Image: Brian Hubble
Interview: "Carburetors and Character Sketches"
Wayne Harrison recalls his former life as a mechanic and his transformation into a writer.
Nick Campbell built small-block engines with more bottom end than anyone in Waterbury—some said in all New England. His shop was Out of the Hole Automotive, the name sewn in midnight blue over the pockets of our work shirts. At 33, Nick was a legend, and as I pulled on my uniform each morning I felt transformed from pathetic teenager to minor superhero. So when Nick’s jobs started coming back as rechecks, I was fairly devastated.
The first was a ’70 Monte Carlo, whose 350 engine Nick had beefed up with a high-lift roller cam and racing pistons. Mimo, the owner, was a high-maintenance price-haggler, and I wasn’t surprised when he pulled right into the bays without a ticket. “I’m not happy about this, boys,” he said, lisping like he did when he was excited. Mimo was a fat man, always in a turtleneck and paperboy cap. One of his relatives was supposedly connected, but Mimo looked less like a dangerous mobster than like Dom DeLuise.
Nick, Tommy Costello, and I were all on cars at the time, and approached the Monte from different angles. Nick stopped to light a cigarette with a lack of urgency that I tried to imitate. “What’s the trouble, Mimo?” he said.
“Oil’s the trouble. Drips all over my garage floor.” He reeked of sweet cologne. You couldn’t get it off all day, if he shook your hand.
Instead of putting the Monte up on the lift, Tommy (“Tommy the Temper,” as some of our regulars called him) kicked over a creeper and rolled under the car with a droplight. At this point we could still hope that Nick’s work wasn’t to blame. Maybe the leak was condensation from the air conditioner, and Mimo couldn’t tell oil from water. We still had options. But when Tommy rolled back out and, flat on his back, just stared at the blackened ceiling, my stomach dropped. He sat forward, one of his eyebrows raised in a look that was as close as he came to compassion. He said to Nick, “It’s the drain plug.”
“Don’t tell me he cross-threaded it,” Mimo said, lisping wildly. Tommy swung around with a mean smirk, and I could guess what was next.
“He what-ed it?” Tommy said.
But Mimo hadn’t seen it coming. He leaned on his car, a flush rising through his jowls as he folded his arms. “What is your problem, man?”
Tommy leaned over the dynamometer and spat in the wheel well. “My problem,” he said, “is a guy pulls in here like he owns the fucking place. A guy that drops off his car every other month for more cam, more carb, more exhaust, thinking it’s gonna make his dick bigger, and then don’t want to pay.”
“Jesus, Tommy,” I said, feeling I had to say something, out of common decency.
“What’s wrong with the drain plug?” Nick said.
Tommy rubbed his oil-wet fingertips. “It’s loose a little bit.”
“Loose?” Nick said. The word took the wind out of him. Quick as I’d ever seen him do anything, Tommy dug a five-eighths box-end out of a drawer and went back under the car. Nick, our boss, our leader, neglecting something so basic—imagine going a day unaware you forgot to put on your right shoe—was inconceivable.
Nick smoked and stared at the car dumbfounded, dazed. Mary Ann, his wife, passed by with her bookkeeping binder. The three of us, standing quiet as mourners around Mimo’s car, stopped her short of the lobby door. “What’s wrong?” she said.
Nick wouldn’t look at her, and when she turned to me, I was torn between the loyalty I owed the two people who mattered to me most. I couldn’t blow her off, and I couldn’t tell on Nick. Thank God Nick spoke up then, just as Mary Ann started to walk away. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Take Mimo out to the lobby and give him his money back.”
“Whoa,” Mimo said, a flattered, guilt-ridden knot of emotion now. “That’s $1,800. I’d be happy with a discount.”
“I don’t give a damn what you’re happy with,” Nick said, and he threw his cigarette in the trash can, where any number of things could have gone up in flames.
What happened between Mary Ann and me started as conversations in the parts room. She’d ask me about my girlfriend, Katie, what we did on our dates, whether I said nice things to her. When Katie broke up with me a week before Christmas, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Mary Ann. I was embarrassed and hurt, two things I didn’t want to show, but inevitably those feelings came out, and Mary Ann and I had our first hug between thermostats and Fram oil filters. It was a big hug, which gave me a glimpse into where our friendship might lead.
Why I betrayed the one man I wanted to become wasn’t clear to me then—the summer I turned 19—and only with the distance of time do I see the kid who thought he was exempt from the basic laws of civilized life. Sometimes, as Nick and I buttoned up a car he’d just brought back from the dead, I’d promise myself Mary Ann and I were over. But then she’d come out through the bays, not even noticing me as she started an inventory, completely focused on her job, so strong to do that when only days earlier an orgasm I’d given her had made her cry. If right then she told me to declare my love for her to Nick, I would have. I would have done almost anything.
“Chant with me,” she said, late one morning in her living room. I didn’t worry much about Nick coming home on our Tuesdays together. Nick was a raging workaholic, and besides, he’d never leave Tommy alone at the shop to greet customers. Sometimes Mary Ann and I left our clothes off after making love—likely as not we’d fall back into the act after a while—and as she crossed the room to the stereo, I watched her back and ass and thighs. Her body didn’t disappoint me when she undressed, unlike the two girlfriends I’d been with, both of whom were 13 years younger than Mary Ann.
The big plaster-walled living room held six framed photographs. Over the fireplace mantel Nick was standing arm in arm with Buddy Baker after Buddy had broken 200 miles per hour at Talladega. The other pictures were of Oregon, where Nick and Mary Ann had moved from four years ago. Rolling waves were framed by miles of Sahara-like dunes. A lake inside a dead volcano, white mountain peaks, lava fields that looked like the face of the moon. Nick and Mary Ann came out East when Nick inherited the shop from an uncle who had died of emphysema. I imagined that arriving here, in run-down Waterbury, from such a place as Oregon, must’ve been like waking from a dream.
Mary Ann put in a cassette, and the sound that rose from the speakers was unlike any I’d ever heard. Two rich voices that could only belong to gorgeous dark-eyed Indian women sang the first chorus. Om namah shivaya. Then a hundred or a thousand voices in unison. Behind the chant were the slightest sounds, tiny wind chimes, tiny buzzing. Then om namah shivaya.OM NAMAH SHIVAYA. You could hear tears in the women’s voices, anguish, then resolve, safety. “What are they saying?”
“It’s a salutation to that which we are capable of becoming.” Mary Ann took my hand and brought me to the carpet, piled my legs in rough approximation of a lotus, and positioned herself beside me. I started to sway. It was warm, and we were naked with this remarkable sound.
And then the phone rang. She let the machine answer, and the sound of Nick’s voice in the house shot through me like a spark-plug jolt. “Babe, I can’t find the last Carquest order …” When the message was over, she turned off the chant tape, and we dressed in the silence of Adam and Eve after the apple.
Though she herself didn’t drink, Mary Ann went to the kitchen and brought me one of Nick’s Heinekens. It wasn’t quite noon, but the day already had the feel of an epic journey for us, and all comforts were allowed. “Do you believe in karma?” I said. She watched me a moment, as if to see where this was going, then nodded.
“What’s a good way to improve it?”
“Go to college. Do something with your life.”
I lit one of her menthols, a taste I’d already come to associate with these air-conditioned, self-indulgent mornings. “You sound like my dad.”
“Sorry,” she said. She knew the story. My father had told me, one morning before school six years earlier, that he and my mother had outgrown each other—which was half true.
“And I like fixing cars.”
“Maybe you’ll find something you like better. Something friendlier to your back and knuckles.”
“Nick told me you used to work on cars.”
She caught her lip in her teeth, and her mind seemed to change gears. “Do you like fortune cookies? I had one the other night that said, ‘Spend much money on many doors.’”
I thought about that, and shook my head. With a Chinese accent she said, “It mean go to correge. Open possibirities.” I spent the next moment in love with her, a feeling that both hurt and exhilarated me. She had a young, freckled complexion, and I was already losing hair in front, my teeth stained from cigarettes and coffee. I imagined the years between us were offset. I imagined—all I could do was imagine—that if anyone saw us holding hands on the street, they would think we were the same age.
“Tommy Costello was human once,” she warned. “Don’t turn into him.”
“I was actually thinking of Nick. All his rechecks.”
She lit a cigarette for herself. “Justin, what do you think karma is?”
“Why bad things happen to good people,” I said. And I thought, too late, of the baby boy they’d lost not even two years ago. If I’d offended her, she didn’t show it. She brushed her permed, always-damp-looking red hair behind an ear and shaped the ash of her cigarette.
“I don’t think Tommy can blame karma,” she said. “Out of the Hole isn’t a shop, it’s a circus. You guys aren’t even nice to your customers.”
This was often true—we modified engines for gearheads who tipped well and would’ve forgiven us for crapping on the floor if we juiced a dozen more ponies out of their V-8s. Tommy was worse than anyone. Mary Ann had to buy a separate coffeemaker for the bays just to keep him out of the lobby, where he got fingerprints everywhere, and swore and farted as he pleased.
“It’s the path of least resistance,” she said. “He has no decency, no discipline. And so his work is starting to suffer. Where’s the mystery?”