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Charlie Hatton
Brookline, MA



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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
If you're a science and/or silliness fan, give it a gander! See you soon!

Three Brakes a Lady

I mentioned a while back that my wife recently bought a car, the better to travel thirty miles a day to and from her new job.

This was a good thing, for many reasons. It gave us transportational flexibility, for one. Two people, two cars — no lines, no waiting. Also, it was full of fancy gadgets, which are shiny and fun to play with. And it’s a Prius, which means that she single-handedly saved the planet for a few days.

(You should really send her a thank you card, by the way. I can get you the address.

Just don’t send it in a gas-guzzling postal jeep. That sort of defeats the purpose, yes?)

Of course, the very best part about my wife having her own car is the enormous pressure it takes off me to keep up my car — which used to be ‘our car‘, of course, but is now firmly mine and mine alone… at least in my own mind. We’ll see how that works out in just a minute.

With her merrily commuting away in her eco-breadbox, I’m free to treat my car however I like. I could leave fast food wrappers lying around the floor for days.

And I would, too. Only I don’t eat at any drivethrough fast food places in town.

Or I could totally not wash it, and let the funk and dust build up until smartasses on the street — possibly including my wife — write notes on it with their fingers.

But who wants a filthy car? Not me. That’s gross.

So I decided, since it was the only real rebellious move I was willing to make, to ignore any mechanical problems that came up. If the car door wouldn’t close, I’d tape it shut. If the engine made funny noises, I’d turn up the radio. If a mirror fell off, who needs to see behind themselves, anyway? There’s probably nothing back there. Quit being such a baby.

Of course, none of these things happened. The car didn’t just start to disintegrate the moment my wife stopped needing it. It’s not like a warranty ran out or something.

One thing that did happen, though, involved the brakes. Sometimes — not always — but sometimes, when I put my foot on the brake, I’d feel some odd resistance. The pedal would stutter on the way down, and — if I hadn’t made good on my threat to blare the radio — the brakes would make a loud CHUNK! sound. And then an audible hum, as if some automotive braking subsystem that should have been on the whole time noticed that the brakes were actually jammed on, and it should probably put down the STP martini and come see what the hell we’re about to careen into.

Naturally, I decided I could live with this behavior.

I mean, the brakes still worked. They just came with this bonus multimedia performance now. Instead of just stopping the car, now you got a little concert, and some soothing vibration — more of a foot massage, really — and then the car came to a halt. It’s “value added”, if you ask me. So I ignored it.

This worked for a couple of weeks. Right up until my wife decided to borrow my car for a grocery run, seeing as how it was parked closer. Also because it moves at more than nine miles an hour. I said “sure, take it“. And she was off.

She came back an hour later, shaken. “Do you have any idea what the car is doing?” she asked.

“The mechanics had been gone for hours at that point — no doubt comparing rates at various Holiday Inns in Marrakesh or Moldova or wherever Mumbles the Dick Tracy villain is from.”

Wha? Oh, you mean the brakes?

She looked at me as though she’d just noticed a thermonuclear device aimed at her crotch, and I’d replied with, “oh, that old thing?

Yes, I mean the brakes! What the hell’s wrong with the brakes?!

I didn’t know, of course. Brakes aren’t my thing. I have a very specific set of skills when it comes to automotive maintenance and operation. I know how to open the gas cap. I adjust mirrors like a champ. And I’m an expert radio fiddler.

Seriously. You need your radio fiddled with, I’m your man. I can tune to AM, or to FM, or switch you over to CD in nothing flat. You want a track changed, I can change tracks. Boom.

But “brakes”? I don’t even know where such a thing lives in a car. Are they in the trunk? Or up front, under that hoody sort of dealie? Maybe where the cigarette lighter used to be?

So we took the car to the garage. Where by “we” I mean “her”, because I was quite happy continuing to ignore the stimuli coming from various senses telling me that “BRAKE NO FEEL GOOD“. And to prove it, I did just that — for another three weeks after her grocery trip.

But eventually, she could stand it no longer, and she took the car in to our local garage. The one right down the street, with the mechanics who only work in the mornings and the employees with the inscrutable exotic accents.

(Are they from the South Pacific? Guatemala? Rural southern Kazakhstan?

I can’t tell. Maybe they’re part of some mysterious troupe of traveling gypsy mechanics who pick up dialects from all over. That would explain the short hours — they’re probably working out TripTiks in the afternoons for their next jaunt. Perhaps they’ll come back speaking Swahili; who knows?)

She dropped the car off one morning, and that evening I picked it up. The cost was quite reasonable, and the work list — the only explanation we got, naturally — was short and to the point:

“Calipers”

What actually happened with the calipers was not revealed. Did they replace them? Remove them? Scrub, shine or debug them? Did a mechanic crawl under my car and lick my calipers — whatever the hell those are, and wherever they happen to be?

I didn’t know. All I knew was we got off easy for a garage visit, so I paid the man and hustled my butt out of there. All the way to the end of the parking lot, where I paused to merge into traffic, and:

CHUNK

I didn’t turn around. The mechanics had been gone for hours at that point — no doubt comparing rates at various Holiday Inns in Marrakesh or Moldova or wherever Mumbles the Dick Tracy villain is from. Instead, I drove home and dutifully told my wife that while they fixed the brakes, they didn’t actually fix the brakes, and the ball was back in her court. I thought she might drop it. By this point, she’s probably secretly wishing I’ll rev over a guardrail into Boston Harbor or something, anyway.

Nope. The next day, she had the car back in the shop. And evidently, with a bit of a fuss.

I guess she got in early enough to see the mechanic, and told him there was still a brake problem. He told her there’s nothing wrong with the brakes. Oh, but there is. Nein, there is not. Yes, there is. Nyet. Yes! Hokay, we take another look.

Three hours later, I got a call from the mechanic. He didn’t call my wife’s number; he came to me. That told me right away, even before he said ‘hyellyo‘ — he was wrong. There was something wrong with the brakes, after all.

Natrually, he didn’t say that. In fact, the word ‘brake’ never came out of his mouth during the conversation, in any dialect. But he did relay that a log in the computer had led him to check the “ABS”, and that was the culprit causing our ker-chunking.

Now, I don’t know what “ABS” stands for, seeing as how it has nothing to do with radio fiddling or gas cap removal. But I’ll bet moneybags to mufflers that the “B” stands for “Brakes”. Or the “S” for “Stopping”. I’m no car guy. But I’m just saying.

I told him to do whatever it takes to make my wife stop driving my car to his garage — an outcome we both agreed was preferable. And he went back to the garage, and tinkered in some way or other to make the brakes behave the way they used to. It cost three times the initial visit, and though the receipt is slightly more detailed, I still don’t know what the hell he did in there. He might as well have waved a magic wand over the hood, for all I know. My only concern was, it’s fixed. I drove it all the way home, and not one wonky brake experience. Even with the radio off. Problem solved.

However.

Five minutes into the trip, I noticed lights shining on the dashboard. Lights I’ve never seen before. Bright lights. Multiple lights. WARNING lights.

One of them says “ABS”. As I said, I can’t tell you precisely what that means, but I’m positive it’s not good. Maybe the ABS isn’t chunking the gas pedal any more because the mechanic ripped it out of the system. I dunno. It could happen, probably.

The next light says “SLIP”. I have no idea what this light is trying to tell me. I’ve decided it either thinks I’m going to slip, or I’m currently slipping, or I should think about wearing ladies’ negligees when I drive. One of those three things. I just don’t know which.

Finally, there’s a button that says “TCS OFF”. For reasons unfathomable even to me, I happen to know that TCS stands for “traction control system”. I also know — because I was frantically searching for the gas cap release button a while back — that there’s a button under the steering wheel for turning TCS on and off. I pressed this button to make the light go away.

It didn’t.

I pressed the button again. Again, the light ignored me. I can’t tell you whether the car actually has traction control turned on or off right now. What I can say is that the traction control warning light currently takes no cue from whether I or the traction control button want TCS on or not. This light is a lone wolf, doing its own thing. We can’t tell it how to live its life. Yeah.

So, long story short, the car is going back to the garage for try number three, first thing after it opens on Friday. Or Monday, if they take the holiday. Or next year, if they’re all vacationing together in the Turkish Riviera. Meanwhile, “our” mechanic has seen more of “my” car in the past two weeks than I have.

Kind of makes me rethink this whole ‘two-car family’ concept, to tell you the truth. The missus can keep her Prius. I’m thinking about getting a skateboard. That’s got to be less hassle than this damned car. I just has to.

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