Mel once had a chest full of Snap-On tools with his initials engraved in all the handles. He had a bay down at the GM dealership that no one else was allowed to use, with his name painted on the lift. He had a wife he'd married right out of high school and a four bedroom house in a leafy suburb, even though he only had one kid. That all seemed liked a different life now. All he got to keep was his alcoholism.
Mel had a room at Le Snooze now, and had for the last two years. Actually, his wife hadn't gone to the trouble of a legal divorce, and they were still on speaking terms. She would even let him back into the house, which he retained legal ownership of, if he would stop drinking, but neither could imagine him doing so. He insisted his wife take all of his disability check, and he eked out a living with a jack and some basic Harbor Freight pieces. Everyone in town knew of him, and he was generally the "mechanic" of choice for those short on money, careful with money, needed someone they could trust, wanted a conversation instead of a waiting room, old magazines, stale coffee, and the hard sell, or a combination thereof. The only downside to using Mel was that he wasn't always sober enough to work on your car. You could call him and call him-once you did get an answer, though, he'd take care of you the same day. Or he'd tell you he was too fucked up today, but come on by tomorrow afternoon. And he'd always be good to go when he said he would be. He had to work on a vacant lot. The Patels had let him do business on the parking lot, but Igor wouldn't. Sometimes Mel was in arrears, other times Mel would have a bonanza and quick pay Igor several months rent in advance before he drank that money away.
Igor was tougher than the Patels, but Mel liked him better. Igor had no problem evicting troublemakers, even if they did pay the rent, and did a better job maintaining the place. He made sure the sex offenders stayed out of sight and out of mind, and the reputation of Le Snooze as a haven for criminals was slowly but surely fading. Sometimes, Igor knocked a few bucks off Mel's rent if Mel would swap out a toilet or mow the lawn. This was usually when Mel got behind. The Patels let him go more than three months, knowing he was good for it once he got an eviction notice; Igor made it very clear he did not go beyond 30 days under any circumstances. This forced Mel to drink a tad less. Igor wouldn't shut the fuck up about how he hadn't taken a drink in nine years, and it was thanks to A.A. in the old country. He offered to sponsor Mel. Mel didn't want to go. He couldn't stop.
Mel was good. He had been working on vehicles since he was fourteen-about as long as he'd been drinking. He was the valedictorian of the class in high school auto mechanics. He landed the job at the GM dealership right after he graduated. Back in the day, it was normal for a shop to have beer in the fridge. His coworkers quickly noticed that Mel wasn't a have-one-with lunch kind of guy- he popped his first top at nine in the morning, and the owner was buying twice as much beer two years after Mel started working. But Mel was very productive and very intelligent. Ten years in, he brought a flask, a very badly kept secret. After twenty years, times had changed. Drinking on the job was no longer acceptable, and dealership customers expected more contact with the guy actually putting their hands on the car. And corporate was coming around more often. Customers were mentioning to the service writer how Mel smelled of booze. Mel was warned, and he ignored the warning. Well actually, he made an attempt, but it lasted less than 24 hours. He was let go.
Thereafter, Mel got a job at one of those national chain tire-muffler-brake type places. It worked out okay at first- the manager did not care about anything but the bottom line and squeezing the customers out of as much as he could. Mel worked well and didn't complain about being underpaid. He could be drunk all he wanted, for all the manager cared. Mel got fired after two years- the manager was trying to tell a customer that she needed new calipers, pads and rotors. The woman was all set to open a line of credit with the chain to pay for the job. Mel overheard, and he angrily, admanatly-drunkenly- yelled to the customer that the manager was a fraud, that she only needed a new set of pads, and gave her keys to her. He told the manager to go fuck himself in front of a waiting room full of customers, and told all the customers to seek repairs elsewhere. That was when Mel's wife insisted he see a doctor, who diagnosed him with alcoholism. He became eligible to collect disability after that. He did shadetree work here and there, but his drinking became worse because he could no longer do what he loved regularly. His wife threw him out when he missed their daughter's wedding.
If you went to Mel for work, he would tell you what parts to bring him, and often make some other weird demand- he wanted you to get him a Big Mac, or a six pack of Banquet. Not that you could complain- his prices were dirt cheap, with or without what he wanted you to bring. He would always have a few beers when working on your car- unless you were a high school kid needing a cheap fix on your hoopty, then he wouldn't drink in front of you at all and would usually knock a few bucks off his price. If you smoked, he'd bum yours. He didn't ask. Gimme one a them. Gimme another.
One October Indian Summer day, Igor had three jobs. The first was a regular, a college kid with a 1996 Honda Accord that was a terminal case but refused to die. Every couple months, he would see Mel who would tinker with it and buy a little more time. Mel loved these cars- Hondas, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, stuff that was built simply and lasted a long time. He took his time, bullshitting with the kid and carefully looking at the car, seeing what might go wrong. Damn near everything, but so far so good. If you worried about all the possibilities you'd have a heart attack.
The next was an old lady who needed a serpentine belt
replaced. The guys at the quick lube
told her it was cracked and they could replace it for $90. For $30, she could get a new one at Pep Boys
and Mel would charge her another $10 to put it on. But when she arrived, Mel popped the hood, looked at the belt, and said, "Ma'am, I refuse. That belt, conservatively, has a year left in it. You take your belt back to Pep Boys and when you need an oil change, you come to me from now on." Mel relieved her of one of her Virginia Slims and sent her on her way.
Mel's final customer was a young black woman who arrived with her four year old daughter in tow. Mel hid the beer. This woman did not fit the usual demographic of his customers. Mel didn't have much contact with black people- there were simply not many in this town. Mel's father was incredibly racist; this was something Mel never understood from a very young age. If you think the white race is superior, Mel thought, just look at me. Out of curiosity, Mel asked who referred her. She told him her husband sent her; he actually worked at Goodyear, and he'd diagnosed that she needed a new starter. He wasn't permitted to do it at their apartment building, and they couldn't afford to have it done at his own place of employment. She handed Mel a new starter. Her husband must have picked it. Aftermarket, but better quality than what they usually give you over the counter. Mel got to work. The little girl was watching intently. She kept asking Mel what he was doing. He patiently explained to her what was going on, and kept telling her not to touch anything under the hood. He tried to answer her in ways a four year old would understand. Mel got the starter replaced in short order, and had the owner fire it up while he peered under the hood. The little girl got excited when it roared to life. She told Mel how Mommy used to have to use a hammer and whack the thing Mel took out several times. Mel thought it was funny how the girl seemed to think that the starter was the problem, and Mel fixed the car simply by removing it. She made a motion, as if to whack the starter, and brought her hand dangerously close to the moving parts. Mel jerked her hand away-and had most of his left middle finger gruesomely chopped off and flung four feet. It was the worst pain-physical pain-he had ever experienced.
Mel grabbed a rag and the woman drove him to the ER
. The rag was a dumb move. He infected his cut, which was not a clean cut. The cut was continuously irrigated with antibiotics, and Mel was given painkillers. He ended up remaining at the hospital two days- the longest he had been sober since he was 17. The doctor didn't want to discharge him; he was taking a very long time to heal. He was suffering from withdrawal. The doctor told Mel he could arrange for some beer. Mel was given a can of Beast
, and he had the damndest time popping the top. Then he dropped his beer and spilled it. He called the nurse, who told him to wait for his next tray. He complained, and she told him that his beer was the least of her worries. She did, however, give him painkillers, which helped considerably.
Mel was still in a pleasant little fog when his wife called. He could barely pick up the phone, and she asked how she was. Mel felt like he was watching himself and hearing himself. She asked if he needed anything. A cold Heineken, Mel thought. But he heard himself and shocked himself. "A cigarette would be nice, but if you could bring me a decent cup of coffee at some point, that would be fabulous."
Bullshit, thought Mel. I'm hiding it from her again. Like she doesn't know. Another can came on the dinner tray-right when his wife arrived with a cup of Starbucks.
"So no withdrawal," she said to Mel.
"It's been three days." Mel replied. "I'll wait till you leave. Let me have that coffee, please."
She stayed an hour, and he kept eying the beer. But he was given another pill in the middle of their meeting, and he nodded off. His wife left, and decided to take the can of beer with her.
Mel awoke at 10:00pm, screaming and cursing, totally sober. He was told he couldn't have another beer till breakfast, and they gave him an even better pill, that knocked him out till noon. He saw a can of beer on his breakfast tray. He felt too groggy, too much pain, to get up and get it.
Around three, the woman whose car he worked on and her daughter arrived. The daughter told Mel she was so sorry. She cried, until Mel told her it was an accident and not to cry. Then Mel blew up a latex glove and made the little girl laugh. The woman apologized again, and Mel told her not to be sorry. He told her he had most of his limbs, and as long as he had use of them, he would be happy to fix her car. Free of charge.
She left, and he grabbed the beer. He heard the familiar pop. It didnt seem right....it didn't give him the reassuring feeling he remembered. The feeling he just obtained by hearing that little girl laugh.
Mel went for the phone. Igor worked nights and was probably sleeping. He was about to be disturbed.
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