FiveChapters is taking a week off; we’ll highlight five great stories from the FC archives through Friday.
When I was seventeen and still in high school, I changed oil part-time for Ray Dugan, who promoted me to full mechanic after I graduated. Dugan Automotive, in South Waterbury, was three basement bays that had once been a brass forge for a World War I shell casings plant. We called it The Dungeon, with its old dank fieldstone walls, the only daylight coming through a Plexiglas window the size of a cereal box in the bay door. The air was always soggy, and cardboard boxes left to sit curled up and grew blue fuzz underneath.
But it was work I loved doing, genuine repair that called for concentration and some dexterity and zero people skills. We weren’t salesmen, like the technicians at Firestone or Midas, but old school, grease-monkey mechanics. Ray didn’t send me to customer service seminars or make me wear a uniform. We filled our brains with torquing sequences and firing orders, manifold vacuum and compression. Ray could tear down a Chevy small block with his eyes closed, and he often would to escape the smoke of a Winston curling up his face. I’d seen him disassemble every engine bolt, screw and gasket – even the carburetor in a hundred pieces – pile it all in five gallon buckets where it sat for three months while the car’s owner paid on weekly installments, and then have it back together and idling like glass in one afternoon.
A few nights a week I’d stay with Ray after hours, and over a case of Schaefer we’d pick away at one of these long-term installment job. I’d get home late and Justine would shut off the TV and expect a formal apology. We had fights. She wanted conversations to be about feelings and needs; I hated that whiny kind of talk. We lived with her parents in a new subdivision outside the city, a sheltered community that felt much further than it was from The Dungeon, with its smells of grease and cigarette butts and flat beer in a hundred fingerprinted cans. Coming home was, I thought, like a soldier leaving the battle, his head full of war stories that normal civilians would never understand. This was in my second year out of high school, before I understood failure, the slow eroding that a few bad choices can bring. This was ten years before college would even occur to me.
The night we had trouble, Ray and I were overhauling the 302 in an old Crown Victoria. I had a new idea I was telling Ray about expanding our customer base. Business was down because we didn’t have the technology to fix cars built in the last five years. Engines coming out of Detroit had Central Processing Units and fuel injection that translated the impulses of a dozen electronic sensors screwed into water jackets and manifolds and even exhaust systems. You couldn’t do much adjusting, and without an oscilloscope interface, you could only guess what the complaint might mean.
Over our shop was one of those corporate chains that did brakes and tune-ups. The manager upstairs, Clifton, was getting rid of a few old oscilloscopes – Leaders, the same kind I had used in high school. Clifton liked me, though I couldn’t say why. A few weeks ago, as I was paying for a grinder off the roach coach, he came out and handed me his card. He was looking for a new brake man, part time to start. I had to realize I was on a sinking ship downstairs, he said. Ray was a good guy, but he was a dinosaur. Clifton liked to look away and smirk while he talked shit about people, and it reminded me of a thing my father did. I told Clifton I’d think about it, and I did, almost every day since – not that I would ever work for him, but that I didn’t tell him to shove his offer straight up his ass.
My idea was to buy one of his Leader scopes, then offer our own computer diagnosis at cheaper rates and steal Clifton’s business with his own equipment.
“I guess that’s where everything’s headed,” Ray said, talking in the easygoing, philosophical way he talked with a few beers in him. “Computers. I’m still waiting on them to give out. And for somebody to say, ‘Why don’t we go back to how we been building engines for eighty years.’”
“Maybe,” I said. “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“I know it. How much you figure they’d sell for, Davey?” He was leaned over the fender and up to the last letters of the Dead Cong/ Good Cong Vietnam tattoo on his big forearm.
“He’s asking two, but I bet he’d go down to eighteen hundred a scope.”
Ray finished torquing a manifold bolt and straightened slowly, his hands pressed on the old vinyl fender mats, and stretched his neck side to side. He had a big cinder block of a head covered in short, going-white hair, and the lines on his face looked deep enough to hold coins.
“All we need is one,” I said.
“I guess gone are the days you could make a living with a set of wrenches and a decent ear.”
He looked up at me. “Don’t be a wise guy,” and then he walked to the barrel stove and broke up a pallet board. The coals eating at that dry wood sounded like strings of ladyfingers. It was late December, almost Christmas, and out through the scratched bay door window sleet shot around in the wind. I looked at the wall clock, its hands just visible through rag streaks in the grime.
“You need to go, go on,” Ray said.
“I’m good.” Justine was home expecting me either to call or show up, but it wasn’t late yet. Not that late.
There came a thump on the bay door. In the window appeared the bulging black face of Jimmy Southard, whose Chevy big block engine was sitting in the next bay.
“Come on around,” Ray yelled. “I’m not letting my heat out.”
Jimmy came in the side door with a friend, a stringy-haired white guy, both of them steaming wet. Jimmy was a local drug dealer, and Ray wasn’t happy about doing business with him. Last year, one of the dealerships downtown had announced to the papers that they were no longer accepting cash, in an effort to turn away drug dealers. But Ray didn’t take cards and had enough checks bounce in the past that now he took cash only. Drug dealers probably accounted for half our business.
The door blew back, and the white guy hit it with his weight just as the wind died so that it slammed hard.
“He breaks that door,” Ray said to Jimmy, “and your big block becomes my big block.”
Jimmy looked at the white guy. “Yo, man, be cool. Stop tearing the place down.”
“Talk to the wind,” his buddy said.
Jimmy took off his fur-lined hat, and his big shaved head glistened under the chain-hung flourescents. “Ray, this is Scotty,” he said. “Scotty, Ray.”
Our hands were always too grimy to have to shake with anyone – another perk of the job, for me – and Ray acknowledged Scotty with a jut of his chin. Scotty nodded back and said, “You mind I warm up by the stove?”
Jimmy laughed called him ‘Broomstick.’ “What you need is some meat on your bones, boy.”
Scotty ignored him and went over the to the stove. The radio was playing on the workbench behind it, and Scotty stared as though it were a TV as he rubbed his bony hands.
“Black ice all the way up Andover,” Jimmy said to Ray. “I went down twice on that bitch.”
Jimmy had to weigh three hundred pounds, and one of his falls would be something to see. I pictured it for a moment and felt a little easier. He was a dangerous man in other settings, but I was his mechanic and he respected me. I even told myself that we were friends.
Jimmy wiped sleet from the sleeve of his long leather coat and nodded at me. “Davey, I heard your old lady failed the stick test.”
“She’s due in March.”
Jimmy took out a box of White Owls he used for blunts and handed me one still in plastic. “Good wishes.”
“You come by to pay for that motor?” Ray said. Whatever beer buzz he might have had was gone, now. He didn’t like visitors at night, not in this neighborhood – three blocks from the Rocky Hill projects, where Jimmy did his dealing and trouble came cheap.
“How’s she looking?” Jimmy said. Though he sounded hopeful, he had eyes in his head and could see that nothing had been done. The engine had a phone book and two crushed Schaefer cans sitting on top of it.
Ray stuck his finger and thumb in behind his lip and rooted out the mudball of snuff there. Like shaking off a bug he flicked it to the ground. “Same way it looked a week ago,” he said. “Not paid for.”
“I got it. We’re cool.” Jimmy pulled out a bankroll too big for his hand to close around. “How much you need?”
“Half? No, man, hold up. I wasn’t prepared to hear no motherfucking half.”
“I told you to put something down the day you brought it in.”
“Raymond,” Jimmy said and massaged the back of his head. “I thought you’d do me better than that. You’re cutting me where I live.”
Ray dropped his wrench on a tool cart. His forearms were covered in grease to the tops of his rolled-back sleeves, and the shimmering hair stood out like reeds in a swamp. He didn’t seem to care about how hostile it was to say nothing in this kind of situation. He was genuine in that way, and around him I felt safe.
“Four-oh-two,” Jimmy said, looking at his engine. “I just bought the car I want to put it in. Sixty-six Impala.”
Ray picked under his thumbnail with a chisel edge, and I thought, What would Clifton do right now? And I knew damn well what he would do, choke and stammer for a line from customer service school. But Ray was steady and silent. It was a glorious showdown to witness.
“It’s the day I was born twenty-nine years ago,” Jimmy said, finally. “Four-oh-two-sixty-six. That’s going to be my ride.”
“Half or get it out of here,” Ray said. “I’m not running a storage unit.”
“Ain’t that a bitch,” Jimmy said. He counted out eight hundreds and looked at the rolling cabinet toolbox for a place to put it.
“In that middle drawer, there,” Ray said, and Jimmy set the money inside and then added another bill. “Fuck it,” he said, counting out more. “There’s all of it. There’s the whole fifteen.”
Ray went over and looked at the money. “I’ll get on it Monday.”
Jimmy’s high laugh was like air forced out of pinholes. “I bet you will.” He threw a fifty on the pile. “For motivation.” He still had a fat wad left that went back in his pocket.
From the little Frigidaire Ray brought out a beer for himself and one for Jimmy. “There’s hospitality,” Jimmy said, and killed it, I swear, in two swallows. He wiped his mouth and looked over at where Scotty was sitting on top of a short stepladder. “Get on over here,” Jimmy said. Scotty stuffed his hands in his pockets and joined us. “I told him you might be looking to hire at some future date,” Jimmy told Ray. “Scotty’s new in town. He does…” he looked at Scotty. “You got a tongue, man. What can you do?”
“Change oil. Tune ups, transmissions, brakes, name it,” Scotty said.
“Scotty did a little time for drug shit in Pennsylvania,” Jimmy said, “so he don’t expect no affluence right away. Maybe you could start him on commission. Like a percentage of what he – ”
“I know what it means,” Ray said. He looked at Scotty. “You got tools?”
He nodded. “Enough to get going.”
“Come by Monday morning. We’ll talk.”
Scotty rubbed under his chin as though he had a sudden itch there and looked at Jimmy.
“That’s all we gonna get?” Jimmy said, and before Ray could answer he said, “All right, all right. You guys stay warm in here. Tell your lady good luck,” he said to me.
“Will do,” I said, and I gloried maybe a little too much in his attention. On impulse I said to Scotty, “Easy on the door.” He turned and cut his eyes at me. “Say what?”
“Scotty, man,” Jimmy said and dropped a big hand on his shoulder. Ray was already back under the hood at this point, and I was glad. His seeing this would’ve made me repeat myself and stand by it, and that was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do.
When they were gone, Ray said, “That Jimmy. He’s a real crap merchant, ain’t he?” He laughed up phlegm and spat on his way to the tool drawer.
“You really want to hire that guy?”
“For straight commish, off the books? I oughta at least consider it.” He looked at me. “If he remembers on Monday – which ten-to-one he won’t – I’ll put him on that transverse Caddy and see how long he lasts.”
Ray guessed right that giving Scotty the Cadillac would win me over. I wanted no part of that knuckle-grader, its engine shoe-horned in sideways with barely room to slip a wrench on all sides. Ray took out his wallet, but instead of putting in Jimmy’s money he counted out his own bills and laid them on top. “That’s seventeen-forty,” he said. “Go ahead and get us one of them scopes upstairs.”
I stared at him as he closed the drawer, my face warming, wanting to say that he wouldn’t be sorry, this would change everything, but you didn’t talk that way around the shop.
“You want to be the chief negotiator in this thing?” he said.
“Well, get the one you think looks good, not the one they try to sell you,” he said.
Ray’s office was a metal desk, folding chair and two rusting file cabinets pushed back in a corner. I turned up the radio a little – one of the Queensryche songs you heard ten times a day – and sat down to call Justine.
The TV was on in the background when she answered. “I think he’s driving a bumper car around in there tonight,” she said. We didn’t know the sex of the baby, but she said ‘he’ for my sake. In two months the nurse would introduce me to my little girl, and Justine would look at me and say she was sorry. It bothered me that she would apologize for something that wasn’t her fault, and the experience of holding my daughter for the first time was lost to it.
“Are you on your way?” she said. “I made Sloppy Joes.”
“Just like another hour, hour and a half.” I lowered my voice for the lie I didn’t want Ray to hear. “He asked me to stay. It’s a two-man job.”
After that, she was quiet for a while. Just before I said her name, she said, “One of the strands on the tree is out.”
“It’s probably just a bulb,” I said, and then I asked who was home downstairs. It was a pain in the ass living over her parents. Our sex had to be quiet, our fights whispered. Her mother was checking our deposit bags outside for beer cans – expecting nineteen-year-olds to sit around cracking Yoo-hoos all night.
Both of Justine’s parents were home, and her little sister was up with her watching “Murder, She Wrote.” They’d just got done baking cookies.
“You didn’t sign the cards,” she said.
“Shit.” Christmas was in three days. “Just sign them for me.”
“Even your mom’s?”
“I’ll call her.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Don’t start a fight,” I said.
“What about your dad’s card?”
“What about it?” I said. “What are we even sending him one for?”
“Because it’s Christmas, Dave. Because you should try to be a little forgiving one day of the year.”
“Don’t tell me how to be,” I said, and I could feel the familiar throb of pulse in my throat. “All of a sudden we’re supposed forget everything and give a shit about each other? Where’s his card to me?” There was some noise out in the shop, the door slamming again, and I lowered my voice. “Send it if you want,” I said. “Your name only.”
After a few moments she said, “That’s the Christmas spirit,” and sounded tired. “I try to do something good and sympathetic, and you just crap all over it.” I heard her little sister ask where the remote control was, and Justine said, “Where it always is.” Then to me she said, “We made you a cookie shaped like a screwdriver.”
“Is it vodka flavored?”
She was quiet again, and I heard her sigh. “I don’t feel like bribing you tonight. You’ll come home when you come home, I guess.” We finished the call, and I hung up with the familiar feeling of not knowing what she wanted from me, or if I was even the person who could provide it.
* * *
When I came back to the bays Scotty was there again, standing with his hands in his jacket pockets beside the Crown Vic. Ray was shaking his head in a drowsy way. “What’s going on?” I said.
Scotty looked at the corner from where I’d come and wiped his nose.
“How exactly in the hell,” Ray said to Scotty, “do you expect to get hired, you can’t even follow simple instructions?”
For some reason Scotty smirked, and I felt relieved. No way was Ray giving this asshole a job. “Which instructions would those be?” Scotty said.
“I said come back Monday. Does today look like Monday to you?”
Scotty shook his head at the ground, and he laughed a little laugh that told me all that was about to happen. Out of his jacket pocket he brought a small brown pistol. He didn’t point it but just it held out a little from his waist like you’d hold hot coffee. “I need that fifteen hundred,” he said.
There are moments you surprise yourself, and now that I didn’t scream or run or cry was one of those moments. I shifted my eyes to concentrate on Ray, who pushed his hands into his front pockets and for a few seconds looked at the floor. Then, very slowly, he looked up at Scotty and said, “You’re kidding.”
“It’s in the safe.”
“What’s the combination?”
“’Fuck You,’ is the combination.”
“No, fuck you, old man,” Scotty said and watched Ray a few seconds before coming up to me. “Move,” he said, and I did. Scotty went over to the toolbox, opened the drawer and stuffed the money in his pants pocket. “You think I’d work in this shit hole?” he said. “This whole town is fucked up. You guys included.”
When Scotty turned to me I saw into the gun barrel, a fluted little hole the black of outer space. His long finger, its nail chewed way down, was pushed against the side of the trigger. “Go ahead and piss your pants, bro,” he said. “You look like you want to. Should I take it easy on the door?”
But I stayed where I was, and something happened after the first shock wore off. I wasn’t afraid. Your mind will do things. When I used to think about Ray being in Vietnam, it made me wonder how I’d hold up in combat. I’d start to breathe heavy – I’d want to lurch at the danger, as if that could cure me of doubt or cowardice. I was surprised now to be calm and thinking. Scotty had said those things to make me feel like a punk, the way my father would talk when he wasn’t going to hit me. When he used to hit me he did it without words, with ice in his eyes.
What I thought was this: Shooting somebody was a thousand times the crime robbery was; shooting somebody never went away.
“I see you around, you’re a dead man,” Ray said, not dramatically but as though it were normal talk – pick up your Buick after three – and Scotty swung around with the gun. “Man, if I ever see you around…”
It came on me like a reflex, my body seeing the opening before my mind caught up, and I launched myself at Scotty, tackling him into a hill of beer cans. The gun never fired and was gone, thrown from his hand, and I pulled back to look at him. “Man, all right,” he said, pushing at the floor as cans kicked out under his feet. “Get off.”
I pummeled him with both hands. I didn’t let up. When you get all the way inside a moment like that, your energy is endless, and I didn’t care if I killed him or not. He kept jouncing, and I could feel how skinny his legs were under mine. There was nothing to him at all. I swung wildly and broke my finger on his forehead – just a sound and a tingle, but enough to say that I could still lose this fight. With my good hand I pushed off him. From a nearby tool tray I picked up a three-foot socket extension as he kicked at me with his heels. That steel extension was as good as a sword. Across the neck, and his head would’ve rolled – he realized it at the same moment I did. “Enough, man,” he said.
Everything seemed to pause, as if I’d been yanked up and out of time, and I looked over just as Ray was getting off his knees. He hiked his pants up, and I understood as you do in these situations – your perception super-human – that he had been under the car going after the gun, had come up empty, and now he was going around the other side for it. But he looked at me, at the extension gripped in both hands, and he saw exactly what I was ready to do. He neither approved nor disapproved, and I knew that when it was over we would be equals in some way. He’d know what I was made of.
The extension sliced the air as I stepped forward, swinging as to ring the carnival bell, and it caught one of the floor joists overhead. Fire exploded in my broken finger and the extension bounced away. Almost at the same time something burst through my intestines. Scotty’s foot retracted from my nuts like it was spring-driven, and he scrambled away. I fell over, though somehow I was able to chunk a can of brake cleaner in his direction – it missed by a mile. He was out the door before he ever got fully upright.
All this – the tackle, the fight, the escape – happened probably in less than a minute. Ray was just fishing out the gun with a pry bar. “You all right?” he said and watched me a moment before he bent for the gun. When the first full breath hit my lungs I had about three seconds to make it to the bathroom, the plywood door slapping behind me as I lunged over the bowl. My insides jerked and brought up mostly beer. My tonsils burned, and after, as I was sucking at tap water, I heard Ray on the phone. In the little cracked mirror over the sink I looked like a corpse with moving eyes. Even my lips were white.
When I came out Ray was holding the gun. “Three-eighty,” he said. “Christ. Look at this pea shooter.” He pinched the grip with his thumb and finger and caught the magazine when it fell. A live round waited at the top, angled up like a missile on a tiny launch pad. He pushed it out and another leapt up to replace it.
Ray asked me for a cigarette. He’d been trying to cut down, to ration, and his own pack was empty. We sat on milk crates by the stove and smoked. You could hear the tips crackle when we inhaled. It was the best cigarette of my life, the one that’s made it impossible for me to quit since.
Ray stared off at the front of the shop. Once in a while he shook his head with a foul look. “I tell you what,” he said, finally. It was all he said.
I waited on the long sigh you’d think something like this would bring. Finally, I said, “I thought we’d be moving a body.” This was off a joke he’d said once about friendship: A friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body. We laughed then, laughed hard, and it seemed like the noblest thing to do. Ray sat a while panting, recovering from the laugh. Then he said, “Go on home. Get some ice on that finger.”
“You going after him?”
Ray looked up at the clock. “Soon as Manny Shorb gets here.”
I told him to check Bunker Hill Park, which was where junkies and bums and assholes hung around. He nodded and said he planned to. We started new cigarettes, and the first thing that came to me I asked. I asked what Vietnam was like. I asked if he’d had any close calls.
“Just one,” he said. “I had to swim, and I can’t swim.”
I smoked, staring off, and then thought of something. “You couldn’t swim, and you were in the Navy?”
Ray leaned back on his milk crate. When he laughed his eyes in the light were blue and clear, and you could see how he might have looked as a young man a hundred years ago. He settled forward, hands on his knees, and started to cough.
“What did you do after? Get drunk?”
He shook his head. “I wanted to write this gal a letter, but I didn’t have any paper. It would have been nice to have a piece of paper in that fucking war.” He laughed again and wiped off a tear. “Jesus Christ, this night,” he said. Then he got up and brought over the beers we’d been drinking. He watched me for a few seconds and I saw the gleam of youth dull from his eyes. He looked up at the clock. “Finish up,” he said.
And those two words have hooked in and stayed, how he said them, the command, and the way I felt taken care of afterward. I drank the beer empty and crushed the can and tossed it in the pile. Then I waited to do whatever he said next. I was ready for the rest of my life to happen alongside Ray, who was looking out for me now and always would be.
As we were working Go-Jo up and down our arms, the water steaming in the nasty Fiberglass sink, Manny, who was Ray’s age or older, appeared in the little window. He pounded on the bay door. “I’m in the car,” he called.
“You want me to come?” I said, and then like I meant it, “I’ll come.”
“You go home,” Ray said, and I remember there was a look on his face that seemed to be pleading, as if he’d just said, “Don’t end up like me.” And then he sighed the long sigh that meant we’d survived something here, and he clapped a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get him,” he said.
Outside the rain had stopped but it was colder, about to snow. My Firebird was parked not far from the side door, and I started the engine and sat there breathing smoke, waiting for the fast idle to kick down. The defroster warmed a pair of clear eggs up the windshield, and by the streetlight I could see Manny parked in his Cutlass. Pretty soon Ray came out and knocked on the driver’s side window. I guess he wanted to drive.
Manny got out holding an aluminum baseball bat. He held it in front of him, as if checking a pool cue, and through the car glass I heard him say, “That’s what I’m talking about, right there,” and he and Ray grabbed hands. And then Ray looked over at me, for just a second or two, enough time that my throat swelled with a feeling like pride.
They wouldn’t get Scotty or the money. And Jimmy had just four days left of freedom before they’d catch him in a sting operation that would cost him eight years of his life up in Osborn. The money and my hopes for an oscilloscope were gone, but it wouldn’t really matter. In less than a year Ray’s biopsy would come back swimming with lung cancer, and he’d sell the shop for a song to Clifton, whose offer to hire me on was no longer open. But I didn’t know any of that. This was still in that more or less uncomplicated time when everything seemed to be hanging together. I didn’t see the bad road Justine and I were already headed down. I had no idea that being alone was the worst possible thing.
I was satisfied, perhaps for the first time in my life – something was proven that night – and I brought my hand up and waved. As Ray watched me an easiness came over him, as if it weren’t windy and cold, as if he might speak in a low voice that I would be able to hear. But he didn’t open his mouth. In the end he just jutted his chin once and got in the car.