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Custom Wrecking
By Robert Clark
Genre: Fiction Level: College
Year: 1997 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

The job could make Walter feel sick, but he lived with it. He was fine by late afternoon, if he didn't dwell on it. He'd been working for Custom Wrecking for two months, Tuesday and Thursday mornings before his classes at the university. It paid well, for how little time was involved. All he had to do was stop at the office, pick up the keys to the tow truck, the lists sent over from the Vista and Panoramic View apartments, and retrieve the cars that didn't belong.

Walter had become a familiar sight up there.

People stepped out into the cold to protect their cars from him. They watched from their front doors, watched until they felt certain his tow truck wasn't backing up to their car, or a neighbor's car. They watched until it was out of sight. Each time he returned they watched him, so he was in and out fast. He tried in the past to warn them by pointing out cars that were on his list, physically pointing to cars as he rolled past them. If they were gone before he returned from the impound lot behind the station they'd save themselves $175. On a good day he could tow away four or five cars and make enough money to keep Leslie and himself in school, and maybe in some sort of comfort.

The way he saw it, he was doing his part. He could hear himself saying it, too: "I'm doing my part."

When she first told him she was going to terminate the pregnancy, he was lying on the couch with a textbook. He stared at the ceiling with the book on his chest while she talked. At first he had no reaction at all. She picked up the phone and made an appointment for Tuesday. He listened to her end of the phone conversation and studied the sparkles and imperfections in the ceiling plaster. He felt his weight against the couch, felt his body making contact with the cushions. Leslie answered questions about birth control and medical history. They had become a statistic.

He wondered why she wasn't hysterical, or in tears at least. She could cry at much less than this. After a while he didn't hear her anymore, and it struck him that he wasn't feeling anything, either, not really, not a thing.

Leslie stood over him after she hung up the phone and asked if he was coming to the appointment with her. She tucked her hair behind her small ears, a serious gesture, and tilted her head. "Well?" she said.

Walter watched as gravity pulled her hair slowly past her shoulder. He could imagine pulling himself up from the couch by several long strands that floated above him. He sat up, and Leslie sat down next to him. She reached for his hand but he kept busy strumming through the' 0*0*0* pages of his textbook. His science elective.

"Why do you want me to come?"

"You just should."

He eyed the colored photographs on page 236, supernovas and white dwarfs, an electron telescope.

"I just want you there. Take me, wait and drive me home."

"I have to work Tuesday," he said.

"You could get out of it."

"I can't miss this class again. I'm barely passing," Walter said, which was true. He'd missed nearly a week total already. "And there's a test."

"You won't miss a goddamn test? For this?"

Walter watched her walk to the bedroom.

"What kind of person hauls people's cars away?" she said, and the door shut behind her.

All week, when Walter couldn't avoid thinking about it, the entire situation would come to him with a realization that it was real. It was not on television, a drama or documentary he'd seen. Leslie didn't talk much, except for reminders that the appointment was at 3 on Tuesday. When he left for work Tuesday she said "three" to his back as he left the apartment.

Nothing was what was going to happen. They decided to stop something from happening, so there was nothing to think about. There was no reason to be unsettled.

He stepped into the office at Custom Wrecking and Tiny gave him the keys to the tow truck. Tiny had an endless supply of service station work shirts -- Texaco, Mobil, Shell -- all with different names stitched above the breast pocket -- Bill, Tim, Marvin.

He handed Walter the short list of cars to be towed back. "Just two up at the Panoramic," he said.

Tiny's shirt said "Tiny" and Walter asked him about it. "I haven't done the laundry," Tiny said, without humor.

Walter studied the two license numbers on the list as if they would be on his astronomy test, one to a red Volkswagen bus and the other to an old International Metro, an ice cream truck someone abandoned for the winter. Both would be easy to spot.

"I don't know why they call themselves Panoramic View," Tiny was saying. "All those apartments up there face each other. Everybody has a view of the next gray building. Panoramic like hell."

Walter looked up to agree, then pushed through the door in a hurry. "I have a test today," he said, knowing Tiny didn't care. It was understood that Walter could manage his own time. He was paid per pickup.

It was cold and the tow truck's starter turned over slowly. Walter let the engine warm up for a couple of minutes and tried to remember if he'd seen either of the cars he was after up at the Panoramic Apartments last week. A dry, frozen rain started to fall and tapped at the outside of the truck as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Up at the Panoramic it was starting to snow. Walter found the red Volkswagen first and joined it to the tow truck. The doors were locked so he had to reach through the wing window to knock the shift lever out of gear. While he worked he watched a small boy sliding back and forth on a frozen puddle in the parking lot. An old woman watched the boy, too, maybe a grandmother. She was ancient, stooped to 90 degrees. She tended a small garden plot beside her building. Walter assumed she was anticipating springtime, planning way ahead while the snow fell.

He towed the VW bus back to the yard at Custom Wrecking and by the time he got back to Panoramic the snowfall was so thick he could barely see from one car to the next. He'd be finished well before 3. He tried not to think about it. But he couldn't go home and just sit there while Leslie took herself to the appointment. He'd have to go somewhere.

He found the ice cream truck parked on a side street. It was an old thick metal delivery truck with round fenders, ice cream bars and prices painted all over its sides, and on the roof next to a yellow "Caution, children" sign there was a 10-inch megaphone speaker. Walter backed the tow truck up to it, turned on the flashing yellow lights so he could be seen through all the falling snow.

He opened the door and was hit by the sweet smell from inside. He reached in to take it out of gear. The shift was on the column, by the steering wheel, so he had to pull himself up into the driver's seat. As he climbed in, his jacket snagged a toggle switch on the flat dash and the megaphone on the roof came alive with a metallic, clanking melody. The ice cream truck shook beneath the sound. He couldn't find the switch to shut it off and started flipping the toggle switches at random. The snow was coming down like cotton balls, swirling in the wind and the yellow lights from the tow truck.

Walter panicked. At first because he feared it would alarm the owner, but when he looked through the icy windshield he saw the kid that had been sliding on the ice walking toward him, toward the ice cream truck. He flipped more toggle switches and pretended not to notice. Nothing would shut the racket off. A few smaller kids emerged from the nearest apartment building, drawn, naturally, to the ice cream truck.

Walter looked up at the ceiling, frustrated, and discovered several wires leading to the speaker on the roof. When he reached up and pulled them loose it was quiet. Completely quiet. Snow continued to fall in the flashing yellow lights of the tow truck, and Walter sat absolutely still

About the Author: Robert Clark is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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