Saturday, November 12, 2011

Judaism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 4

I've started posting the chapters of Resolution 786. I'll post each successive chapter roughly every 3 or 4 days. Here's Chapter 4:

Albert Hueghlomm was flat on his back in jeans and a tee shirt, lying in the African sun on the cement floor of his garage. He was pushing the black rubber top of a wire onto a brand new spark plug. He spoke to his son while finishing. “You want to be sure that,” he stopped and strained underneath the motorcycle, “you’re properly seated so that,” more strain, “you catch the spark.” He finished and looked up at the wire, gently wiggling it to make sure that the connection was good.

Albert Hueghlomm had a round face with a prominent nose that held up a pair of black-framed glasses. His dark brown hair, parted on the side and barely touching his small ears, stood out against his pasty white complexion. He was of medium height and build. He spoke to Adam without looking at the boy, “Did you see the spark plug that we took out?”

“Yeah, Dad.”

“It was worn and corroded,” he said. “Did you see the old plug’s tooth compared to the new one that we just put in?”

“Yeah, Dad.”

“That’s why I had to kick the pedal so hard and so many times before the motorbike started last week. It wasn’t getting a good spark…to make the petrol fumes explode…and start the engine.” He looked over at Adam, “See? Everything’s connected. If you just look and think, in the end it all makes sense.”

Adam continued to watch his father work in the morning light. He wore a light blue football shirt, a new pair of red flip-flops and his favorite gray shorts. He had his father’s facial features and his mother’s light brown complexion. Adam enjoyed helping his father by handing him the tools that he needed to make the repairs and he had always been fond of his father’s impromptu lessons on internal combustion engines. He was a child full of curiosity, intrigued with learning. His mother often boasted to the other wives in the neighborhood — her son had started to speak before he was a year old, communicating in three languages in broken but full sentences. By the time he was six, Adam spoke fluent Punjabi with his mother, English with his father, and colloquial Swahili with the servants and locals.

Fatima seldom discussed her biggest concern about her son, and then only with her husband. Even at a young age, Adam had never used his language skills to create human relationships. Instead, he used language as a tool for data collection and analysis. She knew well his inner warmth and care. She had seen it often in how he took a tender interest in the habits and welfare of the local wildlife that frequently visited the perimeter of their home. But she had never seen him express or demonstrate that kind of overt warmth with humans, not even with his father or with her.

“Dad, I don’t want to be alone tomorrow,” Adam said.

“You won’t be. Santina will be with you.” Santina was his babysitter. His father continued, “And Mom will be back the day after I leave.” His mother was completing Umra, the smaller Haj or Muslim pilgrimage, that year, away at Mecca. “I hadn’t planned on leaving, but there’s a chance for a big sugar buy in Kampala at a good price. I should make this trip.”

Albert Hueghlomm looked at his son, realizing that his explanations hadn’t assuaged the boy’s concern. He tried another approach. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring back an Action Man from Kampala.” Action Man was a toy that Adam had asked for a couple of weeks ago, a plastic soldier with moveable limbs.

“OK.” Adam accepted the consolation. “How did Action Man get that cut on his face?”
he asked his father.

“Being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Albert Hueghlomm.

“Why didn’t you go to Mecca with Mom?”

His father didn’t reply right away. “I’m not allowed,” he finally said, and then stopped and wondered if there was any way to explain why to a child. He gave up and stammered, “It might not be safe.”

“If it’s not safe, why did you let Mommy go?”

“It’s safe for her.”

“But you’re bigger than her so it should be even safer for you?”

“I didn’t mean that kind of safe.”

“Isn’t there only one kind of ‘safe’?”

“There’s a lot more to what words can mean…and sometimes a lot less.”

“Then what good are words?”

“Adam,” he said and then stopped, his frustration growing.

Adam pressed, “You’re leaving. Mommy’s gone. Words don’t mean anything. And all I have is Action Man.”

“Adam,” Albert Hueghlomm’s tone was starting to become angry. He felt flustered by his son’s characteristic inquisitions and he had a lot to do on short notice to prepare for tomorrow’s trip to Kampala. “I’m sorry, Adam.” His tone softened as he caught and controlled his paternal frustration. “I’m sorry.”

Sensing his father’s annoyance, Adam let the issue drop.

Albert Hueghlomm knelt and placed his tools back into their box, wiping his hands on a shop rag, now smiling over at his son. “Hey, I know something you can do for me one day.” He stood and walked to Adam, continuing to wipe his hands on the rag, a wistful smile on his face. He leaned down to Adam lovingly. His cologne was a mixture of sandalwood and spicy tones of musk. His eyes sparkled like Christmas lights as he spoke. “One day I want you to go to Jerusalem and say a prayer for me. I’ve never been. I’ve always wanted to.” He stood straight and tossed the rag on top of the closed toolbox, smiling broadly, becoming more and more pleased with the thought of his son making a pilgrimage to the Holy City on his behalf.

“We have Jerusalem now, you know,” he beamed proudly.

“Who had it before us?” asked Adam happily.

The circumstantial irony froze Albert Hueghlomm in place.


  1. That's a great little scene between father and can sense the love and frustration at the same time. Great job.

  2. Thank you, Jay! Yes, love and frustration - the two staples of family life :)

  3. Wonderfully conveyed emotion. Being in a home with two differing religions, I understand the frustrations. I particularly loved your ending, as the father must come to terms with the fact that his son is not only 'us', but 'they' as well. The dichotomy carries great impact.

  4. Thanks, Nadja. Yes, the dichotomy continues on through the book and is an anchor in the central character's sense of self.

    Happy to see another household that can meld the presence of two religions.