I think something broke. Thirty-some public appearances last fall during my tour for The Windward Shore was difficult in many ways for this closet introvert. Wonderful in just as many ways -- university students! new friends! OLD friends! But exhausting. So exhausting that when I got home in December all I wanted to do was burrow in with my family for the holidays, then pull the plugs on all electronic devices, shut the drapes, and create new work. Which I've been doing ever since.
And which explains why these page have languished. As a working writer it's difficult for me to share my work before it's finished, a process that typically takes many weeks or months (or years) and numerous drafts. Blogging as most people seem to do it is unnatural to me -- it's sharing a first or second draft -- and for some reason I've been unable so far to just write as if I were writing letters to friends. I'm working on that.
In the meantime, to help avoid further long silences, I've decided to now and then unearth previously published stories, essays, and miscellany and post them here. Readers have written over the years asking where they can find some of these pieces, and since most were published only in print magazines and journals, some of which are no longer in business, posting them here will be their first appearance in electronic media.
First up is a story that appeared in 1997 in American Way Magazine, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. For years American Way was a bold, lively, and thoughtful magazine that published some of our best popular and literary authors. They were a weekly, like The New Yorker, and best of all, published short fiction and paid handsomely for it. The editors liked my stories and published two in short order and had accepted a third. Then there was a coup. A new executive editor took the helm and promptly announced that he would cease publishing fiction. Sigh. My wife, Gail, says this is her favorite of my short fiction.
Harry was forty-five years old and had never kissed a woman. He didn’t have time. He spent every spare hour and most of his money on his car, a 1968 Cutlass convertible that he had driven less than 500 miles in the last twenty-five years, mostly within a two-block radius of his home.
Harry’s car burned high-octane gasoline at the rate of four gallons to the mile and required an oil change every two weeks whether it was driven or not. Its twin eight-barrel carburetors were fitted with platinum butterfly valves and precision flicker-pins tooled to tolerances of one-thousandth of an inch. Every fifty miles the carburetors had to be removed, torn down, soaked in a bath of refined whale oil, and meticulously rebuilt using a set of watchmaker’s tools Harry had purchased on the black market in Switzerland and smuggled home sewn in the lining of his coat.
Once or twice a month Harry dressed in tight jeans and leather jacket, hung a fine gold chain around his neck, combed his hair back with Brylcreem, put on his Ray-Bans, and took his car on a test drive around the block. He always listened carefully to the engine and was especially attentive to how the early-warning suspension moderators behaved during rabbit starts. Even when nothing went wrong on those trips, they cost Harry more than he earned in wages and benefits during an eight-hour shift at the plant. But the money never mattered to him.
Harry lived alone in the loft of the garage behind Mr. Byron Pinnacle’s house. He had lived there since the day he graduated from high school and left home to begin work at the Amana plant assembling microwave ovens. Every morning he walked to work, punched the time clock, poured himself a cup of coffee, went to his station, sat on his stool, and manipulated the five or six muscles in his right hand and forearm required to perform the same unvarying task until the shift horn blew at 4:30. He punched out and walked home and the rest of the day he worked on his car. At 11 p.m. he took a long soak in a bathtub filled with Universal Hand Solvent, put his tools to bed in stainless-steel trays and double-locked them in a vault, secured the garage doors, activated the burglar alarm, and climbed the stairs to the loft and slept.
Over the years, Harry had modified his car in many ways. For example, he had installed air-scoop inhalation vents, hurricane thrust-control extension sprockets, and a hyperbalanced supergradual leveling device. He had added a fluted mercury-induction flame accelerator, and covered both sets of fenderside exhaust flumes with sodium-resistant chrome belly plates. On the advice of a German engineer with whom he corresponded by email, he had recently installed a Belgian crystal gas tank to eliminate the possibility of dissolved heavy metals in his fuel.
But that was just for starters.
Here are some other ways that Harry had modified his car:
1. He painted it tangerine Day-Glo so bright that when he drove it on sunny days the glare sometimes knocked pedestrians from their feet.
2. He altered the original Klimate-Kontrol system so that it created a zone of ideal weather conditions for hundreds of feet in every direction.
3. He installed a studio-modulated tape player and a Thunderhead amplifier that pushed 180,000 watts through eight flush-mounted speakers, two per door, each equipped with double tweeters and woofers, gold-leaf tremor plates, and electrostatic outside-noise eliminators.
4. He replaced the factory standard headlights with 40,000-candle-power radon vacuum lamps, backed them up with emergency lightning-bolt packs, and lined the underbody with hundreds of parti-colored twinkle lights.
5. He tore out the old drivetrain and replaced it with a six-on-the-floor standard transmission with a hidden seventh-gear emergency overdrive option and a heavy-duty twelve-knuckle chromium-enhanced drive shaft that had originally turned the reactor cooling fan on a Polaris submarine.
6. He installed a 133-megahertz Pentium diagnostic computer in the trunk and programmed it to identify mechanical problems seven to ten days before they developed.
Summer Saturdays when the neighborhood children were out playing stickball in the street and launching gunpowder rockets that exploded high in the air with dainty pops then drifted back to earth beneath parachutes the size of silk hankies, Harry would roll his car with the top down into the alley and give it a sun bath and chamois wipe. Neighbors came running from blocks around and badgered him to start the engine. Sometimes he turned it over for a thunderous five seconds, but more often he entertained the crowd by inserting an eight-track tape of Grand Funk Railroad into the sound system and turning the volume so high that all the leaves were stripped from the maples in the alley and entire flocks of starlings were exterminated as they flew overhead.
On holidays and other special occasions, Harry would swab some lucky boy or girl with lint-free cotton rags and let the child slide behind the wheel and push a few buttons and maybe set free a single piercing note on the musical air horn. Then he would shoo everyone away, vacuum and spritz-wash the car inside and out, and roll it back to its safe berth in the garage.
If Harry was having a very good day and was in a talkative mood and the car was running smoothly and no critical parts were giving him concern, people could ask him questions. If they asked, he would demonstrate how the coolant-injection filters worked, run the ragtop up and down, show them the delicate reeds in the air horn and describe how each was made from the syrinx of a male bluebird. If they asked about the river of parts and tools that arrived at his garage every day via UPS, FedEx, and special courier he explained that they came from suppliers so specialized that they might sell nothing but the chrome-plated heater-fan knobs of Plymouth Furies or the tiny ball that screwed on the tip of the antenna of a 1970 Chevy Bel Air or the metric-conversion wrench that fit the single nut securing the side mirror of a 1966 Audi station wagon.
It was a good life. An abundant life. And while Harry did not require admiration, he would have admitted, had he been asked, that sharing his car with the people who gathered in the alley behind the garage was the high-point of his week.
One June Saturday when birds were singing their heads off and the sky was so blue that it seemed about to shatter and shower the city with fragments of turquoise, Harry pushed his car into the alley and stood beside it in a circle of attentive children. He turned the music up until starlings rained around them, each iridescent black body falling to the ground with a sad thud. It was an endless summer day, a start-of-vacation kind of day, with time stretching ahead like loose coils of rope, and Harry was in such an expansive mood that he cranked up the music and started the engine both, a rare double treat.
But as the engine idled, in the silence between tape tracks, he heard a strange gentle flutter, a faint gargle of disorder in the vicinity of the carbide overhead-cam lifters, and immediately shut down both the engine and the music and burrowed beneath the hood with a socket set and a micrometer and started disassembling.
While Harry worked, a kid who had been there many other Saturdays, a boy, twelvish, freckled and cow-licked, with a narrow, solemn face and a baseball hat on backward, leaned in among the silent spectators and studied the hand-built hubcaps with their sculpted chrome gargoyles and the platinum air-scoop vents protruding from the fenders like the half-folded wings of a dragon about to take flight. The boy had made his mark in the neighborhood by speaking constantly in alternating cockney, Scottish, Irish, and Australian accents, going around all the time saying things like, “’Av you seen me kangaroo, mate?” and “Ah, there’s a wee bit of Ireland in the air,” and “Mum? Would ya lance me boil, Mum?”
Now he watched Harry laboring under the hood with grease to his elbows and his hair hanging in his face, a ratchet in one hand and the other hand jammed beneath the tension dispenser on his camshaft, and maybe the boy was a little jealous of the attention Harry was receiving or maybe he was bored with the tranquility of the moment or maybe he was just being a kid, curious and careless and blurting whatever came into his head, but in a voice that sounded as loud as a mocking shout he said, “So, mate, why do you do this? I mean, what the ‘ell is the bloody point?”
Everything stopped – hearts and clocks and all the birds in the sky. Even the earth itself stopped in its orbit. Harry looked at the boy. He looked at him as if he had spoken in the lost language of Atlantis or had barked like an extinct Caribbean monk seal, looked at him until the kid squirmed and fidgeted and swallowed repeatedly and finally edged away. Harry turned back to his engine, placed the socket over the head of a bolt that had vibrated a quarter-turn loose, and torqued on it until it was tight. He laid the ratchet aside and with the palm of his hand caressed the exposed, gleaming interior of the cylinder head and ran his fingertips up and down the length of the camshaft. He inserted an index finger deep inside a rocker-arm chamber and withdrew a drop of oil as lucid and bright as honey and lifted it to the tip of his tongue and tasted it.
In a voice that only those who stood very close could hear, Harry whispered the one word that made sense of it all: “Love.”