The thing was, I didn’t know anything about cars. I mean, I’d never even had the hood up on one. My entire experience with motor vehicles involved having driven around in my parent’s lumbering Buick Invicta station wagon, while still living at home. I was always running to the store for my mother, always picking up my younger brother from school. It was a boon for Mom when I got my license. But that didn’t qualify me for anything remotely to do with automotive maintenance. My father did all that.

I had opted for one of the dorms at State for my freshman year, this was 1984, and the campus amenities, including proximity to a small commercial district nearby, made it possible for students to attend without needing a car. Most things you needed were within walking distance. The cost of college was no slam dunk for my family. To spare them the cost of a car and insurance helped. Suffice it to say that I left home with a clear understanding of the challenges I faced—I’d decided to pursue a degree in occupational therapy—but absolutely no clue about what made internal combustion engines tick.

My new boyfriend, Rick, had no such blind spot. He loved all things vehicular and had a special place in his heart for his burnt orange Plymouth Duster. It was a 1972 hot rod, with a raked-up rear end, a mysteriously louvered back window, and huge tires Rick called “slicks.” He had also installed a special muffler, called a “glass-pack” that gave the engine a low-end guttural sound. He liked to brag that because of a special carburetor he exchanged for the factory carburetor, “my 340 block can beat any 440 block in town.”

It was all Greek to me, but there was one thing I did like about the car. There was an odd tornado-like character painted on the back near the trunk lid. That little whirling dervish was cute. And by the way, so was Rick, totally. Sandy blond hair, worn Luke Halpern style, and a matching mustache. The one drawback was that he lived in a crummy garden apartment type thing off campus, and whenever I visited Rick there I felt eyes on me from all over the communal courtyard. There was also an especially nosy onsite landlord. We didn’t spend a lot of time at Rick’s apartment, and never overnight.  As it should go without saying, I was chaste all through my freshman year—at least in terms of, you know, going all the way. Guys weren’t allowed in the dorm without a pass from an authoritarian girl whose major was police science.

Rick, though four years older than my eighteen years, seemed fine with the arrangement, although it must be said that things got pretty hot and heavy between us, short of the ultimate act, and we often fogged up the windows of his Duster. In fact, he and I shared most of our best times together going places, cruising, or sitting in that car. Rick didn’t like talking about it, but I gathered there were issues with his family, who lived in a different county, particularly issues with his father, and that he had recently moved to the area to take a job with his Uncle Bud.

Guardedly, over time, Rick started to let me drive the Duster. It was pretty cool, as I’d never fail to be noticed, mostly by other guys of course, when I’d tool down the commercial strip near the campus, often with a load of laundry sticking up behind the black louvers. I’d pull into Safe-Mart looking every bit the wheels-savvy chick. Compared to my slogs around my hometown in the nerdified Invicta, I was sitting pretty.

On weekends we’d load the trunk with picnic supplies and head up to Moss Lake. Those open-trunk picnics parked off away from parents, kids, and dogs were some of the best times Rick and I had. The two front bucket seats fully reclined, and sometimes we’d nap like that, and sometimes more. Rick identified strongly with the song, “Slow Ride,” and loved cruising with it blasting out of his kick-ass car stereo system.  If you listen to the lyrics, you’ll get the picture, though we never went as far as the guy in the song. You’ll understand why although there were more romantic songs on the radio, what really went on in that old Foghat tune was something to look forward to, and it became our song.

*

It was on one of those trips back from Moss Lake that the problems first started with the Duster. Rick pointed to how the temperature gauge was rising, first reaching and then laying hard over into the red zone. He winced when the smooth acceleration we’d always enjoyed turned balky. The heretofore purring glass-packed engine now emitted a wheezy, labored noise. By the time Rick pulled into a service station on the outskirts of town there was quite a bit of steam billowing out from under the hood. Passing motorists stared as Rick twisted something off the top of the engine and a fountain of boiling water geysered up. It was the first time I saw him flustered, angry actually, and he swore under his breath as the car continued to spew hot green liquid onto the asphalt of the service station parking lot.

We sat there awhile, letting the engine cool, and Rick wasn’t happy when he was finally able to look down into the opening that had gushed up. “The thermostats not opening,” he said gruffly. He might as well have been speaking Latin. I gathered that our only hope was to get some water in it and limp home. The service station attendant had been watching our ordeal while pumping gas and washing windshields, and now came over. He was nice, and he and Rick pushed the Duster over to his water hose.

“Is she cool enough to add?” the attendant asked. Rick must have thought so, because he was already putting clear, cold water down the hole in the top of the engine. As more and more water went in, some last little puffs of vapor trailed out. We were able to start it up and drive, but by the time we pulled up to my dorm building the Duster was chugging and steaming again. Rick gave me the usual kiss when I got out, but I could tell he was distracted, and obviously concerned about his car.

On the phone the next day, I asked about it. Rick had gotten the thermostat out, apparently an easy fix, but found that it was fine. The problem was much more serious, had to do with the entire cooling system, the radiator itself and something called a water pump.

“The whole thing’s gonna have to come out,” he said, depressed because he did not have the money for the repair, an estimated four hundred dollars. Business at Uncle Bud’s ladder rack shop was slow, and it would take a few paychecks to save enough for things like a new radiator, water pump, and all the needed hoses and clamps.

“I can drive it around town,” Rick told me, “just short trips, as long as we keep it full of water and check it all the time.”

*

My parents were sending me a check for living expenses every month. Our bank, Wells Fargo, was out by the freeway, about three miles from the campus. The day the check arrived in the mail I wanted to go out to the bank and cash it immediately. It’s not that I was a free spender—I was appreciative of the sacrifices my family was making to give me a college education—but by the end of the month I was always pretty broke. Part of the motivation for getting the check cashed that day was that I wanted to give Rick some money toward fixing his car. I called him at Bud’s and asked if he could drive me to the bank.

“I’m leaving right now to deliver a truck to a customer in Allendale,” he said. Uncle Bud usually followed in the shop van to bring him back. “We won’t be back till after four, but listen, go ahead and take the Duster, I’ll leave the keys in the ashtray.” I could hear some hard banging going on in the background, a typical sound at the shop.

“I don’t think so, not the way she’s been…”

“No, that’s OK. It will be all right for a short drive like that,” he interrupted. “Just make sure you put some water in the radiator before you go.”

“But I don’t know…”

“It’s that cap at the top, you know,” he said before hanging up. “Just fill it.”

It was noon when I walked three blocks off the strip to Bud’s Rack and Box Shop. I had intended to ask one of the guys to help with the Duster, but when I arrived the two service bay doors were down and nobody seemed to be around. Bud’s wife Sharon was in the back office and came out to the counter. “Early lunch, nothing to do,” she said. “They’re all over at the Fir Pit.”

I explained that I was taking Rick’s Duster, that I needed to check the water, and asked Sharon if she would help. Rick had told her I was coming; she seemed a bit surprised at my cluelessness, but did walk out with me, and got the hood up. Just as she pointed to frayed green garden hose that lay coiled near a spigot, the shop phone, which Bud had rigged to ring as loud as a fire bell in order to hear it over the shop noise, rang.

“I’ve got to get that,” Sharon said, hustling back into the front counter.

Before me the inner workings of an automobile engine lay exposed. I saw wires and bolted thingamajigs, fans, compartments, and mystifying little engines within the engine. I could identify the battery, and one other part that I recognized, only because Rick had pointed it out and named it as part of his pride in ownership, a four-barrel carburetor.  I also saw, to my consternation, many and various caps that could be removed and that fluids could be poured into. The most obvious one sat squarely atop what looked like the backbone of the engine.

It was getting warm and sweat was forming on my forehead as I stood on the hot asphalt, smelling grease waft up from the Duster’s insides. I was due at my Occupational Redirection class at three pm.  I turned on the creaky spigot, picked up the dirty hose, backed the grimy cap off the engine, stuck the hose in and filled it, filled it to the brim. The Duster seemed to run fine when I made the twenty-minute run out to Wells Fargo and back.

*

After Rick got back from Allendale, he called to see if I wanted to catch the eight pm showing of Gremlins at the drive-in theater out by the freeway that night. I said yes and was excited about giving him thirty dollars from my monthly expense allowance.  When he got to the door of my dorm room, after enduring the usual suspicious once-over from our dictatorial house mother, he had a funny look on his face. The car was acting up again.

“I just filled the sonofabitch with water,” he said. “Did you fill it before you went to the bank today?” I assured him that I had.

We never made it to the Hi-Lite Drive-in. The Duster was making awful noises and lurching. Every warning light on the dashboard was on. We slowed, and ominous yellow smoke began trailing behind us, pouring from the tailpipe Rick said.

“What the hell?” he muttered, perplexed as we crawled ever slower along Eubanks Road, the main road out of town. We dropped to ten, then five miles per hour, his foot flooring the accelerator to no avail. Cars pulled around and passed, other kids headed to the drive-in, honking at us. Finally—and even I knew enough to sense something awful—the Duster just froze up, shut down, gave one last horrible shudder, and quit. Rick used what momentum he had to pull off the road, and there the Duster died.

When Rick popped the hood there was no smoke, no steam, just the indecipherable guts of the car, ticking as if time was running out, and smelling like a tea kettle left on a burner after the water has boiled away. He twisted a cap off one of those inner mechanisms that despite having a boyfriend who was a total car person, I knew nothing about.

“Hmm,” he mused, looking down at the glimmer of water just below the orifice. “Still plenty of water.” I was struck again at how gorgeous he was, his Luke Halpern shock of hair fallen across his forehead.

“Oh, is that the radiator?” I said.

Rick turned to me with an expression I’d never seen him have before. The sun has just set. Cars kept whooshing past, their headlights reflected off the orange of the Duster, which in turn mirrored the orange-purple clouds on the western horizon. Rick’s normally warm brown eyes were cold as he turned away, looking east, and asked to the falling darkness,

“Where did you put the water?”

*

He was furious.

The Rick I’d known was sweet, and never said a harsh word to me. I’d seen him get angry a few times, usually at inanimate objects. I actually kidded him once when we lost reception during a basketball playoff we were watching after hours at the Rack and Box Shop.  He paced up and down in front of the counter, cursing the station, the blustery weather, kicking a well-worn couch pillow across the room. Another time he got mad when Bud asked him to work on a Saturday we had planned to spend at Moss Lake, and called his uncle a “godamn slave driver.”

But there was nothing to prepare me for the rage he went into after he realized that I had filled his engine, not the radiator, with water. He just lost it, tearing at his hair, walking off into the bushes by the side of the road, scaring me. He calmed down as we walked back to town in the glare of oncoming headlights, but it was all surface. I could tell he was struggling to hold his temper. For the first time since we had become serious, he did not kiss me at my dorm door, just a kiss-off hug that made me wonder if I’d ever see him again.

My girlfriends though he was being a total jerk, but I felt bad. I knew how much that car meant to him. His own father had apparently not been as successful as brother Bud, and though Rick didn’t like talking about it, I knew their father/son relationship was strained. Putting two and two together, I guessed that that was the main reason he’d moved away from home to work with Uncle Bud. College was certainly not in the cards for Rick. The Duster was the only nice thing he had.

The following afternoon I called Bud and got the bad news. The water I’d poured in had mixed with the engine oil creating an awful sludge, putting a horrible strain on the pistons, the rods, chambers, whatever.  Bud had talked to Rick about draining the engine, doing a series of solvent flushes, but without a complete overhaul, if not a whole new engine, there was no guarantee the car would ever again perform like the mighty Duster of old. Bud had towed it to Rick’s apartment, and there it sat on Mercer Avenue, a sleek, Halloween-orange street rod, for all its bells and whistles probably not worth the grand and a half it would cost to fix.

I called Rick a couple of times, but there was no answer. I sent a one-page letter, folding thirty bucks into the sheet of stationary, apologizing for my mistake. A week went by. I missed him but had started to resign myself to the idea that we might be over. It was two Fridays after that fateful breakdown night when he pulled alongside me in the Duster as I walked home from my afternoon Disability and Workplace Diversion class.

“I’m sorry,” Rick said, as we drove to our very first make-out spot, a copse of birch trees beside a dirt road which overlooked campus track field. Sitting together again was heavenly for me, and I listened as Rick brought me up to speed. He and Bud had drained the grayish-brown sludge out of the engine, a job that took one full day, and then run four solvent washes, cleaned the carburetor, and completed a tune-up. Rick had salvaged a hardly-used radiator and water pump from a wrecked Plymouth Belvedere out at Sam Manning Auto Wreckers, and now owed Bud a total of four hundred dollars. Bud had agreed to take it out of Rick’s paycheck in forty-dollar increments. I told Rick I’d help him pay the debt, but he said not to worry about it and kissed me. We reclined the Duster seats and made out for a while.

When it grew dark and was time to get me home—there was an important exam the next morning—Rick got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side.

“Here,” he said, handing me the keys.

As we drove back I couldn’t help but notice. The Duster just didn’t seem the same. It didn’t have the same spunk. It was sluggish when I accelerated and I needed to put more foot into it than previously just to maintain my speed.

*

We were married three years later in 1987, and still are. He has his moods, and I have mine, but as The Turtle’s once sang, we’ve been “happy together.”

They played “Slow Ride” at our wedding, and we danced out there all alone. The Duster is long gone, that little tornado guy never recovered from my mistake, and besides, we needed something with four doors, for our two kids.

I learned something that distant spring of 1984. Automotive oil and water don’t mix, but Rick and I do, and I love him.

THE END

 

Photo by Podknox