LIFE IS FULL of unnerving sounds, and yet there's nothing quite like the sound of a transmission dropping out of your car.
To be honest, I had never heard the sound of a transmission dropping out of my car before. But I know what it sounds like now. And I know that it's soon followed by another sound, a cash register ringing in some grimy garage as you fork over $1,200 to a grinning mechanic standing under the obligatory Miss Valvoline poster.
To recap the whole ugly business: A few days ago, my wife and I were driving along, singing a song, when all of sudden a horrible grinding sound came from under the hood.
My first reaction, as it is with any car problem, was to turn up the radio and hope the sound would just go away.
Then I heard it again, a high-pitched whine, metal scraping against metal. And suddenly the engine was racing like we were a dragster on the starting line at the Winternationals.
"This is not a good sign," I said.
"No," my wife said as the tachometer redlined at 6500 rpm. "It certainly isn't."
This seemed an ideal time to ease the car to the side of the road for a look-see under the hood.
It turned out that the reason the engine was racing was because part of the automatic transmission was now scattered all over the road in little pieces, some as tiny as Rice-a-Roni.
"That's not a good sign," I said.
"No," my wife said. "I'd have to agree with you there."
Amazingly, it turned out that the car could still be driven, providing that you let first gear wind out to 25 mph and then ram it into second gear manually.
This necessitated a shifting technique reminiscent of Richard Petty at the Darlington 400, which really looks stupid when your top speed is a whopping 30 mph.
Anyway, I dropped off my wife at home and drove the car in second gear to my mechanic, Darrell. I found him at his desk under the ubiquitous, grease-stained Miss Valvoline poster.
Miss Valvoline was wearing some sort of black leather hot pants with twin fan belts tastefully splayed across her breasts.
It is a peculiarity confined to auto mechanics that they look to Miss Valvoline posters for inspiration.
Darrell seemed incredibly happy to see me. But as I explained what had happened to the car, a troubled look came over his face.
"I don't do transmissions," Darrell said finally.
Well. To me, hearing a mechanic say "I don't do transmissions" is sort of like hearing your family doctor say: "I don't do viruses."
But Darrell was kind enough to provide me with the name of a transmission "specialist." Naturally, now that I was driving a crippled car with a cruising speed equivalent to that of a Shetland pony, the specialist's shop was somewhere out in the boondocks.
I was about to ask Darrell if he could recommend a specialist a little closer to home, possibly even in this time zone, except he was now staring up at Miss Valvoline with a reverence rarely seen from worshipers of the major religions.
Anyway, the next day I drove the car in second gear out to the specialist's shop. The specialist's name was Reese. You could tell Reese was an iconoclast, because instead of a Miss Valvoline poster hanging near the cash register, he had a Miss Pennzoil calendar.
Miss Pennzoil was decked out in a tight-fitting turtleneck sweater, white mini-skirt and go-go boots. She was perched seductively atop some sort of tail-pipe assembly.
As I explained what happened to the car, Reese shook his head.
"It doesn't sound good," he said.
"I had a feeling you'd say that," I said.
In all the years that my cars have been breaking down, I have never explained a problem to a mechanic only to have him reply: "Shoot, no big deal. We can get you out of here for seven bucks, tops."
It cost $1,200. Reese said that was a rock-bottom price, and of course I believe him.
A man like Reese, you can practically see his halo.