Automatic Transmission - a story by Warren Buckles

Junk has been my downfall. Greasy junk, rusty car parts, bolts, screws, shafts, bearings, manifolds, curved sheet metal bearded with curling paint, gauges with needles pointing to hot or cold, empty or full, zero or thirty, charge or discharge. I was a scholar of junk, a perennial student of the unmade, the abandoned and the obsolete.

Perhaps it was an accident of birth. The youngest of three boys, I got the hand-me-downs: outgrown clothes and well-used toys. I wore the clothes that fit and tried to fix the toys that didn’t work. They had seen rough handling, but ours was an era of metal, of springs and gears, before plastic toys that came in boxes marked ‘batteries not included.’ The mechanisms were simple: springs linked to gears that turned wheels, the difference between stasis and movement a matter of small changes in alignment or spacing. I often simplified what I didn’t understand and left out parts that seemed more decorative than necessary.
In time, I learned to make the lame walk and sometimes even raised the dead. My parents were impressed. My brothers were not and began to keep their broken toys.
This drove me farther afield, to the garage and the attic, then to vacant lots and alleys. I was drawn to things with no obvious use, scattered parts, mechanical puzzles that my brothers derided and my parents sometimes threw out. Even so I kept their toasters and bicycles working, fixed the TV set when it went dark and made sure the lawn mower ran when it was my brother’s turn to use it.
It wasn’t long before I discovered the automobile. I quickly learned its needs and failings and took a job at the local garage, further annoying my brothers, whose skills were limited to bagging groceries or delivering newspapers. But cars were not my vocation. They were only another thing to know, an organized collection of parts with an incidental usefulness. Their owners, of course, felt differently, and demanded function, not explanation and I became a necessary, if not welcome, adjunct to their needs.

And so I learned the fickleness of both things and people. On the whole, things were more predictable. All their parts served a purpose and did not tolerate casual rearrangement. People, on the other hand, remained beyond my understanding. They had little interest in what they used, and considered the privileges of turning and pulling, winding and unwinding, starting and stopping, to be theirs by right. They ignored me until something broke and their changing moods baffled me. I grew estranged from people, first from my family, then from neighbors and friends, until my only contacts came through things that didn’t work.

I became a mendicant and wandered from job to job, sharing a truck with my tools and junk. I collected what junk I could carry and worked on cars wherever I found them, in the roadside dirt, parking lots or driveways. A few times I used other people’s sheds or garages, but these arrangements never lasted beyond a midnight tune-up or an engine planted in the vegetable patch.
For a while I used an old filling station, a place with two gas pumps that had last worked when regular was 219, high octane was 249 and no one had heard of oil embargoes or unleaded gas. I cleared tumbleweeds and dirt from the lift and spread my tools on the workbenches while old vehicles, drawn from back yards and empty lots, gathered outside.
It was perfect but it didn’t last. In a few months I was on the road again and the place became a briefly-popular restaurant, then a hair salon, then a realty office where they sold the nearby hills in half-acre lots. When these were gone they flattened the old place and built a mini-mart where people could buy gas for cars that never need fixing. But that happened much later, long after I stopped caring about cars and junk and all they entailed.

The gas station gone, I once more lived as an itinerant. The old place stayed with me: I couldn’t forget the lift, the workbenches and space to keep all the junk that came my way. Traveling aimlessly, I often stopped to moon over decaying garages and derelict cars. I explored the informal junkyards of abandoned ranches, followed the traces of old roads to mining camps and empty, nameless settlements in the mountains. When summer came the mountain campgrounds filled with motor homes, camping trailers and station wagons overloaded with squabbling children and their parents. Sometimes I joined these gatherings, replenishing my gas supply at night with a siphon hose and a five gallon can. I pilfered their food, too, often making a mess so bears or raccoons would take the blame. But mostly I kept to myself, preferring the old settlements with their abandoned buildings, keeping company with decrepit steam engines, ore crushers and the junk left by forgotten miners.
Summer ended and the campers went home, taking their fuel and food, so one Sunday I packed my truck and moved on. Despite all my traveling I had never gone very far from home, or what was once home, and the road was familiar. I coasted downhill and crept uphill to stretch my stolen fuel. This was too slow for most drivers, and I often pulled off the road to let them pass. I was looking for another place to pull over when I noticed a car beside the road. The hood was open and a man stood looking at the engine. His hands were in his pockets, as if he did that sort of thing all the time, but it seemed to me he was afraid of getting dirty.
I pulled in beside him, running my wheels up the bank and leaving a narrow lane open. Cars squeezed by, the drivers honking and gesturing but the man ignored the disturbance and continued his examination of the car’s engine.
The dust from the last car was settling when I approached the stalled vehicle and its owner. I looked at the engine, its once-shiny cam covers dulled by dust and oil, then looked at its owner. He smiled suddenly and took a step toward me. “Nate!” he said.
“Little Joe!” I replied, remembering him swaggering through the high school lunch room with a crowd of hangers on trailing behind. He hadn’t been smiling then.
His face tightened and the smile disappeared. That was more familiar and I hastily corrected myself. “Sorry, it’s Jerry, right?”
“Yeah, it’s been Jerry for a long time,” he said. The smile didn’t come back as we shook hands. We had started grade school together, eventually graduating high school in the same year, but we hadn’t shared much else. In those days his father owned the sawmill that roared and smoked outside of town. The old man had been born Jose, but everybody called him Big Joe and all through grade school we called his son Little Joe. In high school Little Joe became Jerry and made it stick with his fists and cowboy boots.
I had heard the old man was dead, or pretending to be dead and living in Mexico so Jerry’s mother couldn’t get more money out of him. Still, there seemed to be money around: Jerry’s stalled car was an E-type Jaguar, an expensive mix of style and unreliability that would make a good meal ticket for someone like me.
It didn’t take me long to fix the Jag, but I made a show of it and tried to set Jerry up for a little more work.
“This car needs regular attention,” I said, and wiped some oil off the cam cover. He didn’t say anything. The aluminum housing was starting to show and I plowed on, “It’s leaking oil and needs a good tune up.” Jerry came closer. “There used to be a good shop down at old the mill,” I said, wiping faster and trying to read his reflection in the now-shiny metal.
“Can you work on this thing there?”
I stopped my polishing. The metal was warm. I looked back at Jerry and nodded, my throat too tight for speech, afraid I might start begging if he said ‘no.’
“Just keep this thing running and you can take over the whole place,” he said, tipping the Jag’s hood closed. I barely got out of the way.
“Sure,” I said, “I can do that.”
I was still standing there when he pulled out. I didn’t mind the dust.

It was dark by the time I got to Big Joe’s old sawmill. The gate was open. That wasn’t a good sign, but I kept going, following the rutted tracks around piles of rough logs and buildings with shattered windows that reflected my headlights in a crazy pattern. Eventually I came to a large shed, an arch of corrugated metal with sliding doors at one end and a solid wall at the other. The sliding doors were chained shut, the big padlock dented by bullets but still closed. Guns only open locks in the movies and I hoped the ricochets had done damage to the gun-wielding fool. Jerry hadn’t said anything about keys so I cut the chain with my torch and pushed the doors open. The oxyacetylene flame left me seeing purple spots that the truck’s feeble headlights couldn’t dispel, so I drove in slowly, stopping when the truck hit something solid and the engine stalled. I decided that was far enough for one day and slept in the cab, feeling like a miner protecting his mother lode.
The sun came through the half-open door and woke me. I smelled the truck’s old seat and tried to stretch out but the passenger door was in the way of my feet and my head was stuck under the steering wheel. After a few tries I sat up, opened the door and climbed down. My truck stood in the center of the bare floor, the nearest solid object a good fifteen feet away.
But I didn’t have time to wonder about things I hadn’t seen the previous night. There was a concrete floor under my feet, a metal roof over my head and five acres of junk outside the door. Heaven couldn’t have been better and I felt like crying with joy.

Big Joe had cut trees for fifty years, converting the vertical and round into the horizontal and flat. He had used axes, saws, chains, drags, booms, cranes, grabs, dolly axles, trucks, tractors, donkey engines and bulldozers. He was gone. The trees were gone. Only the machines remained, and every one, from the first axe to the last piece of chain, lay outside my door.
Old trucks were everywhere, tilted hulks with rotted tires and missing wheels, engines partly dismantled, doors hanging open, windows broken or cannibalized, upholstery rotted to little more than rusted springs and frayed cloth. There were some Dodge Power Wagons, grey-green paint and strings of black numbers showing they had once belonged to the Army. There was an International utility truck with a double cab and a hydraulic hoist mounted in the bed. There was a Diamond Reo six by six that looked like it could go straight up a mountain. Pieces of logging equipment were scattered between the trucks: donkey engines, drags, hoists, spikes and chains. I wandered through it all, smelling grease and gear oil mixed with pine and sage while I collected a few odd parts for later study.
Compared to the yard, the repair shed was uncluttered, the equipment in good shape, as if the workers had gone home and never come back. One had even left his denim overalls on the floor, where dust and time had solidified the wrinkles. I pried them up. They didn’t fit but I could use the cloth for rags. The shed was big enough for two large vehicles plus my own truck, with a hydraulic lift built into the floor and a chain hoist mounted on a roof beam. I swept the floor, scrubbed the workbenches and set up my toolboxes. One of the workbenches was made of solid maple and the top, almost four inches thick, had been painted bright blue. I parked my tall red toolbox nearby.
The essentials attended to, I thought about my own comfort. I used some of the plentiful lumber to make a table and bed then set up my old camp stove and put my box of canned food nearby. All I needed was a sign that read ‘Home Sweet Home.’ That is, until the groceries ran out: there weren’t any campgrounds to pilfer and I knew from experience that junkyard rattlesnakes didn’t taste like chicken, just rattlesnake.

But the groceries weren’t a problem. Word of my presence spread quickly and a few customers showed up the day I moved in. Some were regulars from the old filling station; others had heard of me through the mechanical grapevine. Their cars began to fill the open spaces of the yard. Soon I was busy and beginning to feel happy for the first time in months.
Jerry came often: the Jag made sure of that. It had the electrical problems endemic to its kind, compounded by several generations of insulation-eating mice. I told Jerry his car liked being towed by my old truck but he didn’t get the joke.
But it wasn’t just Jerry who came by, and it wasn’t just Jerry’s Jag that seemed out of place. People brought me their expensive cars but the lumberyard didn’t inspire confidence. I didn’t care; they could like me or not, just as long as I got to look at their cars.
As the months went by more vehicles crowded the yard. Most belonged to paying customers but a few were my own, hobby projects I hoped to get running some day. The rest were hopeless cases with blown engines, ruined transmissions or the creeping malaise of old age. They seemed to gather of their own volition, as if anticipating a miraculous recovery.
I worked alone. It was easier that way. A few guys stopped by and asked for work, and I even hired one, but he didn’t last more than a week. It took me too long to tell him what to do, then he took too long doing it, so I did most things myself while he stood around. I hardly noticed when he stopped showing up.
The junkyard exerted a constant attraction. I preferred the unfamiliar, often abandoning a job half done for a walk among the old trucks. It was an addiction. I needed my fix, another piece of unknown machinery. My favorite part was an isolated area where tall weeds hid objects of indeterminate purpose. Some were crude assemblies that disintegrated when I picked them up, leaving nothing but a few flakes of rust on my skin. Others showed no signs of corrosion or wear, and their elegant shapes were unmarked by manufacturer’s names or identification plates. One of these was a lopsided cone about two feet tall. Shafts stuck out both ends and a flat plate was bolted to one side. It was heavy for its size and I thought it might be an early automatic transmission, one of those often cursed conveniences that whined and leaked oil, slipped out of gear on steep hills and failed with amazing frequency, leaving the owner miles from nowhere. I carried it back to the shop and put it in a cardboard box that I pushed under my workbench. I looked at it from time to time, even put it up on the bench once, only to find I didn’t have the right sized wrench to loosen the main shaft. It would have been easy to cut open with my torch but that seemed too crude, so I put it back and planned to get the right size wrench on my next visit to the surplus tool man.

That winter seemed long. Cold weather made the shed a bad place to work and an even worse place to sleep, but it was better than living out of my truck. I made a stove from an oil drum, improvising a leaky chimney that stuck out the side of the shed. There was plenty of scrap lumber so I had as much heat as I wanted, provided I could put up with the smoke.
The cold weather didn’t last. The sun returned, moving farther north and rising earlier each morning. I marked its rising and setting, using familiar items as reference points. A logging crane, its boom frozen by rust, marked due West while the International’s stubby hoist was due East. The midpoint of this East-West line was an oxygen cylinder planted upright in the ground. Autumn began a week after I moved in and all three shadows overlapped. They had moved apart until the Winter Solstice, then edged closer together as the sun returned. I checked the shadows each day, until, one morning, they merged again.

It was a cool, clear day and I realized I had been living at Big Joe’s for six months, longer, by far, than any other place besides my family home. That was long gone, sold by my parents when they retired and moved to an old folks storage area, some place with a Spanish-sounding name where they grew a lawn in the desert and complained about the animals it fed. My brothers were well settled, too, with wives and kids in homes not too far away. They came by looking for free service when their cars broke down, but they seemed less ready for me to meet their families, as if nieces and nephews were better off without an odd uncle. I decided they wouldn’t be impressed by my six-month anniversary, pushed the sliding doors open and went back inside.
The big doors faced east and the low sun quickly drove out any lingering chill as I walked toward my workbench. A rag, centered on the shiny blue top, held the pieces of a carburetor I had dismantled the previous day. They smelled of solvent but there wasn’t a trace of carbon or gas residue. Except for a few wear marks the parts could have been freshly made, ready to ration fuel and air to a car’s engine. There were more than twenty separate pieces: throttle body, float bowl, float bowl cover, float valve, float lever, idle jet, running jet, needle valve, balance piston, balance chamber, damper, throttle butterfly, choke butterfly, jet adjustment nut, two float bowl gaskets, two springs, three ‘o’ rings and five screws.
The last piece, the float bowl cover, was held on by five screws. The tall slotted heads turned easily between my thumb and forefinger, the sharp-edged slot where the screwdriver would fit marking each half turn as it passed over my skin. When they were finger tight I picked up a screwdriver, held the assembly toward the sun and tightened the screws, gradually extinguishing the light that leaked between the closely matched parts.
I checked the choke and throttle plates then put the finished carburetor on the bench and wrapped a clean rag around it, closing the seam with a double fold.
That was when I heard the noise, a faint scratching like the claws of a small animal. I stood still, mouth open to hear better, and waited for the noise to return. It didn’t. I began to clear my bench of tools, putting the wrenches and screwdrivers in my red, wheeled toolbox. The last screwdriver was in my hand when the sound returned: two brief scrapes, then silence. It seemed to be coming from the area of my toolbox.
I opened the toolbox drawers and looked carefully at their contents. There were no small animals and everything was where it should be. The drawers ran smoothly, their slides clean and well oiled. The noise did not return.
I stepped back from the toolbox and looked around the shop. Nothing moved. Then I heard the noise again, this time followed by a metallic ping as if a washer had dropped on the concrete floor. It echoed inside the metal walls, defying my ears to locate a source. I walked around the shop, looked under my truck, into the box where I kept my canned food, opened the side door, looked outside, stepped back in, closed the door and looked up toward the roof. All was quiet and nothing was moving. I walked back toward my workbench, then stopped when I saw a shadow moving under its blue top.
There wasn’t much under the bench, just a couple of burned-out starter motors, a bag of sawdust and the cardboard box that held the automatic transmission I had found in the yard. I edged closer. The box was moving. Something was inside it, a rabbit or a litter of kittens left by one of the junkyard cats.
I squatted down and looked at the box. The side moved again and a pointed snout poked over the top. Soon another one, the same dull silver color but a little smaller, appeared bedside it. They both moved as if sniffing the air but I hesitated to touch them, thinking of teeth controlled by a feral mind. The screwdriver was still in my hand and I poked the larger snout with the flat steel blade. There was a clink of metal on metal and both snouts disappeared, dropping back into the box with muffled thumps. After a brief pause the box moved again and the scratching resumed. I bent closer to look inside as the first, larger, snout reappeared. It rose higher, revealing a tapered, silvery body not much bigger than a beer can. The thing teetered on the edge of the box then fell to the floor with a clunk where it struggled like a legless beetle, rocking from side to side until it rolled onto a flat spot that I guessed was its belly. I looked up as two more of the silvery things climbed out of the box, tipped over the edge and fell to the floor. As the second two struggled to right themselves the first one began turning like a faulty compass. After a couple of full circles it slowed and reversed direction, swinging back and forth until it stopped with its snout pointing right between my shoes. The other two, now upright, turned around a couple of times then joined the first, one on each side in a ‘V’ formation.
They hummed, a faint noise more felt than heard, then started moving toward me. There was something odd about the way they moved, as if they didn’t touch the floor at all. The hairs on my arms and neck stood up and a feeling of uneasiness spread through me. I shuffled backward slowly, afraid of making a sudden move. Then I remembered someone telling me how ducklings followed the first movement they saw, regardless of whether it was a duck or a rubber glove or, perhaps, a pair of leather boots. I stopped moving, but it was too late. They gathered around my feet and pressed their snouts against my shoes, moving around, poking into my heels and arches before settling on my toes. I felt a gentle vibration where they touched, as if being licked by a tiny, fast moving tongue.
They seemed hungry, but I didn’t know what they ate. The cabinet behind me was stocked with motor oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid and dozens of other liquids favored by cars and trucks.
The little things followed as I moved around the shop, catching up and pressing against my shoes whenever I stood still. They weren’t the same size: the first one that came out was the largest and the smallest one had a light green spot it the middle of its back. Still, their similarities outweighed their differences.

I chose a can of transmission fluid, the pink kind used in Fords, and put a large, shallow hubcap on the floor.
“Here’s something for you,” I said, using my screwdriver to punch holes in the can, “good transmission fluid, just what you need.”
I poured a little of the oily liquid in the hubcap. The things stopped crowding around my feet and headed toward the oil. The larger one got ahead of its mates and bumped the improvised dish, bouncing off and hitting it again, still not getting to the oil inside. The other two came up and did the same. Their snouts went blurry, vibrating like a plucked string moving too fast to see. I dipped my finger in the oil, and smeared a line to the edge where they crowded together.
They still didn’t get the idea, so I dipped again, this time touching each snout with my oily finger, saying, “Drink this,” and feeling a numbness in my finger with each tap.

One after the other they crawled into the hubcap, making straight for the pool of oil. Their snouts touched the fluid and ripples spread across the surface. The pool shrank. I felt a sudden relief and remembered watching my one of my brothers feed a puppy with an eye dropper. It had grown into a loyal mutt that only came when he called and bit the mailman one too many times.
“I knew you would like that,” I said. The old hubcap vibrated with their humming.
They drank quickly. I kept pouring more transmission fluid into their dish. Soon the whole quart was gone and they cleaned the hubcap, bumping into each other and pushing to get at the last drops. They settled into the center of the empty hubcap with their snouts overlapping in a single, blurry point.

I picked one up. It was a little wider than my palm and almost as long, oddly heavy and warm. It hummed quietly and the skin, or whatever its surface was, seemed soft, not like metal at all. I lifted it to eye level and looked into its snout. It was nearly identical to the driveshaft end of a transmission, a dark round nub recessed in a larger opening, the gap between them hard to see, shifting around like the lowest line on an eye chart.
I noticed two small bumps above the snout, located where the oil cooler would have connected to a real transmission, but there were no brass fittings, just the bumps. These, too, seemed blurry, a little outside the range of my eye. Soon it was humming louder, struggling against my hands as if weights were shifting inside the rigid case. I pressed the flat side against my chest and stroked the top of its rounded body, saying, “There, there, everything’s OK, just take it easy, I’m not going to drop you.” It stopped moving and the humming sound quieted. I felt an odd rippling and shifting through my shirt, something like a kitten’s kneading paws. Curious, I turned it over to look at the bottom. Suddenly upside down, it buzzed furiously, squirming and twisting in my hands so that I almost lost my grip. Cuddling and stroking didn’t work this time, so I put it back on the floor. It zoomed off then circled back to ram into my left foot. An electric shock ran up my leg and I jumped away, only to get the same treatment in the other foot. Whatever it was, the thing wasn’t domesticated.
I backed away quickly and sat on my workbench with my feet safely off the floor. The transmission followed and gave the bench legs a few bumps, sharp raps that I felt through the top. For a moment I wondered if it might climb after me, but it tired of the game and crawled back into the hubcap, forcing itself between the other transmissions. They all hummed and buzzed for a while then fell silent with their snouts together like a three pointed star.
I waited for a few minutes then got off the bench and tiptoed over to the hubcap. The shiny grey color was gone and irregular greenish splotches had spread across their curved backs. There were subtle differences in their shapes, curves and bumps that didn’t match, like three eggs laid by the same hen.
The cardboard box was still under my bench. I pulled it out and looked inside. The original transmission housing was there, broken into pieces that rattled on the floor like new pennies when I poured them out. None of the working part, the gears, clutches and brake bands, remained. I picked up a few housing pieces, but they crumbled into a powder that drifted away.
I looked outside, over the junkyard, then back to the pieces on the floor and felt a tiny shift, as if a few frames had been clipped from a film. The old trucks were still out in the yard, machinery in retirement waiting for the scrapyard, the big magnets and the final conflagration of the blast furnace before they emerged as new steel, ready to be shaped again. And I, someone who admired them, even loved them, was just another transient. Someday I would leave, too. I would find another love. Rockets or computers, maybe even people and their ills.
I walked between the old trucks, their grills and headlights like mouths and eyes, the round cabs like skulls. But these were just decorations, shells covering parts I knew: engine blocks, pistons, crankshafts, gears, axles, bearings. Nothing but a long yet finite list of things, all junk, scrap metal ordinary as dust, common as air.

Returning to the shop, I looked at the hubcap. It was just another piece of scrap, only junk filled with junk, something that belonged with the rusty trucks. I was ready to throw the whole mess out and get back to work. But the little transmissions were still there. I touched them, felt the slight warmth and the faint humming. They stirred at my touch and began moving. Soon they were crowded around my feet, pushing their humming snouts into my boots with surprising force. My resolve crumbling, I gave them a quart of transmission fluid, then another and was about to open a third when they crawled out of the hubcap and started to explore the shop. Their humming varied as they poked into piles of parts and rooted under shelves and benches, scattering what they could push and crawling over anything they couldn’t. I retreated to the top of my workbench and watched, thankful that they couldn’t yet climb its vertical legs. Eventually they tired of the shop and gathered just inside the door, staying on the concrete as if afraid to venture onto the dirt outside.
It was late and the sun was almost setting. Something seemed wrong with time; I remembered the morning sun on the workbench while I did something with a carburetor. With an effort I recalled the transmissions coming out of their box, but the rest was a blank. I hopped off the workbench and, moving quietly, picked up the hubcap. Then, taking the last few quarts of transmission oil, I slipped past the transmissions. I ran to the derelict International, poured some oil in the hubcap, pushed it under the rusting frame and tossed the other cans after it.
Wiping my hands on my pants, I turned toward the shop. The transmissions had gotten over their shyness about dirt. They were only a few feet away, bigger than ever and moving fast, the space under them the blurry grey my eyes couldn’t quite see. I stepped back quickly as they rushed past. They crowded around the hubcap, sucking it dry in seconds before they went after the unopened cans. These didn’t present any problem: one by one they shriveled and disappeared like collapsing balloons.
The transmissions moved farther under the truck and out of my sight. The humming got louder and the old International began to vibrate. Pieces of broken glass fell from its windows into the dirt. The truck rose a few inches off the ground. The tires, long flat and decayed to shredded rubber, tore free of the earth, little clods of earth falling into the ruts they had made. A grey haze formed under the old rubber and the truck slowly moved, turning its nose deeper into the junkyard, pushing smaller vehicles aside with a screech of metal. I watched as it plowed a path, zigzagging between the other trucks, scraping over piles of junk, flattening sagebrush and weeds. It went out of sight and the other old trucks began to vibrate, shaking off loose parts and starting to rise. One by one they turned and moved off, falling into line like a vanished convoy, the old Diamond Reo bringing up the rear.
They made a wide path through the junk, pushing lesser vehicles aside and leaving bare red dirt behind. Curious and apprehensive, I followed the road they made. It smelled of old gasoline and dust, gear oil and broken sagebrush. At first I walked past familiar things, cars and smaller trucks I had used as trash dumps. I kept going and came to the place where odd parts and unknown machines lay scattered on the ground, stopping when I saw the curved imprint where I had found the old transmission the previous fall.
I turned around several times, expecting to see my shed nearby. But there were only unfamiliar shapes, things I couldn’t name and scattered parts I had never seen. Everything was stained orange by the setting sun. I felt a rising panic, turning faster and faster until, too dizzy to stand, I fell down.
Time passed. I was lying on my back looking at the sky. It was a perfect blue, a sunset blue that barely hid the black of night. Soon the first star appeared and, with some effort, I stood up. My shed was nearby, just across a strip of oil-stained dirt.
Inside, the shadows were deep and, at first, I couldn’t see my truck. But it hadn’t deserted me and I hurried to load my tools as twilight faded to night. Things were moving outside, too. I heard humming and scraping metal as the old trucks swept the yard, taking everything: scrap metal, scattered parts, even my other vehicles to a tribal gathering I wasn’t meant to see.
I quickly erased all signs of my presence. The last thing to go was the blue workbench, tipped over and piled on top. I got in my truck, turned the key, and, with some apprehension, pressed the starter. The engine turned over, misfired, and stopped. Black smoke smelling of raw gasoline drifted into the cab. I released the starter, took a deep breath and tried again. The engine caught and I floored the gas pedal. The shed filled with blue smoke and the tin roof rattled. I throttled the engine back, jammed the gearbox into low and let the clutch out. The truck lurched forward, groaning under the load of tools and equipment. As I pulled out of the shed my lights swept the yard one last time. There was nothing there but empty dirt, rutted in places where something heavy had been dragged away.
I followed the rutted road, past the old building, broken glass reflecting my headlights back into the cab. A shadow moved across the seat and I shied away, nearly running into a pile of boards before I regained control. Soon I passed the main gate and felt something let go, as if a net had broken and all the things I knew were flying away, leaving me free. I no longer had to learn everything; I could let it go and leave the mysteries to others.
I sped up, running through the gears and pushing the old truck past its limit when I got to the highway. A pair of headlights came toward me and I strained to see a human face behind them as the vehicle went past. I caught a glimpse of eyes and a mouth opening to shout at me as I swerved back into my lane. For a moment I thought it was Jerry, but the driver kept going, one arm waving out the window, the fingers bent in the universal salute.
The drive into town was long. I tried to look into every vehicle that passed, relieved at the honking horns and waving arms as I drifted into the other lane. There were some familiar faces, maybe old customers or people I had known long ago.
A few old and rickety trucks went by, too, but I wasn’t sure who or what was driving them. They didn’t honk or wave, just kept going straight down the highway, each one marked by a single red tail light fading in my mirror.
I kept looking back, watching the mirrors for lights coming up behind me, but nothing was there, only the night sky, starless and black.
I concentrated on the lights of town. Soon I was passing homes, their windows lit by the glow of TV sets. I stopped at a familiar place, a bar decorated by an animated neon cowboy who twirled a lariat that never dropped over the horns of the steer he was chasing. I pulled into the parking lot, stopped my truck and turned off the engine. The metal ticked as it cooled and a hot oil smell drifted into the cab. The pile of gear in the truck bed was quiet. I tied a ragged tarp over it and went inside.
The smoky room was full of people drinking, talking and playing pool. There was an old song on the jukebox, the one about a trucker and his rig, Number 409.
I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender looked at me then glanced away, avoiding eye contact and possible offense. I had seen him do it before, only not to me.
“Everything OK, buddy?” he asked, looking past my right ear, one hand under the counter, perhaps reaching for his billy club.
“Yeah, I think so.” I said, turning to follow his gaze. A woman in red slacks was dropping quarters in the cigarette machine. She pulled the handle and a pack thudded into the chute. A kid too young to drink circled the pool table, holding his cue up like an empty flagpole. The singer had come to the final verse and, just like every time before, the trucker crashed his rig to save the kid.
I looked at the juke box. The record was turning inside the glass case, the tone arm floating on its surface, the needle following the grooves, ‘Phantom four—oh—nine’ coming from the speakers one last time.
Something was moving along the baseboard, three silver shapes a little larger than beer cans. I watched them slip behind the jukebox.
The song ended and I heard a faint hum.

(c)2005 Warren Buckles
Previously published by the Steel City Review (defunct) and The Big Stupid Review (