The convertible top was seven years old now. Under good conditions, Chris figured it would have held up for many more years. The move to Wisconsin, however, had meant three years of weather that brutally punished the top.
Often in the winter, the temperature would go below zero. Well below. Some days, with windchill, it could go to 40 below or worse. In the summer it was not uncommon for the thermometer to top 100 degrees. Compounding the problem, too, was having to park on the street. A garage would have helped the situation, but good luck to a student being able to afford a place with garage parking.
So the weather had beaten on his Karmann Ghia’s top for three years, and the wear showed. If there were rain now, small leaks dripped. There were visible signs, too, of tearing beginning to show.
“The salt ain’t helping you either,” the mechanic said. “No doubt about it, friend, it’s time for a new top.”
“The salt, yeah,” Chris said. “Parking on the street, whenever a vehicle goes by, it kicks that stuff up. If it’s a truck and a little bit warmer day, the slush can actually land on the roof.”
The mechanic ran his hand along one of the roof frame springs. Pulling it out, he showed it to Chris. “Rust,” he said. “That’s your salt too. Looks to me like you need the whole top. The frame’s too rusted out to use anymore.”
Chris shook his head. “Geez, I don’t know. I’m not sure I could afford that.”
“Suit yourself,” said the mechanic. “If I stretch the new canopy over that frame, it’s just a matter of time before the frame’ll break down from rust.”
“Right,” Chris thought. “Of course it’s a matter of time.”
Chris ran his hand along the spring. The steel felt slimy with the rust. The mechanic offered him a rag to clean his hand.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Chris. “How much just for the fabric top?”
The mechanic gestured for Chris to follow. “Let’s go check in the book.”
Chris followed the mechanic. This place was an authorized VW dealer, so they’d have the current parts price catalog.
The mechanic scanned the table of contents then thumbed through the thick book, finally stopping. “Here,” he said, spinning the book slightly so Chris could see it. “The fabric canopy is eight hundred, and the frame is twelve. The both would be two thousand plus tax.”
“And the labor cost?” Chris asked.
“We charge thirty an hour.”
“Geez. How many hours you think it would take?”
“Well,” the mechanic rubbed his chin, his fingers and the nails appearing to be permanently stained with black grease. “I can only give you a rough estimate. Once I get in there, I don’t know what all I’ll find.”
“Okay, and so?” said Chris, nervous about how high this could go.
“Mmmm, maybe five hours.”
Chris shook his head. “So that’s two thousand, plus maybe a hundred fifty, and then the tax.”
“If it only takes five hours,” said the mechanic, correcting Chris.
“I tell you,” said Chris, “that’s more than I was hoping to pay. I’m a grad student, on a stipend. You think I could do it myself?”
The mechanic looked at Chris, smiled. “Well, I’m not sure about that, son. You ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” said Chris. “But I do my own tune-ups. I’ve got that VW Idiot’s Guide. They even talk about changing the top.”
The mechanic nodded, his smile turning into a smirk. “Well, that book has that title for a reason, you know?”
This attitude triggered Chris, took his temperature up a notch. “You know what?” he said, trying to control his temper. “I’d like to order just the top, not the frame.”
The mechanic kept the smirk going. “And where are you planning to do the work? You say you don’t have a garage, and it’s five below today. You got someplace in mind?”
“I do,” said Chris, not elaborating.
“Yes. As I said. I do my own tune-ups.”
“So you want to order the canopy top only.”
“Yes, just that.”
“Okay, suit yourself, but I’ll need payment upfront.”
“What?” said Chris. “Why? Why isn’t it like half upfront?”
“Because if I have that top shipped here, I have to pay for it. And if you don’t pay in full down the line, I’ll have to cover the cost.”
Chris was still a little hot, but this made sense. “So what’s the total?”
The mechanic fingered the keys of his adding machine, then pulled the handle like a Las Vegas slot player. “With four percent tax, that’s eight hundred thirty-two dollars. And shipping’ll cost you another two hundred.”
“What? You didn’t mention the shipping.”
“Well I am now,” said the mechanic, a little sharply.
Chris stared at him, his simmer inching up toward boil. He was beginning not to like the mechanic.
Never mind. Just pay and get out of there. He handed over his charge card, watched the mechanic run it through the imprint machine, then signed for the full amount of $1032. The question of why there was no tax on the shipping occurred to him, but he didn’t want to ask. He just wanted to leave.
“You’ll call me?” said Chris.
“Yup,” said the mechanic. “First thing.”
Chris didn’t like the way he said it, the tone. He turned and walked out into the snow and ice and wind.
There was an indoor parking lot under the English building, a heated metered lot. He could do the work in there. Parking outside his apartment building, he patted his Ghia on its fading to gray black top.
“I’ll take good care of you,” he said. “Better care than that jackass would have.”
The following morning after breakfast, Chris grabbed his book bag and headed out the door. For a moment he felt disoriented. Standing on the stoop, he stared at the place where he thought he’d parked his car. Then he scanned the street, up and down, several times.
“What the hell?” he thought. “Someone’s stolen my car.” He looked at the spot where he’d parked one more time, then up and down the street again.
Checking his watch, he wondered if he’d have to miss class. Well, it couldn’t be helped. Going back inside, he headed to his place and called the police. They took their sweet time coming, so he would miss his first class. Making out the report went fast, however, so by bus he was able to make it to his second class just in time.
The police were not able to give him any kind of estimate of how long it might take to find his car. No promises could be made, there were never any guarantees, the officer had said.
Days went by with no word. A week later the phone rang while he was eating lunch.
“Your top’s in,” said the mechanic.
“You’ll have to hold it for me,” said Chris. “My car’s been stolen, and I don’t know when I’ll get it back.”
“Or if, probably,” said the mechanic.
The idea that the mechanic might have stolen the car crossed Chris’s mind.
“Well please hold it, okay?” said Chris.
“Sure, sure,” said the mechanic. “But just so you know, there’s no refund.”
“Anything I have shipped I have to pay for,” said the mechanic, “and none of that is refundable, which means you don’t get anything back either, you see?”
Chris had hit his courtesy limit. “What the hell are you talking about? If I don’t get my car back, I want a refund on that top. What the hell good is it going to do me?”
“Not much, I guess,” said the mechanic coolly. “But you can always take it up with Volkswagen of America.”
Chris slammed down the phone. Three months later he finally went in to pick up the top. His car had never been found. Stripped or shipped was what the police had said.
The mechanic flashed his winning smirk the moment he saw Chris walk in. “So no car, huh?”
“No,” said Chris, his temper just barely held in check. How, he wondered, would the mechanic know this? Again the idea that the mechanic had stolen the car crossed his mind.
“What you going to do with the top then?” asked the mechanic.
“You want to buy it?” asked Chris.
The mechanic laughed. “Now what would I do with that top?” he asked.
“Forget it. Just please let me have it,” said Chris, feeling like he might lose it and jump over the counter to throttle the mechanic.
The mechanic turned, went into the back, and returned wheeling a not very small box out and around the counter.
“Oh geez,” said Chris, “how am I going to get that home?”
“Beats me,” said the mechanic. “Please sign here.”
After he signed, Chris dragged the box outside, the mechanic not allowing him to use the handcart. Going to a payphone, he called a fellow student whom he knew had a pickup truck. Together they wrangled the box upstairs to his apartment, and from then on, the top served as quite the conversation piece whenever people would visit.
The day he left Madison, Chris wheeled a large dumpster over to the side of the apartment building just below his unit. Once back upstairs, with a good amount of effort, he lifted the top to the window, then pushed over the edge into the dumpster.
For a long time afterward, Chris missed his car very much. The top, not so much so.