Thursday, March 17, 2011

Short Story Alert: The Mechanic-Priest

The door opened suddenly, quietly, as if the entrant didn’t want the light from outside to stain the carpet. He pulled it closed as gently as he could, but it was one of those doors designed to shudder and slam and shoot echoes no matter how gently it was closed.

He stepped off the patch of carpet at the door and walked, his feet clomping echoes across the cluttered, cavernous room. It smelled of oil and grease and dirt, but part of that came from the debris, the busy street outside. Pale light poured in through the windows, silhouetting him as he passed.

The nave was empty of souls.

He walked faster. His echoing feet chased him.

He reached the tiny cubicle, wrenched the door open and threw himself inside. The small dark therein felt colder somehow than the vast darkness outside. He collapsed into a rickety chair and listened for a few moments to the sound of his pounding heart, throbbing at the temples, rattling the eardrums.

A cough, then a grate on the wall slid back.


The voice: quiet, penetrating; innocent, accusatory; froze his heart mid-thump.

“It’s—“ he shivered as warmer air poured through the grate on the wall “—it’s been more than six months since my last . . . my last . . . “

“Take it easy, son,” the voice said not unkindly. “I am here to listen and to help, not to accuse.”

“Okay,” he said. “It’s like this. I’ve come a long way—“

“I’m sure many have come further, son,” the voice said.

“I have come a long way,” he continued, as he sniffed at a hint of cloves and tobacco on the noodles of air streaming into the room from the open grate. “More than six—more than six thousand miles.”

“Yes,” the voice said.

His voice lurched forward to fill the void.

“I think I made a mistake,” he said. “Well, I made a mistake. And I feel stupid about it. Really. Stupid. Really stupid. About my mistake.”

“We all make mistakes from time to time,” the voice said. “Yet we all manage to roll along. You feel remorse. That is good. And perhaps you are not too far gone down the path to redeem yourself from your error. But you must tell me, son, you must tell me what it is you did.”

He paled. Though he drove to the building thinking, knowing he would confess, preparing what he would say, imagining the responses through the grate, it now dawned on him he would have to tell. He would have to tell. He had not even told his wife what he’d done. He thought he’d covered his tracks well on that account. But now the thought of the voice knowing, of his wife knowing, of the souls who might soon populate the nave outside knowing, filled him with dread and shame.


Again he shrank.

“I know it’s difficult,” the voice said. “But for me to help, I have to know what it is you have done. So I can assign a penance.”


“I can find out by myself,” the voice said, loudly, wearily, not accusing. “But, invariably, that always takes longer. There are more questions. More parts to the process. More time wasted. And more penance to pay.”

It was a hard love offered through the grate, he thought. Accented with cigarette smoke and cloves. He coughed.

“I put power steering fluid in the brake fluid reservoir,” he said, the confession suddenly gushing like a river undammed. “Not much, maybe two or three tablespoonsful. I put it in and then I drove around and the steering was still squealing so I got home and opened the hood and looked in and walked around and then I saw the cap marked ‘Power Steering Fluid’ so I realized what I’d done and I ran into the house. I didn’t even put the cap back on.”

It was quiet in the cubicle.

Then with a crack of thunder, the voice said, in an audible whisper: Thou Shalt Not Mix Incompatible Fluids.”

He buried his head in his hands and slumped in the chair.

“Wow,” the voice said. “Sounds like rain out there.”

He whimpered.

“I sense, son, that the story is not finished,” the voice said. “Pray, continue.”

He sat quietly in the chair a few moments, willing his heart to start beating again as rain thundered on the roof above.

He finished his story with the patter of the rain. “I went inside, see, and I thought, well, it can’t be all that bad. So I got on the computer. I read some forums and I watched some videos on YouTube. The videos frightened me, all those melted parts. I think I panicked. I ran upstairs and grabbed the turkey baster and ran out to the truck and I siphoned out as much of the brake fluid as I could. I just squirted it on the ground, on piles of leaves in the gutter. Oh, I’m so ashamed.”

“It is true, son, the EPA curses such onanism.”

“Then I put fresh brake fluid in. I drove the truck around. Everything seemed to work just fine,” he said.

Rain on the roof, falling heavily, the only sound.

“Yet you are here,” the voice said. “Is everything working just fine?”

“Yes, oh yes,” he gushed, pleased to grab at any straw thus offered. “No trouble, no trouble. Oh, the brakes might be a little mushy, but I think in doing the siphoning, I might have gotten a little air in the system. But those bubbles’ll work themselves out, right?”

Rain on the roof, falling heavily, still the only sound.

“Yes, they may, they may, as you pump the brakes,” the voice said.

“Oh, good,” he said, slumping into the chair again, the tension of the moment melting like butter on fresh toast.

“Your penance,” the voice said.

He jolted as if the chair were electric and his mouth ran dry.

“Son?” the voice asked.

“I am here,” he said. “And I washed the baster. Several times. With lots of soap.”

“Your penance,” the voice continued. “Watch the parts. Watch for melting. For leaks. And if the brakes get mushier, you’ll have to come back.”

He wept quietly in the chair.

“That’s embarrassing,” the voice said. “And I have other clients. Leave now. And have your oil changed.”

He rose from the chair and burst from the cubicle as the cover over the screen slid home.

In the nave, quiet, gritty, oily, dusty, grey sunlight filtered through the patina of raindrops rippling down the windows.

At the far end, the door opened quickly. A man rushed in and tried to close it quietly, but it pulled itself shut with an echoing slam.

They glanced at each other but avoided each other’s eyes as they passed, feet clattering on the echoey concrete; he toward the door and freedom and penance and the quick lube, the other to the cubicle of the mechanic-priest smoking, chewing clove gum, reading a three-day-old newspaper turned to the comics page.

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