Rendezvous at Paul’s Place

Henry F. Tonn

In 1976 I accepted a position as a psychologist in Brunswick County, North Carolina, located on the coast, two hundred miles from where I lived in Charlotte. While searching for a home at this new location, I commuted between the two areas every weekend. In those days I owned a Porsche 912, sleek and fast, making the trip not altogether disagreeable. One evening as I was humming my way along a lonely stretch of road at dusk, I noticed a red light flare up on the dashboard. Being totally ignorant about cars, I stared at it perplexedly for a moment, trying to recall what it was supposed to mean. Did red represent oil pressure or generator? I couldn’t remember. Next I noticed the temperature needle moving across the gauge. It finally settled over the H, and the realization that the car was overheating pierced my befuddled brain. Shortly thereafter an acrid smell reached my nostrils, and I quickly pulled over to the side of the road.
    Smoke was pouring from the engine. I got out and lifted the hood and waved my arms about, attempting to clear the smoke, then peered carefully into the engine. The problem was obvious even to a mechanical moron like myself: the fan belt had come off and had been ripped to shreds. I knew that I had an emergency fan belt in the trunk of the car and a set of emergency tools—compliments of the Porsche corporation—but I had no idea how to use them. I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere and completely inept at remedying the situation. I decided that I would hitchhike to a nearby service station—if there was one to be found at this hour—and procure whatever help was available.
    Leaving the hood of the Porsche up to advertise my plight, I stepped to the road and waited for cars. There were none to be seen in either direction. Crickets chirped in the surrounding marsh grass, and the sky steadily darkened. Finally, off in the distance, several headlights appeared. They crept closer and closer until soon I could decipher that the first set belonged to a passenger car and the second to a transfer truck. I stuck out my thumb as they zoomed past, followed quickly by two more cars. No one stopped, and the wind ruffled my hair as they receded into the distance. Quietude again settled over the area, and I heard the cry of some sort of animal in the woods. v     Rather wistfully I watched the red specks of the tail lights get smaller and smaller as they were slowly swallowed up by the gathering darkness. I began to worry about my plight and wondered how long I would have to wait here before further traffic passed. Suddenly, I saw one of the red specks detach itself from the others and pull to the right, onto the side of the road. The other specks continued. The red speck disappeared and was soon replaced by two white specks: headlights. They grew larger and larger: the car was returning!
    It drifted up to where I was standing and then pulled off to the opposite side of the road. It was a large green Oldsmobile. A round, fat face with a mop of greasy red hair poked out of the window.
    It grinned.
    “What the hail’s wrong with yer car?”
    “Fan belt broke,” I replied. “I don’t know how to put another one on.”
    “Yer fan belt broke?”
    “Uh huh.”
    “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout ferrin cars,” the man declared.
    “That makes two of us.”
    “Not a damn thing,” he said.
    “Mmm hmm.”
    “What kinda ferrin car is that, anyway?”
    “A Porsche.”
    “A who?”
    “A Porsche. It’s from Germany.”
    “Yep. That’s one of them ferrin cars all right,” he confirmed.
    “It sure is.”
    “I don’t know a damn thing about ferrin cars,” he repeated.
    “Do you know anybody around here who does?”
    “Do you want me to look at it?” he offered.
    “I thought you don’t know anything about foreign cars.”
    “Not a damn thing,” he said, opening his door and stepping out. He was short and squatty, around five five, and pudgy, wearing a maroon silk shirt, tight white pants, and cowboy boots. He paused to light a cigarette and then strutted across the road, bowlegged, waddling like a duck, cigarette dangling from his mouth. “Not a damn thing,” he repeated. “Which end is the motor on?”
    “The rear,” I responded dubiously. “The hood is already up.” With the cigarette still dangling from his mouth, the man stuck his head into the engine compartment. A woman with a baby in her arms slid across the seat of the Oldsmobile and watched the proceedings with interest.
    He pulled his head from the engine and regarded me for a moment, pulling furiously on his cigarette. “Can’t see a damn thing,” he pronounced. “Don’t know a damn thing ’bout ferrin cars.”
    “Do you know anybody around here who does?”
    “If I could get a good look at it, I might be able to figure ’er out,” he said. He pulled out his cigarette lighter and lit it. His head again disappeared under the hood.
    “Hey! Be careful!” I said with alarm. “There’s a lot of gas fumes in there.”
    “Yep,” the man said at length. “It’s yer fan belt. Came off.”
    “Do you know anybody around here who can fix it?” I repeated, feeling impatient. No other cars had passed by.
    The man pondered for a moment. A breeze rustled the trees behind us. Two cars sped past, and it became quiet again.
    “Paul could fix it,” he pronounced.
    “Yep, Paul. Paul can fix anything.”
    “Where is Paul located?” I asked.
    “Paul could fix this here ferrin car, can’t he, honey?” the man called out across the road.
    “Whatcha say, honey?” she asked, poking her head out the window.
    “I say, Paul could fix this here ferrin car, can’t he?”
    “Paul can fix anything, honey,” she replied.
    “See there?” the man said, grinning. “Paul can fix this here car.”
    “Paul can,” I said.
    “Yep, Paul. He can fix the car.”
    “Paul can fix the car,” the woman hollered across the road.
    “Yep,” the man repeated, “Paul. He can fix anything.”
    “I’m sure glad to hear that.”
    “I don’t know a damn thing about ferrin cars myself.”
    “Where exactly is Paul?”
    “Yonder.” He pointed.
    I followed the direction of his finger. “There’s only trees over there.”
    “No, yonder.” He raised his finger. “’Bout two miles as the crow flies.”
    “I’m not flying a crow.”
    “‘Bout seven miles by car.”
    “I see.”
    “Trouble is,” he continued, shaking his head, “he may not be open this late.”
    I looked at my watch. It was eight o’clock.
    “He closes his shop at six,” the man said.
    “Not good,” I replied.
    “Course,” the man continued, “he may be racin’ Sunday and may be gettin’ his car ready for the race. Think Paul’s open this late, honey?” he hollered to his wife.
    She considered the question for a moment. “He’s racing on Sunday, darling. He’s probably getting the car ready tonight.”
    “See there?” the man said. “He may be racin’ on Sunday. We can drive over there and see. Ain’t like you got no other choice noways, do you?”
    “You got that right,” I agreed.
    “I’ll be glad to drive you.”
    “That’s mighty neighborly of you.”
    “Ain’t nothin’. I was just goin’ to my old lady’s mama’s anyway. I’d rather do anything than see my old lady’s mama. She’s crazy as hail. Y’all hop in the car.”
    Five minutes later we were winding our way through back roads toward Paul’s garage. The man kept up a continuous stream of chatter as he drove, one hand on the steering wheel and the other gesticulating in the air. From time to time the ash from his cigarette fell on the seat. His wife, an attractive woman with long dark hair and a lovely complexion, nodded her head approvingly beside him as she bounced a four-month-old baby on her lap. The baby stared at me with huge blue eyes as though I were the first stranger he had ever encountered. Occasionally the baby would let out a gurgle or a grunt, and his father would interrupt his monologue for a moment. “Ya better shut the hail up, young’un,” he would thunder, “fore I slap yer eyeballs.” He would then continue precisely where he had left off.
    The road wound deeper and deeper into the backwoods. First we turned off the main highway onto a paved state road, then to a gravel road, and finally to a deeply rutted dirt road. Weeds, bushes, and moss-hung trees lined the way, along with beer cans, paper, and assorted debris. There were few houses. We turned a curve and came upon a white wooden shack with a dozen cars parked randomly in the driveway. Loud country-and-western music blared through a screen door, and some raucous whoops and hollering could be heard coming from inside. For a moment I had an eerie feeling not unlike what Joseph Conrad must have experienced on his voyage up the Amazon River. It seemed as though I were leaving the last outpost of civilization and entering primeval, uncharted territory. I prayed that the car did not blow a tire or the engine fail. We would surely be killed.
    “That there’s the party hole,” the man informed me, flicking ash out the window. “Used to party there myself right smart. Quit doin’ that when I got married, didn’t I, darlin’?” He patted his wife on the knee.
    “That’s right, darling,” she replied, giving him an affectionate gaze.
    All of a sudden we broke into a clearing, and a large, well-lit garage appeared on the right. Several pickup trucks were parked in front, and a considerable amount of activity was taking place inside. My garrulous driver let out a whoop of delight. “See? I told you Paul would still be open. He’s got a race on Sunday. Gettin’ that mother ready.”
    He was out of the car almost before it had lurched to a halt, strolling up the driveway, chattering away happily, lighting another cigarette. “I brought you some business, Paul. I swear to God I did. This here fella’s got one of them ferrin cars that broke down out there on 17 and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. You know I don’t know a damn thing ’bout ferrin cars, Paul. If it was an American car I could fix it blindfold, you know. But I just don’t know a damn thing ’bout ferrin cars. Me and Martha, we were goin’ to visit her mama and I saw him on the side of the road. Told Martha, ‘There ain’t no service station open this hour. We better go back and help that fella’. But I couldn’t fix it, Paul. You know I don’t know a damn thing ’bout ferrin cars.”
    Nobody was paying any attention to him. Four women were gathered in a circle chatting while their children ran unhindered around the garage in a helter-skelter game of tag. Two elderly women sat side by side in rocking chairs, silently knitting. In one corner of the garage, an orange racing car was raised five feet in the air, and a weather-beaten gray-haired man stood under it staring contemplatively at a wheel axle. Beside him two teenagers slouched and smoked and stared vacantly at the same wheel axle. A husky male in his twenties stood near the car wiping his hands with a dirty cloth. Several other cars were lined up in the garage in various states of repair.
    “The damn fan belt came off, Paul,” the man continued happily. “I swear to God. Just tore all to hail and threw stuff everywhere. He says he’s got another fan belt in the trunk and some tools to fix it with, but I’ll be damn if I kin figure out how to get that front piece off. You know how to fix them ferrin cars that are weird, don’t you, Paul? I mean, it’s weird, Paul. Ain’t like my car atall.”
    “Say you got some tools in the car?” one of the slouching teenagers asked me, squinting through a screen of smoke from his cigarette.
    “Yes, they came with the car,” I replied.
    The teenager nodded and went back to staring at the wheel axle.
    “What kind of car is it?” the burly man in his twenties asked without looking in my direction. He was still wiping his hands on the cloth.
    “A Porsche.”
    “What the hail’s that?”
    The man who had driven me to the garage let out a whoop of joy. “That’s exactly what I asked! Asked the same thing! It’s from Germany. Ain’t it from Germany?” he asked me.
    “Right. It’s a German sports car.”
    The other slouching teenager regarded me with a flicker of interest. “How fast will it go?”
    “Not very fast,” I admitted. “It’s got a small engine.”
    “Go fix it,” the gray-haired man said, not looking away from the axle.
    Everything came to a halt. The women stopped talking, and the grandmas stopped knitting.
    “Hoyle!” the gray-haired man called out impatiently. “Go fix it.”
    A skinny, sandy-haired youth I had not noticed before suddenly popped up from behind one of the other cars. “Hot damn!” he exclaimed. “We’re gonna make some money, Grady!” He clapped his hands together eagerly. A shorter, younger teenager popped up next to him. He seemed just as excited.
    “Better take the wrecker,” the man under the car instructed, now beginning to apply a wrench to the wheel axle.
    “Hot damn!” the teenager repeated, doing a quick dance step at the entrance of the garage. “Gonna make some money, Grady.” He turned to me. “If you’ll wait down there on the road for us,” he instructed, “we’ll pick you up with the wrecker. It’s out there in the field and you might step in something if you follow us.”
    “Okay,” I replied, nodding. I turned to the man who had brought me there. “I certainly appreciate this. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t come along.”
    “Weren’t nothin’,” the man replied, grinning widely. “Nothin’ atall. I told you they could fix it. I knew it all the time.”
    “Well, you’ve been very helpful. I hope I can return the favor some time.”
    “Weren’t nothin’ atall,” he repeated. “I just don’t know a damn thing ’bout ferrin cars.”v     I watched the two teenagers pick their way across the field to the wrecker, start it up, and switch on the headlights. Then, after a pause, they turned on a circular blue light overhead, and the night was lit up by its stroboscopic color. Next, with a mighty roar, the truck tore out of the field, spun briefly on the dirt road, achieved traction, shot ahead, screeched to a halt just long enough to allow me to clamber in, and then tore off down the rutted road, bouncing and jouncing each foot of the way. The tall, skinny teenager drove, one arm draped over the steering wheel and the other hanging out of the truck, singing a country-and-western song. I didn’t recognize it. His friend, seated next to me, babbled into a CB radio, rifling forth numbers in a strange, mystifying jargon that I had never heard before. At one point he paused long enough to give me a toothy smile and point the microphone in my direction, saying, “Wanna talk?”
    “No, thanks,” I replied.
    “It’s real fun,” he assured me, and returned to his babble.
    As we approached the white wooden shack, the skinny teenager started blowing the horn, off and on, off and on. Several young males burst through the door, cursing, and flipped him the bird. He continued to blow his horn as we disappeared around the corner, then both boys broke out into laughter. “Old Randy’s got a bad mouth, don’t he?” the driver said.
    “Yuh,” Grady replied, hardly missing a beat on the CB radio.
    “Um,” I finally asked, “do you know anything about foreign cars?”
    The skinny boy answered matter-of-factly, “I know ’bout all kinds of cars.”
    “Was that Paul under the wheel of the car?”
    “Yes sir. That was my dad,” he informed me proudly.
    “It sounds like nobody has ever heard of a Porsche before,” I observed.
    “Can’t say as we have,” he admitted.
    “Well, why do you think you can fix it if you don’t know anything about it?”
    He dismissed my question with a wave. “I can fix anything. I’m Paul’s son.”
    They pulled out into the main highway and rocketed through the night at eighty miles an hour.
    “Let me know when you see your car,” the boy said.
    “Okay,” I replied. “There it is!”
    The wrecker screeched to a halt, and I was nearly thrown through the window.
    “Sorry about that,” the boy apologized. “Have to adjust these brakes a little mite.”
    He pulled the wrecker in front of the Porsche, and both boys tumbled out to stand in front of my car, waiting. “Let’s see what we got,” Paul’s son said.
    “Um, the engine’s in the back,” I informed him skeptically.
    Unperturbed, both boys strolled to the rear of the Porsche and again waited patiently. I opened the door and pulled the latch. Paul’s son switched on a large flashlight he had brought, and he and his friend disappeared underneath. For fifteen seconds the two boys evaluated the situation. Then Paul’s son pulled his head out and addressed his friend. “This is a Volkswagen,” he announced. “Ain’t no Volkswagen, but it’s the same principle. We just gotta take these here off and slip on the fan belt and then put ’em back just like they are. Ain’t nothin’ to it.” He turned to me. “You got that fan belt and the tools?”
    I unhitched the front hood and delivered the tools and fan belt into his hands. He spread the tools in their pseudo-leather container on the grass and inspected them, pausing from time to time to scrutinize the part of the engine they would be working on. Then Paul’s son said, “We’ll need to use this here one and those,” and slid the tools out of the pouch. They tackled the engine as a coordinated team, one unscrewing nuts and bolts while the other supported. When the first section came off—after considerable tugging—it was placed with care on a piece of cloth. The second section came off more easily and was placed directly over the first. The third was placed on the second. Finally the broken fan belt was removed and the new one slipped into place. Then they fitted each dismantled part into its original position and tightened everything. Paul’s son turned to me and said, “Okay, crank ’er up.”
    I climbed into the Porsche and started it.
    The engine hummed smoothly.
    “Turn ’er off,” he said.
    One more adjustment.
    “Crank ’er up.”
    The engine hummed smoothly again.
    “Turn ’er off.”
    “That’ll do it,” the boy announced, and dusted off his hands. He and his friend placed the tools back into the pouch with the same thoroughness and then shined the flashlight over the area to make certain nothing had been overlooked. They also checked inside the engine carefully before slamming the hood shut. Paul’s son picked up the tools and the mangled fan belt and asked, “Where do these go?”
    “Under the tire in the front,” I directed. “In the corner. I’ll take the fan belt.”
    “Naw, I got it,” he said. He tucked the pouch of tools in their appointed place as though he had been working on Porsches all his life and slammed the hood shut. “She’s ready to roll now,” he declared.
    “I certainly appreciate it. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”
    “Weren’t nothin’.”
    “How much do I owe you?”
    “Be fifteen dollars.”
    I took out my wallet and gazed into it with horror. I only had thirteen dollars. I spread the money out before him. “I can give you thirteen dollars in cash or mail you a check,” I said. “Which do you prefer?”
    He looked a bit skeptical. “Shouldn’t oughta be drivin’ at night without no money,” he lectured. “Never know what might happen.”
    “I’m beginning to learn that,” I agreed.
    “Give us the ten. You keep the three.”
    “I’ll be happy to mail you a check for the rest of it,” I offered.
    “Naw. This is good.” He and his friend began to move toward the wrecker. “Y’all come see us again.”
    “Well, I hope not,” I replied, smiling.
    “Yeah, I reckon.” The two boys climbed into the wrecker. With a final wave Paul’s son gunned the motor into action, flipped on the gyrating blue light, and roared onto the highway. Soon the wrecker was picking up speed rapidly and moving off into the distance. I watched them until they disappeared, the darkness and the quietness of the country settling over me again.
    “Now the damn thing probably won’t start,” I muttered as I climbed in. But it did, and it accelerated beautifully as I brought it up to a comfortable sixty miles an hour on the flat, straight highway. The boys had done an excellent job.
    “Thank God for the rednecks of America,” I sang out loudly to myself. “Otherwise, where the hail would I be?”

Henry F. Tonn lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his dog, Fred. He is currently writing a memoir of his forty years as a psychologist and hypnotherapist in the state of North Carolina. In his youth he wrote numerous short stories, poems, essays, and novels, which were turned down by all who were literate and discriminating. The present publication indicates he is doing better.

“Rendezvous at Paul’s Place” appears in our Spring 2007 issue.