THESE are the events that brought us to Mike one hour before quitting time on Monday afternoon, hard by the interstate, 200 miles from home: We were driving at 55 when the engine began talking to us, tunk, tunk. We reached an exit and found a gas station, a national franchise with which I have a credit card.
``It's a busted head gasket,'' the mechanic said. ``We don't do that work. Go see Marv up the street.''
We came to a low building with a flat roof. Inside, the office walls were bare plywood, covered with grease. A heavy man sat behind the desk.
``Cain't check it out for least a week,'' said Marv.
``Why don't you go see that place seven blocks up, behind the tire store.''
Seven blocks up we came to a cement-block building with a mansard roof. The roof was covered with molded, aluminum shakes that were painted yellow. Plywood letters, hand-cut and painted blue, stood out against the yellow roof: AUTO REPAIR. A chunk was missing from an R.
``Probably the water pump,'' said Mike's boss. ``Bearings are going out.''
Mike drove the car into the garage and lifted the hood. He had a red rose tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. ``To me, it's a broke radiator thermostat,'' he said, ``from the sound of it.'' Mike did not need my help, so I went into the office to wait.
I sat on a reclining chair covered in vinyl. From beneath it came an electric cord. The chair was old, the cord was not plugged in. I read a newspaper. A soap opera was showing on the color TV.
Mike entered the office, talked to his boss, then returned to the garage. I entered the garage. Mike was under the hood prying at a piece of the engine with a screwdriver. A seal was cut and mashed.
``The bolt broke,'' he said. ``I got to get this bolt outa here without breaking the housing.'' He didn't need my help.
Outside, another customer walked into the parking lot. Cars were parked diagonally against the chain-link fence on one side. To the other side, against the tire store, was a truck.
A mechanic poked at the innards of a white 1960 Thunderbird. It could be purchased for $3,500, according to the cardboard sign taped to the inside of the rear window.
The other customer was tall and had gray hair. ``You know,'' he said, ``the man who got rid of horses and brought in these things lost the whole battle.''
Half an hour later we were on the interstate heading home, giving no thought to the new radiator thermostat that silently opened a new plastic valve to bathe our engine in radiator water, cooled by air rushing in the grill, or to the housing in which it was mounted, or the new bolts that fastened the housing, or the new seal between the two halves of the housing, or to Mike who had freed the rusted bolt and repaired our car without my help.