The Eternal Combustion Engine
My go-to is always carburetor. Your average customer has no idea what it does. I’ll say, “You got a bad gasket connected to the heat valve on the carburetor.” They make a face like, “Oh, shit, of course!” and I runup the bill. Sometimes I push it. Cylinders collapsing in the engine from too much pressure. Radiators rupturing along the gas intake belt. One time I really went there, charged a guy $1250 to calibrate his flux capacitor. Risky move, I know. I almost got away with it, but the guy must have gone home and googled it. Timothy chewed me out pretty good after that one. I would have made manager six months earlier without that stunt. Still, worth it.
Darius and I are in a bar in Glasgow, Scotland. I’m here trying to figure things out. It’s for our fifth anniversary, this trip to Scotland. Glasgow is nice. Everything’s cheap. People walk arm-in-arm on cobblestone streets, happy. Musicians are everywhere. The buildings are fancy but dirty, like they’re melting. Nice without being too nice.
Darius has eyelashes for days and this radiant smile. When he’s out and about he’s smiling all the time, constantly, at every person he meets. He has a way of comforting people, touching them on the shoulder, giving away his energy. When we’re at home his whole face droops, rarely anything more than a frown. That really worried me at first, the way he never smiled at home. I thought he was unhappy but too afraid to say it. But then I realized it was the opposite. It’s out there where he smiles that isn’t really him. He’s like a person wearing a smile. Our home is the only place he feels like himself, no pretense. When I figured that out is when we really fell in love.
People ask me sometimes if it’s hard being a gay mechanic. I know what they imagine, the shop full of burly homophobes who grumble and spit tobacco. Sure, I’ve met a few guys like that, but they’re pretty rare. The shop is just like any other place. Everybody knows and nobody much cares. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out, if I shouldn’t have more of a chip on my shoulder, some angst to grind my teeth against while I’m changing a coil. But there’s no problem at the shop. Which makes me wonder what all the gin is about.
I got a little drinking problem, which makes it kind of strange that we’ve come to Glasgow. They say this place itself has a drinking problem. Walking over these hilly streets I believe it. Everybody’s loud but friendly, laughing and stumbling into each other’s arms.
You’d think I’d be happy, being manager now after all those years at the shop. Truth is I hate it. The whole reason I got into this business was because of the cars, feeling them out, getting them to tell me their problems. I remember every car I’ve ever worked on, all their secrets. My first car at Timothy’s shop was a 1986 BMW 635csi. Elegant in a squat kind of way, rusted blue on the outside. I spent most of a day cleaning and working on it. By the end it roared to life with a soft whine, sounded new. “You speak their language,” Timothy said before offering me a job.
Cars are like people. You never know the inside by the outside. You drive around and see people’s fancy paint jobs and spoilers and think you know who these people are. But it’s really all those bits under the hood that tell more about who a person is than you’d ever want to know. Sometimes the body’s all mangled up and full of dents, but the engine block’s shining like a mirror and revving with power. Sometimes the outside is sleek and clean with that expensive wax. But inside, the engine’s choking, about to crack. They haven’t checked the oil in thousands of miles. Everything’s askew.
To get around the neighborhoods in Glasgow we took these big trains, all electric. I was excited at first, but when we got in and they started moving everything felt wrong. There was no purr, no hum. Like the thing was dead, a body with no heartbeat. Suffocating. Even Darius noticed. He hates cars and all things mechanical, but bless him if he doesn’t make a good effort to take an interest.
We’re at the bar of a gin joint, sampling some local stuff. We’re well into the sampling when an old guy sits next to us and starts talking. That happens here, apparently. It’s lovely.
“A fucking miracle, really.” The guy at the gin joint tells us. “The internal combustion engine. Who the fuck figured that out, then?” He pats me on the back, smiles and downs his drink. The bar light ages him, spotty skin and a glassy look in his eye, but dammit if he doesn’t seem fun. Everyone’s fun here.
Darius has had quite a few, but you can’t tell by the way he’s acting. It’s only when he talks that you can hear it. “But, an engine is just a stomach, like a human digestion system. So we’re, like, the real eternal combustion engine, right?”
This guy and I look at each other and laugh. We’re laughing because it’s funny but also because we’re happy to be here, alive to witness this moment. He buys us another round and leaves, never told us his name.
The other day some of my guys are working on a station wagon—the shocks always go out before the rest of the damn thing—when we see this car drive by in front of the shop, sleek like a bullet. It barely made a sound. Jefferson let out a whistle, adjusted his belt. “Tesla Model S. There’s more and more around here. Like seeing the future.” Watching that Tesla felt like a boot slamming into my chest. I told the guys to clean their tools and went into the office, almost had a cry. I know these electric cars are great for the world, but all I see is a dead hunk of metal. A reanimated corpse. Something defiled. I thought that seemed like a cruel way for the universe to be, that to avoid killing our planet we had to start driving these corpse-mobiles. Then again, a normal engine runs on gasoline, dead stuff too, ancient plants and dinosaurs. Even a solar car feeds off the energy the sun gives out as it slowly dies. Is there any way to avoid being surrounded by death?
I hold up my glass of gin, give it a good look. What’s in this stuff? Why am I thinking like this? Everything feels underwater. Darius is at the other end of the bar talking to some locals. Most of their conversation is unclear but it’s something about the statues around here, how they’re all covered in seagull shit and how everyone in Glasgow loves it that way, these pompous Victorian pricks being shown what’s what by the local birds.
My brain starts telling me to be mad, to feel as if Darius is over there flirting up a storm, but I know that’s not true. That’s not even really what it looks like. Why am I inventing a problem in my head? I’ve been downing gin by the bucket lately, making my life out to be some shithole when I’ve got a good steady job that brings me joy and a man so devoted to me we had to fly to another continent to tell people how in love we are. It’s almost too real. Like it’s someone else’s perfect life, everything just so in a wax museum. No one ever taught me what to do with all this happiness.
Jesus, what I wouldn’t do for a good engine to work on right now, something to really sink my knuckles into. When I’m working on a car I’m figuring out this vehicle and all about the person who owns it, but I’m also learning about myself. Taking all the belts and screws out is like picking apart your own brain. Work myself out in grease.
Five years with Darius. Five years seems both long and short. One moment I don’t know how we’ve made it this far, think about walking out the door. The next second I’m all in, whisper I will die for you. I will kill for you. I will burn this Earth to its bloody core if you so much as ask. Why do I go to violence? Darius doesn’t want me to squish spiders, always says a little prayer before scooping them into a cup and running them outside.
When is Darius going to die? Will we die at the same time? I hope so, though that seems like the most selfish thought in the world. Actually, he can live on if I die first, but if he goes I’d rather go with him. It just doesn’t seem interesting to me, all that work of moving on, getting over him, finding something new. So much work. I’d rather us just meet death at the same time.
Darius is back over next to me giving me a hug and I can tell he wants to kiss me but feels a little self-conscious in this new place. They all seem friendly and like they don’t give a shit, so I lean in and our lips connect. I was so nervous to do it on our first date but now it’s the most natural thing in the world. Every time we pull away it’s like a small surprise. Part of me wants to stay connected forever.
Again, the Scottish gin is so much clearer. I put all this together and know that the eternal combustion engine of death is everywhere—in the Tesla, the electric train, the dinosaur gasoline, in Darius’s future, here between our lips, even in this gin whispering to me now, all that bacteria and plant matter that gave their lives so I could sit here, enjoying their decayed corpses floating down my throat.
Who knows why this beautiful man puts up with me.
Somehow we’re back on the train. Darius is curled up on the seat. He’s yawning, leaning his head on my shoulder. Our fingers are interlocked. An old woman sits across from us, watching with a smile. It’s another one of those things that would never happen in America. Old ladies aren’t out this late, and they certainly aren’t smiling at affectionate gay men. There’s something magical about this place, even riding on a dead train. Darius looks up at me, grins. “Where’s our stop?”
Two stations too far, so we’re out on the street, hoofing it. It’s a decent night for a walk, so it’s no big whoop. We’re stumbling along together, so in love we feel like exploding. A man stands outside a pub, cigarette in one hand and a Tennents in the other. He raises the glass. “Evening, lads!”
We wave back and shout together, “Evening!”
“Up to no good?”
Darius answers, “Always!”
It’s one of those stupidly simple interactions that somehow pulls your whole life together.
There are so many reasons to drink too much. And by so many I mean two. Either your life is too shit to deal with or the universe pours out so much happiness that it spills out into a glass. Besides, drunk is a relative term. We’re all drunk on something sometimes. It’s so nice to be here, with things to figure out in this sparkling city, where everything is dirty and right.
Caleb Tankersley is the author of Sin Eaters and Jesus Works the Night Shift. He has won the Permafrost Book Prize, the Wabash Prize, and the Big Sky/Small Prose Contest. His writing can be found in Carve, The Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, Sycamore Review, and other magazines. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of St. Thomas and serves as Managing Director for Split/Lip Press.