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The Mechanical Engineer

by Charles C. Cole

I started my life in a small suburban neighborhood in the northeast: cookie cutter ranch houses on quarter-acre lots, separated from each other by the width of a neighbor’s driveway: snug.

On hot summer nights, when we opened our windows for fresh air — nobody had air conditioning — otherwise private family tiffs became unscheduled public performance art.

Since my parents were, at times, “vocal,” late dinner-table arguments sometimes led to early bedtime for the kids, conveniently tucked behind closed doors. Typically, Dad would go for gasoline in the company car, while Mom did the dishes, whistling the while. During these quieter times, I would kneel on my bed and watch out the window at the free neighborhood drama.

One evening before the sun had set, around 1974, directly across the street, Mrs. Roy, an antisocial — some said fragile — housewife in white coveralls, stood behind Mr. Roy’s Ford mustang calling for her husband, who was still in the house.

Mrs. Roy was prettier and younger than any of the other “wives” on our street, resembling Adrienne Barbeau from TV’s Maude, but she never seemed happy. If I had to guess, I’d say she was meant for a neighborhood without kids.

The Roys were the newest residents of Sunset Drive, less than a year. They were different: no children, cool matching cars. His was off-white and hers was dark green. And she sometimes watered the lawn in a bikini. At these times, my dad would look up from his recliner, where he was watching the news, clear his throat solemnly, then turn back to the serious world of Walter Cronkite.

“Marty!” Mrs. Roy called. “Did you see what you did? Come here!”

Mr. Roy stepped out the open garage door, but only “just.” He held a wash towel against the back of his neck like he had a headache.

“Problem?” he called, standing some two car-lengths away.

“Yes, Marty, there is. You left two bags of ice in the trunk of the car when you got home, and now there’s nothing left.”

“You mean someone stole them?” he asked.

“No, I mean there’s nothing left: they’ve completely melted.” She held the bags up so he could see. “I thought you’d brought me home sea monkeys, but the bags were empty.”

“Not even water?” he asked, clearly confused.

“Yes, water, but no ice. We’ve already got water. We needed ice.”

“Forgot all about it. Sorry,” he said. “Crazy day at work: Disneyworld called for some tips on animatronics. Do you want me to go to the store? I think Acme is still open for a while yet.”

“No,” she said, “I’ll go. I should have gone a long time ago.”

Adam 12 will be on soon,” he said. “Can’t it wait?”

“It can’t. I’ve got to go now, while my mind’s made up. My bags are already packed.”

“What do you need your bags for?” he asked. She brushed by him on her way in the house. She was really going somewhere. “I said what do you need your bags for?” Mrs. Roy returned quickly, dragging two ugly orange suitcases. “This is stupid,” he said as she stuffed them in the back seat. “What do I tell my parents?”

“Tell them I went back to college to finish my degree.”

“Is that what this is all about?” he asked.

“You wanted to know what to tell them,” she said. “I’ll call you when I get where I’m going.” Then she backed out the driveway and left.

Mr. and Mrs. Sid Baron, first in the neighborhood, when the other houses were still under construction, married over fifty years with not a single fight I could recall, watched the whole thing from their deck chairs on the concrete front stoop next-door. Mr. Roy turned to them and shrugged. “She was an actress in college.” They nodded sympathetically.

Three days later, I was back at my window when Mrs. Roy returned. Mr. Roy, in T-shirt and jeans, had his car in the middle of their drive, rinsing it with the garden hose. She parked along the edge of the road and pulled the two suitcases out.

“You get the ice?” he called sarcastically.

“Do we need some?” she asked

“I guess Acme must have been closed,” he said.

“Honey,” she said, “why are my suitcases in the car?”

‘You really don’t remember?” he asked. “Probably a side-effect of your prescription.”

“I feel so tired,” she said, as she swooned. He tossed the hose and caught her.

“Let’s get you to the couch,” he said. He pulled her arm over his shoulders and escorted her through the open garage, which seemed to have gotten messier while she was gone. They never had another public argument, not in their remaining six months in the neighborhood.

Mr. Roy was an important engineer at a national electronics firm, according to Dad. When they decided to move him to another office, his company bought his house and made arrangements to have his stuff boxed and shipped. He and his wife simply climbed into their cars with their ugly orange suitcases and never came back.

One rainy day, I cut through their backyard on the way to a friend’s. Noticing the backdoor to the garage ajar, I peeked. This was a separate room behind the garage, as clean as the other was messy: bright white walls, swept floor, everything organized by labeled shelves or drawers, overseen by a movie poster of Fritz Lang’s “human impostor” robot in the classic Metropolis.

In the middle of the room, like a set from The Six Million Dollar Man, was a person-sized stainless steel “morgue” table with lights hanging low over it. I suddenly felt self-conscious and backed out, crunching a little electronic gizmo on the floor. Picking it up, I read the attached label: “Made in Stepford, USA.” Creepy scientist humor. Maybe, public performances aside, meek Mr. Roy had complete control of his life after all.

Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole

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