©2001 Carly Issitt
February 14, 2001
Harold had made a second home for himself in the garage. He
spent all his evenings there, from the time he got home from work until he
realized it was much later than he thought and he would never get enough sleep.
Sometimes he would stay late at work and take home other guys’ tools overnight
and then come in early the next morning to put them back before anyone else
Harold’s home tool selection was inadequate—the bare
minimum. He was always getting stuck because he would need a 3/4” socket
wrench and he only had a 7/8”, or some such crisis. Paula finally mentioned,
ever so sweetly, that he was spending an awful lot on the credit cards at
hardware stores late at night. That’s when he started borrowing the tools from
work. He limited his loot to three tools per night, maximum. That way, it was
easy to remember exactly where he found them.
He was not going to let his lack of tools keep him from
getting this car in tip top shape before Melanie’s sixteenth birthday.
Nothing had gone right on the project from the beginning. Harold’s late nights
in the garage were usually spent doing and redoing the same minor repair or
He spent an entire week installing speakers in the back
window, in addition to the one hundred and fifty-three dollars for the second
set of speakers after he attempted to rewire the first set, and the cost of
repairing the crack he accidentally put in the back windshield. Paula insisted
that he have the windshield professionally fixed. It was too dangerous, she
said. It was cheaper in the long run to call one of those places that comes to
your house and fixes it. After the whole rigmarole with the speakers, it wasn’t
too hard to convince Harold that seeking a professional auto glass repairman’s
help would be an honorable decision.
Most of the time Paula just let Harold carry on with his work
on the car. Even with all the setbacks, he kept positive most of the time.
Harold liked the garage. In the garage at work, he was just the parts guy.
Most of the guys, especially Randy and Steve, would say hi and maybe ask how
Harold’s weekend was when they came up to get a set of spark plugs or an air
filter. But when they had stories to tell about complicated repair jobs that
took forever, they never told Harold.
In his garage, he was in charge. He was the one with
perpetually dirty hands and total diagnostic and executive power over the
automobile he had personally purchased. He had bought the car from a junkyard
for almost nothing because it didn’t run. He led the delivery tow truck
directly to the garage behind his house, where the broken down ten year old
Honda would be reborn into the perfect first car for his daughter.
What the car needed now was a new transmission.
“So, Mel, the car’s coming along pretty well,” Harold said at
breakfast Friday morning. He had pushed his cereal bowl back so he could keep
reading his repair manual at the table. He never brought it to work, so he
tried to read as much as possible before leaving in the morning. Sometimes it
seemed like gibberish. The jargon was so confusing, and the index never
cross-listed terms for him to look up, so he also carried around a copy of
Car Maintenance and Repair for Dummies so he could understand the manual.
The book was a gift from Paula. She only interfered in his project when it was
obvious he was spending more time frustrated and reading the manual than doing
actual car work. Harold decided it would be best to do the reading outside, so
Paula wouldn’t worry about how much he didn’t know about what he was doing.
“Cool,” Melanie said, half paying attention to Harold.
“You want to come out with me tonight and help with the
transmission? I could use an extra pair of hands,” said Harold.
Melanie sighed. Doing car work with Dad on Friday night was
not her idea of fun. “I don’t know, Dad. I gotta go. See you guys later.”
She touched Harold’s shoulder as she walked behind him to leave for school.
“In a couple months you’re going to be driving to school,”
“Yeah, I know Dad,” Melanie said. The whole idea of the car
being done was a joke for Melanie. She saw it more as a diversion for her dad
than an actual car that she would one day drive.
“Have a good day, sweetie,” Paula said and kissed Melanie on
the cheek. “Honey, you know Melanie doesn’t want to stay home tonight and work
on the car. It’s Friday,” Paula said after Melanie left.
“I just thought maybe, since it’s her car…”
“Harold,” she said softly, “come on, she’s fifteen. You
decided to get the car, not her. She’s more worried about whether Bobby Daley
really did kiss Maureen Jenkins by her locker after school than whether she’s
helping to fix her future car. She walks everywhere anyway. You’ve gotta give
her some space.”
Harold poked at his cereal while Paula was talking. Paula
was one of those teachers who never stopped teaching even when she wasn’t at
school. She wasn’t patronizing, she just seemed to always have the answer.
“Who’s Bobby Daley?” Harold asked.
“You know, the cute boy in Mel’s chemistry class. Didn’t she
mention it at dinner last night?”
“I don’t remember. I was reading about this transmission
“Honey, why don’t you ask Steve to help you after work
tonight? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He’s probably done a million of them
before,” Paula said.
“I can’t ask Steve. I’m going to do it myself,” Harold
said. He poured the soggy remains of his cereal in the sink and rinsed out the
bowl, and Paula rubbed her hand lightly across the top of his back. She had
strong, soothing hands that seemed to draw the tension out of Harold’s shoulders
when she touched him.
“I could help you,” she said. “I’ve done some car
work in my time. They practically used to call me ‘oil change Paula’ in
Harold held his wet hands out to his sides and gave Paula a
firm kiss. “I’ll see you after work,” he said, smiling. “I love you Paula.”
“I’m serious about the car work,” she said as Harold was
going out the door. “I’d be happy to do it with you.” Harold paused in the
front doorway. “Have a good day, honey,” Paula said from the kitchen.
Harold liked Fridays because most guys left work early and it
was quiet. He brought his book with him, thinking maybe when it was slow he
could tuck it under his keyboard and read. That way, he could find out what
parts he needed and get them from work instead of having to buy them retail.
“D’ja catch that game last night, Harold?” asked Steve when
he walked in.
“Oh yeah, that was something,” said Harold.
“I didn’t think I was gonna be able to sit through it, and
then Pop! it was over. Could you believe that double play at the end?”
“Yeah, what an upset. I mean, for the other guys, the guys
“Okay there, big guy,” said Steve with a little
Harold knew he was no good at bluffing sports knowledge,
which was a handicap at his job because it seemed like there was always some
event everyone was talking about and he would have to pretend he had seen it
It was hard to read at work. With his reading glasses, he
had to hold the book at a certain angle so he was looking down. It was more
trouble than it was worth sometimes, and after a while the muscles on the back
of his eyeballs would get sore. The project was just going to have to move at
his pace. It had to be finished, and finished well, and it had to be done by
Harold. He wanted to be able to make sure everything was up to safety
standards, and repair shop guys might do shotty work when nobody’s around to
see. The only one Harold trusted with his daughter’s automobile’s safety status
Almost everyone was gone by 2:30 or so that day, and
Harold was anxious to get home and work on the car. He had read the section on
transmission installation in his manual at least twelve times, and by now he
figured once he had the car in front of him, he would somehow be able to apply
what he had read, even if he didn’t understand it in the abstract form. Car
work was hands-on, that’s what he liked about it. The weekend was inviting—no
worrying about getting up early or trying to read at work, nothing but time to
work on the car. The transmission job would work out. If he stuck with it, all
of his projects panned out eventually. Some just took more time than others.
On the way home Harold went to the music store and asked a
girl who couldn’t have been much older than Melanie to recommend some music she
might like. He bought the first one she suggested, having no idea how to be
more selective. It could always turn out to be something Melanie really liked,
He went straight from his car to the garage when he got
home. He stretched back in his lawn chair with his feet propped up on the hood,
thinking of Melanie. Maybe if he had music Mel liked, she would come out to the
garage more. Of course, he had no idea if she would like the CD he bought.
Harold stared at the gaping hole in the car where the
transmission used to reside. He would fill that space with a working system of
parts that would allow his daughter to drive. It would be done right. The more
he stared at the space, the more he couldn’t bring himself to start the job.
It was hypnotic, following the wires and connectors with his
eyes and trying to put it all together in his head, trying to understand the
engine as a whole. He finally decided to head inside for some iced tea.
Melanie was working on homework at the kitchen table when Harold came in the
“Hey, Mel,” he said.
“So, the car’s going okay. I’m in the middle of a
transmission overhaul right now, but I don’t know exactly how it all goes
“Dad, are you sure this car isn’t going to blow up when we
turn it on?”
“Yes,” Harold insisted. “It’s going to run like a dream.
You might as well roll back the odometer to one when I get done with that baby.”
“Okay, Dad, whatever you say.” She returned to her note
Harold went to the sink to wash his hands, to prime them for
car work. Melanie looked up from her book at Harold’s back when he started
talking. “I was just thinking about my dad,” he said. “On my seventh birthday
he decided he wanted to make the cake. He worked on it for six hours, and it
came out hard as a rock inside. He made this chocolate frosting that was so
dense it dried out your mouth the instant it touched your tongue. He did the
whole thing without any help from my mom, even the yellow icing he used to write
happy birthday on the top. You couldn’t actually read it, but we all knew what
it was supposed to say. I only took one bite and it was so awful I spit it out
on my plate.”
Harold was still leaning against the sink, with his back
still to Melanie, who didn’t say anything but just stared at Harold’s back. He
always talked quietly when he was telling a story that meant something to him,
almost like he was talking to himself.
“My mom loved to tell that story to my friends when I was
older, but I hated it. He must have been so sad that I didn’t even eat one bite
of it. I always get this image in my mind of him covered in chocolate smudges
with a light dusting of flour on his face and arms, serving up his first
homemade confection with pride, and watching me spit it out like it was
Harold’s words hung in the air, strung across the kitchen
between him and his daughter. They both stayed exactly as they had been, as
though there should be more to the story, but it was over.
“Well, Dad, you were only seven,” Melanie said finally.
“You’re not sensitive when you’re seven.”
“Believe me, I know that first hand, honey,” Harold
said, patting Melanie on top of the head. Her hair wasn’t at all like it was
when she was little—it used to be so soft and fine and it would curl every which
way at the tips, begging to be touched. Now it was permed and gelled and stiff.
“Dad, don’t touch my hair.” Melanie said. She pulled
her head away.
Harold put his hand on her shoulder. “Sorry,” he said.
He sat down at the table next to her. She had a
chemistry book out. Harold used to like chemistry when he was in high school.
He had had a great teacher named Mr. Winningham who used to set off small
explosions when everyone started nodding off in his morning classes. He always
got in trouble for it, but it worked.
“Working on the old chemistry homework?” Harold asked.
“Yeah, I hate it.” Melanie rolled her eyes.
“Because it’s stupid. It’s confusing and it doesn’t
make any sense and I’m never going to use it anyway.” She slammed the cover of
her book down onto the notebook inside.
“Do you want some help?” asked Harold.
“I used to be good at chemistry. How about if I take a look
“No, it’s okay.”
“Let’s just see what you’re doing here,” Harold said, slowly
pulling the book out from under Melanie’s hands. “Aha! Thermodynamics. I have
experience in thermodynamics. It’s so simple, Mel. Everything is based on 237
degrees Kelvin, or is it 273 degrees, and zero atmospheres of pressure, or
maybe it’s 22 liters. No, that’s volume. It’s one atmosphere, and I don’t know
about the degrees. Oh, and then it’s 22.4 liters of volume.” Melanie’s
expression grew more perplexed as Harold went on, tracing numbers in the air and
talking in circles as though it all fit together somehow in his mind. “Wait a
minute, no. I’m thinking of the gas laws. Okay, what are
thermodynamics? Let’s start with the basics. Well, thermo means
temperature, right?” Harold turned to Melanie.
“I guess,” she said.
“Okay, then, we’re halfway there.” He returned to the book,
scanning it with his finger, thinking all he needed was a little
refresher. “Okay, it says here that all you have to do is use Boyle’s Law, and
then you cancel out the ones and the units carry over, and the two goes over
here by the one, and then you multiply the whole thing by one over Kelvin. See?
Melanie stared at Harold. “Oh, wait, that’s not Boyle’s
Law,” he said, turning back to the book again. “Hang on a minute. But do you
see the basic idea?” Harold asked.
“No, Dad. You’re just making it worse! I don’t need any
help, okay?” Melanie took her book and went to her room, leaving Harold alone
at the kitchen table.
He needed to get to work on the car, anyway, so he headed
back out to the garage. The car wasn’t looking so good. Harold had had the new
transmission delivered a week earlier, but it was still sitting in the garage,
no closer to becoming part of the engine. He would need some sort of rope and
pulley system to lift it into the car, and even then he would definitely need
The transmission looked like a huge chrome violin stuffed
with complicated metal parts. Harold ran his fingers across the shiny metal,
still staring at the hole in the engine, hoping it would all make sense to him
at some point. He went over to the fat end of the transmission and worked his
hands underneath it. He squatted down, took a deep breath, and tried with every
bit of his strength to lift it. It didn’t budge.
Harold sat back down in his lawn chair and kept studying the
daunting transmission. The glare from the metal left a gray blur in the middle
of Harold’s eyes, which fit perfectly over the hole in the engine. If only that
blur would make the car run. Harold couldn’t think of any way he was going to
be able to install the transmission. The more he stared at it, the bigger it
looked. The car was so dirty, too. Besides the rust spots on the outside, the
vinyl interior was caked with crud and then layered with dust. Harold had
hardly even noticed the inside of the car when he replaced the speakers. Now
he noticed that there wasn’t even a radio. He had been focusing too much on the
engine. It smelled like mold inside with all the windows closed, the seats were
torn, the dashboard was cracked. He had only three months left until Mel’s
birthday and there was no possible way he would get it all fixed in time.
Harold gently pulled some of the loose strings on the driver’s seat and a huge
piece of vinyl tore off. The foam underneath was brown with age, and
deteriorated into powder when Harold touched it.
Suddenly horrified by the amount of work he had to do on the
car, Harold decided to go inside. Maybe it wasn’t worth doing it at all.
Melanie sure didn’t seem to interested in the whole project, and Harold wasn’t
doing it for himself. It was all supposed to be for her. But the car would
never look the way he imagined it. It was never going to be a nice car, just
like Melanie was never going to care that she and her father hadn’t given each
other a good hug since she was twelve.
Paula was surprised to see Harold inside already. “Is
everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I just don’t feel like working on the car,” said
Harold. “Is Melanie home?”
“No, she went to the movies with Bobby Daley.”
“Oh, so I guess he didn’t kiss what’s her name after
“No, he didn’t. It turned out he didn’t even like Maureen.
“Well, where is he? Why hasn’t he come and met me yet? I
don’t want Mel going out with some horny high school boy I’ve never met.”
“I met him when he came to the door to get her,” Paula said.
“He was really shy. He hardly said two words, but he was very cute.
“Great, that makes me feel better.”
“Oh, come on,” Paula said. “It’s not the end of the
world. It’s just a date. You do realize your daughter will have dates.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want her to. I don’t want her to
drive or wear lipstick or have a job or ever get her heart broken. Boys promote
that, you know. I was one, so I remember.”
Paula put her arm around Harold. “You didn’t break my
heart,” she said. “Don’t worry so much, it’s going to be okay. Our daughter is
Harold and Paula ate dinner quietly. Paula’s meatloaf
was too much for Harold that night. He poked at it with his fork, but couldn’t
bring himself to eat much. Harold waited up for Melanie, who finally came to
the door at 11:37.
“Hi, Dad,” she said.
“Hi Mel. How was your date?” he asked.
“It was okay,” she said.
“I got you this CD today,” Harold said, following
Melanie into the kitchen.
She scanned it. “Oh, thanks Dad,” she said. She looked
“Do you like that group?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, “thanks.”
“Okay, well, I’m going to bed now that I know you’re
home safe. Good night, Mel. Sorry about that chemistry thing earlier,” Harold
said, and he started to walk upstairs.
“It’s all right,” she said, smiling. “You’re so funny, Dad.
You always try so hard.” She came up and gave Harold a hug, and just as he was
expecting her to pull away she kept hugging for another few seconds. She looked
more and more like Paula as she got older. She had that way of simplifying
In the morning Harold awoke to an empty house. He
didn’t go out to the garage as usual. Instead, he decided to call his dad.
“Dad, I wanted to talk to you about something,” he said.
“Remember that cake you made for me when I was seven? Well, thanks for that. I
never told you how much I appreciated it. I know you put a lot of effort into
“What are you talking about?” Harold’s dad said. “You
were only seven.”
“Yeah, but I just wanted to say thanks for it.”
“Okay, son,” he said. “You know I’d make you a cake now if
my hands worked at all anymore. Your mother’s back’s been giving her trouble
again, and you know we aren’t even playing Monday night bingo anymore.”
Harold’s dad went on for a while about all the health problems he was having,
and Harold listened. But all he could think was that it was time to get rid of