A Few Minutes Past Midnight
A Few Minutes Past Midnight
N O -N ECK A RNIE , the mechanic was wiping his hands on a greasy rag when I drove into his garage. Four other cars were there with their hoods open like baby birds waiting for a worm, a bug, or a spark plug.
A radio in the background was playing the Harry James version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."
Arnie wore his gray, dirty mechanic's uniform and a look on his face that, as he watched me, said clearly, "You think you've got problems."
Arnie was around sixty, solid with a little belly, blue eyes, and short steel-gray hair. He had no neck or almost none. It would take a trained medical professional to find one if it existed.
Before I got out of the Crosley, Arnie said, "Valves."
Arnie always said, "valves." He seemed to believe faulty, leaky, malicious valves were responsible for all of man's automotive problems. I think if I had asked him what Hitler's problem was, Arnie would have said "valves." He may have been right.
I climbed out and stood next to Arnie as he continued to wipe his hands and look at the car he had sold me about a year earlier, telling me it was a reliable machine that he could keep running.
"It runs on washing machine and refrigerator parts," he had said.
"Does it make ice and clean underwear?" I had asked.
Arnie had grunted and told me the price of the car.
Now he stood before it, walked around it, shook his head.
"Looks bad," he said.
"Don't you want to know what the problem is?" I asked.
Harry James hit a high note on his trumpet. Arnie paused to listen and then said, "Valves."
"I get backfire. The car stalls. I think it's sick."
"Leave it," he said reaching out for the keys. I took the car key from the ring and dropped it in his hand. "Give me an hour. Make that two. Scovill is ahead of you. He's got a big problem."
"Valves?" I guessed.
"No, gall bladder. Nice guy."
Harry James held the last note for about eight seconds and I walked out into the morning.
The walk to the Farraday Building took about ten minutes. It was late in the morning as I passed Manny's Taco Palace and looked inside for a familiar face. Manny was the only one I recognized. He looked up from his newspaper behind the counter and nodded. I nodded back and considered a morning taco. I decided to do some work first before rewarding myself with indigestion.
The Farraday Building is on Hoover near Ninth. I don't know who Farraday was, but the building bearing his name deserved to be condemned in 1930 or restored as an historic relic. The owner of the building, Jeremy Butler, poet, ex-wrestler, and friend, lived in the Farraday with his wife, Alice, and their baby, Natasha. Jeremy fought the daily attack on his property with elbow grease, Lysol, and determination.
The Farraday is a refuge for alcoholic doctors, broken-down baby photographers, has-been and never-was movie agents and producers, a fortune-teller named Juanita, a music teacher, and one third-rate dentist named Sheldon Minck whose chamber of horrors was on the sixth floor. I sublet a near closet-sized cubbyhole off of Shelly's chamber.
My footsteps echoed on the fake marble in the dark lobby of the Farraday. There were voices, off-key music, and sounds of machines and typewriters joining the odd beat of my feet. The lobby was wide and six stories high. At each level a black-painted iron railing stood a dozen feet from the office doors. An ancient elevator of the same black-painted iron creaked when I stepped in and whirred slowly upward as I looked down into the lobby. There, Jeremy Butler stepped out of the shadows holding a mop, a bucket, and a bottle of Lysol.
"Toby," he called, growing smaller, which was no mean trick considering Jeremy's bulk. His bald head caught a beam of light from some u