Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Over the next few minutes Ray told Ginger that he’d had more than a little fun in the Army in North Carolina. He used his location and background and a couple of his father’s contacts to go right from a camouflage uniform to a white mechanic’s uniform on the Morgan Holliday NASCAR Busch Series team. Morgan Holliday Racing wasn’t exactly a front-line team, and Holliday wasn’t exactly a front line driver, but they’d always made the show. It was a small enough operation that Ray had worked both as a shop mechanic and on the pit crew. The money wasn’t great, but the adventure made up for it – Ray got to not only see, but also be a part of races on all of the legendary NASCAR tracks.
“The problem is that nothing’s real stable,” he said. “Sometimes everything is fine, sometimes things get tight. NASCAR in general has been going through a bad patch with sponsors the last couple years. One day, out of the clear blue sky, Morgan got word that he was losing his sponsorship. The next day the team was closed and I was out on the street along with everybody else in the shop. The hell of it was that there were a lot of NASCAR mechanics out on the street just then, and nobody was hiring. I kicked around North Carolina a while looking to get on with another team, and just didn’t have any luck.”
“So you moved home for a fall-back,” she commented.
“Well, not quite,” he shrugged. “Like I said, I hung around North Carolina hoping that there’d be some shifting around on the teams and I might be able to get on one, but that wasn’t happening. Then my dad got involved about a year ago last month. I’d asked him to keep an eye out for something, since race track owners have their connections and Dad has connections in the Indy car community that go back well before he owned a race track. I’m not real sure how it came about, but one day he called me up and told me to call a guy by the name of Paul Pieplow over in South Bend. It turned out that Paul was trying to put together a one-race shot at the Indy 500. It was one of those things he wanted to do once, and needed a chief mechanic. It was a one-race deal, not with any hope of winning, but at least he could hope to make the show. He had an Eagle chassis that had seen better days and a turbo Offenhauser engine that was way out of date. Needless to say, there weren’t any spare pennies around to actually pay a mechanic, but I figured I might be able to make some contacts in the Indy car community.
“And you’d get to see the race for free,” she giggled.
“That was assuming he made the race, and that was not a sure thing. Like I said, his stuff was years out of date. But I didn’t have any better ideas at the time and my cash was running low, so I closed out the little hole-in-the-wall apartment I had in Charlotte, moved my stuff home and headed on over to South Bend. I was going to commute but wound up spending most nights in a sleeping bag in his garage. Well, to make a long story short, as I said, both the car and the Offy had seen better days. But after a month of eighteen-hour days I had both of them working pretty decently by the time we headed down to the Brickyard. By several miracles, including a couple other cars spinning during qualification attempts on the last day, a couple blown engines, and an inspector looking the other way when I ran the turbocharger boost up a lot higher than it should have been, Paul managed to make it into the field. He was thirty-second fastest out of a field of thirty-three. As soon as he pulled into the pits I dialed the boost way down and hoped the tech inspectors wouldn’t see me do it, and I left it way down so there was a chance that old four-banger could make it a few laps in the race.”
“So did it?”
“Yeah, it did,” Ray shook his head. “I don’t know how, but it did. Paul was seventeen laps down at the end, but the fact that he was still running gave him a finish in twenty-fourth place. I kid you not, he had a grin on his face so big you would have thought he’d won it. He wound up going 182 more laps than the best he could have hoped for. The purse was nothing like the winner’s, but if you make the show they still give you some pretty good bucks, so I was real surprised to get a couple grand for helping him out.”
“But it didn’t turn into a real job then, I take it.”
“No it didn’t. I made some contacts, but nothing panned out. There was nothing I could do but come home, help the folks out with work on the track, and look for a real job. I sort of found one, but going from being a chief mechanic on an Indy car, even a back-of-the-pack one-shot, to a pit man at a Qwikee Lube is what you call a huge step down in the world.”
“That had to be a hell of a bummer,” she shook her head, “sort of like my graduating from college and only being able to find work at a McDonald’s.”
“Yeah, and even that didn’t hold up,” Ray shrugged. “The manager of the Qwikee Lube had a bad habit of writing rubber checks. It wound him up in jail and the franchise belly up. So I just did off-the-cuff jobs like this engine until the Fryes thing came up, and you know how that came out.”
“I’m really sorry about that,” she said. “I didn’t mean for you to lose your job over it.”
“Like I said, no big deal,” he shrugged. “If it hadn’t been you it would have been someone else. At least I didn’t waste any time there. After all, I’ll make about as much money on this engine as I would have at Fryes this week. The only difference is that there I would have had a regular paycheck, but I can get along without if I have to.”
“At least you’re doing something you like,” she shrugged. “The only thing I enjoy about working where I do is when I get my paycheck, and I don’t enjoy it very much since there isn’t much of it.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” he said. “I was surprised that I got paid at all when I worked for Paul last spring. I didn’t expect it and was really just doing it for the fun of it. I even called him last month to see if he was going to take another shot at it, but no. He’s already sold the car and the engine. Once was enough, and once was all he wanted.” Ray was getting tired of talking about himself, so he asked, “So what would you do if you had the chance?”
“Well, I went to college with the idea of being a bookkeeper,” she told him. “If I ever get the time and money I might go back and do the extra work it takes to be a CPA, but I sure can’t do it where I am now. Even if I did, I don’t see where I’d get the fun out of it that you got out of working on that car. At least it would be off my feet, which is more than I have at Mickey-D’s.”
“Oh, cripe,” he sighed. “Ginger, I should have been thinking, what with you standing there. I should have found you some place to sit down. I realize there isn’t much out here, but there’s a chair back in Dad’s office I could get for you.”
“I’m used to standing,” she said, “but I’d appreciate being able to sit down, too.”
Ray put down what he was working with and headed over to a tiny little room in the corner of the building, and came back rolling an office swivel chair with arms. “Here you go, Ginger,” he said. “I’m sorry, I should have been thinking.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said, heading over to the chair. She was usually OK with being on her feet when she was moving around, but just standing around while they talked had been starting to get to her. “But this is real nice of you. I don’t want to take you away from your work more than I have to.”
“Oh, it’s no problem” he said. “This is just routine stuff that I’ve done before, and I’m glad to have someone to talk to. So where’d you go to college?”
“Oh, just to Hawthorne,” she replied, swinging the chair around so she could look at him. Yeah, she thought, he is a good looking guy, and he looks like he’s doing something he likes. “I figured I could save money by not having to pay room and board, but it turned out to be a real pain in the butt, what with working a couple jobs and living at home. Mom and Dad weren’t real happy about me going to college, and since I graduated they never miss the chance to tell me how I wasted my money.”
“To be a bookkeeper? To pick up a skill like that?” he snorted as he heard the door open, then close. “It ought to pay for every cent of it in time. I’ve only got two years of college, and I learned a ton there that was useful to me. And I’ll tell you what, the way cars are changing, I’m going to be back in college every now and then to pick up on some of the changes.”
“Yeah, but they’re right, at least now,” she protested. “There’s not much I learned about being a bookkeeper that’s useful at McDonald’s. That’s part of the reason I want to get out of there so bad. There’s got to be someone around who could use a bookkeeper, even part time.”
“Boy, have you ever got that right,” a strange male voice said. “It even gets to be an issue around here at times.”
Ginger swung around in the swivel chair to see an older man, in his fifties at a guess, on the tall side but not extremely so, his dark hair peppered with a little gray, wearing slacks and a jacket over a yellow pullover shirt. She could see a considerable family resemblance to Ray in his genial face, and her suspicions were confirmed with Ray’s next words: “Oh, hi, Dad. So how was your day?”
“Oh, not too bad, considering,” he replied. “I can’t believe I could have been so damn dumb at that age but I guess I must have been. So who’s your visitor?”
“Dad, this is Ginger . . . uh, Ginger, I’m afraid I never caught your last name.”
“I don’t even remember telling you my first name,” she giggled. “You must have gotten it off my name tag at work. Ginger Marston.”
“Pleased to meet, you Ginger,” the older man replied. I’m Mel Austin, Ray’s dad. You’re a bookkeeper?”
“Well, sort of,” she admitted shyly. “That’s what I have my degree in from Hawthorne, but the only work I’ve been able to find is at McDonald’s.”
“Only pretty good, I’m afraid,” she replied. “I graduated last December. I managed to cut off a semester by taking some summer classes. I got a 3.46 in my major classes, but I had to slide on some electives because I was working one and two jobs to pay for college. I just didn’t have the time to do everything, so something had to give. That meant that I only got a 2.82 overall.”
“Not bad, considering,” Mel smiled at her. “How much student loan debt do you have?”
“Not a cent,” she said, a touch of pride entering her voice. “My folks wouldn’t help me with college or even sign for a loan, so I had to work pretty hard to pay the bills.”
“Then the college should have given you an extra full point just on general principles,” he smiled. “I worked my way through college too, along with help from the GI Bill. What you did is really something to be proud of.”
“Wow, thank you,” she replied, sitting up a little straighter in her chair. It wasn’t often that she got praised for something she was pretty proud of, not just the graduating but the working her way through it, even though it hadn’t paid off so far. “That makes the second day in a row that an Austin has made my day.”
“This is the girl I was telling you about last night,” Ray explained. “I ran into her when I went in to pick up some parts today.” He didn’t really feel like admitting that it was a little more than that; he’d deliberately driven by McDonald’s to see if the Gremlin was there and wouldn’t have stopped if it hadn’t been. In spite of how morose she had seemed and everything that had been talked about the night before, there was something about this girl that had stuck with him, that made him want to know more about her. He had a record of being shy around girls, with never much in the way of girlfriends either in school or afterwards, but this girl . . . well, there was something there worth further investigation, no doubt about it. He’d been trying to keep things low key, but maybe it had been a little too low key.
“Sorry something like that had to happen to you,” Mel nodded, “but I’ve seen stuff like that all my life. There’s really no way of stopping it if you’re ignorant about what goes on with a car. There are more crooks out there than I want to think about, and I’ve known a few of them over the years.”
“Better watch it, Ginger,” Ray laughed. “Dad is full of stories about the old days. The next thing you know he’ll be telling you about how he ripped some guy off by filling his gas tank with water.”
“That wasn’t a rip-off, that was a pay-back, and he deserved it,” Mel snorted. “He paid for the gas I did put in his tank, though. So, Ray,” he changed the subject, “is that Mike’s mill? I didn’t think you were going to be that far along.”
“It’s going to be a few days before I can get a bare block here,” Ray told his father. “After waiting all winter he seems to be in a big yank now, so I decided to just give him the block I’d built up for the Mod, then use his block for the Mod when it gets here. Mike is a talker, I figured he’ll give us good word of mouth about the quick service. I need to touch up his heads a little bit, but I think I should have it for him tomorrow sometime.”
“Good,” Mel replied. “Donna Chilcote was complaining to me today that her steering is real loose, so I told her to bring it over and we’ll slap it on the aligning machine.” He shook his head and continued, “Boy, your mother got all over me when I spent two hundred bucks on that thing at the auction when Stevenson’s went out of business, but it’s paid for itself time and again.”
“Yeah,” Ray grinned, continuing to work on the engine. “Considering that it was old when you were a kid.”
“The principles haven’t changed at all,” Ray said, then turned to Ginger. “I know you don’t know much about cars, at least from what Ray told me last night, but you see an awful lot of stuff in here that you wouldn’t normally see around a shop of a guy who likes to fool around with cars. I’ve picked it up at auctions and the like over the years, usually at pennies on the dollar. I got a lot of it free when the school quit teaching auto shop; they just wanted to get rid of it, and I was glad to haul it off. Though it may not look like much, in some respects this may be the best equipped auto repair shop in the county.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Ginger admitted, “other than the fact that it looks like there’s an awful lot of stuff here, a lot more than I’d expect to see at someone’s home.”
“Oh, there is,” Mel laughed. “Especially considering that when Arlene and I bought this farm about twenty-five years ago all we were looking for was a home with enough garage space to park the cars. I guess things got a little out of hand. Ray, I’m going to head in, get out of teaching clothes and make a few calls, then I might just come over and find something to piddle with, the deuce, maybe. I’d sort of like to get that one finished sometime.”
“All right, Dad,” Ray replied. “I’d like to get this engine wrapped up in the next couple days while it’s still sloppy outside. As soon as it dries off there’s going to be work to be done at the track.”
“Yeah, and we’re all going to have to pitch in on it. Opening day isn’t far off. See you in a bit.”
As Mel headed out the door, Ginger asked, “The deuce? What’s that?”
“I think I told you Dad likes to restore cars, especially old race cars. One of the projects he’s been piddling with is a ’32 Ford Roadster set up like the hot rod jalopy Mom was driving when he first met her.”
Ginger shook her head. “I forgot your mom used to race, too. She really has to be something special,” she said in obvious wonder.
“I think she is,” he replied. “Along with her racing and putting up with the rest of us, she has a few stories of her own. You ever watch M*A*S*H on TV?”
“Yeah, I remember that. My folks still watch it on re-runs.”
“Mom doesn’t watch it,” he replied. “She says it’s too fakey, the real thing was nothing like that, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. The 4077th MASH was fictional, but occasionally they refer to the 8063rd MASH on the show. That was a real unit and Mom was a nurse in it. She doesn’t talk about it much, but she’s a veteran and proud of it. She’s been Commander of the Legion post here in town.”
Ginger shook her head. “You have a really unique family, you know that?”
“A little unusual, I’ll admit,” he said, “but for the most part, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“You may think so,” she said sadly, “but it is for goddamn sure not like my family. It’s pick, pick, pick, put down, put down, put down from them all the damn time.” She could feel the anger rising in her again and for once wasn’t feeling like trying to shove it aside. “Just about the first thing your father said to me was to praise me for working my way through college and not going into debt doing it. Have I ever gotten any praise like that from my family? Hell, no! Could they even bother to go to my college graduation? Hell, no, it might have interfered with whatever the hell ball game my father was watching. All I get from them is putdowns over how much better I think I am because I had the drive to go to college in the first place, and do what I think is pretty damn good under the circumstances. And do they do anything useful, other than sit on their dead asses in front of the TV set? Hell, no! I’ll tell you what, Ray, you may think your family is nothing special, but I’ll damn well tell you that they are and I haven’t even met your mother yet! Believe me, Ray, if you want to trade I’m ready anytime.”
“I’m sorry, Ginger,” he said softly. “I guess there was a sore spot there that I didn’t really know about and didn’t know how bad it was.”
“Oh, no, Ray,” she said, forcing her anger to deflate, “I’m not mad at you, don’t even think it. Mad at my family, hell yes, but I guess it’s just seeing the contrast that bothers me. I didn’t even tell you what happened when I got home last night. My father insisted that I take my car back out to that crook at Fryes. He wants me to spend what little hard earned money I have to put an alignment on it that you say it doesn’t need and give me a tune-up that you say it doesn’t need, just because that robber said they were bad. My opinion, my experience, it counts for nothing!”
“Well, hell,” he replied, “it doesn’t need it. But I’ll tell you what. The alignment machine is kind of parked in right now, but Dad will probably be moving a couple projects over here or out to the barn. Once it gets cleared away we can run your car up on it and I’ll check it. In fact, I’ll even have Dad check it, just so you can tell them that you had a certified Bear alignment specialist go over it.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she sighed. “You said it was all right.”
“I know it’s all right on a quick check,” he said, “but there’s no point in lying to them when the truth is right at hand. I think if I hunt around in the office there’s even some Bear report sheets, that’ll make it look even more official.”
“All right,” she said. “I really appreciate it, Ray. It’d be nice to have something to shove down their throats.” She let out a long sigh. “I’m sorry, Ray. I let that get away from me. I try to be a good girl, but sometimes they just get me so goddamn mad! And then having to deal with some of the assholes at work, especially the shift supervisor I usually draw just adds to the problem.”
“Another jerk, huh?”
“No kidding,” she shook her head. “He actually makes my family look pretty good by comparison.” She went on to tell about Terry Phipps, how he delighted in putting her down every day because of her college degree, how he enjoyed lording it over her mostly because he had the assistant manager job out of simple seniority, not because he knew anything. It didn’t do her anger any good, but she felt better for getting her frustrations out.
Ray just leaned against the workbench and let her unload. It was clear to him that she needed to just unburden herself of all the frustrations. This was a good place to do it, and he didn’t mind listening. Sometimes you just had to dump a load of shit to feel better, he thought, and there was something about this girl that made him want to sit there and let her get her rant out, as long as it wasn’t pointed at him.
What was it about this girl? She wasn’t bad looking, although she was no huge beauty. She obviously was a worker and had quite a bit of drive, even though someone had obviously tried to pound it out of her. He hadn’t been out with many girls over the years, but most of the ones he had known hadn’t seemed all that impressive once he got to know them. The spirit this girl had was impressive, beaten down though it was. This one, he thought, might be worth the effort.
“I don’t know what I can tell you,” he said when she ran down for a moment. “I’ve had to work with assholes from time to time. That idiot I worked for at the Qwikee Lube struck me as the kind of guy who will grow up and cheat people at a place like Fryes when he learns how to lie halfway convincingly instead of just writing rubber checks. What was it someone said, that living well is the best revenge? You’re in a position to do it if you don’t let people like that get you down first.”
“I know,” she sighed. “I keep telling myself that. But it makes it awful hard to keep pressing on when I get that kind of crap all the time. It’s especially hard when I get it from people I know haven’t put the time or the effort into it that I have, or have the idea that it doesn’t amount to anything since they couldn’t do it themselves, even if they tried, which they wouldn’t bother to do anyway.”
“About all I can do is to tell you to keep it together and hang in there,” he said. “You’re bound to get a break one of these days.”