Around ten that night I saw Richard pulling into the lot in his new pastel blue Thunderbird, so I poured coffee and put the cup at his regular spot at the counter. He nodded a greeting, sat down, lit a Camel, and slowly raised the cup to his lips.
“So what do you think of our new Man of the Year?” he asked in a soft, gravelly voice, nodding toward a copy of Time Magazine he’d brought with him. On its cover was a picture of Fidel Castro, who had just overthrown the dictator Fulgencio Batista down in Cuba.
“I like seeing a tyrant like Batista getting his ass kicked,” I said.
Richard nodded. “Everybody thinks Castro’s a hero. But look out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Guys like him are never what they seem to be.”
I poured Richard a refill. We talked some more. When he finished, he put a dime on the counter, paid his bill at the register, and then headed for his Thunderbird. He drove slowly. The taillights shone a bright ruby red as he paused at the exit of the lot before he carefully turned into traffic on Bellmont Avenue.
* * *
From the beginning I admired Richard’s style. His gray tweed jacket, blue Oxford shirt with a button-down collar. Charcoal slacks, shiny black loafers. Short, neat, wavy gray-blonde hair. Pale blue eyes. Clean, trimmed fingernails.
Once in a while he’d cough—a serious, scary wheeze that comes with lung cancer. He’d put a white folded handkerchief to his lips, then put it back in his jacket pocket. He’d sit encircling his cup, a lighted Camel sticking out from the fingers of his left hand. He’d put the burning end of his cigarette into the ashtray and gently roll off the ash, staring down intently at the operation. Not too long after punching one out, he’d light up another with a chrome-plated Zippo.
He hardly ever talked about himself. I sensed it would be a mistake to ask him questions about where he was born, where he lived, what schools he went to, what he did for a living.
But obviously, clearly, he had money. I heard that every September he went to the Ford plant in Lorain, Ohio, and got himself a new pastel blue Thunderbird, right off the assembly line. The latest one, parked out on the lot, was a 1958 model, his fourth.
Now, the 1957 was an okay car. Its big round taillights resembled the exhaust of a jet engine, very sporty. But the 1958 was something else. They doubled up the headlights and taillights into pairs on each side, which gave the car a more balanced look. It was like those design guys at Ford actually knew what in hell they were doing.
If Richard was excited about that beautiful machine he drove, he didn’t show it. Better to say he was quietly, calmly pleased. He knew the car spoke for itself, so he didn’t have to brag on it.
* * *
How did our conversation about identity begin? I don’t remember exactly. It had something to do with my father always asking me who the fuck I thought I was. I never knew how to answer that question.
“So tell me, Tommy,” Richard asked. “How does anyone know who you are?”
“By listening to what you say, watching what you do.”
“Okay, right now you’re wearing white pants, a white shirt, and a funny hat. When someone comes in, you say, ‘May I help you?’ That tells me you are a waiter. Is that who you are?”
“Yes. No. I mean…”
“What do you wear after work?”
“Dirty Tee-shirt and blue jeans.”
“Okay, so what does that make you?”
“A worthless piece of shit?”
“Ah-ha! But are you really a worthless piece of shit, or just someone who looks like it?”
“You know what I mean. You get a reputation. People form opinions.”
“Do people ever totally agree on anything?”
“No, I guess not.”
“What if half the people call you an ass, and the other half say you’re a great kid. What does that make you?”
“Ha! That’s pretty good. But wait a minute. Why should others decide who you are?”
“They just do.”
Richard took a sip of his coffee. He moved the cup slowly, carefully, like he was savoring every part of his evening ritual. “You know,” he finally said, “I’m not interested in what people think of you. What I want to know is, who do you want to be? Who is your hero?”
I was about to say, “YOU, Richard. You’re the kind of guy I’d like to be.” But I knew that wouldn’t work. I thought for a moment.
“Okay, St. Sebastian.”
“The guy tied to a tree, with arrows sticking in him?”
Richard nodded. “I can see how you might identify with that,” he said.
Back in elementary school, Sister Ignatius was hot on St. Sebastian. She talked about him all the time. A virile young man, sentenced to death by a Roman general because he followed his own beliefs. Crossbowmen tied Sebastian to a tree, shot arrows into his body, left him for dead. His girlfriend took him away, still alive, and cared for him until he recovered. He went back to confront the General. The General ordered Sebastian beaten to death.
Sister Ignatius was as hot on the practical here and now as she was on that early Christian era stuff. She knew what kind of ugly home life most of us had. She told us we must learn to take care of ourselves when our parents fail to do their jobs. Each night, she said, you should wash your underwear and socks in the sink, and hang them to dry, so that in the morning you will have something clean to wear.
* * *
One evening Richard asked me how I was doing in school. I told him they’d put me on a vocational track, automotive mechanics, since I flunked all the regular subjects. But that was okay by me. I was just marking time, waiting for graduation, then I was going to join the Air Force. I intended to get the hell out of that miserable shit-hole of a town, and never come back.
“You know what they do to you in boot camp?” Richard asked.
“More or less.”
“The main idea is to totally wipe out your civilian personality, and turn you into a warrior. Is that what you want to be?”
“Why not?” I said.
Richard laughed. “I remember boot camp. A big nasty sergeant screamed in my face. He was like my father. Except the sergeant was sober and had a good reason for what he was doing.”
Some customers came in, and I had to go take their orders.
Later at the register, Richard took a dollar from his wallet. “Know the cylinder firing order of a V-8 engine?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Know how to check the timing?”
“Yep,” I said.
“So how about taking my car tomorrow morning to your auto shop? It needs an oil change and tune-up.”
“Are you serious?”
* * *
No doubt about it. If you’re driving a pastel blue Thunderbird, you are cool. And that’s it. So I drove that magnificent automobile around for a while.
At a traffic light a body-builder knucklehead in a ‘52 Chevy painted with gray primer pulled alongside, looked over at me, and gunned his engine. I looked back at him, and did the same.
When the light turned green, he floored it. His car roared, screeched, burned rubber, and blew out a cloud of blue smoke. I eased forward, slowly. I smiled. I’d just faked out that muscle-bound dummy, and he knew it.
At the shop I pulled the plugs, cleaned them with a sandblaster, checked the gaps. Used the strobe to fine-tune the timing. Pulled off the distributor cap and cleaned off a light trace of carbon from the rotor and cap contacts. Drained the oil, put in premium. While I was at it, I hosed the car down, dried it with a chamois, and then gave it a coat of Turtle Wax and a buffing with a soft cloth. At the end of the afternoon, it was clean and gleaming.
On the way back I saw that Chevy with the gray primer parked by the side of the street. Knucklehead was talking to some slutty-looking blonde in shorts. He spotted me as I drove by. Through the rear view mirror I saw him jump into his car. Pretty soon he was on my tail. He honked, like he was in a big hurry and wanted me to let him by. So I pulled to the right.
Bang! He’d moved into my blind spot; I hadn’t seen him sneak into that lane. I jerked the wheel left, and knucklehead sped by, burning rubber. He screeched around a corner, and was gone. I parked, got out, knees shaking. The door panel had a huge, ugly dent. I felt like puking.
When Richard looked over the damage I saw his jaw muscles twitch. I told him the whole story, exactly as it happened. I expected him to tell me what a total jerk I was. He shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “My insurance will cover it.”
* * *
I didn’t see Richard for a while. Every time a car pulled into the lot, I looked to see if it was him. I couldn’t get over the expression on his face when he saw what I had done to his beautiful car.
Meanwhile things started going downhill with my father. I got into a big fight with him. He was drunk, as usual, and one thing led to another. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, and even if I did it wouldn’t be worth repeating.
The next day I went down to the Air Force recruiter and told him I didn’t want to wait until the end of the summer, I wanted to get in the day after graduation. The sergeant said, “No problem.”
Then one evening Richard finally came in. I poured him a cup. “Haven’t seen you around for a while,” I said.
I kind of expected him to say something like, “How’s the car wrecker?” But instead he said, “How’s it going, Tommy?”
“Pretty good, actually,” I said. “Because three weeks from now I’ll be in the Air Force, in Texas.”
Richard grinned. “When I was in the Army Air Corps, I learned all you had to do to get ahead was to keep your shoes shined and your creases sharp.”
He had to be kidding. There was a lot more to rising up the ranks than just that.
On his way out, Richard said, “Got a minute? I want to show you something.”
“Sure,” I said. I followed him out the door and into the parking lot.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at the Thunderbird’s door. It was like new. “Looks great.”
“Take a close look. See if you can spot any flaws.”
I knelt down, ran my hand over the smooth, gleaming surface.
“Jake—the body man—doesn’t ever use that plastic filler crap,” Richard said. “He smoothes dented sheet metal with a hammer and a steel block, the old fashioned way. A master craftsman like Jake takes the time to do it right.”
“Nice,” I said.
“Open the door, and shut it.”
I did. It closed with a solid, new car sound.
“Can you see anything at all that shows the door was damaged?”
“No, I can’t.”
“Have you told anyone about the accident?”
“No,” I said.
“Then who is to say it ever happened?”
“Exactly,” he said.