Oliver waltzed the toy broom along the edge of grease pit, nimbly balancing as he twirled the pink handle in his hand. He dipped the broom and used one square hand to smooth the rope mop that was his partner's hair. “You look lovely this evening,” piped Oliver. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, and smiled knowingly at the face he imagined was there.
Oliver and his partner spun away from the pit. He two-stepped over a dust hill of wrappers and metallic dust from brake drums. The air was acrid with automotive fluids. He peeled the mop top off the broom handle and reached placed it on a stool. Then Oliver swept stray dirt back into a tidy mound with his partner's bristles. The shop’s speakers silenced for a second, the torch song ended and the baritone voice of the announcer echoed through the garage. “This is Gentle Breeze, jazz for lovers.”
Oliver used a whisk broom to shepherd dirt onto the plastic dust pan, also pink. Usually the brooms Dan bought him were pink or yellow, because in the toy section those were the most popular colors. It was easier these days to find plastic vacuums, but of course they did nothing except shoot plastic balls into what Oliver thought of as the maelstrom chamber.
Oliver propped the broom against the wall, balanced the dust pan carefully, and climbed the small stepping stool alongside the shop's industrial plastic trashcan. Oliver gnome-handled the lid with one arm. The plastic twanged and scraped. He pushed the lid back down with a domestically satisfying pop.
Before clambering down the step ladder, Oliver paused to click open the lid of his golden pocket watch. Three. Time to turn off the music and straighten Dan's office. He slid the watch into the side pocket of his coveralls. Dan’s wife embroidered Oliver's name on them every time he got a new set. The guys were all pretty good to him.
Dan had thoughtfully left his desk light on, and it cast a fluorescent glow throughout the tidy office. On top of the scattered papers and tools were a fresh Krispy Kreme and an unopened carton of milk. After emptying the office trashcan in the big barrel back in the shop, Oliver upended it and clambered on top. From there, he stretched onto Dan's office chair, his work boots leaving tell-tale footprints on the black vinyl. Tonight, Dan had locked the wheels on the chair legs in place, although a few dings in the opposite wall reminded Oliver about some late night rides. Oliver used his arms to pull himself up on the desk.
He sat on the desk's edge, holding the donut in one hand, legs dangling. Glancing around the desk, Oliver located the evening's to-do list. The first item was clearing out Deke's locker. Munching philosophically around a mouthful of nuts and cream, Oliver thought about Deke. He knew Deke was divorcing and leaving town. Oliver disliked losing anyone in the shop.
The rest of the donut would keep. He licked chocolate frosting off his fingers and placed the rest on the cafeteria napkin. He made his way to the floor and clacked across the concrete to the locker room entrance.
Deke's locker was open, empty and lonely. Behind Oliver was the bench where the guys sat when they changed into their coveralls. He groped on the bench above him until he found a soft rag. The small spray cleaner by it clattered on the floor.
Underneath the bench, Oliver found the knotted rope that served as his ladder. He slung it over his shoulder, stood in front of the open locker, and after a few tries, the coat hanger wire at the top latched onto the bar in the locker. Oliver grinned. Just like a swashbuckler. Oliver hoisted himself up, knot by knot, spraying and cleaning the metal, whistling in counterpoint to the song he had danced to earlier as it echoed in his head.
A picture fluttered to floor lazily after Oliver ran the cloth over the top shelf . When he finished cleaning, Oliver slid down the rope and finagled until the wire came free. He wound up the ladder and tucked it away under the bench, placing the small spray bottle beside it, and spreading the cloth out to dry.
The picture on the floor was Deke, his wife, and their little boy, edges of tape covering the sky in the picture with a dirty film. Oliver remembered peeking at the family the day the picture was taken during the garage cookout. He picked up the picture thoughtfully.
Back in the office, Oliver scribbled a note on one of the post-its, and attached it to the picture. “One day you might want this,” the note read. “Best of luck.” He signed his name.
It wasn't so bad, being alone. Oliver was pretty used to it. He imagined it would be hard if you weren't used to it.
Before Oliver went to bed for the day, all the air hoses and lubing guns were neatly replaced on their hooks. Tools were placed in organized lines on tables and shelves. The concrete floor reflected the highlights of the clip on work lamps.
In the office, Oliver polished Dan's computer screen, and behind the front counter, he punched the on button for the printer, and straightened the pens and shop orders. He shoveled fresh coffee into the coffee maker. All the first mechanic in had to do was add water. Oliver decoratively overlapped the magazines in the waiting area. He surveyed his work and nodded. It was good to be of use.
At six o'clock, Oliver slid in the gap between Dan's office and the shop. His room was more hallway than room, but it suited him. There he hung his coveralls up on a hook, changed into small pajamas and fell onto a mattress three industrial sponges wide by five industrial sponges long. He lazily read the titles of the books across from his bed He needed to lug the Wordsworth collection out to the desk so Dan could take it back to the library.
\As he drifted off to sleep, he heard Dan's voice echo with the traditional, “My, someone has cleaned my office! What a surprise!” There were traditions about how to respond to housekeeping. Oliver rolled over. Dan wasn't about to mess up a good thing.
Around a week later, someone new was hired to replace Deke. Deke's station became tidy and methodically arranged without Oliver's assistance. Oliver ran a feather duster over over the desk lightly. He appreciated a like mind, not only in aesthetic. There was a book of poetry tucked away by the Chilton's Manual. Oliver already liked this guy.
Oliver opened up the volume of poetry of Robert Browning. One of his favorites was “My Last Duchess.” Oliver could feel the arrogance of the speaker and the tragedy of the duchess. He leafed through the book. An hour had passed before he realized it. Oliver shook the wool out of his head. He needed to get busy.
All the lockers were closed and padlocked except the new occupant's, who probably didn't have a lock yet. While he straightened and dusted, Oliver reflected on Robert Browning.
After finishing the decorative magazine arranging, Oliver turned on the computer in Dan's office. A few mouse clicks later, the printer was happily cranking out Sonnets of the Portuguese. A welcome present. He scribbled a note at the top of the page, and leaned it against the front of the new person's locker.
Oliver slept through most of the day. However, he picked up the conversation as he laid in bed because he heard himself mentioned. He put his arms under his head and listened.
“Who's Oliver?” said a woman's voice. Oliver stretched. His shoulders popped. He climbed slowly to the foot of his bed to hear better.
“Well,” said Dan, in the honey tones he usually used to break it to a customer that a mechanic had discovered an unfortunate and expensive complication, “Oliver works here.”
“Yeah? How come I haven't met him yet?” asked the woman.
“You probably won't,” said Dan. Dan's voice drifted off into the usual explanation. “This is going to be hard to believe, but—.”
It took some amount of time for the fact that the new mechanic was a woman to permeate Oliver's brain, and he'd just given her Sonnets from the Portuguese.
She left him a note the next night thanking him for the sonnets and asking him for other recommendations. She had enjoyed poetry ever since she had taken classes at the community college before she became a mechanic. Her name was Roxanne. Like in Cyrano, she joked.
The thank you note was attached to a small book called The Little Prince. Oliver lips narrowed. Well, what could you expect? At first, he had been nervous that she might have misunderstood him about the Sonnets, but she hadn't misunderstood him at all. Little prince? Hah, hah.
As he read the book, Oliver lost track of time again. He was surprised when a tear dotted the page. He swallowed. She wasn't making fun of him at all. One quote from the fox echoed in his imagination. “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart.”
Another absent-minded sweep around the shop, the music sad and slow, and Oliver thought he should give Roxanne something that he loved. The printer hummed out several Marcel Prousts. He tidied the stack of paper and placed it front and center on the workbench, with Saint Exupery and a thank you sticky on top. Oliver walked away, but returned to the desk. The poems weren't enough. He wrote, thanking her for the book, and the experience of the book, and how it made him feel. The door to the shop was opening when he hurried to his bedroom, and even though he'd worked hard, he had trouble falling asleep.
The next night, Oliver found a note from her right next to a whole grain bagel by her ratchet set. Roxanne had underlined in “Regrets, Reveries, Changing Skies” the following: “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” She had left some of the sonnets of Shakespeare. He read them thoughtfully while distractedly eating the bagel. Later, he made sure to pick up every flake of oatmeal that had fallen on the concrete floor.
Among the sonnets, Roxanne had starred “Sonnet 108.” Oliver circled the first line: “What's in the brain that ink may character/Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?” It was a good line, the line of two people feeling each other out. Even though the sonnets were about love, Shakespeare examined other attributes of the soul. That night, Oliver left “Endymion” and “Adonais.” Those poems would be something for her to chew on.
Roxanne took her time with the longer poems. While Roxanne was reading “Endymion,” she lobbed ee cummings at Oliver. Oliver had never read cummings. His favorite poem was “as freedom is a breakfast food.” Roxanne had a sense of humor as well as a soul touched by words.
During the next two days, she taped a transcribed version of Sandburg's “Fog” in Dan's office on the vinyl chair, and “Dream Girl” to the small pink broom. Oliver hummed as he swung from the rope ladder, cleaning the lockers. It was almost as though she knew about the late night dancing. “Yet,” said Sandburg, “You may not come, O girl of a dream/We may but pass as the world goes by/And take from a look of eyes into eyes,/ A film of hope and a memoried day.”
When Roxanne finished Shelly's tribute to Keats, Roxanne confessed that she was amused at how hokey “Adonais” was at the beginning. She understood Shelly's comments about Keats, how he was fleeting, shining like a star, and that made life and death all the more important. Oliver wrote back that he too thought Shelly was overwrought.
There was a mutual volley of Byron. Oliver gave her Childe Harold. She offered him “She Walks in Beauty.” They shuttlecocked comments about Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. The stack of poetry in his room was becoming a library Oliver was proud of, much of it printed paper that he could keep for his own.
Then Roxanne left him a new book. The yellow post-it on top read, “I'd like to meet you. I'd like to discuss these poems with you.” He leafed through Collected Poems of Love by Pablo Neruda.
Oliver had wept once before in his life, when he left his parents to strike out on his own in the shop. He put his head in his hands. He couldn't talk to her about these poems. Not these poems.
Oliver mechanically dusted the shop while he tried to ignore Roxanne's many notes asking why he wasn't talking to her. He tried not to think about their letters. He kept the letters in a stack across from his bed, and he stared at them as he tried to sleep, the sheets of paper that represented weeks of friendship, and he had come to realize, courtship.
Oliver almost wrote to Dan, to tell him he was leaving, but that wasn't how it worked. The garage was his chosen place. These were the people he took care of. He couldn't leave them. He would become a disgrace to all household gnomes if he did that.
The shop looked shabby. Tool cases were open. Oliver didn't take the pride in it that he used to.
He wasn't hungry. Dan started leaving him half a donut. One night there was a note asking if Oliver needed a doctor.
After two weeks, Oliver opened Roxanne's last note to him. Read Me was written on the envelope in capital letters, underlined three times. Roxanne told him was leaving the shop, but she had one final request before she left. She hoped that she could meet him.
Oliver's chest ached. He grabbed some printer paper out of the recycle bin and scribbled a note. He said he didn't want her to leave. He crumpled the paper. He told her he couldn't let her leave because of him. That note too crackled as he wadded up the paper in frustration.
Sighing, he tried again.
“I would like to see you before you leave,” he wrote. Oliver set his chin. It was the only thing to be done. He couldn't go, so she had to. It was the only thing to be done. After she was gone, Oliver would forget her in no time, no time at all.
The sound of a saxophone crooned over the shop speakers. Oliver peered around the corner at Roxanne before he entered the shop. She was tall, around five foot. A smudge of grease shadowed the bridge of her nose. She wore coveralls like him, like all the guys, blue with her name on them underneath the shop logo. Her dishwater hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her safety goggles were perched on her head.
She glanced occasionally around the shop, hands tapping her lap. She chewed slightly on her lower lip. A discarded book of ee cummings' poems, spine open, rested on the floor beside the legs of her metallic stool.
Oliver inhaled deeply, blew out the breath, and stepped into view. He cleared his throat.
Roxanne's head swiveled as she located him. Her eyes smiled at him. “Oliver?” she said.
Oliver's cheeks warmed. He had brushed his hair carefully, washed his coveralls, and tried to look as neat as he could. A gnome's tidiness was his reputation. Before all this, he fantasized he would be a suave lover. Yeah. Sure.
Instead of answering Roxanne, Oliver thrust a small bunch of white wild flowers at her. He'd picked them from behind the garage.
“Thank you.” Roxanne held them carefully. “These are beautiful.”
Oliver trembled and hoped she didn't notice. He opened and shut it like a goldfish. “I—uh--I'm sorry you're leaving us,” he finally managed to say.
“I'm sorry too,” said Roxanne. “I liked it here. I like the guys. I like Dan. I like you.”
The last thing he wanted to do was to cause her distress.
“I would leave if I could,” said Oliver. “That's not how things work.”
“Dan and I talked. I know you can't leave.” Her hand plucked up the cummings book and offered it to him.
She liked jazz. And she fixed cars. And she laid out her tools in rows and columns. She was perfect. Oliver focused.
“The thing is,” Oliver began. His voice squeaked. “The thing is, Roxanne, you and me, there's no way we could, I mean, I can't talk to you about Neruda. That's not possible.”
Roxanne rubbed her mouth with a nervous hand. Her voice quivered. “I have never felt like this about anyone. I can't live without you.”
“Letters are one thing,” said Oliver quietly. “Real life is another.”
Roxanne shook her head. “You're wrong.”
“Surely you see how impossible--”
She dropped from the stool and slid onto the floor, cross-legged, her brown eyes bright. She kissed his forehead, her lips downy, and his objections drifted away.
Oliver stared at her. “I—didn't expect you to do that.”
Roxanne took his hand. His whole hand covered her palm. “Size doesn't matter,” she said, grinning sideways.
“Not very eloquent, for you,” said Oliver. Two of her fingers brushed his cheek. He was spellbound. He shook his head to clear it. “You don't understand, Roxanne! It's impossible!”
She opened the book to a poem marked with a ribbon and read. “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it...” Oliver closed his eyes. Her nearness swept him across the floor, like dancing. In his mind's eye, he turned with her, around the pits, under the raised cars.
“...i want/no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)...”
Jazz wafted through the air, piano and bass. He whispered Neruda, because he had read the poems, every night while he thought about how impossible it was to be with her, and how much he discovered he loved her.
Roxanne waited while Oliver opened his eyes. He thought he was swallowing sorrow, but instead he had swallowed the sun. He kissed her hand and held it to his cheek. “You came to my life with what you were bringing, made of light and bread and shadow I expected you, and like this I need you...”
They faced each other, listening to the music.
This story originally appeared in The Absent Willow Review.