Garage by Sarah Diamond Burroway
I didn’t like having to explain myself to Annette. She always seemed impatient and fussy when I wouldn’t give in. We had been next door neighbors all of my five years, though she was three years older. And because she was eight, Annette thought she could make me give in, but I held my ground.
Sometimes, I didn’t want to play Daktari in the sloping back yard, pretending our wagon was a safari jeep and Cricket, my sister’s aging terrier mutt mix, was Clarence the cross-eyed lion. Today was one of those days.
Annette sat in the wagon, her legs long and tan, overhanging the side. Tiny blonde hairs glinted on her shins in the sun. Chigger bites dotted her ankles, matching mine from the day before. We had hunted crawdads down by the creek, dried mud still caked to the bottoms of her Chucks.
“C’mon! School starts back soon then we never have time to play anything.”
“No,” I replied. I rubbed Cricket’s belly, lying beside him under the picnic table.
“I’ll let you be Dr. Tracy.”
“I don’t want to be Dr. Tracy. Or Paula. Or Judy. I don’t want to play Daktari.”
Annette rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I was going to be Judy,” she said, mimicking the chimpanzee from the show.
I didn’t answer. She was trying to make me laugh. To get her way.
“Don’t say no, please?” Annette persisted.
“You could come, too.”
“No way! It's stupid. And it’s dark and smelly in there.”
“Well, it’s cooler in there.” My mind was made up. I was going to help Dad in the garage for two reasons. I liked helping him and when I got sweaty from playing and when my chiggers got too itchy.
Annette didn’t understand me wanting to be with Dad in the garage rather than hanging out with her. Her dad didn’t have a garage. And, frankly, he wasn’t home all that much. Her dad spent a lot of time at the American Legion or in Lexington at the harness track. My Dad didn’t go to those places. When Annette’s dad was home, her mom cried in a lawn chair on the car port and smoked cigarettes.
“Why does he make you go out there? To work?” Annette asked.
“It’s not work. I like to go.”
“That’s just weird. Wouldn’t you rather just play? With me?”
“We can play tomorrow when he’s at work, ok?”
Annette got up and shoved the wagon into the trunk of the black cherry tree. She was mad and to prove it, she took off running hard, jumping the ditch toward her house. She landed off balance, pitched forward, catching herself with the heels of her hands in the pea gravel. I knew it hurt because she looked back to see if I was watching. Which, I was. Then, quickly ran on.
We sat, not talking, listening to the sounds of Olive Street. Cricket had followed me around the house and had found shade beneath the marigold bush. Alfred was mowing his yard. I could hear Mrs. Riggs singing “Power in the Blood” while she hung out laundry . . .
I heard the kitchen door bang so I scurried around the side of the house where Dad was sitting on the stoop. He had worked the preceding evening and midnight shifts at the steel mill. And, now he was trying to wash away the cobwebs left by the scant few hours of sleep he’d had with a cup of black coffee. He waved me over to sit with him, the mug at his lips. I plopped down on the bottom step and leaned against his knee for a hug, feeling the rough twill of his blue work pant against my cheek.
“Can I help today, Daddy?”
He didn’t answer.
We sat, not talking, listening to the sounds of Olive Street. Cricket had followed me around the house and had found shade beneath the marigold bush. Alfred was mowing his yard. I could hear Mrs. Riggs singing “Power in the Blood” while she hung out laundry and I imagined Mr. Riggs wearing the V-neck t-shirts and fancy boxer shorts she was pinning on the line. Plaids, polka dots, hearts. My dad only wore white.
“Aren’t you girls going to play this morning?” Dad’s question broke the silence.
“She had to go home.”
It was late morning and the August sun hung hazy overhead. The air was thick as it tended to be this time of year in the Ohio River Valley.
But the garage was cool and dark.
“Take this cup in the house and tell your mother you’re going to the garage with me.” Dad stood up and reached for the red bandana peeking from his back right pants pocket.
“And bring the truck keys.”
I loved being in the garage with Daddy. It was his haven. His space. A 32 x 32-foot structure he plotted out on a legal pad with a Number 2 pencil and built himself. Ab Ramey, a deacon from church, helped Dad dig holes for the main supports and lifted the triangle trusses on which the galvanized metal building was framed.
He measured, cut and installed the corrugated sheets himself. I had marveled at the strength and decided aim of his hammer, each nail getting no more than six hits as the walls went up. The garage had a dirt floor, which gave it a distinctive earthy smell that reminded me a little of Carter Caves. And, with few windows, the scent of motor oil and exhaust lingered heavy in the damp, darkish air.
I breathed in the smell of this dark, cavernous detached garage. Boxes of Craftsman tools and volumes of old Chilton Auto Manuals lined the rough, wooden shelves, anchored to exposed studs. I marveled at the open rafters, the bones of the building, tracing triangles and rectangles from two-by-fours in the woodwork overhead with my eyes as they adjusted to the dim light.
The chestnut colored clay was thick and stuck to the shovel and the posthole diggers when he started prepping the backyard to build it. Now, those long-handled implements stood at attention, leaned against the wall alongside hoes and rakes, welcoming all who entered. Sentries, standing guard to this sanctuary of gears, gadgets and hard work.
There was no electricity in the garage. Only light coming from a couple of second-hand storm windows or from the double doors, hinged wide, letting the sun flood in from the Race Street alley. Neighbor boys would sometimes peer in as they cruised past on their bikes.
I perched on the front tire of the truck, a tired Ford that seemed to have a mind of its own. The snap and zipper from my cut-off jeans shorts pressed a pink zig-zag below my belly button, as I leaned across the front quarter panel to get a closer look at what Dad was doing.
My hair frizzed out around my face, wisps rising from my sweaty brow, inches from the bill of Daddy’s work cap. I gripped two fists full of tools; my jagged nails shone black moons from working under the hood with him.
A 5/8-inch box end wrench. Three-quarters open-end. Blue, long-handled flat blade screwdriver that I think belonged to a neighbor. Phillips head with a plastic red and white handle.
Grimy, from old oil filters and busted belts.
Greasy, from changing dead batteries and switching out bad starters.
Gritty, from cleaning carburetors and loosening bolts, too tight from thousands of miles of road.
Secretly, I prided myself on being able to anticipate which wrench or ratchet Dad would need next. We worked in the half-dim underhoods of so many cars and now, the old truck, nearly silent for hours. Only the clink and clank of tools or the growls of our bellies telling us it was past time for lunch.
Walking across the yard to the back door, I looked across Olive Street. Annette sat cross-legged on the floor of her carport where her dad usually parked. Only, Annette’s dad hadn’t found his way home yet from the night before.