Short Story

Driving in the Breakdown Lane

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From the July/August 1994 issue

EVEN AS A CHILD, BREAKDOWN LANES ON THE HIGHWAY struck me as generous, but so arbitrary in their beginnings and endings. As though breakdowns can be anticipated, planned or controlled. I was always puzzled by the signs, “Breakdown Lane Ends 100 feet.” What do you do when your car doesn’t conform to the time and space allocated for it to fall apart? Breakdowns, by nature, never happen in convenient times or places. And when that breakdown lane ends, what happens then?

For several months last spring, my car kept stalling out. It especially hated parking garages, probably for their sharp turns, and often left me mid-climb between levels, holding up lines of traffic. I cursed it and gunned it and kicked it to go, and finally it did, until the next sharp curve or turn. I learned to avoid parking garages. But then it began to happen in parking lots. The most benign speed bumps at the Safeway became too much and it became clear that the car needed professional help. I brought it to Sam at the Exxon station down the street. He started shaking his head before he even touched my car. But I knew what to expect. He would find something terribly wrong, explain it in a way I couldn’t understand, take too long fixing it, and charge me too much.

That afternoon, Sam called back to report that three of his “best guys” had driven it and couldn’t get it to stall.

“Did you do everything I told you? Did you take it through the drive-thru window at McDonald’s?”

“No problem.”

“Did you drive over the speed bumps in the Safeway parking lot?”

“Yes, we did. You’re just going to have to wait for it to get worse before we can fix it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if it stalls out and you can’t get it started up again, then we might be able to fix it.”

“Great,” I thought, “thanks, Sam. How much is all that wisdom going to cost me?”

It cost me plenty.

For the next three days, the car stalled constantly. Then, I did what I should have done in the first place. I took it to Malcolm’s. Malcolm’s Automotive is farther away, but worth the trip. The man I call the “triage guy” is named Chuck, but I associated him so much with the place itself that I always called him Malcolm. Over the years, we fell into a game in which I’d slip and call him Malcolm and then laugh in embarrassment, saying I guessed a lot of people did that. Chuck always answered very politely, “Well… no … not really.”

Chuck wore an immaculate gray uniform, starched and pressed, always looking as good at 7 p.m. as it had at 7 a.m. He had good, strong hands, remarkably clean fingernails for his

line of work, and a deeply resonant, reassuring voice. As fat as I was concerned, Chuck had missed his calling. I liked to think of him as a disc jockey on the midnight shift of some funky FM jazz station, playing the tunes and taking requests from people grateful for the music he brought to their nights.

I knew I was in the right place. Chuck patiently transcribed my exacting instructions about how and where to get the car to stall. He kept it for two days. It didn’t stall. But on the third day, Chuck called triumphant, “We got it to stall!”

For several seconds I was thrilled. They couldn’t figure out exactly why it was stalling, but I had every confidence they would. Chuck could fix anything.

During that week, Anne, one of the first cancer patients I had seen in psychotherapy, entered the hospice. The hospice is one of the few places that says quite plainly-. “We can’t fix it and we’re not going to try.” After two years, Anne had run out of miracles, with cancer claiming more territory in her brain each day. She was young, funny, deeply spiritual and a real street fighter when it came to cancer.

Anne wore bright silk scarves on her head; her face swelled with steroids; it took interminable moments for her hand to reach her lips to light once-forbidden cigarettes. I’d go by the hospice in the evenings after work, when the air smelled rich and new with spring and lilacs and fresh dirt. And I would put cold cloths on her forehead and hold the phone to her ear things I’d never learned in graduate school. And I sang lines to her from the song she bought the day she learned her cancer had recurred, Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It Baby.” It had become a fight song for her and a sort of code between us, a rocking, jubilant song about transcendence. Now the last lines were most fitting:

Then you’ll see love can be so nice. It’s just a step up to Paradise. You just roll with it baby . . .

She asked me over and over why she couldn’t just leave this life now that she was ready. And I had no answers.

Morning and evenings, before I went to the hospice, I called Malcolm’s to check on the status of my car. It never varied-it was stalling. They couldn’t understand it. They would keep trying. But finally Chuck called and said, “I’m real sorry, but we can’t find your problem. We’ve tried, but we can’t. And if we can’t find it, we can’t fix it. There’s nothing more we can do.”

“What do you mean there’s nothing more you can do? Mechanics can always do more. Fast-talk me, deceive me, cheat me, but don’t give up on me, Malcolm. I don’t know where else to go.”

He said again, “1 really am sorry.” And I believe he was, but it didn’t help.

I retrieved the car, feeling burdened and shamed, like a parent collecting an unrepentant child from a police station. I was furious at Chuck/Malcolm, betrayed, and angry at myself for believing in his confidence. I vowed to malign the place to everyone I knew. I would never go back.

The next evening I stopped at the hospice after work. Anne had been asking for me all day. I held her hand in the dark while we talked about her garden and her son and our work together. She told me that she wanted me to know the best thing I ever said to her. I scanned my memory for some great insight. She said, “Remember when I called and told you the cancer had come back? Remember what you said?” I tried but I couldn’t. She said, “You were very quiet and then you got choked up and you said, “This really sucks.'”

1 waited for a few seconds for her to continue. Then I realized that was it. All of it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Ten years of training in psychotherapy, and “This really sucks” had the most impact in two years of work with this dying woman. But then she opened her eyes and with great effort turned her head toward me and said, “And it really does . . . you know? It really sucks.”

And all I could do was swallow hard, nod my head and whisper, “It really does.”

She fell asleep, free, at least for several hours, from fear and pain. I walked out of her room, slowly adjusting my eyes to the hall light. At the same time, someone was coming out of another room. It was a man leaving in the quiet, sad way people exit the rooms of the dying, leaving their bravery at the door, allowing their shoulders to droop and their eyes to cloud over. He was wearing a uniform of perfectly pressed, gray denim. He came closer and we passed each other. It was Chuck. He was leaving someone at the hospice, someone he loved.

I wanted to run after him and say, “Chuck, it’s me. Remember? … ’82 Volvo? Kept stalling out?” I wanted to run to him and hug him so hard I’d wrinkle his perfect uniform. I wanted to hold his beautiful, strong hands and say, “I’m sorry Malcolm, I mean Chuck. I get it now. Some things just can’t be fixed, can they?”

But I didn’t. I watched him walk slowly to the parking lot and drive away.

Anne died the next day. I stood by her bed while her priest said the last rites and I cried.

My car kept on going. It never did get worse. In fact, within a month it stopped stalling altogether. I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand how cars break down and get better with no one’s help. And I don’t understand how people break down despite everyone’s help. I don’t understand a lot of things anymore.

Martha Manning

Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.