Short Story by Penny Goetjen
The thick smell of gasoline hung in the air like damp fog on a summer morning. He no longer noticed. The station had been handed down to him by his father. Red was third generation grease monkey entrepreneur. And it had been a steady business over the years. Provided his family a comfortable existence, if not overly so. That was, until the big chain muffler shop and lube joint muscled their way in and put down roots over on Main Street. It was hard for him to compete. His small business didn’t have all the fancy advertising the big guns had. Except for a few regulars, his clientele had all but forgotten the place tucked off onto a wooded side road, just up from the local elementary school his two grandchildren attended.
They were his daughter’s kids, and he cherished every moment he spent with them. The three were the only family he had. His wife, God rest her soul, would have loved to see them grow up, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The ding-ding from a car pulling in yanked him back from his thoughts. Latching onto the edge of the cluttered desk, he hauled himself out of the chair, wincing at sharp pain in his hip as he put weight on it. Damn old age. And New England winters didn’t help. He stroked the top of Edna’s wooden frame with two grease-laden fingers before scooping up the smudged metal one in his pudgy hands. He planted a tender kiss on two cherubs smiling out at him. The younger one was the spitting image of her mother.
Snatching a faded chamois rag off the hook next to the door, Red threw it over his shoulder as he headed into the garage where two bays lay empty. Not much work lately.
A dirty blue sedan with a dented driver’s side door limped into the far bay, rolling in on the rim, the tire nearly torn to shreds. Dumb ass didn’t know enough to pull over for a flat. A young guy who looked to be in his late teens scrambled out. He appeared to be wearing thick eyeliner that made his dark eyes look sunken. The door groaned as he slammed it shut.
“Damn f**king piece of crap.” He pounded the roof with the side of his fist in a dull thud. His black leather jacket didn’t seem a practical choice given the chill in the air. His boots looked like army-issue, also black. Red paused for a moment to size him up. What kind of ornery son-of-a-gun had just burst into his peaceable kingdom? He decided to take a light-hearted approach.
“Well, I’ll be darned. Isn’t that a fine mess? Guess your day didn’t turn out the way you planned, did it?” Red threw out a chuckle, but the kid just glared.
“Funny. I don’t have time for your stupid humor. How fast can you change a tire?”
“Oh, I think I can get that fixed up for you in about an hour—”
“An hour? Why the hell would it take that long? I don’t have that kind of time,” he snapped.
Never having anyone, in all the years he’d been in business, question the amount of time it took to fix a flat, Red could only confirm, “That’s how long it takes.”
“Don’t you have anyone to help you?” His eyes darted around the dimly-lit garage. “What, is this some rinky-dink one-man shop? Geez.”
Guarding his outward emotions and restraining the urge to smack the kid, Red said, “Even if I had help, it would still take the same amount of time. It’s really a one-man job. Would you like me to get started?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like I have much choice. All right, but hurry up.” Sliding a pack of Camels and a lighter from his back pocket, he lit one up before Red could ask him to take it outside, but not too close to the pumps.
The kid paced in the open doorway, back and forth, back and forth, while keeping his eye on the bay.
“Is there a special tool to take the lug nuts off the wheels?” Red called as he took a closer look at the flat.
“How should I know? You figure it out. It’s your job.”
“Okay, I’ll check the glove box. If there is one, it’ll probably be there.”
Climbing into the front seat, he yanked on the small compartment door. A loose piece of paper fell out onto the floor as he rummaged around inside. There were no tools to speak of, so he closed it up before fetching the paper with a familiar drawing on it and shoving it into his front pocket. Scooting back out, he announced he’d come up empty-handed. The leather jacket nodded his disinterest and returned to his smoke.
Popping the trunk to retrieve the spare, he pushed aside a scratchy brown blanket to reveal the barrels of several rifles. These were not the kind Red had been brought up deer hunting with. And this guy had no intention of hunting game. If he did, he wouldn’t have anything left but a bloody carcass riddled with shots.
“Hey!” The voice came from behind. “What are you doing in there?” The guy strode straight for him, his cigarette firmly wedged in the V of his fingers, looking like he would throw a punch. Instead he slammed the lid shut.
Red stepped back with his hands up. “I need to get to the spare.”
“Yeah, the spare tire so I can fix the flat.”
“Don’t you have an extra one lying around here somewhere?” He scanned the walls around them crammed with dusty water pump hoses, a windshield wiper display, and an old Coke sign.
“Well, no. But even if I did, chances are it wouldn’t fit your car. There should be one in the bottom of the trunk—in the wheel well—that will fit yours. That’s . . . that’s how cars are made.”
Clearly the kid was no mechanic, but he insisted on retrieving the spare himself and Red relented. The sooner he got started, the sooner the twit would be on his way and out of his garage.
Once the tire was changed, Red raised the car higher on the lift so he could slip under it. Feigning a thorough inspection of all the wheels, he located the brake lines and made a slice on each—not completely through. They had to last until he got out of the station.
Sending the kid on his way, Red walked out to the edge of the road, stepping over half a dozen cigarette butts, keeping his eyes on the blue sedan as it kicked up dust on its way down the steep hill. There was a sharp curve and an old pine at the bottom that had become notorious for a number of crashes, sparking debate over the need to remove the huge tree or reconfigure the road around it. At the point where the road dropped off, the car disappeared from sight. Then came the impact. No screeching brakes, just a sickening metallic crash. Taking no one with him, his day hadn’t turned out the way he’d planned. Black smoke soon billowed into the pines.
The air became remarkably still. Slipping the crumpled paper from his pocket, Red unfolded it. It was an architect’s rendering. A school. The name along the bottom read St. Mary’s Elementary. He crumbled it back up and tossed it in the can on the way back into his office.
© 2020 Penny Goetjen