I Like It Better Now

I am no beauty, but I know auto parts, and that’s why I broke up housekeeping in Oregon and came on down to Los Angeles.

I’ll say this for California: it’s like anywhere else, so you take what you can get. Ken’s A/Z was an orange-front outlet of block and stucco that was once a Mom and Pop grocery and before that a realty office with some room for parking. Mostly A/Z was a Ford and Chev place with not a grille or a piece of chrome on the shelves. A/Z customers only wanted to get to their jobs, and then make it back to the Buckville off-ramp near Palmetto, and if a Mexican kid collected two dollars at the back door for a generator that still smelled like sparks, it was no business of mine. When the afternoon smog got bad, our neon signs began to blink and turn my face off and on in two shades of purple.

The first month at A-to-Z I learned plenty. Ken priced most parts 20 percent above suggested retail so lie could sell everything on credit. Asa knew all of our Negro trade, and some of them paid twentyfive cents a week on a water pump. 1 still think Ken’s real trouble was gypo kids or the freckle-elbow guys from Oklahoma or Georgia. If the rough element came in, Asa faded into the stock rooms, him being a Negro. But when some knucklebuster asked me for a nonexistent part like a headclutch holder, I’d say, “Waste my time, Smokey Bear, and I’ll tighten your shimmy bolt.”

Later Asa told me he knew all the time it was only my way of talking to protect my job; and being married once himself, Asa understood how it could be for any woman in a strange town.

I’ll say this for Asa Bowers: he done his work in the stock rooms, except for the Negro accounts; I did mine at the parts counter, and some bookkeeping. Even if I was lonely at first, I never did remotely give Asa that first little hint the way some women will do—mentioning no names in public.

But A/Z burned, and I’ll not see Asa anymore. Ken took his wife, Jane, somewhere back East to Ohio. The orange front and all that neon is gone— and I have a better job. But when you see a junker blowing a hose on the freeway just say this to yourself: he’s still running A/Z parts, on Ken’s E/Z Credit—and not paid for yet.

To this day I don’t remember when Asa first mentioned his ‘59 Dodge, but I knew we started eating our sack lunch in the sun on fender crates. After I invited him two or three times, Asa did come up to my place after work; even if a woman is no beauty, it is only natural to want some kind of company. Furthermore, being colored—as he said —Asa had learned early to ignore things that hurt. That is why I told him how I learned auto parts in the first place.

I did not tell him everything at once, but if Asa put it all together, he knew our graduating class at Eastfir High was forty-six in all. Of the twenty girls on graduation night, twelve were pregnant, and two more maybe. I had been dating Ollie mostly because he was the star, but I saw where too much parking in pickup trucks might lead. Because Ollie was a star, he went to logging for Union Ply; I wanted to go on to secretarial school. Then all at once there were fourteen marriages in Eastfir Junction, and because I am not overly pretty, and because Ollie had his job and asked me again, there seemed no reason why not make it fifteen in a row for Eastfir. We went to Portland for a honeymoon, and then set up housekeeping in a nice trailer.

Nothing happened for three years, but we went to more Elks’ dances, round and square, than I care to remember. Then being hung over as usual on a Monday morning while setting chokers, Ollie was hurt. When he had to quit logging, I was sorry; his right leg would always be stiff at the knee joint. I guess everyone who works in the woods eventually gets hurt, but Ollie did draw Compensation.

People felt sorry for Ollie because he played good basketball for our class, so he got work in the shop at the White Truck and Plymouth Agency. Everyone meant well, but Ollie Mateson was handy only with a ball. He became a halfway mechanic, with one finger always in a splint.

No children. After a while I was just as glad because I did not want to sit in the Eagles’ club rooms and listen to old basketball scores, or how Cy Frederics limited out the first forty minutes of trout season in ‘59. Still, I tried to be a good sport, and to hold up my head; unless I wanted to bring Ollie home, I never entered any tavern without an escort. Would I could say the same for a few of the girls in my graduation class—mentioning no names.

Finally what happened was that I learned auto parts.

Our trailer was near the Agency, so to help Ollie draw his full time, I began to help out at the parts counter; in a year J was working lull time on my own card. If you are accurate, and can read the specs, and are fast, I suppose anyone can learn auto parts. But when is tlie last time you saw a woman who really knew her stuff on log trucks?

The fact was that Ollie got pretty far down, even for Eastfir Junction. Sometimes he was gone a week at a time, drinking what was left of his Compensation. Other times, after being on my feet all day, I’d go home and eat by myself while someone that was legally my husband slept it off in the bedroom. Finally, in late summer, I filed divorce papers and caught the first bus south for California. Ollie never knew I was gone until the next payday, and not one girl in my high school class ever dropped me a line.

“Oh, you had to leave,” was what Asa said, when we were sitting around in my living room after I had cooked us a real good meal. Of course lie never came up unless invited, and he repaid hospitality in two ways. He fixed anything that went wrong, plumbing or electrical; he was the kind of mechanic that looks at something carefully and knows what’s wrong. As our shop posters say, Asa was “safety-minded,” so when he fixed a toaster it didn’t afterward blow up in a shower of sparks. His second way was conversation. Asa told me about the children near Watts, where the schools hadn’t served a hot lunch in years; he told me about the families over on Palmetto, and the men who drove eighty miles on the freeway to their work. Before that I had not understood how important an automobile was in L.A.; parts from Ken’s A/Z were as necessary as groceries. And as it turned out, Asa’s own ‘59 sedan was parked in a vacant lot. It wouldn’t run, he said, but it was too good for junk.

So there we were, four flights up, talking until half past ten at night, with the lights of the city spread out toward the Hollywood hills, and the freeway traffic rolling forever overhead, the hum of tires and wheels rising and falling like the noise of some great caught insect trying to get away.

“Sure, Ruthie,” Asa told me one night about eleven o’clock as he was going very quietly toward the door. “You were a good woman. But up in Oregon nobody saw that.”

Oh, I wanted to reach out and touch his hand, but well enough I knew Right from Wrong—him being colored. So I did not. Not at the time.

F hat happened that summer, I blame no one but Ken and his wife. But you better judge for yourself.

I’ll say this for Asa: he seldom spoke about himself, but by putting things together, I understood he grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. Asa never saw his father, but Kilroy was there all right, because Asa’s mother got five more kills from someplace. I don’t say children is wrong, but I do say a house like that has its ill effects on others, and especially on Asa, who was old enough to understand what he saw.

Asa may have lacked my advantages since he dropped out of high school after three years and three months; on the other hand, he served Ids time in the Army, in a second-echelon motor pool. Then for a year or two nothing happened in Lexington, so Asa went to Chicago. He worked for an office building. At first he ran the elevator, but when pumps in the basement began to go out, Asa began helping on maintenance. He said it cost plenty to keep an old building in shape, just in plumbing and electrical.

Well, Asa ended up doing all maintenance, but another colored veteran got all the credit. When a cable broke and let the elevator clown a few floors to the bumper, Asa got fired.

What I knew about the lady in the case is this: she was from Chicago and was a sub in the post office—which was good money when she got it. I understand she was somewhat lighter in color than Asa, but since he never mentioned even a civil marriage ceremony or a honeymoon, I ignored that subject, it being well in the past. Asa took what he could get at the time in the way of work: a washrack in winter, and part-time for the city, hauling snow off the streets. Since nothing was steady, Asa did not expect to draw his full time. This next, however, I consider a little unreasonable.

What his wife—we will call her—wanted was children. Children was all she talked about, sometimes late at night; about how many her friends had, how many were pregnant, how she was getting older and etc. What Asa wanted was a job, and children would naturally follow. But then his wife said, “Which comes first, the chicken or the pot?” Then Asa had to tell her it was wrong, in his experience, to bring kids into the world with no visible means ol support. Almost every night they lelt it like that.

I guess an older man, a superintendent of mails, asked the wife to come into his section, on a regular basis. Asa got the picture because then his wife did not come home except on Sunday afternoons. By then Asa was so far down on himself he did not even go around to see the man about it.

Asa still had the ‘59 Dodge, bought with his discharge pay. After the elevator dropped, Asa had rented the Dodge to his wife’s younger brother. One day Asa collec ted some back car rent, and then borrowed his own automobile from the brother, and b\ midnight was through Des Moines, headed for California.

Later, Asa said it himself: back in Chicago the lady in the case was now a lot better off than with a chronic unemployed sitting all day. looking out the window.

“But you take all of that,” Asa said one night, meaning sex, because we were talking about both the lady in the case and about Ollie. “Isn’t that just one little part of life. Together?”

“Of that, I’m sure,” I said, lot such was my experience.

“But if I’m colored, I’m supposed to be different. Even some women who ought to know better can believe that.”

Not knowing, I said nothing at. all.

“But we aren’t,” Asa said, and his voice trailed back across the years to Chicago. “Not me,”and he looked down into the pattern of my new rug. “I never was very good. At that.”

I saw Asa was feeling things that went back to Lexington, and five kids in a shack at the edge of town. I thought he was both brave and real honest to admit things like that about himself: for any man, something like that is not easy to face. 1 saw one thing very clear: Asa had lost confidence in himself, and what Asa needed was to get it back.

It came to me: what we could do was get Ids ‘59 sedan in shape. If he had a car running, Asa would feel like everyone else in L.A. And since an old ‘59 Dodge was all he had, why I said we ought to start with that, Asa thought it over for a minute, and he didn’t say No. So that was that.

Well, the more we talked about it, the more we got to laughing. The first thing you know we were talking about headers and a gutted muffler and maybe going across the border into Mexico for a tuck-and-roll job on the seats. The more Asa said had to be done, the more we laughed and laughed until we couldn’t laugh anymore.

“What it needs,”I said, “is to pry the license plates apart. Then put a new car in between.”

That’s an old one, but we laughed again. That night when Asa got ready to leave, I thought the freeway traffic overhead almost stopped, but of course it never does. When Asa hesitated overly long at the door, he was no longer even smiling.

“Let’s don’t mention this. To Ken?”

“Oh?" because I am aboveboard with the firm that hires me, E/Z Credit or no. “Wouldn’t he discount us employees? Wouldn’t it just be another open account, for Ken?”

Asa couldn’t answer me on that, and he did not look me in the eye. “I’d just rather not,” he finally said, and I saw he lacked confidence in himself. “For personal reasons.”

At the time, what f thought was this: Asa being colored, and only a stockman, was naturally cautious; he did not want ken to know us two were friendly. Besides, as will be seen, Ken was not always reasonable about auto parts.

Because i respected Asa’s judgment, and did not want to hurt his feelings, I said, “OK. We will run this one in Lo.”

What I could do was carry all of iiis parts on my own personal account, and Asa could pay me something in cash every week. He thought a minute, and then Asa said that would sureh be better.

Then one morning in October when I came to work, Ken and his wife were waiting at A/Z. Ken let us in, and then locked the front door. It was a Friday.

And that’s exactly how we left it.

“If the Ace shows,” Ken called from the back room where he was wrestling with a ladder, “just tell me. And Jane, you show Ruthie how to inventory.”

Ken set up his ladder, and started his count. Before we got very far along, he said we were away short on anything for a ‘59 Dodge. The more stuff he counted, the madder Ken got, and finally he was yelling down at his wife, “Jane, can’t you even write down my numbers?”

So much for the whole morning, and no Asa as yet.

By 2 P.M. we were on tail pipes, but I look off the smock. If Mrs. Ken couldn’t say it, I would: “Ken you slip into Neutral, and I’ll go fetch your sandwich. You want relish or mustard?”

While waiting, for all our sandwiches, I decided —like it or not—Ken had to know. The fact was that I had billed out plenty of parts for our ‘59 Dodge. I was going to get out my invoices when the time tame, clear and aboveboard, and no hard feelings.

But back at A/Z what I heard was Ken. He was yeiling at Asa, and from the front door, I see Asa in the stock room, his body slanted sideways in the light. “Why, at the bowling alley,”Ken said, “everyone down there knows you are peddling parts for a Dodge.”

I went right on back to settle that one.

“Mr. Ken,” and when Asa saw me standing in the stock-room door he nodded Hello, but his lips moved only a little when he went on speaking. “Let’s not mix my personal car with our bad credit accounts.”

“Ace, you been peddling my parts all over Palmetto.”

“No, sir. Every one is bolted on my Dodge. I’ll show you every one.”

Ken spit on the floor and rubbed it in with his shoe sole.

“But you aren’t collecting. Ace, your people aren’t paid up.”

I saw the whole reason Asa knew so much about our Palmetto Avenue accounts: if Asa steered them to A/Z, he also had to collect.

“I get what’s over there,” Asa said, “You have to collect something from your own big ticket customers.”

“You damned right,” Ken said, and he began to throw papers and invoices and four-colored brochures from Gulf Western on the floor. “But there’s money on Palmetto. I know it. If you can’t collect it. I can. The hard way.”

“I’m still working for you,”Asa said quietly. “I advise you against that. You don’t know what might happen.”

To me that sounded like a threat, but Ken did not even listen to what Asa was saying.

“Gents,” I said, and walked between them, to break it up. “One thing I can show you both,” and I opened the drawer of the file cabinet.

My personal account—all my invoices for all those Dodge parts—was gone. Without actually shaking his head, Asa very plainly told me, “No, don’t say anything,” and I understood he had someway lifted my file to keep me out of it, to protect my job. Even then I would have told it all, but Ken turned on me. “You going to count, or are you going to roost? Why, I’ll take that Dodge back on a repo just any time.”

With that, Asa seemed to shrink down inside himself. That little sideways slouch said a very great deal. Asa was all through, so Ken moved in on him.

“Ace, what’s that thing, Ace? Right over there, Ace?”

“That’s a door,” Asa said. “And I’m going out.”

Asa did not glance toward me, or even look back. Beyond the loading ramp he went down steps as though he were going off into deep water. His head disappeared, and the door closed by itself.

“What Ace was,” Ken’s wife said, and she was just finishing her sandwich, “was what I always said. A parts-boosting, good-time boy. With away too many friends.”

For the first time I doubted Asa. Did he own a ‘59 red Dodge Sedan, after all? Did he get me to put everything on an account because then it was not, technically, stealing from stock? Had he used me that way, after all? If he had, I saw I had brought it all on myself.

“Up in Oregon,” Ken said to me, and he had to repeat it. “Up in the woods, did you ever drive a pickup truck?”

So that’s what I did the rest of that afternoon. I drove Ken’s pickup while Jane called out the address and how much all of Asa’s accounts owed Ken’s A-to-Z. I drove us all along Palmetto, and on into Watts, I slopped at house trailers and stucco houses and apartments; I stopped at places where nobody lived, and I drove through alleys, and over the curbs, and into vacant lots. Wherever we stopped, Ken jumped down from the truck. He knocked on doors, and event into garages, or up the alleys past garbage cans. He found their Fords, and Ghevs, and old Pontiacs; we even spotted a blue Caddie parked beneath trees, the seat cushions kicked out on the street. So Ken took them, too.

At every car Ken repossessed something. He pulled a battery, or an air cleaner, or someone’s carburetor; he took a spare tire from a trunk, and even pulled a set of ignition wires off the loom. He kicked and slammed and used a wrecking bar, and sometimes if the account was long overdue, he took inside mirrors and even the fan belts. At every old car the kids stood in a half-circle to watch, and their mothers looked clown from apartment windows; Jane helped him, and we drove off quickly, and not one complained and no one at all called the police.

Finally I drove hack to A/Z. I stopped at the back ramp and Ken threw all that stuff in a disorganized, greasy pile. After Ken unloaded the last battery, Jane looked at all that junk.

“If they can’t pay,” she told Ken and she told me and she told the world, “then why did they buy it in the first place?”

When I saw all of those parts—repossessed or stripped—I thought of all the cars I had seen that had to get men to work next Monday morning. Some of those cars kept a man the real head of his family, because with a car he could get beyond Palmetto to work.

Then Mrs. Ken mentioned Asa’s name for the last time. “The Ace could sell all right,” she said. “But he sure couldn’t collect a dime.”

“Yeah,” Ken said. “Good field, no hit.”

“You two keep counting,”I said, and took off my last smock for A/Z. “I’m going back to my apartment. To get off my feet.”

They locked the door behind me when I left. Toward midnight, I was still staring out of my window. In Los Angeles it was one of our warm October nights, when the smog seems all gone, but you know it is still overhead, waiting lor the exhaust fumes of dawn and the day’s heat, waiting all through the night to slam down again on the basin like a heavy gray stove lid.

Asa came back.

He stood in my living room door, looking very neat. For the first time I saw him in traveling clothes, and a brown snap-brim straw hat. Without asking me, he turned off all of my lights. My new drapes, and the TV, and the couch, and even Asa and me turned to silver-gray in the light reflected up from the boulevard.

“I went over to Palmetto,” Asa told me. “I explained to some of them.”

“Ken’s not going to get beat,” I said. “And Jane is worse.”

“Oh, he blames us colored,” Asa said. “But his First National Bank is pressing. And also Gulf & Western.”

“I’m sorry, Asa,” I said, and that is when I reached out in the semi-darkness and touched his hand. I felt so sad, and yet it was also a funny feeling to touch a hand like that for the first time —not cold, but not warm either. We stood like that for only a moment, and then I knew I ought to say something, but I said the wrong thing.

“Did you use all those parts? The ones I gave you?”

Too late, I understood how that sounded to him. Asa drew back, and so did I. I heard him take a deep breath, but whatever he might of said was never made into words.

Just then, far away, then closer, I heard the sirens. Closer they came, the lights and the sirens bleeding red noise along the street.

Two blocks away, unmistakably at Ken’s A/Z, we saw flames. First it was a glow between two large buildings, and then the whole sky seemed to blow up. Windows and the white walls of all the buildings glowed orange and then red, as though the fire were climbing up, and across rooftops, and to the hills of Hollywood beyond. Below us the street filled with people running: Negroes and whites, and kids, and women with children in their arms, all going along the sidewalks toward the big fire at Ken’s A/Z.

“I told him,” Asa finally said. “I advised against collecting like that.”

“Over on Palmetto. Did they tell you they were going to burn us down?”

“Someone set it,” and Asa smiled a little because in a way everybody likes to see a fire, in the woods in Oregon, or down here in Buckville, not far from Watts. “But not us. None of us would do a thing like that. Not for a used fan belt.”

I believed what Asa said because I wanted to believe.

“That’s oil burning, Ruthie. Those knucklebusters from Oklahoma always use oil. They already got their big ticket items, and now they won’t have to pay.”

I believed that, too.

“Or it was Honkie Ken, himself,” Asa said bitterly. “Wouldn’t the insurance pay for it all? Isn’t that why he pulled an inventory this morning?”

“Maybe nobody knows for sure who set it,” Asa went on. “But I do know this. They will look for the nigger that just got fired.”

I did not say anything because I thought that was probably true.

“And wouldn’t that be me?” he said, and before I could say anything he slammed my own door in my face.

Well, he never knew it, but I just stood there and listened to Asa’s footsteps go farther and farther down my stairs, and then pause at the bottom landing while he first looked up and down the street, and then he went out the door, and into the night.

I went back to the window and stood there for a long time by myself, and finally the last fire engine went away.

As I said, Ken went back East, somewhere to Ohio. Whether he collected insurance or not, no one ever said.

Right away I got a better job with this volume dealer on Wilshire. I like it a lot better here because I am closer in to Hollywood. And sometimes, right out there beyond the show window in the street, I see Fess Parker and other notables.

Naturally, I like it better here because I work only forty hours a week, with good benefits. I haven’t seen a freckled elbow yet, and we wouldn’t let a used fan belt in the house. We write up plenty of chrome and grilles and if you say the word, you got yourself a one-piece, tinted, wraparound windshield, for any GM product exclusively.

As for race relations and all that rough stuff over in Watts, you can have them. As for me personally, it’s like I tell my parts foreman, a kid they trained at the factory who doesn’t know a head-clutch holder from a rollicking rod, but who is real safety-minded:

“Look, Smokey Bear, I got plenty of mileage left on the chassis. I’m just getting a little hard to start in the morning.”