Friday, September 14, 2007


That he startled me is an understatement. We were in Christiansburg, Virginia, temporarily stranded on our trip to Memphis, the Jeep Liberty having been towed in to this dealership. And there he sat - cap on his head, legs crossed, with The Detroit News in his hands. As we were ushered into the waiting room, he was the first thing we noticed. The room was empty except for a few chairs, a TV, a coffee machine - and him.

I’m not sure why he was there. Maybe they put him there as a joke, to jolt unsuspecting customers. Maybe, on the other hand, he was placed there to keep customers company in the long hours of waiting for a car repair to be finished. Maybe he walked in one day, found a comfortable chair, and decided to stay. I never asked.

So there the three of us sat, Ed, me and this smiling "man," watching TV (which was surreal on its own to us, having had no TV to speak of since we moved in December), reading a very limiting collection of magazines (TV Guide and Popular Mechanics were the most common offerings), and trying to quell our mental cash registers ringing up the potential repair dollar signs. I kept seeing the “dummy” out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not talking about Ed. Nobody had mentioned his name, so I had to create one. I decided to call him Bill. Big Bill. Because that’s what we’ll have when we leave here, I thought grimly.

Big Bill never moved. He sat through our changing all the TV channels - weather updates on the record heat wave we would meet in Memphis, politics, the Disney channel morning kids’ shows, all the commercials - without a word of protest. Big Bill was easy to get along with. He didn’t complain about the volume or our channel choice or our bored conversation. He just sat there, with that satisfied grin on his face, and the whitest teeth I have ever observed in a mechanic.

We shortly thereafter welcomed more customers into our waiting room sanctuary. A young mother came in with two little girls, about 4 and 5 years old. She was getting her horn fixed. “My husband says,” she told me as she tried to entertain the girls, “that I’m the only one in the world who uses her horn so much that it breaks.” The girls were well behaved, armed with coloring books and crayons. For about an hour, we temporarily shared our world with these people, then would part and never see each other again.

When the three of them came in, I don’t know if the girls were actually frightened to see Bill there, or if the mother was worried that the girls might be frightened, or if the mother herself thought it was spooky, but she took a little pink raincoat from one of the girls and threw it over Bill’s head. “There!” she said briskly. “He can be kind of scary, so we will just cover him up.”

So there we sat - a mother, two little girls, and Big Bill with a pink raincoat over his head. I didn’t know about our new acquaintances, but to me, Bill was a lot more scary with his head hidden and his body sitting there than he was normally with his full head of hair and sparkling white smile.

Occasionally a mechanic would come in to get a cup of coffee and see if we needed anything. One mechanic seemed concerned about the raincoat and wanted to know if he should remove Bill while the girls were there. The mother said, oh no, he might have scared them at first, but the raincoat took care of everything. Yep - old decapitated Bill was not scary at all. Uh-huh.

When the mother and her little ones left, they forgot the raincoat. I had to grab it and run after them with it, catching them just as they were leaving the building. As I sat back down, I looked over at Bill. He seemed happy to be back to normal. I imagine it was hard to read The Detroit News in the dark.

I think in the end, Big Bill was there to reassure. Worried about a huge charge for your car repair? “Don’t worry. Be happy,” as the song goes. Your car will get fixed by cheerful mechanics who spend their free time reading up on the latest news from the car industry and brushing their gleaming teeth. Meanwhile, you will never be stuck in the waiting room all by yourself, as he will always be there to keep you company, pink raincoat notwithstanding.

The funny thing is that it was all true. Our car was repaired by cheerful mechanics who, although I did not inquire about their literacy or their dental hygiene, did keep us informed of their progress and even asked us to join them for their once-a-month cookout at lunchtime. Big Bill will always be in our hearts. And an even Bigger Bill on our credit card. Thanks, Bill, for the hospitality. You take care, now.

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