“What have you got planned for the next five minutes,” Zane asked his daughter as their paths crossed in the cluttered dining room? Elise paused, as if she had just been asked a trick question. She was on her way to the kitchen to return a dirty plate.  After a moment she uttered the word ‘nothing’ in a strangely cautious tone. “Well that’s good,” Zane explained. “I want to show you something outside!” Elise nodded in agreement and said that she would get her shoes on. “You do that, and I’ll meet you out there!” Zane said these things in a confident yet commanding tone. His intention was to teach Elise how to diagnose a broken car.  

As expected, Elise Joined her father outside as he had requested. She strolled down the pathway which led to the car park as Zane instructed her to climb into the passenger seat. He was holding the door open for her. Elise did what her father asked as he proceeded to explain the situation. In preparation, Zane had previously removed the glove compartment and various panels which revealed the vehicle’s Electronic Control Module. “Do you see all of these wires sticking out,” Zane asked? Without waiting for a reply, he went on to explain that it was these wires that connect with the car’s computer. “What’s the computer do,” Elise asked with genuine curiosity? Without a pause her dad said, “It does everything!” He explained how the ECM is the brain for all of the electronic circuity, and without it the car won’t run. It was about this time that Zane went on to say, “I want you to reach over and start the engine.” He motioned to the dangling key chain with a quick flick of his arm. Without hesitation Elise rotated her torso in a way that would allow her to reach the ignition switch with her right hand. As she twisted the key, the obedient engine fired and coughed. It took a second, but the car came to life as it sat in the driveway that had become its tomb. Zane looked to Elise as if to say, “Now Pay Attention.” As he did this, he produced a vintage flashlight from under the seat. Elise, who had expected her dad to illuminate the work area, was surprised when he began striking at the large electrical connector with the business end of the flashlight. “The batteries are dead,” he explained as he continued tapping on the computer. “I’m just using it for a hammer.” Elise nodded in agreement as she listened. Her dad was explaining that the car had a stalling problem, meaning that something caused her to stop running intermittently. He explained that the car runs great until you hit a pothole or a speed bump. Sudden jolts caused the engine to die. An experienced automotive technician would know this was indicative of loose wires, or a short circuit. Elise correctly assumed that her dad was thumping on the wiring harness to simulate a bump in the road scenario. In theory, tapping on the ECM would cause the engine to die indicating that the problem lie within the circuitry. For the time being the test was rendered ineffective because no matter how he tried, Zane couldn’t get the engine to stall in this fashion.

If it had been any other car, she would have been scuttled for parts by now, but somehow Little-Toot deserved better. “Little-Toot” was the name of the vehicle. As her dad was fiddling with the flashlight, Elise noted a stagnant pool of brackish water that had accumulated due to the dried out weather-stripping. The lingering smell of mold was undeniable but neither of them mentioned it out loud. In a helpful tone, Elise said, “Maybe we should get a car cover, like for the motorcycle?” It was a valid question. It would have been possible after all because a decent cover would have only set them back about a hundred bucks. Zane silently asked himself why he hadn’t made the investment yet, but he couldn’t come up with an answer. Instead he responded with a grunt and a stern look.  Elise knew she had struck a nerve because her father would become dismissive when he was hurt. Historically, triggers like these would send him into a manic fit. On this occasion however, Zane tuned back in and placed his attention back onto the task at hand. “Where did I leave off,” he silently asked himself? “Oh yeah,” he answered back. He recalled that he was teaching his daughter how to fix a car if it breaks down.

Zane clung to latent insecurities pertaining to his mental illness because he could suddenly ‘check-out’ and lose focus. This was one of those times. After an awkward moment he looked up at Elise as if he had hurt her somehow? He didn’t want his daughter to absorb his shame. As if to gently remind him Elise said, “You were telling me about looking around under the hood to look for loose connections, and bumpy roads.” Zane struggled to retain his composure as he continued to rap against the ECU. His daughter’s confidence was contagious, and it spawned a fascinating revelation of sorts. It was at this instant that dad realized ‘The engine hadn’t died!‘ Who knows how much time had passed, but the car was still running! It was as if the internal circuitry responded to the presence of Elise’s energy in an effort to say ‘hello.’ In fact, Little-Toot hadn’t sounded this good in years! The notorious rattle of the worn valve lifters had vanished, as well as the loping that indicated a misfiring cylinder. It was if Little-Toot was her old self again! “It should have stalled out by now,” Zane exclaimed. The duo shared a measurable optimistic electricity because Little-Toot was purring like a kitten.

In spite of the excitement Zane tried to be cool. For some reason he always stifled his own joy. Perhaps he equated it with mania. He squelched his happiness out of fear of appearing foolish. In a brave attempt to shunt his own enthusiasm he abruptly commanded Elise to “turn it off!” She did as she was told. Suspecting that the car would not start again, Zane instructed his daughter hit it one more time. Upon his request the young lady turned the switch once again. The BMW roared to life! Zane was internally ecstatic, but he tried not to show it. “That’s why I brought you down here,” he told his daughter! “I knew you had the magic!”  There was a gleam in his daughter’s eye that couldn’t be dampened by the bright winter sunlight. With an elusive grin, Zane went on to exclaim, “It kind of makes you want to take a ride don’t it!” In a rare display of youthful enthusiasm he told Elise to turn it off and turn it back on again one more time. The engine fired upon command. “That does it,” Zane said! “We’re going for a drive! I think it’s fixed!” He had come to this conclusion because he had removed the electrical harness earlier that day in an effort to apply a liberal dose of electronic contact cleaner from an aerosol can. Perhaps the chemical treatment had dissipated some invisible corrosion. Zane cautiously asked himself, “Could that have alleviated the problem?”

Sadly however the moment was short lived. Zane suspected the problem was more severe than a loose connection when he noted an erratic oscillation emanating from the tachometer gauge. At first the needle would fluctuate violently, indicating that the engine was being revved, even though it wasn’t. Just as abruptly, the needle would settle upon the three thousand revs index. Then it decided on seven. Suddenly the needle would begin to oscillate wildly, only to find solace at another point of reference yet again. The dancing needle was reminiscent of a Ouija Board planchette as it plunged violently back and forth, landing at various random points on the dial as if to spell out some sort of secret cosmic message. Zane pointed this out to Elise and added that he had never seen this happen before. By now the tachometer’s needle was pegged at the red line; but the engine was only idling modestly. “This is an indication that the computer is still at fault,” Zane’s rational mind concluded; but the metaphysical portion of his brain suggested the car had a life of her own. Maybe Little-Toot was communicating from beyond the veil, using the electrics as a conduit? Perhaps it was Little-Toot’s way of saying, “Hi Elise…I missed you!” Whatever the reason, Zane knew it wasn’t prudent to take the vehicle out on the highway for fear of being stranded. To prove this to himself, he once again grasped the flashlight. Zane drew a deep breath as he tapped the computer one last time. Upon impact Little-Toot’s engine abruptly cut out, which was followed by a deafening silence. The magic had departed just as quickly as it arrived. He glanced over at Elise as if to say “it was fun while it lasted.” He explained how the vehicle still wasn’t road worthy. They would have to take her for a drive some other day. Zane knew his daughter understood judging from the look on her face. In the moment, Elise learned how her dad must have struggled to keep the cars running throughout the years. More importantly, Elise realized how fortunate they had been. They were fortunate because the tattered BMW was the primary source of transportation for several years, and she seldom faltered. Thanks to proper maintenance, Little-Toot had faithfully burned up a lot of miles, but now the car was suffering profusely. In a solemn tone Elise said, “I learned how to drive in Little-Toot.” After a small silence, Zane noted that Elise had also been twice returned from the hospital in the rusty car. Once when she was first born, and another when she nearly died from pneumonia. “It was also Little Toot that drove us to Oregon for our honeymoon.” Zane recalled the story internally as an authentic smile brightly flashed across his weathered face. He went on to remind Elise of another meaningful journey. The one where Renee and Elise drove up to Seattle together a few years earlier.

Little-Toot had been sitting in the rain, neglected, for more than three years at this point. It was akin to a Greek Tragedy because the repair would have been painfully simple. It would literally take Zane about ten minutes to complete the task; but now money was the problem. A replacement Motronic Electronic Control Module would cost them an arm and a leg. The black box would set them back $1400. They were just too poor to afford it. The car had unfathomable sentimental value, but now she was a literal mess.

…To be continued


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