Mike leaned under the hood and extracted the
50-pound cylinder head. He took a swig of Coke and mopped his brow.
The wall thermostat said 90 and it wasnt even eight oclock
yet. He thought about taking off the jumpsuit and working
bare-chested in just his jeans, but even in this little dump of a gas
station on the edge of nowhere the Shell people had their standards.
He could hear his mothers voice when he used to lope into her
kitchen after a day of fooling around with cars, his chest covered
with grease. Cant you at least wear a shirt? Which
would have made more work for her, but somehow his nakedness was
worse than the effort of working the grime out of his clothes. He was
always covered in grime-he and his buddies spent all their free time
lowering front ends, re-jetting carburetors, swapping stock mufflers
with glass-packs. The memory sent a wave of pleasure over him and for
a moment he forgot that today they were lowering his father into the earth.
He threw back his head and gulped the rest of the Coke, then went in to take a piss. His mother had been understanding about his not showing up for the funeral. Its alright, son. I know there was no love lost between the both of you. He stared into the mirror above the sink. The scar at the corner of his right eye was a constant reminder of his fathers rage. Frank had thrown a tile at him when he was barely two. Mike learned early never to cross him.
He stepped out of the office into the white-hot glare of the morning and stared up the highway into the nothingness of the desert landscape. Shimmering in the distance was an old Ford. He watched it inch its way down the road and into the gas station.
A fat girl got out saying, fill er up. She shaded her eyes. A real scorcher, huh? The cap sleeves of her IHOP uniform cut into her fleshy arms. Her plump face was dotted with freckles. She leaned against the car and watched as he wiped bug juice off her windows. Better check under the hood too, okay? He dragged the hose over and filled up the radiator as she continued to chatter. Dont wanna blow up another engine. Ones enough, dont you think?
She had an easy way about her and a friendly smile but he was anxious to be alone again. She paid for the gas and he watched her drive off to begin her shift. The locals would be lining up for Pigs in a Blanket, trying to get a taste of something sweet before another long hot day. He turned back to the Buick and started to clean the head.
A picture of his father forced its way into his mind-Frank doubled over in pain. It had started with a fight about a report card. Frank wanted Mike to go to college instead of being stuck at some dead-end job, working at the chlorination plant like he had all these years. But Mike was no student. Frank took one look at the report card and flew off the handle. That was nothing new, but this time he egged Mike on, told him that he was the dumbest fuck that ever lived, dead between the ears, a total lamebrain-goading him to take his best shot. Mike was a big kid at 17, could bench-press 200 pounds, and knew his way around a boxing ring. Still, he wasnt above kneeing someone in the balls and thats exactly what Franks taunting led him to do. At first though, Mike had thrown a decent punch, his fist connecting with Franks sneering face. But then Frank came toward him like a large lumbering bear, both arms raised. Mike jammed his knee into his nuts then tore out of the house, his mother calling after him in the darkness. He didnt go home after that.
He glanced at the wall clock. Itd be starting about now, the prayers and eulogies and benedictions. Then theyd make their way over to the house. The Drapers would be there, and their old neighbors, the Conroys. Everyone would be whispering. Wheres Mike? How could he dishonor his own father? But he had no regrets. Going to the funeral would have been hypocritical.
With the interruptions to pump gas, and one trip into town to cash his paycheck, it had taken the whole day, but the Buick Electra finally had a new head gasket. He wiped the grit off his arms, splashed his face, and locked up.
He picked up a couple slices of pizza, gulping them down on his way to the Tin Drum. He stood in the doorway cooled by the stale, air-conditioned air. Bob Marley wailed from the jukebox. Brenda was tending bar. A couple guys he knew from the gym were shooting pool. He pulled the lever on the cigarette machine and a pack of Camels dropped into the tray. He settled himself on a stool near the door and tried to care about the football game. He was tired and edgy. He ordered a drink and lit a cigarette. The announcer for the Raiders was giving him a headache.
The IHOP girl was at the other end of the bar. When she saw him she gave a little wave and peeled herself off of the stool. She was wearing jeans and a clingy top. Her walk was more of a waddle. She carried a bottle of beer.
Hey, she said, hoisting herself onto a stool.
He offered her a cigarette and she took it, held his hand to steady the lighter. She inhaled deeply then coughed and said, I usually smoke filtered. But, sputtering some more, this is fine, I like new experiences. She winked when she said this and, even though Mike thought it was corny, it made him interested. She downed the rest of her beer then held up the empty bottle for Brenda to see she wanted another.
My Fords rusting out on the hood. Is that the kind of thing you can fix?
Youd be better off with a whole new paint job but its probably not worth it on that old piece of junk.
Yeah, thats what I thought.
Itd cost you at least three hundred. Just wouldnt be worth it.
I didnt think so.
There was a smudge of mascara by her eye and Mike thought about reaching over to wipe it away. He finished the whiskey shot and said, I could patch it for around forty.
She put out her cigarette and looked at him. You practically live in that gas station, dont you?
I get out from time to time.
Then she laughed and said, You like cars better than people, admit it.
Depends on the people, he said and let his eyes linger on hers a moment.
Your names Mike, right? He nodded. She knew his name.
Mines Noreen . . . and she stuck out her hand for him to shake.
This made him smile and he felt something inside let go. They drank another couple of rounds and smoked more cigarettes and by midnight they were both drunk. They left the bar, his arm slung carelessly around her shoulder. He flicked on the lights in his apartment and was self-conscious at the sight of his bed sheets all twisted and stained, the empty beer cans and dirty ashtrays. Noreen didnt seem to notice and moved easily into the room, laughing and asking if he had any tequila. All he had was beer but she laughed again, said that was fine and walked over to the corner where he kept his free weights and bar bells, She tried to pick one up, couldnt and turned to him. Bet you couldnt lift me, she said playfully. No ones that strong.
At first he thought of grabbing her around the middle but then he got reckless and swooped her up, cradling her like a child. He knew she was big, but now that she was in his arms, her bulk surprised him. She mustve weighed over 170. He heard a choking sound come out of her and thought that he was gripping her too tight. But when he looked at her face, he saw she was crying. He started to put her down. Please dont, she whimpered and held on tight.
He stood there awkward and embarrassed, the effects of the alcohol suddenly gone. Noreens skin was sticky, the booze gave her sweat an acrid smell. She was getting heavier, he could feel his muscles tiring. She showed no sign of being done crying. Sweat trickled down his checks.
All this reminded him of something, this ache in his arms, this awkward confusion. It was his eighth birthday, his father had taken him to the pier to teach him to fish. He had given Mike the tackle box to carry. Mike held it close to his chest, proud and anxious. It was heavy, so heavy, but he knew that to complain would make his father mad and on that day of all days, that was the last thing he wanted to do.
It was overcast, gray waves lapped against the pilings. Finally Frank selected the spot. He leaned the poles against the railing and took off his jacket. Mike thought about what was in the tackle box which he still held, waiting for Frank to tell him it was okay to put it down. All the shiny lures, the floats, weights, bits of cork, strands of line--everything in its own little tray. Each thing by itself so small, yet all together they weighed so much. His father seemed to have forgotten that he was carrying it; he was busy working the hook free from the cork on one of the reels. Mike glanced up, trying to catch his eye. Suddenly his arms gave way and the box dropped, hitting the wooden slats then tumbling into the icy water.
Idiot! his father bellowed, clapping him hard across his head. Mike felt stinging in his eyes but he swallowed hard; Frank didnt allow crying.
Are you happy now? his father roared.
Frank grabbed the two reels and stomped off down the pier, the hook swinging on the end of one of the lines. Mike peered into the murky water below. Little pieces of cork and plastic floats bobbed on the surface.
Noreen was clinging to him, quietly weeping onto his shoulder. Suddenly, without warning, a sob escaped from his own body, from deep within the cavity of his powerful chest-a sob. He felt Noreens grip on him grow stronger. He heaved with impossible choking, his whole body convulsing. Still holding her, he sank onto the couch. He melted into her large body with its folds of flesh and strange womanly smells and, under the glare of the lights, the two of them cried softly together.