We never came to complete agreement about Earl and the Endless Corvette: whether it kept him from going crazy or proved he was crazy from the get-go. Had he lived someplace else, there would have been no doubt, but because of Humble County's history, we have a higher tolerance than most for craziness.
During the Civil War, the story goes, the local leaders buried our most valuable possession to keep it out of Sherman's hands. Exactly what that possession was, I couldn't say; some claim it was the courthouse tower bell; others that it was the pipe organ from First Baptist, others that it was a chest filled with those lumps of gold and silver people call "pigs." All accounts agree on two particulars: that whatever it was, it was valuable and metallic. When the war ended without so much as a whiff of Sherman's army within twenty miles, people figured it was safe to dig the treasure up. Sadly, the papers telling where it was had been burned for safety's sake. Worse, all the people who were in on the plan in the first place had died or been lost in the war.
Ever since, the county has conducted an intermittent search—issuing bonds to pay for workers, metal detectors, and backhoes. No sign has turned up yet of the missing bell, organ, or pigs, but this has not deterred the city fathers. It is not surprising, therefore, that we are relatively patient with even the most farfetched schemes.
The Endless Corvette came to Earl during his senior year of high school, in the fall of '73, between the time his dad left home for good and Ellen Raley got engaged. It was an August evening right before his senior year that Earl spoke to his father, Roy Mulvaney, for the last time. Roy came out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind him, shutting off his wife's protest, "Don't let that screen door—"
The family Buick, once midnight blue, now faded, sat parked on the gravel driveway, its hood open like a patiently gaping hippo. Earl leaned inside its maw, his shoulder shifting as he pushed and pulled on his socket wrench. Roy patted his son's shoulder and gazed in the direction of Ellen Raley's house, across the street from the Mulvaneys.
"How's the car doing, son?"
"Just fine," Earl said, looking up from the engine.
Roy didn't know it, but the car was only half the reason Earl was out; Ellen Raley was the other half. Just before twilight she always sat out on her stoop to read a book. Earl made a point of coming out when she was there to try to make her look at him but not seem like he was trying. Over many nights, the sight of Ellen reading in the glow of the yellow bug light with her baby-oiled legs, together with the smell of wood smoke and the lonely baying of the town dogs in the distance, had combined on Earl, and he'd fallen for her. When he noticed she'd started bringing a Dr Pepper out with her, he began drinking Dr Pepper, too. He admired her for the solemn and beautiful expression on her face as she read, he admired the way her long red hair fell over her shoulders, and he imagined how perfectly his arms would fit around her waist. But Earl had not spoken to her, hopeful that proximity, Dr Pepper, fragrant air, and canine lamentation would have the same effect on her as it had on him.
"Getting the timing fixed?" Roy asked. He tried setting one foot on the bumper and resting his elbow on his knee to seem casual and self-confident, but the Buick's bumper was an inch too low to bring it off, so he stepped back down and just stood there.
"You going to have her ready before I come back?"
"It'll be ready for you. It always is."
Earl loved and pitied his father, but it was hard for them to talk. Both of them retreated into their private thoughts. From his pants pocket Roy pulled a pencil and a notepad. He studied the numbers written in it, then licked his pencil tip and began to add, subtract, and multiply, running a hand through his thick brown hair when his calculations momentarily stumped him. As his father calculated, Earl pushed his taped-together glasses back up his nose and kept his eyes on the bolt he was tightening. In the amber twilight, dirty Quaker State outlined his fingernails as if they'd been drawn on. Earl wondered if across the street Ellen were looking at him.
Ellen could have seen the Mulvaney men, standing side-byside for the last time, if she'd looked over the top of her book, but she didn't do it. If Earl got his ideas on love from car repair and listening to dogs on pleasant August nights, Ellen got hers from reading. At the time Ellen's favorite book was about a girl named Jane who loves a millionaire who loves her, too, and even wants to marry her, but it turns out he's got a crazy wife locked up in the attic already. It comes out all right in the end because the house burns down with the crazy wife inside, so Jane and her millionaire live happily ever after. Ellen just loved that story, and, well, who wouldn't? But it made ordinary boys like Earl suffer by comparison since he didn't have a mansion or a crazy wife, and as far as Ellen knew, his little frame house didn't even have an attic.
"Do you want to hear a riddle?" Roy asked. Earl said he would, and Roy said, "Okay. There's fifty-two bicycles on the floor and a dead man. What happened?"
"I give up."
"He was caught cheating at a poker game," Roy said. Then, "Bicycles are a kind of cards, son," unnecessarily. A long pause. Roy put the pencil and pad back in his pocket, took out a pack of Fruit Stripe gum, peeled the foil off a stick, and stuck it upright in his mouth. He held out the pack to Earl's shoulder, but Earl was looking in the engine, so Roy nervously withdrew it. "You're pretty much a grown man now, Earl," Roy said finally.
"Yes, sir," Earl admitted.
"We have to look after your mother. We're the men, you know."
You'd have never known it to look at her, how sick Ruby Mulvaney was. She had high cheekbones, a glowing complexion, and rich auburn hair, but Earl's mother was in such decline, it seemed like she'd been remanufactured instead of born, as if someone else had worn out her parts before she'd gotten them. She had no specific illness, just a way of breaking down in one place or another. At the time of this conversation, her hip was degenerating, young as she was. It hadn't gotten to the point the doctor would put a new one in, but getting out of bed got harder every day. Before that, there'd been a prolapsed valve, and before that, a glass eye. Earl's delivery had culminated in a total hysterectomy. And as far as anyone could remember, she'd always had that plastic hand. Ruby Mulvaney was a footwashing Baptist, but she didn't get to church as often as she liked because she could barely get down on her knees—her knee caps were none too sturdy, either—and it seemed selfish if her own feet got washed every time.
"Yes, a grown man." Roy studied the smiling multi-colored zebra on the gum pack; he wanted to get out his pad and pencil again, but now he had to contend not only with the pack of gum, but the foil wrapper from the stick he was chewing in addition to the pad and pencil. He fumbled with everything before he finally got the pad and pencil out again. Roy Mulvaney was a man afflicted with an inability to hold onto things.
"Time sure does go by. Time." He seemed to think of nothing more profound to say about the subject than just the word itself. Meanwhile across the street Ellen closed her book, stood up and stretched. "Lordamighty! That Raley girl sure blossomed, didn't she?"
That summer Ellen had come back from Vacation Bible School with more than just scripture. There's a Bible verse about mustard seeds and mountains, the precise wording of which I can't recall, but it'll give you an idea of the proportionate change that had taken place. Her breasts were not enormous, but astonishingly full to be placed on such a slim frame.
"Yes, time," said Roy returning to his subject. Ellen had gone inside, and Earl began reassembling the car. In a greasy aluminum bucket by his ankle he dropped the left-over pieces—a seal and a clamp. After many nights of tinkering in the Buick, Earl had filled the bucket a quarter of the way up with such odds and ends. "You can't stop time going by, so you got to use it," Roy said. "Life's like a game of roulette. Now I don't hold with gambling, you understand. This is just an analogy."
"Say you bet five dollars on black and lose. Now the thing to do is to come right back and bet black again, but this time ten dollars. And if you lose then, come right back and bet twenty. You see where I'm going?"
"I think so, sir."
"Sooner or later, black is bound to come up. You just got to believe in your dream. It might take twenty times, it might take a thousand, but every time it comes up red, it's just that much more certain it'll be black next time. Eventually you're bound to win, ain't you?" Roy chewed his gum wetly between words, chasing the vanishing ghost of sweetness.
"Yes, sir." The logic was indeed unanswerable.
"Bound to. Can't help it. Now when you do win, as long as you been doubling your bets every time, even though you lost all those times before, if you subtract all your losses from your winnings, you're going to be exactly five dollars ahead. And all those people you let down up to then would be relieved to see how it finally paid off. Bet black and double your bets. Everything's bound to balance out in the end. You can do the math for yourself."
"I'll take your word for it, sir."
"Then, of course, you can go back to just betting five. That's it." Roy paused to consider the moral behind his hypothetical gambler. "You got to make time work for you, you got to believe in your dreams. And you got to be patient." A mudspattered Pontiac pulled up, driven by Mort, one of Roy's friends from the Kaolin Mine. Earl's dad seemed to be about to add something else, but just ripped a sheet from his notepad and pasted it to the Buick in the wet circle where Earl's Dr Pepper had been; then he got in the Pontiac and rode off. When Earl finished up and went inside, he found his mother on the couch stuffing envelopes and watching former stock car racer and tall-tale spinner Junior Samples deadpan his way through a skit about a used car salesman. The house was warm and close compared to the outside; a box fan buzzed in an open window to stir the air. Earl threw away his Dr Pepper bottle, and kissed her on the head, smelling her sweet flowery pin curls. "You got a new shipment."
"Yes. Two hundred gross," she nodded to the cardboard boxes by her ankle. "They'll pay an extra half cent per if I can get them done by Thursday." Using her good hand to fold, and her plastic hand against her leg as an iron to smooth out the crease, Ruby folded a letter crisply and put it in an envelope. She wore a long-sleeve shirt, but she'd pushed the sleeves up to work, revealing the strap that held on her plastic hand.
"I'll help." Earl sat beside her and began to stuff, too. "Do you want me to make you a grilled cheese for supper?"
"No, thank you."
Ruby gave unusual attention to the next letter as she folded it and stuffed it into its envelope, "Has your father gone off to do some of his research?"
"Oh," she sighed, and turned her eyes away from Earl toward the TV. "Well, bless his heart." A kaolin miner by profession, by avocation Roy Mulvaney was a scientist. The laws of probability had proven to him that he must draw 1.915 times to fill a flush for every 8.085 times he drew to a busted one. He added up the number of busted flushes he'd had through the years and determined he was owed approximately two hundred successful flushes. Although on moral grounds he felt opposed to gambling, Roy Mulvaney judged those odds simply too good to resist for anyone of a purely rational frame of mind, and therefore was frequently away from home on field research. "How's the Buick?" Earl's mom changed the subject to a happier one. "Did you get the timing adjusted to suit you?"
"Just about." Earl leaned over and grabbed another handful of envelopes.
On the TV, Buck Owens introduced the special guest to a roar of recorded applause, and Johnny Cash appeared on the screen singing "How High's the Water, Mamma?"
From Days of the Endless Corvette by Man Martin (Carroll & Graf, 2007)