Image: Brian Hubble
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?”
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.”
“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.”
Six months after she dumped me, Katie started calling the house. She said she missed me, that she felt like she’d lost her best friend. Finally I told her about my affair with Mary Ann, to try and scare her away. But Katie was persistent. “I’m worried about you, Justin,” she said. “How old is she?”
“So how’s UConn? You meeting any guys up there?”
“It’s illegal,” she said. “If she’s married, that makes it adultery.”
“I mean, how would you feel if you were him?”
“I already know how it feels. Remember?” She’d left me for an ex-friend from Nonnewaug High. I’d driven out to her house one night and his Le Mans was parked in her driveway, her Christmas-tree lights blinking over his hood.
Katie sighed, and I waited another second, then hung up. I thought we were done, but two days later she called and said she’d be there for me when this was over, and I thanked her just to be civil, though I didn’t see how we could ever be together again, considering how immature our love was. Life had always been easy, and was going to continue to be easy, for her. She didn’t know the struggle of real people. But I was learning. In my heart I couldn’t imagine ever being through with Mary Ann.
I told Mary Ann I’d never go back to Katie.
“I don’t blame you,” she said. “You have to learn how to trust again.”
I watched to see if she was relieved at all about my resolve. We held each other’s eyes, and I understood, when she leaned in and kissed me lightly, that she’d misread my sullenness. “Keep talking,” she said. “Men don’t learn how to talk about pain.”
I could see that she needed to listen. “She liked jewelry,” I said. “She had all these little jewelry boxes in her room, so I bought her this one giant one. It’s like four feet tall with two swinging doors, solid oak. And she breaks up with me a week before Christmas. By the time I realize we’re not getting back together, I can’t return it. So I gave it to my mom, and now, every time I walk by her room, I see that damn jewelry box.”
As I spoke, I watched the vertical blinds that closed us off from the daylit world, their color that of fingers on a flashlight lens. I wondered if Mary Ann had seen how close I’d come to choking up. Yes, I still ached, but more than that, I recognized that we were connecting yet again—more undeniable evidence that she and I were made for each other.
“Wait here,” she said, and in a moment she came back from her bedroom. She handed me something smooth and cool. “It’s a worry stone,” she said. “It helps you not be inside so much. Hold it when you’re upset, and let it take the bad energy.”
I rolled the stone in my palm. It was the black-green of an avocado, and I recognized it but couldn’t remember from where.
“Where did you feel it?” she said. “The hurt.”
I looked into her big pale eyes. “It’s like you forget how to breathe.”
She took my other hand and held it to her bare chest. Her heartbeat was almost something I could hold. We stayed that way, and her breathing deepened. She closed her eyes tightly, as if against an awful sound, and a trickle of coldness seeped through me.
“Sometimes,” she said, sitting forward, “God, it’s like it just happened. Sometimes he’d nurse so hard I was raw. I’d be in tears by the time he was done.” She stared down at the old braided rug, with its frayed threads and little spills, and might have been looking into the past. “The morning after we lost him, I was so engorged, I had to pump. My body didn’t understand that he was gone. I pumped six ounces and then had to pour it down the drain. That almost killed me. I would’ve given anything for another bloody nipple.”
I pictured her at the sink watching her milk disappear, my story a pathetic whimper next to hers. I looked at the stone again, and then realized where I’d seen it before. Looking for matches one day in Nick’s box, in the little top drawer where a mechanic keeps cigarettes, soda-machine change, his Snap-on account book and receipts, I saw, way at the back, the twin of this little stone.
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.
A week after the painting, the shop was bright as a new car, the beer cans gone from the back ledge, little giraffes revealed—after a scrubdown with GoJo—on the bathroom wallpaper. Nick and Mary Ann came out to the bays together one afternoon. “Justin,” Nick said, “you got a minute?”
Bent over a Grand Prix, I glanced from Nick to Mary Ann for signs that everything was, all of a sudden and horrifically, out in the open. “What’s going on?”
“I wanted to tell you first while Tommy’s on a test-drive,” Nick said. “He’ll be pissed, but fuck him.”
“I just sold the place to Mitch Heedy at Firestone.” He grinned at me and held up his hands. “Hang on, don’t go having kittens. He’s going to hire you on. We already discussed it.”
“You sold it?” I said.
“We’re moving back to Oregon. Mary Ann’s brother wants me to manage a Carquest out there. It’s a glorified counter job, but it’ll be less stress. Reliable income. Anyway, Mitch doesn’t want Tommy, so try not to bust his ass too much.”
The rest of the morning was a blur. Mary Ann stayed behind the counter helping customers, and finally I left her a note that was just a big question mark on a folded scrap.
She came out to the car I’d been trying to finish up for close to an hour. “Where’s Nick?” I said.
“In his office telling Tommy.” She folded her arms and glanced away. Then she sighed and looked at me again. “Be happy for me. We deserve this.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You, you, you,” she said. “I hate to say it, but that mind-set won’t make you very popular with women. You’ll see.” She smiled, but my expression made her look away.
“I’m not joking, Mary Ann. I mean, what the fuck?”
“Don’t do this,” she said.
“What’s in Oregon?”
She blinked at me. “Our lives.”
Suddenly the lobby door crashed into the adjacent wall and stayed there, the knob half-buried in the Sheetrock. Tommy marched out shaking his head, Nick on his heels. “Look, Tommy,” Nick said.
“Motherfucker. Get away from me.” Tommy kicked over a gallon of antifreeze and disappeared into the locker room. Then the metal crash that could only be the sound of a fist launching into a locker door. Again and again.
Nick closed the door to the locker room and turned to us. “Well, that didn’t go as bad as I thought.”
“Can I come out to Oregon?” I said.
When he looked at me his smile broke like a boy’s. “Sure, you can come. You fish?”
“I mean, what’s keeping me here?” I said. “I can’t stay behind without my Pop.”
“What did I tell you about that?” he said, and got me around the neck. We wrestled around, and he pulled back, laughing. He wiped his eye. “All right. Keep it sad around here for Tommy’s sake,” he said, and went back to the lobby, where he pulled the doorknob from the wall.
When he was gone my fingers went digging in my pocket for cigarettes, sticking one in my mouth, fumbling with a match. A couple of screwdrivers rolled off my fender mat onto the floor. Mary Ann was staring at me. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, a surge of color in her face as she bent to pick up my screwdrivers. She brought them to my toolbox and started setting them in their holders. “I’m putting my marriage back together, Justin.”
“He said I could come.”
“This isn’t your life.” She went back to the car, beside which I’d wheeled a rolling tool tray, and started gathering up my wrenches and putting them away as well. And everything became clear to me. The cigarette fell out of my lips. “Jesus,” I said. “It was you.”
She stared at the floor where my cigarette had fallen. “Okay. It was me what?”
“Sabotaging Nick’s jobs. He wasn’t fucking up.”
Mary Ann sighed deeply and closed her eyes. She shook her head, smiled bitterly, and then out of nowhere she lurched forward and slapped me. I’d never been slapped before, and it burned with the ring of a low piano chord. “You took advantage of a situation. That’s it. That’s all that happened.” These things she said with a steady, calculated voice that made her anger all the more icy.
I didn’t say a word. After she went back to the lobby, I gathered sockets off the fender mat and tucked them in their plastic cases silently, as if in fear of waking someone. I didn’t want to hear anything. The hammering in my chest was enough.
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, and about to lose his reputation and business if he couldn’t pull it together. And here I was, listening.