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THE MECHANIC, THE SUBSTITUTE & THE ARSONIST

2 T h e N e w Yo r k e r

by Nicholas Mathisen


THE MECHANIC, THE SUBSTITUTE

& THE ARSONIST — a short story by Nicholas Mathisen —

T

he Mechanic at Victory Auto feels great, a real firm sense of accomplishment: he just ripped somebody off. Poor old lady, charged her a grand for a new carburetor when all she needed was an oil change. Schmuck, thinks The Mechanic. He raps his skeleton ring on the blue Formica counter top and rubs his baldhead, then stares into the computer screen and grins. The Mechanic only grins at the computer screen, never at the customer. The computer runs the cash register. Happy customers feel nervous around The Mechanic. They should. They're happy. Happy, kind people those are the

easiest to rip off. Other customers, the shrewder, half-empty sort, they don't smile or exchange pleasantries with The Mechanic. No. They're more concerned with the tattoo on his forearm. It's a crappy red heart tattoo with the name Yoko inked in black across the center and an arrow shot through, but not an arrow from Cupid, an Indian warrior's arrow. And these customers, they think, what a schmuck. They know The Mechanic doesn't love Yoko, the woman whose name he has tattooed across his forearm. He never did, not even the night he made her. That night she asked him in the basement if he liked boom boom.

"Boom. Boom. Boom," said The Mechanic. In high school The Mechanic passed shop class. Twice the teacher caught him making a bong. He passed with a D. What an accomplishment. After dropping out of high school The Mechanic enlisted in the Navy. Here's what he did in the Navy: drank, met Yoko, drank some more, went awol. Finally his father schooled him in the mechanic's trade then kicked him out the double wide. You're nineteen he said and kicked him out. Being a mechanic was it. Once The Mechanic dreamt of becoming a racecar driver, even saved up some money and took lessons, but quit after two weeks.

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THE MECHANIC, THE SUBSTITUTE & THE ARSONIST

Lying is The Mechanic's specialty, ahead of fixing cars. He's so good at lying he's missing teeth. The Mechanic is not interested in the customer's wants or needs. He listens to a customer and thinks, pfft, schmuck and then looks them in the eyes; The Mechanic has stone eyes, eyes the color of glacier water, and says, you need new brakes, or you got a cracked serpentine belt, or your transmission's about to drop. That's the best. Trannies and calibers are the best. If The Mechanic can scam some poor schmuck on a new transmission or new calibers it's a case of Bud for him that night. Maybe he'll share it with his friends, the other mechanics, but probably not.

by Nicholas Mathisen

exciting. He wants to be an English teacher. For now he's a sub. In elementary school he could spell encyclopedia faster than anyone. Look mom all pluses, the teacher's pet. Now he says 'favorites' is not a game he'll play. "I won't play favorites," he says. "It's not fair." This week he's teaching six-grade chemistry. The job starts tomorrow at noon.

"I need to get my car serviced," says The Sub. He is nervous. The Mechanic has a heart tattooed across his forearm. The Sub can tell The Mechanic knows a great deal about cars. Any man who mourns the death of another man named Earnheart must know a lot about cars. The Mechanic says OK. He tells The Sub to expect a call in three hours.

The old lady The Mechanic just ripped off teeters outside and another customer, a younger gentleman approaches. The man has shaggy bangs and walks with a limp. He smiles. "Say, what's with that flag out front," he asks kindly.

"Earnheart Sr.," grunts The Mechanic. "Passed earlier this month." "Oh," says the man. "Year, make, and model," The Mechanic demands. "Uh, Ford Escort, I think it's a 90," the man replies. Fords, thinks The Mechanic, Pieces of shit.

Three months ago The Substitute cried for joy. He cried for joy because he received his teaching degree. How

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At nine am The Substitute drives his Escort up the street to the garage with the black number three flag hanging out front. He parks and steps from the vehicle, then gathers up his workbook and pens and his copy of The Old Man and the Sea from the back seat and limps across the parking lot. The Substitute limps because one leg is shorter than the other. Inside the office The Substitute grins and says hello to The Mechanic. He asks about the flag out front. The Mechanic says it's for Earnheart. Apparently some man named Earnheart passed away earlier this month. The Sub is sad for Earnheart and The Mechanic.

Usually after work The Mechanic watches Nascar and drinks Bud. He drinks Bud because the Earnhearts drive the Bud car and the Bud car is a Chevy. The Mechanic loves Chevy. This is how much he loves Chevy: he has their logo tattooed on the back of his neck. There's a skull worked into the design. The Mechanic swears he'll buy Chevy until the day he dies.

In front of the garage waves a giant black flag with a red number three embroidered in the center. The Mechanic feels great. He's really going to rip this guy off.

"You're twenty-three years old," he said. "It's time now you take some initiative. Go in and get her serviced. See you in a week."

“SAY, WHAT'S WITH THAT FLAG OUT FRONT,� HE ASKS KINDLY. Normally The Substitute enjoys Sunday mornings, sleeping in and reading the funnies, but not today. Today he won't. Today he must take the Escort in to get its oil changed. He put it off all weekend. His father bought him the car for his sixteenth birthday and on Thursday, before leaving town on business, he told his son to take her in.

At church The Substitute prays alongside his mother. He prays for little Billy Westgate. Little Billy has cancer. The Substitute hates cancer. The Substitute prays that one day someone will find a cure for cancer. Before leaving church The Substitute thinks to pray for the Earnhearts and The Mechanic, but doesn't. After church The Substitute has lunch with his mother. She makes him a club sandwich just the way he likes it, with crisp bacon and melted cheddar cheese. "Want some salad?" she asks. "No thanks," he says. "You need a haircut." His mom always says he needs a haircut. Suddenly the phone rings. It's The Mechanic.


The Mechanic's voice is gruff. "New fronts and rears," he says, "and rotors too. Also, your calibers are about busted and if those suckers come loose, then you could be looking at new discs." This isn't what The Substitute expected. He searches for a clever response. "How much?" he asks. "1200." The Substitute can't afford the cost of the repairs. He tells The Mechanic he'll call back later and hangs up the phone, then asks his mother what he should do. He needs the Escort tomorrow for work. Call your father she says. He does. No answer. He tries again, still no answer. His mother guesses he'll have to bite the bullet. The Substitute calls The Mechanic back. "I'll have to pay on credit." He sighs. "Sure thing," says The Mechanic. "Have her ready for you first thing in the morning." He grins into the computer screen. A glint of light strikes the eye of his skeleton ring. "Bye," grunts The Mechanic and hangs up the phone.

“LOOK,� HE SAID. WITHIN MINUTES THE ARSONIST'S HOUSE WAS IN FLAMES. Schmuck, he thinks. After lunch The Substitute retreats to his parent's basement. That's where he lives. He sits down before his desk in a springy office chair and leans back. He puts his hands behind his head. There's no need to worry any more. He leans forward and picks up his copy of The Old Man and the Sea. Finally, he thinks, I can get back to reading. One afternoon The Arsonist found a book of matches on his father's workbench. The creek in Mill Park had run dry. Both his parents were gone. He was five years old.

That same afternoon The Arsonist's friend Susan wandered next-door. She found The Arsonist nestled beneath an evergreen tree alongside his house. When asked what he was up to The Arsonist didn't say anything. Instead he struck a match and set fire to lichen at the base of the tree. "Look," he said. Within minutes The Arsonist's house was in flames. The fire department came and put down the blaze while The Arsonist stood and watched. He didn't cry until a day later when his parents returned home. His mother blamed the baby sitter. His father broke out the belt.In fifth grade the arsonist lit G.I. Joes on fire. He liked to melt their limbs. Aunt Mica found a lunch box filled with burnt G.I. Joes and showed them to The Arsonist's mother. The Arsonist's mother showed them to his father. "No more fire!" said The Arsonist's father and uncoiled the belt. "Go to your room." The Arsonist didn't leave his room for three weeks. Restriction rules.

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A month later The Arsonist went to his friend's house for a slumber party. What a great idea. At dusk the boy's parents built a bonfire. Once the fire was built The Arsonist and his friends collected tent caterpillars nests from Mill Park and threw them in the fire. The Arsonist told his friends to listen. "Listen," he said. "Listen to them squeal!" Something in the fire squealed. The Arsonist got excited. He danced. He danced close to the fire. He danced so close he almost fell in. It's a good thing he didn't. The Arsonist is near grown up now. He takes classes at sfv College. His favorite class is chemistry. He likes mixing chemicals. The teacher says The Arsonist has a talent for mixing chemicals. You have a talent for chemistry, says the teacher, but The Arsonist never listens. He's too busy stirring the vinegar. For some reason people have this idea that arsonists are creeps and misfits. What a dumb idea. The Arsonist is not a creep or a misfit. Sure, on occasion he wears holey jeans. Or maybe one day he forgets to do laundry and has to wear the same holey jeans two days in a row. But besides that he's normal. Also, The Arsonist gets along fine with people. In fact most everybody likes The Arsonist; everyone except his boss. His boss hates him. The Arsonist can't figure

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by by Nicholas Nicholas Mathisen Mathisen

it out. What did I do wrong? He thinks. He mixes himself a rum and coke and turns on the tv. "Nothing. I did nothing wrong," he says and flips the channel to Tom and Jerry. The next day is Sunday. The Arsonist works Sundays. Sundays are usually the busiest. He walks down Victory Boulevard to Ron's Supermarket, clocks in at check stand four and begins bagging groceries. After lunch The Arsonist switches to checker, his favorite. The Arsonist is an excellent checker. He smiles a lot and says things like 'Welcome to Ron's' and 'How's it going?' and 'Price check on aisle three, please.' The Arsonist always says please. At ten o'clock The Arsonist closes check stand four. It's time to go home. He zeros the till and is about to leave when suddenly his boss calls him aside. "Follow me," he says. The Arsonist follows his boss into the back room. Not good. Last night thirty-dollars and seventy-seven cents was reported missing from check stand four. Check stand four is The Arsonist's check stand. "You're fired," says the Arsonist's boss. The Arsonist can't believe it. "Fuck you!" He says and shoves past his boss. He kicks over the water cooler and storms out through the rear exit and into the back alley. He's steaming mad.

With both hands shoved into his pockets he walks down the alley. Two buildings away he finds buried in his pocket a book of matches. He lifts his head. No way. The Arsonist can't believe his eyes. Up against the wall behind Victory Auto, half covered by a flattened cardboard box sits a red gas canister. Grabbing the canister by its handle The Arsonist immediately thinks to burn down the supermarket, but doesn't. He's not stupid. He'll get caught. Instead he uncaps the canister and wets the back wall of the auto shop with gasoline, then lights a match and throws it against the wall. The wall engulfs in flames. The Arsonist watches the flames. Something about the flames is calming to The Arsonist. He pretends his boss is trapped inside, burning, squealing like a caterpillar. Out of nowhere The Arsonist laughs a wicked laugh. Finally he hears sirens and runs home. That'll teach'em, he thinks. The next day The Mechanic wakes up beside Holly. Holly wakes up next to an empty case of Budweiser. The TV's still on. It's showing Nascar. The Mechanic gives Holly a wad of bills and tells her to get the hell out. He gets into his red Chevy pick up and turns the key. It won't start. "Holly!" Shouts The Mechanic. Holly drives a Ford, Pinto. She gives him a ride to the shop.


At the shop The Mechanic sees The Substitute, two police officers, and a fire truck parked in front. Both garages have burned to the ground. The office and two blackened cars is all that's left. One of the cars is The Substitute's. "What the... what the hell happened?" Shouts The Mechanic. The Substitute is crying. "Arson," says a fire official. "Ima, Ima," The Mechanic stammers. "Ima kill somebody!" he yells then ducks the yellow caution tape and runs towards the smoldering building. "Come back here!" Shouts an officer, but The Mechanic doesn't stop. He runs towards where the garage once stood and jogs to a stop at the edge of the rubble. There he stoops to pick something from the debris. It's the black number three flag. The Mechanic dangles the flag at his side. Torn and tattered it waves in the wind. The red number three was black. The red number three is black. End.

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The Mechanic, The Substitute & the Arsonist  
The Mechanic, The Substitute & the Arsonist  

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