A Stranger's Fiction - Tire Review Magazine

A Stranger’s Fiction

"Who’s that idiot in the parking lot?" I groused, pointing to an odd-looking guy standing beside a red Mazda, looking intently at our shop. "He’s blocking the driveway!"

Quigley did a double take and grabbed his clipboard. "He wasn’t there a minute ago. I’ll go see what he wants."

I poured my sixth cup of coffee with the premonition that this already rough morning was about to get worse.

“That’s weird,” muttered Quigley, coming back in. “When I asked him what the problem was, he said, ‘Anything you’d like it to be.’ Anyway, his car doesn’t run.”

While the crew pushed the Mazda into the shop, the stranger entered the office and stood gawking at his surroundings. I glanced at the repair order and cleared my throat. “So, Mr. …Cogbill, is it? I don’t recognize the name – are you from around here?”

The stranger seemed distracted. “Uh, you could say that.” He ran his finger through the dust on the window sill. “Hmm, note to self,” he muttered. “Create a clean-up crew.”

A little voice told me to tread carefully. We’ve had kooks in the building before, and the fact that he was talking to himself was already a bad sign. “Well, then where’re you headed?”

Cogbill’s face brightened. “Yes, that’s it! Where are we headed?” He spread his arms wide. “Here we are, 10 years later, and it’s time to take stock; time to think about where we’re going!”

My jaw dropped. What was this ‘we’ business? I took a closer look at his wire-rimmed glasses and receding hairline. “Say, do I know you? Are you the new bank manager?”

A silly grin split the stranger’s face. “No, you don’t know me. But I certainly know you.”

He fixed me with a piercing stare. “Ten years ago this month I created you; created this entire shop, for that matter.” He went over to the side door and peered into the service bays. “Wow! I just never thought I’d really be here! Say, you’ve got some nice equipment in there.”

“Created us?” I grabbed the counter for support. This was turning into some kind of nightmare. “What, like we’re some figment of your imagination?!”

The silly grin came back. “Yup. And for a decade you and I have been solving tire and automotive repair problems for dealers, technicians and shop owners right across North America.”

He wandered into the coffee room and gazed fondly at the battered furniture and stained tabletop. “Just like I imagined! Did you know,” he said, turning to face me, “that I used to own a shop just like this?” He inhaled deeply. “Even smells the same. Yes sir, it brings back memories.”

I’d had enough. “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but we’re…”

Cogbill raised his hands. “You’re Slim Shambles. I know! And that’s Quigley, and Basil, and Tooner… and there’s Beanie. They’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with my car.” He sat down in Basil’s chair. “Got any donuts? You always have donuts.”

Just then, Beanie stuck his head into the lunchroom. “Hey Boss; we’re stumped! Got any ideas?”

I looked over at Cogbill, who just shrugged. “Go ahead, Slim,” he said. “Whatever you say’s gonna work.”

Beanie stared at me expectantly.

“Go for it!” Cogbill whispered.

I turned back to Beanie and said the first crazy thing that came to mind. “Static electricity from the right wiper blade has caused the ECM to lock up, Bean. Why don’t you clean the windshield, top up the brake fluid and reboot the computer by putting air in the left rear tire.”

“Will do, Boss!” Beanie said cheerfully.

“See what I mean, Slim? If you say it, it works.” Cogbill laughed. “You guys… you just pull the answers out of your heads. You’re brilliant, I tell you! Or perhaps I’m brilliant…” He paused thoughtfully. “I’m not 100-per-cent sure on that one.”

“Are you saying…” I asked uncertainly, “that I am nothing but the creative whim of an eccentric writer?”

“You tell me,” said Cogbill. “How often do you feel in control of things? Haven’t you noticed how you’re always just in a little over your head in order to heighten the dramatic tension?” He waved a hand dismissively. “But don’t worry; I won’t leave you hanging. After all, we’re in this together.”

I glanced through the window at Beanie, who was under the hood of the Mazda, unscrewing the lid to the master cylinder. Was this really happening?

The stranger leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Look, I know this is a shock, but have you ever wondered why Beanie is still an ‘apprentice’ after 10 years? Or if Tooner is so grumpy, why haven’t you fired him yet? And how come Basil knows the answer to everything?”

“That proves nothing…” I began. “Wait… why do I keep Tooner around?”

“Because he adds color!” replied Cogbill enthusiastically. “Look, consider this: how come you guys manage to solve every single automotive problem you ever encounter? Does that sound like real life?”

He had a point. “Okay,” I conceded. “But how did this all come about?”

He leaned back in his chair. “Like I said, I used to have my own shop. Then one day I discovered I could write funny stories.” He pulled a rolled up trade magazine out of his back pocket and dropped it in front of me. “I wrote a story about a crazy old shop and sent it in to this here magazine… and the rest is history.”

I staggered to a chair and sat down heavily. “S-s-so, you’re actually telling me we’re not real?”

Cogbill smiled. “Oh, you’re real, all right. You’re real to yourselves, to my readers, and of course, to my imagination.” He put his fingertips together. “Let’s just say you’re special.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. “That makes me feel a whole lot better.”

“Eureka!” yelled Beanie from the middle bay, as the Mazda roared to life. Basil and Tooner just stood there, scratching their heads in disbelief.

Cogbill raised an eyebrow. “Any more questions?”

“Well… if this is all a figment of your imagination,” I said softly, “then…what’s the point? Why am I doing this?” I looked around at the dust-covered shelves and stained floor tiles. This was no fancy bank lobby or a spic-and-span doctor’s office. “If you’ve owned a shop like this, then you know how tough it can be.” I shrugged. “Why did you make me a tire shop owner?”

He thought for a moment. “Your world, Slim, represents our world – the world of tires and automotive repair. Like you, we face the daily challenges of running a shop, dealing with unhappy people, and solving difficult problems so that our customers can remain mobile. But you help us do it with a sense of humor. That’s the point.”

“Any donuts left?” yelled Quigley, opening the lunchroom door. “I feel a coffee break coming on!”

“Well, Slim,” said Cogbill as he stood up and shook my hand. “It’s time for me to go. But keep up the good work; my readers often tell me how much they enjoy what goes on around here.” He handed me a business card. “In fact, they tell me it’s the first thing they read when the magazine arrives.”

And with that, he picked up his magazine, climbed into his Mazda and drove away. And I haven’t seen him since.

“Hey,” said Quigley, slurping his coffee. “How come he didn’t pay? You giving away our services now for free?”

“It’s complicated,” I said. I showed Quigley the stranger’s business card. “This magazine here, Tire Review… do we get that one?”

“Nope, but I hear they’ve got this great humor column on the back page. Do you want me to order up a subscription?”

“No, never mind.” It was tempting to check out the stranger’s story. But then again, there are some things in life you just don’t want to know.

Rick Cogbill, a freelance writer and former shop owner in Summerland, B.C., has written The Car Side for a variety of trade magazines for the past 14 years. “A Fine Day for a Drive,” his first book based on the characters from this column, is now available for order at thecarside.com. A collection of his past The Car Side columns is also available at that website.

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