I pull into the carwash. The woman waves me in. I roll down my window and hand her a five-dollar bill.
She pulls out a single from her flannel shirt and leans towards me: “I’ve always wanted to ask you. What’s that word on your front license plate?”
I look back and forth between the woman and her husband, who is scrubbing my grill with a brush. The woman is about 60, her husband is 65. A car wash costs $4. Between the two of them, they have maybe 7 teeth. If this were an algebra story problem, you would just be sad.
Me: “Oh. On my license plate? The front one? The word is ‘SCRIVENER.’”
These two people are very kind.
Me: “It means ‘writer.’”
The woman tucks my fiver into her jacket, which doesn’t completely zip at the bottom: “It means what??”
And they work hard.
Me: “It means ‘writer.’ You know, like…” I make the universal motion of scratching a quill onto parchment. I am smiling. I can’t take my eyes off her two bottom teeth.
Her husband picks up a long-handled wand: “What does it mean?”
The woman raises her voice above the water: “IT MEANS ‘WRITER.’”
He shrugs and power-sprays my front tires.
The woman flicks some switches on the wall: “Is it German?”
Me: “No, it’s a fancy old English word, like the word ‘scribe’? To write?” I make the pen motion again. “But it is originally from the Latin.”
The woman and her husband are both wearing ragged jeans that are thin at the knees, rescued coats, and knit hats. It is October in Michigan. The sun is shining, but it’s cold outside, maybe 40 degrees.
The woman: “Is that what you do? You’re a writer?”
Me: “I, uh… Yes. I’m a writer.”
Her husband carefully lifts up each windshield wiper and finger-sweeps the autumn leaves that are stuck underneath. His hands are not gloved, the knuckles red and raw. I don’t reach for my lotion.
The woman: “Well, I seen you here a lotta times and I wondered what that word meant.”
I tip them $10. It is both too much and not enough, but my car will be dirty again. Soon.
Erin Waugh, 18 October 2015, “True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat.”