I know at least three mechanics who used to work for me are now dead. One was 47 (failed liver), the other 50 (carbon monoxide), and the last, 61 or 62 (heart attack). The one who died at 50, Captain Kirk, I’ve written most about. He also kicks off my next novel, temporarily called Ramblin’ Fever. Here’s how it begins:
When I picked up the phone at 8:54 a.m. on December 11th, 2006, the first thing I heard was sirens, loud and orbiting like seraphim. Then there was static and some background noise and a husky-voiced woman spoke into the phone. She said she was Val from the Port Saint Lucie Police Department, and asked me if I knew Kirk Pankz, a.k.a., Captain Kirk. A chill went through my heart. A gruesome scene flashed before me: tangled metal, crushed vertebrae, dark blood pooling. I told her I knew him and that he used to work for me. She didn’t answer me directly when I asked what happened. Instead she gave a soft apology and coughed lightly. “He passed,” she said.
The word threw me off.
As it turned out, he’d had been asphyxiated by carbon monoxide. It happened in a house he was painting and spending his nights in that had no electricity. The contractor he was working for, a Cuban-Chinese exile named Gutierre Huang, discovered him that morning slumped on the bathroom floor, his tattered blue sailor’s coat shrouding him, a can of malt liquor huddled between his legs, a little TV set up on the lid of the toilet. The TV was plugged into an extension cord that wriggled down a long hallway and into the garage where it was plugged into a Coleman generator. The garage door was closed along with all the other doors and windows in the place, and the police officer couldn’t say whether it was suicide or not.
“Does Kirk have any family members that you know of?” she asked.
“The only one I know of is a cousin named Ray.” I was numb.
“No parents or siblings?”
“No, just Ray.”
She asked if I had his number and if so would I give him a call and I said I would.
Captain Kirk once told me he loved the song Gasoline Alley, by Rod Stewart. And, being an extravagant but lovable village idiot, he also told me once when he was drunk he tipped a band in Miami $200 – all that was left of his pay that week – to play it. Maybe it was a form of anticipation for him. When I hired him to work for me, he knew very little about fixing small gas engines. But it was a small gas engine that he fixed that eventually killed him, and my shop always reeked of it.