I used to work in this gas station, I used to be a gas station attendant. It was an old place, even back then, real mom ‘n pop type of joint. I was young then, I must’ve been just around nineteen. This was just before gas stations were all automatic, before you could pump your own, so people would drive up and flag me over and I’d unlock the pumps and fill their cars up for them, maybe wipe down the windshields, and if they were nice people, they’d tip, and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t. There was a garage around back that the owner owned too, a repair shop, and I would work in there a bit, too. Not as an official worker, I just hung around, helped out where I could. I liked working on all those cars. It was fun, learning how things worked, taking things apart and putting them back together the right way. Most of them were beaters, but some of them were some nice cars.
I didn’t have a car of my own back then, I didn’t have money. I was saving up back then, though. I wanted one. Every kid wants a hot rod growing up, needs to believe they’ll actually own one, one day. You work on all these nice cars day after day, you get jealous, you want one of your own. The gas station job was real low paying, and moonlighting in the garage was volunteer, so cash was hard to come by. Sometimes they’d split some tips with me, but for the most part I didn’t get paid anything in the garage.
This would’ve been about 20 years ago, late 80s, so the cars were cheaper back then, but everything else was cheaper, too, and we were all making less money, so it didn’t make much of a difference. New car might’ve run you 12,000 bucks, but when you’re only making four or five an hour, the ratio works out the same. The way I saw things, I had two options –- save up enough cash to buy my own used beater, would’ve been around four or five grand, and would’ve taken me years, or save up for a bus ticket to Las Vegas and gamble and win big.
It was risky, sure. That’s crazy, you’re thinking. Waste of money. But I’ve always been a pretty good poker player, I’ve got a real good poker face, and I’m not too bad at blackjack. The slot machines is how they get you. You just feed your coins into them and the machine plays for you. And the machine has a fixed interest to not let you win, the machine wants you to lose. Waste of money. Poker and blackjack, though, there’s a human element. There’s people around the table, same as you and me. You’re playing against a living person, capable of making mistakes in the way a slot machine can’t, and when that happens, you pounce. Got to be alert in poker. One eye on your cards and one eye on every other player, at all times, looking for clues. Someone’s mouth twitches a little bit when he’s dealt that final card, you up the ante. Slot machines don’t twitch.
So I’m working in this gas station, trying to save up five hundred dollars, a number I just picked to have a goal in mind to get to Vegas. Figure something like 30 bucks for the bus out of Georgia, 50 bucks for food, seventy bucks to find a place to stay, and the rest for gambling, need to have a reserve stash. Didn’t really know how long I was going to stay, however long it took to win 10,000 dollars. Vegas felt like I was cheating the system, somehow, like I was “escaping” and making the big bucks without really working hard or “earning” it. Growing up without growing up. It made sense to me, at the time. Mick didn’t really get it, but it made sense to me. But that was it, that was my plan. In its entirety. Work, gamble, drive. That was my mantra. Work, gamble, drive. I hadn’t really told anyone in the garage about my plan, except for Mick. Hadn’t specifically not told them, either, I remember I just wanted to keep a low profile, in case it took me longer to save up than I thought it would. Or in case I never made it out.
So one day I’m working in the garage and this older guy comes in, asking if we do repairs here. Asks a garage if we do repairs. This guy, if I had to peg him then, I’d probably have said he was around 50, and really pale-looking, and bald. It looked like his clothes were all a size too big for him, just really hanging off of him, like he lost 20 or 30 pounds overnight and didn’t get a chance to go clothes shopping yet. His blue jeans were strapped to his chest by a worn leather belt, and the sheen was gone, faded through years of use. Belt buckle was a real extravagant thing, too, sort of a steer’s head-with-the-horns thing going, a Texas longhorn belt buckle that needed some varnish and steel wool, but I could tell it, too, looked nice once.
So this guy comes in to the garage and asks if we do repairs here. A couple of the guys in back sneer a bit, and I’ll admit I’m pretty confused by him, too, but I tell him yeah, we do repairs here. Guy goes, “What about building cars, do you build cars here?” That throws me for a loop. That, I can’t answer for him. “Mick, we build cars here?” I call to the back. Mick, chief gear head, calls back, “No, we don’t build cars here,” and tells me to get back to work, before I remind him I don’t actually work here. Guy’s persistent, though, continues on, “What if it’s not actually building a car from the ground up. What if it’s more just a lot of repairs, to the entire thing. What if it’s that? Do you do that?”
By now a few of the boys in back are listening. This old guy’s got something here, and Mick makes his way out to the front. Mick’s this big tough Irishman who basically ran the garage himself. Mick was the head honcho. Tough guy, and not always a conversationalist, but got things done. Not necessarily soft-spoken, just carefully chose the few words he did decide to use. Every once in a while he’d blindside you with something smart, smartest thing you’d hear all day, and you’d remember he was a college grad, which doesn’t sound like much, but none of the rest of us had even had the chance to go. Mick O’Malley. It’s almost offensive, how Irish his name sounds. You couldn’t come up with a more blanket Irish-sounding name if I asked you to. So Mick comes out front from the back, wiping his hands on a rag he carries around in his back pocket. Gear heads always seem to carry an old rag in the back right pocket of their coveralls, always seem to be wiping the grease off their hands right as you’re talking to them. It’s like they’re doing work 24 hours out of the entire day, hands always covered in oil. Makes it really easy to tell when a gear head is taking you seriously, wiping his hands so they’ll be clean for whatever you ask him to do. Like they’re going to treat whatever comes next as serious as anything in the world. When the old guy asks about building a car from scratch, Mick comes out from back, wiping his hands clean on his rag.
Mick squares himself up to the old guy and asks, “What do you want to do?”
“Build a car.”
“Build a car?”
“Well, fix a car.”
“Fix a car. Now we’re talking”
“It’s an old car. Needs a lot of work.”
“Well, that’s what we do here.”
“Makes sense. How long?”
“How long what?”
“Until it’s finished.”
Mick turned to look back at me, and I shrugged.
“We haven’t even seen the car yet.”
“Do you want to see it? It’s out back.”
“Yeah, I want us to get started. As soon as possible. Don’t have a lot of time.”
Mick turned and took another look at me to gauge my reaction, as if my reaction was what mattered. He was always doing that, always wanted to know what his staff was thinking, even though his decision was really the only one that mattered. He was a good manager like that. I shrugged again. We went around back. In one of the parking spaces in the back was a 1969 Chevy Camaro, a real muscle car on its last legs. It looked like someone had scraped the paint off with the back end of a hammer. Both headlights were missing, along with the rear bumper, and the roof frame was almost rusted through. Mick popped the hood and tried to find hardware that didn’t need replacing, but gave up. Engine, transmission, alternator –- it looked like maybe the carburetor was alright, at first glance, but it’d probably get replaced too. As bad a shape as it was in, though, the car was still undeniably beautiful. It would still turn heads on the street. Might draw a “such a shame, a nice car looking like that,” but then again, that’s why the old guy brought it in in the first place, to fix it up. We could all see the car used to be great. Just needed some elbow grease to get back into shape.
“I need this car fixed as best as possible, as soon as possible,” the old guy was saying to nobody in particular. Maybe to himself. He was looking right through the car. “I need to take it home, I need to drive it back home.” Mick asked, and when he was ignored, asked again, louder, “where are you from?” and the old guy said “Catarina. Texas. Need to get this car back there. Soon.” Mick winced a little on the “soon,” like we didn’t know the old guy wanted his car fixed soon, like we were going to take our sweet time fixing it up for him. The truth was, though, I kind of wanted to, and I could see it in Mick’s eyes he wanted to, too. We didn’t really get to work on nice cars like that one in the shop, not often, at least, and not usually cars that nice, and even though we hadn’t even started working on it yet, I knew I was going to be sad to let it go when it was done. It was like a treat, working on this car. It was going to be like a treat.
“What’s your name?” Mick asked. “Joe Drummond,” the old guy said. Mick stuck out his hand for the old guy to shake, but the old guy was still staring through the car, not really paying any attention. After a second or two Mick took his hand back and patted Joe on the back and said, “You got a deal. We’ll fix this car up as best we can.”
Joe turned away from the car and looked right at me. People always seemed to have a habit of looking and talking to me like I was the one who actually mattered in the garage. “I want to help,” he said. “I want to fix it. I’dve done it myself, if I had half a clue what I was doing, or had the parts, or tools. But I don’t, so I need you guys. But I don’t want to just drop the car off and come back in a week and drive it home. I want to help. I don’t know much about cars, but I’m eager to learn, I’m a quick learner, and I follow directions okay. I won’t get in the way. But I want to do this. Or I’ll take it to another garage.”
I swear to god, Mick gasped a little when Joe said this. Like a sharp, painful inhale, like it was the worst news he had ever gotten. He didn’t want to have to babysit this old guy, keep an eye on him, tell him “good job” and “steady now” and “just like that.” Fixing this car was supposed to be our job, I knew he was thinking, Joe’s going to ruin it for all of us. It was our moment, or something like that, I don’t know. I saw Mick swallow his pride, literally saw his Adam’s apple move in his throat before telling Joe he could “help.”
Mick took another look at the car and did some mental math, gauging how much of the car we’d be able to salvage. “You know this thing’s going to need a lot of work, Joe,” he said. “It’s in pretty bad shape.”
“I know it’s in bad shape,” he said, “that’s why I brought it here. We can make it in better shape. We can do that.”
“Right, but…” Mick started, not really sure how to broach the topic, trying to make the guy fill in the blanks himself. “We probably won’t be able to save much of this car. We can keep the frame, fix up the frame real nice for you, repaint it, patch the dents, make it look pretty good, but everything on the inside’s going to need an overhaul. Probably going to have to take it all out.” Mick was afraid that the old guy would want to keep as much of the car intact as possible – people tend to be afraid of flat-out gutting their cars, he told me, even when that’s what they brought the car into the shop for in the first place. It’s a big mental block a lot of people can’t get past, like it’s the physical engine itself that makes the car what it is, like it wouldn’t be the same car with any other transmission. Same reason why people keep photo albums or scrapbooks, want a physical memento, like the thing or experience itself wasn’t good enough for them. Mick told me that was called “simulacra” one time and I told him I’d take his word for it. Mick wanted to clear the air now, before there was any misunderstanding, before Joe could stop the job halfway and take it away from us.
“I know that. You think I don’t know that? That’s why I brought it in. Everything’s rusted through completely. Had to tow it here from Texas on an 18-wheeler, can’t go more than 50 miles on its own without breaking down. If I’d wanted to keep it the way it was I would’ve left it in storage. I want it nice. As good as it used to be. Of course we need to replace everything.”
By this point Joe’s breathing kind of hard and he’s sweating a bit, looking a bit pale. Guy doesn’t look healthy. Says he’s pooped. Says he’s going to call it a day. He says he’ll be back tomorrow, when we’ll start fixing up the car. He says “we,” and he also says “will.” It’s a declaration. Almost a command. “We will start on the car tomorrow.” Like he’d taken charge. And the funny thing was, he might as well have. Mick and I were under a spell, completely taken. He could have told us tomorrow we’d drive the car off a cliff and we’dve agreed with him.
After he left, I asked Mick what he think’s wrong with the old guy. He told me he’s about to die. Said it straight like that, matter-of-factly. No doubt in his mind. I remember being shocked, I remember thinking he was crazy, but Mick explained it all out, and it made a lot of sense. Guy looked ill, right, we all saw it as soon as he walked in the door. Clothes were hanging off of him, he was pale, looked sickly. I thought he had shaved his head, but Mick told me no, he didn’t even have any stubble. “Because of the chemo,” I remember Mick told me.
“Chemo,” I told him back.
“He’s dying soon,” he said. You can just tell, he said, can sort of just feel it on them. Cancer patients have a way of carrying themselves, have a way of approaching the world healthy people can’t even fake. He’s sick, Mick told me, and he needs us to fix this car up, needs it more than anything he’s needed in a long time, and we don’t know why, and we won’t ask why, because it’s not our place to ask, but we’re going to do this for him. Mick had a way of reading people I was always jealous of, could peg them instantly. I couldn’t even tell the old guy was dying, let alone that this was his “dying wish” or whatever, but Mick, he read him in a heartbeat.
“Take half my salary on this one,” he told me. “Your first paying garage job. Incentive. You’ve been volunteering here enough. We do a good enough job on this, you get a junior salary. This’ll be like a little try-out. We can scrounge up some extra cash in the budget. Start working here part-time, officially.” I told him a paycheck’s a paycheck, and I appreciated it. I remember filing the money away right then and there, before I had even gotten the check, before we had even started working on the car. This last job would single-handedly pay for Vegas, I remember figuring. And then Mick turned and looked me square in the face and told me that if I somehow fucked this up for everybody, he would beat the piss out of me. Said it with a straight face just like that, and I knew he was making me a promise.
So Joe comes back the next morning and pulls the car into the service area. As he’s pulling in, Mick asks me what I think Joe’s going to do with the car after we fix it. I had been wondering this myself, dying to ask him, and when Mick asks me, I lost control. Before I could stop myself I yell and ask Joe, who’s still behind the wheel, what he’s going to do with the car after we fix it. Mick gave me a death glare, a sort of “you son of a bitch, did you forget what I told you yesterday? What I promised you?” look, but by this point, I didn’t care what Mick thought, and I don’t think he really did, either. By that point we all just needed to figure out this car, this story.
Joe hesitated in the Camaro a bit before stopping the engine. I saw him sort of stretch out a little bit, I remember he put one hand out and just kind of rested it on the dashboard, and he sunk down in the seat a little bit, too. I could see him in the mirror, his eyes were closed, but he started telling the story anyway. Just kind of flowed out of him, I think he was waiting for someone to ask him about it. Mick moved up a bit and stood closer to me to listen better.
So the old guy starts opening up, telling us this story about his childhood, growing up in Catarina, how this used to be his dad’s Camaro. Tells us all about it. Tells us how his dad loved this car, spent hours working on it after work. Used to take the family for rides on weekends, all the way down south, through Texas and into Mexico. Told us how they would stop at a little Mexican border town and stay the night. “Mojina,” he said, or maybe Barranca. He couldn’t remember the name.
He told us how his dad “got sick” and, with the cost of treatment and medicine, couldn’t manage taking care of the Camaro anymore. Fell into disrepair and disuse in the carport. He died a bit later in hospice care and left Joe the car in his will, and Joe said he briefly considered fixing the car way back then, but he had packed up and moved east and was living and working in the city and had no use for a car. He told us he put it into storage, didn’t think twice, and forgot about it all those years.
Then he himself fell ill, Joe told us. Mick had guessed right, the old guy was sick. Still didn’t tell us with what, but we had a pretty good guess. Some kind of cancer, definitely. Mick guessed prostate cancer, says men his age typically get prostate cancer. I told him I didn’t give a fuck what “kind” of cancer he had, or if Mick was “right” or not. He was dying, and he was scared. I remember Mick yelled at me after the old guy left the first night that people are never dying. They live, and then they die. Dying’s not a process, dying happens in an instant. Nobody’s ever dying. The grief in death, he told me that night, comes from everybody treating the patient like they’re dying, like they need to make the most of everything, that they can’t waste it.
“Then I got sick, too,” he told us. “Ran in the family. It all did,” he told us. Found out he only had about a year left to live. Thought about what he wanted to do with his time left, what he wished he had been able to do when he was younger. Remembered the car in storage, how it hadn’t been serviced in 20 years, and that brought us to here, basically, how he had the car towed to Savannah and brought to our garage.
Mick and I stood there, afraid to say anything. What do you say after something like that. Mick coughed. Mick ran his fingers through his hair, which was greasy. He shifted his weight between his feet. Eventually I cleared my throat and asked what Joe was going to do when the car was finished. He had climbed out of the car by now, had just shut the door, when he looked our way and said, “Take it home. Drive it back down to Catarina, find the old ranch. Maybe even see if I can’t find that little Mexican town. I have a few maps, I think I know which one it is. I think I can find it.”
So there it was. This guy was fixing up his dad’s old car so he could go back home, probably to die, was his mindset. Like a sea turtle, I remember seeing a show about sea turtles a few years ago, they swim all the way back home to their birthplace when it’s time to die. Something in ‘em just knows when it’s time, just knows the way. Out west. Like in the old days. He wasn’t that different from me, I remember thinking, or I guess I wasn’t that different from him, since he was the older man by about 30 years. Couldn’t tough it out here any longer. Couldn’t do it. I remember thinking I would give Mick some time to cool down, a few days after we finished this job, get the garage back in order, before telling him I was going to leave. Didn’t want to tell him I was “quitting,” because I didn’t really think I wouldn’t be back, back then, but I told him I was going to take my commission on the Drummond job and head out to Vegas early, like I had told him I wanted to, and that the next time he saw me I was going to be the proud owner of an old muscle car of my own. He told me he’d spruce it up for me nice, free of charge, when I got back, that the garage “owed” me as much, but I could tell he thought he’d never see me again. I don’t really know if I believed I was actually going to come back, back then, either.
So we ask Joe if he’s ready to start, and when he tells us he is we dig in. We gut the thing. We take power tools, a blowtorch, a fucking hacksaw to the thing, we just gut it. We dive in. We tear it to shreds. We take every last piece apart, rip it all out, until we have a pile of car parts sitting on the floor of the garage, leaking oil down the drain, and the main shell of the car (even the shell of the thing looked beautiful) suspended from a crane above.
There’s no real good way to do a total overhaul on a car, basically need to just take every last piece of it out, service it, replace what needs replacing and rebuild it all back together. Mick was afraid the old guy was going to be turned off of the idea, but he loved it. I think he thought it was therapy, somehow, like it’s what he wanted to do in the first place, but was scared to do by himself. Wanted a safety net below him, guys who knew how to put it all back together. But he just destroyed that son of a bitch. Ripped the bumper off with his bare hands, I remember that specifically. Just dug his fingers down in there and ripped the whole thing off. Mick thought he was pushing himself too hard, but I wasn’t about to tell him to take it easy. He looked happy. When his blood was pumping he got some color back in his face. He sounded good. I’d only known him a day before, but I knew that he looked better then, in that shop, after ripping that car to shreds, than he had in a long time.
Mick thought he needed to explain the process to Joe as we were fixing the car. “You need to take the bad stuff out before you can work on putting the good stuff in,” he told him. “Basically need to purge the car of everything and start over. Clean slate. A car like this, a car this old, needs a complete overhaul. But you got to start somewhere. Got to get your hands dirty and dig in. Got a long road ahead of us, but we’ll get there. Just need to start somewhere.”
Mick was rambling. He seemed scared. I think he was talking himself through it more than he was talking to Joe. “But we’ll do our best. We’ll have this car good as new in no time. We’ll make it good. Won’t recognize it. We’ll replace everything that needs replacing, build it up from the ground up. New life. It’ll be good again. You’ll see. But I need you to trust me. I need you to do that for me.” He looked at me for support, told me with his eyes to take the reins on this one, but I knew I was staring at him like we had never met before. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, to either of them. We were all in way over our heads.
“I trust you,” Joe said eventually. “Just need to take out all the bad, so we can put in the good. Purge everything. New life. That’s how it works. I trust you.” I looked at the pile of 20-year-old car parts on the shop floor, then at Joe’s hands, which were bleeding a bit from something, then at my own, which were black with grease. Mick reached Joe his rag and he wiped his hands down good and clean before passing it on to me.