Before retiring a few years back, Gerald had been a mechanic. During high school, he’d apprenticed at his uncle’s garage, then serviced army vehicles while stationed in Germany, then returned home and kept fixing cars. Worked “from can to can’t,” worked Saturdays, feeding himself into the maw of busted trucks in unairconditioned Alabama, feeding a wife and three kids. Eventually he’d own his own shop, Franklin Automotive. In addition to repairs, he had a line on “totals,” wrecks the insurance company didn’t consider worth fixing. Gerald considered otherwise. He’d buy two or three of the same model at salvage auction and Frankenstein them together. Technically he wasn’t allowed to sell them—“branded title” and all that—but he figured there was no harm in it, as long as the customer knew. He loved to negotiate, and that man could sell an icebox to an Eskimo.
Twenty years before, I’d bought my first car from him, after Tommy and I were engaged. I drove it, a black Cherokee, for four years, but it was haunted. Before he’d cobbled it together, I’d made the mistake of wandering his scrap yard and discovered the salvaged Jeeps. I stepped over the witchgrass and peered into the badly front-ended wreck. Dangling from the spider-webbed windshield, a long blonde hair.
Gerald’s body, eighty-two, is the one chassis he can’t repair. Shingles, macular degeneration, hypertension, a spot on his kidney that needs watching, pneumonia, asthma, steroids for the asthma: so many small parts failures. And now, the teeth. He stopped going to the dentist years ago. Finally got his rotten ones pulled. Gerald sighs as we lower ourselves into the living room’s recliners. New teeth, he’s been told, will set him back a pretty penny.
How much, we ask.
Sixteen thousand. He pauses. Wish I knew how much use I’d get out of ‘em. He fiddles with his inhaler. How much longer I’ll be here below. How many meals I got left, you reckon?
Tommy, Tommy’s mom, and me: what can we do but shrug.
Don’t need a full set, he says, addressing the ceiling, as if bargaining. As if God’s scrap yard is lousy with spare teeth, all reasonable offers considered.
This, coming from a man who’s worked six days a week for over sixty years: Alls I need’s enough to chew a steak.
Beth Ann Fennelly’s forthcoming book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W.W. Norton, Oct. 2017). A piece from that book won $1,000 in a literary contest, which she used to buy her father-in-law a tooth.
Artwork by Allison Dalton