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February 24, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Inside the service garage of Privitt Auto Service Center, 48-year-old Justin Bailey is wrestling a monster.
The struggle with an unseen object inside a white GMC Santa Fe causes his shirt to scrunch up. At last, the van yields, and Bailey emerges from the belly of the behemoth bearing what looks like a metal heart with veins and arteries still attached and leaking black blood.
He looks at its black and grimy coating.
“This could be interesting,” he says.
As a mechanic, Bailey enjoys the challenge of taking apart and reassembling automobile engines. It’s dealing with the “interesting” stuff that he doesn’t care for.
Bailey proceeds to a table strewn with various tools and parts, and he begins to scrape gunk off the intake manifold’s gasket with a small metal spatula. The garage interior around him is littered with hundreds of tools and auto parts. Soot covers the cement floor, and drywall is peeling everywhere. Bottles of antifreeze and cans of oil are scattered across the floor.
The place remains dark with the doors down.
The golden gleam of Bailey’s wedding ring cuts through the layers of oil covering his hands. The grime spans well beyond his fingers and claims territory all the way to his elbows. Only the dark green border of Bailey’s rolled-up undershirt halts its advance up his arm. Latex gloves present a snag hazard instead of a barrier to the filth. His hands are only clean two weeks out of the year when he’s fishing in Minnesota.
Dirt spots his dark blue pants, and splotches of grit and grime stain his powder blue uniform though his red-stitched name remains bright. His eyes are the same hue as his work shirt. On top of his matted brown hair sits a camouflage cap.
Bailey continues to scrape at the gasket on the manifold for the better part of an hour. He alternates between a spatula and a screwdriver. The heater’s growl accompanies the steady rhythm of his tools.
Hardened by 25 years in the profession, the mechanic remains unfazed by the monotony of his work. Battle wounds from his struggles with hundreds of automotive monsters during his career give him both a physical and mental toughness.
Stray metal once gashed open his hands, which required more than 20 stitches. Nowadays, Bailey just uses super glue to seal the cuts when possible.
He stands hunched over the open hood of the Santa Fe and reaches inside the vehicle again with one arm. Like a pumpkin carver, he scrapes out the same oily substance found on the manifold from the vehicle’s innards with a screwdriver. Inside the van, he finds no gory surprises waiting for him, but he has discovered unexpected passengers in the form of rat and snake corpses.
After enlisting the help of a fellow mechanic to reinstall the manifold, Bailey uses a socket wrench to secure the part in place. One hand ratchets the manifold in place while the other grips a lit cigarette.
“I need a break,” he says. He walks behind his metal toolbox, a monster in its own right. Overflowing with his personal tools, the box stands roughly six feet tall and is the length of a small car; it hides its owner from view like a row of bodyguards.
Bailey reappears, returning with a silver thermos. After taking a long draught from it, he reaches with a black, grimy hand for a pack of Marlboros on a cart littered with his tools.