by Diane Lapeña
I ring Pulaski’s doorbell, and after a time he appears.
“There are complaints about your cars.” I tack on an apologetic tone. I’m not enjoying telling him there have been ugly comments. Three Buick Roadmasters have been sitting in his driveway, leaking oil, for the better part of five years. “Could you move them?”
A majority of hands at the Barnstone Neighbourhood Association meeting waved agreement to the motion that we would ask him to purge them from his wide driveway. We all know Pulaski by sight as the coverall-clad figure who tinkers with them on weekends for hours at a time.
Otherwise, even long-standing residents of the neighbourhood know little more, except that a woman once lived there with him. Now there is only a medium-sized mutt who hovers around his legs as he bends over the inner workings of the Buicks, and that is about all we can tell about him.
“No can do,” he says. “They’re going to be in a movie starring Ryan Gosling.”
Pulaski is middle-aged, with longish greasy hair and black eyes. I notice he hasn’t shaved in a while, and he’s wearing what looks like a splattered lab coat. He holds the dog’s collar to keep it from leaping at me.
“What now?” I say. It’s a tough go, trying to digest this bit of news. I haven’t been sleeping.
“I’m renting them out as props to the movie biz,” he says. “Next month, they’re coming to borrow them for an eighties shoot here in town. So, for now, they stay put.”
This man is a superb liar, I think, with reluctant admiration.
Before I have time to respond, Pulaski pushes the door closed, saying, “Busy day, man.”
As I turn to leave, I remind myself that I have always thought there is something kitschy and fun about the old station wagons anyway. You could even say they add a bit of poetry to the street, like a flotilla of grunge-era boats in a sea of modern subcompacts. I walk down to the sidewalk.
There are three or four kids who hang around the periphery of his property on these spring afternoons. They aren’t his, but they play hockey on the road in front of his place. Maybe they like the throwback feel of his Buicks, or maybe it’s because he’s the only neighbour who doesn’t come out to yell at them when the ball smacks his car. I stop to chat.
“He says they’re going to be in a movie starring Ryan Gosling.” I point to the station wagons.
Wilson, the second-biggest kid, says, “He told you a good one, Mr. Pike.”
“Hey, it could happen,” I respond, but I sound foolish even to myself.
At next month’s neighbourhood association meeting, I report that Pulaski, and his cars, aren’t budging. I bend my head over my tablet as I type this tidbit into the minutes. Ralph Partridge, our president, jumps to his feet and begins pacing the length of Etta Dipple’s living room.
“That man is a contrarian!” he says. “We may have to go to the next step.” Here he pauses for effect. “We will start a petition!”
The agitation mounts as various other members nod their agreement, but I yawn and check my watch. I am having trouble getting excited over a bunch of faux-wood-paneled beaters. However, Ralph’s complexion, ruddy in the happiest of circumstances, deepens to an alarming shade of eggplant. He lives right next to Pulaski.
“That man!” Etta says. “His wife skedaddled to her sister’s a while ago, and it’s no wonder. He showed more interest in those old jalopies than he did in her.”
Partridge harrumphs at this, and begins to walk in circles around the coffee table.
“I’ll speak to him again,” I say, sighing and thinking of poor Partridge’s arteries. Not only am I worried about Ralph having a stroke, but I suppose I am also curious to see what Pulaski will say to me next. The line about the movie was nothing if not entertaining.
The next evening, as before, I press Pulaski’s grimy doorbell. It has been just over a month since my first visit, and there hasn’t been any movement of the station wagons. Because it’s becoming such an issue at our meetings, I decide to take a firmer hand with him. He answers the door, stooping over to grab the dog’s collar while looking up at me, squinting.
“Eh?” he says. “What do you want this time?”
“The Barnstone Neighbourhood Association is fielding complaints about the storage of inoperable vehicles on your property,” I say, trying to squeeze in all the words before he slams the door shut. It’s like reciting terms and conditions from a radio ad. To my surprise, he stands and listens, although he looks kind of bored. I stifle a yawn with my fist, which helps to break the tension. We both lean a little into our stances.
“I can’t help you. I’m using them as temporary mobile labs,” he says, his tone even. “Check out the rear storage space. They’re full of some rare herbs I’m growing for my experiment. The extracts may help astronauts sleep while they’re in orbit.”
“Interesting,” I say.
“The scientists at NASA think so, too.”
“Let me know how it works,” I tell him, because I change my mind about pressing my point. I begin to feel a little sorry for him. “Speaking of sleep, I could use a little help in that department myself.”
“You can tell the goose-steppers at your precious association that they’ll be gone for a while, anyway. The movie company I told you about wants to come and haul the cars first thing tomorrow and get them ready to put on the set.” Pulaski’s dark eyes glitter, and he regards me steadily as I kneel down to pat his dog on the head. “I told the movie props guy that my wagons were early nineties; they didn’t make them in the eighties. He didn’t seem to care, said they’d do just fine. Amateurs!”
I nod and stroke one of its floppy ears and decide that I can play along to help him save face. So, he is caving in after all. I stand up and make as if to leave, and Pulaski continues talking.
“Well, I’d love to stand and chat with you all night, but I’m clearing out the last of the plants later this evening and transferring them to my basement lab.”
“Okay, Pulaski, I was just leaving,” I say, but before I go I can’t resist adding, “Who knew? Barnstone Crescent has its own Renaissance man.”
I try to hide my smirk. He notices it anyways, and then, unexpectedly, he grins at me. “Hey, Pike, maybe I’ll take you out for a spin in one of my Roadies some weekend. You look like you could use a little fun.”
“Yes, maybe some time,” I say, and make another half-hearted attempt to put him on notice. “But, really, folks are pretty particular about the neighbourhood look, and the Roadies aren’t making the grade.” Then I despise myself for saying it. Who was I, some kind of twenty-first century Torquemada?
Pulaski studies my frown for a minute, and then sighs.
“Hey, why not come in for coffee?” he asks. “You look like you could use a cup.”
His invitation catches me off guard.
“Do you have decaf?” I reply, fighting the urge to edge slowly backwards off the porch and flee. I step through Pulaski’s threshold anyway.
“Actually, how would you like a cup of this tea I’m blending for NASA? I’ve been developing it over the last couple years,” he says. I follow him through to a cluttered kitchen that smells of dogfood. A large frying pan filled with a cloudy pool of oil rests on top of the greasy cooktop.
“Why not,” I say. I was in so far, I might as well go all the way. His tea couldn’t possibly be lethal, could it?
Pulaski clomps down to the basement in his work boots and returns with a Mason jar filled with coarsely ground powder. He brews the concoction in a small saucepan while his dog rests its head on my lap and stares up at me with black, unwavering eyes eerily similar to Pulaski’s.
“I guess your wife’s not home?” I ask him as he bends over the stove. I was careful to mind Etta’s admonition to elicit some gossip about Pulaski. He looks up at me and bangs a spoon on the side of the pot.
“Separated,” he replies curtly. “It’s killing me. How about you? Still married?” I hadn’t expected him to be so forthcoming or, worse, to turn the conversation back on me. I shift in my seat and bend down to pull the dog’s paws onto my lap. My wife is sleeping in a different bedroom, because, she says, of my incessant tossing and turning.
“Yep,” I say. “Twenty-six years of bliss.”
Pulaski turns away from me to stir the concoction on the stove one last time, and then he pours it into a grubby mug.
“Well, I envy you. I would love to have my Angeline back. But, according to her, I don’t do relationships right. So, I guess it’s my own fault that she almost cheated on me.”
“Cheated on you?” I say. This tidbit has the makings of a tasty meal. I can almost picture Etta burping with contentment.
“Almost cheated,” he corrects me. “She was talking on the phone to this other guy for hours every day. It was like I didn’t even exist. So, I got myself some hobbies.” He raises his free arm and gestures loosely in the direction of his driveway. “She put an end to things before any cheating actually happened, but she left me anyway. I guess we grew too far apart.”
“Well,” I say. “This sounds like the part of the movie where it says “To Be Continued.” I could smell the tea by now, and to my relief it wasn’t unpleasant. “You may win her back yet. Your dog and the neighbourhood kids seem to like you, and you’re a great storyteller.”
He smiles wryly as he hands me the cup of tea, and I brave a small sip. The flavour is mild enough for me to drink without grimacing.
“Pulaski, you’ve got a lot going for you. You brew a good tea.”
I do feel pretty restful after I drink the first half. We chat a little more about his wrecked relationship.
“So, do you think it’s possible to win a woman back after she’s made up her mind about you?” Pulaski seems genuinely curious, but I know that I, of all men, am hardly qualified to offer relationship advice. But I do what I can to help the guy out.
“Hearts and minds are separate creatures. You can always romance her back.” To change the subject, I gesture towards my cup. “What’s in it? It’s good.”
“It’s a blend, like I told you,” he says, picking up the Mason jar and tapping it gently to loosen the powder clinging to the sides. “Do you really think a woman as particular as Angeline would get back together with a guy like me?”
“I’m sure she misses you,” I say. “You’re the most interesting guy on Barnstone Crescent.” I take another swig from my mug.
“Well, maybe not in her eyes. The guy I told you about? The one she was talking to on the phone? That was Ralph Partridge,” he says.
I almost spray tea through my nose. Now this I cannot even pretend to swallow.
“You heard me. For a while there, she almost left me for him. Ralph considers himself quite a Romeo. In the end, she backed away from him, just like she backed away from me. From what I’ve heard from her sister . . .”
But I don’t hear the rest of his answer because his face starts to melt, and his features swirl together as I fight to keep my eyes open. The last thing that I remember is Pulaski leaning in to catch me as I pitch forward in my chair.
I awake, slowly, to the sound of men shouting. Opening my eyes and stretching, I try to get my bearings. My brain refuses to cooperate for a few minutes, but then I come to. I seem to be inside some kind of thin sleeping bag, and I’m almost blinded by the bright sunlight coming in from windows to the left of my head. I attempt to sit up, abruptly, but the space is too shallow to allow for much movement. I flop from side to side in the sleeping bag until I realize, to my astonishment, that I am lying in the bed of one of Pulaski’s Roadmasters.
Disconcertingly, it is no longer parked in his driveway across the street from my house on Barnstone Crescent.
I peer out the window, and gape out at a giant wonderland of what looks to be a movie set. The car is parked as a set piece along a faux street fronted with mom-and-pop stores that look designed to invoke the feel of eighties America. I unzip the sleeping bag and struggle over the back of the middle seat to open the door. At least Pulaski left me my shoes.
As I step out onto the set, a protracted groan booms out of an overhead speaker.
“CUT!” bellows a whiny-sounding voice from a loudspeaker angled over the street. My emergence from the station wagon propels a gaggle of prop personnel into motion, and soon I am surrounded by security guards ready to escort me from the set.
“Where did you come from?” a big man in carpenter pants says, scratching his bald head. He pauses to check something on his phone. “Are you this Pulaski guy, the owner? I thought he signed off on the transport of the vehicles before we hauled them down to the set.”
“This is the one Mr. Gosling is supposed to get into and drive when he comes out of the diner,” a short wiry guy with a red bandana around his neck shouts at him. “We better make sure it’s secure.”
I crane my head around, trying to see if I can at least catch a glimpse of Ryan, if he is about to emerge from the fake diner, but they hustle me out to the gates. I put my hands in the air, nervously, as they frisk me before letting me go. In truth, I’m not feeling too bad at all, despite having missed seeing a movie star. I haven’t slept this well in years.
After they eject me from the shoot location, I phone my wife to tell her what has happened, in case she’s filed a missing person’s report.
“I thought we were clear,” she says. “I’ve moved into the spare bedroom. So how would I know whether or not you came home last night?”
After I hang up, I manage to Uber home from the movie location. Before going into my house, however, I look across the street at Pulaski’s driveway. There is nothing there but a handful of oily Rorschach tests speckling the driveway. So, a flatbed trailer from the prop company picked up his Roadies after all. I haven’t been hallucinating about what has just happened.
I wonder if everyone thought that I had convinced him to have them towed away. Well, I would set the record straight. The Roadmasters, now that they are movie memorabilia, should be counted as part of our official Barnstone neighbourhood lore and therefore will have to stay indefinitely.
That night, I toss and turn as usual, before getting up to walk past the firmly shut door of my wife’s new bedroom. I end up at the living room window, staring out at Pulaski’s driveway. There is still a light shining through his front blinds, so I put my boots on and go over to ring his doorbell. He opens the door, phone against his ear, and motions for me to come inside.
“It’s my wife,” he mouths at me. I give him the thumbs up sign, and I follow him back into the kitchen.
It is Gwen’s and my turn to host the following month’s meeting of the neighbourhood association. The Buick Roadmasters are back in their accustomed berths, leaking oil on Pulaski’s driveway, but by unspoken agreement we are now moving along to other items on our monthly agenda.
We begin with a vote on a new bid for membership. It is rare that outsiders try to scale the fortress walls around our tightly knit little group. As secretary, I call out the name of the applicant.
“Pulaski!” Ralph Partridge jumps to his feet and begins to pace in tight little circles. “Over my dead uncle! What kind of sick revenge fantasy is this?”
“He’s looking to play nice so he can win his wife back, I bet,” Etta says. “I ran into her in the grocery store. She told me he’s been calling her up. Telling her they’ll start over.”
I never told anyone what may or may not have happened between Ralph and Pulaski’s wife, because I still harbour doubts about it.
“We need to be careful about admitting him to the ranks.” Partridge is ex-Army Reserves and prides himself on his strategic acumen. “He may try to sow seeds of discord from the inside like some sort of Trojan grease monkey.”
Etta flicks back the edge of the curtain to gain a clearer view of Pulaski’s house.
I clap one hand over my right eye in mock frustration as my wife, bringing forth a pot of coffee from the kitchen, slides her eyes in my direction. She gives me a wink and smiles.
“That man makes me tired,” I say, smiling back at my wife before I go over to join Etta at the window. “I’m thoroughly tired of talking about him.”
After a month of drinking Pulaski’s astronaut tea, my insomnia is all but cured. And I had awoken that morning to find my wife in bed beside me.
“I wasn’t sleeping well in the other room anyway,” Gwen had said, “and, besides, you seem different somehow. I guess you’ve just seemed more energetic after the night you spent in that station wagon.”
Just then a small Mazda hatchback pulls up to the curb in front of Pulaski’s house, and a woman gets out of the driver’s side. Pulaski himself, in a shirt with a collar, hurries out his front door with a bouquet of roses and bounds down the driveway to greet her.
“It’s Angeline Pulaski! She’s come back to him,” Etta calls out to everyone. Ralph hurries to the window and peers out over my shoulder. He gasps, and then I hear a thump as he sinks down to a sitting position on the living room floor before falling over sideways.
“Well, what do you know?” I think.
We all drop down to check on him. My wife finds her phone while Etta checks his pulse. A cluster of the others spring into action to start rescue breathing while I head for the door. We have no time to wait for the ambulance.
“Pulaski!” I holler. I run across the street to explain what’s happening, and he pats down his pockets to feel for keys. In another minute, one of his Roadmasters is backed up into my driveway, rear door ajar, and several of the men lay Ralph’s body out on top of a sleeping bag in the back. I ride shotgun as Pulaski guns it to the emergency room, the Buick’s tires squealing as we take the corners at speed.
“Pulaski,” I say, after a squad from inside the ER comes out to load Ralph onto a stretcher, “that was a sweet piece of driving.”
“I used to work a pit crew on the Formula One circuit. I picked up a few tricks over the years.” He turns and looks at me with those black, impenetrable eyes.
By now I don’t even stop to sift this latest anecdote through my credibility metre. A true believer, I swallow his story whole.