Fiction Fiction 2009

Least Resistance

Holding her hand in the coffee shop, I realized how close I’d come to blowing it with the one person in my life who needed me. Her family was back in Oregon. Her husband was distracted, about to lose his reputation and business if he couldn’t pull it together. And here I was, listening.

The first of two mistakes I made with Mary Ann happened during sex. I was starting to worry that she’d think missionary was the only position I knew, so I asked if we could try doggy style. She looked away and freed herself from me, turned over and waited, slumped over the sofa arm. The muscles in her back tightened, pulling down from her spine and causing her back to arc slightly. Entering her without the press of our fronts and without kissing was like breaking a spell. I apologized and turned her back, holding her fiercely, and, as if I’d just pulled her from a hole in the ice, felt her life return.

The second mistake was going into their bedroom. The door stayed closed when I was over, and one morning while she was in the bathroom I saw my chance. The room was neat, the bed made—a rustic log bed of Oregon fir, I figured. I stayed in the doorway. In a frame on the bureau was a picture of baby Joey, whose features were mostly Nick’s, with Mary Ann’s electric-blue eyes. Like a mini shrine, the picture was surrounded by two plastic rings, a stuffed penguin, and a toy banana. In the mirror I saw something that drew me all the way in. On the floor, between the bed and the window, was a rumpled sleeping bag and pillow on a foam mat. I stared at it for some time and was halfway back to the door when she came in and caught me.

“Justin,” she said. The pain in her voice sickened me. “I don’t believe this.”

“Mary Ann.”

“Just leave. Get out. Go.” She came around and pushed me back. She would have knocked me over had I tried to hold my ground.

This took us weeks to get over. At first she wasn’t talking to me, and I felt no better than Tommy, though, unlike him, I was aware enough to feel the agony. I could see that she was suffering as well, having no one to talk to other than customers and Nick, whose mind was generally passing from valve to cylinder to exhaust, like one of those tiny cameras that swim up veins on science shows. Then one day I got a sentence: “You had no right,” and then, hours later, another: “I thought I could trust you.” But slowly we came back together. One afternoon she drove out to Bethlehem, the little dairy-farm town where I lived. We walked the downtown, three blocks of mostly antique stores, and in a coffee shop she explained sudden infant death syndrome, how it was every parent’s nightmare, how she woke to the sight of Nick rocking the baby, pleading with him, “Warm up. Warm up, son.”

Our small table had two chairs, and to slide mine around to her side when her eyes filled up would have been loud and awkward. So I pressed her hand in both of mine and waited. In a while she managed a smile. “I didn’t want to cry in here,” she said.

“Why does he sleep on the floor?”

“He dreams that Joey’s still in the bed. He tells me not to take it personally, but how do you not?”

Holding her hand in the coffee shop, I realized how close I’d come to blowing it with the one person in my life who needed me. Her family was back in Oregon. Her husband was distracted, about to lose his reputation and business if he couldn’t pull it together. And here I was, listening. Devoted to her and listening.

The rechecks were eating Nick alive. It wasn’t the number of them—maybe seven or eight all summer—but that the mistakes were careless and potentially expensive. The only pattern I noticed was what you’d expect, that the jobs happened on our busiest days, when any of us were hard-pressed just to keep our fingers out of spinning fans. For a while I toyed with the idea that Tommy was behind it somehow, but on those chaotic days all I could do was keep track of myself, never mind watching him. And what would he have to gain by ruining Nick? We weren’t known for competitive pricing, and certainly not for customer service; all that kept us employed was Nick’s fast-spreading reputation as a genius.

I gave Nick my full dedication. My dark secret made me the best friend I’d ever been. I’d intercept pissed-off customers and lie straight-faced that a bad batch of spark plugs was to blame for their complaints. I put myself out on a limb, and felt wonderful.

Early one afternoon Nick was helping me with a mid-’70s Formula that Firestone had sent by. They’d replaced the carburetor to the tune of $500 only to find that the idle continued to cough and skip.

Cylinders six and eight came up weak on a cylinder balance. Nick set one end of a long socket extension on the intake manifold and listened to the other end. He looked back to see the hydrocarbon count registering from the exhaust sniffer. It was up through the roof. “What do you think?”

“It needs a valve job,” I said.

He brought the rpm up to 2,000 and held it, and the hydrocarbons dropped to passing levels. I was baffled. Worn valves are worn valves at any rpm.

Nick leaned back against my toolbox. He lit a cigarette off the head of one whose filter I could smell burning, he’d smoked it so far down. “You’re how old?” he said.

“Nineteen on Friday. You’re taking me out for Jäger shots, remember?”

He grinned more to himself than to me. “I was 19 when I balanced and blueprinted my first 350. Every weekend out in the garage for a month. That was what you might call my defining moment.”

My first reaction to this story was gloom. Here was another instance when the rest of my life seemed like not enough time to catch up with Nick. Nothing was more exhaustive and precise than blueprinting an engine, nothing. Each piston disassembled and polished, each nut and washer cleaned or replaced, accounted for. I was light-years from such a feat.

Nick squinted over his cigarette. “I don’t even know if I could do it again,” he said. “I think my memory’s going to be toast before I’m 50.” An hour ago he’d had another recheck, a big-ticket job that started backfiring 20 minutes after the customer left. He’d pulled into the first shop off I-84 and was told that a loose head bolt was to blame.

“It happens,” I said, wishing I could think of something useful to say. “I hate to think how many times I’ve screwed up.”

He chuckled, then stretched out his arms and yawned gigantically. I wanted to ask if he was getting sleep, but I couldn’t trust myself not to reveal—just by the look on my face as I asked—what I knew about his home life. So I went back to work. I used propane to check for vacuum leaks. I checked timing. I wanted to prove myself better than Firestone. Things that made no sense to check, I checked. Finally I lit a cigarette and flopped over the fender mat. “Goddamn it,” I said. “It’s unfixable.”

He picked up a ball-peen hammer, leaned on the passenger-side fender, and tapped twice on the EGR valve. Something held by suction dislodged, the engine coughed once and almost stalled, and he revved it clean. When he let go of the throttle, it idled like glass.

All I could say was “Jesus.” When the fog of having witnessed a near miracle lifted, I saw the bad news as well as the good. The car was fixed, but an EGR valve wasn’t even a $100 ticket, so my commission—I made that plus $7 an hour—would be less than $5.

He read over the paperwork again. Then, with the ball-peen still in hand, he stepped up to the Formula, and with one smack he cracked the back corner of the intake manifold all the way through. The idle started coughing again, and suddenly I was looking at a $1,500 ticket. “Firestone’s paying,” he said. “Happy birthday.”

Presented by

Wayne Harrison’s stories appear in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and The Sun. He teaches at Oregon State University.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In