THE INTEGRITY OF THE DESIGN
★ ★ ★ ★
By Aracelis González Asendorf
Grace had driven several miles before she realized she was on the wrong road. She was heading east, a route she took routinely to access the interstate, yet always drove like a tourist looking side-to-side, taking in the sights foreign from her life. She passed the huge adult store, neon-lit even in the middle of the day, the pawnshops, and the bars that changed names, but never their shabby appearance. She drove past a heavy woman in bubble gum-pink Spandex pants standing at a bus stop holding on to two little girls. The smallest child shielded her eyes against the sun as if she were a tiny saluting soldier. Grace loved places that made her think in colors and textures.
The next left and then a right would get her east bound on the right road, where hopefully, she wouldn’t overshoot Jessie’s Auto Care. A couple of years ago she would’ve pulled over someplace, reached for the sketch pad she used to keep in her over-sized purse, and stopped to draw while the images where fresh in her mind. Now she was late, traffic was lunchtime-heavy, and she was feeling the effects of driving an un-air-conditioned car in the middle of a Florida August day. She was sweaty and sluggish.
Grace sped up to make the next green light, but it turned too quickly. She grabbed the wooden gearshift ball and downshifted. Just before she reached the intersection, as the yellow light turned red, she popped the clutch and hit the brake; the car bucked to a stop. Grace smiled. She loved driving the car—a ‘58 Porsche Speedster. Mark bought it last year from some guy whose business had cratered.
When Mark brought the car home, she told him its rich red color reminded her of a shimmering ruby. He’d grinned, and said, “I can make some cash off this baby if I bide my time. It’s a real cherry, in mint condition.”
He said that whenever he talked about the car. With the let-me-tempt-you lilt voice of a waiter announcing the evening’s special: a ‘58 Porsche Speedster, a real cherry, in mint condition. Grace admired the car’s lines, the way the elongated hood curved slightly as it sloped downward. It was sleek and elegant. A design that withstood trend and time.
* * * *
Grace sat at the red light. It was the hottest part of the day, and the open car windows let in smells of greasy fast foods and traffic fumes, thickening the humid air. Old Speedsters don’t have air conditioning. It was the reason Mark rarely drove it. Grace brushed her forehead, wiping away sweat. Three teenage boys stood at the corner slapping each other in mock boxing, goofing, sipping sodas from the McDonald’s behind them.
“Check it out,” she heard one say. “Don’t see them kinda wheels no more. Hey lady? How about a ride in your fancy car?” He laughed and his friend swatted his shoulder. When the light changed, she spun out, squealing her wheels. The boys whooped their appreciation.
“Call Tommy,” Mark told her back in May when the fleeting Florida spring turned summer hot. “Ask him if he can retro-fit it with air-conditioning.”
Her brother owned a small auto shop a few hours south where they’d grown up.
“It’s possible,” Tommy said. “But not practical. It’s expensive, and the air won’t really work the way you want it. Besides, that baby’s a classic—1600 cc, dual carburetors, way before fuel injection. You’re messing with the design. Turning it into something it isn’t.”
“Like Botoxed faces,” Grace said.
“I guess,” Tommy laughed, “and he’s messing with resale. A purist isn’t going to want it with AC. I mean even if Mark’s willing to dump that kind of cash into the car, I won’t do the installation. Some things you just shouldn’t compromise, you know what I mean, Gracie?”
Grace related the conversation to Mark the following morning. He sat at the marble dining room table he’d insisted they purchase when they moved in together. Mark thought it looked chic; she thought it looked cold. Grace preferred the warmth of wood. Mark sipped his coffee, his trimmed hair damp from his shower, checking stock quotes on his laptop. He was a broker.
“How expensive?” Mark said.
“He didn’t say exactly, just expensive.”
“Hell, he can cut us a deal, can’t he?”
“It’s not that, he won’t do it. He’s a purist when it comes to classic cars; he believes in the integrity of the design.”
“Purist,” Mark said, “I thought he was a mechanic.”
* * * *
Grace was an hour late for an appointment to get the car serviced. She’d forgotten that the right she’d just taken was going to take her in front of the water park. On a scorcher day like today, it was bound to be clogged. Sure enough, moments later, she was stuck in traffic full of mini vans and SUVs totting kids to cool offThe midday sun made the inside of the car sweltering. Grace felt the sweat bead on her body; it dampened her tee-shirt, clumped her hair to her scalp, and fell in drips between her breasts. The hotter she got, the angrier she became at Mark. He should’ve sold the fucking car by now. He never drove it, and barked at her when she wanted to take it out, complaining of the added mileage. It needs to be driven periodically, she’d shouted; you have to blow the carbon deposits out of the engine. The right offer hadn’t come as quickly as Mark had thought. He stuck to his guns, not willing to let it go for less.
She knew she should’ve left earlier, but she’d lingered, enjoying the emptiness of the house. It was her day off from the design center, and Mark was at the office. She’d sketched uninterrupted sitting on a Victorian-style mahogany armchair she’d found at a flea market years ago. She’d reupholstered it in emerald-green velvet and placed it by the bedroom window. Grace loved the way it contoured her body, yet gave her room to sprawl, draping her legs over its rounded armrests. In the empty house, her drawing flowed. Lately, when Mark was there, it was as if his presence permeated the house, reaching into all corners, leaving no room for her.
She rested her arm on the open car window and flinched when the chrome framing burnt her. The hot air, laden with exhaust fumes, made her feel sick to her stomach. Her lungs tightened, and it became difficult to breathe. Centuries ago they put people to death like that. They’d place planks on a person’s chest, and piled stone after stone on top, stacking so much weight the lungs couldn’t expand and the weight crushed the chest. She couldn’t remember where she’d learned that, a history class or maybe an old movie. It didn’t matter. She knew it’d happened.
The car needed an oil change, and Mark wanted to take it to somebody named Jessie he’d heard specialized in old cars. He figured if Jessie was familiar with the car it gave him a better chance of getting it sold because car people talked.
“You can handle it, can’t you Grace? Your schedule is more predictable,” Mark said. “Can’t you, Grace?” He repeated giving her his grin, the calculatedly charming one practiced to perfection on mothers, teachers, and waitresses.
“You just don’t want to be bothered,” Grace said.
She met Mark three years ago at a party. Mark was handsome, self-assured, punctual, and determined. Grace was lulled by his efficiency.
The first time Mark rode in Grace’s car, a Volvo her brother helped her find, he’d said, “So what’s this? A mobile office?”
“Yeah, sort of,” Grace laughed.
The back seat had boxes full of sample books of fabrics, wallpaper, and paint colors. Grace had taken her love of drawing and colors, and studied interior design. She took an empty room and envisioned how to fill the space, creating an atmosphere that seemed fluid. She did small jobs mostly, someone’s living room or bedroom. Doctors’ waiting rooms or business offices weren’t challenging, but they helped pay rent. Work came by referrals, word-of-mouth, internet shares, friends of friends. She earned enough.
“Have you considered going with a design company?” Mark asked.
“I like working at my own pace,” Grace explained. “I set my own hours. I like spending time in second-hand stores looking for interesting pieces. One time, I was doing a bedroom for this lady who wanted something art deco, romantic. After days of looking, I found the perfect lamp—at St. Vincent de Paul’s, of all places.”
During their first year together Mark helped her organize her business out of the car, and into a spare bedroom, and she was grateful. He convinced her his way of doing things made more sense. The following year he started suggesting again that perhaps she might want to work for a design company.
“Wouldn’t it make you more efficient?” he asked. “A regular office, some place to work from that isn’t the house. You’d have set hours. You need that, don’t you think?”
Grace didn’t quite remember when or why she became convinced. For the past year now she’d worked for the design office of a builder who specialized in up-scale homes. She held color sessions with the homeowners. Grace helped them choose flooring and cabinets, paint colors and light fixtures. Occasionally, she had the chance to decorate rooms in the actual house, but she spent most of her time putting color and finish swatches on show boards, or entering into the computer—Master Bath Tile: Malibu Sand; Grout: Beach Buff.
* * * *
Once past the water park, traffic finally cleared. Grace turned, driving parallel to the rail road tracks, on the lookout for the auto shop sign, which she spotted just past a lumber yard.
As Grace drove up, a woman wiping her hands on a rag looked out from the open service bay. She had gray hair in three pigtails, one on each side of her head, and the other directly in back. Grace stopped at the opening of the bay.
“You’re late, you know,” she said.
“Yes,” Grace answered looking at the woman’s hair. “I’m looking for Jessie.”
“That’d be me. Pull in.”
Jessie waved her hand, beckoning Grace across the threshold.
Enormous square fans were strategically placed in the shop, droning in unison, creating a loud whirring hum. The noise vibrated in Grace’s ears, and she thought she’d entered the belly of a giant beast. She pushed her damp hair away from her face, and gripped the steering wheel with sticky hands.
“Well?” Jessie said, “Get out.”
Grace got out of the car feeling lightheaded and dizzy.
“Sugar,” Jessie’s voice softened, “you look like you’ve had the life juices sucked out of you. Darn heat. Let’s get you some water.”
Grace let herself be led to a chair by a fan, and took a cold water bottle Jessie offered. She gulped it down. The cool liquid opened her clenched throat, and washed away the taste of traffic. Grace rubbed the bottle against her face.
“So, you’re Jessie?
“And you wouldn’t be the first to be surprised. So, who do we have here? Hello, pretty,” Jessie ran her hand down the hood of the car as if it needed soothing. “Let’s let you breathe before I start tinkering.” Jessie popped the hood. “What’s its story?”
“I thought you were in a hurry?”
“Never said that, just said you were late. Everything gets done eventually.”
Grace told her Mark bought the car to flip it. Jessie shook her head, pigtails swishing.
“In this economy? He has to find somebody that loves it for what it is. Does he drive it much?”
Grace shook her head, “I do.”
Jessie’s eyes met Grace’s, “Brooksville?”
When Grace nodded, Jessie smiled approvingly. “My, my.”
Grace liked to drive up where the Florida landscape undulated, the closest thing the state had to hills. Then she drove into the center of the state toward Ocala horse country, where verdant fields spread for miles. The low car hugged the road.
“My brother’s a mechanic,” Grace said.
“So why don’t you take it to him?”
“He’s a couple of hours away—Bonita Springs. I used to watch him work.”
“Yeah?” Jessie said.
* * * *
Grace watched her brother fall in love with cars the summer she was thirteen. Tommy was four years older. That school year he’d taken auto mechanics and gotten his driver’s license. Their father, anxious to keep him out of trouble during the too hot, too long summer vacation, gave Tommy an old Jeep that barely ran, a modest budget and a challenge: Fix it.
Their ranch-style home in south Florida had a carport that jutted out from the right side of the house, forming an L. Doctor-like, Tommy took out the insides of the car, placing the parts on old blankets on the carport floor. Grace sat on a beach chair and sketched while he worked. An old banyan tree grew in the center of the L; its roots and branches contorting in a gnarled maze. It cast its shade over the carport. That, and the occasional gulf breeze that blew through the open structure, made it a bearable place to work.
They’d been able to do that since they were little: share space while independently occupied. Grace drew, her fingers leaving charcoal smudges on her sketchpad. Tommy worked on engine parts, cleaning them, rubbing some with thick grease. His fingers left their own smudges on the reference manual he used. Grace liked the smell of grease, metallic and sharp.
They spent days like that. Most of Grace’s friends had scattered for the summer, and her parents worked all day. She was grateful for Tommy’s company; it eased the summer dullness. In early August, Tommy finished replacing the Jeep’s innards, and with his head in the hood he’d echo, ‘Crank her up, Gracie.’ He’d taught her how to start the car, how to press the clutch and give it a bit of gas so as not to flood it.
After Tommy had the car running, she begged him to teach her to drive. Reluctantly, without their parent’s knowledge, he did. Tommy taught her how to work the pedals, how to ease and squeeze, finding the sweet spot, allowing the car to glide forward smoothly. Every evening after dinner for the rest of that summer, Tommy drove them to a nearby subdivision under construction. There were blocks and blocks of empty, freshly paved roads while all around them perfectly flat, sandy lots sat staked, red marker flags blowing in the breeze, waiting for houses.
The summer sun dropped slowly, turning the sky violet, pink and fuchsia, casting its light on the barren landscape. Grace imagined they were explorers on a distant planet. On the flat surface of an unknown world, they rode around, eagerly expectant of what awaited to be discovered.
* * * *
Grace watched Jessie work, her odd pigtails swaying as she moved.
“How long have you worked on cars?”
“All my life, hon, all my life. My daddy had his own shop, over Bartow way. Lots of pick-ups and tractors. Most little girls played with dolls, me, I played with wrenches.”
“And you never wanted to do anything else?’
“Nope,” Jessie worked with her back to Grace. “My mother, now, she thought I should sell them instead of fix them, more lady-like, she figured. I couldn’t see me doing that, though. Just work on cars. Real cars, mind you, that’s why I do the oldies. All the stuff’s on the road, you know, computerized? Don’t work on them.”
“May I have another water, please?”
“Gotta help yourself,” Jessie said.
Grace waited for a break in traffic to drive away from Jessie’s shop. When she attempted to move forward, the Porsche stalled. She pressed the clutch, and moved the stick back and forth centering it. For a second, she’d forgotten she wasn’t driving her automatic. Driving a standard requires more attention, but it still becomes an unconscious process until something unexpected prompts specific action.
Grace drove slowly as a warm slight breeze blew through the car, signaling the approaching summer afternoon rain. She drove back avoiding the water park, to the McDonald’s where she’d seen the teenagers. When Grace walked in, her skin shivered at the contrast of the cool air-conditioned restaurant. She ordered a Coke, sat at a booth, and called Tommy.
“What’s up Gracie?”
“Did you ever consider selling cars for a living?”
“You call out the blue in the middle of the afternoon to ask me that?
“Well, did you?”
“No reason. You remember when you fixed that old Jeep?”
“Gracie? No one ever forgets their first car.”
“You taught me to drive that summer, and we cruised around those empty streets.”
“What the hell’s going on, Gracie?”
Grace sucked an ice cube out of the cup, spit it into her palm, and rubbed it on the back of her neck. She saw everything clearly. Maybe that’s what happens when somebody suffocates. Maybe that last gasp of breath suctions all thought fragments together, producing one last fully-realized thought that makes everything white-light clear.
“Grace? You all right?”
“I will be.”
Grace walked out of the McDonald’s. A man wearing a Gator hat parked next to the Porsche, and got out as she approached.
“That’s some car.”
“Yeah,” Grace said. “It’s a ‘58 Porsche Speedster, a real cherry, in mint condition.”
Somebody would buy it eventually; someone willing to pay Mark’s price. She wondered if she’d know when it happened.
Aracelis González Asendorf was born in Cuba and raised in Florida. Her work has appeared in Kweli Journal, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus: Letters in the Mail, Creative Loafing, The Acentos Review, Saw Palm, Litro, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and The South Atlantic Review. Her stories have been anthologized in 100% Pure Florida Fiction and All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color. A former English and Spanish teacher, she has an MFA in creative writing from the University of South Florida. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.