Barry used to work in a radiator repair shop as a delivery man and general shop hand. I was hired as his replacement the summer after my senior year in high school. My first day in the garage, they gave me his coveralls sealed in laundry service shrink-wrap. On the left breast pocket was a red patch that said “Barry” in white cursive stitching. I wore his coveralls the entire summer.
Here’s what I can tell you about Barry: Barry was a tall man. The legs of the coveralls were a good six inches too long for me, so I had to roll them up in order to walk. I can also tell you he had several brushes with danger, if not actual injuries, while on the job. On the forearms of the coveralls were a number of slices in the fabric. I soon realized they were likely inflicted by the grinder we used to remove the old gasketry on the radiator tanks. Perhaps chastened by Barry’s near misses, I was careful to never let the grinding pad near my wrists. I did, however, once get a chunk of metal shrapnel lodged in my eye when I neglected to use the safety goggles. A cavalier attitude toward personal risk was something Barry and I both shared.
I can also tell you Barry was well liked. On my deliveries, I noticed a flicker of disappointment when the grease-covered men who’d come out to greet me realized I wasn’t him. “Where’s Barry?” was always the first question. When I told them he no longer worked at the shop, they’d shake their heads and mention how good a guy Barry was, a really good guy. “He’s not coming back?” they’d ask, to which I told them I didn’t think so. They’d try to shoot the shit with me, but I must have proved to be a lousy shit-shooter because they soon stopped trying.
Barry had a ribald sense of humor. Every afternoon, we had to mix up a cocktail of semi-noxious chemicals to put into a vat of far-more-noxious chemicals in order to make the stuff in the vat disposable. One of the other shop-hands, Willie, was the main semi-noxious chemical mixer. He would measure the brew into a five-gallon bucket and stir it around with a broom handle. The thing about the semi-noxious cocktail was it looked like semen. Willie would stir the mixture, then pull out the broom handle and hold it to his crotch while pretending to jerk it off. Pale ropes of sticky chemicals flew around the shop. He did this every day. I was supposed to laugh, but didn’t because I was more concerned with getting the chemicals on my skin. Barry, I was told, loved that joke and could never get enough of it.
Barry was a good driver, which, in the delivery game, means he was fast. I never mastered the art of speed. No matter how familiar I got with the back roads of the city’s industrial parks, I’d always return to the disapproving glare of Doug, the shop manager. The implied question was, “Why can’t you drive like Barry?”
Barry did have flaws though. Like me, he was bad at backing up a trailer, which is one of the hardest things to master behind the wheel. For big jobs, like picking up locomotive radiators, we’d have to hitch a trailer to the delivery truck. I’d never driven a rig like that before and was terrified. As soon as the men at the rail yard saw me pull up, I didn’t even have to ask for help. They yanked open the door and told me they’d get it into the loading dock for me. I was embarrassed at first, but later they assured me the task was Barry’s Achilles heel as well, which made me feel a lot better.
I can also tell you Barry was good at word games. Willie had a license plate on his truck that read “WTSYRPT.” As we sat out in the parking lot on breaks, I’d look at the plate and ponder its meaning, confident I’d eventually crack the code. Finally, my last week on the job, I asked Willie what it meant. He looked at me quizzically and said, “What’s your point?”
I told him I was just curious.
“No, it means ‘What’s your point?’” Then he raised his eyebrows in a way that let me know Barry had gotten it on his first try.
I never escaped his shadow that summer. It was clear from day one I was a grainy facsimile, a poor man’s Barry. The guys at the shop teased me about going away to college in the fall. Dean, the elder statesman of the crew, summed up how they felt about my decision, “I thought about college when I was young like you. But then I started tasting too much pussy and never got around to that shit.”
There were no ceremonies my last day on the job. A departure isn’t very sad when you’ve seen it coming from the beginning. Barry’s departure had been a surprise though, something they hadn’t foreseen. Even by the end of the summer, they still referred to him in reverent tones. I can’t tell you how long he’d had the position before I showed up, or why he left, because no one told me, and I got the feeling I wasn’t supposed to ask.
I learned a lot that summer. I learned how to strip and clean a truck radiator, how to test a reassembled radiator for leaks, how to make it look like you’re busy even when there’s nothing to do. But I never learned Barry’s last name. The cliché goes that in order to know someone, you have to walk a mile in his shoes. What about wearing someone’s coveralls for a summer? The things I don’t know about Barry vastly outnumber the things I do. We weren’t alike, not really. But I can tell you he left a mark on me. I still think about him, twenty years on. I wonder where he is, or if he’s even still alive.
As an adult, I’ve come to learn that you can never really know another person. We are, essentially, mysteries to each other. Yet during that summer, I feel like I got close. The clues were there. Sometimes I think Barry left them intentionally, an invitation for someone to come along and remember who he was.