Wheels

by Verlaine

 

I'm getting a macaroni salad ready for lunch when Hutch hollers through the screen door from the back porch, where he's putting on his shoes.

 

"Need anything from the store?"

 

Since my head's in the icebox anyway, I give it a quick once-over. "Milk?" I say, in my best please-Hutch-for-me voice.

 

Doesn't work.

 

"There’s plenty of milk. I looked."

 

I'm not giving up that easy. "Only two percent."

 

"Two percent is milk. Remember blood lipids? Bad cholesterol levels? At our age, we should be drinking skim anyway." That's Hutch at his food police worst, so to get him back, I wait 'til I hear his feet reach the bottom of the porch steps before I yell out the kitchen window.

 

"Helmet!" I hear a loud sigh and some muttering. "What’s that?"

 

"Nothing!"

 

He stomps up the stairs, rustles around and, with a little more muttering, stomps back down. Not that I don't trust him or anything, but I peek out, just to make sure. It wouldn't be the first time he's tried to put one over on me. Hutch likes to ride with what's left of his hair blowing in the breeze. I like Hutch to ride with something solid between the back of his head and the pavement. Unlike the food wars, where it's pretty much even odds, this is something I don't back down on.

 

Hutch is strapping the saddlebags to the bike's parcel rack, with the helmet balanced sideways on his head. I take a minute to admire the view, and just like always, end up thinkin' that at his age, there oughta be a law. When he looks up and catches me checkin' him out, he gives me that little 'aw shucks' grin that makes him look about twelve. Then he sticks his tongue out at me. With a guilty look, he tightens up the helmet and swings one of those lo-o-o-ng legs up and over. A quick wave in my direction and he's gone, pedaling up the drive past the house and heading for the street.

 

Hutch never grew out of the healthy eating and exercise stage, despite plenty of encouragement from yours truly, and as he got older, he got more and more involved in all the environmental stuff too. So a couple years ago, when his last crapmobile finally gave up the good fight, he decided he wouldn't get another car and bought a bicycle instead. Now, knowing Hutch, you'd figure he'd get some broken down wreck from a garage sale or a sad second hand thing from the police auction. Not this time. I swear he dragged me to every bike shop in Bay City, surfed the net for hours, bought catalogs and magazines by the armload. What he finally ended up with was a pretty nice mountain bike, with Shimano brakes, front-end shocks, and some seriously badass tires. Looks like it could climb straight up a cliff. He calls it the Millennium Falcon, which makes no sense, far as I can tell. Hutch doesn’t even much like Star Wars, and sure, it's a nice bike, but it ain't the fastest piece of junk in the galaxy by a long ways. I think it's supposed to be one of those Hutchinson jokes.

 

There's not many days he's not cruising the MF around somewhere: to the store, down to the beach, over to the park, downtown to the Sierra Club where he volunteers a couple mornings a week. It's been good for him. As he's gotten older, his back's been botherin' him more, and his bad leg's giving him grief. (Two days under a damn car, what do you expect? Of all the nightmares I get about our days on the street, I think the worst one is where I don't find him in time, and they have to cut his leg off.) He'd pretty well stopped running, and he missed it a lot. Having the MF took ten years off him; he can get all the exercise and fresh air he wants, without stressing out his joints.

 

It's made present giving a snap for me too. I got him the helmet first thing, before I even let him take her out on the street. I figured it was up to me to make sure he did his riding with style. It's cool, if I say so myself: two shades of metal flake blue, light as a feather, all swooped back like the ones the bike racers wear. Last Christmas I found a great little tool kit, with everything he needs to do road repairs all tucked into a box the size and shape of a water bottle. Slips right into the little wire rack.

 

I bought him the mini tire pump after he got a flat and ended up pushing the MF all the way back home from downtown. I thought he was gonna have a heart attack, he was so red and sweaty. Gave him hell for it, too: all he had to do was hit the speed dial, and I'd'a gone to pick him up. No, the stubborn old jackass had to push the damn thing five miles in the middle of the day.

 

 //It's the principle of it, Starsk. What's the point of having a bike if I call you for the car any time I have a problem?//

 

Well, excuse me all to hell. Like, what's the point of having a partner if you can't call him for help when you need it? Oh, things got loud that day (after I got a cold drink into him, and put some calamine on his poor sunburned bald spot).

 

He busted me righteously on the birthday present, though, when I got him the nice tight bike shorts and the little mesh vest.

 

//Only you would try to get away with getting yourself a present on my birthday.//

 

 Hey, sue me. For a guy who's a card carrying member of the AARP Hutch still has legs that just won't quit. And I figure one of the perks of being the old man's main squeeze is making sure I get to admire the scenery. I mean, for a pair of senior citizens, we still get checked out pretty regular down at the beach.

 

//Yeah, right, Starsky. They're checking us out to see if we need CPR.// 

 

The bike 'is' Hutch in a way no car he ever owned was. Maybe that's why he never paid much attention to them—they were just a way to get from one place to another. With the bike he looks comfortable and at home. I gotta say, I was worried at first. I've spent most of my life now watchin' Hutch trip over his own feet and run into stuff. When the MF first moved into the garage, I was expecting major road rash and regular trips to Memorial (which is why I still won't take any shit about the helmet—we've both spent way too much time there). But on the bike, Hutch floats. It's like he's a fish out of water that just figured out he could swim.

 

I stick the salad into the refrigerator and head out to the garden to see if there's any fresh tomatoes for lunch. On the way, I pick up Hutch's boots, one gardening glove—and where'd he leave the other one anyway?—and a half empty coffee cup. It's always been like this: Hutch puts things down, I put 'em away. By the time we got together we were both kinda set in our ways, and we've only ever managed to half housebreak each other. 

 

I know Hutch is gonna be a while; he's always out for "just a couple of things" and ends up spending half the morning talking, so I figure there's no rush. I get changed and head out back to the garage.

 

                                                            ***

 

By the time I get back from shopping, it's close to lunchtime. Between the health food store, the hardware store, a stop at the garden centre and a detour to Books and Beans for some organic coffee, I've been gone a lot longer than I'd planned. Not that it matters these days; one of the true joys of being retired is that we never have to be anywhere if we don't want to.

 

The Falcon is loaded down from all my stops, so I'm puffing a bit as I hit the top of the hill at the end of our street. Catching sight of our house ahead gives me a little extra surge of energy, just like it always does, and I shift down and put on some speed. I sometimes wonder how many people would laugh at me: a man over sixty hurrying to get home to someone I've only been away from a few hours, someone I've been with so long that we're like two matching pieces of an old worn-out jigsaw puzzle. Let them.

 

There were a lot of people—even the ones on our side—who said we'd never last. Starsky would get the itch to go cruising girls again, or I'd get tired of slumming with a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. (Somebody was actually stupid enough to say that to my face once. Good thing there were enough people in the squad room to hold me down long enough for the jerk to make a run for it. The only time in all the years I knew him that I heard Harold Dobey tell a bald-faced flat out lie was when the asshole's commanding officer tried to have me brought up on charges.)

 

Well, we've lasted. And, I sometimes think a little smugly, outlasted a lot of those people.

 

I can hear music coming from behind the house as I turn past the lilac bush into the driveway. Bruce Springsteen—the raucous old-fashioned stuff Starsky calls 'car music'. Sure enough, when I wheel around the corner into the back yard the 'vette's pulled out of the garage, the hood's up, and all that's visible of my partner are two softly grey-furred legs, and a nicely rounded, denim covered rump.

 

I lean the Falcon against the porch and just stop for a minute to appreciate the view. There's a lot about both of us that's gone south over the years, but Starsky's derrière is not one of them. It's still a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. Watching him swaying his hips and shifting his feet to the rhythm of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, oblivious to everything but what he's doing, it's like the past twenty-five years were only a couple of days.

 

Starsky sold the Torino in the fall of nineteen eighty. He'd been back on the street for nearly six months by then, and he decided the tomato was finally showing her age. Other cars had bigger engines, better suspensions and gear ratios. She wasn't automatically the fastest thing on the streets any more. And all the little rattles and squeaks that never quite went away were getting annoying.

 

All of that was true, of course, but the real reason Starsky gave her up was because I was losing my mind. It didn't all happen at once: for the first few weeks he was back I was so grateful and happy I was practically levitating. But then, gradually, I lost my nerve. I started to get an anxious itchy feeling between my shoulder blades that would turn into paranoid flashes when I'd be sure someone was waiting just out of sight to fire on us. I'd walk round and round the car after we'd been away from it, checking underneath for bombs. Every morning when I came down the stairs and saw her, my shoulders started tensing up and my stomach dropped. I just couldn't help it. After a while, my stomach was in such rough shape I couldn't eat on duty any more. A couple of times I even had full-blown flashbacks.

 

I tried to hide it from Starsky, and he pretended not to notice at first. But after one particularly harrowing morning when I almost couldn’t bring myself to get in the car at all, he called me on it. I thought I'd done a pretty good job of bullshitting him, right up until that afternoon, when he called Merle and started asking around for somebody to buy her.

 

I tried to talk him out of it, I even promised him I'd get some therapy to pull myself together, but he was adamant. We fought about that more than anything before or since. Stupidly enough, what bothered me the most was how simple it was for Starsky. I'd always known that his line about not making him choose between me and the car was mostly a joke, but still, I knew how much she meant to him. The Torino was his first new car, bought all with his own money, paid off, customized exactly the way he wanted it. A symbol of freedom and independence, a sign that he was living his own life. But when it came down to the crunch, he loved the Torino, but he loved me more. The car was giving me trouble, the car was history. End of story.

 

//My partner or my car? Don’t be dumb, Hutch.//

 

I felt so weak and guilty—he was the one who nearly died, the one who suffered for months, the one who clawed himself back to the streets with sheer hard work and courage—and I was the one who fell apart like a damp Kleenex.

 

What we ended up doing wasn't exactly a compromise—Starsky made me talk to him—and he sold the Torino anyway—but like all our weird partnership stuff it worked out in the end. Starsky may not have known all the fancy psychological terms, but he'd been in the army and he could recognize a bad case of survivor's guilt when he saw it. He'd have picked it up a lot faster except it had never even crossed his mind that I had any reason to feel guilt in the first place.

 

//Hey, it's not like I died for real. That probably woulda pissed me off big time.//

 

Starsky wasn't the same about cars after that. Oh, he still could appreciate a nice set of wheels—and still drove like a bat out of hell—but he never invested himself in one the way he had with the Torino. After that, they were just cars. Just machines to get you from here to there. He never kept one that long again either.  The Mustang lasted two years, the Camaro barely three. They were nice cars, and he looked after them well, but it never was the same.

 

Until the Corvette came along. Occasionally Starsky goes to street rod meets; he enjoys keeping up with the latest technology and admiring the craftsmanship that goes into good restoration work. This time, he came home bubbling over about the Corvette he'd seen for sale, what a cool car it was, how she could be fixed up, the great potential she had. The next day he dragged me over to the show to make me take a look at it. I had gotten all the arguments ready: we didn’t need—and couldn’t afford—a car that was nearly forty years old, would take a lot of time and money to get back into shape, and would never run as well as a new one. I had it all planned out, until I saw his face as he looked at her, saw the way his hand ran over the hood. It was the way he used to look at the Torino. None of the things I had rehearsed ever got said. He signed the papers that day, and the next the never-ending restoration project began. Starsky's poured a small fortune into that car, and has probably spent more time under the hood than behind the wheel. And I don't begrudge him any of it. There's not much I wouldn't give him to keep the 'Torino look' on his face.

 

He's still oblivious to me, so I slip up behind him and help myself to a couple of handfuls of denim and Starsky. I hear a little squeak, and then from the vicinity of the sparkplugs, his voice. 

 

"Those better be Hutchinson hands back there."

 

"And suppose they aren't?" I try to make my voice a sultry purr. "Suppose some stranger passing by was just overcome with lust at the view here?"

 

I give my handful another little squeeze.

 

"Oh. Well. In that case, we've probably got a half hour before Hutch gets back from the store. Time for a quickie." 

 

He gives his assets a little wiggle, and pushes back against me, which doesn't do anything for my self-control. This started as a joke, but it looks like things are about to get interesting. However, when I slide my hands forward across his hipbones, the wiggling turns into a squirm.

 

"Hey, hang on, Hutch, lemme up."

 

"We’ve done it over the car hood before," I remind him. Not recently, mind you, what with my leg and his shoulder, but we definitely have done it. Once or twice.

 

Starsky's still wiggling and protesting. "Yeah, but not with my head down on the engine block. Lemme up, okay, I'm covered in grease here."

 

"That's not the thing to say to discourage me," I manage to get out, but still I let go and step back. As he straightens up and turns around, I can see he's not exaggerating. There's a big oily smudge across his nose and cheek, his tank looks like he’s been using it to wipe the dipstick, and both hands are black.

 

He waggles his grimy fingers at me, and grins as I move back another step. His eyes drift down over the front of my bike shorts, which suddenly become a size or two too small.

 

"Maybe this isn't such a bad idea after all," he leers, and leans back to slam down the hood. He lets himself sprawl over it, spreading his legs a little, looking like the pornographic centerfold in some car magazine for elderly sex maniacs. "I've been meaning to find out if you need some adjustments on your gear shift."

 

Any thoughts of keeping my clothes clean fly right out the window. I know where I want those hands, and I want them now.

 

"You mean I could use some assistance from an experienced mechanic?"

 

He laughs and opens his arms wide. "C'm'ere, blondie. Auto Shop for Dummies is now in session."

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