My daughter was a very definitive curly blond thing that was simply delightful at every point of her five-month existence, and for some unknown reason, in spite of my shattered condition, colostomy bag, and scant physical presence, she found me to be the apple of her eye. Where I went, at dead ahead slow speed, through the apartment, she followed or preceded along like she’d been waiting all five months of her life for my kind of direction. She crawled, but, for the most part, so did I.
I couldn’t fix the GTO. The engine was shot. It only ran at all because it had eight huge cylinders, three large carburetors, and a four-speed transmission that was all but indestructible. It limped along when it ran at all. Pat’s car was needed by her for her job, which was all that was keeping us in the apartment because my pay records from Vietnam had not caught up with me.
Going through the yellow pages I found a garage, attached to a Sears and Roebuck store not too far from us. The shop promised to rebuild an entire engine, no matter what the car, for six hundred dollars. We didn’t have six hundred dollars but I called them anyway. There was no hope and the person I talked to basically said just that.
How would we get the car there anyway, as it didn’t seem to have even one more mile in its living inventory? How would we get back? We could depend upon Pat when she was done with work, but it would be better not to. My wife could drive the GTO, but her driving, what with the thirty-pound clutch and the jerking, balking, and stalling 389 cubic inch engine, was a bit of a hesitantly rolling nightmare. I was certain I could drive but neither my wife nor anybody else around in their right mind was going to let me try. But the real problem was the money. We didn’t have six hundred dollars. We didn’t have twenty dollars. We barely had any change.
I started going for a walk every day, although I couldn’t walk far because I was still unable to eat truly solid food and couldn’t seem to build up enough energy from liquids and semi-liquids, like Jell-O, to a sufficient level for real exercise. When going out I always carried a folded-up pack of 4X4 bandages, as my center incision bled slowly at all times. The M&M gas station and garage were only two blocks from our apartment. After a lot of arguments with my wife, I was given permission to walk there and back, since they had a bathroom where I could change out my bandages.
The walk was fatiguing, but more because of the pain in my hip than the fact that I wasn’t packing enough energy. My codeine pills, given to me by the convicts at Oak Knoll, had run out, so I was on my own. Pat had been shocked that the hospital would release me with only a couple of boxes of bandages, some of the new paper adhesive tape that didn’t stick so badly it hurt to take it off, and a few colostomy bags. No pain pills or antibacterial drugs, or any of that. I had one bottle of Betadine, the orange-colored disinfectant I applied all around my wounds before rebandaging, but only when I was at home. I didn’t like to use it because it stained every bit of skin it touched, and I wasn’t into carrying either the big brown bottle or rubber gloves everywhere I might be able to go.
M&M was a dirty mess of a gas station, but with one saving feature. A great red horse with huge wings flew in permanent stasis over the top of it, The place had a small office, a double bay garage, and four gas pumps outside. Nobody was ever at the pumps but the work bays were always full. The mechanics had to pump the gas and made no secret about not wanting to stop work in any of the bays to do such a mundane low-class chore as pumping gas entailed.
There was nobody in the office when I made it to the station, so I merely walked through it and went into the bathroom, which was startling in that it was immaculately clean. I closed the door and went about changing my four-by-four bandages running up and down my torso. I saw myself in the big mirror that hung just above the low-slung sink. I noted the forward bend of my upper body. I could not stand up straight, as I’d done for my whole life. How could I be a Marine again if I couldn’t stand straight? I tried to throw my shoulders back but it was no use. My stomach told me that it wasn’t going for that at all. I flushed the bloody rags down the toilet, pulled the roll of special painless tape from my pocket, and then deftly placed and taped the new pads to the still open wound. I wondered if the long vertical incision would heal up before they cut it open again in the coming surgery, but then set such thinking aside, as best I could.
I was ready. I looked in the mirror and smiled at myself. I was alive and back in the world of the round eyes. Nothing was going to stop me from fitting back in and having a real life once again. I stared deeply into my own eyes, which I seldom ever did. I didn’t like the look that stared back at me. There was something wrong. I turned my head to look behind me, but there was only a wall with a continuous cloth dispenser mounted on its surface. When I turned back, my eyes were staring straight through me. I looked back into my own eyes and tried to make them smile like my mouth was doing, but they’d have nothing to do with that. I realized that maybe I could just look at other people’s facial features and not directly into their eyes. They might not guess that something was wrong with me, that I didn’t fit, that I wasn’t quite right.
The garage bay wasn’t connected to the office by a door so I went outside and entered the bay nearest the street through the big open garage door. A mechanic was working under a Mustang on one of those little angle-wheeled sliding-around things. Only his legs protruded out from under the driver’s side.
“Hi,” was all I could think to say to get his attention.
“Whattaya want?” a deep male voice asked, the sound coming out from under the side of the car.
I didn’t get a chance to answer because a bell rang and the mechanic said “shit,” very loudly. “
“Not now,” he said a little later, but not as loudly.
“Can I help?” I asked, not being able to quite figure out what the problem might be.
“Know how to pump gas?” the voice said.
“Yes,” I replied, finally putting it together that the man didn’t want to come out from under the car, and that the bell had been for a customer driving up to one of the pumps out front.
The man didn’t say anything else, so I walked out the garage door and over to the Pontiac station wagon sitting at one of the outer pumps.
A woman was behind the wheel, with her window down.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” I asked.
“My tire’s going flat,” she said pointing to the right front of the car, “can you fill it with air again?”
I walked around the front of the car, slowly eased down to examine the tire. I didn’t have to examine much. The tire was nearly bald and a rubber knot the size of a golf ball was sticking out of the sidewall. I looked at the rear tire. Even from a distance, I could tell that the rear one was shot, as well.
I went back to her window.
“You need a new set of tires,” I informed her. “I’ll put air in the nearly flat one, but you’re not going to get far.”
“When can I get new tires, then?” the woman asked.
“I’ll check,” I answered, moving first to pull up the air hose sunk into a concrete hole next to the pump.
There was a switch near the hole so I hit the rocker. I heard the compressor go on inside the garage. After putting some unknown number of pounds into the tire, as I had no gauge, I put the hose back, turned the switch off, and went through the open garage door once more.
“She didn’t want gas,” I said to the man under the car. “She wanted some air in her front tire.”
“Not even a sale, just my luck on this day,” the man replied, more to himself than to me.
“I filled the tire, but didn’t have a gauge, so I guessed,” I said. “I told her she needed new tires because her Catalina’s tires are all shot. She wants to know when she can get new tires put on.”
The man wheeled his little lay-down board-with-wheels out from under the car, quicker than I would have believed possible.
“You sold a whole set of tires, just like that?” he asked, amazement in his tone.
“I guess so,” I replied, not bothering to tell the man that the woman really sold herself. All I’d done was point out the fact that her tires were not going to last very far.
“When can we get tires for a 66 Catalina wagon?”
“Hell, I’ve got a set here or at least a set that’ll work,” he replied, getting up and beginning to walk around the garage checking out tires that were set in long successive rows up on wall shelves that lined the entire place.
I wondered what a ‘set that would work,’ might look like, or drive like, but it was none of my business.
“Where’s she live?” the man asked.
“Hell, I don’t know,” I answered, surprised. “Why does it matter?”
“We’ll give her a ride home and then deliver the car when it’s done later today if we can, that’s why,” the man answered.
I walked out of the shop again and approached the Catalina on the driver’s side. I told the woman the situation, and it turned out she lived only a few miles away.
By the time I got back to where the man was working, he was up on a tall ladder pulling down some tires and tossing them to the floor. Each tire made a loud smack as it hit the concrete.
“Get those out of the way,” he yelled down. “The keys to the Olds are on a hook by the cash register. You can drive stick?”
I was stunned. I’d seen the convertible Oldsmobile 442 parked next to the sidewall outside the office. Nobody let someone they didn’t know drive such an expensive and fast car. Nobody.
“Got it,” was all I could think to say.
I was going to get to drive. I wasn’t even certain I could drive, but the excitement and the normality of it nearly overcame me. Emotion rushed through my mind and body. I felt like I’d felt after taking the Black Beauty, but I’d taken nothing. I moved the tires but it was hard for me, as my full strength had not yet come back.
“It’s two hundred for the tires, see if you can get a check,” the man said, rolling the tires to the front of the Mustang to get ready to install them.
“She’s getting racing tires, which means she’ll be back in less than a year. Great traction but they don’t wear worth a damn.”
I went back out to where the woman still sat in her station wagon, her keys out of the ignition and in her hand.
“I’ll drive you home, and pick you up later today when the new tires are on,” I informed her.
The woman nodded and got out of the Catalina. I could almost feel the man inside the garage licking his lips, waiting like a striking snake to mount the new tires on the car, deliver it back to the woman’s home, and get the check.
I drove the woman home. The 442 was everything my GTO wasn’t. It was smooth, powerful, and unhesitating in responding to every command or movement. I asked the woman for a two hundred dollar check when I dropped her off. She said she’d pay when I delivered her car. There was nothing further I could do.
When I was back at the shop, the man had already removed the Mustang from the garage and replaced it with the Catalina, which was jacked up on all four corners.
“Why am I doing this, me Mickey Thompson, you might wonder?” the man asked.
I was stunned. Who had not heard of Mickey Thompson? The great racer, the builder of a land speed record vehicle.
“What are you doing in San Francisco?” I asked, my voice giving way to the amazement I felt. Thompson was known for having a huge speed shop all of his own down in the L.A. area.
“The first M in M&M is mine, for Mickey,” he responded, pulling off a wheel and getting it ready to be broken down on his tire changing machine. “The second M is for Mike, my former partner. We were going to open a whole chain of these stations and speed garages but he screwed me and then ran off and opened his own station five miles from here. I gotta get this place ready to sell. I just don’t have the time.”
“Thanks for the help, might be in order,” I said, “and I guess I’m not done yet. She’s writing a check on delivery.”
“Not exactly a trusting woman, eh?” he replied.
“So, what did you want when you walked in here?” Mickey asked.
“I’ve a 66 GTO on its last legs and I need it so it can run. I’m just back from
Vietnam, where I got shot all to hell. I have to go back in for surgery and I need the car so my wife can visit me when I’m in there.”
“And,” Mickey said, after almost a full minute.
“I don’t have any money,” I replied, hating to say the words.
“66 GTO,” Mickey said to himself. “Fastback or convertible?” he asked.
“Hardtop,” I replied.
“Mike has a 66 GTO hardtop too,” Mickey said. “He’s got it entered in
at Half Moon Bay Dragway in the E Stock category.”
“Can you get your GTO in here?” he asked, changing another tire.
“I think so,” I replied, more hope than a reality in my voice.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Mickey said. “I want to beat that son-of-a-bitch, and this might be just the way to do it. “Bring it tomorrow. I’ll be done with this job in an hour, or so. You can take the Catalina back to her then. I’ll follow you in my pick-up. Wait in the office and take care of any other customers that come along. Your take on the tires is twenty bucks.”
“Why isn’t there anybody else working here?” I asked, getting ready to follow his instructions and wait in the office, ignoring his offer of the twenty bucks, so it wouldn’t seem that such a seemingly small amount meant so much to me.
“I won’t pay anybody much, and anybody I hire seems to not want to work for me after a while.”
I went to the office to wait. There was no way I could go home and tell my wife anything, and she’d be beginning to worry. If I walked home she wouldn’t let me come back, that much I knew. If she found out I was driving then there would much more hell to pay than that. All I could do was hope she didn’t take it upon herself to pile our daughter into the stroller and come to find me. The twenty bucks meant a lot but the prospect of having the GTO repaired at no or little cost was huge. I had to wait.
I had to deliver the Catalina, and I had plenty of time to come up with a reasonable lie.
I drove the Catalina to the woman’s address. I couldn’t believe the capability of the big station wagon. It seemed just as nimble and quick as Mickey’s 442. The emblems on the front fenders said 421, which I believed to be the size of the engine. Whatever the engine was, it was massively powerful for such a family looking vehicle.
My ride back with Mickey was a good one. He was happy to have the check the woman handed over without comment. I was equally as happy to get a twenty-dollar bill for my time and services.
“Be there at six,” Mickey said. “I get up early. I’ll look at it. No promises. You really got shot in Vietnam as a Marine?”
I was surprised by the staccato-delivered comments followed by a question on a completely different subject.
“Yes, I was a company commander over there, and I barely made it home,” I replied, not knowing where he was going with the information.
“I wanted to be a Marine, but they said I was too old to enlist and had no education to be an officer.”
I got out of the pick-up without saying anything further. I didn’t know whether his Marine experience was a good or bad thing for me. I knew though, as I watched him drive away, that he was the only hope I had of having the kind of transportation my wife, daughter, and I would need in the coming weeks and months.
My wife was waiting at the top of the steps, the door hanging open.
“Nice of you to show up,” she began, but I cut her off.
“Tomorrow morning, this guy named Mickey Thompson, who owns the gas station on the corner might help. He’s going to look at the car to see if he’ll do the work for no charge.” I got it out, as rapidly as I could, so as not to have to tell her any more than necessary.
My wife was truly gifted at being a detective, in getting everything out of me that was in me, on most occasions.
“Why?” she asked, as I entered the apartment, where my daughter stood in her playpen of a prison. She held the side of the pen with both scrunched-up hands, staring out, waiting.
“He’s got some kind of grudge match at the drag raceway in Half Moon Bay with his old partner, and the guy’s running a 66 GTO just like ours in the E Stock category,” I said, approaching the playpen and going to my knees to greet my daughter. “I think Mickey wants to fix our car to run against that guy’s car and then we get it all repaired after the race.”
“Oh, I see, the thing wasn’t fast enough, and now it’s going to be faster?” my wife asked, even if she really was more making a statement than asking a question.
I went down to the floor and laid on my side for a bit, realizing that I’d totally exhausted myself. If Mickey hadn’t driven me home I don’t think I would have made it.
“Pat,” I heard my wife yell, like a voice in a cave or tunnel. I felt lifted partially, to a sitting position. “Let’s get him onto the couch. I don’t want to call the hospital. He can’t go back there yet. He just needs to rest. We’ll get the car to the gas station sometime in the morning.”
I went down on the couch, warmth, and happiness overcoming me even more than the fatigue. I was home. I could see my daughter, only a few feet away, and I had two women caring for me better than any other care I’d ever received. I tried to get out the fact that the car had to be there very early but could not stay awake long enough to get the words out. I had to change my bandages. I knew they were bleeding through, but I went out without being able to do much of anything.
I awoke in the late afternoon, still, on the couch. I’d been barely able to climb up on with help. The sun was low in the street-facing window. I smelled the aroma of baking pork. My first meal of solid food, the real meal, was to be what I could consume of a seven-pound pork roast my wife had purchased from the commissary at the Presidio Military Base near Golden Gate Bridge.
I was worried that I might not be able to either eat the roast or keep the food down, but I quickly found that I had nothing to worry about. I was starved; once I started eating, I ate pounds of the hardened crackling skin and then the body of the roast. I ate until I could not put anything into my mouth anymore. Only after successfully consuming all the meat, potatoes, and gravy did I sit back. Both Pat and my wife were smiling and happy, but I quickly grew a bit worried. The next part of the eating adventure would involve the disconnected intestine and the operation of the colostomy bag. I had extra bags, plenty of them, and I’d been trained in how to clean the area, use the adhesive, and the replacement of the bag itself. My shortened intestinal tract would also expel the filtered and used material much quicker than if it was all working the way it should in a normal person.
I could only worry so much, however. The huge intake of food caused me to get sleepy, almost immediately. I climbed into the bed, remembering to let my wife know that I had to be up at six in the morning to get the car over to M&M if it was going to start and be drivable that far.
I went down hard and was asleep nearly instantly. I didn’t wake up until there was a loud pounding on our front door. I gasped and rolled to get ready to get up.
I checked my colostomy bag but it was still empty. I checked the clock. It was six in the morning.
It was Mickey at the door. I cracked it open but he pushed it in and entered.
He was met by me, and then Pat, and my wife behind me in their robes. My daughter started to cry in the corner of our bedroom.
“Six,” Mickey said, “six,” he said again, repeating himself, but his tone quieting a good bit.
“Okay, okay,” I tried to mollify him. “I’ll get dressed and we’ll go.”
“That’s the blue rig out on the street?” he asked, but then kept talking. “No, you take your time wounded veteran, and I’ll get that thing over to the garage.” He held up a can of something, with a hose and some other attachments on it. “Ether,” he said, “any engine will run on ether, at least for a little while. You got the keys? Walk over when you get around to it.”
My wife reached over to the counter and grabbed the keys. She handed them to him.
“You must be a war hero, indeed,” Mickey said, with a big smile crossing his face. “You came home to two beautiful women.” He turned then and quickly went back down the steps, skipping them like a seaman aboard a ship.
“That’s who’s supposed to be fixing the car?” Pat asked after the door was closed and Mickey was gone. “He looks like he might be just right for putting Frankenstein back together again.”