in the shadows
I am an old man and I have learned that memory is a funny business. This is a true story that is in my memory as fresh and full of detail as when it happened; yet I canít remember what I had for breakfast a few hours ago.
When I was very young, my father had a gas station. He was a car mechanic and motorcycle mechanic. I was 5 or 6 maybe, less than seven because my brother had not yet been born, and it was summer. Anyway, one day a woman brought in her car. It was a great big black Cadillac and she said it was making a funny noise. She said it made this shrieking noise when she turned the steering wheel to go around a corner.
Today, the first thought would be the power steering was being over stressed, but that was not yet being put into cars back then. So, it was a mystery.
My father took the car out for a test drive with me in it and we drove around the block. Sure enough, at each corner where he turned the way she had said, there was this loud weird shriek. I remember my father talking to himself and shaking his head and saying, "well, it's not the wheel bearings. God damned wheel bearings don't sound like that."
We went back to the gas station and he opened the hood of the car. The old cars had huge in-line engines, not the smaller "V" shaped engines of today. He reached into the deep engine well, his feet almost off the ground, and pulled out a half grown very pissed off cat. It apparently had gone up into the engine well at night to get warm while the car was parked and got stuck between the inside fender and the engine block just above the exhaust manifold.
When the woman started the car the panicked cat could not get past the cooling fan in the front nor past the rapidly heated exhaust manifold at the back of the space. It got trapped. When the car was turned to the right, the cat tipped to the left and singed its butt on the hot manifold and then it would shriek.
My father was laughing when he held it up in the air by the scruff of its neck and the totally terrified cat was hissing and spitting and trying to bite and claw him. The cat had some of its fur singed off but really had not been badly hurt, just pissed off and terrified.
My father called over one of the giant grease stained bikers who hung around the gas station and said, "here Dutch, calm it down and feed it, then ride over to the Vet's and see if it is hurt bad." Then he threw the cat at Dutch who was always a little slow to react unless he was riding his motorcycle. Dutch seemed to me always to be half asleep unless he was riding. He did catch the cat, but it was clear that the cat really had experienced all it wanted of meeting new humans.
This guy Dutch was easily 6' 6" tall and probably weighed about 280 pounds or more, all scars and hair and muscles and tattoos. The little cat, barely larger than a kitten, ripped him open in more places than we could count. I remember every one laughing and having a good time (except of course Dutch and the cat) watching the two of them spinning around in circles. Dutch's arms were flailing; sometimes he was holding the cat and sometimes the cat was holding on to him with its claws fully embedded in Dutch's skin and clothes. He was screaming and cursing at my father saying things like "God damn it Duke (that was my father's name) the ******* thing is trying to kill me!" and other such colorful explicatives. The cat was clawing and hissing and spitting and climbing all over the head and shoulders of the huge biker.
Now remember I was young. I barely came up to Dutch's waist at the time and thought of him truly as a big sleepy giant. I had never seen him move so fast on the ground. Finally, he got the cat in both his hands at the same time and the fight was then all over. He cupped his two hands against his chest and gave the cat just enough room to breath. I could still hear the cat making noise and it seemed obvious that it was biting him where ever it could put its teeth, but that didn't seem to bother Dutch because he started to laugh along with the rest of us and he started to get the sleepy look on his face again.
Then he said to my father, "I'll be back," and he walked next door to the market. When he returned, he had a small piece of cheese wrapped in paper and a small can of tuna fish. At the time, I was not sure how he had gotten those things from the market because Dutch never had any money; my father paid him for cleaning up the place at night by giving him gasoline, food, beer and a place to sleep. Never the less, he had the cheese and tuna and he sat down on the ground leaning up against the coke machine.
He was now holding the cat with one greasy hand, still in a hissing ball against his chest. He started breaking up the cheese into tiny pieces and shoving the pieces between his fingers, I guess toward the spot where the cat was biting him. I think the cat soon decided the cheese tasted much better than the grease soaked biker and things began really to calm down.
Dutch sat there in the sunshine most of the rest of the day feeding the cat cheese and making peace with it. Later when the cat was curled up on his legs, I watched Dutch open the tuna can one handed with his big Buck knife; this was long before pop tops were invented. Then he and the cat shared the tuna. The cat got to eat first. Eventually, the cat went to sleep; it was almost like Dutch was a cat-drug in human form. He took the cat and gently put him in his old beat up Indian Motorcycle hat and put the hat on the window shelf inside the station office. Then Dutch went looking for my father. He was still a little angry.
I followed him into the area where there was a repair pit. My father's gas station did not have a car lift. He had what was called a "suicide pit." It was a concrete pit about 6' deep with a floor drain and a ladder to go down into it. There were two adjustable tracks at the top (the floor level). A car could be driven onto the tracks and my father could go down into the pit and work on the underside of the car. These were fairly common back then in the old stations. They were called "suicide pits" because if there was a fire in the pit or if the car somehow slipped, the mechanic was not going to get out alive.
My father was working on a car, but I really think he was down there at that time because he knew that Dutch would not go down into the pit when there was a car on the tracks. He did not even want to go down there when there wasn't a car on the tracks. Something about him not liking to be closed in.
Dutch had been in the Second World War in the Pacific and he had gotten pretty messed up about being in small places. I honestly don't think he even liked to sleep indoors. Dutch asked my father to come out from the pit and I asked my father for a nickel for a bottle of coke. The nickel came up from the pit in my father's hand but he said he had work to do and was not done yet. I went to get the coke and after I took a swallow I handed it to Dutch. The bottle just about disappeared in his huge hand. He drank the coke and I think felt better because he stopped yelling.
Then my father came up the ladder, slowly and with a very large wrench in his hands. I watch the two men stare at each other. My father also was a large man and hard work had made him very strong. He also had been in the War and I do not think he was afraid of any of the men who hung out at the station, not even Dutch.
Anyway, after what seemed a long time, my father smiled and said, "God damn boy, you're a ******* mess! Why don't we clean you up a little before something gets infected." Dutch called my father some very colorful names but my father never stopped smiling. I remember though that he also never put down the wrench he was holding. Then the two of them were laughing and walking over to the gasoline pump.
I should tell you that both these men were heavy smokers and had cigarettes dangling from their lips most of the time. This time was no exception. My father got a rag from the bin by the pump and went to put gasoline on it. Then he stopped and the two men did something which to this day still makes me laugh. Each took the other's cigarette and threw it into the street away from where they were standing, away from the gasoline. Then they laughed louder.
My father put the gas on the rag and began to wipe the bloody scratches on Dutch's arms. I think the pain of the gas in the cuts must have brought Dutch to a higher state of wakefulness because he soon grabbed the rag, got more gas himself and took a gasoline bath right there in public. He did of course still have on most of his greasy clothes. Then he walked over to where my father washed cars. He took the hose and just put it on top of his head while he turned on the water. I remember the water having rainbows in it as it ran across the ground out to the gutter.
It was late in the afternoon by now and I would soon be taken home by my father. The day's heat was leaving as the sun went down and I remember thinking that my big friendly giant had to be cold. He got on his old Indian Chief motorcycle and kicked it to life. Then he rode around the block about two dozen times until he ran out of gas and had to push it back into the station. He parked the bike and walked toward me and the office. As he walked by me he said, "That's about enough for one day don't you think, Bub?" He was patting his clothes a little to check for how well he had air dried. He went inside the office and sat down on the floor next to the cat and went to sleep. He took the cat to the Vet's the next day but there was really nothing wrong with it. I do remember my father talking about how the Vet had overcharged him just because Dutch had scared some of his customers when he walked into the waiting room with the cat inside his shirt.
My father ended up having to pay the market owner also, because Dutch had not paid for the cheese and tuna. He had just walked in and taken it. My father also had to have the grocer's white coat cleaned because when he tried to stop Dutch that day, Dutch had taken one hand away from the struggling cat and lifted the man right off the ground by grabbing his lapels in his one free hand. That discussion with my father was more refined than the one my father had with Dutch the day the cat tried to kill him; at least when he talked with the market owner, he wasn't holding a big wrench. I remember my father kept repeating to the man, "He didn't mean any harm."
The market owner kept saying, "That's what your monster said to me at the time." Then there would be more sputtering and discussion. In the end, money was exchanged and there was peace in the downtown neighborhood again, at least for a while. My father told Dutch that he shouldn't have lifted the man up with one hand. I remember Dutch saying, "Oh for Christís sake, Duke, would he have been less scared if I'd used two hands?"
Dutch stayed around that year until the really cold weather started, then he rode south. The cat stayed through the Winter and moved on when the world became warmer.
Late the next Spring, Dutch showed up at my fatherís gas station. He was very tan, was still riding the big old Indian and was wearing the same clothes he had on when he left. He was still sleepy old Dutch, but he looked happier and calmer than ever. He threw me into the air when he first saw me and told me I was getting big. Later, when my father wasnít looking, he put me on his shoulders with my legs around his neck and we rode around the block like that, around and around and around until my father was standing out on the sidewalk. Then Dutch pulled in, parked and put me down on the ground. The two men just looked at each other for a minute and didnít say anything.
With Dutch then was a small hard looking woman with a large chest and dark red hair. Her name was Betty and she was always talking in a slow southern way. Dutch did not sleep at the gas station after he came back from down South with Betty. She dressed a lot like Dutch and mostly smelled the same, heavy duty motorcycle oil, chain grease, road grime and cigarettes. Except, when she was around in the mornings she also smelled a little like Lily of the Valley. He and Betty would go somewhere else at night. I never knew where. She was nice and the other bikers all liked her.
That Autumn when it started to get cold, Dutch split a pair of headlights on the Victory Bridge that crossed the Raritan River down by Perth Amboy. Splitting headlights was a game that bikers played back then. Two bikes would ride down the road, one on each side of the white line with their headlights about as far apart as a carís lights. A third biker would go at them as fast as he could and go straight between the two headlights. Those old bikes could easily hit 100 MPH, some faster. So, when it was done right, splitting the lights would have the bikes passing at 200 MPH or more. I tried it when I was old enough and it was a very addicting trick.
This time though it wasnít two bikes coming at Dutch. It was a drunk in a car wandering across the lanes. The other bikers each said Dutch had to have known it was a car. I didnít understand them, then. Dutch and Betty died instantly and Dutchís precious Indian was shattered into hundreds of pieces.
My father arranged for the burials. What was left of the bikeís engine went into the coffin with what was left of my big greasy giant friend who loved cats and Betty and hated fools and never backed down from a fight.