Horribly True Tales from the Drunken Trucker

Often horribly true things happen to me. Often they are funny, but only in retrospect. These are but some of those tales.

The Talkin’ Christmas Cracker Dog, Cheap New Oven, Erma Bombeck Blues

On our way out of town for Christmas with the in-laws, we stopped to buy a stove and nearly had to kill our dog.

Let me back up.

We’ve been in the market for a new stove since nearly the day we moved into the new house. It’s not that our existing stove is malfunctioning entirely, but it is very ugly and about 20 years old and has burners that are a bit cockeyed. The oven itself only about half works and pretty much ruined our wildly expensive-to-make holiday cheesecake. This, and a very cheap deal we found on a new GE stove at Sears, prompted us to finally commit to a new stove as a family Christmas gift to ourselves.

The particular stove we found was a floor model that had been marked down $300 for closeout before we arrived, but which a floor manager told us was actually $300 cheaper than the listed cheap price because it was overdue to be marked down yet again. We wanted to measure our existing space to make sure it would fit, so the manager gave us a markdown guarantee slip, said he wouldn’t make the markdown until Friday and told us they would open again at 7 a.m. on that day. The wife, who worked for years as a retail manager, asked if he would get a commission. He said he was salaried, but recommended we see one of his sales people called Pam, who he said would be there on Friday. Super.

On Friday morning at 7 a.m., we left the house with a car packed for our road trip to the in-laws, including Sadie dog, who snoozed on her pillow in the back of the Element. Our plan was to hit the mall, buy the stove, arrange for delivery the following week, hit Biscuit World and then hit the road.

We parked in the lot outside of Sears. Before I had even unfastened my seatbelt, the wife opened her door and had started to get out when I saw Sadie barrel between the front bucket seats from the back of the car and make a break for the semi-blocked door.

“Watchoutwatchoutwatchoutwatchout!” I screamed. The wife, not realizing which side of her Sadie was coming from, turned the wrong way and let the dog slip out behind her.  I lunged to grab for a dog leg, but my seatbelt caught me and Sadie was out the door and free. This was one of my worst nightmares as far as the dog was concerned. If she gets loose at the house, it’s no big deal. We’re out in the woods, what’s she really gonna hurt? In an open parking lot, with plenty of space to run away from us and other vehicles driving around, it’s another matter.

We tried to stay calm, in the hope we could get her back in the car with little fuss. Sadie knew better, though, and was off to the races in her usual game of keepaway from us.  She went full on cracker dog, dashing through the parking lot, gleefully grinning as we chased her to and fro.  This went on for some minutes. Making matters worse, the weather–which, back at the house, had been a little cool but nothing a hoody couldn’t handle–suddenly turned misty, rainy and very cold.

The wife then had the idea of busting out the Pupperonis in an effort to lure her back, since Sadie cannot resist their siren call.  This effort had very mixed results, though.  We tore off bits of Pupperoni and dropped them on the ground to lure Sadie into grabbing range, but she was far faster than we were and snatched them up and vanished before we could even lunge.

After a close call when we nearly were able to grab her tail, I said, “Toss one in between us,” hoping this would let at least one of us have a chance to get her. The coconut *KLONK* sound our heads made as they collided when we both lunged at the same time was no doubt comical. Even we had to laugh, through the pain.

All further attempts at Pupperoni luring were futile. Sadie didn’t care and, furthermore, decided to run very far away from us to head off temptation.

“Dammit, Sadie, you get back here!” I screamed.

“She’d not going to come to you screaming,” the wife hissed at me.

Other early morning shoppers arrived, some of whom saw us bonk heads. Sadie noticed them and rushed toward them, barking furiously.

“No, Sadie, NO! You stop that RIGHT NOW!” the wife screamed.

Mostly the arriving customers ignored her. One little old man, however, asked, “Is it going to bite me?” as Sadie followed him toward the mall, practically snarling.

“No, she’s harmless. Just loud,” we shouted, as she continued to chase him at slow speed.  Great, now we were menacing the elderly.

Sadie thwarted us at every turn, running close and then dashing away, loving every second of it.  What a great game! 

Determined to outsmart her, we decided to use the geography to our advantage, moving ourselves closer to the mall so that we at least had the exterior wall to serve as a corral.  For a second, we almost had her cornered in some shrubbery, but she zipped between us and was gone again. The shrubs were near one of Sears’ lesser entrances, however, and this gave the wife an idea.

As with most mall store exterior entrances, Sears had a glass box breezeway with two sets of double doors to go through.  The wife opened the outer set and gestured for Sadie to go in. The dog started to, then paused, thought about it, and was gone again. 

“Come on,” I said in what I hoped was a cheerful tone, stepping through the doors myself. The wife followed and we closed the outer doors behind us.  No doubt fearing she was about to be left, Sadie ran over and nosed at the door until we opened it for her.  In she went and was trapped.  I pulled the leash from my pocket, managed to keep from strangling the dog with it and we returned her to the car and went back in for our oven.

Our adventure of annoyance, however, was only just beginning.

Just as we were hoping, the oven we had been looking at was still on the floor and, true to the floor manager’s word, had not been marked down. After a few minutes of final discussion, we started to look around for a salesperson. After a short search, we found the lone salesperson for Appliances. At first glance, she appeared to be busy helping two other customers, so my wife stood by to wait her turn while I continued to browse around. However, from what I could soon hear of the saleslady’s conversation with the man and wife customers, she wasn’t so much helping them with any sales or product-related business as having a long chat with them. Her tone and manner suggested she was familiar with the couple, possibly even friends with them. And from what I gathered over the course of the five minutes that followed, the gentleman customer had recently taken a job driving a school bus, for the saleslady was telling him horror stories of a time when she had done so as well.

“They told me `you just have to feel for the road,'” she said, regarding driving in thick snow, up treacherous, narrow, one-lane mountain roads.

Her anecdote continued as minutes crawled by and I knew that as annoyed as I was starting to get listening to it from afar, my wife was probably about to snatch someone bald-headed from her position within eyesight of the storyteller. I went over to help feel her pain and add to our collective waiting presence. Didn’t help. While the saleslady did in fact glance in our direction and could see that we were waiting to be helped, she went right on with her story, perhaps as though we had heard a snip of what she was saying and were interested enough to come join the audience.

Now, I’m not saying her story wasn’t interesting and I understand the need for a salesperson to be personable with customers in a department full of large ticket items she would presumably earn a commission in the sale thereof. However, to spend the amount of time she was spending on a non-sales related conversation while other potential customers were standing impatiently nearby was inappropriate to say the least.

Seeing no end in sight, we left the aisle and went to look for another salesperson who might like our business. At 7:30 in the morning, even on After Christmas Black Friday, though, they seemed thin on the ground. So we took our little price slip to the Lawn & Garden dept and tried to seek help there. Lawn & Garden, who had what appeared to be four employees on hand, literally sitting in chairs, said they were forbidden from checking out materials from the appliance side. They suggested we return to Appliances and wait for the saleslady. This we did, resuming our place in line at storytelling central.

The saleslady looked up at us momentarily, but again didn’t pause her narrative concerning the kind of guard-railless roads she’d had to maneuver her child-loaded bus along. In what world does it make any sense for her to be spending this much time ignoring customers? I thought perhaps she was just passing the time waiting for some vital piece of information to be delivered regarding a pending sale with the couple at hand. Nope. Dude had a bag and a receipt already. Even if he hadn’t, though, she could have at least told us what the situation was.

My ire grew hotter. Adding to this, I was still pissed off about the dog and knew things wouldn’t be pretty if I got into it with the saleslady. But I also didn’t want to raise hell with someone who could potentially derail our $600 savings. (Plus, if anyone was going to show their ass, I knew it should be the wife, who is always cool and scalpel sharp when in such confrontations.) Passive-aggressive soul that I am, I returned to the Lawn & Garden desk.

“Excuse me, but is there anyone else in Appliances that can help us?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry,” Lawn & Garden said. “Is there no one over there?”

“No, the saleslady’s over there, but is telling some other customers a very long story that doesn’t involve Sears.”

“Well, what did she say to you?”

“Nothing. She’s not paying us any attention and we’ve been standing right in front of her for ten minutes,” I said.

Lawn & Garden phoned a manager. The Appliances lady was still telling her story when the manager arrived, more minutes later. We didn’t mention the trouble to the manager, but directed her to the stove we wanted. We gave her our little price-drop slip and explained we were told to ask for Pam.

“Pam’s not here yet,” the manager said. Ah, good. At least Pam wasn’t the storyteller.

The manager efficiently led us to a register and began ringing up our sale. A little way into the process, there came a question about whether or not we needed a power cable for our new stove. We were pretty sure we did, but the manager said she needed to go over and ask “Erma Bombeck” to be sure. She walked across the aisle, interrupted the ongoing narrative and asked.

“Oh, yeah, they’ll need a cable,” we heard Erma say. “Tell them I’ll be right over to help them in just a second.”

I would like to note that this last sentence was uttered nearly a full eight minutes after the manager became involved, making this nearly half an hour into our quick in-out visit. At this point, we were determined that if anyone was going to get a commission on our sale, it would NOT be Erma. The manager seemed to feel the same, for she called back, “No, I’ve got it.”

After our delivery day was arranged and our transaction completed, Pam arrived.

“Oh, I wish you’d gotten here earlier,” the manager told her. She then explained to Pam that we’d been asking for her. Then, with a gleam in her eye, the manager told Pam to void out our completed sale and ring us up again, allowing Pam to get the commission. As determined to get out as we had been, we told them, yes, please, do ring us up under Pam’s name, cause we wanted there to be no change that Erma would get the commission by default, being the only salesperson on duty. Turns out the manager had rung up our sale under her own name. While she was explaining this to us, Erma stepped over. Everyone got silent for a second, which I guess must have made Erma suspicious, because she began looking over Pam’s shoulder as she went back through the process of ringing us up. The manager saw this and told Erma point blank that Pam was taking care of us. Erma continued to lurk, though, even after the manager left the area. While she was lurking, a male customer walked up to Erma and asked her if someone was supposed to be at the register in Sporting Goods, because he had something to check out and no one was there. I didn’t hear what Erma told him, but I suspect it was something along the lines of “I’ll be with you in a minute,” because she didn’t move an inch and he continued to stand there and wait while she continued to lurk.

“I’m taking care of them,” Pam told her firmly. Erma still didn’t move, so Pam added, “They asked for me.”

“Oh,” Erma said in a put-off tone. At last she turned to help her customer.

By the time we had received our receipt and were on our way out, Erma was back to chatting with someone else. I had to suppress the urge to give her the bird. 

Should have just sicced the dog on her. 

The Talkin’ Mystery Poo, Ghost Pirate Plastic Footsteps of Doom Blues (a Home Improvement Horribly True Tale)

At 3 a.m., Monday morning, I was awakened by a whimper from our dog Sadie. It was the usual whimper she gives off when she has to “go potty” and isn’t going to be able to go back to sleep until she does. I waited and tried to snooze, hoping I was wrong.

Moments later, my peace was disturbed again, this time by a cold dog nose thrust into my face from the side of the bed, followed by another plaintive whimper.

“Whadayuwant?” I said.

*whine*

“Youhavtagopotty?”

*WHINE!*

I got up, put on my robe and slippers and went out to water the dog. Our cat, Avie, heard us and got up to see what we were doing—cause damn if the dog gets to go outside and she doesn’t. Turned out she was hungry, so I fed her and gave Sadie a dog cookie to keep her quiet and then tried to get everyone back to bed before this hour-of-the-wolf trek turned into a fit of insomnia for me.

About half an hour later I was lying in bed still pretty much awake, but I could feel myself drifting toward slumber. Then I heard something that caused my eyes to pop open and my ears to perk up. Elsewhere in the house, I heard the distinctive sound of plastic sheeting being disturbed. In fact, it sounded exactly like two footsteps being taken across plastic sheeting. Now, the plastic sheeting part was explainable because we still had a couple of sheets of plastic drop-cloth on the floor of the living room, left over from our weekend painting project.  The real trouble with hearing two footsteps on plastic sheeting is that my wife was asleep in bed beside me, the cat was asleep on my chest and the dog was snoring away on her giant pillow by the bed. The only other pet in the house was a fish. This meant that I’d either dreamed I’d heard footsteps on the plastic or something or someone else had made them.

Er.

I slid out of the covers and retrieved my brainin’ stick from beside the bed. At no point did it strike me as wise to wake my wife, even though I was potentially about to do battle with another human being. I went to the bedroom door and debated the merits of turning on the hall light. On the one hand, it might expose a prowler prowling in the hall; on the other, it would also blind me. Instead, I crept into the hall, through the dark and made it to the foyer. There, I reached around the corner into the living room, where the sheeting was located. Keeping the wall between me and the hanging lamp, I flipped on the light switch. There was no movement to be heard so I peeked around the corner. No one was there.

Great, so if there was a prowler, they A) were elsewhere in the house, and B) now knew I was looking for them and exactly where I was. The fortunate part of this, though, was that because of the painting project we had enough furniture scattered in obvious walkways that if they tried to escape or run to attack me they would be unable to keep from running into it, alerting me to their location. I heard nothing.

I moved through the living room and into the kitchen. No one was there.

I checked the garage door. Still locked.

I circled back into the den where I checked the back door, also locked, and returned to the foyer, where prowlers still weren’t visibly prowling and where the front door was similarly locked. Then, after searching all the other obvious places for a couple of minutes, I decided to file the whole thing away as misheard leaf noise from a deer outside, otherwise I’d never be able to return to sleep.

Around 7, I woke to find the wife up and about, readying for work.

“I heard an odd noise at 3:30,” I said.  I then told her about the plastic footsteps.

“Huh,” she said in a tone that suggested I’d provided a clue to a mystery she was working on. “Well, there is an odd poo in the hallway. Maybe we have a mouse.”

A mouse, I thought. Yeah, that made sense. It was getting close to winter, the time for all good mice to try and get indoors. Only when I finally got a look at the odd poo in question, I saw that it was far too large a poo to have come from the ass of an average mouse. No, this was a poo of a different creature and the wife and I both began to audibly hope we didn’t have a rat on our hands. The wife didn’t think there was any way for a rat to get into the house, but I pointed out it would have been easy enough for it to get into the garage on one of the many days we’d left the door open, and from there it was only a matter of sneaking in the interior door when we weren’t looking. She didn’t like this theory. We didn’t need any more troublesome furry creatures in our lives. We already had two.

“All right, kitty,” I told Avie, who was already engaged in her daily ritual of knocking important things off the table for the dog to chew up. “Time to step up to the plate.”

A little after breakfast, the cat and dog tired of their games and thankfully both went to sleep. So I crept out of the den and toward the office to check email.

As I entered our freshly-painted hallway, I spied, seated in the middle of the hallway, the creator of the aforementioned poo and knew that it had also definitely been the source of the noise on the plastic sheeting.

It was not a rat.

It was not a mouse.

It was, instead, a frog.

When I saw it, I laughed out loud, then caught myself, lest I wake the animals and cause a frog-stomping stampede. I scooped him into a coffee cup and then deposited him in the flower bed out back, near a gap where he could hide under the deck and bed down for the winter.

Yep, a frog hopping through the living room could conceivably have made two leaps across the plastic at about the rate footsteps would take. Still not sure how a frog got into the house.

Maybe the rats let him in.

 

Copyright © 2008 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Quests for Rings that Would Give Tolkien the Willies Blues (a Funny Dog Poop Story)

While talking to my sister on the phone, one night, I happened to look down and see my dog Sadie chewing on something silver. On closer inspection, it was one part of the wife’s wedding set: the engagement ring part, i.e. the diamond-encrusted valuable part. I snatched it off the floor before Sadie could devour it. I then saw that the other part of the set was perched on the edge of the coffee table, right at Sadie-mouth-level.

Aw, crap, I thought. Here we go.

Now that Sadie has grown larger, we’re finding we have to police new territory to keep her from eating things we would rather her not eat. She’s mostly given up on chewing up our shoes, which is good, but still finds socks, fabric softener sheets, snotty tissue paper and the contents of cat boxes to be tasty treats. My fear was that if she had decided metal rings were great to eat, we’d be in trouble, because the wife is forever taking her rings off.

I brought the wedding set to the wife and told her what had nearly happened. We laughed and joked about how it would have been unfortunate to have to wait around for Sadie to crap them out and the wife put them on her hand and said she’d be more careful in the future.

The following morning, a Saturday, shortly after breakfast, the wife announced she couldn’t find her wedding set. She swore she’d put them on that morning, having taken them off before bed the night before because they didn’t fit well and she suspected the msg-laden Chinese food we’d eaten the night before might be the culprit behind her swelling finger. But now the rings were definitely not on said finger, so a searchin’ we did go.

The logical place for them to be was in the kitchen, where the wife had cleaned the fish’s bowl earlier that morning. Not there.

We tried the messy breakfast nook table, piled high with papers in need of sorting. Nada.

We tried the coffee table, which was equally piled with papers and mail, but it wasn’t there either.

Bedside table–nope.

My office desk–nah.

Bathrooms–noperino.

The kitchen again–still not there.

The tables again–nerrrrrr.

After nearly half an hour of searching, we both stopped and stared at the dog. She looked innocent enough, but who could really tell?

“You don’t think…” the wife began.

“Maybe,” I said. I then proposed a scenario. During the previous night, we had been awakened by the sound of the wife’s alarm clock falling to the floor, having been pulled off of the bedside table by Sadie who had become tangled in its cord as she slept. My thought was that the wife’s rings had also been on the table and could have been pulled off by the clock and potentially gobbled up later at Sadie’s leisure. This theory spat in the face of the wife’s claim that she remembered putting them on again in the morning, but it wasn’t beyond reason that she was mistaken in this memory. We dashed to the bedroom to check again, but found no rings on the floor nor under the bed.

With no other obvious location for the rings, we began to monitor Sadie’s “big potty” sessions and poke through them with sticks to check for rings. We knew it was probably too soon for them to have made it through her system, but we had to check to be sure. It turned out to be a lot of work, too, cause that dog is a dogpoop manufacturing plant running at peak efficiency. The following day we were starting to run out of sticks and I began to regret having recently hurled all the ones from the yard into the woods.

Monday evening, at dinner time, the wife and I sat down to have a meal and took our places on the sofa as usual. (Hey, we can’t exactly eat at the breakfast nook table with it being glutted with papers, and all.) As I was reaching out to shuffle some mail out of the way so I’d have a place to set my drink, I heard a metallic clink and from between two pieces of mail slid the wife’s rings. I gasped, snatched them up and passed them over to her.

“Where were they?” she asked.

“Right there,” I said, pointing to the exact place where Sadie had nearly devoured them two nights before. Neither of us can figure out how we missed them in our multiple searches, unless we each just assumed that they wouldn’t have been left there in that spot in the first place because the wife said she would never leave them there again.

We asked the dog’s forgiveness for suspecting her. After a Pupperoni or two, she granted it.

 

Copyright © 2008 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Mole Hole, Dish Network Herpatologist, Ringing a Neck Blues (a Snakey Horribly True Tale)

Shortly after we moved into our new house, near Princeton, W.Va., the Dish Network guy came by to install his product.  While he was running wires from the inconveniently placed dish behind our house, to the house, he suggested that our flower beds might have something of a snake infestation due to the number of holes he’d noticed in them.

“I prefer to think of them as mole holes,” I replied.

“Yeah, probably mole holes,” he corrected.

I thought about this for a moment. “Incidentally,” I began, “if there were to be snakes about, what sort of snakes might they be in this area?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. Green snakes, copperheads, rattlesnakes…”

“Ah,” I said.

“The rattlesnakes will let you know where they are,” Dish guy said. “It’s the copperheads you have to worry about. They’ll bite you just to laugh at you.”

“Ah,” I said. “And what do they look like?”

“Well, they’re copper colored. Real similar in color to all these leaves,” and then he pointed to the great heap of leaves our home’s previous owners did not see fit to rake from the flower beds back when it was cold enough that you wouldn’t have to worry about deadly poisonous serpents lurking in them. Then he added, “Which is where they like to hide.”

“Ah,” I said.

And where do you think our dog Sadie likes to poop the most? Yes, sir, the flower beds. Even more horrifying, the flower beds pretty much surround the entire back deck portion of the house.

Have I mentioned that my wife Ashley is deathly afraid of snakes? Oh, she’s deathly afraid all right.  Sure, under controlled conditions, such as a snake in a cage or a known non-venomous pet snake held by someone else, several feet away, she’s okay with them; it’s the unidentified snakes in the wild she’s none too thrilled with. This is understandable, really, as she grew up in Alaska where they don’t have any snakes. She therefore has no idea of the usual snake etiquette the rest of us take for granted (or, at least, the rest of us who grew up in snake-infested south Mississippi) and would actually prefer fighting a bear.

Back in the fall, having just finished planting some new perennials in the flowerbed by the garage, Ashley called me over to see her work. Just as I arrived, she stooped down to move the garden hose and then yelped and jumped back.

“There’s a snake!”

Sure enough, slithering along the seam where the flowerbed meets the house was a small grayish snake with a white band around his neck. I didn’t know what kind it was, but it was not a copperhead and not a rattlesnake and was kind of cute, so I reached down to see if I could grab the tip of its tail.

“Don’t pick it up!” Ashley screamed.

Huh, I thought. That hadn’t occurred to me. Probably a good idea. I pulled my hand back and a moment later, the snake slithered around the corner of the house and then down behind the drain pipe and out of sight beneath the low boardwalk leading to the back deck.

“Oh, no!” Ashley said. “He canNOT live under there!”

“I don’t see that we have a choice in the matter,” I said. “We can’t exactly get him out.” Well, we could, but it would require destroying the boardwalk to do so. “I tried to catch him, but you said not to,” I added.

“I didn’t tell you not to catch him. I said `don’t pick it up.’ “

“And I didn’t,” I said.  “Besides, he’s harmless. He’s probably just some sort of little garden snake.”

The wife was less than thrilled by this assumption. “I should have sprayed him in the face with the hose and when he was distracted I could have killed him,” she said.

“And then we’ll look him up online and it will say: Little gray snake with a ring around his neck—harmless, friend to all human beings, will give you five dollars, very bad luck to kill.’

“I’ll show him bad luck.”

We left the matter there, but I could tell our little snaky friend did not leave Ashley’s thoughts. In fact, I took no small pleasure in playing snaky pranks on her throughout the rest of the day.

While loading up the last twigs from what had been an enormous pile of sticks I’ve been assembling over the past few months, composed entirely of ones I pulled from the yard, I spotted a large earthworm wiggling on the pavement.

“Oh, look, a snake,” I said calmly. Ashley looked, yelped again and clutched at her heart, Fred Sanford-style. Then she hit me really hard in the shoulder. I had to admit, I deserved it, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to play with fate.

Later, after she had wondered aloud whether or not the snake could get into our garage, I pointed out that it would actually have little difficulty getting into the house, what with the back screen door being cracked open like it was, and all. I was out of reach for that one, but I know she wanted to belt me again. I assured her that snakes don’t like people and avoid them at all costs, so they’d not be real likely to want to get into the house.

Just to further ease her mind, I went and looked up our snaky friend by his description. I’m pretty sure it was a ring-necked snake. If so, the snake we saw was not far from being an adult, at less than a foot in length.

“And he’s not poisonous,” I said.

“Venomous,” she corrected. “Venomous.”

 

Copyright © 1997-2008 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ No Distant Networks, Phoning up India, Won’t be a Problem, Fighting with The Man, DIRECTV SUCKS ASS, Pooping an Angry Monkey Blues (a cautionary Horribly True Tale)

Back in early December, I was flipping through TV channels one night, decided to see what was on NBC and discovered that NBC was no longer there. Neither were FOX or CBS, though, oddly, ABC was still present. We have, or rather had, or rather will have again (though I’m getting ahead of myself) DISH NETWORK.

“Oh, you didn’t know about the lawsuit?” my wife Ashley said.

“What Lawsuit?” I said.

She explained that there had been a lawsuit against DISH NETWORK by television stations that were fed up with them giving away distant networks (i.e. network satellite feeds from stations in New York, Chicago or the West Coast in place of local network affiliates). DISH NETWORK was, according to the plaintiffs, just giving those distant networks away to anybody who asked for them regardless of whether or not those people were capable of receiving local affiliate broadcast signals. DISH lost the case, so they had to take all the Distant Networks away from their customers, (except for ABC, apparently, which I was still receiving just fine).

Now, I understand and even sympathize with the affiliates’ case. They were being deprived of potential advertising dollars by viewers in their coverage area watching satellite feeds of stations from New York City instead of theirs. (In DISH NETWORK’s defense, many of these same affiliate stations, including the ones in my area, still haven’t bothered to comply with the Federal mandates from 2001 stating that they have to be capable of providing their signals to such satellite television services as DISH NETWORK or DIRECTV, thus ending that problem.) And I would be happy to watch their signals but for the fact that I cannot receive them on my TV despite my house being on one of the highest points in our immediate area. Not a one.

Naturally I was pissed. I don’t watch much network TV anyway, save Fox on Sunday nights and Lost on ABC, (which, again, might not have been a problem since I still had ABC), but when I want to watch some networks I don’t want to have any problems.

I went online to research the matter. I found many news articles explaining the situation. These articles almost always ended by saying that while DISH NETWORK was in the doghouse with the Feds, DIRECTV was not liable in the lawsuit, as they had always played nice with their distant network gifting. The articles, to a one, went on to say that DIRECTV was now offering those distant networks to new customers with wild abandon in an attempt to steal customers from DISH. DISH too had its own publicity campaign, suggesting we sign up with American Distant Networks, a service that could provide the networks through our existing dish, for a dollar more per channel than DISH was charging. I began to weigh my options.

Let me just say up front, until that point I had been 97 percent happy with DISH NETWORK. We had a little problem with them near the beginning, which, not coincidentally, also involved issues with our distant networks being removed after three months of service. However, after our local installation representatives phoned them up and threatened to set us up with a DIRECTV system, DISH gave back all but ABC. Since then, we’d had very few problems. We even were able to get ABC back—with a vengeance apparently—after requesting it from them multiple times. We liked the service, we liked the remote, we liked it all. The only thing that could have improved it for me was a DVR, but DISH NETWORK was only giving those away free to new subscribers and would make me pay out the nose for one should I wish to upgrade. Even without the distant networks (ABC excepted), I didn’t really want to switch to anyone else. That is, until a coworker passed me an offer from DIRECTV that seemed too good to pass up.

The offer was for a free installation of a DIRECTV system, plus a free DVR upgrade plus a free portable DVD player, a $50 sign on rebate spread across our first few bills (which my coworker would receive as well for referring us) and a $100 rebate to cover the cost of the DVR. Seemed like a good deal, particularly since DIRECTV’s website made it clear that they were handing out distant networks like party favors. So I phoned them up to get some information and make sure I could get the distant networks. The rep I spoke with assured me that there would be no problem getting the networks. According to her computer, they weren’t available in my area at all so this was a non-issue. She even offered to throw in three months of Showtime if I signed up right then. So I did. Before signing up, though, I stressed to her that I was only interested in joining DIRECT if I could definitely have the distant networks. I didn’t want to have everything installed and then be told it wasn’t a done deal. Nope, I could have them, she said. It wouldn’t be a problem. I told them to come install everything in late December.

I phoned DISH NETWORK up to tell them when to cut us off. Their phone-rep, sensing an emergency, quickly transferred me off to Crisis Customer Control, where a bright and cheery representative tried to talk me down from the ledge. She assured me that DIRECTV could, in no way, make any promises concerning distant networks as it was out of their hands in the first place. She looked up my area in her computer and said that the only distant network I was actually eligible for was Fox. (I then pointed out to her that I was technically still receiving ABC despite the court order saying I should not be, but she agreed to keep quiet about that.) I explained that I’d already signed up for DIRECTV, so it was too late. The rep asked me to wait on disconnecting from DISH until I’d had time to test out DIRECTV, and, hopefully, change my mind. She even gave me a free month of DISH service to accommodate this.

Over Christmas, I went to my sister-in-law’s house where she had a DISH NETWORK DVR. It was a thing of beauty, very smooth and quick and handy in form and function. Seeing it made me feel a little guilty for leaving DISH, but I tried to put such thoughts from my head.

Late December came and DIRECTV sent out a rep to install the system. He showed me how to use it and it was pretty impressive stuff. This system had two coax cables running to it, allowing its DVR to record one channel while we watched another. Or, to record two channels while we watched something else already stored in the DVR. You could also set it to record shows up to two weeks prior to broadcast, record an entire season’s worth of shows or search by Title, Keyword, Subject, etc.  It was supposed to be a multi-tasking entertainment wonder.

While the guy was there, I asked him about the distant networks and he put me on the phone with a DIRECTV rep who told me that they would have to put in a waiver request for me, which might take 45 days.

“Um, but my trial period with you guys only lasts seven days,” I said. “After that I’m locked into a contract.” The phone-rep assured me it would not be a problem because the networks weren’t available in my area. He was completely certain the request would go right through. Happened all the time.

After the installation guy left, I began playing with my new toy. It worked pretty good.

Mostly pretty good.

Mostly.

In function, the DIRECTV DVR worked much the same as a DISH NETWORK DVR, only inconveniently slower. Between the time I pressed a button on the remote to activate one of the DVR’s higher functions, such as the guide menu or the programs recorded listing, five seconds might pass before it actually did anything on screen. And unlike the DISH remote, which you could pretty much aim anywhere in the room and still use, the DIRECTV remote had to be aimed directly at the center of the DVR’s all-seeing blue eye or nothing would happen. Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily know something wasn’t happening until you waited five seconds. Also, unlike with DISH, the DIRECTV system wouldn’t allow us to alter the channel guide to show us only the channels we were able to receive. Their guide book said we could, and we followed the instructions to make it do this, but it didn’t work. Only after we called DIRECTV and asked them about it did they mention that they had a bug in their software that wouldn’t allow this and if we only wanted to show the channels we were subscribed to we would have to set up a favorites list in which we deleted all but the channels we wanted to show. Thanks a heap, guys.

In early January, I received a postcard from DIRECTV listing the responses to my waiver requests. I was rather surprised it came so quickly. However, of the five networks listed, only FOX and PBS granted my request. I phoned up DIRECTV and told them I was unhappy. After explaining the situation and my ire, the phone-rep (who I’m pretty sure was in Jaipur) transferred me to DIRECTV’s version of the Crisis Customer Control department, where I waited 10 minutes on hold before getting to explain the situation and ire to a new phone-rep.

The new rep looked over her screen, made appropriate “Hmms” and “huhs” and then said, “This says you were denied for the HD channels. But you don’t have an HDTV, right?”

Only then did I notice the large “HD” in the phrase “HD Broadcast Network Waiver Request Results From DIRECTV.”

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“Why would they ask for HD waivers?” she said. “We don’t even offer HD service with a DVR.”

Mystery thick in the air, she agreed to go ahead and put in an analog signal waiver request and assured me that the reason the channels were denied at all was due to their being HD channels and my lacking an HDTV. Once my channels were granted, they would immediately appear and I’d probably receive a card about it a day or two later.

Before hanging up, just for their records, I once again explained the whole reason for moving to DIRECTV and about the monkey-defecating fury which would erupt from deep within my twisted, blackened, Simpsons-deprived bowels should I be denied my channels. Again, the phone-rep assured me there wouldn’t be a problem. I had, her tone suggested, a far better chance of being devoured by zombie guinea pigs than of not receiving the distant networks. She added that if for some reason—worst-case-scenario only, mind you—I wasn’t able to get the distant networks, I could then speak with one of their customer care reps and all would be made right. What exactly this entailed wasn’t spelled out.

A day or so later—January 10, 2007, to be precise—I received another bit of mail from DIRECTV. This time is was my coupon good for the free portable DVD player I was to receive as a signing bonus. All I had to do was fill out the form, include a copy of my first bill with it and mail it in. At the very bottom of the form, in fine print, it stated that my filled-out form and first bill must be received with a post-mark no later than December 31, 2006. Since it was now January 10, 2007, it seemed unlikely that DIRECTV had even mailed the coupon before December 31. Within my bowels, the monkey began to stir.

I phoned DIRECTV, explained the situation three times to the first Indian man I talked to and he still didn’t seem to grasp the problem. So he transferred me to Crisis Customer Control again, where I waited on hold for 15 minutes before being told by the Crisis Rep to ignore the date and send it in anyway. “They’re just using an old form,” she said. Sick of dealing with them, I hung up and did not reiterate my concerns about the distant networks. I did, however notice that it was nearly time to pay my first bill. I went online to DIRECTV’s site, set up automatic payments, activated it and went ahead and told it to pay my first bill with a one time debit card payment. And since I’d paid my bill with DIRECTV, I figured it was finally time to shed myself of DISH NETWORK.

I phoned DISH up, spoke to another Indian man who listened to my request to sever service and then transferred me again to Crisis Customer Control. The CCC rep tried gamely to talk me down from the ledge; that is, until I told her, “The dish is lying in the yard. It is no longer attached to my house. The equipment is in a box.” This dashed all of her hopes and she agreed to stop service and told me that I owed them nothing.

Days passed and the February 7 resumption date for this season of Lost was swiftly approaching. The bowel-monkey began to pace and I began to frequently check the network channels for signs of activity. Only PBS contained a signal, but I already knew that as I’d begun checking all the network channels after we’d received the HD waiver card.

On February 2, mere seconds before I needed to leave the house to go to work, the mail came with a new postcard from DIRECTV announcing the waiver request results. This time they weren’t for HD networks. However, once again I was denied everything except FOX and PBS. Oddly, the monkey hardly moved at all. I just went to work and was even in a good mood for the whole day, the delicious thought of getting to tear into DIRECTV when I got home keeping me warm and toasty despite the bitter winter cold.

When I got home, I showed Ashley the card. She gleefully offered to call them for me, as she also likes nothing better than releasing some good, old-fashioned righteous indignation upon those who deserve it. She’s far better at it than me, but I declined her offer all the same, for the bowel-monkey was again becoming agitated. He became even moreso when I went to my TV and discovered that despite the postcard’s claim that I was now able to receive FOX, both distant FOX channels listed in the onscreen guide were still unavailable.

After dinner, I phoned up DIRECTV. I knew I was now far past the end of my so-called trial period and that they would raise a stink about this and try to charge me massive fees for allegedly breaking my contract with them. Frankly, though, I was of the opinion that they had broken their contract with me. Not only that, but they had wasted my time and money and I wasn’t going to stand for it. Regardless, I was determined to remain calm and collected, with the bowel-monkey held at bay until such a time as I needed him. What I heard upon being connected to DIRECTV’s phone system, though, sent the monkey bouncing off the walls of my colon in an apoplectic fit of rage. The phone system, upon determining who I was, told me that I owed them $89 for service thus far. Apparently the automatic payments I’d set up and the first debited payment I had made had not taken. Sonofa…

I told the Indian man I first spoke to that I was interested in being transferred to the Very Unhappy Customer Department, (i.e. Crisis Customer Control).

“Oh, ha, ha, hah,” the man said. “I’m very sorry you are unhappy, sir. How may I be of assistance?”

“No, really,” I said. “This is going to need to go to your customer care folks.”

“Ha, ha, hah,” the man said again. “Very sorry. How may I be of assistance, sir?”

Fine. Waste some more of my time. That’ll help you.

So I very politely and calmly explained the situation to the Indian man, the multiple times his company had assured me of the miniscule chances of my not getting distant networks, the card I had just received denying them, and my wish that they come and take their dish off of my house, haul away the DVR and depart my life. I wanted a refund of all monies paid for the equipment, save for our monthly service fees, which I thought was only fair to pay them, despite the fact that they apparently didn’t want my money as the payments I’d already attempted to make hadn’t taken. I wanted to hear nothing more from them ever again.

The Indian man asked if I minded being put on hold while he transferred me to Crisis Customer Control. Not at all.

The phone-minion in Crisis Customer Control was also very nice. She listened to my tale of woe, which I gave in far greater detail than to the Indian man, including the bit about how I was unhappy with the glacier-like slowness of the DVR and the bit about the previous and inexplicable HD network denial.

“You don’t even offer HD service with a DVR,” I said, parroting what a previous DIRECTV minion had told me.

“Oh, no, sir. We do offer HD service with DVRs. In fact, if you would like to upgrade to an HD DVR we can accommodate–”

“I don’t own an HD television, so there is no need to even discuss anything having to do with high definition at this point.”

The phone-minion apologized. She then apologized for my not having received the networks as I’d wished and offered to put in another waiver for them. This new waiver, she said, would take up to 60 days for completion.

“I’m sorry, but I no longer have any confidence in DIRECTV’s ability to secure distant networks for me. What I wish is to cancel my account.”

The phone-minion offered, instead, to put my account on pause, no monthly fees required, while they made their 60 day attempt to get my distant networks. No, I calmly said, this was also not something I was interested in. I wasn’t going to wait 60 days to learn anything more. I was, in fact, going to sign up again with their competition, DISH NETWORK, despite the fact that I know they can’t give me distant networks at all. What I wanted was to end my DIRECTV service entirely. I wanted their dish removed from my back deck, the DVR boxed up and carried away, I wanted the $99 I’d spent on the DVR refunded, and I wished to do business with them never again.

I expected to have a fight on my hands, but Phone-Minion said that if this was really what I wanted she could cancel our account. She explained that they didn’t send people out to collect the equipment, but she could send out a postage paid Recovery Kit. Fine. She also said they couldn’t refund my $99 directly, but that I was still eligible for the rebate I was already supposed to receive for it and would only have to fill out paperwork and send it in. Fine, again. We even agreed upon a date when our service would stop, thus giving me time to sign back up with DISH NETWORK.

This all seemed too easy, though. I had been expecting a fight, but the phone-minion was being remarkably helpful. Then she put me on hold to check something about the rebate and when she returned she said that everything was in order and that they would soon send out my final bill which would additionally contain a $250 early contract termination charge. With that, my previous calmness vanished and a large angry bowel-monkey ripped its way out of my ass and began tearing through the house shrieking at the top of its lungs. I, in turn, began shrieking at the phone-minion.

“Uh, no!” I said. “A $250 fee is entirely unacceptable and I want that removed from our bill right now!!!”

The phone-minion disagreed, saying that we were the ones violating the contract and would thus have to pay the fee. I loudly countered that I believed, in fact, it was DIRECTV who were violating the contract, as they had been the ones who assured me we could receive the distant networks, a condition I had told them was contingent before I’d signed up with them in the first place, and they had repeatedly continued such assurances since. The phone minion remained admirably calm, much as someone who is accustomed to being screamed at regularly might be.

“Well, sir, you’re going to have to file a written dispute if you wish to contest the fee.”

The monkey crashed into our china cabinet. Fortunately, we don’t own any china, so only our curios and knicknacks were jostled. The monkey followed up with a fistful of poop aimed at the DVR. I, however, wasn’t so sure how to handle the situation. I’d spelled out my argument to them in triplicate already, but knew they weren’t prepared to back down from their fees. It seemed to me that I could either keep yelling and disputing things and telling the story again and again, but was that really going to accomplish anything? So I told the phone-minion to hold on and turned to my goodly wife for advice.

“They say we have to dispute this in writing.”

“Let me talk to them,” Ashley said.

Brilliant!

I very nearly told the phone-minion, “Aw, shit! Now you’ve done it! HAH! You only THOUGHT you were talking to the bad cop!”

I passed my wife the phone, tagged out of the ring and then the bowel-monkey and I sat down to watch the show.

Having worked as a retail manager in the past, Ashley knows the one cardinal rule of retail customer service: no matter who you’re talking to, they always have a superior officer. (A fact I should have thought of, as I used to work in a call center, myself.) So Ashley let the phone-minion rattle on again about how we would have to dispute our claim in writing, and how many weeks it would take for DIRECTV to respond. When the girl was finished, Ashley calmly said, “No, I don’t think so. I’d like to speak to your manager.”

The minion was taken aback. “Well, he’s just going to tell you the same thing I did,” she said.

“That’s okay. I’d like to speak to your manager.”

The minion put Ashley on hold to go fetch a manager. Over the next few minutes, the minion came back on the line two or three times to let Ashley know she was still fetching the manager. Eventually, a manager came on the line.

“What was your name again?” Ashley asked him. He gave it to her. She wrote it down. And then Ashley calmly and methodically began to take him apart verbally.

I could only hear Ashley’s side of the conversation—though if I’d had any sense at all I would have snatched up the other phone in the room and listened in. All dialogue that follows, therefore, is taken from Ash’s first hand report and from what I could deduce from her half of the conversation. The thing you have to know about Ashley is that the madder she gets about something the calmer and more logical she becomes until she’s just this precision laser, slicing smoothly through any argument presented to her that she deems is wrong. As a guy who’s been on the other end of it many times, I can tell you it’s infuriating.

As seen from my and the bowel-monkey’s vantage point, Ashley launched into the story, emphasizing to the manager the various times when DIRECTV had expressed to us that we were in no danger of not receiving our distant networks. She even invited him to take a look at the call records within our account and count the number of times I had expressed concern that a situation exactly like the one we now found ourselves in would occur. The manager’s counter argument, from what I could tell, consisted of repeatedly saying that we were violating our contract with them. Ash pointed out again that it was our contention that DIRECTV was in violation of our original agreement, to which the manager then responded that, no, we were the ones in violation. After a couple rounds of this, during which I began to sense Ash’s own monkey straining to break free, the manager varied things up a bit by adding that DIRECTV had never made any promises in writing to us regarding the distant networks. They had no control over whether they were granted, or not, so there should have been no expectation on our part that we would receive them.

“Okay, so we may not have received such a guarantee spelled out on a stone tablet,” Ashley snapped, “but that doesn’t mean we weren’t repeatedly assured that we’d be able to get the channels!” At this point, I felt I ought to warn the poor man that it’s bad enough when you get her in cold, calculating, steely anger mode, but if you’ve managed to drive her through into hot, calculating, firey rage, you’re pretty much in trouble.

The manager tried to ignore what she said and returned to his contract violation argument, but Ashley wasn’t letting him get away with it. She told him in no uncertain terms that it was our belief that DIRECTV had intentionally told us what we wanted to hear on the subject of distant networks in order to get us to sign up for their service, knowing full well that by the time we heard anything definite we would be under the terms of that service. This, in her estimation, constituted extremely poor business practices, perhaps even criminally so.

“Well, you are getting FOX,” the man countered, as though this somehow made up for losing the big three.

“Uh, no, we’re not,” Ashley said.

“Yeah, you are,” the manager said.

“NO. WE. ARE. NOT,” Ashley said. While that exchange was going on, the bowel-monkey tossed me the remote and I changed the channel to one of the two listed FOX stations. I scrolled back and forth between the two of them, showcasing the “Channel Not Purchased” message displayed on both. Ashley read the displayed message for the manager’s benefit. He seemed at a loss for words about this.

“You can tell him we are getting PBS,” I said, “but we’ve been getting that for weeks.”

Ashley told him. The manager then became wildly preoccupied offering to connect our FOX for us right then and there.

“No,” Ashley said. “We don’t want you to connect FOX for us. FOX is beside the point. What we want you to do is to disconnect us entirely and waive the $250 fee. And if you’re not prepared to do that, then I need to speak to your manager.”

The manager whimpered something and put her on hold to go fetch his boss. Ashley waited on hold for several minutes, the former manager occasionally popping back on to let her know he was still waiting on his boss. Eventually, he returned to say that his boss was tied up at the moment, but, given our circumstances, had given him authorization to waive the fees. He explained that the $250 charge was automatically going to be placed on our final bill by their computer system and there was no way they could change that. However, his boss had authorized him to give us a confirmation code that, which we can phone up DIRECTV and give to them once we receive our final bill. Allegedly they will then credit us the $250 and be shed of them forever. Or so he said. Ashley wrote everything down, made sure to note the man’s name again for his benefit, thanked him for his effort and hung up.

The monkey and I applauded.

Since last Friday, the wife and I, as well as our various smelly lower primates, have been riding pretty high on our victory over The Man. Unfortunately, my deep-seated paranoia has led me to investigate the matter further and what I’ve dug up causes me concern that our ordeal may not be over.

One doesn’t have to Google very far to find a plethora of consumer complaint sites which seem to indicate that our “victory” is rather unprecedented in the grand scheming of all things DIRECTV. There are people out there with horror stories that make ours pale in comparison; people who have allegedly had their credit bludgeoned, some of whom claim to have never been a customer of DIRECTV in the first place, or people who claim that after complaining bitterly to manager after manager concerning the wrongs against them, they were eventually told “DIRECTV is not responsible for the lies told by our employees. Basically, a lot of people in need of bowel-gorillas. We’ll see.

In the meantime, we’ve signed back up for DISH NETWORK. I meekly called them up to register as a new customer, but since I’d only cancelled my account a week before they said they could just reactivate it for me with no strings attached. Mighty nice of `em. I then asked to upgrade to their version of the DVR, which I decided to lease rather than buy. This meant an 18 month commitment, which considering we’ve been with them since 2001 and also considering we’ve got 18 months left in Ash’s residency, didn’t seem like such a bad deal. Plus there were some sign on rebates and such that helped bring our monthly bill to a reasonable level. We’re still paying more for them than we have would for DIRECTV, but let me assure you, to me it would be well worth it only for the DVR.

On Tuesday, they sent a guy out to install it and we found immediately that the DISH NETWORK DVR is a sleek creature of beauty and speed. I’m still learning the ins and outs of it, but it’s already won over my wife, who hated the DIRECTV DVR with what became an abiding passion. The DISH system has the added advantage of a remote that’s set up much like our old DISH remote—not to mention it does what you tell it to do when you tell it to do it and without any lip and does so no matter where in the room you point it. (There are actually some features of the DIRECTV DVR that I think could stand to be incorporated into the DISH one, such as the four colorful modular-function buttons, but frankly I’ll take speed over elegance in this case.)

We’re even going to try and pick up some distant networks through an outfit called All American Direct, which has already said we’re eligible for FOX. My guess is that they too won’t be able to get us the other distant networks either, but I’ve already put in my waiver request. The guy who installed the system said the local stations are now supposed to be available on DISH by 2008. In the meantime, he said he had no problem getting all of his own networks through American Direct. Of course, we’ve heard that before, but the bottom line is, this time we’re not putting any stock in it. If it happens, great. If not, we’ll somehow survive with online Lost webisodes.

So, is the moral of this story DISH NETWORK good, DIRECTV bad? Well, DIRECTV is certainly bad, but I somehow doubt I’d have to look very hard to find similar horror stories about DISH. They’re very similar companies, after all and it stands to reason that they’ve engaged in similar business practices to try and stay ahead of the other guy. At this point, though, I prefer not to do such research. I prefer to hold onto the potential illusion that they’re a swell bunch of folks who always have my back. That’s how they’ve successfully portrayed themselves to us over the course of our five plus years of service with them. If they’re not good, they’re doing a darn good job of disguising it for us. Your mileage may vary.

EPILOGUE 1

If you recall from the DirecTV saga in February, we told DirecTV off, assuring them that we had no intentions of remaining with their service, nor of paying their $258 cancellation fee, due to the fact that they mislead us on numerous occasions by, essentially, promising us that we could have distant networks when it turned out we couldn’t. At that point, after nearly 40 minutes of holding and waiting and speaking to managers and then the manager of the managers and then requesting to speak to the manager of the manager of the managers, the 2nd manager of managers we were talking to finally relented and said he’d been authorized to give us a confirmation number that would allow us to get out of paying the cancellation fee. The trick, he explained, was that we had to wait for our final bill to arrive with the $258 fee on it, then phone them up with the number and they would credit us the $258.

Three weeks back, we received said bill, phoned DirecTV up and completely expected them to tell us the guy we’d spoken with before had been talking out of his ass. (There are lots of examples of this very sort of thing floating about the net.) They did not, however. Instead, after nearly 20 minutes of waiting on hold between their phone rep in India and the Crisis Customer Counselor he’d rolled our particular ball of dung to, the CCCounselor came on the line and told us our account had been sent to their credit-claims department and it should no longer be a problem for us. We’d heard that before too, so our skepticism remained strong.

We’ve now received a notice from DirecTV saying that they had credited our account $275 and we owed them nothing. In fact, because they’d only billed us $258.68 for the cancellation fee in the first place, we have a $16.32 credit with them, which means they now owe us money. They owe us an apology too, but I think we’ll get the $16.32 sooner.

EPILOGUE 2

I received another piece of mail from the evil and ass-sucking DirecTV; this, after having been assured by a previous piece of mail that I was finally finished with them for good.

This new bit of mail contained a note that read:

Dear Mr. Fritzius,

We regret that you recently cancelled your DIRECTV service. We hope you enjoyed the diverse programming DIRECTV offers and that you consider DIRECTV in the future for your home entertaining needs.

Our records indicate that we have sent you a final bill for $258.68, but have not yet received payment. It is important that we receive payment in full in order to clear your account. Please be aware that you may be billed additional charges if the commitment term was not completed. If there is an unresolved issue you would like to discuss, or to make an immediate payment, please contact our customer service department and a customer service representative will be happy to help you.

The note went on to list the many convenient ways I could send money to them and ended with a sentence reading, “If you have already made the payment, please disregard this letter,” and was signed by a manager in their collections department.

I immediately phoned DirecTV up and asked them what, if anything, their computers claimed I still owed them. The operator I spoke with (who did not sound as though she were located in Delhi, though she did sound very guarded, as if ready for a fight—indicating that my account has likely been flagged as “problem customer”), said that her computer showed that I owed them nothing and that I actually had $16.32 in credit.

Now, I hope that this note from the collections department was something automatically generated and sent out, perhaps around the same time that the previous note was sent. My suspicion, however, is that I’m looking at the opening volleys in a war between DirecTV’s collections department and their credit claims department. If so, I’m the poor asshole caught in the crossfire.

While I had Miss Phone Rep on the line, I did inquire as to whether or not DirecTV would actually be paying me the $16.32 they say they owe me, or if I should just forget it? She said that as I am no longer technically a customer, and therefore cannot receive credit on my next bill, they would be issuing me a check within the next 4 to 6 weeks.

We’ll see.

EPILOGUE 3

It’s been over two months since my last bit of dealing with the vile and ass-sucking entity known as DirecTV. It’s been blissful. In fact, I continue to have nothing but high praise for Dish Network, despite the fact that I am still without distant networks, except for Fox. If I must be without distant networks, I’d much rather be without them with Dish Network than with the sphincter remora that is DirecTV. But I digress…

Last I heard from them, they still owed me $16.32, the difference between the amount they originally said we owed them for our early disconnection and the amount they eventually wound up crediting us in order to cover the original claim against us.

In the intervening days, we’ve faithfully received a bill each month displaying that credit of $16.32.

Today, we finally received a check in the mail for the amount of $16.32. I will, of course, be cashing it and hoping against hope that it is the final piece of mail, junk or otherwise, I ever receive from that company.

I’m an optimistic soul, no?

 

Copyright © 2006 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Mount Childless Wonder, Mama’s Little baby Loves Ziggurats, Emergency Baby-Sitting the Borg Blues

After a particularly harsh day at my “liberry” workplace, I began complaining to my wife Ashley about the limited parenting skills of some of our patrons and how many were perfectly willing to allow their children to run wild and destructive throughout public places.  It’s not a new complaint from me, I’m afraid, and I must admit that it was made from my safe and comfy perch atop Mount Childless Wonder.  Evidently, the gods of irony were paying attention, however and decided to give me a little taste of how parenthood might play out.

The following Friday, I wasn’t scheduled to go in to work at all, so I was tidying up a few things around Chez Fritzius when the phone rang. It was our friend Beth from med-school. Beth said that her husband Will’s father had been rushed to a regional hospital with chest pains and it looked as if he was having more heart issues. The man’s been in and out of the hospital for such heart issues throughout the past year, but it was looking pretty serious this time. Beth and Will were going to head over. Could we babysit?

Now when I heard this, I immediately said “Sure,” cause it’s Beth doing the asking, plus Ash and I really love her baby, Ashley Nicole, (here on to be referred to as The Baby, so as not to get too confusing with namesake issues). I also figured that she’d be bringing The Baby over sometime that evening when my Ashley was around to know what to do with her.

“Thanks. I’ll be over with her in an hour or so,” Beth said. There was a bit more to it than that, of course, involving calls made to my Ashley to let her know what was on the way, but that’s the gist. Ashley alerted me to the fact that she wasn’t getting off from work til close to 5, so this meant it would be me and the baby all by ourselves for most of the day. Actually, she eased me into this revelation by first scaring the hell out of me.

ASHLEY: So you think you’ll be okay with her for the afternoon?

ME: Sure.

ASHLEY: What about when I’m on call tonight?

ME: Do what? You’re on call tonight?

ASHLEY: Yeah.

ME: You’re shitting me.

ASHLEY: Nope.

ME: I knew you were on call on Sunday night, but not tonight.

ASHLEY: I had to trade.

ME: You’re shitting me.

ASHLEY: Nope.

(Long pause.)

ME: You’re shitting me?

ASHLEY: Yeah.

Suddenly four and a half hours with the kid didn’t seem so bad.

To make matters worse, this was Beth’s first time to be apart from her kid for more than a couple of hours since they left the hospital nine months ago. Now, here she was leaving her kid in the care of a terrified sweathog in a stuffy, vaguely cat-hair infested house. But as they brought The Baby in, she gave me a huge grin and laughed and I somehow felt a little better about what I’d gotten myself into.

Beth and Will hauled in a foldable crib that transformed into a changing table, an activity saucer, a car seat, a stroller and bags and bags of toys, diapers, food, water, bottles, etc. Then Beth began rattling off instructions at me as to feeding times, proper Enfamil mixing ratios, how often the baby could have fruit-juice, nap schedules, Orajel application times, mood swings and a host of other informational tidbits that I failed to write down in their entirety. It was all just a blur. And within minutes, they’d departed, leaving me standing in my kitchen holding this 19 pound human, with whom I was not entirely sure what to do.

So, The Baby and I sat around on the couch for a bit, her smiling and laughing at me while I said things to her like, “Who’s a pretty girl?” and “I’m gonna get your piggies!” and “I have no clue what to do with you at all,” in soothing babytalk. After a while, this got old for me, so I looked around for something else to do. I spied her Baby Einstein baby-seat activity saucer–a big two-tiered, doughnut-shaped contraption the upper surface of which is lined with toys and various noise and light-making devices to entertain the baby as she sits in the middle of the doughnut and can rotate 360 degrees to reach all the stuff. So I stuck her in that. It seemed to work okay, as she happily began banging the crap out of all the toys in front of her, laughing away.

Baby happy, I tried to go to the kitchen for something to drink. The Baby immediately freaked out and began screaming at the top of her lungs. I dashed back and she got quiet and happy again. I took a step toward the kitchen and more screaming began. Step back and happy smiles. I then saw that so as long as I was within both eyesight and close proximity to The Baby, she remained happy. And I remained thirsty. This, of course, only lasted a few minutes, before she decided she’d had enough of the saucer and no amount of proximity or happy baby talk would calm her down. So I had to lift her out of it and sit on the couch while holding her to keep her quiet.

I then tried to find something on television that would be age appropriate. Instead of something good, though, I found the Doodlebops, perhaps the gayest kids’ show ever. (And when I say “gayest” I don’t mean it in a “Right Wing, All Homosexuals are Evil and Therefore so is this Show” kind of way. Cause, that’s not my perspective. I meant “gayest” in more of a “Violent Prison Rape in a Cell Block Designed by Rejects from the Set & Costuming Department of Cirque Du Soleil, with a 1960’s-Yellow-Submarine-Fab-Clown Fetish, and Cojo gets to watch,” kind of way. Go look at their website and tell me I’m wrong.)

After 10 minutes of that unwatchable crap, which The Baby wisely paid no attention to whatsoever, I was forced to change the channel to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was in the middle of Best of Both Worlds Part I. Sweet! Now that’s some Borg action for your ass!

The Baby only let me watch a few minutes of this, though, before she began getting restless and started warming up her voice for another good bout of screaming. So I jumped up and walked around the house with her. I walked into the kitchen with her. I walked back into the living room with her. I walked her to the window to look out at the lack of hillbillies working on the house. I walked her back to the kitchen and got myself something to drink, which is what I remembered I’d wanted a while ago. Eventually, she began to get heavy, so I walked her back to the couch and bounced her on my knee singing “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread,” only I don’t know any lyrics beyond the chorus so I began making some up involving Mama’s Little Baby’s Love of Ziggurats. (I have no idea where this came from, but apparently mama’s little baby really enjoyed Babylonian terraced pyramids.)

This singing and bouncing only worked for a few minutes before the baby decided she wasn’t having any more of it and began to kick and cry again. That’s when I realized what I was dealing with, here: this Baby was a Borg. Sure, I could get through her defenses for a bit, but soon she would adapt and her shields would return to full strength and she’d once again begin carving me up with her vicious sonic beams. I would have to continuously come up with new and more creative material if I was to stay ahead of the destruciton.

Then it hit me: a bottle! Beth had said something about the baby perhaps needing a bottle this afternoon. So I stuck her back in the saucer and ran to the kitchen to prepare one. Beth had already thoughtfull filled empty bottles with distilled water, so all I had to do was scoop in some carefully measured Enfamil while the baby raged. One dash back to the living room, one baby scooped out of the saucer and onto the couch, one bottle crammed in baby’s mouth and I had silence once more. For ten whole minutes. Then she finished the bottle and it was time for more squalling.

Pretty soon, the phone rang. It was Ashley calling to see how I was doing.

“When will you be home?” I whined.

“Not til 4:30 or 5. Why? Is everything okay?”

I told her about my Borg theory. She didn’t buy it.

“Just put her down on a blanket on the floor with her toys. I’ve seen her do it at Beth’s all the time. She’ll play there for hours.”

More screaming as I ran for a blanket, more as I spread it on our floor and dumped her bag of toys on it. She shut up for all of five seconds as I put her on the blanket, then opened up with more. So I began picking up her toys and giving them voices, entertaining her with a clumsy puppet show. It worked pretty well. She even seemed to like it when I made Eeyore scream in pain as she bit into his head. By the time this wore off, Data and Worf had rescued Captain Picard from the Borg vessel and I was wishing someone would rescue me.

Then a miraculous thing happened. When the Baby began screaming again, I didn’t know what else to do other than pick her up and rock her gently back and forth. After only a couple minutes, her screams turned to cries and then groans and then burbles and finally to little snores as she dropped off to sleep. I continued rocking until I was sure she was out, then I carefully put her on a big pillow and retreated to the kitchen where I quietly—oh, so quietly—lurked.

After 5, Ashley came home to relieve me of baby duty, though not of baby doody, as we soon came to discover. Fortunately, I’d gone through Beth’s Diaper Changing Boot Camp with this kid months ago, so even a spectacularly poopy diaper was nothing to fear.

Our weekend with The Baby, however, proceeded much as it had during the first four hours. We’d entertain the Baby, she’d get fed up with whatever we were doing and start to scream. Then we’d come up with new tricks or retry old tricks, they’d work for a bit, then fail. Or we’d discover that she was really crying because she was hungry/tired/teething/poopy/etc., we would apply fixes to said issues, they’d work for a bit, then fail again. Eventually The Baby would cry herself to sleep and we’d get an hour or so of peace during which we’d walk very very slowly and make no noise at all, terrified of waking The Baby.

I was worried about having to be up all night with this routine, for as I knew well in advance I’d be the guy to have to get up and deal with it all because my wife wants me to see just how much brutal, tiring work having a baby actually is—all so I’ll think twice next time I go cavalierly trying to impregnate her. Fortunately, though, The Baby slept through the first and second nights with only minor incidents of a midnight feeding or diaper switchout to speak of. She even slept right through a massive thunderstorm Saturday night, which was more than I could say for myself.

Bravely, we decided to take her out to lunch with us on Saturday. This involved putting her in her car-seat for the trip, which first involved figuring out how to install said car seat into my wife’s Element. Installing Baby into the seat was only slightly less difficult and involved me accidentally pinching her leg while trying to buckle the straps across her. I didn’t realize I’d done it until the Baby unleashed a scream of pain that rattled my very soul. We unbuckled her quickly and saw a small bruise already forming on her thigh.

“Aw, hell, Beth’s going to kill me,” I said. “Maybe she won’t notice.”

“She’ll notice.”

At the Mexican restaurant, The Baby feasted mightily on Mexican rice and demanded more after every spoon. But she remained well behaved so long as we were shoveling in the food. Afterward, we bravely took her with us to Wal-Mart where we had one of the most pleasant Saturday Wally World experiences ever. See usually when we’re dumb enough to head to Wal-Mart on a Saturday, we have an awful time of it because on Saturday THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD comes to Wal-Mart and it is glutted with people slowly—ever so slowly—shopping for whatever’s cheapest and least healthy, usually with 8 kids in tow. After struggling our way out of said glut, we swear and swear and swear we’ll never set foot in Wal-Mart on a Saturday again. Then a couple weeks go by and we’re back there like fools. This time, though, Wally World was only about a third as full as it usually is and we had our ambassador to The World seated in the child seat of our shopping cart. Ashley had attached a small stuffed toy on a cord to The Baby’s wrist and, as we strolled down the aisles, the Baby would flap it back and forth happily, beaming smiles at any and all who met her gaze. Our journey was accompanied by calls of “What a cute baby!” and “Oh, look at that baby!” and “Beautiful baby.” And we too beamed, like proud unofficial aunt and uncle.

At one point, we ran into some people we know from church. They did double and triple takes as they saw what we had in our cart, tried to do the math in their head as to when or if one of us had been pregnant at any point in the last 9 months, then cautiously said, “Is that…. um… your…?”

“Nope, she’s a friend’s.”

They looked relieved.

As blessedly well-behaved as The Baby was in Wal-Mart, she turned on the screaming again as soon as we got home. By Sunday afternoon, that act had worn very very thin and we were ready for Beth to take her away from us. When Beth phoned to let us know she was on her way, we asked about the whole screaming bit.

“Oh, just set her on the blanket with some toys and she’ll get over it after a few minutes.”

“That’s just it,” we said. “She doesn’t. She’ll scream at the top of her lungs for five minutes, stop and play for one and then return to screaming for five.”

“Just let her go,” Beth said. “She’s got to learn.”

So we did. We let her go.  And go she did. For a solid hour that kid screamed and raged and shook her little fists at us. And the longer we let her go the more furious she became. She was so angry that it became comical and we soon found ourselves stiffling laughter. Still, we were afraid that she was becoming so upset that she’d throw up.  Logic imposed itself on us and we decided that Beth shouldn’t have to see a distraught kid when she arrived, so we picked the Baby up and tried to give her a bottle. She remained viciously pissed off at us for twenty minutes, despite our efforts. I tell ya, that kid’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

When Beth arrived, she’d no sooner walked through the door than she said, “All right, who hurt my baby?”

“You told her?!” I said to my wife in as an accusing a tone as I could come up with.

“No.  I told you she’d know.”

Beth attended to The Baby’s bruised leg, gave it a smooch and admitted that she’d done as much herself by accident.

After The Baby and Beth had gathered up the mountain of baby supplies and departed, we sat in our house and enjoyed the silence. Eventually, we had to leave the house again, but when we returned home the place seemed a bit more empty than we remembered it.

How do I feel about my first taste of parenthood? It’s an acquired taste. Kinda salty and bitter in places, but with some good nougaty parts in there too. I think I could learn to like it.

 

 

Copyright © 2006 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Grad-u-mation, Hide the Presents, No Hints, Floral Prints, Stupid Cat Blues (a Non-Horrible, Horribly True Tale)

As you may know by now, I have a bit of difficulty in keeping surprises a surprise when it comes to my wife.

Oh, I try. I really do. But she almost always knows I’m planning something for her major celebratory days (birthday, anniversary, Christmas, etc.) and starts pestering me for hints weeks in advance. And like a moron, I always think, “This time I’m really gonna pull it off. She’ll never guess this hint.” Then, as though she’s plucked it from my mind, out she comes with the answer, pissing me off and causing me to vow never again to give her any hints. Then the next birthday comes along and there I go lobbing hints like softballs at the Near-Sighted-Middle-School-Girl’s Little League Playoffs.

After my defeat last October—in which I entirely failed to keep secret the fact that her birthday present was me finally hauling away our old washing machine, freeing up valuable space in the dining room—I became determined that I was finally gonna get one past the batter.

My three opportunities to do so, barring any unforseen emergency holidays, were Christmas, our anniversary and Ashley’s med-school graduation present. Christmas was right out, because by the time I thought of a really good and perfect present December had already passed. That left our 5th anniversary in early February and graduation in late May. I aimed for Feb.

And as to the perfect present… Oh, it was just too good.

A couple of years ago, while browsing in a nearby gallery of community art, Ashley fell in love with a painting by local artist Jeanne Brenneman.  It was a floral watercolor entitled Flower Tower.  Beyond the beauty of the flowers depicted, though, the construction of the painting and frame was nearly as intriguing.  Mrs. Brenneman had taken an eight inch square piece of rough hand-made watercolor paper, the kind with craggy crinkly edges, and glued it to a larger piece of watercolor paper, also with cool craggy edges. Atop these layers, she painted the watercolor floral scene, and a most beautiful one at that. Then she mounted the whole thing on a thin piece of foam core which she in turn mounted to a matte board, framed by another matte board but with enough space that the viewer could see this painting floating above the back-most board, and then the whole thing was sealed in a wooden outer frame.  It was beautiful work. In fact, Ash thought it was fantastic. She immediately declared her undying love for the painting and threatened to buy it right there. Then she saw the price tag and we realized we could neither justify nor afford dropping several hundred dollars for it, no matter how much we loved the painting. And while the artist herself was known to do prints of her existing work, a print of this picture, no matter how well-rendered, could never match the original three-dimensional work.

Deciding not to buy this painting was a harder thing to do than we thought, though. We went back to the hall more than once just to look at the painting. And then, several months later, Ashley tracked down Mrs. Brenneman’s website, discovered the painting was again on display in another town and we drove nearly an hour to go see it. Once again, though, we could not justify its purchase. Not with two cars in need of repair and rent in need of being paid. We’d have to save such extravagances for the future, like maybe in 2039, after we’ve paid off the school loans.

As distant a purchase as that seemed, the idea of the painting and the memory of how much Ashley loved it stuck in my head and then resurfaced in January when I was brainstorming presents for our 5th anniversary. I decided to look into it.  And while I still couldn’t really justify buying the painting as a whim purchase, I was—with a careful application of rationalization—able to justify purchasing it for a major event.

So I returned to Jeanne Brenneman’s website and sent her an e-mail explaining who I was, which painting I was interested in and that I was interested in purchasing it as a surprise present for either our then upcoming 5th anniversary or for Ash’s graduation. Was it still on the market?  Mrs. Brenneman soon wrote me back and said that it was indeed still on the market, but had been submitted for inclusion in an upcoming painting competition and would possibly be unavailable until late April. This was fine with me, as it helped me decide when I was going to give it to Ashley. What I liked even better was that her asking price for the painting was at least a full $100 less than I remembered it being before. Win win.

After this, I just had to start saving cash. I stashed away bits and pieces from paycheck to paycheck as well as my entire payment for some freelance web design work I had done. My nest egg grew, safely hidden away. (I knew it was safe cause Ashley knows I never have any money, so she doesn’t go looking for it.)

Meanwhile, I knew I had to come up with some way to keep hint-beggar Ashley off my back. May was quickly approaching and the closer we got to it the more likely she would start asking what my plans were. To the rescue came my mother-in-law. She e-mailed me to ask if I would like to go in on a family graduation present for Ash, one which she hoped to persuade Ash’s grandmother and sisters to join in for. They were going to get her some sort of black pearl jewelry. I said it sounded like a fine gift, but I opted out citing my own plans.

“Don’t give her any hints!” Ma warned.  Evidently Ma didn’t tell that to everyone else in her little cabal.  Within a week, Ashley came to me and told me that she knew there were some sort of group plans afoot. Apparently, her grandmother had spilled that much, though she hadn’t spoiled any surprises.

“Oh, really?” I said, trying to act innocent, which I knew Ashley would interpret as guilt.

“You know about it, don’t you?!”

“Mayyyyybe.”

“Gimme a hint!”

“Nope. I can’t say a word about it,” I told her. “This is something other people are working on, so I can’t give any hints.”

“Aw, c’mon! Just one hint.”

“No!” I shouted. I then further distanced myself from any hint-giving by speaking exclusively to the cat for the next 20 minutes.

The spoilage of Ma and Company’s surprise was a blessing in disguise, though. So long as I continued to deny everything and not give any hints, Ashley seemed satisfied that I was in cahoots with them and left me alone about any solo plans I might have.  And so the days passed.

Since January, I’d kept in contact with Mrs. Brenneman -mail and had continued to let her know I was still in line to make the purchase. We agreed to meet at the library of all places to make the exchange and soon our agreed upon date of May 26 had arrived.  My co-workers were all in on the surprise by then and were sworn to secrecy.

Mrs. Brenneman arrived at exactly the time she said she would, painting case in hand. We chatted a little about the painting, the awards that it had won and her general creative process for it. Then, I filled out a bill of sale form she had brought, made a copy of it for her and made the purchase. The painting was now mine and soon it would be my wife’s. I just had to find a good place to hide it.

I left work in the early afternoon on Thursday and headed home. Ashley’s parents had already arrived, but had taken her out for lunch, leaving me the run of the house.  My plan was to hide it somewhere inconspicuous yet accessible so I could sneak out late Friday night and hang it up somewhere in the house.  After abandoning a few bad ideas, I opted to hide the painting behind the door to my office. The door is always open and would be difficult to close even if I wanted to due to the runner carpet wadded up in front of it. Seemed perfect. I even gave the room a few passes from the hall to make sure it didn’t attract my eye. Seemed good to me.

That night, Ashley, Ma, Pa and I went to the big awards banquet at Ashley’s school. This is the traditional ceremony where all the students and their families come and feast from a banquet buffet while the school’s faculty congratulates them for surviving all the way to graduation. A number of students are recognized with scholarship awards and the sashes and cords for the top 10 percent grade achievers are passed out. (Ash wasn’t among the top 10 percent, but she’s not far from it. Frankly, passing medical school at all is the major achievement. And like the old joke goes: Question– What do you call a student who graduates from medical school with a GPA of 70? Answer– Doctor.)

Ashley had brought along a manila folder, which I thought was a little odd, especially after she became real secretive about it when I asked what it contained.

About mid-way through the awards ceremony, the dean of students stood and announced she was about to award the American Osteopathic Foundation’s Donna Jones Moritsugu Award, an award given to an non-student individual who has demonstrated “immeasurable support” of a student enrolled in the medical school and to the Osteopathic profession at large. The candidate for the award is chosen from several such candidates and voted upon by the faculty of the school itself. In addition to a beautiful framed plaque, the award came with a check for $240. And when the dean announced the winner of the award, she called my name.

I was stunned. I never knew such an award existed in the first place, nor would I have expected to win it if I had. I suppose, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been a candidate, after all I was the co-president of the school’s spouse/significant other support organization for a year and helped out at the school in other ways. But primarily, the award was granted for helping support my wife as she went through the four years of schooling. In other words, I was given the award for being a good husband. How many men get to say they were given an award (one that came with cash) for being a good husband? Not many, I’d wager.

After the ceremony, on our way to the car, Ashley revealed what she had in the manila envelope. She had intended to open it and distribute its contents during the ceremony, but no such opportunity was officially offered. What it contained were were two printed citations, one for Ma and Pa and one for me. They had the official school seal and signature of the president of the school, and stated that they were given as a token of her sincerest gratitude for supporting and encouraging her efforts during school. The award was given as thanks for patience and love and being an integral part of her success.  This single paper meant more to me than the framed one I’d just received inside. And it was at that moment that I decided I would give Ashley her present earlier than I’d intended.

My original plan had been to keep her painting a surprise all the way until Saturday morning. I was planning to sneak out and hang it up on an existing nail during the night and let her discover it when she got up Saturday. There on Thursday night, though, I felt such gratitude for the award she’d just given me that I wanted to rush home and give the painting right then. This was an urge I was able to fight off, though. I’d worked far too hard to keep this thing under wraps to give in quite that easily. However, I didn’t think it would hurt to give it to her a day early.

That night, just after we had retired for the evening, I got up to go fill my bedside water bottle and grabbed the painting from its hiding place on the way down the hall. I took down an existing frame on one wall of our living room, hung the new painting up, filled my bottle and then stashed the old frame behind the office door on my way back to bed. We went to sleep.

Early in the morning, our cat began driving us crazy. Usually we let her out in the evening, when she can run around in the dark and feel relatively safe from the entire lack of big bad animals that don’t stalk and kill her during the day. However, she didn’t get to go out in the evening because she was too scared that Ma and Pa might stalk and kill her if she came out from hiding. So at 5 in the morning, she began making a pest of herself, jumping on and off the bed and running up and down the halls at full speed, making as much noise as possible, in an effort to anger us to the point that we hurl her from the house.

“I better go let the cat out,” Ashley said, groggily.

“I can do it,” I said, fearing that she would see her surprise on the way through the living room.

“No, I got it,” she said, rising and snatching up the cat. I prayed silently that she wouldn’t notice her gift hanging on the living room wall, but figured that it wouldn’t be so bad if she did. She didn’t see it, though, and came right back to bed.

When we finally got up for good, around 7, I followed her into the kitchen. I had wondered how long it would take for her to notice it. I’d even envisioned the possibility that she wouldn’t notice it and would leave for her school-related functions that morning. Nope. Within 30 seconds of entering the kitchen, she turned, caught sight of it, turned away then did a double-take as she saw it again. Her mouth dropped open and she said, “Ohhhhh.” Then she stared across the room at the painting for a long time, her eyes welling up with tears, then turned and smiled at me. The reaction was so satisfying. It was worth every bit of sneaking and plotting and secret-keeping on my part.

“How long have you been planning this?” she asked.

“Months,” I said.

“And he kept it a secret all this time!” Ma crowed triumphantly on my behalf. “He finally got one on you!”

“He did,” Ash said, giving me a big kiss. “He finally did.”

 

 

Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius

 

The Talkin’ Fun-Loving Malibu Juice Blues

My little blue 1999 Chevy Malibu has been a good and faithful car for me.  For the most part.  It’s certainly treated me leagues better than my former vehicle, the blue 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic, referred to with heavy spite and ire as the Bent Turd.  Oh, sure, the Malibu has konked out on me on a few occasions and has had to have various bits of it replaced, such as water pumps, serpentine belts and the occasional alternator, but it’s been a good car all the same.

A while back, I began noticing a strange belt-squeaking noise beneath its hood, though and I decided it was time to get it checked out before I learned what was causing that noise the hard way.  I decided to bite the bullet and take it in to the local Chevy dealership for its 100,000 mile tune up.  I’d actually had mixed experiences with the dealership in the past and was once even yelled at by one of their employees who kept insisting that the keys he had handed me were my car keys despite the fact that they weren’t.  But again, they’re the Chevy dealership so ostensibly they would be the ideal place to take a Chevy.

We dropped my car off late on an early March Tuesday night. It was a carefully chosen night, because my wife Ashley’s medical rotation in March gave her Wednesdays off so she would be able to shuttle me to work the next day.

With snow falling on my head, I stood in the freezing wind and filled out the little after-hours drop off sheet.  I wrote there that in addition to the tune up, all belts should be inspected as one of them was making noise.  I also checked that I would need an oil change.

“Did you mention the grabby brakes?” Ash asked as I climbed back into her car.

“Uh, no,” I said. I’d forgotten about the grabby brakes. They’ve actually been grabby for quite some time, but the local brake place said everything looked good in them so we shouldn’t worry too much. Still, who likes grabby brakes?

The following morning, Ash called the Chevy place and told them about the grabby brakes. They said they’d check them. Meanwhile, they already claimed to have found a leaky engine intake that needed fixing to the tune of $700. Ash asked if this was something dire or if it was the kind of thing that might wait a few months. They said it could wait, though if it should spring an antifreeze leak we should bring it back in.

“Did you remind them about the oil change?” I asked.

“No.”

“Well, it’s on the form I filled out, so I’m sure they’ll get it,” I said.

Despite claiming they would phone us, the garage never called. So in the early afternoon, I phoned them and learned three things: 1) the Malibu needed new rear brake drums, which would stop the grabby brakes; 2) the mechanics weren’t going to do the tune up because it would involve replacing bits that would have to be replaced again once we decided to have the intake fixed and they didn’t want to do the work twice—fine with me, as I didn’t want to pay for it twice, either; 3) they couldn’t hear any belt squealing noises so they hadn’t done anything with the belts.  I told them okay on the brake drums and they said they would call when they were finished. Naturally, they did not and by 5 p.m. I was left with no other conclusion but that my car was not fixed.

The next morning, Ashley drove me to the Chevy dealership where I planned to wait for my car to be finished.  However, when I arrived they claimed my car had already been repaired the previous day.  I paid them for the drum replacement and noticed they’d also charged me for a lube job.  It was only after I was driving away that I noticed they had not replaced the little Oil Change in X number of Miles sticker on the inside of the window, leading me to believe they’d not actually changed the oil.

The car ran okay for several days, despite the continued belt squeal sound.  I could kind of understand them not being able to hear it because it only seemed to happen on warm days.

The following Sunday, the right rear tire began to make a horrible clunking sound whenever we braked at low speeds.  By Wednesday, we decided this wasn’t good so we took it back in to the dealership.  The man at the service counter seemed a bit angry about this. He also didn’t seem to want to accept the car at all as he was four mechanics short. We didn’t see how his lack of mechanics was our problem and told him we would much prefer it if they had a look anyway since we didn’t like driving with horrible clunking sounds coming from brakes they had allegedly repaired.  Dude wrote down a little of what we were saying, but wasn’t writing in near as much detail as I thought was required.

“Also, would you please have them investigate the belt-squealing sound that I’m still hearing in the engine,” I asked.  “Oh, and please change the oil, too.” This seemed to make the angry man even more angry, but he agreed he would try if they had time.

When I called them for a status report that afternoon, the Angry Man at the desk said they couldn’t hear any clunking noises coming from the engine nor any squealing noise from the tire. I corrected him that it was actually a clunking tire and a squealing engine.  He said they still couldn’t hear either and suggested I come in the following day to help them hear it.

So at work, Thursday morning, I gave the dealership a call to arrange the auditory aid session.  Angry man said they had driven the car again that morning and still couldn’t hear anything.  I asked if I could come by at noon and he said that would work.

At noon, a co-worker dropped me off at the dealership. Angry man was there but became still angrier when he saw me. He said all the mechanics go to lunch between noon and 1, so I’d have to come back later.

“Well, I sure wish you’d mentioned that on the phone before you told me it would be okay for me to come in at noon,” I said, very calmly.

Angry man flared.  “Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you who was right or who was wrong!” he said. “Let’s just go give her a drive now.”

“Sure thing,” I said, still remaining admirably calm.

He dug up my key and led me outside where he moved for the driver’s side door of my car.

“Would you mind if I drove?” I said. Angry Man did seem to mind, but didn’t really have any grounds to refuse me the wheel of my own vehicle. To make small talk while I started the car and maneuvered out of the parking lot, Angry Man started back in on the whole business about how the mechanics had already driven the car twice and couldn’t hear a thing.  As he was saying this, I applied the brakes until the car was at a very low speed.

“CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK!” said the back tire.

“Hear that?”

Angry man’s mouth dropped open. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. Anybody could hear that.” He then became incredibly angry at the incompetence of his mechanics for putting him in such an embarrassing situation.  I continued to drive the car out of the parking lot and down the road, both to try and get the belt to squeal and also to make angry man that much more uncomfortable at having to sit there beside me and take it after once again having been shown up. The belt never did squeal for me, but like I told him it usually didn’t do it when the weather was cold.

“Uh, you said you needed an oil change too, right?” Angry Man said as we drove back to the dealership. “Well, we did that when you brought it in last week.”

“Oh, really?  I thought maybe you hadn’t since no one replaced the mileage sticker.”

”Well… um… they’re supposed to do that,” he said.

We resolved to have them fix the clunk and I would save the belt squeal for a day when it was actually squealing.

Naturally, the Chevy dealership never phoned me to alert me to what the problem was with the clunking.  I phoned them, however, to learn from a very sheepish sounding Angry Man that they had replaced my original faulty brake drum with yet another faulty brake drum.  Wisely he didn’t try to get me to pay for the re-replacement.

Jump ahead two weeks. The wife and I go out of town for a medical mission trip to Central America during which time my car sits in my driveway. Upon our return, the belt squeal has not gone away, but has in fact gotten worse.

It sounded particularly bad on the following Saturday, when it did its best impersonation of a choir of crickets throughout my drive to work.  I made it to work okay, but on my way home, after having made it nearly up the giant hill that leads to my street, I hit a dip in the pavement and heard something beneath the hood give way and noticed that the power steering was no longer working.  As I reached my driveway, the engine died and the battery light came on.  I parked, called the wife down for a gander and opened the hood. Sure enough, the serpentine belt was completely off its track. And the reason it was off its track is because the alternator had broken off.

No, really. Broken. Off.

I’m talking, broken off from the engine block at the bracket, broken off.

“Well, that sucks,” I said, staring at it.

“Yes. That does suck,” Ashley replied.

“Those complete and utter morons,” I added.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. However, you’d think that when you go to allegedly qualified Chevrolet repair specialists at an automobile repair garage that deals specifically with Chevrolets and you tell them that your particular Chevrolet is making a sound that’s reminiscent of a belt being loose that they’d actually, oh, I don’t know, HAVE A LOOK IN THE GENERAL BELT AREA or something and maybe noticed that the bracket connecting the alternator had CRACKS IN IT!

MORONS!

I don’t say nearly often enough how much I adore my car insurance company USAA.  Genuinely love them.  In addition to being very good insurance, they also have customer service representatives that should be the envy of all other call centers the universe wide. When you phone them, you don’t get a huge hassle from any automated answering service that makes you jump through hoops to talk to a real person. No. You get to talk to a real person who’s friendly, empathetic and willing to help make sure things are as easy for you as possible. It’s one of the most amazing concepts I’ve ever heard of!

USAA not only arranged for a tow truck to come get my car and haul it to the nearest repair provider, which just happened to be within walking distance of my house, but they also commiserated with me over how much having one’s alternator fall off truly sucks. I think I’m in love! Even better, the towing is COVERED by my oh-so-marvelous USAA insurance! Glory Be!

The tow truck driver, arrived in 20 minutes and hauled my car down the hill.  I then gave it an hour before calling the conveniently located repair place.  I was expecting to have to explain why my car had been dumped on them and what I wanted them to fix and then have to wait upwards of a day for this busy garage to get around to doing anything about it. However, they already knew the whole drill about my car. In fact, they’d already been on the phone with parts yards looking for a new bracket for my alternator and expected to hear back from them any time. That wasn’t the truly shocking part, though.

“Did you know your alternator was missing a nut in the back?” my new repair guy asked.

“No. No, I didn’t,” I said.

Apparently, in the back of the alternator there is a bolt that helps hold the thing down and that bolt is supposed to be held in place by a nut. Without the nut, much vibration can occur which can and did cause the metal bracket of the alternator housing to weaken and eventually snap.

Now, I can’t say for sure that the Chevy dealership is directly at fault for that nut being missing, but they were the last folks that had anything to do with that part of my car since they’re the ones who put in a new serpentine belt several months ago.  A more conspiratorial soul might suggest they’d done it on purpose to get more business from me, but I don’t think so.  No, those folks seem to hate doing any work at all, let alone bringing more work down on their heads through sabotage.

A mere six hours later, my new repair guy PHONED ME to say the car was ready. Imagine that; a repair shop that actually PHONES YOU when your car is ready, rather than making you hire a Sherpa.  I walked on down the hill and picked it up with no problem. The bill was only $86, which didn’t strike me as too bad at all.  I think I’ve found my new repair shop.

Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Hauling Birthdays, Lack of Carrot Cake & Tooters, Mo’ Better Blues (a Horribly True birthday incident)

My wife Ashley recently celebrated a birthday.  I won’t say how old she is, cause she’ll hit me, but she’s two years older than I am and I’m 32.  You do the math.  (Hey, she was probably gonna hit me anyway.)

Since we left higher paying gigs in the big city to move to West Virginia, for med-school and library servitude respectively, we’ve not done any major birthday presents for one another.  We always get one another a birthday card and maybe something small, but nothing too expensive.

Still, at the beginning of the month in which Ash’s birthday fell, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with what I was going to do for her.  I knew she wouldn’t want anything huge, but I felt I still needed to do something.  Fortunately, Ash’s a fairly simple gal who cares not for diamonds, pearls or expensive fru-fru.  She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry—usually just her wedding set and a pair of earrings or maybe her favorite necklace that features a small gold nugget that was one of the only products of her father’s former Alaskan gold mine.  She does like shoes quite a bit, but not excessively so.

What to get her? What to get her?

Then I thought of it…

One of our last major purchases was a brand new clothes washer.  It’s a Big ol’ Kenmore, the kind with the porcelain on steel top—which somehow seemed an important option to take back when we bought it, but dadgum if I can figure out if that’s done us any good since.  We purchased the washer shortly after moving into the house we now rent, in April of 2003, and we love it as much as two people can love a major appliance. It’s nice and roomy and is so much more efficient at washing our clothes than the tiny apartment-style washer we had been using since we got married.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better washer firmly installed, we had the question of what to do with the old washer. We don’t own a truck, so we couldn’t just haul it off ourselves. Having dropped a lot of cash in the moving process itself, not to mention on the new washer, we also didn’t want to spend any more money in order to get rid of it; so renting a truck seemed out of the question. We called around to the local shelters and charity organizations, but while they would all have gladly accepted it, none of them had the capability to come and remove it from our home.  As a temporary measure, we rolled it into the kitchen and used it as an island for a while until we could come up with some ingenious way to get rid of it.

Months passed.

Eventually, Ashley got it in her head that she wanted to build a real kitchen island to replace the defunct washer. She marched right down to the hardware store, told them what she wanted to do

“I take it you’re the handyman in your house?” the hardware store man asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Ash said.

They then spent an hour or so drawing up plans and selecting and ordering the butcher-block top.  She bought most of the materials she would need from them, then got me to drive her to the nearest city with a Lowes for what the local store didn’t have.  She then spent all her spare time for a month sawing, sanding and assembling the island.  When she was finished, she had a beautiful and sturdy butcher-block island to call her very own.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better island firmly installed, we again had the question of what to do with our old apartment-style washer. We still didn’t own a truck, still couldn’t find any charitable organizations that did either and we were still too cheap to call U-Haul.  Ash was all for putting a sign out by the road or an ad in the classifieds to sell it.  Trouble was, while the washer does work it doesn’t work as well as you would hope a washer you paid good money for might.  It would do in a pinch, if you didn’t have one at all, but you would probably have to do the spin cycle a couple of times to get all the soap and water out of your clothes.  With no obvious solution, we finally just rolled the washer over into a corner of the kitchen, in front of our cookbook shelf, and began piling junk mail on top of it.

Months passed.  In fact, a year passed and suddenly it was early October and I’d started wondering what to do for her birthday. That’s when I hit upon the idea of getting rid of the washer once and for all.

“How would you do it?” you might ask.

Ah, I would rent a truck.

Hey, but I thought you were cheap, and stuff,” you might also say.

Sure am. However, I was going to spend $20 at the bare minimum for a birthday present anyway, so why not funnel that Yuppie $5 into renting a truck, getting rid of the devil-washer and securing myself a warm place in my wife’s affections for the effort?

I could just picture her coming home on Saturday, from her month-long emergency room rotation, in Princeton, WV, walking in the door and spying the 3’x2’x2′ patch of open space where the washer once sat. And on the floor, in the middle of the patch of glorious emptiness, would be the beautiful birthday card I had already purchased for her at a local downtown gallery. Sounded like a plan.

Trouble is, my surprises like this NEVER work out and I have a long and storied history of them not working out.

Why do they not work out?  Well, for one thing, I have a wife who insists on pestering me for hints about her birthday present until she gets enough to put it together. Doing this is one of her greatest joys in life. Preventing her from doing this is my eternal challenge—a very difficult one, cause she’s smarter than me. It also doesn’t help that I have a big mouth and let it be known that I had something planned for her.

So Wednesday night, the night before the actual move, she called from Princeton to interrogate me about her present.

“It’s green, right? You said it was green,” she said as a clever ruse to get me to admit to something.  I was steadfastly not admitting anything if I could keep from doing so. Should have just hung up right then.

“Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” she continued.

“Um… none of the above,” I said.  At its core, her present was essentially empty space, which is—subtracting the minerals, pollen, bugs and cat-hair that might be floating through it—none of the above. She didn’t believe this part and continued plying me with questions. I, in turn, continued being evasive and assured her that while she would really really love her present, she was never ever going to guess what it was.

After a goodly number of other questions, during which I let it slip that I’d had to make a phone call to make arrangements for her present, she asked, “Is this something that’s going to help me cook?”

I could guess what she might be thinking, which I theorized was that she thought I’d ordered her a Kitchen-Aid—a device she has always wanted and which I will one day buy for her when we have money.  However, it was still a perfect chance for a veiled hint, because once the washing machine was out of the way we would finally be able to get to the shelf of cookbooks its been blocking for the past year and a half.

“It might help with cooking,” I said. “It might indeed.”

Oddly, this was not the clue that tipped her off.  What tipped her was what I said shortly after she said she wished she could come home on Thursday instead of Saturday, as scheduled.  I became fearful that she might actually mean it, or worse yet, do it.  It would be just like her to have secured an extra two days off somehow and come home early.  She’s done similar sneak-arrivals many a time before and she never tells me in advance, allowing me to be happily surprised when she pops in the door, or scared out of my wits when she pops in the door in the middle of the night.  The idea that she might pop by in the middle of the washer moving process was not one I fancied.

“Uhm, well if you do come home tomorrow, make it tomorrow afternoon,” I said.  Stupid.

“Why is that?” she said with justifiable suspicion.

“Uh… cause the… um… dancing midgets might not be gone by then,” I lamely said.  “They, uh… they gotta practice for your party, you know.”

There passed a long silence.

“I know what you’re going to do,” Ashley said with a sudden assurance.

“You… you do?”

“Yep. I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you because it will just piss you off.”

I could tell by her voice this was not a bluff. Somewhere in that long silence, understanding had dawned on her and I had no doubt that she had figured it out. I don’t know if it was a stray phone-routed psychic signal from me or just that she’s smarter than the average she-bear.  Bottom line: she knew and now I had to know for certain that she knew.

“No, go ahead and guess,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” she said.  There was a dangerous pause.  “You’re getting rid of the washer, aren’t you?”

I cursed, loudly. As she predicted, I was instantly pissed. Once again my big surprise was ruined due to my own stupid mouth and her woman’s intuition. Why? Why can’t I just shut up about it all and keep things a surprise? Why do I have this Blofeld-like need to show off with crafty clues? Why do I let her draw me into these hint-sparring matches in the first place? Why, WHY, WHYYYYY?!

Ashley laughed and laughed as I ranted and cursed some more and pounded the couch cushions. When I was finished and had calmed down, she told me that it was a very thoughtful and sweet present that she did love. And not only was it a very nice present, but it had the added bonus of allowing her to guess what the present was through constant pestering, which she really really loves and is frankly more enjoyable for her than being surprised in the first place.

So the next day, I went and picked up the U-Haul, hand-trucked the washer up the ramp and hauled it down the hill to the charity second-hand store. (And, yes, I did warn them about the washer’s somewhat wonky working-status—I’m not so much of a cheap jerk that I would foist an unreliable appliance onto a charity organization with no warning.)  At the end of the job, with mileage and a few gallons of diesel factored in, my total price came to around $30, which I figure is a respectable amount to spend on a birthday present.

At the moment, there is only stray cat food in the space where the washer once stood, but I’ll soon have that cleaned up and her card in its place, ready for her arrival tomorrow. She may not be surprised, but she’ll be considerably less cluttered.

EPILOGUE

Back before Ashley guessed what her birthday present was, she asked if I was going to make her a birthday cake and buy tooters. I hadn’t actually considered either a cake or tooters, but decided that at least one of those was a good idea. She even suggested I make the fantastic carrot cake recipe she’d found on the internet.  And after Ashley ruined her own surprise by guessing her present, the only thing I had left going for me was possibly surprising her with cake.

I’d never actually made a carrot cake before, but figured it couldn’t be too hard so I dug out the recipe. It had lots of other yummy stuff in it, like raisins, crushed pineapple, dates, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, pecans and a cream cheese icing. I had a lot of the ingredients on hand, but did have to go to the store to pick up dates and carrots all the same. I also decided to cheat on the homemade icing and just buy some Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It’s good stuff and I probably couldn’t make better by myself.

Friday night I started preparing it. It’s kind of a three bowl affair with a dry ingredients bowl, a wet ingredients bowl and a fruit, veggies and nuts ingredient bowl. You mix the first two together then mix in the third, slap it in the oven and take it out in an hour. Well I gathered what I thought were all of my ingredients and put them in their respective bowls, mixed them in the proper order and poured the mixture into the first of two floured cake pans I’d prepared.  I was supposed to fill the pan to 3/4ths from the pan’s top and I did this, but I had no cake batter left over afterward to fill the second pan.  I had somehow expected there would be more batter than that.  How the heck am I supposed to make a double layer carrot cake if I’ve only got one layer?

Oh, well, I thought. It’ll work out. I slapped it on in the oven.

Can you guess which ingredient I left out?

That’s right: THE CARROTS—only the MOST important ingredient of a Carrot Cake.

I’d been trying so hard not to screw it all up and had been very careful to set out all of my ingredients ahead of time, except, apparently, the stinking carrots, which remained in the fridge. I only realized my mistake when removing the cake from the oven, whereupon I surveyed its beautiful brown surface and thought to myself, “Oh man, now that’s going to be one badass tasty carrot ca–aaahhhhhHHHHH!!”

In the end, though, it turned out just fine.  We learned that you can make a carrot cake without the carrots and it’s still absolutely delicious.  It had plenty of other nummy ingredients to make it interesting.  Sure, it was a little bit drier than we might have liked, but still just… Mwahh!

In fact, here’s the recipe.  Go try it yourself and see if I’m not right.

JUICE’S LACK OF CARROT CAKE

Preheat Oven to 375 degrees

In first bowl mix
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

In second bowl mix
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup corn oil

In third bowl mix
3 cups shredded carrots *
1 16 oz can crushed pineapple
1 box dates (shredded)
1 cup flake coconut **
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup raisins

Thoroughly mix first and second bowls, then stir in ingredients from third bowl. Pour into floured cake pans until the pan is 3/4 full. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.

* Optional
** If you leave out the carrots, you might put an extra cup of coconut in. I think I did by accident and my cake was scrumptious.

Cream Cheese Icing
4 cups powdered sugar
28 oz cream cheese at room temp
1/2/ cup unsalted butter at room temp
4 teaspoons vanilla

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’, Electric Coma, Ghost of the Bent Turd, Three Heaps of Itis Blues (Two Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tales in One)

Somewhere out there, my former and unlamented vehicle, the 1985 blue Chevy Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd, has died.  Not that the death of the Bent Turd would be surprising; it was on its last legs when I owned it, so how much better could it really be treating the poor bastard who had the misfortune of buying it at a bulk car auction?  I figure the first time it broke down, or made that horrible Velociraptor through a jet intake noise that caused me to get rid of it in the first place, its new owner probably sold it for scrap and it has since been compacted into a nice blue and rust-colored metal cube.  Until recently, however, I didn’t actually have any clinical evidence that the `Turd—a devil contraption that left me stranded, powerless and full of utter desperation on far more occasions than I care to count—was indeed no more.  That is, until its ghost up and possessed my new car.

Last month, on a Friday, my wife Ashley returned from her month-long pediatrics rotation with what seemed like at least two different illnesses.  They say no medical student gets out of a pediatrics rotation without contracting at least two handfuls of walking crud, and this would seem to be true.  The snot-nosed, Junior Typhoid Marys in Princeton are spreading contamination in every direction their uncooperative little heads can turn.  Ash firmly believes that if, as a child, she had ever thrown a spitting tantrum and refused treatment in a doctor’s office, like some of the kids she’s seen, she would not have survived the beating her mother would have given her in return.  Alas, parenting skills in Princeton would seem to be low priority. As a result, Ash had been given some pretty heavy symptoms that looked as if they would take more than a couple of days to shuck.

Almost as if mirroring Ashley’s ailments, my 1999 blue Chevy Malibu began giving off congested sort of sounds as I turned the key in it, Saturday morning.  A pang of guilt rose in me, as I’d been procrastinating about taking it in for a much-needed oil change for the last thousand miles or so.  But as my day progressed, this pang grew into a full-fledged guilt trip.  It seemed that every time I tried to start her up, the Malibu’s engine had more and more difficulty coming to life.  At one point, it failed to start on the first try and I had to do it again—a first time occurrence for this particular vehicle.  By Sunday night, it was obvious that I needed to take this car in and soon.

My theory—and I speak from years of experience as an automotive dumbass—was that the car’s engine had very little oil in it or, at the least, very old oil in it, and was having difficulty starting due to lack of proper lubrication.  It could have been ignition gnomes for all I really knew, but I imagined the whole thing would soon seize up and become a chunk of fused metal unless I took steps to prevent that.

Monday morning neither Ash nor the car were feeling much better.  The car started, albeit hesitantly, and drove me across town to my favorite service station, near my library workplace.  I left it with them and walked to the library, spending a couple of hours there before returning to collect it.

“We checked all your fluids and replaced the oil,” the little old man who runs the station said.  Then, almost as an aside, he asked, “Did you have any trouble starting it this morning?”

“Yeah.  I assumed it was caused by old oil.”

The man gave me a funny look I wasn’t sure I liked.  “Wasn’t the oil.  It was your battery,” he said.  “We had to jump it off just to get it in the garage.”

Ah ha!  The battery!  That at least made sense.  This car hadn’t had a new battery since I bought it, so it was probably about time for this four year old, high-fallutin’, Duracel to kick off.

It certainly didn’t sound up to snuff when I started the engine in the service station parking lot.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew my battery issues would come to a head soon very soon.  Sure, it could probably get me home, but there was no guarantee it would start the following morning and I might once again be stranded at the hands of a blue Chevrolet product.  It was time to change the battery.

Now what I should have done was leave the car with the service station and ask them check it out and replace it.  Instead, I drove the car to work and let it sit all day while I contemplated my next move.

The last time I changed a battery was in the Bent Turd after it went into an electric coma in a grocery store parking lot, back when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi.  My buddy Joe had been visiting me at the time and it was only with his assistance and chauffeuring skills that I was able to get the dead battery changed and retain my sanity.

Back then, my automotive tool box consisted of a broken crescent wrench and a hammer, so Joe first had to take me to Wal-Mart for both the new battery and a ratchet set with which to install said battery.  Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the ratchet bits in my new kit actually fit the bolts of my battery cable clamps.  A semi-nearby autoparts store sold us a correct sized battery-clamp-changing bit.  However, while the new bit fit the standard bolt on the black cable clamp it did not fit the metric bolt some damn genius had seen fit to install in the red one.  Back we went for a metric bit.  Back we went again for a metric bit that was the correct size.  Then, to our horror, we figured out that all our trips to the autoparts store had been a waste of time since the metric bolt had actually fused with both the cable clamp and the battery post and no amount of ratcheting was going to pry it loose from the battery anyway.  The people at the auto-parts shop, whose facial expressions had clearly been downgrading our intelligence with each successive visit, were more than happy to sell us a pair of cable cutters, a new cable clamp to splice onto the end of the cable once we’d cut it, and the most expensive roll of electrical tape outside of the Air Force.  In the end it would probably have been easier to build a new car around the battery.

Such problems were to be expected with the Bent Turd, but not the Malibu.  I should have known something was amiss right away.

I called Ashley and told her of my plan to replace the battery while the replacing was good.  She said it was a good idea and that she’d been to the doctor herself that day.  She’d been diagnosed with the triple-threat of conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis, most of which were manifesting in her left eye.  The conjunctivitis and sinusitis she had no doubt caught from a leaky toddler, but the tonsillitis lay firmly on the doorstep of her own childhood physician who, for unknown reasons, refused to take hers out.  Bastard.

Leaving the library parking lot wasn’t fun.  I turned the key in the Malibu’s ignition.  The dash lights flickered and the engine gave a couple of dry-heaves.  I turned it again.  More heaves, then more flickering.  But, on the third try, the engine heaved once then started up and stayed up.  Brilliant!  I put her in gear and immediately drove to Advance Autoparts, the only auto-parts place in town that I knew was both able to diagnose my turmoil and open.

At Advance Autoparts, a young guy named James wheeled a battery testing cart out to my car and began hooking it up to the battery.  The test computer made several painful little sounds.  James adjusted the clamps on the battery posts and pressed some buttons.  The sounds continued.

“I think it’s dead,” James declared.  “No, wait,” he said, watching his display as the test computer made a somewhat less-distressed whine.  “It’s not dead.  Says you have two volts left in it.  You’d need twelve to start the car.”

“Take me to your batteries,” I said.

We went back inside and looked up what kind of battery I would need.  The best one they had cost $109.  This seemed a little steep to me, since the battery I’d bought for the `Turd had been around $45.  I paid the $109 anyway.  Turned out to be the best money I’ve spent all year, because Advance Autoparts offers not only free testing of your vehicle’s battery but free installation of a new battery should it come to that.  In essence, they saved me from the following tribulation.

James wheeled his tool cart out to the Malibu and began the process of unscrewing the cable clamps.  While he was doing that, I regaled him with the above tale of the Bent Turd’s battery change.  James agreed that it was a horrible experience to have to go through and pointed out that fortunately both bolt heads on the Malibu’s old battery were of standard measurement.

I should have kept my mouth shut.  I’d been thinking of that earlier incident throughout the day, so the `Turd was already in my thoughts.  And if there’s anything I learned during my time with the Bent Turd it’s that you can never say its name because that only gives it power.  At that moment, the evil spirit of my former vehicle perked up its ears, heard its name taken in vain and bit down hard on any chances of an easy repair.

James had already taken off the black cable clamp and had started on the red one when he found it mysteriously wouldn’t budge.

“Bolt’s kinda tight,” he said.  He sprayed it with some WD-40, waited and tried again.  Nothing.  He repeated.  Still nothing.  James scratched his head.

Over the course of ten minutes, various sized bits were tried, none of them effective.  James then went for his pair of vice grips and attacked the bolt with them for a few more minutes.  All this accomplished was to further strip the bolt head.

I stood by the car, thankful that I wasn’t the one who had to deal with it and thankful that I had thought to dress warmly that morning.  My fleece vest, long sleeve shirt and overcoat were nice and toasty while James’ hooded sweat-shirt looked awfully thin.  There was fear in my heart, though.  What if James couldn’t change the battery out?  What if I was left stranded in the Advance Autoparts parking lot, waiting for the tow-truck to come and haul my poor possessed Malibu off to—dare I even type it—the dealership!  There was no way in hell I’d get my car out of there for less than $200, and that wasn’t including the battery for which I’d already spent $109!  Damn you, Bent Turd!  Damn you!

“This is the worst battery I’ve ever had to change,” James said, just to further erode my confidence.  “I better go get Cliff.”  James returned a few minutes later with Cliff, who was evidently the resident veteran battery changer.  I was rather hoping for Max von Sydow, from the Exorcist, but Cliff didn’t even have a crucifix.  Instead, he took a look at the battery, smiled and picked up James’ pair of vice grips, taking glee in his belief that he was about to show James up.  Cliff, however, had never met the ghost of the Bent Turd.

Over the course of the next forty minutes, the two men struggled bitterly with the battery cable.  James’ original set of vice grips were abandoned—nay, hurled back into the toolbox—in favor of a brand new pair from their selection of tools inside.  The new grips certainly gripped better.  They also ground the head of the bolt into a nearly smooth condition much better than the previous pair too.

Twenty minutes into their battle, through sheer brute force, Cliff managed to pull the bolt and its terminal out of the battery entirely.  However, the bolt was still fused into the terminal itself, which was now dangling at the end of the cable and which still couldn’t be attached to the new battery until the bolt was removed.

“We need another pair,” Cliff said.  And back inside James went for yet another brand new pair of vice grips.  When he returned, Cliff clamped his grips on one side of the bolt and James clamped the new ones to the other side.  They then spent another twenty minutes struggling.

During this time, I paid only marginal attention to what they were doing.  Sure, I was having to wait a long time, I was having to stand in the cold with threatening-looking rain-filled clouds hovering overhead, I hadn’t had any supper, but I was warmed and filled by my own personal internal sun of thankfulness that I was not the guy having to do any of this work.  And I was pretty sure neither of them would give up until they’d finished the job.  This was personal.

Eventually, even the immortal spirit of the `Turd must have grown weak, for with a great triumphant cry from James and Cliff the bolt finally turned and came free.  Cliff grinned, clapped James on the back and then, with his job well done, retrieved his jacket from within the store and went home to the Missus, leaving James to mop up the last of it.

“I’m real sorry you had to wait this long,” James said.  “It’s the damnedest thing—`scuse my language.”

“Please,” I said.  “You’re not putting me out at all.  In fact, you guys just saved me from the biggest headache I can imagine.  If you hadn’t been here to do this, it would have been me and my wife having to do it in my cold driveway back home.  And she’s got conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis!”

“Ouch,” James offered in sympathy.

I suspect the spirit of the `Turd was not been fully exorcised by the Advance Autoparts staff.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I drove down to my in-laws’ house in North Carolina to meet up with Ash, who was visiting her parents and still trying to shake off her various diseases.  About mid-way through the trip, I tried pass an 18 wheeler and was startled by a sudden loud flapping sound from somewhere within the car.  I thought it was a tire at first, but there was no loss of steering control and no emergency lights came on.  In fact, other than the flapping, everything seemed fine and after a couple of minutes, even the flapping stopped.  I hoped that what I heard was merely a tie rope that might have come off the 18 wheeler, wrapped around my axle and flapped itself to bits against the road.  Hope being a powerful thing, I drove the rest of the way to NC and didn’t think much more about it.

Ash suggested I might have lost an engine belt of some sort. I figured it was probably the air-conditioning belt and not the drive belt, since I’d had no problems driving and hadn’t had the air-conditioning on at all.  Seemed logical.

Turns out, it was the drive belt AND the air-conditioning belt, since a `99 Malibu only has one belt for all of its various systems.  Only about half of my belt was still in the engine, but it had fortunately split down the middle, rather than snapped entirely, so there was still a bit of belt to keep everything running.

We determined pretty quickly that replacing the belt ourselves was out of the question, even with my industrial mechanic father-in-law helping.  It seems a special non-metric and non-standard tool is required—a tool which cannot be found even at Advance Autoparts—not to mention the ability to detach the motor itself from the frame of the car in order to thread the new belt into it.  In fact, according to the mechanic who was nice enough to replace our belt for a decent price, and on a Saturday no less, the whole belt issue is really a conspiracy between the dealerships and the manufacturers, who are trying like hell to produce cars that are impossible to repair at home.

While the ghost of the Bent Turd may have struck again, and may yet still be with me, I’ve come to a rather surprising conclusion about it: I think I like it.  Sure, its presence may have caused my car to break down, but in both of the above instances it didn’t strand me and actually went out of its way to see me to my destination.  Maybe it feels bad for all the crap it gave me while it was still alive and is trying to make up for it in the afterlife.  Maybe it’s holding my car together, Blues Brothers style, at least until I can get within paying range of a qualified mechanic.   Maybe God sent it back, like some great big blue and rust-colored Della Reese, to become my car’s guardian angel. Or maybe blue Chevy’s just suck.  Whatever the case, it’s almost… ALMOST… good to have it back.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius