Beanery Online Literary Magazine

July 13, 2011

Pinto Man



Mark Sliwa

     The television and VCR were on the blink. I’m a firm believer of selling things while they still work or move. A newspaper ad and I was $700 richer. 

     Three newspaper days later my brother, Brian, said, “Hey, look at this. A 1977 Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV. And it’s only $700.” 

     God forbid keeping that money in my pocket. At the time, my brother and I shared an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina and the vehicle for sale was only one town away. Being a mechanic, he convinced me to take a look.

     One should always be wary of vintage Italian cars. Remember what Fiat stands for: fix it again Tony. Still the passion of an old Alfa Romeo would be hard to resist.

     We showed up at the seller’s house, giving the sports car a walk around before knocking on the door. It appeared solid with little rust—one of the perks of having a vehicle in the south. The man handed us the keys to take it for a spin. It started and stopped, so we made the deal and drove back to Raleigh. At home, I perused the thick service file that came with the car.  The receipts added up to over $8000—arguably 8000 reasons to run the other direction. Still, the purchase price was right and everything worked. 

     The Alfa received an oil change and basic fluids, and for several months it motored around with no worries. Our parents had asked us to visit them in Charleston, South Carolina. Given the track record so far, a five hour trip seemed safe enough. We left Raleigh at 10:00 p. m. on a Saturday night. I thought about asking the Pope to ride shotgun, but settled for a Bible on the dash and blessed myself. 

     The first hour went great. On I-95 south, the car kept a steady clip at 65-70 m.p.h. Here and there a minor shake came from underneath. Going faster, the shake disappeared. Cool—no problem. Soon it became more and more frequent. Pulling over, my brother and I looked at the tires, axles, suspension, etc…all looked good. Back on the road, and ok/fine. Of course the shake came back. I cranked her up to 75 m.p.h. and it drove smooth as could be. Then “ok/fine” happened. The passenger rear wheel snapped off and zinged into the roadside forest. The front left of the car went up in the air and I almost spilled my drink (a Coke, by the way). Orange sparks sprayed off the dragging axle, lighting up the rear quarter glass. This all caused a minor scare, but I got the car to the side of the road intact.     

     A quick observation showed that all four studs sheared off the wheel hub.  Shame on us—tightening the lug nuts should have been obvious. A slight bend to the lower rear fender and some scrapes on the axle housing were the only damages. And, more importantly, no one was close by when this mishap occurred.

     As the studs were completely gone, the spare couldn’t be put on. I-95 south isn’t exactly a cozy place, especially late at night. The resort town of Fayetteville, or Fayette-nam as some people call it, was the next exit.

Luckily, Brian had the keys to his repair shop where a flatbed truck sat. We walked a mile to the nearest store to use the payphone, and he called a friend to meet us at the car. With an hour to kill, we took our time back up the interstate. The friend showed up, took us back to Raleigh, and in two hours time we returned with the flatbed. 

     Just before loading the Alfa, a ratty old Ford Pinto station wagon complete with fake wood trim pulled up. A short, stubby man, sloppily dressed, his beer gut hanging over his belt buckle, got out and started walking toward us. He could see one corner of my car on the ground and asked if we needed any help. He started bragging how he just rescued someone else with a dead battery earlier and received $75 for his troubles. I visualized a shark fin on the Pinto as he went up and down I-95 looking for people to help. My brother said we were fine and thanks for the offer.

I had been looking for wheel/tire that had gone somewhere in the trees.  Finding it in the darkness would be a tall order. Pinto Man noticed this. 

     “I live close by, I can look for it and call you,” he said.

     I stated I’d be returning in the morning but gave him my phone number, figuring a back up couldn’t hurt.

     Brian and I got the car home around 3:00 a. m. At 7:30 a. m. the phone rang. Dead tired, I answered with a sleepy hello. It was Pinto Man. He had found my wheel but said the “boss man” would need $50.00 for it. At first I was pissed off for being blackmailed for my property just hours after losing it. In the pre-Internet era though, Alfa parts were hard to source. So biting my tongue, I said thanks and agreed to meet him the following weekend to make the swap.

     A few days later, I called him and set a time for the upcoming Saturday morning. He gave detailed directions to a garage several miles off the highway where my wheel/tire would be waiting. For whatever reason, I blew off the appointment—pissed again? maybe, fear of going to Deliverance auto parts—probably, or I just wanted to see him to try his luck selling an Italian car part in the deep South. 

     Closure came the weekend after. My father came up to visit and I decided to ride back to Charleston with him. On the way back, I spied the exit number that supposedly led to the aforementioned garage. It was Deliverance auto parts! The garage itself seemed abandoned. Junked automobiles scattered about enmass. A mean looking black Doberman—is there any other kind?—watched from behind a chain link fence. In the middle of the parking lot, sat an old tow truck that matched the garage. And what sat on the truck? My Alfa wheel—jammed in by the rear tow bar! Save for the dog, there was not a soul in sight. I told Dad to pull up to the tow truck and be ready for a quick get away. I jumped out, grabbed what was rightly mine, and threw it in the trunk. The Doberman started barking its head off. With my door shut, Dad floored it. Fortunately, no Pinto came in pursuit.

     The Alfa has since moved on; still waiting to replace the TV.



A Beanery Writers Group Story in Photographs


Memoir Writing Can Elicit Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

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