The electronic strains of “Danse Trepak” from THE NUTCRACKER Ballet sounded its alarm via my senior citizen model cell phone at the ungodly hour of 8:10 am and, two years into retirement from teaching public school, this reminder that the lack of a full 8 hours of deep and REM sleep would chip well more than two years off my life was a rude awakening at best. Nevertheless, defying the predictable vertigo, I trudged to the bathroom to throw on the cotton pants with the elastic waistband, my sturdy Eddie Bauer down, the still-new pair of high-end, gel-insoled athletic shoes with the opalescent aqua stripes and purple laces recently purchased for yoga class, all to brave 3 degrees F to get my car into the shop for its annual physical.
Greg’s Auto had taken over Skip’s Tire and Car Care Center after John Aquino died, and we over here in Little Italy, Erie PA had wondered if anybody could ever replace our guy John and his brothers, all but one of whom had succumbed to cancer. We all pretty much knew the day would come, given the sooty veil of cigarette smoke whose progeny had bound molecularly with the plumes of gasoline and transmission fluid and oil that seeped from the service station into the office. But, all of us had been quite relieved, after grieving the passing of our John, to see new, interlocking carpet squares on the floor, a blonde desk replacing the high counter, and the color of fresh, new air in Greg’s waiting room.
When I arrived, two customers were already seated, and in high spirits. Both of them African-American, I knew from my many years teaching “urban” children that we would be “folks” at the first greeting, and made sure to make some crack about the weather as soon as we saw each other. I also made the typically-Caucasian assumption that, man and woman, they were there together to get their car fixed. My momentary sense of social cool at appreciating the diversity of patrons obviously devoted to Greg’s reputable service was soon humbled; when the woman left the room, I asked the man where his wife could have possibly gone to wait in such bitter conditions. He gracefully explained that he was a law clerk from Cleveland, and his wife was at home.
Greg, however, was an Armenian immigrant. He flipped effortlessly from adequate English to Russian and any number of Eastern European dialects to address delivery men, mechanics, and familiar patrons, each one offering a foreign greeting stranger than the first, each one built to withstand hypothermia of the highest order, all totally unfazed by the cold. Each time the door opened, a blast of frigidity confronted the heating unit, preventing the room from ever reaching a temperature comfortable enough for my small-boned, middle-aged frame which could not seem to hold a single pound of insulation around its heart. Yet, on a day like today, Greg was in his element; time for the rest of us to settle in, and bear up.
I had carried with me to what was sure to be at least an hour of sit-down time the February issue of, as my grandfather Pappy always called it, NATIONAL GEOGRAPH. The night before, its lead article – covering the latest in brain research – had left mine in an electrical tizzy; apparently, there were tens of millions of neurons, axons, dendrites, and synapses, my distant relative the field mouse holding as much data as 25,000 high-def movies in a rodent-sized hunk of grey matter no larger than a grain of salt. Hugging my chest and rocking back and forth, I marveled at Greg’s brain, wondering whether there was a region devoted to instantaneous translation and whether his could fit on the head of a pin. Surely, this speculation would keep me occupied for at least one, maybe two, car inspections.
Of course, I had to apologize for distracting the law clerk from his yellow legal pad and affidavit without making any attempt whatsoever to curb my compulsion to rattle on about the research findings. Pardon me, but did we ever think our brains devoted just one single neuron to the recognition of Jennifer Anniston’s face? He was gallant, and balanced my enthusiasm with wonder at just how they all could have designed anything capable of getting inside the brain in the first place.
We chatted away. He turned out to be an oracle for legal gems like parking your lemon across the street from the dealership and posting “Show and Tell” signs until the dealer fixed whatever you wanted. I offered my standard whine about public education and the costs and benefits of living and working in the town of my birth. We talked about family names, too, and the tendency of the largest clans to stay in Erie for generations. Greg even chimed in, telling us that the business across the street was closing after 45 years, because this generation wanted to sell. I thought about Tony’s Barber Shop, my father’s own business on 5th, surviving 44 years of devoted clientele and ethnic flux, then selling for $7000, it’s concrete exterior now painted brothel red, beckoning encroaching crime. Then, the mechanics and parts delivery men converged in our little waiting area like a committee at the tower of Babel and we returned to our own preoccupations – he, to his affidavit, and me to my magazine.
Having come to the end of the fascinating story of the brain of mammals, I turned to the next feature. Here was a grande photo essay, hallmarked by National Geographic quality, the subject of which was the life memoir of American storyteller and radio persona, Garrison Keillor. Rich and heady, each pictorial image warm with the scent of recognition, I leaned in for the ride; Garrison Keillor, after all, was almost my friend.
Though located a mere four blocks south of Greg’s Auto, the house I had purchased in 1989 was miles from my old neighborhood and precisely one world away. Raised on the east side, one block from both my grandparents, my mother’s sister and her family, and our tiny church meeting hall, my affinity with this American literary genius had begun almost at birth. His was the heart of the Mid-west, mine a largely-unknown Great Lakes port city, but we were borne and bred of the same ilk.
Even Keillor’s most ardent fans and listeners would hardly notice his numerous references over the years to the so-called Brethren, whence he came. But we in the tiny, one room church building on East Ave called the Gospel Assembly Hall always knew.
He was one of us; a non-denominational Christian fundamentalist sectarian, in allegedly happy if totally exclusive fellowship with literal Bible-believers. All twenty-nine of them, when every family member was present, and my family comprising most all. My grandmother, Mammy, two of her four daughters and all of their children, minus one son-in-law who smoked and his two sons by a previous marriage. Oh, and my grandfather, Pappy, excommunicated for railing. And, his eldest daughter, who left right after. But, we were all there, mostly, all the time: Sunday morning, Sunday night; Tuesday night Prayer Meeting, Friday night Bible Study. In junior high, Tuesday and Friday merged into Wednesday, where Mom and I would go every week right following my cello lesson. I’d sit there, biting my nails ‘til they bled, trying to figure out whether to start cleaning my room so I could go to college on permission, or stay in bed dreaming my life away like Mom was fond of saying, particularly when she was running the sweeper.
His sister, Linda, was the steadfast girlfriend of Doug, who was just about the only single person at the Hall not a member of our family. They’d sing together, he playing folk guitar, and often with tears in their eyes from the depths of their earnest souls. We’d all see each other every summer without fail at the annual Eastern Bible Conference of the Plymouth Brethren, where Doug and Linda met. Gary, as he was called, was just that much older than I, closer to my brother’s age and, by his own admission (in the memoirs) being ‘not a good man’, probably ceased attending already by the time I was old enough to notice. But, my parents would greet his parents every year, so my mother was fond of pointing out whenever the subject came up.
No longer aware of the cold or the comings and goings of the various ones in the waiting area at Greg’s Auto, I submerged myself in the parallel life of the famous author of the second featured article in the February issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. I heard my own chuckles pepper the air around me as each familial moment of his life story echoed across my firmament. There is or was no greater a narrator since Samuel Clemens, nor more pithy a commentator since Will Rogers, and I recognized his every word. He was the male counterpart to my female embodiment. His wings unfolded; mine tucked further into my chest. His sphere of influence expanded; mine reduced, like butter in a saucepan. He was bold; I was terrified. Our only mutual fear was nakedness, and nobody could help either of us, then or now.
Keillor closed his memoir with the deft fluency of one who knows how. Here his command of thought in verbal expression peaked with the fullness of a life manifest in total authenticity. I closed the magazine, returning my attention to the room I had entered two and a half hours earlier. My car was finished, its front right level arm replaced, its oil changed, its wiper blades new, its inspection complete. Greg and I made our transaction, the gentlemanly law clerk and I bid a hasty farewell, and I re-entered the blistery cold now seething beneath an ascending sun, carrying my magazine and all of my memories, safely ensconced in the synapses between the axons and dendrites of my own, still-reluctant, ever-anticipating imagination.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
photo of Garrison Keillor by Dennis Tryon/cropped by Ruth Ann Scanzillo, to remove herself.
all rights reserved.