Green Hills Literary Lantern

Blow Out All the Candles

 

 

Mike Shea in bliss, sunburned arm out the open window of his ’53 candy-red Buick 48D Special Tourback Sedan. He drove Route 20, a black eel that dipped through the folds of rural New York. Loved the way his Buick floated cresting a hill, got her for $800 cash and had steered her north from Florida to Niagara Falls. After a day at Howe Caverns, where he and Connie had shivered off two weeks of grapefruit and tanning oil, they were headed to his folks’ place. They’d be there by midnight, where over a whiskey he’d tell his Pa that Ike’s interstate still wasn’t completed.

He stretched his right arm over Connie’s shoulders and pulled her closer. Eventually, they’d have to agree on the boy’s name. It would be 1960, a new decade by the time he arrived. If a girl? No different, but a son would come first. This one intuition Mike trusted. With only a sister, he’d known a lonely childhood in a Roxbury apartment; he wanted eight, ten, twelve, an even number of Sheas. Connie thought six a perfect amount; half as many as her mother had brought up in a North End brownstone, where the Spino sisters had slept four to a bed.

She nestled against his ribcage and ran her hand across his chest, lamenting that their honeymoon would soon end. He told her the fun had just started. After his folks, they’d head to Cape Cod for a few days. She smiled at him, saying she loved Cape Cod, but it couldn’t match the peach twilight of Florida at dusk, the sand so white, the ocean so tepid and soothing.

Tepid. A nice word. For a working girl, Connie showed a rich vocabulary. Nona Spino spoke very little English, but had kindled in her daughter a love for reading; she believed education remained the only way to get ahead. Mike had agreed with her from the start.

Adoring the sweep of Connie’s black hair and the caress in her smile, he reminded her they were one lucky couple. He’d chosen the Casablanca Hotel on a whim, knowing she liked that movie with Bogart in it. At $500 a week, including a pool and a trip to Parrot Jungle, they’d scored a bargain. He’d like to visit again, but it would be years before they could afford it. Family must come first, and that meant money. Not a job, but a career with a future. Gasoline had already climbed to 16 cents a gallon.

The Buick lurched, throwing them forward. Mike’s foot hit the clutch, and jerking the wheel to his right he downshifted as the car bounced over a narrow shoulder, gravel flying into the chassis, the wheel vibrating in his hands.

“Mike, what’s wrong?”

The wheel tugged whether he braked or not, and he fought it, downshifting again as he saw steam rise from the Buick’s grille.

“Some kind of fluid,” he shouted. “Not a flat.”

            “Smells funny,” she said.

He saw a moon-colored glow topping a rise ahead of them. He sped up, pushing the big engine, had to, until he reached that glow.

“Mike, are you sure?”

He wasn’t, but he'd endured drill sergeants and forced marches on bases in muggy Biloxi, in the dry heat of west Texas, the cold of Thule, Greenland.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

“Mike, I don’t like this.”

Neither did he. The engine might blow if he forced her. He slowed the car, stopped and shut her off, slamming his palm against the wheel. “Overheated.”

“Can you fix it?”

Wanting to curse but holding his tongue, he got out. The night felt vast. Cool air smelled of pinesap. It took him longer than expected to find the latch that opened the hood. He saw the problem and felt vindicated, having correctly diagnosed it. He searched a cross brace inside of the hood and found a rag he’d tucked there.

He pushed down on the rag and turned the radiator cap. It blew off, spraying hot fluid. Cursing, he pulled at his shirt, keeping it off his skin. He heard fluid hiss like oil in a skillet.

How stupid of him; this wasn’t the way to handle an emergency. He chucked the rag aside.

Lighting a Pall Mall, he leaned on the Buick’s fender. The road and travel, the living through it—first the startling news of the pregnancy, then his marriage and honeymoon—had filled and emptied him of so many useless fears. Nothing wrong with that. Life, after all, got serious for everyone. Apply timeless rules: be patient and keep a level head.

He patted the Buick’s rear tail fin. In the same affectionate way, he’d once patted the nose of a C-14 that had sputtered over the Mediterranean. A radio operator, he and a crew of four had landed the C-14 in Corsica, in a pasture, with minimal damage. He, not the car, had let Connie down. Machines weren’t evil. They were tools. The evil lived in misuse, and in those who didn’t blame malfunctions on human error.

Mike opened the trunk, impressed by its size. Everything about this car loomed bigger than big, like America, like his dreams. He removed his suitcase with ease, found a loose dry shirt and slipped into it. He wanted to toss his wet shirt into the woods, but remembered that Connie had bought it in Daytona as a gift. He flattened it to dry atop the wheel well. His mother would scrub it with Borax. Lucky for him, Connie shared a similar knack for the domestic.

Back inside the Buick, he told her to cover herself with the blanket on the back seat. “And keep all the doors locked,” he added.

Firing out of the darkness, a car passed, reminding Mike of how dangerously narrow the road was. “Play the radio. Make yourself comfortable.”

“But we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“Don’t sweat it, honey. There’s a flashlight in the trunk. See that glow way up ahead? Got a hunch it’s a filling station. I’ll be back in a jiff.”

After walking what seemed like a mile, Mike started to think he’d made a mistake. His flashlight beam had weakened, so he kept it turned off. He wouldn’t let Connie sleep in the car until morning, but this was no guess, this was instinct and would prove him right.

He reached the yellow glow, happy to see that it lit a swinging oval Sinclair filling station sign, with its familiar green dinosaur logo. Out front, a drive-under roof covered two pumps with rounded edges. Made of fieldstone boulders, the garage building looked closed.

A voice cried out of the darkness. “Who’s that there?”

Mike swatted away gnats and moths, looking around until he saw an old-timer on a bench in front of a plate glass window with stickers advertising Penn Valvoline motor oil at 5 cents a can.

Guard up, he approached the man. “Hello, Sir. Don’t mean any harm. Got car trouble.”

The old man, a pipe in his mouth, eyed him. He looked perturbed.

“She’s overheated. A ’53 Buick.” Mike offered his hand. “The name’s Mike Shea.”

The old man didn’t shake. With a hard sneer, he studied this handsome young devil of a stranger, tall, trim, clean-cut and tanned. Then he rose, leaning back as he yanked up his orange suspenders. Scratched at whiskers on his chin. Lifted and planted a greasy boot on the bench. His pipe stem clicked as he rolled it around in his mouth. Taking his time, he removed his pipe, hawked up a gob of phlegm and sent it sailing into the dark. As if satisfied with his expectoration, he removed from his rear pocket a soft flat cap and studied it a moment. With big hands hardened by labor, he scratched a thinning tangle of white hair.

Keeping his distance, Mike reminded himself to stay calm. To be young, honest and serious wasn’t a crime, and the old man could see this, couldn’t he? Perhaps not. He reeked of country ways, and his gas prices were a nickel higher than average.

With a frown that contorted his face, the old man snapped, “I’m Hazzard Baggs. What of it? I’m closed.”

            “But I drove north all the way from Florida,” said Mike. “And now I’m heading back from Niagara Falls.”

Hazzard Baggs shook his head with disdain. He stuffed the flat cap onto his head, a tight fit. His voice jumped, hectoring Mike. “Damn fool thing taking off a radiator cap while the engine’s hot. I can smell it on you.”

“My wife’s waiting there, alone. We’re on our honeymoon.”

Hazzard Baggs softened, muttering, “I see. A ’53 Buick, you say?”

“That’s right.”

“Tell the truth,” said Hazzard, “ain’t even sure I got a screwdriver around here. I’m all locked up, the missus got the keys, and she’s gone to town.”

Mike didn’t believe this sly codger with the queer name. He seemed cagey and mean. Then again, marooned roadside in the sticks he’d been lucky to find anything.

“Should’ve taken your wife with you.”

“She’s expecting.”

Hazzard Baggs blinked once. “That so?”

Mike nodded solemnly. “Why would I lie about such a thing?”

“You tell me.”

“Plus my flashlight’s about crapped out.”

Hazzard fingered his nose, pulling out a hair. “Then I reckon we can find a screwdriver and some wrenches. Them Buicks, you know, you can run ’em without a thermostat. When you get back to where you’re going, you have one put in. Until then, we’ll let it cool. Maybe we can scratch the old one out. They swell a bit and stick to the housing, and if it was put in with gasket cement, we might have a hell of a time.”

Groaning, Hazzard bent over and started to rummage under the bench. He scared off a mangy-looking white cat as he pulled out a yellow wooden box with the words Royal Crown Cola in faint red letters on both sides. The smell of a skunk began to swell as Hazzard clinked and clanked, sorting through wrenches, mumbling, “Five-eighths, half-inch, three-eighths and a crescent. Them’ll work. And here’s a screwdriver that’ll do.”

He held it up and admired it. “Ain’t my best, since all them is at the house or in the garage. You’re lucky. I was out getting time away from the missus. You ain’t been married long enough to know how good that feels.”

“Sir, I really appreciate your help.”

Hazzard waved off the remark. “Quit calling me Sir. It’s a flat-head, too. Hate to go at it with a Phillips. Where’d you say you was from?”

“Boston. Roslindale, for now.”

“Nope. Never been.”

As they walked back to the car, the skunk smell faded behind them. They listened to crickets. Evergreens swayed in soft breezes. Not one car rolled by. With no guardrail between the asphalt and its thin gravel margin, Mike thought the road sounded its own quiet black pulse.

Hazzard remarked, “Your wife is brave to be out here alone. She must be a keeper. I reckon the coons, skunks, possum and deer are enough to scare anybody. Not to mention Democrats and out-of-towners like yourself passing through. You just never know these days.”

“Guess not.”

“You was in the service, wasn’t you?”

“Air Force.” After so many hours at the wheel with Connie, Mike enjoyed male company. “Got big plans. Working days now. Going to college at night. On the GI bill.”

“Ain’t that a fine thing? At first, I thought you was one of them highbrows.” Hazzard paused, smacking his lips together. “We’ll see what we can do. This ain’t no way to spend no honeymoon.”

At the car, Mike stood over its engine like a mourner at a funeral. Hazzard went to work matching one of his wrenches to fit a pair of bolt heads.

“She’s got a straight eight,” he explained. “I think the V-8 is better, but you pay for it.”

Mike shrugged. “Got her cheap because she doesn’t have power steering.”

“I can see that. Got whitewalls, though.”

“And plenty of legroom,” said Mike.

            “You know how many horsepower?”

Mike, as if guilty of shameful ignorance, shook his head no.

Hazzard said, “Between you and me, I reckon the Roadmaster and the Super are the better models. They got what they call fireball combustion. And the Roadmaster’s got a 12-volt battery. Howard Hughes drove a Roadmaster. You’re an Air Force man, didn’t they teach you that?”

Mike stopped fumbling for a reply when he saw Connie’s head pop up behind the windshield. A gray blanket around her shoulders, she adjusted the rearview mirror and studied her reflection, flouncing her hive of hair before covering it with an orange kerchief that she knotted under her chin. She looked flush with sleep, confused, shifting about on the seat as if to compensate for the growing life inside her. Her limpid eyes bloomed at the sight of the grizzled man Mike had found to help them. She kept a hand to her throat, touching the crucifix there.

As if stunned for a moment by her comely radiance, Hazzard removed his cap and nodded with a reverence that seemed to Mike overstated. Connie blinked, girlishly so, and beamed at him.

Etched lines weakened above Hazzard’s pocked berry of a nose. He sounded a small note of pleasure that darkened into grim resignation. Poking his pipe between yellow teeth, he took another look at the engine. He looked a long time, his neck ribbed with veins as he mumbled, “In ’53 they brought out the Skylark. You ask me, a Buick is pure American know-how. Got this new Twin-Turbine Dynaflow engine and I reckon she goes like a rocket.”

Mike sounded eager. “Anything I can do?”

“Nope.” The pipe stem clicked against Hazzard’s teeth. He took a rag from a side pocket and touched the radiator with it. “She’s hotter than a pistol, but I kin get her.”

As Hazzard removed the two bolts that held the housing in place, Mike flashed a grin at Connie in the front seat. Thinking how the pregnancy and Florida sunshine had brought a nascent creaminess to her features, his grin widened. Eight children, he thought. No less. He’d be Dad of the Year for a decade.

Meanwhile, Hazzard had dropped the bolts into his pocket and started to scratch at the manifold with his screwdriver. “Just gotta get under the lip. Ha! There it is. Should pop her now.”

            Mike stepped closer. “It’s out?”

            “You stay back. Still hot under here.”

With a small sucking noise, the housing and thermostat came free of the manifold. Hazzard, using his rag, removed them.

“Damnation.” He yanked his hand back, dropping the thermostat. He blew on his fingers, wiped his hand against his trousers. “Sticky, too. We’ll let it cool.” Leaning over the manifold again, he poked around with his screwdriver. “Might be sealer. Hard to tell it’s so dark. Don’t see none. Guess it ain’t got a gasket. Some do, and scraping that sealer ain’t exactly a cakewalk.”

Mike asked, “Can I see it?”

“Right over there. Like I said, you can run this Bessie without it, at least ’til you’re home.”

Mike picked up the thermostat, surprised by how hot it was. “I’ve never seen one before. This is only my second car. My first was a Nash.”

Hazzard grunted and bent over the engine. He turned each bolt until he’d fitted the housing back into the manifold. “Now I got to clamp the hose back on.” As he did so, he remarked to Mike, “Nash, you say? Rambler?”

“Nope. A ’48 Ambassador. A Brougham.”

“I reckon if you’re Air Force, you know more about B-52s than Buicks.”

“I flew on B-29s, mostly. And C-models, for transport.”

Hearing such talk, Hazzard looked impressed. He wiped with a rag his spatulated fingers, grit packed under each nail. “Me, I’ll stick to cars. Keep both feet planted.”

“The rate we’re going,” said Mike, “we’ll be on the moon before long.”

Hazzard hawked up another gob and let it fly. “Who’s we?”

Mike glanced at Connie in the car. He shot her an OK signal. “Maybe my first child. You never know.”

“Got water?” asked Hazzard. “She’s parched.”

Mike thought he’d meant Connie, and then realized he’d meant the car. “No, afraid I don’t. Just my spare and some luggage in the trunk.”

Hazzard, smirking, slid his pipe into a shirt pocket. He sighed as he appeared to think about his next step. He lit a Lark cigarette with a stick match that he struck against his thigh. Sounding annoyed, he told Mike, “I got a watering can. We’ll go and fill it. By then, she’ll be cool enough so when we pour it in we won’t crack the block.”

Mike, nodding, held up his hand toward Connie as if to say five minutes.

Hazzard said, “No, that ain’t right neither. You stay with your bride. I won’t be long. Can’t hurry no ways, since the engine’s still piping.”

“Right,” said Mike. “Don’t want to crack the block.”

“You’re catching on, at least.”

After adjusting his hat, Hazzard dropped loose hands and his wrenches into the rear pockets of his trousers. He kept his cigarette between his lips as he cantered along, looking up at the night sky, muttering to himself, “Ain’t got a decent flashlight and he’s talking about the moon.”

Connie gestured for Mike to open the door. She asked him, “Could you get my windbreaker out of my suitcase? It’s right on top.”

“I think we can, Mrs. Shea.”

“Wait.” Connie grabbed his arms, pulling him into an embrace. They kissed for a long time.

Mike spoke first, his voice breathy and gentle. “We went such a big distance, and this is our first time with problems. That’s pretty good, I think.”

“There are always problems, Mike. But you can fix them.”

“The old-timer thinks so. Says we can’t hurry.”

“What a nice man.”

“I wouldn’t say nice,” said Mike. “More like country friendly. Knows a bunch about cars.”

“I’m still trying to figure out how we’re going to pay him.”

Mike made a sour face. “You would have to bring that up.”

“But what if he asks?”

Ignoring the question, he rested his hand against Connie’s stomach. “Okay in there?”

Connie removed his hand. “Don’t change the subject. We have to give him something. It’s the right thing to do.”

“I’m thinking.” He sighed. “Look, honey, I’m sorry about all this. I’m pretty new to cars. I should have known.”

“It’s not your fault. You did all the driving. It really has been wonderful, you know. The orange groves. The beaches. The Carolinas. Niagara Falls. It’s been everything we dreamed it would be. So what’s a little car trouble?”

“Just remind me next time to put tools, a funnel, and a watering can in the trunk.”

“I’ll get you them for Christmas. But please, my jacket. I’m cold.”

Mike hurried to the trunk, still open, finding Connie’s suitcase and her windbreaker. Next to the suitcase were the dozen eggs he’d bought earlier that day.  After Connie stepped out of the car to put on her windbreaker, he showed them to her.

“Day’s been so long, I forgot. Good thing you packed them tight.”

“But they’re eggs,” she said.

“They’re all we got.”

Connie shot him a frosty glance, but he ignored it. As he watched her get back into the car, he told her she should nap. He didn’t say she looked pasty and numb with fatigue. For the time being, he didn’t care to cuddle or talk a blue streak about the baby, their future and how they’d make ends meet. He wanted this waiting time to himself, so he could enjoy a smoke and confront his conscience alone under the night sky. Why did he feel glad his honeymoon was nearing its end? Perhaps because he wanted to get on with it. He was a man of action, after all.

Blowing smoke rings, he thought of the stars. He thought of rockets that would one day shoot for the moon. He’d have a son, he was sure of it now, and that boy would become an astronaut. What a dream. What a sweetheart he had in Connie.

He continued to check his watch. More than an hour had passed. Hazzard sure moved like a turtle. Then again, a hot engine was difficult to work on. The scruffy old mechanic had every right to take his time.

 A flashlight beam hit Mike in the face. It was Hazzard. He lifted a galvanized tin watering can. Mike smiled, but Hazzard didn’t smile back. His cigarette hung off his lower lip. “Found my flashlight, too.” He clicked it off. “I’ll pour it in slow, and make sure the hose don’t leak. She should run fine with just water, but get her flushed, get the sludge out, and put in coolant and a new thermostat. For now, she’ll run, but it’s iffy.”

Hazzard tossed aside his cigarette. He leaned over the radiator. He put down the watering can. Sniffed a little. Listened. Touched the radiator as if testing. Touched it again. “I’ll leave my light and can. You wait a half-hour. Then pour the water in. Then come fetch me.”

Mike looked around. It amazed him that not one car had passed. “Got it.”

“You know,” said Hazzard, “for a service man, you ain’t rightly prepared for such a trip.”

Hazzard, having said his piece, wiped his hands together in a chopping motion and walked back to his station. Mike, wilting, watched him go. He returned to Connie. “See what I mean.”

“Don’t take it to heart. He’s helping us. Besides, it’s true. Live and learn.”

Mike scowled and folded his arms. “Come on. We’ll listen to the radio.”

Cozy together, Connie dropped her head on his shoulder, napping while he turned the radio dial. He found The Crests singing: “Blow out the candles, make your wish come true . . . .”

He shut it off, and then closed his eyes. When a car zoomed by, shaking the Buick, he looked at the lighted clock dial in his dashboard. Then he looked at the eggs on the back seat. Turning, he rose to his knees and drove his hand down between the seats, waking Connie.

“See if you can find some change,” he said. “Some quarters if we’re lucky.”

“Please just give him the eggs. I want to go. Please. ”

“So now they’re okay?”

“We can always mail him money.”

Mike lifted the eggs off the back seat, stepped out of the Buick, and shut its heavy door with his hip. Walking to the front of the car, he put the eggs on the ground. He picked up the watering can and poured until it was empty. He waited a moment, watching the water form a bubble in the radiator’s mouth, sounding a bloop-bloop as it drained into the engine. He squeezed the hose and fingered the clamps. No leakage. He looked around for the cap, needing the flashlight to find it. He screwed the cap on, and then picked up the eggs and the emptied can.

Hazzard sat as before, chewing on his pipe. Mike put the can and flashlight on the bench. “All done. Clamped down. No leaks.”

He held out the carton of eggs.

Hazzard smirked, looking at them. “What’s this?”

“Connie thought you’d like these for payment. They’re farm fresh. Bought them this morning from a roadside stand. You’ve been really generous. I don’t know what we’d have done without your help.”

Hazzard brushed away gnats. He stared into the night as if Mike wasn’t there.

“Honest truth,” said Mike. “I got maybe five dollars to my name, and I’ll need it for gas. If you want, we can mail you a payment.”

Sounding a slow groan, Hazzard shut his eyes and rubbed his eyebrows, mumbling, “Eggs from a honeymoon bride. If that don’t beat all.”

Mike leaned forward, wanting to shove the eggs onto Hazzard’s lap. 

Hazzard opened his eyes. He took the eggs and rested them on the bench. He squinted as if in sudden pain. “But eggs mean the start of something, don’t they?”

Mike, groping for words, knew he was better than this feeble show of gratitude. He couldn’t face Hazzard, so instead watched the white cat return to its place under the bench.

The high shine in Hazzard’s face crimsoned as he frowned, looking away from the eggs, sounding a soft note of surprise that gradually turned to resentment. He gazed off, a distant and preoccupied look in his eyes, as if he were holding back a need to curse all the rotten luck he’d ever had. After about a minute, he let the curse fly, wearily so in a lower register while covering his mouth. He looked for a moment up to the stars. Crickets filled the silence. When he lowered his head and turned and glared at Mike, he appeared stunned to see him still there. Waving his hands, shooing him off, he shouted, “Don’t lollygag there like a lost pup. You’re fixed to go. So get. Go on. Back to your bride. Get.”

Mike started to reply, wanting to explain. A bead of sweat ran cold down his cheek. He wiped it away and started to speak. He stuttered and then gave up, driving his fists into his pockets. Turning away, he started walking. He felt a slowing of time. The crickets sounded softer now. He thought of Hazzard’s big hands wrenching down bolts one turn at a time. He thought of the road’s black pulse. Blow out all the candles, but bring a flashlight just in case.

With each step toward the Buick, he felt as if the breezes, the smells of skunk, pinesap, asphalt and radiator fluid, and the night itself like a cavernous mouth had expanded to swallow him.

 

 

John Flynn has published his stories, poems and translations of Romanian poetry in a variety of magazines, including Paterson Review, Connecticut Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. He has new stories forthcoming from Quiditty Journal, The Iconoclast, and Salt Flats Annual ’08. He’s published four chapbooks of poetry, and his newest, Wave and Metronome, is due out this year from Pudding House Publications. One of his stories has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he he's earned writing awards from the US Peace Corps and the New England Poetry Club.