Terrance Manning, Jr.
Andretti in the El Camino
Winner of the 2013 Boulevard
Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers
My father used to make us march in the kitchen. We’d line up along the wall as he called Attention, and, Forward; step fucking forward, and we’d keep our backs all stiff and straight, hands at our sides, thinking it must have been difficult to stand more forward than that. He was a short man, but could be a giant when he wanted. He’d lean against the counter drinking a beer while we marched, stopping as he demanded, and starting again. There were three of us, four if you counted my mother standing behind him, arms crossed, staring at the kitchen floor. I had two brothers — one older, and one younger. Each of us was given a plate to hold. I remember that — the plates, off-white with gold lining the edges. In the middle were roses, ruby red and lying, it seemed, in their own shadow. He’d say something like, Keep it safe, now. You break it, you won’t eat, will you, and we’d grip those damn plates, white-knuckled and quiet, until he sent us to bed or gave us the belt or walked back out into the winter night, and my mother would take the opportunity to usher us into the bedroom and lock the door.
It wasn’t every night we marched but often enough for me to see it still, clearly, as if I’d just been in that house, the one with the basement we’d never entered, a back window overlooking Duquesne Valley. And the music —Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd, The Doors singing in the kitchen. Always nighttime in the memory—my father, sawdust on the floor, brown-panel walls.
When he died, I was ten, and I’d hold onto the memory of those nights marching, trying somehow to re-color them, reconstruct them, to see my brothers’ faces, Dean bright red, and Luke a stone, staring hard at the floor. But they disintegrated over time, and I was left with marching, music, a few lines he’d slurred like, Chin up, boy, or, Wipe away those pussy tears. It kills me because there’s more, I know it. Him smiling, dancing. I can see him digging in the front yard. Dirt. Or running in from the rain laughing, kicking boot snow on the brick before he came inside —that hollow sound of his steel-toes. Cancer was only a word. And it’s frustrating, really, to remember the marching, but it’s clear to me, accessible, vivid. I can have it when I want it, and I take it often.
Nine years I worked for Particle Restoration, an asbestos removal company in Dormont, PA —specializing in fibril insulation, boiler mortar, and for what seemed like the entire ninth year, insulated pipe—mainly commercial—though Joe, a new guy, talked about breaking off, working residential exclusively. Said if we came, too, he’d double our pay for four years. We’d buy vans, a vacuum system. Before we knew it, we’d be Particle Restoration’s largest competitor. But he was still new, still fresh, still excited to get back into the contamination zone in the morning, and like me, he’d work until we’d removed an entire feed-water section, until we’d sanded every pipe, watered down, and sealed off every scraped, every gutted, every salvaged section. He hadn’t had a chance to hate it yet, to scrub his face in the mirror, night after night, blowing his nose in the sink to rinse away the smell of polyethylene sheeting, and sealant, and plastic.
It’s no secret that my father installed asbestos from the time he graduated high school in ’67 until they outlawed it in the eighties, then for another few years while his company was granted permission to finish out the remainder of its insulating contracts into the nineties. It was Tim Brady, in fact, my father’s best friend, that had gotten me the job at P&R when I was seventeen.
“Jay Shoeman,” he’d said after the application. “Greg’s oldest boy, picking up the family trade.”
Tim, like many of the guys that had worked for my father’s company, who split off and landed low-tiered jobs at new insulating branches around Pittsburgh, started working for P&R when it opened. Other guys picked up carpentry, or sales. And others, like my father, after insulation work, withered from mesothelioma.
“Middle,” I told Tim.
“Right,” he said, smiling up from his desk, hair thick gray and combed neatly to the side. “It’s been a long time. Greg was born an insulator. I’m sure it’s in the blood.”
“I’m sure it is,” I said.
“We’ve got a contract in Rochester, so for now, you’ll be driving. But the work, Jay — it has a way of coming home.”
And Tim was right. We worked the Rochester job nearly a year, removing from seventy-two buildings before we left. After Rochester, we moved to Breezewood, then Bedford, and slowly, back into Mt. Pleasant, Mt. Lebanon, edging around Pittsburgh for years, until eventually, in my ninth year, we started the “Homestead Contract” — same contract my father had worked before asbestos was outlawed. It had come home. For six months I scraped mortar, cleaned out and decontaminated everything he and his company had installed. At first, it was fine, but a few months in, I started waking in the morning breathless, hacking hours into the night. A cold, or the flu, I was sure.
It was late January in Pittsburgh, when the snow seems like it’s just begun and never ended all at once. Nights are biting cold, sidewalks perpetually ice and salt, and the streets, it seems, crack right beneath the feet. The loss of breath is what frightened me, sounding much like my father had in the end: him in the basement coughing, him wheezing middle of the night, him spitting in the sink.
On the phone, my mother said I worried too much. “You’re human, Jay. You’re allowed to get sick.”
“Of course,” I told her. “It’s a cold, Ma.” But still, there was something dank in the buildings we’d been into, something dry, like asbestos dust around the pipes, that I swore started penetrating my respirator. At work, I demanded a new one, and then another. Everyday, I burned through respirators. After nine damn years, I figured I’d take as many as I wanted.
Some days, I branched off from everyone. I’d be hosing a section, hanging poly-sheet, and suddenly, I was alone, my respirator breath and the rustle of my thread-whites the only sound. Not even the job radio reached me. But I liked being away from the younger guys, all the bullshit they talked about: drinking, girls they claimed they’d screwed. Alone, I could think about the pipes, sand them back to cast iron or straight steel. I could seal slowly, making sure not to miss a spot, not to leave one fiber exposed, or one fiber floating in the air for some unsuspecting bastard to breathe after we’d labeled the site decontaminated and left. Those boys weren’t serious. I had bills. I owned things. Like the El Camino — 1972 Chevy four-speed, pearl black with two gray stripes up the hood—that was my father’s. He and my Uncle Ricky bought it together in ’74, after my uncle had come home from Vietnam, two tours and a purple heart. My father hadn’t gone —his number never called in the lottery. By the time I was born, he’d already driven, wrecked, and abandoned the Camino in the yard.
I’d owned the thing a year when we got the Homestead contract — bought it from my Uncle Ricky, who inherited the responsibility of it after my father was gone. I wanted to restore it, but restoration took time and money. I wanted to get it running before starting body work, rebuilding the front end, or the frame that had dropped out that night on Cotton Road, when my father was driving home from work, drunk-eyed and tired, probably listening to some Springsteen, or the highway, or the Monongahela, or maybe there was only the sound of the Camino’s engine — an echo in the valley.
There’s a story my mother told me once about my father. About before: before my brother Dean moved to New York; before Luke, my younger brother, lost his first of many jobs, still too young to party, too young to run away and come home, go to rehab, get strong, and run away again.
We were drinking coffee, laughing. I’d just started at P&R, mentioned Tim, how he must’ve thought I didn’t remember him.
“But of course I did.”
“Of course you did,” my mother smiled. “Tim was always around back then.”
“Taught Dean to whistle. Remember that?”
“Of course I do.” I thought of my brother blowing into his fingers, frustrated when he couldn’t get it, crying angrily. So ridiculous to be so caught up in whistling. Though, like everything else Dean did, he mastered it. And after that, you could hear him from the woods, from the living room, the street, blowing loud through his fingers, and we’d roll our eyes saying, He’s the whistler on the roof!
“Whistler on the roof,” I said.
We laughed, and I thought of telling her that Tim had taught me, too. Taught me to pronounce my L’s. Every time he’d see me: lucky lady looking for you. I loved that — lucky lady. It stuck with me. Before then, I talked like I had a Jolly Rancher in my mouth. Before Tim, I wouldn’t speak, and my father called me Mickey Mute — thought he was clever for it.
But with my mother, I left that memory out, as I did with Tim in his office. In fact, I’d hoped he didn’t remember me, or my father’s nickname, and instead, he’d look at me like an asbestos man, a guy that could do the work as good as his father. I hoped, in some way, that Tim and I could start over. He wouldn’t have been there after my father’s accident, like Dean described, bringing groceries mid-winter. He wouldn’t have come the night my father kicked the bathroom door in, where my brothers and I hid with my mother. And when my father grew sick, Tim wouldn’t have cut firewood for us, hung a tree- tire swing, or built a rabbit cage for Luke’s bunny that died the same winter as my father.
“Helped Uncle Ricky pull the Camino from the backyard. Maybe the last time I’d seen him,” I said to my mother.
“Rick brought that old dump truck,” she said. “Hilarious, the fool.”
We laughed, pretending the day Uncle Ricky and Tim dragged the Camino out was funny: dump truck stalling, my uncle so frustrated he fell down the muddy hillside and stood up with mud on his chest and face. But no one laughed then. Tim tried to help, but my uncle jumped back in the truck, ripping the Camino apart worse than my father’s accident. I stood beside my brothers, and my mother stood alone. We listened to the dump truck beeping, steel tearing, tires spinning, my uncle cussing through his cigarette. When he got the Camino to the top of the yard, he unhitched the chains from the frame, turned around punching the hood, shouting, You goddamned son-of-a-bitch, and we turned our heads.
In the kitchen, we didn’t mention that part either. “You know,” my mother said. “Your father bought that car, and he’d sit in the driveway revving that obnoxious engine.” She sipped her coffee, smiled. “I was such a sucker. Such a silly car. He talked about giving it to Dean, taking a trip. I’d remind him it was also his brother’s, and he’d tell me to hell with Rick, and we’d laugh.”
“Bet he never said that to Uncle Rick.”
“Bet he did,” she said. “Those two were always fighting. You’d think they’d kill each other.”
“Surprised they didn’t.”
She paused, finding her story. “Dean was just a baby. When your grandmother was alive, she was greedy with him, and your father and I used to drive into Perry. That first summer, we’d park at the top of the hill —”
“Stop now,” I laughed.
“No, no,” she said. “It’s not like that. We could see our neighborhood, where there’s a tree-line now and an abandoned playground at the bottom. We’d climb in the Camino’s bed like teenaged kids, and back then, I guess, we still had dreams.”
“I bet,” I said, uncomfortable hearing her speak of a man I’d known differently.
She looked embarrassed. “Of course there were,” she said.
Rebuilding the Camino made sense when I bought it from my uncle. I imagined calling Luke to come and see it, asking if he remembered it those years, decomposing in the rain, rusting. I imagined Dean home,
too, for the weekend, just to see Dad’s Camino restored. Though, he hadn’t called in a year. We hadn’t talked much since he took the job in New York — no particular reason. We’d gotten busy with our lives. No time to talk the way we did when we were kids: girls we’d been with, plans to build a gas station, or a weld shop. No more stories of my father —how before the accident, he’d roll his sleeves up on his shirts always, call people man or brother. How everyday he hummed. How he gardened, planted tomatoes — cooked them green in the kitchen, shirtless, the smell filling up the house those mornings: my father still strong. No limp the way I remembered. No buckled knee. Dean even said that my father carried a television once, a thirty-inch box screen, up the steps on his back.
From what I know, my father wrecked the Camino coming home from work. No one says if he’d been drinking, or if he’d fallen asleep. He was speeding over a hump down Cotton Road when the frame snapped and he wrapped the guardrail, nearly tore his leg off. Afterwards, in the hospital, they say he sat Dean on the bed, gathered the family, and said a bear had saved his life that night. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and thank God, because just as the car turned into the rail, a bear appeared roaring in the windshield, and frightened him. He dove into the passenger side as the steering column smashed through his seat. Uncle Ricky says it was a reflection, that the Goddamned son-of-bitch scared the hell out of himself. Saved his own damn life. And we’d laugh.
Luke, despite always needing money, was the one I kept most in touch with — always crashing on my couch, losing his job, another girlfriend. He spoke of getting his life together, getting a real job, like mine at P&R. He had plans for a degree in chemistry, becoming a pharmacist. He loved that. Some days he called himself the doctor, as if he’d already gone to school, or as if the name gave substance to his plans, a reality. He promised that if he had a little extra cash, he’d make big things happen. But right then, parts needed working out. He knew I’d lend him money, and I didn’t mind. I was glad to see him. Working on the Camino, I enjoyed the company.
At work, we advanced the Homestead contract. If we pushed, we could finish by spring. Until then, we’d enter buildings in freezing conditions — pipes so cold we were scraping ice.
In February, we were building shower tents to wash between contamination and decontamination zones. Middle of winter, there was nothing like sweating in a plastic suit, asbestos kicking up like snow, and showering on the jobsite. Young guys loved it. For them, I guess, they were back in the locker room —standing with these damn bars of soap in their hands laughing like they were about to dress up and head to prom.
“You should come fishing this weekend,” Joe said, raising the tent pin.
“Nah, I’m working. Thought you were too.”
“When we open Residential Removals, I’ll work weekends,” he said. “Not for this place.”
“I’m busy.” I climbed the ladder with a roll of poly-sheet. “And if I wasn’t, I’d be finishing the Camino.” At the top of the ladder, I coughed, just once, but enough to start wheezing.
“You alright?” Joe yelled. He looked young from where I stood: head shaved, his ears sticking out all tiny and mashed like a wrestler’s. For a second, he looked like my brother, like Luke.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Damn cold,” I said, clearing my throat. “You should see it though, the Camino. A fucking beauty.” And that was the truth. Despite the pieces, the wreckage, beneath the thing was something powerful, glowing, though glow was my uncle’s word. Sure glows, he’d said over and over the night we dropped it at my house, pulled it off the flatbed, and dragged it into the garage.
I paid him cash, and he helped me switch the title. Uncle Ricky was a good guy, my dad’s elder brother: tall bastard with coal black hair all combed over and wet, but sharp. He was a superintendent in the carpenter’s union, and he let everybody know: On my site, I’m the hard ball, the iron fist. Somebody’s got to be the bad guy. Always a cigarette in his mouth, pocket tee tucked-in tight, blue jeans, boots, and he smelled like cool-waters aftershave. Our old man was military, he’d say. Taught Daddy and me to present ourselves —shit, shower, and shave—whether there’s work at the mill or work at the docks. And that man survived the Great Depression!
People respected Uncle Ricky. He was enormously strong, even into his sixties. Cocky, too. Always telling me to step up, be a man, get out of the tents, and move into an office over at P&R. Said that’s what he did, took control of his situation — as a man does. Luke couldn’t stand him, called him Asshole. Dean always seemed to know something everyone else didn’t. But me: I felt close to him. Ignored his snubs, his condescension, his smart-assed, prick remarks about work, or getting a girlfriend.
In the garage that night, we paid the tow and talked about the Camino, and my father — as if it came with the car.
“This car’s become quite the legend,” he said. “Your daddy and me picked it up together. All the way in Allentown. Few hours, but worth the trip.” He lit a cigarette. “Your daddy heard about it from a buddy. Got it in his mind, and that was it. That’s how he was: get an idea and drive it home. He wouldn’t let up about this damn Camino. Called it a gentleman’s ride, a real American muscle car. And he hadn’t even seen the thing!”
I laughed and kicked the tire, looking down at it: faded black, rust rising up like flames eating away at the body. “Come a long way since that night, hasn’t it?”
“Sure has,” he said.
“And the legend stands?”
“Sure it stands.”
“People say Andretti touched it. They say, maybe, even owned it.”
“That’s bullshit, Jay. You know better.” He looked inside the car toward bits of bark, leaves, and dirt accumulated on the cracked interior. “More than touched it. I was there and seen it myself.”
I grabbed a milk crate full of greasy bolts and gasket shards and dumped it on the floor. Turned the crate and sat down. “Dean told me you guys bought the car and left. Said Andretti might have been there, but he never touched the Camino.”
“Dean got no imagination,” my uncle snapped. “He don’t see something with his own eyes, he thinks it’s not the truth. He got no hope, no nothing. Sometimes, I swear to God, I believe that boy was born a goddamned log. You think your daddy’s the kind of sonofabitch to hear Mario Andretti touched his car, and leave. He’s not and neither am I.” He smoked. “Your daddy was a dreamer. Not like Dean. He heard about that car and didn’t let up until we drove out mid-summer, and hot like July should be hot. That was 1974. We didn’t stay inside an air-conditioned house. We went out to sweat in the sun. That summer, heat kept up into night. We took the breezeway past Allentown, where the locals raced fast cars, real cars, strong cars, the way they used to be. And there it was, the ’72 El Camino, just like your daddy described it: black like the night, chrome mirrors, chrome rims, enough goddamned chrome to keep a boy busy polishing for months.”
“Enough rust now to polish for years,” I laughed.
“You shut your mouth,” he said, not smiling. “Let me tell you this. Your daddy and me intended to buy it and come home. Things changed. Andretti wasn’t just there. He was leaning on the hood of the Camino.”
“This hood,” he said, tapping the hood with his middle finger. “Said he’d heard about it, too. And he’d come there to race it.”
I wanted to laugh as my uncle told the story: Mario Andretti racing my father’s Camino. But he kept pausing, staring into the Camino as if he could see it there again: pearl black and running — before the wreck or the rust or the vanished glow, and it was alive again, humming, breathing from the exhaust, a monster engine with a pretty hood and power beneath it. I couldn’t laugh. Instead, I felt frightened watching him, sad for him, uncomfortable. “And he raced it?” I asked.
“Sure did,” he said. “Your daddy and me leaned on that fence like everyone else, shaking the metal with our fists when Andretti passed by, engine roaring. My God, we were kids. In our twenties. Your crazy sonofabitch daddy was thrilled. Smiled like a fool. Hell, so did I.”
“Of course he won. He’s Mario Andretti —the king. Pulled off the track and handed those keys to us in front of everyone.”
“That’s hard to believe,” I said, meaning it less sneeringly than it sounded. “It’s the truth. He handed us the keys and left.”
“I’d have liked to see that,” I said, trying to imagine the look on my father’s face, my father in his twenties, red-cheeked and stupid, thinking he’d witnessed something unreal, or that he’d been handed a gift, a legacy, that he’d driven away from Allentown in more than an El Camino. He’d driven away laughing and stunned with his brother close behind, smiling still at each other in the mirrors, probably wishing the entire time to talk about what they’d seen, but unable to for hours. Must have killed him. My father got excited, he carried it with him. I remember that much. When he was happy, he was happy as hell. When he was angry, we sure as hell knew it.
But in the garage with my uncle, I didn’t talk about the reality of my father, the one I’d known. I wanted Uncle Ricky’s story to be the reality, the man my father might have been. Uncle Ricky was a better source of truth. Said things about my father like, A good man, and, A dreamer, a big heart, a hard-working sonofabitch, and I was too ashamed to tell him that I wished I could see it that way, too, wished I wasn’t left with little else but the marching, a few images of him closing a window in the bedroom, or chopping wood out back of the house.
Then trying to reconstruct my father’s voice the way I’d like to have imagined in my uncle’s story, I was leaning suddenly from a ladder at work, the Homestead contract a dark stretch of seventeen blocks around me, and I was trying to breathe.
Off balance, I grabbed the center pin and braced myself to fall.
When I hit, I expected to break my legs, at least an arm, but I hopped up feeling shocked, Joe gripping the tent I’d collapsed. Other guys ran to see if I was okay.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” I brushed it off, mumbling, Damn cold, until they went back to work and Joe gave me a look like I somehow knew him better than the other guys, as if I should tell him the truth, that I was tired or something, too tired, and should rest.
“The fuck you looking at,” I said.
“You’re sick, man—probably the flu. You should take a day.”
“I’m fine. It happens; you’ll see. You’re new.”
“I’m new, not stupid.” He laughed. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Take a day. It’s just a job.”
“Just a job,” I mocked, a little meanly. “For you, I’m sure. You’ll be here what? A year?” I dropped the plastic. “I’ve seen it before: idiots like you. I’m no pussy, Joe. I can hack it. Maybe you need the day. How about you take a day off, quit your fucking job. I don’t give a damn. I’m working. I’m finishing the contract.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s what I do,” I said, feeling angry, embarrassed, trying somehow to justify myself, thinking, I’m an asbestos guy. It’s in my blood. My dad was an asbestos guy, too. And he took it with him, or it took him. Those young guys, they couldn’t hack it the way a Shoeman did. I believed that. So I looked at Joe again and told him, “I’m no pussy. I hang onto my plate, brother. Keep hold of yours.”
That Sunday, my brother Luke stopped in the garage to see me, talking again about the tiny dramas in his life, how he wanted to straighten out. “I just need a couple dollars,” he said. “You’ve been working all that overtime. You got the cash, man.”
Seemed I had the Camino in a worse-off state than before. Had most of the body hanging on the walls while I looked online everyday for a deal on a hood, a front fender, a passenger door. The rest was half-sanded or primed. Engine spread out in crates, oily boxes. My uncle stopped in sometimes saying if he had time, if the guys over on his site didn’t need him so badly, he’d come over and show me how to work the way him and my father had in the old days.
“What for, Luke?”
“Bills, man. Shit adds up. Third time I’ve had to hide my car at someone’s place. If I don’t, they’ll take it.”
“The bank. It’s a fucking scam though, man, the whole bank business. I just want to get caught up and get them out of my life.”
“I don’t have it,” I said, my arms inside the car and reached around the remains of the front seat, trying to pull it up from the bolts. In the passenger seat, beneath a pile of leaves, was the steering wheel. I could hardly believe it, as if I’d imagined it, but the thing was there. I climbed inside.
Luke walked around the Camino, looked at me through dirty glass. “I talked to Mom.”
“Good,” I said. “It’s good you’re talking.” Settling into the seat, I brought the wheel up to my chest and looked through the empty space —where the windshield had once been —at my brother, noticing his skinny face, remembering for a moment the way he’d been the only one of us that never cried when we were kids. Even Dean, the hard-ass, had cried, but Luke, he held onto his plate, as if he could transcend — just a boy, but powerful. I’d admired that. “How much you need?”
He peered through the space. “Three twenty-seven, for the car.” Always an exact amount. Thirteen dollars for gas. A hundred and eight for my cell phone. “I know you’ve been working.”
“I’m always working.” I set the wheel back onto the floor, noticing again the resemblance between Luke and Joe, but I felt too tired to say it. A few nights that week I’d worked second shift. Once everybody left, I went back in and worked without my contamination suit — to move faster, more freely through my father’s work. I imagined that all the asbestos had been installed by him, that in some way, as I peeled back sheets of it, dropping chunks into the glove box, I was breaking pieces of him away from the buildings. In the morning, I’d shower in the tents, sit outside a few minutes, and dress with the morning crew. Might’ve done it every night, but I needed to sleep. I needed to work on the car. If I didn’t, I imagined it torn apart in the garage, my uncle laughing that he’d have finished already, telling me that as a super in the carpenter’s, he’d have fired me by then. Andretti in the El Camino
“I’ll write you a check,” I said, wanting to lean my head back on the torn, mud-covered Camino seat and sleep.
“I need cash,” he said. “It’s easier that way.”
“Sure, Joe,” I said. “I’ll give you cash.”
“Jay, wake up,” he said. “I’m Luke. Who’s Joe? Are you asleep?”
“I’m fine,” I opened my eyes. Suddenly, I wanted to tell him that the work, the asbestos, had expanded me in some way, that there was a strength growing inside of me.
“Why are you re-building the Camino, Jay?”
“For Mom,” I said. “I’ll get you cash.”
“It seems unreasonable, is all.”
“Unreasonable,” I said. “Making our mother happy is unreasonable. You should try it. Try anything, Luke.” “
I’m sorry,” he said, turning. “I know how hard you’re working.” And I felt bad, like some asshole. But part of me knew he had more to say, that he might have said it if I hadn’t lent him money. Part of me didn’t want to hear it. Part of me wanted to give him the cash, help him, telling myself, That’s my brother, to make it right. A guy takes care of his brother. And the rest of me wanted to finish the Camino, unreasonable or not, telling myself it was for my mother, though some nights in the garage, with the radio a low drone, and running my fingers down the twisted sides of the car, I would imagine I was there the night my father wrecked, that I was a roaring bear, or the singing radio, or my screaming father, or that I was Andretti in the El Camino, racing home to see my family, to hold my son, and sing to him, long before the pain set in, before the night slid away somehow and disappeared.
Weeks passed, and the city ached with winter. All the buildings in Pittsburgh, it seemed, were a frost. We had seven buildings left in the contract. After Homestead, I wondered where the work would go. We were great removers, erasers of cities wrapped in the noxious arms our fathers had wrapped them in. But as the contract began to close, I gave myself over to it and avoided it all at once.
On the job, Joe moved up from tent-man to glove-boxer like me. We’d see each other in the morning. We’d nod or wave as we suited up ,and he’d take his own tent-man to another floor to train him like I’d trained Joe, maybe enlisting the kid in his residential removal army. I hoped so. Hoped he enlisted everyone at P&R and shut the place down because after Homestead, there was no place left to go — not commercially. Maybe I’d go, too. I imagined some big farewell: me standing in the empty warehouse, where miles of tubing had once lain, or crates loaded down with boiler flanges rotted, or boxes stacked to the ceiling with ketchup leaked like blood onto the pigeon-shit floor —last man in the building. Tim would come to meet me. He’d tell me, Welcome home, Jay, and smile, thick gray hair a statement to the years he’d spent in the business unscathed by the poison we removed. I’d tell him I hadn’t forgotten him, that I wasn’t mad anymore that he’d lived, had moved forward, slipped between the oily fingers of the cancer that had grabbed hold of my father, and that I’d seen the look on his face the day he helped my uncle pull the Camino from the yard — a mix of wonder and fear.
During those last seven buildings of the contract, I’d left the Camino a thousand pieces in my garage. When my uncle came by, as usual, telling me I needed to make my life happen, that I had potential like my father, that if I didn’t push I’d never finish his Camino, we were standing on my porch facing the woods.
“It’s not your Camino,” I said.
“You bought it. You own it,” he said, pulling a cigarette out. “It’s your right to let it rot the way your daddy did.”
“It’s never been yours.” I felt frustrated, sick of the smell of his cigarette smoke filling up my chest. “It’s my dad’s Camino — always has been.”
“Both of us owned it.”
“Sure you did,” I said. “But let’s face it —he’s the one that took it home. He’s the one that redid the engine the year you bought it, that drove it, had it promised to Dean.”
“Dean could never own it,” he said, a softer voice than I’d expected.
“Hell, it was always his if he’d wanted it.”
“And the sonofabitch left it here to rot, just the way — ”
“What? My daddy did?”
“The hell’s your problem, boy?” He stepped off the porch into the yard, looking up at me. “Your daddy was a good man.” “Maybe,” I said.
“You’re only a boy.”
“I’m a man.” I felt childish claiming it.
“Your father was a hell of a man.”
He was a monster of a man, I almost said, unreasonably, as if I’d ever really known him in the first place. I wondered if I really was a boy, or if my uncle was speaking of the boy I’d been before my father died. Maybe that’s the boy I’d always been, frozen, a ten-year old still looking for a memory, an image, an idea of his father. And I thought of saying, He was a coward of a man, filled to the brim with all the years of his labor, and in the end he’d become a shadow of himself. But instead, I said, “It’s always been his Camino, hasn’t it?”
“It was both of ours,” he said again, quietly. “The night we bought it, we agreed it’d always be. Andretti himself drove that Camino. The hero, the legend.”
“I’m sure he did,” I said, walking off the porch and into the yard.
“You stand still, now,” he said. “Be happy I sold it to you.”
I walked back into the garage, sitting on the floor among the greasy Camino parts I’d broken down, unable, I thought, to ever put it back together. I waited awhile before I heard my uncle’s truck start up and drive off. He must’ve finished his cigarette waiting and wanting to come inside and talk, but I’d fallen asleep thinking of my father: albums he left untouched and dusty in my mother’s living room, the image of him standing by the window mid-winter, home late from work, looking into the yard and warming his hands above the orange glow of the oven. And, as always, the nights we marched, my brothers and me, holding our plates. Maybe he was trying to give us something we weren’t ready for, like a premature inheritance, or a legacy we couldn’t possibly hold onto.
The next Saturday, I woke with my legs kicked up on a milk crate in the garage, arms asleep, and fifteen minutes of breathlessness. I was up the whole night trying to figure out how to fix the mess I’d made of the engine until the early morning light crept through the windows. I knew I’d spend the day driving, seeking parts, ordering online, and having — though it killed me — to ask my uncle to borrow his truck. Figured he’d have a good laugh about that, tell me why I needed a truck, that a working man drove a truck, and we’d ignore, I hoped, everything I said the weekend before.
He’d been working Saturdays on McKnight Road, where a strip mall sprung up to replace a King’s, hardware stores, abandoned property.
In the middle of the lot an on-site office trailer with the company name stretched muddy along the aluminum side. Inside, two guys and a woman wearing hardhats went on talking as I climbed the steps catching my breath.
“Looking for Rick,” I said.
“Rick who?” the woman asked, turning in her chair, rolling her sleeves up and exposing, slightly, a mid-arm strip of pale skin.
“Richard,” one of the men repeated. “Never heard of him.” He sniffed his nose, picked up a sheet of blueprints and read on.
“Ricky,” I said. “I’m sorry. Ricky Shoeman. He’s a superintendent here.” Having trouble breathing, the trailer grew small. Damn fever. The room shrank and expanded.
“You alright, kid?”
“People call him Ricky.” I coughed.
“Ricky,” the woman looked at the other two. “Older. Smokes like a chimney.”
“That’s right,” I smiled. “That’s my uncle. He’s a superintendent here.”
The man reading the blueprint lifted his glasses — as if to get a clearer view — then back to the others. He shook his head, started reading again.
“Ricky?” The other guy laughed. “Tricky Dickey, right?” and the woman nudged him.
“Just Rick,” I said.
“Sure,”the man said.“We all know Rick:Ricky theS uperintendent.” He stood up. “Follow me.”
We walked the muddy lot. There were other men shouting, guys on scissor lifts, hardhats tilted, reaching into junction boxes. In the distance, two dozers leveled the lot, the sound of the buckets hitting rocks, reverse horns beeping as I followed the man into the third building, an open floor with finished walls. Inside, I could hear ram- sets firing into cinderblock, power drills zipping screws into drywall, but still, there was a muffled silence. On the other side of the room, I could see my uncle, the thin shape of him beneath his hardhat, hunched over a push broom with a cigarette in his mouth.
“Hey, Dickey,” the man yelled, smile in his voice.
My uncle took a second to recognize me. He stood without expression as we approached.
“Kid’s looking for Ricky Shoeman,” the guy said. “Superintendent here. Well, kid.” He pointed to my uncle. “There he is. Let’s not make a date of it. There’s work to do.” And he left, big ugly smile on his face.
“Hey,” I said, uncomfortably.
“This is a big surprise,” my uncle said.
“Sure,” I told him. “I came to borrow your truck.” I tried leaning my weight and looking like I didn’t recognize his humiliation. I turned red and so did he —a violent red. I could feel it. Heat rushed between us and there we were: two Shoeman boys, standing stupid and embarrassed in front of each other. I could tell him, Ah it’s not so bad, but it seemed so silly then. I could tell him that he was right, that I couldn’t finish the Camino, that I’d torn the thing to a thousand pieces and realized it couldn’t be put back together, not the way it had been years ago. It took staying up until morning, frustrated, and breathless, and angry I couldn’t fix it, angry that the Homestead contract was nearing its end, and all I could think to do in my garage was punch the already dented, rusted hood of the Camino, shouting, >You goddamned sonofabitch, the way my uncle had, until my fist swelled, and my knuckles bled.
“This is a big surprise,” he kept saying, fumbling his hand into his pocket. “Of course you can take it, buddy.” He smiled. “Just a truck, is all.” And he reached the keys toward me, dangled them. “If you need anything —”
“Of course,” I said, taking his keys.
“I’m sure you don’t —”
“I’m sure I will.” I handed him the keys to my car and told him I’d bring the truck back later.
When I left, he was standing in the middle of that big empty room, a broom in his hand. I waved, pretending not to recognize how little he looked with his pocket-tee all clean and tucked into his jeans. I could smell his aftershave and cigarettes. I could see him watching me through the reflection in the door, only a shadow behind me. Outside, the construction site boomed. Hardhats bounced and nodded everywhere I looked, like neon at dusk, or the lights of the city bright and forever against the dying sun.
I drove my uncle’s truck heavily through Pittsburgh, switching lanes on the parkway until I drove into my side of the city — home of the Homestead contract, where I’d grown up, where my brothers and I
had ridden bikes until the streetlights flickered, and we’d come home knowing my mother was tired, that if we brushed her off, we’d get away with what we wanted.
I drove up the brick streets, the sound of the bricks vibrating the truck tires. I wanted to be home, to lie a moment on the couch, to rest. But I drove into Perry. I drove around the winding bends of the highest point in the city, the truck jumping and jutting as I shifted, the exhaust sounding like a motorcycle beneath me.
At the top of the hill, I pulled near an old playground, where an empty bench rotted. A swing set sat without swings. And beyond that: the view of the city, the bare remains of a place once painted gray with the smoke of steel mills. Across the brown, shelved rooftops of the neighborhood, past the iced-over Monongahela River, where, when it hadn’t just rained or snowed, and the air, despite freezing, was crisp and clear, you could see Pittsburgh, the tops of buildings poking from the valley.
Climbing from the truck, I started thinking that the nights I’d spent working without a respirator or a suit, I’d breathed the asbestos my father breathed, and somehow, I held his breath in my chest. I leaned on the tailgate of the truck staring down my city’s streets, visceral without the green that spring would bring, each one a thin line cutting up the sections of the buildings I’d worked. All of the Duquesne Valley spilled out in front of me. I looked for my own house, my own street, for the garage still holding the Camino, but I couldn’t find it.
I slid into the bed of the truck, still breathless, and imagined that I’d finished the Camino, that I’d driven it there. I’d redone the interior, the engine, even matched the sharp lines of gun-metal gray on the hood. As I drove, people waved like they’d known me for years, like I’d become an unknown version of myself, the invincible version, the version that finished everything he started. And why not, I thought. Hadn’t I been Andretti once? Hadn’t my father and my uncle and my brothers and mother and everyone I’d ever known been Andretti once? Maybe, in the back of the truck, in my father’s El Camino, I could live forever.
I tried to breathe and couldn’t. I gasped instead, as if my chest had filled with dust—everything a mess of haze and stars, the city suddenly covered in snow. Maybe I had what my father had, that I could, for some reason, have inherited it from him, from our work. And while the world collapsed around me, I tried to imagine my father, away from all that, away from the Camino, the kitchen. I drew on every tiny image I’d kept of him: his hands warming at the stove, his feet kicking snow from his boots, his laughter, his music, and what I’d learned from the stories: his humming, his loving like a fool, the good man my uncle called him —and I imagined him sitting out on a lake somewhere, in a boat, bald cypress rising from the meniscus a mix of green and whites all mirrored across the unmoving surface of the water, roots thick like stumps, but strong, and my father still young, still smiling, when there were dreams, like my mother said, and my brother Luke and I were sitting in the boat with him, Dean somewhere whistling in the trees, home this time for good. Maybe my father would’ve liked that.
I’d leave that playground and wake up in the hospital, feeling as if my lungs had exploded. They’d tell me they found hydatid cysts, that the cysts had filled my upper lungs, but after surgery, I’d slowly adapt to the change. I’d be fine again, could work again, but only in time. I’d say that I thought I had mesothelioma, that my father died from it, that I’d been working nearly a decade with asbestos, and they’d tell me it would take years for symptoms to show, if they ever showed — that I could spend the rest of my life waiting, and that it was best to ignore, avoid smoking, and take care of myself. I didn’t speak of nights working without a suit, or a mask, thinking I’d been infected.
When Luke moved in with my mother, Dean called me. We talked about the surgery, my mother, and Uncle Ricky, who’d come by from time to time to bring me things, like groceries, or medicine — how he carried what I couldn’t carry: engine bolts oily in boxes, firewood frozen from winter. And after the surgery, I missed work, and P&R finished the contract.
I’d almost made it. I’d almost been there when they cleaned out the last of the buildings, the last of the work I knew had been my father’s. Joe never left, the way he said he would, and the company moved on to new work, in the next city, and when I could, I went with them.
Sometimes I think even Tim believed that after the Homestead contract, the work would be finished for good. And maybe it was; it had come home. And sometimes I imagine there’s a piece of my father’s work still hidden somewhere among all those buildings, all those decontaminated, sanded pipes, sitting like a treasure, like the heart of the city, and when I look out over the valleys, over the rooftops, and up the streets, I imagine it’s there beating, quietly, like tiny feet marching on forever into the El Camino night.