I drove to Iowa City from Milwaukee...and if you think there's nothing along the 10 in west Texas, you got no idea what nothing is. I drove for a good 70 miles through rolling hills of tall green corn cut through with thick lines of trees without passing a single place to get off for a drink or gas or anything. It's amazing how much like a desert even well-irrigated areas can seem. Wasn't till I crossed from Illinois to Iowa that I found a truck stop. Spooky. I now know why Steven King wrote "Children of the Corn."
Now I'm beat...and this Motel 6 is one of those with paper thin walls so I got a nsaty feeling about tonight. I think I'll just crash.
So here's the moment when the world began to change for Brendan.
I got started working on cars when Colm’s Uncle Allwyn was having trouble with the heater in his black coffin -- a taxi, if you will. It was a cold day but not bitter, yet, and he was parked near the bus depot jumping back and forth from under the bonnet to beneath the fascia to see why it wasn’t warming the ten year old piece of junk when Colm and I raced up. Colm thought he could beg a few schillings off the man and we’d pop over to Wellies for some hot cocoa, but he was in a foul temper, cursing and slamming his fist against the front wings of the car. Colm was of a mind to just let him be but I got a curiosity up and peeked under the bonnet to see what he was doing.
“Don’t touch a thing, Brendan,” he snarled at me. “This bloody beast’s already jabbed me twice with shocks.”
“Isn’t it grounded?” I asked, not really knowing much about cars.
“Somewhere a wire’s touching metal, now and again. I think it’s shorted out the heater’s motor.
That made no sense to me. In a lamp or radio, it’s easy to find a shorted wire. Why not in a car? Being small, I dropped to the ground and was able to slip under the car to get a look.
Colm was pissed, again. “Bloody hell, Bren. We’re not here for this.”
“Give us a minute, Colm.”
“You’ll bloody dirty yourself, and I’ll not be seen with you.”
“Since when are you a Teddy Boy?”
He kicked my shoes, for that. Teddies were notorious for being poofters after lads like Colm. He was already well on to being adult in body if not in brain. Me, I thought it odd him always talking about having to shave when I had little more than soft down about my chin, yet, and us near the same age.
Anyway, I got a look at what I later learned was the back of the core, and it was a holy mess of trash and half the floor gone, so I cleaned it away to get a better view and found a wire hanging there but not attached. Using a sixpence, I screwed it pack in place. I noticed a similar wire on the other side had a glove over it so pulled out from under the chassis to say, “Uncle Alwyn, have you something to put over this wire down here? It’s missing a cover.”
He dropped to his belly to look under the car at me. “What d’you mean? Brendan, if you’ve made a muck of anything, I’ll box your fuckin’ ears.”
“Right here, see? There was wire loose and caught in some twigs and leaves. It’s missing the cover.”
He looked hard and could just see what I was pointing to. “It’s a glove, the cover’s called,” he said. “Get out from under.”
I did and he started the car up and turned on the heater as I tried to brush off the mud and dirt and oil that’d caught my trousers. Colm saw me, rolled his eyes and headed on without a word. No patience in that lad.
A bus came up from who knows where and an estate car parked behind us, in the area meant only for taxis. Uncle Alwyn said nothing, just focused on the heater...and in a moment, he almost smiled.
“It’s working, so far,” he said.
“I’d not run it till you put a glove on that,” I answered. “Not if the other wire has one.”
“Right you are.” And he turned off the heater and the motor, then he got a look at me. “Aw, Brendan, your mam’s about to be right unhappy with you.”
The grease on my hands had only spread and when I tried to wip it off on my trousers, it had left streaks. Nothing massive, mind you, but obvious.
I shrugged. “They’ll wash.” Then I crouched down to dip my hands in some water in the gutter and looked up and saw an older lad lifting some bags into the estate car as a woman of maybe mam’s age trudged up to the passenger side, looking very much like mother and son, and caught between them was this girl my age -- a perfect face of clean skin and rose-hued cheeks and eyes bright enough to fill a room with light, silky golden hair drifting down her back to be caught in a chilly breeze, a tam-o-shanter atop her head, form enough to her body to make even the fur-tufted coat and colored stockings seem perfectly female on her. She handed a last parcel to the older lad, who looked to be her brother, and then she caught a glimpse of me washing my hands in the filthy water and I jolted to my feet at realizing the sight I must be making to her.
She almost laughed, her eyes dancing with humor and no judgment. Her lips red as cherries without the touch of rouge, without the touch of anything on her face that might hide her elegant complexion. I laughed back, spread my arms and shrugged as if to say, “I’m a slob.”
“Joanna!” The bark came from her mother, whose hard cold blue eyes glared at me. “In the back!”
She got in the estate car and her brother hopped behind the wheel, casting me a frown that seemed to mix both wariness and condescension. They drove off, and my heart went with them.
Then Uncle Alwyn gently popped the back of my head, smiling. “You’re aiming high with that one.”