Sitting in the passenger seat I tried to adjust to Gary Wrench. It was odd, having to adjust to a person. Usually, you meet a person and decide whether or not you like them. If you like them, you talk to them, things grow out of that, you get to know one another. If you don’t like them you tend not to talk to them unless it is out of necessity or you’re just spouting something you have to share and they’re the only one close by. But nothing really develops from this. No deeper understanding. More like an icy distance. Rarely, did you have to adjust to a person. Maybe this is what a child or a pet experiences when a parent gets a radical new hairstyle or changes their wardrobe or something. But not, in my adult life, had I ever experienced knowing someone and then watching that person change physical appearances only to realize I had never known who they were. It made me think of other things. How much of our life is an act, anyway? You become a parent, you play a role. You act happy when you’re depressed. You act like you are enthused by some things that hold no interest for you whatsoever. But sometimes, through this acting, this repeatedly telling yourself you really do like something, some form of appreciation sprouts.
Was this the case with Gary Wrench; this man who, as a father, I was so familiar with but, as his real self, was a stranger?
“What did you think of being a father?” I asked him.
“Huh?” he said. He was very focused on the road. He drove very fast. Still out in the country roads, we didn’t pass many cars.
“Well, you were playing the part of father to Cassie and me... What did you think of that?”
“It was okay, I guess.”
“How can I put this?” I said. “We both thought you were our father but you knew you were not our father?”
“Mm-hm,” he said. He looked like he was trying to understand or like it was something much simpler to him than me.
“Do you have any real children?”
“Nope. Lifetime bachelor.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m trying to wrap my mind around this. It’s very difficult. It’s kind of like you were a step parent but you weren’t. You were an employee. So...”
I looked down at the flame, sputtering there on the floorboard, trying to find the right words. Perhaps this was why I had failed miserably as a writer.
“Okay. Take a man and his job...”
“Some people develop a love of something and that love is a lifelong love. Like, say, a scientist. He is on a quest for knowledge. He loves theories. He loves testing his theories. He loves this quest for knowledge. And maybe he is only a teacher or a professor but he still loves this knowledge, he loves what he does and he wants to share it with people. Sure, there are some days when he doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and go to the job but when he stands back and, and... puts it all into perspective... he realizes it’s not that bad at all. He likes what he does. On the other hand, you take a man who works in a factory. It’s unrealistic to think this man likes putting the same bolt in the same part or whatever for eight to twelve hours a day. He does it for a paycheck so he can support his family or his booze habit or whatever. But every day, when he goes to work, he has to put himself into something like a coma because he hates what he does so much. Do you follow me?”
“I think so.”
“I guess what I’m asking is... did you love us? Do you love us?”
He stroked his mustache with his left hand, keeping his right hand on the wheel. We pulled into the town of Grainville. I saw my imposter standing on the corner, harassing a small child. My imposter did not have a beard. Of course he didn’t. Even though he knew of my beard growing intentions, he had not seen me with a beard. He’d told me he couldn’t grow a beard. He glanced up and saw me, brandished his fist and I imagined, the next time I saw him, he would most likely have a false beard and wear an ill-fitting suit.
“That’s a really tough question. I’d have to say no.”
“No?” This kind of shocked me. In a way, it answered a lot of things. Most of the things I had done since adolescence, an outsider would probably say I did them because I felt a lack of love in my life. But to have this suspicion validated by a very simple word was staggering. Also, I kind of thought he might say yes just because that was the obvious answer he was supposed to give.
“Would you like me to qualify that?” Also, at that point, I realized, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this was most assuredly not the person I had spent the last twenty years around. The factory-working father I knew would never have used the word ‘qualify’. His was a simple, nearly monosyllabic vocabulary. I wondered if I might grow to like this Gary Wrench fellow more than I had my real father who was Gary Wrench playing the role of my father. The more I thought about it the more confused I became.
“Sure,” I said.
“In order to love, one has to let himself love something. Understand? There were times I spent around you and Cassie that truly warmed my heart, that caused a swelling inside. Something most people would probably call love. The good times we had on family vacations. When I would read stories to you before bed. When you would fight with your mother and seek comfort in me. But, you have to understand, those were just natural human reactions. You see a cute puppy wandering along the side of the road, you feel the same thing. But you don’t take home every stray dog you find. I had to live every day around you as though it might be my last. There was a point, about two years into it, when I asked your mother if we might work something out in the case your father came back. Like, if he came back, then I could disappear and then reappear as like an uncle you had never met before or something. So I’d still get to see you.” He had a faraway look in his eye, recalling the past. “She said she didn’t think that would be a good idea. At that point, I think Cassie was already suspicious...”
“Hm,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
“So, did I love you? I could never tell myself that. Could I have loved you? Definitely, given time, given the freedom. Also, remember, I’m an actor. I had to assume the emotions of the role I was playing. So, when I was around you, I told myself I loved you every second of the day but, when I went home at night, I tried to forget about you because if I didn’t then I would wish I was there and I couldn’t be there... That would have made me too much like a real father.”
“Yeah. How did you guys work that out? I thought you worked in a factory all night and then slept most of the day. Did you actually work in a factory?”
“Did you sleep at the house?”
“Only during the summer. When you would have been home from school and noticed my comings and goings.”
“So, when you weren’t there, which was quite a bit, what were you doing?”
“Oh, I don’t know. This and that. I keep a small studio apartment in Dayton. I do a lot of reading. A lot of napping.”
“What about like a girlfriend or something? Did you ever sleep with Mom?”
“We slept in the same room a number of times. She wouldn’t let me sleep in the bed with her. She said that would feel too much like cheating even though I think she was pretty well aware of my sexual orientation.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Just kidding,” he said.
“Oh,” I laughed.
“No I’m not,” he said. “I wish I was. I have a female orangutan. Actually, a friend of mine keeps her most of the time. I can’t leave her home alone so much. But she’s always very amorous when I go pick her up. I wouldn’t call it rape.”
I still didn’t really know if he was serious or not so I kept my mouth shut.
“I need some coffee,” he said. “You want some coffee?”
“Sure,” I said.
We were now on the outskirts of town, headed west, and a gas station would be coming up any minute.
Wrench swung the van into the parking lot. All the lights were off in the building and one of the pumps was on fire. A fire engine was there but the firemen were only standing next to the fire, pushing each other and pointing at the flames.
“How do you take yours?” Wrench asked.
“Stay here with Brilliance. I’ll be right back.”
Wrench hopped out of the van.
“You!” one of the firemen shouted.
Wrench turned. “Yeah, you!” the fireman shouted again.
Wrench stopped. “I was just going to go in and get some coffee,” he said.
“You know who started this fire?” The fireman stalked up to him.
“Why would I know that?”
“All kinds of people know all kinds of things.”
“Okay. No. I don’t know who started the fire.”
The fireman began shoving Wrench. He outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds. The other fireman called from the fire, “It’s so hot!”
“You gonna help us put out that fire?” the fireman asked.
“No. Aren’t you the fireman?”
“Well, I just thought you should know that the fuel reservoir’s gonna blow up any minute.”
“I’m sure we’ll be gone by then.”
“Ah, fleeing the scene of the crime, eh?”
“Hardly. I told you... Look, I need to get my coffee before the explosion okay?”
“Whatever. Punkass kids.”
Wrench turned from the fireman and pulled on the door to the store. It seemed to be locked. He struggled and struggled with it. It certainly looked closed.
“Need help with that?” the fireman called.
“Is it closed?” Wrench asked.
“Fuck if I know,” the fireman said. He trundled over to the door, grabbed the axe he had slung barbarian style across his back, and smashed the glass door. “There you go.”
“Thanks,” Wrench said, reaching in to unlock the door before opening it the proper way.
“No problem. I need to go in and get some water anyway. The truck’s all out.”
“Isn’t there a hydrant nearby?” Wrench asked.
“Way over there?” the fireman pointed to other side of the parking lot, as though he couldn’t possibly be expected to walk that far.
Wrench and the fireman disappeared into the darkness. The other fireman went to the air machine, for car tires, and aimed the hose at the fire. He stood at least fifteen feet from it and I had no idea what he meant to accomplish by doing this. The fire really raged. It was so hot it caused the cab of the van to warm. The other fireman came out of the store, carrying two jugs of bottled water.
“Knock that off!” he shouted to his partner.
The fireman dropped the hose and rushed over to his partner. “Now,” the one with the water said. “We’re probably going to die in a few minutes. Anybody you need to call or anything?”
His partner answered with a high pitched hooting sound that ascended and broke off into braying donkey laughter.
“Don’t tell me you weren’t warned.”
He uncapped the jugs and poured them onto the fire. It did absolutely nothing to diminish the flames.
“Shit,” he said, before hopping into the fire. His shrieks were loud and piercing but short lived. His strange partner, I now realized how thin and awkward-looking he was, hopped into the fire truck and sped off.
Wrench came out of the store carrying two large cups of coffee.
He handed them up to me before crawling into the van.
“That fireman was on something, I think,” he said.
“He just threw himself into the fire.”
“Hm. I guess we better go before something explodes.”
Wrench honked the horn and the van’s engine revved. I didn’t remember him turning it off. Maybe it just knew when someone wasn’t sitting in the driver’s seat. He floored the accelerator and we shot out of Grainville, toward Indiana, sipping our coffee and feeling the warm wind rush into the van.