Lunula

Prick of the Spindle is a biannual print journal with often arresting and original artwork and a diverse lineup of short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. My short story, “Lunula,” was just published in Issue 9 (Fall/Winter 2015). Below I excerpt the introduction and a link to the web site, where the print issue can be purchased.

The day I smashed my thumb in the driver’s side door of a ’62 Olds Dynamic 88 hardtop, the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” was a big hit. It played on WLS from Chicago almost every hour. It was on the radio as Jimmy Smith steered the Olds two-door into the right-hand bay of the Sunoco gas station. Singing the lines, “Sugar Pie, Honeybunch”—which made me think of Natalie—Jimmy danced before getting to the job. He wasn’t much of a dancer. More like a linebacker in a ballet. My asparagus-stalk body had better moves on the dance floor than his big hulk did. But he did something I’d appreciate years later. He performed a kind of moonwalk—heavy, gliding, ghostly, but still a moonwalk—right there on the concrete floor of a station in small-town Michigan. He did a moonwalk before Michael Jackson made it famous. When the song was over, Jimmy stretched his arms over his head. He brought them forward and, holding them chest-high, pressed his hands together so that his biceps rippled. I’d seen biceps like that only in the “Charles Atlas” ads in the car magazines I looked at from time to time. The short sleeves of his blue Sunoco shirt were ready to explode. I wondered then why Jimmy, six inches taller than me, didn’t just call me “Benny” instead of “Benjamin.”

Jimmy started with an engine wash. It was dirty work, toxic as hell, and I could see greenish-black iridescent slime streaming off the greasy engine and down into the floor drain to who-knew-where. Maybe it was piped into the sluggish St. Joseph River, because those were the days when we dumped used batteries and oil directly into the ravine a mile from the station. Jimmy had me hose down the engine once he sprayed it with whatever radioactive substance he used. Some of the cleaning gunk splattered and I felt a burning sensation on my hands and forearms. My right hand would burn a lot more once I slammed the door on it, but that wouldn’t happen for another forty-five minutes.

Once the engine looked almost new, Jimmy dove into the interior. He told me to clean the inside of the windows while he vacuumed the floors and upholstery. He was like a mad anteater when he vacuumed, as if he had a grudge against every splotch of dirt, every French fry under the front seats, every cookie crumb left by some kid who didn’t understand that the cleanliness of a man’s car was a reflection of his being. He was Patton against Hitler, relentless in his struggle against dirt’s reign of terror. He was as profane as Patton too. He muttered “God damn it!” when he jammed his big knuckles feeling under the driver’s seat for loose change. He spit out “fuck!” several times when he vacuumed under the steering wheel, always the dirtiest spot in the interior, even if the owner placed the floor mats just so. It was the hardest spot to reach for a big man like Jimmy.

The green carpet on this car was so soiled that Jimmy resorted to the flowery-smelling pink cleaning agent Sunoco gave its stations. It came in an unmarked plastic spray bottle, which Jimmy wielded like a gardener spraying a prize orchid. He made a small spritz under the brake pedal, then up in the right corner, where the driver’s shoe always scuffed the carpeted transmission tunnel. Once he had the dirt out, he was careful that the scrubbed section’s nap matched the rest of the carpet.

Meanwhile, I sprayed vinyl conditioner on the light green dash and console. Jimmy liked the vinyl to shine like new; no streaks or splotches. I knew that when we drove the car out into the sunlight, Jimmy would get in the back seat and look at the dash from a distance to see if the shine was uniform. He wanted perspective, like a Monet or a Feininger. He wanted to see if the transformative effect he’d been looking for had been achieved. Then he’d get into the front seat to check all the dashboard controls for dust or fingerprints. Those controls had to look pristine, as if no human hand had ever touched them. Virginal. Several times that summer, he’d made me redo the job, which irked me. But once I got to be a veteran of the detailing wars, I understood what Jimmy wanted, and his satisfaction became my only goal. I found that polishing the dashboard, working the dampened rag into the crevices around the speedometer, dusting each button on the radio, had a surprisingly calming effect on me.

Jimmy was in his early thirties and the best auto detailer in Benton Harbor, maybe in Michigan. It was mid-August 1966, and he worked at my father’s gas station on the corner of Fair and Britain, in a neighborhood where most folks went to the African Methodist church and music by James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and The Supremes blared from open doors and windows on simmering summer nights. Jimmy’s full name was James Elijah Smith. When his friends stopped by the station to shoot the breeze they called him “James,” and I heard his mother call him that when she stopped in to get gas for her ancient, impeccably clean Buick. But we at the Sunoco called him “Jimmy,” and maybe we were the only ones on the planet who did that.

My father thought it would be good for me, a junior in high school, to learn the gas station business. He figured that soon, I’d escape St. Joseph, a snooty, chalk-white little town across the river from mostly black Benton Harbor. I’d want to go to college, and he knew I could because he always told me, “study hard,” which I did. I was the class salutatorian when I graduated, which was funny, because I didn’t know there was such a thing until they said, “you’re it.” But I was weak, my father thought, too bookish, too lost in ideas and daydreams, and so waiting on cars, doing oil changes, repairing flat tires, and working with Jimmy washing and waxing cars—all that would help me learn about “the real world” before I took up with the hippies and braless women at the university in East Lansing.

When the Olds’ door mangled my thumb, I was still getting over the night before, when my steady girl Natalie told me she wanted to date around. Things were too serious between us, she said, my hands were roving too freely, it was time to cool it. Maybe that was why my brain froze every few minutes when I was working with Jimmy—Natalie had put me in cold storage—and the door-slamming event happened during one of my personal little Ice Ages. I didn’t break the thumb, but the accident left an ugly blue-black-purple nail that disappeared only after a new nail grew in its place.

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