Saturday, December 14, 2019
SUSAN, THE OIL CHANGE LADY
Moving to a new town about five years ago, among the first tasks would be to find an outfit to perform regular maintenance on my Nissan pickup and whatever else happened to be in the garage. I like to trade with local Mom and Pops so when the Nissan was due for an oil change, I stumbled into a shop that looked the part, walking distance from home. Good, I’m thinking. I can drop the truck off and hoof it home or head to the local coffee outlet and wait for a call.
I opened the door to the business only to find a woman, perhaps a few years my junior, sitting behind a computer but with a book, open, in front of her. After two, maybe three beats, she placed an index finger somewhere in the text and said, “Hi there. How may I help you?”
“Whacha readin’?” was my first comment.
I don’t remember her response other than it was not one of those supermarket paperbacks. It was something about the Jamestown Colony or some cosmic nebula light years from this shop. I mention those two examples because in the ten or twelve times I visited the shop for service to the truck or the Subaru – “You have a Subaru? We love our Subaru. Michael likes working on Subes and we both enjoy driving ours.” – she’d have a book at her workstation and her index finger was regularly employed keeping her spot in the narrative. Once she told how she was fascinated by what she had just read about the pilgrims and their hardships, another time, space.
“What are you reading?” she asked.
The woman’s name was Susan and Michael, her husband, turned wrenches in the back. A true Mom and Pop.
On about my third visit, I chose to pack a book rather than hike home. It was a Longmire mystery. As I settled in, she asked, “Is it like Nevada Barr or CJ Box?” I explained by affinity for Craig Johnson’s series because I’d visited with the author a couple of times at conferences but admitted that I don’t really go in for series novels too frequently. “They often seem to become formulaic,” we agreed. The chat lasted until Michael appeared, wiping his hands on a shop towel. Neither she nor I had turned any pages. She looked at him and then tipped her head in my direction. “Honey. We’ve got a reader here.”
On a subsequent visit, I had just finished Richard Flannagan’s brutal and brooding World War II Mann Booker masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North. We talked about it and I mentioned my desire to read two categories of books: the stuff I avoided in high school and books that were considered for international awards like the Mann Booker. “I need to up my game,” I said, “if I’m ever gonna die literate.”
She held up The Great Gatsby, saying, “I’ve read this twice before, once in high school when I had no idea what I was reading about…”
“You sound like me,” I said.
“Actually, I sound like you and Mike.”
Over the course of the next three years, I looked forward to my visits with Susan always thinking that an oil change place is just about the last place I could go to talk about books and be challenged to read something more or better or, at least, different.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, 2017, the Subaru was due for service. Susan wasn’t engaged in a book this time. After she checked in the car and went outside to get the vitals, I asked, “So, what do you have planned for the holidays? Something good, I hope.” Susan smiled. “The holidays are going to be a bit different this year,” she said. “On Halloween night, Michael came in, said he wasn’t feeling well and left me to handle the trick or treaters. He passed away before I came to bed that night. Heart attack, they said. Massive.”
How could this not leave me speechless?
Knitting her fingers, she added, “I’m working on convincing myself that there was nothing I could have done.” Then she brightened just a bit. “What book do you have there?”
The business went on the market within months, but it took well over a year for the place to sell. I had the good fortune of dropping in a few more times to sit and read; and it wasn’t until perhaps my third visit that I found Susan with a book in front of her again: Flannigan’s Narrow Road. “Damn,” I said, “That’s really dark.”
Susan chuckled. “No, I know dark. This,” she said waving the book my way, “is simply perspective.”
Susan, the Oil Change Lady, has moved to Texas to be closer to family. A nice young couple took over the operation a few months back with a late-teen daughter ably running the front counter. And although the new crew changes the oil or swaps out a battery or inspects the brakes just as well as the former owners, I no longer pack a book with me to read while I wait. Rather, I head back home on foot often thinking of books and talking about books and how the woman who cuts my hair, my dental hygienist, the wait person at the local sushi place – each who likes to talk, by the way – never bites when I dangle something about a book as a conversation starter. I wonder if they read and if they read, how much they read and if they don’t, where do they find their important ideas – the stuff that touches their inner self – provides them with some perspective?
Does it really matter? After all, it’s really none of my business.
These things cross my mind while I'm walking home from the oil change place along with how much I miss chatting with the Oil Change Lady.
Church of the Open Road Press