by Joe Tyburczy


I HAD TO GET MY OIL CHANGED. It'd been too long. The faithful Karmann Ghia put up with my neglect, waiting patiently for 3000 then 6000, then 8000 miles without a complaint. Finally the other day, the little red oil light blinked just once. Really a wink, and only for a brief moment when I pulled out into Sunday traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. Subtle, this car. But that's warning enough for me. I like my engines undercooked.

The next day I found myself cruising for one of those places that specialize in oil changes, and have some variation of "quick", "good", or "cheap" in their names. Over in Burbank, I settled on one whose advertising hinted at their mastery of the automotive arts and promptly ordered up their $29.95 oil & lube special. There were a couple of plastic lawn chairs outside to sit in while you wait to get your car serviced, so I sat in one. Nothing much happened for a while, just the blare of rapid-fire Spanish from a radio in the work bay. A fifty-ish woman plunked herself down in the plastic chair across from me. "Uh-Oh. They're hitting my engine with a hammer", she announced, "That's bad."

I looked over into the bay. The teenaged mechanic tapped rusty air cleaner screws under the hood of an 89' Buick Skylark. "I find it's best not to watch", I lied. I'd been keeping a hawk-eye on the kid working under my Ghia for the past quarter-hour. He hadn't stripped any bolts yet.

The woman wanted conversation, so I let her start. We swapped some idle chat about the poor quality of 80's era American cars. She told me she'd had good luck with the Buick, except that the dealer had to replace the engine mounts recently during a routine tune up. She asked if I realized that they had to completely remove the engine from a Buick in order to get at the rear spark plugs. I didn't. And I wanted to tell her that the whole idea was bunk, too, but I was in no mood for a prolonged technical discussion. Instead, I steered the conversation off the Buick. I observed cheerily that my car was older than most of the mechanics who worked on it. She asked how old. I told her. "Oh, my brother had a 1970. A Ford Galaxy. Only 3900 miles on the odometer." The mention of a vintage car perked me up. "Did he sell it?" I asked. "Nope" she said, "His wife took it. She murdered him."


I fully expected this. It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm among thousands in a tightly-packed stadium crowd or alone in the remote wilderness of a national park, eventually the single, most disturbed person in the vicinity will lock onto me like a heat-seeking missile. Panhandlers will cross busy city streets to regale me with long, incoherent stories involving the injustices of the Veterans Administration. Retirees bearing accordion-sized wallets stuffed with detailed literature on beekeeping will seek me out in restaurants. More than once I have been approached by people complaining that UFO's are keeping them awake at night. I guess I have that kind of face.

This woman's Buick-Engine-Removal anecdote had already got me thinking she was a garden-variety nutcase or just plain misinformed. But my Ghia was still up on the lift, the kid taking his time,doing a nice, thorough job scrubbing the oil strainer with solvent and a wire brush. I let her talk.

"My brother Charlie married a lady cop. She was on the San Bernardino police department where they lived." she told me. "Her family hated him. Ramirez is their name. See, they were Spanish. My brother was an Italian. That's why they couldn't stand him. They said it was suicide, but he was murdered. She killed him and I know it."

They'd found her brother in his living room wearing only his BVD's, a bullet through his heart. Was it her gun? No, she told me it was his own. "She made Charlie buy one and showed him how to use it. See, her family threatened him. They said they'd kill him. He told me about these threats all the time. He was going to divorce her, and her family couldn't take that. So they threatened him."

I asked how she could be so sure it wasn't suicide. "He left no note. And he was shot through the chest. The chest, see? Men don't do that. They go for the head. And another thing. My brother was a very modest man. He was very hairy, you know, and embarrassed about it. He never let anyone see him without a shirt. That morning he'd called a friend to come over and watch the ball game with him. I know one thing, if my brother Charlie was going to kill himself, he would have put on a shirt first."


Charlie had gone to see a psychiatrist a week before his death. "That woman. She was so smart. A real cold bitch who knew all the angles of how to get away with murder" she continued. "She knew that for a judge to rule suicide, there had to be evidence of psychiatric treatment. So she made him go. Said he was depressed. They were getting a divorce, for Chrissake. Who wouldn't be a little depressed?"

I wanted to ask her what she thought the motive was. The thought crossed my mind that Charlie may have had a blonde cookie on the side, the wife found out, and wham, Pancho Villa & Clan rode over for some Western vengance. It could be true. Maybe this was one of the thousands of small acts of mayhem that manages to slip through the cracks of the justice system every year. Maybe I'd just joined a handful of insiders who knew the real truth about poor Charlie's death. Maybe I was in jeopardy because I knew names, places, and dates. More likely the whole convoluted story was utterly absurd. There was no hard evidence. No smoking gun, no fingerprints, no expert testimony, no bloody glove. Just an angry woman sitting next to me in a white plastic chair. I floated the girlfriend angle with her anyway. "Charlie was 69 years old" she said levelly, "Believe me, there was no girlfriend."

My Karmann Ghia's engine roared to life on the garage floor. One of the kids motioned to me with a clipboard. It was time to pay my $29.95 and be on my way. I mumbled a goodbye to my companion. In closing, I half-expected her to beg me to forget about everything she'd said, ask for some kind of a handout, or even furtively thrust a religious tract into my hands. Instead, she produced a quick, bitter summary for me to chew on the rest of the day. "Cops protect their own. There was no investigation. She got the house, the bank account, and the '70 Ford Galaxy. A real, selfish bitch."