by Bob Hoover


e came down the back drive just before midnight on Christmas Eve. I was out in the shop, about to call it a night when I heard the unmistakable sound of a Volkswagen running on three cylinders. Bad valve.

It was an early model high-roof delivery van. Bright red with white trim. He pulled up behind the shop. As he shut down the engine it made that unmistakable tinny rattle of a dropped valve seat. Good thing he shut it off when he did.

There was a barber pole logo painted on the door: "NicEx" A young old-guy jumped out, came toward me offering his hand. He was wearing a snowmobile suit, red and white like the van. I could smell the engine. It was running 'way too hot.

"Fred Dremmer," he said. We shook. He was about my age, mebbe a little more, but young, if you know what I mean... alive. Phony beard though. It was his own but too shiny and perfectly white to be natural. I eyed the get-up he was wearing, took another gander at the door. "Nice ex?"

"NICK ex," he corrected me. "I've got the franchise for this area." He looked around, noted the tumbledown appearance of the shop, victim of an earthquake that never happened, thanks to politics. "Are you still building engines?" he asked.

"Not so's you'd notice." It was pushing on toward midnight and colder than a well-diggers knee. His shoulders slumped down.

"But you used to build engines," he said hopefully. I didn't deny it. "They said you offered a lifetime warranty." Actually, I didn't offer ANY warranty. Most of the engines I built were high-output big-bore strokers. A firecracker doesn't carry any warranty either. And for the same reason. But if I built it, I promised to fix it if they could get it back to the shop. And if the problem was my fault, there was never any charge. So I told him, "Something like that."

"My van has one of your engines," he said. "In fact, I think all the franchisees use them." "This I gotta see," I laughed. He ran around to get the church-key but I'd popped the engine hatch with my pocketknife by the time he got back. I twisted on my mini-maglite and sure enough, there was 'HVX' stamped right where I'd stamped it. It was one of the lower numbers, a bone stock 1600 I'd built back in the seventies. Big sigh.

"Can't you fix it?" I gave him a look and he shut up. It had just gone midnight, clear and cold and silent. The on-shore flow had increased, bringing with it the charred smell of disaster. About a mile to the west of me a family's house had caught fire and burned to the ground only hours before. Merry Christmas indeed. I straightened up, knees creaking, and went to fetch the floor jack. As I moved away from the vehicle the guy got all excited, plucked at my arm. "Really, it's very important? " I snarled something appropriate and he let me go, stood like a dejected lump in his idiotic outfit. He brightened up when I came back towing the floor jack, a pair of jackstands in my other hand.

"You're going to fix it?" If he was a puppy he would have been licking my face.

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