|The Cougar And Sexism
2002 by Elizabeth Nelson
I was driving home from my shopping trip and feeling happy with my new party dresses. I planned to look outstanding at my son’s upcoming wedding parties, and I must admit I think I looked rather hot in the dressing room mirror in all four dresses. My mood was high. It was still early, a 6 o’clock warm fall evening, and I was on my last fifteen-mile stretch. Suddenly the noise began…beep, beep, beep. It became incessant. I knew I needed to stop, but I was beside the stretch of guardrail with no safe pull off space. Coming into view was the closed-down summer fruit stand. I clicked on my right turn signal and eased off the road. With a feeling of urgency, I turned off the ignition and sat for a moment, listening and watching to see what may happen.
Gray smoke creeped from under the hood and quickly turned into billows. Expecting to see flames any minute, I reached over the seat, grabbed my dresses, and scooted out of the car. As I backed away from the car, holding my dress hangers high into the air so as not to drag the new clothes on the ground, I noticed a pay phone not twenty feet away at the closed fruit stand. Throwing my dresses over my shoulder, I fumbled in my pocketbook till I found a quarter and called home.
"Hi, Hon, where are you"?
"I am on 16 in front of the fruit stand at Adams Mill."
"What are you doing there"?
"I’m coming from the mall, and I had to pull off the road because the car started smoking."
"Damn it, Elizabeth, didn’t I tell you not to drive that car out of town"?
"Just come and get me, please."
I hang up the phone and lean against the phone stand, feeling my mood drop. Jim is angry, and I guess rightfully so. We did agree that I should not drive this car out of town. This car! What an adjustment I’ve made. From a mint condition, 2000 Cadillac to an almost worn out 1988 Cougar. Sometimes I think Jim doesn’t appreciate my sacrifice, a sacrifice for the kids, for the family. Again I ask myself, how can three adult children need such expensive help at the same time? First there was Jim, Jr., needing a $10,000 loan for an attorney’s retainer for a custody suit. Then Scott’s upcoming wedding, the biggest wedding this small town will ever see. And both of these as Ross starts college, a mere $18, 000 a year. And if that wasn’t enough, Ross needed a more reliable car for college. So there went the insurance check from my Cadillac being sideswiped and totaled by a truck. Thankfully, my sister in North Carolina offered me her old Cougar. I know I convinced Jim that taking the cougar was the best solution, at least until we had a feel for what college expenses were going to run. We got the Cougar to Ohio, but I don’t think it will ever make it back to NC. Okay, Elizabeth, quit being the martyr here. You have a lot to be thankful for. Everyone is healthy; everyone is…My musings were broken by the sound of a car honking and kids yelling.
"Hi, Mrs. Nelson. Nice dresses."
I wave and smile to myself. Students! When you teach in a small town, it doesn’t take many years until you know every kid. Oh, well, they will have fun. On their way to the mall, no doubt.
As I turned to walk back to the car, a red pickup with oversized tires puled up. A dark-haired, good-looking young guy hops out.
"Mrs. Nelson, is that you?"
"I never had you as a teacher, but I thought that was you. Car trouble?"
"Yes, a beep started and then lots of smoke from under the hood. Did you go to Cochran High?"
"When did you graduate?"
"Well, I just got my diploma, about a year late. I got into some trouble and was sent up for almost a year."
"What is your name?"
I recognized the name as one I had heard often at the high school and never in good terms. Always the teacher, I said," Andy, I think it is great you went back to school and graduated. That is not so easy to do." " My grandma sure is happy. I think your car has cooled down now. If you will pop the hood, I will take a look…Been Shopping? Looks like you got some fancy dresses."
"Yes, one of my sons is getting married soon, and I needed some new dresses."
With the upper arm of his body now full under the hood he remarks, "Looks like she overheated."
"My husband should be here in a minute. I had just called him when you pulled up."
"I’ll stay till he gets here."
Honk, honk, "Hey, Mrs. Nelson."
Waving perfunctorily, I turn to Andy, "There sure is a lot of traffic tonight."
"Friday night. Everyone is going to the mall. That’s where I was headed when I saw you standing here with those dresses."
"Here comes my husband now."
With a somewhat serious expression Jim steps out of his sports utility vehicle.
"Jim, this is Andy. He stopped to help me."
"Thanks, Andy. What seems to be the problem?"
"She overheated, but hoses and everything else looks fine."
"I’m not much of a mechanic," Jim says. "I think I will call Triple A."
"Okay, I am going on then." "Thanks for stopping."
"No problem. I thought that was you, Mrs. Nelson, and a lady like you shouldn’t be standing here on this highway alone."
"Aren’t you sweet, Andy!"
Honk, honk, "Mrs. Nelson, Mrs. Nelson."
As I turn to wave again, I see a lady on a bicycle pedaling towards us. Smiling, she stops at the car. "What’s the matter, car trouble? She asks"
"Yeah," Jim says. "We are calling Triple A".
"Don’t do that. My boyfriend is right over there in the house. I’ll get him. He is a diesel mechanic. He can fix anything."
"I don’t want to bother him," Jim responds. "It is Friday night, and I’m sure he is tired."
"No problem. He will be glad to help. He can fix anything on a car. He is a diesel mechanic. I’ll be right back. Pedaling away, she yells back, "He is a diesel mechanic and I know he can fix it. Just hold on."
"Jim, why don’t you call Triple A?"
"Well, she is getting her boyfriend, so I will wait a few minutes. Did you know that kid?"
"Not really, but I have heard his name often at the high school. He was sent up for a year he said and recently received his diploma. He sure was nice."
"You know you. You manage to attract all kinds."
Honk, honk, "Mrs. Nelson. Car trouble?"
Not too happy to be the center of troubled attention, Jim snaps, "I guess we will stand here and wave at all the kids."
"It is Friday evening, and all the kids are going to the mall."
Looking at me with delayed concern, Jim asks," Are you okay, Elizabeth?"
With concern out of the way, Jim abruptly remarks in a tone of annoyance with a hint of accusation, "Why didn’t you drive Ross' car?"
"Are you trying to say this is my fault in some way now that you see I am okay."
"No, but didn’t we agree you would not drive this car out of town?"
"I was only going to the mall, forty minutes away."
"Oh, that is not out of town?"
"Everybody was busy, and I thought … what the heck, I don’t have time to be finding you or Ross to exchange vehicles."
Suddenly another car pulls off. A pretty, young blonde slides out of her car.
"Mrs. Nelson, are you okay"?
"Hi, Jessica. I’m fine. I like your hair. How is college"?
"Great. New dresses?"
Jim, noticing my foolish appearance for the first time, "Why are you holding up dresses?"
"When the smoke started, I thought the car might catch on fire, and I didn’t want my dresses to burn up."
"Elizabeth, put those in my car. You look ridiculous holding up party dresses on the side of the road."
"Jessica, thanks for stopping, Hon," I laughingly say.
"No problem. If you are sure there isn’t anything I can do, I’ll go on."
"No, we will probably call Triple A."
"Okay, I’ll see you later."
"Work hard in college and have a little fun too."
"You bet", she giggles again as she pulls away.
He turns toward the rattling noise to see an old model Toyota with one headlight bashed in and a dangling fender pull up in front of the cougar. The car door opens and the blonde-haired bicycle rider steps out proudly smiling.
"This is my boyfriend, the diesel mechanic. He can fix anything."
"Hi," her boyfriend says. "I brought some water."
He looks under the hood and performs all the usual ritual men do under a hood of a car. He and Jim exchange the expected comments. "Oil okay. Hoses look good."
Honk, honk, "Hi Nelson."
The lady turns to me and in a low voice, like she doesn’t want the men to hear, asks, "Are you and him traveling together?"
"Traveling together?" I repeat rather puzzled.
With a corner grin and excitement in her eyes, she says, "Yeah, I notice your license is North Carolina and his is Ohio."
"Oh, no. This is my sister’s car. A couple of months ago my car was totaled, and my sister in North Carolina offered me her vehicle for awhile. This is my husband. We live in town."
Rather disillusioned and seemingly uninterested now, she responds in a flat, boring "Oh."
Suddenly I feel middle age and ordinary like I had missed out on adventure and intrigue that were obviously commonplace in her life. After all, her boyfriend was a mechanic, not just any mechanic, but a diesel mechanic.
Honk, honk, "Mrs. Nelson."
"All the kids seem to know you real well," she quizzes.
I hesitate to reply and add to her already-ruined impression of what we two were doing traveling together, but a teacher can’t resist the urge to give information or clarify misconceptions, so I told her. "I am a teacher."
I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t reply with a high pitched, "Oh really" that was filled with respect, but rather a "You’re kidding" full of intonations of how boring, how monotonous, how responsible."
My thoughts are interrupted by her boyfriend, "Looks okay to me. I don’t see any leaks from the water I put in. I think you might try getting home now. She probably overheated."
Jim gives me that do-you-have-any-money look. I reach in my billfold and discreetly pass a ten to him. Moving the ten toward our diesel mechanic, Jim says, "Thanks a lot."
"No, no. I wouldn’t think of taking any money. I only hope that someone would stop to help me or my woman here."
"Please" Jim responds, "for your time and inconvenience."
"No way," he answers.
"Well, thanks a lot", Jim replies.
We watch them drive away. Then Jim turns to me." Okay, you drive and I will follow you."
I pull onto the highway and for a few minutes the old Cougar seems fine. Then…beep, beep. Quickly I pull off onto a slight incline area. Jim pulls in behind me. Before I can get out, he is at my window. "What happened."
"The darn thing is beeping like crazy again."
Impatiently he snaps, "Get out." After a moment or two of staring at gauges, he concludes that he will go with his original intention and call Triple A. At that moment the smoke starts. He reaches toward the automatic window button to lower the windows, so he can hear any noise better. Several times he presses the passenger window button and nothing happens. He looks at me for an explanation.
Hesitantly I explain, "The window on the passenger side won’t roll down. It kept coming off the track, and I told the repair shop to put it up and fix it so it would stay up permanently.
"Oh, that is nice," he not so nicely replies. "Hell," he snaps, I’ll leave the damn thing and call Triple A."
I observe that Jim is moving his hand to turn off the ignition. I yell, "When you turn off the car, don’t turn the switch to lock and take out the key."
With puzzlement he asks, "Why?"
"The ignition switch is somewhat stripped, and if you turn it to lock, you can sit forever trying to turn the ignition on, so I just leave the key in the ignition and never turn it to lock."
"You are telling me you always leave the key in the car unlocked?"
"I always leave the key in the car, but I lock it and carry a spare key in my pocketbook to unlock the car."
"Of course, dear, that makes perfect sense. What happens one day if you forget your spare key?"
"Oh, that isn’t a problem because Ross discovered that if you pull up on the passenger door handle 8 times the door will come unlocked. Something is definitely wrong with that door. Seems I recall my sister said it had been hit once"
"I see. So what happens if, out of habit mind you, you accidentally turn the key to the lock position? You are stranded because you can’t get the key out or on."
"Not really, because Ross also discovered that if you take an umbrella and wham the key in the ignition with the butt of the umbrella handle the key will eventually turn on, so I always keep an umbrella in the back seat. You know, Jim, I‘ve been impressed with Ross’ ingenuity in figuring out these little idiosyncrasies."
"No doubt. You and Ross are quite a pair. And don’t try to change the subject."
Honk, honk, "Car trouble, Mrs. Nelson?"
"These damn kids." Out of frustration Jim lays on the horn as if to get even, but there is no sound. I thought to myself, oh, dear, here it comes.
"Elizabeth, I know I shouldn’t ask, but is there some unique way to blow this horn like turning on the windshield wipers?"
"No, the horn doesn’t presently work. One day I’m driving along and out of the center of the steering wheel jumps this spring, and suddenly I have all this stuff hanging down in my lap. So I said to…."
"Let me guess. You went to Ross?"
"Of course, and he got everything back in the steering wheel, but he said the spring was sprung and if I wanted to have a horn, buy a new spring and he thought he could fix it, but…"
‘Don’t tell me. You decided a horn is a luxury you didn’t need."
"Something like that."
"To hell with it. I’m going to lock her up and call Triple A. Maybe you will be lucky and a car thief will figure out your pull-up-on-the handle 8 times trick."
I see him lift his foot to press the emergency brake down. I yell, "Jim, don’t put on the emergency brake."
"God knows, I’m afraid to ask, but why?"
"The handle that controls the emergency brake came unhooked from the cable that controls the brake, so if you put the brake on you can’t release it until you get down on your knees and reach up under the dash and find the release mechanism. That is a real pain, so I just don’t put it on."
"Dare I ask what you do if you park on a hill?"
"That is simple. I don’t do that. I find a flat parking place. I figure walking is good for me."
Jim says nothing. He is simple staring at me, not with a grin and not with a frown but with a blank, defeated look. I’m thinking to myself. He will never understand. This is a man who prides himself on being neat and orderly with everything in working condition. This is a man who never drives a vehicle over two years old. This is a man who drives not any ordinary car but one with all the amenities: push button windows, leather seats, seats that heat up, state of the art security system, on and on. This is a way of life for him. He doesn’t understand me, my make-do approach. Finally he speaks.
"Elizabeth, how do you live like this?"
"Well, Jim, what can I say. It’s …it’s… it is what a woman comes to."
Not really listening to my answer, he locks the Cougar, turns to me and says, "Get in my car."
As I relax in his plus seats, he calls Triple A.
"This is Jim Norton. My wife’s car, an 88 Cougar, is sitting on 16 about 10 miles out of town. I’ll drop off the key at your office. Now there is a key in the ignition…oh, you know about this car. I guess you probably know where to tow it too. Fine"
Jim says nothing for a few minutes, but I notice his expression has changed to one of concern mixed with a bit of guilt.
‘Hon," he says softly," I think it is time we looked for a new car for you."
"No, I don’t think I want to do that yet. Remember we agreed to wait awhile. Besides I kinda’ like old Cougar. We understand each other. A relationship like ours… well, it takes time to develop."
"Please, don’t talk to me about relationships right now. I’ll start looking around next week for a car and when you get out of school in the afternoon maybe you can look too.
I laugh. Smiling now, Jim says. "What’s so funny?"
Lovingly I reach over, rub his knee, and gently kiss his cheek. "You know, you are my diesel mechanic."
"What in the hell are you talking about?"
"Never mind. You wouldn’t understand."
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