The learnéd Dennis stands behind the counter at my local NAPA.  He’s portly and very short.  Everyone likes Dennis.  He doesn’t make you feel small for not knowing as much as he does.  Plus what he knows is useful.  He’s got your gasket, and you can tell just by talking to him that he’s never blown one. 

He asks me how I’m doing, knowing full well that I’d be doing a lot better if I weren’t in NAPA talking to him.

“Halfway there,” I say, and to prove it I place a worn-out alternator on the counter.  It’s off a 16-year-old Volvo V70 five-speed station wagon with 240K on an odometer you can read only if you shine a bright and narrowly focused light on it.  I’m here to see how the factory alternator now on the counter compares to the one I ordered up yesterday, which, presently, Dennis disappears to retrieve from the back.  There’s a question of amperage, for one thing.  For another thing, I’m a dumb ass. 

When he returns I say, “but I don’t think you can help me with my other problem.”

“What’s your other problem?” Dennis asks in the manner of someone who’s heard it all.

“I’ve already used up ninety percent of my swear words.”

Now I’ve heard it all,” he says.

The guy next to me buying oil and a filter thinks this is funny.  That’s a good sign, because most of the signs the last two days haven’t been.

Such as seeing every electrical function on a chilly morning fail 70 miles from home, beginning with the blower fan and ending with the needle on the tach falling to zero.

Being only mostly as opposed to completely stupid, I had pulled off in front of a business that had caught my eye several times, a cabinet-maker’s shop right near the highway.  Some people will tell you never to close the door of a wardrobe you’ve just stepped into; I say never pull off the road on a cold morning if there isn’t an establishment nearby to warm yourself in—if, that is, you have any say in the matter.

After a few minutes of sitting motionless behind the wheel, blowing steam at the windshield and thinking and diagnosing in the high dumb-assed style, I got out of my car and headed toward Cross & Lincoln, the cabinet-maker’s place.  The sign on the door said “Come In!” so I did.  In the quiet office-and-retail front I espied a large, bald, bespeckled, and furiously-bearded man at a desk.  He was talking on the phone.  He cut the conversation short and stepped out, confessing to me that that was conversation he needed to get out of anyway.

So it was my turn for honesty.  After introductions I told him that although I was interested in wood-working in general and cabinetry in particular—notwithstanding a noticeable paucity of talent for finish carpentry that I can always count on my shapely espouséd saint to remind me of—my real reason for being in his shop was than my car was dead on the road just across his parking lot.  Don, as he is called, asked how he could help, and I suggested that a jump-start might be a good first move. 

I got a tour of his clean and spacious shop and an aural primer on his operation, plus answers to my questions about it, as he hunted down his jumper cables.  In short order we were in the chilly November air rejoicing to hear a five-cylinder engine turn over and jump to life.  Don disconnected the jumper cables and handed them to me.

“Take these,” he said.  “You might need them.”

I protested, but he would have none of it, so I accepted, fully intending to return them the next time I passed his clean, well-lighted place.  And then Don’s tires crunched across his parking lot, and he disappeared into his shop. 

Having made the mistake of bragging about the Volvo earlier that morning, I discovered inside it that it was nonplussed by the pressure I was applying to the accelerator.  Just once, I thought to myself, I’d like a car to be plussed by what I’m doing to it. 

And then the tach fell to zero and the car went dead again.

Clearly Don’s jumper cables weren’t going to do me much good.  Jumper cables can no more make up for a failing alternator than spandex can hide rippled blubber—a fact too little known, in my opinion, in the twilight of the Transfatty American Republic.  So there I was again, in his office-and-retail space, just as he was re-entering his work day.  I told him what happened and that I was pretty sure the jumper cables should stay with him. 

“What else can I do to help you,” Don asked.  And I thought to myself, “I am not in . . . ” well, fill in the name of your least favorite place not built to human scale, where the default mode of the approximate humans therein is suspicion and unkindness.

I asked him about his go-to guy, and he mentioned a man named Jim at the Marathon station back in town.  And then Don drove me there, as if it were normal to run a business only after you’d performed the daily offices of charity.

Jim suspicioned the alternator too but said there were too many people in front of me for him to put me on the day’s log.  And, of course, it was Friday.  The gas station would be open on Saturday, but the shop would be closed.  After I asked him about tow trucks, and whether he had one of his own (he didn’t), he grabbed one of his mechanics—a guy with a face half Jimmy Connors and half Kevin Costner, except with right proper grease under his nails and a couple days’ stubble on his face—and told him to take me out to Cross & Lincoln to test the alternator.

So Jimmy-Kevin dropped what he was doing and drove me out to the edge of town.  He and I jumped the car and put the tester on.  Suspicions confirmed:  there was nothing in the way of voltage returning to the battery. 

We let his S-10 charge my Swedish Meatball for about ten minutes, passing the time by talking about how cars used to be, when they didn’t need a bank of about a hundred batteries to run all the electronics on them, and then I drove the V70 back to Jim, who opined that a two-hour charge would probably be enough to get me across the 70 miles of Michigan farmland I needed to cover in order to get home.  So I dug out the battery once again (it’s in the back of the car—more on this anon), he hooked up his manly charger to it, and I walked off to kill a couple of hours with coffee and a book.

This, by the way, is a description of small-town life and the help you can expect to receive from people not conditioned from the cradle and the daycare worker’s knee to give strangers the finger.  Gratiot County, notwithstanding the abuse it has suffered from chemical manufacturers and government built on the Sgt. Schultz model (“I see nothing!”), could be my home.

The service call and the two-hour charge cost me $35, which is outrageous.  Jim and Jimmy-Kevin deserved much more.  I thanked Jim and told him I wanted to thank Don as well. 

“Is he a beer drinker?” I asked.

Jim paused and then said he didn’t know, so just up the road I bought Don a gift-card to a local restaurant.  In the near future he and someone else would get a grinder and a Coke at lunchtime, served to them, no doubt, by people they know among people they know, none using the middle finger for saluting purposes.

I made it home.  I didn’t use any extraneous electrical functions:  no radio, no headlights, no blower fan.  It can’t be said the journey was a warm one, but neither did it leave me with snot cycles falling from my nose like walrus tusks.

Back in my local NAPA Dennis looks up—and I mean up—at his computer screen.  The part number on the old alternator confirms our instincts:  that the 140-amp alternator is the right one.  For once I’ve guessed correctly.  I part with nearly $250 and head back to my cold garage, where lately, in my attempts to remove the radiator fan assembly and the power-steering pump, not to mention loosen the AC compressor just so I could get to the alternator, I had been swearing in profane apostrophe at fair-haired, blue-eyed phantom Volvo assembly-line workers from as many as twenty years ago.  Verily, I had nearly condemned to flames of eternal woe every Scandinavian who has ever walked the earth, and that includes the Swedes I know and like.

I even discovered a surplus of spleen, which I promptly poured out on absentee professional offense-takers:  I mean the halfwits in my racket who go on and on about “cultural appropriation” and “micro-aggressions” and who have taken it upon themselves to inform me that I’m a cisgender male, which turns out to be a male who is not a female.  Seriously.  I looked it up. 

(I’m also a male who is not a kangaroo, and on my head I have cishair, which is hair that is not beach grass.)

A sunflower-style propane heater hisses behind me.  Vainly it labors to raise the ambient temperature in the garage, but with at least minimal success it warms my dumb ass and, occasionally, my hands.  Above me, on a television manufactured in the early antediluvian epoch, a certain Big Ten football team sets a world record for consecutive three-and-outs. 

If you’re a punter and like to see a lot of action—on the field, I mean—there’s a university up the road from me that might be a perfect fit for you.

As expected, and as is usually the case, re-assembly goes much faster than disassembly, though I’m now mortgaging curse words to the next three post-diluvian epochs.  And that accounts only for the really bad words.  There’s not so much as a “shoot” or a “golly-gee” left in next month’s budget. 

The main cause of this deficit-spending is that I have decided, while I’m at it, to replace the serpentine belt, and the only way to loosen the tensioner pulley is to put a 12mm socket on it, but the socket has to fit a quarter-drive ratchet or else it won’t fit in the micro-space at which all my macro-aggressions are directed.  I’ve got plenty of quarter-drive ratchets and sockets, but of course my 12mm quarter-drive socket is M.I.A.  And it turns out that the angle on a box-end wrench is also too great for the micro-space but that putting the open end of the wrench on the nut doesn’t leave enough clearance even for someone with micro-hands to grab onto the box end. 

I solve this micro-digression by putting the open end of the wrench on the nut and extending the wrench into open air by slipping the box end of a much larger wrench over it, dumb-ass style and no apologies, micro, macro, quantum, or whatever.

(“Micro-aggressions,” being micro, can’t be seen and therefore merit apologies that can’t be heard. I call them “micro-apologies.”)

At last I reattach the negative cable to the battery, turn the key, and, to my surprise, the Swedemobile starts.  I was sure I’d have to hook up my little 50-amp charger, but no!  There’s just enough juice in the battery that inexplicably lies buried in the back of the car next to the spare tire, the unearthing of which battery at Jim’s Marathon station required a lot of embarrassing digging:  several pairs of shoes, a duffle bag, three book bags, one garment bag, golf clubs (“why are these mothering sticks still in my fornicating car?” I recall ejaculating), and an array of ball caps that not even Cerberus and his siblings could make use of on several rainy outings—all these had to come out.  There’s nothing like that sort of discordant clutter to make a dumb ass look even dumb-asserer.

(It’s true there’s a positive jumping post under the hood that’s pretty easy to get at, but Jim wanted the dumb-ass battery itself to hook his big-ass charger to.)

In the long run, however, it is well that I have unearthed the battery and been reminded of how much trouble a man must go through to get to it—more trouble, I dare say, than it would take to undress an early-modern aristocratic British lady of considerable refinement, crooked teeth, and unpleasant breath. 

I say “unpleasant breath” because there’s another problem to address here.  The Check-Engine light that’s been on for several years now amounts to none other than the lamentable P0420 code, which means (1) that you can’t say for sure whether you’ve got sensor or catalytic-converter problems (or both, given your dumb-assed luck) and (2) that your exhaust smells like “the breath which from my mistress reeks,” to quote an early-modern bard. 

I pause to consider a question:  would I rather address the P0420 code or undress an early-modern British aristocratic lady of considerable refinement and bad breath? 

The former, I decide.  That would be the proper object of a man’s libido dominandi.  Moreover, the former answers to the first principle of textual criticism:  lectio difficilior potior

Here’s what I mean.  I could wager on the simpler variant:  I could go straight for the catalytic converter, which is the most expensive fix to the “problem” that the amorphous P0420 diagnosis points to.  But, if I do, Murphy’s Law—which doesn’t give a flying flip about Occam’s Razor—will kick in and tell me that, no, it wasn’t the catalytic converter after all.

So, having spent the money for the converter only to discover that it didn’t solve my problem, I will then have to replace the first sensor indicated.  But, of course, I will still get the amorphous P0420, because Murphy’s Law is now in charge.

And so then I’ll replace the next sensor, and then the next, and so on right on down the line of sensors until the sonofabitching P0420 finally goes away, and I will have spent the maximum amount of money possible on the sonofabitching P0420.

Or:

I could bet on the sensors first.  I could go for Sensor 1, and then Sensor 2, and so on down the line until I discover that the sensors are not the problem but that the catalytic converter is the pucking froblem, and so I will have to replace that, which I could have started with, and did in the first scenario, and again I will have spent the maximum amount of money possible on the sonofabitching P0420, thanks to that deadly combination of Murphy’s Law and the regnant dumbassery that presides over Dumb Ass Acres.

In the long run, as I was saying several paragraphs ago, it is well that I have unearthed the battery, which lies hidden beside the spare tire, because in two weeks’ time I will once again awaken far from home, this time to a flat tire, and I will discover upon swapping it out with the spare that the spare is also flat, having in all likelihood never once been used since a misbegotten Swede first secured it in the cavity engineered for it at the rear of the car, next to the battery you can get to only by digging through book bags, duffle bags, garment bags, ball caps, and fornicating golf clubs.

Fortunately for this dumb ass, who desires to excel in dumb-assery, the crisis will have occurred on another chilly morning; otherwise, he would not have the privilege of trying to fill a tire, at the only gas station for miles, with an air compressor whose hose is frozen.  There’s nothing like the sight of a dumb ass in the early light of a late fall morning kinking and unkinking and twisting and turning an air hose to break up the crystalline moisture inside it—and mortgaging more profanity the while—in order to put 60 psi into a donut-style spare.

And what is the cause of the original flat?  It is none other than a bone fragment—the bone fragment, let us hope, of an invincibly ignorant Sociologist rendered myopic by a hermeneutic of ressentiment.

A bone penetrating a Volvo’s tire:  now there’s a paragraph waiting to be written, I think to myself, as Dean, the taciturn tire man at the repair shop next door to the NAPA, plies his trade with an awl and plug, at last sending me on my way with yet another repaired tire.  That’s officially four out of four. 

I look about me in the slanting November sunlight.  Ah, month of my birth, how I adore thee!  How I adore the pale stubble fields in the oblique mellow light!  From field to yellowing field, let dumb-assery ring.  Let it, because it will anyway.

And, dumb ass though I be, I am still, as I have affirmed on many occasions, a lucky bastard. And that’s because here in the bosom of Dumb-Ass Acres I am reminded once again, as my eyes fall even now upon the goddess loci and wife of my youth—sojourner through time—that I’ve been blessed with triple Ds:  Don, Dennis, and Dean. 

And let’s not forget Jim too.  Let’s not forget the look on his face on that 20-degree morning when I pulled my golf clubs out of the back of a 16-year-old Volvo V70 5-speed station wagon so he could charge its battery—the look that seemed to say, this guy might be the biggest dumb ass on earth.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The halfwits in the psychotherapy racket where I spend many an hour cranking out a living might have a duller response to “I’m also a male who is not a kangaroo, and on my head I have cishair, which is hair that is not beach grass.” For me, this made my otherwise bleak morning. In the word famished acronym of the text culture, I “lmao”. You get more mileage out of curse words by watering them down I guess.

    Always enjoy reading your work. This was delightful.

  2. Serious question for the author: I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s line from whatever sonnet that is about “the breath which from my mistress reeks,” and it’s earned me more than one blow from my better half (better third?). But I also read one of those terrible footnotes which sucked the fun out of the line, claiming that “reek” did not yet suggest anything unpleasant in Shakespeare’s day (thus sucking the fun out of it).

    Say it ain’t so, Professor? My better third was not placated, either way.

    • from the OED, dating at least to 1609:

      a. intransitive. To give off an unpleasant or unwholesome odour or fume; (now chiefly) to give off a powerful and unpleasant smell; to stink. Frequently with of, with.
      Now the usual sense.
      1609 J. Davies Humours Heau’n on Earth 228 Of Tauerns, reaking still with vomitings, Draw, with the Owners, all the Drawers out.
      1710 J. Swift Jrnl. to Stella 7 Oct. (1948) I. 46 I was forced to go to a blind chop-house,..and then go reeking from thence to the first minister of state.
      1752 S. Foote Taste i. 17 Two Domitians reaking from the Dunghill.
      1798 S. T. Coleridge Anc. Marinere iv, in W. Wordsworth & S. T. Coleridge Lyrical Ballads 23 The cold sweat melted from their limbs, Ne rot, ne reek did they.
      1839 C. Dickens Nicholas Nickleby xvi. 143 The small apartments reek with the breath of deputations and delegates.
      1881 W. H. Mallock Romance 19th Cent. I. 140 She literally reeked of garlic.
      1888 A. K. Green Behind Closed Doors vii. 99 I found a broken phial reeking with the smell of bitter almonds.
      1906 J. Galsworthy Man of Prop. 209 Hot streets crowded with carriages, reeking with dusty odours.
      1960 Blackwood’s Mag. July 68 It was stiflingly hot inside the bus, which reeked of petrol.
      1988 B. Sterling Islands in Net (1989) i. 23 David, you reek.
      2004 J. Keay in Slightly Foxed Spring 49 I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water.

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