He taught me to fix engines. V-8s. Diesels. Tractor motors with big flywheels. A huge diesel from an old semi. He had patience. He kept a box of old cloth in the back — old curtains and bedsheets he’d collect from abandoned farmhouses. They were old and stained with oil and had holes in them from years of use but he washed them clean with the old laundromat washer he kept in the backroom — something else he had fixed and then kept. He’d spread a cloth out over a workbench and piece by piece he spread them over a workbench. Then he took the engine apart, one piece at a time laying out the parts on the cloth. If it was a motor he’d never seen before he’d study it as he went. He laid the pieces out on the cloth, in some kind of order that I couldn’t see but I know it was an order. Once I was watching while he worked on the engine of an old flatbed truck. He was working hard at something down in the engine well, jiggling it with his hands and then he huffed and pulled up a large hunk of metal, shaped like nothing I had never seen. I bent over it on the bench and looked. An intake manifold, with ducts and screwholes piercing it. It looked like a piece of wood eaten at by termites, or maybe a metal sculpture. It was black with grime and oil but you could see underneath what a finely machined thing it was. I picked it up and turned it in my hands and then set it back down casually on the cloth. He was bent over the engine, pulling out something else and when he came back over he set down a gear from the belt assembly. He looked at the manifold I had set down and then he picked it up and turned it over and around and put it back where it had been. Then he gave me a hard look for a moment and smiled.
“Order, Finn,” he said.
I said, “Sorry. I didn’t realize you had it a certain way.”
He said, “Everything goes a certain way. Always.”
People would have never guessed that looking at his shop, which stacked full of parts and pistons and gears and rings, tools hanging from the walls and wires overhead, belts and pipes and hoses hung on the walls, old bright metal signs on the parts of the wall that didn’t have parts or tools or some other leftover thing hung from them. My dad hated going in there. He said standing in there made him not trust him, even though he knew Mr. Vanek did good work. He said it looked so chaotic he’d figure his car would come out missing a few of the parts it went in with. They’d get lost and who could notice them in there.
But there was order to it. Mr. Vanek told me once, “I like machines, because they work in a smart, the same way every time. The way they’re supposed to.” He liked to tell that to people. Once I heard him add, “Not many things in my life have been like that, working the way they’re supposed to.”
I used to think he should have been a farmer. He loved walking over the land. He took walks down the county roads on the few afternoons a year when he closed the shop early and went out to enjoy the afternoon. He loved it when a farmer’s combine or tractor broke down out in the field. They’d come into town in their truck, pick him up, and then take him out to where the machine was. He told me he liked that work best of all. “Nothing better than working outside in the sun.”
I used to wonder why he wasn’t a farmer. If he thought there was nothing better than being out in the sun, why he worked in a dim garage. But he said he wasn’t fit for farming. “I don’t know the land, and I don’t know the weather,” he said once. “It’s too unpredictable, the weather. Too many things happen to you. I’ve had enough things happen to me in my life. If a truck breaks down, they haul it in here and I figure out what’s wrong and I make it work again. But I don’t know how to fix it if we have a late frost at the end of May and it kills everything in the fields. Or if it rains too much in April and May and you can’t plant. Or if it doesn’t rain all Spring. I don’t know how to fix that. I wouldn’t know what to do at all.”