Rendezvous at Paul’s Place
by Henry F. Tonn
part 1 of 2
In 1976 I accepted a position as a psychologist in Brunswick County, North Carolina, located on the coast, two hundred miles from my home in Charlotte. While searching for a home at this new location, I commuted between the two areas every weekend. In those days I owned a Porsche 912, sleek and fast, making the trip not altogether disagreeable.
One evening, however, as I was humming my way along a lonely stretch of road at dusk, I noticed a red light flare up on the dashboard. Being totally ignorant about cars, I stared at it perplexedly for a moment, trying to recall what it was supposed to mean. Did red represent oil pressure or generator? I couldn’t remember.
Next I noticed the temperature needle moving across the gauge. It finally settled over the H, and the realization that the car was overheating pierced my befuddled brain. Shortly thereafter an acrid smell reached my nostrils, and I quickly pulled over to the side of the road.
Smoke was pouring from the engine. I got out and lifted the hood and waved my arms about, attempting to clear the smoke, then peered carefully into the engine. The problem was obvious even to a mechanical moron like myself: the fan belt had come off and had been ripped to shreds.
I knew that I had an emergency fan belt in the trunk of the car and a set of emergency tools, compliments of the Porsche corporation, but I had no idea how to use them. I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere and completely inept at remedying the situation. I decided that I would hitchhike to a nearby service station, if there was one to be found at this hour, and procure whatever help was available.
Leaving the hood of the Porsche up to advertise my plight, I stepped to the road and waited for cars. There were none to be seen in either direction. It was very quiet. Crickets chirped in the surrounding marsh grass, and the sky steadily darkened.
Finally, off in the distance, several headlights appeared. They crept closer and closer until soon I could decipher that the first set belonged to a passenger car and the second to a transfer truck. I stuck out my thumb as they zoomed past, followed quickly by two more cars.
No one stopped, and the wind ruffled my hair as they receded into the distance. Quietude again settled over the area, and I heard the cry of some sort of animal in the woods.
Rather wistfully I watched the red specks of the tail lights get smaller and smaller as they were slowly swallowed up by the gathering darkness. I began to worry about my plight and wondered how long I would have to wait here before further traffic passed.
Suddenly, I saw one of the red specks detach itself from the others and pull to the right, onto the side of the road. The other specks continued. The red speck disappeared and was soon replaced by two white specks: headlights. They grew larger and larger: the car was returning!
Leisurely, it drifted up to where I was standing and then pulled off to the opposite side of the road. It was a large, green Oldsmobile.
A round, fat face with a mop of greasy red hair poked out of the window. It grinned. “What the hails wrong with yer car?”
“Fan belt broke,” I replied. “I don’t know how to put another one on.”
“Yer fan belt broke?”
“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout ferrin cars,” the man declared.
“That makes two of us.”
“Not a damn thing,” he said.
“What kinda ferrin car is that, anyway?”
“A Porsche. It’s from Germany.”
“Yup. That’s one of them ferrin cars all right,” he confirmed.
“It sure is.”
“I don’t know a damn thing about ferrin cars,” he repeated.
“Do you know anybody around here who does?”
“Do you want me to look at it?” he offered.
“I thought you don’t know anything about foreign cars.”
“Not a damn thing,” he said, opening his door and stepping out. He was short and squatty, around five-five, and pudgy, wearing a silk maroon shirt, tight white pants, and cowboy boots. He paused to light up a cigarette and then strutted across the road, bowlegged, waddling like a duck, cigarette dangling from his mouth. “Not a damn thing,” he repeated. “Which end is the motor on?”
“The rear,” I responded dubiously. “The hood is already up.”
With the cigarette still dangling from his mouth, the man stuck his head into the engine compartment. A woman with a baby in her arms slid across the seat of the Oldsmobile and watched the proceedings with interest.
He pulled his head from the engine and regarded me for a moment, pulling furiously on his cigarette. “Can’t see a damn thing,” he pronounced. “Don’t know a damn thing ’bout ferrin cars.”
“Do you know anybody around here who does?”
“If I could get a good look at it, I might be able to figure ’er out,” he said. He pulled out his cigarette lighter and lit it. His head again disappeared under the hood.
“Hey! Be careful!” I said with alarm. “There’s a lot of gas fumes in there.”
“Yep,” the man said at length. “It’s yer fan belt. Came off.”
“Do you know anybody around here who can fix it?” I repeated, feeling impatient. No further cars had passed by.
The man pondered for a moment. A slight breeze blew up and rustled the trees behind us. Two cars sped past, and it became quiet again.
“Paul could fix it,” he finally pronounced.
“Yep, Paul. Paul can fix anything.”
“Where is Paul located?” I asked.
“Paul could fix this here ferrin car, can’t he, honey?” the man called out across the road.
“Whatcha say, darling?” she answered, poking her head out the window.
“I say, Paul could fix this here ferrin car, can’t he?”
“Paul can fix anything, darling,” she replied.
“See there?” the man said, grinning. “Paul can fix this here car.”
“Paul can,” I said.
“Yep, Paul. He can fix the car.”
“Paul can fix the car,” the woman hollered across the road.
“Yep,” the man repeated, “Paul. He can fix anything.”
“I’m sure glad to hear that.”
“I don’t know a damn thing about ferrin cars myself.”
“Where exactly is Paul?”
“Yonder.” He pointed.
I followed the direction of his finger. “There’s only trees over there.”
“No, yonder.” He raised his finger. “’Bout two miles as the crow flies.”
“I’m not flying a crow.”
“’Bout seven miles by car.”
“Trouble is,” he continued, shaking his head, “he may not be open this late.”
I looked at my watch. It was eight o’clock.
“He closes his shop at six,” the man said.
“Not good,” I replied.
“’Course,” the man continued, “he may be racin’ Sunday and may be gettin’ his car ready for the race. Think Paul’s open this late, honey?” he hollered to his wife.
She considered the question for a moment. “He’s racing on Sunday, darling. He’s probably getting the car ready tonight.”
“See there?” the man said. “He may be racin’ on Sunday. We can drive over there and see. Ain’t like you got no other choice noways, do you?”
“You got that right,” I agreed
“I’ll be glad to drive you.”
“That’s mighty neighborly of you.”
“Ain’t nothin’. I was just goin’ to my old lady’s mama’s anyway. I’d rather do anything than see my old lady’s mama. She’s crazy as hail. Y’all hop in the car.”
Five minutes later we were winding our way through back roads toward Paul’s garage. The man kept up a continuous stream of chatter as he drove, one hand on the steering wheel and the other gesticulating in the air. From time to time the ash from his cigarette fell on the seat.
His wife, an attractive woman with long dark hair and a clear complexion, nodded her head approvingly beside him as she bounced a four-month-old baby on her lap. The baby stared at me with huge blue eyes as though I were the first stranger he had ever encountered.
Occasionally the baby would let out a gurgle or a grunt and his father would interrupt his monologue for a moment. “Ya better shut the hail up, young’un,” he would thunder, “’fore I slap yer eyeballs,” He would then continue precisely where he had left off.
The road wound deeper and deeper into the backwoods. First we turned off the main highway onto a paved state road, then to a gravel road, and finally to a deeply rutted dirt road. Weeds, bushes and moss-hung trees lined the way, along with beer cans, paper, and assorted debris. There were few houses.
We turned a curve and came upon a white wooden shack with a dozen cars parked randomly in the driveway. Loud country-and-western music blared through a screen door and some raucous whoops and hollering could be heard from the residents inside.
For a moment I had an eerie feeling not unlike Joseph Conrad must have experienced on his voyage up the Congo River. It seemed as though I were leaving the last outpost of civilization and entering primeval, uncharted territory. I prayed that the car did not blow a tire or the engine fail. We would surely be killed.
“That there’s the party hole,” the man informed me, flicking ash out the window. “Used to party there myself right smart. Quit doin’ that when I got married, didn’t I, darlin’?” He patted his wife on the knee.
“That’s right, darling,” she replied, giving him an affectionate gaze.
Copyright © 2014 by Henry F. Tonn