To call that winter a junction in my life would be like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch.
—Elle Sheen’s Diary
I don’t know much about cars, even my own—a ’57 Ford Fairlane that collectors would die for today but that I couldn’t give away back then. That morning as I started the car something felt different, which, from my experience—in both cars and relationships—was rarely good. And there was the smell of something burning, which was never good.
“Do you smell something?” I asked Dylan. He had sensory processing disorder—something we didn’t know about back then—and was highly sensitive to smells.
“It wasn’t me,” Dylan said.
I grinned. “I’m talking about the car.”
“It smells like burnt toast,” he said.
I sighed. “Looks like you’re going to be late to school today. We need to see Mr. Renato again.”
“I don’t like Mr. Renato,” Dylan said.
“Why don’t you like Mr. Renato?”
“He smells funny.”
“That’s not nice,” I said, even though it was true. Mr. Renato smelled more like garlic than a roasted clove. “He just smells a little like garlic.”
“Garlic is something you put in Italian food like spaghetti sauce and pizza. I know you like those.”
“Mr. Renato is Italian, like pizza. And if you say anything about how he smells in front of him, I’m going to ground you from watching TV for a whole week.”
I looked over to see if he was getting it. He was frowning. “Can I tell him he smells like a garlic?”
Mr. Renato owned Renato’s Expert Auto Repair, but since his was the only auto body shop in Mistletoe, everyone just called it Renato’s—a name that outsiders often mistook for an Italian restaurant.
Renato was of direct Italian descent, immigrating to America when he was nineteen. Like everyone else in town, including me, you had to wonder how he ended up in Mistletoe. It was a woman, of course. He met her in the bustling metropolis of New York and followed her back to a town so small that the McDonald’s had only one arch. Actually, that’s not true. We didn’t have a McDonald’s.
That was a joke. I had a whole repertoire of “our town is so small” jokes, mostly shared with me by truck drivers passing through. I’ve heard them all. This town is so small that all the city limits signs are on the same post. A night on the town takes six minutes. The New Year’s baby was born in September. (That last one was actually true. Not a lot of births in this town, as most people leave to get married. I’m a sad example of what happens if you don’t.)
The truth was, Mistletoe was so small that even people in the state of Utah didn’t know it existed. Renato’s love interest eventually left—both him and Mistletoe—but Renato stayed put. Unfortunately, my car kept us in frequent contact.
Renato’s shop was on the way to Howard Taft Elementary, Dylan’s school. The repair shop had three bays and a front office that perpetually reeked with the pungent scent of new tires.
“It smells in here,” Dylan said as we walked in. I wasn’t sure if it was a reference to the tires or the shop’s proprietor.
I gave him a stern glance. “Remember what I told you. I mean it.”
“What you’re smelling are the new tires. I like it.”
“No one’s going to argue that.”
Just then a short, olive-skinned man walked out of a back office holding a clipboard. He had a pen tucked behind his ear, partially concealed by his salt-and-pepper hair. He wore a long-sleeved, oil-stained cotton work shirt with an embroidered patch with his name on it. His hands were clean, though permanently dyed by motor oil. He smiled when he saw me.
“Ciao, bella.” He walked over and kissed me on both cheeks. “You are too beautiful.”
It was nice to hear, even from Renato, who was a living, breathing Italian caricature and pretty much said it to every woman he encountered.
I was pretty in a simple way. Or, at least, I used to be. I was raised in the small town of Cedar City, the only daughter of a military officer turned rancher, and looked as wholesome as my beginnings suggested. I looked like my mother, which, I suppose, was a good thing, as she had been chosen Miss Cedar City in her youth. I had flaxen hair, a small mouth, but full lips and large brown eyes. I was trim, with curves. I wasn’t tall, but, at five foot five, I was still taller than my mother. My height was something I got from my father, who was six one.
My father used to say, “I prayed to God that my daughter would be pretty, but not too pretty. Too pretty messes up one’s head.” Then he’d wink and say, “But God doesn’t always give us what we ask for.” He also used to say, “Pretty is as pretty does.” I’m still not totally sure what that means.
No matter the standard, I didn’t feel very pretty in those days. In the mirror of my self-image I just saw a lonely, quietly desperate woman hidden behind a mask of exhaustion.
He smiled even more broadly, the furrows on his face growing still deeper. “Mamma mia, sei troppo bella,” he said, sighing dramatically. Pretty much everything he did was dramatic. “Every time I see you it reminds me that I was born twenty-five years too early.”
“Maybe I like older men.”
“Perché mi stuzzichi. How you tease an old man.” He glanced down at Dylan. “How are you, bambino?”
“My name’s not ‘bambino,’?” Dylan said.
Renato smiled. “È vero.” He looked back up at me. “What brings you to my shop, bella?”
“The usual,” I said. “My car’s acting up again.”
“Your curse, my blessing,” he said. “Your naughty car brings you back to me. What is the problem this time?”
“Our car exploded this morning,” Dylan said.
“La machina cattiva.” Renato looked out the glass door toward my car. “The car exploded?”
“It backfired,” I said. “But that’s not the problem. I think it’s the clutch. It doesn’t feel right.”
“What does it feel like?”
“It feels… kind of loose. And it smells bad.”
“You said something smells bad,” Dylan said. “You said not to say that.” I closed him down with a glance. I turned back to Renato.
“It smells like something is burning.”
Renato frowned. “That is not good. Do you ride the clutch?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Do you keep your foot on the clutch when you drive?”
“I don’t think so.”
He breathed out loudly. “Your clutch may be going out on you.”
“That sounds expensive,” I said anxiously. “Is that expensive?”
He nodded side to side, then raised his hand to explain. He always used his hands to speak. (How do you shut up an Italian? You tie up his hands.) “The clutch plate is only twenty-five dollars.”
“Thank goodness,” I said. “I can almost afford that.”
“It is not the part that is the problem,” Renato said, his face pressed with pain. “Replacing the part is the devil. That is what costs the money.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Usually costs about five hundred.”
My stomach fell. It might as well have been five thousand. “Five hundred?”
“I’m sorry, but do not panic yet. I will have my man check it out first. You have your keys?”
“Right here.” I fished my keys from my purse, which was a little embarrassing since my key chain weighed about a pound and had two massive plastic key chains that Dylan had made for me at school that said “World’s Best Mom.”
Renato smiled at the bundle. “Good thing you have a big purse,” he said.
“I wish it was to hold all the money I had.”
“We should all have that problem,” he said. “I’ll have William check your car.”
“He is my new guy.”
“What happened to Nolan?”
“Left? He was here forever.”
“Thirty-three years. I am not happy about it. He moved back to Montana to raise cattle on his brother’s ranch. Fortunately, this man, William, showed up two days before he left. He used to be a mechanic in the army.” He walked to the door to the garage and opened it. Somewhere in the garage a radio was playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.”
A man I guessed to be about my age looked up from beneath the hood of a car. It was rare to see a new face in town outside the diner. He was tall, thin, with dark brown hair and dark features. Ruggedly handsome, I guess. At least I thought that at first. It didn’t last long. “Yes, sir,” he shot back, like he was still in the military.
“I love it when he says that,” Renato said to me. He turned back to his man. “I need you to check the clutch on a Fairlane.”
“Yes, sir. Keys in the ignition?”
“I have them.” He threw him my bundle. The man caught them.
The man, William, suddenly looked at me and Dylan with a strange expression. As the mother of a nonwhite child, I was used to this. “I’ll need to take it around the block.”
“Of course,” I said, like I had any idea what he needed to do.
He opened a bay door and walked out to my car.
“He is going to take it for a drive so he can feel the clutch,” Renato explained.
“Or smell it,” I said.
Dylan looked at me and I shook my head.
“Can I have a gumball?” he asked.
“Let me see if I have a penny.” I reached in my purse and took out my change purse. It was mostly filled with pennies. “There you go.”
“Thank you.” He ran to the gumball machine.
“He is such a polite boy,” Renato said. “He has a good upbringing.”
About five minutes later the new guy pulled my car into one of the bays and climbed out.
“What do you think?” Renato asked.
“It’s definitely slipping,” he said. “I can smell it.”
I frowned. “That’s what I said.”
I looked at Renato hoping for some good news but he only frowned. “I am sorry, bella. It is going to need a new clutch.”
My heart fell. It seems I was always paying for something. I had just finished paying off the alternator. Now this. And Christmas was coming. “Can you fix it?”
“Of course. I’ll work with you on the price. I will give you the family discount. Can you make payments?”
“How much would you need?”
“I can do fifty dollars a month. I will do the tune-up for free, no charge.”
“Okay.” I didn’t have a choice. Dylan and I were barely making it as it was. I’d have to pick up an extra shift each month just for the clutch and pray something else didn’t give out. Or that I didn’t.
“Thank you,” I said softly.
“How long will it take to fix?”
“Maybe four to six hours. William is a fast worker. Can you leave it with me?”
“I kind of need a car. You don’t have a loaner, do you?”
“Not today. I will have one tomorrow morning after Mr. Anderson picks up his car.”
“Will my car last another day?”
“William, how much longer can she drive her car?”
“The clutch probably has a week or two left on it.”
“Will I damage the clutch more?” I asked.
Renato shook his head. “The damage is done. But if it goes out completely you could damage your engine.”
Just then William shouted, “Hey! Get off that!”
I spun around. He was shouting at Dylan, who was standing on top of an oily machine next to a stack of tires. “That’s not a toy.”
Dylan was paralyzed with fear. He wasn’t used to being yelled at. I walked over to him. “Sorry,” I said to William. “He doesn’t know better.”
“Then you should keep an eye on him. This isn’t a playground.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I turned to Dylan, who was still cowering. “Come on, Dylan. Let’s go. Don’t touch anything.” So much for Mr. Rugged Good Looks, I thought.
“He’s scary,” Dylan said as I took his hand.
“Yeah,” I said under my breath. “Very.” I walked Dylan back into the front office. Renato was already there behind his counter writing on a pad.
“So here is the work order. We are going to replace your clutch and give you a free tune-up.”
“So this new guy of yours. Mr. Personality.”
Renato looked at me. “Mr. Personality?”
“How’s he working out?”
“William is a hard worker,” Renato said. “He is doing a very good job.”
“But not much of a personality,” I said.
Renato’s expression didn’t change. “Do not be too quick to judge.”
I wasn’t sure how to handle Renato’s uncharacteristic seriousness. And I was still reeling a little from his employee reprimanding my son and me, as well as the devastating financial news. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Renato nodded. “I am sorry for the bad news, bella. But I will give you the family discount.”
As I left the place, it was all I could do not to cry. Why couldn’t I catch a break?