Kevin doesn’t shave much. He doesn’t worry about his skin or his nails or his teeth. Nor does he smoke cigarettes or drink coffee. He wears his baseball caps with the brims cut very short, which makes him appear, along with his bedraggled maintenance uniform, to be a hobo bicyclist. The short brims, I think, so he doesn’t need to turn his hats backward when he cuts and welds. He has large eyes made all the more dramatic by the reaction of the skin all around them, wrinkling the way it does when he concentrates.
“You been watching any hockey?” I ask. Taking the three-foot diameter fan blade and balancing it on the vice. I adjust the vice.
Kevin considers my question for a few seconds before saying, hesitatingly, “not so much. Not since your Bruins bounced my Redwings from the playoffs.”
“I didn’t watch that series,” I say, “but I’m watching the Canadiens.”
“That’s what I like to see,” he says.
I pulled a condenser fan motor from the Student Union at Luther College. Condenser fan motors have condenser fans attached to their shafts, and most of them are positioned with their shafts, and therefore fan blades, facing upward to the heavens, so that each rainfall and snowfall and sleet storm seeks out the steel shaft and fan hub and eventually rusts the shit out of them both, locking them together in an eternal marriage. Till death do us part. And you need to take your hacksaw and cut the shaft and then take the blade and figure a way to divorce the two from one another.
“It’s a tough series,” I say. “I’m telling you. Those Habs are tough.”
“That’s what I like to see,” Kevin says again. “It’s getting back to the original teams. I’m only hoping the Tigers get it together this year.”
“You must be from Detroit originally?”
“Nope,” he says, turning and searching for something on the wooden tool bench, which is scattered with wrenches and vice grips and cans of 3-in-1 oil and dirty cloths and power tools and hasps and hammers. “Darn it. Where’s that striker?”
“I got one right here,” I say, reaching down and grabbing my striker from my trusty old tool pouch, which isn’t so trusty anymore, with all the holes in it which, if the wrong tool is shoved in the wrong fold, will let it pass all the way through.
Kevin takes the striker and blinks. Looks down. Blinks again.
“I grew up. I had a dream. I wanted to work at one of the auto plants in Detroit. I loved cars. Still do. But they were different then. Detroit was different then too. I never got to do it. Never even been to Detroit. But I always loved it.”
“I was up there not long ago,” I say. “It’s pretty rough. At least where I was.”
“I know,” he says. “I seen pictures. I wonder what can save it. I was thinking maybe Renault could come in and save it.” Long pause. Blink. “Mercedes didn’t do Dodge any favors. Those Germans.”
“They make good cars,” I say.
“They do,” he says. “They do.”
Kevin gently picks up the cutting head from the oxy-acetylene rig and studies it. You’re not supposed to have any oil or grease on an oxy-acetylene welding or cutting head. None at all. The first thing they do in metal shop is partially fill a tiny balloon with a touch of oxygen and acetylene and then touch it to a torch. The explosion is thunderous. And it scares the shit out of everyone. “What we have here,” says the instructor, motioning toward the large tanks, is a bomb. Powerful enough to level, absolutely level, this building.”
“You want to use this one?” I ask Kevin, motioning toward my turbo torch.
“No,” he says, adjusting the acetylene knob on the head and tightening the flame. Bright orange. Black smoke curling up. Then he adjusts the oxygen knob. A blue dart entering in. Now the flame blue. Now the outer flame ghostly blue and the inner flame a sharp needle of light. He focuses the flame on the fan hub and moves it back and forth so as not to melt the steel. After a few seconds, the top of the hub begins to glow in that dull sunset color.
“That heats it up quick,” I say.
“I don’t know how deep it’s going,” he says, “but that metal has to be moving.”
I watch him heat the hub. I think about Detroit, Kevin’s childhood dream. And then the Barracuda he owns, all cherry bomb and Bondo, that low, Javelin shape still reminding me of Lynard Skynard and Aerosmith, those deathwish rides to the packey stores in New Hampshire on those beach weekends.
I make my way to my truck and flip open the back door. I grab my thirteen-pound sledge hammer, which I have named “The Bitch,” and then I open my plastic tool box and rummage around for my half-inch brass punch. Kevin snaps off the flame as I approach. I set down the Bitch and my punch, grab the blade and flip it upside down on the vice.
“You want me to tighten this up?” says Keven.
“No,” I say. “We’ll move it down. Then we’ll clean it up and drive it the other way. It’s a bitch to do the other way, with the punch. You end up peening the end over and you never get it off. Just hold on to it.”
Kevin holds the outside of the blades, steadying the hub. I grab the Bitch and take a swing.
“Holy shit,” says Kevin. “That thing is. . .”
I take another swing. I can feel a slight movement of the shaft, a sigh as it breaks away from the home it has known for the past fifteen years. I know it’s been fifteen years because I was the one who replaced the motor last time.
“…more like a maul.”
We flip the blade right side up again and Kevin begins searching around again for something else.
“What you looking for?”
“File,” he says. “And also. . .also. . .”
He continues searching.
“You know what the big secret ingredient of WD40 is?” I say.
Kevin stops searching and blinks. Considers. “No,” he says.
He considers this. Smiles slowly. Nods his head. “I can believe that. You know, back fifty years ago transmission oil was mainly whale oil. And then, when that became uncool, transmissions suffered.” He nods. We both stare off for a second, as if we can see that time. Right there before us. Fifty years ago. And those unlucky whales and those lucky transmissions.
When Kevin returns with the WD40, he prepares to spray some on the hot shaft. “Look out,” he says. “This might flash.”
He lets out a little oil. There is the sound of a cigarette extinguished in a puddle of water and a wisp of white vapor. And now he’s spraying liberally. And now using his file, with folded up length of sand cloth, to clean the shaft. The rust comes off begrudgingly. But it has no choice. Not when faced with the file. Kevin is telling me how he went down to what he calls my “neck of the woods” last weekend. Down to North Liberty.
“It’s a long story,” he says, a few moments after I ask why. “There was a guy down there. Had two Cadillac engines. Five hundred cubic inches. Largest production motor made. And I was talking to this one guy online about how I wanted one because I already have one but I need another one and before I know it, I get this email from this professor guy. Used to teach physics or something. And he had these two engines. Was going to build an air boat. Or something. Imagine that? That thing would have. . .anyway, and he had these two five Cadillac engines he wanted to get rid of and. . .”
“He didn’t build his boat?”
“I guess not. And never will now because I came down and bought them engines. Both of them. Now I got three of them. All different years. 71, 72 and 73.”
“Are the parts usable one to the next?”
“Some. Some are.”
“What are you going to do? You want to put in in the Cuda?”
Kevin thinks about this, as if he has never thought of it before. But what he’s really thinking is, “Well. . .the Cuda is mainly Mopar. You know? What I really want is a 56 Chevy.” He smiles after he says this. He was shy of telling me this secret, and now he feels a bit exposed, yet shining dully. Pleased with the revelation.
“You and everyone else,” I say.
He blinks. “I know,” he says. “I know. But that’s what I want.”
The shaft has cooled down a bit now, and it’s shining dully as well, all the small pockmarks from the rust burrowed into the steel like cancer visible, and Kevin is lighting his torch again and heating the hub and then I’m grabbing my brass punch and the Bitch.
“Ready for the moment of truth?” I say, hammer poised.
“I’m ready,” he says.
“I take a little, abbreviated swing, careful to drive my punch in the center of the shaft so as not to peen the edge. The shaft moves. I do it again. The shaft scoots along again. I do it again, the shaft level with the hub now, and there is suddenly no movement.
“Uh oh,” I say, bending down and looking under the vice at the length of shaft, which has been driven up against a stationary part on the bench.
“It’s hitting something,” I say. Kevin bends down and moves the shaft, so it’s clear of the obstacle.
I drive the shaft partway down through the hub and my punch bottoms out. Kevin starts searching around again for something.
It’s May 13th. And still the spring refuses to arrive. Despite the flowering trees and bushes. Despite all our wishes. The wind is steady and strong from the north and west. The temperature around the fifty degree mark. It’s cold if you’re not working. If you’re just sitting and considering things. Outside is not a place to be. But of course, we’re not outside. We’re in the boiler room. With the classic car calendars on the wall and all the tools spread about.
Kevin comes up with a half-inch bolt. I grab it. Stick it in the hole, and tap it with The Bitch. The small, cut up, heated up, rusted up length of shaft pings against the concrete floor of the boiler room, where so many of these jobs have been done through the years. Where it’s always warm, thanks to the burning of #2 fossil fuel oil in the big, old not-so-efficient steam boilers.