Story by Johnny Carrol Sain
Illustrations by Neal Harrington
The Tacoma skidded to a stop in loose gravel that might generously be called a parking lot as the two young men laughed about the lack of amenities in this podunk town. The tall, sun-kissed-blond man jumped from the driver’s seat and strode to the door of Lee Roy’s Garage.
They were outsiders. From their styled hair to the Chacos on their manicured feet to the shiny new mall-crawling Toyota 4X4 —lifted and swaggering on meaty mud tires tasting their first dirt road just today — it was easy to tell the men weren’t from around these parts. They had travelled to the ragged edge of civiliation for a little adventure. The head of one of the Ozark National Forest’s more challenging trails was nearby. It wound through a vast, rugged, and lonely wilderness that the locals hardly visited. For a few hikers and hunters, Chigger Hollow had been the last adventure.
Folks had a tendency to disappear in Chigger Hollow. It wasn’t a lot of people and it wasn’t frequent, but over the last two decades, more than a handful of boys had simply vanished. The most recent disappearance was an 18-year-old deer hunter just a couple of Octobers ago. He was also the oldest to evaporate among the hickories and cedar thickets.
The blond man twisted the old brass knob and flung the door open. A little bell above the door tinkled for seconds afterward.
“Hey, can you show us where Chigger Hollow is on this map?” the pretty boy yelled across the garage.
Gearhead looked up from under the Nova’s hood, his bright, unblinking eyes gazed out like head beams from the shadows of the cap’s curved bill that seemed bolted tight to his skull. A mixture of sweat and motor oil dripped down his nose and pooled on the radiator, the liquids swirling together, mixing, becoming an impossibility.
The question ran through his sprocketed mind as his lanky, wiry form hovered over the 350 small block engine. He knew the firing sequence for this motor like he knew the backs of his scraped knuckles, like he knew the acid smell of a corroded car battery. But the location of a wooded trail barely a couple miles from his home eluded him. Lee Roy rolled out from under the Chevy’s chassis a split second later. He groaned and stood, straightening his back. A brown string of tobacco juice streamed from his pursed lips and splattered on the concrete floor. “Yep, I know right whar yer talkin’ about,” Lee Roy said. “But that holler gets mighty perilous around dark. Hear tell, they saw a panther up the creek just last week.” The blond man guffawed, mumbling something about hicks. Lee Roy just smiled and proceeded to lead the blond man back outside. After much pointing, finger tracing on the map, head shaking, and finally nods, the blonde man climbed into the mini-monster truck. The Toyota’s oversized rubber spit pebbles toward the garage as it sped away.
“Dang city folk,” mumbled Uncle Lee Roy. “You don’t worry bout em none, Gearhead. Jest stick to makin’ that mouse roar.
Gearhead’s focus returned to the motor as he deftly twirled the screwdriver, tweaking the Holley four-barrel carburetor, opening the airways just a bit more so that when the accelerator was floored those last few ponies could gallop.
His real name was forgotten. He’d gone by Gearhead ever since his Uncle Lee Roy had christened him with it when the boy fixed a heretofore unfixable tiller at the tender age of 4. That was the story according to Uncle Lee Roy’s recollections. And Lee Roy’s memories were Gearhead’s memories.
Those memories were an endless parade of engine repairs — go-carts, three-wheelers, lawn mowers, even those little gasoline powered remote-control airplanes came his way. A lot of folks can barely jump-start a vehicle. The tangled mess of wires, hoses, and belts whirring in unison, pumping out carbon monoxide and horsepower, was a mystery to them. But something about the direct nature of an internal combustion engine made the most perfect and wonderful sense to Gearhead. Bolt it all up right and tight, add some lubrication, add some fuel, and a roaring beast of burden under your complete control came to life. Spark plugs, manifolds, pistons, the tight tolerances of a well-machined cam shaft, these were the components of Gearhead’s life.
He became a local legend in this backwoods community, even though the locals caught only a glimpse of him when they brought a piece of broken machinery to Lee Roy’s garage.They knew Gearhead was odd. Within his savant brilliance, his precise and tireless work, his single-minded focus on the mechanical issues at hand, the boundaries between man and machine blurred. Adding to the ambiguity were the curious symmetrical growths protruding from under each ear, the smell of grease and gasoline that always surrounded him, the rhythmically slow stuttering — near puttering — monotone of his words on the rare occasions that he spoke. He never left the garage, living in the yellow light of a caged 80 watt bulb plugged into an extension cord and always hanging from the metal hood of some make and model of automobile.
No one even knew how old Gearhead was, but Lee Roy said he was somewhere around 21.
Gearhead wore a homemade fanny pack fashioned from the upholstery of a 1962 Chevy Impala, the flashy red material now grease-smeared and faded. A red wire and a black wire ran from either side of the pack and up under his shirt, which was one of a small rotation of faux-pearl snap-button Western shirts. He wore the shirts buttoned tight to his arms and neck. The only skin anyone ever saw were the grease covered, scarred hands with curious stitches, always appearing pink and fresh, that circled his wrist. Sometimes the yellow bulb flashed a glimpse of cheek or chin.
And then there were those eyes. Bright. Too bright. Glowing. Seemingly illuminated from within.
Lee Roy had told the story countless times, that Gearhead had miraculously survived the auto accident that killed Lee Roy’s brother and sister-in-law. That the “big city doctors” had patched the boy together with some unconventional methods. “But who am I to find fault with them college-educated folks,” was Lee Roy’s reply to any questions.
Return visits to those “big-city doctors” was the reason for Gearhead’s fresh stitches Lee Roy claimed. But no one besides Lee Roy ever got a good look at Gearhead.
And, after a time, the locals grew accustomed to Gearhead’s bizarre presence. Rural folks tend to not ask questions about matters that, on the surface, are none of their business. And no one cared how weird Gearhead was anyway, not when he could fix anything they put in front of him.
The truth is that no one knew Gearhead as a person. No one even really thought of him as such. The utilitarian nature of local culture, predicated on a hand-to-mouth existence for most, considered him simply a wondrous tool of incredible complexity and at their disposal.
None held this view with more conviction than Lee Roy.
But this dead Chevy V-8 was beating Gearhead. Even his genius couldn’t crack the code. Gearhead was tired. He was also thirsty. Only rarely did he drink water. He craved something with more bite.
Lee Roy came from outside carrying an aluminum water bottle. Fumes twisted out from the metal straw, distorting the dim light in waves. The smell of petrol made Gearhead’s mouth water. Gearhead pulled the straw into his mouth and sipped.
After one gulp, his heart revved. His brain, firing through electrical impulses in a steady rhythm, ratcheted through every possible solution to the problem engine. Gearhead grabbed a handful of wrenches, tweaking here, tightening there. He paused. Putting the wrenches down, he felt for the starter’s contacts. Blue sparks leapt from them, pulsing through Gearhead’s thumb, through his body. The musty Motown muscle car sputtered, gasping and wheezing.
“It’s alive!” chuckled Lee Roy. “But we might oughtta just tear the whole thang down and start over. I suspect you might be due an overhaul, too.”
Lee Roy motioned for Gearhead to sit. “You rest, boy.”
As Gearhead’s rear end touched the metal folding chair, Lee Roy reached into the fanny pack and pulled the red wire loose. Gearhead’s eyes dimmed. His head slumped gently onto his chest.
“I reckon all you need is a few newer parts and you’ll be back to your ol’ self. Lucky for us that Chigger Hollow is a mighty perilous place ‘round sundown, what with that panther and all.”
Lee Roy shifted the wad of tobacco in his mouth.
The fall colors were just peeking through. The hills and hollows would be full of hikers and hunters for the next month or so. A few year’s supply of spare parts should be easy to come by.