The Midnight Star

Unlikeable. It was the same word in every rejection from a woman, on each evaluation at work, at the bottom of all my report cards in school. No matter how well I performed, my social skills were—in a word—non-existent.

God knows I tried. I read self-help books. I attended seminars. I even found a woman in New England who still taught an old-fashioned charm school, aimed at instilling budding young debutants with the social graces. And yet, though I understood how to be likable, my mind could never grasp why.

It seemed an unnecessary show—something one did to garner the approval of others. I never needed external validation. I didn’t see the need to placate those precious flowers whose feelings were hurt because I refused to coddle them. Why couldn’t they just accept facts as facts?

“Yes, Mrs. Robinson, your car is a complete piece of shit has had some engine trouble. In the past six years, you never changed the oil on time your car has had a lot of miles on it. It’s your fault. These things happen. Now you’re going to pay through the nose. We’ll see what we can do.”

I guess that’s why I like cars. They don’t get pissed when you bleed the lines. They don’t hold a grudge when you pound out a dent in the fender. They don’t take it personal when you give up on fixing them and send them to the junkyard.

Last year, Mr. McClusky took me off the morning shift. He said people didn’t have any tolerance for my “no-nonsense attitude” first thing in the morning. That was his nice way of saying that people were complaining because I didn’t give them the happy-crappy morning show routine.

Donny did that. He had the patter down. He smiled at every customer, nodded as if he were deeply concerned. And when people asked the same inane questions about whether or not their car “needed” that air filter or brake job, he didn’t look at them like they were stupid.

I did. I couldn’t help myself. I knew it would upset customers, but I was too busy to baby them and listen to their bullshit. I needed to fix cars, not listen to some sob story from some ass-wipe who spent more on his ride than I got paid in a year. His problems were nothing compared to mine.

Even off the morning shift, I still couldn’t get through a week without some customer or another complaining about my attitude. Mr. McClusky liked my work, though, so he didn’t want to fire me. He said no one could rebuild an engine like me. So, last month, we worked out a deal: I would come in at the end of the day, when the customers were gone and the rest of the crew was heading home. I’d have the shop to myself. And I’d work on cars all night. Alone.

It was heaven. I turned on the radio and listened to Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen—none of that crappy hip-hop bullshit the younger guys listened to. In the first week, I fixed seventeen cars. I rebuilt two engines all by myself. The customers were pleased to get their cars fixed overnight, and Mr. McClusky was happy to have someone around to watch the shop in the evening.

I worked from six till three, with an hour off to eat. I usually took a break around eleven and headed to the Midnight Star, an all-night diner down on Route 24. They served breakfast all day, and that suited me fine. I could stomach pancakes and bacon a lot easier than a greasy burger at that time of night.

Mindy, the waitress there, knew me. She put up with my bullshit attitude because I tipped her well. I put up with her unending perkiness because I knew it was part of her job.

“Hey, Pete. Want the usual?” she asked as I sat down on a stool at the counter. I just nodded as she poured me a cup of coffee.

“You’re a little late tonight. Busy?” She knew I worked over at McClusky’s Garage and sometimes sent business our way.

I looked up at the clock above the pass-through to the kitchen. It was a quarter till midnight. I didn’t realize it was so late.

“Somebody brought in one of those fancy German cars. They always take longer because I gotta dig out the metric tools. That’s why we charge labor by the hour. Ain’t no skin off my nose if it takes me twice as long to fix. I get paid either way.”

Mindy didn’t say anything to that. She just chewed her nicotine gum and waited by the window for Gary to serve up my pancakes.

The television in the corner played one of the 24-hour news channels, but the sound was turned off. The closed captioning was turned on, so it was a running ticker of news to read. The jukebox played some country-western song from the days when Patsy Cline knew that loving someone was just crazy.

The door opened, letting in a cool gust of December wind. I glanced up, but didn’t even register if the guy who had come in was a regular or not. I was more concerned with the cold air he brought with him. The garage could be downright icy. McClusky didn’t like heating the place for just me, and set the thermostat to fifty-eight degrees. The diner was my warm recess each night.

“Anybody know if there’s a garage open around here?” asked the stranger.

Before I could stare her down to keep her mouth shut, Mindy piped up, “Pete here works over at McClusky’s.”

I shot daggers at her instead, and then I took a long sip from my coffee.

“Is it open?” asked the stranger.

“Nobody’s there right now,” I said. “As you can see, I’m having breakfast.”

“I really need some help,” he said.

“Call a tow truck,” I said, knowing full well that it would take a couple of hours. Tow trucks tended to get busy around the holidays, especially when there was a couple inches of fresh snow on the roads.

“You don’t understand,” the guy said. “My car’s right outside. We were driving down the highway when the engine light came on. The engine started rattling and then it just died.”

“You’re lucky we’re always open,” said Mindy.

“Can you help me?” asked the stranger.

I still hadn’t given the guy a second glance. Just drank my coffee and stared straight ahead. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mindy looking at me. I heard her foot tapping on the linoleum, and it wasn’t in time to the jukebox.

“Pete!” she barked. “Don’t be an ass. Help the kid.”

I looked to my left and took in the stranger. He was maybe twenty, if that. He wore a blue hoodie over a white t-shirt. Both were inappropriate for the weather outside.

“Ain’t gonna do any good,” I said, moving toward the door. “I don’t have my tools.”

“You can use mine,” said Gary, from the kitchen. “I’ll bring ‘em around.”

Great, I thought. I’m never gonna get to eat.

I walked outside. Despite my coveralls, the winter night bit into me. I couldn’t imagine the kid was enjoying it either. The car had barely made it off the highway. It stopped at the far edge of the diner’s parking lot.

The kid opened the car door and the dome light came on. I realized there was someone else waiting inside. A young girl, no older than the kid. She seemed upset, but when she looked at me, I thought I saw relief cross her face.

“We’re gonna need to get it closer to the diner, so I can see,” I told the kid. “Pop it into neutral, and help me push.”

By the time the kid put the car in gear, Gary had arrived with his tools. He placed the box on the roof of the car and helped me push while the kid steered. In a couple of minutes, we had moved the car to the front row of the parking lot, right by the door. Gary, seeing the young girl, told her to go inside and warm up.

“You, too,” said Gary, motioning to the kid. “That coat isn’t going to keep you warm. Get inside.”

“No, I’ll stay,” said the kid. “I want to help.”

“You ever fix cars?” I asked.

“No,” said the kid. “I was more into wood shop.”

“Then get your ass inside,” I said. “You too, Gary. My breakfast ain’t gonna cook itself.”

I popped the hood and took a look at the engine, beneath the neon glow of the diner’s big yellow star. One glance was all it took. The engine was covered in transmission fluid, which meant a leak somewhere. Considering how quickly the car had died, it was probably a pretty sizable leak, too. Maybe a cracked bell housing or a torn line. I’d have to take it apart to know for sure, and I couldn’t do that in the parking lot of a diner. Not with Gary’s meager tools. I dropped the hood, picked up Gary’s toolbox, and walked back inside.

The warm air of the diner felt good after ten minutes in the freezing cold. I set Gary’s toolbox on the counter and walked to the booth where the kid and his girlfriend were sitting. Before I could say a word, Mindy appeared by my side. No doubt, she was there to make sure I didn’t act like…well, me. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to be nice.

“Well, it’s a transmission leak. Looks like you tore a line or cracked the housing. I couldn’t tell for sure.”

“I might have hit something a mile or so before the light came on,” he said. “Just figured it was a rock or something.”

An unspoken question hung in the air. The kid wasn’t going to ask, so I just said it right out.

“I can’t fix it.” Sensing a death glare from Mindy, I added, “Not here. I’ll need to take it back to the garage and work on it.”

“I appreciate it, but…” The kid lowered his eyes, then gazed over to the girl in the booth beside him.

Seeing her without her coat on, I realized for the first time that she was ready to pop.

“I get it,” I said. “You can’t afford it.”

“I’m sure Pete would be happy to help you out, considering the circumstances,” said Mindy.

“Well, I could chip in some free labor, but it ain’t my garage,” I said, more to Mindy than the kid. “I can’t just give away parts.”

She glared at me. “But I guess I could give you a discount, seeing how you’re in a family way and all.”

“We really appreciate it, mister,” said the kid. “It means a lot to us.”

“Where are the two of you heading?” asked Mindy.

I could sense the conversation was taking a turn toward the personal, so I extracted myself and returned to the counter. My coffee cup was full. Lukewarm, but not cold. I drank it anyway.

I pulled out my cell phone and called a guy who owed me a favor. He agreed to tow the car over to the garage. It’d be waiting for me when I finished my breakfast.

I figured it wouldn’t kill me to be nice, just once. After all, it was Christmas.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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