Friday, September 28, 2012

Uncool at Any Speed

Photo by Milkmandan

Squid Rosenfield drummed a tattoo on the countertop. He picked up a green mini flashlight from a bin marked “3 for $5,” clicked it on, clicked it off, and put it back. He singled out a quart of synthetic oil from a counter display and looked at the back label, wondering if it would tell him the real difference between the contents and the stuff they got from the ground.
The label kept him occupied until Jordy Halverson emerged from the shelves with a plain cardboard box cupped in a hand.  He set it on the counter and pushed it across to Squid.
"There's your PCV valve, Squid," Jordy said. "Probably the least expensive part you've had to replace on that thing."
"How much?"
"Thirty-three ninety-four."
Squid ripped open the box and shook out the valve, a black plastic contraption that looked like two plungers stuck together. There had to be more to it than this, Squid thought. He fished out a folded paper wad from the box and smoothed the sheets: a packing slip, an inspection sheet, and sixteen diagrams of the part labeled in as many languages.
"Seems like a rip-off to me," Squid said.
Jordy snorted. "Maybe you should've bought yourself another car. Hell, you could have bought a new one by now with all the cash you spent keeping it running — not that I don't mind the business, Squid. But finding parts for a '96 Suzuki X-90 is like finding a nun who gives hummers."
Squid set his jaw and stood straighter. "It'll be a classic one day, just you wait."
"It might be, but is it worth it, Squid?"
Squid held up the PCV valve. "Put it on my account, okay?"
Squid would have liked to do his repair work in the woods. It was peaceful, it had a soft floor, and a person could always find a tree branch handy for hanging tools and parts. However, the Suzuki, somehow divining its replacement part had arrived, stalled out and quit altogether on the way into town, forcing him to push it into the nearby bank parking lot and walk to the auto parts store. He decided he'd just have to endure the stares and suppressed chuckles from passersby as he fixed the car in public.
The car's paint job was like a supermodel's lipstick, a red deeper than sunset without a single dust mote or fingerprint ruining the sun's reflected gleam. Pale alloy wheels stood out against tires black enough to look wet. A tiny spoiler on the back suggested speed, a slight lift to the body hinted at Baja races in the desert, and the compact two-seat cabin was soccer mom kryptonite. Over fifteen years old, the car still looked as if it had just come from the showroom floor, thanks to Squid's care. The Suzuki used to take his breath away, but now Squid only sighed at the burden of maintenance.
He opened the hood and set about removing the old valve. If there was a God, he'd put the engineer who designed the engine in a special hell where he'd have to swap out parts for eternity on his own creation:  the narrowest, darkest, and most jagged-edged, knuckle-busting engine compartment Squid had ever known. Maybe one day, people would stop mentioning his Suzuki and he could quietly buy another car. He'd tell them he'd replaced the X-90 years ago, and they were just noticing it now. Then they'd stop talking, stop laughing, stop reminding him of the worst decision he had ever made.
A horn blared, causing Squid to knock his head into the car hood.
"Never say die, Squiddy!" said a teen, just before revving the engine and ripping down the street.
Damn, now he'd have to reset the clock on buying a new car for at least another three months. This time, he would be sure to check the sales numbers on any car catching his eye. The X-90 had been a commercial disaster, a sporty coupe promising fun and adventure, but delivering little more than average performance, odd looks, and no cargo space. Squid had unknowingly joined the same club as the owners of Edsels, Gremlins, and Azteks.
The repair took longer than expected only because a screw dropped and landed somewhere around the oil pan, necessitating Squid wriggle under the car on his back and paw blindly for untold minutes. God should add another twenty years to the engineer's penance for that one. Squid wiped his hands, forearms, and elbows on an old t-shirt, and walked across the parking lot to throw the grease-smeared rag away. He checked his hands once more before reaching for the door handle. After sliding behind the wheel and starting the car, he sat listening for a few minutes, waiting for his heart to be broken by engine wheezing, sputtering, or any other change in pitch or timbre heralding a botched PCV valve replacement. Everything seemed fine, which meant that while he wasn't out of the woods yet, he could relax for a while.
He let out a breath and clapped his hands. He reached for the gear shift when the passenger door opened and a man in a gorilla suit slid into the passenger seat.
"Drive," the gorilla said.
"Get the hell out of my car," Squid said. He pushed against the man's shoulder, and was brought up short by a snub-nosed revolver.
"I said drive," the gorilla said.
Squid nodded and put the car in gear. The gorilla grunted and placed a small canvas bag with the bank's logo down on his furry lap while he struggled with the seatbelt.
"Where do you want to go?" Squid said. The gorilla waved the gun down the road.
"That way. Just don't speed or run a light, okay? If not, bang." He shook the revolver at Squid's head.
"Don't worry, I wouldn't want to get the upholstery all dirty," Squid said, surprised at the words coming from his mouth, even if they were the truth. Did he just smart off to a bank robber? He turned onto the highway out of town, wondering if it would be better for the car to break down or not. If the car stalled, would he wind up dead, or would the gorilla man run off and carjack someone else? He glanced from the road to the speedometer and back, keeping the Suzuki as close to 30 as he could without going over. The gorilla shifted next to him, switching the gun from one hand to the other and muttering.
"No damn pockets in these things," he said. He settled for tucking the gun under a leg. "Don't think I can't reach it in time if you try anything funny."
Squid nodded, and the gorilla focused on the bag in his lap.
"If you don't mind me asking, you much money is in that little bag?" Squid asked.
"Enough to buy a thousand piece-of-crap cars like this one."
"I'll have you know a mint X-90 can cost over six thousand dollars. That bag's not big enough to cover a thousand cars like this one."
"Shut up and drive."
Squid was about to fire back when he remembered the monkey had a gun, so he stared straight ahead and let the speedometer creep to 33. The man tugged at the bag's zipper, which seemed to have black artificial fur jammed in its teeth. They were approaching the city limits with nothing but open road for the next fifty miles. Where were the cops? Squid listened for a police siren carried on the wind and watched in vain for flashing lights in his mirrors.
"Stay calm," the gorilla said, "I'm getting out a few miles from here. If you do as I say, you won't be hurt."
"There's nothing out there," Squid said, "just the national forest."
"You know how us gorillas like trees," the man said. He looked around as they passed the last house in town.
"Go faster," he said.
"But the speed limit doesn't go up for another quarter mile," Squid said.
"Just do it." The gorilla jerked some more at the bag on his lap, and let out a laugh as the zipper cleared. He reached inside the bag and out came a pop like a champagne cork. Something hot and wet splattered against Squid's cheek, and a pink mist filled the air. The man cried in rage, muffled by his mask. Squid slowly turned his head and looked.
The gorilla was covered from head to belly in neon-pink paint. A few bills of unknown denomination stuck to the suit's fur. Wide eyes behind the mask stared in shock at the bag, pink tendrils still curling from its zippered opening. The man leaned forward, and Squid's heart seized up. In the passenger seat, against the black cloth, cloth impregnated with yearly Scotch Guard applications, cloth carefully brushed each month– not vacuumed lest it crush the nap, in that cloth lay a vague gorilla shape limned in neon-pink. The pink splatter continued on into the headrest, the passenger door, the roof lining, the window, and into the back seat.
Squid stomped on the gas. Forever –the word ran through his mind. The Scotch Guard wasn't proof against bank-robber paint, and even if it was, the ceiling and door panel were not protected. Why hadn't he thought of that? Now everyone would remember the car, for the rest of time. He'd never be rid of it. My God, they'd say 'there goes Squid with his pink monkey seat,' and laugh their tails off. 'What happened to your car with the monkey seat, Squid?' The local kids would dress up in gorilla suits and demand rides. It'd be pure hell.
"Slow down!" the gorilla said.
"You told me to speed up!"
Squid figured the robber wasn't a local. If he were, he'd know the local deputy liked to sit in a blind driveway just outside of town, hoping to catch drivers cheating before the limit officially changed. Squid figured it was a racket to get extra donut money from tourists. Since the deputy would recognize Squid's car, maybe she'd give Squid some leeway rather than the strict enforcement saved for strangers. But she might take exception to a Suzuki doing sixty-three and counting in a fifty-five with a partially obscured windshield and a gorilla riding shotgun.
Squid saw the red and blue lights a moment before the siren wailed. The man in the gorilla suit looked back, and scrambled for the gun. Squid slammed on the brakes, seatbelt straining across his chest. The gorilla's gun bounced from the dash, landing on the floor mat. The gorilla went after it. Squid reached down, pulled the hand brake, and slewed the Suzuki around. Tires, rotated every 5,999 miles, would now have permanent flat spots. The gorilla let out a muffled grunt as he hit his head against the door.
Squid released the brake and accelerated towards the oncoming squad car. The gorilla searched the floorboards, hampered by a seat belt that wouldn't let him go any further forward.
"Make peace with your God," Squid said, "I don't think your side has airbags."
"What?" The gorilla looked around the paint-splattered windshield into the flashing headlights of the oncoming cop.
"Get out of the way!" The gorilla held his arms as if to ward off the crash.
The cop car slid broadside and stopped in the road. Squid could see the deputy's eyes, wide and white, her mouth half-formed in either a prayer or a curse.  Squid pulled the handbrake again and turned hard left. The Suzuki's front corner panel hit first. Red paint flecks, undoubtedly still covered with last week's wax coat, arced overhead. The ground seemed to lurch, and a giant's hand tried throwing Squid from his seat. The passenger side hit next, turning the paint-smeared window into cotton candy, the door bulging like an angry blister. That would be the frame buckling, which meant the car would have to be totaled. Squid smiled. The world tottered for a moment before crashing back to flat and level. The gorilla's mask twisted toward Squid seemingly of its own accord. The man's hair and part of an ear visible from the eye holes, the mask's muzzle pink as bubble gum.
"I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm dead," said the muffled voice. "It's all dark, I'm in hell."
Squid turned his head and addressed the empty eye holes.
"No sir, you're not in hell. Hell is reserved for murderers, child molesters, and automotive engineers."
The driver door opened, and the deputy yelled at him to keep his hands where she could see them. Other sirens approached, Squid heard a car fighting to come to a stop. Squid slowly raised his hands and made himself ready to do whatever the nice lady with the gun said.