His eyes were blue, Utah-blue, and his hands blue-veined in his fortieth year of adolescence. He leaned over the hood of my truck. Knowingly tapped a black metal dome.
“This is your carburetor,” he said with insulting carefulness, as if I wouldn’t have known.
I wouldn’t have known. “Cleaned her right out,” he asserted. “Oughta run like a top now.” He glanced at his young employee, whose overalls said “Jim”; they both were named Jim. The boy nodded, grinned.
I touched the carburetor lid myself. "Good," I said, "that's good. Because I have to drive through Wyoming next week . . . ."
"Never been there," the boy interrupted. Smiled a toothy smile. I stared. I knew I was playing right into it.
"But you only live thirty miles from the border!"
He ducked his head in negation. "Got no reason to go there."
Jim the Elder reeled our attention back in closer to his own fishing pond. "We figured out," he said, his eyes holding mine importantly, "that this truck was manufactured near the ocean."
My mind was still on the young Jim, borderphobic. "Near the ocean?"
"Yeah. Cause look at all this corrosion in the metal. It's from the salt in the air."
I focused where he was pointing. Little white pocks roughened the surface. I ran my finger over them. "No, it's not the ocean," I said. "See, where I used to live in New York, Rochester, they use way too much salt on the streets in the winter--all the cars are like this."
He squinted away from me. "No one uses that much salt. No. That's from sea air."
He turned his back, which meant I should follow him into the office to pay him. I gaped at Jim the Younger. "But it's the road salt," I repeated. He smirked.
In less than a day I knew the truck was running as badly as ever. At first I didn't know whether to be depressed--Bessie-Smith-level depressed--or furious. I chose furious. My next-door neighbor came over to my driveway to see what my tantrum was about.
"They said this was fixed!" I flung at him. I got back in the cab, set the choke, and turned the key. Nothing but mechanical wheezing.
My neighbor was frowning. "I know what it is," he announced. "Hold on. I'll get my tool box."
I was nervously pinching dead petals from the columbines. They know how to grow in arid air.
Jim the Elder was outside when I pulled onto the circular asphalt in front of his office. I rehearsed what I would say as he walked toward my truck. My case for a refund.
I had the door half-open. "Hi," I began bravely, when he was near enough to hear. "You know how you said cleaning the carburetor would fix this?" He raised his eyebrows, saying nothing.
I swallowed. "Well, that didn't work, so--"
The bright blue eyes stared flatly into mine. "Sounds like it's running fine today." He swung my door fully open.
"But that's because my neighbor fixed it," I said. "He bent the choke arm. That's all it needed. It's a lowlander truck, and now I'm driving it at a higher altitude. He says it needed air."
He dismissed this. "Can't do it with that make of Ford," he said. I was annoyed, then frightened, by his look. I froze my face polite. Suddenly he leaned right into the cab, across my chest; and no obscene alphabet could have translated the sick thud of my heart. Sick dance of his eyes.
In the Intermountain West there is a certain wistfulness about having compromised polygamy out of the package, so that Utah might become a state. Not that all the married men flirted while I was a newcomer there, but Jim didn’t mind at all, and his was a polychromatic attempt: cornflower eyes, and corncob teeth. I was breathing so conservatively--to avoid touching my chest to his--that my ribs hurt.
Or, then again, maybe I was such an obvious alien that he figured I had brought it on myself, as in some Middle Eastern countries where the locals yell Whore at foreign women who bare their faces in public or wear short-sleeved shirts. Apparently he had thought to make me weak with my heathen desire, because he backed his body out of the cab again with pornographic ease.
"Want us to fix that choke back again?" If you knew to listen for it, you could hear the titillated slur in his voice. My heart was slamming around below my collarbones. I didn't follow him out of the cab, but shut the door again and wound the window partway up. I started the truck.
"No. I don't." I said this jerkily. "You're right. It's running great. Now." I put the truck in drive, but kept my foot on the brake for a moment. "I--" At first, I couldn’t figure out how to finish the sentence. "I'll come back some other time." I tried to keep my eyes empty. Little Orphan Annie.
"You do that." He stood and watched, and beyond him in the office doorway Jim the Younger lounged and watched, while I lurched the truck out of the station. Neither waved.
"He's a jerk," my neighbor sympathized. "Want me to go talk to him?" I could see a martial stiffening in his hands through his work gloves.
"No, I'm on it," I said, pretending I knew how to live in my own life.
I went into the house and paced between the kitchen and the living room. “For nurture and furniture,” I joked aloud to myself. I knew if I chose furniture, I would just flop on the couch and end up with stress hormones sliding around in me. So I decided on nurture, food therapy. I stood at my counter and sifted together the dry parts of a batch of chocolate-chip cookies for my neighbor, to whom this place made sense.
It was a relief to add the milk and eggs. It reminded me of my first week out here, when I walked around the motel room with a damp cloth on my face because I had never breathed air that dry.
How impulsive I had been, sending resumes to places where I had never been, accepting an offer from someone I had never met. Hi. You’re in another culture. But now I was getting it down. I set the oven at an unreasonable heat, to compensate for the altitude. When I pulled the baking sheet out, the cookies weren’t the defeatist-looking things I had made the first couple of times around, before the woman across the street told me what was wrong with magazine recipes from sea-level cities.
I made sure I delivered the cookies to my neighbor’s wife, not to my neighbor directly. Other intricacies I was absorbing. It was okay to talk to a married man in the driveway—not to put food directly in his hands.
Then I got into the truck and kept driving until I crossed the Wyoming border. At the first crossroads I stopped, bought coffee at the tiny diner/general store/gas station, and sat outside on a bench denting the styrofoam cup in on itself under the bald intermountain sun.
The sky was bluer than I could believe, and all I could think of was the kindness of the middle-aged couples I had met here, who would never have to negotiate the traffic circles back where I was from or the tangles in another way of life. They never even drove to Salt Lake.
I could hear Patsy Cline coming on the radio inside--country blues--and the crossroads lady humming along. At first I was annoyed, the twangy guitar one more reason I didn't want to be here. But then I remembered that my neighbor, who was some kind of religious elder and was one of the most wonderful people on the earth, listened to Patsy Cline. And next I remembered that I liked country blues, too.
So, I went back inside, to find a gift for someone who needed a message from beyond. I had a choice between a postcard and a Moo-Cow Creamer, a small plastic pitcher in the shape of a cow that would pour milk through a square hole in its lip. I chose the postcard. It would have been rude to visit empty-handed.
During the short drive, I clicked around on my radio dial, looking for more country blues, but all I found was gospel. The sainted kind, not the ballsy kind.
When I idled into the service station, it was nearly closing time. Jim the Younger looked toward me vacantly, then loose-footed it into the glass-fronted office. I swung out of the cab and followed him. Jim the Elder leered from a stool behind the counter, wiping blackened hands on a rag.
"What can I do for you?" he asked, the cornflower eyes trying to climb into my clothes.
"I came to talk to you about that refund," I told him. I hitched the open front of my jacket closer together.
The younger mechanic's laugh was a snort. "Refund," he said to Jim the Elder.
“What refund? I cleaned your carburetor.”
“But you didn’t fix my truck.” I handed Jim the Younger the postcard. "Here," I said. "I brought you a present. From out there."
He turned the card over. Across a picture of cows milling in a stockyard it read WYOMING in curlicue script, with a caption underneath that boasted, "World-Famous Cattle." He glanced at me. He didn’t get it. It wasn’t about the cattle; the point was that it was an artefact from half an NPR program away. But Jim the Elder got off his chair and came around to my side of the counter.
"Refund," he repeated, staring at me as if I had asked him to retool a rhinoceros in the parking lot. I edged back.
"That repair job didn't work," I said, stubbornly.
He was close enough that I could smell his breath. He dropped his hard bright stare too far, slid right up next to me. My throat hurt from his gasoline-scented fingers, which weren’t doing anything.
My voice came from somewhere in the center of the room. "If you ever try to touch me again, I'll break your hands off."
The blue universe focused down to two narrow slits. Jim the Elder took a heavy step backward, acting out rage and shock for his assistant, who only looked stupid. When the older mechanic got his voice, it was staccato.
"What do you want?" he asked me, as if I were swinging a shotgun toward all the corners of his office.
"I want a refund." Say something enough times and it will sink in.
He was hurt to the soul. The world hung in his gaze. I counted in my head until he finally conceded, "Just stop payment on your check."
Then I knew that only caffeine was holding me upright. Jim the Younger wiped his lip with the back of his hand and told me softly, menacingly, "Get the hell out of here."
I looked from one to the other of them. The patriarchal framework was undamaged. But more importantly, so was I.
"The hell out," I said. “Done and done.”
For a moment, as I walked through the door, I mourned the archaic pain of all places that stood somewhere past the mountains. Places I had understood, though I didn’t belong there, either.
But the frontier sky was clear of guilt, clean as tomorrow, too innocent to need forgiveness. I got back into my truck. I drove into the brash blue.
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