The Big Picture

Old friends, old metal, and both will be fine

By Jason Mott

I only ever saw him in passing: a car pulling in and out of a driveway, a silhouette cast against a low-slung sun as I pulled into my driveway at the end of the day. He was a ghost that lived next door, the ghost of the childhood we once shared.

His name is . . .

Well, I’ll keep his name to myself. The important thing to know is that we grew up together. We were only a year apart and he lived across the road from me. If my mother were still alive she could — and most certainly would — recount the complicated country lineage by which he and I were, eventually, cousins.

So throughout our childhoods we were both cousins and friends. We went fishing together, we explored the logging forest and web of logging roads behind our houses together. When we were teenagers he wanted to learn to cut hair, and my shaggy head was his first foray into the craft. It was a horrible outcome, of course. But it got better. After a few months he was one of the best barbers in town and my haircuts were always free.

Fast-forward to adulthood and, for a while, we were still good friends. He moved to a neighboring town and made a life as a barber. My haircuts were still free. When we saw each other we talked about the trinity of 20-something discussion topics: women, cars and music.

Fast-forward another few years and, as suddenly as it can only happen in retrospect, everything changed. I heard he got diagnosed with diabetes. The next time I saw him he was as thin as a rail and chain smoking like the old furnace my father used to heat our home once upon a time. He spent some time in the hospital — I can’t remember exactly why, other than to say that it was related to the diabetes. When he got out of the hospital I asked him how he was doing and, just as he’d said about anything else in life, he allowed, “I’m fine.”

But things weren’t really fine. And they wouldn’t be for a long time. In fact, maybe never again.

Which brings us to now.

He waved me down about a week after I got my vintage Mustang. I was outside in the garage tinkering with it and heard a voice calling from the distance. A few moments later he was standing in front of me, even thinner than I remembered, pointing at my new car and saying, “Man . . . you’ve really got something here.”

We talked for maybe an hour about the car. Longer than he and I had talked for years. He was excited about it, as if it were his own. I hadn’t heard him laugh since we were in our 20s and it sounded good. It reminded me of simpler days.

Somewhere along the way we got into a discussion about rust. Rust is a very bad thing for cars. Rust spreads and eats away at things. I was concerned about a thick layer of Bondo I had found on the rear of the car. If you’re not into cars, the thing to know about Bondo is that it’s always used to cover up something. It’s the Wonderbra of automotive body repair.

But let’s be clear: I was still happy with the old car I had purchased, but I was also beginning to understand that it was going to be more work than I first thought . . . which is a lesson about life itself, in my opinion.

My friend went out of his way to convince me that the Bondo wasn’t anything to worry about. “Man,” he said, “that’s nothing. I guarantee it. It’ll be fine.” On and on he went, repeating that word again and again whenever I brought up any concern: “. . . fine . . . fine . . . fine.” Everything would be fine in his opinion and, in spite of myself, I began to believe him. Everything would be fine. Maybe it would require a few more hours of work than expected. At worst, it would take more money. But in the Big Picture of things, that’s nothing to be worried about.

That’s all fine.

And then my friend said goodbye and walked home again.

A few days later his mother came over for a visit. She said she’d heard about my car from her son and she wanted to see it for herself. As with him, I hadn’t talked to her in years. We caught up for a while. We exchanged a few memories about my dead mother. We talked about my car. Then she talked about her son.

He was sicker than I knew. Diabetes, bone issues, liver issues, dialysis. “A few months back,” she said, “I expected to go into his bedroom and find him dead. I was afraid to come home some nights.”

I didn’t know what to say to her, so I told her that everything would be “fine.” It was the only word I could think of. It was a piece of her son that I could suddenly give back to her and, to my surprise, it worked. She smiled a wide, toothy, familiar smile that stained my childhood and she laughed and agreed with me and, before long, she went home — promising not to visit again soon.

Then I was alone in my garage with my old car and I stood for a while and stared at their house and tried to convince myself that everything really would be fine. The Bondo would come off easily, the rust would be repaired, my friend would beat the diabetes, get a kidney transplant, his mother wouldn’t find him dead.

Everything will be fine.

Or maybe it won’t.

The thing about it is, I have to believe it. I have to believe that objects in this world can be fixed, that we can be fixed. It’s our willingness to believe in things being fixed that makes us get out of bed in the morning, seek love and find laughter, have children, form friendships, or even just buy old cars and scrape away the paint to find them ailing and, still, not give up on them.

I once heard someone say that hope is irrational.

Well, it is. But so is life.

And maybe we should fight as hard for hope as we do for life.

My old car, my old friend. In the Big Picture, both are going to be fine.

Jason Mott is a New York Times best-selling author, a UNCW alumnus and current UNCW writer-in-residence.

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