Of course the job fell to me. I was there at the bottom, the only one left to catch the odd jobs come down, of which anybody was capable but nobody was willing to do.
For a porter like myself, the days at Sweeny Dodge Garage had a way of starting well, but… bag and tag the cars from 7:30 to 8… drive ride-less and yawning customers to work from 8 to 9, grabbing a coffee and a cigarette in there somewhere… then back to the shop for three hours washing cars—if it was sunny—or if it was rainy, three hours trapped in a sebaceous gulag of crushing oil filters and draining oil pans still hotter than shit and carting them to the holding tank… then lunch, and hopefully—if all went well, that is—an afternoon sweeping up floor dry, taking out trash, and trying to make myself as scarce as possible to my countless bosses.
On the sunny days, it seemed I had to wash fifteen cars at a time. The sales detailers washed cars all the time, so there was always a car in Sweeny’s one and only carwash bay. Naturally, there were scheduling conflicts. It always frustrated them when they couldn’t justify telling me to fuck off. Whoever happened to be using the wash bay would gesture with ennui, get into the car, and back out with a speed and sound suggestive of just having committed a felony. Usually though, to avoid the awkwardness of asking one of them to subside, I hand-washed the cars outside. This tended to grind their detailing to a halt. They would come out and nitpick, just as a staff sergeant who is never satisfied with your push-up technique, only more lethargic, “Just gonna look like shit when it dries, waterspots ‘n all… you missed a spot there… aren’tcha gonna wax it now?” and so forth. I shouldn’t have taken them so seriously. But I was young and sensitive and quickly developing a personality fraught with misanthropy. On that account, I fit right in there at Sweeny’s.
Sometimes we got along at Sweeny’s, but more times, we got on each other’s nerves. Still, if saying nothing didn’t get the point across, we bitched about something else that was egging us. Phil always complained during our smoke breaks. Whenever he heard me packing cigarettes out the back of the garage, he followed me, as if it were some aural stimulus—although, nicotine addiction needs no Pavlovian assistance—but then, it had occurred to me that he might have liked talking to me. Phil was only 41, but he had that rode hard and put away wet look about him that made him seem in his sixties. He was a union man, and he especially liked to criticize politicians, line items and earmarks being his favorite subjects of scrutiny. I was thankful for the brevity of a cigarette, as this kept his tirades to a polite five minutes.
During the day, mechanics often hailed me, wanting me to perform some simple yet indispensable service of turning a steering wheel or checking for brake lights. Other times, I was asked to fetch five quarts of 10W30 or eleven quarts of 15W40 and so forth. I took pride in these services. To me, the mechanics were the reason I was there. Time was their enemy, and I did all I could to expedite things. Now, why in pluperfect hell anyone would rush a car repair is beyond me. But there was the Book. And if the Book said a job could be completed in two hours, then by God it could be; but if a mechanic took his sweet old time—say, four hours on the same repair—the garage would still go by the Book and only pay him for two hours of labor.
Papa, as we called him, had particular trouble keeping up with the Book’s demands. For one, he was quite fat and he couldn’t move that fast. Second, he was short on motivation, because he made practically no money. Phil had told me the story. Apparently, his wife—a barge of a woman herself—and they had been happily married for over fifteen years, “just got-damned peachy in their fatso heaven with three good kids and a paid-off home to boot,” he told me. At length, his wife succeeded in losing weight. When it looked as though Papa would not, she proceeded to the office of a good lawyer. Phil had a theory that she’d had her stomach stapled. It was plausible, I guessed, but…
“Where would she get the cash for the operation?”
“Plenty of idle money sittin around,” he replied with the implication that she had some wealthy benefactor with whom she now happened to sleep. I filed it away as at best a dubious theory.
Anyway, after the divorce, she ended up with the kids, the house, and even his overweight dog. On top of that, the court ordered alimony and child support, paid willingly out of, or otherwise garnished from, Papa’s wages. In a given week, Papa only ever got to take home ten of his hard-earned dollars, most of which he spent on Mountain Dew and gasoline, which go him through and to work, respectively.
Then there was “Gravy Tim.” His wife left him because of his, shall we say, commitment to work. Gravy Tim had set up a cot in the mechanics’ lounge above the garage, and he stayed overnight sometimes to get a head start on his repairs the next day. This had stamped an indelible impression on our manager, Rick “The Dick” Fortin, who forever after sent him all the gravy work. Gravy Tim made more than any other mechanic did, and his picture topped over a dozen employee-of-the-month plaques that lined the lounge walls. There were rumors. Over which specifics, I will draw a curtain of charity, except to say that most were wink-eyed references to a burgeoning romance between Gravy Tim and Rick the Dick. Evidences of such moral dissolution were more than manifest to my gravy-less comrades. As if spending nights at the garage wasn’t enough for his wife to change the locks on his doors.
Tim Taskpyrzic, on the other hand, was the Tim the other mechanics liked. He was the newest of all the mechanics while I worked there, arriving a month after I did. He was the friendliest mechanic I ever met. I commended his apparent happiness to Dave Vessely, the LOF “specialist” (That’s Lube-Oil-Filter, in case you were wondering.).
“That Tim Taskpyrzic sure is a character. Always smiling, saying ‘good morning’ and ‘howdy’ every chance he gets.”
“Couple more weeks round here’ll take care of that,” Dave deadpanned.
And so it was. A couple weeks later, I was sweeping my normal rounds, handling my broom with practiced agility between the lifts of Tim’s stall. He hunched over his toolbox, writing on what I thought was a repair order.
“What’s this one in for, Tim?” kicking the tire of the car in question. “Someone need a decal stuck on or the dirt shook off their mat or their hood put back?”
My usual jocularities did little to avail on his grimace. He grunted and muttered something that I lost in the of pneumatic drills, clinking hammers, wet-dry vacuums, summons from the PA system. I approached his toolbox where he was writing on a job application for Menard’s Hardware.
“You leavin us, Tim?”
“What’re you applying for?”
“Night shift stocker.”
He looked up at me, perhaps a little offended at my lack of understanding, like, why’dja even have to ask?
“Bet Mrs. Taskpyrzic won’t like that…” Shit, maybe too far…
“She’ll like the extra money… or at least,” reconsidering, “she better.”
He turned back to his application. “Just ain’t makin what I thought I would.”
After that, I noticed he received fewer work orders than the average mechanic there. Not as few as Papa, but nowhere near as many as Gravy Tim. In my youth, I thought I could do something, put a good word in for him. But it was useless. I was as piss-ignorant of cars as they were of Euclidean algorithms or tantric sex. Not that I knew much about those things, either. Whatever I was doing working for a garage, I can only guess. Of course, I know the simple answer: My father, who played squash with the dealership owner, called in a favor, and Sweeny, doubtless against his better judgment, hired me at $5.45/hr. during that time of economic malaise and contraction following the bursting of the “dot-com bubble” and the fiduciary crises stemming from 9-11.
If you had been there during my first couple of weeks, you could have seen Rick the Dick pinching and dragging me by the arm like a naughty child.
“THIS is the speed we walk at at Sweeny’s,” he said as he led me from one end of the garage to the other. I had been sweeping up as usual, called to the front to park a car out back, and, as I was returning, there he was, mad as hell about God only knows. I thought I had been walking fast enough. It was a job requirement I—or more likely, they—had failed to appreciate during my orientation.
It was only after it was too late to round up any witnesses that I realized my parents could have sued him for all he had. That kind of contact was for the dark ages. Besides, I was only sixteen. I still remember the sickly purple-yellow marks that appeared on my arm a few days later. Of course, those marks didn’t hurt quite like my pride or the perceived gawking of the older mechanics. Like some slighted catamite, I schemed the most horrible revenges against my transgressor.
Catamite—you say—surely, you jest. Okay. Perhaps that characterization is a tad extreme—that is, it would be if it weren’t for Rick and his bumbling lackey, Ryan O’Toole, calling me their “bitch” with considerable frequency and in earshot of whoever happened to be around.
I didn’t hate Ryan quite like I hated Rick. I mean, who do you hate more? the asshole or the asshole the asshole works for? Rick never complimented my work, nor forgot to gripe if I was five minutes late. Anytime he oversaw me, he would intervene as if some rectal fear had told him I was too feckless to complete a tire inventory or a simple oil change.
Ryan, on the other hand, could be relaxed if he wanted to. But this was usually every bit as bad. One day, a high school girl with devastating legs got out of her car and sashayed into the shop. As Rick swept her away to try to convince her she needed more repairs than were necessary, Ryan turned to me:
“Niiice. I’d like to pin those stems behind her ears like a Tyson chicken.”
“Yeah, but she’s jailbai—.”
“Nuht-uh. Age of consent is 16 in Michigan,” he said with the haste of a Google search.
“Yeah but,” I narrowed my eyes in disapproval, “really?”
There was one small triumph I’d had over Ryan O’Toole. One day, I received the usual notice to park a repaired car out back. I got in and threw it in reverse, but when I tried to brake, the pedal did nothing. I stomped it to the floor several times, but the car still didn’t stop. And just in time, I had the presence of mind to pull the parking brake and stop the car, two inches away from the unforgiving steel of the opposite lift. Afterward, I was told that sometimes a mechanic would forget to pump the brakes after a brake-job, leaving no pressure on the brake lines. Ryan had done the same thing I did a few years prior. Only, he crashed the car, and that landed him a managerial position, the accident being the last straw to end his career as a mechanic. He had other problems, apparently, and the garage was no place for a nervous man.
Opposite O’Toole and the Dick were two bountiful and beaming associate managers, named Dawn Johnson and Tracy McIntyre. They smelled of apricots and shampoo and were always nice to me. And the more I reflect on my time at Sweeny’s, the more I have come to realize that those two really ran things. Or at least kept things from falling completely to shit. Say that some pissed-off customer came in guns blazing over a botched transmission job. Who do you think would calm him down?
“You’re exactly right,” Dawn would say. “We’ll get right on it,” Tracy would promise (albeit along with a free car wash courtesy of yours-truly), all with a genuine smile and due empathy. Thus, they could defuse any Situation.
Contrast those responses with the steel incredulity of Rick and Ryan: “Naw, that can’t be it….yea-huh, mmhm, but did you check this… or consider that you might have a totally unrelated issue…” and you would get the picture: These men think they are superior to everybody. For this reason, the male managers spent less time up front and more time roaming around the garage, leaving the human-relations aspect of their job—as if it were the dark arts or midwifery—to the women who knew what was going on.
Shortly after Rick had dragged me through the garage that day, I came to Dawn.
“What…the…fuck!” I hissed.
She sighed and tipped her head to the side. “That’s just Rick, ya know.” Her verbal absolution of Rick betrayed the look of sympathy she cast upon me. “Here,” she handed me a five, “Go buy us some drinks. I’ll do your washes while you’re gone.” She had a way of doing work for me like that. She sometimes did it without warning, and she never gave me a hard time about it after.
Dawn and Tracy liked to send me on Slurpee and coffee runs. I had no qualms over obliging. Hell, I welcomed the break. From both the monotony and the rotgut coffee in the staff lounge.
The first trip Dawn sent me on, she asked me for a Coke.
“Diet or regular?”
Usually, Rick and Ryan surfaced up front long enough to get their orders in. I would spend the entire drive to 7-11 hocking up the most phlegm I could summon without spitting. I would buy the drinks, nod to the clerk with drool trickling down my chin, and once in the van, deposit the goobers into Rick and Ryan’s cups.
Such were the consequences of being a dick and a tool.
On this particular day, half an hour from freedom, Ryan handed me a branch trimmer. I looked at him wondering what the fuck. “Birds are shitting on the customers’ cars while they’re waiting to be driven in.” I had heard the bitching from time to time that week. Rick and Sweeny were worried it would drive away business. I didn’t know why I was the one for the job, but, for my part, the prospect of washing the droppings off the cars sickened me.
“Where?” I asked without taking the tool.
He pointed at the second ‘e’ of the electric sign, reading
high up on the façade of the building. “There’s a bird nest up there. I want you to get it down.”
As I pondered the mysteries of extension that the tool presented, Dusty Kopersky, my replacement and fellow comrade at the bottom of the totem pole, squealed his Duster into the parking lot. He got out and came bounding over to me.
“What’s that there yer doin?”
“Getting this bird nest down.”
“Hmph.” Dusty looked on but failed to help, even though he was eight inches taller than I was.
On tiptoe, I managed to slide the trimmer’s scissor beak into the hole on the ‘e’. I pulled it out and some pieces of nest fell down. I poked it back in and scraped some more out.
Good, I thought, this won’t take long at all.
I dragged another clump out.
Then Dusty said, “Shhiiit.”
“Look at this.” Dusty pointed at the asphalt. Among the twigs and feathers, several baby birds, still pink, featherless and blind, had tumbled to the ground from out of the nest.
I bent down over them. Some were stretching their new-formed bodies, trying to pull themselves along with their beaks. Others were already dead, their necks snapped on impact. Little drops of blood beaded along the wrinkles of their translucent skin.
Dusty and I stared on in catatonic despair, unable to take our eyes off the death I had caused.
Ryan came out to check on my progress. “Jesus,” when he saw the hatchlings. “If I’d a known there was baby birds in there, I… I woulda just said ‘fuck it’,” he said quietly.
I grabbed the trimmer and completed the Godawful task. The mother would do it when she got back, anyway. Meanwhile, Dusty got up and brought over my familiar broom and dust pail. When I was finished, I took it from him. I could see sheen over his eyes, something like a fist in his throat. I had it too. Even Ryan was sniffling, looking away, fingernailing his watch.
Then I turned and swept up the hatchlings along with their home wrecked and scattered, and I dumped them all in the woods behind the garage. When I returned to the garage, everyone was quiet and looked awash with guilt—the bird shit a petty problem in retrospect. And it seemed there was a collective feeling that somehow we didn’t have the right to do what we had done. What I had done. To have such power over life and to dismiss it so casually filled us with a deep and inscrutable weakness.