Fiction Fragment: Conversations with Athena

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With a metallic clunk, the punch clock stamped my card, and another midnight shift at Maxwell Auto Parts was in the books. A voice from among the men waiting behind me said, “Man, that was one hot bitch of  a night.” Wiping my forehead with a sweatband, I said, “Nah, Darnell, it’s just the humidity.” “Yeah, fuckin’ A,” he replied with a wry smile.  The pungent smell of burnt rubber hung in the air, as  I trudged toward the pop machine at the plant entrance, fed in my quarter, and was rewarded with a chilled bottle of cola. A well-invested 25 cents, I thought. After draining half the bottle in one greedy swig, I strolled to my car and felt the morning’s light breeze evaporating the sweat from my face. The gods had smiled upon me.

I flicked on the car radio, hoping for the Stones. Prodigal Son or Gimme Shelter—anything with one of those funky, sour buzz saw Keith Richards guitar licks would hit the spot. Instead, Age of Aquarius, the cotton candy of rock, lilted from the speakers. “Well, fuck me,” and I snapped it off.

Coaxing the sedan out of the parking lot, I drank the rest of the cola. Out on Michigan Avenue, the morning sun fought through the Detroit haze and glinted off the windshields and fenders of rush hour traffic. The din in my ears, courtesy of Maxwell’s air hoses, and the asphalt shimmering heat, spun mental cobwebs as I eased the Ford into cruise mode. The night shift at Maxwell always left me spacey the next morning.

Arbor Street with its canopy of tall oaks promised a cool, shady respite, and after hanging a left I had the feeling of entering a church. Sunlight filtered lazily through the trees, as it would through stained glass windows. Even at this hour, the sprinklers were misting lawns like green, plush carpeting surrounding ranch houses. Following a night in the stifling heat and bedlam of the plant, it seemed like I had drifted into another world.

Walking toward me, a woman in a white tennis outfit tugged on the leash of a golden retriever—futilely, it seemed, for the dog strayed where he wanted. A teenage boy was trying to restart a stalled lawnmower and the aroma of gasoline and new-mown grass hung in the air. Across the street, a young woman was talking to a little girl with a blue ribbon in her braided hair.

Three years had slipped by since high school, but if it had been a dozen, I would have just as readily recognized her. Seeing her, my first thought was still of Beach Boys lyrics about California girls on sun-drenched beaches. Linda Searcy was helping the girl navigate a wobbly bicycle ride. She steadied the bike and the girl took off again. She sang out some encouragement and the girl shouted, “Look it Linda, now I can do it!”

I took in this scene, and my good fortune in meeting Linda anew. As the aging Ford slowed to a stop, the creaking brakes caught Linda’s attention. After peering in the car for a moment, she smiled. “Jeff Sayers, how are you? It’s been such a long time.”

“Linda, you look—well I mean it’s really nice to see you.”

She took a couple steps toward the car. “Three years already since graduation. You’re home from—the University of Wisconsin isn’t it?” Her ash blonde hair fell softly to her shoulders; absent-mindedly, she brushed it back. Linda’s figure was like a song.

“Yeah, from Wisconsin. I mean, that’s where I go to school. Working at a factory in Wayne. Ah, now that is, for the summer. Making auto parts.” It felt like my mouth was running with my brain in neutral. I got out of the car and leaned against the fender. “Who is that you’re teaching to ride a bike?”

“My next-door neighbor, Katy.” She looked away to check the girl’s progress on the bike. Katy was happily tooling down the sidewalk. “Katy’s a bright one. She has been in the summer Sunday school that I teach—just over here at Calvary Baptist. It’s such a rewarding experience.”

In the conversation that followed, we recalled the January day, over three years ago, when we had first sat next to each other in a public speaking class. She teasingly reminded me how shy I had been.

I pictured her back then, sharing scenes from her social life: her stories a playful medley, drawing me in, subverting my best defenses. High school I had spent seeking refuge in a social cubbyhole. Finding myself seated next to this blonde, lissome girl proved a culture shock. I might as well have shared a desk with the goddess Athena; our early conversations had been that one-sided. Linda had been patient with her shy neighbor, and gradually our conversations became a partnership. Through getting to know her, I had stepped into the sunlight. Seeing her again, I wanted to share this, but it came out this way: “I still think of our conversations before class. You were quite the raconteur.”

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4 thoughts on “Fiction Fragment: Conversations with Athena

    1. Tom Schultz Post author

      Thanks very much. I’m glad you felt the description was authentic. The auto plant (and the suburban neighborhood that it supported) is a part of the world that defined Detroit in my youth, but no longer really exists. In that sense, this is historical fiction.

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