OK yup, transmission (and clutch!) meltdown confirmed. I'm going out at lunch today to clean it out.... I'm not broken up about it. I got my money's worth heh. and it had a lot of tiny things wrong with it, from the blown-out stereo speakers and stereo that turned off randomly in warm weather to the broken air conditioner, the fresh air vent that sent fumes into the car unless it was on recirculate, to the worn-out shocks, the driver's side window that didn't completely close and the deeply pitted windshield that was honestly getting a bit difficult to see out of! They also told me it needed a new radiator... so, after twenty years and 174K miles, it has reached he end of the line.
I'm now doing a huge survey of used car reviews. the dodge dart also looks like it has potential (yes, an american car!).