Current occupation: Writer
Former occupation: University Professor
Contact Information: I began my working career as a stock boy. I have also been a shoe salesman, a worker in an automobile repair shop, an insurance agent, a designer for a party favor company, a screen printer, a high school teacher, a house painter and construction worker, a commercial pilot, a professional stunt pilot, and a fine artist. My artworks are in the collections of the MoMa and the Metropolitan Museum in NYC and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London among others. I have published numerous short stories world wide and seven books of fiction. I live in Ithaca, NY with my wife the novelist Jeanne Mackin. Check my website: www.stephenpoleskie.com
I Am Jitterbug
“Hey! Jitterbug! Get your ass over here and jitterbug the fender on this here Chevy.”
Having been called “Jitterbug” since I began work here at T and A Auto Repair three days ago, I had come to accept this nickname, even though I had politely suggested I would rather be known as John.
“Shag”, the only person in the shop the least bit friendly to me so far, had explained: “Ya see kid, around here we’re called by what we do. Now I go for things: parts, wrecked cars and all the other stuff, like Zeke’s beer. That’s called ‘shaggin’ as in ‘go shag yer ass’— that’s why I’m called Shag, even though I was baptized Walter. Now ya see that der thing ya got in yer hand, that’s a jitterbug.”
I had said, “You mean this rotary sander?”
Shag had said, “Whada ya, some kind of a smart ass college kid? Rotary sander . . . that’s a damn jitterbug.”
I couldn’t admit I was a college student who needed a summer job, and had lied, saying I was looking for full-time work. What would the owner, Zeke—sitting there sucking on his perennial bottle of beer—had thought if I had told him the truth, that the skills I listed for the job: welding, grinding, sanding, and spray painting, had all been learned in a class in metal sculpture, that I was in fact an art student.
“Hey! Jitterbug, ya don’t got all day on that fender.”
The boss had just disappeared into his little room above the shop.
“What’s Zeke do up there, Shag?” I asked, taking a brief rest from my dance with the rotary sander. More powerful than the sander I had used in school, the vibration let me I know why it was called a jitterbug.
“Don’t let him see you standin’ around, Jitterbug.” We were talking back to back, like spies in a grade B movie. “That’s his poontang room. He takes his chicks up there, so his wife won’t know. And he’s got a bed up there, and takes a nap during the day. But he’s got a secret window, so he can keep an eye on us.”
With that information conveyed, almost as if a warning to himself, Shag began to bustle about the shop, picking up rags, and half-used rolls of masking tape, appearing busier that he usually was. Pulling up my dust mask, I went back to the task of sanding a fender.
About an hour later Shag drove up in the wrecker, pulling a fairly new Pontiac.
“Hey! Jitterbug, leave that fender,” Zeke shouted at me above the noise of my grinder. “Ya see that Pontiac Shag just dragged in. I want ya ta take out the generator . . . ya know how ta do that don’t ya? Then clean it up . . . and sand the thing down, primer her . . . and then give her a nice coat of bright red lacquer . . . can ya do all that? And when it’s dry, put the thing back on the motor . . . but let Shag tighten the fan belt.”
Wow! It was if I suddenly had been promoted. Up until this time I had only been allowed to sand, mask-off, and spray primer, but now I was to actually do some mechanical work, and to spray a finish coat, if only on a generator. Why, I wondered, would a woman want her generator painted, and the color changed from flat black to bright red? But, I was a good employee, and did what I was told.
I reinstalled the generator, and Shag adjusted the fan belt. Grinding away again, I could not hear the conversation when the woman came for her car, but I did see Zeke open up the hood and point out the bright red generator, which seemed to please her. She handed Zeke a check, and drove off.
“Why did that woman want her generator painted bright red?” I asked Shag the next time we had a quiet moment together.
“Whada ya dumb, Jitterbug? Ya think that ladies interior decorator told her that she had to have a new look under the hood?”
“So why did I take the generator out and paint it red?”
“Look, ya saw me tow the car in didn’t ya? Well, the thing wouldn't start. Now, chicks don’t know shit from Shinola about damn cars, so the broad calls the nearest tow truck, which happens to be us. So Zeke looks under the hood and sees right away that the damn problem is a loose fan belt, which is why the generator is not charging the battery. Now Zeke ain't gonna make much money by just charging the battery and tightening the fan belt. So he tells her she needs a new generator, that the ones that come with the car are no damn good, and that she would be better off with a new high performance ‘Spark King’ generator, which she can get for just a few dollars more than a standard one. So you paint her old generator red, and presto, she’s got a brand new ‘Spark King’!
“But that’s not right.” I stammered.
“Whada ya mean . . . not right, dat’s the way it’s done. It’s the auto repair business, especially when dealing with dumb broads. Ya see all the shops in this here little town. How da ya think we all stay in business? Now for the next three weeks or so this broad is gonna drive around happy as a pig in shit, watching her ammeter, thinking what a wonderful job her new ‘Spark King’ generator is doing. Then it’s gonna go on the fritz, and she’ll come back all in a huff, complaining that the generator’s no damn good. And Zeke is gonna open up the hood and show her it’s not her new generator that’s gone, but the fan belt. And he’s gonna say: ‘I’m sorry, we probably shoulda put on a new belt when we changed the generator, but yours looked pretty good, and I didn’t want you to have to spend too much. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do, since it was sorta our fault, I’ll put on a new belt, and only charge you for the belt, not the labor.’ And the lady is gonna be so happy that she’s not paying for the fifteen minutes or so it takes to put on a new fan belt, that she doesn’t notice she’s paying four times as much for the belt as it cost at the auto parts store up the road.”
“And how are you so sure this is going to happen?” I asked.
“Whadya dumb, Jitterbug?” Shag answered. “Because when I tightened her old fan belt, I took a little notch out of it with my pocket knife, just enough so that it would go in about three weeks.”
This must not have been the first, or the worst scam worked by T and A Auto Repair. A month before I started working here their State Inspection License had been revoked—only no one was supposed to know. One of my jobs was “official road tester.” When one of our regular customers came in for an inspection, usually a car with a dubious chance of passing anyway, which was why they came to T and A, one of our mechanics would give it a perfunctory look over, and then I would be told to “take it for a test drive” to make sure everything was up to standards. In reality I would drive the car to another shop six blocks away, where the owner was a friend of Zeke’s. There they would slap on an inspection sticker. Although I was participating in what was probably an illegal act, I rather enjoyed these “test drives” as it got me out of the shop, with its paint fumes and sanding dust, and I got to drive a lot of different cars.
I asked Shag once what the name T and A stood for, as the only owner appeared to be Zeke, and his last name began with neither a T or and A. Was it perhaps the previous owners?
Shag prefaced his reply with his usual mock, “Whaddya dumb, Jitterbug?” and then went on, “what da ya think it stands for? T and A is tits and ass, in any man’s language. What da ya think Zeke does up there in that little room?”
I never brought up the question again.
“Hey Jitterbug, get off yer sander . . . ya gotta take that der car for a test drive,” Zeke said pointing to an almost new Ford Mustang. I could not believe the little old lady standing next to it was the owner, but she handed me the keys, telling me to: “Be careful with my baby. . . .”
This was a muscle car. No scooting down the back streets with this set of wheels, I would take the avenue, and hope to catch a few red lights, and just maybe someone out for a drag race. This thing had power, and a standard shift. Out of sight of T and A, I popped the clutch and laid a patch of rubber for half a block. This car was in good condition, and could pass an inspection anywhere. I wondered why the woman had brought it to our dishonest little shop. I slowly cruised the five remaining blocks without meeting any challengers. Maybe on the way back?
Waiting at a light, with three more blocks remaining to T and A, I was beginning to despair, when a black Corvette sided up next to me. I could tell by the sound of its trick pipes that this guy was ready to go. I revved my motor. The driver of the Corvette did not look over at me, but I could tell we had a race. The light turned from yellow to green. Flooring the Mustang’s accelerator, I popped the clutch.
There was a loud clank. The Mustang, didn’t accelerate, but just sat there with her motor revving wildly, until I realized what had happened and took my foot off the gas pedal. The black Corvette was disappearing down the Market Street. Opening the door, I leaned out and looked under the car. The rear end of the drive shaft was hanging down on the road, resting in a puddle of its own oil.
I wanted to cry, but a crowd had gathered. Besides I was twenty years old and too old to cry, even though I knew that I would be held responsible for the damage to the transmission, and that it would probably take all the rest of the money I was going to earn this summer just to pay for it. And a nice policeman had come by and given me two tickets, one for blocking the intersection, and one for parking on a crosswalk.
The police dispatcher must have telephoned the shop, for in a short time Shag arrived in the big yellow and red tow-truck, with T and A on the door, and a decal of a girl in a scanty bikini. On the way back we discussed what I thought was going to happen to me. I would probably not be fired, but then I would have to work to pay back the cost of the repair. However, if I wasn’t going to earn any money anyway, maybe I should just take off, and try to find another job for the rest of the summer.
“Relax, Jitterbug,” Shag said sucking on a can of beer as he drove, “Zeke will take care of everything.”
He said it with such assurance I wanted to believe him.
Pulling up in front of the shop with the Mustang in tow, I was prepared for the worst. Zeke and the woman owner came out almost immediately. Zeke threw himself down on a crawler and rolled underneath the still hitched up Mustang. Shag headed for the head, leaving me standing there with the woman. I did not know if she knew it was me who had ruined her car. She looked like she wanted to cry, but grown women don’t cry over cars.
“It was my husband’s car,” she began, almost as if confessing something. “He always wanted a Mustang, ever since they first came out . . . but we had kids, and didn’t have too much money, so we always had a station wagon or van. Then the kids grew up and we were alone . . . and my husband had the opportunity to take an early retirement, and so he did. And one day he said he had decided to buy the Mustang he always wanted. Well, we were both retired, and didn’t have all that much money, but I said if that’s what you want go ahead and do it . . . we would manage. And he really loved that car . . . washed it and waxed it all the time. At the mall he’d park it way off by itself so that no one would ding it. Then he had a heart attack and died. Well, I decided to keep the Mustang as kind of a memory of my husband . . . that was three years ago, and I finally got the car paid off. But the warranty is run out . . . and now this. I hope it’s not going to cost too much as I live on a tight budget. . . .”
What could I say? A brief while ago I had just ruined a car, now I had destroyed a woman’s memory, I couldn’t just walk away, I would have to work here all summer paying for it.
Zeke rolled back out from under the car. He stood up and wiped some grease off his hands onto his pants.
“Lady you are so . . .” Zeke paused, “. . . lucky. You could have been killed!” He was looking the lady straight in the eye, and had pulled me over and put his arm around my shoulder. “You are lucky that this here kid was driving and not you. You see your . . . eh . . . fignewton coupling let go on the rialto valve, which is what caused your drive shaft to drop to the street.”
Now, I’ll admit I did not know much about cars, I am sure nowhere near as much as Zeke must have known, but I was searching my mind and I had never heard of any such parts known as a ‘fignewton coupling’ or a ‘rialto valve’. And I knew damn straight that this was not what had dropped the drive shaft. Nevertheless, Zeke kept rolling on. Shag had returned and was listening, and nodding in agreement.
“Now when the fignewton coupling lets go, at speeds as slow as . . . well, let’s say even ten miles-per-hour, especially if the rialto valve also gives out at the same time . . . the car is sure to roll over. You are lucky that you were not driving . . . you might have been killed. Now you should get down on you knees and thank God that it was this here kid who was driving your car when the fignewton valve let go.”
I felt embarrassed. Zeke smiled at me, giving my shoulder a firm squeeze, which I took to mean: keep your damn mouth shut.
“. . . ya see Lady, this here kid is a trained race car driver . . . one of the best young drivers around . . . and he knew exactly what to do as soon as he heard that fignuiton retainer blow. I mean if you had been driving Lady that car would have rolled over . . . two, maybe three times . . . and you would have been a goner.”
I stood there proudly, picturing myself in my flame-retardant racing suit, covered with emblems: Goodyear, Exide, Mopar—T and A.
“Now, I know yer a little short on money . . . aren’t we all? So here’s what I’m gonna do. Like I’ll work with you on this. I’m gonna give ya all the parts at our cost . . . .” Zeke went on, herding the woman into the office, and at the same time pointing me in the direction of my rotary sander.
“See, I told ya that Zeke would fix everything. He’s a damn smooth operator, I bet he even bills her good for the fignewton coupler and the rialto valve, ha, ha. . . . It’s too bad she wasn’t a little younger, I bet Zeke would have even had her up to the poontang room for a little banging.” Shag said, making an obscene gesture with his pelvis, while sounding pleased that things had worked out, if not for me, for T and A Auto Repair.
I wondered if this meant that I was not going to have to pay for anything, or maybe I would get the bill for the imaginary parts.
I was grinding the paint off a door when the Zeke and the woman came out of the office. I was expecting to see Zeke lead her up to the second floor, but they headed over in my direction. I put down my grinder.
“Here’s my hero,” I heard the woman say.
I turned and looked around, then realized she was addressing me.
“Zeke’s given me such a good price on fixing my car. It’s going to be better than new. And when it’s done I want you to take the first test drive, just to make sure everything is all right.”
“That’s okay Ma’am,” I stammered. “You can trust Zeke . . . if he says your car is all right, I’m sure it’s all right.”
“Well, I can’t thank you enough for saving my life,” she said shaking my hand. When I pulled it away, in it was a five dollar bill.
“Oh, I can’t take this Ma’am . . . I didn’t do anything.”
“No, No . . . I insist,” the woman said as she turned and walked out the door, smiling and waving at me.
Feeling guilty, but pleased at the same time, I was about to stuff the bill into my coveralls pocket when a hand snatched it from me.
“All tips go into the shop beer fund,” Zeke informed me, shoving the fiver into his own pocket.
“I didn’t know that the shop had a beer fund,” I said.
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know, Jitterbug,” Zeke gibed, disappearing into his office.