Salvage

By Beth Ann Fennelly

Tommy’s par­ents wave from the porch as our mini­van pulls up. His dad smiles, and that’s when I see he’s miss­ing about half of his teeth.

Pho­to cred­it: Shaghaghi

Before retir­ing a few years back, Ger­ald had been a mechan­ic. Dur­ing high school, he’d appren­ticed at his uncle’s garage, then ser­viced army vehi­cles while sta­tioned in Ger­many. When he final­ly returned home he kept fix­ing cars. Worked “from can to can’t,” worked Sat­ur­days, feed­ing himself

into the maw of bust­ed trucks in unair­con­di­tioned Alaba­ma, feed­ing a wife and three kids. Even­tu­al­ly he’d own his own shop, Franklin Auto­mo­tive. In addi­tion to repairs, he had a line on “totals,” wrecks the insur­ance com­pa­ny didn’t con­sid­er worth fix­ing. Ger­ald con­sid­ered oth­er­wise. He’d buy two or three of the same mod­el at sal­vage auc­tion and Franken­stein them togeth­er. Tech­ni­cal­ly he wasn’t allowed to sell them – “brand­ed title” and all that – but he fig­ured there was no harm in it as long as the cus­tomer knew. He loved to nego­ti­ate, and that man could sell an ice­box to an Eskimo.

Twen­ty years before, I’d bought my first car from him, after Tom­my and I were engaged. I drove it, a black Chero­kee, for four years, but it was haunt­ed. Before he’d cob­bled it togeth­er, I’d made the mis­take of wan­der­ing through his scrap yard and dis­cov­ered the sal­vaged Jeeps. I stepped over the witch­grass and peered into the bad­ly front-end­ed wreck. Dan­gling from the spi­der-webbed wind­shield, a long blonde hair.

Gerald’s body, eighty-two, is the one chas­sis he can’t repair. Shin­gles, mac­u­lar degen­er­a­tion, hyper­ten­sion, a spot on his kid­ney that needs watch­ing, pneu­mo­nia, asth­ma, steroids for the asth­ma: so many small part fail­ures. And now, the teeth. He stopped going to the den­tist years ago. Final­ly got his rot­ten ones pulled. Ger­ald sighs as we low­er our­selves into the liv­ing room’s reclin­ers. New teeth, he’s been told, will set him back a pret­ty penny.

How much, we ask.

Six­teen thou­sand. He paus­es. Wish I knew how much use I’d get out of ‘em. He fid­dles with his inhaler. How much longer I’ll be here below. How many meals I got left, you reckon?

Tom­my, Tommy’s mom, and me: what can we do but shrug.

Don’t need a full set, he says, address­ing the ceil­ing, as if bar­gain­ing. As if God’s scrap yard is lousy with spare teeth, all rea­son­able offers considered.

This, com­ing from a man who’s worked six days a week for over six­ty years: All’s I need’s enough to chew a steak.

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Beth Ann Fen­nel­ly, Poet Lau­re­ate of Mis­sis­sip­pi, teach­es in the MFA Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi, where she was named Out­stand­ing Teacher of the Year. She’s won grants and awards from the N.E.A. and the Unit­ed States Artists. She’s also received a Ful­bright to Brazil. Fen­nel­ly has pub­lished three poet­ry books: Open HouseTen­der Hooks, Unmen­tion­ables, and a book of non­fic­tion, Great with Child, all with W. W. Nor­ton. The Tilt­ed World, a nov­el she co-authored with her hus­band, Tom Franklin, was pub­lished by Harper­Collins. Heat­ing & Cool­ing: 52 Micro-Mem­oirs will be pub­lished by Nor­ton in the fall of 2017.