It has been a while since I have seen my uncle. I’m hesitant to contact him because I feel less respectable, less worthy of his time. But I also feel forced to reconnect because I have no other way to reconcile the damage that I’ve caused.
And so this is where I stand in my life – by a phone. A payphone. Looking up for strength before looking down to search out my uncle’s number in a large, white phonebook, convincing myself, eventually, to give in to the patter of my mind: Just do it! Just fuckin’ do it! Quit being weak!
But then I consider how easily I could stretch this loose change a long ways. I could take this dollar seventy-five in quarters, dimes, and nickels to the VLTs, double up to five bucks, and then call up buddy to go halves with me on a—
I rub a quarter with a nervous, clammy, oxygen-deficient thumb and forefinger. And then I “Just fuckin’ do it.” The quarter clinking its way around in the slot before bottom banking on the others in this device. I begin dialing, moving slow making sure to get the numbers right. The ringing begins. I’m fretting. I’m frozen. Two rings in and I motion to slam the phone, but then I hear my uncle’s direct voice holler and echo in this half-booth —
Hello! he answers, hell- emphasized, with a snapping closed o, as if the word were less than a word.
I cringe, but I react soon after with a hesitant, Uh, hey. Uncle… It’s me.
Jack – uh – Jackson.
His tone and phonic flow level out together from here on out. The conversation is short and then it’s over. I’m feeling better – bigger. Proud of this trivial achievement, this progress, for it is a testament to the person that I think I am becoming. Baby steps, I tell myself, goofily, in glee. And then I get my act together and race over to his place in my mother’s lemon.
Here, there is never much talk. I just show up in a car once in a while and it becomes the center of attention, relieving most of the social inadequacies that we compile together as one. We work for hours on cars, me as his gopher – go-fer this, go-fer that – his helper, at his service. I never really learn much; we’re both just grateful for the company.
I begin to notice this time, however, that his mechanical work is much like the work of a doctor. He begins his assessment by attempting to diagnose the problem through questioning. Then he checks the vitals: he checks the fluids with his dipstick-like swabs, and with his light flashing into greasy orifices; he checks the Engine Control Unit (ECU), its blood pressure (BP) perhaps, with a little machine that plugs in under the steering wheel to reveal a numeric code linked to the Christmas-lit dashboard and all of its sensory Service Engine warnings; and then he engages his acute ears, his natural stethoscope, listening for any extraneous rattles over the “purr” of the engine as he starts, revs, and then test drives it, the car, correlating and disconfirming sounds to and from the hypothesized diagnosis in his mind that he has not yet revealed.
I think he conjectures that the car is shorting out somewhere, thus causing it to stall inconveniently in intersections and whatnot – leaving my little agoraphobic mother scared and alone in the chaos of traffic, wanting nothing but to just get home, to be alone in solace, in her basement with her smokes and her wildflowers and her downtime. I can tell that he is thinking that it’s a short by the way that he is folding back the different layers of the car’s wires (as if his tools are his surgical instruments slicing through protective coverings – tissues, fascia, fatty myelin sheaths). A ground must be feeding power to another wire where it shouldn’t be, somewhere in its peripheral nervous system, wreaking havoc in the junction box, it’s central nervous system.
Yup, it’s weak nerves, I confirm. I’ve driven the car too hard and fried its circuitry as a result. All the tension applied by the pressure of my foot has resulted in the vehicle’s burnout, and so the dirt-encrusted filaments need to be rewired, redirected, in order to correct the malfunctioning altered motor recruitment patterns that the vehicle is exhibiting.
I watch him; he thinks hard, seemingly searching out the root of this problem – he knows I’m to blame, but he doesn’t say anything. He’s quiet, rubbing his stubbly chin, which is disproportionately loud in the still air of his garage. I imagine that he is ruling out a checklist of possibilities in my defense: a) it’s not a weak stomach nor its colons – the fuel tank or the exhaust; b) it’s not a weak heart nor is it the SA node or the Purkinje fibers – the engine or its alternator; c) it’s not a damaged endocrine system – the battery’s juices…etcetera, etc.
He is able to check that the battery is healthy with his little car battery load tester device, similar to the bioelectrical impedance device that measures fat percentage, knowing that this car, this patient, is old, with lots off abused miles fueled using cheap, simple, unleaded calories that burn unforgivingly, leaving rusty, fatty deposits in and around the places that help it, and us, tick; too, he gets the resting heart rate (HR) from this device, I assume, for it is much like a finger pulse monitor revealing HRs in volts, not beats per minute – Should he not have done this first, when he was checking the vitals?
He falters not, I rebuke. Just a natural hiccup, a habit not seen as negative in an already imperfect world — it just is. And so he continues on. It’s the car’s motor recruitment patterns that are all wrong, again, that I have altered and burned through the careless misuse of its mechanics. He asks for tools as he crawls under the car and extracts its wires, its nerves, bit by bit, from the engine all the way to rear brake lights.
He scalpels, snips, and splices pieces here and there, then re-covers each mended bit in new plastic flesh, heating it up with his heat gun, and Voila, I think he thinks. That should do it! he says.
But he’s duped and so he continues on down the nerves of the car, continually revealing bits here and there that are problematic, problems of which he declares to be the actual problem until he realizes again that the problem persists.
Still, he just scratches his stubble and furrows his brow before trying again and again. Placid, he shows only mild irritation from time to time, usually only when he hurts himself, or when his wife asks him a question, or when a tool goes missing. It was just right here! he’ll say about the tool from beneath the car, and then a minute later, after we pace around looking for it, I will notice that it is in his back pocket, stuck to his ass, right where he left it; other times it stays missing until he doesn’t need it anymore, put down somewhere unconsciously in a place so asinine – the fridge, for instance – that he feels slightly embarrassed into taking another sip of his beer to calm his own overworked nerves.
After each sip, he says something quirky – for instance: If only cars could be serviced with a beer! – which is a sign, I think, that he feels his drinking is frowned upon, not because he’s a drunk or anything, but, rather, because it’s booze and it’s Canada, a different drinking climate than he’s used to. Growing up in the Azores, alcohol was pretty much cheaper and safer to drink than water, and so it was, in a sense, their soda, their cultural beverage of choice. My effete, millennial thinking concludes that his post-sip quirks are simply his paternal understandings re the stigma of the absentee sipper.
He continues slicing open myelin sheaths and snipping out burned and frayed wires, re-splicing them as he goes. We continue on until he has solved the problem – he more satisfied than I, more proud, knowing full well that it is better to give than to receive. I feel that our connection is reestablished now. Without any awkward mentioning of my recent disappearance, either, or of his sister, my mother, that refuses to speak to any of her family, including him, regardless of all of his goodness toward her.
There was, however, a slightly animated grunt of acknowledgement – You’re alive!? – during that brief phonic transmission preceding this encounter, a signal that he may have wondered whether or not I was alright during my time away – perhaps, it could be said, this grunt was a shock of disappointment, but for some reason or other I recognized this grunt as regard.
I leave feeling loved. Cared for — reconnected.