by Pamela Painter
I WAS ONLY SEVEN when Joey disappeared so the police ignored most of what I had to say. It was the summer Mom and I moved to New Hampshire, and I felt cut loose from friends and the measly day camp I went to last summer. As I explored our musty attic’s junk and then the old shit-spackled chicken coop, I began to register a strange clatter. Peering through a break in our hedge, I spied a boy banging on a pile of metal. The second day he realized I was there, he parted the branches and said, ‘Hey you, want to come help? I’m Joey.’ He saluted me with a hammer. His red hair was a flame in the summer heat as he kicked the pile of metal and proudly declared it was his “getaway vehicle.” It looked like a heap of junk to me and it didn’t have any wheels, but I nodded and said, ‘I’m Kevin. Yeah, I’d like to help.’
Joey was only a few years older than me, but Mom sometimes asked if I could hang with him when she made her social services calls. She took me with her once but the family that day complained that my lazy eye put a hex on their laying hens. Joey said it probably gives me second sight, good for travelling. Part of my job was to keep an eye out for his father’s black pickup. As soon as his dad showed up, Joey dropped his hammer and said, ‘Gotta go. And you need to get out of here, go back home.’ He’d high tail it up his sagging back porch steps, even when he was supposed to be looking out for me. By then, I’d heard enough roaring and slamming around by Joey’s father to know who he hoped to get away from.
At least once a week Joey scavenged parts for his getaway vehicle from the junk yard two miles down the road from our houses. Sometimes he took me along. ‘It’s a gold mine,’ Joey said, on my first visit. We arrived pushing a rickety wheelbarrow and Joey stopped at the wooden shack to introduce me to the junk yard’s owner. ‘Hey, Big Al, it’s me,’ Joey called and a cracked window shade zinged up. Big Al leaned out and gave us a thumbs up. I learned that he lived here for the summer and come fall went south to Florida, to what he called his southern outpost. ‘Junk is junk,’ he said. ‘Locale don’t make a difference, except for all them fancy Florida air conditioners that only last a year.’
Sometimes Big Al poked around with us, pointing out a new cache of pipes or siding. There was no order to the piles of junk. It seemed that anyone could pull up in a pick-up or dump truck and unload an old refrigerator or bathtub anywhere they found space. Sometimes people poked through the piles, handed over some money, and left with an old dog house or piece of pipe. Once a week Big Al powered up his front loader and pushed the junk around, except for the hot black mountain of tires that never moved.
That day, we crawled over cracked porcelain sinks, toilets and tubs, door-less refrigerators, rusting toasters, eyeless TVs, furnace parts and pipes and things we couldn’t name, also on the lookout for rats and rusted nails. Names of stuff didn’t matter to Joey, what mattered was would it contribute to his vehicle’s ability to fly? He’d stand there mopping his freckled forehead, sizing up a piece, giving it a smart kick. Me, I hoped his contraption would never move and we could just keep adding to it till it was bigger than Joey’s dad’s pickup. ‘No charge today,’ Big Al would call, and we’d head home with our full wheelbarrow.
Joey would choose a piece of metal, walk around his vehicle, deciding where to attach it. Then he’d point to the can of nails and say, ‘do it.’ His vehicle got fatter and then taller, each rusty part adding a new angle. I got good at swinging a hammer, missing my thumb most of the time. Sometimes Joey had a black eye, but not from our work, and once there was deep cut on his cheek, painted with mercurochrome that matched his red hair. ‘It’s nothing,’ he said mid-August when his right arm was in a frayed sling. And then, the first week in September, just as school was about to start, suddenly he was gone. His getaway vehicle was also missing. Police came and went, poked around his back yard. His parents posted signs with Joey’s 4th grade photograph. And that fall there were several articles about his disappearance in the local paper. Twice, the police came to my house to ask me questions about Joey, how well did I know him? What did we do when we hung out together? I told them about the getaway vehicle and Big Al’s junk yard. ‘He goes to Florida for the winter,’ one policeman said, shrugging. They didn’t write down anything I said.
We moved soon after, so I went to a new school in another town, had eye surgery in the city, left for college and then after graduation moved to Rhode Island for work as a reporter. An assignment for my newspaper sent me north, back to that New Hampshire town, and on a whim I drove out past our two houses, and then kept going to see if the junk yard was still there. It was. But it was behind a newish chain link fence with a “Do Not Enter” sign swinging from the gate, no lock. Stuff seemed to be sorted in a methodical way Big Al never bothered with. Bathtubs and sinks together. TVs mutely keeping each other company. Pipes and soffits. A “Danger” sign was nailed to a stick and planted in a cement block. I pushed through the metal gate and knocked on the door of the spiffed-up shack that still sat overseeing an even larger mountain of tires. A voice yelled, ‘coming.’ It didn’t sound like Big Al and I wondered if he was still alive. He hadn’t seemed like any age when Joey and I followed him around his junk yard.
It wasn’t Big Al who came to the door. It was Joey. His red hair still aflame. ‘Help you?’ he said, squinting at my button-down shirt and tennis shoes. My realigned eyes.
‘Joey?’ I said. ‘It’s me.’
‘You. Kevin,’ he said. ‘I knew you moved away.’
‘But you left first,’ I said. ‘Where did you go? What happened to your getaway vehicle?
He laughed just like Big Al used to laugh at what we piled into our wheelbarrow. ‘Follow me,’ he said, his beard as red as his hair used to be. We threaded our way through the neat piles of junk, as Joey explained that he’d gotten into the habit of sorting stuff. Then, there at the back of the yard, his contraption from that summer fifteen years ago sat all by itself. It was much smaller than I remembered, and rusted to a deep red. I could make out pieces of metal that I had hammered into place.
‘You didn’t think it would fly,’ Joey said, laughing. And I realized now that Big Al’s front loader must have gotten it here. Maybe when everyone was at the county fair.
Joey said he was sorry he never told me he was leaving. And I had never thought to ask Big Al about his disappearance. He said Big Al stayed all year in Florida now, still piling up old air conditioners, and that he’d get a kick out of hearing I dropped by. We wondered around a bit, catching up. When I was leaving he said, ‘You come back anytime.’ We shook hands. I said I would, though I never did. But I was happy that Joey wasn’t lost to me anymore—only my own years of wonder and longing. I remembered Mom telling me that Joey had disappeared and that his pile of junk was also missing, and I recalled Mom looking on as the police asked me questions, yellow notebooks ready. I remember how they slowly grew bored as I described Joey’s contraption, all the cunning parts, and my immense surprise, my glee that it could fly.
Pamela Painter is the award-winning author of five story collections. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Five Points, FlashBoulevard, Harper’s, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and in the anthologies Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, and New Micro. Painter’s stories have been presented on National Public Radio and staged by WordTheatre in Los Angeles, London and New York. Her most recent collection is Fabrications: New and Selected Stories.