This is a chapter from my novel, Sweet William.
He breaks like
the cold glass
of the mirror
as his face goes on and on
into the room.
William knew where each tool was kept. He'd pulled out drawers and emptied cabinets; he'd cleaned years of grease and gunk off them until there was only the shine of newness hanging on the walls and stacked in the drawers. He also had a sign made that said, "Mechanic on Duty".
His first customer was the owner of the 1967 Buick Skylark he had seen before, and he wasn't really a paying customer. William loved old cars. He loved their simplicity and power; so did the boy named Tom Griffin. He was 17 and this was his first car. It had belonged to his father, he said.
"Hey, aren't you the guy that said 'carburetor?' Tom asked him that first day when he drove up and parked in front of the garage. "I was trying to fix this (he patted the hood of the Buick affectionately) when you went in to the restroom the other day, remember? I waited for you to come out but I guess I missed you. Anyway, you were right, it was the carburetor. How'd you know?"
"It's just something you know when you work around cars. You can sometimes hear what's wrong without ever looking under the hood," William told him.
"Hey, man, uh... do you think that I could come over here after school sometimes, just to hang out and talk?"
"Sure, I guess. I'm not much of a talker, but if you want to hang out I guess that would be okay as long as you don't get in the way."
"I got to learn about cars if I'm going keep the Buick. See, the deal is," he told William, "I got to do all the work on it myself. My dad thinks it will instill some responsibility in me." Tom laughed, then saw the serious look on William's face, and stopped.
After that Tom spent many afternoons at the garage, helping, or "leaning", as he liked to call it. One of those days, Tom parked behind the garage and spent a couple of hours with wax and a soft cloth just rubbing shine into the gold paint of the Buick, when William asked him, "How come you're not out with your friends? Don't you have a girlfriend or something?"
"Naw," was his answer. "Girls just cause you trouble."
"When I was about your age," William told him, "I had a 56 Chevy."
"Oh, wow, those cars are still great. Where did you live?"
"Oh, I lived around here ... just a couple of miles away."
"I guess things are different now, than they were then. I know, I've watched some of the re-runs of Father Knows Best. You have any kids?"
"No," William's voice caught and he walked away from Tom, back into the safety of the garage where he watched as Tom got into his car and drove away. Then, the ghost of Samantha Elizabeth whispered, "What about Tim, William?" Are you going to deny that you had a son?"
"I don't want to remember," he shouted at the wrench and the screwdriver. "Leave me alone," he shouted at his polished reflection.
It had been the ice cream. "We can't have cake without ice cream," William had said, "vanilla ice cream".
They teased him then. "You want ice cream, then go and get ice cream."
He'd refused. It was his birthday, after all. He just would sit on the porch and wait until they came back. But they never came back. They were hit head on by a drunk driver.
He remembered the blissful numbness he'd felt at first. Then one day, a wave so powerful and full of grinding pain hit him, that he wished that he was dead. It fell on him and ripped through any fabric of pretension that he wore, then it found his soul and squeezed it hard. He'd screamed, tore a chunk of hair from his head, then took a hammer from the kitchen drawer and went searching for his tormentor. He found him in the bedroom in front of the bathroom door where he took the hammer to the full length reflection of himself, until only small shards of glass remained scattered on the teal carpet. He saw those same pieces of himself now, in the tools that reflected more than just his face, but also his soul.
William left early. He told Clive he wasn't feeling well. He left, thinking he would leave his memories in the garage, walk away from them like he'd done before. He was anxious to get back to his safety place where he could look at pictures and read about far-off places. The place that he called "home". But when he turned the corner at the church, he knew that something was wrong. He saw his rat-trap boards fallen and broken on the ground, and his books and magazines scattered and torn. The flashlight that Nell had given him lay in pieces, its spring exposed like a broken spinal cord on the black asphalt of the parking lot.
William stacked the boards in a neat pile and threw away the newspaper. He put the rest of his things in the cardboard box and carried it around to the front of the church where he sat down on the steps.
"Hey, you okay?" came a shout. William was attempting to put the flash light back together while he tried to figure out what he was going to do now. He looked up and saw Tom hanging out the window of the Buick.
"Clive said you weren't feeling well," Tom called, as William looked down at the flash light and continued to fiddle with it.
Tom cut his motor and got out and sat beside William. "Hey, you're not mad at me or anything, are you?" he asked.
"No, I'm not mad at you."
"What ya got there?" Tom eyed the flashlight and box of William's belongings.
"Nothing much," William said, "just some old things that I was going to leave here for the church. I thought maybe they'd know someone who could use them."
"Yeah, they probably do," Tom said, "but that flashlight's broken. I don't think anyone will want that."
"I guess not," William said.
"You want to go for a ride in my car?" Tom asked, as his blue eyes reflected concern.
Suddenly William felt a door unlock inside and open just a crack. He wanted this gangly and skinny kid in jeans and tee-shirt to push the door open. He also recognized something familiar in the pride he saw in his face. He used to feel that pride a long time ago; he wanted to feel it again.
It was then that William let a piece of his heart out, let it float there in the air between them and then clasp onto Tom.
"Sure, I'd like that," he replied.
They got in and as they drove away, William turned and looked at the box sitting on the church steps.
"This thing has power," Tom said, his eyes sparkling as he manipulated the golden Buick. "I gotta be careful, she picks up speed fast. I can't afford to get a ticket and I can't afford the gas she uses either."
"These old cars are gas guzzlers all right," William answered. "Does your dad give you money?"
"I do stuff around the house to make some money and dad said if I get an "A" in geometry he'll give me fifty bucks. Do you know how to do geometry?"
William scrunched down into the vinyl of the seat and looked at the shiny dash. "No," he said, "I was never very good at math. I was always better doing things with my hands, like fixing cars."
"Maybe someday I can be like you," Tom said.
William looked over to see if he could tell if Tom was serious, and his face told him, yes.
"My dad," Tom continued, "wants me to go to college. He says that's the only way to make something of myself. He's a doctor. He had to go to school for a lot of years. When I think about school for that long, I don't feel so good."
"Yeah, I guess I know what you mean."
"I'm having enough trouble just getting through high school. School sucks, big time."
They drove away from the familiar blocks of William's world and headed towards the foothills, meandering by homes with green grass on tree-lined streets. They drove by a women in shorts walking her dog, and a mother running with her baby in a cart that looked like a speed buggy. They passed some people on bicycles wearing brightly colored spandex and helmets. They passed a family in front of a house with dormer windows and a picket fence. William's eyes teared up when he noticed a man and woman leaning into each other as they watched a boy about ten playing basketball in the driveway. "This could be my life, was my life", William thought to himself.
"You don't want to be like me," William said. "I'm nobody. You can dream any dream and make that dream come true."
Up, up they went, as the afternoon turned into the twilight of evening. Scrub Oak and Manzanita climbed the hillsides as the road curved. Large rocks and boulders lay strewn around, decorated in the colorful spray paint of tribal pride. Tom pulled onto a turn-off and they sat there watching as the sun sank and splayed its golden glow across the city.
"I had a son," William said. "His name was Tim." William waited as the colors of the sky turned to burgundy and the sun slipped into the skyline. He waited for the familiar and unrelenting pain of his memory to knock him flat. The air in the car shifted and Samantha Elizabeth whispered close to William's heart, "That's good, Sweet William," and eased the escalating storm of emotion that was threatening.
William turned and looked at Tom. The light was so dim now that he could only see the outline of his head silhouetted against the afterglow of day. William told him about Tim and Samantha Elizabeth, told him about his last birthday party, and told him everything except about his homelessness. When he was done, he felt light.
"I'm sorry," Tom said. They sat there a little longer before Tom turned on the motor and the comforting sound of the engine accompanied them back to the glass-eyed heart of the city.
"You can just drop me off at the church," William said. "I feel like walking."
His box of belongings still sat on the steps where he had left them.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Tom said and started to drive away.
"Thanks for the ride," William called out to him as the Skylark hummed down the street.