The sun reflected hot off grimy windshields and dented chrome bumpers, its glare causing him to avert his gaze to the ground as he walked. Already, his boots were soaked with dew and the back of his shirt clung heavy with sweat. The sky was cloudless and windless and, although it was still early morning, the air was thick with humidity; today was going to be a scorcher.
Gary didn’t mind the beating sun. Without breeze, sunlight was the only thing that kept the mosquitoes at bay. Had it been overcast, the bloodsuckers would be everywhere and they were hellacious this year.
He crunched his way through gravel and broken glass and long, wet weeds past row after row of broken down cars and crumpled trucks. He sauntered with the relaxed, easy gait of a man who knew exactly where he was and what he was looking for. He had been around junkyards for most of his 58 years and he felt more comfortable in places like these than anywhere else on Earth.
In his hand was a dirty backpack of tools and, when he reached the vehicle he wanted, he rummaged through the bag for a wrench and a can of penetrating oil.
Tentatively, he pried the car’s hood open. Wasps liked to build nests in old cars and he wasn’t interested in being swarmed if he could help it. But the wasps must have chosen another car to call home so he propped the hood and set his sites on the car’s alternator. The bolts that held it were rusty and old and set in their ways but his hands were strong and he was patient. He wrenched and sprayed and wrenched some more and, after fifteen minutes or so, he held the part in his hand.
He removed his baseball cap, wiped a slick, dirty arm across his forehead, and looked around. The place hadn’t changed a bit since he’d been here last and this realization brought him some comfort. Gary had seen enough change lately to last him a while.
Beyond the sea of shimmering hoods near the yard’s entrance stood the old familiar white trailer with the word OFFICE spray painted sloppily across the front of it. To its left was a once-proud Peterbilt semi that had been rusting away since the 70’s. A huge oak towered over the eastern fenceline of the lot, a section of the chain link swallowed up where the tree had grown around it.
He placed the alternator, its bolts, and his tools into the backpack and lit a cigarette. Smoke was also helpful for keeping mosquitoes away and he had been bitten a few times now.
It was time to go.
As he walked his mind inevitably turned to Kathy.
Gary had realized she was mean-spirited the first day he met her; she had laughed in his face. But he was a small man and poor and he knew he wasn’t much to look at. On those occasions when a woman took notice of him, he was eager to please. Negative attention, he had decided long ago, was better than no attention at all.
Now, he thought back to that night. It was less than a year ago but it felt like five. He had been drinking beer in a small, rural bar not far from where he stood now. He had a decent buzz going but he had a high tolerance and a person wouldn’t know he’d been drinking by talking with him.
Kathy, on the other hand, was demolished. She sat bellowing and cackling at a table with two of her girlfriends from work. She was loud and stupid and raunchy and the fat that hung from her arms and neck jiggled as she laughed, her pig eyes bright with liquor and animosity.
Even from where he stood at the bar on the other side of the room, he could hear her louder than anyone else even though the place was packed. The bartender gave him an eye-roll but he was busy mixing drinks and pouring taps and not about to contend with some obnoxious cow, especially one who was shelling out the money she was on vodka sours.
Kathy’s friends made feeble attempts to laugh along with her for a while though it was clear they were embarrassed. As the night went on, she got louder and meaner and they gave up trying, escaping into their phones. Sometimes, they looked up from their screens to exchange uncomfortable glances while Kathy raged on obliviously.
Gary wasn’t the first victim to walk by her table on his way to the bathroom. She had honed her harassment skills on other unfortunates all night. By the time it was his turn, she felt herself a master of the craft.
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” she demanded, “a gold miner?” She laughed forced and loud but her eyes didn’t smile and he knew he wasn’t being laughed with.
He stopped and smiled nervously. “No…I’m…just a mechanic.”
“A mechanic?” she sneered. “Well, I guess that explains those clothes!” Then, she laughed heartily while her friends typed manically into their phones. “What’s this all about?” she asked gesturing at her face. “You never heard of a razor?”
“I…uh…I guess I forgot to shave today,” he said.
He left her there roaring and escaped into the bathroom where he looked himself over in the mirror. It was the first time he had really looked at his reflection in days. Weeks, maybe. His beard was gray and full; it nearly reached his belt. He’d been growing it for years and was quite proud of it though he’d deny that if anyone asked. She was right about his clothes. He wore a greasy flannel and filthy jeans. An oil-stained Schlitz baseball cap sat atop his head and he looked like a man who didn’t have a home.
He sighed and left the bathroom. Kathy’s friends were now standing and saying their goodbyes. Kathy was talking fast and begging them to stay but it was clear they wanted out and, within seconds, they had made their getaway.
Suddenly friendless, she turned to him.
“Don’t just stand there, Prospector, have a seat,” she commanded and Gary did was he was told. “Those bitches couldn’t make it ’til eleven o’clock,” she spat. “Are you a lightweight too?”
“I can hold my own,” he said softly.
She sat back and appraised him coolly. “Go get us some drinks and let’s find out.”
He spent that night in her bed and, in the morning, he patted her forehead with a damp cloth while she heaved violently into a trash can. Throughout the day he made her food and brought her Diet Cokes and doted over her until she was through the worst of it. Then they started drinking again in her living room.
He stayed another night.
There was never a conversation about him moving in, it just happened that way. Kathy was the assistant manager at a convenience store down the block from their apartment and, in time, she decided that being a grease monkey was filthy work for filthy people. She had him start working for her at the gas station instead.
She cheated on him every chance she got until she finally told him that she wanted him out. She had charmed someone new who would be moving in and taking his place. Gary didn’t put up a fight. He didn’t know if he was supposed to feel devastated or relieved. Truth be told, he didn’t feel much about it at all.
He ascended the metal steps into the office trailer and laid his backpack on the desk. Then, he flipped the “Closed” sign in the window to “Open”.
It was good to be home.