Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

9

“TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM”

Teddy Bears - 1958





Friday morning, Maggie woke to an actual natural disaster, not one of the ghostly variety – though disaster might be too strong a word. Heavy winds had rocked Honeyville over night, knocking down a few trees and power lines and spreading branches, loose shingles and debris far and wide. To make matters worse, the rain hadn’t let up, and the streets were wet and treacherous.

School had been called off, and Maggie considered rolling over and grabbing a few extra Z’s. Unfortunately, Aunt Irene had other plans. The Cadillac was acting up, and she had some shopping to do. Maggie was informed she was coming along.

An hour later they were creeping down Main Street with a few other cars, the windshield wipers frantically sweeping rain from the Caddie’s broad window. The Cadillac chugged and lurched a little, and Irene moaned in response.

“Hang in there, Belle,” Aunt Irene worried, patting the dash.

“Belle?” Maggie tried not to laugh.

“That’s what I call her because she’s the ‘Belle’ of the ball. Always has been, always will be.” Irene patted the dash again, and the Cadillac sputtered sickly. “Not much further, Belle. Gene’s is right around the corner!” Irene urged the car down one more block and made a shaky right into the parking lot of an old red brick building with two grey service bays. A big sign featured a pretty blond hanging out the window of a classic car in aquamarine blue. Big bubble letters spelled out ‘Gene’s Auto Body’ across the bottom. A few cars waited patiently for their owners, and a Neon Chevrolet sign buzzed and flickered in the front window. The power must be back on. This had to be the same place Johnny had worked once upon a time, but surely Gene wasn’t still around.

“This is where Johnny worked?” Maggie asked out loud, and then wished she could take it back.

Aunt Irene looked at her blankly.

“Uh, didn’t Gus say that Johnny stole a gun out of a car when he was working at Gene’s?” Maggie couldn’t remember if he had, but she hoped Aunt Irene didn’t remember either.

“Johnny who, dear?” Irene was completely lost.

“Johnny Kinross. Remember?”

“Oh, my! Maggie… you’re not still thinking about that poor boy are you?”

Unfortunately, Maggie thought to herself, she hadn’t stopped thinking about him. She just shrugged her shoulders, trying to appear nonchalant.

Irene nodded her head replying, “It’s the same place, but Gene’s son is the owner now. His name is Gene too, but every one calls him Harvey.”

Maggie didn’t try to puzzle that one out. It was Texas. In Texas nicknames usually came with a story, and the stories were either long or long forgotten.

Gene, a.k.a Harvey, was a curly haired man with a bulging belly and a smiley face. His striped work shirt and navy blue Dickeys were grease stained, and his hands were completely black, but he greeted Aunt Irene with a gentlemanly nod and smiled politely as Irene introduced Maggie.

“I am completely backed up today, Mrs. Carlton. Can it hold over the weekend? I can have Rick follow you home to make sure you make it okay, and we’ll come pick it up on Monday,” Harvey volunteered pleasantly. “I’m guessing it’s the transmission, from what you’re telling me. I warned you it might go when I gave her a check up last month.”

Irene nodded forlornly. Maggie could only guess at what she was thinking, but it most likely had a big dollar sign attached to it. Irene had taken religious care of her ‘Belle,’but parts wore out, and it cost money when they did. Money was something Aunt Irene didn’t have.

“That will be fine, Harvey. I have a convention in Galveston for the Ladies Historical Society this weekend. I’m the secretary of the North East region, you know,” Irene perked up as she talked, preening just a little. “The city has chartered us a van so I won’t be driving. Maggie and I will make do until Monday just fine.”

Maggie had forgotten about the convention. Aunt Irene would leave that afternoon and not be back until Sunday evening. Maggie was staying home all alone. Originally, the time alone had not appealed to her much at all. With Irene gone and Malia Jasper back in town, Gus and Shad wouldn’t even be coming for Sunday dinner, and she had dreaded the long weekend with nothing but bad television and homework to occupy her time. But that was before. An idea began to take shape, and Maggie tamped down on her rising excitement, careful not to alert Aunt Irene that she had a plan brewing.

The old pink car made it to the grocery and home again with a few hiccups and burps, and Irene swung the Cadillac into the attached garage with a heavy sigh.

“Well, hopefully it won’t take much to get her purring again.” Aunt Irene smiled at Maggie but the furrow between her blue eyes was more pronounced.

Irene had already packed her bags, and by two o’clock a passel of Honeyville’s most distinguished old ladies were outside the house tooting the horn and clucking like hens as Irene climbed in and blew a kiss to her niece. Maggie waved her off and watched the van lumber away. She had two whole days and no one to account to.

She paused to check her reflection in the mirror and considered changing, but her faded jeans and pink, long-sleeved, fitted T and sneakers were probably appropriate for the work ahead. Pulling her long hair to the side, she braided it over one shoulder and applied some cherry lip gloss. Her reflection looked pretty good, even blurry, and she considered leaving her glasses behind. When she had pulled them out of her pocket after leaving the library she had been stunned to see the crack was no longer there. Had it just been a scratch? Had Johnny simply rubbed it off? Maggie propped her glasses on her nose and sighed gustily. She could take them off when she got to the school, but vanity was dangerous, and she didn’t want to end up running over someone on the way because she was too proud to wear her glasses.

She threw her bike in the spacious trunk and swung the long car back out of the drive and headed for Honeyville High, crossing her fingers all the way, praying and begging the car to keep going. She found that if she stayed at twenty miles per hour exactly, Belle hummed along without a hitch. She circled the school until she spotted the rolling service door that served as a delivery port for the lunch room as well as a bay for the mechanics and woodshop classes. She didn’t have a key to those doors but thought maybe Johnny could help her with that part. The car lurched and stalled as she came to a stop in front of the door, and Maggie patted her gratefully.

“Good job, Belle.” Maggie laughed at herself. Irene was rubbing off on her. Running around to the side entrance, Maggie slid her key home and opened the door to the school. She started calling for Johnny as soon as the door clicked shut behind her.


“You want me to fix your car?” Johnny’s expression was incredulous.

“It’s something you’re good at, right? I mean, you worked for a mechanic. You know all those old cars. This one’s a beaut! She’s a pink Cadillac convertible and she’s in perfect condition.”

“Perfect condition… except she needs a new transmission?” Johnny laughed at her attempt at salesmanship, his dimples flashing and his eyes bright with mirth. Maggie forgot what she was saying for a moment and stared at him, awestruck.

“Um…yeah… well. Can you at least have a look?” She discovered her ability to speak was still intact.

“How am I going to do that?”

“I can pull it into the shop room. We’ll just clear stuff out a little, and I can drive it right through the door. I just need you to unlock it for me. You can unlock doors, right – with your Jedi mind tricks?”

“My…what?”

“Nothing. Sorry, it’s just something from an old movie.”

“I think I can handle the door. I’ll meet you down there.” If Maggie didn’t know better she would think he was a little excited about her proposition.

Maggie loped back around the school to the car and waited, wondering how it would feel to open a door and not see what was beyond it – to open a door and not be able to walk through it. Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard Johnny on the other side of the sliding metal door.

“It’s unlocked, Maggie. I can open the door, and you can drive it through. I can’t hear if you’re there or not, and I won’t be able to see you or the car until you cross the threshold –– so just wait until I’m outta the way. Running myself over is one thing I haven’t tried. It probably wouldn’t kill me the rest of the way, but for the first time in a long time, I don’t want to die today.” His tone light, but there was truth in his banter, and the truth hurt her.

The door swung up and revealed Johnny on the other side. The sun had made a late afternoon appearance, peering through the grey clouds and darting through the misty afternoon fog that lingered after the storm. Sunlight shone directly into the open shop room, yet Johnny was not limned in gold, nor did he squint at the light or even make a shadow on the concrete floor. The light just shot right through him like he wasn’t there at all. It was the strangest thing Maggie had ever seen, and she stared, mesmerized, until he moved to the left, into the shadows, clearing the way for her to pull the car forward.

Maggie eased the car into the garage and came to a stop. She stepped out as Johnny let out a long, low whistle. He walked around the car, his eyes and hands roving over the long, pink Cadillac. A confused look flickered across his face. Johnny ran one finger along the high, thin, tail fin and looked at Maggie, a question in his eyes.

“I know this car. It’s not as shiny, and it’s a little worn around the edges, but I definitely know this car.”

“It has belonged to my Aunt Irene since she was seventeen years old. She said it was brand new, right off the show-room floor. I think you knew her…once.”

“Irene…Honeycutt?”

Maggie nodded.

“Irene Honeycutt is your aunt?” Johnny’s eyes were wide with disbelief.

“My great aunt,” Maggie responded hesitantly, gauging the effect her words had on her new friend. “My grandmother was her little sister.”

“Your grandmother…” Johnny repeated, stunned. He shook his head in wonder and turned his back to her, pulling the garage door down, but Maggie heard his low curse despite his attempts to cover it.

Maggie fiddled with the latch holding the trunk down. She popped it and lifted her bike out, wondering how in the world they were supposed to have a conversation if everything she said had the potential to upset him, if everything was a painful reminder of lost time.

“Irene Honeycutt,” Johnny sighed deeply. “I’ll be damned. I guess that’s why you reminded me of her the first time I saw you. You have her coloring – same dark hair and blue eyes.” Johnny reached out and tweaked her braid, shaking off the gloom that had temporarily gripped him.

“So tell me. How did you get your little hands on Irene’s car?”

“Well – I live with her. She and I are all the family each of us has left. She left for the weekend, and I thought maybe I could do something for her. You know, to thank her for taking me in and all. Gene, I mean Harvey, said it was probably the transmission, and that sounds expensive. I just hoped you could fix it….for free.” Maggie wrinkled her nose at him doubtfully. “I guess it’s a long shot, but if we can do it, it would be huge.”

“Little Harvey? Gene’s boy?” Johnny was once again caught off guard.

“Yes…he’s Gene’s son. He’s not so little anymore though. He’s kind of old… and fat,” Maggie said matter-of-factly.

Johnny burst out in an incredulous chortle. “Little Harv. You know, he got that name toddling around the shop. He couldn’t have been more than two. He had these little toy cars that he pushed everywhere. It was the sound he made for the engines revving – HARV, HARV!” Johnny laughed again. “We started calling him Little Harv, and then it became Harvey. I guess it stuck, huh?”

Maggie grinned, relieved that the memory seemed to please Johnny. “I guess so.”

Johnny leaned into the car, smoothing his hand over the padded dash and the huge steering wheel. He ran a thumb over the little brass plate on the dashboard that was engraved with Irene’s name. “This thing was top of the line. It had the dual four-barrel carburetors – 270 horses. She could move, baby - 115 miles per hour at top speed. I remember wishing I could take it for a spin. It had the flashy Sabre-spoke wheels, chrome around the license plate, shark fins in back, bullets in front. Beautiful.” Johnny slid behind the wheel and, gripping it with both hands, marveled that it was “two toned with a horn rim.” Maggie tried not to laugh. Johnny just sat, admiring the car he had coveted so long ago.

“Would you like to take a look under the hood?” Maggie said suggestively, trying to urge him toward the problem areas.

Johnny laughed again and proceeded to do as she instructed.

Propping up the hood, he whistled once more. “Harvey’s been taking good care of the old girl. Look at that! It’s got the 331 bent eight and the dual four-barrel set up right there. It’s even got the original Cadillac valve covers.” Maggie nodded politely, completely clueless.

“Fire it up, Maggie. The engine’s still pretty warm, but I want to make sure it’s nice and hot before I go in and check your transmission fluid.”

Maggie did as he asked and climbed out again, watching him as he stared at the whirring engine in obvious pleasure. He was absolutely transfixed. After several minutes staring down at his own personal paradise, he spoke again.

“The tranny is a four speed Hydra-Matic. I gotta get underneath to check it out, but let’s hope I can fix this one, because replacing it will cost time and money, and I’ve got time but no money, and from what I’m guessing, you don’t have either. When do we have to have this little project completed?”

“Irene will be back on Sunday evening. That gives us two days, max. Plus, we can’t exactly have her car parked in the middle of shop class on Monday morning. That would be a little hard to explain.”

“The longer the car is here, the easier it will be for me to fix, “Johnny replied, leaning in deep under the hood and sliding a long dipstick out like he was unsheathing a sword.

“Why is that?”

“Anything that is in the school for any period of time absorbs its energy. The school and I are connected somehow, and I can manipulate that energy – hence the door locks and your glasses.”

‘I wondered how you did that! They really were cracked, weren’t they?” Maggie marveled, pulling her glasses from the visor and perusing them once more. There wasn’t even the slightest scratch remaining.

Johnny was silent for a few seconds. “The fluid is foaming a bit – somebody’s filled it up too high. That’s an easy fix. Shut it off, Maggie. Let’s take a look underneath.”

Maggie shut off the engine and waited while Johnny jacked the car up and slid underneath. She slid under the car beside him, staring up into the metal underbelly. The concrete was cold against her back, and the smell of gas and grease tickled her nose. She had no idea what she was looking at, but Johnny seemed to. He had gotten into the tool cabinet and was using a wrench to unscrew something.

“Johnny, did you just say the word ‘hence’ a few minutes ago?”

Johnny snorted and glanced over at her lying beside him beneath the car.

“Good word, huh? You start using words like ‘hence’ when you’ve read most of the books in the library.”

“Really? That many? I’m not much of a reader.” Maggie frowned. “The words always get jumbled up on the page, and I guess I’ve never been able to sit still long enough to unscramble them. There’s always a song in my head, and I get distracted and then, next thing I know, I’m working on a new move or dancing around the room.”

“I didn’t used to read. In fact, in high school I really avoided it. I spent all my free time working on cars.” He smirked a little at that. “But you learn to like it when you have absolutely nothing else to occupy your time, and time is endless.”

“So you read, sleep, play music and haunt the school,” Maggie tried to tease him a little. “What else?”

“I don’t really sleep. Not in the way you do.”

Maggie just raised her eyebrows at that, waiting for him to continue.

“When I first changed, I just wandered the school in an angry fog. In fact, I did some damage before it occurred to me that nobody could help me, and if I scared everybody away I was going to be completely alone. I was so emotionally wrecked for the first little while that it never dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten or slept in what had to be a very long time – as well as all the other very human things that are just part of daily life. I wasn’t hungry, though, and I wasn’t tired. Actually, I take that back. I was tired; I just wasn’t sleepy or sleep deprived, if that makes sense.”

“I can’t really imagine it,” Maggie offered truthfully.

“I thought I was gonna go crazy, and I kind of did for a while…I got to the point, though, that I could shut my mind off – I would just clear my head completely, focus on the energy that buzzed around me all the time, and I would check out.”

“It sounds like meditation.”

“I guess it kind of is. I call it floating. The more I practiced, the better I got, and I kept escaping for longer and longer periods of time. It was such a relief to just be unaware for a while. One time, I resurfaced and the seasons had changed from spring to summer while I was gone. The kids were in school, wearing heavy jackets and carrying the rain and sleet in on their coats and boots, when I started. When I stopped floating they were gone, and the school was empty for a while. Summer had come, and I’d lost months.”

“So what makes you come back? Couldn’t you just… fade away?” Maggie had to ask, but she dreaded the answer.

“I don’t always choose to come back; I just do. And the instinct to live, even a half-life like this, is very strong. It’s not easy to turn your back on this world. I don’t know how to let go, even if I could. The school keeps pulling me back, too. The school lives on, I live on, I guess.”

“So if I come to the school one day, and I call you and call you, and you never come….I’ll know that’s where you are?”

Johnny had removed the car’s right front tire and began removing the left, and for several long moments he turned lug nuts without speaking.

“The first time I saw you, I’d been floating…and something…. pulled at me. I resurfaced, and there you were… dancing. You had no music, but you still danced. And you were crying.” Johnny’s eyes met Maggie’s briefly. “Somehow I don’t think you would have to call too long before I would hear you.”

It was Maggie’s turn to be silent. She wished she had something to occupy her hands. She knew the time he referred to. It had been her first day of school. She had been scared and lonely, and after everyone had cleared out after dance class, she tried to comfort herself by doing a jig her father had taught her years before. She hadn’t been able to remember it all, and somehow that had been the last straw, and the tears had come. She had no Irish music to match her steps to, and so she’d just moved through the motions she could remember, over and over, until she thought she almost had it. She had kept dancing until the tears stopped falling.

“I remember that day,” Maggie whispered then, and she told him everything. Johnny listened intently while she talked, stopping periodically to drink in her expressions or admire her graceful gestures. He also noticed her attempts to gloss over the details that pained her. She told him about the foster homes and the frequent moves, and finally about Irene and how happy she was to be with her at last.

“That Roger Carlton was a real piece of work,” Johnny said when she told him how Roger had denied her a home until his death. “It’s been a long time, and he’s really not worth the trouble, but I’d still like to pound him.”

“I’d like to help,” Maggie added with a huff.

“I wonder what ever happened to my car,” Johnny mused after a long silence. “Roger took a bat to the windows and creamed the doors in, too. I wonder if my momma sold it, or maybe Gene came through for her and fixed it up again. I spent half of my senior year putting that car to rights.

“What kind of car was it?”

“It was a 1957 Chevy Bel Air.”

Maggie calculated for a second. “Wait a second…You had a brand new car? How did you manage that? I mean, I know you had a job and everything, but that’s kind of a big purchase for a high school kid.”

“That car didn’t cost me a single, solitary, thin one. See, it used to be that everybody around here would park their cars out by the reservoir…sometimes with their girls, sometimes alone, and sometimes just to have a couple of beers with their friends. There was a rich oil man from a couple of towns over who’d had a fight with his old lady. He seemed to think that she was having a fling with a younger guy. He thought they had been meeting at the reservoir; so he took his brand new Bel Air up to the rez thinking she was there. I’d seen him drive through town. Gene had a couple of pumps out front, and the oil man gassed up there on his way out. That’s when I got a close-up look at his car. It was solid black, but the grille, the front fender chevrons, and the script on the hood and trunk were all done in gold trim. It had fourteen inch wheels, which made it sit lower to the ground, a wide grille on the front, tailfins on the back, and chrome headlights.” Johnny rattled off the details and shook his head like he still couldn’t believe it.

“So this Daddy-O heads up to the rez, cruisin’ for a bruisin,’ and he sees a couple playin’ back seat bingo in what looks like his wife’s car.

“Back seat bingo?” Maggie interrupted

“You know, making-out?” Johnny looked a little sheepish.

“And what’s a thin one? You said the car didn’t cost you a single thin one.”

“A dime. A thin one is a dime. You wanna hear the rest, or are you gonna keep razzin’ me about my vocabulary?” Johnny leaned over and poked her in the ribs.

“Razzin’?” Maggie retorted, straight faced. Then the poke in the ribs became several fingers, and in seconds she was shrieking for mercy.

“Okay, okay, no more tickling,” Maggie gasped. “Please continue.”

Johnny withdrew his hands, and Maggie was almost willing to interrupt again just so he’d put them back. “Bad Maggie,” she scolded herself firmly. Johnny picked up the story where he left off.

“So this guy sees his wife, jumps out of his car, forgets to put it in park or pull the brake, and his brand new car rolls slowly down the hill into the reservoir and sinks like a tub of rocks. Funny thing is, it wasn’t his wife after all.”

Maggie groaned a laugh. “So where do you come in?”

“The couple in the car is nice enough to give this character a ride back to town. He tells them to drop him off at Gene’s. He gets his wife on the horn, but she’s mad and won’t come get him. We were just getting ready to call it a night, and Gene tells me to give the guy a lift home in the tow truck. So I do, and the guy offers to pay me. I refuse, but I ask him about his car. He thinks it’s a total loss, but he tells me if I can get it out of the drink, the car is mine.”

“You got the car out.” Maggie grinned.

“Me, Jimbo, and Carter got the car out,” Johnny answered with a satisfied smirk. “With a little help from Gene’s tow truck and some extra long chains. It rained before we could get to it, and the storm really churned up the mud. The car had crud in every nook and cranny: the engine, the gas tank, the interior, all full of thick, black, greasy mud. Gene let me put it behind his shop, and I ended up taking that car apart, piece by piece. I cleaned each piece, and put it back together. I got it running again – good as new. The man was true to his word and gave me the pink slip.

“That is a very cool story.”

“It was a very cool car.”

“So…what are the odds you can fixthis very cool car?” Maggie pointed at Irene’s pink Cadillac hopefully.

“I’d say the odds are pretty darn good.” Johnny grinned at her confidently. Maggie’s heart skipped a few beats as she perused his glowing countenance. He slid his eyes back to his work, and Maggie watched silently, fascinated by his confidence and his expertise. It was obvious that Johnny had been born and raised in a different time; he’d been the man of his house, and he was independent and competent – far more so than the kids she knew.

Another hour passed, and Maggie looked forlornly at the deepening shadows filling the room. She sighed dejectedly. Riding home on her bike meant leaving now, before it was too dark, which meant her time was up. The afternoon had flown by, and it had been one of the most pleasant she had ever spent.