Today’s Fiction Friday excerpt is from an outstanding and award-winning contemporary Catholic novel called “Passport.” Read my review here. The author is offering to give away a free copy of his novel to one of my readers. Leave a comment below to be entered to win a free book!
I should have lifted the car higher before I went to work on it. The rusted exhaust bolt was proving impossible to loosen without more leverage, and I wondered why I’d assumed this would be so easy. Should I give it one more shot of lubricant? Or give up and lift the ancient Mercedes higher?
The howling bark Flash gave as he charged across the garage floor, feet slipping on the concrete, snapped me off this rambling train of thought. I twisted my head toward the open door, but I couldn’t see much: just a small pair of tennis shoes, at the bottom of two jeans-clad legs, with Dalmatian paws running circles around them. I tried to slide out on the creeper, but I couldn’t get a grip on anything to push against. Rocking my back didn’t help. I was stuck.
Sneakers and dog paws approached the back of the car, and then I could see even less. The knees bent, and a face appeared under the bumper. Silky black hair hung down to her shoulders, and she brushed some of it away from her glasses as she peered into shadows. I managed to rotate the shop light in her direction, and she shaded her eyes with one of the tiniest hands I’d seen on an adult. I instantly recognized this was her left hand. A quick scan revealed no jewelry. Over the last seven years of “Wife Quest,” that scan had been honed to a reflex.
“Hi,” she smiled nervously, holding Flash off her face. “I am looking for Stan,” except she pronounced it “Stahn.” “Is Stahn here?”
“That would be me,” I replied. “Stan Eigenbauer. Except there’s a problem. I’m stuck under here.”
“Can I help?” she asked.
“Yeah. Problem is, I can’t get enough leverage to push myself out. Can you just grab one of my feet and start pulling?”
I heard a laugh, then felt two little hands encircle my ankle. It took just a bit of a tug before I’d moved enough to grab the car’s axle. From there, it was easy to push the rest of the way out and sit up.
“Thanks,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
I climbed to my feet and brushed off my overalls. The top of her head came to about the middle of my chest.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer immediately. She seemed fascinated by the vintage Volvos and Mercedes in various stages of restoration, the rows of wrenches hanging in size order on the wall above my work bench, and the myriad other specialty tools and implements. She turned and gave a blank look, as if she couldn’t remember why she’d come. “Oh!” she exclaimed at last, “Angie said perhaps it is possible for you to repair my car. But I do not see any cars here that look like mine. My car is running really bad.”
Her English was nearly perfect, just heavily accented. The way she ran the words together, she sounded almost frantic.
“How do you know Angie?” I asked.
“I attended a class she was teaching at a church, a few years ago.”
Good Catholic girl. Attractive. Angie sent her over to me. This could be interesting.
“She’s really nice, isn’t she? Haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks. She must be busy trying to finish up with school.” I grabbed a rag and wiped my hands as she followed me toward the service bay door. “Your car’s out here?”
She pointed to one of the sorriest excuses for a Honda Civic I’d ever seen. A layer of grime covered everything, the passenger door was bashed in, and one of the taillights had red tape holding it together. As I pulled the hood release, she exclaimed, “Oh! So that is how it opens!”
The motor wheezed like it was begging to be put out of its misery. “How long you had this thing?” I asked.
“I am not certain. Perhaps three years?”
“What’ve you had done to it since you got it?” I asked, more loudly, struggling to be heard over the engine.
“I took it to one of those oil change places once, but a long time ago.”
I reached above my head, grabbed the hood, and glanced over at her. She was little, and so cute in her helplessness. “Tell you what,” I said at last, hero impulse surging through me, “let me bring all the basic maintenance up to date. I’ll change the oil, flush the radiator, change the filters, and give you new spark plugs.”
She nodded like she understood, but it was unconvincing.
“Let’s see how it runs then. If there are still problems, we can look at them. But maybe that’ll take care of it.”
“What will that cost?” she asked, brow furrowed with concern.
“At any other place, probably several hundred dollars. They’d rip you off, and still say your car needed more work.”
Her eyes got really big.
“But I’ll just charge you for the parts. I like seeing Angie’s friends happy. That’s enough for my time.” I wanted to add, “For a good-looking girl like you.”
“How do you do that, and stay in business?” she asked.
“I’m not really in business. The old cars here are mine. I have a friend who hauls them from California. I make them run perfect, and sell them in Chicago, where no one can find cars like these.”
“So why do you work on my car?”
“I work on a few people’s cars, on the side, under the table, when they’re sent by friends. It’s not illegal or anything, because it’s basically at cost.”
“In Vietnam,” she laughed, “everything is done under the table and on the side.”
“Yeah,” I chuckled, “big government’ll do that to you. You need a ride home?”
She looked surprised, as if she hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I was going to try to find a bus. But if you do not mind, sure.”
I called Flash, and he jumped into the back seat of my 1968 300 SEL. The girl looked surprised as I opened the passenger door for her, but she climbed in and smiled again. Her feet barely reached the floor. “Not sure I have ever ridden in a Mercedes,” she said, looking around at the car’s cavernous body.
I maneuvered the car down the alley, jogged over to Clark Street, and cruised north past a block or two of shabby storefronts. “Take Lawrence over to Broadway and go north,” she instructed.
As the high stone walls of St. Boniface Cemetery came into view at Clark and Lawrence, I said a quick silent prayer for my parents, as I always tried to remember to do—and then had to turn my attention to navigating the early evening congestion on Lawrence.
“You know,” I said, once we settled in at a traffic light, “I never got your name. I’m going to need that, and your phone number, so I can let you know when your car’s ready.” I couldn’t remember a better excuse to get a woman’s phone number.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I am Trinh. Trinh Le. I will write my work number and home number for you.”
I gazed out the window, at kids laughing and racing their scooters on the sidewalk, as she fumbled in her purse. We turned north onto Broadway, and were headed straight toward the Southeast Asian district. “You mentioned Vietnam. You Vietnamese?”
“Correct,” she said, finding a pen and paper.
It was warm for early April, and I slid the sunroof open. Flash whimpered, so I flipped the lever and lowered his window. He perched his front paws on the door and stuck his muzzle out.
Once Trinh handed me the paper, I continued my investigation. “Lived in Chicago long?”
“Ever since I came to America. Ever since . . . eighteen years now. I was thirteen when I came here.”
She looked young for 31, and there wasn’t anything in particular about her slight frame that was obviously beautiful, but she was cute. The accent, and the way she spoke English without using contractions, were especially so. Her attractiveness came from everything taken as a whole. The more I looked at and listened to her, the more attractive she seemed.
“How long have you worked on Mercedes?” she asked.
“About as long as I can remember. My dad was a professional mechanic, and had me working on stuff basically as soon as I could walk.”
“Oh, turn right here,” she said.
We pulled onto Argyle, the heart of “New Chinatown,” and now almost everyone out enjoying the sunny afternoon appeared to be of Southeast Asian descent. All the shops seemed to have signs in English and Vietnamese or Thai, and the dinnertime smells wafting from the restaurants were making me hungry. I made a mental note to pick up some carry-out on the way home.
Copyright 2009 Christopher Blunt