People get accustomed to seeing something one way, then it doesn’t matter how many changes you make, they won’t see the change until you make them see it. Like the rusted out 1960 Rambler that sat in my great aunt’s front yard. The chassis was as dusty earthen red as the Oklahoma soil here. Dry rot cracked and creased the tires until they flattened and bottomed out and the rims sank four inches into the sod. If it hadn’t been for me, that car would have eventually rusted away to nothing, one grain at a time, till it disappeared into the red earth of Oklahoma and nobody would ever have missed it. I was just eight, but even before I came along, the Rambler had already become an unremarkable backdrop.
I’d spend hours sitting on its cloth bench seat, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, pretending to shift gears, pretending that car could take me out on the road. I didn’t doubt it could. The streamlined fins and taillights and aerodynamic hood ornaments were maybe old fashioned by today’s standards, but they still gave the impression of a space age vehicle – even if that car hadn’t moved an inch in fifty years. I’d rub my fingers over the chrome letters spelling out Rambler on the dash, twist the steering like I was driving down the highway and pretend I was going to visit my ma. She lived out on the open road, roamed all along the highway and knew all the best shortcuts and back roads.
Even if most of the townspeople here in Bugtussle said my ma was dead or ended up in prison, that’s not what I believed. The way people talked about her, it wasn’t a wonder she left town—after what happened, she couldn’t stay. Bugtussle wasn’t much of a town anyway. The lake here was the main attraction. There was no library, no downtown, just Bug’s diner and a bait shop across from the boat dock, and a block behind that, Everett’s Auto Repair shop. I knew why she left, and I didn’t fault her for leaving. People here in town were cruel hearted. Ma got pregnant with me out of wedlock and once it started showing, she lost her waitressing job at Bug’s. The owner said he ran a family establishment and customers wouldn’t abide a woman of her kind. So ma turned in her apron and moved back in with grandma. If she knew who my father was, she never said. But she carried me to term, and then shortly after giving birth, left me with my grandma. Nobody ever heard from her again. But to my mind she was very much alive, living out on the open road in glory. The apple maybe didn’t fall far from the tree, and I had a longing to live out there too.
Life with grandma was all well and good, but when grandma died, I got stuck living with her sister, my Great Aunt Lois, a tall skinny string bean of a woman always draped in the same drab plaid. I just called her Aunt Lo. The Rambler belonged to her husband, but that was long before my time. I never knew him. And I would likely have never known my great aunt if grandma hadn’t died. They weren’t on speaking terms, still feuding over the pittance of inheritance their parents left behind. But Aunt Lo wasn’t shy about sounding off, making her feelings known to me. She’d say to my face what others said behind my back, that my ma was a loose woman and wasn’t it just fitting that a loose woman should name her son Lewis. That’s my real name, Lewis Cook, but everyone calls me Luke –which is just an upended, abbreviated version of my real name on account of the PE teacher was alcoholic. He slurred my name one day during roll call till it come out sounding more like ‘Luke.’ The guys got a big laugh out of it, and the name stuck. Having a nickname kind of gave me my own identity, even if it was just another slur of sorts.
All through junior high, I still played in the Rambler—when Aunt Lo didn’t have me doing chores like shoveling snow or mowing the lawn. But I did more than just twist the steering and tamp on the pedals. I got to know that car inside and out. I started watching what clicked and what didn’t, what turned and what didn’t. I kind of had a thing for gadgets, I guess. I crawled down on the floor, looked up under the dash, fiddled with the jumble of colored wires and traced their route with my fingers from start to finish where I could. I slid underneath the chassis and lay on my back staring at all the belts, reservoirs and tubes like a maze leading to the engine block. That car made me want to know how things work—pistons, alternators, carburetors, camshafts—that’s the stuff makes the world go round. The more I stared, the less mysterious it all became. The engine had maybe frozen in time and rusted shut, but it unleashed possibilities in my mind. Aunt Lo called me a good-for-nothing dreamer and was forever finding chores to keep me away from the car.
Late one spring when I was fifteen, I had the good fortune to get a job of sorts. A neighbor, a trucker with a big rig, broke his leg checking tire pressure with a boomer—which bounced back with unexpected force. Until his leg healed, Aunt Lo agreed that I should mow his yard. I was allowed to use his power mower, a step up from our push mower, and he was to pay me seventy-five dollars total. With every step across his yard I counted that money in my mind, planning to buy a one-way bus ticket out of town at the start of summer – with no intention of coming back. But when his leg healed, his wife handed the money over to Aunt Lo, so I never saw any of it—she told me she needed it for my keep, and that was that.
I became flat out determined to drive that car off the lawn and down the highway, and I spent every waking hour noodling what it would take to make the old Rambler run, really run. If I couldn’t afford the bus ticket, I would drive away. And I had the means—the toolshed where we kept the push mower also stored a few gardening tools, rakes and shovels, all as rusty as the car, as well as a few wrenches, screwdrivers and a hammer. I had used them a few times that spring fixing the neighbor’s lawnmower, just simple things like cleaning a carburetor and replacing the spark plug. But that gave me some ideas about fixing the car. I got the tools out again and started tinkering, all the while dreaming how it would be. That’s what cars do. Cars make you dream of going places, doing things. Hell, even a broke down rusted out old model can fill your head with ideas – it’s like you sit there and see life coming at you through the windshield. Don’t like what you see, make a turn, and find a life you do like. Maybe I’d find my ma out there, or at least, find a new life in another town where people didn’t judge me on account of my past—or better yet, where people knew nothing about my past or my ma. I would start a family of my own.
But truthfully, that car wasn’t going anywhere without some new parts. I knew that. I had no money, and there weren’t any more jobs except shoveling horseshit in the stables outside town—which I’d done for the proverbial two bits in junior high. Maybe my imagination hadn’t fully developed, but I knew what I’d do next. For starters, I took the battery off the neighbor’s car. Even if his wife had paid my great aunt, I think he owed me something for mowing his lawn all that time. Next morning, you could hear him cussing up a storm when his car wouldn’t start, but he never suspected me—we didn’t have any car at my great aunt’s, at least not a roadworthy car. He may have seen me with the Rambler’s hood up from time to time, but in his mind, I was still an eight-year-old boy toying with a junk heap. He wouldn’t have thought I had the inclination or the need.
After that, pilfering auto parts became a game. I got spark plugs off a car just a couple blocks away – belonged to a teacher. I picked up quarts of outboard motor oil off boats down by the dock. I took the starter off a car parked indefinitely behind Everett’s Auto Repair. I learned to siphon gas, a couple gallons here and there till I got a full tank. Nobody ever noticed their gas gage drop, but the missing parts became the talk of the town.
Sheriff Nichols, who liked to bill himself as a homegrown-local-boy-made-good, actually gave me cover for my activities. He blamed all the thefts on hoodlums raiding our town from over in McAlester, the nearest big city to us. His opinion held sway and kept anyone from suspecting me.
It was odd, of course. That car was getting a makeover and nobody noticed. Of course, I didn’t bother detailing the outside any—I just needed the car to run, and it was really starting to shine under the hood. The engine chugged and sputtered and blew cobwebs out the tail pipe at first, but after that, the car idled smooth and steady.
Of course, the engine could do nothing but idle without new tires. Getting my hands on a set turned out to be the most complicated task of all—you can’t just put a rubber tire on a rim and air it up with a bicycle pump. So I had to troll for tires of the right size in good condition and properly aired. Jacking up a car and taking a tire, rim and all, was slow work so I only dared take one tire at a time. After each tire went missing, people in town grew agitated, and Sheriff Nichols created watch groups to patrol for vandals. So I’d get one tire, roll it home and lock it in our tool shed and wait a few weeks before I’d nab another one. None matched, but by summer’s end I had four.
When I had the engine tuned and a set of wheels ready to roll, I made my plans to leave. I mowed less around the Rambler in the preceding weeks and let weeds crop up around it for cover. But actually putting the tires on the Rambler in the front yard was doubly risky. Even with the tall weeds, I was still very much out in the open and would have to work quick. And given the extent of rust, I wasn’t at all sure the undercarriage would hold under the stress of being jacked up. I for sure did not want to end up like my neighbor, breaking a leg or worse fooling with tires.
I got the rear two on without any problem but maybe grew overconfident—and putting on the left front, my luck ran out. Every time I pushed the lever down and raised the car another notch, the chassis shuddered. Then the jack slipped and smacked a cheekbone just under my left eye, leaving me cut and bruised. As much as it stung, I was more concerned about the Rambler, which slammed back down to earth with an awful clatter, but suffered no real damage other than a bent rim. I stood back a healthy distance while working the jack after that mishap. Fortunately, neither my activity nor the new tires attracted suspicion. Hard to imagine how nobody noticed – but tires or no tires was all the same to them. The townspeople just saw the same old car and the same bastard son out there toying with it – until the afternoon I ploughed the Rambler through the weeds and across Aunt Lo’s yard.
Aunt Lo ran down the steps, raising and thrashing her arms, cussing me as I drove off ripping up her sod and flapping mud out the wheel wells all the way to curb. I didn’t get a lot of traction coming off the yard, but when the rubber hit pavement, I discovered that Rambler’s real power. After so much work and planning, it was a marvel. I shifted through the high gears and sped across town. I don’t know who called Sheriff Nichols, maybe Aunt Lo herself, but once the car rolled out of her yard, everyone knew where their missing car parts went – didn’t need no GPS for that.
Sheriff Nichols nabbed me at the town limits sign. It was a holiday and within a few minutes everybody in town was outside watching. Sheriff Nichols made my arrest into a big spectacle with a carnival-like atmosphere. I had embarrassed him and he obliged me the same. Just the day before he’d been in the diner boasting he knew exactly which McAlester gang was responsible and he was about to make some arrests—then it turned out to be me working on a car in plain sight in Aunt Lo’s front yard right under his nose. So he made sure what people remembered was the day of my arrest. Nichols spread-eagled me over the hood of his cruiser and cuffed my hands behind my back and read me my rights like he was reciting scripture. I sat in the back of his cruiser for over an hour with the lights flashing while he photographed the Rambler with the hood up, documenting all the stolen parts with fancy labels and red pointers.
Juvenile Court sentenced me to a one-year stint in a reformatory outside Oklahoma City. But it all turned out good in a way—because then everyone knew yours truly here was a natural born mechanic. My counselor in the reformatory placed me in their auto mechanics program. He said I had a real aptitude for it. I wouldn’t get certified or nothing, but he wanted me to apply myself. Maybe it was news to him, but if I hadn’t applied myself, I wouldn’t have been incarcerated.
Aunt Lo sold the Rambler to help pay restitution for the parts I stole—and kept a healthy sum for herself, of course. Even before I got released, Everett talked to her about hiring me at his auto repair shop. I hadn’t yet graduated high school, but once I got paroled, Aunt Lo encouraged me to drop out and take the job, saying, “It’s no use flunking classes when you can be earning an honest paycheck.” That was cool with me—anybody can be book smart. But I could work full time, get hands on experience and save up enough to where I could buy a car and leave town legit.
John Haymaker is a writer and web programmer originally from Chicago and currently living in Denver. His work has appeared in Suddenly V (Houston), Chinese Literature (Beijing), Pig Iron (Youngstown), The Christian Science Monitor, and more. He recently completed a first novel, Beautiful Ornery Dangerous, about the character in this story. Contact John online at http://johnhaymaker.com.