The local thermometers are about to break triple digits in Bakersfield, as a lone passenger exits the 3:30 bus at the old Vineyard crossing on the outskirts of town. Hundred-plus temperatures are the norm here from mid-May to mid-September. A dry heat, so the travel agents claim, as if it makes any difference. And yet, considering where the new arrival has been for the last six years, he actually felt comfortable enough to keep the black leather biker jacket on that matches his boots.
It takes but a glance to realize Josh Brackett is not a man to be trifled with. He grew up fast and hard. He is confident, skilled, and independent. In fact, with him, freedom is no mere word; it is a character trait, impossible to quell — even during his recent mandatory stint under the guise of government control. He is a rare breed, rarely remembered by physical attributes. He is remembered, by friend and foe, for the gleam in his eye, the fire in his heart, the hunger in his belly, and his unquenchable thirst for life. And he is remembered for the words that he speaks, and the actions he takes, because he rarely speaks or acts without a purpose.
As the bus departs, leaving a cloud of diesel fumes in its wake, Josh turns to view the lone establishment set back on its lot across the road. In its day it had been a thriving service station: six pumps, three full-service auto bays with hydraulic lifts, and a detail bay at the far end. But that was decades ago, before the I-5 redirected the flow of traffic. In fact, the rest of the establishments that once inhabited the lots around the crossing have long since disappeared, reclaimed by the farms and vineyards.
Josh makes his way toward the station with his easy but confident stride, and he notices that the large orange ball with big blue numbers no longer sits atop the 50-foot pole. He can’t help but think how conspicuous and out of place the lone pole looks among the surrounding fields.
Like a damn morning hard-on, he thought. Wasted and useless.
Josh gets halfway across the cracked and ill-patched blacktop before a man working in a grease pit in an open bay notices his approach.
Stepping on the lot is like being time-warped back to the fifties, though a lot grungier, and the man climbing out of the grease pit is no exception. The straight-leg button-fly jeans, semi-white t-shirt with a Marlboro box rolled in the short sleeve, and the greasy slicked back hair resembles the retro look of Marlon Brando or James Dean.
“Well, fuck a duck!” the grease monkey, Skinny Pete, said. “Is that you, Reaper?”
“Rumor has it.”
The two quickly shake hands then decide to abstain from the macho decorum, and give each other a hug, considering the long absence. Within minutes they’re inside getting reacquainted, and sucking down some cold brews.
“I’ve already discovered things ain’t the way they should be,” Josh said. “I need to know if you and the crew still got my back.”
“Shit, Reaper, most the guys don’t even come around no more,” Pete said before downing the rest of his beer, and grabbing another bottle from the six-pack on the counter. “Some moved away. Others sold their rides. Hell, it ain’t the same anymore.”
“In six years?”
“A lifetime ago for some of us.”
Josh grabs his second bottle and glances around the old place. Technically, it is still a working station, but primarily it has been the main hangout for the Rat Pack Rodders for nearly twenty years. Josh had been the club president until six years ago, and he was used to seeing at least a dozen or more old school rods and bikes around the place at all times. At the moment, Skinny Pete’s 1963 blue and silver Plymouth Savoy with a blown 426-Hemi is the only vehicle in sight.
“She still looks righteous,” Josh said.
“Balanced, blue-printed, and totally re-bored.”
“What’s her top-end?”
“I’m guessing — maybe two and a quarter,” Pete said then gulped down the last of his second bottle. “Ain’t reached it yet. Pickin’s are slim. Not enough left to play.”
Josh steps from the office to the auto bays and stares at the long back wall. It’s practically a shrine to the club: photos, trophies, ribbons, news clippings, and magazine covers. Over half the honors belong entirely to, or are shared, by Josh.
As Pete came near, the three words he was dreading finally came up.
“Where is she?”
He followed Josh’s line of sight, ending at a cluster of photos, each with a similar scene with Josh, one of his many prize winning builds, and his wife, Sue Dell.
“I lost track awhile ago.”
Josh turns to face him.
“Don’t give me that shit!”Josh said with a look and tone that quickly reminds Pete why they call him the Reaper. “Where the fuck is she? And why is there a strange family in the house I paid for?”
Skinny Pete never had any interest in war-time interrogation, but by the time he drops Josh off at his brother’s place, he is sure he has experienced the third-degree. And he honestly doesn’t know where she is. The only bit of useful information he felt he could pass on without getting his jaw busted, is that Sue has become a regular at all the old school events.
Old school rods, old school choppers, and even old school drags: a sub-culture within the vast and varied world of man and his customized machines. And yes, there are those who can point to a small contingent of the more curvaceous sex among the modern ranks of vehicular enthusiasts. However, within the old school sub-culture, such a find is a mere curiosity — not to be taken seriously.
Old school has never merely been man and his machine. It is a belief, a way of life. Thus, the serious enthusiasts do not simply tinker with their metallic toys; they equally covet the style and traditions of decades past.
Josh’s brother, Billy Joe, is both happy and sad at the sight of his sibling. They have always been tight, and the six year separation has taken its toll. But he knows Josh’s return will only bring trouble.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“Wasn’t planning on coming this far so soon,” Josh said. “Seems nobody thought to warn me what my homecoming would be like.”
“We thought you still had another four years.”
“Was it rough?”
“Weren’t no picnic.”
Josh has a way of staring that can unnerve anyone: even his brother tries not to make eye contact too often during these times.
“I’ll have Kat make up the spare room,” Billy Joe said. Anything to get a short break, as he quickly departs — but soon returned, wanting his brother to know he will stick by him through this ordeal. A brother’s bond is hard to break.
“Supper’s still warm if you’re hungry.”
“I can eat,” Josh said. “But I’d rather see what I have left first.”
Billy Joe’s shop is right behind his home, so they tramp through the backyard, across the alley, and in the back door. It is a high performance racing shop, sales and service on one side, building race cars on the other. After Big Daddy Don Garlitz and Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney signed Billy Joe’s t-shirt on his ninth birthday, he swore he’d never do anything except build Pro-Stock, Top-Fuel, and Funny Cars when he grew up — and he never has.
Ironically, it is not the selection of quarter-to-half-million dollar professional race cars sitting in the bays that hold any interest at the moment. The brothers walk passed them to the far bay, and stand beside two similarly shaped vehicles under matching car covers.
“Told you I’d never let anyone harm the twins,” Billy Joe said, as they each grab a cover and yank.
Twins yes, but identical, no.
Josh has built many bikes, rods, and racers, but when it comes to his personal preference, he favors the ’41 Willys, like the two that stand before them. One is an old style nitro-burning, straight axel gasser. The other is an old school cream-your-jeans bagger, pretending to be all show and no go, until it pulls down their panties and spanks them in the quarter-mile.
“You ready to eat now?”
“Go ahead,” Josh said, as he unlocks and enters his prize possession. “I’m gonna stay here awhile.”
Billy Joe nods, heads to the door, takes a last glance, and exits.
“I thought you said he was going to come in and eat,” Kathy said. It has been two hours since her husband returned alone, and she doesn’t like leaving food out.
“Cut him some slack,” Billy Joe said. “Those cars are the last thing he’s got that feel like home.”
“I’ll never understand how you guys can love a hunk of metal so much.”
“You put enough blood, sweat, and tears into anything, and it’ll grow on you.”
“If you say so.”
“Ain’t much different than you fretting about the food and dishes,” Billy Joe said. “You want everything in your kitchen cleaned and in its proper place before you hit the sack.”
“I’ll concede that,” she said. It was the truth. The den, on the other hand, was definitely Billy Joe’s. It has all the latest electronics: a complete entertainment center, flat screen TV, and two computers. Kathy redecorated the rest of the house with a distinct nostalgic feel. The kitchen and dining area is decked out with stainless steel, vinyl, and Formica similar to the old malt shops and diners, the American Graffiti look. And she is sure the rest of the house would make June Cleaver proud, as if it were purchased right off the set of Leave It To Beaver. Kathy doesn’t love everything about the old school sub-culture that her husband eased her into after they began to date, but she went crazy over the nostalgic styles. It had been a little before her time, but she grew up watching reruns of all the old shows. The original carrot-top, Lucille Ball, of I Love Lucy is her favorite.
“You gotta understand, Baby — that ride he’s sitting in, and built with his own hands, won him enough pinks to buy that house in L.A. that he just found out he no longer owns.”
“That’s a hell of a homecoming.”
“You should’ve told him,” she said, than walks up behind the sofa, embraces her husband, and gives him a kiss. “I’m going to take a shower.”
“Yep — I should’ve told him.”
[*Will Josh find his wife and the answers he seeks? Check out Pt.2 of Old School Ways to find out.]