So it's three days after Christmas, and I'm sittin' in my office next to the service bay, havin' a Coke and wonderin' if I needed to call in some muscle to get money out of a few people who seemed to think that car repairs should be a public service, when I heard this noise. Like one of them old-time mastodons, getting sucked down in the tar pits, sounded like.
I raised up to take a look out the window, and yep, old mastodon. Or Hutchinson's car, which comes out to the same thing. Hell, I didn't sell him that piece of crap, no skin off my nose, but still, no man with self-respect should be ridin' round in something that pathetic. As I watched him haul himself outta the driver's seat, movin' like my grandaddy's daddy, I changed my opinion. The man suited the car. Hutchinson always was the whitest white man I ever saw, but those days even the tan looked off-grey, like somebody slapped a sloppy first coat over the primer. He'd lost near to twenty-five pounds since the day Starsky went down, and I'd swear you'da needed bifocals to see him if he turned sideways.
The hair was the worst. He'd chopped it all off, got one a them whitewall buzz-cuts. Last time I seen him, the boy looked like some strung-out grunt. I know why he did it. Happened to me when my Lianne got the cancer. You don't have enough time, enough energy, enough attention to waste on things that don't matter. You need it all to do what you have to do to get through the days. Takes too much to wash and brush and blow-dry all that blondness, so off it comes.
I watched him circle round the front of the car, stretchin' a little in the sun. He walked like a man who's holdin' a real heavy basketful of stuff that'll break if he even twitches. When he got to the passenger door, he opened it up and leaned in for a few seconds, then stepped back with both hands in the air. There was a little smile on his face and it knocked me out, 'cause I hadn't seen the boy smile like that in seven months. Even the last time he was here, he just barely managed to get his lips to curve to be polite, and it took so much work I felt bad, like I'd added another glass brick to that basket he was carryin'.
That smile shoulda told me what was comin', but I still felt my breath catch when Starsky got outta the car. It was mainly the way he got out. So slow, so much hard work. He usta bounce, strut—float like Mohammed Ali when he was really workin' it. Now, left hand on the top of the door, first one leg lifted out, and then the other, and then slowly, slowly, his body straightened up. A long stop, just balanced there, and then he shuffled away from the car far enough for Hutchinson to shut the door.
They stood there, leanin' together, like two trees hit by a storm, and all that was holdin' them upright was each other. Hutchinson bent his head down, like he was listenin', and then nodded. He stepped back just a little and let Starsky stand by himself, with nothin' but his cane. Even from the office, I could see just how much of a job it was.
Just bein' honest, I never believed he'd make it. Three bullets, infection, pneumonia, more infection – and then the day Brother Dobey called to tell me he'd had the stroke. Some little blood clot somewhere in all that mess broke loose, and pretty well everythin' Starsky gained in two months was down the drain, just that fast. That was when Hutchinson cut his hair.
Starsky started for the door, Hutchinson one step behind and a li'l to the right. The limp was still pretty bad—he had to kinda lift the leg partway and then drag it, instead of really takin' a step—but at least he was on his feet and movin'. There was bets down in a lotta bad places round town that Starsky would never walk again. Funny how some people you think woulda been the happiest to see him check out was also the ones who took the split in his favor. Funny, but yeah, I get it. They wouldn't mind puttin' the man down themselves, but it just didn't sit right that some little piece of dried blood too small to even see would do the job. Not on somebody like Dave Starsky.
I got up and came out the door just before they reached it. "Merry, merry, boys. Lookin' good, there, Starsky." There was grey in his sideburns and black circles under his eyes and he was so thin those usta-be-skin-tight jeans hung off him like an old oil rag, but still I could say it truthfully, 'cause even though he looked like somethin' run off the road by a bulldozer, he wasn't lookin' dead, which those days was the only standard to go by.
"Thanks, Merle. Merry Christmas." He got his right hand up, and I took it to shake. There wasn't much strength in the grip, and the fingers felt kinda stiff and cold, but it was a shake. I gave him a pat on the arm too, real careful. I wasn't sure how good his balance was, and I knew for damn sure if he even stumbled, Hutchinson would tear my head off and stuff it in the diesel barrel. The old grin was a little lopsided. He sounded pretty good, though. L'il slur, but not so bad a stranger would notice it right off.
"Merry Christmas, Merle." Hutchinson gave me a handshake, too. Up close, he looked a hell of a lot better than last time I saw him. Still tired, still thin, but more like a honkie than a zombie, if you take my meanin'. It was mainly the eyes, I think. Seven months now, his eyes had been lookin' like no matter what he saw on the outside, what he saw on theinside was a direct live broadcast from hell. No commercials either. "Are we too early?"
"Nope," I said. "Got her all ready and waitin'." I turned back to the bay, and hit the button to run the door up.
Behind me, Starsky said, "Too early for what, Hutch?" and I had to laugh, 'cause he sounded just like he always had. Thirty-five goin' on nine.
The door rumbled to the top and stopped. Everything was so quiet I could almost hear my heart beat and then Hutchinson said softly, "Merry Christmas, Starsk."
She's a beautiful car, the Torino. A bitch to drive sometimes, with alla that horsepower, but Starsky always handled her like he'd been born for her. Puttin' her back together had taken me damn near as long as it took the doctors to fix him. There was some pride on the line, along with wantin' to do the best for Starsky, and there ain't nobody can say Merle the Earl didn't live up to his name. I wouldn't settle for anythin' but new parts—not one junk piece on her—and I redid the finish a half dozen times to make sure the paint matched dead on.
"Hutch? What did you do?" Starsky's voice was shakin' so bad I whipped round, sure he was gonna collapse. "Hutch?"
Hutchinson musta thought Starsky was losin' it too, 'cause he stepped in close and slid his arm around the skinny waist. Starsky dropped the cane, and sorta half turned 'round and grabbed on for all he was worth. I could see him shakin', and Hutchinson spreadin' his legs a little to balance the weight. "Hey, we're a team. You, me, and the tomato. Couldn't leave her out for the wrecker, could we?"
"You hate my car."
"It's your car." Hutchinson didn't say anythin' else, but I could hear it loud and clear. I couldn't save you, but I could save something.
"But Hutch, I can't even drive!" Starsky sounded like he was 'bout ready to cry.
"You can't drive yet." Hutchinson rubbed one hand back and forth across the shaking shoulders. "Remember what the doctor said? You keep squeezing those rubber balls, and doing the leg lifts, and getting your lazy butt up to go walking with me, and we'll have you back in shape before summer." And I could hear what he wasn't sayin' loud and clear this time, too.
Please, God, don't let that be a lie.
Starsky pushed away, and I looked back at the car so I wouldn't have to watch him wipe his eyes. When I turned back, Hutchinson was handing him his cane. "Wanna inspect Merle's handiwork?"
One hobbly step at a time, Starsky moved around the car. It hurt to look at him, but I figured if he had the balls to walk, I could have the respect to watch him do it. He'd stop every step or so and look at something, or run his finger across the finish, give a little pat here and there, until he got once all the way round. Back at the driver's door he stopped and bent right down, lookin' real close. One trembling hand moved up along the side panel and over the window glass. I didn't flinch. The door was brand-new, not a mark on it. When Hutchinson brought her in, I took one look at the bullet holes and blood and lost m'dinner. The first thing I did was run that damn door through the crusher.
"Can I get in?"
"Starsk …" Hutchinson had been following him around, and now he put his hand out.
"Just to sit for a minute, okay? I want to feel … I need to know …" Starsky took a deep breath. "I need to know if I still can."
"You don't have anything to prove," Hutchinson said fiercely.
"If I can't hack it, we need to know." Starsky's grin wobbled. "Not much point getting my body ready if my head won't play."
Hutchinson nodded, short and jerky. I could see, now it came to it, he wasn't sure if he still could. I coulda told him that six months ago, but there's some stuff a man has to figure out by himself. He wouldn'a believed me, or thanked me for tellin' him that there's things you gotta let go when the time comes. But then, people said that about Starsky too, and he proved everybody wrong.
Starsky pulled the door open, and then just stood there lookin' inside. I'm the champ at body work, so I had the seats recovered by a buddy who specializes in interiors, and we pulled the steering column and replaced everything that was even scratched. Good as new, if I say so m'self.
Starsky did that shuffle-'n'-shift he used for turnin' himself around until his back was to the inside. Then he stopped, lookin' helpless. "Hutch?" he said softly. It took me a second to get it. His right hand wasn't strong enough to support himself on the door, and with only the cane to balance, he couldn't let himself down.
"Starsk, are you sure?" Hutchinson's voice was unsteady.
"I need to know."
Slowly, Hutchinson reached out and took ahold of Starsky's forearms. Bracing himself some, he eased down until Starsky's ass landed in the seat. Then he leaned his arms on the roof, and put his head on them, and I saw his shoulders start shakin'.
There's some things a man don't need to watch. I went back to the office and spent some slow time huntin' through the desk drawers 'til I found something I remembered puttin' there a long time ago. When I came out, Starsky was still sittin' in the car, but he was leanin' out, restin' his head and shoulders against Hutchinson's chest. Hutchinson's arms was wrapped round him, and he bent down far enough to lay his cheek on Starsky's hair. For the first time in seven months, the boy looked like there might be some peace in him.
I opened the passenger door and leaned in far enough to hang the little Christmas tree offa the mirror. "Merry, merry, boys," I said again. "And happy New Year."