Smoky Kernís visit had raised one issue. Iíd said a number of times that, when I left the MMSA, I was just going to have to turn my back on racing or get swept up in it again. Iíd even told Arlene that on more than one occasion. Now, I was beginning to wonder just how much I meant it, or what I actually did mean. When I meant turning my back on racing, I guess Iíd meant turning my back on the MMSA. If I didnít, I knew that sooner or later spring would come along and my fingers and foot would be itching to be back out on the road with the gang. I knew darn well that right at that minute they were most likely out on one of those big, wide fairgrounds tracks that I loved so much, where the speed was high, a third-gear run for the midgets, exciting in every way you could put it. I sure would have liked to have been out there with them rather than lying on my back in a hospital room.
If next spring rolled around and I wasnít doing anything in particular, pumping gas or something, I could probably be talked into heading out with the gang again pretty easily. Two words were all it would take Ė "Hey, Mel!" If I was doing something a little more permanent, though, something with a future, I knew I would just have to resist the urge. By then I knew all too well that racing was addictive and I was a serious addict, so maybe it would be better if I just turned my back on it, and I meant all of it. It was something that I was going to have to talk over with Arlene sooner or later, but the way weíd talked about it so far left me thinking sheíd feel pretty much the same way.
I guess maybe I did fall asleep there, because once again I dreamed I was in the 66 car Ė not heading towards T-boning and leaping the 69 car like Iíd dreamed so many times before over the last few days. This time I was leading the pack on one of those fairgrounds tracks, the grandstands full of people under a clear blue Midwestern sky, the roar of the V8-60 in my ears, the dust flying as I took a long, easy slide around one of those broad curves. Iíd done it often enough that it was no trick to dream about; moments like those had been among my best the last few years. It was where I was meant to be, and I knew it in my heart.
That dream was with me after I woke up again. It just made clear to me that walking away from racing was going to be just as hard as I thought. When you got right down to it, I wasnít all that sure it was what I wanted to do Ė but it was something that I was pretty sure I was going to have to do. Iíd never heard of a "Raceaholics Anonymous," but Iím sure I could have qualified to be a charter member.
By that time, the dazed feeling and my headache had pretty well cleared up, and I wasnít sleeping anywhere near as much. With the cast and the general injuries, though, I was still mostly restricted to lying on my back in that hospital bed. In those days, they liked to see you staying in the hospital on bed rest until they were real sure you were ready, not like today where the insurance companies are hustling you out the door before the doctor gets done stitching up the incision. When Dr. Bronson came by the next morning, he told me that in the next day or two they were going to have to see about getting me out of bed and getting me moving a little more. That sounded awful good to me.
For the moment, though, I was still lying on my back in the bed, and by now I really was getting bored. Arlene had been as good as her word. Sheíd gone down to the lounge, and even to the doctorís office across the street and gathered up all the Trues and Argosys and Field and Streams and Popular Sciences and the like that were lying around, no matter how old they were. After all, a lot of them were new to me since I didnít always get to see every issue every month. That perked things up for me a little; it felt good to be able to read. Back in those days Popular Science used to have a story every month about the Model Garage. It was fiction, about a mechanic named Gus Wilson and how he solved all sorts of weird car problems. I hadnít seen Popular Science as much as I had True or Argosy, but I always liked those Model Garage stories and when I came across a Popular Science it was always just about the first thing I turned to. Gus was an old time mechanic who tended to avoid fancy test equipment, and I was wrapped up in the story trying to outthink the writer when I realized I had another visitor.
"Excuse me," he said. "Are you Mel Austin?"
I glanced up from the magazine to see a moderately heavy-set man with a butch cut, wearing a shirt and tie. I wondered if it was a local minister, although there was something that didnít quite seem ministerial about him. "Yes," I said. "Can I help you?"
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Austin," he said. "Iím Mike Corrigan. Iím told that youíre the race car driver who got wrecked over at the track a couple weeks ago."
"Iím told it was a couple weeks ago," I replied. "Iíve been unconscious most of the time since."
"Well, itís good to see youíre getting better," he smiled. "Thatís got to be pretty dangerous."
"It is a little," I told him. "The way we had things set up we were pretty careful. The only time Iíve been hurt in a race car before this was cutting my hand on a sharp piece of metal. In fact, I donít think I was in the car at the time, but working on it."
"Youíre a mechanic, then, I take it?"
"I never had much formal training at it, other than what I picked up in the Army," I told him. "Itís all been hands-on experience over the last ten years, but I know how to do most everything that needs to be done to a car. Well, maybe except for automatic transmissions. Iíve never had to work on them, but I know the principles."
"I suppose that you pick up things like that better on the job than you would in a classroom, anyway," he commented.
"Well, yes and no," I told him. "Thereís nothing that beats hands on experience when it comes to working on cars, but you about to have to have someone to point the way for you or you donít learn very efficiently. There has to be somebody you can ask, ĎHey, how do you do this?í You remember it better when youíre doing it than you do looking at a chalk board. I taught auto shop for most of a semester up in Livonia, just as a substitute teacher, and I think I learned more from it than the kids did. Chalk board talks are fine but working on something is better."
"Have you done a lot of teaching?" he asked with a smile.
"Not a whole lot," I told him. "Iím an honors graduate of Milwaukee State, and I have Michigan and Wisconsin certifications, but all the teaching Iíve done has been substitute teaching while we were wintering over in Livonia for the last three years. We were only there usually from the middle of November through the first part of April before we went racing again. I was getting set to give up the racing and go looking for a regular teaching job when this happened. I wasnít sure how much luck I was going to have finding one, though."
"So," he smiled, "If you had a teaching job you werenít planning on running off to go racing in the spring again, I take it?"
"Not if I could help it," I said. "Iíve been thinking for a year or more that itís time to grow up. Iíve got a girl here with me who, well, we havenít talked about getting married, but I think weíre not far from it. I guess itís gotten to the point where having things like a wife and family and a real job are more important to me. Iím frankly looking forward to getting out of this bed so I can do the next thing."
"Have you had any thoughts about any place you would like to teach?" he asked.
"Not really," I told him. "The only thing is that Iíve pretty well made up my mind that it might not be the brightest thing to be teaching somewhere around Livonia where my racer friends are wintering over. It might get a little too tempting, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, we have to avoid temptation where we can," he grinned. "How about other subjects? Could you teach anything but auto shop?
"My major was actually history and secondary education, so I suppose I could teach about anything involved with social studies," I told him. "I could probably make do as an English teacher. I pity any kid in any algebra class I ever subbed in who ever asked me a question about algebra. I understand it a little but not well enough to teach it. You have to understand that a substitute teacher sometimes can do a good job, but other times about all he can do is keep a class quiet."
"Thatís always a problem," he smiled. "Mr. Austin, I think Iíd better come clean with you. Iím the superintendent of the Bradford Consolidated School District. Iím going to tell you that you shouldnít have much problem getting hired. Teachers are in short supply right now. Competent auto shop teachers who can fill in a session or two of other subjects are in even tighter supply."
"Iím glad to hear you say that," I told him. "It takes a load off my mind."
"Very good," he smiled. "Now you can take one off of mine. This morning, I was sitting over at Kayís Restaurant downtown having a cup of coffee when a mutual acquaintance by the name of Smoky Kern came up to me and said, ĎAre you still looking for an auto shop teacher? You can find one in Room 202 at the hospital.í Now, Iíve known Smoky for years and have always tried to remember to count my fingers after Iíve shaken hands with him. But the fact of the matter is that I have been looking since last winter for a competent auto shop teacher whoís certified, has some classroom experience, and can fill in with other subjects. You might as well know that this is the first place I came as soon as I set down my coffee cup. A math teacher would be ideal, but right at the moment Iím not picky. We can shuffle things around to make do. Otherwise, you seem to be just about everything I could ask for. Would you be interested in taking the job?"
I sure wasnít expecting that! I had figured I would have to go looking for the job, not have the job come looking for me! "What kind of pay are we talking about?" I asked.
"The standard right now for a new teacher with no experience is $3500 per year, but since you have a year and a halfís worth of experience I think we can go $3800," he smiled. "I know you havenít seen the facility. Our high school is old, but the auto shop is in a separate building, and Iím told itís fairly well equipped."
I didnít have to think about it at all. $3800 a year was considerably more than I had been making with the MMSA, although since a lot of my expenses were paid while racing I was in a practical sense making more than my paycheck. But $3800 a year was more yet. "Iím very interested," I told him. "I donít want to give you a flat yes on it until Iíve talked to my girlfriend, and maybe had her take a look at the school, but if sheís willing, Iím willing."
"That sounds fair," he said. "You said your girlfriend is here in town with you?"
"Sheís somewhere around the building," I replied. "Sheís an RN working here temporarily as a nurse."
"Convenient, isnít it?" he laughed. "Would you like me to hunt her down?"
"Not quite yet," I told him. "Thereís a couple things that you and I probably ought to talk about. The first of them is that Iím here in a hospital bed. School starts in what? Three weeks? Four weeks? Iím going to be up and getting around by then, but Iíll probably still have casts on and using crutches."
"If youíre willing to start school like that Iím willing to let you," he replied.
"By then Iím going to be so tired of doing nothing that Iíll want to be doing something," I told him. "But Iím not bringing any lesson plans with me, for auto shop or anything else."
"Iím sure we can find something to get you going," he replied. "But youíve got four weeks to get ready, and that should give you something to pass the time. Anything else?"
"The only thing I can think of is to look for my girlfriend. Like I said, sheís a nurse, her name is Arlene. She ought to be around here somewhere."
"Right here, Mel," she said, walking into the room. "Iíve been listening. Mel, take it. Iíve told you this isnít a bad town, and weíve been in a lot worse. I havenít looked at the school other than drive past it, but it looks all right from the outside. They want me to stay here at the hospital, and I like it a lot better than the last place I worked. I think we could go to a lot of trouble to find a lot worse place to settle."
I turned my head toward the superintendent. "Like I said, Mr. Corrigan, if sheís willing, Iím willing. Does that sound willing to you?"
"Sounds pretty willing to me," he agreed.
"Then I guess youíve got yourself an auto shop teacher."
* * *
"Well," I told Arlene after Mr. Corrigan left, after weíd talked a few more details, "I guess that pretty well settles that."
"Yes," she said, swinging around to sit on the side of the bed like a nurse isnít supposed to do. Another thing a nurse isnít supposed to do is to give their patient a big kiss, but she did that, anyway. Finally she pulled back and said, "I guess that changes things a little."
"It changes things a lot," I nodded. "Among other things, I think I just officially turned my back on the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association."
"I know youíve been wanting to do that for a long time," she smiled. "I guess I just did, too. You get to doing something and itís hard to give it up."
"Does that mean youíre going to stay here with me?"
"Of course it does, Mel. I told you I was going to stay with you, itís just where, whether it was here or somewhere else that was up in the air. Here is just fine with me."
"I know youíve more or less said that," I looked at her. "But I wanted to ask you directly. I hope Iím going to like it here. I havenít seen anything of this town except the bit between the tourist court and the race track, and what I can see out the window, mostly sky, so I hope itís as good as youíve been saying."
"I think it is," she smiled. "Of course, I havenít seen a lot of it yet, but I guess itís pretty much like a lot of small towns. Itís a little, well, more rural than Schererville. Thatís right there in the edge of the Chicago metro area, so thereís a big city close by, and I suppose that makes it a little more urban."
"I guess I know what you mean," I told her. "Without knowing a bit about it, I would guess that itís a little more like Hartford than it is like Schererville."
"Not ever having seen Hartford, Iíd probably guess youíre right," she said quietly. "But if Hartford is like other little towns Iíve seen in Nebraska, Iíd say that Bradfordís probably a little less isolated."
I let out a sigh while I was trying to figure out how I wanted to say what I wanted to say. "From what little I know of small towns in this neck of the woods, youíre probably right. Look, I know this isnít the accepted way to do this, but I think my nurse would raise hell with me if I tried to get out of bed right now. Arlene, will you marry me?"
I guess I shocked her pretty good with that. "What?" she said, her eyes snapping open in surprise.
"I know Iím supposed to be down on one knee, but itís not going to happen today. Look, Arlene, I donít know how it would have been in Schererville, but in Hartford if a teacher had tried to live with his girlfriend without being married to her theyíd both be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail. Even if theyíre a little more progressive here, I doubt theyíre all that much more progressive. Arlene, Iíve loved you for a year or more, but there just hasnít been a way to say it, or a good time to say it since we were trying to stay apart for the sake of peace on the crew. You are without a doubt the finest woman Iíve met whoís really taken an interest in me. I think weíd both rather be a little more conventional about it, but under the circumstances I donít think we can be. Come live with me and be my wife, Arlene. Letís get married."
"Well, yes," she stammered. "I just wasnít expecting it to be quite so, well . . . "
"Yes, sudden," she agreed. "Honestly, Mel, I hadnít thought it out quite that far, but youíre right. Thereís no point in getting off on the wrong foot in this town, especially the way we came into it like gypsies."
"The sooner, the better," I told her. "You probably have a better idea of how long Iím going to be in the hospital than I do, but we probably should do it just about as soon as I get out of here, just so nobody can think bad of us when we move into a place."
"Well, Iíd still be your nurse, after all," she shrugged. "But I suppose youíre right. Under the circumstances, I doubt if anybody would split hairs over a couple of days, in any case."
"No point in looking for trouble," I told her. "So, whatís your guess about how much longer Iím going to be in here?"
"Oh, Iíd say a week," she said. "Weíre going to start to get you mobile, and thatíll make a big difference. Youíre still going to be in the casts for six weeks to two months, but the leg cast can probably be changed to a walking cast before then. Thatíll make it easier for you to get around."
"Just so you know, itís going to mean that our love life is probably going to be a little limited until Iím rid of the damn things."
She got a huge grin on her face. "Itís not going to be as limited as you think," she laughed. "Iíve been waiting for a long time, and Iím not going to let a little plaster get in my way. I donít think youíre going to have any reason to complain."
"I wonít complain," I told her. "I just wonít be able to do everything Iíd like to do."
"Well, if weíre married, thereíll be plenty of time later for that," she laughed.
"Weíll just have to catch up," I grinned. "Now, while Iíd love to lay here and tease you about that, we need to do some planning. With me laid up in bed, and then not being able to get around very well for a while, a lot is going to fall in your lap that normally Iíd be doing, or at least have a part in. I mean, things like finding a place to stay."
"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "I hadnít even considered that. Whatís more, I donít know how bad itís going to be to find a furnished apartment. From what I know, the furniture in most of them usually isnít very good anyway."
"Right," I agreed, "And I hadnít even thought about that part of it. If Frank brought down the stuff that Vivian was keeping for me, well, that and whatís in the Ford are everything I own. I suppose youíre pretty close to the same thing."
"A little better," she replied. "I have some things back in Schererville. Of course, some of my clothes go back as far as high school, so thereís not much useful. Youíre right, weíre a long way from being able to set up an apartment or a house. We donít have any dishes or any cookware, for example."
"Thereís a couple pans and a coffee pot in the camping gear in the Ford," I told her. "I used to heat up a can of beans or something once in a while, but I havenít done it recently. Itís always been too easy to just go to the nearest greasy spoon for breakfast or whatever. I sure hope youíre a better cook than me."
"Iím a lousy cook," she said. "I never had any practice. When I was living in the dorm at Milwaukee State we had a hot plate, and I occasionally heated a can of soup or something like you, but thatís about the extent of my cooking."
"Iím not going to retract my offer to marry you over something like that," I told her with a grin. "Iíve opened a few cans here and there when Iíve been batching it with the guys over the winter. I guess you can say I run a mean can opener."
"Oh, weíll make do," she sighed. "Since neither of us is much better than that then there arenít many pots and pans weíll need right away."
"See, you find the bright side to everything," I told her. "But as to what I was saying, youíre going to have to be the one to do all this stuff, like finding an apartment or a small house, finding furniture, finding all the other stuff we need. Hell, right now I canít take you to bed when we get home because we donít have a bed. I had a few things like that up through last winter, but Dewey and Pepper and I gave them to Rocky and Ariel when they got married, mostly to get it all out of our hair. Nothing was worth much of anything, anyway."
"All right," she agreed. "Iíll see what I can do. Youíre just going to have to rely on my judgment on some of this."
"Whatever you decide will be pretty much all right with me, under the circumstances," I told her. "You can spend what you need to out of my money, but Iíd say to not spend it all. Something may go to worms and we may need something to fall back on."
"Itís not going to be that expensive," she shrugged, "unless we decide to buy a house."
"Letís not right now, unless we absolutely have to," I told her. "I know that takes a little time to work out the details, and we donít have that much time if Iím getting out of here in a week or so. You and I both qualify for VA loans, so being able to buy a house when the time comes isnít going to be a big problem. Iíd guess weíd better not do that just yet. After all, something could go wrong with this job, you never know. They may decide they donít want me after all, and then where would we be?"
"Youíve probably got a point," she agreed. "But I canít help thinking that if we had a house then it would be that much harder for us to get up and go when next spring comes around and we both want to go racing."
"There is that," I agreed. "But weíre about going to have to find something soon. Weíve got quite a while before next spring rolls around; we might want to do something different by then."
"All right," she said. "Weíll have to talk about it if it turns out that our only choice is to buy a place. I guess Iíll start looking around after I go off shift tonight. Maybe Iíll ask around a little, Beverly or somebody may know of something. You realize Iím not going to be around as much as Iíd like to be after work, donít you?"
"Thatís part of the price Iím going to have to pay," I smiled. "Itíll be worth it in the long run. Oh, and Arlene?"
"Is there a jeweler in this town?"
"I think I noticed one, I havenít been in there."
"Why donít you stop off and pick yourself out an engagement ring? I canít do it very well, and youíll know more about what you want than I do."
"Youíve got it soft, you know?" she laughed. "You get to lie in that bed and read magazines while I do all the work, but there are limits. We can hold off on a ring until you can come with me. I realize that we havenít had exactly the most romantic of romances, but I at least want that little bit."
"All right," I sighed. "Have it your way. You will, anyway."
"You read your magazines," she laughed. "I do have other patients I have to care for, although I donít have any that I care about as much."
She headed back out of the room, and I turned back to Gus and the Model Garage. I had completely lost the thread of the story. An awful lot had happened in my life between two paragraphs.