Honorable mention, the 13th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest
My open-casket nervousness always returned since many appeared animate even covered in dust. They could be reborn, I knew, with a lot of effort. Ronnie could make them live again but he didn't want to. He would do it for money but not many people asked nowadays for resurrections. Most came for the parts only.
"There's one somewhere around here," Ronnie said. "I saw it last year." He stopped and lit a Camel, no filter. The vast back lot was weedy with a dusty clay floor, guarded by rusty chain link fence. At least it was dry dirt today. I had been there in slippery mud before. We zigzagged around the bodies watching for rumored snakes.
I knew I had to remove the parts myself but you had to have Ronnie with you. It was ok to take their parts, if Ronnie was with you.
Ronnie walked with his palms turned back and his wrists slightly bent as if he were paddling upright through the field. A pony-tailed manatee, I thought, complete with the socket wrenches.
Their half-egg exoskeletal bodies seemed to be slowly melting into the long grass. Another five years and we'll be walking on their tops, I reflected. I wondered if I'd still be picking parts off five years from now. Probably not.
Ronnie paddled steadily and I breathed his smoke contrail. I had been there before.
We walked on narrow shoe-wide paths between them. The once-colorful bodies reminded me of Easter egg coloring, bright around the middle of the egg, faded on the tops. Some of the little cars had personal possessions still in them like toys and tapes and parts of kitchen equipment. Miniature religious statues were common. I wondered if the icon's usefulness had ended when the car died. Some had family pictures taped inside; one had little colored cloth balls hanging from threads glued to the tops of windows. Some had clothing still in them, faded and dusty. Vultures like me had visited some of the bodies to salvage big body pieces allowing the wind and rain to get in and age the inside parts quickly.
I didn't need seats and upholstery this trip. I needed vital organs.
"This is for Misty, right?" Ronnie asked, still slow-walking through the body rows. His query emitted a load of Camel smoke.
The unspoken rule was not to touch the bodies unless you wanted to buy the part. We kept walking. The boneyard was filling up; to save space the cars were aligned with the fences and, gratefully, most of them looked the other way so I face expression-less rear ends. I didn't like looking into their eyes, most of which were still bright with glass and chrome. About half still had their eyes. Eyes were hot items.
"Yeah, it's for her," I replied. We always had this conversation. Ronnie knew Misty and he liked to talk about her. I knew we were going to talk about her before I got the part. "You still keeping that old blue car running for her?"
Ronnie knew I wouldn't have been there if I weren't keeping her Blue Guy running.
"Her dad gave her that car, you know," he offered. I knew all about the car, her Dad and that Ronnie's mechanics and other shop workers knew all about Misty. I wanted to push him to the car body far ahead of us, stick his nose into the dusty engine compartment and show him what to pull out. But no, we had to talk about Misty first. He had the parts and I had the need. I mentally slipped into slow gear; we had to grind through the ceremony before we got to the part pulling.
"She's really something, you know," he said slowly. Ronnie put spaces between words when we wanted you to pay close attention to him, like a kindergarten scolding.
Misty, known to her parents as Janet Rosenthal, danced at a south side club located four softball throws from Ronnie's Volkswagen Repair Shop and Used Parts Boneyard. Misty Janet was my girlfriend, roommate, and fellow student at the local state university. Our two-year relationship was temporary and my time was almost over.
Janet kept roomies for about two years. My utility to her was enhanced by my repairing cars and appliances. Janet was due for an upgrade in men, I knew. An older student, maybe a grad student with a job, had been leaving messages, and I had seen them together, a bad sign. Maybe after I fixed the car this time she would toss me out. Semester breaks were convenient times for break-ups and we were staring at the Christmas break.
"Her '67 has the smaller pulley, you know," Ronnie half-mumbled. Janet liked the old car whether it was because her dad had given it to her or she liked minimalist cars was unclear. She could afford a new car but preferred to keep someone around like me to keep Blue Guy running for her. She seemed to like me, too, but she was clever with her feelings. Her dancer earnings paid for the car repairs and the apartment, tuition and steady restaurant food. If Ronnie had been 30 years younger, it might have been him with Misty Janet. Ronnie hoped he was still in the running.
"Misty's the best looker of all the gals at the Strip, if you catch my drift," he explained. Having personally inspected Janet very closely many times, I could only respond with a low affirmative uh-huh sound. I had never become used to the idea that thousands of men had seen Misty prance essentially naked on the Strip's stage. Ronnie's shop crew lunched there once a week, probably on payday. "Strange she has no tattoos, though," he added, as if to point out that tiny flaw in an otherwise perfect profile. He would pick out the ideal tattoo for her, I thought, maybe little Harley wings.
"She should bring it in herself when the Blue Guy needs work," he volunteered. I moaned affirmatively. I'll tell her to wear a tank top, I thought. I didn't want to catch more of his drift.
There was Misty, there was Janet, and she kept her two lives separated. I lived with Janet. Misty stayed at the Strip. Janet wore old jeans and sweaters and liked me, which pleased me. I didn't know Misty, but I felt she would be with a very different man than me.
I had been to the Strip to see her perform a dozen times, and I watched her erotically dance through my uncomfortable eyes and squirmed in my chair during the table dances. She wore a lot of make-up and body powder, which gave her a moving mannequin aura. She eye-contacted everyone in the place with a sleepy, hollow-eyed concentration. She once mentioned that a dancer could never wear enough eye make-up, as if I should pass that tip on to others who may become dancers. At the Strip, for a few minutes, she was yours. You could dream of kissing her and touching her breasts. She was beautiful. Most of the patrons didn't talk during her danced, I noticed. Many slowly shuffled their feet.
Once the thong came off and the sweatshirt reappeared, Janet returned, always undamaged. Her clothes smelled of cheap body powder and cigarettes, but the bag got no further than the laundry room. Janet belonged to the Blue Guy but Misty probably needed a Mercedes or BMW. Maybe the grad student has a Corvette, I wondered. Who was he pursuing, Janet or Misty? Did he know both? The grad student might not fix VW's but could make car payments. He could afford Misty.
Maybe she would give me the VW after she dumped me. She knew I'd take care of it. Post-grads with jobs didn't have much time to fix old cars and the '67 ate a lot of time. I quickly stopped thinking about my Janet time clock running out and concentrated on seeing the shy snakes.
We arrived at the twin '67 car, dusty tan guy with an intact interior and a missing front axle. Misty's car was a well-polished dark blue, a doppelganger to this poor guy. I had picked at least six vital components off this corpse in the past two years. Before the last drive to Ronnie's, it had been well maintained a lot of the engine parts had been replaced. Something big must have failed; maybe the transmission or the crankshaft. If the engine was cherry, I'd pull it and stash it under the porch but Ronnie wouldn't let me. His connection to Misty would weaken. Mine would strengthen. Maybe I could last another year with a spare engine.
We both hunkered down to remove the pulley, the vital connection to the generator and the cooling fan. A passing thunderstorm dropped enough rain pellets to raise the dust level to sneezing level. I had enough tools in my windbreaker pocket to remove the pulley myself because Ronnie had used the missing-tool trick of having to go back to the shop to prolong Misty conversation. Last time he asked if I had any photos of her on me.
At last, the wrench came out of his pocket and he quickly removed the prized pulley and handed it to me. I checked to make sure the holes were free of metal burrs, a sure sign the pulley was toast. This one looked almost new. I splayed out the magical spacer rings. No matter how old, grease covered, or beaten a VW engine was, the spacer rings always came out bright and shiny.
Ronnie lumbered off to answer a phone call in the main shed. Sick of waiting, I pulled off the rest of the parts and headed out of the boneyard and back to the parking area.
Thirty minutes later, I had a good pulley installed. I fired up Blue Guy and listened; steady thrumming came from the back, no cylinders missing or throttle hesitation. I punched the gas and eased out the clutch. Both back wheels spun on the loose gravel driveway, the closest an old VW gets to burning rubber. No clanking or screeching noises, no warning lights flashing on. Brakes were high pedal and hard. Not bad.
Maybe we'll both last another six months. That would be good.