Open Hearted Dogs, Part 1

Dad started banging the pots in the mornings.  He’d grab a clean one in his big left hand, find a pair of tongs or a stainless steel spoon for his right then hold each tool above his head and beat on.  It was the count-off rhythm of a hundred songs: one, two, one-two-three-four!  After that intro he’d improvise, turning the half-beat clangs loose through the house, swinging his knees and elbows, marching down the hallway.  The banging stopped for a moment every morning when he joined both pan and spoon in one hand, opened our front door, and kicked out the swinging screen.  He’d stand there on the porch in his socks, bottom lip tucked up under his teeth, squint into the September sun and start at it again, letting anyone who was around that he was home, that our house was occupied.

Dad liked noise.  I did, too, but waking every morning to his new abrupt clang and bong got me irritated.  I’d stand up in bed and pull the pliers down off top the window unit and use it to pinch the switch to the highest level.  The big box shook back and forth then riled up to gear, whirring as loud as it could.  Cold air started gulping through the room.  Dad had pulled the knob off the unit to keep me from making any adjustments—he knew I liked the cold too much.  I pushed the pliers under my pillow.  From my window I could look down over the front yard and halfway up the block to Magazine Street.  Dad was down there now with his work gloves gripping the rough edges of the plywood plank he’d made into a sign.  Spray paint block letters read, AUTOMEDIC “OPEN 4 BIZ.”  He stood it upright, angled against the iron fence and patted his hands together.  Dad gave it a long look before hauling back up onto the porch and reclaiming his noisemakers.  We’d lost four signs already, our good, dry wood stolen for a patch somewhere else in town.

Dad didn’t seem to mind.  He said, “Good publicity,” and tucked his lip into his teeth.

He walked back toward me then out of sight under the eaves.  Our yard was cleared and the grass cut as soon as we could spare the gas for the mower.  Right below my window, where the roof over the stoop intersected with the main rise over the north wing of the house, the debris still clung.  Branches, yellow papers specked black, shoes, toothbrushes.  Leaves and Mardi Gras beads and ball caps entrenched in the gutters.  All gathered up by the local winds and dropped all of the sudden across our roof when the rest of the Storm took its strength away.  All waiting for Dad’s ladder to tap around the border of the eaves and shuck it into bags.

Downstairs the banging resumed.  I walked to the edge of my bed and fell stuntman style back across it.  The window unit started leaking frigid moisture out its lower corner, and the too cool drops hit the back of my head, stinging, relieving, one more messy rhythm in our house.

The stereos were always on.  That’s the way it had always been, but without the neighbors and without the traffic, they seemed twice as loud.  Dad had one in his room.  Band logo stickers covered that one, wrapped around corners and overlapped on the tape trays.  Downstairs in the kitchen we had the piece of shit Aiwa with its off-balance carousel crammed between the toaster oven and the microwave.  The one-disc boombox traveled all over the front porch and the yard on an orange extension cord leash to right beside wherever Dad was working.  All the zipper albums rotated through the house, each sleeve filled.  The Melvins.  Pennywise.  Black Flag.  The Kennedys, Ramones, and Misfits.  All those prolific punk workhorses.  And dozens of guys I never knew were obscure until later.  If a disc got scratched, Dad said, “Time to go back to the archives.”  He’d stand spread-legged and digging in his closet, load up his arms with cassette cartons, and we’d draw our fingers down the plastic spines until we found the replacement tape.  “A trusty relic from the eighties,” Dad said, “just like me,” but trusty only went so far.  Half the tapes in the closet went warbly on certain songs, worn down from overplay.  It didn’t matter much to us; we knew all the words and all the notes like we’d written them ourselves.  Dad played the stereos loud and sang in a speak-tone voice along with them, always mimicking the band’s screams with a loud, extended breath from the back of his throat.  All that fall people walking down Mag would stop at the corner and lean, squint down the street, always keen to notice any source of sound in the quiet city.

I played fetch boy.

Get some oil, get the steering fluid.  Get the blue bottle, high mileage.  Grab another beer.  Find me two like these and one like this’n.  Fetch the receipt book.  Hose these rags out.  Circling around the client’s car, crawling through it like a playhouse.  One tap on the brakes.  One more.  Okay, now hold it down, both feet!

All kinds of cars crept around the corner of the block and rolled towards us on torque alone.  They had their heads tilted, expecting a shop, a garage, some kind of presentable building.  Not a gravel pit in front of a two-story home.  Some rolled right past us, ignoring Dad’s wave—their loss.  Dad worked for cheap and never lied about the way things worked underneath your hood.  We rarely had a slow day.

They brought us their beaters, bought on FEMA money and needing a few new bolts or belts to turn trusty.

They brought us their flooded sedans needing to be rid of their spongy carpets.

They brought us cars with no power, pushed them down the street in neutral, then sat on the curb and watched Dad work with t-shirts hung over their heads.

If the client stuck around, he got the same clinic I did, got Dad’s think-it-out out loud rundown, his voice disappearing with his head under the car or deep up into the wheel wells.  I’d stand there cross-armed and skeptical with the client, watching his fingers prod and twist and tug at the hoses and seals, tap twice on parts as he named them.

His hands visualized for all of us.  “Then we detach all this here and lift this panel up and right about here is the gear we’ll take out and the new one—hand me that new one, son—see?  This is the very one I’m putting in ya car.  Costs a little more but that’s only ‘cause the metal won’t flake off and wear down in six months like the cheapies will.  Ya got me?”

Sixty-five an hour, his unadjusted rate.  No markup on the parts.  That was about as fair as you were going to find, but you still had the few that wanted something for nothing.  Not charity, just advice.  No can do.  If you give them your time for free, they’re gonna take as much of it as they can, Dad said.  So he charged for advice: forty bucks for his analog, squint-eye diagnostics.  He was trustworthy, but he still had to sell it.  He had this closing routine, this matter of fact do-yourself-a-favor-brother tone that came on when he lifted the hood and swung the support rod back down.

“I don’t give estimates.  Watch your fingers.” Let the hood drop and slam, clap out a whiff of oily, gritty air, “I give prices.  I already know how long this’ll take me.”

When the day was done Dad tilted his big plywood sign and carried it back to lay alongside the house.  I coiled up the cords and chucked the tools back into their boxes.  We took turns listening to the other person taking a shower, honing in on the heavy, black drops of water splat onto the tile and scatter toward the drain.