Word by Word: Jesus and the lemon

Today's sermon: Even though he himself probably would have driven a 1982 Corolla, the Lord looks out for the rightfully aggrieved owners of decadent, gas-guzzling Jeeps.


Anne Lamott
November 6, 1997 11:13PM (UTC)

I leased a new Jeep in August of this year, when my old lease was up.
It was a deep purple amethyst blue, very royal, very '60s. I'd had a
Jeep for two years before, and loved it, like a lot of us mothers do, because
we can throw all of our kids' gear into the back. Also, my Jeep was so
imposing and reliable; it made me safe. It made me feel like Mrs. Irwin
Rommel, like someone no one in their right mind would mess with: Mrs. Rommel
storms Sonoma County; Mrs. Rommel crosses into San Francisco. So I leased a
new Jeep from Marin County's biggest Chrysler dealership, which has been
around forever, and I guess I still believe on some primitive level that that
it is a good thing; although of course Strom Thurmond has also been a part of
my awareness since I can remember; as has impetigo.

I've hinted before in this space that things began going wrong almost
immediately, little things, like the entire car beginning to come apart like
a two-dollar watch. At first I'd just call the salesman, who was a shuffly
kind of Jim Jarmusch character in a tweedy porkpie hat. I'd liked him at
first because he seemed less Glengarry Glen Ross than the other salesmen.
More Death of a Salesman meets Dobie Gillis. So the first few times I went
in with problems -- three times in the first two weeks, in a mounting state of
hysteria -- he'd say reassuring things like, "This company wants to make you
happy!" And, then, when I'd rant or cry anyway, he'd tug on the brim of his
hat, and sigh, "Annie. Please let's try and settle down, can we?"

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I began to spend about a third of my time either trying to get my car
fixed or waiting for the boys at the nearby rental place to come pick me up
and assign me the latest in a series of red Geo Prizms. A Prizm is a tinny
little car about four times the size of my cat. The best thing about a Prizm
is that it's so easy to park, because it's only two feet long. And they're
fine, in a way; but I no longer got to drive around feeling like Mrs. Irwin
Rommel. Instead I drove around feeling like Mrs. Poopypants.

Look: I am not trying to associate myself with the other oppressed
peoples of the world. I really get the difference, I get that I have a
problem right up there with being dissatisfied with your pool-cleaning
service. I get that this Jeep is a decadent gas-guzzling pig. Thank you, I
understand that. But I felt so ripped off. On top of it, I felt terrible
shame about being upset, when other people have not eaten in days, or have
life-threatening illnesses. Still, at some point maybe you have to stand up
to anyone who is trying to disgrace you for being upset with your broken leg
when they know someone dying of cancer. At some point you have to decide
whether you and your family are on a shit-free diet or not.

The Check Engine light came on three times in the first three weeks,
because the car needed all sorts of emissions adjustments, and a new jumper
harness, and various other je ne sais quois. And in between engine problems,
the brakes developed a ticking noise. When I demonstrated the sound for
James, the man in charge of the repair yard, he first listened to it as if I
were imagining things, and then as if to an audition tape; as if it had a kicky
beat. But it didn't. It was a chronically annoying noise, like listening to
someone drum their long acrylic fingernails on a coconut shell; like
listening to the sound of your own mental illness. But James just made this
little face, cutely askance, like the host of a kids' show upon hearing a
child say "heck," an amused little smirky look, like, "Don't kids say the
darndest things! And aren't their mothers just incredible pains in the ass?"

Guilt says you've done something wrong, shame that you are something
wrong: I felt deep shame, being treated that way. Also, profoundly unsafe,
inside the Prizms and inside my Jeep and inside me. It felt like hell.

The Check Engine light kept going on periodically and the brakes ticked
away like wind-up dentures -- who wouldn't lose a little confidence in their
car? I got automotive hypochondria. I thought I could hear the rear axle
working loose, the engine getting ready to explode. But then everything
seemed to be fine -- for three whole days. Then there was another tiny
incident, hardly worth mentioning: After a heavy rain, the entire carpet in
the front flooded. The rug in the back was also quite wet, but not utterly
soaked. I called James. I tried to be very calm and manly but I said I
wanted him to give me a new car, that I was done.

"Annie!" he said, "let's calm down."

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Then I called the salesman and said I wanted a new car. He reiterated
that his boss desperately wanted to make me happy, and when I asked to speak
to this munificent boss, it turned out he was rarely there.

So I went in and spoke to the general manager of the lot. I said I
wanted them to give me a new car, and that I was at the end of my rope.

"Anne," he said, all but rolling his eyes, "Let's not get hysterical."

And I'm not sure what happened, but I just lost my mind. I pounded the
edge of his desk, and like the towering Lion of Judah, I roared, "Don't you
DARE patronize me." He leapt up and shouted for me to leave his office;
that I was crazy and he wouldn't talk to me; that if I wanted to continue the
discussion, I should get in touch with a lawyer.

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Actually that made more sense than anything I'd thought up. So I did.

Now, my lawyer is deeply sympathetic to lone individuals who stand up
to systems of vast power and their minions. He's very gentle, but he's also
a little intense. He travels under the name of Goliath Blackhole.

"Lemon law!" he enthused. "Let's sue."

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But I wasn't ready to sue yet. I just wanted them to be nice to me. I'm a
kind person, mostly, and pretty calm most of the time, but I was feeling like
Gandhi in diapers, on bad cocaine. I wanted them to stop treating me like a
jerk. I wanted a great new car, because I had paid for one.

So I prayed; I did not pray to get my own way, because I am smart enough
to know that that is not always in my best interests. But I prayed to get
out of the hell of obsession, partly because I could not bear feeling so
bad, and partly because I want to be a part of the solution. I prayed not to be an
asshole. I prayed to play a few brave sweet little notes that day in the
world, and I prayed for old Uncle J to enter into this bourgeois drama with
me. I imagined I could hear him sigh and roll his eyes, but nicely. I knew
he would never have leased an expensive car. I think he would have paid
cash for a responsible used car. I see him in a nice little Japanese car,
like a Toyota. I'm guessing here, of course, since he chose to be born in a
time when the ox-cart was considered cutting-edge transportation. But maybe
something along the lines of a 1982 Corolla, or a very, very old Volvo. And
if he had bought it from a dealership, and everything had begun to go wrong, I
do not see him sobbing in the back of the bar or bakery, waiting for someone
to come help him sort through it all.

But by the same token, I don't see him eating shit. His thing was not
to collude with people who try to get others to cower and quake around them;
who get people to knuckle under and become instruments of their own
oppression. His thing was to kick butt -- sometimes. You have gentle Jesus,
meek and mild, and then you have the guy who did such great righteous anger --
with the money-changers in the Temple, for instance, turning the tables upside-down and throwing out the lot of them. I picture Johnny Depp in that hotel
room he destroyed, but with a great cause. Johnny Depp pushing an antique
hutch out the window for the sake of Tibetan freedom.

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Sometimes you need to remember Jesus when he was utterly loving and
forgiving, and sometimes you need to remember him as a troublemaker and a
bad sport, as a squeaky wheel for his children. For me, sometimes, it's fuss
as a radical act. Not putting yourself down so that others might rise, as a
radical act.

So I called a priest friend and asked, "What would Jesus do?"

"To begin with, Jesus would have gotten a bike. But if you mean, what
if a friend of his had leased an expensive lemon? I believe good old Jesus
would have wanted the friend to feel worthy of not being condescended to.
That he would keep returning to the truth, which is that those guys are
trying to foist a bad car on you."

Then he told me a fable from a book by a famous rabbi, about a lamb in
the forest who likes to frolic and do peaceful things with its kindly
friends, until one day they hear the roar of a tiger. And the lamb is, as
they said in the old days, sorely afraid, really crippled with fear. All of
its friends say to the nervous lamb that it has to try not to let the
tiger's growl disturb it so much, that the nice thing to do is to just let
the tiger be a tiger. But (to quote my priest friend) the whole thing is
really fucking awful for the lamb. And it tries to be brave and forgiving,
but during one more round of terror, of feeling stalked and hopeless, the
lamb gets a glimmer of truth -- that at some point, you just have to try to
cage the bloody tiger.

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"So what does this mean in terms of my car?"

"I may be a sub-Christian," he said, "but I say bullshit to
intimidation. I say sue."

So I called my lawyer back, and now I no longer feel alone. It's that
simple. I no longer feel ashamed. I call Mr. Blackhole, he calls Chrysler,
they're a little afraid of him, and I feel safe again. Maybe this is not
Jesus in the distressing guise of a lawyer, but simply that someone I trust,
who respects me, is on my side. Every time something new goes wrong with the
car, he cheers me on. For instance, not long ago I called to report, "The
carpet is soaked again."

"Perfect!" he thundered. Later that he day, he left a long message on my
answering machine, humming all of "Lemon Tree," and a medley of other hits of
the late, great Trini Lopez.

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"Boy, it's REALLY wet this time," I said jovially to James. I felt like
he was my new best friend. My buddy James. "If you put your foot right on the
floor, there's such suction that it's like an old episode of 'Sea Hunt' -- like
you're trying to free your leg from the shell of a giant clam."

It just confused him to pieces.

Not long after, I was driving my boy to school when the brakes began
ticking away again loudly, after having already been repaired twice.

"That rascally car!" said my lawyer, when I called.

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But driving it in to be fixed, it stopped making any noise at all. I
called Mr. Blackhole from a pay phone. "Take it in anyway," he said. "Get
them to admit that it's totally silent when it's working properly."

So I did. When I got to the yard, I waived gaily to James and asked
him to get in my car. "Listen," I said, "the ticking stopped a minute ago ..."

"Oh!" he said, wide-eyed, the host of the kids show again. "REALly."

"Look," I said pleasantly, "I understand that it's hard for you to
keep a straight face at this point. But my lawyer said to give you a test
drive anyway, so when the ticking starts up again, you hear the difference."

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So he got in and we drove a few feet, and I braked suddenly, and there
was silence, and I drove through the lot and stopped slowwwwwly, and there
was silence, and I said, "Isn't it quiet?" and he nodded with wonder at this
marvelously quiet machine, and we did this a few times, with me gaping at him
each time, like we were playing peek-a-boo. Then I drove him back to the
repair yard, and braked, and right that second the brakes went, "TICK.
TICKTICK TICKTICK." And I beamed at James, and rolled down the window, and
stuck out my head, and shouted, "THANK YOU, LORD."

I don't know how this will all shake down. I'll either end up with a
brand new replacement decadent gas-guzzling Jeep or they'll keep fixing my
car until the lease runs out or I'll get my money back and pay cash for some
simple cloth-coat car. This is one of those rare win-win times. In the
meantime, though the transmission has developed a sullen new attitude of not
wanting to go places with me. But I'm not freaked out anymore: I just see
my car as one of those tired crabby animals on "The Flintstones" who double as
appliances -- the elephant vacuum cleaner, the shorebird whose beak is a
phonograph needle. I'll take it in to the car vet when it gets really bad
again. Until then, I'm driving around in a dry Jeep, peering around again at
the very blue skies of early autumn. The fall came when I wasn't even
looking. The whole world is suddenly in earth colors, bricks and browns,
olive, terra cotta, flame. I feel very safe again, especially on the inside.
And that feels like heaven to me.


Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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