December 10, 2017

Fiction by Tom Sheehan: "Grease Monkey Joe"

Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, graduated Boston College 1956, published 30 books, multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories,Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, DM du Jour, In Other Words-Merida,Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Western Magazine, Greensilk Journal. He has received 32 Pushcart nominations and 5 Best of Net nominations, sundry other awards. Newer books are Swan River Daisy, Jehrico, and The Cowboys, with 3 books being considered, and one to be published on November 1, by Pocol Press, Beside the Broken Trail.


Grease Monkey Joe

Joe Buffalino danced into work every morning of his 45 years on the job, the other two mechanics, the odd-jobs driver, the two clerks and two salesmen in the office, keeping time on him, counting off minutes until he punched the time clock, saying his hands were already occupied with tools. He predated the hiring of every employee, especially in the sales force.

To a man, and all the buyers of second hand or repaired cars over the years, any motor Joe Buffalino worked on was music at work, a hummer on the open road, a subject of conversation at the barber shop, the pool room.

At their lone competition salesmen hungered for a technician like Joe. "You gotta get him here, Harry," one salesman said the owner's son, "and I'll give him 5 per cent of commissions. I ain't done that in 20 years of selling road-worn buggies. Not once, and you can bet on that. Jiggsy over there says they come back to shake Joe's hand after they take a rig for a ride. He's a magician, Harry. You gotta know that by now."

"Don't say that in front of our boys. They might not appreciate it." He looked around to see if there were any eavesdroppers for the last word from the front office.

"Hell, Harry, these guys knew that before they came to work here. The whole street knows about Joe. A car stutters and stops out on the highway and any time the driver asks a local for help, they hear, "Get Joe Buffalino out here, from Geary Motors, give him a listen and get a lesson on how to fix an engine, Every time, 'less it's crap f'ever." He added a final judgment, "You get your own one-man advertisement without paying him any extra."

It went on like that for all the years after Joe came out of Korea and his stint in the war where he also earned repute as a master of things extraordinaire. One such adventure found him solving the delivery of food and ammunition up a steep mountain under enemy fire. Such tasks were usually performed by Korean laborers who spent long hours on long trails up mountains. This went straight up from Hell of a sort, Death on their backs, strapped down for good in some cases.

Joe took care of the beast; he jacked up the rear end of a six-by truck, took tires off a set of double wheels, used the inner rim for the power source and the outer rim lugged up and rigged on the top hill and ran a cable up and down that beastly mountain. Those deliveries were clean, quick and body-saving, the Korean laborers getting  well-earned rests on that dog of a mountain.

The elder Stetson saying once to his son Harry, "Don't let Joe out of your sight, Harry. He'll carry you off to the moon if he's of a mind, him and Neil Armstrong'd be the pair of pairs."

And some of them knew the humor in Joe Buffalino's blood, a heavyweight's dose of it lurking in the alleys of his mind, along with solutions to problems not yet inserting themselves into daily duties, like switching tools in his tool rack to confuse the silent borrowers of tools, making them face up to their heist of sorts, an embarrassment for the moment, a lesson learned but it did the trick.

The plum of plums would be saved for special occasions, a special customer, a special personality coming out of left fields of customers; the hard liners, the raised voices, the kind that said, "I-know-for-damned-sure-what-ails-this-rig-of-mine-and-you-can't-tell-me-by-listening-and-nodding-your- head-that-you-know-more-than-me-what-ails-it," all said in a singular breath as if it was an ABC of retorts.

Such a customer came on rain-promised Friday afternoon as clouds loomed in place, not a breath of wind to move them, weekend at hand for the crew at Geary's shop.

Joe was putting the last touches on a Buick convertible with a hood almost as long as a first down 3rd and 4 near the goal line, when his shop boss, Jiggsy Cutler, said, "It's past quitting time, Joe. You got that baby near ready to go? You got big plans for the weekend?" He spoke lightly to Joe, tempered, patient, knowing the value of the man he respected with a sense of wonder to boot.

When the phone rang, Cutler, with a disgusting face, answered, "Jiggsy here. We're about to close down. If you have a problem, it'll have to wait for Monday." He pulled the phone away from his ear, held it aloft, and he and Joe Buffalino heard a panicked voice say, "This is Homer Vastling. I was about to pull three wagons of hay into my barn, and the motor on my rig coughed, kicked itself and shut down. I can't get a peep out of it, the rain is sure to come, and I need the rig fixed."

"I'm afraid I can't help you, Homer. My last mechanic is working past his quit time, and then he's gone for the weekend. You'll have to wait for Monday." Vastling was an eminent farmer in the valley, his holdings spacious, wide, impressive.

"I can't wait. I'll lose three whole loads."

"Cover them with canvas. Buy it if you have to." Cutler made a face in a silent addition.

"I'd have to go to Ellsville to get it. I don't have time. I'll pay double for Joe Buffalino if he's the mechanic still there. Can I speak to him. I'm up the creek on this. I don't know beans about engines or motors besides hoes and rakes and plows. I need help. If it doesn't go on when I turn the key, I'm a gone goose. I really am."

"Well, Mr. Vastling, that'd be up to Joe," as his stance and response had obviously changed, "Joe's weekend, I'd assume, is lined up from the minute he leaves the shop, which is soon." He saw Joe snap the key in the ignition slot and the engine roared into life.

The purring sound filled the Geary shop as Cutler handed the phone to Joe Buffalino, a smile on his face that Cutler wasn't sure was a reaction to the sound of the engine or a genuine contemplation at play in his mind.

"What've you got. Mr. Vastling?" Joe said.

The reply was, "You gotta help me, Joe. I'm in a real bind." The voice was distracted, impulsive, impatient.

"What've you got. Mr. Vastling?" Joe said.

The second reply was almost word for word from the first one: "You just have to help me, Joe. I'm in a bind. I need help."

"What've you got. Mr. Vastling?" Joe said for the third time, and one could almost hear the gulp at the other end of the phone, the reply toned down from a demanding whine to a careful explanation of strife, "It's the engine on my Do-All Buddy hooked up to three loads of hay that have to go under cover in my barn. I called my son over in Reality and he must be busy. He has my tractor, so I'm stuck, Joe, stuck in the muck, or what'll be muck if you can't help me."

Joe knew the answer before he asked, "Is it a Kohler motor on your unit?" He knew them like the back of his hand, outstretched for perusal, stubby fingers at first look, sensitive at touch of steel and its counterparts.

"Yes, it is."

"Okay, Mr. Vastling, I'll have to let my wife know I won't be home on time and you have to agree to do a few things before we get started."

"Yes, anything."

"Take that motor off the Do-All and bring it down here to the shop."

"Yes, sir."

"And you'll have to wash each piece I take out of it, wash and clean and dry and oil up for me. Each and every piece. Understood? I'll need your help to get this done, if you want to save your hay, save it from this rainy day coming down the line to us.."

"I understand completely. I'm on it." The phone clicked.

Out-of-breath Homer Vastling brought the small motor unit to the shop, along with repeated and profuse thanks before Joe Buffalino even started his repair work. But tools of the trade were lined up on his bench and he began taking the unit apart, piece by piece, placing each one, one by one, in a small canvas sack for proper care and handling by Homer Vastling, bound now to assist the mechanic. He started the messy clean-up.

Parts practically flew into Joe's hands as he disassembled the engine, each piece extracted went into the collective bag for care by the farmer, the work proceeding at a fast rate, and amazement expressed first on the customer's face and then voiced as he said, "How will you know where to put them back?"

"I'll know," Joe said.

"But how? I don't see any diagram of the motor. How will you know? This is important to me." There was more than plea in his voice.

"Me, too."

"But how?" said again as amazement crossed his face with each word, each shaking of his head, quandary holding him fast.

"With help from you and not questions."

At that point, Joe Buffalino grabbed a handful of nuts and bolts from a container on the bench top and placed them in the bag, Vastling not noticing the transaction. Only Cutler, behind the glass partition at his office, spotted that sly transaction, and a healthy smile crossed his face.

When Vastling had cleaned and dried each part and oiled them, the second bag was filled with all the cleaned parts, and Joe Buffalino started assembling the motor. It took less time than the disassembly, and Vastling shook his head in amazement as each piece was placed into the motor structure.

With one swing of his hand, and a concurrent switch of the motor's on button, the unit began to hum, the music of that repaired unit filling the shop as if a maestro controlled the very air.

Vastling was still in a state of shock, his mind slowly absorbing what he had seen no other man do in his life. The wonder of it all continued to leap around his face, disbelief trying to set itself in place and failing by each purr of the engine.

Joe Buffalino was wiping his hands dry of oil, Jiggsy Cutler was still looking through the glass partition, his own evening still delayed, when Homer Vastling looked down into the second bag and saw a few unused parts scattered in the bottom of the canvas bag, like children lost at play, no way to get home, all alone and nowhere to go.

"What about these?" he screamed so that even Cutler heard him. "What about these? Where do they go?" His hands were on his hips, the stance accompanying his words, a stature in place, a demand, an amazement, an innocent belief yet wicked assumption of catching a master at fault in his chosen trade. "What about these? Did you miss them? What if the motor dies if I get the wagons hitched? What do I do with them?"

Question and curiosity, as well as demand, scowered for enlightenment.

Joe Buffalino cupped one hand at one ear and tipped his head for listening, only the purr of the motor came to each listener, the scattered actors in this small drama.

The soft entrance of Jiggsy Cutler's laughter, from off-stage, came first, seeping into the wide spaces of the shop, toting the unsaid message. It alerted Homer Vastling who suddenly recovered himself, who suddenly placed hands on hips in silent approval of his own first ignorance and realization of what he had just seen, endured, finally embraced, as Joe Buffalino began putting his tools back into their allotted spaces on his rack, his day on the job finally done.

Tom Sheehan

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