I spent part of the night working on my car, under my grandfather's watchful eye. We took off the valve cover and trashed the gasket, but saving the hardware in my grandfather's own filing system. Empty coffee cans.
The exhaust pipe, called a header pipe where it met the engine, was the next thing to come apart and he decreed the gasket that sat between the header pipe and what was called the exhaust manifold was trash, and should be replaced. We then started on the head bolts. Are you confused? I was too, but I figured this much out: the valve cover is like a hat, it sits on the head and the head has the valves in it. At least they do in this motor, Grandpa says not all motors are like this one.
We finally knocked off about eight thirty, Grandpa remarking how cooperative the car was being and how hungry he was.
"I'm beat, I don't feel like cooking," he eyed me suspiciously, "and I don't feel like taking my chances with your burning skills either. Let's go to Yip's Takee Outee."
"Go where?" I asked after I shot him a dirty look for dragging my good cooking name in the mud.
"Chinese take out place, pretty good. I suggest the chicken and broccoli," he replied.
We got cleaned up and headed out to Grandpa's old Toyota, which didn't look too hot on the outside but seemed to run just fine. We climbed in and the car turned over quickly and we were on our way.
"Would you look at this? I got the original creeping Jesus in front of me!" he railed and ranted at the other motorists.
"One thing I hate about driving is all the morons you have to share the road with," he grumbled. We came to a stop in front of a traffic light and Grandpa tapped his fingers absently on the wheel.
"I picked the wrong time to quit smoking, this is a great time to have one. Sitting here, doing nothing, perfect time for a smoke."
"How long ago did you quit?" I asked.
"Twenty two years ago," he replied. The light changed and the car in front of us was a bit slow in moving though the intersection. Grandpa began bellowing that the pedal the guy needed was on the right, and he pounded the flat of his hand on the roof of the car as he ranted.
"Grandpa, jeez that's loud, do you have to hit the roof?" I groused at him.
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do," he jutted his chin at me.
"Why?" I asked in a most exasperated tone.
We arrived at the Chinese place with our hides intact and before Grandpa had or gave a grand mal seizure. He ordered the chicken and broccoli, as did I, and we sat down on the picnic tables out front to await our orders.
"So you and Bryan get along all right?" he asked.
"Yeah, I guess," I replied.
"Not great though?"
"Well," I hesitated, "it's stupid."
"I'll be the judge of that," he puffed out his skinny chest, "I'm an authority at spotting stupid." I shook my head at him and sighed.
"He's pretty cool, honest with me, I guess, but it's almost like he doesn't want me around his other friends. Are you paying him to hang around me?" I asked, half seriously.
"Hell no, I pay him to piss off Eleanor!" he cackled and I couldn't help but laugh with him.
We sat in comfortable silence for a few moments. Some more cars pulled in, others left the busy place with the funny name. I was lost deep in thought about the distance I had to go to fix my car and the odd stray thought about Bryan when my reverie was broken.
"Hey Kris," someone said to me, and I looked around me. Jake was walking with an older man towards the ordering window. He gave me a small wave, dressed in stained jeans and a tee shirt that had obviously seen better days, and I returned it with a small smile.
"He's trouble, Kris," Grandpa muttered.
"Who? Jake?" I asked in surprise.
"His old man thinks he's king turd of shit hill," he whispered, "gets all his work done at the dealer." He said this in a conspiratorial way, as if to imply the implicit evil that was occurring.
"I don't really know him, but he seems nice enough," I responded.
"Well, you know what they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," he stated.
"If that were true I'd still be in California, and happy with my father. Or I could be here with you and being a total asshole, so I am not entirely sure they, whoever they are, know what they are talking about," I replied cheekily.
"Fair enough, I have to give you points there."
He went up and grabbed our order and I wondered if Jake would make any note or motion since we were leaving. In fact I became nervous, as I sometimes do in social settings. Should I do something to tell him we were about to leave? He turned suddenly, and gave me a smile. Jake and I exchanged small waves, me hoping I looked casual and not like a dork, as we headed for Grandpa's car.
"A ton of stray cats descend on my lawn and leaf bags, tearing them open thither and yon, and you what to know why I think you had something to do with it? Who else could it be?" Eleanor demanded.
"Divine intervention," he stated.
"God has a personal agenda with my bagged up leaves?" she snorted.
"Act of God, Eleanor," he shrugged and headed for our door.
"It was an act of Henry Nickles, a sixty year old teenager!" she shrieked at him. "I'll get even with you, Henry! If it's war you want, you've got it!" She spun on her slippered heel and tried to make a dignified exit in her bathrobe while my grandfather tried to hold his giggles in.
"Grandpa," I said with my hands on my hips, "what did you do to her?"
"Nothing, it was the cats!" he giggled as he stepped through the door, and passed gas. "Damn, broccoli was a little underdone last night, always gives me gas if they don't cook it right."
"What do you mean about the cats?" I asked, as I moved to a safe distance.
"Nothing, have something to eat, you'll be late for school."
"Kris! Telephone!" my grandfather called out from the garage. I walked out to the desk, littered with invoices, bills, and assorted bits of unread mail, and picked up the phone.
"Hey, you going shopping with me or what?" Jess asked.
"As long as you make no short jokes," I said in my most intimidating voice.
"Ok, fine, be that way!" she laughed. A half hour later we were on our way, me with some money in my pocket from Grandpa since he thought it was a date, no matter how much I tried to tell him the truth of the matter. I finished getting ready and stepped out the front door. As I hit the curb I saw what the problem was. All the lawn and leaf bags that Bryan and I had dragged to the curb were shredded and their contents lay about them, like soldiers who had been disemboweled. I shook my head and wondered what would make a cat do such a thing, or more than one for that matter. Jess picked me up a few minutes later and she chattered along merrily about nothing and I listened until we arrived at the mall in Beaver Falls.
"So what did you guys do last night?" she asked.
"I get to talk now?" I grinned at her.
"Yes, my loyal subject, you may speak," she said with a regal air. I just laughed, what else can you do?
"We got some Chinese take out, was pretty good."
"Yip's has good food, I like their General Tso's Chicken, spicy stuff for me!" she grinned.
"Yeah, I heard that," I replied with a grin. She stuck her tongue out at me.
"Anything else happen?" she asked.
"No, not really," I said before adding, "I saw Bryan's friend Jake there with his dad."
"Jake is a sweetie, I don't know why he hangs around with Bryan," she wrinkled her nose.
"I don't know him. Bryan has been cool to me so far though," I replied.
"Well, you can have him," she grinned as we walked down the corridor.
"But he likes you," I replied with an evil grin.
"Thanks for reminding me, Tinker Bell, just what I wanted to remember!" she said while rolling her eyes at me.
"Why don't you give the guy a chance?" I asked.
"'Cause I have plans that don't include getting pregnant with a guy who thinks he earns a good living working third shift at the fertilizer plant in Pulaski," she said matter-of-factly.
"Jeez, little harsh there, aren't you?" I asked, also sensing there was more than met the eye on this issue.
"No, Kris, I'm not. This town is going nowhere I want to be. I want to go to college, University of Pittsburgh if my grades are good enough. I don't want anything that will derail the things that are important to me," she said firmly. It all clicked at once for me.
"You like him," I said in a tone full of wonder, "don't you?"
"Oh, Kris, look! They have a Baby Gap here so you can get clothes too!"
"Don't change the subject, princess," I laughed. "If you want I could tell him you're interested?"
"You could also die a horrible death. Picture it!" she waved her arms dramatically, "you, tied to a chair with toothpicks propping your ears open while you listen to `Who Let The Dogs Out' over and over!" she laughed maniacally and I found I couldn't help but join her.
"Come on, what could it hurt?" I asked.
"If you mention it again," she eyed my crotch and held her car keys menacingly, "I'll change your religion."
"Mention what?" I asked innocently.
"Good boy. Sit," she smiled.
"Your grandfather is a pimple on the ass of society," she commented as if discussing the weather.
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"Tell me, have you ever seen what a cat acts like when it smells tuna fish?" she asked thoughtfully.
"No," I answered truthfully, "I've never had a cat."
"They go pretty well insane; they'll claw and dig to get at the tuna. Like they did right through these garbage bags," she said while pointing to a small piece of tuna that had apparently eluded the now well fed feline population.
"Oh," I said, suddenly realizing the implication.
"Bryan will be back in a minute, he'll clean this up for me, he's such a good boy," she remarked in an offhand way.
"He's on his way?" I asked by way of conversation, safe topics I told myself.
"Yes, he's stopping at the store to get me some lawn and leaf bags. He's a smart kid, I wish he would quit messing around with auto shop and get serious about his preparations for college, his mother has big plans for him, you know," she mused, almost to herself as she looked at the incriminating piece of tuna.
"No, I didn't know. I've never met his parents before," I replied.
"Big, grand plans she has for her son, too bad she hasn't bothered to ask him what he wants. People work harder when they have a say in their own affairs," she observed, all the while maintaining her vigil on the lone chunk of tuna. You'd almost think she was daring it to move, as if it would swim away or something!
"I didn't know he was interested in college," I replied. I realized then that I didn't know much about Bryan at all, except that I think I liked him. And that I liked him in his cargo pants, of course.
"Have you plans for your own college education?" she asked.
"I don't really know, I never thought about it," I replied truthfully. "I don't know where the money would come from."
"Never let something as inconsequential as money stand in your way of a good education, there are grants, loans, and scholarships you can apply for. Besides, that old goat you live with isn't exactly the working poor," she sniffed, "I think he keeps that place open just to act like a bee in my bonnet!" she snorted and I heard the sound of Maybelle approaching, and coming to a stop at the curb. Maybelle's engine died, seemed to catch again like it didn't want to shut off, and then was quiet.
"Kris! Give me a hand?" he smiled at me as he hopped from the car and gave me a smile. I clapped for him.
"Come on," he whined, "please?" He was just too damned cute, especially with those eyes doing their puppy dog thing, so I wandered over and began holding the bags open for him.
"Where you been? I knocked on your door before I started this job," he asked while he lifted a fresh load into the bag I held open for him.
"I went to the mall over in Beaver Falls," I replied.
"Get anything cool?" he asked.
"Some clothes," I shrugged.
We toiled for quite some time, repacking all the leaves plus the trimmings we had made yesterday. Then Eleanor decided we should get rid of them now, before my pimple of a grandfather got any more bright ideas. Bryan pulled her van out of the garage and we proceeded to remove the seats and load the bags in.
"Be careful, Bryan, this Voyager may not look like much but I can't afford to replace it. The transfer sticker will get you into the dump," she fished some cash from her pocket, "and get something to eat while you are out." She strolled away towards her front door and Bryan and I hopped into her Chrysler.
"Not much, my ass! This thing cost more than it would to restore my car!" Bryan exclaimed once we were safely ensconced in the van.
"How far away is this transfer station?" I asked.
"It's about twenty minutes, then we can stop at Mickey Dee's or something if you want," he replied.
"Ok, that works for me," I replied. We dropped our load of leaves at the dump, the sun having given up to the night at this point, and we went through the drive through at the burger joint before heading home. We sat in my back yard and ate at the picnic table, small night sounds entertaining us.
"So Kris, where are you from, man?" Bryan asked as he sipped his coke through a straw.
"Western New York," I replied.
"Jeez, long way to move. Why would you move here?" he asked with a small chuckle.
"Lots of reasons," I replied. I silently added that there were my father's hands, feet, and bad temper coupled with my mother's indifference.
"So, your aunt says your mom has big college plans for you?" I said, changing the subject.
"Yeah, she keeps pushing me. But it's like, why? So I can leave the town I grew up in and all the people, the places I know?"
"Not much in the way of opportunity here," I remarked.
"Yeah, but you can make a life, be comfortable."
"You ever tell her that?" I asked quietly.
"What are you, a shrink? You going to ask me how I feel about this now?" he said in a sad voice.
"I'll listen if you want me to," I replied. He looked at me in the deepening gloom, and I hoped he couldn't see the bloom I felt in my cheeks.
"Yeah, I have, not that there is any point to telling her anything. She doesn't listen to anything I say, all she sees is Dr. Shantz or Professor Shantz, anything to tell her little group of friends," he gave a small defeated sigh. "Sometimes I think she just wants something to show off."
"Maybe she's proud of you, I mean, you're a good guy. No harm in bragging about your son, right?" I replied.
"That's just the thing, Kris, what I do isn't good enough. I make a B+, it should have been an A-. If I finish first it was too easy, I should have been in a different class, even my freaking car," he made a small choking sound, which could have been a barely restrained sob. "I worked all summer, I saved for it and all she could say was, `is that what you wasted all your money on?'"
"That really sucks, Bryan."
"Who am I kidding? I know the car is a piece of shit, but it's mine and I earned it." He made a small, sad sounding laugh, "Maybe I keep it running just to piss her off."
I remained silent while I digested this new side of Bryan, this vulnerable side that he exposed to me after the sun had fled the sky and the shadows could hide his face from me. It reminded me strangely of a confessional.
I think that was the night I felt more than a mild attraction, I felt as if he had let me into a secret place. I felt special, but that's not really it, I felt...necessary.
"What do Jake and JR have to say about this?" I asked.
"I haven't told them," he said in a near whisper.
"They seem like good friends to you," I began.
"They aren't like you," he hesitated. "You just have, like, different vibes. They are great if you want to talk motors and horsepower, but you don't ask me if I have a Holley shifter in the car or if the air ram is real or just for show. You asked me about something real, they don't."
I was speechless and we drifted into a heavy silence, one I desperately wanted to break.
"What's a Holley shifter?" I asked on impulse.
"Are you serious?" he said.
"Yeah," I smiled in the dim light of the moon and he clamped a hand on my shoulder, companionably.
"It makes your car cool."
"See this little black nub here, under this curved piece of metal?" I nodded in response. "The spark jumps between these two points, so the farther away they are the harder it has to work. It's called a gap, and when it gets too wide it doesn't fire the way it should. Now, take a little oil," he demonstrated by putting his pinky finger into the open end of a motor oil container and spread a thin film on the threads of the spark plug.
"If you do that it comes off easier next time, usually. Then you start the plug by hand, never by using the ratchet, you could cross thread it and bugger the head." I started to giggle.
"Get your mind out of the gutter," he muttered as he turned the plug. It started a moment later and he ran down the threads. He left me to finish up and I followed his direction carefully. After the last plug was in place I moved to the interior to start the car and check my work. I reached in through the window and tweaked the key, and to my great surprise and alarm the car jerked backward.
"Holy hell, stop it!" my grandfather barked and I saw him in my peripheral vision pushing the back of the car, and I too began to push the car forward as we attempted to forestall it falling off the jack stands. Sweat stood out on my forehead as I envisioned the beating I could get for this kind of fuck up, and that fueled me to push harder. Slowly, painfully slowly the car moved forward, then settled back into place.
"What did you do that for?" my grandfather demanded.
"I'm sorry, are you ok?" I asked in a panic with my heart fluttering in my chest.
"I'm fine, my heart is pumping, I can tell you that much but what were you doing?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I was just trying to check my work!" I wailed unsteadily.
"Well, ok, just take the car out of gear, hot rod. Jeez, thought you were trying to kill me off for my vast fortune!" he joked before returning to his brake job. I looked dubiously at the car and moved to the shifter.
"Grandpa?" I asked.
"How do you put it out of gear?"
We took the oil pan off my car and Grandpa showed me how to remove the pistons by removing two bolts at the bottom of each rod, as he called them. He showed me the curved halves of the rod that formed a circle, which he said was a bearing. I thought bearings had balls in them? We then used a piece of wood to remove the seized pistons. He said it looked as though there had been a leak in the water jacket, whatever that was, and that water had sat in the pistons and rusted them in place, or seized them.
Damn, was I ever ready for bed.
The days dragged on and the war between Eleanor and my grandfather seemed to be at a standstill. Work was coming into the garage and that left little time for my own car to get better. Would that it were like Christine, from the Stephen King novel, that could mend itself! Days turned into weeks as autumn wore on and Bryan and I grew closer in some ways, and Jess became a trusted confidante. As always, Monday came too soon, as it always does, and I was up early. My walk to school was uneventful, and lunch was a bore. Bryan and his friends sat at their regular table and I sat, somewhat in envy, and somewhat hurt that I hadn't been invited. I dragged myself to Science class, where Jess sat looking far too innocent.
"What are you up to?" I asked her.
"Nothing, nothing at all," she replied.
"You weren't innocent the day you were born, what gives?"
"What a thing to say to me!" she said, feigning shock.
"I only speak the truth," I said while sitting down next to her.
"Well, not that I am up to anything, but I'm going to have a cookout at my house on Saturday, and I was going to ask you to come over," she said.
"Why?" my eyes narrowed at her, "Are you testing some new poison or something?"
"No, I'm just having some friends over, and you're included," she wrinkled her nose at me, "god only knows why." We both laughed and class started. After school Jess snagged me and once more we went to Nelsons for ice cream. I had a few bucks on me, so I grabbed us a couple of milk shakes before meeting her at a booth, and slid in with my back to the door.
We started to sip the drinks when she giggled. I fixed her with a stern look, knowing full well whatever she just found amusing was at my expense.
"What?" I asked.
"I just was wondering something," she said innocently. My guard was definitely up.
"You were wondering what, exactly?"
"If your feet were dangling above the floor," she snorted laughter and I flicked a wad of paper at her that had been my straw wrapper minutes before. She giggled and I shook my head at her until her eyes lit up and I began to get seriously worried. She swallowed the drink in her mouth and waved at the door behind me.
"Jake! Come and sit with me!" she said brightly. I half turned to see Jake from Bryan's little group smiling shyly at Jess. He was dressed to kill, hair cut short and spiked on top. He wore a loose white button up shirt that fell straight down his body, a small patch of exposed skin sat at the open throat of the shirt. Black jeans and black Adidas completed the effect to put him in a light I had not noticed before. Jess got up and pecked him on the cheek, then seemed to remember I was there.
"Kris, do you know Jake?" she asked sweetly.
"Yeah, we've met before," Jake smiled again and nodded at me. I'm glad he didn't want to shake hands, I dunno what I'd do! I nodded back at him as Jess ushered him into sitting down.
"Actually, I'm going to get something to eat," he said as he headed for the counter. All I can say is those jeans were made for that ass. Jess smiled sweetly at me and I was again filled with the certainty that she was up to something. We sat and made small talk when Jake returned, apparently he had just gotten his hair cut and they talked about every freaking thing I could think of.
"I have to go get my mom from work, her car
is in the shop today. Jake, can you drop Kris at home for me?" Jess
asked. It was then that the other shoe dropped. She had me figured
out, and was setting me up. I wasn't stupid, and Jake was definitely
dressed to impress, but I was aching for Bryan. How the hell did