Breakdown

breakdown-1
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Frank Sinatra’s voice emanated from the cheap megaphone like a crackling squeal. The loudspeaker was ancient and mortifyingly heavy. Jim held it out the window of his newly repaired 1974 Ford Pinto, angling it towards the car’s speakers to pick up the music. He wore a borrowed tuxedo (probably a bad idea) and cheap cologne (definitely a bad idea), and inevitably, he found himself trying to figure out how the hell he’d gotten here.

It was the Pinto’s fault. Two days ago, the car started having fitful spasms on the way to Thunder Bay. The clanking started first, followed by a rhythmic, high-pitched vibration. And then, in a gas station parking lot, the Pinto heaved a last shuddering breath and died.

If there was one thing Jim hated, it was car troubles. They offered up the perfect opportunity to exert your manliness and illustrate your broad knowledge of how things work. Except that Jim didn’t have a clue about engines. Which is why he hated car problems.

But, he’d been lucky. If the car had to break down somewhere, his old home town was as good a place as any. Jim hadn’t been back since graduating high school. The town was a little faded, but the same.

Ned’s auto mechanic garage was still the only one in town. The rusted-out warehouse crouched beside an oil-stained parking lot hadn’t changed much, except now half of it had been transformed into a computer repair shop.

Ned examined the Pinto sagely. He was shorter and more whiskered than Jim remembered.

“Poor beast is overtired. I’ll have her ready in a couple hours. Good to see you, Jim.”

Jim nodded. “You too.”

And that’s when he saw her.

She was perched on a high stool, holding a flashlight and peering into the bowels of a dissected computer. Her ferociously red hair was bundled up under a snap back and she wore an oversized gray hoodie. She was chewing gum and humming loudly. Jim recognized the tune but he couldn’t identify it.

He sucked in his breath. “Meredith?”

She caught his eye for a millisecond and smiled warmly before giving him the finger. Her smile. He’d forgotten about her smile. Jim swallowed, suddenly finding it necessary to lean on the wall behind him for support. Had she recognized him? Jim couldn’t tell if the finger was merely her classic greeting, or a nod to their past relationship.

Ned grinned. “Yep. She rents the other half of the garage to use as her repair shop,” he explained. “She’s pretty damn good with technology. Makes a brisk business fixing up broken doodads.”

But Jim wasn’t really listening. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her deft movements. He flattened his hair and straightened his polo shirt jerkily, as though his arms were being controlled by puppet strings.

In high school, Jim used to test his moves on other girls so he wouldn’t blow it with Meredith. It was like his friend Terry used to say, “Guys speak English, man. The trick is to figure out whatever the hell they speak.”

Jim still hadn’t figured that out. And when he’d finally worked up the courage to approach Meredith, he’d blown it anyway.

He felt propelled towards Meredith by some unseen force. But he didn’t realize he was actually moving until he bumped into an empty oil can that had leapt into his path.

Meredith jumped and swore.

“What?” she demanded, scowling.

“Uh…it’s Jim. We went to high school together.”

Meredith snorted. “Yeah. I know who you are.” She looked past him towards his dejected vehicle. “I never thought you’d be stupid enough to buy a Pinto.”

Her voice was throaty and melodious. The way she said ‘stupid’ made Jim want to hear her call him that again. Which was stupid, of course.

He took a deep breath. “Your hair – it’s red now. Looks good.”

“I’ve always had red hair.”

“Oh,” Jim said helplessly. “But isn’t it brighter now?”

“Nope.”

Jim decided it would be wise to escape back to the other end of the garage. All girls were scary, but Meredith downright terrified him. She was loud, opinionated and didn’t seem afraid of anything. Which was why, when Jim had asked her to prom all those years ago, he’d never dreamed of her saying yes. In fact, he had counted on her saying no.

When she said yes, the only thing that came into his head was that if he knocked her out, she might forget ever agreeing.

“Uh, Jim?”

It was, Ned squatting beside the Pinto looking bemused.

“This car is sprouting more problems every minute. You’d better book a room. This’ll take longer than I thought.”

Jim nodded distractedly. “Okay.”

He stared hard at Meredith’s back. He’d betrayed her, and it might be too late to fix that now.

A series of possibilities ran through his brain. He could break his laptop and get her to fix it. But he knew she would see right through him. It would be like asking her to check his math problems all over again.

“That’ll be a hundred bucks for the diagnosis, Jim.”

Her imaginary laughter filled the garage.

Jim ran a hand across his face. He saw Meredith’s mocking eyes everywhere. Her lithe, ever-restless movements, her unruly hair and her wild gray eyes made him want to touch her to make sure she was real. The way she pursed her lips when she chewed gum was mesmerizing.

No, Jim thought. He’d been given this chance – it was all or nothing. He’d tell Meredith he loved her. If she rejected him, he’d hightail it out of there and never come back.

For once, everything seemed to work in Jim’s favour. When he came back from booking his room, he discovered that even the obstinate Pinto was on his side. Ned told him it would take at least two days to fix her – meaning he’d have time to execute his plans.

Jim borrowed Terry’s dad’s tuxedo, which was too big, and stole a Frank Sinatra CD from the library. He even tracked down his old gym teacher, who lent him a megaphone.

And that was how – when the Pinto was once again road-worthy – Jim ended up parked outside the window of Meredith’s make-shift repair shop, sweating and shaking like a leaf. He rolled down the window and spoke into the megaphone.

“This one’s for you, Meredith. Because I – love you.”

In his panic, Jim hit the alarm button partway through this last sentence. A horrendous, siren-like howl echoed down the street. With a yelp, Jim managed to shut it off, offering a squeaky apology into the megaphone before turning up the music and letting Sinatra take over.

Jim caught a movement in his rear-view mirror. Meredith was staring at him with an expression he dared not interpret.

When the last notes of “Let’s Fall in Love,” faded away, there was a terrifying silence. Slowly, Meredith moved towards the car window.

“That’s my favourite song,” she said.

“I know. I mean – I heard you humming it,” Jim stammered, extricating himself from the car.

“You asked me to prom and then never showed up.”

A statement. Was it a rhetorical statement? Wisely, Jim stayed silent.

“And then you turn up out of the blue years later. And…this?”

“I let you go once without telling you how I felt. I couldn’t do that twice.”

“You didn’t let me go. You threw away your chance,” Meredith snapped.

“I know. I – was terrified. I don’t think I would have asked you then if I thought you’d say yes.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Maybe, but it’s true. I’m so sorry Meredith.”

Meredith smiled a little – that smile that made it hard for Jim to breathe. She put a hand on his arm. “I can’t believe you bought a Pinto.”

“Well, you can thank her for deciding to break down here.”

Meredith smirked. “Oh yeah?”

Jim stared at her. “What?”

Meredith let out a loud, rollicking laugh. “I was sure Ned would give me away. You never wondered why it took so long to get the stupid thing fixed?”

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