My first rejection slip

Car

Jacob Nordby

(Author’s Note: I wrote this short piece in 1998.  Recently, while digging through a long-forgotten box in my closet, I came upon an envelope from a magazine publisher.  When I opened it, I discovered this old story along with my very first actual rejection letter as a writer!  As I re-read my early attempts, I can see why I wasn’t made immediately famous, but you might enjoy this chronicle of my first car experiences.  I post this with almost no re-writing or editing…as you’ll soon see.   Although I have tried to make it all seem funny, this is historically accurate.  I wish it were an exaggeration.  Oh, and another thing–I couldn’t find any photos of my first car.  What I’ve included here are just sad substitutes for its actual glory.)

I was not a typical American youth. I didn’t while away my days yearning to drive, reading car magazines, and discussing the pro’s and con’s of my dream car. Truth is, I didn’t have much opportunity. I lived in the hills of Idaho. The dream car of most of my neighbors was one that ran. Most folks there had several cars of indeterminate age, color or make. These cars had presumably run long and useful careers, and had made the unfortunate decision to spend their retirement years rusting in the snow and sun of the Idaho foothills. The more opulent of our neighbors drove “four-by-fours”.   These fortunate souls had the luxury of driving right up to their doors in winter, instead of walking in from the bottom of the “hill”–a process which usually involved ropes and iceaxes. Or skidding out logs from ravines with a chain hooked to their bumpers instead of the “manual method” preferred by my father.

At any rate, suffice it to say that hot sports cars were not high on my wish list. Sometimes we would make the long, treacherous journey into Boise. I would spend some time with my more cosmopolitan friends. These times usually embarrassed me to no end. They would grab me and point, “Hey! Cool! Did you see that?”   “Oh, yeah,” I’d say, “Nice Chevy Mustang.” A shocked, sad silence would follow. “Uh, no. Chevy doesn’t make Mustangs. And that was a Mazda RX7 with the sport turbo charged package, leather interior, five-speed manual tranny and ground effects.”

Then we’d sort of drift apart, and I’d have to make new friends. I asked dad later, “What’s a tranny?”.

Perhaps it won’t surprise you then, to find out that in my seventeenth year I purchased an oxidized-green ’76 Volvo station wagon as a first car. You
guessed it. Chick magnet. Looking back, I can see why no girl would venture out on a date with me. Not because my vehicle was dangerous. It was too … serious. Sort of as if family planning was really on my mind.


By now we were living near Seattle, Washington. Had I been in the proper frame of mind, I would have had the right car.   If I perforated my ears, nostrils and tongue with stainless steel (or bone, or something), smoked pot and worked in an espresso bar, I would have had no problem.   I could have likely had a brief gig as Kurt Cobain’s chauffeur.   As it was, I ended up taxiing my brothers and sister to our very quiet, very conservative private school every day.   I don’t know where Volvo got its acclaim for solid dependability.   Or maybe ’76 wasn’t a good vintage. Anyway, Washington had been living up to its mild reputation until this year.   The winter suddenly turned frigid.   Wind and snow made the roads treacherous.   I was, typical of a seventeen-year old, supremely confident in my ability to handle the conditions.   My father was not.   He lectured me out the door and into the car.   He exhumed the seatbelts which lay buried in the cracks of the seats along with fifteen pennies, four gum wrappers and six very cold french fries (circa 1978 a.d.).   “Here,” he said, “All of you, and I do mean all, put these on.”   He eyed me grimly for a few seconds, then slipped and skidded his way back into the house shaking his head.

Securely fastened, we left the driveway. No one seemed to mind the slight fishtail action, although if I had a rear view mirror (mine had palsy and mostly stared blankly at the floor) I would have seen my dad apparently doing aerobics in the picture window.   We glided smoothly around the sinuous curves of a Pacific Northwest road.   All was well.   Mostly.   My younger brother was singing about some idiot who swallowed a fly, and his sister was encouraging him to stop–with her moon boots.   Nathan, next in succession to me, was flailing indiscriminately with his fists in an attempt to keep peace.   Collected as I was, none of these things moved me.   I wasn’t stressed at all.   In spite of my cool though, I braked, accelerated and jerked the wheel all at once.   I quickly observed that we was skidding backward down the highway, with some maniac at the wheel of an eighteen wheeler trying to play chicken.   I lost.   At the last possible moment, we pirouetted in front of the semi and gracefully skated into the ditch.   Hey, no problem.   Volvo.   Safe, you know.  No one was injured.   In fact, the vocal artist in our midst never missed a word in the fifteenth verse of “The Old Grey Goose is Dead”. With all the optimism of youth I re-situated our vehicle and pressed on.   Slowly.

Clearly proof that miracles do occur, we missed all five miles of telephone poles, fence posts and fir trees in the rest of the journey and arrived at school.   I then made an interesting discovery.   Although the doors had opened easily when we left our home, through some cruel collusion between Volvo and Old Man Winter they were now stuck fast.   We were prisoners in our pea-soup colored cell.   Not necessarily candidates for MENSA, those siblings of mine, but inventive, nonetheless.   No sooner had we discovered that the doors wouldn’t open, than the windows were down and the Green Machine became a large apple with three worms wriggling to freedom.   I attempted to smash my way out, but eventually had to squirm through a window, too.   It’s called annihilation of an already stunted dating career when you’re seventeen and can’t spell C-L-E-A-R-I-S-I-L.   We toppled into class just on time under the less than charitable eye of the headmaster.

I am certain that the malevolent little Swede who designed the ’76 Volvo station wagon is by now dead–either murdered by some bruised victim of his product or executed in a historic suspension of Sweden’s reluctance to enact the death penalty.   One way or the other, he deserved it.   My first car was what all first cars shouldn’t be.     It became obvious one day that we needed a bit of a tune up.   I think the billowing clouds of steam emitting from the tailpipe gave me a little clue.   Or possibly it was the sound of the engine.   It was doing a very nice impression of an early model Volkswagen.   And I was adding more water to the radiator than gas to the fuel tank.   I was no mechanical genius, but this seemed a trifle odd.   My father, himself a veteran of the Broken Car Wars, helped me check the oil.   The dipstick came out dripping a putty-like substance.   Sort of gray, with beads of moisture rolling down.   I still have a mental photo of Dad standing there, a freak sunbeam shining through the clouds to illuminate the scene.   He was shaking his head grimly.   That, I thought, was not a good sign.


We ended up dismantling nearly all of the engine in search of an elusive head gasket.
Dad wasn’t at all a man to swear, but I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have wanted me repeating the mumblings of those months.   And months it was before my car was again gracing the highways.   Volvo had an unusual shipping policy for Americans requesting parts.   First, one must be related to Bill Gates–and on good enough terms to request a large loan.   Then you had to spend frustrating hours calling every parts house in the region to find one privileged enough to do business with Volvo.   The American ambassador to Sweden was often called upon to mediate negotiations between the companies.   When they at last approved the purchase, their Parts Department would comb the fjords for a disreputable looking steamer crew and commission them to set sail for the New World bearing the head gasket.   In my own little effort to save a few trees, I draw the curtain of charity over the remainder of that scene.

There are so many more vignettes I could relate–The power steering failure which caused the steering wheel to whirl viciously counterclockwise if you ever released your grip.    My trip to Portland with smoke pouring from the back seat–that turned out to be a defect in the guaranteed-for-life exhaust system.   Or the last battle, when the transmission failed in the Post Office parking lot.   I did eventually find a junk yard with (surprise, surprise) a few other Volvos of similar year and model.   I scavenged the transmission from one of them and took it home to rest in the pine needles and grease beside the Car.   As stated earlier, I didn’t have my degree in Auto Mechanics.   After yet a few more months of basic immobility, I hired our neighbor–recently immigrated from Russia–to reassemble the scattered parts.   He did so with surprising speed.   I took it for a test drive, exhilarated to have wheels again.   Especially so since I was leaving home for college in two weeks.   I maneuvered slowly out onto the road and, with sputters and halts, accelerated up the hill.   All seemed well for a space.   Then, with growing alarm, I detected a rising scream coming from somewhere near the car’s midriff.   I tried to manually change the gears.   It was no good. I seemed to be permanently stuck in first gear. I turned back with sinking heart.

One week later, with Dad following, I drove slowly through back roads toward the junk yard where I’d bought the transmission. In the glove box rested the title, registration and receipts for the myriad parts I had purchased.   I smelled (for what I hoped would be the last time) the distinctive aroma of my first car–burned transmission fluid, old vinyl and fir needles crushed into muddy floor mats.   A light mist of rain fell as I stepped out onto the oil soaked parking lot of the junkyard.   Inside the business office, two men looked up from where they sat by a rusty wood stove playing cards.


“Help you?” the one with greasy whiskers grunted.
“Uh, yeah,” I squared my shoulders. This might be tough.
“Listen, I bought a transmission from you guys a while back and it’s not working very well,” I held out the receipt.
“So?” the other man continued dealing cards without looking up.
Both men wore the remains of coveralls.   Their bare knees protruded through ragged holes and bore thick streaks of grease imbedded with gritty metal shavings.   The bearded one had a broken dipstick stuck in the ample gap between his teeth. He now looked up somewhat wolfishly.
“Didja’ read the return policy stuff?”
“Yessir, I did,” I stammered, “Listen, I think we can make a deal.   I know it’s been more than the five minutes stated in your return policy, but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my car … ”
“Why do I want to do that?” he growled. When he spoke, the dipstick fell out of his mouth.
“Well, I’d probably give you title to the whole car if you refund the price of the transmission,” I knew my greed was going too far. How could they stay in business with deals like this?

In what I assumed was shock at my unreasonable demand he leaped heavily to his feet, “Where’s your car?”
We pushed the sooty door open and stepped into the gray mist. As he walked around the green station wagon I noticed his lips kept twitching.   He shook his head a little as if to take in the enormity of his potential loss.   He peered through the windows, glanced at the body and finally looked at me.
“Gotcher title and stuff?”
“Yeah,” I pointed to my shirt pocket.   “Come back inside.”
The dingy tag on his chest said “Mike”.   To make conversation I addressed him.
“So, how’s business been, Mike?”
He turned, “Name’s John. Bidness goin’ in streaks.   Today ain’t lookin’ too bad.”
I pitied the poor suckers before me if today was good.   Quite clearly I would be impacting his bottom line negatively .
Back inside, he sat and hunched over a fishing tackle box.
“Well, buddy, looks like you got us over a barrel.   How much you pay fer the tranny?”
I held out the receipt. $286.14.
“Okay. Sign the title and I guess we’ll eat the difference.   You got a receipt and we do bidness fair.”   The other man’s back was to us and he seemed to have a problem with his shoulders.   They were shaking convulsively.
I handed the pre-signed title to John.   He scooped stained bills and a few coins from the tackle box and held them out.   I wished he’d stop rubbing his hand over his mouth.   His face was now a twitching smear of grit and used oil.
“Thanks,” I said with real relief.
“No problem,” he choked out.   His shoulders were shaking now, too.   I walked jubilantly back over the blackened gravel to where Dad was waiting.
“How’d it go, son?”   I got in.
“Great, Dad!”
I glanced back at the battered building as Dad pulled out onto the road.   Both men were craning their necks through the open window.   They were laughing and seemed to be jumping up and down.   Happy fools, I thought.
“You got how much?” Dad said in disbelief when I counted the money for his benefit.
“Those morons paid me the whole refund for the transmission, Dad! II “And …. ”
“And nothing.   Great isn’t it?   I can pay my train ticket to get to college now.”   Dad’s eyes seemed to be gliding in and out of focus.
“Oh, college.   Uh, yeah. Well, I hope you’re ready for the big plunge, Son.   Maybe you won’t mind if I give you some advice?”
“No, Dad, what’s that?”
“Uh, call me collect any time of the day or night if you get the urge to buy or sell anything while you’re away, will you?   Promise?”
I laughed.
“Sure, Dad.”


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4 Responses

  1. Well, OK… LOL!

    I’m probably biased, but I could actually SEE you all, driving, er… slipping and sliding to school… Thanks for a good laugh nephew! Keep up the good work!

  2. ha Jacob, that was a great story! the joys of being 17 and having a first car,eh? thanks for the laugh, I could see most of it in my indms eye and it was a treat! How cool you came across a story with your Dad figuring in it quite a bit. Memories are wunnerful 😀 lotsa love! 😀

    • 🙂 thank you! so funny. I submitted this story for publication and the rejection letter said, “we don’t publish fiction.” Hmmf….this story is completely true. I tamed it down a bit in places. Well, ok, I probably spiced up a little of the dialogue, but that’s it.

      love you, Radiant Auntie 🙂

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