That engine has—what did you say? Five-hundred hours on it? It’s half done anyway. Get a new one.”
I ask him if he wants to make a house call and do the job.
“Well, you have to keep in mind that I get seventy-five bucks an hour.” Translation: he’s got plenty of work to keep him busy this time of year. The grass is growing faster than the federal deficit, and lawn-care guys all over the place are having the usual early-season equipment problems.
I consider the number seventy-five for a minute, because I’ve already pulled the old engine, and that’s about half the labor, but I decide I’d rather pay myself that money. I sure-as-shootin’ don’t have time to change the block on the engine I just destroyed, and I’m not enough of a mechanic to know if there’s another solution to my problem, so I shop around a bit for a used one—to no avail, of course—and end up springing for a new one. And, brother, it ain’t cheap.
I ask the salesman if I can talk to a mechanic briefly. He disappears for a minute and obligingly reappears with a guy in a blue shirt with an oval patch over the left pec. “John” is the name stitched into the patch, and the salesman introduces him to me as “Bob,” thus extending the absurdity and the general theme of dumbassery that have characterized this whole affair. Bob-John and I shake hands, and I waste no time cutting to the chase.
“Is there anything in particular I should know or look out for when I’m putting this new engine in? Any surprises?”
“Your clutch and pulleys are all okay? Belts?
“Nope. Goes in easy. But sometimes the mounting holes on these ain’t pre-tapped. You can tap ’em yourself or use the self-tapping bolts if that’s what come off the old one. But I like to make sure they’re tapped first.”
“And that’s it.”
“Yep. Piece-a cake.”
Easy for Bob-John to say. He’s done this eleventy-million times.
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll get at it.” And off I go in the Chevy that hauled the hens.
Turns out Bob-John is right. The mounting holes on this over-priced V-twin Briggs are not tapped. So I tap them before dropping the engine in and go to work.
Operating at my usual level of dumbassery I manage to get the new one installed in about a day. I figure that if after buying a new engine for about a grand I pay myself seventy-five bucks an hour, I’ll almost break even, so I tell this to my Chief Eye-Rolling Officer.
Who rolls her eyes (but, lucky for me, walks away. What pockets! And what is it about the back of a girl’s knee that makes me almost throw a calcium deposit?)
But now I’m feeling good about myself. Dumb-Ass Grass Cuttin’ Binniss is back in business. After my maiden voyage, my little test run, on the new-old zero-turn that, with the help of Bob-John and a hundred Ben Franklins I’ve managed to get moving again, I present myself to the missus, expecting an aria of praise.
“Work okay?” is what I get instead—and not the slightest note of wonder.
“It’s time, you know,” she says. This, I can tell immediately, is one of those trademark female changes-of-subject. They occur without transitions or topic sentences. And the paragraph never has anything good in it.
“Time for what?”
“Time to sell the Dodge.”
“I can’t sell the Dodge!”
“You never use it, and we could use the money.”
It is not possible to enjoy yourself when a woman is right, especially when a truck you’ve owned for twenty-six years is at stake.
“What do you mean I never use it? I go out back and look at it all the time.”
“We don’t need it, and it’s taking up space, and it’s not safe for the kids to drive.”
Being right on all three counts is what I call cheating, and if there’s one thing I won’t stand for it’s a cheap shot.
“I need it to haul wood around here.” (Not true. I’ve got the Chevy.) “And it hardly takes up any space at all.” (Not true. The north side of the barn barely has room for both the Dodge and the tractor.) “And that thing’s as solid as a tank.” (True enough, but the clutch on it is original. It’s thirty-four years old. I’m the only one who knows how to get the thing to move. Plus one of the rear wheels likes to lock up. Plus one of the front wheel bearings likes to go bad. Plus the steering is as loose as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. Plus the thing runs well only if you put premium gas in it. Plus the windshield is cracked not only top-to-bottom but side-to-side. I think for a moment of playing the religious angle, the Constantine card—in hoc signo vinces—but she’s not one for dubious lore, and after thirty-one years I’ve yet to win an argument.)
“What can you get for it, do you think?”
“You mean besides a broken heart?”
“I mean what’s it worth?”
I think for a minute, because she’s right, and because we’re hemorrhaging money. “Probably eight-hundred.”
Like some dupe in an episode of “I Dream of Genie” I suddenly find myself not in the kitchen, where I have been suffering another defeat, but inexplicably blinked out back under the oak tree, and I’m wiping out the inside of the Dodge, vacuuming under the bench seat, washing the exterior, and strong-arming the boys into waxing my beloved truck, a.k.a. The Babe Magnet, a.k.a. E.E. Lawson, a.k.a. The Beautiful-Ugly Brown ’83, which I purchased in Dallas in 1991 for a grand total of $2,600. It had no radio at the time and no power steering. The first thing I did to it was change out the water pump, which began to fail on the way north out of the Lone Star State. The second thing I did was put in a junk-yard power-steering unit. And for twenty-six years I did pretty much nothing to it except the routine stuff.
You can see how selling The Babe Magnet feels like an act of betrayal. But apparently I’ve agreed to let it go.
Woops! Under the spacious bench seat, designed specifically for making out in the high school parking lot, I find an empty bottle of Old Granddad. What’s the story here? I wonder. More to the point, do I pull it out and show it to my Stern Preceptor (SP), who is decidedly not the kind of person you want discovering hidden booze bottles, or do I shove it back under the seat and hope to retrieve it later under the cloak of darkness? I untwist the cap and take a whiff. Nothing. I swirl it and look at the bottom. There’s a little bit of water in it. Ah, yes. I remember filling it with water many moons ago because I thought I had a radiator leak.
So I produce the bottle with an innocent grin, whereupon the visage on the CEO / SP goes dark, and I brace myself for a menacing Harrrrumph.
“Water for the radiator!”
“Smell it!” I say. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be innocent at this moment. But she’s so good at reading me that she doesn’t bother with the evidence. The guilty look she knows well, and this ain’t it.
“What should I list it for?” she asks, holding one of those tyrannous devices everyone is enslaved to these days—everyone save me. This is going to be yet another of her craigslist triumphs. The girl’s a whiz at selling things. She could sell two boots to a one-legged man. She could sell snow to an Eskimo.
“Put eleven-hundred on it and see what happens.
The question wasn’t exactly rhetorical. She was only fishing for an Anknüpfungspunkt. So I’ve given her one.
Fast-forward a week. She hands me the phone. “He’s from Flint. He’s interested in the Dodge.”
I ask her in a whisper what she listed it for. “Thirteen-hundred,” she whispers back. What a girl!
“Call me ‘Scottie,’ says yet another guy on the other end of yet another line, so I do, and he’s got a way about him that reminds me of one of my oldest pals, so much so that I feel as if I’m talking to a friend. He’s got a few good direct questions about “the old gal,” as he calls The Babe Magnet. Are the wheel wells a bit “crispy”? They are, but not bad. It’s a 225 slant-six, right? It is. Is it a two-or a four-barrel? It’s a two. “You know they sometimes snuck a four-barrel into those,” he says, and I believe him. Already I’m feeling as if I could let this guy take the old gal away from me. He knows something about what he’s getting into.
And the clutch? It’s a tough one, but you can get used to it. I’ve never changed it. I tell him that I did do the U-joints in the drive shaft about fifteen years ago and break lines about six or seven years ago. They were brake lines until they broke.
The conversation feels tilted, almost eerie, as if two men are talking fondly about a woman both of them were once married to.
He says he can tell it’s killing me to sell this. He can hear it in my voice. He knows what it’s like to love an old Dodge, and then he tells me the story of selling his a few years ago to a kid who needed something to counterbalance the bad luck of a pregnant girlfriend. He says he shouldn’t have sold it. “I’ve seen it around a few times. The kid’s trashed it. It kills me to look at it. And he didn’t even marry the girl. I’ve been looking for one to replace it with.”
After a little more Q&A we say good-bye like two high school buddies catching up after thirty-five years of absence, and a day later Scottie pulls in with a double-axle trailer. He intends to win the The Babe Magnet from me.
You can see the scene. Two guys engaged in distinctly male conversation, both pairs of eyes fixed on a common object. One guy has a foot up on the chrome bumper; the other has his arms folded as he takes in a wide-angle view. We’re not exactly like the three kings beholding the holy family, but there is an element of reverence and awe about the tableau. Before Scottie takes the old gal for a drive we’ve swapped two dozen stories about truck failures and shoe-string repairs. He’s way out of my league and as interesting as revenge tragedy. I like this guy. He’s playing me, but I like him.
Scottie looks her over pretty thoroughly and takes her down the road a fair piece. When he comes back he tells me he’s surprised at how much gumption she’s got. “She gets out there quicker than mine did, that’s for sure.”
I’m glad to know this, and before I can say so he puts his hands on his hips, looks down, shakes his head somewhat dejectedly, as if he’s been defeated once again by an implacable force that he knows all too well–like a wife, for example. And then, like a man beaten down—beaten down like so many times before—he says, as if against his will, “I’m going to buy her. I hate to say it but I have to.”
And my heart hits the ground. What I think of is the sound of a basketball, bouncing once, then twice, then a third time, and then fading off in series of ever fainter thuds in a dusty dark empty old-school gymnasium. Something good, something pure and unadulterated, something like a blue-ribbon marriage is coming to an end.
“And I’m not even going to dicker,” he says. “I’m going to give you your price.” And then he counts out thirteen Ben Franklins.
Inside the house a pink ribbon, Hawthorne-style, flutters down from above. The CEO / SP has triumphed again.
Scottie’s truck is up by the house, and we’re still out by the road, a good six iron from his double-axle trailer. I tell him I’ll drive the old gal up to the trailer—take one final spin. “But if I keep going all the way back to the barn, that means I’ve changed my mind.”
Except I don’t. And soon Scottie, who’s obviously done a lot of hauling in his day, has the Beautiful-Ugly Brown ’83 Dodge, a.k.a. The Babe Magnet, a.k.a. E.E. Lawson, expertly chained down and ready to go. The CEO snaps a few photos of the rig. I can’t tell if the Dodge is forlorn or elated up there on the trailer, but I know which of these two dispositions has taken hold of me.
The opposite one has taken possession of the CEO, who looks at me as my truck disappears down the driveway among the branches of the flowering kwanzan trees, hoping, I know, to see me all misty-eyed. Women love it when men cry. It’s one of their faults.
But I’m stoic. And I’ve got some work to do astride a John Deere 62-inch zero-turn mower tricked out with a new V-twin Briggs & Stratton engine.
Proof that my espoused saint, the CEO, the Goddess Excellently Bright was right: a week later Scottie sends her a message and a photo. The Babe Magnet has new rims and tires. The old gal has a new clutch, and Scottie’s just returned from a six-hundred mile camping trip. “Thought you might like to know!”