By Anne Leigh Parrish
They sat on six acres, so there was plenty of room. And since getting laid off, he had plenty of time. When the cement plant was hiring again, he’d gotten a phone call from Dodd, his supervisor there for more than fifteen years. Clarence said no thank you, he was doing just fine in retirement. Sandy needed a second cup of coffee for that one. Clarence was forty-seven years old. Who the hell retires at forty-seven? Especially with five years left on the mortgage and the salary from her job with the school district not exactly plush?
Sandy’s mother advised her to button her lip.
“The man’s in bad shape,” she said.
Sandy knew all about his bad shape. The hunting accident had happened more than four years before, but Clarence was in those damned woods every day, walking silently as he’d been taught to do by his own father, waiting for the buck, holding perfectly still, taking his time, then very gently squeezing the trigger of the 30.06. Poor Lucas had to get his ass in the line of fire at the wrong moment. Well, not his ass, his left arm, which was probably better since he was right-handed. Not that he used either hand for anything gainful, living off his little sister his whole adult life. Lucas was in the hospital for a while, learning how to deal with a shattered humerus, enjoying the morphine and the kindly touch of his nurses.
Really, he’d taken the whole thing a lot better than Clarence had. Lucas was proud of his arm’s gnarly surgical scar, even of its shrunken muscles, and the way it dangled by his side while he gestured wildly with the other one.
No matter how many times Sandy told Clarence that things could have been a whole lot worse, because after all Lucas was alive and well, he got all dark and distant.
And then the lay-off came. While Sandy put pencil to paper and figured out how they were going to make it on his unemployment and her salary, Clarence sat in front of the television set with the sound off, his feet on the coffee table, arms folded across his round stomach. When he looked up from the screen, he seemed not to recognize his surroundings.
He needed to pull out of himself. So it was ironic that the vehicle for that action was Lucas, the one who’d shoved him down inside in the first place.
Lucas had a car with a bad carburetor. He’d rebuilt it four times already with no luck. Maybe his funky arm and hand made the job a failure, maybe it was because he’d always been a few bricks short of a load anyway, but he just couldn’t get it to work. So Clarence told him they’d go out to the junk yard and look for the kind of car he had, a 1980 Buick Le Sabre.
The junkyard was under new management. Clarence didn’t know Foster had sold out. The boy behind the counter told him so. Not much of a boy, really, at well over six-feet with the tattoo of a dagger on his forearm. What threw Clarence, but not so much Lucas because Lucas had had a bunch of weirdness in his life, was that the guy was knitting a baby sweater with tiny needles. Doing it well, too, as far as Clarence could tell. Sandy was an occasional knitter. The boy, Glen, explained that his wife was expecting and had wanted to knit a bunch of sweaters, hats, and booties for the coming winter but had very bad arthritis, the kind you get when you’re a kid, so Glen said he’d learn and do it for her. His mother showed him how, and then asked him flat out if he had a thing in general for girlie stuff. He wasn’t offended. It seemed like a fair question. He liked to knit, he realized, but it made him reluctant to handle auto parts, on account of the grease and grime, so the customers did their own picking and carrying.
Clarence digested this information and said what he was looking for. Glen nodded. The GMs were in row three, more or less. His father—the new owner—had been trying to get the place organized. That guy Foster had had a screw loose when it came to keeping order, but then that made sense, didn’t it, owning a junkyard. Get it, screw loose? Old cars? Glen put his knitting in his lap and laughed until his face turned red and his eyes watered. Clarence had to hand it to him. Being able to crack yourself up was a worthy talent.
Clarence and Lucas made their way down the wide, dusty row. The drought was in its fourth month. Burns, Oregon was naturally dry anyway, and now it was even drier. Clarence wanted to move somewhere wet, with sixty inches of rain a year, like the Olympic Peninsula, maybe, or the east side of any island in Hawaii. He used to have quite a thing for geography when he was a kid. He’d picked up a lot from his mother’s old books. He didn’t figure he’d be able to talk Sandy into moving. She didn’t love her job, but she was dedicated to it. She was the secretary for the whole school district. Okay, it had maybe four hundred students in it, but someone had to keep all the paperwork straight, and that was her.
After forty-five minutes no Le Sabre was to be had, so they took the carburetor out of a Monte Carlo instead. Although the Le Sabre had a bigger engine, a V-8 versus a V-6, Lucas was pretty sure the carb would work. And it did. Lucas was delighted.
Clarence wasn’t. He was agitated. Something had woken up inside him, and wasn’t being at all quiet about it. He’d never been one to believe much in second chances, but his was staring right at him. He wanted to bring old cars back to life, thereby bestowing a second chance upon them too.
Sandy said a hobby was fine, a hobby was good, as long as it didn’t end up costing them a lot of money. Clarence removed his baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. Clearly, the thought of money hadn’t occurred to him. Salvage cars were cheap, not free. He begged her to take a closer look at the books and see if there a little funny money he could have. Sandy brewed another pot of coffee and stood, listening to it drip. Clarence had three more months of unemployment coming. He could use half of it. That was the best she could do.
The first was a 1975 Camaro. He got his buddy, Brewster, to tow it home for free. Brewster didn’t have much to tow in the summer. Winter was when everyone broke down or skidded into ditches, so he glad for something to do.
The wreck itself only set Clarence back seventy-five dollars. In good condition, the car would have been a collector’s item, but it was missing both bumpers and the passenger seat. And the radio. And the back lights. It lacked a windshield, too. Clarence listed all these drawbacks in his head while he circled it lovingly on the dead swath of grass where Sandy once had had a flower garden.
Every morning he was up to beat the midday heat. He took things off and put them back on. He went again and again to the junkyard, prowled the rows looking for what he needed. Sometimes he found it. Usually he didn’t. Glen was still knitting. He’d stopped making baby clothes, and was now working on a scarf for his dad.
After a week and a half, Clarence gave up on the Camaro and was jonesing for a sweet little Ford Galaxy. It had no steering wheel, but the leather seats were intact. So were two of its whitewall tires. The paint must once have been red. It was impossible to tell. He got it for a song because Glen had just taken a phone call from his wife. His side of the conversation made it clear that some medical issue had come up, and he was clearly worried. He let the Galaxy go for fifty.
By the first week of September, roughly nine weeks from the time the first injured car had made its appearance on their property, there were six rusting carcasses outside Sandy’s kitchen window. Clarence spent every daylight hour, even in the heat, under them, inside them, on top of them, poking, prodding, in an obscene display of affection that bordered on sexual.
There was fire in his eyes, and a cool steadiness in his hands. Even the way he sat on the porch when the day was done and watched the sun sink beyond the distant rise spoke of man standing firmly in the center of his own heart.
After another week, Sandy was back at work, using the ancient computer system to update enrollment records, vaccination records, absenteeism among both students and teachers, and the roster of licensed substitutes. Then she met with the head of the PTSA, a toad of a woman named Emeline Dorn, about her plans for fall fundraising. This was an annual headache, because residents of Harney County weren’t exactly knee-deep in riches. Bake sales, rummage sales, and sending a troupe of six-graders door to door with a canned speech about needing to buy new sports equipment (when the district really needed to invest in technology) were going to produce about the same number of dollars that year as in all the years before, somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty. Emeline really wished Sandy could be a little more enthusiastic. Sandy suggested Emeline consult with the principal, Alvin Crockett. Alvin’s father-in-law owned the local radio station. Sandy made this suggestion every year, and Emeline acted upon it every year, and every year the principal’s wife wrote a check for over a thousand dollars just to make her go away.
In the middle of the second week of school the new high school science teacher was accused of inappropriately touching Marla Mayvins on the buttocks. The teacher was a young man, in his late twenties, and Marla was fourteen going on thirty. The usual hysterical uproar ensued, and he was put on leave without pay, pending an investigation. Sandy was reminded again how little true justice there was in this world. She’d crossed paths with Marla a number of times over the years because her attendance was so spotty and her mother had no interest in urging Marla to get up in the morning and get on the damned school bus. Why Marla had gone to school that particular day, when the science teacher, Roy Randall, was supposed to have goosed her, was proof that the thread holding all things together was unfair, corrupt, and basically stupid.
It was this sour mood that Sandy returned home to find that Clarence’s latest acquisition was blocking her access to the driveway. She had four bags of groceries to unload. She found him around back, sitting on an iron bench he’d also brought home from the junkyard, drinking a diet Coke, and staring happily into space. He offered to carry the bags in for her, if that would help. What would help is if he got rid of some these useless relics, called Dodd, and went back to work. The merry light in his eyes turned cold. He was sorry she’d had a bad day, but that was no reason to take out her problems on him.
You and those fucking cars are my problem, she almost said. Keeping those words to herself was the most painful thing that had befallen her in a long time. She wished then that she had developed a taste for liquor.
Glen’s baby was born and he took time off to help his wife at home. He told Clarence to take whatever he wanted from the yard, that they’d settle accounts later. Clarence and Brewster transported four more cars and parts of cars, particularly tires which Clarence had become attached to. Sandy’s yard looked like its own salvage operation, and she told Clarence he should go into business for himself. He didn’t understand. He didn’t bring the cars home so he could resell them. He had them to work on. Only he didn’t work on them the way he had. He seemed to have come to the end of his already limited expertise. Sandy said he should look for work at a service station. Maybe one of the guys there could teach him about cars. They were certified mechanics, right? Clarence couldn’t possibly mix commerce with art. He hoped she understood. Fine, she said, then call Dodd and see if he’ll still take you back. Clarence wasn’t ready for Dodd, either.
Another day, Sandy came home to find Clarence welding car parts together. He’d been a welder when he was younger, and still knew his stuff. As to what he was making, he couldn’t really say. There was just something so beautiful about how the metal could come alive under the heat, bonded, and become something else entirely. Sandy felt like she was losing her mind. Roy Randall, the science teacher, had been let go, and Marla Mayvins was playing the downtrodden but plucky victim for all it was worth.
She didn’t mean to break down and cry, because she wasn’t a crier. But it was just too much. She needed him to help, to earn some money, it didn’t matter how. Would he possibly think of selling his pieces? She knew people who did that. One of the English teachers at school crocheted hats for cats. She posted pictures on the Internet, and people actually bought them. The cats looked cute with their ears all bundled up. Clarence realized she was coming unglued, and brewed a nice strong pot of coffee. As she sat, huddled, still sobbing quietly, he regretted that he wasn’t a drinking man.
The weather turned cold. Clarence gave up working on the cars, and longed for a large, heated garage. What would it set them back to build one? Sandy didn’t answer. The set of her chin said he should probably not bring it up again.
The day that Clarence’s last unemployment check arrived, it snowed for the first time that season. Gorgeous fat flakes drifting all around. Sandy usually loved snow and how cozy it made their home feel. Now their home was a trap, with Clarence always in it, doing nothing but silently wishing for what he couldn’t have.
She supposed it was inevitable, really. She’d read cases of people who’d reach the end and become desperate. The spare gas container they kept out back had just about three gallons in it, which was plenty to douse all the cars, and parts of cars. She was careful not to get any on the tires and pulled them out of reach because she didn’t want to smell burning rubber. She also moved the welding equipment, which might have some future value. Clarence had fallen asleep in front of the television when she went out in the twilight with the matches in her pocket. For a moment she wondered if the flames would reach the house, and if so, would she wake Clarence up and drag him to safety?
The noise, smell, and dancing light woke him up. He stood beside her, with his hands to his head saying, what the fuck, what the fuck? She told him to shut up and appreciate how pretty it was, the flames and snowfall, like some ancient scene or reckoning. A true clash of opposites, she said. Fire and ice. Does that make sense? She asked. He could find no words at the moment, though he agreed wholeheartedly that it made complete and perfect sense.
Anne Leigh Parrish is an author based out of Seattle, Wash., and recently published her first novel What Is Found, What Is Lost. To learn more about the author, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AnneLParrish. Also read her short story "Smoke" or check our interview, In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish.
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