There is nothing I dread more than to spend an evening with a man whose car is terminal. You cannot get him off the subject. He is in pain, and it's all he wants to talk about.

I want to be caring and sensitive. I just don't know what to say. At a party recently, I was talking to Fred, who began moving through his five stages of grief from the moment the hors d'oeuvres were served.First, the denial. "Don't tell me there isn't still life in that old Buick. I don't care what the mechanics say. There's nothing wrong with that transmission. I've heard other cars with the same ruuuumph sound when you put them in first, and they've lived for years. You know what I'm gonna do? Get a second opinion, and a third and a fourth, until I hear the truth."

As I picked at my salad, Fred slipped into his anger stage. "Let's just suppose it is the transmission. I'm not saying it is, but just suppose. Do you think people want to fix things these days? Oh no, all they want to do is to sell you a new car. And they don't want to guarantee anything. So what you end up with is the same trouble you had with the old one. Like Joe. His car is new and it dies at every traffic light. They don't make 'em like they used to."

By the time the main course was served, he had hit the bargaining phase. "OK, if dealers want to play hardball, I'm going to hold out for what the car is worth. It's a classic, you know. I'm not going to give it away. I'd rather replace the rear window, slap a little paint on it and sell it myself. If I don't get what I want for it, then I'll trade it in, but I have to try."

By dessert, Fred was so depressed I thought he was going to cry. "Who am I kidding? That old dog has 115,000 miles on it. The radiator is cracked and it guzzles gas like a gasoholic. People are going to take one look at it, and do you know what they're going to do? They're going to laugh and say, `Your brain needs a jump start. That car is nothing but a pile of junk!' "

As I passed Fred the cream for his coffee, he took a deep breath and said, "The car belongs in a graveyard. I accept that. It'll be nice having a new car that is there for you on cold mornings. You know what I mean? Nice, dependable. It was inevitable that this should happen. Some people say, `Why me?' I say, `Why not me?' When you buy a car, you know it can't last forever."

"So, how's your wife, Ginny?" I asked, changing the subject. "Her arthritis still bothering her?"

"Oh that," he said. "Hey, you live with it."