One night after hours Tommy, Nick, and I were sharing a 12-pack while Nick finished up on an ’85 IROC. The engine was crawling with vacuum lines and sensor wires, and Nick’s confidence had fallen to the point of sending me to Caldor for a Polaroid camera. He’d taken shots of the engine from several angles before dismantling.
“Your folks divorced?” Nick said, glancing at me over the carburetor. I nodded, the question affirming how little he knew about me personally.
“How come your old man never taught you cars?”
“He’s not like that,” I said. “He buys new and sells when the warranty runs out.”
“Man,” Nick said, dolefully. “I don’t know where I’d be without my old man taking me out to the garage. What kind of work’s he do?”
“He’s a, uh …” I glanced at Tommy, who was leaning back on a metal stool with his legs open, a Milwaukee’s Best on his thigh, just kind of staring off. “He’s curator at a gallery in New Haven.”
“What kind of art the Japs make?” Tommy said, perking up. “Rice cakes?”
“Robes. Swords, you know. Paintings.”
“Brown Stains on the Wall, by Who-Flung-Poo,” he said and chugged his beer. His mind was sharper than you’d think, looking at his sagging, stubbled face, and I grinned, though I was becoming more and more reluctant to indulge him.
“I never really got art,” Nick said.
“He a bum chum, your old man?” Tommy said.
Nick laughed. “A what?”
“A sausage jockey. A backdoor commando.” His look never varied from an expression of knowing that the world and everyone in it was full of shit. “Isn’t that, like, a qualification for being curator?”
“He remarried,” I said. “He has two kids.” It shut him up but didn’t erase that damn smirk. I stared at him. “I don’t know, man,” I said. All of a sudden my stomach was quaking, but the thought of how much Mary Ann despised him made me brave. “When was the last time you had a girlfriend, Tommy? You’re not a fag, are you?”
“Oh, boy,” Nick said. “Let’s get ready to rumble.”
“I just had yours last night. Little Miss Pick-a-Hole.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “You need to get laid, man.”
“Kid, you’re going to talk your way right into a hospital room. I want your opinion, I’ll have my sister beat it out of you.”
“All right, guys,” Nick said. “Give it a break.” He checked the timing and finished up the paperwork, and I didn’t look at Tommy. “You want to,” Nick said in a while, “go ahead and think of me as your stand-in old man. Surrogate, or whatever.”
Tommy crumpled his can and tossed it in the box with the others. “Get a room, queers,” he said. Watching him head toward the lockers, I felt I’d won. I got Nick a fresh beer. “Here you go, Dad.”
He took it, grinning. “All right. Not Daddy, though. Or Pop. Call me Pop, and I’ll stomp a mudhole in your ass.”
After that night, something changed in our relationship. Nick took on fewer cars so that he could give me jobs that were over my head and guide me through them. Not one of my cars came back, though a few of those he jumped on alone did. I saw that he cared more about my work than his own. I saw that karma, as Mary Ann had insisted, wasn’t magical but just the natural course of things. He gave me what was abundant to him. He taught me how to listen to an engine as a compilation of sounds, the way dogs understand smell or wine makers experience taste. When his heart was open, and he was sharing all his secrets, I could only imagine the mechanic little Joey might have become.
Nick and Mary Ann decided the shop needed a face-lift.
“Two hundred bucks if you stay all night,” Nick said to me, carrying four gallons of apple-green latex from the trunk of his car. It was Saturday evening, half an hour after we’d closed. “Walls and floors,” he said. “It can sit and dry tomorrow. What do you say?”
What was to say? I ran down the alley to Lou’s Liquors for a case of Heineken. Lou Jr. served me without question, persuaded by my confidence even as I dropped my hill of fives and ones on the counter sign that said NO ID NO SALE. Back at the shop I swept, and Mary Ann mopped behind me—“Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” she sang, swabbing the deck without plan or pattern, until she was out of breath. These days, she was more animated around the shop and more affectionate with Nick. I felt we were all probably changing for the better. Mary Ann and I talked about our pain, and we chanted, and when I laughed and cried, I laughed and cried harder.
The phone rang in the lobby, and Nick looked at his watch and said, “Benny about the Cutlass.” The door hadn’t even fully closed behind him when Mary Ann said, “I’ve got to tell you something incredible,” and she took a bottle out of the case and held it out for me to open. I did, and she knocked my bottle in cheers before the first drink of alcohol I’d ever seen her take. She made a face. “I forgot how skunk-cabbagey they are.”
“They’re strong,” I said, for once feeling more experienced about something.
“He got in bed with me last night,” she said. “He slept right through to the alarm.”
“Wow,” I said, and I didn’t see it coming, this pang, this shortness of breath. “That’s really … I’m happy for you guys.”
She had another sip and looked at me over the green bottle. “Justin,” she said, “honey, we talked about this. Don’t be jealous.”
“I know. It’s fine. We’ll talk about it later,” I said, ready to not think about it anymore as I dipped my roller.
“Talk about what?” she said. “What exactly do you mean?”
“Nothing,” I said, her tone causing a knot to swell in my throat. “It’s no big deal.”
“I don’t have to negotiate with you.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Nick came back out to the bays but Mary Ann continued watching me, and for a panicked moment I thought she might continue the conversation. I set down my roller and cracked a beer for Nick. “All right, team,” he said. “Let’s make like Picasso.”
Around midnight, as the first coat dried, we washed up and drove to the Peking Duck in Nick’s Chevelle. We feasted on beef chow mein and Mai Tais. Mary Ann was drunk and giddy, leaning on Nick’s shoulder in the booth. When the fortune cookies came, and she tore up my Financial news is in store and wrote me one on a napkin, Follow your heart. It will lead you home, I knew things were all right between us again.