verb. To cheat in return. (OED)

My parents had an odd sense of parenting in a number of ways, but none more so than the utter randomness of their strictness.

Case in point: When I graduated from high school, I was three months from my eighteenth birthday. Although I had two full time jobs lined up for the summer and a place to stay with my best friend’s parents, who were cops, in order to make $1500 or so that I needed to augment my otherwise full scholarship to the college of my dreams, my parents decided that since I was still underage, I had to move with them. If I refused, they would report my friend’s parents for kidnapping or something. So, I went with them, didn’t make the $1500, and wasn’t able to go to my otherwise full scholarship dream school. Everything worked out OK in the end, but I already told that story.

Today’s story is about the randomness of their strictness (it’s actually about my experience in countercozing (countercozenness?), but the randomness is the prelude. After my junior year of high school, my parents moved from Oklahoma back to California and let me stay behind and live for the summer with a woman I barely knew from my job at Kentucky Fried Chicken in exchange for $150 a month in rent. I had enrolled in a concurrent high school/college program and was planning to take Chemistry at the local university (lecture and lab, 7am to noon, five days a week) for college credit. (I have no idea how, but I somehow got an A, even though my lab partner was my friend’s boyfriend, who I partied with almost every night, and could therefore barely drag myself into class). I also had a week-long trip to Washington DC scheduled for which I had been chosen to represent my state after numerous essays, speeches, and answering questions for panels of seriously looking people. Also, they ran my picture in the local newspaper.

Why did my parents make me move with them when I had graduated from high school and would only be a few hours away when they were content to let me stay behind in a different state a year earlier? It would drive a person crazy trying to find a reasonable explanation. My entire childhood was filled with contradictions such as this. They didn’t value a college education but perhaps having my picture in the paper convinced them my Washington trip was important? They didn’t really like my friend’s parents and had a misguided sense that Oklahomans were trustworthy sight unseen?

Reason really didn’t factor in much as a kid. My parents were strict mostly in the sense that once they said something, they stuck with it, no matter how idiotic it was.

But now to the story. I had a 1980 Mazda GLC hatchback (this was 1989). I had bought it at a local used car dealer, one of those places with signs that practically say “I will rip you off as much as I possibly can. Please come in!” When I bought it, the sales guy told me they had done an entire engine inspection and everything was great. As a 16 year old girl, even a smart one, I totally bought it. The line about the inspection and the car.

In August, after my Chemistry class had ended and I was back from representing my state in our nation’s capitol, my mom flew to Tulsa to drive to California with me in that old car. We didn’t even make it to Oklahoma City before the engine overheated, stranding us on the side of the road. We ended up getting towed in by a great guy who took a look and gave us the bad news: the engine block was cracked and likely had been for a long time. It didn’t cause me trouble since I mostly drove it in the winter, and I only drove it short distances in the summer. But there was no way I could drive it cross country in the summer. And fixing it would be more than I had paid for the car.

My naive and innocent heart was outraged. But the used car salesman told me the engine had completely checked out! Surely he didn’t lie to me! The mechanic smiled at my gullible youthfulness. And then we devised a plan. I called the used car salesman and used all of my girlish charm. My parents had left me all alone to fend for myself. I had to get to California and was too scared to drive all that way by myself, so I needed to sell my car so I could afford a plane ticket. Could he possibly buy the car back?

I could barely hear his reply, the condescension was so loud. Sure, he could buy the car back, but I understood that he couldn’t refund my money or anything. He could give me $800, less than half the price I’d pay less than a year before. Oh, I understood. He could barely contain his glee at his chance to sell the same car twice with little additional investment. I arranged a time to return the car with a sad voice. And then hung up as my mom, the tow truck driver, and I laughed and laughed at his agreement to buy a worthless car at any price.

Our sting went as follows: We towed the car back to Tulsa and parked two blocks from the car dealership. My mom stayed with the truck and I drove the car to the lot. The sales guy drove it around the corner to make sure I hadn’t burned through the clutch or anything during my short ownership stint. The car would drive just fine for a few blocks so all went well. He gave me the money. I walked away and met up with my cohorts and we drove on to the airport.

I still have fond memories of that tow truck driver. He completely went out of his way and beyond his job description to tow the car all that way. But he enjoyed countercozening with us.

Looking back, I see that most of my outrage came from my lack of experience with the world and not so much that I had been dealt great injustice. Sure, the sales guy lied about the engine checking out, but I was buying a cheap used car. And sure, I cheated him back by selling him a knowingly defective car, smug in the deception because had he really checked out the car like he said, he would have already known about the cracked engine block. But did I really cause him any pain or did he just resell the car to another gullible high school student at a tidy profit? I can only hope the car overheated at the next test drive, but that’s just how I like to imagine it, not how it likely went.

But even so. Every time I see one of those heist movies where the good guys make a plan to swindle the bad guys in retaliation for some bad guy thing (sometimes, the good guys are actually likeable bad guys, played by characters such as George Clooney, so it’s OK that they’re not strictly speaking “good” guys), I can say, yep, I’ve done that. And it’s every bit as satisfying as you imagine.

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