Many years ago I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about my me and my Dad, Emmett S. Roberts. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 77. This piece was never published anywhere, but I showed it to Dad when I wrote it. He said he was pleased and gratified that I remembered him this way (though he didn’t specifically remember helping me with the solenoid on my Maverick).
I think of my parents often. Sometimes with guilt about the times I didn’t call or remember birthdays/anniversaries. But more often with gratitude for how much they loved my brother and me and our kids.
Anyway, this one’s for you, Dad.
“That’ll be thirty-six fifty, sir.”
Kevin Casey fished two crumpled twenties out of his wallet and dropped them on the oily, stained rubber mat that covered the counter. The clerk made change and handed it to Kevin, who jammed the money into the front pocket of torn jeans without counting it. He dragged the box containing a re-built starter off the counter and turned toward the door.
“Uh, sir? Sir?”
Kevin turned back toward the clerk and raised his eyebrows.
“We’ll need the old starter core for the trade-in. Otherwise it’s thirty more.”
Kevin sighed. “Yeah, I’ll bring it in this afternoon after I take it off, OK?”
The clerk nodded with a thumbs up and turned to the next customer.
Kevin walked out to his wife’s battered van, shoulders hunched against the light summer rain. Cradling the heavy, compact box against his side with one arm, he unlocked the door and dropped the box on the passenger floorboard and started for home.
As the wipers swept the windshield with a groan, road grit smudged the glass. He pushed the button for wiper fluid, but the reservoir was empty. Muttering, he rolled down the window and wiped the windshield with a fast food bag. After a few minutes, the rain cleared the windshield and he rolled the window back up, cursing under his breath.
Auto repair was not his strong suit. This presented problems for a man with one income, two old cars, and a family of five. Even minor repairs meant multiple trips to the parts store. He was frequently forced – by either time or money – to improvise aspects of the repairs, which led to miscellaneous rattles, shakes and leaks that he learned to ignore.
As he pulled into the driveway, his wife came out onto the porch, holding a sleeping toddler whose legs dangled beneath her arms, saliva glistening around the corner of his mouth.
“Your Dad just called,” she said.
Kevin grunted as he lugged the starter over and dropped it heavily on the porch.
“He want me to call ‘im back?
“He said whenever you have time. I told him you were working on the car.”
He walked through the house and into the garage, retrieving the bright yellow plastic toolbox smudged with grease. As he passed his wife he said, “If he calls back tell him I’ll call tomorrow. I don’t know how long this is gonna take.”
The rain had stopped and the sun was out, making the air thick and and the ground warm and spongy. Kevin pulled a plastic tarp out of the trunk of the Buick and spread it under the car. He opened the hood and started removing the nuts on the battery posts.
As he worked the socket wrench, he idly looked around the engine compartment, wondering what would break next. His eyes fell on the solenoid beside the battery.
Kevin bought his first car when he was nineteen. It was a 1973 Maverick that suddenly wouldn’t start after a month. He got it pushed up into his parents’ driveway late on a summer afternoon and threw up the hood in frustration.
John Casey came out to the driveway in a T-shirt and the shapeless gray pants he wore to the factory. Walking toward his son, hands in pockets, he said cheerfully, “Car trouble?”
Kevin, still panting, blew air through his nostrils and said, “Won’t start” through gritted teeth.
John peered into the engine, pulled on the battery cables and twisted the connections slightly. “Try it now,” he said.
Kevin sighed and slumped into the front seat. He pumped the accelerator angrily and twisted the ignition key. There was a sharp clicking sound under the hood. Between the bottom of the hood and the dashboard he could see his father leaning in, cocking his head toward the noise. His mouth moved, but Kevin couldn’t hear him.
“Turn on the headlights,” John said.
Kevin snapped the light switch on and John stepped back and said “OK”. Kevin got out of the car, slamming the door on the way.
“I think it’s the solenoid,” John said.
John tapped a small cylinder on the side of the engine compartment. “Right here.”
“If that’s it, it’s a pretty easy job,” he continued. The older man straightened up. “If you want, you can take the truck down to Western Auto and pick one up. Should only be about ten bucks, but they close at six.”
When Kevin got back with the part, his father was standing in front of the Maverick with his arms folded, toolbox on the ground. Kevin was surprised that the tools were still in the box. As he walked up, John said, “You need to disconnect the battery first.”
Kevin nodded and carefully placed the solenoid on the bumper. He reached into the battered tool box and took out a crescent wrench. The older man cleared his throat. “Be a little easier with a socket wrench.”
Kevin tossed the crescent wrench back into the tool box.
“And I’ll thank you not to throw my tools around,” John said evenly.
Kevin clenched his teeth and picked up the socket wrench. He tried several sockets and finally found the right size. He took off both connectors and laid the nuts on the bumper.
The top was free, but there was a wire connected to the bottom part. He couldn’t see whether there was a nut or a screw holding it. He peered at the part, waiting for direction. Finally he said, “So how’s this connected at the bottom?”
“Prob’ly a nut, same size. But you’ll have to reach underneath and grab it with a crescent wrench.”
Kevin got the wrench back out of the box and got the connector off. The solenoid slipped out of its bracket and he confidently reversed the process with the new part. Working quickly now, he reconnected the battery and straightened up.
“Ready to try it?” John asked.
Kevin nodded and closed the hood. He sat in the front seat and, biting his lip, turned the key. The engine roared to life, white smoke billowing from the exhaust. His father smiled and bent over to close the toolbox.
Kevin shut the engine off and wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He rolled down the window and said, “Thanks Dad.”
John looked up and grinned. “You did all the work. I was just supervisin’.”
Kevin slid under the Buick on his back, rolling part of the tarp up underneath him, He removed the connector from the front end of the starter casing, then started unscrewing two long bolts at the back. As the second one came out, the heavy cast iron starter tumbled onto his hand, pinning his fingers painfully to the concrete.
With profanities echoing under the car, he shook his fingers and shoved the old starter out from under the car in retaliation. He attached the connector and new bolts, picking up speed as he went along. He made one last circuit of the connections, tightening as much as possible, then eased out from under the car into hot, steamy sunshine.
He jumped into the front seat and turned the key to deafening silence. He pounded the dusty dashboard with his palms, then remembered the battery.
Leaping out, he popped the hood and reattached the battery cables. On the second try the engine cranked and caught, and Kevin laughed to himself.
As he picked up his tools, he wiped each one off with a rag and placed them into the toolbox. The last one was a dull, scratched crescent wrench he got from John when his parents moved to Florida. He wiped it and started to put it away, but pulled it back. Holding it up to the sunlight, he turned it slowly until he could just make out the “JSC” scratched into the handle. He carefully laid it in the box.
After washing up, he called his father.
“Hey Dad,” he said. “I was just thinking about you.”