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Set in San Francisco in the late 1950s, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is a tragicomedy of misunderstandings among used car dealers and real-estate salesmen: the small-time, struggling individuals for whom Philip K.Dick always reserved his greatest sympathy. Jim Fergesson is an elderly garage owner with a heart condition, who is about to retire; Al Miller is a somewhat feckless mechanic who sublets part of Jim's lot and finds his livelihood threatened by the decision to sell; Chris Harman is a record-company owner who for years has relied on Fergesson to maintain his cars. When Harman hears of Fergesson's impending retirement he tips him off to what he says is a cast-iron business proposition: a development in nearby Marin County with an opening for a garage. Al Miller is convinced that Harman is a crook, out to fleece Fergesson of his life's savings. As much as he resents Fergesson he can't bear to see it happen and--denying to himself all the time what he is doing--he sets out to thwart Harman.
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PHILIP K. DICK has had nine movies based on his stories made, including the classic, Blade Runner. Prior to his death in 1982, Dick lived in California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
As he drove, Jim Fergesson rolled down the window of his Pontiac, and, poking his elbow out, leaned to inhale lungfuls of early-morning summer air. He took in the sight of sunlight on stores and pavement as he went up San Pablo Avenue at a slow pace. All fresh. All new, clean. The night machine, the whirring city brush, had come by, gathering up; the broom their taxes went to.
At the curb he parked, turned off the motor, sat for a moment lighting a cigar. A few cars appeared and parked around him. Cars moved along the street. Sounds, the first stirrings of people. In the quiet their movements set up metallic echoes from the buildings and concrete.
Nice sky, he thought. But won’t last. Haze later on. He looked at his watch. Eight-thirty.
Stepping from his car he slammed the door and went down the sidewalk. On his left, merchants rolled down their awnings with elaborate arm motions. A Negro swept trash with a pushbroom across the sidewalk into the gutter. Fergesson stepped through the trash with care. The Negro made no comment . . . early-morning sweeping machine.
By the entrance of the Metropolitan Oakland Savings and Loan Company a group of secretaries clustered. Coffee cups, high heels, perfume and earrings and pink sweaters, coats tossed over shoulders. Fergesson inhaled the sweet scent of young women. Laughter, giggles, intimate words passed back and forth, excluding him and the street. The office opened and the women tripped inside with a swirl of nylons and coats . . . he glanced appreciatively back. Good for business, girl behind counter to meet people. A woman adds class, refinement. Bookkeeper? No, must be where customers can see her. Keeps the men from swearing; keeps them kidding and pleasant.
“Morning, Jim.” From the barbershop.
“Morning,” Fergesson said, without stopping; he held his arm behind him, fingers casually trailing.
Ahead, his garage. Up the cement incline he went, key in hand. He unlocked and with both arms raised the door; it disappeared, a clank and whirr of chains.
Critically, he surveyed his old-fashioned possession. The neon sign was off. Debris from the night lay scattered in the entranceway. He kicked a pasteboard milk carton out onto the sidewalk. The carton rolled off, caught by the wind. Fergesson put his key away and walked into the garage.
Here it began. He squinted and spat out the first stale breath that hung inside the garage. Bending, he clicked on the main power. The dead things creaked back to life. He fixed the side door open, and a little sunlight came in. He advanced on the night-light and destroyed it with a jerk of his hand. He grabbed a pole and dragged back the skylight. The radio, high up, began to hum and then to blare. He threw the fan into wheezing excitement. He snapped on all lights, equipment, display signs. He illuminated the luxurious Goodrich tire poster. He brought color, shape, awareness to the void. Darkness flew; and after the first moment of activity he subsided and rested, and took his seventh day—a cup of coffee.
Coffee came from the health food store next door. As he entered, Betty rose to get the Silex from the back. “Morning, Jim. You’re in a good mood this morning.”
“Morning,” he said, seating himself at the counter and getting, from his trouser pocket, a dime. Sure I’m in a good mood, he thought. I’ve got reason to be. He started to tell Betty, but then changed his mind. No, not her. She’ll hear anyhow.
It was Al he had to tell.
Through the window of the health food store he saw cars parking. People passed. Did some—did one—go into the garage? Hard to see. Last night Al had gone home in an old Plymouth, taken from the lot, green, with a banged-up fender. So he would show up today in that, unless he couldn’t get it started. His wife could push him, then; they always had a couple of cars home. He would drive directly onto the lot.
“Anything else, Jim?” Betty asked, wiping the counter.
“No,” he said. “I’m looking for Al. I have to go.” He sipped. I got my asking price on the garage, he thought. So that’s that. That’s how real estate transactions are handled; you set a price, and if someone meets it, that’s a contract. Ask the broker.
No, he won’t make a big scene, he thought. Maybe one of those glances, out of the corner of his glasses. And grin while he puffs on his cigarette. And he won’t say anything; I’ll have to do all the talking. He’ll get me to talk more than I want to.
“You heard about me,” he said when Betty came past him once more. “Selling the garage,” he said. “Because of my health.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said. “When did that happen?” Her old wrinkled mouth fell open. “You mean your heart? I thought that was under control. You told me that doctor had it under control.”
“Sure it’s under control,” he said, “if I didn’t kill myself working on those cars, under there flat on my back lifting up an entire transmission. Those things weigh two hundred pounds. You ever try lifting one while lying flat on your back? Lifting it over your head?”
She said, “What are you going to do instead?”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll get a well-earned rest. I certainly deserve that.”
“I should say so,” she said. “But I think—you could have tried that rice diet, couldn’t you? Did you ever try that?”
“Rice doesn’t help what I’ve got,” he said, angry at her, at the crazy health food store with its vegetables and herbs. “That stuff is for neurotic middle-aged women.”
She wanted to lecture him on diet. But he picked up his cup of coffee, nodded and murmured something, and went on outside, onto the sidewalk, carrying the cup back to the garage.
A lot of sympathy from her, he thought. Advice instead; who wants that from nuts?
God, he saw the old green Plymouth parked in the lot, beside the other old cars that Al had patched up to sell. By the little house with its banner. An engine, somewhere on the lot, ran loudly, raced. He’s back there, he realized. Working. Holding the cup ahead of him he passed on into the gloomy damp garage. Out of the sunlight. His steps made echoing sounds.
There stood Al.
“I sold the garage,” Jim said.
“You did?” Al said. He held a crescent wrench. He still had on his cloth jacket.
“That’s what I want to talk to you about,” Jim said. “I was looking for you. I was amazed that the guy finally met my price; I had it way up there, as I probably told you. I think I said I was asking around thirty thousand for it, when we were discussing it a month or so ago. My broker called me at home last night.”
Opening and closing the wrench with his thumb, Al stared at him. He did not look as if it meant too much to him, but the old man was not fooled. The black brows remained the same. So did the man’s mouth. It did not come up, the feeling. Behind the glasses the eyes shone, kept fixed on him. He seemed to be smiling.
“You want me to croak under some car?” Jim said.
“No,” Al said, after a time. He still played with the wrench.
“This doesn’t affect your lot,” Jim said. “You have a lease. I think that runs until April.” He knew it ran until April. Five months. “Why the hell wouldn’t he renew? He’ll probably renew.”
Al said, “Maybe he wants it.”
“When he came by,” Jim said, “he showed no interest in it.”
“He’s not going to turn the garage into anything else?”
“What can you turn a garage into?” But he did not know; he had not wanted to find out because he did not care to think about anyone else running the garage—it did not matter to him what Epstein did with it: burned it down or paved it with gold or made a drive-in out of it. And then he thought, Maybe he will make a drive-in out of it. He can use the lot for parking. So there goes Al’s Motor Sales, as soon as the lease expires. But he can drive his cars somewhere else. Any vacant lot will do, anywhere in Oakland. As long as it’s on a business street. Later on he sat in his office, at the desk. Through the dusty window sunlight entered, warming and lighting up the office, the one dry spot in the garage, here with the piles of invoices, repair manuals, the calendars with nude girls advertising Test-High Bearings and Sheet Metal of Emeryville, California. He pretended to consult a chart of lubrication points for a Volkswagen.
I’ve got thirty-five thousand dollars, he thought, and I’m spending my time worrying because some guy who leases a lot that’s part of this place is maybe going to suffer through no fault of mine. That’s what people can do to you, make you feel bad when you ought to be feeling good. That God damn Al, he thought.
They all envy a man who’s successful, he thought. What does he have to show for possibly ten years of work? I already owned this place when I was his age. He’s just a tenant. And always will be.
I can’t let it worry me, he decided, because I have plenty of worries anyhow; I have to worry about myself, my physical condition.
That comes first.
What a waste it had all been. All the work. Devotion to fixing people’s cars. At any time he could have sold out and got the same amount of money. Possibly more, because now he could not wait. And he had not managed to keep it quiet, the reason for his selling. He should have kept it under his hat. But instead he had gone around trying to justify himself because he knew that certain persons would do their best to make him feel guilty. And so they had. Look at just now.
All those years, he thought. And before, trying different things. Had he learned anything? His father had wanted him to be a pharmacist. His father had owned a drugstore in Wichita, Kansas. After school he had helped his father, at first opening cartons in the stockroom, then later on waiting on customers. But he had not gotten along with his father, and he had quit and gone to work as a busboy at a restaurant. And later he was a waiter. After that he had left Kansas.
In California he and another man had operated a gas station. Running the gas pumps had been too much like working in his father’s drugstore; it meant he had to talk cheerfully to people, sell them things. So he had let his partner do that; he had taken on the greasing and repairing part, in the back, out of sight. He had been good enough so that when he opened his own garage his customers had come with him. Some of them still came now, almost twenty-five years later.
It’s fine for them, he said to himself. I kept their cars going. They can call me any time, day or night; they know I’ll always come and tow them in or fix them where they are, broken down at the side of the road. They don’t have to belong to A.A.A. even, because they have me. And I never cheated them or did work that didn’t need to be done. So naturally, he thought, they’ll be unhappy to hear I’m quitting. They know they’ll have to go to one of those new garages where everything’s clean, no grease anywhere, and some punk comes out in a white suit with a clipboard and fountain pen, smiling. And they tell him what’s wrong and he writes it down. And some union mechanic shows up later in the day with one finger stuck up his ass and leisurely works on their car. And every minute they’re paying. That slip goes into that machine, and it keeps count. They’re paying while he’s on the crapper or drinking a cup of coffee or talking on the phone or to some other customer. It’ll cost them three or four times as much.
Thinking that, he felt anger at them, for being willing to pay all that to some lazy union mechanic they never saw and didn’t know. If they can pay all that, why can’t they pay it to me? he asked himself. I never charged no seven dollars an hour. Somebody else’ll get it.
And yet he had made money. He always had more work than he could do, especially in the last few years. And he made money renting the lot next to the garage to Al Miller for a used-car lot. He gave Al advice on his old wrecks, and sometimes Al gave him a hand on heavy jobs which he could not manage alone. They had gotten along pretty well.
But what kind of guy is that to have to spend all day with? he asked himself. Some guy monkeying around with old cars, wrecks, maybe selling one a week. Wearing the same dirty pair of jeans month in, month out. In debt to everybody; not even able to have a phone after the phone company took it away because of non-payment. And he’ll never be able to get one again, as long as he lives.
I wonder what it’s like not to be able to have a phone, he thought. To have to resign yourself to giving that up.
I wouldn’t give it up, he decided. I’d get together some money and pay off the bill and come to terms with them. After all, that’s how they make their money: selling phone service. They’d come around.
I’m fifty-eight years old, he said to himself. I’ve got a right to retire, heart or no heart. Wait’ll he’s my age. He’ll see what it’s like being scared you’re going to drop dead every time you pull a wheel off a car.
A terrible fantasy came to him then. One that he had made up before. He lay under a car; he felt it on him. He tried to breathe, to yell for help, but the weight flattened his chest. All he could do was lie, like a turtle or a bug, on his back. And then Al came along, into the garage as he always did, wandering through the side door with a part of a distributor.
Al came up to the car. He looked down. He saw the old man flat on his back, pinned under the car, staring up, unable to speak.
He stood for a minute. He did not even put down the part he carried. His eyes roamed around; he saw that the hydraulic jack had slipped, the most terrible thing possible. It had slipped out from under the differential or the hose had come loose or something; anyhow it had let the car down on the old man, and it might have been a couple of hours ago. The old man could only stare up at him; he could not even talk. His chest was completely broken. The car had crushed him, but he was still alive. He pleaded silently to be released. To be helped.
Al turned and walked off, carrying his distributor part. He went out of the garage again.
Seated at his desk, Jim felt the fear, the crushing. He kept his eyes fixed on the Volkswagen lube chart; he turned his attention to the dusty window, the nude-girl calendars, the invoices, the list of parts suppliers. But he still saw himself; he saw from outside his own prone, dying, smashed, bug-like body under the car, under the—what was it?—the Chrysler Imperial. And Al walking out.
All my life, he thought. As long as I’ve been in the garage business; I’ve been scared of it. Of the jack slipping. Being alone here, nobody coming in for hours. Maybe last thing in the day, around five p.m. And nobody coming in until next day.
But then his wife would call. Worse if it was early.
Nobody would do that, he said to himself. Leave a man pinned under a car. Just to get even. Not even Al.
I can’t tell about him, he thought. He doesn’t show his feelings. He could go either way.
And then, thinking that, he had another fantasy, one he had never had before. He saw, as clearly as before, the same scene, with Al coming in and finding him. But this time Al running, Al pulling the car off him,...
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