Motor Repair

Dave and his family get invited to this lake place owned by a guy named Bob D. who Dave's been going to A.A. meetings with. As the sun falls behind the trees across the lake, Dave and his wife Tanya and Bob D. and his wife sit in lawn chairs, the husbands drinking non-alcoholic Sharp's beers and the wives drinking Miller Lites, and they're looking at the glassy, calm lake when Bob says, "Can you hear that?"

"I don't hear anything," Tanya says.

But then a soft hum turns to a purr and then a growl, and from behind a peninsula appears a wooden speedboat so varnished it reflects the sun like a camera flash, and the strong growl of its motor stuns Dave.

"Jesus," he whispers.

"It's lovely," Bob says. "Have you ever heard anything so beautiful?"

Dave and Bob D. are sober-buddies. They never drank together. That's why Bob D. can say "lovely" and "beautiful" to Dave and not get punched, the same with the biker guys at the meetings who hug Dave all the time.

"Sounds like noise to me," says Tanya, smirking. "Motors drive me nuts." She takes a hit off her beer. Dave feels his heart pound in his ears and wraps his fist tight around his Sharps' bottle like it's the most important thing in the world, and then his son Robbie, still in his swimsuit at sunset, runs onto the dock and drops a load of white landscaping rocks into the water. Then he runs back up the hill for more.

"What are you doing?" Tanya yells.

"I'm Conveyor-Belt-Man-Guy," Robby yells back while running at full-sprint.

Tanya leans over to Dave and whispers loud enough so everyone can hear:

"Maybe you should go control your son."

The next morning, Dave stands at the kitchen sink drinking coffee and watching Bruce across the street pressure-wash his garage floor with a Coleman Power Mate. It has a gas-powered air compressor. Dave is thinking about buying one himself. Bruce is down on hands and knees, holding the nozzle at an angle so a beam of concentrated spray penetrates the cement. The water strikes so hard it evaporates in the air like steam.

Dave's been up all night, first because he drank too much coffee on the drive home from Bob D's, and then Robby had nightmares about skeleton pirates and then the neighborhood's sick kid got sick again. The neighbors kitty-corner, Mark and Laura, have a ten-month-old named Mitchell who's getting a kidney transplant in a month. Last night at midnight, the ambulance came because Mitchell turned blue again. Sometimes he stops breathing. The flashing lights kept Dave up. Still no word on what happened. No one is back at the house and Mark left for work again early. He sped off in his Qwest van. He's a wireless network technician. He replaces burnt-out T1 routers.

Last week, Mark came over to Dave's house because Robby's ceiling fan died. Robby had been turning the switch on and off like a strobe light until he got bored and started playing basketball with stuffed toys and a laundry basket, so Dave took the light off, checked the ceiling and switch connections, blew a circuit and said, "I have no goddamn idea," as Tanya talked on the phone with Mark's wife Laura.

"I'll have Mark come over," Tanya said. "Laura said he's got some kind of electrical license."

Dave wanted to yell, "Mark's got more important problems," but instead he said, "I can fix it myself."

Twenty minutes later, Mark brought over his digital multi-meter, which looked like a walkie-talkie with two wires sticking from the top, to measure the line-voltage.

"You want a beer?" Dave asked him. Tanya still kept beer in the refrigerator.

"I can't drink," Mark said. "I'm getting my kidney clean."

"I thought alcohol ruined the liver."

"The liver and kidney work together. I'm not a big reader or anything, but I just read some articles about kidney transplants." Mark looked down at his kid and sighed so loud that Dave thought he was going to start crying, so Dave thought about making a joke about being able to assemble a motorcycle engine blindfolded the way Fonzie could but not being able to get a light to work in his kid's room, but he couldn't think of a way to make it funny.

After Mark inspected the light switch by touching the meter's red and black wires to the plus and minus charge, he pulled away the multi-meter, wrapped the cords around it and shrugged, signaling the kids to come back in and play. Robby had some kind of car and truck building-block set-up. Then Laura carried Baby Mitchell up the stairs, set him on the carpet and handed Mark a black backpack.

"You got current," Mark said. "That much we know."

"Must be the switch," Dave said, but he couldn't remember if he tested every connection. A clear thin tube poked from between the buttons on Mitchell's blue one-piece footie-jammies, and Dave guessed the backpack on Mark's shoulders wasn't full of baby bottles and diapers but a portable IV machine. A four-foot tube snaked into the kid's belly and a smaller tube snaked out. They looked like fish-tank hoses, the kind used to transport oxygen bubbles into an aquarium. Dave had a tube into his own gut, too, but thinner, from his glossy new insulin pump.

Mitchell rolled on the floor grabbing at Lego pieces and then lay on his back with the belly tube wrapped around his back. Dave wanted to ask Mark how it felt to have to give up an organ for your kid, but instead he asked him if the IV machine took lithium batteries like his insulin pump. He wanted to give Mark a brotherly hug like the guys at the meetings, but instead he tried to make a joke: "Say, Mark, can a guy get a wireless insulin pump? I hate this tube taped into my gut. It itches all the time."

Mark looked down, his eyes glazed over.

"Wireless insulin access," Dave repeated, trying to make the joke happen, but Mark just looked down at the kids, and after a clumsy silence, Dave said, "Well, I guess it's back to the old drawing board on this light deal."

Dave's in the middle of this outpatient treatment program with a bunch of other court-ordered drunks because three weeks ago he got off his shift at the community college where he works as a lead maintenance technician, had too many beers at the Applebee's bar and drove his Harley Heritage Softail into a row of mailboxes and ended up concussed on some guy's driveway. Then he went to jail for a night and lost his license and went into an outpatient treatment program and during his physical got diagnosed with diabetes. It's like he went into one of those magician's disappearing boxes but the trick backfired and he came out with feet growing from his skull. A wave of the wand and he's a diabetic alcoholic. He's also a husband and a father. He's also 40 years-old and his blood sugar is over 400.

"Your blood sugar is over 400," the doctor said.

"Okay," Dave said. "Does a guy want a higher number like in basketball or a lower number like in golf?"

"I'm not understanding the question."

That night after the doctor, when Dave told Tanya he had a drinking problem and diabetes, she said, "You're being dramatic. You just need to stop after two beers like I do."

She stood up and went to bed.

"Diabetes," Dave said. "I can't process sugar." But she was already down the hallway.

Dave watched a special on late night TV about Brazilian kids with deformed mouths. Then he lay down next to his sleeping son. Robby's nerves flinched, muscles panging, elbows and knees twitching like a Turrets' victim. Dave went to the couch.

The next day, Dave was back at the clinic again, but this time for a behavioral consult for Robby. When the nurse asked Robby to sit on the exam table, he jumped up on the edge and kicked his heels back into the metal drawers like he was trying to kill them. Dave and Tanya talked with the doctor, whose name was Mary Brooks, while Robby squirmed over the gray exam table, and in his frenzied movement, twisted up the sheet of sanitary paper that covered the gray rubbery fabric, caught a tennis shoe tip underneath it, and ended up with paper folded over him like a badly wrapped present.

"He gets bored easy," Dave said, and Mary Brooks stared at him hard and said, "He's not moving around like that because he's bored. He's moving around because his brain can't control his body." She talked like Robby couldn't hear her, like he couldn't process the conversation because his brain scuttled from one thought to the next like he had defective sparkplugs in his skull. "I don't want to get too far ahead here, folks, but there's no reason to be afraid of medication. Everyone has an opinion about it even if they don't have kids with ADHD. Let me simplify it for you. The thing with ADHD kids is that their motor is running all the time. Would you say Robby's motor is running all the time?"

When she mentioned the motor, Dave thought of how his Harley Davidson sounded just before he plowed into the mailboxes: loud. And how it sounded when the bike was flipping across the lawn: a loose, diarrheic fart. Then he thought about the power washer his neighbor just bought, how strong it sounded. And he imagined his eight year-old son as a soccer hooligan with a shaved skull that he head-butted guys with in moldy bars.

Robby's head was now at the foot of the exam table. He reached his arms out from under the wrapping paper and clutched the stirrups used for vaginal exams. He made "vroom" noises and moved the metal bars in and out like he was running a backhoe.

On the drive home, Tanya's forehead crinkled so deeply Dave thought of saying "Botox," and before she put the car back into gear, she turned to him and said, "I want this kid on drugs. Now."

Dave looked into the back seat and Robby seemed serene, hands on his lap, head forward, looking upward out the window at an angle as though taking in the sight of a soaring hawk or a spreading jet contrail.

"Did you see him crawling around in there? Did you not notice that? I am so tired."


"He's going on drugs. I'm done."

Robby stared out the window, contemplating the sublime beauty of the sky.

One day after the morning counseling session, Tanya picked Dave up to have lunch in the parking lot of the Super America. As day manager at a Great Clips, Tanya called her own shots about taking breaks. Her favorite food is the egg-salad sandwich from Super America. It's wrapped in six layers of Saran Wrap. When she peels it open and exposes the sandwich to oxygen, it the smells the way a chicken farm smells from a half mile away.

A gay guy with a butt-sway walked into the SA, probably to pay for gas or buy a packaged salad, and Tanya said, "Why would a guy want to be like that?"

"What do you mean?"

"Who'd want to get made fun of all the time? I feel sorry for those guys."

"Maybe it's not a choice."

"Everything's a choice," she said. "Everyone makes their own bed."

Dave got what she meant, that people have freewill, that everything is a choice. His being a booze addict was a choice. All he had to do was drink fewer beers.

He already tried to convince Tanya he didn't have a choice by taking her to this evening program at the clinic where he went to treatment. They sat in a small auditorium that smelled like unguent. On the video screen played a movie that explained alcoholism as a disease, with diagrams of the human brain and arrows pointing to different colored regions, and if a certain region was a certain color, say red, it was a part of the brain that sent a signal to the rest of the brain that more alcohol is needed, and then what happened was a chain reaction of liquor-hunger throughout the nervous system.

Tanya squinted like she needed glasses.

The narrator said, "Though alcoholism is a disease that the alcoholic has no control over, managing the disease is still possible through a lifetime of daily maintenance."

Tanya leaned over and whispered, "I don't buy it. It's a choice." She left and Dave followed. She lit a cigarette when the electronic doors slid open and Dave says roughly, "If you don't stay until the end of this, we're done."

"Lose the tough guy shit," she said. "You lost the leverage when you got the DWI."


So then Dave's in the passenger seat in the parking lot of Super America with his wife eating egg-salad and telling him everything was a choice, and he wanted to yell, but he had a knot in his throat like a pill jammed in his esophagus, so instead he mumbled, "I love you."

"Me too," said Tanya, starting up the motor.

According to this book Dave has to read for his program, he and his wife are supposed to say they love each other at least three times a day, like flossing. They'll go full guns for two weeks and then get lazy about it, like life after a motivational speech.

Dave hasn't slept all night since getting back from Bob D's and he can't stop drinking coffee. He tries to measure his feelings the way he measures the miles per gallon on his truck, but the math isn't working, so instead he drinks more coffee and listens to the hum of the vacuum in his head and Bruce's air compressor. Last night, the flickering lights of another emergency run for Baby Mitchell made his brain chemicals expand. Here's what's funny: he's so full of caffeine he can hear the blood moving through his ears. Not his pulse – he can always hear that -- but the actual sound of the liquid carving through his capillaries like muddy water through sandstone. He can hear everything. As he stands at the kitchen window and watches Bruce pressure wash his garage floor, he can hear the breathing of the air hose, even through the growl of the motor that drives the air com pressor. It sounds like the hiss of the Nebulizer they use for Robby because he has lungs like paper mache.

Once they had to go to the emergency room once because he almost stopped breathing. He was sprinting around the perimeter of the house, over and over until he collapsed and wheezed, and he wouldn't stop wheezing. At the hospital, Dave and Tanya crammed into a space surrounded by a curtain and a cement wall with shelves of medical supplies: gauze, jars of jellies and compresses, rubber gloves. Robby sat on the edge of an exam table as a young doctor who smells like Colgate toothpaste slides a stethoscope over his back and glanced up into the fluorescent beam, puzzling a diagnosis.

"He's not breathing too good." He rested his left hand on Robby's shoulder and circled the scope around his back with his right. "You'll want to avoid temperature extremes in cases like this."

"Cases like this?" Tanya said. "What is this?"

"Tight lungs." The doctor squinted.

"What does that mean?"

"It's tough to say right now." The doctor lifted the stethoscope. "We need a culture, and for that we need him to cough up some fluid, but his fluid is pretty solid. We'll get him on antibiotics. If it's a virus we might have to rethink options. Keep an eye on him for the next couple days and bring him in if he doesn't improve, but I don't see that happening."

"See what happening?" Tanya asked.

"Needing to bring him back in." The doctor yawned and waved it away. "Go ahead and put his shirt on. The nurse will be back with a prescription, and we'll send a Nebulizer home with you." He mussed Robby's hair and his head swayed across his weak neck. The doctor parted the curtain and disappeared.

Tanya squeezed Dave's bicep. "Why didn't you stop him? He didn't say anything."

"I'm tired."

Truth is, Dave likes it when Robby gets sick because he sleeps or sprawls on the couch watching TV, and so can Dave. When he isn't sick, he's running in place, bouncing on chairs, sprinting through rooms snaring objects and shifting them to other rooms, banging sticks against the driveway or a tree or garage door, collecting rocks – not fancy or particular rocks, just any, including coarse chunks of concrete and sticky bits of blacktop – and piling them in his closet. And at night, he wails unless they read him stories, maintain constant noise and light: humidifier fan, ceiling fan, sounds of nature CD, three night lights. Silence and darkness mean death to Robby. His room is a casino. Imagine a kid who sleeps maybe four, at most five, hours a night for the first six years of his life, his parents having to hold his hands and rub his forehead, sing songs and read books in soft voices, and when it gets bad and it's three AM and Dad's already hammered and has to be to work in four hours and Robby's screaming that he wants to go outside and play, no shit, he's yelling, "Sleep is boring!" Dave stomps to the kitchen, cuts opens a Benadryl allergy caplet, containing 50 milligrams of dipenhydramine, squeezes the sap into a cup of water and delivers it to the boy, like espionage.

Wireless insulin injection, motors, pumps, tubes. Dave wonders what the world sounds like underneath all the motor noise. Even at night he needs a fan next to his head or else all he can hear is his caffeinated heart battering like a drum solo. He tries not to think about heavy things, but he can't stop worrying about Robby, who walks on top of monkey bars with his eyes closed, grabs electric fences and laughs. Whenever he sees a retaining wall, he does a back-flip off it. The kid is the way he is because of Dave. They're hardwired. Naming him after Robert "Evel" Knievel didn't help. Heroic measures won't keep Dave's boy from steering a wheelchair with his chin and taking leaks through a tube.

Dave burns glucose by chasing down Robby, keeping him off the street, away from construction sites. He tests his blood sugar and makes sure he presses the right numbers on the machine strapped to his belt. That's his main job, to not run out of juice.

Robby, meanwhile, has plenty of juice. His motor's always running. After the doctor visit, Dave and Tanya send Robby up to his room so they can sit at the kitchen table and fill out surveys. They read the questions about whether Robby is distractible, argues with adults, cries without reason. Does he have trouble sleeping at night? Does he complain about feeling unloved, that nobody likes him? It asks if he abuses animals, fights with peers, resists school, avoids eating, is easily fatigued, restless, agitated. Does he lie, cheat, steal? Does he lose things? Does he have a hard time playing quietly? Does it seem like his "motor" is running all the time?

Tanya answers "Almost Always" to every question but Dave answers "Almost Always" to only two, the ones about not sleeping and the motor. Upstairs, board games plummet from shelves in Robby's closet. They hear his footsteps and fast breathing, the boy's chest huffing like an air compressor, which reminds Dave that two months earlier, in August, Bruce let Mark use his air compressor to pressure-wash his vinyl siding. For the whole weekend, Mark blasted out dirt, mold, spider webs and bird shit from the crevices between panels. He never went in the house, probably because Baby Mitchell's was in there trying to breathe. Laura brought Mark juice and water because he needed a clean kidney, and Dave walked over to say how clean his house was getting and "what a great goddamn air compressor, Mark."

"It's Bruce's," he said.

And Dave remembered the night Baby Mitchell rolled all over Robby's floor, twisting and pinching the tube, and Robby trying to hold him still, Robby actually trying to hold someone else still.

"Articles on kidney transplants catch my eye," Mark said. He kneeled and untangled the cords, lifting Mitchell an inch of the ground and pulling the tubes forward under his legs and up over his feet. "I read this one about this felon who gave up his kidney for a kid and the article brought up this guy's past, all the shit he did wrong, instead of just saying hey, here's a guy who's trying to do something good, you know?"

When Mark talked about the felon paying penance, Dave thought he was sending him a message, and he wanted to tell him he was a hero for giving a kidney to his son. Dave wanted to hug him, but instead he said, "Man, Bruce has a killer air compressor," and Mark told the story about borrowing the compressor to wash his house: "I thought maybe there was mold in the cracks and that was bothering Mitchell's breathing." Mark clamped his mouth shut and looked down at Mitchell, who sat upright, smiling at Robby, who showed him how to build a Lego car.

"You wanna see my Star Wars guys?" said Robby, and Dave maybe thought it was okay to pack some clothes and his A.A. Big Book into a backpack, hop on a bicycle, and go find a studio apartment close to work with a beerless refrigerator and he could pay a little extra for a garage, where he could fix up his broken Hog.

Bruce power washes his garage floor through the morning, working his way toward the driveway, and before noon, Dave is playing catch with Robby in the yard. Every time Robby attempts to catch the ball, he dives dramatically, misses and rolls on the grass, flips back up, retrieves the ball and rifles it at you hard, throwing it over your head and then jumping up and down pounding his glove while you chase it down through pine tree branches and throw it back to him so he can re-create a spectacular miss again. Dave drinks water and checks his blood sugar and eats gr anola bars when his glucose gets low. This is how Saturday goes.

Dave could listen to Bruce's Coleman Powermate forever, its hum attractive and strong, like the sound of the engine that spins the planet, like the grumble of a Harley. Mark thinks of the air compressor more as a means to wash his siding, though, to stay outdoors, away from the inside where Mitchell goes from laughing to gagging and then there's an ambulance parked in the driveway and Laura and Mitchell are in the back and it's late at night and Mark knows he has to get up and work in the morning, so he asks his boss if he can just bring his repair truck home, and his boss understands, and so Mark sits in the garage on a lawn chair next to the truck until 2 AM on a Saturday morning waiting for the cell phone to ring and when he gets a call, it's hopefully only a dozen folks losing their wireless connection, and so as Dave watches Bruce power-wash his garage floor, he also watches Mark back out of his driveway and head down Eagle Street, his garage door dropping behind him like a stage curtain.

Scroll to Top