Wheels, Writing, and Work

Peter Vandenberg
DePaul University

An early version of this essay was written for the "Last Lecture" Series at DePaul University. The announcement for the series asks, "What would you say at your last public talk?"

The story of my social and economic success, such as it is, is a story of inscription. My identity has become textualized, and this has been a process of editing, of validation and annulment.

Writing on the Edge
14.2 (Spring 2004): 53-70.

* * *

A couple of years ago Karen and I moved into the main floor of a two-flat in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood. It was not unlike a dozen other two-flats we looked at, save one shimmering difference. This one came with access to half of a two-car garage. When we signed the lease, in addition to ultra-longlife lithium batteries for our smoke detectors and two sets of keys, our new landlords handed us an electronic garage-door opener. The sense of ceremony was palpable—for the first time in our lives, we would be parking a car indoors! Just a few minutes later we pulled away from the curb in front of the building, rounded the corner into the alley and pulled up to the garage. I barely lifted a finger, and with the press of a button the door rose and we drove past our parents into the mythical middle class.

My father built the house I grew up in, but with six kids and a vita that ended with a high school diploma, his garage never emerged from the blueprints. I grew up, like my older brothers, in love with cars. And the evidence of that desire, absent an enclosure to organize it and mask it from public view, spread out across the yard. I grew up rolling my pedal car around two old Dodges—a 1940 and a '48—and a modified '27 Ford with a DeSoto hemi that my brother and his friends would pull to Cornhusker Raceway behind an old pick-up in the early 1960s. The Vandenberg garage was a kind of present absence that eluded us and provoked the neighbors, one of which eventually convinced the city to officially declare the Dodges a public nuisance. Lacking a place to conceal his desire, brother Bob sold them to the junkyard for $7.50 each. Later my own cars and friends replaced my brothers', and I lived out the white-trash tropes assigned to those who do their own maintenance in undesignated, unelectrified "natural" space. I was a shade-tree mechanic by day, a flashlight mechanic by night.

I graduated from high school in the nation's bicentennial year, in the aftermath of the Arab Oil Embargo, and much of that spring my 1968 Plymouth Roadrunner coupe sat in the driveway. With help from my brother, my friend George and I rebuilt the motor, and I paid for the machine work and parts a little each week with money I earned after school working for Brother Bob. To reload the pistons, bolt in the new crank and cam, and torque down the heads out of the dust, we carried the engine block inside the house! That car—with no apologies for the pronunciation we never questioned— "ran like a stripe-ed-assed ape." But in the two years it was mine, it spent the night indoors just once—when it was painted. Late that summer, with gasoline prices soaring, with college starting and no college savings to draw on, I sold my $3,000 investment for $1,150. The man who bought the car came to look at it with his freshly licensed son. They wore matching jackets. Before the man lifted the hood of my car, he took a pair of white garden gloves from the trunk of his big four-door. These people had garage written all over them.

The practical need for clean, dry space to work on and protect a car has lessened as the "objects" that define my world became increasingly abstract. But the broad, socio-economic meanings of garage continued, until recently, to define a gap or lack of necessary space. My encounter with privileged literacies has taken me "inside"; the youngest of six children, I am the first to earn a college degree, the only one to earn an advanced degree. My starting annual salary at DePaul University in 1993 was nearly twice what my father earned in the best economic year of his life. I have "learned to write" in ways my mother and father could not have imagined, and this high literacy has served as an able vehicle for vertical class movement. Unlike my father I have purchased more than one new car, flown on a plane not owned by the armed forces, and traveled through Europe. The literacy industry has opened many doors for me; two years ago, it finally opened the garage.

* * *

I was born on April 23, 1958. According to Lutheran Hospital's Bedside Gazette, "wet weather predominated . . . from the Rockies to the Appalachians with violent storms lashing the central and southern parts of the Midwest"; "Israelis spent the night dancing in the streets to mark the tenth anniversary of the nation's independence"; "The Spanish born queen of the gypsies . . . . Mimi Rosetto stopped responding to treatment for a kidney ailment . . . but continued puffing her clay pipe and downing gulps of plum brandy until she lapsed into a coma."

Easter, a holiday my family celebrated each year with both reverence and great reverie, was apparently heavy on my mother's mind; from her hospital bed she wrote me into the world like Peter Cottontail, on the back of a two-cent postcard:


During my first two years, mom was in the occasional habit of writing me letters; this one describes my first relationship of sorts with both a textbook and standardized testing: June 23, 1958

Dear Peter:

You are two months old today, and I'm going to steal this time to tell you what progress you have made. . . . Dr Bundesen's baby manual [says] at 2 mos "the average baby raises his chest away from the table for an instant if placed on his tummy on a table" YOU'VE BEEN DOING THAT.

"Listens when he hears someone talking or making a noise". Sure YOU'VE BEEN DOING THAT.

"Makes cooing sounds." OF COURSE YOU'VE BEEN DOING THAT.

"Follows with his eyes a person moving about." UM HUMMM.

"Kicks his feet." EVEN BEFORE YOU WERE BORN!!!

"Makes pushing movements with his feet when held against a flat object"— Sure.

"A Baby at this age is playful [and] has tears when he cries (Just about a wk ago I noticed the first tears). "Smiles"--There you had us stumped but yesterday you did it, just under the deadline.

At three years, ten months I wrote my name on my own for the first time, and that winter addressed the envelope containing my letter to Santa Claus, which was obviously never mailed! Our dining room table, overcrowded with books and projects of one sort or another, was like a domestic writing center. My father, who built the house on his own, except for the foundation and chimney, as the story goes, designed bookcases for the walls of our living room, and when I came along he was still making payments on a large set of Encyclopedia Britannica that stretched under the length of our living room window. Into another wall in the corner he built a magazine rack, tall shelves with backs at an 80-degree angle and molding along the front edge to keep periodicals from slipping off—just like at the library. Each month during my grade-school years, copies of Life, Look, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Boys Life ,and Catholic Voice were rotated off the wall rack and into stacks in the basement.

* * *

In the fall of 1964, at Ashland Park Elementary, I authored the seminal declarative sentence: "I can read and write." I authored my first book, About Me and My Community, in the second grade; it has seven chapters, including "My Home, "My School," "My Church," and "My Store."


That summer I began riding the city bus from our house on 57th street to the Public Library on 24th , in what we called South Omaha; my sister Audrey, brother Greg, and I were members of the Summer Reading Club. For me, riding my bike or playing with my Tootsietoys along the dirt road in front of our house was contingent on good standing as a reader.




I remember not wanting to go to grade school only once—when on our way to the bus stop my sister and I saw my cat dead in the middle of a busy Q street. We called my Dad at work from the principle's office; he punched out and came home to scoop up the cat and bury it in the yard so we wouldn't see her when we got off the bus. I loved grade school—it was a lot like home, just more kids.

In the spring of third grade, my friendship with John Newcombe ended. John lived just two blocks from me—the closest of my classmates—and I loved going to his house as much as my mother tried to prevent me from going. He had a bedroom of his own, and it was full of anything a kid might want; we played MouseTrap and Operation there, and when his older brother wasn't home we could sneak into his room to admire the model cars he'd built, which were keenly displayed on top of a mirror on his dresser so one could appreciate the detail of the undercarriages. I wanted a great many things in the third grade, and most of them John Newcombe already had.

At some point that year, we were asked to read silently from a book, beginning on the command, "Go." After a short while, Miss Scott called "time" and directed us to count up the number of words we had read. I don't remember now, but I suspect we were in the process of determining which reading groups we would end up in. I'm not sure if we were asked to call out our numbers in alphabetical order, but I remember being proud to announce a very high one. And when I did, John Newcombe turned wild. He jumped up out of his seat and in my direction shouted "Liar!"; Miss Scott had to physically restrain him.

On another day, friendly once again, John and I traded a piece of paper back and forth, trying to out do each other with forbidden vocabulary. When my Mom found the scrap in my pants pocket on laundry day, I took a pretty healthy paddling despite a complete denial. Some years later, in an uncharacteristically ironic moment about such things, Mom joked that she had given me an extra whack because some of the words were misspelled. John Newcombe and I went to the same schools for another nine years, but I don't remember ever speaking to him after third grade. I was taking hold of reading and writing, and as my Iowa Basics Skills results show, reading and writing were taking hold of me.

* * *

Two years ago, in a faculty seminar series, I read a paper about multiculturalism in composition studies. When I finished, my colleague, Lucy Rinehart, perhaps sensing some irony, asked me if I'd ever considered writing the paper outside the academic conventions that I was critiquing. I explained that I would need to publish the paper in the best journal I could, and I didn't think I had the ethos to work in a voice too personal. That summer, I earned a grant to support revision of that paper into an article manuscript, and thanks to a change of rules for summer stipends, then had to read the resulting paper at another faculty seminar series the following year! Lucy attended again, and, for her own reasons, I suppose, asked me almost exactly the same question. I gave her almost exactly the same answer. Lucy, this piece is a different answer.

* * *

In my sophomore honors English class, 1974, my friend Dale and I—with the help of Dale's brother—wrote and produced a 13-minute 8mm film called "Land of the Unknown." The pilots carrying the boys in Lord of the Flies, so our premise went, were not swept out to see after all, but onto an adjacent island where they were eventually eaten by Godzilla (thanks to several seconds of sci-fi footage spliced into our film from a reel we bought at K-Mart). The teacher was so impressed that Dale and I were asked to screen the movie for other English classes, which meant we were excused from other subjects to do so. It was my first encounter with research-based released time.

We tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice, using the school's video equipment in a library study room for a docu-drama about the origins of World War I. Drawing on a recently popular motion picture, we had graft-busting New York City police detective Frank Serpico travel back in time to investigate the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand. When Serpico's character engaged in a tussle with another student playing a Serbian national whom Serpico identified as a suspect, the two knocked a heavy wooden chair into the wall, which summoned the librarian, who notified the teacher, who asked us to roll the tape we had shot. Perhaps less interested in narrative invention than faculty in English, the History teacher put a quick end to the project.

My rise to power in journalism failed almost as quickly. As a sophomore I applied to write sports for the school paper, and was assigned to cover a football game as an audition of sorts. On the basis of that story, the newspaper's faculty advisor made me Sports Editor, displacing a senior. Within a few issues I had my own column, which the advisor insisted be called "For Pete's Sake." During basketball season, the school's principle, Dr John McQuinn, ordered a group of students to stop wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the image of a jock strap and the words "Bryan High Athletic Supporter." My next column was critical of the repression, arguing that a school that had not won a single game for a three-year stretch in the early 1970s should take "spirit" any way it could get it. The principle killed the column; I invoked free speech and the legacy of the school's namesake, William Jennings Bryan, but was turned away. Though I continued to write high-school sports for a suburban newspaper, The Bellevue Guide, through my senior year, I resigned from the Bryan Orator.

I later ducked college preparatory English as a senior, signing up for a course that was ranked as a 2 on a scale of 1-5 in difficulty. I remember from that class the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, and I remember giggling with my friend Dale (another underachiever) in the back of the room as the 2's struggled to conjugate verbs and diagram English constructions. For the next year we summed that class up with a sentence that one of our classmates, no doubt with Herculean self-doubt, scratched out on the board one day: "The bird did flew."

I smugly imagined, I think, that reading and writing continued to embrace me, but already the ideological coherence between the primary discourse of my family and that of the public institutions of schooling was beginning to weaken. The boxes of memorabilia from which I've taken these images contain not a single piece of graded work after junior high. My friends were beginning to talk about college, and dorm life, and fraternities; I focused on my car. I must have taken a college entrance examination, but I have no recollection of sitting for it, much less studying for it. I don't remember making a choice to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha—it was that or nothing—and I do remember using the term Loser to describe those who would not be going to college. I don't remember my mother, the only one in a family of thirteen to earn a high school diploma, ever saying anything at all to me about college. The choice to go to UNO, for me, was strictly a matter of peer pressure. My father, who told my mother that the Navy was a better option, offered one piece of advice about university life. "Do what you're told over there," he said.

I took six classes over the fall and spring semesters of 1976-77. My sociology lecture met in a hall so big the professor wore a microphone clipped to his jacket. Students filed in and out during the entire period. The experience didn't seem like school to me, and I had no one to orient me to it. My sole memory from that course was a teaching assistant requiring me to admit, in front of my break-out study group, that I had stopped attending the weekly, amplified lecture. I also took a course called "The New Testament" from a man with a snow white beard who called the bible “an historical text.” We fingered laminated maps of the Holy Land purchased at the school bookstore as he lectured, pacing back and forth across the room, smiling and making eye contact at times with each of us. Too timid to raise my hand in class, but encouraged by his welcoming affect, I followed him down the hall one day afterward and summoned him by name. He spun around and seemed to bear down on me; I sputtered out something, and he came back like this: "Are you familiar with a concept called 'office hours'?"

I took an A in just one course that year, Televison Production. My final project was an early music video of sorts for the song, "Traveling with the Rodeo." Two cameras were trained on easels bearing placards to which various pictures of cowboys had been affixed. When the engineer faded a camera out, I pulled down a placard to expose a new cowboy image—just in time for the alternating camera to fade back in. I cut those cowboy pictures from the stacks of magazines in my parents' basement and pasted them onto construction paper—the same way I had constructed About Me and My Community a lifetime earlier.

Back then, about 1965, my older brother Joe went AWOL from the Great Lakes Navel Station, and the FBI came to our house to question my parents on his whereabouts. Joe had already spent a year in the seminary at that point, and said he had left both places because he couldn't find God in either one. Joe’s two institutional departures devastated my parents, estranged him from the family for the rest of my parents' lives, and served as warnings against the most significant sort of transgression a Vandenberg might commit. I left college in the spring of 1977 because I didn't understand what was happening there; no one said a word about it. My parents’ working-class commitment to reading and writing had carried me as far as it was going to into dominant-culture institutions.

* * *

In the summer of 1981, half a dozen jobs past my first run at college, I was driving a concrete truck for a company in Kearney, Nebraska. On a particularly slow day, the dispatcher, who said everything through a fiercely flat mouth, told me to fire up an aging truck that would soon be sold at auction. “Old Number Three” sat at the end of the line, undriven for some time, a thin layer of cement dust shadowing the cab and mirrors. It would no doubt be purchased by a smaller, rural company in state, there was some interest in avoiding ill will by making sure it was in running order. I lugged out of the yard belching a widening column of blue-gray smoke from the stack. On the way to a housing subdivision north of town, eight yards of wet concrete churned slowly in the drum. Years later, I would watch the movie Titanic, learn how slowly the big ship reacted to evasive maneuvers, and recall Old Number Three. I braked, geared down, and turned off the street onto the job site, the muscle memory in my hands, arms, and legs treating this truck as if it were the other one, the one I'd been driving for a couple of years. The load, following its own momentum, refused the change in direction and pulled the right rear dualies off the ground. Steering into the tip already too late, I felt Old Number Three begin a slow roll to the driver's side. Like a third-class passenger I began climbing—toward the right-side door, which was slowly becoming the roof of the cab. Twenty tons of concrete pulled the back of the truck to the ground first, whipping the cab down flat beneath me. The impact pulled my hands off the passenger-side door rest, and I landed, standing inside the cab, without a scratch, my feet centered in what used to be the driver’s-side window. The fall somehow spiked the accelerator, and though the truck lay dead still on its side, the throttle was wide open. I bent down, turned off the key, and walked out the opening where the windshield used to be.

* * *

There's more to this story, but the official version would not be mine to tell—call it simply “driver's error.” I spent the next year or so working for a large, commercial construction company. In addition to driving a dump truck and plowing snow from large commercial lots and city streets, I put up metal buildings, laid pipe in unshorn trenches, and worked as the fly-man on a pile driving crew.

Driving piles for a small, rural company is loud, dirty work. A big operation backed by money and expertise will employ a solid, fixed-lead structure—a scaffold-like apparatus that keeps the long, concrete pile safely vertical as it is driven, something like the way an experienced carpenter firmly grips a finish nail with thumb and forefinger. Operation is remote, meaning that contact injury from the two-ton diesel hammer and/or a thirty-foot concrete pile is unlikely. I was a fly-man on Carl Andresson’s crew, though, and Carl had an aging Manitowoc lattice-boom crane that might have been a sibling of that earnest but outmoded piece of equipment in Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel. Carl dragged that crane all over Central Nebraska and Northern Kansas behind a reeky cab-over Freightliner.

A swinging-lead pile operation is basically nothing more than an impact hammer suspended from a single boom along with the pile; a fly-man is the guy who guides the hammer onto the pile. Imagine an ink pen as the pile and its cap as the hammer, each of them hanging on separate strings; the fly-man, swinging between them from a third string, puts the cap on. At a height equal with the top of the pile—30 feet or more depending on the structure—the fly-man, pile, and hammer all dangle from a single boom!

With a chain wrapped around it near the top, the pile is hoisted into place and held almost upright by the crane operator, who also lowers the hammer within a few feet of the pile. The hammer is driven down with such naked force that without something to absorb the shock, the concrete pile will splinter into pieces before it is fully absorbed by the ground. Today, in most places, the top of the concrete pile is protected from the hardened steel strike plate of the hammer by fitted cushions appropriately figured as “helmets,” which are fitted snugly over the top of the pile. Carl Andersson had likely never heard of pile helmets; if he knew of them, he would not have made the investment. Instead, Carl cut out one-foot squares of 5/8" plywood and nailed them into a stack 8" high or so. My job, as Carl lowered the hammer cap, was to balance a plywood stack on top of a pile and wrestle all three elements into line.

The worst that can happen, of course, is that the crane (or operator) malfunctions, and the hammer comes down too fast or begins to sway. The edge of the hammer will prune a man's hand off if he can't get it out of the way. If the boom starts swinging, there's little one can do but be ready at any moment to push backward off the pile with his feet, hoping that when his momentum pulls him back toward the pile and the hammer he'll not be caught between them. Carl was pretty steady, but one day, sinking the foundation for a water tower in Arapahoe, down in Furnas county, Nebraska, he somehow dropped the hammer while hoisting me up. It rushed past me as free weight for maybe 6 or 7 feet, and when it stopped the cable stretched tight, the back of the crane jerked up off the ground, the boom pitched, and I shot up into the air. My own falling weight took the slack out of my cable and the unpadded harness left deep bruises the way a seatbelt might after an auto accident; somehow I avoided contact with the pile.

The more routine danger for a fly-man, however, involves the hammer catching the edge of a plywood pad as it comes down. Before he can holler stop, or muscle the pile into alignment, the full weight of the hammer might pinch down on the very edge of a pad, spinning it off the top of the pile like a ten-pound frisbee. This happened often enough that everyone working below stopped and looked up when a pile is capped. When a pad jumps off the top of a pile, the fly-man yells "Heads," and there’s great joy in the hole below as the crew point and laugh at whoever has to scramble out of the way. The fly-man—because the pile doesn't spin into his face—usually laughs longest and hardest.

* * *

In the spring of 1987 I am a college senior. Unlike Carl Andresson (who used to flip us off with what was left of his severed middle finger and say he was only “half joking”), or the dispatcher at the concrete plant (whose forearm was trimmed to the bone by the aggregate conveyor before he dislocated his own elbow to reach the kill-switch), I am able to type. It’s been four years since I fled construction and went back to school. I've just turned 29. My most recent band, Carnival of Defeat, broke up late that summer after winning a regional battle of the bands and recording a five song demo that would have culminated in my second record. I have already given up on starting a new band, which is just like being in a relationship—without the sex to smooth over disagreements. I turn all my attention to reading literature and writing poetry. I don't think of school as a place I have to go; I give myself willingly to it. I am back in the Reading Club.

That fall, I write an ironic poem for my workshop that juxtaposes graphic and tragic world issues with the front-page preoccupation of that Sunday's Omaha World Herald—the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The team has barely survived an early season game, and the sophomore quarterback, Steve Taylor, is tested—as it turns out, he can throw. My professor, Don Welch, praises the poem in class, and encourages me to send it to the school newspaper, which I do. It is published the following week, in two different columns, rather obviously disrupting the poem's formal character. The next issue carries a letter from a philosophy professor who accuses the paper's editor of "breaking the back of Mr Vandenberg's poem" and likens the incident to the new president's directive—some weeks earlier—to alter the bas-relief on the school's bell tower by sandblasting the testicles off some Roman horses. The professor declares the school hostile to the humanities. I am suddenly caught up in a war over the arts between the faculty and the Administration. It feels so good.

Unsure of what else to do, I apply for a graduate assistantship. In December, I go to the "new teacher's orientation," which is actually a chance meeting outside the chair's office. He tells me who to ask about my course schedule and that if any students give me any trouble whatsoever, to simply delete them from the roster. I ask him about how and what to teach. His answer implies that my course will be driven by the design of a textbook—he tells me to go up and down the hall and "ask what others are using," or "use what your own freshman English teacher used."

The following spring I spend a lot of time talking about thesis statements. I assign readings from a shiny, silver handbook and lead students through exercises asking them to identify parts of speech or correct the handbook author's planted errors. I talk some more about thesis statements. I draw rectangles and triangles on the board, and call them paragraphs. Then, I talk even more about thesis statements and the geometric simplicity of a claim and three well-supported reasons. I explain how the inverted triangle introduces the rectangles, and each in turn elaborates one third of the triangle’s upside-down apex. One day, in a very busy graduate-student office, I meet with a young woman whose essay exposes the dangers of college softball. At the end of her triangle, she has written, "College softball is dangerous because you can get hit by the bat, hit by the ball, or spiked by cleats."

Geometrically, she is aces; but both of us sense a problem. Uncertain of the implications, I apply a mimetic test, asking, "Women don't wear cleats in college softball here, do they?"

"I had to have a 'third thing,'" she says.

* * *

Recently one of my graduate students in Multicultural Rhetorics and I are scaling the stairs of McGaw Hall, going back to the classroom from the pop machine. I'm interpreting many new teachers' impatience with theoretical discourse, their intense pragmatism, their tendency to oppose "theory" to "practice." I'm doing it this way:

The desire to “use theory,” to ask “How can I use this in the classroom to solve problems?” is always well motivated—good teachers want to do the best they can for their students. But it is also part of the dominant ideology—teachers are called out to, interpellated, solely as practitioners, and if all a teacher looks for is how to manage the problems in front of her, she may not see (or seek to counter) the hegemonic systems that create the problems she sees in front of her.

I think I'm making some headway, legitimizing as a kind of critical practice the discourse of "Theory" that MA students often find smug, obscure, irrelevant; we climb a whole flight without a word, and as I open the third-floor hallway door, she says, "I wish I had that kind of time."

I drain back into the classroom for the second half remembering Bordieu, my best counter-hegemoic intentions reframed as an activity of the leisure class! I tell my students with great irony what has just happened, throw up my palms, and gesture to the African American student who just a week before painfully asked of no one in particular, "when you see yourself being absorbed by the very system you're trying to change, how do you avoid just hollering out 'FUCK'"?

We sit in silence for awhile and then, because we cannot do much else without losing track of who our circumstances tell us we are, we turn back to the reading.

* * *

Put yourself in this position: You wake up on Friday morning, put on a tie, and meet a class of college students. You're drawing a check from the state as a teaching assistant, and you're a month or so from finishing your MA in English. You think your job is opening students up to the world of ideas. With them, you're reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You talk about social epistemology, narratology, etceterology. You talk about maintenance as a trope for self-reflection, self-examination. You talk about Pirsig's trope for the University—"A Church of Reason." You ask if one must be reverent and ironic about that idea at the same time. You ask students to come up with their own metaphors for the university. You grow impatient with their indifference. You remember Ira Shor's book, Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, and you ask if warehouse might be a possibility.

But the check from the state is not nearly big enough. When class is over, you rush home, take off your tie, and pull on a pair of lined coveralls. You drive out to your other job at Plaza 66 along the Interstate, grabbing a Whopper on the way because they're 99 cents on Friday. (On Tuesday, you stop at Taco Johns, because the tacos are two for 99.) Weekend travelers are already draining off the freeway; it's going to be an "on" weekend, which means like the weekend two weeks before and two weeks after, you'll be here for nine hours on Saturday and thirteen hours on Sunday, averaging forty hours a week like you have been for the last seven years—since you left driving piles behind.

Maybe you're stealing another bite from the already cold Whopper when Robert Allen pulls up at the full service island. He's a student in the class you're teaching, and he's headed home to Omaha for the weekend with three other students—all of them sitting stone faced. He tells you to fill it up with premium, and that there should be 32 pounds in all the tires. When you pull up off the deck, off your knees, he asks if you'd mind checking the oil. You jerk up the hood, and as you lean over for the stick you bend a little further than you need to—like dragging your tongue over a canker sore, you can't resist taking a glance through the gap between the hood and the engine compartment to see them grinning at each other. It's a big four-door Ford, probably his father's "old" car, and there is barely a drop of thin black oil hanging from the bottom of the stick—probably two quarts low. You push the hood down against the springs, maybe harder than you have to, and you tell him the oil is “just fine.”

He hands you the Phillips Executive card with Robert Allen, Sr, on it, and you complete the transaction. As he speeds off the lot and up the road toward the ramp, you fantasize: maybe someplace later that afternoon, east on I-80, say, between McCool Junction and Beaver Crossing, a tired, dry rod will tear loose and begin spinning violently on the crank, goring the pan open before the piston bounces off the head and shoots deep into the block, seizing the engine.

Maybe later, you're fixing a tire, and a guy in a suit with New York plates comes in and asks how you goddamn flatlanders like growing rich off him as he has to travel across your sorry-ass state. You need the job, so you don't say that only someone from New York could not guess that gas would be a fifteen cents cheaper six blocks further into town. You smile and say that you realize how miserable Nebraska is, that no one ever comes back, that you have to get all their money at once.

When you're done in the shop, and the traffic slows down, you pull out the copy of Jude the Obscure you're reading for a graduate class, and lean against the back wall where you can see the owner if he pulls up, but he can't see you. He's already explained that if he catches you on your ass one more time with your nose in a book you're going to be looking for work. He's caught you reading dozens of times in seven years, and you know he won't fire you because you both know he won't easily find someone else he can trust with three grand a day, for minimum wage, on this schedule. You hide your reading to save him the humiliation of an empty threat.

* * *

My brothers and sisters congregated at my parent's home for the final time on Thanksgiving weekend of 1988. My parents were gone; we were there to shape up the yard so the house could be sold. When my father built the house in the early 1950s, the money he saved on construction went into two lots. Over the years, the roads were paved and the neighborhood filled in with ranches and split-levels, but no one for a block in any direction had a house on a double lot. It was the place to play in the neighborhood. Once, when my father poured a sidewalk, my mother took a wheelbarrow full of concrete and a trowel, and made a grid of miniature streets in a corner of the yard. Kids from all over would gather to roll our O-scale vehicles around this little town.

My mother's landscaping had been untended for years; we cut down a sagging, barren apple tree, and the few remaining poplars from along the fence line in back. A long row of bridal wreath was dug out by the roots, and we pulled down a large dog pen that my father had built for my sister's lab, Zorro, twenty years earlier. As I was raking along the perimeter of the dog pen, I excavated a Tootsietoy that I had played with in the yard as a kid—a 1947 Mack L-Line tow truck that Tootsietoy produced between 1954 and 1966.

I took it in, washed it up a bit, and threw it in my car with some other things. I didn't think much about it until a few years ago, when in an antique store I bought the matching dump truck, which I also had as a child. I set out to assemble my early Tootsietoy toy collection, and now can't stop. When we can, Karen and I roam the countryside scouring antique stores for Tootsietoys. I have around 210 of them manufactured between 1924 and 1988. Tootsietoy Internet sites are bookmarked at home, and I of course have Tootsietoy books that recount the history of the company, set benchmark values, and tell me which ones I most desire.

* * *

Last weekend, Karen tells me that one of the headlights on our aging Toyota is out. We’ve planned to spend the next day on an antique run, going south through Manteno, Mommence, Bradley, and Kankakee, Illinois. It makes sense to me to stop somewhere along the way, pick up a bulb, and pop it in out in the parking lot. I wait too long, and by the time we get to the Kankakee Walmart, it is already dark and beginning to sleet. I come out with the bulb, turn the car to take advantage of a big light standard, and raise the hood. I open the cover plate over the light assembly and unplug the lamp. I spin out a rubber grommet that is protecting the leads protruding from the back of the bulb, but for some reason can't dislodge the bulb itself. The overhead light will not illuminate the headlamp enclosure, and I can't see anything. As any good natural-space mechanic should, I began to berate and insult first the light, then the part, and then the car in general—using the vocabulary I'd once learned from John Newcombe.

Sweetly, Karen suggests we forget about it. "Let's just wait until we get home; we'll pull it in the garage out of the wind; we'll have better light."

The one halogen is plenty safe enough for a freeway ride, and because my brother Greg, who lives in another state, is the only state patrolman who would get wet writing a ticket, I know the odds against being pulled over are in my favor. We take off and an hour later I slip the car into the garage and lower the door behind us. The garage isn't heated, but out of the wind it doesn't seem cold. The light isn't as great as we thought it would be. It never is.

Again I pop the hood and find the now familiar leads, attempting to spin the bulb back out of the housing. It doesn't budge. I run my fingers over the back of the bulb and the housing, comparing what I feel to the diagram on the back of the package. Everything seems as if the bulb should simply spin out.

"Let me try," Karen says.

I move out of the way. Like I had, she tries one hand and then the other. Nothing. I walk around to the passenger side, open the glove box, pull out the manual, and stand under the overhead light. Karen remains under the hood. The table of contents directs me to "Maintenance— Electrical," and I begin to read: "Release the bulb retaining spring and remove the bulb."

"Spring? That's not a spring," I moan, "There's a clip. It swings across the back of the bulb like a gate."

"I've got it," she is already saying, and I hear the "spring" pop loose and the bulb turn out of the housing.

And as Karen leans in under the hood of our car, reassembling the headlamp housing, I stand there in the middle of my middle-class space, under a dim, bare bulb, holding a book.