an almost true story
Little boys make noise, all kinds of noise, noise all the time. In the space of one hour, dredging canals and moats and constructing forts, in the sandbox, any small boy imitates sounds of dump trucks, jets overhead, barking dogs, steam shovels, armed battalions, and weird green outer-space creatures. This typical boy behavior is allowed and encouraged.
Meanwhile, in the parlor, surrounded with reproductions of Victorian furniture, anti-macassars and ceramic figurines, his little sister is quietly setting the table with the miniature china tea set or tucking dolly up for a nap or turning the pages of a book and silently reading the story to herself. That little girl in the starched and ruffled pinafore is me. I play quietly, with decorum, as I have been taught. I stay clean. I pick up my toys and put them away when it is time for tea. This quiet behavior is praised and encouraged. I am “good”.
I tiptoe to the window and peer between velvet draperies, see the sandbox, trucks and shovels and pails strewn everywhere. My brother is tearing around the back yard, trailing half a Sahara of sand, loudly machine gunning enemy troops hiding in the hedges. I purse my lips. Boys are so noisy.
Now that I am grown, I am acutely aware that making noises is a fundamental skill I lack. Nowhere is this more frustrating than when I must explain to my mechanic, over the phone, the strange noises my car is making. He always asks.
“What’s it sound like?” the mechanic, we will call him Ralph, asks.
I hold the phone in silence, pucker up my mouth, practice different configurations with my lips, consider how to reproduce the particular noise my car is making, struggle to bring the sounds from my throat. Fear strikes. I am paralyzed. Girlhood training overrides necessity. I cannot utter a sound.
Finally I gather my courage and resort to words. I am good with words. “Ralph, remember when you were a little boy, when you took a clothespin and attached playing cards to the spokes of your bicycle?”
Silence on his end of the line. Maybe Ralph is remembering. Maybe Ralph is scratching.
“It is kind of like that noise, but then add a low growl like a dog defending a bone.”
“Might be the pulley attached to the serpentine belt is sticking for some reason. Or could be the AC unit. It’s probably the AC unit. That will cost more. Course it could be the catalytic converter. That’s pretty expensive too.” Ralph began adding up the possibilities. He belched.
“My car doesn’t have air conditioning,” I admit.
“You don’t have air?” He sounds incredulous. I feel personally defective for not having air conditioning in my car. Mechanics always do that to me.
Wednesday I pull in front of Ralph’s Repair and Body Shop. By now my van not only clicks and clacks, and growls but also is possessed by shrieking banshees.
When I open the shop door, Ralph tilts back in his chair. “No, it don’t sound like what you said.” With his mouth, he imitates cards pinned to bicycle spokes with a small additional growl. “Now here’s what it really sounds like.” The noise which emerges from Ralph’s mouth could be a recording of my van driving in, it is so perfect.
I grimace, “What is wrong with it?”
“Don’t know,” he answers, and gets up, hitches his britches and spits. “When it makes that noise, it’s usually a pulley, but I won’t know which one until I tear it all apart.”
Helplessly, I hand over my keys and prepare for a long wait.
After many hours, numerous parts and several hundred dollars, Ralph glares at me as he hands me my keys and receipt. “You mighta called when it first started sounding like this.” And again, he orchestrates the noise my van was making when I first began to worry that something might be wrong. “So why didn’t you call then—it would’ve saved you a lot of money.”
I stare back mutely, but politely. “Childhood.” It is all I can think to say. I turn to leave.
“Your speedometer sticks, did you know that?” Ralph asks. “Sounds like this.” And as I left the shop, he made the sound of a sticking speedometer.
Feb 4, 09