I was fifteen when I first met the mechanic. That summer, when the plane touched down in Atlanta, my hair was still windblown from the Colorado Rockies. My mother’s words echoed as I stepped onto the tarmac: I’m bringing someone with me. I saw him before he saw me: Red-faced, gripping a row of avocado chairs. Well-worn blue jeans, shirt tucked tight. Slicked-back hair, two-day stubble, with his oil-stained fingers wrapped around my mother.
“You’re pretty, just like your mama,” the mechanic drawled, all yellow-toothed smile. I glared at him, and the teeth disappeared. We rode from Atlanta to Conyers in silence.
I disliked him immediately, for reasons I couldn’t yet articulate. There was the way he ducked his head and smoothed his hair when he laughed. There was his smell that reached across the aisle, a mixture of beer and motor oil. And there was something else, too. An underlying volatility. He reminded me of that crystal ball at the science museum, the one with the electric currents glowing inside. Touch him, and your hair would stand on end, only you wouldn’t be smiling like the kids in the brochure.
I wasn’t jaded. The mechanic wasn’t the latest in a steady rotation of boyfriends. On the contrary, my mother had not dated in six years. Not seriously. No one had ever passed the litmus test of coming home to meet me. Why him? Why now?
Between Conyers and Macon, I learned that they started dating in June. My mother met the mechanic at a fish fry. He was just putting the finishing touches on his lake house, he told her between bites of hush puppies. A big empty house for a bachelor. What a shame, my mother replied. I just lost my job. Four weeks later, the mechanic proposed. Two weeks after that, the wedding. Two weeks after that, the move.
I didn’t go to the wedding. The night of the rehearsal dinner, I stayed in my bedroom and tied ribbons around satchels of birdseed. The day of the wedding, I hid in the kitchen at home, wrapping biscuit dough around cocktail sausages. I cut pimiento cheese sandwiches into fourths. I dumped Hi-C into a dusty punch bowl from the back of the cupboard. After the guests left, I put paper plates in trashcans and vacuumed birdseed from the living room carpet.
There is a picture on my mother’s dresser from that day. She and I are posing in the kitchen. She is wearing an off-white dress, smiling. I am smiling, too, because I never frown in pictures. I am thinking, Third time’s the charm. I am very afraid, but I label it anger. The night before the picture, my mother sat on my bed and told me three things: I had to get in the car and go to Milledgeville. I had to live with her, and the mechanic, in a pale yellow house on Lake Sinclair. And, I had to be nice to him. I had to try.
Those are my memories of the wedding.
The day after the wedding, my mother and I ran errands, probably fetching boxes and packing tape for the move. On some street in Macon, my mother started crying. I asked her at least three times why she was upset. The mechanic, she said, passed out drunk on their wedding night. They didn’t make love. I thought for a moment, then asked:
“Haven’t you already had sex? Like, a lot?”
Silence. Gritted teeth.
I thought again. “Maybe if you had waited until your wedding night to sleep together, he wouldn’t have fallen asleep. He would’ve had something to look forward to.” We drove the rest of the way home in silence.
For the next two weeks, I ruminated, too. I was still ruminating as we made the slow ride from Macon to Milledgeville behind the U-HAUL. I thought about flying back to Colorado to live with my father, a master sergeant in the Air Force. I adored life on base, at least from my twice-yearly visits. There were tennis courts and swimming pools and libraries, all connected by bright white sidewalks. Straight rows of two-story houses, manicured lawns. Everything was neat and clean, just like my father’s Blues. “There are wonderful private schools in the Springs,” my stepmother said the day before I boarded the plane home; “Wouldn’t that be fun? To wear uniforms and make new friends?”
Once in Milledgeville, we passed a corridor of dilapidated trailers before pulling into the mechanic’s driveway. The house was just like our house in Macon, only it was yellow instead of blue. “I thought he lived on the lake?” I said as I surveyed the landscape.
“We do,” said my mother. “Look, over there.” She pointed to a barely visible puddle at the far end of the property. While I was still squinting, she and the mechanic disappeared behind the house.
I felt like I was being quarantined. I thought about dropping out of school when I turned sixteen, maybe getting my own apartment. That option was quickly squelched. I couldn’t drop out. I knew that even then: I lacked street smarts. I never even went in the supermarket by myself. I thought about living in the yellow house until I graduated high school, until I left for college. Tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade. Three school years. Three Christmases. Three summers. It seemed like an eternity.
I wanted to call my father.
In the days before cell phones, landlines were the only option. Landlines and letters. And for six weeks, we had neither postage stamps nor a home telephone. The mechanic’s pale yellow house was a new house, and it took the phone company longer than expected to connect the lines. I couldn’t call my father, couldn’t call my best friend Kristi, couldn’t call my school friends back home. No Internet, either, without a working phone line for dial-up. Not even a gas station within walking distance to use a payphone.
I felt utterly alone.
I told my mother that I wanted to move to Colorado. She rallied hard for me to stay. She was peppy and took care of things, like gathering my immunization records for school. She cooked. She wore makeup. She told me about the wonderful sixteenth birthday party that I would have – on the lake, she said. Hadn’t I always wanted to have a sweet sixteen on the lake?
She took me to interviews at private schools, too. We could afford it, she reminded me, now that she wasn’t a single mother. At one of the interviews, I remember a particularly regal headmaster inquiring about my grades. “She’s very bright,” my mother said. “Straight A student. Gifted program. A wonderful addition to your school.”
“And what do you do?” he asked, writing on his pad methodically.
“I’m in between jobs,” she said; “but my background is accounting. Also computer support.”
“And your husband?” he continued.
“He works at a family-owned business. Howard’s Machine Shop. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
The air grew very cold, “A mechanic.” A statement, not a question.
“An autobody specialist,” said my mother.
“Ah.” He closed the folder; “Our waiting list is really quite long, Mrs. Howard,” the man said; “And of course, in addition to academics, there are also other considerations, such as how well your daughter would adjust. How she would fit in here. Especially in light of her father’s…”
“Not my father. Her husband,” I corrected.
“Especially in light of your husband’s…occupation.” He closed my admissions folder; “Thank you for your time today. We’ll be in touch.” That was the last we heard from that particular school.
We visited the public school next, the only high school in the county. We toured the classrooms and spoke to the principal and the guidance counselor. Both were welcoming, if indifferent. The school itself felt sterile. All of the hallways looked the same, just infinitely repeating rows of lockers.
“There!” my mother said as we got in the car, registration papers in hand; “Now didn’t that feel like home? Didn’t it?” It did not. But I didn’t argue with her. She hummed happily all the way home.
Two weeks later, I couldn’t get the lock to work. I looked again at the square of paper in my hand. 37-29-12. Left three times, right two times, left one time. I tried again. I failed. I looked up to see a straw-haired girl studying me. She was obviously amused. “Need some help?” she asked.
I handed her the paper. Her deft fingers opened the lock quickly, “How’d you do that?” I asked.
“You have to hold your tongue just right,” she said. And then, “I’m Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth had a soft spot for helpless things. I soon discovered that she adopted all manner of wounded creatures – dogs, cats, boys. She took expert care of her invalid mother, whose malady the doctors could never pinpoint. She did it all – cooked meals, ran errands, cleaned house, wrote checks. Senior year, when her dad left, Elizabeth worked every evening and weekend to keep the household running. She never missed a bill.
She took me under her wing that day, walking me to my classes and sitting with me in the cafeteria during lunch. I would later learn that her affections ebbed and flowed. She didn’t quite know what to do with things once they healed. But for the time being, none of that mattered. I was lost. When I needed it, she held my hand, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.
Back home, things were quickly deteriorating. My mother learned that the mechanic’s propensity for fish fry drinking and restaurant drinking and wedding night drinking was actually a propensity for drinking all of the time. A few months in, she started drinking, too. I still don’t know if she was numbing herself or giving him some company.
Mother was a sloppy drunk, but the mechanic was a scary drunk. He got angry, liked to throw things. He never hit me, but he hit my mother one time, slapped her right across the face. That was enough for us both to keep a low profile from then on. Well, mostly.
That sort of atmosphere was probably why I slept with my bedroom light on. There were four lightbulbs in the overhead ceiling fan in my room. From age fifteen to eighteen, I left them shining all night long, covering my head with a pillow to block out the light. At the time, I said that I was scared of ghosts after seeing a frightening movie. I now know that I was far more afraid of the living. As a result of the incessant light, my sleep was fitful, and I awoke each day feeling foggy-headed. I often overslept on school days, which was a problem for my mother.
One particular morning, I missed my alarm again. My mother was more irritated than usual. She’d just started a new job, and I was making her late. Her annoyance increased with each passing minute. “Hurry up,” she kept saying in a clipped voice; “Get your clothes on. Get your backpack. We have to go.”
Finally, I exploded. I’m going as fast as I can! I remember shouting. Why don’t you just go already? The mechanic – I said his name – can take me to school!
“He won’t do it,” she informed me, keys in hand. “He says he knows a man whose stepdaughter falsely accused him of molesting her. He got thrown in jail. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if you did that, too. He knows you hate him.” With that, she slammed the door behind her. I knew she’d be waiting in the car.
Soon after that encounter, Elizabeth introduced me to the manager of a Mexican restaurant. I filled out a job application and began working weekend shifts as a hostess. I financed a burgundy Toyota Tercel for a hundred bucks per month. After that, the mechanic didn’t have to worry about being alone with me.
The thing about fear is that it’s magnified in the face of uncertainty. There, in the pale yellow house, I was always on high alert. Always in suspense. I could still hear it, the sound of his open palm against my mother’s cheek. I went straight to my room when I got home each day. I didn’t sit at the dining room table one time in three years. I ate meals in my room. Watched television in my room. If I could have, I would have showered and pissed in my room. All of this only made the mechanic angrier.
His new hobby became throwing tantrums about the state of my bedroom, “It’s disgusting!” he roared; “I pay the bills around here. It’s my damn house, and she needs to clean it up!” One day, he taped a note on my door to that effect.
I found the note in the thirty-minute interval between school and work. I was enraged as only a menstruating teenage girl can be. My bedroom had always been my own. It was my one safe, if squalid, space. Didn’t I keep the door closed? What difference did it make? In a rare display of anger, I tore down the note and slammed the bedroom door. Then I slammed the front door as I exited toward my car.
The mechanic was having a bad day, too. He threw open the door and bolted toward my car. Looking back, I am glad I had the presence of mind to lock my car door when I got in. I cranked the ignition and threw the car into reverse in record time. He laid into the vehicle, struck the window, pummeled the hood. I continued backing out. He chased me all the way up the driveway, yelling and cursing, pounding his fists in the air.
Soon after the car incident, I started picking up extra shifts as a cashier at the Mexican restaurant. I hoped to scrape together enough money for a summer mission trip to Monterrey. The cashier desk was supposed to be a brief holding place, a purgatory between hostessing and waiting tables. After waitressing for a few months, I was going in reverse. Looking back, I think I was one of those poor waitresses whom people pitied. Friendly, trying very hard, but not very competent. The environment was loud and fast-paced, and I had trouble remembering the spoken requests. Customers were rarely rude. Instead, they spoke to me in the careful way that one speaks to elderly patients with dementia.
Somehow, my boss took pity on me. By now, he was dating Elizabeth, and I suspect she went to bat for me. Rather than firing me, he let me try my hand at the cash register.
On the fifth day of the New Year, I was scheduled to work morning through late afternoon. This shift encompassed the lunch rush and the slow hours before dinner service. I was anxious to clock out, anxious to scrub off the smell of stale corn chips before church. I was in love, I thought, with our teenage worship leader. He was acne-riddled and too tall, but he had a gentle voice and an affable laugh. He lived with his mother and father and two siblings. They’d lived in the same house his whole life. His father had never thrown a beer can at his mother. You could tell.
At the time, our youth group was deep in the throes of the “no-dating” movement, a series of strange directives involving a moratorium on couples’ outings, the donning of purity rings, and vows not to date until we were “marriage ready.” Whatever that meant. The worship leader and I wrestled with these strange rules, and each other. The following summer on the bus to Mexico, we made out for hours while everyone else slept. By the time we hit Texas, our tongues were numb from exertion.
The lunch service was busier than usual that day, and the register was thick with cash. Around two, the restaurant grew silent except for the clanging of pots in the kitchen. Olivia, a feisty waitress with a sly smile, chatted with me in Spanish. She worked every day, every shift, to provide for her two little children. She was always patient as I fumbled for vocabulary.
The food delivery truck arrived shortly before four o’clock. I paid the driver with cash from the register, just as my boss instructed. After the boxes were delivered and the truck pulled away, less than two hundred dollars remained. The winter sun sank behind the strip mall, and long shadows fell on the parking lot.
And then, out of nowhere, a series of moments divided my life into Before and After. Just like my mother’s third marriage. Just like the crack of the mechanic’s hand against her cheek. Just like the chase up the driveway.
There was no punchy underscoring, no shattered windows, and no gruff shouts. Just a series of moments, sharp as glass, where time grinded to a stop and then lurched forward again.
First, a gun to Olivia’s temple. She whispered my name as a prayer.
Second, the expletive-laced commands. Trembling hands. A canvas bag. The shriek of the No-Sale key and the whoosh of the cash drawer.
The hand-off. The exit. Olivia in a heap on the floor, crying.
The 9-1-1 call.
I spoke with a police officer an hour later. He took down copious notes as I recounted the details of the armed robbery, “Two black males,” I said; “They were wearing masks. One of them had really bloodshot eyes.”
“How tall?” the officer asked.
I tried to remember, “Taller than me. Taller than Olivia.” I started again and stumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m not good at estimating height.”
The officer moved on, “What were they wearing?”
I couldn’t answer the question. I felt heat rising up my neck, into my cheeks; “I’m sorry,” I repeated, “I don’t remember. I think dark clothes.”
The interview concluded in less than ten minutes. The officer was visibly frustrated. I do not remember the color of the masks; I do not remember the type of gun. I do not remember if I called my mother.
That night, I pulled into the driveway of the pale yellow house and turned off the ignition. I sat under the stars for a long time, not wanting to go inside. I expected to feel something. Scared. Angry. Anything. I could have died. I said the word out loud, trying it out again and again. Died. Died. Died. I could have died. The word fell away, meaningless. Who can have an epiphany at seventeen?
Self-actualization was suffocated by fear. At equal turns throughout the next several years, fear would both repulse and enslave me. Fear was ghosting my high school honors classes, and fear was dropping out of college halfway through my freshman year. Fear was delaying my first sip of alcohol until twenty-three, and fear was drinking vodka like water by the time I hit thirty. Fear was applying to graduate school far away, and fear was no-showing an interview in Austin. Fear. All of it.
Fifteen years later, I live within five miles of the pale yellow house. The worship leader lives in Atlanta with his wife. My father retired to Maine. And the mechanic? He contracted colon cancer during the recession. Soon after, he found Jesus. So did my mother. They both teach Sunday school, albeit at separate churches. They seem happy enough.
Not too long ago, my tire exploded on a stretch of rural highway. My two small children wailed from the backseat as a trunk full of groceries thawed in the Georgia sun. I couldn’t reach anyone else, so I called the mechanic.