The man did not speak. He beckoned me to follow him with a hand sheathed in a greasy, surgical glove. I had never seen an auto mechanic wearing latex gloves so I asked him, “Is that the thing, nowadays?” I told him, “My father never wore latex gloves and I can’t imagine he does now.” No, my father’s hands were always man’s hands: stubby, olive, smeared, callused, the outlines of fingernail and wrinkle drawn in permanent black, like a superhero graphic.
He didn’t answer me and I followed a mute man whose name I didn’t know toward a four-car garage, open at all doors to a summer’s day. My heels thwacked the dissolving pavement and I wiggled my shoulders back under the pads of my suit jacket, trailing behind by a step or two. It was earthy out here, even in a strip mall, which is the South for you: blue skies, saplings, pinestraw, withered grass. Then the sickly sweet smell of honeysuckle died as I followed from glare through a blunt line to shade. The temperature dropped to a coolness. The new smell was gasoline and oil weeping onto the ground. The consistent hammering of an air drill jetted past the point of a bolt’s full tension.
The floor became barely navigable around wheeled oil pans, power cords, and discarded tires. I didn’t look for the tool and die calendars or pinups. Those pinups had provoked me in my youth with their omnipresence among the shop stalls. They defied the happy families and doting wives at my dad’s coworkers’ homes, wallpapered houses we visited as a family. Instead of looking, then, I inhaled the coolness and fumes with a bit of stale smoke and thought.
When I was a kid my father could fix anything. I went into the bathroom once and found that I couldn’t use the toilet—it was a confusion of pieces not quite together, the sheen chalky around the edges. The bit that my father held up by a rusty and dripping chain interested me. What’s that, Dad? Eyebrows up as he turned his head slowly, surprised by me in so many ways. Go on, use the other bathroom. Hopping from foot to foot: But I want to help. Turned away, absorbed into the task: No, you don’t need to know that kind of stuff. Keep your hands clean.
The mechanic and I arrived at my Taurus. It was on the ground, looking vulnerable and ashamed with its hood wide open to expose its black and chrome guts. And the man — a sort of pseudo-mechanic with his latex gloves, I feared — immediately pointed to the battery and its oily nodules, pointed before he even came to a standing rest, pointed to show me either where I might find car batteries and their nodules or else in embarrassment of some monetary figure he was about to hurl at me. This is why your car’s still back here, lady. This is why we’re holding you hostage until we lick the insides of your pockets clean. He jimmied the connection to the battery and, well there it was, wobbly so that even a lady could see it. I adjusted my purse strap over my clavicle, cleared my throat.
“Ah, I see.” I was struggling with a stomach-level fear of the hamster-on-the-wheel life, the inertia of it. This muddled with the heaviness of the credit card bill on the counter full of dirty dishes, my kids waiting for me curbside at school, my mother retired to a trailer in Florida, my husband buried under assistants and deadlines at work. I wondered if I had a friend I could call for a ride before settling into a resigned sigh that almost — but couldn’t — end in me telling this speechless pseudo-mechanic something about an actual person.
When I was a teenager, my dad bought a riding lawnmower with which he mowed our lush, golf-course green lawn on days when he wasn’t watering it with a sprinkler that became a 6-to-10 job to move to every corner. Back when not everything was motorized, the lawnmower looked special with its boxy chrome exterior and its knobs and pedals, one knob that had a rabbit and a turtle silhouetted at opposing ends. Dad, I said, Can I mow the grass? Walking away from me, What do you want to mow the grass for? It’s work. Trying to keep up, You seem to enjoy it. It looks fun. I’ll make sure I keep the pattern exactly how you like it. Stopping to yank a weed from a crack in the driveway with those stubby, eternally-greasy hands: No. You can’t do it the right way.
I pulled at my earlobe as my eyes swept past the gaping Taurus around the garage, actually seeing nothing but my own spectral thoughts until they caught on something bright, tucked back on the side of a metal cabinet. And there it was: the pinup I hadn’t looked for, accusing me from her twerked position over a lipstick-red Corvette. I lingered too long in looking at it, suspended in a world of gas fumes, scraping, rattling drawers, and oily rags where nothing ever changed. I might have been eight, I might have been thirty. Dad’s voice was ringing in my head: “Be careful in here. This is no place for little girls.”
Dammit, I’m the car, I thought. Dammit, I’m the pinup on the other damn car. “I only have $100,” I said. “I’m going home and I’ll call you when I figure out what to do.” He looked at me like I was nuts, but he was the mechanic wearing latex gloves. He was the one with the pinup, thinking girls should be kept shiny and clean and in frames. “Well how’s this for a frame?” I spat the words at him, and quickly found my way back out into the sun, where I could breathe. Perhaps my dad could pick me up.
Devon Trevarrow Flaherty is a homeschool mom in Durham, NC, where she also writes, reads, cooks, hikes, sings, and paints as well as gets overly passionate about teaching co-op English to ninth graders. She blogs at The Starving Artist.