There is a cooler that has ceased to operate at the Elks Club in Iowa City. The Elks Club is private. You need to pay a few thousand dollars to join. And then a certain amount of money each year. There’s a pool and a nine-hole golf course. When you pull in, you need to look left to see if anyone’s standing on the seventh tee box because the entrance road cuts across the fairway and it’s impolite and possibly dangerous to simply drive across without looking. There’s a sign that reminds you to yield to the golfers. I find this charming. The course is short and hilly. The tenth hole, tucked beneath the dining room, is bright and warm. It’s a place where I imagine I could be happy forever. Watching The Masters every April. Those famous azaleas. Watching baseball games on those summer evenings when it seems the sun will never set and the evening will spread out, warm and humid, all the way till the end. And then you won’t need to worry anymore.

I picked up the replacement compressor last night. I drove to Cedar Rapids in the snow. It was lovely. In Iowa, the weather people said there was a 50% chance of snow showers. That’s what they call it. Snow showers. This is a scaredy-cat, Midwestern, cover-all-your-bases language. Like they don’t want to get caught out. If it rains and they said snow showers, no one can say they’re not halfway right. Same if it snows. Even if there is zero precipitation. That’s where the 50% chance part comes in. I hook my gauges to the little cooler with the bad compressor. I hook up my refrigerant transfer unit to my transfer tank. I run the transfer unit until the refrigerant is safely in the tank.

Old men play cards in the bar. Not now, but when it’s warm outside. Nobody comes here now except for prime rib upstairs in the dining room. That’s a perk of being a member. Old men play cards and talk about cars. And of course they drink. And step outside to smoke. They talk about their wives. This is their clubhouse. They even call it a clubhouse. Like little boys with slingshots in their back pockets wearing Davy Crockett hats. I’d like to think it’s a place I could grow old. And not be so much a part of the world. Of presidents and elections. Globalization and protectionism. Fake news. Opinions on trade tariffs. I’d like to forego this pervading worry. The impinging hopelessness and powerlessness and confusion. And everything would depend upon whether I played the spade or heart. The low spade or the high heart. And what would my partner do then?

I overheard, one day last summer as I made my way into the kitchen from my truck, a guy telling another guy about the jews. “…The fucking jews,” he said.

After the refrigerant is transferred, I cut the old compressor out and mount the new compressor. I fix the copper joints and use my acetylene torch to braze them. I then hook up my vacuum pump to evacuate the system. The idea is, you suck out any noncondensables from the refrigeration circuit. If you reduce the pressure on water enough, it will boil at room temperature. In this way, a refrigeration man uses a vacuum pump to boil off any water that might be in the system.

In the evenings, Deb and I watch shows. We used to watch movies. We’d Google “best films of all time.” But lots of them weren’t very good. “Best foreign films of all time.” “Best westerns.” And we’d get hotels. “Best cop movies.” “Best sci-fi movies.” Every night would be a gamble. This is the freedom Amazon affords us. We can watch whatever the fuck we want. And so, our choices being almost limitless, we are afraid. The ocean is so big. And we are so small. Now we look for cable shows we can stream. The most recent is a show about a guy, James Franco, who goes into a closet in the back of a boxcar-style diner in Maine and ends up in 1960, a small town where there’s a milkman who breaks a bottle by mistake (“Gosh darn it!) and a pink shark-finned convertible driven by a school-age girl and men toting lunch pails and a hardware store. This is our current show. It will last for eight episodes.

Deb likes to put M&M’s in our popcorn. The idea is, every now and then, you get a surprise. At least, that’s the way I see it. The way Deb sees it, you dig to the bottom of the container and sort through the popcorn so you can steal all the candy. She’s a candy stealer. “Deb,” I say, disgusted. “What the fuck.” “What?” she says, mouth full. “Tell you what,” I say. “Next time, we’ll make popcorn, and we’ll buy a box of M&Ms and you can just eat the M&Ms. How about that?”

I don’t know why it makes me so angry. It’s silly.

When I start the new compressor, the low side of the system pulls down into a vacuum. I like the word vacuum. It has two Us and no silent E. It’s as if the two Us have sucked up the silent E. I’m thinking this while I watch the refrigeration system fail to operate the way it should. The low side should not be in a vacuum. By the low side being in a vacuum, I know that there’s a restriction somewhere in the refrigeration circuit. This restriction, no doubt, is what killed the previous compressor. I had no way of knowing this when I condemned the previous compressor. If I had known it, I would have told the customer to buy a new cooler. “Fuck it. It’s not worth it! Buy a new one!” But now I’m in too deep. I already bought the new compressor and I already installed it. I sigh. In the old days, I might have gotten angry about this too. I like to think I’ve outgrown that. I sigh. I fetch what needs to be fetched from my truck. I do what needs to be done at the Elks. Anger is pointless. A machine is nothing but truth. The compressor was bad. True. There was a restriction in the refrigerant line. True. The first truth, the bad compressor, was evident immediately. The second truth, the restricted line, was hidden beneath the first. And so, knowing only the first truth, as I did just five minutes ago, is a good thing. A bad thing would be to believe there aren’t any more truths to know.

Late January in Iowa forces a soul to seek out shelter. It might be the lack of sun. Maybe a deficiency of vitamin D. When you’re in your mid-fifties, and you’re still in the same trade you’ve always been in, you need a place to rest. You need shelter. You say, “Where is the place I can rest?” The Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Which was fine for him I guess.

There is no shelter here. The old men at the Elks often drink too much. It wouldn’t be the way I imagined it to be. The show where the guy goes back to 1960 isn’t the way I imagined it would be either. James Franco’s big mission is to stop the Kennedy assassination. The characters seem invented. Of course, they are invented. Who goes into a closet and finds himself in 1960? But then, we expect too much from our fictions. We require too much of them. We need them to be the place we can go to rest. Where we can follow the path and, somewhere near the end, come to some understanding of what the story was about. What it is we should have learned.

It takes an extra hour or so to replace the plugged capillary tube on the cooler. I now have about four hours on this job. Plus about three hundred and fifty dollars in parts. We’re coming perilously close to that tipping point, price-wise. Of course, the manager of the Elks Club in Iowa City is paying American wages for the repair of her little cooler, $80 / hour. Plus two markups — mine and the wholesalers — on the replacement parts. While, if she were to purchase a new piece of equipment, built in Mexico or China by workers making an average of $2 / hour, the tipping point shifts toward replacement rather quickly. There are news stories about the construction of a Ford plant in Mexico ceasing. They say due to the Trump administration. The Mexican people interviewed say they’re upset. They say they were depending upon this plant for employment. And I think, that’s a bummer. But what about Detroit? What about the out-of-work autoworkers in Detroit? I worry about manufacturing. And workers. I wonder if going to the Ford plant every day is the answer to the big question. If it’s what we should have learned from this American story.

The cooler isn’t working quite like I’d hoped. It’s cooling. But the suction pressure is still a bit low. I can spend no more time on it, though. And even if I were to spend more time, I couldn’t make it work any better than it is. Already the day is half done. And soon it will be all the way done. And then we’ll find out what happens in 1960. How long James Franco will need to follow Lee Harvey. And who really killed Jack Kennedy.

2 comments On Shelter

  • Hi, Joe, Just finished “By the Iowa Sea”–what a wonderful book! I spent my junior and senior high years in Cedar Rapids in the early 60s. My father was Assoc Pastor at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in CR. We had a boat at the time, and after the Coralville Reservoir was created, spent many summer days boating, water skiing and camping on the river–dodging the stumps left behind when the area was flooded (even cracked a lower unit on one while water skiing!). Did the same on the Cedar River upriver from CR. The Killian’s Department Store build a marina at Coralville that we used for launching. Also fond memories of Lake McBride–camping and church picnics. So lots of memories brought back by your writing. Left after high school for Chicago and only returned for Washington HS 50th reunion a couple of years ago–lots and lots of changes that were unimaginable when we lived there. One question: the book ends with your return to Massachusetts yet the book jacket indicates that you currently live in Coralville. So I assume you have returned to Iowa? Thanks again!!! Looking forward to checking out other pieces you have written. Lynn

    • Thanks, Lynn. Always good to hear from a fellow Iowan. Yes. I’m back in Iowa. We lasted for a year in Massachusetts. To tell the truth, the state is not so good with kids like Mike. Glad to be home!

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