Read the introduction by guest editor Bret Anthony Johnston.
The graffiti reminds me of the tangled electrical cord I often use to jumpstart my father's heart. An orange criss-cross of arcs, loops, squiggles and dots. The graffiti is scrawled across the repair shop wall as I arrive to begin my shift at the gas station this morning. Who knows what it says if anything at all. Of course, it will be me who cleans it up. Here, downtown, the high-rise buildings—offices and apartments—tower over; these troublemakers have left their mark on every skyscraper. The vandalism used to make me mad. It's better to paint over and forget, until it happens again.
I roll open the garage door, bring out the paint and rollers. After three coats of crème the orange disappears and I've added another square to the patchwork of squares on the shop wall.
By the time the paint dries, it's late in the morning and not a single car has passed by. Dressed in my attendant's uniform—white coveralls starched crisp and a matching vinyl-billed cap—I mop up the skid-marks along one of the islands. The gas dispensers, hung with a nozzle off each side, stand akimbo like impatient fat men. The operations here are simple. One side of the single-story building is the attendant's office with a huge window that looks in on no more than a counter and advertisements for timing belts and oil filters. Beside the entrance stands a pyramid of oil cans. The other side of the building is the single car repair shop. That's everything: gas, quarts of oil and a number of car services. I spend my days here alone, the only one to open and lock up.
The phone rings from inside the office. I lean the mop against a dispenser and trot across the two islands. Inside, I answer on the fourth or fifth ring. It's the owner.
Before I can say anything, he yells, "What took you so long?"
"I was mopping," I say.
"Have you fixed those pumps?"
"You get them fixed. We need them by tomorrow." He hangs up.
I go out to finish mopping. Like most days, it's quiet. This station, these streets, these buildings, were once upscale: busy, busy. The owner tells me about it all of the time. The station ran at all hours, non-stop. Big money back then. Just before I was hired on, everything went down hill. Now, this is the crumbiest part of the city. My boss believes that with a little initiative and the gas dispensers working we'll get this downtown jumping again. I'm equally anxious about his big plan and returning things to their former glory.
With the last of the skid-marks cleaned up, I hose down the cement and driveways. The dirty water runs out into the gutter and down the street. A city bus, the first vehicle to pass by all day, stops at the light on the corner. It idles loudly. Given enough time, I could tune it up nice. The light changes green and the bus turns uptown where everything is booming. Jumping off the back bumper into the wake of exhaust, a couple of older boys run off toward the blocks of decrepit skyscrapers and apartments. They and their troublemaking friends ravage these buildings.
Farther up the street, my mother has begun her shift on the high-wire slanted across two skyscraper roofs. All day long she walks back and forth dressed in a gold evening gown and four inch stilettos. For balance she holds a thin pole bowed by bags of money tied at either end. They are filled with her wages which our boss adds at the end of each shift. But she can't collect until this downtown starts booming and the station profits some money. Sometimes for laughs those troublemakers go up to the roof and shake the wire.
My boss has her up there as an attraction, hoping the people will come out to see her. While they're down here, well, they might as well fuel up. She's the crux of his big plan. He got the idea from when everything went south around here. People had crowded in the streets to watch the suited businessmen, newly bankrupt, leap from high-rise windows. That was the station's best day for business, ever. In hopes of repeating that lucrative day, the boss sets my mother out on that wire. Once, I suggested that she might be given a net or bungee cord before she smacked pavement. He only laughed, then said, "Nobody will come out to see that."
As of right now in the late morning, she appears okay. I begin winding up the hose, wondering how to go about fixing the gas dispensers, when a car pulls up to one. The guy at the wheel toots his horn. I drop the hose, exaggerating eagerness, and run over to his window.
He says, "Fill 'er up."
"Can't do that," I tell him.
He looks at me as if I'm insane. "Ain't this a gas station?"
"This pump doesn't work."
"What about these others."
I shake my head and feign regret. Before I can offer other services in the garage as compensation, he screeches off and leaves skid-marks where I just mopped.
I turn on dispenser three from inside the service office then go back to test its nozzle. All of these dispensers, numbers one through sixteen, have the same problem. They stand here, these fat men, proud but impotent. The underground tanks are full, have been for weeks, the hoses are clear and, according to the manuals, should work fine. As I squeeze number three's handle, the digital display clicks off the correct price per gallon as if gas were pumping out. The nozzle only farts. No gasoline. Not a drip. I hang up the nozzle and open number three's belly. Inside: a tangle of wires and hoses run to the heart of the machine—the cylindrical pump. Inside this pump, the hydraulic pistons and chambers are supposed to siphon gas from the ground, through the hoses, to the nozzles and into the cars. For some reason, though I've flushed them countless times, the pistons remain gummed up, unmoving.
As I'm squatted down, disconnecting the hoses and wires, hoping to get the pump free and out into the open, that familiar tick-tick-tick sounds in the street. Sure enough, when I turn from my work, my father, dressed in a tuxedo, shuffles up the drive, pulling his wheeled suitcase behind him. No matter how many times I've cleaned out those little wheels, they muck up and make that ticking. He shuffles over and stands above me. The cord of clear tubes from his throat runs down into the suitcase.
We greet one another, discuss what a wonderful day it is and casually watch my mother on the high wire. She's little more than a speck above as she budgets her steps and carries those sacks of money as much for balance as for motivation.
My father says, "I'm taking your mother out tonight. We're going to reconcile."
He and I share this mutual dream. There was a time, long ago, when my parents were amicable and happy. They got along for more then a week at a time without an argument. Honestly, what that was like has faded from my memory. That it once was and could be again is something my father reminds me of every time we meet. When he does it's like a voice calling from out of the blue to reminisce and fills me with joy. Only, my father's voice has an undertone of desperation.
I go back to removing wires and unscrewing clamps from the hoses into pump three.
As I work, my father says, "Did your mother ask the owner about finding me a job?"
I don't turn from the pump to answer him. "He doesn't have any others besides the ones he's offered you," I say.
"You know I can't do those jobs." He pats his suitcase and grins. "My heart isn't up to those jobs. What if I helped around here? You could talk the boss into that couldn't you?"
Instead of answer him, I pull a small flashlight from my pocket and shine it into the guts of this dispenser, looking for what this pump is caught up on. It seems that this one and all the rest are simply old, rust having stuck them in their ways. It wouldn't matter how many times I flushed out their systems. I give the pump a little tug, but it's caught on something.
My father asks again. "So will you ask about me helping around here?"
I tell him, "I'll do it," even though I won't. I can't look at him with that cord of zip-tied tubes running from the hole above his Adam's apple and not feel sorry for him. At every word he speaks, they slide forward then back as if at any moment they might pop out. I have to keep myself from reaching for them. Through the clear tubes the blood, fluids and liquid excrement travel up and down. It's not these juices that noticeably stream along, but the air bubbles trapped inside.
I run my hand across the back of the pump and feel one last screw keeping this all in place. With some contortion of the wrist, I fit the screwdriver back there. With the head in the groove, the screw won't turn. Frustrated, I sit on the curb in front of the dispenser with the screwdriver loosely held in my hand.
My father says, "I can't understand how he can't want me around."
"Mom has told him enough," I say.
He appears embarrassed by what that might mean.
Not wanting him upset, I say, "We'll get you working again."
The embarrassment doesn't last long before he pats his suitcase and asks, "So can you help me get ready for tonight?"
He follows me over to the repair shop, where he rolls the suitcase onto the H-shaped lift in the floor. I throw the switch and with a hum the suitcase raises level with his waist. He sits in a chair next to it and closes his eyes, allowing me to do my thing. I pop the suitcase locks and raise the lid the same as I would a car hood. Inside, that cord from his throat into the top of the suitcase disperses into several tubes that each connect to one of his organs. Before me are his bladder, kidneys, lungs, liver, stomach, intestines, each of his organs, including his heart, all strapped down.
First, the bladder and kidneys. I disconnect them and carry them over to the sink for a good rinsing. Once they're cleared out, returned to the suitcase and fastened into the appropriate tubes, a yellow liquid siphons from his throat down along the tubes and drips into the kidneys. He sighs as if this brings great relief. Next is the liver. Its bile has such a strong odor of rot that I have to take it out into the street, hose it down and wring it into the gutter.
While I'm out here, with my nose turned away, an alarm sets off from out in the blocks of run-down buildings. Up on the roof of a high-rise, those troublemakers torch a couch and push it off the ledge. It tumbles, leaving a trail of smoke, and hits an abiding apartment building, chunking off plaster. As those troublemakers jump and cheer the tumbling fireball, I'm doubtful of my boss's plans.
A couple of buildings over, the sudden commotion does nothing to alarm my mother. She keeps her balance, only now on a unicycle. She swings like a metronome as she crosses the wire and holds tight to that pole tied with money. The most difficult thing isn't the balancing and the weighted pole, or even when the troublemakers come up to the roof with rifles and take shots at her sacks of money. It's her stilettos. They have no traction and, especially up the incline, often catch in the slots on the pedals.
Back in the repair shop, I reconnect the liver. It's nice to see my father sitting here away from my mother with his eyes closed. From one of the toolboxes I remove an extension cord that I've adapted. It's the heavy duty kind: thick, orange and tangled. A long time ago I cut off the socketed end to expose the wires. I plug the pronged end into the wall and touch the live wires to my father's heart in the suitcase. It shivers. But it won't beat, neither on its own nor after such a shock. It lays still.
I clean out the intestines, the lungs, the pancreas, down the list of organs, remove the dirt from the suitcase wheels, then start again on the most troublesome organ—his heart: the reason he's here.
He has always had trouble with it and wants it running properly for tonight. In fact, if I could somehow jumpstart it and get it running on its own, then we could put all of his organs back inside and get rid of the suitcase. Otherwise, he's empty inside.
After disconnecting it from the tubes, I cup the heart in my hands and walk it over to the counter. I don't know if it has ever worked properly. He's told me that a long time ago it worked fine, when he and Mom were on friendlier terms. He means all innuendos of friendlier.
I insert a finger into one of the valves, trying to wiggle open the chamber. According to the anatomy books and the manuals for the dispensers this heart supposedly works the same as the gas pumps. As it beats along, the right chamber opens and draws up blood from the rest of the body the way the gas pumps draw up fuel from the underground tanks. The blood passes through the lungs, where it's oxygenated, then the left chamber pumps it into the body in the same way the gasoline passes through the monitor, where it's tallied on the display, then the nozzle pumps it into the car. But that's all hypothetical. I've never seen the pumps (those stubborn things) work according to the manual or, for that matter, my father's heart (that clinched fist that won't open) according to the anatomy books.
Gently, I massage the heart, trying to loosen it up, open the valves, relax the muscle, when the phone rings in the office next door. It might be better to allow the heart to open on its own. I run out the garage and into the office.
It's my boss again. "Are you working on those pumps?"
"Yes," I tell him. "I'm working on a pump as we speak."
"Good," he says. We have never met. The interview and hiring were done over the phone. My first day on the job, the manuals sat on the desk with a note that read, "Get started!" I taught myself everything about pumps. Whenever he and I speak, I imagine a man as fat as one of the dispensers and his lip hung with a cigar that smokes like a locomotive. "We need those pumps running soon as possible. That means tomorrow." He hacks. A flake of tobacco probably sucked back against his throat. "Your father isn't there is he?"
"Good. He'll scare off the customers. Those pumps will be running tomorrow. Got that?"
"Good," he says. "I have an idea." I can imagine the cigar rolling across his lips as the idea culminates. "I was thinking of a pogo-stick for your mother."
Standing behind the counter, where I'm on the phone, I say, "A pogo stick?"
Out the window my mother walks up the drive. She's dressed in her evening gown and high heels. She carries the balancing bar tied with sacks of money over one shoulder and the unicycle over the other. Her dress fits snug around her hips and legs so that she waddles. Like any fine gown or cocktail dress the back is open. Her skin sags and any year now it will begin to crease, then turn to rolls. Nobody with skin like that should be pogo-ing on a high wire.
"Yes," the owner continues over the phone. "Imagine her up there with one hand on the pogo stick and the other on that balancing pole. The people will pack the streets wanting to see it. They'll line up for gas. If some of those troublemakers take shots at her, oh, all the better." That cigar of his is probably soaked with saliva at the thought of the money. He goes on talking, but I don't listen. I can't. Instead, I watch my mother meander around the lot. There has to be something that will get her to take back my father. She might have been better off never having met him. Although that leaves me non-existent, it would have left her in better circumstances. For whatever reason, she remains in this limbo, not necessarily leaving him, but not getting back with him either. She balances those two choices evenly, and I'm holding my breath wondering when she will choose or if anything can tip her in one direction. My father seems to believe he has her leaning his way. I'm all for it, but troubles usually break in and foil his plans.
She looks at pump three with its guts open. She shakes her head in disgust. Rather than fix the pumps, she often advises me to muscle the gas out of the underground tanks myself, bucket by bucket. Collect my money, she often says, all she want is to collect her money.
She looks around, sets down the unicycle, hitches up her dress, that balance bar still over her shoulder, and stomps down on the inside of the dispenser. I have to stop her, but this phone, like everything else around here, is old and won't allow much range; plus, my boss won't hang up and goes on and on about his ingenious pogo stick idea. How it will bring in the crowds. I yeah-yeah him while keeping an eye on my mother.
"Are you listening to me?" he asks.
"Yeah," I tell him. I cringe every time my mother's foot comes down on the insides of the dispenser. After one good stomp, she shuffles back, almost falling. The bags of money spring at the ends of the pole. The destruction to the inside of that machine must be awful.
"Are you listening to me?" the boss asks.
"Yeah," I tell him. The last thing I can remember is about the pogo stick, so I say, "Why not put up a net?"
"Don't tell me how to run this show. Worry about those pumps. In fact, if they're not finished by the next time I call, you're out of a job. Your mother, too. Got that?"
"Got it." Before he can say anything else, I hang up and run out to stop her.
The unicycle back over one shoulder and the weighted balancing bar over the other, she points her chin toward the pump and says, "I got it out for you." The pump lies there with the bracket torn from where it was welded to the dispenser's insides now stomped to hell.
"Now where's your father?" she asks.
I'm afraid of what she has planned. This dispenser seems her warm-up.
"Aren't you supposed to be on the high wire?" I ask.
"I talked the boss into a break. Where's your father?"
Above the slits that reveal her toned, but vein filled, legs, I point to the seam running up the side of her gown. It is torn and frayed. "What happened?"
She wriggles a finger in the hole, gentle enough to keep the hole from growing. If only she would handle my father's heart with the same care. She could open it more than I can.
"Those troublemakers were taking shots at me," she says.
"I didn't hear anything," I say.
"They're using silencers. If they hit me before I get my money I'll be so mad. Now, where's your father?"
"Let me work on him a little longer."
She walks past me to the garage, where, from the inside, she rolls down the door and locks it. I put my ear to it and hear nothing, so stack quarts of oil, balance atop and peer through the small row of windows along the top of the door. My parents stand around the open suitcase and talk. Still, I can't hear them. My mother walks over to his heart on the counter, but then I can't se what she does. I shift like crazy, back and forth, trying to see around her. The top can shoots out from under my foot along with the rest and I go tumbling. The quarts of oil roll all over. I'm jealous, considering my problems with the pumps, at how easily one can punctures and spouts a golden stream of oil without the aid of any machinery. How freely it flows. If only it were that easy.
I chase down the cans. At the gutter, I pick up one and pinch it between my fingers, careful not to get oil on my uniform. Up in a high-rise a window bursts open, glass shattering. At first it's difficult to tell, but out shoots a desk, tumbling in a beautiful arc, arcing as if from a dispenser nozzle. Those troublemakers stand at the hole in the window and—I can't help but feel I join in their success—watch the desk smash in the street. They pump their fists in the air.
I've never been up in those buildings, but the view, compared to down here, must be all together different. Something wonderful. To describe it must require another language, not unlike the tangled mess of graffiti all over these buildings. Even if illegible, the graffiti communicates on that unspeakable words-don't-explain-my-frustration sort of level. In fact it doesn't matter if it communicates anything at all. That some of that inner tangledness got out matters most. I have enough of that tangledness to understand. Picking up the last of these cans I wonder if I need to make more trouble. All of this time, my entire life, I've been allowing the troubles to make me.
With the oil cans picked up, the decent ones back in a pyramid by the door, I return to dispenser three and cradle the cylindrical pump into the office. At the chair and desk behind the counter, I hunch over and dismantle the pump. The murmurs of a pleasant conversation between my parents seep through the wall. At one point in time, they must have untangled something in one another. I imagine my father's heart opening, the first time in a long time. When it last worked at its best, I was very young. I only have my parents' stories about that time. At some point everything in him failed, then they separated. In diagnosing this pump, I check the manual for how each component should ideally work. All of the troubles lead back to a pair of pistons that need a prime, a nudge, and if they're not broken down and set with rust, then they'll be off and running harmoniously. Only, I haven't yet figured how to do that.
The garage door throws open and rumbles like a revved engine. Through the window I watch. My mother storms out from the garage and across the lot. I run out and catch up to her between the two islands of pumps. "Where are you going?" I ask.
"Away from that man," she says. "I have to work."
"But you were getting along. You had his heart going by itself."
"It's a trick," she says. "He'll play on your sympathies until he gets what he wants."
"That's not true. He tells me all of the time how he wants to reconcile."
"It's a dream. He's worse than the troublemakers. At least they don't hide their intentions. I know what they want. If your father truly wanted to reconcile, he would put himself up on that wire and share some of the danger. Until he's in harm's way he's only using us."
She appears bewildered by that or some other thought, then trudges off, the unicycle and balance of money weighing heavy as ever on her shoulders. She limps off and, like a car with a flat, leans because one stiletto has snapped. Maybe I should have been a cobbler.
Once she's gone, I turn to find my father framed in the garage doorway, clutching the suitcase to his chest. More then ever, I want to get working on that heart. I run back to where I left it on the garage counter, but it's gone. I try to take the suitcase from my father. He only clutches it tighter.
"We can do this," I say.
"It's impossible," he says, as we walk out toward the pumps. He looks up at the wire slanted between the crumbling buildings. For the moment it's empty. He swallows hard and those tubes, I swear, will soon jostle from his throat. I pity him. He looks down at the guts of dispenser three all stomped to pieces. He says, "I know what that feels like," then looks back up at the empty high wire.
"I'll get it put back together," I say.
"It's never going to happen. It was one good day a long time ago. It's over. He's just towing you along."
For the first time, ever, I understand that I know my father's insides better than him. For so long, too long, I've nursed them, unable to realize they were beyond repair. It's not my boss that's been towing me along, but my father. He's never given me anything more than a daydream. For the first time in my life, that inner tangledness, not all of it but a piece of it, straightens and I understand what my father is and why my mother hesitates to be with him.
"You're a piece of shit," I say.
The bubbles inside his tubes stop in place and reverse. Any other day I would have taken back what I just said, if I had said it at all, afraid it might deter his dream of reuniting with my mother. But he needs to hear this. It's time to start making trouble.
Without a word, he walks off in the opposite direction as my mother.
I meander around puddles of oil all over the lot to where the guts of dispenser three are opened and mashed to pieces. It feels as if I should follow one of my parents, but then that I should follow neither. Rather than stick around here, I have an inclination to get lost in the surrounding downtown, have some fun with those troublemakers, or look for work uptown. At some moment today, unknowingly, I've wiped my hands on my uniform. The crisp whiteness is wrinkled and smeared with oil, grease, and my father's blood. Again, I imagine myself up where the troublemakers gather, not only me, but me with my parents. We have found and taken up in an elegant top floor apartment not yet vandalized. We eat together and look on the city skyline cut out of the red horizon. My mother has been paid. My father has a working heart and the rest of his organs inside of himself. The table where we eat is round and small, with a crisp tablecloth, still with the fold lines, shaken open and set with the finest accommodations. It's almost as if I'm a child again. My mother asks for the serving dish of peas; and I pass them. My parents glow with happiness. The pulse of our hearts beat in harmony. We sit and eat and talk as never before, and then, as the phone begins ringing from inside the office (and I haven't fixed a single pump), the troublemakers break in, mess up the dinner, light me on fire and toss me out the window of my daydream.
Ryan Mecklenburg holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere. Currently he is at work on his first novel about The Harvey-Johnson Pickle Company. He lives in Victorville, CA with his wife.