It wasn’t that I ever got hired at Mr. Vanek’s repair shop. Chris and I hung out there for a long time, and then because we liked to help out, we ended up learning things, doing things around there.
My dad called it “a dump,” once after he came to pick me up there. My mother called it cluttered. It was crammed full, but it was organized, and it was clean. Any mechanic’s shop I’ve ever been in was grimy and generally disorderly, with wrenches and weird tools strung about on the workbench. You might find puddles or smears of oil here and there. This was nothing like that.
Part of the shop was a concrete block building from the twenties or thirties. I guess that had once been the whole shop, which is hard to believe because it was so jammed full of things. It was just a welding shop then, but then people realized he could fix just about anything, so it became a repair shop. That was a long time ago. There were three bays, which were in a metal building that had been attached to that original concrete building. It wasn’t much to look at on the outside, one of those contrived kinds of places that makes outsiders think a town looks run-down. Once I was in there when a bad thunderstorm hit, where the sky was really dark and we were watching for a tornado. We didn’t see a tornado but things were really blowing around, and a branch blew off a tree next door and slammed it into the side of the building. It ripped a big hole in the sheet metal, and Mr. Vanek said something like, “I should never have let that sheet metal salesman talk me into building this dump.”
But he loved the place. People saw clutter or a dump, but it was where he had put the things he loved. It was full of bright and colorful things, and when light filtered through the glass bricks on a sunny afternoon, it played off the stuff he had back there. There were a couple of bright old gas pumps from a Marathon and a Pure gas station that had gone out of business somewhere, those old tall pumps with the lighted crests at the top. There was an old stove, robin’s-egg blue, back there, where he sometimes percolated thick, oily coffee. That’s where I first drank coffee — miserable stuff, but he had a big red porcelain sugar bowl that was full and I thought it made me grown-up to drink coffee. He had an old white and green sign that had probably read, “John Deere quality farm equipment sold here,” and someone had pasted some masking tape over the ‘sold’ and written “revived” in a black marker. There was a sign for a dairy in Devil’s Lake that had a painting of a woman smiling, her arms held out generously, like she was welcoming you to come and buy milk. I remember Chris one wondered whether back in her day, who knows when that was, if she would have been thought sexy or alluring. We couldn’t imagine it.
There were tall bottles of gas for the welding torch, scuffed but bright orange and red. He had an old grinder that was painted a soft blue. There was a shelf with rows of bottles, strange solvents and other things, lots of which I never saw him open in four or five years. There was a shelf of polished pistons, a shelf of cam shafts, another of blackened engine valves. There were chains hung with gears, like Christmas garlands up on the walls. On another wall were shiny old hubcaps from cars that were forever gone, like Packards and a Studebaker and one from a Hudson. Sometimes when he wanted to take a break or someone came in to chat, he’d take down a hubcap or an electric motor or a gear and sit and polish it when he talked. I once asked him why he was cleaning and polishing used parts. He said, “When you’re fixing something that belongs to somebody, you want them to know that you took care, that you’re not just putting junk into their car or their tractor or their combine.”
The old back room was cluttered, but right where the long workbench ended, right by the bays where he fixed things, there was a space on top that was always clear. He had a chessboard there, and there was always a game going. A lot of the time it was with Chris and I, but sometimes old guys would come in to play a game with them. He’d say to us, “I think you’re going to lose this game in, oh, about five moves, how about you let me play with this guy?” I don’t know how he did that. I was pretty good, but I played against him for years until I finally beat him, and I only beat him a few times. I’d sit and pore over the board, finally finding a move I thought would finally get him. I’d call out, “Your move.” And then in a few minutes he might pull himself out from under whatever truck or machine he was working on. He’d get up, wiping off his hands — they had to be clean before you could touch the board. Each time he made a move he had to clean his hands. It didn’t matter — it didn’t take him too many moves to beat you. He wouldn’t even look at the board until he had his hands clean, then he’d look for just a moment and make a move. And then disappear underneath the truck or machine again.
That’s when you’d realize how he wasn’t your average mechanic. Maybe there is no such thing anyway. He told me once he was studying to be a doctor just before the big war started. When I couldn’t decide what to do after high school, he laughed and said, “Don’t think so hard about it. You’ll make a plan and then life will get in the way of it anyway.” Another time he said, “Keep it simple and follow your heart.” Maybe that’s what it was about, having that chess board in the middle of his repair shop like some kind of shrine, surrounding by all those colorful things.
I loved every inch of that place. It was a place I felt safe. Once when things were really bad at home, back when I was a senior in high school, I asked him if I could live there for awhile. He said, “Where would you stay? There’s no room in here for anything else. You’d knock things over in the middle of the night.” But I think he really didn’t want to cause trouble with my family.
I think I worked there for four or five years, even though it wasn’t work at first. I liked sitting there and looking at all the machines, the grinders, the welders, the sharpeners, the saws, the vices — turning knobs, tightening screws. Then he started teaching me to fix things, so I guess I was doing some work, although I would have done it for free. The first time I was getting ready to leave and Mr. Vanek pulled out a five from his coveralls and handed it to me, I didn’t want to take it. He insisted. Chris said, “Just take it, or maybe he won’t let you come back.” So I did. After that, he started paying me every time.
That was the most fun job I ever had, maybe even more fun that cooking at the cafe. I guess I like the wrong kind of work. My dad says nobody pays you to work with your hands — you have to work with your head. But it’s not nearly as much fun.