Clunker out of Bay 3

A SIGN alongside the highway boasts ``10 minute lube,'' but four young men in grease-spotted coveralls, overrun by customers the minute they open, apologize for a half-hour delay this morning. They invite us to help ourselves to doughnuts and beverages in the office, so no one minds. Clear skies and a cool breeze, remnants of last night's thunderstorm which banished a week of overcast, have put everyone in a sociable mood. ``Uncle'' Ernest, kin-less as far as anyone knows, is there. Every Saturday morning he drives in from his farm to buy groceries and livestock feed. He stops by Lightning Lube for a cup of free coffee and conversation. This ritual reminds him, he tells you, how fortunate he is to enjoy the solitude of bachelorhood ... and his hogs. Nonetheless, he is enjoying the attention of an incredulous teen-age girl whose car occupies Bay 1.

``You live in the boonies and don't have TV?''

``Didn't say I don't own a set,'' Ernest corrects. ``Keep it in the chicken coop, that's all. My layers like it. They don't watch, but the commotion scares foxes away.'' What does he do for entertainment? Uncle Ernest sits on his porch at sunset, watching deer and wild birds congregate at his fish pond to nibble grain; notice those feed sacks piled in his truck. News? He has heard all the ``news,'' years ago; why tune in for its latest incarnations? Over dinner, he reads. Newspapers, 17 magazines a month, books. History and philosophy, mainly. (His appetite for reading is reputedly more voracious than for the bounty of his garden, which he shares, spring and autumn, with the boys in the bays. And their customers.)

From the car with Colorado license plates in Bay 2 a white-haired woman emerges, leaving her husband at the wheel to study a map. ``Glorious weather,'' she declares. ``Makes me so itchy to get home, I think I could walk the rest of the way.''

Actually, she and her husband, ex-military, are between homes. They visited friends in Colorado two months ago and returned to Virginia long enough to pound a ``for sale'' sign into the front lawn of their house before heading west again to stake their claim on nonroving retirement amid foothills of the Rockies. ``Bob and I have lived all over the world,'' she says, ``but someday you find where you belong. And know it. Finally - I can plant a garden, you know?''

Ernest knows. Always giving somebody something, if only the knowledge of his 82 years, he hands her an envelope containing 10 tomato seeds. His pockets bulge with these packets, which he dispenses to anyone interested in horticulture. He claims the seeds come from a legendary producer he bred himself. She invites him to drop in if he's ever in Colorado. He reckons he just might do that, assuming a neighboring farm lad will look after hens and hogs for a week. Would she like him to fetch along a truckload of composted manure?

Out of the breeze, around back in warm morning sunshine, Otis is telling Willie B. about the swimming pool business; at the company where he worked, there is no business and has been none for three months. That morning, Otis was driving his '78 clunk-heap to an unemployment office - again - when a red light on his dashboard persuaded him to detour by Lightning, although it will take food off the table to put oil in the car. Appearing to change the subject, Willie B. rolls a pebble around under his shoe and remarks, ``Lot of hail damage at my place last night. Tattered the fig tree; bushels of fruit all over the ground. Wind ripped siding off my toolshed, too. Say, you know anything about sheet metal?''

Before Otis's clunker rolls out of Bay 3, a deal is struck with a handshake agreement about money. They smile over the fact that Otis's wife and kids adore figs. Ernest says he'd gladly part with a slab of bacon and a few dollars for some help on his windmill. Mind you, he can still climb, but younger men with a belt-full of tools seem capable of scaling the ladder a mite faster. Otis beams.

A man in a white wool sweater stands by himself near the trash dumpster. Ernest tells us, ``He's in finance,'' although at the moment he appears lost in a more alien environment, fretting over a battery that died while his car was under the grease gun. Several of us help Roy, the youngest worker, push the banker's vehicle out of its bay.

When Roy pulls up his truck and hops out with jumper cables, Willie B. notices a hair roller lying atop the boy's high school letter-jacket on the cab seat and jokes, ``Wondered how you got that curly hair.'' Everyone laughs, except Roy. Roy looks up, startled, unshaven, red-eyed, and wiping his eyes, mutters something about dust in the air, which no one else notices, before he lopes inside for a wrench. Kyle, the oldest worker and possibly the manager, wanders over, casually inspecting the battery. In a low voice that says more than his words, he confides, ``The roller belongs to Roy's girlfriend, all he has left after their date last night. She returned his engagement ring. He didn't sleep at all, so you guys might want to let up on him today, don't you think?''

When Roy reappears, he busies himself, excessively, with cables and wrench under the hood. Everyone gazes at radiator, fan belt, anything but Roy's sleepless, tear-wearied eyes. But you can almost reach out and feel the unspoken understanding of men with their own remembrances of a day after the world ends. Even Ernest looks on with an expression of bewildered regret before heading home to his hogs with a snappy, ``See you next week, boys.''

Something about that place makes delay more appealing than its advertised haste. It is remarkably clean for a garage, repainted since my last visit, new awning, flowers blooming in front, an Ernest tomato mounding out of a tire-planter in back. The boys do good work in a friendly manner and for a good price. Or is it that a Saturday morning at Lightning Lube reminds you the gears of human interaction, as well as automobiles, benefit now and then from a leisurely oiling?

I am sure Uncle Ernest knows. Next time, I probably can get him to tell me.

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