Alison's Automotive Repair Manualby Brad Barkley
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A widow in her mid-thirties, Alison has been mourning for two years. Now living in small town West Virginia with her sister Sarah and brother-in-law Bill, Alison is unable to move on with her life. Finally, she promises Sarah and Bill that she will start overonce she restores the abandoned, nearly ruined 1976 Corvette she found rusting in the garage and immediately loved. Unfortunately, Alison doesn’t know the first thing about cars, and the fact that the townspeople (with the exception of a cute demolition man) find a woman messing with automotive parts bewildering doesn’t help. With beautiful frankness and surprising hilarity, Brad Barkley tells of a gutsy woman’s attempts to overcome loss, and fit into a close-knit community, in a triumphant look at grief, love, loss, and moving on.
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Alison's Automotive Repair Manual
By Brad Barkley
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2003 Brad Barkley
All rights reserved.
The garage was no more than a decaying shack, covered in torn asphalt shingles, tilting at the end of a long gravel driveway. Alison Durst squinted against the late-afternoon sun, waiting for her brother-in-law to open the garage door. Bill tried several keys, shook his head at each one, until finally the rusted lock clicked open. Alison and her sister, Sarah, helped him pull as the door slid upward, angled and creaking, dropping fragments of broken window glass. They ducked under a low-beamed ceiling hung with cracked garden hoses, a sled dangling from a nail, and strands of Christmas bulbs, into a stilled grayness, slats of light flecked with dust motes. In one corner leaned a bent snow shovel and a badminton net scrolled around its aluminum poles, and in the other a tangle of tomato stakes and twine, a wooden cutout of a reindeer, the edges worn and feathery. And at the center of all the clutter sat a junked Corvette, covered in dust, the tires mushy, silver paint peeling in strips.
"Well, you asked, so now you've seen the famous car," Sarah said, rubbing dirt off her hands. She snapped on a lightbulb hanging from an extension cord, half an old coffee can for a lamp shade. The jarring light draped everything with shadow. The floor was nothing more than packed dirt, the air full of wet smells, the car's interior a dull maroon, stringy with cobwebs.
"Famous like what, the Hindenburg? The Titanic?" Alison said. It was about the saddest car she'd ever seen; it looked fossilized. "How much did you pay for it? Or did they pay you?"
"My nephew defaulted on the loan," Bill said. "We'd cosigned. Fifteen hundred later, boom, there you are." He gestured at the Corvette. Earlier that afternoon, Bill and Sarah had argued over how much money to send that same nephew for his eighteenth birthday, which was how the subject of the car came up in the first place. Until then, Alison had never heard of it, never bothered to even peek in the garage. Sarah had wanted to send a card that read, "You Now Owe Us Only $1,400. Happy Birthday!"
"Deadbeat nephew," Sarah said, frowning at the car. "You forgot deadbeat."
"Now, now," Alison said. "Some of our best relatives are deadbeats." This came out wrong; too quickly, she thought of Marty and turned away, pretending to inspect the paint.
"We sank most of our money into eight-track tapes," Sarah said. "Want to see those, too?"
Alison looked at her sister and smirked. Sarah gave her back an identical smirk, her own dimples, like Alison's, lengthened by age into creases edging her mouth. Their father had pegged them "the twins," though Sarah was two years older. Even now, halfway through their thirties, they both still had the same graying corkscrew hair, the same slight hips and breasts, arms so long, they would hold them awkwardly, crossing and uncrossing them, jamming their hands in their pockets.
"How does it drive?" Alison asked.
Bill shrugged. "We never actually drove it. Tow truck backed it in, and that was that."
Alison walked around the car, stepping over a weed eater, a tangle of tire chains. "And you've had this how long?" she asked.
"A long time, too long," Sarah said. "I keep telling Bill, let's just scrap the thing."
"Well, I can't believe you never told Marty about it," Alison said. "You didn't need to scrap it." Marty would have insisted on saving the car, the way he'd saved console stereos and televisions, his VW van, the Pong video game from the bowling alley. He had rescued obsolete things the way other people rescue dogs from the pound. Things were more pitiful than people, he'd told her once, because when they got old and wore out, they didn't have guilty relatives around to pretend otherwise. The pack rat's apologist, she'd called him.
Sarah said something else about the car, but Alison only half-heard her. She was lost in thought, absently trying to list the sixty-six British monarchs, the same list she used to let her students memorize for extra credit—Ethelwulf, Ethelbald, Alfred the Great. She did this unconsciously, a habit she'd acquired in grad school and carried over into her teaching, her version, she thought of it, of biting fingernails or tapping pencils. It annoyed her, had annoyed Marty when they'd sit on the couch to watch a ball game, and he'd glance over and catch her squinting at the ceiling, her lips barely moving. But for these past months she'd indulged the habit, rather than hiding it away. Better this obsessive cataloging of the past than growing silent and brooding over some Jeep commercial on TV or a rack of flannel shirts at Sears. It was distraction, a noisy game. Without it, she would catch herself thinking of Marty in the present tense, as if he were only off somewhere in the woods riding dirt-bike trails or in the basement drinking coffee with Lem Kerns. Or worse, she would think of the morning of the day he died, those hours beginning their ugly echo inside her, and so she would close her eyes and start listing the monarchs, the Bill of Rights, the names of the Popes, the divisions of the Magna Carta, muttering like the old ladies in church bent over their rosaries. But she could never keep it all in her mind, couldn't recall if the third concern of the Magna Carta dealt with royal forests or towns and trades, or who succeeded Edward the Elder. The past, like the present, seemed a shifty, deceitful thing.
"Did you hear me?" Sarah said.
Alison looked at her sister.
"Ali, I'm trying to tell you," Sarah said. "We got the car after Marty's accident. A few weeks after."
"Well," Alison said, "when you said 'a long time,' I just thought ..."
"It has been a long time," Sarah said, too quickly. Bill busied himself untangling the tire chains. "Two years now," Sarah added.
Alison looked away, her eyes adjusting to the dim light of the garage. "Thanks for the update," she said. In the dust blanketing the hood of the car, she scrawled WASH ME with the tip of her finger. She could cry right then if she nudged herself over into it, or she could nudge herself the other way and smash the windshield of the car, throw things at people she loved. Heat tightened around her chest, her eyes warming. She breathed the smell of fertilizer and rust, of wet dirt, gasoline, old leather.
Sarah sighed. "Okay, listen. Six months ago, we'd've probably lied about having any car, knowing it'd make you think of Marty. Wouldn't we, Bill?"
Bill smiled and shrugged, his face pink, hair neatly parted, as if he were about to have his school picture taken. He looked at Sarah and said, "That's exactly right." Good old Bill. Always so agreeable, so embarrassed by all of this. Alison felt grateful then that he'd gone along with her moving in, dragging the mess of her life behind her.
"So, that's probably a good sign, don't you think?" Sarah said. Alison shrugged, then nodded. How did she know if it was good or not? Maybe she should've looked it up in one of those god-awful books that friends had pressed on her in the weeks after the accident. A Path Through Grief was one title she remembered. Embrace the Silence, The Passages of Living. Like the names of the soap operas her mother used to watch at the Laundromat while she folded bath towels. The only help any of those books provided had been in giving her someone to resent for a few distracting weeks. She would open the back flaps, look at those smiling book-jacket faces, read the overview with its blueprint for grief. As if all those experts had gotten together to scout the emptiness of her first months after, to chart the topography of her loss. She read enough to figure out that they didn't know much beyond how to sell books to vulnerable people. The first night she arrived at Sarah's, she'd walked out in the dark and flung the stack of them as far as she could, one by one, into the lake.
"You know what?" Sarah said. Awkward, her words clumsy. "This two-year mark coming up, I think that will be your time, when you're, you know, back on your feet?"
The two of them stood watching her. Sarah had said the same thing at the six-month mark, the one-year mark, and again at eighteen months, and the statement had slowly bent itself into a question, just as she knew Sarah's concern had bent into impatience. And who could blame her? Two years was a long time. But Alison wasn't some widow, running around in a black dress and veil, not anymore. Somehow, though, her mourning had evolved into a kind of indolence, an inertia of stunted feeling.
Alison looked at them standing in the door of the garage, and behind them their A- frame house angled against the evening sky. It had always looked out of place, that house, without some mountains around it, a ski slope or two. But this was Wiley Ford, in West Virginia, and instead of mountains there were only ancient, low hills, ground down like the teeth of some fitful, sleeping child. The house glowed above its lawn, above the lake which belonged not to it but to the town. Soon the house would be filled with the usual crowd, the old people, dancing and dancing, flooding the living room with vibration and movement.
"So, Bill, what year is this car?" Alison said, sidestepping Sarah's question. She opened the door and leaned into the maroon interior. Dust and oil smells, mildew, rot.
"A 76," Bill said. He scratched the back of his neck and frowned a little. "Kind of an off year for Vettes. Ain't even worth all that much."
"Are we about done with the tour?" Sarah said.
"Actually, the body doesn't look that bad," Alison said. "I mean, no rust."
"Fiberglass," Bill told her. "Doesn't rust. But look under." He tossed her a tiny flashlight he kept clipped to his shirt pocket (he repaired telephone lines for Bell Atlantic). As she crouched to look under the car, she lost her balance and pitched forward onto her knees, her clogs falling off her feet. The Ocean City shark's tooth she wore on a cheap silver chain slipped out of her T-shirt and dragged in the dirt. For all these months upon months she'd felt gawky, cramped. That was the best way she knew to think of her grief, her guilt—like trying to change clothes in a tiny elevator, everything clumsy, the ground moving beneath her. She clicked on the flashlight. What little she could see beneath the car looked like the landscape of Mars, inverted. Rot and corrosion, thick layers of hardened mud. She tapped underneath with her knuckles, and a shower of rust covered the back of her hand.
"That can't be good," Alison said.
"None of the glass is broken," Bill said. "That's a plus, I guess."
"Bill always finds something nice to say," Sarah said. Alison smiled at the dirt floor, letting the flashlight sweep under the car, all those parts and cables and tubes she knew did something, could be named, fixed, replaced. Something about this appealed to her, the order of it, maybe. Parts working. Synchronization. The logic of gears. Just then, Bill bounced the front bumper to test the shocks, and, along with the rust, four tiny gray balls fell from under the car and landed in the dirt. She inched closer, shone the light on them, trying to see what they were—lumps of mud, maybe? Some kind of putty or plastic? Then she touched one, and it gave a tiny high-pitched squeal.
Babies—hairless, blind, grayish pink. The flashlight illuminated a fragile web of blue veins beneath their skin, the faintest throb of a pulse, their clawless feet pawing the air. Bill shook the Corvette again, and three more of them fell, making small craters in the dust. Somewhere in the hidden recesses of the car she heard more squealing, the skritch of claws. She picked up one of them, no bigger than a cashew. Bill shook the car again; two more mice dropped down in a scattering of rust.
"Bill ... stop." She cupped the mouse in her hand and stood.
"You know that rust," Bill was saying, "they call it car cancer, and if you—"
"Look." She held out the mouse to them. It had stopped moving.
"I'll be damned," Bill said.
"I saw at least half a dozen more of them under there," Alison said. "Babies."
"God, it's like a clown car, with rodents," Sarah said. "Now I know we're junking this thing."
"No, you're not ..." Alison started to say.
"Hon?" Bill said. "Your dancers are here in twenty minutes. We gotta straighten the house. And where in heck is Mr. Kesler?"
"I want the car," Alison said. "I want to fix it."
"Oh, late late late, always," Sarah said. "Like he has to tack on ten minutes to his lateness every time. Break his own record. The late Mr. Kesler."
Alison bent to place the dead mouse back under the car, among the other mice and the islands of rust. "Did you guys even hear me?" she said louder. "I want to fix this car." She looked up in time to see Bill and Sarah trading looks.
"Ali ... what are you talking about?" Sarah said.
Twenty-three months now since the fire, since her spirit unhoused itself. She should be better now, over it, moving on. The two of them press for signs. They talk about Marty in her presence, try to convert him into memory—even his aimlessness, his sulky temper. She says nothing back. They take her to parties, introduce her to men. They ask about her plans for the house, for the job she abandoned, for her life. But right then, with the tiny curled bodies of mice lit in the arc of her flashlight, with those shadows of decay in the sweep of its beam, she knew only this: She would fix this ruined car.
Sarah stomped around the living room, stuffing magazines into end tables, pushing the furniture back, rolling up the rug. Alison sorted through the compact discs, loading the player with backup music for tonight's lesson: Basic Swing. Just in case Mr. Kesler didn't show.
Finally, Sarah stopped and stood with her hands on her hips. "Can I ask you one question?" she said.
"You just did," Alison said.
Sarah ignored her. "I'll bet you don't even know how to drive a stick shift, much less fix one," Sarah said, "and now you think you can just up and repair this entire broken-down rodent car. I mean, I don't understand what you think you're doing."
Alison put a discount-bin Glenn Miller into the CD player, then The Best of Artie Shaw, a Benny Goodman. "Ooh, so sorry. You forgot to state your rant in the form of a question."
Sarah frowned at her. "I'm sorry we even showed you the thing."
"Would you stop, Sarah? I'll buy the damn car if you want, but I'm going to fix it, okay? For a year now, you've been telling me—what? That I ought to get out and do something, right?"
Sarah shook her head, her face flushed sweaty from pushing back the furniture. "That filthy garage is not out. I want you to get a new job, go back to teaching. I want you to meet someone."
"Thanks for the suggestions. I want to fix the car."
"What are you trying to prove? This is like—what, some big symbolic act?"
"Yeah, exactly," Alison said. "I promise when it's finished, I'll drive off into the sunset. You can film me."
"Why are you acting like this? What's the point? I mean, really, explain it to me."
This is how Sarah always argued, pelting her opponents with unanswerable questions. And what could Alison say? She didn't really have any answer that worked very well. The car needed her, maybe? She knew how pathetic that would sound, echoes of Charlie Brown and his sad little Christmas tree. And it was a lie, too. She needed the car at least as much as it needed her. If nothing else, it gave her something to do while she wasn't getting better. It gave her order, the work of her hands. It gave her dirt and grit and progression.
Sarah prowled the room, gearing up for another barrage. Alison loaded the last slot of the CD player with Kiss Alive (Bill kept the same music he'd liked in high school—Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd—the way he kept his alligator shirts and S-10 pickup, his peanut butter sandwiches and football trophies). Sarah turned and pointed at her.
"Listen to me, Alison," she said. "I really think —"
Before she could finish, Alison cranked the volume to ten, punched the play button for disc five, and let the collision of bass and guitar and drums drown her sister out. The walls shook as Alison walked past Sarah, smirking at her, out into the dark toward the lake. Under the noise of the music, she heard Sarah shouting, "Very funny, Al. Really hilarious."
Excerpted from Alison's Automotive Repair Manual by Brad Barkley. Copyright © 2003 Brad Barkley. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
Brad Barkley, a native of North Carolina, is the author of the novel, Money, Love, which was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Book Sense 76 choice. Money, Love was named one of the best books of 2000 by the Washington Post and Library Journal. Barkley was named as one of the "Newcomers of 2002: Breakthrough Writers You Need to Know" by Book magazine. He is also the author of a story collection, Circle View. His short fiction has appeared in more than two dozen magazines, including the Southern Review, the Georgia Review, Oxford American, the Greensboro Review, Glimmer Train, Book magazine, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, which has twice awarded him the Emily Balch Prize for Best Fiction. His work was anthologized in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2002 and again in 2003. A story collection, Another Perfect Catastrophe, is his next book, also published by St. Martin's Press. He has won four Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Brad Barkley teaches creative writing at Frostburg State University. He lives in western Maryland with his wife, Mary, and two children.
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In West Virginia, thirty something widow Alison Durst remains in mourning though her husband died in an accident two years ago. Her sister Sarah and brother-in-law Bill have been supportive, but even they are tiring of Alison as a permanent, grieving guest plus they care and just want her to rebuild her life. Both believe she needs to start over first by moving into her own home............... However Alison is not ready to leave. Although she knows nothing about cars, she decides to rebuild Bill's broken-down Corvette. She will move out once she completes her task. Munitions manufacturer Max Kesler agrees to assist Alison on her quest. They begin seeing each other although his father's behavior jeopardizes this relationship before the attraction can become anything permanent................ ALISON'S AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR MANUAL is an amusing romantic romp with serious undertones that is at its best when the lead couple goes out on dates at weird locales. Her side, including her late husband, provides strong support so that the reader further understands Alison's struggles with getting on with her life. On the other hand, his father impedes the flow of a delightful tale worth reading by fans of second chance romances......... Harriet Klausner
Brilliant prose, wonderful characters, original storyline. Barkley is a talented writer. After being fortunate enough to hear him read locally, I read everything he's written. Besides being technically gifted, Barkley has a remarkable ability to create believable and charming characters, the kind you wish you could visit after you have read the last page. Barkley seems particularly astute about the joys and pains of being human. Keep writing, Mr. Barkley!!!