It was a lie. The movies. A lie. The car did not blow up. It did not explode five feet into the air. After the can of gasoline, after the lit book of matches, it went whoomp, a dull thump, and the Grand Am was on fire. Orange blue flames burning above the broken rear window, buzzing on the roofline. Churning swirls of oily soot. Black flowers unfolded upon a pale afternoon sky. The little girl sitting on the fire hydrant across the street was running now, running away down the street. I realized I had to leave, too. Time to go. The sirens already were in the distance. Go. It belched. Another thump. The windshield, I think, plopped out. Time to go. Stop watching it burn. Go! I got into my Chevy. It was running. I don’t remember doing that, leaving it running. Like a dream, really, like they say, a dream. No panic or fear. Just a clicking along. Just a ticking away. I drove around some blocks, around and around. Up and down. And then, finally, back to the Grand Am, where firemen were dousing it with water, not foam. Another movie lie. Water, nothing else. I cruised by. Almost, “Hi guys, how’s it goin’?” But no, just drive and gawk a little. Then home. Home to hide. Home to oblivion.
It was Saturday.
Mike tells me, “Long Legs, I got something for you, some information, something you wanna know.”
Saturday, the busiest day of the week. Saturday, when it is on all day long. The customers, the phones, the noise, the heat. The cars going up and down on the lifts like giant carousel rides. Saturday, when I am always sick.
Mike says, “Listen, I know who broke in, I know who hit the shop. Just some young punks sitting around smoking dope.”
My head hurt.
Mike says, “Idiots with nothing better to do than drive a goddamn car into the fire door.”
Christ, they drove into the wall. A few cinder blocks gave way and they crawled into the shop.
Mike says, “Not too bright, huh?”
The alarm system never went off, the motion detectors detected nothing, the police did not give a damn. They do not care about some two-bit break-in; they do not give a damn.
Mike says, “Playboy told me these dumb shits sit around drinking and brag. They’re too stupid to keep their mouths shut.”
Not a thing really worth anything stolen. A small TV, a few junk tools, some chemicals. Not a thing. That was not the point. That was not it.
Mike says, “Their car is parked next door.”
Jesus. It was on the street next to the shop. An old Pontiac. Rusted, cancerous. Sitting right there.
Mike says, “They were trying to get into a gang. Trying to prove themselves. Kings, I think, or Lovers. Who knows?”
I stared at the car. The phones ringing, the impact guns going off, the clerk yelling for me, I stared at it, sweating.
“. . . because it’s Saturday night. That’s some damn excuse: ‘It’s Saturday night.’”
She was talking. I snapped to. The music was very loud. Who was it? It was Saturday night. Or Sunday morning. Our living room. Hendrix.
“You don’t care for me, I don’t care about that.”
She was yelling now.
“. . . sick and tired of it! Do you hear me? Sick and tired of it! And sick of all your goddamned talk about the shop! Why don’t you marry the shop?”
“I have only one and burning desire.”
Why didn’t I? The rhythms of the shop I understood. The dark grace of machinery, the sheen of stainless steel, air compressors rattling, hiss of torches, even the smell of grease, all of it was natural to me, compatible. In my element. God in His heaven, I in mine.
But this, this . . .
“Let me stand next to your fire.”
I lit another one.
On the porch. From up here you could see the planes circling O’Hare at night. Round and round. Take-offs and landings. Now it was bright, sunny. Church bells. It was too hot. The clink of cubes. Like breaking glass. “Random gunfire,” the police said. Strafing. “Disputed turf.” AAA Board-up Service was first in the phone book, first on the scene. “They’re not aiming at you. Your shop just happens to be in the way.” Cop humor. Attitudes and threats. Over and over, attitudes and threats. Then one day, tag, you’re it. Bang. You’re in the way. A broken window. Or a hole in the chest. Used to sit at the corner of Bunky’s bar, watching traffic go by. Watching the circus parade on Fullerton Avenue. Then Mike, he says, “Stray bullet through that doorway hits you first.” Christ. Eduardo shows up on crutches. Leg in a cast. “They caught me in the lot after dark.” Baseball bats. Cartilage beaten and snapped, sinew torn, bone chips like broken glass. Never walk the same. Over and over. Watch ‘em rise and fall. One week Ferman’s the man, his ride getting everything, the works, no questions asked, just fix it, do it, my man, just do it. Next week Angel has Ferman’s wheels and wants it done his way. A look into his eyes tells you not to ask. Just do it, man. Count the money later. They always spared the shop, though. Till now. Didn’t crap their bed. We worked the cops’ cars and theirs. Kept the precinct happy, the Kings happy, the Lovers happy, kept everyone happy while we split the difference.
Hot. Way too hot.
I needed some fuel.
Monday morning she did not look at me. I avoided the mirror, too. Very warm very early. Conducive to paranoia. Shaky. I remembered the old Pontiac, the smell of the burning interior. Did I tell her? She would know in any case. Secrets were impossible. All that remained between us was getting even, keeping score. And I had lost track.
Driving, I thought about the precinct’s watch commander. Irish name. We exchanged favors once. Flannigan? He released our truck and we did a free exhaust system on his Impala. A bargain. Our driver had been picked up on warrants. The $4,000 parts order never would have survived the impound lot. Brannigan? Maybe, if I was in trouble, maybe he could help.
The car’s hulk stood next to the shop. Blackened. All the glass gone. Tires melted, fused with the asphalt. I was trembling. Nauseous again. I felt obligated to walk by and look. How would an innocent man react? Who was watching?
It was gutted. Damp. Stunk. I walked into the shop.
The clerk asked, “You see it?”
“Fuck this neighborhood.”
He did not suspect.
Mike saw me. He followed me into the back room.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “Their car is fried. It’s beautiful! Beautiful!”
“Fuck this neighborhood,” I said, looking at the floor.
“They deserve it, Long Legs, they deserve it! I’m glad it happened. This kind of shit will keep them thinking straight. It’s good for them. And good for us.”
I looked up. His eyebrows were arched, he was smiling. He beamed at me. He suspected.
“It’s not good for anybody,” I said.
But he did not know.
The wreck was on the street for days. No hurry. The city was glutted with junkers. Calls to the precinct were referred to the alderman. Calls to the alderman were referred to the sanitation department. Calls to sanitation were not answered.
Not even vandals disturbed the Grand Am. It was a leper.
Mike made broad hints. I said nothing.
One morning as I arrived, I saw another burned out car. Across the street from the Grand Am lay a scorched Cutlass. Deeply dented, partially on the sidewalk, almost folded. Hit hard before burning. It was charred and hollow, a dark pool beneath it. A grotesque brother.
It was Playboy’s.
Mike came out of the shop as I got out of my car. He motioned toward the Oldsmobile. “Check it out, check it out.”
“What the hell?” I muttered.
Mike said, “Angel was here. Said the Lovers did that. They figured Playboy did the Poncho. Payback is a mother.”
“What? What are you talking about?” I felt lightheaded, floating away.
“The Grand Am belonged to Lovers. Angel says Playboy is a King. He’s the one who torched it, so they totaled his car. Totaled it.”
I looked from car to car.
“Uh,” Mike said, “there’s a cop up front for you.”
I walked to the front of the shop very slowly.
Watch Commander Tom Flaherty sat in the lobby. He nodded as I walked in. Then he got up and walked out to the sidewalk. I followed him. How would this happen?
In front of the shop, Watch Commander Tom Flaherty brought up the recent fire bombings. Said they did not bode well for the neighborhood. An escalation in the turf war. Things were hot and getting hotter. He was concerned for the shop’s safety and thought he would drop by. A friendly warning. We should keep our eyes open. The bangers were crazy and dangerous. We should be careful.
And did we have time to check the Impala for a leak?
“Of course,” I said, “of course.” I’d be sure to get it up in the air. Just like in the movies.
Copyright © 1999