Long Black Limousine – Howard Jackson
The old timer drove the 1986 Buick slowly and passed the sign that said ‘DO NOT ENTER’. Above the Buick attached to the wall of the building a larger sign said’, ‘DOC’S WORKSHOP, ALL KINDS.’
The workshop had space for 6 cars. There were two pits and four hydraulic stands that lifted the cars into the air. Doc was working in one of the pits under a two year old Ford Mustang. He looked up when he heard the Buick and watched the tyres and bumper roll towards his face.
Doc climbed out of the pit and walked past the Buick to one of the corners at the back of the workshop. He sat down behind a small table, wiped his hands with an oily rag and waited. The table had a small radio, a cashbox and a machine to register credit and bank cards. Next to the table were a big tall ice box and a shelf with coffee, cups and cookies.
The old timer left his Buick, removed his white canvas hat and wiped some sweat from his face. He wore trousers the same colour as his hat, although they were cleaner, and a blue shirt and a pair of loafers. He had a big round stomach that looked surprisingly firm. The stubble on his face and his thinning hair made him look older than his sixty two years.
‘John Phillip,’ said Doc.
‘Howdy,’ said John Phillip.
‘Every time you drive past that notice as if it ain’t here.’
‘The one that says don’t drive past it.’
John Phillip shrugged and walked by Doc. He lifted a kettle and tested its weight to see if it needed water.
‘I take it you won’t pay me no mind if I make myself a cup of hot coffee?’
‘What’s the difference if I do?’
John Phillip switched on the kettle, spooned some coffee into two cups and put a couple of cookies on a plate. He put the plate on the table in front of Doc. While the kettle boiled the two men said nothing. John Phillip walked around the garage and looked at the other cars.
‘This is why you like to keep folks outside. You don’t want us to know you work on more than one car at a time.’
‘I don’t. Well, mainly I don’t.’ Doc paused and then said, ‘Make the coffee, John Phillip.’
The old man talked as he poured water into the cups. ‘The old Buick is starting to feel old just like I do. One day you walk down the drive and there is a piece of tin waiting for you. It’s like overnight they lose interest. How does that happen, Doc?’
‘I’m just a mechanic,’ said Doc. ‘They don’t talk to me.’
‘I was wondering if you had a mind not to stay open.’
‘Why would I do that?’
‘I thought you’d pay a visit to town today.’
‘I wasn’t thinking to,’ said Doc.
‘There’s a few that have done just that. There’s some waiting to line the streets.’
‘So why aren’t you?’
‘I’ve got an old Buick that needs fussing.’
John Phillip placed the two cups of coffee on the table either side of the plate of cookies. He ate the two cookies and helped himself to another from the half-used packet. The two men sat and stared at the old Buick. The green paintwork was faded and Doc thought about how a car suddenly became old, how the paint lost its gleam and the power of molded metal weakened to become nothing more than a fragile frame.
‘John Phillip, you ever think about living in Cuba?’
‘Why would I do that?’ said John Phillip.
‘Well, I don’t reckon the Cubans would take to you any more than the folks in West Memphis but your Buick would sure feel at home.’
‘I have a mind to have the car looked at from the front to the back. Do everything so it’s perfect again. I have some money waiting to be used. I could afford it. What do you think, Doc?’
‘What, you want that I do it?’
John Phillip drank his coffee and nodded.
‘So, why don’t you make her right?’ said John Phillip.
Doc smiled wearily and shook his head. ‘Listen, if I had that car as my own I would probably waste five nights a week making it just so. I wouldn’t say to myself that I’d given myself a second job without money. I’d just do it and I wouldn’t stop until it was perfect.’
‘Well, then. This way you can do all that and take my money.’
‘No,’ said Doc.
‘No, damned right. It ain’t my car, John Phillip. It’s yours and I work on it but I run a business. Business is different. I do what makes a profit. I fix cars, it’s all I do.’
‘Ain’t that what I’m asking?’
‘It isn’t and you know it.’
John Phillip grinned and the two men laughed.
‘So we just let her get old and die?’ said John Phillip.
‘That’s the way of it. Let her die natural and proper. Now I’m thinking we don’t want her running around West Memphis pretending she’s something she ain’t.’
‘No, it ain’t dignified.’
‘That’s how I figure it,’ said Doc.
The two men without saying anything more stood up and walked through the wide open doors and out of the garage. They stood outside and faced the highway that linked West Memphis to Memphis. The day was hot and still and the flat fields waited without moving and ignored the passing cars.
‘So what’s hurting now?’ said Doc.
‘I can’t put her in gear.’
‘It was in gear when you drove past my sign.’
‘It’s something that just happened this once. I pumped the pedal and worked it with my foot.’
‘It will cost plenty of dollars if I have to take the gearbox apart. If you need a new gasket it takes time. It ain’t certain that it is. I may take it to pieces and it will be just fine. ’
‘So what are you saying, Doc?’
‘Let me change the fluid. There may be junk in there. It might work.’
The two men faced each other and shook hands. They looked at the fields again.
‘Are you sure you ain’t heading into town later?’
No,’ said Doc. ‘I ain’t. I ain’t standing on the sidewalk with a whole lot of people just to look at a heap of limousines.’
‘I seem to recall you and Eudora were sometimes close.’
‘No. I wouldn’t say it that way.’
‘Oh, you used to look at her like she was special.’
‘I don’t deny I did, John Phillip. But if you saw her looking back I must have missed it.’
‘The woman had spirit. No wonder Eudora soon forgot West Memphis. And the way she fussed over Tom Mayfield. She forgot him even quicker.’
‘She got big and famous.’
‘I was no fan of her singing but no woman ever looked finer standing behind a guitar.’
Doc said nothing and watched the cars pass by his garage.
John Phillip sighed. Either he looked older or his stubble had grown again.
‘What’s eating you?’ said Doc.
‘Why you never took up with any of the females in this town?’ John Phillip hesitated. ‘You know, settled down with a good woman.’
‘Because that’s how it worked out.’
‘You’re forty years of age, Doc.’
‘No, I’m not. I’m forty one this last January.’
‘A good woman behind you and you could have done more with this garage. You could have a gang working here.’
‘I have help. Red’s boy is here three days a week.’
‘Doc, he’s still at school,’
‘Not anymore. He just left.’
‘Well, I still wonder.’
Doc stared across the fields and asked himself if Eudora had ever visited Memphis without making the short drive across the river to call at her home town. No reason why not, he thought. Eudora was not one to feel obliged to people or places.
‘You want to borrow the pick up while I work on the Buick?’ said Doc.
John Phillip was not one to refuse an auto and he soon climbed into the spare scruffy pick up. He lowered the window just as he was leaving and pointed at the name of the garage on the side of the door. ‘Remember, I do all this advertising without you paying me.’
‘Sure do appreciate it,’ said Doc.
John Phillip still stared at the sign below his window. ‘Always wondered what your pa meant when he had it say ‘All kinds’. Did he mean people or cars?’
‘He meant both.’
‘Well, as long as they give you a living.’
The two men waved goodbye and John Phillip and the pick up joined the interstate highway.
Back in the garage Doc felt restless. He sat in the old Buick for around five minutes. There were times he wished he still smoked and this was one of them. His mood though changed and instead of offering comfort the old wrinkled leather inside the Buick made him feel anxious and uneasy. He looked at the old dashboard and wondered if there was a horrible warning that the car wanted to share with him. Doc had no idea what this warning might be but he knew he felt different from normal. He thought about Eudora and the time when they used to be friends and how it lasted for longer than it should have considering Eudora only ever used him as an alternative to what, after Tom Mayfield, was her ever changing first choice. Even on the few good nights when he was her selection for the evening he inevitably had to endure some man showing his face and grinning. Doc would sit and watch Eudora tease the admirer and then listen to her laugh later.
‘Honey, it’s nothing,’ she would say. ‘I get used to it.’
Doc remembered Eudora being beautiful and while he did he ran his hands over the old leather and thought about all the cars he had repaired. He studied the grime under his finger nails, grime that never disappeared but became neater when he bathed, became a sharp black line under his fingernails.
Doc left the Buick and walked outside to use his mobile phone. He called the Employment Office. The woman who answered the phone was Billie Cash. Doc and Billie had been friendly after college but back then he would break up courtships to spend those odd evenings with Eudora when she needed her alternative. Women soon considered Doc unreliable and said so. Later, Doc had noticed that Billie was attractive and easier to talk to than most but he noticed too late because Billie was already married.
‘Hello, Doc,’ said Billie.
‘I’m thinking about making my help full time and I may even employ more help.’
‘That’s good,’ said Billie.
‘I’d like to talk about it. I thought I’d call at the bank and then come and visit you.’
‘It’s simple enough, Doc. You just pop down and see us.’
He pictured Billie as she talked to him, the fresh smile and the neat figure.
‘Billie, could you help me on this?’
‘Sure but there’s a problem today at the office because the boss has let too many folks go to the funeral. They’re outside watching the procession. You’d think we were burying Princess Diana. Another day would be fine. I’ll get out some files to make certain I’m ready. But don’t come in here tomorrow, Doc. It’s,’ Billie hesitated, ‘well, me and Hank separated two weeks ago and I am still chasing my baby sitters. The day after tomorrow would be best. What about you, Doc?’
‘Yeah, I’ll be there first thing.’
Doc said goodbye and walked back to the Buick and sat down on the old seat again. He rubbed his grimy finger nails up and down the wrinkles in the leather. He did this for some minutes before leaving the car and stepping outside to watch more cars pass by on the interstate. He imagined Eudora being carried in her limousine.
He pressed the numbers on his mobile phone again.
‘It’s me again. It’s Doc.’
Billie waited and Doc listened to her breathe.
He took a gulp of the dry air. ‘Billie, I don’t like to take advantage but I was thinking if you are, well, you know, if you are sort of, well, with the kids and everything and being left in the office today, and it might suit you to take your mind off things but I don’t want you to think I’m the kind of guy who…’
Doc ran out of words and oxygen.
‘I’t would suit me just fine this evening. My Mom is staying over. But I still have to get the kids ready for school in the morning. There’ll be no honky tonking.’
The two of them laughed. They made arrangements and said goodbye. Doc switched off his phone and with his eyes followed a few cars on the interstate. He turned and passed by the sign that said ‘ALL KINDS’. Inside the garage he walked around the Buick without looking inside. Instead of climbing back into the pit he drove the Mustang on to one of the hydraulic stands. He left the car and watched the hydraulic supports lift it into the air.