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Bullring Days 3:
Banners Flying
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2014

Chapter 2

Ginger opened the door to the shop and walked inside. It was warm in there – not real warm, but warmer than outside on this chilly afternoon. She looked around, realizing that there was not much she could identify besides lots of cars and car parts and tools. The place seemed pretty neat and clean, though; the gas station where she had taken her car until the place closed had always seemed greasy and grubby; this was at least well-lighted, clean, and well-painted, a lot like the service department at the Fryes store.

It was quiet in there – not totally quiet; somewhere in the background she could hear a radio softly playing light rock, but she could barely make out what it was. “Anybody here?” she asked loudly.

“Back here,” she heard from the back of the room, somewhere out of sight. The voice sounded sort of like the guy she’d talked to on the phone. “Come on back! I’d like to get this rod torqued down now that I’m in the middle of it.”

That sounded innocent enough, she thought as she walked in the general direction of the voice. She was only a couple steps into the room when she realized that it wasn’t filled with just ordinary cars – several of them were obviously race cars of various descriptions. A couple of them looked more or less like regular cars, except that the windows and interiors were gone and there were big numbers painted on the sides, but there were others that looked like real race cars. That seemed a little surprising until she remembered that she was at the Bradford Speedway.

She walked past a normal-looking pickup truck – it had glass in the windows and no number painted on the side, and saw a guy working on a car engine. It was upside down on some sort of stand, and he was doing something to it with a funny-looking wrench. The guy was about her age, thin without being scrawny, with dark hair just long enough to run a comb through. Not a bad looking guy, she thought, but probably married. She was getting to the point in her life when it seemed that all the good ones were already taken. “Are you Ray?” she asked.

“Was the last time I looked,” he grinned at her. “You must be the gal who called about her car being messed up. Did you make it all right?”

“Yeah, but I couldn’t drive it over about twenty miles an hour,” she said. “It scared me too much to go any faster than that. I was afraid I was going to really mess something up.”

“It can happen,” he said, “but it isn’t likely, as little time as it was like that. I’ll take a look at it before you go, just to be sure.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” she said, feeling some relief coming over here. This sure looked just exactly like what he said it was going to be. “This is some place you have here,” she added, mostly to cover the nervousness she felt.

“It’s mostly my dad’s shop,” he told her. “I just work on odds and ends here. Dad may be a school teacher, but he’s a mechanic at heart. When you get right down to it, there aren’t many garages around that are as well-equipped as this one.”

“Does your dad build race cars?” she asked.

“Not anymore” he replied, “but he and Mom own the Speedway. Every now and then some racer will run into a problem he can’t handle, and the next thing you know Dad’s out here working on it. Mostly what he does is restore old race cars, sometimes just an old car in general. It’s just a hobby; it gives him something to do when he’s sick of grading papers.”

“That’s a different sort of hobby,” she nodded, just vaguely interested. “Do you help him with it much?”

“Oh, some, when he needs an extra set of hands on something. I usually have some other stuff of my own to do, which is why I’m not worrying about losing the job with those crooks at Fryes.” He changed the subject slightly. “I don’t suppose you know anything about race cars.”

“Not really,” she shook her head.

“Then I guess there’s no real point in explaining any of this stuff to you,” he told her. “Let’s just say that at least some of these cars have a certain amount of historical significance. Nothing really earth-shattering, it’s just that Dad likes people to understand a little bit about where they’ve come from.” He gave the funny wrench a final twist, looked at it a moment, and then twisted it just a hair the other way. “I’ll get back to this later,” he said. “It was just something to do to kill time till you got here. I’ll go down and open the door for the end bay, there’s enough room in there to work. Why don’t you go get your car and drive it in?”

“Sure,” she smiled. “Look, Ray, I really appreciate your going out of your way to do this for me.”

“No big deal,” he said. “Like I told you on the phone, it’s just returning the favor you did for me in getting me out of that place. I wasn’t real sure about going to work there but thought it might be worth a try since I could use the money. But I damn well don’t need the money that bad to have to cheat someone to get it.”

She shook her head. “That’s a different attitude in this day and age. Most people these days just seem to be out for the money.”

“Then most people are screwed up pretty bad, wouldn’t you say?” he smiled. “Let’s see how bad they messed up your car.”

As Ginger walked back out to the Gremlin, she realized that her first impression of Ray was a pretty good one. Not a bad-looking guy, well-spoken, clean even though he was working on what had to be a dirty job – and as far as she could tell so far, with an impressive personal code of honor.

When she walked outside she realized the sun was getting low. Her folks would be getting ready for supper by now, no doubt complaining that she wasn’t there and hadn’t told them where she was going, but right at the moment that didn’t seem to matter. She got in the Gremlin and got it going just as she saw the end door opening and the light coming from inside. She backed the car up then drove it into the open door, where Ray was waiting for her. She stopped the car, and got out as Ray closed the door.

She stood there, wondering what to do, and watched as Ray got down a caged light bulb on a long cord and went over to the left front wheel. “Yep, they messed it up all right,” he said after a glance that could only have taken a couple seconds. “I was afraid that something had really gone wrong and you’d think that I was leading you on.”

“How can you tell?”

“Easy,” he said, motioning at her to come over to him. He pointed at the wheel. “There’s no balance weights there. If you look carefully, you can see where they were. There’s places where the wheel isn’t quite as dirty as it is elsewhere.”

Once he’d pointed it out to her, it seemed just as clear as a bell. “They probably didn’t mess with your back wheels,” he said. “Screwing up the weights there wouldn’t be as noticeable. I’ll bet if you go back there you’ll see little lead weights hooked to the edge of the rim.”

“So what do we do about it? Is it going to be expensive?

“No, it’s not going to be expensive,” he said. “Maybe fifty cents worth of weights. I’ll just have to yank the wheel off and put it on the balancer.”

Knowing absolutely nothing of what was going on, all she could do was stand back as he rolled out a jack with a long handle and little steel wheels. He shoved it under the car, got down on his knees to make sure it was where he wanted it, and with a few strokes of the handle had the tire off the ground. He went over, got out another funny-looking tool with an air hose attached, and with a few loud brrrt brrrt sounds had all the nuts off of the wheel. He yanked the wheel off, then rolled it a ways down the shop as she followed him.

“Ever seen this done before?” he asked.

“I’m just a little curious to see what you’re going to do,” she admitted.

“Pretty simple,” he said. “You know what a bubble level is? Kind of like a carpenter’s level?”

“Yeah, I think so,” she said. “I know I sound like I’m pretty stupid about cars, and that’s because I am.”

“Don’t say that around my dad unless you want to hear a real rant,” he smiled. “He taught auto shop and driver’s education for years, and he complains all the time that the schools don’t teach kids the simplest things about maintaining a car anymore. Or much else useful, for that matter.”

“Then how did you learn it?” she asked.

“Sure didn’t learn it in school,” he said. “Mostly right here. I’ve working with my dad on car stuff as long as I can remember. I may have been six or seven when I tore down a lawnmower engine and put a new con rod in it, well, with Dad’s help. I built my first Economy Stock car here, the same way. I must have been all of twelve when I tore the engine down to the bare block and rebuilt it.” He flipped the tire up onto a stand and pointed. “OK, you see the cross hairs and the bubble off to one side? That tells us the tire is out of balance. All tires are. It’s the way they’re built; it can’t be avoided. Of course, all of them are out of balance a little different, so we have to compensate for it. We do that with little weights.”

He grabbed a couple of crescent shaped lead weights and set them on the side of the tire rim on the side of the bubble, and it lurched toward the center. He had to move them side to side a little to center the bubble. He picked up a little tool, tapped on each of the weights to get a little tab attached to them to slide between the tire and the steel rim, then tapped them again to make sure they were in place. “See, no great trick.”

“That’s all that was wrong?”

“Well, the other tire was probably about as bad, but it’ll take about as much work to fix.”

“That bastard,” she snorted. “And he wanted to charge me three hundred dollars to do what you’ve just done?”

“That’s about all he would have had to do, too,” Ray shook his head as he lifted the tire off the balance stand and carried it back to the Gremlin. “I didn’t work there long enough to figure out where the fix was in. I mean, Fryes is a big company, they have an audit system so it would be hard for him to stick the money in his pocket. Maybe he’s on commission, or maybe he had something else in mind, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, something else?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like I have to be fair and say that I don’t know if he’d do it or not, but I’ve heard of it being done.”

“What?” she pressed.

“Come on miss, face facts. You’re a good looking young woman who’s obviously struggling to keep this thing on the road. Now, it strikes me that the odds are that you’d come up with the money somehow, but someone else, well, might be willing to, uh, exchange a different kind of favor to, well, sort of have the job done under the table.”

“You mean a favor involving sex, or something?”

“I didn’t say that,” he said, “but I’ve heard of it being done. Pretty and broke young women like you that don’t know anything about cars are easy targets for that kind of stuff. By the way, don’t get the idea that I’m asking by saying that, or even hinting at it. Like I told you on the phone, this is returning a favor you already did for me.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” she snorted. “No, I wouldn’t have done it, but I sure know girls who would have.”

“Yeah, and for fifty cents worth of parts and ten minutes worth of work for someone who knows what they’re doing,” he said. “I cannot stand to see people taken advantage of that way just because they don’t know anything about how they’re getting screwed in more ways than one.”

“It’s what the world has become, I guess,” she said as he lifted the tire and wheel back on the car.

There were some of those quick brrrt brrrt sounds as he used the air wrench to screw the lug nuts back on. “Unfortunately, it has,” he said philosophically as he picked up the hub cap, “but to hear some of the stories Dad has to tell, it’s always been like that in one way or another. The only real defense you have is to know enough to keep someone from pulling that stuff on you, whether it’s the balance of the wheel of your car or the loose spokes on your Roman chariot. Some things don’t change.”

“You seem to know a lot about this,” she said, a little amazed at this guy. He was proving to be not quite what she expected an auto mechanic to be – at least any she’d had experience with, which especially included that bastard Hutchinson.

“Well, I listened to my dad a lot,” he told her. “That had to have counted for something.”

“Your father sounds like a pretty nice guy,” she shook her head as he put the hub cap back on the car and pounded it back into place with a couple slaps of his hand. “I have to say that I think my father is pretty much an asshole.”

“That’s your opinion, not mine,” he said as he stood up and took the car off the jack “I don’t know your dad, or at least I probably don’t know him, so I can’t have an opinion. Some people really are assholes no matter how you cut it. Some aren’t. You may discover that when you disagree with someone, if you look at the situation from their viewpoint they may not be as bad as you think.”

It only took a minute or two for him to roll the jack over to the other side of the car and have it off the ground, and a few seconds more to have the wheel off the hub. It took no more than five minutes total to have it back on the car, even with him letting her fiddle with the balance weights to get a feel for what the process was like. “That ought to take care of that,” he said. “Let’s get a look under the hood.”

He opened the hood, and felt around among the spark plug wires. “Yep, about like I expected,” he said. “Come here. Grab hold of this wire. Feel how it’s looser than the ones next to it?”

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s pretty obvious now that you’ve pointed it out to me.”

He let the wire go, got a pair of pliers, and squeezed them around the end of the wire, then plugged it back onto the spark plug. “There you go,” he said. “That’s your $69.95 tune up.”

“He wanted $89.95,” she said, with both anger and embarrassment rising in her.

“Like I said, I didn’t work there all that long, I didn’t get tuned into all the specials. But you see what it actually cost. Let’s go out and give this thing a quick test run so I don’t make a liar out of myself, shall we?”

“All right,” she said. “But you better drive, I’m sure I’d miss something that you’d notice.”

“Fine with me,” he smiled. “Why don’t you back it outside while I get the door?”

The sun was even lower and hovering just above the horizon by the time she slid across the seat and he got in the driver’s side door. The clouds that had left the snow behind at midday were gone now, and the shadows were getting long as he drove out of the driveway and turned onto the highway heading away from town. The car accelerated smoothly and as far as she could tell there was none of the vibration and wheel shaking the car had earlier.

She could feel him jog the car from side to side, getting the feel of it. “OK, not too bad,” he said finally. “Front end feels pretty solid, pulls to the left a little. You’re going to need an alignment sometime, no big rush since I didn’t see your tires were worn more on one side or the other. Not much play, not a surprise; I noticed there wasn’t a lot of play on the wheels when I checked them. Don’t feel any wheel shake at all, so balancing the fronts must have taken care of it. Runs pretty good, at least on all six. Not too bad, considering what it is.”

“That’s good to know,” she said with huge relief. “It’s OK, then?”

“Oh, there’s work that could be done on it, there always is,” he said. “But this is a cheapo; there’s no reason to throw money at it if you don’t have to,” he continued as he slowed down to make a U-turn at a corner on the deserted road, and head back to the shop.

They pulled to a stop in front of the shop. “OK,” he said. “I’m glad I could help you out. I really hated to see them try to screw you, and I just didn’t want to be involved. I appreciate your allowing me to try to make it up to you.”

“That’s fine, and I really appreciate it,” she said, not wanting to brush him off, but not wanting to seem too forward, either. “I suppose I ought to be heading back home. My parents are going to be wondering why I’m late for dinner.”

“Yeah, my folks are going to be expecting me pretty soon now, too,” he said as he opened the door to get out. “Look, if you have any more problems with it, you’ve got my phone number.”

*   *   *

Ray stood and watched as the girl’s taillights went down the driveway. The Gremlin’s brake lights flashed momentarily; then she turned and headed down the road toward town. He’d never been a Boy Scout, but that was his good deed for the day, no doubt about it. It really pissed him off to see people trying to take advantage of someone like her just because they could do it, so that made him feel better on what had been a pretty lousy day.

He headed into the shop to clean up, not that he felt he was particularly dirty. The 350 block had been clean with just a light touch of oil, but the girl’s Gremlin had the usual winter filth around the tires. His father had always told him that there was no reason that he had to be dirty just because he was working on equipment that was sometimes very dirty. He’d spent enough time the last few years around guys who didn’t think that way, after all, and he knew it from his own experience. There was no point in messing up the bathroom in the house when there was a perfectly good sink in the shop.

A few minutes later, and feeling adequately clean, he headed into the house where his mother Arlene was making dinner – meat loaf, it looked like – and it clearly was going to be a few minutes getting done. She was talking with someone on the phone in the kitchen, so he headed on into the living room where his father Mel was sitting in his big easy chair, grading a stack of papers. “God, it kills me to think that these kids are going to be voting before too much longer,” he muttered, looking up from the pile in his lap, then added, “So how was your day?”

“I’ve had better,” Ray admitted, the depression that had eaten at him all day washing back over him again. He’d been bummed out for months, but today really took the prize.

“So how did the new job go?”

“It went for about an hour,” Ray shrugged, and plopped down on the sofa. “Then I walked out.”

Mel put the pile of papers down on an end table. “What happened?” he asked, a look of concern on his face.

“The first damn car they gave me to work on after I got the paperwork filled out was a simple oil change,” he replied. “Just as I got started, the supervisor told me to knock off the front wheel weights. I figured it was a test or something, so I told him I didn’t treat customers like that. He basically told me to do what he told me to do, and I told him if that’s how it was going to be he could find someone else to do it. He wasn’t shitting me, so I dragged my tool box out to the loading dock, loaded it into the truck and left.”

“Shit,” Mel shook his head. “I’ve heard stories that they’re not exactly the most honest shop in town, but I didn’t think they’d be that blatant about it. So what did you do?”

“Oh, I drove around a bit, stopped a couple places to put in applications, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s hiring. I doubt that walking out of Fryes after one hour is going to make me much more hirable either, but like I told that girl just here, I can’t do that kind of shit.”

“Yeah, I saw you had a strange car out in the shop. What was that all about?”

“Well, along about noon I decided to grab a burger so I slid into McDonald’s, and what should I find but the car that Hutchinson told me to fuck up. I took a glance at the front wheels, and sure enough the balance weights were gone. That pissed me off, so I wrote a note for the owner to give me a call. I was going to leave it under the wiper but I saw the window was open a crack, so I shoved it inside since it was still spitting snow. This gal called me up, oh, a couple hours ago. I told her to bring the car out here and I’d put it back together for her, no charge.”

“That was nice of you,” Arlene said, having walked into the room without his noticing. “Was she a nice girl?”

“Oh, not bad,” Ray told him. “Redhead, kind of cute even though you could tell she’d been through the wringer today. It seemed to me like she couldn’t figure out whether to be scared or be pissed or what. It doesn’t matter, I’d have done it if it had been some fat old bald guy with no teeth.”

“Yeah, I know you would,” Mel sighed. His son was a nice guy, sometimes a little too nice. “Hey, look. Sorry about the job, but I’m proud of you for not being willing to do that kind of shit. Just because there are dishonest people out there doesn’t mean you have to be one of them.”

“Your dad is right,” Arlene agreed. “So what are you going to do now?”

“I really don’t know,” Ray shrugged. “There’s got to be a job out there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I want to have to rip people off just to get a paycheck. And I really have to do something, since I probably torpedoed my unemployment insurance in the process.”

“Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that side of it,” Mel nodded. “Guess that puts you in a little bit of a bind, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed glumly. “Boy, the last few months could have gone better, that’s for darn sure.”

Mel and Arlene didn’t have to ask about that because they knew all about it. Ray had been through some tough times in the last year, and they’d suffered through some of them with him.

Ray was a smart kid, and although he hadn’t had a lot of success in his life they were proud of him. Mel and Arlene had admitted to each other that they thought there were some ways that Ray was smarter than his brother Vern, who had a Ph.D. in environmental conservation and was teaching at a college down in Kentucky, but they’d never admit that to anyone but themselves.

The problem was that Ray was a hands-on kind of guy who liked working on cars and never got along too well in classrooms. He’d made it through high school OK, if not spectacularly – the only really good grades he’d ever gotten were in auto mechanics classes at the county vocational center, and later more auto mechanics classes at a nearby community college. Mel could understand that; even though he now taught history and government he’d come into teaching as an auto shop instructor, and preferred working on cars to classrooms himself. He’d have his thirty years in before too much longer, and didn’t plan on a thirty-first.

“Well, I could ask around.” Mel sighed. “There might be someone looking for a mechanic to get an Indy car through May like last year. A little bit here, a little bit there, some time doing stuff at the track ought to hold you for a while.”

“Can’t hurt,” Ray sighed. “Better than nothing, I suppose. I mean, it’s not like I’m doing anything useful. The hell of it is that I was hoping to find something that was at least a little permanent, something where I wouldn’t have to live with you guys and off your charity.”

“Hey, we told you a year ago,” Arlene told him, “it’s no skin off our fannies. At least this way we have you around home, not off in Kentucky or Arizona.”

“Yeah, but still,” Ray shook his head. “At least Vern has a decent job teaching, and Laney seems to be liking the Army. I mean, more power to her, but I was happier to get out than I was to go in.” His younger sister Elaine was a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps, while Ray had been a little surprised to leave the Army as a buck sergeant. He shook his head again and continued, “I sort of hoped to be able to get a job that would last a little. I mean, it was fun to do Indy and NASCAR, but it’s a hell of a life, too. You’re on the road all the time; I’ll bet I only spent a third of my nights actually living in my apartment. Maybe I’m getting a little ready to settle down, and let’s face it, I need something a little more regular if I’m going to do that. Hell, it’s like that girl tonight. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she might have thought I was trying to take advantage of her, I wouldn’t have minded asking her out just to take a step in that direction. But I’m in no place to be able to do something like that, since there is no way it could go anywhere.”

“You know,” Arlene observed, “I’ve thought the time is coming where you should be thinking about something like that.”

“I know you’re looking for more grandchildren,” Ray smiled, having heard this before, if not quite as bluntly, “and I think you’ll have them in time. But let’s face it, money has been so scarce around me I can’t even think about something like that, other than maybe a fun evening sometime. The time will come, Mom, it’s just not here yet.”

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