Strictly speaking, there was no reason for Ashley to attend old Frank Jacobsen’s retirement party. She’d been part of the department for all of five months and she’d spent most of the time doing the other engineers’ paperwork. It was true what they told her in school: To be a female engineer, particularly in Detroit, you need to be twice as good as the men. Over and over she found mistakes that were childishly stupid; over and over they patted her on the head, praised her in an email, and gave the next important assignment to some charmless nerd.
Frank had been the exception. More than once he’d called her over to his desk, eschewing the usual Sametime or chat bullshit that the young guys liked to do in place of actual work, and asked her for what he called her “professional opinion.”
“Now, Miss McCormick, I was wondering if you would examine this set of drawings and render your professional opinion.” And when she pointed out a way to re-radius something for materials savings or change the spacing for the comfort of a future mechanic, Frank would make the change and then credit her in the next meeting. He was an okay guy, Frank was. And given the way things were going in this business, when was the next chance she’d have to see someone actually retire?
With that in mind, it wasn’t that tough of a decision to pay a sitter and head to the old Radisson where they were actually doing the thing. Problem was, the first sitter bailed on her and the second one needed to take a bus so by the time she got there they’d already handed Frank a certificate and everybody had already said what they came to say and the room was sad, alcohol-smelling and seedy in its recessionary disrepair. The strivers and shovers from the department were gone and everybody left was older than the small-block Chevy, leaning back in the threadbare stackable chairs, age spots on their faces and trembling hands clutching the red party cups.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss McCormick, the beauty queen of this once-great department!” That was Frank, and he rose on unsteady legs and clutched her in an embrace that smelled distinctly of her long-dead father. “Without you, it was not a party. Now sit down with us and we will tell you a couple of stories about what it meant to be the best God-dammed car company on the globe! Everyone! Raise a glass!” A few cups were halfheartedly lifted. So this was how it was going to be. Ashley texted the sitter, poured one finger of Maker’s Mark into a cup, and sat down with what she was hoping was non-obvious resignation.
Four hours later, it was just her, Frank, and the second-oldest guy in the department, Alvin Banks. She was still mostly sober but the men were slurring their speech and starting to demonstrate a decidedly non-retired interest in her V-neck top.
“She’s gorgeous, Banks, you have to admit it,” Frank laughed, leering without shame and tossing back yet another shot. “Women engineers. Why couldn’t we have thought of that in 1972? We thought of everything else. Young lady,” he growled, pointing a grubby finger at her decolletage by way of hugely creepy emphasis, “we invented so much shit they had to lock some of it up. Banks here knows what I’m talking about, right, Banks?”
“We ain’t gonna talk about that one, Frank.” Alvin seemed very sober all of a sudden.
“Yes we are, Banks. This is my last day as an employee of this corporation and I want someone to know what I did.” Alvin put a hand on Frank’s arm but the old man shook it off, angrily. “I’m telling her and you can’t stop me. Probably,” Frank said with emphasis, “you don’t really want to.”
“I got three more years to put in, Frank, you know that.”
“Well then, shove off and let me talk to my date, you old bastard.” Alvin gave Ashley the what can I do? shrug before standing up and striding towards the door.
“I got to piss anyway.”
“Piss off, you mean. Now, young lady, listen here.” He put his hand on Ashley’s bare arm and she shuddered for just a moment but Frank didn’t seem to notice or care. “Forty years ago I was the smartest man here and everybody knew it. What I wanted, I got. And what I wanted was an instrumented tank in which I could produce a near vacuum and I wanted enough fucking mainframe time to plot a thousand NORAD scenarios and I got all of it, do you understand? Because I had an idea.”
“Frank, I know you’re smart, you—”
“I’m not done, God damn it. I saw what the Japs were doing with their CVCC and I had some ideas beyond that. I came up with a system that used high negative pressure to produce extraordinarily lean combustion ratios. After a month, I had a box the size of a washing machine that did what I wanted. After four months, the box was the size of a shoebox. And on the bench, using a long-stroke V-6 I cobbled together, it returned a projected eighty-five miles per gallon in conditions modeled on what became the ’77 mid-sizer. Do you understand me?” Ashley’s mouth was hanging open and she finally remembered to shut it before opening it again to speak.
“The 100MPG carburetor. It’s —”
“Real, Ashley. It’s real. But what every whack job and book-depository conspiracy moron didn’t realize was this. Yes, the company killed it and reassigned me. But not because of any grand scheme to fuck the public. It was a matter of practicality. My device required that the size of the vac chamber be precisely controlled at all times, within a hundredth of a cubic centimeter. I handled this by running all the calculations over the course of forty-five days on the mainframe and then using a series of mechanically adjusted stops that I built, like a ticker tape. And the precision needed for the adjustable chamber was only achievable at the time through careful and individual construction. It was only useful for driving conditions that would be known to the split second months ahead of time. They took my research and warned me not to talk about it again because your average man on the street, or average politician in Washington, would be too stupid to realize that you can’t predict throttle applications one second into the future, much less months ahead. But now…” Ashley couldn’t help but interrupt him.
“Now, it can be done in realtime, and we can use CAD to make every chamber just like the others.” Frank smiled and suddenly he didn’t seem very drunk either.
“Good girl. Tomorrow, when you go to work, I want you to take this key —” and just like that, it was in her hand, hot from being hidden in his — “and open the lower right-hand drawer. You’ll find two manila folders with everything you need to know. Ashley, everybody who knew about this is dead or gone. I don’t require credit, I don’t require money, and I don’t even want a night with that fabulous body of yours, I’m an engineer by trade and I know when the materials are insufficient to the application. I want you to show those young punks what real engineering looks like, alright?” Then he stood, turned from her, and walked away without another word.
For ten minutes, maybe longer, Ashley sat alone in the conference room, holding the key, the hot rush of thoughts in her head too much to hold back. She had no doubt that Frank was serious, that he was right. The problem was figuring out how to reproduce the work and own the solution entirely on her own. She didn’t rate anything beyond a PC and an Ethernet jack at work. But she still had room on her credit card. She could buy a multi-core desktop, install SolidWorks, do as much as she could, claim that she had a “feeling” about it, and then have someone else do the flow calc. Or she could… Christ, she could patent it herself. She didn’t need to show it to anyone at work. She could go directly to an OEM or supplier. She could make millions. Tens of millions. Her whole life would change tomorrow.
No, it would change tonight. She couldn’t wait until tomorrow and her badge would get her in the building tonight and she wanted those documents in her hand. She’d call in sick tomorrow and spend the day scanning everything and getting it into the cloud, just in case.
One more text to the sitter as she ran to the parking lot. Twenty frantic minutes on the road, tapping out a nameless rhythm on the wheel of the old compact car she’d bought while she was still in school, then running to the door, badging in, running upstairs, key in hand unlocks not that drawer but the one below it and —
Two manila folders, hoary and fragile with age, loaded with drawings, bills of materials, hundreds of pages in Frank’s block writing and blue-mimeogaphed papers from a Selectric II. She took it all, ran back to the car, placed it in the passenger seat, started up, and headed for home.
Coming off the freeway, she hit a big pothole that didn’t show in the old headlights and there was sudden silence as the ignition switch twisted in its broken housing and shut off. The road went dark ahead and she stepped on the brake pedal with both feet and screamed but when her windshield hit the back of the Wal-Mart truck she was still doing a solid forty-five and although the fire didn’t start for another two seconds or so her head was already sitting in the back seat by then. The tank caught and burned steady, cooking the back of the trailer, sending a hundred thousand charred bits of paper into the night sky in a perfect vortex, ephermeral fireflies in a twisting column of smoke, burning embers consuming and disappearing, until nothing was left.