Oil change


This is fiction. It was inspired by this tweet, and written in mild protest of this New York Times piece. It includes a medical supposition that has not yet been established by science; please do not use TedQuarters fiction in lieu of an actual doctor’s advice. 

“Hey, Sammy,” he barked through the cloudy plexiglass window separating the shop from the garage. “How long for an oil change?”

“Ehh… 40 minutes,” called a voice from the other side. “Gotta take the Lexus off the lift and then I’ll take care of it.”

“40 minutes OK?” he asked, turning back to the woman in the doorway. “You can wait here or come back and get it later. Plenty of room on the lot right now.”

Instinctively, she looked outside to confirm. At the gas pump, a woman in medical scrubs and a surgical mask wore latex gloves to refill a clean grey Audi SUV. The parking area had room for seven or eight cars, but held only two besides hers — a small black sedan and a copper-colored, canvas-topped old American gas guzzler in good shape.

“40 minutes is fine,” she said.

“Keys?” he asked, holding out his hand.

She stepped tentatively toward the counter, looking at the open canister of disinfectant wipes serving as a paper-weight on a rumpled stack of pink receipts. “Should I just… put them…”

“However you like,” he shrugged, lifting a corner of his mouth into a friendly grin as he opened a drawer beneath the counter and pulled out a job ticket. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail that spilled out the back of a faded Yankees cap. A silver handlebar mustache, neatly kept, framed his strong, dimpled chin. The mid-May sunshine pouring into the shop darkened the transition lenses on his aviator glasses enough that it was difficult — but still possible — to see gentle eyes moving about behind them.

She set her keys down on the counter, pinching her face as though she smelled something unpleasant. She wore pilled maroon sweatpants with white bleach spots near the ankles and a faded blue T-shirt featuring a clip-art drawing of sporting goods under the words “Justin’s Bar Mitzvah.” She had shoulder-length hair that she styled with a messy side part, and just below her ear level it abruptly changed colors from a drab brown to a rich auburn. She was petite with delicate features, and pale, but with the leathered skin of someone who had once spent plenty of time in the sun.

He offered a quick, understanding nod and grabbed her keys. She waited, motionless, while he disappeared into the garage through a door behind the counter, then returned with a ballpoint pen.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Janice,” she said.

“Last name?”

“Oh,” she blushed. “Duffy.”

He scribbled her name on the form and looked out toward her car.

“Red Jetta,” he said to himself as he wrote. “What model year?”

“2013,” she said.

“Just oil, filter, lube?” he asked.

“I guess,” she said. “Just, you know, the standard.”

“Any preference what oil?”

“Whatever you recommend.”

“Regular’s 15 bucks,” he said, “Synthetic is ten dollars more, but it lasts twice as long.”

“I’ll do that, I guess,” she said. “The synthetic.”

“Alright, Janice Duffy,” he said. “With synthetic oil, new filters and a lube, that’s gonna come to 74 dollars. Do you work at the hospital?”

“No,” she said. “Why?”

“I do a twenty percent discount for essential workers. Doctors, nurses, cops–”

“I’m a party planner. Or, I was.”

“74 dollars, then,” he said. “And did you want to wait here, or you want me to call you when it’s done?”

She looked around the shop. There were a few dusty shelves half-full of auto accessories — tire gauges, bottles of wiper fluid, and an array of tree-shaped air fresheners — plus a soda machine and a snack vending machine that was entirely empty except for chewing gum. In one corner, three metal folding chairs sat around a small plastic table with nothing on it besides a large pump bottle of hand sanitizer.

“I’ll wait,” she said. Muttering, she added, “Nothing else to do.”

He grinned again, and nodded toward the chairs.

“Be my guest,” he said. “I got rid of the magazines, but I’ve got the Daily News if you want it.”

“I definitely don’t,” she said with a snicker. “I might go for a walk, actually.”

“Good day for it. You know the area?”

“Yeah, I live in town.”

“Oh. You been here before?”

“Just for gas,” she said. “I always took it to the place on Morris Ave. near the baseball field, but they closed.”

“I know the place,” he said. “Sad about Terry.”

“The owner?”


“Must be hard for anyone to stay in business right now.”

“It wasn’t that,” he said, pursing his lips. “But hey, look, not to– you can take my card if you want. I do inspections, too, and any kind of engine and transmission work you need.”

He pulled a business card out of a holder on the counter and held it out to her. Over his shoulder, through the plexiglass, she noticed her car pulling into the garage. She looked quizzically at his hand, then tentatively extended her own.

“You don’t mind if I just– “ she said, her fingers inching toward the card.

“Had it already, pretty early,” he said. “Been cleared almost a month now.”

She exhaled, and tension escaped her shoulders.

“Me too,” she said, taking the card. “I mean, I never officially got tested, but I definitely had it.”

“Knocked me on my ass,” he said. “But I guess it could’ve been worse.”

“Really? I barely had anything. Just a cough. Fever for a few days. And for like two weeks, everything I ate tasted like cardboard.”

“Same thing. Wet cardboard. So weird.”

She shook her head grimly and lifted her phone to check the time.

“OK, well,” she said. “40 minutes?”

He looked back through the plexiglass.

“It’s already up on the lift, so probably more like 20 now,” he said. “Sammy works quick. Not much for paperwork, though.”

He nodded toward the stack of receipts on the counter as she fumbled through her purse, his business card still pressed between her fingers.

“Shit,” she said, looking around the shop again. “You don’t sell cigarettes, do you?”

“I don’t. Closest place still open is a deli about, what, a mile and a half up the road on Peninsula Boulevard, just past the Southern State.”

She scrunched her face in frustration. “I just left them in the car.”

He ran his hand over the chest pocket of his shirt, then reached into his jeans and pulled out a rumpled box of Parliaments.

“If you just need one, I’ve got you,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t want to–” she hesitated. “I mean, I’ll give you a buck if you want.”

“Oh please. Just take it. I’ve been there.”

He flipped open the top of the pack and held it out to her. She paused, then reached two fingers in and pulled out a cigarette.

“Thanks so much,” she said, taking a deliberate glance at the business card in her other hand. “Ben.”

“Need a light?”

“I do, actually. Sorry.”

“The cigarette is on the house,” he chuckled, “but a light costs five bucks.”

Through his darkened lenses, they made eye contact, and she smiled.

“I’ll come out with you,” he said. “I could use one myself, tell you the truth.”

She led the way out the door and held it open while he lifted a hinged corner of the counter and followed her out. It was an unseasonably warm day, but without the heavy humidity of summer. In a neglected planter by the shop entrance, a patch of freshly flowered yellow dandelions and fledgling green crabgrass shaded a smattering of cigarette butts that had been snuffed into the dirt below.

Wordlessly, he handed her a plastic lighter. She flicked it on and pulled its flame to the end of her cigarette with a long drag, then handed it back. He lit up with a quick puff and let his cigarette hang out the side of his mouth as he shoved the lighter back into his pocket. There was ample space for them to spread out, but they stood next to each other near the doorway. Something metal clanked in the garage, breaking the silence.

“This is weird, right?” she asked, staring ahead toward the now-unoccupied gas pump and the empty expanse of blacktop around it. He nodded. She turned her head toward him. “Do you know how you got it?”

“Nah,” he said. “Hospital’s right up the road here. Lots of people coming and going. Could’ve been anyone. You?”

“A concert, I think” she said, rolling her eyes. “A work thing. Last night before they shut the venue down, believe it or not.”

“Concert, huh? Anyone I know?”

“Not if you’re lucky,” she said. “The Dirt Dogs.”

He let out a staccato snort of laughter.

“Oh, everyone my age ‘round here knows the Dirt Dogs. Matter of fact, I saw them open up for Led Zeppelin at the Coliseum when I was a teenager.”

“You were there?” she pepped up, smiling wide.

“There’s no way you were,” he said, looking her over.

“No, no,” she said. “I was seven years old. It’s just, we book them — you know, for events — and that’s like the main selling point. ‘Opened for Led Zeppelin in 1979.’ You’d be shocked how well that plays.”

“The Dirt Dogs,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s a trip. I had no idea they were still going.”

“Well, it’s just Mickey now — the singer. His kid plays guitar. The other two are just session guys.”

“The Dirt Dogs,” he said again. “Man, what a trip. You know, I haven’t seen live music in I don’t know how many years. It’s one of those things where, when you always have the option–”

“I know,” she said. “That’s ice skating for me.”

“Ice skating?”

“Once upon a time I’d go to open-skate at the rink out in Bellmore a couple days a week, but you know how it goes. Now that I can’t, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Let me ask you,” he said, more animated than before. “Did you keep smoking the whole time you had the virus?”

She stared at him for a moment. “I cut back a lot, but yeah, I did. You?”

“Me? Oh, no. I was off ‘em for 17 years when I got it.”


“I quit 17 years ago. Tell you what– she divorced me anyway.”

She burst into laughter.

“What?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” she said, coughing and rasping as she giggled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing, it’s just, you’re telling me you quit smoking for 17 years, you survived a lung disease that’s killing people left and right, and then, what, you got up, went out and bought a pack of Parliaments?”

“Hey,” he smiled, nodding at her cigarette as she stamped out the butt end in the planter. “It worked out for you.”

“And I appreciate it! But c’mon! No offense, but that’s got to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I’ve made worse decisions,” he shrugged. “It’s something to do, anyway.”

“Oh, I know it,” she said, leaning in and gently smacking his shoulder in commiseration. “Why do you think I got an oil change? I can’t spend another fucking moment alone in my apartment, and I’m running out of errands.”

“Hey, speaking of your oil change,” he said, putting his cigarette out in the planter. “I can ring you up inside if you want.”

“You know, I never thought I’d be excited to hand someone my credit card.”

“Strange times.”

He held the door open for her, and her body brushed against his as she stepped back into the shop.

“Well, it was really nice standing next to you, Ben,” she said as she pulled her wallet from her purse. “Maybe I’ll see you at a Dirt Dogs concert, whenever this is over.”

“I don’t know about that. Never cared for their music, to be honest. No offense.”

“I don’t think anyone does,” she said, laughing again. “I’m not offended.”

“Well, hey, you know where to find me. He should have it out any minute now. Keys will be in there. Need another smoke for the road?”

“I’m good. But I appreciate it.”

She casually took her card and receipt and moved toward the door.

“No problem,” he said. His eyes followed her out. “Hey, have a nice day.”

She stopped and turned back to face him. “Honestly,” she said, “I already did. Thanks for the laugh.”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Take care now.”

6 thoughts on “Oil change

  1. Just came across this. Enjoyed it, made me smile.
    A day in the life now of what would probably not be, except for these very strange times we find ourselves living in right now.

    • Read this last week but took me a bit to get around to commenting. I really enjoyed the sort of casual “oh by the way it’s 17 years later” world building of it. Twist!

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