Auto Mechanics by Jessica Hamilton

24-hour towing signI awoke to the tilting sensation you get when somebody sits on your bed. I rolled over and blinked until my vision worked through the darkness to my father, who sat there in his blue work shirt and jeans, grinning the soft grin he saved for his daughters. Jennifer was asleep beside me. As usual, my younger sister had dismissed her own canopied, yellow princess bed for my blue-quilted double. I never questioned her reasons for abandoning the bed she had begged my parents to buy her, but assumed it had to do with my ability to fight monsters and bad dreams. Though I was never given a chance to prove that I had these monster-slaying skills, it was agreed that I was the more likely of the two of us to battle the hideous closet-dwellers and ninja burglars, should they appear.

“Hey, wake up,” my dad whispered.

Jennifer did wake up. She rolled over and blinked, parroting my expression from a moment before. Though it was after midnight on a Friday, we were not particularly concerned. In the early years of the towing company our father worked through the night answering calls on his brick-shaped cellular phone before driving away in his tow truck to rescue some stranded motorist or to impound some drunk driver’s car.

“You girls want to come on a call with me?” he asked. We mumbled consent and rolled out of bed. Jennifer went back to her own bedroom to change while I pulled on a pair of pants underneath my cotton nightgown. Dad stood by the front door bouncing his considerable weight on his toes while holding two pairs of girl’s shoes, one in each hand. My dad was a burly man with a formidable beard and a take-no-prisoners afro, and he enjoyed appearing intimidating. But at this particular moment he reminded me of an eager puppy, tugging at his leash.

Once our feet were equipped and Mother was notified (“the Management,” my father called her), we made our way out of the blue and gray apartment complex where we lived in Gunbarrel, Colorado. Gunbarrel was a ridiculous sidecar of office complexes and gas stations hanging off the side of the Diagonal Highway between Boulder and Longmont. Part suburbia and part convenience store, a real town only because of its proximity to realer towns, it was an excruciatingly boring place for us kids, and my parents both knew it.

My dad’s tow truck was parked outside in the vast lot, looking to me like a familiar jungle gym. Jennifer and I were too tired to begin our morning arguments, so without any debate about who would get the window seat my father helped us up into the cab. It smelled of gasoline and sweat, but fit the three of us comfortably on its worn bench seat. We were all belted in before Jennifer asked what sort of a call we were going on.

“There’s a Toyota pick-up,” my father told us, “that went off the road, up Boulder Canyon. It’s down in the river.”

Jennifer and I exchanged a glance. “Cool,” she blurted, always eager to please my father.

“I know,” I said, always eager to remind everyone that I was a supremely knowledgeable seven-year-old.

 

I was going through a phase in which I was sure that I knew everything. A few years of telling me how smart I was had backfired on my parents and now I knew I was smart enough to figure anything out on my own (or at least passably feign expertise). I informed those around me of my superior intelligence by replying to everything they told me with my own, informative catchphrase: “I know!”

This didn’t stop my parents from trying to teach me. They prided themselves on having the progressive insight to raise their children at the workplace. It was a feat that they believed would instill in us a humble work ethic and fond appreciation for all they did for us. Dad was particularly insistent about teaching us the ways of his work world, and my sister and I learned to find excuses to leave whenever he would lean over an engine compartment or stick his head out from under a chassis and begin: “Did you know . . .”

As far as I was concerned, I definitely already knew. And even if I didn’t, I could hardly see the point in learning the components of a fuel injection system. I wanted to have adventures in the cars that surrounded us, not learn how to fix them. I would play for hours by sitting studiously in the back seats of the town cars and reading the latest, bestselling chapter book. My idea of a good game was executed by gazing thoughtfully out of the rear window, one arm of my glasses placed coyly between my teeth. If anyone asked, I was solving a math problem using only my brain. If I hadn’t already had my future career as a genius planned out, I might have learned more from my father. But as it was, his long discourses on managing employees and flushing brakes fell on tin ears.

 

For Jennifer and me, The Yard was home. While we had memorized the address of the apartment in Gunbarrel in case police officers or emergency room attendants asked us for it, we spent our liveliest hours—after school and on the weekends—at The Yard.

The Yard was the impound lot for the Boulder-based towing company my parents started in 1988, but we used the term to encompass all of the facilities there including a garage and an attached office building. The back office was my mother’s domain, where she worked tirelessly on the books, except for when she was in the front office, working tirelessly at dispatching drivers to locations all over the Front Range. From her back office she would manage the complicated contracts, the payroll and the accounts; from the front office she would direct the drivers, the customers, and her daughters. We were rarely allowed in her back office, with its fake wood-paneling on the walls, one imposing desk, and mysterious computer.

In the front office, the dispatchers took calls and wrote down details on a large chart. There were codes like “Bl ’78 Chev S, Stage Coach Rd., No Start” lined out in neat rules on the large pad that took up most of the desk. When my mother worked these shifts, she would use a voice on the phone which was completely unlike the one she used with us. Her normally hard, irritated tone was transformed into something high-pitched and honey-sweet. “Hamilton Towin’,” she’d say, with a slight Southern-belle drawl, “this is Julie speaking, how you?”

Once it was time to dispatch the call to the drivers she’d be back to her normal self: “Foxtrot, I’m sending you out to Ute Highway once you’re done stuffing your face at Burger King. You’ve got a blue, two-door Honda Civic with a blown tire out there at mile marker 19, and you better be bringing me two orders of French fries for the girls. Over.”

My father’s domain was the garage. It had two long, concrete ramps leading up to two tremendous garage doors, and was lined with tool benches, air compressors, and large contraptions for removing engines and installing transmissions. There was a back room, used mostly for storage, where Jennifer and I built makeshift desks and cardboard tool benches of our own. Here in the garage my dad and the other drivers would stand around together, drinking green soda, and discuss the maladies of whatever car was at hand. My mother once told me that they couldn’t fix a car without first combining their mental faculties and discussing it for an hour.

The real fun was out in the actual yard, where the cars were. Some cars were waiting to be claimed or fixed, and some had long ago given up on being returned to their owners. The whole lot was surrounded by a seven-foot, chain-link fence and was covered in coarse, gray gravel. One summer, my entrepreneurial sister polished up a selection of the rocks and tried to sell them out of a cardboard stand she labeled “Rockin’ Shop”. For a time, they sold better than our sour lemonade.

 

Across the street was a large irrigation ditch which was dry most of the year and shaped like a half-pipe. It was where we picked flowers and learned to ride bikes. At the bottom of the ditch we couldn’t be seen from The Yard and so it became, for a while, our hideout (until a gutted-out bus was impounded and converted into our playhouse). There were great, concrete culverts spanning the ditch every two hundred yards or so. I imagined myself hunkered down in them, living the solitary life of the itinerant artist. I would gather scrawny bouquets of weeds and bring them back to the yard, where I would present them to my mother with an elaborate ribbon made of electrical wiring and duct tape.

My knack for spectacle was inherited from my father. I recall a time when he walked into the break room where my sister and I sat watching after-school cartoons on the small, glitchy television we kept there. He held up his hand and asked my mother if she knew when he had last received a tetanus shot. Then he proceeded to yank on the clothes hanger which had punctured his ring finger, going in one end and out the other.

Apparently, while trying to lever a small part out of an awkward crevice in an engine compartment, my father had stabbed himself through the finger with the rusty wire. My sister and I watched as he pulled it free, threw it in the trash, wrapped his hand in an oily, red, shop rag and went to locate a proper bandage. Jennifer and I gawked. My mother looked up after him, and then returned to her work.

As we drove up Boulder Canyon in the tow truck – the first one my parents had purchased, the one nicknamed Alpha – Jennifer and I took turns pinching each other and pointing out places where an accident was likely to happen. My father explained, mostly to himself, the mechanics of four-wheel-drive suspension and the physics of road traction. Jennifer would occasionally ask questions, or make affirmative sounds in his direction.

While my dad fixated on the factors involved in the accident, I secretly wondered if we would see any ambulances or body bags. I remembered seeing a bloody airbag in the cab of a two-door sedan which had been towed into The Yard once. The sight had made my stomach turn, though I could not imagine what had happened.

We wound our way up the curves of the canyon until we rounded one to see a single cop car parked on the other shoulder, above the steep slope which led down to Boulder Creek. My father slowed down and deftly turned the truck in the middle of the road, so that it was parked behind the police officer. He told us to stay put and hopped out of the cab.

The cop and my father stood discussing the situation for what seemed like hours to Jennifer and me. We craned our necks out the passenger window, trying to spot the vehicle. But all we could see were the pine trees and darkness that led down to the sound of running water.

“Do you think someone died?” my sister asked.

“Probably,” I said.

“Did they take the body away?”

“An ambulance came and took it away, but first they had to pull it out of the river and give it CPR, which obviously didn’t work.”

“How do you know?”

“I can tell by the marks on the road,” I informed her, “and I’ve seen accidents like this plenty of times.”

“When?”

“This one time when you weren’t with us.”

“Liar,” she said, and turned away from me.

“I know,” I said.

My father shook the officer’s hand and gave him a friendly grin before coming back to retrieve us. “Ok,” he said, slapping his hands together, “who’s going to hold my flashlight while I hook up the truck?”

After that argument was settled, the three of us scrambled our way down the slope to the river. My father had warned us to stay behind him at all times. We were each equipped with our own flashlight. Dad held in one hand the tow chain, which led back to the winch on the back of his truck.

When we got near the river, I gaped. The dirty-white pick-up was smashed in the front and almost two-thirds underwater. There were pine branches sticking out of its crumpled hood and grill, but no airbag that I could see. The swift current seemed to be tilting it downstream. We saw the bright beam of the police officer’s spotlight turn on and illuminate the water around the truck

My father pointed to a tree back from the bank and on a level piece of ground far above the water line. He told us to hold on to it until he was finished. Finished what? I thought, not understanding how he was going to hook up the waterlogged truck. My intellect and experience told me this one was a goner, time to chalk one up for nature and head on home. He gave Jennifer his large flashlight and directed her to keep it aimed at the truck. She now held two lights, and carefully pointed them both at the same area the spotlight already illuminated. He took his shoes and socks off, and handed me his wallet. As he approached the bank with the tow chain in hand, my sister shouted, “Wait, daddy!”

He turned quickly and asked, “What is it?”

My sister hesitated, and then looked to me.

“Is it safe?” I asked for her, holding tighter than necessary to the pine tree beside us.

“It’s ok,” he assured us. “It’s only a few feet deep, and I’m a good swimmer.”

I tried to remember if I had ever seen my father swim as he waded into the river and moved towards the front of the truck, which was angled toward us. As he neared the crooked grill he sank suddenly to his waist, and I heard Jennifer whimper beside me. I wrapped one arm around her. Dad moved a little further, until he came back up so that the water only reached his thighs.

Then he waved to us, plugged his nose, puffed his cheeks out like a blowfish, and disappeared under the water and under the truck. I looked over my shoulder and up the hill, searching the ridge for the officer. The spotlight was too bright, though, and I couldn’t see him.

Jennifer and I gave it a full thirty seconds before we began to seriously worry. “Daddy!” Jennifer cried, moving towards the river. She took three quick steps before I caught her.  I grabbed her by the nightgown and hauled her back toward me. She was beginning to really panic, and I had to drop my flashlight to wrap both arms around her.

“Stop!” I ordered. “Dad’s fine. He does this all the time,” I lied.

Right at that moment he stood up out of the water, grinning. He no longer had a tow chain in his hand. His wet, black curls stuck to his face but didn’t hide his excitement. My father loved that kind of adrenaline.

It wasn’t until we were headed back up the slope that I realized how cold the water had been. The icy river drops fell from his clothes and onto my hand, where it clutched his belt.

When we reached the truck, he grabbed a rag from the cab and mopped his hair. The officer patted him on the back. “Nice job, Gene,” he said. Then he climbed into his cop car and drove off, down the canyon. My father began to pull the bused truck up the slope, using red and yellow levers which controlled the powerful winch on the back of his tow truck. Jennifer and I watched him from where we sat on the toolbox, behind the cab.

“You could have gotten hypothermia,” I informed him.

“I know,” he said, in a tone that should have sounded familiar to me. Then he grinned our way and added, “But I’m alright. And I thank you both for helping me.”

My sister and I exchanged a glance. We sat a little straighter on the toolbox. Once the pick-up was securely hitched up, we all crawled back into the cab. I pressed my face against the cool glass of the passenger door, and Jennifer rested her head on our father’s shoulder. Somewhere between a story about towing a broken airplane off of a runway and an explanation of the load-bearing capacity of a flatbed truck, my sister and I fell asleep.

Jessica HamiltonJessica Hamilton writes and works in Denver, Colo. While finishing college, she works for fun and for pay roasting and brewing coffee. Though she loves to write fiction, this autobiographical essay is the first piece she has had accepted for publication. A new short story, part science fiction and part doomed romance, is soon to be published in Collective Fallout.
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