"Can I help you?" The woman with curly red hair and glasses smiled up at Otto.
"I heard you needed a mechanic."
"We certainly do." She smiled again. "If you would step through the door on the left you will find the repair garage, just ask for Ernie." Otto didn't expect such a prompt answer from the woman.
"Um, thank you."
"You're certainly welcome."
He left the receptionist behind and walked through a second glass door that framed a mass of machinery, tools on worktables, and a wall full of cardboard boxes set on metal shelves that must have contained machine parts. Beyond the corrugated shelter of the garage he could see the open air of the docks. He pushed on the door to notice several men busy with wrenches and screwdrivers. There was a thickset man who stood in the center of the garage looking over the jobs to be done, fists on his hips trying to decide what he would do next. Otto cleared his throat uncomfortably.
The man turned to him. "Yeah?"
Otto hedged his words. "I'm looking for Ernie."
Otto looked at the floor, kick sliding his boot on the smooth oil stained concrete. He was surprised by the man who was simple-spoken and didn't mind getting his hands dirty with the rest of the work crew. Ernie hadn't encountered that type since Elm Center.
"I heard you needed a mechanic."
"We sure do." Ernie looked into Otto's eyes, sizing him up. It took a couple of minutes before Ernie realized that Otto's blank look signaled medication. Otto knew what Ernie was thinking and knew the job hung in the balance. Endless seconds seemed to pass and Ernie's voice became softer and possibly considerate with doubt.
"Well, you might think about something a little less complicated." Otto quickly scanned the room in desperation.
"Is that a carburetor over there?" Ernie stepped to the side, glancing at the table that Otto indicated.
"Sure is," he said.
"Mind if I have a crack at it?" There was another unending pause as Ernie pulled off his Caterpillar baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. His words came as in slow motion.
"Uh, sure." Otto walked toward the table and hefted the complicated piece of machinery. Using the tools on the table he started to disassemble the block of metal. He treated it gently, his wiry hands working through each part of the metal maze. Thirty minutes later he found the problem valve. He looked at the oilcan on the table and shook his head a little disapprovingly as Ernie watched on, his curiosity deepening.
"Do you have a gasoline can around?"
Ernie was mystified. "Sure, over in the corner."
Otto spied the can and made his way across the room. A second man who was thin like Otto and dressed in cover-alls had seen Otto and came to the table to watch his work. Otto doused the part in gas and came back to the table. The second man nodded at Otto and reached forward. Otto shook his hand in a mutually strong grip.
"The name's John."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Otto." He squinted an eye as he fit the part back into place after squirting some oil on the valve.
"The oil is good, but really, the valve needs a good cleaning or else it just freezes up again after six months." The man who stood next to Ernie nodded understandingly.
Impressed, Ernie scratched the back of his head in surprise. "Well, it looks like we do have a mechanic here! How would you like to start on Monday?"
"Sure!" he said. As he passed through the warehouse district, the buildings seemed changed and stood proud, and even the weeds seemed happy to be alive.
The next morning he woke feeling as if he had drunk too much the night before. He thought of all the people who didn't have work or had shoddy jobs, and he felt sad for them. There were so many people out there with so little leverage. Then he remembered the black-haired woman in the union office, and since he had several days before he started work, he decided to go to the noon union meeting. The hall was out of walking distance so he stepped into the room beside the entrance of the group home and spoke with the day manager that the residents of the group home knew as Scott.
"Hi, Scott." Otto smiled and Scott was immediately curious. "Guess what?"
"I got a job!" Scott's face broke into a smile at the news.
"Way to go, Otto!" Scott said. "What kind of work?" Otto bent his shoulders forward, hands in his pockets, hiding his pride.
"Mechanic," Otto said, pulling his hands from his pockets. "Um, there is a union meeting down on Third and Finke at noon." Scott gave Otto a conspiratorial grin. Otto felt a little embarrassed.
"Is there any way I could get a couple of transit tokens?"
"Sure, Otto." Otto collected two coins and, thanking Scott, stepped out of the room and turned to the front door and closed it behind himself. He walked through the neighborhood of rundown 1940s-built houses—some of them empty and longing for occupants, others with innards divorced into efficiency apartments. He wondered how he would make out at the union meeting. Would they take him into their midst, or would he remain on the outside to face the typically friendly rejection? He reached the station and spied a man panhandling for change. He dropped the second token into the man's hat, figuring he could get home some other way. He climbed the metal stairs to wait on the platform alone. The isolation seemed to slow the world, slipping everything into a still life of single dimension. The union hall was full of men standing close-packed so that it was impossible to see the ranking members making decisions at the front of the hall. There was a feeling of strength in the place and the spirit of a tough grin. He felt a little awed. A crowded period of time passed as men spoke among themselves and seemed to pay little attention to the union leaders. He looked around and was unable to see anybody he recognized. Laughing inwardly, he realized the issue of his disability wouldn't even come up. He felt relieved. A gavel sounded in the front of the room and a man he could barely hear read off the resolutions agreed on by the elected men who sat at the table. The speaker finished the list and asked for a vote. There was nothing that stepped from the ordinary routine of business, and the hall resounded in an "Aye!" As he began with the rest of the hall to crowd out of the entrance, he heard his name.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
Find out more about submitting by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
Hans Lillegard is a writer/translator who has lived in Des Moines, Iowa City, and Dubuque on and off since 1986. He has found a deep and abiding respect for fellow Iowans, and loves the land from the plains of Western Iowa to the woodlands of Des Moines and to the Mississippi River valley of Dubuque. Iowa will always be an integral part of his thoughts and feelings.
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