“M’ijo, you don’t look up to a man because of the paint on his car. It’s the engine, son, not the car.” My dad, he’s wiping the oil off his hands with a greasy red rag, the name patch over his pocket Leonidas. He told me once he was named after a crazy Spartan king, a last-stand kind of guy, guts and glory. My dad, he wears dark blue Dickies and steel-toed boots to work, tells me these lessons for my life, wisdom from the Spartan king.
I’m not gonna wear clothes with my name stitched over the pocket. I was made for suits, lizard skin boots and a matching briefcase full of legal briefs. Leonidas would watch me study. His big callused hand smelled like engine oil. It would land on the back of my neck, heavy, my head could barely hold it up. “I’m proud of you, M’ijo.”
The T-bird was a beauty, a 1960 that had been restored and painted and polished, and my dad was working on the engine. I could tell he wasn’t impressed with the way the high-dollar lawyer had maintained the bird. I didn’t blame the guy. He had the world by the nuts and was busy twisting. He didn’t have time to worry about car engines. That was what guys like my dad were for, those slow, careful guys, the ones who believed in their work, believed in their kids, believed in America. I’m a different generation.
He stopped by the garage with a Bluetooth in his ear, talking to someone more important while my dad stood there and waited for him. When he reached up to turn his ear off, I stuck my hand out. His suit was hand-tailored English, and I could see tiny initials on the cuffs of his shirt sleeve. Cool. “Hello, Sir. I’m Ricardo Avila. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your tax lecture last week. I’m a second year at UCLA.”
“Hello, Ricardo. So you’re a law student? Nice. Your family must be proud of you. You gonna do immigration law?”
I could feel my cheeks flush. “No, sir. Tax law. Your firm is taking some interns this summer. I hope I can be considered.”
The man laughed in surprise, then he turned to my dad, looked at him like, these crazy kids? What can you do?
“Right. Well. There are lots of firms.”
Leonidas narrowed his eyes. The man’s phone rang, and he turned away, holding his hand up so we would wait. “No, I’m stuck down here at the garage. The mechanic just started looking at the car.” He glanced over at the T-bird. The hood was propped up, and my dad was leaning over the engine, studying. “Yeah, why don’t you meet me.” He looked over at me. “Hey, Antonio? You know a good Mexican place for lunch? Someplace clean? I can come back and get the car later.”
Leonidas stroked his chin. “I’ll need two days to have the car ready.”
The man sighed. “Jesus, what am I supposed to do for two days?”
“I can find you a loaner. A pickup truck, or maybe a…”
“No. Thank you.”
I watched him walk out of the garage, call a cab on the little phone stuck in his ear. Leonidas was looking at me. I shrugged. Water off a duck’s back. If I was gonna learn how to take the world by the nuts and twist, I needed to feel the pain.
Two days later, and Mom was showing me the Land’s End website. They had decent dress shirts and they would sew initials on the cuff for five bucks. The shirts were reasonably priced, too. “White or pale blue?”
I chewed on my bottom lip. “I don’t know. The suit’s gray, right? What do they call it, charcoal?”
Leonidas came in the room, looked at the computer over my shoulder. That heavy, hard hand landed on the back of my neck. “I think pale blue. And a red tie. Stripes.”
“Thanks.” They did not notice the irony in my tone. Twenty”“two, and dressing me was a family affair.
“T-bird’s in the garage. He came to pick up his car. You want to go shake hands? Give it another try?”
I shook my head. “Waste of time, Dad.”
“Come on, M’ijo. I’ll show you what a proper engine for a tax lawyer looks like.”
The hood was propped up on the T-bird, and the engine was polished and shiny. The lawyer, he didn’t notice, he was on the phone again, but I was Leonidas’ son, and I knew engines. That engine looked like trouble, skittish and high-strung as an inbred poodle. I walked over to the Ford Fairlaine my dad had bought me when I got accepted to law school. It was parked next to the garage. A 1960, it was in primo shape, a classic. A good car for a hard-working man, my dad always said. Nothing fancy, but with a fine, dependable engine.
Sarah Black is a fiction writer.