payday loans

Chapter 1 – Don’t Bank On It (Complete Chapter)

Posted By on June 19, 2009

The wall phone rang violently, knocking the receiver right out of its cradle. That’s usually a bad sign.

After wiping some grease off my hands, I grabbed the swinging device and held it gingerly up to my ear. “Hello, Slim Shambles Auto Rep…”

“Slim!” bellowed a thundering voice. “My timing belt broke and my car’s being towed to your shop as we speak!”

I flinched as I recognized the caller. “Okay, Henry. I’ll see if I can find time…”

“You’d better find the time! I need that car!” A hard-driving businessman, Henry Crankle didn’t know the meaning of waiting in line. “And don’t say you warned me six months ago that the belt was due for changing.”

“But…”

“And don’t even think of suggesting that I might have caused further engine damage.”

“But…”

“JUST CHANGE THAT BELT AND MAKE IT RUN!”

“Okay, but…”

“Oh yes.” He lowered his voice. “I can’t pay you until next month.” The line went dead, leaving me no recourse but to jot Henry’s name down on the already crowded appointment pad. His car was showing up whether I wanted it or not.

It’s happened again, I thought glumly. Arrested, tried, and convicted in under 30 seconds. If only Canada’s criminal justice system could work this smoothly.

Suddenly a loud crash from the front office caught my attention. Rushing in from the shop, I discovered Buck Pincher frozen in time like a deer caught in the headlights. The remains of a full pot of coffee flowed around him on the floor, mingling with shards of glass from the broken carafe. “Buck,” I cried. “What’s going on in here?!”

He shrugged. “Dunno. I was just pouring myself another cup of your tasteless brew when the whole pot fell to the ground. It must’ve had a defective handle.”

I looked at his vibrating hands. “There was nothing wrong with that handle, Buck. I’d say you’re in caffeine shock. That’s got to be your fifth cup in the past hour.”

Buck Pincher is an old friend – I use the term lightly – and that’s the only reason I put up with him as a customer. Whether he’s stealing my sugar cubes or breaking my equipment, he always drives away from my shop with more than he paid for. I handed him a mop from the closet. “Here, clean up your mess. I think Basil has your car ready.”

Buck sniffed indignantly. “Well, it’s taken long enough. As a matter of fact, it’s your own fault I drank so much coffee. There’s nothing else to do around this drafty hovel you call a shop.”

I felt a major headache coming on as I realized once again that the hardest part of being a mechanic was not fixing the cars; it was dealing with the customers. Somewhere within that four-year stint of perdition called Trade School there should have been a course on conflict resolution, or in Buck’s case, crisis management. But my schooling in the trade occurred during the ‘Unenlightened Era’, where we were taught how to rebuild cylinder heads, not get inside the customer’s head.

At that moment, the delivery truck from Herkle’s Auto Parts careened into the parking lot, throwing up a cloud of dust and gravel in its wake. Herk’s driver, young Rodney, threw open his door and extracted his lanky body from behind the wheel. “Hey Slim!” he hollered with a wave. “Got yer thirty cases of antifreeze here. Where d’ya want ’em?”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as my temples began to pound. “Thirty cases! Who ordered that?” But I already knew the answer: it was month end, and Herk’s sales numbers were low again. Somehow, he had the mistaken impression that I was committed to helping his parts store stay profitable. I went over to the truck. “Look, I’m only taking ten cases. Stack them in the compressor room. Take the rest back and tell your boss to smarten up.”

Basil, my technician and sole employee, came out of the shop, wiping his hands on a rag. “Are we having a difficult day?”

I sighed. “You could say that. Is Buck’s car done yet? I need him out of here before he breaks something else.”

Basil chuckled. “He just drove off. Apparently, we’re supposed to send him the bill. He wants a discount; something about compensation for the health-damaging effects of our coffee.”

I closed my eyes in defeat. “Great…just great.” By now the headache had not only arrived, it had moved into the guest room and unpacked its bags. I think it planned to stay awhile.

Basil took the hint and left quietly for lunch. I didn’t feel like eating so I drove a Chevy pickup inside and put it up on the hoist. It needed an oil change; a nice mindless job that I could putter with in peace.

But even that turned into a chore. The truck rocked back and forth in the air above me as I wrestled with a stubborn oil filter that refused to budge. I should have been paying closer attention to what I was doing, but my mind was rehashing the furious activity of the past three months. And suddenly it hit me: what had I been thinking?

On less than a moment’s notice I’d quit my job as a mechanic for a local gas station and started up my own repair shop. It had taken all of two days. On Saturday, I was a mechanic who repaired broken down cars. But by Monday morning I’d become a shop owner who repaired broken down cars and who’d spent his life savings to put his name above the door for all litigating lawyers to see and file for future reference.

Suddenly the filter came loose and hot oil gushed over my arm and onto the floor. I danced around the service bay, hollering my disapproval for all to hear. But I didn’t get a lick of sympathy – just the sound of my own voice echoing back at me.

“Time for a break,” I muttered, wiping my arm with a rag. A cup of coffee would have been nice right about then, but thanks to Buck Pincher that wasn’t going to happen. I went to the small fridge we kept in the corner and took out a soft drink. It was a good thing we didn’t keep anything stronger on the premises.

I sank into a squeaky office chair that’d been welded back together four times, and took stock of my new surroundings. The rented steel frame building was clad with sheets of corrugated metal. It wasn’t the classiest structure, but it held three cars inside and kept most of the rain out. In one corner, a four-post above-ground hoist supported the truck I was servicing. Around the walls stood the typical array of battered equipment you’d find in any automotive repair shop, including a floor jack, some safety stands, a battery charger, and an antique bench grinder.

My landlord, Dutchy Smits, ran a towing company across the street in a similar steel building – he seemed to have a penchant for them. Dutchy gave me the royal tour the day I moved in. “Ja, and in here is the compressor,” he declared, opening a side door into a small room dimly illuminated by a low wattage light bulb. “You will take good care of this, ja? It came from Europe.”

I stared at the strange looking contraption. With its gaggle of pipes and cooling fins projecting in every direction, it looked like something out of a Jules Verne fantasy novel. But I held my tongue. For all his gruffness, Dutchy offended easily.

Surrounded by cases of engine oil (and now antifreeze), the ancient compressor rattled away as it supplied moist air to my air guns and ratchets, ensuring an early demise to their usefulness as tools. I made a mental note to stock up on more air tool oil.

In the middle of the shop stood my pride and joy – a rolling red tool cabinet brimming with tools of every size and description. Foundational to my existence as a professional mechanic, it represented years of careful and deliberate purchasing decisions based on the multi-faceted demands of my chosen profession. My wife blames it more on the multi-faceted talents of the tool salesman. To me, my tool cab was indispensable. To Cookie, it was just a money pit.

My office consisted of a small wooden addition off to one side of the larger shop, with enough room for a battered desk, a few chairs and a coffee table. The dusty front window revealed a glorious view of Slumberland’s industrial area.

I leaned back in my chair as the welds groaned in protest. Yes sir, this was to be my kingdom and I the supreme ruler. Self-employment meant that I could be the proverbial master of my own destiny, the undisputed captain of my ship. My repair facility would become second to none, where motorists from far and wide would flock to have their vehicles serviced under my expert care. No one would question my judgments; none would balk at my modest fees. But today that dream was starting to unravel. Like I said, what had I been thinking?

Just then the jangling of the telephone pierced the air. The throbbing behind my eyeballs sent out warning signals in Morse code, but thankfully it wasn’t another irate customer: it was the voice of my wife. “Hi honey,” Cookie said cheerfully. “How’s it going?”

I glanced down at my scalded right arm. “Oh, same as always,” I replied. “What’s up?”

“Just calling to remind you that you have an appointment with the bank in five minutes.”

I jumped up from my chair, promptly breaking one of the welds. “Yikes, I forgot! Thanks for reminding me.” Slamming the phone into its cradle, I wrestled out of my coveralls and then ran for the steel sink in the corner of the shop. The various cuts and scraped knuckles screamed in protest as I attacked my hands with a gritty hand-cleaner, but I needed to look presentable. It was time to see my banker about an equipment loan.

Fortunately, Basil had just returned from his lunch break. “Watch the shop until I get back!” I yelled, running out the door. “I’m late for the bank!”

Basil waved nonchalantly. He rarely got excited over things the way I did.

I jumped into my rusty GMC pickup and headed for town. Like most guys starting out in business, I was using my own hand tools and some second-hand shop equipment bought with my meager savings. But it was the early 1990’s, and the new vehicles coming out of Detroit at that time were making the changeover to computerized fuel injection. It was the beginning of the end for the carburetor, and as cantankerous as those gas-guzzling devices could be at times, it was a little unsettling to see them being phased out so quickly.

It was bad enough when the Big Three began introducing electronic ignition systems in the mid 1970’s. Now we mechanics were hearing strange words like On-board Computers and Mass Air Flow Sensors, exotic new creations dreamed up in the name of progress by nerdy engineering types who lived in little cubicles above the factory floors.

As a result, every mechanic I knew was slogging through extra training courses at night and on weekends, just to keep up with the changes. On top of that, we needed new diagnostic equipment, and that meant one thing: bring money and lots of it. Hence my trip to the bank.

A quick glance at my reflection in the glass doors of the bank lobby revealed nothing seriously out of place. On the surface I didn’t look too bad, but there’s a problem with working on cars for a living: your clothing, if not your very skin, often reeks of dirty oil fumes and raw gasoline. No doubt the bank secretary smelled me coming long before I approached her desk. She wrinkled her nose and looked up. “May I help you?”

Swallowing hard, I hid my work-stained hands behind my back. “Yes, I’m Slim Shambles and I’m here to see the bank manager about a business loan. I have an appointment.”

The secretary scanned her book and grimaced. “Oh yes, here it is. Mr. Shambles…the mechanic.” She got up briskly. “Please follow me.” At that moment, my work boots caught her attention. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Ah, we’ll be going upstairs.”

I glanced around in confusion, wondering at the secrecy. I whispered back, “Uh, yeah?”

She leaned closer. “There’s carpet upstairs.”

“Uh…okay.”

She glanced significantly down at my feet again, and I finally got the message. It’s a curse of the trade; we are judged by the stains we leave behind.

In the end, the secretary and I came to a mutual understanding, and I suddenly found myself within an expansive office, standing on the subordinate side of an antique oak desk. A black ebony nameplate on one corner spelled out the words Lewis Change, Bank Manager. The gold lettering was impressive, and so was Lewis.

“Mr. Shambles, how good to meet you!” Well-dressed and portly, Lewis stood and reached across his desk to shake my hand. Then he paused. “Excuse me, but why are you holding your shoes?”

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Would you like me to set them down somewhere? You know, in case I have to sign some important papers or something?”

Lewis took a couple of tentative sniffs and shook his head. “No, no, on your lap will be fine.” We both took our seats. “Now, what can I do for you?”

I explained the whole situation, sticking to the basic facts as much as possible. If there’s one thing I can’t stand in my own business, it’s a client who tries to coerce me into giving them what they want. “And did I mention that I’ve been a client here for ten years?” I asked.

“Three times,” said Lewis, frown lines creasing his expansive forehead as he scanned my file. “It says here you have never missed a loan payment.”

I brightened hopefully. “Yes sir! I’m glad to see we’re on the same page.”

Lewis tapped the file folder with his finger. “We’re not, really. From what you are telling me, some significant changes have recently occurred in your financial situation.” He made a notation on my file and peered at me over his glasses. “As of this minute, even your personal line of credit has been revoked.”

My mouth dropped open. “Revoked? But…but why?! What’s changed?”

Lewis folded his hands and settled back into his black leather chair. “Allow me to explain. Three months ago, you were an employee of another company. But now, you are self-employed.” He clucked his tongue and shook his head in mock sadness. “That makes you a credit risk.”

Like clouds parting on an overcast winter’s day, my financial outlook became amazingly clear – it had sunk to cold and bleak. “But what difference should that make?” I protested. “It’ll be the same me making the payments!” I sank back in my own chair. Without that new equipment, my ability to service newer vehicles was doubtful. I needed this loan badly. “If my personal credit is no good, then what do you want?”

Lewis cleared his throat as he inspected the cuticles of his left hand. “The bank requires three years of financial statements showing the viability of your business before we can lend you any funds.” He paused. “Oh yes, and don’t forget the co-signers and your first-born child.”

My mouth dropped open, and my headache, which had been taking a short nap, now woke up screaming for attention. Perhaps that’s why I responded the way I did.

Leaping to my feet, I dropped my boots and hollered, “You want me to produce three years of statements when I’ve only been in business for three months? I thought fraud was a crime!”

Lewis was not used to dealing with irate customers, an obvious indication that he’d never repaired cars for a living. The appointment was over and he showed me the door without so much as a friendly handshake. My only consolation was in knowing that two greasy black boot marks awaited him, should he ever decide to inspect the white carpet on the other side of his desk.

Back at the shop, Basil could read the results on my face. “Hmm,” he said. “No luck at the bank, I presume?”

“Not a penny’s worth,” I fumed.

He picked up a sticky note from my desk and handed it to me. “Dutchy towed in Henry’s car while you were out – something about a broken timing belt.”

I scanned Dutchy’s messy penmanship. ‘Slim – Henry needs a new timing belt, ja? I told him it wouldn’t be more than a hundred bucks, so don’t get greedy. P.S. Remember – the rent is due on Friday.’

I don’t mind it when Dutchy pre-diagnoses the vehicles he tows in. What drives me nuts, though, is the price quote he gives the customer before I’ve even see the car.

Basil took pity on me. “Look, have a coffee,” he said. “I picked up a new carafe at the store during my lunch hour, and I’ve just brewed a new pot.” He reached for his jacket. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Without another word he climbed into his old Fiat and headed downtown. Knowing Basil, I figured he was making a donut run. Comfort food wasn’t a bad idea at a time like this.

I glanced at the coffeepot. Repair shop java can be potent stuff, often strong enough to peel paint. But fresh, deep-fried, sugar-saturated donuts go a long way in detoxifying the brew, so I decided to wait until Basil returned.

Sitting back gingerly in my chair, hoping the remaining welds would hold up, I wondered if I could still get my old job back down at the gas station. I could picture the phone call now…

“Oh hi, Barry, Slim Shambles here…Yes, I’m sure it’s a surprise to hear from me…Say, I was wondering if I could get my old job back…Ah, what’s that?…Yeah, I realize I left because you were turning the shop into a convenience store…Well, no, it’s not that I’m desperate…well, maybe a little desperate…yes, I could work for half my former wages…sure, I can stock shelves…yes, I know I sound like an idiot…”

I shuddered. Would it really come to that? Rummaging through my desk drawer, I found a bottle of aspirin. My headache recoiled in fear, aghast that I would even think of chasing an old friend out the door without so much as a ‘see you later.’ But I was past caring.

Across the road, Dutchy was peering down at me from his office window. No doubt he was wondering why I hadn’t started on Henry’s car yet. I groaned in despair. So much for my vision of the perfect automotive repair shop. Far from being the captain of my ship, I felt like a galley slave on somebody else’s barge.

I was still sitting there feeling sorry for myself when Basil returned, whistling cheerfully as he came through the door. “I see you found the bakery,” I said, referring to the brown paper bag clutched under one arm.

“I did indeed,” he replied. “But I’ve got something else for you first.”

I took the envelope he held out and opened it. It was a bank draft for $15,000 – the exact amount of the loan I’d been after. “What’s this?” I gasped. “Did you rob the bank?”

“Not exactly,” he chuckled. “I simply arranged a little creative financing.” He rummaged through the bag for a cream-filled long john. “On the way back from the bakery,” he mumbled between bites, “I stopped by the bank and took out a loan. You can make the payments.”

I stared at the bank draft. “You got a loan that quickly? But what did you tell them?”

He shrugged. “I merely said I wanted some money to buy equipment to use in my new job at Slim Shambles Auto Repair. They handed me a pen and said, ‘Sign here.’”

“Just like that?” I was astounded. “So let me get this straight – the bank knows you wanted the money to buy the same thing I wanted to buy, right?” Basil nodded cheerfully. “Then why’d they give you the money, but not me?”

“I’m not self-employed,” replied Basil smugly. “I work for you.”

That didn’t make any sense. Everybody knows that if times get tough, it’s the employees who get laid off, not the owners. But then, that’s bankers’ logic for you.

As for me, the teeth of this gift horse had been examined long enough: it was time to ride the nag. So I stashed the bank draft in the cash box and then dialed the number for the tool salesman.

“Oh, by the way,” Basil added. “Lewis says to call him when we get the new equipment. He wants his car to be the first to try it out.”

Kicking my headache out the front door and tossing its bags after it, I made a mental note to order up a new adding machine as well, one with lots of zeros. I would need it to calculate my special repair rate for bankers.

Suddenly my little three-bay shop in the middle of Slumberland’s industrial park didn’t seem so bad after all. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, I’ll get to be the captain of this ship after all.

(Like what you read? Click here to go to Slim’s Bookstore and purchase your personal copy of A Fine Day for a Drive – only $14.95 + gst & shipping!)

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