Outside of Cars
Dan Lundin

 

Henry is an auto mechanic, a good one, an organized and honest one, and successful to boot. He worked at his uncle’s shop for over a decade before opening up his own garage. A specialist in the repair and maintenance of European automobiles – that is what the signs say on the street front and on the brick wall over the accordion door – Henry makes it a habit of never turning away business, always taking on a little more than he can realistically handle.

As much as Henry likes to work on cars, he also likes to follow them. After work, or during work while test driving a customer’s car, Henry often finds himself tailing someone, all times a woman, almost unconsciously a woman who is driving alone, typically in a car with German sensibilities if not out right manufacture, and, if not German, definitely European, though there have been exceptions, one or two. Henry draws conclusions about the personalities of the drivers based on their cars, the make of their cars, the age, the cleanliness, the color, the modifications and above all how they are driven, conclusions that might include high maintenance, carefree, addicted, prudish and sometimes, though rare, political affiliation or sexual orientation, but never, up until now, both.

Henry had followed her before. The second time was the same as the first. She drove a Scuba Blue Audi A3 diesel, recently waxed, and cautiously so, not the waxing but the driving, her foot lifted from the accelerator on approach to intersections, her coasting allowing, at least during the period Henry witnessed, her to time each light and thereby avoid stopping for a single red. She did not drift to her left before turning right, and she did not, as far as Henry could tell, talk on her phone while driving, though she did appear at one point to be singing. That first time Henry followed her not to her home, but nine tenths of a mile’s worth of blocks to Trader Joe’s, or, more precisely, the street adjacent to Trader Joe’s, the overflowing parking lot being a complete and total navigational nightmare. From his car he watched her as she parked, parallel and respectably, retrieved her collection of durable, multiuse shopping bags from her trunk and made her way to the entrance, pausing briefly at the faux bamboo kiosk to remove a complimentary sanitary wipe from the attached canister and give the handle of her cart a quick, germ killing mop.

Henry did not enter the store. Up to and including that point in his stalking career – not Henry’s preferred description, Henry not considering himself a stalker but more of a curious spectator akin to a social scientist and on a hobby level only – he had never followed a driver outside of her car, and, just as importantly, he already had his eye on another car, a driverless Iridium Silver Mercedes E350 convertible that was also parked in the grocery store lot, a model favored by women of a certain age, a car two people do not typically make use of when shopping for food. His patience was rewarded. Circling to the passenger’s side, she opened the door to deposit her single bag before she doubled back, her steps undersized as if her knees were cinched together, and tucked herself into her car. Following her as she jerked around the corner and sped across the train tracks and up a hill to her residence, Henry arrived at an unfortunately updated mid-century modern with substantial deferred maintenance. He did not stay to see her exit the car. Vain and insecure, ripe with vulgarity when drinking, inflexible, he thought, driving away.

Henry is not what you would call a conversationalist, preferring to talk only when needed and then only as loud as necessary, but if you ever get Henry talking, really talking and not just answering a question or explaining the problem with your car, it might very well lead to a rant, and as far as Henry’s rants go, he has a clear favorite, one that starts slow and disorganized but builds and builds, focusing in a, if you knew Henry at all, not surprising way. A historical example of words Henry has previously strung together in the past: people and cars, everywhere people and cars, have you ever tried to count them? the cars and the people? it is impossible, when I am working inside a car, following symptoms to discover problems, fixing things, everything makes sense, but outside, the cars and the people are just so many and so much stuff, wheels and glass and steel and noise, none of it getting better, all of it decay, rotting, do you smell it? on the freeway, fluids steaming away, oil burning? of course, traffic is not death, but I think it cannot be far from it, all this burning and heat and noise for the sake of a trivial journey, I fix cars, I am good at it, without cars I would fix I do not know what, something, but I do not believe in cars, no, I say instead, give me your car payment, your insurance payment, you fuel bill, your maintenance charge, your registration fee, your tow ticket, your speeding ticket, your parking meter change, your compromised health, your traffic accidents, your drunk driving dead, give me all that and I will give you something in return, something cleaner and quieter and far more sane, something more civilized, I would need to learn to fix other things, but I can make that sacrifice, that is okay by me.

Henry did not recognize the Scuba Blue Audi A3 diesel as the same Scuba Blue Audi A3 diesel until after he recognized her driving, specifically the velocity loss on intersection approach, her uncanny ability to roll through lights once again on display. Having worked late into the afternoon, Henry had gotten a slow start on things, and it was nearing twilight, a relatively poor time to be tailing someone, the whole process being markedly less interesting in the cover of darkness. On any other night, with any other driver, he wouldn’t have given following much consideration, but she was different, he sensed, and she had aroused in him an atypical curiosity. And so, for two and two-tenths miles, according to his pedometer, he drafted the Scuba Blue Audi A3 diesel, again recently waxed. This time her errands had already been run.

Henry watched from across the street as she entered her house. It took him a while to come to his decision, a while being the balance of a Haydn string quartet, which had started a mile before arriving at her residence, and an additional six minutes of silence, but when he finally did reach it, it was not hard to get inside. The sound of running water led him through the living room and down the hallway and into her bedroom where a closed door confirmed Henry’s decision, the entering the house without knocking or ringing the doorbell decision, because people who are alone in their home do not shut the bathroom door, he was fairly certain, and the fact that she had could only mean that she knew or suspected or at the very least hoped to be having guests or a certain guest, guests or a guest who did not feel that the noise and disruption of knocking or ringing the doorbell was necessary. From the utility bill balanced on the arm of her couch, Henry gathered her name to be Shelby Saltsman, and in a voice raised only a modest decibel above the splashing water, he called to her.

“Hello, Shelby,” he said. “I’m here, I wanted you to know, but take your time, I’m off for the day, I’ll wait for you to freshen up, though it is not really necessary, I’m not picky like that, I will be here, in the bedroom, no, sorry, in the living room on the couch, and again, do not hurry, see you in a moment, my name is Henry, you have a lovely home.”

 

Henry had previously watched from his car or the borrowed car of one of his many customers on the street in front of the houses, condos, apartments of numerous women and had never made a move to even so much as turn off his engine, so it must be asked: why this time? What made Shelby so unique? Her looks were slightly above average as was her weight, which she wore well, not in one place but lightly all over with a nice double dollop on her thirty plus year old cheeks. She had dressed casually that day in a well thought out, properly fitting outfit with minimal embellishments. None of that was it though. None of that was his motivator. Henry was drawn to her car, in a general way, and to the way she drove it, in a specific way. Patient and quietly untroubled, inviting, Henry thought simply and profoundly, inviting being a common enough word but one he seldom found use for. Her single story bungalow, flanked as it was by a pair of content birch trees, painted pale gray with late-autumn brown and flamingo pink trims and accessorized with well attended flower beds, an oversized front door of wood and a proper mailbox, one made mildly whimsical with a stone mosaic, echoed this assessment: inviting.

Exiting her car, she had glanced across the street in Henry’s direction and smiled. Although the exact meaning of her smile had alluded him, Henry understood smiles to be close to never a bad thing, and it had kept his attention long enough to see her move from driveway to porch, one arm burdened with dry cleaning, the hand of the other grappling with a stainless steel water bottle and vegan purse, kept it long enough to see her unlock the front door and twist around and bump the door open with a bend of her torso, kept it just long enough to catch her smiling yet again in his direction and, if smiles can be aimed, right at him, before she closed the door, leaving her keys in the lock to swing freely like a hand waving upside down.

 

The 911 operator asked Shelby to stay hidden until an officer arrived, which would be directly, a matter of minutes, if she would remain on the phone and calmly wait, or, in any case, try to calmly wait. Shelby kept the line open but she did not stay hidden, not for long, her intruder having gained her confidence, or at least her interest, by keeping to the other side of her bathroom door and taking a seat on the living room couch like he said he would. With the receiver resting on its back on her bedroom nightstand, she walked down the hall and into the living room, her steady steps moving her confidently forward, Shelby never having been one to back down and knowing a bit of Jujitsu and having 911 essentially on hold in the next room. She wore a plain T-shirt, sweatpants and slippers, her wet hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. Behind her back, her hand grasped a doomsday quantity of pepper spray.

Being an unquestionable novice, a solitary tire roll away from wholesome innocent, Henry was uncomfortable, self-conscious and twitchy, as he sat on her couch lacking gift, flowers or candies, any sort of aphrodisiac, any sort of party starter, and he felt open to the elements in the worst way. Upon seeing the lady of the house, he surprised himself by launching into, if not the exact previously mentioned “people and cars” rant, then a very similar unabridged version of the same. From his seat on the couch Henry spoke without stopping, removing his clothes in a matter of fact way as he went, boots and striped athletic socks, followed by belt, pants and shirts, button up and aged undershirt, until all that remained was his underwear, white and snug with spandex at the waist and around each thigh. Henry delivered his rant with the pride of an artist, and thinking Shelby would appreciate it all the more, did so with a wide, toothy grin, not his normal manner of speaking.

With the final notes of his rant having been absorbed into the rug, curtains, couch pillows and wherever else sound recedes, Henry, understandably, felt even more exposed. Doing his best to ignore the pile of clothes on the coffee table, he screwed his feet to the ground, cupped his hands over his knees and awaited her response. The ball deep in Shelby’s court, she stood, speechless, her fingers slowly rotating the inhumane sized cylinder of blinding aerosol in her clutch.

Henry is not ugly, not beautiful, not tall, not short, lean and wiry, though not extremely so, not in an eyes bulging from the skull kind of way. His beard sprouting to an undecided length, his fingernails and hard to access corners mulching petroleum residue, a shave and a clinical strength scrubbing would have served him well, aesthetically speaking, but if that could be looked passed by the eye of the beholder, Henry was surely loveable. Even someone feeling mildly to moderately threatened could see that.

The police entered almost gently, the front door having never been locked, the key having never been removed, and tipped Henry on to the couch face first before cuffing him from behind. He did not struggle. When he was escorted outside, it became Shelby’s turn to follow, out the door, down the four front steps and half way to the street. With no more clothes on than before, Henry shuffled to the open door of the squad car and, stopping inches shy of the officer’s hand that hovered in preparation to press down on his head, Henry turned back toward the house.

“Next time, knock,” Shelby mouthed, not attempting to compete with the tonal bark of a neighborhood dog, a one handed rap at the air accompanying her suggestion.

The silent delivery of her message advanced Henry’s difficult to articulate lust to a state of impossible to articulate love, leaving him searching for words as the door of the black and white slapped shut. Alone in the back of the cruiser with only the nausea of his remorse to keep him company, Henry wondered about the application of her advice. Was she referring to the next time he approached the acoustically unfamiliar door of a meek and cuddle worthy woman, adjectives gleaned from seductively tender-footed driving habits, a noticeable desire to take care of things, automobile and abode, and pitch-perfect communication skills, who had invitingly left the key to her house in the lock (for when else had he ever considered doing such a thing) or, he questioned, Shelby Saltsman herself?

 

Dan Lundin’s short stories have been published in H_NGM_N, decomP, Echo Ink Review, NANO Fiction, Everyday Genius and elsewhere. He also writes the web-comic “Los Desperados”.