SPLAT CHAPTER NINE

October 4, 2007

The wheel wouldn’t turn when she started the car up the next morning. More power steering fluid. Her brakes had started pulling to the right when she slowed. Hot air blew out of the vents when she turned on the air conditioner. The engine sometimes overheated, always when she was in traffic. And the clutch was starting to slip. All multiple hundreds of dollars if she were to take her car to a regular mechanic. Luckily, she had Nelson, but she couldn’t take all of these problems down to him at once. He was way too busy to tend to more than one thing at a time. She had to do triage on her car every time she went to see him, presenting only the most urgent symptoms for consideration.

But first, she had to make a quick trip to the hideout in order to rework her costume. She’d already tossed the tights, and immediately found the plastic shorts intolerably sticky. She passed a cheap curbside sign on her way down Moreland. Get Ur Message Across. This started her thinking. How are the perps on the road supposed to know she was trying to teach them a lesson?

If only she could carry those roadrage.com signs that said, Get Out Of The Fast Lane, Moron, and I Hope That Cellphone Gives You Cancer. But she didn’t think it was a good idea to be flashing cards while aiming, and she didn’t want to call attention to herself. If only she could shoot a pamphlet at them. If only she could stuff a message into the paintball, or spell out Roadhog or something in paint on the side of their car.

She sat in the clearing and deliberated. But mosquitoes interrupted her thoughts, and when she checked the clock it was after One, so she looked through her bag of spare costume parts, and in the end, never minded all of it and put on her Superman t-shirt. Then she made a dash for Riverdale.

She got to Nelson’s, and found that half the boys hadn’t shown up. It was just Nelson and Cindy and Nathan. And two black women dressed in black pants and white blouses, standing next to their car, fuming. Suzie nodded when she came in through the back, and they gave her measured looks, and then slowly nodded their heads.

Nelson was rushing around dealing with a pickup in the southeast bay, behind which sat a red minivan with its hood up, hooked to the air conditioning machine. The women’s car was a black Volvo sedan. It was parked in the south bay at the moment. There were no cars over the oil change pits that spanned the southwest and northwest bays, and Nathan was just backing up a white SUV onto the emissions ramp in the northeast bay. Cindy went rushing around bringing new clipboards out to Nelson, consulting with him about the price and extent of repairs, checking to see how he was handling the women.

The two women were standing around their car, waiting for something. Suzie couldn’t tell what stage the relationship was in, whether they were just talking with Nelson about what was wrong and what he wanted to do to fix it; or whether it was a later stage there was something wrong with their repair, and they were back in the shop trying to get him to make it right. Or it could be that they’d been in on a daily basis, asking why it wasn’t ready, being told that it was a part they were having trouble getting; or that it was another part than they’d originally thought, or that it was something else entirely. Or they could be regular customers, and know damn well they’d have to stand over the boys to get the work done right.

Suzie hung out behind the emissions console, where Nathan was entering the SUV’s information into the system. Nelson came back to the console, muttering, and picked up a computer cable from the back of the machine. He dragged it over to the women’s car, and draped it over the edge of the door into the driver’s side.

‘Will this fix it?’ one of the women asked.

Nelson nodded and said, ‘Let’s hope so,’ and ducked into the car to plug it in somewhere under the dashboard. He stuck his head out. ‘How long has the check engine light been on?’ he asked accusatorily.

The woman shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. Nelson frowned, and ducked back into the car. The woman was muttering now. It sounded like an inventory of car parts. Nelson continued to fiddle with her car, then stepped back, went over to the console, pushed some buttons, and read some results.

Then he went over to the women and had a conversation Suzie couldn’t hear a word of. He stood there, towering over the women, bending down to achieve eye contact while he told them something they plainly didn’t want to hear.

And then he walked off to work on someone else’s car while they talked it over. He moved like an alien, lurching and correcting, his head swiveling, his eyes staring. Suzie wondered what was going through his mind.

Suzie started feeling uncomfortable when the women meandered over to where she was perched on the driver’s side fender of the Goat with her bare feet bouncing off the tire. The woman whose car it was looked to be in her early forties, little but strong, her hair tightly pulled back into a bun; someone you wouldn’t want to mess with while she was serving you a hot plate of food. Her friend was younger, plump, and had a nice smile, which she displayed whenever she spoke.

The friend had on a Red Lobster nametag that said Latonya. Together they all watched Nathan punching up results on the console. Latonya kept asking what it said. She was squeezed into a small corridor between the front of the Goat and the back of the slick and greasy toolbox that formed one of the internal divisions of the garage. The owner read them out: ‘Complete, complete, complete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete…’

Latonya wanted to know what was complete and what was incomplete, and the woman began to read out the categories. Nathan reached out and turned the monitor away from her. ‘What does it matter?’ he grumbled.

The woman had been waiting for an opening. ‘Well, it’s reading more incompletes than before you replaced all those things.’ She turned to Suzie. ‘Why don’t they just tell a person that they don’t know?’

Suzie smiled carefully. ‘It takes weeks sometimes,’ she said, thinking she was making a joke, feeling more and more uncomfortable as it became apparent that she’d walked into the middle of a dispute.

The woman stared back at her for half a minute, and then she started a litany, her voice low. ‘It’s not supposed to take weeks. I’ve been home from work for two days now, trying to get this thing to pass. I can’t afford to be out of work.’ Latonya nodded fiercely, smiling.

Suzie reconsidered her smartass remark, but the damage had been done. The woman continued, ‘I don’t see why they don’t just come out and tell me they don’t know what’s wrong and can’t fix it. Why don’t they tell me to go take my car to a real mechanic so I can find out once and for all what the matter is? All I’m getting is maybe it’s this and let’s replace that, and I’m tired of it. I can’t pay $374 for this. That’s what I make in a week. I can’t afford this.’

Her voice was rising steadily. Nathan was not looking at her, and when Nelson came up, he wasn’t looking at her either, but treating her as if she was a tank of compressed gas standing on the shop floor.

She was looking for a fight, and saying things loud enough that pretty soon the boys wouldn’t be able to pretend they weren’t hearing. But she wasn’t really willing to escalate her complaints. She’d already learned that Nelson and Cindy thought of her as the problem, and she wasn’t a million percent sure they were cheating her, but she was real suspicious.

However, there was her car, in the hands of a mechanic, and it’s never wise to piss off the guy holding the keys. Suzie could see her fighting with herself. She’d been taught not to cause a stir, but she felt she was being ripped off, and in order to complain she had to face down a whole shop full of white people.

She turned to Suzie again. ‘I should take it to a real mechanic, someone who can tell me what’s wrong with it for real.’ She turned back to glare at Nelson. ‘And what about taking the lottery tickets out of my glove compartment?’

Latonya grinned, her nice smile at odds with the anger she must be feeling. ‘Whoever took them should let us know if they hit.’

The woman scowled. ‘I mean, I didn’t know they’s a bunch of thieves here.’

Nelson fiddled at the table for a moment and went away, not listening. The next time he came up, he looked her in the eye while she gave him shit in a low voice. ‘But you know you got to get those wires,’ he interrupted, in a reasonable tone. ‘You knew it when you come in here. That other fella told you you’re gonna have to get wires. So don’t be yelling at me cuz your car didn’t pass.’

She snarled at him.

Suzie looked down at the ground as Nelson slunk off to the other end of the garage. There was a handful of bright shiny pennies on the floor. Some of them were face up. So she got up off the edge of the car, and bent down to pick up the heads. She gave one to the woman. ‘There’s a lucky penny for you.’

The woman instinctively tried to smile, but all that happened was that she drew her lips tighter over her clenched teeth. She looked down at the penny in her hand. ‘This won’t do me no good. I need thousands more of these to pay for my car not getting fixed.’ She threw it back onto the ground.

Suzie looked; it was tails. She said, ‘Excuse me,’ and ducked between Nathan and the woman. She slipped around the SUV up on the emissions rack, and made her way to the southeast side where a water fountain sat wedged into a spot between the office window and the door to the customer waiting room.

The fountain was coated with dust and grime, crusty wherever the water splashed. There were bunches of keys on the splash guard. Sets of keys, labeled keys, loose keys, keys that had been there forever. There was a half-empty bottle of bright green dye the boys would put into the radiators instead of flushing them, when the old fluid wasn’t convincing enough. There was a clipboard with the details of some car on the ticket.

Suzie shifted a couple of wayward bunches of keys, picked up the clipboard, and used the edge of it to depress the slimy button so she could get a drink of water. After letting the water run cold, she drank her fill, and spilled a little into the palm of her hand to wipe on her brow and the back of her neck, and then walked over to the door to hang out and look at the sky.

Suzie loved watching the sky. It was from driving with her dad all those years. What she loved the most when she was little was lying on the passenger seat beside her dad while he drove through the night. She’d plump up her pillow and put her arms behind her head and look out at the stars, her little feet pressed up against the glass, watching the sky move as he steered through an invisible landscape. Once she was older, she noticed the countryside more, but still, looking at the sky at night was always her favorite thing.

Watching the sky during the day was a close second. Landscapes take miles to change, sometimes hundreds of miles. The forested slopes of Mississippi are a lot like the forested slopes of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. And that gets just a little tedious. The little farms were always at the same places on the road, and a break at a truckstop was always the same number of hours from the last one.

But the sky. The sky changed every few minutes, every few miles. And she used to watch it hour after hour all day long. She watched the sun arc from one side of the windshield to the other. She watched fronts rolling in from the northwest; she watched thunderstorms build up on windless days over one spot and stay visible until it was dark; she watched pretend thunderstorms puff up over a parched countryside and blow away laughing in 85 degree heat. She watched the purple gunge thickening on their approach to big cities. She watched ex hurricanes come stomping through the countryside. And she watched day after day of blue sky and searing sunshine, where nothing changed except the angle of the sun. On those days she watched the hawks and vultures circle.

That day’s sky was gathering clouds, starting off with hazy white filaments high up in the blue; thickening, lowering, and darkening as the hours passed. Could be a hundred-mile area of rain. Could be a line of thunderstorms. Could be it’d all fade out as the sun went down. Suzie hoped for rain, for a good rousing thunderstorm with heavy downpours and some really close lightning. So she stood outside for awhile, looking into the cloud for hints of the weather to come.

And because she also wanted to avoid those two women. Nelson came up to finally deal with the van waiting for air conditioning. Suzie wandered back to the fountain to get another drink. ‘Are you having a bad day?’ she asked said as she walked past him, feeling how put upon he must feel with customers ragging on him.

‘Yes, I’m having a bad day.’ He looked at her and made his chin quiver, half joking.

Cindy came up asking about some part she needed to order. Nelson twisted a dial on the freon machine, then flipped a switch. A kerchunk noise occurred, and a whoosh of moving gases. He seemed satisfied, picked up a wrench, and stuck his head into the engine compartment.

‘Are you having a bad day?’ she asked Cindy.

Cindy grimaced. ‘It’s not that horrible.’ She nodded toward the two women. ‘Some people are never happy, though,’ she said, looking at Nelson protectively.

His head came up again. He looked wise and mischievous at the same time. ‘I told them they needed to go ahead and get the wires.’

Cindy turned to Suzie. ‘It’s a Volvo, what do they expect? The wires are a hundred bucks to us. To us,’ she repeated, because Suzie knew their markup was somewhere from half again to double the price. She turned back to Nelson. ‘I got an awl change.’

‘Give it to Nathan.’ He finished tightening something. ‘Yep. Those women don’t got the sense God gave animal crackers.’ Nelson waved the wrench. ‘It ain’t gonna pass no matter what we do until she replaces the damn wires.’

Suzie walked off and returned to the wooden table to rummage around for a recent newspaper. She didn’t want to be involved in a standoff. Both sides thought the other was wrong. Nelson thought the woman was just trying to get out of putting money into her car to pass inspection, and she thought he was ripping her off.

And they were both right. He’d replaced one thing after another on her car, telling her he was trying to save her money in case the smaller things would make a difference. When they didn’t, it wasn’t his fault if she wouldn’t pay for more parts. According to Nelson, you could never tell what was the real reason a car wouldn’t pass. High emissions levels could be caused by a dozen different things, especially in the newer cars with all those damned sensors.

Sometimes it came down to replacing everything until you found whatever was wrong. And on older cars, you reached a point where nothing was going to cure their dread dusease and you just had to accept it. Then it was a matter of getting the owners to pay the legally mandated $600 in repairs, and then the car passed by default.

There was a third way, and Nelson was the master of that. King of the falsified emissions test. If you approached him the right way, you could get him to sell you a genuine fake emissions certificate, guaranteed to pass scrutiny at the Department of Safety .

But these women didn’t ask him the right way. They got all pissed off about how much it was costing, and asking him was he stealing shit out of their car, and he was offended, and wouldn’t have passed their car if they’d have been sweet as pie. Not after that.

Nelson finished refilling the minivan’s freon, then went to check on Nathan’s progress failing the SUV. It had failed, as expected. The guy had known it was going to fail, and was desperate for a miracle. He was visible now, pacing in the parking lot in front of the office, poking his head around the corner like a sentinal every time he made a turn.

Nelson went out to talk to him, and came back a few moments later. Suzie and the two women ignored each other. Suzie was feeling awkward. She was automatically on Nelson’s side, but she didn’t like to see them so angry. So when they approached her again and started complaining about the way things were run around there, she searched for something to say that would make the woman feel less victimized, and remembered something Nelson had said. ‘Some cars never pass. It’s that ”Service Engine Soon” light. It’s planned obsolescence. The car companies…’

The woman looked at her sharply. ‘Ain’t no car company messing up my car. It’s happening right here, this place where don’t nobody tell you what’s wrong and you just have to keep shelling out money.’ She had her arms folded over her chest, her chin out. Her eyes were squinted down into slits. She was as angry as she would have been in the restaurant if one of her customers walked out without paying the check and the manager took it out of her pocket.

So Suzie gave up trying to make her feel better, and retreated to her car parked in the back lot, where she found a few bits of paper to clean out of the back seat, and inspected the Lake of Doom simmering in the sun the sludge was lime green and purple that afternoon. The clouds were a little darker now, a few miles closer. It definitely looked like rain. Maybe it would hold off until she was at work. Maybe she could avoid having to drive through a downpour.

Nelson was taking to the women, standing next to the emissions console and slouching down to their height. ‘I tell you what,’ he said earnestly. ‘We still got the parts we replaced. What we can do is, we’ll just take the new ones out and put in the old ones, and then you can take it somewhere else, and we won’t charge you.’ He straightened up and smiled at them. ‘How’s that sound?’

The woman looked like this was not what she wanted to hear. But it was something. So she nodded. Nelson said, ‘Good. It’ll just take a minute. Why don’t you go sit down in the waiting room?’

But they didn’t budge. Cindy had already been out to tell them they had to wait in the customer lounge for safety reasons. Liability issues. DOT rules. But they refused. They wanted to watch their car in case someone stole something else out of it. So they stayed.

Nelson went off to fix whatever was wrong with the pickup in the southeast bay. Nathan pulled a car into the southwest bay for its oil change. Then he pulled another car behind the women’s, blocking the door. ‘Pop the hood,’ Nelson called, and the hood went up, and both boys bent their heads and ducked into the engine compartment for a look-see.

Suzie wondered how long it was going to take Nelson to replace those parts in the woman’s car. She wondered if she was going to get her air conditioning done this afternoon. She wondered if Nelson was going to have any time for her at all. Suddenly weary, she picked whatever parts of the paper she’d managed to gather, and climbed into the front seat of the Goat. She fiddled with the radio knob hopefully, but the battery wasn’t connected, and there was nothing coming out of the speakers. The women stayed away from her once she was in the car.

She flipped desultorily through the paper, uninterested beyond the headlines. There was a picture of babyfaced Ralph Reed on the front page, up to no good in Georgia these days.

Bird Flu blah. West Nile Mosquitoes blah. Fed Says Rates Must Rise Soon. Bush Vows More Resources Against Iraqi Insurgents. Soccer Moms Urge President To Bring Home Troops. Cost Of Hurricane Damage In Gulf blah.

There was a long article on the airport expansion project, starting on the front page and continuing in the business section. Suzie’s attention was drawn by the picture of the new, unfinished runway bridge over I-285. The caption said it would be 1,200 feet long and 500 feet wide. The largest airport construction job in the world at the world’s busiest passenger airport. The picture showed trucks and cars barreling down 285 into a concrete canyon maybe a hundred feet high, the crews walking around at the top look like dots on the scaffolding. Cranes hovered over the scene.

On the front page of the business section was a graphic showing the yearly salaries of Atlanta’s richest CEOs, ranging from a paltry three million to over forty million dollars. Topping the list were the heads of Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific, Scientific-Atlanta, healthcare giant Aflac, and BellSouth, all giving their bosses over ten million a year. Nineteen other firms paid their heads relative pittances, a few million each, including Southern Company, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Equifax, and SunTrust Banks. Suzie felt jealous.

She threw the paper down in anger and got out of the car. Nothing to read. No news. Just this crap. She wondered how many members of the White Magnolia Club were on that list.

Nelson was still working on three cars at once. Right then he was doing something to the SUV that failed the emissions test. It was pulled out of the way in the back parking lot so Nathan could still get cars in and out for inspections. The women were still there, still waiting, still standing around looking discontentedly at their car, still blocked in. Cindy was running in with more oil changes for Nathan, who was going back and forth between the oil pit and a green VW in for an emissions test.

It felt like she’d been there for three hours. The clouds were closer, the sun was covered by thicker fuzz and giving out less heat. The breeze was stiffening and getting half a degree cooler every ten minutes. Suzie’s hair began to blow about her head as she stood at the wooden worktable, taking it all in. She was incredibly bored. There was nothing she could to do straighten up, or to help out, or even to break things if she felt like it. She could lean, she could perch, she could sit, she could walk around. Or she could leave.

But she still hadn’t said more than four words to Nelson, and she really wanted him to recharge her air conditioner. So she waited some more. Like in high school, those last ten minutes of class that took an hour to pass every day. Was it Algebra class? Or History? One of them was interminable; she used to sit there convinced that time was actually passing slower than normal, trying to devise tests to catch it.

The ladies edged into their car as Nathan moved the one that was blocking them in. Suddenly they started up and squealed the tires as they backed out into the parking lot. Nelson didn’t look up. Suzie caught a glance at Latonya’s face; finally the waitress Can I Help You smiley face was gone and she showed frustration and anger. The older woman’s face was in shadow, but her silhouette was squinched up and hard. She drove around the building, and when she got to the road she stood on it. The car screeched like an angry buzzard.

Work went on in the garage. Nelson added some kind of fluid to some intake in the SUV’s engine. Nathan started it up and revved it with a lead foot. Black smoke billowed and hurled out of the tailpipe. Suzie picked her way through the wind-whipped smoke to the back of the shop where they were. Nelson wrenched away a plastic duct that lay worm-like on top of the engine and threw it on the floor, out of the way. Nathan came by and stepped on it. Suzie heard it crack. Nathan looked at her and grinned: it was okay, that piece wasn’t going back on anyway.

The engine was filthy. Oil had sprayed up into the hood over time and the color scheme was a dark green gray blue with russet overtones. It smelled like fried oil. Not french-fry oil, like at Suzie’s job, more like the burnt oil of crushed dinosaurs. An intensely organic inorganic odor. Congealed fumes. Suzie’s nose wrinkled up in an effort to filter out the larger airborne particles of liquid pollution.

Nelson had his hands full. The car wouldn’t pass, the guy was going to pay him extra personally to get it to pass, and so he was trying all the little tricks he knew. Just like he did with the woman’s Volvo. But the guy was treating him like a god, and so if the tricks didn’t work, he might could do something a little bit irregular with the emissions computer.

Suzie peered into the engine compartment from a safe distance. ‘What happened with the women?’

Nelson had a ratchet in his hand, detaching some device on the side of the engine. ‘They didn’t want to wait.’ He sounded unconcerned.

‘You were going to leave them there until closing, weren’t you?’ She’d suspected that this was his intention by the way he’d told them it would only take a minute. Nothing only took a minute in Nelson’s shop.

‘And then I was going to tell them to come back tomorrow. The nerve of them accusing me of stealing from them. I never done a dishonest thing in my life, I swear to God.’ He stood up straight, brought himself to his full height, and swung his fists to his chest, the ratchet like a little flag in his hand.

Nelson liked to play innocent. He could work himself up. But Suzie looked him in the eye, and he grinned. Cindy came out of the office with a clipboard. A Camry having trouble starting. Nelson looked at the clock. 3:35. He shrugged, sure, still time to get a part and get it in there before quitting time. Cindy went back into the office, and he leaned back over the engine.

‘Um, Nelson, I don’t guess you have a few minutes to give me some freon,’ Suzie observed, feeling like a junkie.

He stopped, stood up, and turned to face her, stricken, the ratchet limp at his side. ‘Oh, baby, if you had picked any other day. I’ve got two men out and we’re just overrun with customers.’

She sagged. ‘Well…’

He slung his arm around her, engulfing her shoulders. ‘You know I’ll take care of you. You just come back tomorrow and we’ll fix your car first thing.’ He squeezed her tight. ‘And then we’ll go off and ride around, just you and me.’

Suzie gave in, hung around for a few minutes longer, and then got in her car and left, Nelson coming after her at the last moment for a quick squeeze and a sorrowful look before heading back to try something else on the SUV.

She felt frustrated. She felt beaten. She felt hurt. She felt neglected. Mainly, however, she felt hot. Sticky. She felt the sweat blooming on the skin of her arms and neck the moment she got in the car. She felt she would never get the air conditioning to work again.

But once she was out of the parking lot and moving, the breeze kicked in immediately. The sky to the north was as dark as twilight and deep brown purple; black under the clouds near the horizon. The wind was lovely; cool and strong, fresh smelling with that ozone tinge that speaks of lightning. Or of smog.

* * *

next chapter, fresh paint runs in the rain

SPLAT CHAPTER TWELVE

October 4, 2007

The wheel wouldn’t turn again the next morning. Suzie put the last of the power steering fluid into the reservoir, intensely annoyed. That does it, she thought. I’m going to get this fixed. Good thing this is my day off. So she drove down to Nelson’s in total clarity. He had to fix it; it had to be fixed. She couldn’t drive like this, with her car falling apart around her.

It was just after noon when she pulled into the garage parking lot. All the bay doors were open; there didn’t seem to be too many customers waiting to get their cars seen to. Suzie was hopeful. She parked next to the lake of putrid fluids at the lowest corner of the back lot, carefully avoiding the green and purple sludge gleaming in the sun, and made her way to the back of the shop.

She’d called ahead, using Alex’s cellphone, which still had a few minutes. Nelson was expecting her, so he didn’t look surprised. He looked haggard, instead, and she immediately felt sorry for him.

‘Hey Baby wuzzup,’ he said, sidling up to her and slinging a long arm around her shoulder, looking like some rail-thin, seven foot tall baboon. If there were ropes attached to the ceiling, he could use them for working on cars. ‘Did you bring me your car to fix the air conditioning?’

‘Um,’ she said, ‘I just came by to see you for a couple of minutes.’ She gave him a hug, her head resting somewhere low on his ribcage, trying to reach up so she could hear his heart beating. ‘But it’s my power steering. It’s broken. It leaked a whole quart yesterday.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he said, magnanimously, ‘we’ll pull it right on in there after we finish with that one,’ pointing to a blue minivan in the southeast bay near the air conditioning machine. He wasn’t specific about when they’d be able to get to her car, and it would of course turn out that the car he pointed to had nothing to do with why they couldn’t get to it right away. Nelson looked weary and hassled. ‘Just let me slam down this lunch somebody brought me.’

‘You just do whatever it is you need to,’ she said, feeling badly for him. ‘I’m just grateful that I’ve got you around to help me when my car falls apart.’

‘You know I’d do anything for you, Sweetie,’ he said. And she felt momentarily warm and protected.

Nelson went off to look at the progress on the blue minivan, and she wanted to follow him, but held back because she didn’t want him thinking she was dogging him. So she took herself off to sit in her car in the back lot. She could see the sky off to the north from there, and was watching a low scuddy purple line of murk starting to get thicker. In the South, stuff rolls over from the Mississippi valley every couple of days in the late spring, sopping up all that damp air from the Gulf and slopping it over Atlanta’s foothills in buckets. She loved rain. As long as she wasn’t driving in it.

After a few minutes, she went back into the garage and sat on the stool in front of the emissions testing equipment. She was very near the absolute center of the garage, and could see over the toolboxes and car hoods to where Nathan and Abercrombie, a sometime helper, were poking around under the hood of some green car in the southwest bay over the oil pit. Over in the southeast bay, the blue minivan sat up on the racks, four feet in the air with its wheels off. It was getting its brakes done. The noise of the rotor grinder drowned out whatever Nelson was telling Nathan and Abercrombie, but she could tell just by his arm movements that he was pissed.

He came back shaking his head. ‘Those boys have cornmeal mush for brains,’ he said. ‘They’re doing everything wrong, and if I don’t keep a close eye on them”

I hope they don’t fuck up working on my car, she thought.

‘We’ve got to get out of here on time, today, so they’d better not fuck up,’ he said like a mind-reader, stalking off like he was on stilts, and disappearing into the office to make a phone call.

Nathan broke away from doing something with a long breaker bar under the green car’s hood, walked over to the blue minivan, and picked up a hammer. Then he went over to the wheel and started whanging on the brake housing, rhythmically cursing with every blow. Finally a piece flew off and clanged on the floor. He peered closely at it, and, satisfied, lay the tool down in the box, kicked the part into the corner, and went back to the green car.

Twenty minutes goes by slower in a repair shop than a doctor’s waiting room. There’s only so much to hold your interest, even though the place is full of interesting things. But once you’ve thumped a fifty-gallon drum of motor oil, and inspected the quarter-inch thick layer of grime on the wash-up sink next to the emissions bay, and leafed through various stained and soiled parts manuals, you lose any interest in ongoing inspection, and just do like the boys do and ignore the filth. Suzie spent this particular twenty minutes watching ants devour the remains of Nelson’s lunch, sitting on the worktable.

The blue minivan was still hanging listlessly with its wheels off when Nelson decided it was getting late and it was time to deal with her car. He couldn’t put it into the northwest or southwest bays, because both of them had pits underneath them for oil changes, and they were getting a lot of oil changes that day. And he couldn’t put it in the northeast bay because of emissions, which were the lifeblood of the business. The south bay was occupied by a completely unattended car with its hood up, which meant that there was a part on order and they were waiting for the delivery guy.

So he had her pull up behind the GTO in the north bay, with her rear wheels out in the parking lot. She popped the hood, and everyone stopped what they were doing and came over to inspect her car, standing around like EMT technicians arriving at the scene. Hmm, is it going to live, should we move it, what happens if we lift its head?

They were trying to determine exactly where the leak was coming from, so they all stuck their heads in and peered into the grime for clues. She could see the drip from its underside, and kept pointing it out, but they ignored her because of course she knew nothing about engines. Suzie who grew up in the copilot’s seat of a big rig.

‘We’re not going to be able to tell what’s leaking until we take it off,’ Nelson finally pronounced. Everyone stood around looking at each other as he thought through the logistics of the job.

‘Aight. We’ve got to move this bottle,” he pointed at the plastic radiator-fluid container that was squeezed in next to the leaking reservoir, ‘and take off this strap,’ his finger brushed a three inch chunk of metal that was holding down hoses, ‘and get this out of here,’ this being what looked like a tieback cleat for a living room curtain, and the purpose of which was never made clear to her.

‘Then there are bolts inside this pulley,’ he pointed to a round wheel thing underneath the reservoir, ‘and maybe we’ll have to take the belt off, or not. And that’s it.’ He backed off from the engine, looking pleased that he’d figured out how to handle this.

He looked at the clock. It was almost two. ‘Simple. Aight, Nathan, get to it.’ And he stalked off into the office.

Suzie felt a little anxious suddenly, after watching them attacking the green car. They tended to be pretty fast and free with the well-being of any car in their hands, and she wasn’t all that sure she could make them careful by her will alone.

She wandered back outside to have a look at the sky. The garage had all six bay doors open most of the year, and in the spring it was breezy and cool inside. She’d been feeling gentle zephyrs calling her for the last few minutes, but hadn’t wanted to leave her car in case she missed Nelson’s prognosis. Once the pressure was off, and Nelson had everything settled, the boys had gone back to what they were in the middle of doing before. So she wandered back outside, worried that they might not get it all done today, and she would be without a car.

It was starting to look like more than just a matter of lifting, twisting, unpinning and replacing. It was more like take this off to get at this to take it off to get at that, before you can get to the things holding down the thing you want to replace. She shivered with fear.

The sky was becoming interesting. The dark band at the horizon had progressed to a dark band taking up a third of the sky. Completely overcast now, the sky was the color of skim milk, with only a vague generality of a sun. To the southeast, the sky was white cotton candy spread out like hair on a pillow. To the northwest, the sky was dark purple, smooth and featureless, and at the horizon it was deep black. The approaching rain was about an hour away. How exciting, she thought. There’ll be lightning. Probably not enough cloudbase for a tornado, though.

When she went back in, Nathan was busy undoing small bolts with an extension ratchet and putting them into a metal tray sitting perched on the front of her engine. Abercrombie was standing beside her poor car holding an airhose, fixing to connect it to a drill so they could take off more bolts quicker. Suzie wasn’t certain, but she didn’t think Nelson had meant for him to take off anything in other parts of the engine compartment.

‘So, Nathan, whatcha going to do now?’ she asked, hiding her suspicions. Where was Nelson?

‘Well, if I take this off, then all I have to do is take that off,’ pointing to a nerve plexus of electrical wiring, ‘and we’ve got it.’ He tried to look like Nelson, but that look of wisdom and lordly beneficence was believable only if you already had a noble-looking face and it was perched on a 7’8½” frame. On Nathan’s round head and stumpy body, it looked like a clown face. He looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a guy with Down’s Syndrome. Except for he had bright yellow dyed hair, and a red face, and a way of looking around with sly eyes to see if you were looking back. And then he’d flash a debonair grin at you for noticing.

She couldn’t dismiss her suspicion that Nathan was inches away from doing real damage to her car, especially when he went over to where he left the breaker bar and brought it back to rest on the edge of her engine compartment. She got up from her perch at the worktable and went off to find Nelson.

He was on the phone in the office, having a conversation with someone. It looked personal. Maybe it was his sister, who called him a lot. He was always kind to his sister; they had a close relationship. Suzie waited until he finished, watching him twist his toe into the floor under his desk while murmuring his affection and promising to speak with her later.

‘Nelson, I just thought I should tell you. I think Nathan’s doing something he probably shouldn’t with my car.’

‘Nathan, you complete idiot,’ Nelson said after a short inspection of his work. ‘I never for one minute told you to go over and disconnect the radiator. And what’s this, you’re over here taking shit off the front of the engine? Nathan, what am I gonna do with you?’ He was screeching. ‘Why don’t you just do what I tell you and live an easy life?’

Nelson sounded hopping mad, but wasn’t acting like it. His face was composed, he was being gentle, patting him on the back, acting like Nathan was simple in the head and just couldn’t process things very well.

Suzie could see that Nathan was fiercely intelligent, in his own mind. His sly looks were not because he wanted to see people admire him, but to catch them jeering. All his life people had laughed at him for being stupid. But they’d never laughed at him for being lazy. To his way of thinking, unbridled enthusiasm was every bit as valuable as skills and common sense. He’d show them, and they’d appreciate him in the end – this is what kept him going.

Nelson yelled at Nathan for a few more minutes, waving the bolt tray around and making the bolts rattle and jump. He told Nathan to put back all the bolts that he’d taken off, and screw whatever it was back in real tight. And then Nelson dashed off to another part of the shop to see what Nubby was up to. But now Suzie was worried, and so she watched every step.

The moment Nelson’s back was turned, Nathan went back to unbolting something deep in the engine, pulling the bolt out of the end of the ratchet and putting it in his pocket. And continued unbolting. And got the flat of Nelson’s hand upside his head and another talking-to while putting them back on again a couple of minutes later.

Nathan bent over the engine compartment, ratchet in hand. ”Give me that socket,” he said to Abercrombie.

‘Which one?’ Abercrombie asked, looking around bewildered.

‘The eleven.’

Abercrombie looked around at the sill of the hood where bolts, tools and disassembled car parts were being stashed. ‘I already gave it to you.’

Nathan searched the engine compartment, then took the hang light off its perch on the air cleaner, sweeping several loose bolts into the depths as he did so. He heard them clinking against the motor and grinned sheepishly. ‘Guess I’ll have to get that,’ he said, ducking under the car.

He knelt down on the floor, in shorts and socks and ugly black workshoes. He had hairy puffy legs, and he was on his knees in a mixture of grime, filth, grease, oil, power steering fluid, and green radiator blood. He looked like some demented yellow-haired satanist praying, as he went fishing under the car for all sorts of stuff that had dropped into the engine compartment during the first thirty-seven minutes of the repair. Suzie averted her eyes.

The sky was advancing nicely. Suzie edged out into the parking lot for a moment. She could see the rain line about ten miles off; maybe half an hour, the way the clouds had been creeping along. There were definite mammatus bulges happening in the dark purple sections. Maybe there was more to that line of clouds than there looked. Maybe a tornado. Suzie’s hopes lifted.

The air was looking mighty dim under the base of that line, boding well for a convincing downpour. The wind was starting to pick up, and it felt six degrees colder than it had the last time she went outside. The half of the sky that was dark cloud before was now three quarters of a sky of purple gray cloud bottom, and the folds and swirls of thick air changed quickly enough to watch, so she stood there for a little while, experiencing the approach of the weather, feeling the wind in her hair.

She’d forgotten to watch over her car, and suddenly remembered, and scrambled back inside when she heard Nelson yelling. She felt guilty to discover that Nathan had removed the hubcap and had started unbolting lug nuts on the righthand wheel. She hadn’t noticed the Xeeem of the airgun they used to remove tires, but unless it was musical, she didn’t tend to notice noise.

Nelson leaned into the car with both hands, wrenching at something that Nathan had only partially freed, cursing ‘You goddamn idiot, you’re dumber than a sack of potatoes.’ Nathan stopped to think over that image, and the rest of what Nelson had to say went into his potato-head ears and came right out the other side. Suzie could see it. Like she could see puffs of smoke coming out of his ears when he was really thinking hard.

What was so cool about Nathan was that nothing ever fazed him. No matter what horrible thing he’d done, like when he unscrewed the radiator cap while the car was hot and shot boiling green liquid all over himself. The radiator vomited steaming fluid all over the engine compartment and all over the floor, and he had to put down a bag of clay to soak it up, ducking and grinning and saying, ‘Oops,’ and trying to explain why it wasn’t his fault, and hoping this didn’t mean you didn’t like him no more. He was like a Wookie with puppy dog eyes and a blond wig.

Like a broken record, Nelson told him, ‘Just finish taking this retainer off here,’ he said, leaning in to wrench the bolt free himself, ‘and lift this off. See how simple? Give me the breaker bar.’ And Nathan stood there handing Doctor Nelson his instrument and watching as the master levered the engine up and away from the motor mount.

‘I think you should lever it from there,’ Nathan said, pointing at the alternator.

Nelson ignored his suggestion. ‘Go on, get on in there and get that bolt,’ he ordered. Nathan took the ratchet and reached for the bolt. The socket was the wrong size. It was always the wrong size. He smiled shyly as he admitted his predicament, grabbed another socket, and bent into the engine, grinning; doing a little shimmy on the way down and wagging his butt in the air while everyone stood around watching him, the center of attention. Not in a good way, but Nathan didn’t care. Negative attention is like a hot Krispy Kreme when you’re used to being ignored.

Slowly the correct parts of Suzie’s car came off. Then there was a little complication. When Nathan was mostly through unbolting a cable retainer, Nelson discovered that there was a vital electrical connection running back further into the engine compartment that had to be dealt with first.

After much ado, Nelson grabbed a wrench and tackled it, looming over the engine. He fought valiantly with several bolts and tore a clip harness clean off the side of the engine and threw it onto the ground with a curse, then went back in for more, and finally wrenched enough slack into the wires to be able to lift the power steering pump off its moorings.

All this went on in a tense atmosphere, as the interns piled up to watch world famous Doctor Nelson accomplish the first ever brain transplant. Tension, concentration. Silence. He demanded silence. ‘How can I be the only one working?’ he complained on noticing their big eyes.

‘I’m working my ass off, with all y’all standing around jawing and gabbing. Aight, y’all can get on back to work now.’ And everyone turned suddenly, pretending to be doing something else – combing their hair, checking their zipper, picking up a tool – and slunk noiselessly off.

Then there was another little complication. There was a pulley attached to the pump, and it had a belt going between it and the alternator. To get it off, Nathan had to pull on the belt while Nelson lifted the engine with the prybar. ‘You got to pull it straight up,’ Nelson insisted. Nathan kept pulling it off to one side, scraping it against the sharp edge of the pulley. ‘You’ve got to pull it straight up. Straight up. Up.’ And finally the belt was off, and when they tried it, the reservoir and pump lifted up with a sucking sound, slick and gleaming.

Nelson did a little celebration dance and then left Nathan to disconnect the reservoir from the pump, and went to wash up and see what was going on in the office. Suzie watched him lumber off and then glanced outside, and turned and marched smartly to the back parking lot, where she’d just seen lightning in the purple clouds.

The cloud base was about 1,500 feet, scud clouds glopping under the clouds like used frying oil, a reddish rim on the horizon and thick black clouds boiling up maybe 30,000 feet. What looked like a little bitty toy 747 cut sharply aside to avoid the turmoil. She could feel the building electricity in the air, on her arms, in her hair, in the itch in her big toe.

She went back inside. There was a lull, while Glenda called the parts store for a replacement reservoir and they waited for delivery. Nelson broke out a huge bag of weed from one of his toolboxes and pulled off two enormous buds. ‘Here, Sweetie, break this up,’ he said, concerned that she not have to sit around being bored. He left her to pry the leaves off the stem and crunch them into small chunks. He always got her to clean the pot. But she couldn’t roll them the width of his thumb the way he liked them.

She always rolled joints for one person to smoke, joints shaped like Peachtree Ridge; more paper than pot, squirrely and full of kinks. It doesn’t take a lot to get high; people smoke the whole joint out of habit, not realizing how stoned it’s going to get them because it takes a few minutes to come to full strength, and by the time you realize you’re high you could have put the joint out and saved the rest for a couple of hours down the road. Suzie was homeopathic about weed because she never bought any, and so never had any.

Nelson came back from overseeing the work the boys were doing and stood at the table next to her, rubbing elbows. ‘You know, in some places they consider that foreplay,’ she said, leaning into him and bending her head to rest on his chest – all the closeness she wanted to display in front of the boys.

She rolled as fat a joint as she could, and after fifteen minutes of checking on the boys and up front in the office, he met her in the back parking lot and they got into a customer’s car to go for a ride.

Nelson and Suzie drove off in a mostly new Nissan sedan with a black interior, still smelling a bit like a new car. It was immaculate inside. Nelson fiddled with the radio dial and casually lifted the console cover to have a look at whatever the customer kept there.

‘Did you know that Bush and his henchmen were behind the attacks on September 11?’ Suzie rolled her eyes. ‘No, I’m serious. It’s downright stupid to think a bunch of hijackers trained on itty bitty propeller planes were able to disable four jet crews before they could contact the ground, and then fly four precision attacks simultaneously.’ He gripped the steering wheel fervently. ‘No, Bush was behind it.’

Suzie looked at the sky. It was getting thicker. ‘This was in the paper, right? I didn’t read it.’ In fact, she hadn’t been able to read the front page of the newspaper, because it was in the bathroom covering a sinkful of pot Nelson had gotten in earlier in the day, and Suzie didn’t want anything to do with it.

‘Yeah. The passenger manifests didn’t include any Arabs, but the government maintains there were nineteen of them. and they were supposed to have flown around U.S. airspace for two hours without any notice by the intelligence agencies. Like nobody’s got radar.’ He harrumphed, then paused to light the joint and take a few hits off it before passing it over, cringing to avoid the inevitable coughing fit.

‘The big problem is that the planes all blew into smithereens when they hit the building. And planes just don’t do that. There’s always lots of pieces left over, and the NTSB always puts the plane back together in some hanger somewhere. But there was nothing left of three of the planes.’

He took another hit and started hacking, deep wrenching coughs that made Suzie picture the blackened lungs she’d been shown in a stop-smoking class in high school.

‘But I heard the fuel was hot enough to vaporize the planes, the floor, everything,’ she said.

‘No, that’s nonsense,’ he said, taking the joint from her. ‘Jet fuel only burns at about 1500 degrees, steel melts at a much higher temperature, so it wasn’t the fire that brought the towers down.’ He leaned over and waved the joint in her face. ‘And tell me why the towers came straight down instead of twisting and buckling, and why they fell way too fast to be crashing thru every floor to the one below it all the way to the ground. It was a controlled demolition, as professional job as I’ve ever seen.’

He passed her the joint and turning off onto a side street to cruise down Camelot Parkway into a fake medieval neighborhood between Tara Boulevard and Valley Hill Road. Suzie looked at the sky.

‘And the Pentagon was hit by a missle that left a twelve-foot hole that went thru three buildings before evaporating.’ He nodded approval, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. ‘Not a plane.’ He coughed. Suzie was beginning to tire of the coughing.

She looked for another topic. ‘This car thing is turning out to be a much bigger job than I thought.’

He looked pained. ‘I told you it was a motherfucker.’

‘At least I have enough money for the part,’ she offered, feeling really guilty about making him spend so much time on her for nothing.

His pained look grew deeper. ‘At least you’re only paying cost. Oh, Baby, you know I’d never ask you to pay for nothing.’ This was true. Sometimes when she was broke he slipped her gas money, and he always fixed her car for free, because he loved her. But he was a little short right now. Suzie understood that. Especially if he had a pile of weed sitting in the bathroom. He probably spent all his change on it just this morning.

On reflection, most of the things Suzie got him to fix were things that didn’t need replacing with new parts. Things like fixing a broken bushing with thick twisted wire. Like dumping pound after pound of freon and stop-leak into her air conditioning system, like a case of radiator fluid and half a dozen bottles of steering fluid.

He look exhausted, frazzled and overburdened. ‘You work so hard,’ she said, showing her sympathy. ‘And those boys you have working for you…’

‘They’re unbelievably stupid,’ he sighed. ‘I can’t let them alone for a minute. You’ve seen how Nathan goes right back to doing the wrong thing even after I tell him exactly what to do. If he wasn’t family, I’d get rid of him in a second.’

He turned into the back parking lot and gave her the joint, getting short now. ‘Put that out and keep it, Sweetie. We’ll get back to work on your car as soon as the part gets here. I’ve got to get home on time tonight.’

He abandoned the car and raced back into the shop, each stride taking him six feet or more. She sat in the car and watched the storm coming on. It still had a few minutes to get there, and there was no way she’d be on the road by then, so she hiked over to a cash machine in the mall to get money for the part, and then stood around watching the sky some more.

She went inside when she saw the parts truck pull up. A little aging black man with a work belt had a box about the size of her reservoir, so she followed him into the office and dug around for her money. Eighty bucks. Nelson took the replacement and gave it to Nathan.

‘We’ll have to take off the pulley,’ Nelson told him after a cursory examination of the new part. Nathan looked suspiciously at it, and started figuring out how to get the round spinny thing off, and slipped away into the shop with it while Nelson was still dealing with the parts guy in the office.

She waited for the parts guy to draw her up a receipt and went back out into the shop. Nelson was squatting over a fuel tank they’d removed from someone’s car that morning in order to replace the fuel pump. ‘Goddam pumps used to be on the engine,’ he fumed. ‘They were easy to fix. Now they’re inside the fuel tank and that means you’ve got to pull the whole tank off the car. And let me tell you it’s dangerous. Nobody better be smoking nothing around me when I got to do this. Any little spark and you’re sitting on one big motherfucking grenade.’

She looked over to where Nathan had the reservoir and pump assembly inserted in a vise, and he was whacking away at the pulley with a hammer. Nelson looked up too.

‘No, Nathan, no,’ he yelled across the shop, but it was too late. Nathan couldn’t hear him because at that moment the pulley made a lot of noise exploding into thirty-eight pieces all over the worktable and the floor.

Nelson got up off the fuel tank and strode over to Nathan, his hands in fists and the tendons showing on his neck. If he hadn’t been mad before, he was furious now. ‘Nathan, you goddamn ignorant fuck. You’ve got absolutely no common sense. I told you not to do this kind of thing. You’re always messing with people’s cars and breaking them. Why can’t you just listen to what I say instead of trying to think things out for yourself?’ He sounded to the point of tears.

Nathan stood there grinning, ducking his head, turning red. ‘I was just trying to’

‘I know what you were trying to do. But you don’t go hitting things without knowing what you’re doing. See, there’s a screw here,’ pointing to the middle of the pulley, ‘and all you have to do is take a screwdriver and unscrew it. Nathan, I swear…’

Nathan looked impatient. ‘I know about the screw. I was just trying to insert the airhose and ratchet it off, and the thing exploded into a million pieces.’ Like it was the airhose’s fault.

‘You goddamn fool,’ Nelson shouted in his face. ‘You don’t blast it. And I’ve told you a million times that you don’t hit parts, especially not plastic parts. You’re going to pay for this out of your own pocket.’ He pointed to the phone. ‘You better hope to God they got another one.’

Nathan went over to the phone and called the parts store, looking like he was doing the hero thing in his mind Nathan locates the needed part and saves the day. Nelson spent time at the sink, shaking his head and washing his hands with orange goop. He was muttering under his breath.

There was another short break, everyone avoiding Nelson because they could tell he was really mad this time. He was hunched over the green car’s engine compartment, his arms flying and his back heaving as he unfastened part of its wiring harness and jerked it out of the car. He threw it on the floor, pieces of it breaking loose and scattering. They’d stay there and never get back into the car, either, and would be dumped in the 50-gallon drum they kept for ex parts and excess pieces.

It started to rain. Suzie had been paying attention to what was going wrong with her car, and hadn’t paid any attention to the weather. But the wind had been picking up, and the air had been getting cold. She rolled up her windows, scanning the back seat for a sweatshirt and discovering that she’d cleaned her car out recently, and that all her spare clothes were lying on the bedroom floor ready to be washed real soon now. She thought, silly me. I’m fucking freezing. She folded her arms over her chest and ducked her chin, and went over to stand behind the worktable, which didn’t help much.

Her Doohickey was parked very close to the Goat, barely enough space for the boys to get in there. The engine compartment was pulled just inside the door, because Nelson knew damn well that a thunderstorm could blow up any time. It was still spring in Atlanta, still late tornado season, and he was a very proactive type of person when it came to his own personal interests.

As the rain grew heavier, Suzie found herself edging further in under the protective roof. But the wind was coming from the north and shoving the rain in sheets right into the building. The car was being pelted, and only the raised hood protected the area where they were working. Or would be, as soon as the part arrived.

Nelson called for Nubby to drop the bay door. The rain had begun to run in streams from the edge of the roof and twined inside with the wind, depositing gallons per second on the greasy clay grit covering the floor, which instantly turned into slime mold. Nubby yanked on the rope, and the aluminum door came crashing down on the upraised hood of Suzie’s car and scraped down it to the bottom of her windshield. Oh well.

Glenda, the woman who worked the front desk when Cindy wasn’t around, came out of the office with a clipboard and stood at the door, yelling, ‘Awl change,’ and waiting until Nelson came over to her and took the clipboard, looking around to see who was less busy. He didn’t want to do an oil change, it would mean stuffing his 8’3” frame into the bottom of an oil pit, and he’d brush the greasy ceiling if he did. Nubby was helping him work on the green car. Nathan was fucking with Suzie’s car. So Abercrombie got to do it.

‘Pull that car up and do an awl change,’ he said, plucking at Abercrombie’s elbow. He was over watching Nathan struggle with someone’s gas cap for an emissions test, now that Suzie’s car was again waiting for a part.

‘But I’m helping Nathan,’ He protested. He didn’t like getting dirty. Or wet.

‘Just do it!’ Nelson almost shouted, a nervous edge to his voice, as if he were on his last nerve and about to explode. Things got done when he was like that, because nobody wanted Nelson blowing up at them. He was caustic and mean when he was upset, and gave his opinion in a way that made people feel stupid.

So Abercrombie disappeared into the rain to get the car. He drove it around to the southwest bay, put up its hood and disappeared down the ladder into the pit. She could hear the oil pan bolt dropping, and a muffled yell as maybe a lot of hot motor oil spilled all over the floor because he’d forgotten to put down a pan or something.

The rain continued to get heavier. For the first time all day, it was brighter inside the shop than outside. Thunder had been coming closer for a few minutes, but now it was right on top of them. Suzie was thrilled. She used to get as close to lightning as she could, like a zombie on a mission: climbing onto roofs, to the tops of ridges, sitting in fire towers in the woods. And the thunder. It went right through her; she could feel her internal organs shimmy.

Kaboom. Whoohoo! That one was close. Crack. Aw, this is so cool. Almost no time between strike and sound. Frizzle Pop Bam. God damn that’s something. Right across the street. This storm’s going to close down the airport.

In fact, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport had been closed for thirty minutes by the time it started raining on Suzie’s car. The storm came down from Rome, Georgia, where it had felled trees; rolled over Marietta, where it had felled trees; and hit Atlanta, where it felled trees and rated an Evening News Moment for what it did to traffic. Airport officials said Fuck That when it reached Vinings, and stopped all takeoffs and landings until the traffic controllers down in Griffin got a visual on it heading well away toward the coast.

Planes arrived anywhere from two to six hours late that evening, and a whole bunch of outbound flights were cancelled until the next morning, their passengers bussed to hotels. Details at six.

Nathan was bending over her car again. Suspicious, she went to see what he was doing. Something with a socket wrench in the front of the engine. ‘So,’ she said, trying not to sound accusatory, ‘whatcha going to do now?’

Nathan straightened up, removing the wrong socket from the extension and inserting another, and reached back into the engine.

‘You’re not going to hurt my car any more, are you?’ she said hopefully.

‘We hope for the best,’ he said cheerily, and wiped water off his brow with a filthy hand, leaving tracks.

‘Cuz, uh, Nathan, this is my car, and it’s real important to me that it gets fixed right.’ Perhaps he actually needed telling, if her standing there watching him didn’t get the message across.

‘Oh I know. And we’ll get it fixed. Yes m’am.’

‘What would this job cost if I was paying for it?’ she asked, curious as to her value in Nelson’s eyes.

‘Three hundred dollars,’ was the prompt reply.

‘Really? That’s incredible.’

He straightened up and looked her in the eye. ‘Oh, I don’t know. That was just off the top of my head. I have no idea how much it would cost. But you’re pretty lucky to have us here to do it for you.’

‘I guess so. It’s worth what I paid for it, maybe.’

‘Yeah, that’s the idea,’ he said, bending over the engine again.

‘But what are you doing now?’

‘I’m just taking off this gizmo here. You don’t need it.’

‘I think maybe you’d better leave it until Nelson has a chance to look at it,’ she said, waiting for him to pull back and stop unbolting things. But he didn’t, so she went off to find Nelson again.

And off went Nelson to berate Nathan some more, make him put everything back on, make sure everything was tight and he didn’t strip any bolts. And then Nelson walked away again, still shaking his head, muttering. He disappeared into the office and shut the door. Suzie felt guilty. A several-hour job, a complicated procedure, and Nelson feeling put upon and losing money. It would have made her more confident if he was doing the work himself, but he was busy, and at least he was supervising and stepping in to do the complicated parts.

The rain had reached full force and stabilized at millions of gallons per second, much of it on the garage’s metal roof. Now, there’s a sound. You can hear an insect land on a tin roof. You can hear the slightest drop of rain standing under a tin roof. Nobody could hear anything else but rain under the tin roof of the garage. Nelson had to shout to be heard, Nelson of the booming voice and raucous laugh. Nobody else even tried. Suzie stood behind the emissions console and shut her eyes, listening to the roar. Like really loud, persistent static on her dad’s CB radio. Punctuated by booming thunder. The sound varied, faster, slower, like turning the dial and finding no response through the frequencies, only crackles and pops and a buzzing, toneless whine.

The parts truck came and delivered Suzie’s part, again. Nelson, with exaggerated patience, showed Nathan how to put it on the pump, not letting him touch it. Nelson was kneeling on the floor, the floor leaving greasy marks on his knees as he threaded the pulley onto the pump.

‘Hand me a hammer and a screwdriver,’ he ordered Nathan, and as he went to get them he shrugged at her. ‘Hammers and screwdrivers. Not the usual tools for the job, but they work real good.’

Nathan brought him the tools. He started pounding on the surface of the pulley with a hammer, looking as if he were mad at it, trying to seat it as tight as it would go. The hammer bounced off the face of the pulley blades, and suddenly the plink sounded sour. ‘Shit.’ There was now a crack in the blade. So he stopped hammering on it, and finished seating it with the flat of his hand, saying nothing about the crack. Nobody else said anything, either. And nobody was looking Suzie in the eye. Maybe it’s nothing, she thought. It probly won’t affect the operation of the part at all.

He handed the assembled pump to Nathan. ‘Now, you just put everything back and let me know when you’ve got it on,’ he said, getting up and going over to the sink to wash his hands. He must wash his hands forty-seven times a day. And disappeared into the office.

She followed him. He was sitting with his elbows on the desk, his head in his hands, his long fingers clutching at his hair, which was thinning, curly and wiry, golden and red with a few strands of gray. She went around his back to massage his shoulders, his bones sticking out beneath her hands. If there was ever an 8’9” giant who weighted less than 110 pounds, he was it. It was hard to find any muscle at all riding on top of the bone, but he was very strong anyway. He could lift a flywheel with one hand. He could lift her with a finger.

Nelson was wiry, always full of nervous intensity. He did a lot of crank around the shop – methamphetamine – and was always wired up, always on the go, unable to stay still for more than a few moments, filled with a burning intensity that was distracted and uneven. And of course no matter what he ate he lost weight. A body-mass fat score of seven. You could see through him if he was standing sideways. Except for his massive head, which was like a huge Saint Bernard’s. It was a wonder the weight of his head didn’t break his neck.

He popped up from his chair, giving her a quick arm around her shoulders and a kiss on the top of her head, and then he was out into the shop again, checking on the boys. Suzie followed. The rain was lessening, slightly. Water was cascading down the slope of the front lot and curling around the building toward the Swamp of Doom in the back. Water had piled up in the street, and cars sent up jet ski wakes as they passed, windshield wipers on high.

Suzie watched wave after wave being thrown into the front parking lot from the sky, surging toward the shop, collecting into a stream and curling around the building. Then she drifted toward the back of the shop to look at the slime pool, which was now a muddy gray waterfall overflowing into the erosion ditch and glopping off into the woods behind the parking lot. Then she went over to check on Nathan.

He was just ratcheting down the engine mount, the step before he would be bolting the coolant bottle back on. ‘It’s almost done,’ he announced proudly. ‘No more screw-ups like before, eh?’ he winked. Suzie was appalled at his casual, no-fault attitude.

Then Nelson came over and took a casual glance at the work, and then did a doubletake, and then he started picking at the pieces Nathan had just bolted back onto the engine. ‘Look here, Nathan, you’re got the fluid lines underneath the thing. You’re fixing to crush them once you tighten the bolts, and then it’ll just start leaking again.’ Suzie thought she could see cracks.

Nelson hit the top of the hood with the side of his hand, leaving a small dent. ‘Why didn’t you come get me before doing all this work? Now you’re going to have to take it all off, take the strap back off, take the damn pump and reservoir back off, just to get these hoses out from underneath the weight of the goddamn engine. God, why do I let you do anything at all, Nathan? Will you tell me that?’ He paced off out into the parking lot, and came reeling back in. ‘Can I trust you to remove all these things and get those hoses out of the way?’ Nathan ducked his head yes, and Nelson stalked back into the office.

So Nathan repeated the last twenty minutes of labor two more times, once in reverse. The rain finished faster than he did. Suzie watched him like a hawk, not speaking to him so he wouldn’t lose his concentration. Watching him was enough this time. He performed like he was changing major parts on a race car at a pit stop, all grace and skill, looking exactly as if he knew what he was doing. But she knew he was probably thinking about what other modifications he might make to her car in order to show Nelson that he was a good mechanic. He eyed the front of the engine repeatedly, and Suzie could see him scheming to do something; anything.

When all the bolts were out and all the parts moved out of the way, Nelson came back over, and the two of them put the car back together; Nelson wedging the breaker bar while Nathan slipped the belt back on; Nelson pointing to one part after another and watching as Nathan bolted them into the places they came from. And then it was done, with very few extra bolts and only one or two plastic cable clips lying broken on the floor. Nelson had Suzie get in the car and crank it up. The starter went Rinna rinna rinna and she heard Nelson telling her to stop for a moment. He connected something, and it started right up.

She got out of the car to see Nelson doing a little victory dance in the bay, like Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, accessorized with grease stains instead of hay. ‘You’re so great,’ she said approvingly, watching him prance around like a six year old.

‘I’m so great, I’m so great,’ he echoed. She gave him a big hug and acted happy, but she was really kind of tired of all the fuss and hassle, and almost wished she didn’t have a mechanic boyfriend taking care of her car.

She looked into the engine compartment and saw a hole with no bolt where the coolant bottle attached to the engine. She pointed it out to Nelson, and he collared Nathan who was putting his tools away, and told him he’d found where one of the extra bolts goes. ‘That’s why you keep them in the bolt tray, so you know if you’ve got everything back on when you’re finished,’ he explained, and Nathan looked Well Duh at him and went to get the wrong size socket. Then returned to the tool cabinet to find the right socket. And to sift through the bolts looking for one that would fit.

‘Look at the time! We’ve got to be out of here on time today. Come see me on Monday, Sweetie,’ Nelson said as he walked Suzie to the driver’s side and gave her a quick hug. It sounded like he was in a big hurry to close up the shop and wanted her out of the way to let him get the rest of his work done. So she got into the car, belted up, and drove home.

She drove on a wet, steaming road into a rainbow. When she was tired of gawking at the colors, she noticed a new light on the dashboard. Service Engine Soon.

Next morning, she there was a big clunk whenever she put the car into gear. She popped the hood and watched through the gap between it and the windshield as the engine reared up and rocked when she slipped it from gear to gear. Surely that couldn’t be good.

So back she went, first thing, and Nelson didn’t look very happy to see her. Maybe he felt that having her back so soon made him look bad, as if he couldn’t be trusted to make a good repair. It diminished him when something went wrong with a job he’d done out of love and concern, and he acted almost insulted that she’d found fault with it so quickly.

‘It’s probably just the part settling in,’ he suggested. ‘But I’ll have a look at it if you want me to.’ When he inspected it, and saw the engine jump, he called Nathan over and yelled at him for a couple of minutes about not checking his work. ‘Jesus, Nathan, whenever you have bolts left over after a job, you need to come and tell me.’

Suzie wondered. She’d seen him throw away engine parts himself, just pull them off the car and never bother putting them back on. Maybe he was just giving Nathan rules to go by.

There were two motor mounts missing, bolts that anchor the engine to the frame on top of the wheel. Every time she worked the gears, the engine flopped around like a bird nailed down by one wing. Nathan fished through the fifty gallon trash can at Nelson’s insistence, banging around inside it with his ratchet, moving the contents around, looking for the bolts he’d tossed when he was cleaning up last evening. She checked the work after he replaced the bolts, and noticed that one was missing a washer. She could see the hole around the bolt, which meant that it would soon rub its way through the hole and make it bigger, and cause another problem.

So she went and got Nathan herself. He was already in the oil pit taking parts off the bottom of a step van. He came out to her car five minutes later, and put on a washer. Then she ran the car through the gears again, and it still surged, but didn’t jerk anymore. Nathan peered into the engine while she changed gears, and finally took his ratchet and tightened the motor mount three or four turns.

Meanwhile, Nelson had taken a customer’s car for a test drive by himself, to smoke a joint and who knows what else; taking care of business stuff. So Suzie waited for ten minutes until he returned, so she could say thanks again. And to give him a hug and act like sweethearts for a moment or two, after so much unpleasant business – after she had to witness the incompetence of the entire shop – after he had to drop everything and tend to her damn car.

* * *

next, a surprise at work

SPLAT CHAPTER SIXTEEN

October 4, 2007

The garage was jamming when she pulled into the back parking lot and left her Doohickey just shy of the Lake of Doom, which was sludging up in the heat. The top was antifreeze green, with beautiful, rich shades of teal blue in the depths. There were club moss-looking things growing around the shore.

Nelson came rushing up to her at once. ‘Hey, Baby, I’m glad you came by,’ he said quickly, giving her a squeeze. Suzie cringed at the pressure of his grasp. ‘You know I love having you around all the time. But we’re real busy round here right now, so you can’t stay long.’ He cocked an eye down at her and asked, worriedly. ‘How’s the car doing?’

‘It’s fine.’ She said, reflexively. She had rehearsed the litany air conditioning, brakes, that new squeak in the front end. But when she was asked she got stupid. Every time.

‘Oh, good.’ He pretend-slumped against her in relief. ‘I’m so overworked, Baby. Well, stay a couple minutes and we’ll go for a ride.’ He bumped his hip against her playfully. And then he rushed off, and Suzie was left standing with her butt resting on the hood of the Goat.

She’d never seen it so busy. The front parking lot was full. Customers were pacing around outside under the pine trees. Glenda was racing in and out with tickets for oil changes and emissions tests. Allen was invisible because he stayed down in the pit and changed the oil while Abercrombie rolled the cars in and out on top of both sides of the pit, and sat there smoking cigarettes in between. They wouldn’t let him work, really. Not yet.

Abercrombie was the gopher. He was just out of high school, and wore his hair in a buzz cut. He stood just over five feet tall, and at nineteen years old, he still had his baby fat. His parents aspired to the middle class, but in his neighborhood, middle class meant three pickups in the driveway and a plasma TV. All his clothes came from one of two stores, he was proud to say, Abercrombie and Fitch, and American Eagle, but he didn’t look like the typical mall rats who shopped at these stores. They were all spoiled rich kids with perfect teeth and their mom’s credit cards. He had his mom’s credit card, all right, but he still looked like a high school dropout, even though he dressed in eighty dollar jeans and fifty dollar T-shirts.

His Abercrombie T-shirt was bought with the sleeves already ripped out, and he’d added a slash at the bottom of the v-neck, and a smear of permanent grime from the shop. It was at this point difficult to tell what color the shirt started out. Maybe a rusty blue; it was gunge colored now. His shorts came from American Eagle. It added up to over a hundred and fifty dollars of his parents’ money. Spent on work clothes.

According to the suburban creed, he should have gone to college, but he was not cut out for school, and gravitated toward manual labor, work that made ample use of his muscles and energy. At this point he didn’t know anything at all about cars, and was very quick to say so, in his defense, any time anyone asked anything of him; his eyes wide and a big self-deprecating smile on his face, plastered on tight enough to make the cords stand out on his neck. His attitude was that if he didn’t know anything, then he wouldn’t get in trouble for doing the wrong thing, because all he was going to do was what Nelson or the others told him.

Nubby was doing something to an engine in the southwest bay, as usual, and there was a car parked behind that one getting air conditioning. The south bay had a car up on the lift with its wheels off. There was one behind that with its hood up. There was a new emissions test every ten minutes, Abercrombie running the cars in and out, Nathan relentlessly testing. The Goat was where it always was, taking up the entire north bay, calm. The zero point of the shop. Suzie’s favorite spot. And she had her choice of leaning, perching, standing, sitting, lounging, loitering, lingering, or leaving. As always.

Despite potential scrutiny from customers on the scene, Suzie was watching the boys ignore numerous laws, conventions, and social considerations. Pretty much everything they were doing in the shop at that moment was illegal, unethical, or immoral.

Suzie watched as Nathan did a bunch of emissions tests. In and out, in and out, in and out, as fast as he could go. He had his shirt open and was pouring sweat, his EPA license pinned to the pocket and flapping every time he jogged over to get into another car. He looked like the bleach-blond valet of your nightmares.

They were all small cars he was testing. They were kind of hard to tell apart. They were all the same weight; cheap and aging subcompacts too old to easily pass inspection. Suzie took a while to notice that Nathan kept retesting the little maroon car. Not every time. Every other time. It took her only moments to realize that this was because the red car would pass, so Nathan was using it to take the test for whatever car had just been in the bay, giving its ID to the computer. Each newly-passed driver paid twenty five dollars to Glenda for the certificate, of which the shop kept eighteen, and slipped something extra to Nelson. ‘Thanks, man. Appreciate ya.’

Nubby was changing out an alternator, swapping it out from under the hood of a similar car out back. The customer, chilling in the waiting room, was in full confidence of getting a new car part, delivered from a trusted car part distributor. His bill would most certainly confirm this. But Nelson said he was kind of short in the till at the moment, despite the constant ringing of the cash register, and he thought it best to go with a tried and true replacement rather than a brand new part that might have defects.

He was being resourceful. He’d make do with the one from out back for right now, and put a new alternator in the other customer’s car the day the guy called to find out why it wasn’t ready. Right at the moment, he was fixing to tell Glenda to go ahead and charge the customer full price for the job. So as not to attract attention.

They sell brakes at Stoner’s. Special $89 lifetime warranty for top quality, semi-metal brakes. But what customers got were the cheap composite ones. After Glenda wrote up a proper ticket for the job, and collected payment, and gave the customer their receipt, she’d go back into the computer and change the account record to show that the customer paid for the cheapo brakes. And pulled the difference out in cash when she and Nelson closed out the register.

Abercrombie pulled another car into the south bay. He drove it in to the center of the bay, then got out and pushed a set of yellow steel arms out under the car. The arms were attached to four columns, and Nubby came over to double check Abercrombie’s placement of the arms, then flipped a switch to raise the car. Chunk chunk chunk. He raised it about three feet off the ground.

Nelson called Nathan over to take off the wheels. He picked up the air hammer and started undoing lugnuts on the wheels. Zirrrr zirrrr. Zziiiiiiiiiiiiing. The nuts were stuck fast. Nathan adjusted the fit of the hose to the ratchet, and the fit of the ratchet onto the nut, and tried again, zinging it for a whole minute, standing there watching the air hammer in his hand like he was watching himself pee.

Allen came by and had a try loosening it. Then Nelson came up and stood around to see what was going on. All together, lined up against the light, they looked like a bunch of action dolls, posed with their auto mechanic accessory set (purchased separately). Zzziiiiiir zit zit zziiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Nelson watched Allen, Nathan watched Nelson, Allen watched the drill.

It wouldn’t budge. Then Nelson brought out the pick, a home made shop tool consisting of a long steel rod with a bolt screwed onto one end, fitted inside of a length of steel pipe. He got someone to lower the car to the ground, and fixed the end of the pick to a lugnut-sized socket wrench, then fitted the whole thing on the end of the stuck lugnut. His body twisted as he used all his strength to pull the lever slowly counterclockwise, pushing it with his arm and then his foot when he got it all the way over. The guys all stopped what they were doing to come over and watch the acrobatics.

‘That does that,’ Allen said, twirling his greasy rag and turning away to go back to work on the other car’s alternator.

‘Yay, Nelson,’ said Nathan, backing up and turning to lunge away. He wasn’t looking, and tripped over the cord of the hang light that had been lying on the edge of the car’s engine compartment. It crashed to the ground with a loud pop as the bulb shattered inside its metal cage. The boys made fun of Nathan once they got over the slight shock – the bulb sounded like a 9-mm gun, a sound they all knew.

Nelson jacked up the car again. Abercrombie pulled off the wheel. Then Nathan reached in through the wheel well with a ratchet and loosened a couple of bolts in the engine compartment. They lifted the car down and Nathan bent over top of it and started in on the middle part of the engine with his wrench, then with an electrical tool, then with a breaker bar and a hammer. Cursing softly the whole time. ‘Bullshit. fuck.. goddamn. shit. bullshit.’ Whatever it was, it wasn’t coming loose.

He called Nelson over. Nelson piled in there with tools, and once again saved the day while everyone watched. He mouthed, ‘Who’s the man?’ as he broke the bolt free and a chunk of the engine came loose in Nathan’s hands. There was general cheering and short speeches ensued. ‘Not at all, not at all,’ Nelson said, bowing slightly, then rushed off to wash his hands and remind everyone loudly to get back to work.

Suzie picked a super-sized coke cup out of the trash and began carving holes in it.

Nelson saw her standing there and called her over. ‘Hey Baby, you good at rolling?

She snorted a laugh. ‘No.’

‘Listen. I got me some pot in the bathroom, just waiting for rolling papers. Why don’t you start breaking it up so we can roll a big one when the papers get here.’ He showed her into the bathroom, where there was a folded up section of newspaper in the sink, half an ounce of buds in the fold. Nelson left her there and went over to pull Abercrombie off his chauffeuring and send him out for papers.

Suzie stood in front of the sink, watching herself breaking up buds, feeling sweaty and tired and bored. Her feet were swelling already, and she had to work that night. She gazed at the headlines as she worked. Chain gangs. Bird flu. Domestic terrorism. She looked around on the floor. She could see pot seeds beginning to pile up along the edge of the room. There were newspapers going back a couple of days. There were stroke books – Over 40 and Hustler. There was an empty pack of EZ Wider rolling papers.

She left the ground-up pot in a little pile inside the sports section, and went back out into the breeze. Nathan was standing under the car again, attacking a place halfway in on the right with a ratchet, then a large screwdriver, then a hammer. And then Nelson came over to see what the noise was all about. ‘Nathan, I wouldn’t give anything for you,’ he said, wrenching the hammer out of his hands. He whanged on the spot himself for a few moments, then walked over to the tool chest and picked up the breaker bar. ‘Nathan, you always fuck things up.’

Nelson was in the middle of using leverage to separate the offending car part from the body of the engine when a big black dude with muscles walked in the back way. He was wearing a neat white cap with a black swoosh on it; a red tank shirt extra tanked to reveal his pumped-up, muscular chest; black exercise baggies; and expensive sneakers. Nelson was under the car, twisting and wrenching. ‘Hey, Nelson.’

Nelson peeked out from under the car, then gave Nathan the breaker bar and walked off with the dude to stand between cars. ‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’ The greeting could be heard above the shop noise. Then they moved closer together and spoke quietly, Nelson animatedly wheeling about, gesturing, the guy standing still and scratching his chest. Then Nelson raised two fingers and the guy nodded, satisfied. They shook on it, fists together, and the muscle dude went back to his car parked out back. Nelson yelled out after him, ‘We’ll get that part and we’ll go in and try it again.’ Suzie wondered momentarily if he could be working on the guy’s car to make it pass inspection. Nah.

Dishonesty, scams, illegal activities everywhere. Your basic oil change was just about the only thing the boys couldn’t overcharge on. The only really honest part about the job were the oil changes. Oil changes were oil changes. Since there was only one level of oil change, the price on the marquee was the price they had to put in the computer. Oh well. And besides, the business probably needed a genuine trail of actual work done for actual money in case anyone asked questions.

Abercrombie was back with rolling papers, peeling some customer’s car back into the parking lot to let everyone know he was back. Nelson pocketed the papers, and sent Abercrombie off into the back parking lot with a screwdriver and a wrench. Nelson went over to Suzie, pulling the papers out of his pocket like he was a magician. ‘Here they are, baby, just like I promised. Now roll us a fat one and we’ll go off and take a break, just you and me.’ He didn’t hear her protest.

Suzie went into the bathroom and stood in front of the sink trying to roll up as much pot as possible into a single paper. The joint was lumpy and uneven, and spilled out of one end. She cursed, and started over with a fresh paper. Looking at herself in the mirror, exasperated by her lack of dexterity, she saw Abercrombie go by looking for Nelson. He was carrying his tools and a license plate from some car out back. Nelson took it from him and disappeared into the office with it. Suzie continued trying to roll. After several tries, she had something that looked like a dried up hairball, lumpy and uneven, but wrapped tightly and not about to spill.

Then, she went out and leaned on the bumper of her car to wait for Nelson to tear himself away from work for a few minutes, so they could talk. Suzie squinted against the sun and the pale white sky . She eyed the vapors rising from the day-glo green swamp while she waited for Nelson. She watched Nubby underneath a car with a wrench, his feet twisting back and forth, thrashing out his struggle with something most likely rusted on. She noticed the bumper sticker on the car. It was a square black ‘W the President’ sticker. She remembered seeing a website selling ‘F The President‘ stickers that looked just like them. Classy.

That set her thinking. She could get creative with customer cars. Replace the fish with Darwins. Move the soccer balls around. Turn the magnetic signs upside down. Make replica paper stickers and alter the wording. Her contribution to the art of free speech. Like graffiti, only smaller. And a little more high tech.

Nelson came rushing over to her car and said, ‘I’ve been looking all over for you. We got to dash out and run right back in so we can get all this work done before six. I got to be out of here on time tonight.’ He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her off the bumper to hustle her along. ‘Got that thing?’

‘I need a computer, Nelson,’ she said.

‘Sure, baby, I’ll have you one tomorrow.’ He raced off to get something.

Suzie knew he’d forget the moment she left, and decided to drive down to the Last Chance Thrift Store in Decatur for half-price Mondays. A computer would end up costing her thirty bucks. And a modem for five. A monitor, keyboard and mouse off the street early on trash day morning. Nothing fancy, a Pentium III, but three gigs of memory, which would be more than she needed. Not bad for a little effort. Better than being beholden to Nelson for yet another stolen item. Alex knew someone with illegal copies of all the software she wanted, including Photoshop. She’d find sheet labels that made convincing bumper stickers. She’d be set up inside of a week.

‘Aight. Let’s go.’ Nelson came running out of the shop, heading for a customer car in the back lot, a silver PT Cruiser. Allen came hustling right behind him and jumped into the back. Nelson started the car and headed to the nearest neighborhood.

Allen went through the back seat methodically, bending over to pick up a credit card receipt off the floor that he peered at, grinned, and stuck in his pocket.

Suzie marveled at their styles. Nathan went through every car he sat in with gusto, exclaiming over every little thing he found. He collected McDonald’s kid’s meal toys, and was a sucker for shiny things that people hung from their mirrors and stuck to their dashboards.

Abercrombie was absent minded, and mostly forgot to ransack unless he was riding around with Nelson getting high, and then he only rummaged through the CDs. Nubby was only interested in lottery tickets.

The master of practically everything automotive, Nelson made an art of the search. Glove compartments and console hatches, seat bottoms and sun visors. Trunks. All sorts of interesting things turned up on even the most casual inspection.

What kind of things? Nifty custom decorations unscrewed from old fashioned door locks and gear shifts. Money. CDs. Magazines. Sunglasses. Cigarettes. Walkmen. Cellphones. Drugs. Anything in the back seat. Anything in out of immediate sight of the driver upon reentering the vehicle.

Nelson drove down the road. The joint looked pitifully small in his catcher’s-mitt hand. ‘Baby, when you going to learn how to roll right?’ he asked, then lit it, inhaled, and began choking out thick smoke,

He turned to Suzie and passed her the joint. She shrugged; it was not her intention to be a good joint roller, but she was trying to help. His eyebrows lifted and came together as he choked, making a play of emotions: serious, angry, but informative and ultimately benevolent. Suzie thought he was going to lay into her for being a clumsy drug moll. But he was possessed by an idea and full of intensity.

‘Do you know what the government of this state is doing now?’ he said, turning to her with great energy. ‘They’re bringing back chain gangs in Georgia.’ He spoke with such passion that it sounded like he had a personal interest in the topic.

‘I don’t remember seeing anything about that in the paper,’ Suzie observed.

Nelson continued, taking the joint from Allen. ‘You know the old Atlanta Corrections Center, down at the bottom of Intrenchment Creek over there in East Atlanta? Used to be the prison farm?’ He took a deep drag and passed it to Suzie, his fingers shaking as he held back a cough.

Allen grunted. ‘Yeah, the farm. I did community service there when I was 14. For hotwiring a car. It was a Camaro,’ he smiled proudly as he took the joint.

‘I saw something about the Intrenchment Creek sewage project on the news,’ Suzie offered.

Nelson ignored her. ‘Well now, after they arrest you for being homeless a couple of times, they release you to 30 days labor at the Farm. Only now they’re not calling it no prison farm, they’re calling it The Right Path.’ He nodded wisely. ‘Some fancy program they just started. But I’m reading through the lines. It’s just a damn labor camp.’

‘I’ve heard about that,’ Suzie said as she passed the joint to Allen, trying to remember what she’d heard on the news.

‘Hey, I been through the Right Path place when I first got back into Atlanta,’ Allen said. ‘Got picked up for sleeping rough. They gave me new clothes and stuff. An ID card. It was pretty wild being in there with all the fixing up they done.’ He was on a roll, waving the joint in the air as he remembered. ‘It sure has changed from when I used to spend the night there sometimes for various things. They done a good job with it. Cleaned it up a lot. I liked it. It’s got carpets and TVs and stuff. The rugs really keep the noise down, you know? And they put doors on the cells. It really does looks nice.’

‘This is worse,’ Nelson insisted. ‘I’m talking about legalized slavery. What they did when you was in there, that’s harmless. That’s a side thing, just an intake program, where they fix you up and give you new clothes and send you back out on the street to commit more crimes.’

‘Yeah,’ Allen said. ‘Well, listen to me. That place was a hell of a lot better than a homeless shelter. You got to go through a weapons search before they let you into the new city place, for one thing. So it’s safer’n being in a shelter. And they give you meds. And there’s Internet. And HBO.’

‘Let me tell you something,’ Nelson interrupted, hitting the wheel hard with the heel of his hand, knocking ash off the joint. ‘This Right Path place is diabolical. This new homeless law? On your third offense, they give you thirty days and slap you with a thousand dollar fine. How many homeless guys do you know got that kind of money, tell me that? So what they do is, they roll your sentence over for another month, and charge you interest. And there’s no limit to how long they can keep you in there. God’s honest truth, most of those guys will die before they get out.’

‘Yeah my buddies been warning me about a new wrinkle in the system,’ Allen mumbled through his thick, dark walrus mustache. ‘Hard labor. But they do pay you. And a man’s got to work, even in jail.’

‘Guess what. It’s just like credit cards. These guys’ salaries make the minimum payment on the interest on their fine, and that’s about it.

‘Hey man, it’s not like prisoners don’t deserve to be punished for their crimes,’ Allen snorted. ‘I should know. The vast majority of them choose to be bad. Each and every one of my buddies deserves to be in jail, and most of them are totally unrepentant until they find the Lord. Even then.’

‘No, I’m telling you,’ Nelson insisted. ‘It’s the system. The cops either set you up, or you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, or you’re minding your own business and just happen to look guilty. Victim of circumstance. Oh yeah, unless you’re just plain stupid, and then you belong in jail. Everyone I know doing time was set up, or got mistaken for somebody else, or didn’t deserve to be punished for what they did.’

‘Well,’ Allen agreed, ”we all feel that way. But here’s what I’m saying, everyone’s guilty. Even if you’re not in there for what you’re accused of, you’re there for something. Maybe just for being a misfit. Or having a criminal mind. And that ought to be reason enough.’ Nelson waved his hands to cut in, but was overcome by a coughing fit.

‘Hey man, these are dangerous times,’ Allen went on, ‘I heard some strange shit when I was in. You just never know. I wouldn’t have any trouble believing that some of these homeless guys are really domestic terrorists, plotting against our way of life. Hell, I been in jail, but I also served my country in the Army. I believe we need to do whatever it takes to protect it.’ He took a big drag of the joint and held it in for twenty seconds. His words came out in shooting cloud of smoke. ‘Better safe than sorry, that’s what I say.’

They rolled into the back parking lot. Nelson pulled up with a screech, and he and Allen emerged from the car as if they were on a raid. Suzie sat in the passenger seat in a daze. Way too much weed. It was almost time to go to work.

Nubby had the wheels back on the brake job in the south bay. Nelson jacked the car higher so he’d fit underneath. He poked around for a few moments, then went over to the tool chest and took out a rasp, went back in, and used it on something up underneath the engine. He came back with the rasp, winked at Suzie as he put it back on top of the tool chest, and lowered the car with the lift. Chunk chunk chunk.

Glenda came out to Nelson with a ticket on another car. Suzie heard the word hesitation. Possibly a tune up. Maybe a filter.

‘We’ll look at it, but I ain’t promising nothing,’ he yelled after her as she went back into the office. He waved to Allen and Abercrombie to help him move the car that was sitting in the southwest bay, and all three of them pushed it up the little hill to a parking space. They heaved and grunted like stoned soldiers at Iwo Jima.

Abercrombie wheeled the hesitation job in and they looked at it, and watched it run for awhile. Nelson poked and prodded. The customer had been lurking at the end of the bay door, short, fat, balding, a black man in black pants and a white shirt waddling past the door like he was target practice. Nelson went over to have a consultation.

‘It’s your fuel filter. It’s starving the engine.’ So they replaced the fuel filter.

Then, after a few minutes. ‘It needs a tune up, plugs and points, too.’

The customer didn’t know anything about cars. ‘Okay.’

Later. ‘And a new air filter.’

The mechanic knows best. ‘Fine.’ The customer paced faster beyond the bay door.

‘A new set of wires.’

The poor bastard thought about his wallet. But the car was already in pieces. He might as well get it all fixed at once. He winced. ‘Just do it.’

‘I see you’re having trouble with your water pump.’

He broke out into a sweat. ‘Ack.’

The bill came to $478. The guy, obviously fond of beer and chips and weekend football, was giving a good impression of John Belushi about to stroke out and die. Nelson was all smiles and talk about all the work he’d done and how much effort he’d personally put into working on the customer’s car, and his business sure was appreciated, and he shouldn’t hesitate to come back whenever there was a hint of trouble.

The customer took his receipt and got into his car, satisfied that it was fixed even if it cost the earth. It certainly ran better than when he came in. But his car wasn’t fixed. What he’d paid for was a receipt for parts and labor – a bunch of new parts, half of which remained in their boxes, uninstalled; and the labor of three men taking their time, fucking up, and having to do it again. The car was by no means fixed. It just ran better. The only thing Nelson did to make a difference in the dude’s car was to dump a bottle of fairy dust into the guy’s oil fill.

Abercrombie took a break from fetching cars for Allen and Nubby, and spent five minutes disposing of Allen’s oil filters. He stooped over the dolly that rolled from one side of the pit to the other, and one by one grabbed the filters Allen had been piling on it. He tossed them twenty feet like they were softballs, aiming at the fifty gallon trash cans lining the south bay, drinking a coke with his free hand. He landed most of them in the trash cans, making booming noises every time as metal hit metal. Once in awhile he’d miss, and one would bounce on the shop floor, spewing out filthy black oil in an arc across the car in the south bay, for instance, or leaving a long slick on the floor where Nathan would later slip while removing a lug nut.

Suzie was not very amused by his circus antics with the oil filters. She thought it childish. She didn’t much like Abercrombie, and Nelson had disappeared again. She hadn’t seen him leave and didn’t remember how long it had been since he’d vanished. So she grabbed her carved-up coke cup, got into her car and left. Nobody noticed.

* * *

next, stuck with reruns of the ed and jerry show

SPLAT CHAPTER TWENTY

October 4, 2007

Bright and early next morning, around ten, Suzie snuck down to the shop the back way, driving down Georgia 54 to Riverdale rather than risk being spotted on the Interstate. She was wanted by the police. The thought made her itch. She felt allergic to her car, suddenly. Like it was a bad luck amulet – cursed, producing misery upon misery for the occupant; who, even knowing this, cannot rid herself of it.

She walked in to see Nelson and another guy standing with their backs to her, a big black dude in a long red t-shirt and long black shorts. He was standing stock still in the middle of the emissions bay with his right arm cocked, holding his cellphone near his ear, set on speakerphone. Their heads were next to each other listening over the noise of the shop. To Suzie they looked like a praying mantis bending down next to a ladybug. They were getting numbers. The dude was nodding, 1,200, ‘And the other?’ he asked. 2,700.

Nelson tried to back off and head over to another part of the garage to take care of some other business, but the guy hung on the phone and so he had to keep circling around, jittering and fluttering. Finally, the guy still on the phone, Nelson waved to him and said, ‘Go ahead and bring it over real soon,’ and walked off past the emissions console.

‘Nelson Nelson Nelson’ came from three different directions as soon as he reached the middle of the garage. The black dude stayed in the same spot and raised his voice slightly to ask when would be a good time. Nelson waved him off, absorbed in the next thing on his to-do list. ‘Tomorrow.’

Suzie had gone to stand by the wooden worktable separating the emissions bay from the Goat. ‘Well,’ she spoke up, as the dude turned and noticed her for the first time. ‘Tomorrow is Saturday. Tomorrow’s going to be jammed from eight-thirty until they shut at three. You should come early if you want his attention.’ He looked at her like she was a snitch, and smirked like he was sure Nelson would always have as much time as it took. She shrugged as he left the building and went for his car.

She sidled up to Nelson as he stood watching over his flock. He gave her a quick squeeze.

‘Hey, Baby, what’s up?’ he said, glancing down at her. She fidgeted.

‘Nelson, do you think I could paint my car in back of your shop or something?’ She felt panicky. Nelson was the first place she went when she felt like this, because he loved to save the day.

He looked at her indulgently. ‘Honey, have you been up to no good?’

‘Um, they’re kind of looking for my car? Because I kind of caused an accident?’

He slapped his knee and leaped into the air. ‘Well, God damn. I thought that was your car I saw on the news last night. I said to Paige, Hey that’s one of my customers. Bet her five dollars.’ He rubbed his hands, anticipating the payback.

Suzie felt like she was begging. ‘Well, I’ve got to do something about my car. Can you help me?’

He squashed her to his chest and rumpled her hair with his grimy hands. ‘Oh, that’s simple, Sweetie. We’ll just get you a loaner from off the lot here, and you’ll be fine.’ He scanned the parking lot over her head. ‘You can use that one,’ he said, pointing to a black BMW with a sunroof.

‘Okay,’ she agreed, a little bemused. He sure must love her. He turned to go see about Nathan, and she tagged along beside him so she could tell him her story.

‘They’re kind of looking for my car? Just they don’t know who I am? I mean I think they know my car, but didn’t get my license number, so I just can’t use the car for awhile until they stop looking for me.’

He looked at her a little puzzled, and she mouthed I’m The Sniper and he nodded wisely, like, I know.

‘I’ve been going after bad drivers?’ she said in a low voice. It sounded silly to her to admit to this, like she was bragging about hiding cookies under the bed while dieting.

He smiled, ‘Uh huh?’ She wasn’t sure he was listening, but he appeared to be paying attention, looking her in the eyes and nodding seriously.

‘That guy on 400?’ she kept trying. He winked. He must know all about it, because he was acting like he’d heard it already and was tired of it.

She wanted to turn to him with her mounting guilt and unload her burden, but he was being unresponsive, aloof, as if the subject embarrassed him. ‘I know I know,’ he muttered when she rested her head on his shoulder for comfort. Then he detached himself and went over to the shop phone to call somebody.

She was feeling really bad about her actions. She desperately wanted to talk to him about what she’d been doing, to get his advice on things like hiding from the cops, and how to take precautions so she didn’t get caught riding around with a deadly weapon in her car. She was beginning to lose her nerve for murder, and came to him for another way of looking at it. He could twist anything so it sounded good, and she needed some sweetness and light to keep her mission going.

Nelson hung up the phone, and Nubby accosted him with a clipboard. He was working up a bill for the job he’d just finished, and had written numbers on the back. ‘This is our part cost,’ he said, pointing with his pen to $249 underlined twice and doodled on while he was on the phone with the parts store. ‘And this is their recommended total including labor,’ pointing to $509.

Nelson looked at the numbers for a moment, then turned away and gazed out over the shop. ‘Put $389 and $295 for parts and labor,’ he mumbled. ‘We’ll take care of the details later.’ Nubby turned and walked back to the office.

Nathan pulled a car up over an oil bay. It was a big boat of an American car from the ’80s. Nathan popped the hood and rested the clipboard on the edge of the frame. Nelson came over and ordered him to switch on the engine, so he got into the front seat and cranked it over. And accidentally turned on the wipers. It took him several moments to find the switch and turn it off. ‘Turn on the headlights,’ Nelson called, but Nathan was busy searching for the wiper switch and didn’t hear him.

Nelson gave an exaggerated shrug, and walked to the driver’s side door, muttering about having to do everything himself, looking like a daddy longlegs. He reached in and found the light switch and pulled it on. Then he leaned further in and found the wipers.

‘Nathan, you’re so stupid,’ he said, pulling himself upright again. ‘You’ve got a car just like this,’ he exclaimed, and stalked back to stand and observe the engine.

Nathan got out of the car and went to stand next to Nelson. They listened. They looked down at the lights. ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the battery,’ Nathan said hopefully. ‘Right, Nelson? It’s started every time we’ve tried.’

Suzie noticed a black guy, middle aged, in a Hawaiian shirt and a cap, standing silently at the east end of the shop, next to the rack of parts books and manuals. He was just watching what was going on in the shop. One of these cars was his, and he was keeping an eye on it. Everyone ignored him, and he stayed there, drifting out of the way whenever anyone came over to that side of the shop.

Nelson looked around. ‘Aight. It could be the starter, but it’s most likely the alternator. Let me go talk to the customer. Maybe we’ll replace them both.’ And he went off to the waiting room to confront the dude with the bad news. The boys couldn’t find a problem, but the customer insisted that something was broken, so they were going to make a clean sweep of it and hope for the best.

This was one of those days when the owner wasn’t there, and in her absence Nelson was treating the place like his own personal property. It was Nelson’s nursery school. Beset by ex-juvenile delinquents, he set simple tasks for the boys to keep them occupied. It was Nelson’s fleece joint. Customers, especially those paying cash, got the full treatment, and the boys gathered around for their bonus after work. It was Nelson’s French Connection. Free from observation, he wheeled and dealed with flair.

It was Nelson’s magic show. Nathan got stuck prying something off underneath a car up on the racks in the south bay, and Nelson came sashaying over to save the day, making a great show of getting Nathan to fetch him the pick, and then beating the car into submission with it. Then he walked over to where Nubby was tussling with a piece of the engine compartment, told him to stand aside, and with his bare hands wrenched out parts and pieces of parts, and slung them across the floor.

‘They don’t need that, I guess, huh?’ Nathan asked as he passed by Suzie heading to the sink. The guy in the Hawaiian shirt stood there taking the whole thing in.

Suzie realized that Nelson was showing off for the Hawaiian guy as well as her. Nelson was the brightest light in that shop, and he wanted everybody to notice. And truly, he did stand out. He was whole feet taller than everyone else. He was levels of magnitude smarter. He was obviously cut out for bigger things, and it was sad to see him wasted in this dead end, back woods, back alley, back suburban strip mall environment where ripping people off was as good as it got.

The phone rang. ‘Nelson,’ came Nubby’s cry from the office’s sliding-glass window. He loped over by the hand-sink and picked up the shop phone, and started bugging around at the end of the cord like a skinny three year old, dancing and spinning, skipping around on his heels like a twirling ice skater. Then he ran out of spin, and stopped, standing halfway out the bay door, looking down at the ground. Then he started twisting and digging his foot into the grime on the cement ramp. He was nodding his head and listening. Then he started bugging his way back to the phone cradle.

‘Hey, I’ll get me a whole one of those,’ he chuckled. ‘He says this is some shit.’ He looked around to see who was close enough to hear, and said, ‘Let me slip in here where I can talk,’ and ducked into the parts room and closed the door.

He did a few dance steps in the emissions bay when he came out and hung up the phone. ‘Come on, let’s go for a ride,’ he said to Suzie, winking and smiling a warm, friendly smile at her. She felt her heart swell. Several impulses flickered across her soul. Hell yes, let’s get out of this place and go where we can be alone together. Let’s go somewhere and do something. Let’s make love. Let’s not. Let’s get high. Let’s get away from these annoying people. You don’t spend enough time with me.

He took her hand and led her into the employee bathroom seductively. But then he pulled a folded section of the paper off the floor and balanced it on the side of the sink, and fetched a rolled up bag of pot from inside the hand-towel dispenser, and dumped an eighth of an ounce onto the paper.

‘Here, Sweetie, roll us a big one, ‘ He said, and fished a pack of papers out of his pocket. ‘I’m waiting on someone to bring me some more,’ he apologized, ashamed he couldn’t do better as a host. ‘You could stick around, this is real good pot that’s coming. Not like this stuff.’ He licked and sealed the baggie and stuffed it back into the towel dispenser.

‘Go ahead and sit down,’ he waved toward the lidless toilet. Suzie looked over and saw where someone had neglected to flush. A layer of yellow floated around an island of disintegrating paper.

‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘I might fall in.’

While she got busy breaking up the pot with both hands, he began to nuzzle her neck and rub up against her from behind, and they had a few moments of passionate friction. Handless – his were greasy, hers were full. The door was open and she saw Nathan go by and purposefully not look at them. Nelson began to nuzzle her neck and stroke his forearms over her breasts. She bumped him away with her hip, a little annoyed. He backed out of the bathroom leering at her in the mirror, then turned and strode off to see to the boys.

She continued in peace, crunching up the buds and picking the seeds out. She casually flicked them off the tiles; they made pings. Suzie looked down at the trash on the floor and saw a cellphone with its back missing. It was wet. The boys must have found it and ritually dropped it in the toilet in a moment of levity.

Suzie loaded the cleaned pot into a square of rice paper, and tried to fold it around into a tube. She felt so awkward. She lost so much out of both ends, it rolled up so skimpy and lumpy. She kept unrolling it and stuffing the dropped bits back in and rolling it up again. Until she had a bigger, fatter joint that kind of looked like the ones Nelson rolled. But it was still wholly unlike a cigar, and there were no two surfaces that had the same slope.

She thought about the phone while she was busy. She had an image of the cellphone glued onto her wig to further obscure her face. It would make her seem less suspicious. People would think she was in a cellphone-induced trance, when she’d be looking out of the corner of her enormous sunglasses at them the whole time. When she finished sealing the joint, she bent over and picked it up, shook the water off, and stuck it in her back pocket.

She tossed the newspaper back on the heap, gathered the joint and papers, and went to find Nelson. He was busy with his head stuck under an engine, telling Nathan what to do. He came away muttering, a few minutes later, ‘If he finds a way to take off a part, he’ll do it. Damned idiot.’ He looked at her in passing. ‘I’ll be right with you, Darling,’ and continued on into the office.

Suzie went outside. It was burning hot, so she scurried for the shade of a spindly bunch of loblolly pines behind the shop. Next to the Swamp of Doom. It was rank. The slime mold had died off and liquefied, and seeped a ring of blackish green around the shoreline. A gleaming tar slick clung thickly to the surface. And where fresh streams of effluent from the interior of the shop spilled their way to join the pool, there were swashes and carvings of bright green and rusty brown, with cat litter resembling ornamental pebbles in the swirling streams.

The smell encouraged Suzie to move away, so she did a quick turn around the lot, looking at bumper stickers. There were a couple she could switch out, so she trotted back to her car and pulled a sheaf of them out of her bag. Sitting in her car with the door open, she was mostly in shade, but it was the burning shade of a car being buffeted by a giant blow torch. She patiently cut out the appropriate stickers, enduring the sweat itching at the backs of her knees and around her neck.

Back out in the sun, She made a casual stroll among the cars in the lot, covered over a Bush/Cheney sticker with one of the 1984 War is Peace stickers, and slapped a Disgruntled Employee over a similar Student Of The Month. She thought about the next phase. How to print magnets.

Then Nelson was ready. He headed toward the BMW, to take her for a ride in her loaner, and show her all the features. ‘Really, I just want to make sure it works well enough for you to drive it,’ he assured her.

He opened all the compartments and had a quick look when he got in. Then Allen appeared and jumped in the back, and Nelson started up and drove off down the street. Susie had been there almost an hour, and this was the first time she’d seen Allen.

Being in the shop wound her up. She felt that even if nobody was paying the slightest attention to her, they were all watching her. She felt conspicuous, like the inevitable pinup on the wall, and every customer that came in looked at her accusingly. She got the feeling, every time she was there, that everyone knew everything about her. And she didn’t like it.

He turned to go into a subdivision and she caught sight of green lawns and sprinklered gardens. The noise of traffic dwindled behind them. She heard birds. It calmed her to see the scenery change, and get away from the air hammer and the grease gun. She relaxed a bit.

Nelson motioned for the joint, and she dug it out of her pocket, along with the papers. Handing them over, she said, ‘I’ve been reading about the Klan and race riots and stuff from the early 1900s.’

‘Let me tell you about the Ku Klux Klan,’ he said. ‘Everybody knows their reputation, but it wasn’t about race at first. Not at all.’ He lit the joint and pulled a small drag off it, then convulsed a few times trying successfully to stifle a cough. ‘It was all about resisting Reconstruction and killing carpetbaggers. Not black people.’ He wracked a deep cough and tossed a lump of lung jelly out the window. ‘That was later on. In the beginning, it was purely to rid the South of those fucking thieves.’

‘It was really a social club,’ Allen said, reaching forward to take the joint. ‘Whole families used to go out to parades when my daddy was growing up. Used to have parades every Saturday right up Peachtree Street.’ He took a lungful of smoke and paused. ‘They was all good Christians, nobody minded much. They dressed kinda silly, but their hearts was in the right place.’ He sat back and took another hit, then passed it to Suzie.

‘Let me tell you about the Civil War,’ Nelson turned to face Suzie suddenly. She almost handed him the joint automatically, before she’d had any. ‘They like to say the war was about slavery. But only six out of a hundred Southerners owned any slaves at all.’

‘I thought the War was as much about industry versus agriculture as it was about slavery,’ Suzie replied, toking on the joint and passing it over. Something she’d read in her high school history book.

Nelson took a drag. ‘No, the War was about the right to be Southern,’ he said in a squeaky, airless voice. Cough cough cough. ‘We got different ways.’ He took in more smoke and held it. Southern hospitality is a real thing,’ Hack hack. ‘The gentle virtues are very important to us.’ He started coughing for real and passed the joint back to Allen.

‘Northerners never gave a fuck,’ he continued once he’d caught his breath. ‘Southerners got a code.’ Nelson noticed Suzie’s skepticism and winched his face to show wounded pride. ‘A lot finer code of honor than any Northerner.’

He took the joint from Suzie and nodded seriously. ‘When the South invaded the North, like at Gettysburg, we sent embassaries into the towns telling them we was coming. We never raped, pillaged, nor burned nothing north of the Mason Dixon line.’ He took a lungful and brayed it out again in slow, racking convulsions. ‘Out of respect,’ huff huff, ‘and honor.’ Allen nodded his approval and took the joint from Nelson’s trembling hands. There was silence while Nelson caught his breath.

After a few moments, as Suzie was deciding to take smaller hits in case she was getting stoned, Nelson sat up and took the joint, and took in another lungful of smoke. ‘Southerners got honor,’ holding it in front of his mouth ready to take another hit as soon as he could handle it. ‘Not Sherman. Not carpetbaggers. Not the Federal Government.’

Suzie said, ‘Well, winners do tend to be assholes about it.’

Nelson drove with his left hand, his right hand clutching Suzie’s knee earnestly. ‘Now, imagine after the war,’ he said, his face showing desperation and agony. ‘The war killed a whole generation of men. There was no food cuz of raiding parties on both sides. Some crops never got planted cuz the men were off fighting. The cows and livestock all got eaten. Didn’t nobody have no money. People starved. There were three million freed slaves wandering around homeless, and a million soldiers coming back to burned-out homes, all of them penniless, stealing whatever they needed along the way. There was burning and looting everywhere, out in the country, and all over Atlanta.’

Allen piped up, ‘It wasn’t safe to go outside your door.’ He nudged Suzie’s left shoulder so she would take the joint off him. It was getting small and turning brown and tarry at the end.

Suzie thought maybe Nelson was painting post-war conditions a little melodramatically. ‘Hmm,’ she said, to calm his energy as she passed him the joint.

‘And Sherman.’ He paused to take a hit, then started to cough. ‘People say he loved the South,’ and coughed again. ‘But he was mean.’ he paused to replenish the first hit, his chest swelling. ‘Sherman came through and burned homes, and burned crops.’ He held his breath and said with a squeak, ‘And he burned the mills, so we couldn’t make no flour or cornmeal.’ He let the smoke out and curled up in his seat, his coughs sounding like someone hitting a concrete pipe with a hammer.

After a few moments, he passed the joint back to Allen and sat up straighter, clutching the steering wheel with both hands. ‘We’d already lost,’ he continued, in a pleading, raspy voice. ‘All the men had been killed, and Sherman came through laying the place to waste anyway, starving the women and children.’ He continued coughing, one eye on the road, the car weaving back and forth slightly with the rhythm of his hacking. ‘It wasn’t needful, but he did it anyway. I ask you. ‘

Allen sat with the sticky roach for a moment, then took a drag, and held it. Then he exhaled. ‘All the Northerners were like that. That’s why people here are so bitter. It was hell.’ He took another drag and handed it forward to Suzie.

Nelson agreed. He broke into a song from The Band, a mournful, hungry look on his face, his hand pressed to his chest. ‘Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best.’ His hand fluttered to his forehead and he sighed, almost sobbing. Nelson was a local karaoke champion, and he knew how to deliver a song.

‘It was the Carpetbaggers’ fault.’ Suzie said, remembering what her dad told her. She took a tiny puff and passed it to Nelson again.

Fucking outsiders come here to exploit the natives and enrich themselves at our expense,’ he announced, taking a hit and holding it as long as he could. ‘They came down here and levied taxes when people had no money to pay, and stole all our land.’ He broke off to cough. ‘All the while making a bunch of laws that took away all the whites’ civil rights, and gave all the power to the blacks.’ He coughed some more, his hand shaking while he passed the joint back to Allen.

Allen dropped the joint and spent a moment fishing for it on the floor. ‘Yep. My family had some property down in Central Georgia and the Carpetbaggers came and took it.’ Allen always had a relative who could confirm whatever story was being told.

‘All this under military rule and martial law, and we couldn’t do nothing about it.’ Nelson shook his finger at Suzie. ‘Let me tell you about Reconstruction.’ The joint was starting to taste hot. Suzie passed it to him. ‘It was a sordid time.’ Hack hack. Suzie was feeling annoyed. It was hot out and Allen was stupid. ‘All for revenge and punishment.’ He passed the joint back to Suzie, because he was looking at her. She took it and handed it off to Allen. They were all getting pretty stoned.

‘Reconstructionists told the blacks to go ahead and lord it over us, burn our houses if they wanted their forty acres, and steal our mules, too,’ Nelson continued, as Allen fitted the roach sideways up under his walrus mustache to avoid setting it on fire. ‘White people had no legal rights at all,’ he pronounced, raising a finger in the air. ‘It’s the most inhuman period in American history.’

He pulled up into the parking lot with a screech. ‘They’d call it genocide today. Ethnic cleansing.’ He looked ashamed to be human.

The boys piled out of the BMW. Suzie sat for a moment in the sudden quiet, breathing clear air and thinking how nice it would be to drive an expensive car for awhile instead of her generic compact with no air conditioning and brakes that were starting to make noise again after Nelson fixed them the last time.

She sat there for a few minutes, waiting for him to come back and give her the keys, but the interior was black, and the sun came right through the sunroof, and she began to bloom into sweat. So she got out and went inside. Nelson practiced ignoring her while he managed everybody back to work. Suzie listened to a country radio station on the radio. Allen was grooving to the rhythm, a wrench in each hand like they were maraccas .

She stood around until Nelson noticed she was still there, and remembered that he was lending her a car. He came rushing up to her with his hand in his pocket, and very ceremoniously presented her with the keys to a late model Ford Taurus. ‘I can’t let you have the other car, Honey,’ he said. ‘The brakes are bad, and I wouldn’t want to risk anything happening to you.’

She thanked him anyway, and promised not to mess the car up, and he shrugged. Then he said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and had Allen switch out the license tag for dealer plates. ‘Don’t be getting pulled over for anything illegal,’ he warned, seeing her to the driver’s seat and bending down for a peck.

* * *

next, shit piles up at work

SPLAT CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

October 4, 2007

A week or two later, Suzie went down to Riverdale to see Nelson. She wanted to ask him if he wouldn’t mind taking care of the air conditioning on her Doohickey as long as her car was sitting in his lot. The weather was sultry, heavy and sweaty. There were big puffy thunderheads building up everywhere. Suzie looked forward to the rain as a respite from the heat. For a few moments.

She pulled into the back parking lot and Nelson ran out to her loaner to meet her. He seemed worried about something, and acted like he was there to shoo her off and put her on the road again. ‘Honey I only have a moment,’ he said. ‘I’m real busy. What’s up?’

Suzie immediately regretted coming. She felt like he had to pay attention to her that he really needed to devote to his job, and felt guilty for bring him such a petty little problem.

Nathan pulled a Windstar van next to her and waved awkwardly. She looked away and noticed a well-dressed black woman standing around in the garage, looking bored. Suzie made a joke to lighten the tension she felt. She nodded toward the woman. ‘Is she here to make sure Nathan doesn’t destroy her car?’

Nelson looked confused, maybe because she was running Nathan down in front of him. She changed the subject. ‘I just wondered if maybe you had time to check out the air conditioning in my car while it’s sitting here. It’s just I like the air conditioning in this one so much that I don’t want to go back.’ She sounded like she was pleading.

He rolled his eyes and sighed. ‘Honey, I plain don’t have time to fix your air conditioning right now,’ he said, a desperate look in his eyes. ‘How is this Taurus doing for you? Good enough? Well, you keep it for awhile.’ He leaned forward slightly. ‘Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Right now I don’t know where I am, I’m so busy. I promise I’ll take care of you tomorrow, first thing. Don’t I always take care of you?’

Suzie felt sorry for Nelson. He worked so hard, he never had competent help, he did so much for her and she always came at him for more favors, more help, more comfort. She put the loaner into gear and pulled out of the parking lot, feeling sorry for him and sorry for herself, and then decided on the spur of the moment to go find a bad driver to shoot.

Suzie arrived at work almost an hour late, in a sweat. It had started to rain soon after she left the shop, and it was a gully washer. She was just coming thru town when the heavens opened, and immediately got off on the side streets, because when it rains in Atlanta, drivers fall apart. But the surface streets were all flooded out, and she spent forever getting thru one lake at the bottom of a hill and crossing up and over to wait in line to cross another lake at the bottom of the next hill. She abandoned her quest for justice at the first puddle, but it still took a million years to get to work. For most of those millions of years she sat in her car, stopped, the windows down to dispel the fog, her loaner steaming in the heat. The rain hadn’t cooled anything off, only basted it. The sun was back out, and the juices were beginning to bubble and seethe.

After a hurried prep upstairs, she was still hurrying when she went downstairs to hear the menu. She noticed that everyone in the kitchen seem agitated, except for Chef. The Latinos were in a frenzy, speaking softly to themselves and clumping together in groups. The black cooks were acting innocent, and Miss Charlene’s work table was a mess, with flour everywhere.

Chef announced the specials. He stood at ease, with his hands clasped behind his back, only his head moving as the words tripped from his tongue and went sprawling all over the floor. ‘Tranche de Boeuf Haché Frit au Campagne,’ he said. ‘Poulet Grillé a Diâble. Travers de Porc au Sauce Piquant. Barbote Frit au Semoule de Maise.’ The waiters all nodded their heads as if they understood completely, and thought the menu most fitting.

Suzie lapped it all up, trying to figure it out by gestalt and intuition, rather than her memory of high school French, though they never covered food in French class. She thought she could figure out the sides: Purée des Pommes de Terre, Dolique à Eil Noir. Feuilles de Rave avec Oignon et Bacon was a little challenging. Of course, the only reason she could figure all this gobbledygook out was because she knew her diners and knew the kitchen.

Suzie went upstairs and thought no more about the kitchen, because there were a million people wanting to eat dinner in Casual Dining. There was something on at the Fox Theater that night. The show started at eight. She had people at all three tables, there early so they could take the shuttle bus. But they’d started downstairs in the bar, and then brought their drinks to their tables, and then ordered food at 7:20, still expecting to make the 7:45 shuttle. They were all late, and each table acted like it was her fault that they couldn’t get their food in five minutes.

There was no lull that night. Suzie collapsed in the servants’ quarters for two and a half minutes right as the clock chimed eight, pried her shoes off, and sat rubbing her feet, stretching out her calves, bending the kinks out of her back. She was getting a headache.

Ed was full of team spirit in the Honeysuckle Room. He was wearing red bulldog suspenders, and a Dawg cap and a sports jacket were slung behind his chair. So much for the dress codes for gentlemen. He and Jerry were dining with Doctor Jeremiah Buford, MD, the doctor of bling, who’d gotten her into so much trouble over the whipped cream cake. Suzie sat them down, brought them bread and found out what they were drinking, put in their order, and dashed downstairs to check the pastry freezer, because she knew the doctor would ask.

She saw Chef standing in front of his office with his arms crossed. The kitchen was quiet. Chef was talking to a uniformed policeman who was standing next to him, also with his arms crossed. They were speaking out of the sides of their mouths. Joseph, Javel, and Maurice were standing in front of them in handcuffs, their heads down. Joseph looked up at her woefully. Miss Charlene and Miss Mabel were sitting in Chef’s office, looking miffed.

Chef noticed Suzie right away, and came over to the bottom of the stairs to chase her away. ‘No, we don’t have whipped cream cake tonight,’ he said suspiciously. ‘You heard the menu.’

She ran back upstairs, worried about the cooks, full of questions. There were three new covers in the Jasmine Room to help take her mind off it, anxious members and their parties, shuffling their menus impatiently, already late for the gig at the Fox. She took quick orders and stuffed them full of bread. Somewhere in there she managed to tell the other waiters that something strange was going on in the kitchen.

Ed and the doctor were comfortable, acting like very old friends. Jerry was chain smoking and toying with the ice in the bottom of his glass, musing about something. She envisioned him in a black hood. Death drinks himself to death.

Ed looked up as she came in with the drinks. ‘Hey, Sweet Thing, when you gonna come live in one of my condos? I’m going to set you up just right.’ The doctor noticed her for the first time, didn’t remember her, scrutinized her as he might a strange growth, decided he wasn’t interested in her, and turned his attention back to his drink, leaving her to Ed.

‘Suzie Q here is our favorite waitress,’ he said to the doctor. ‘Right, Jerry?’ Ed was aware of Jerry’s mood, and tried to keep him involved in the conversation. He started singing. Jerry joined in half heartedly for a few bars, then trailed off and raised his glass and slurped the liquor off the ice cubes.

Suzie tapped her foot impatiently, already stressed out from the other diners. ‘How about some appetizers?’ She translated the menu for them. Fromage de Tête, Oefs Mariné, Ailes Épicés. Then they ordered the same old main dishes, as expected. Steak and chicken. The doctor spent a lot of time trying to convince the other two to switch their eating habits and telling her how he wanted his fish done.

As she collected the menus, the doctor brought Ed and Jerry up to date on his plans for putting day spas in his cancer centers. State of the art treatment options, no expense spared. She’d heard most of it before. ‘Our advertising campaign begins next week,’ he beamed. ‘Watch for our commercials.’

‘When you gonna put a bar in those places?’ Jerry wanted to know. ‘I was getting chemo, I’d want a drink.’ He lifted his glass and drained it. Suzie ordered him a new one as she went out to check on the Jasmine Room.

What was Jerry so down about? He was changing the world. He and his former law firm were making vast legislative changes, developing broad-based support for a bold new redefinition of the indenture laws, based on a twist in the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery except as punishment for a crime.

He was rolling in money. His new temp agency was doing very well. They had more orders than they could fill at the moment, and were anxiously waiting for the new measures to increase the supply of workers. Jerry was the most popular guy on the block. People all over the country were calling him, and he was making franchise deals left and right. The New York Times was doing a cover story on him, and next week, shares in his temp agency were going public. There were whispers about running him for Governor.

Of the two, Suzie considered Jerry the more dangerous, even though she detested Ed. It was the Ed and Jerry show, and Jerry was the straight man. But Ed always looked at Jerry when he decided to say something or to hold it in, and Jerry seemed to know a lot more about his development plans than he did.

Ed just made deals. Jerry made the deals happen. And it wasn’t just that Ed was just a good ol’ boy and Jerry had all the smarts. It was a question of motivation. The developer was motivated by greed. Jerry was moved by ideology. Jerry had beliefs and expectations that made him very rigid and heavy handed. Where Ed would wiggle around a problem, Jerry would line up his forces and blast away at it until it was in splinters.

Before he met Jerry, Ed was building cheap houses on recently deceased farms out in Douglas County. Jerry introduced him to some people downtown, and now he got preferential bidding and waived fees. He started as a house builder, now he was building a whole downtown corridor, and had visions of being the next John Portman, Architect of AtlantaTM.

Only instead of putting his mark on the city with striking and whimsical skyscrapers, Ed was going to slap whole sections of it with gated communities and condos and strip malls dressed up to look like turn of the Twentieth houses and shops. McStripmalls and McCondos.

Jerry couldn’t stand the man’s taste, but he grudgingly admired his ability to win people over; his used car salesman attitude toward problems, an easiness Jerry did not have.

Having the developer on his team, Jerry was finding whole areas of his plan much easier to implement. As if Ed rubbed off lucky on him. Professionally he was at the very top of his game. It couldn’t get much better than it was that summer. He was feared, adored, and obeyed by family, flunkies, and employees. But he was feeling the strain.

His personal life was falling to pieces. His wife had cancer. Even though they didn’t love each other anymore, and hadn’t had sex for years, they’d been together since college, and that counted for a lot. His long-term mistress was getting bitchy and he was beginning to wish her gone; his son was in and out of trouble all the time, and only stayed out of jail because of a bunch of personal favors various judges owed him.

For all his accomplishments in public, his private life brought him no happiness at all, and now it threatened to take even more of his peace of mind. He hated change, hated being bothered, and dreaded his wife dying because it would disrupt his routines. Who would take care of everything at home, automatically be the other when two were required somewhere, or listen to him bitch with good natured indifference?

He was in bits, but practically nobody noticed. His cadaverous nature didn’t stretch to the active appearance of worry. He mulled. He stewed. He brooded. The most agitation he showed was to rub one hand over the other repeatedly, slowly. He grimaced more, and this set everybody on edge. And he continued to smoke and drink.

Suzie was back. She passed out the head cheese, pickled eggs and hot wings, and brought Jerry his refill. They all needed more drinks by this time, so she left to check on the Jasmine Room and wait for the next round to come up.

The doctor tapped Jerry’s wrist. ‘Your suggestion about a liquor license. It’s a real possibility. We’ve done focus groups. All sorts of consumer comforts rate very highly among those facing death. Our consultants think people’ll really go for the luxury.’

Ed sat back and scratched himself, thinking. ‘You know,’ he said, lifting his drink and looking at the doctor over the rim, ‘I’ve got a few acres I’m developing over in Reynoldstown. We’re calling it the Emerald City. You’d fit right in there. There’s a nice middle class population round there, families and middle aged. Inman Park, Candler Park, Grant Park.’

The doctor hmmmed. ‘Disease clusters,’ he nodded wisely, stroking the wattles under his chin with a ring encrusted hand. He’d had his people study the demographics all over town looking for income and lifestyle markers. ‘As a matter of fact,’ he looked the developer in the eye, ‘I was thinking about seeing if we couldn’t get together and find a place to put one of my clinics inside the Perimeter,’ he proposed. ‘Why does it have to be Buckhead? After all, you’re changing the face of Atlanta, and I’m changing the face of medicine.’

‘I think there’s synergy in that,’ Ed agreed.

‘What’s good for Atlanta is good for America,’ they toasted themselves. Jerry just drank.

Suzie came back in to see them raising their glasses, and made note of another drink order while clearing the plates.

‘Yep, Little Girl,’ Ed observed, ‘you’re going to be living around the corner from one of the doctor’s new clinics.’

‘I’m staying exactly where I am, thanks,’ she replied, and ducked back out, ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes with your dinner.’

The doctor leaned in, looking closely at Jerry and Ed. ‘I’m about to tell you a big secret that could make you very rich if you act quickly. It’s brand new. A real medical breakthrough. We’re calling it HeatHealing Technology.’

Jerry looked at his glass. ‘It’s a cancer treatment, eh?’

He nodded proudly. ‘And there’s more. In fact, it’s the secret weapon in our clinical arsenal. But not only that. It works on everything. The applications just go on and on, all the way down to acne and ear infections.’

Ed piped up, ‘Cures colds, moles, sore assholes, farts, freckles, and leaves a glowing luster in your hair.’

‘It’s FDA approved, and patented?’ Jerry asked.

‘We’re just getting approval now, and we already hold six patents. I say we because I’m one of the founders of the company,’ he said humbly. ‘We hold exclusive rights. We’ve just opened a factory over in China where they’re putting out devices as fast as they can.’

Jerry was curious. ‘How does it work?’

‘It’s like surgery without a knife, but we can’t say that because the gamma ray people trademarked it. Gamma rays are a dead end,’ He frowned. ‘Ionizing radiation. It takes a whole bunch more permits and licenses and certifications, and it’s much more expensive to operate.’

He sat back in his seat and waved his hand grandly, his rings sparkling hypnotically. ‘Our new technology is light years ahead. It’s non-ionizing radiation. It’s as safe as your microwave oven or your cellphone. And it’s cheap to build.’ He smiled broadly, patting his stomach. ‘The profit margins are close to ninety percent. And it does everything.’

Dinner was up. Country-fried chopped steak. Fried chicken with mustard sauce. Fried catfish in cornmeal. With mashed potatoes, black eyed peas, and turnip greens. Suzie had her pick in the pantry, than delivered their dinners. There was a flurry of activity, fetching various sauces and more drinks, and then she left them to it and went to finish up with the diners in the Jasmine Room.

The men were excited. ‘It’s going to revolutionize medicine,’ the doctor said through a mouthful of fish. ‘This dish is absolutely magnificent, by the way, gentlemen,’ he tried again. ‘Do let me encourage you to order it the next time you dine here. They do fish better than anything else.’

Ed and Jerry grunted in reply and continued shoveling it in. Satisfied with their response, he continued. ‘We’re making different devices for different applications. We’ll be marketing at three levels – institutional, clinic point of sale, and consumer.’ Jerry looked impressed, and put his fork down for a moment to take a drink and listen.

The doctor nodded significantly. ‘Big hospitals will use them for tumors and vascular malformations and cardiac irregularities and such. The smaller machines are for clinic use – neuralgia and migraines, pain treatments, dentistry, local skin cancers, and the like. But by far, the most encouraging area is home consumer use. We’re working on the prototype for a handheld device that treats acne, muscle swelling, cramps. Even weight loss.’

‘Wow,’ Ed said. ‘My teenage daughter wants one right now.’

Jerry stared at his fork.

Ed leaned back and rubbed his belly. ‘Weight loss?’

The doctor stretched out his own capacious concavity to illustrate. ‘Like liposuction you do at home,’ he said, using an imaginary chrome and aqua electric shaver-looking thing over his belly, sucking it in to demonstrate the results. His face turned red.

‘Does it work like liposuction?’ Jerry asked.

‘No,’ the doctor answered, trying to avoid technical terms. ‘It zaps the fat, and then it just melts away in about a week. Results may vary, of course.’

Ed nodded understandingly. Jerry looked a little disturbed at the description, but Ed said, ‘Jerry, look into this, willya? It sounds like it can’t lose.’ He took a mouthful of steak and turned to the doctor. ‘It cures headaches, too, huh?’

‘I don’t know about hangovers,’ he said modestly, ‘but it works great for migraines. And we’re investigating it for Parkinsons and Alzheimers.’ He used his napkin to dust his mouth free of cornmeal and oil. ‘We’re getting very good clinical results using it for obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD.’ He forked up a huge pile of mashed potatoes. ‘It’s the behavioral uses I find so interesting. Attention Deficit is only the beginning. Depression, Bi-polar, antisocial tendencies, discipline problems.’

He stuffed the pile into his mouth, then picked up his glass and washed it down with his martini. ‘We’ve got a pilot program going in the prisons,’ he said. ‘The infirmary has our devices, as well as the corrections unit. We’re field testing all the applications, from wound healing to behavior modification to execution. Believe me, we’ve been quite diligent in exploring the applications.’

‘Why haven’t we heard of this before, if it does so many things?’ Jerry asked a little skeptically.

The doctor took out a card from his jacket and scrawled a name and number. ‘You just get hold of this bright boy and he’ll explain it all to you.’ Jerry pocketed the card.

‘See, the technology has been in development since the ’30s, but we just didn’t have fine enough controls.’ He looked around, apologizing for having to get technical on them. ‘It works by raising the local temperature and disrupting the pathology.’ The others nodded as if this was clear. ‘It’s been real hard to get control of the burn, the application area. But new micro devices just came on the market and now we can pinpoint a three millimeter tumor three inches inside your body and just press a button.’ He closed his jeweled hand into a fist and then flung his sparkling fingers apart. ‘Poof, it’s gone.’

Susie only heard about a quarter of the doctor’s pitch for the ground floor opportunity of the century. Her attention was elsewhere. She was reminded of the situation downstairs, and the moment she had them settled with everything they needed, crept back downstairs to see what was going on in the kitchen.

It was very quiet. Chef was gone, the cooks were gone, only the Latinos were around cleaning and washing dishes. The spilled flour had been swept up. She walked through the kitchen, aware of the cameras watching her progress. She found Manuel in the trash room, a chilled walk-in where dozens of black plastic garbage bags sat piled up in the corner every night until it was time to haul them to the dumpster around the side of the parking deck.

Manny was pulling trash. Doing Javel’s job. ‘Manny, what happened?’

Manny slung a bag onto the top of the pile and straightened up. ‘Hey, girl, how you doing?’ She nodded. ‘Chef called the cops. He accused Javel and Joseph and Maurice of stealing food. He got them on tape. The cops arrested them and took them away.’ Manny shrugged and looked worried.

‘What kind of food?’

‘Lobsters. Salmon. Ribs.’

‘What did they say?’

He shrugged again, annoyed with the whole business. ‘They say the food is going off, and they’re taking it home to feed their families.’

‘Better to feed people than to let meat spoil,’ Suzie agreed.

There was more. ‘Then Miss Charlene and Miss Mabel complained to Chef, and he fired them. Made them sign some statement, admit to something. Failure to follow instructions, something,’ he shrugged, ‘The cops took them away, too.’

Suzie went past Chef’s office on her way out and looked through grimy venetian blinds into the dark room, the computer glowing malevolently on his desk. It illuminated the cover of an industry magazine – a picture of a dollar bill being run through a shredder. The caption said, Where’s The Shrink? Employee Theft Increases. She also noticed, next to it, a catalog of home spying devices. But she didn’t see the memo to the Board outlining Chef’s plan of action.

Suzie went back upstairs in a snit. What was happening around there? What was Chef up to, and why arrest the cooks when he could have just fired them or warned them? Who was going to feed their families if they went to jail? And what was he thinking firing Miss Charlene and Miss Mabel? The kitchen would fall apart without them. Chef couldn’t possibly keep things in order by himself. He was breaking up a good team. Suzie hoped he knew what he was doing.

In fact, Chef Henri knew exactly what he was doing. He came into the kitchen of the White Magnolia Club and immediately saw how it was: a traditional Southern kitchen. More like a family. Or a coven. Like the three hags of Hamlet back there boiling up trouble. But he didn’t want a matriarchy. He wanted a military model, the way they did it at his $100K cooking school.

This Chef wanted to control everyone. He wanted efficiency. He wanted precision. And he wanted loyalty. He wanted to be the Napoleon of cooks. He wanted to maintain the glint of pure control over every tile, every recipe, every presentation, every olive in the bottle and every spice jar on the rack, every cook in his place, gloriously in lockstep and proud to wear the uniform.

He knew he would have to get rid of the two old black ladies who ran the place before he could control the kitchen, and he knew that he needed to do something to provoke them. They were both way too smart to cross him openly, and he needed a confrontation so he could show the entire kitchen who was boss.

So he kept his eyes open, noticed where people were cutting corners or taking advantage of the kitchen’s bounty, or outright stealing from the Club. He installed cameras, he got inventory and ordering software, he kept an eye on his troops, all the things the General Of The Cooks was supposed to do. Just that the previous chefs were kept so busy trying to make the cooks do it their way that they didn’t have time to check up on everything.

It’s not that the cooks were deliberately hoodwinking Management. It’s just that they had their own ways of doing things, and all they had to do to continue doing things their way was to keep the chefs from insisting otherwise. You find a weak point, and you push.

It’s only fair that the kitchen be run for the benefit of the workers. The customers are really only there to entertain the restaurant staff. The way to Socialism is through a man’s stomach. In a worker’s paradise, where everyone gets fed, clothed and housed, those that make and serve the food eat first and best.

Chef knew about these kitchens. He’d attended a workshop: Effectively Managing Employee Honesty. They read The Art Of War at this workshop. They learned about cutting off the head, ruling by fear, the use of spoils. The best way to win is the way without a battle.

Chef Henri was planning to replace every person working there with somebody else who would do it his way from their first day on the job. So he spied and documented, and wrote up the old black ladies every time they went back to doing it their way when his back was turned. He wrote them up three times a day. By the time he orchestrated firing them, he had a sheaf of broken rules and instances of insubordination – plenty of ammunition if they decided to sue for wrongful dismissal.

The latest memo, the one Suzie couldn’t see in the glare, was his recommendation that the Club adopt a formal loss control program, with a written shrink prosecution policy and more closed circuit cameras; conduct pre-employment honesty, drug tests, and immigration checks; and switch to automated ordering and delivery. Let the staff know they were being watched, scare them into being honest, or outsource them.

Suzie spent a few moments in the bathroom when she got back upstairs, fuming and puzzling. Then she went and found Yolanda and a few others and spread the news. The waiters were dizzy with curiosity, but they all had work to do, and soon forgot about it.

Suzie’s tables in the Jasmine room needed a few final touches, and then she was in to collect the dishes from the Ed and Jerry show and order more drinks.

Jerry was telling the doctor about his new temp agency. He was slurring his words just a little, and when he caught Suzie’s eye he lifted his glass for more.

‘There are work programs for everything from shoe manufacturing to call center applications,’ he continued. Doctor Jeremiah looked fascinated. ‘Virtually every industry has workforce needs we can satisfy, no matter how tough. Everything from road building to mining and oil fields. In fact, the worse the job, the more in demand we become.’

‘Give me your poor, your hungry, your downtrodden,’ she said under her breath, quoting Jesus, or was it the Statue of Liberty?

Jerry heard her. ‘And I’ll trod on them some more, and make a profit,’ he sneered.

‘It’s not like they’re worth a fuck,’ Ed added, then turned to her. ‘What do you think, Honey? Wouldn’t it be easier to let temps do all the shit work and you just sit back and keep us company?

She scowled at him. Like she’d want to sit around shooting the shit with these rednecks.

He pressed her. ‘Wouldn’t you like to have some help?’

She stood and thought, her arms full of dirty dishes. ‘Are you saying that we servants should have slaves?’

He laughed. ‘Hell, my wife has told me for years that every woman needs a wife.’

Jerry continued as she left for the pantry. ‘We rent them out cheap. Pennies on the dollar compared to ordinary contractors. No benefits or Workman’s Comp, either. It’s a great deal. We’ve got a development program, a mission statement thing. Five year plan.’

He paused and drained his glass. ‘I foresee a gardener, cook, maid, and nanny, though there are security issues with that, in every household.’ He painted a glorious picture. ‘Everyone living a life freed from labor, able to devote themselves to the greater glory of God.’

Suzie was back with the dessert menus. ‘No, they can’t complain,’ Jerry was assuring the doctor. ‘These are cushy jobs, and they know it. It’s just honest work. Nothing heals your soul better than work for work’s sake.’ He sat back slightly, ran his finger around his collar, and thought about how his spiel sounded. He was rehearsing it for a conference he was having the next morning.

‘They’re all losers anyway,’ Ed observed. ‘They’ll never make anything of themselves. Proven losers. They’re stupid, lazy, uneducated, they’ve got no moral values, and they’re dangerous as hell when you let them run wild. Like my kids,’ he joked.

Jerry continued. ‘These types are really useful when harnessed, like any great energy. We’ve got a workforce here at home capable of building the dams and the pyramids and our interstate highway system twice over.’

The doctor, who was old, mused, ‘Like the WPA back in the 30s’.

‘Kinda.’ He moved on, not wanting to get into definitions. ‘It’s a great deal for the employer, too. We take care of everything, uniforms, maintenance, food and housing. Payroll. Insurance. Medical. All of it.’

He paused to assess the doctor’s reaction. Dr. Bling liked what he was hearing. Jerry could tell he was searching for a way to use his services.

‘Certified skilled workers, guaranteed,’ Jerry continued. ‘Site manager included.’ Mention full supervision and they’ll eat out of your hand.

He wound up for the knockout blow. ‘It’s an absolutely self contained, turnkey system. We go from concept to operations, and coordinate a complex mix of technical, financial, political and social solutions. All you do is sit back and count your savings.’

Suzie was in and out during this speech, clearing away the dinner things. She was uncomfortable hearing Jerry talk about his employees as if they were subhuman. She remembered the contents of the folder, the way the newspapers had talked about blacks as if they were only barely able to breathe on their own. She said nothing, and waited for their dessert orders. She was glad to tell the doctor that there was no whipped cream cake.

‘Ah, well then, I suppose I’ll have to have bread pudding. You’ve got that, haven’t you?’ he asked accusingly. It was right there on the menu. She pointed to it with a finger and smiled a big fake smile.

He nodded irritably and turned his attention back to Jerry. ‘What about this bunch of laws you’re fixing to get passed?’

‘It’s not just a major redefinition of a basic constitutional right, but an expansion of the power to rid society of miscreants.’ Suzie bristled to hear that word. It was one of the ones she mumbled whenever she was chasing a bad driver.

‘We’re planning to expand the new laws to include the more marginal members of society the poor, those too ill to work, retired people who refuse to contribute, troublesome kids, the psychiatric cases your methods can’t help.’ He nodded at the doctor, who nodded back condescendingly.

Suzie listened with horror. The people Jerry’s law would affect sounded suspiciously like people she knew. ‘Blacks? Latinos? Women, too?” Suzie broke in. ‘Why?’

The doctor looked angry. ‘Why? Our way of life is under siege, and we’ve got to protect it. Disorder and anarchy is attacking our whole civilization, trying to extinguish our light and replace it with cultural darkness. The targets of our laws aren’t civilized. They’re not even human. And it’s only a beginning.’

Suzie stood in front of him, her hands clenched at her side. ‘What makes you and your kind right? Why do we have to follow your ways? Why can’t we all get along? Isn’t this country supposed to be a melting pot?’

The doctor looked at her like she was an ant, and growled, ‘We’d rather be separated. Our history, our culture, our laws, all of western civilization comes from us, we’re the natural leaders.’

‘White people, you’re talking about, right?’ she sneered.

‘Of course white people. This was an English country. We were here first. White people colonized the land and made the laws and invented American society. We set everything up just the way we wanted. And now everything we believe in is under attack. The Indians want to drive us out, the blacks want to murder us in our beds, the Asians want to sell our daughters into white slavery. Hell, the Mexicans want to change our national language, for Christ’s sake.’

The doctor was red in the face, his jowels squeezed into a grimace. It was obvious to Suzie that he held on to these ideas fiercely. ‘I’m an old fashioned man,’ he said, and the others nodded. ‘I believe in the common values, where every race knows its place, and nobody gives any trouble about crossing the lines separating us.’

Suzie protested feebly. ‘But all people were created equal.’

‘Aw, what’s the problem, Girl?’ Ed broke in. ‘Everybody knows they’re not people like us. Blacks were sired by Satan mating with dogs. Asians came from Satan mating with cats.’

Suzie stared at him. The doctor added, ‘God gave us – white people – dominion over the earth, not them. He didn’t make them equal. This is a white Christian country, and we have a right to run it the way we want to. We’re starting a crusade against nonbelievers and non-whites, including Blacks, Hispanics, troublesome Jews, and uppity girls like you.’

Suzie stood there with her mouth open.

Jerry saw her expression. ‘You think we’re racists. Well, here’s what a racist is. A racist honors his race and reveres his ancestry. A racist prefers the company of his own kind, like everybody else does, and thinks that his genetic inheritance is worth preserving. By that definition, we’re all proud to be racists.’ The others agreed heartily.

Suzie backed out of the room, shaking her head, and ran to the servants’ quarters for a minute of peace. Their attitude disturbed her more than anything she’d read in the folder. She had thought the articles she’d read were from some dim past, thankfully forgotten by all but a few people with hate in their hearts. But these men were important members of society, and they should know better. She couldn’t figure them out.

A few minutes later, much calmer, Suzie came out of the pantry, shaking water off her hands, and ran right into Ed as she turned the corner. Before she knew it, he had waltzed her across the floor and backed her through the door of an empty dining room.

‘Oh, Baby, Baby’ he muttered into her neck, searching for a vein so he could suck the life out of her.

She pushed him away, growling. ‘Back off,’ she said, backing off and standing in the middle of the room. He came toward her again. They did a circle around an empty table. She felt panicky and hot; he felt explosive and full of determination. It was like Snidely Whiplash chasing Nell, only there was no Dudley Doright. Just Nell, reaching under her skirts for her knife.

Finally he grabbed her, and bent her backwards onto the table. ‘It’s meant to be, Darling,’ he insisted with alcoholic breath that would gall a dog. ‘I want you so bad,’ he murmured, pressing up against her, rubbing up and down on top of her. ‘We’ll be so happy together.’

Suzie stopped struggling for a moment, in shock. Those were the very words she’d practiced hearing from Nelson. Ed started nibbling at her neck. The sensation was intensely annoying, like a bug crawling on her. She rolled him off.

She got up, and moved in between him and the door. She put her hands on her hips and stomped her feet. ‘When are you going to get it that I’m not going to be your girlfriend?’

He thought she looked adorably sexy, and started advancing on her again, a big grin on his face. She fled. He followed, arranging himself, whistling a happy tune.

Dessert was a rather stiff half hour, with Suzie acting like she didn’t know them, Ed trying to wink at her, and Jerry ordering more drinks and playing with his ice cream. It was nothing unusual, actually, because by this time of night they were all potted and probably wouldn’t have much recall once they woke up the next morning.

The doctor thought he still had a point to make. He was haranguing Ed and Jerry now, who nodded in drunken agreement with everything he said. Several times they tried to get a word in edgewise, but he waved a ringed finger and continued. He was on a roll.

‘We’d much rather turn back the clock rather than adapt to the way things are. Things are going to hell and we want to return to normal.’

Suzie couldn’t keep her mouth shut. He made her so angry that she had to speak up in the defense of the rest of the world. ‘What’s wrong with change? Why are your ways automatically right? Who made you the arbiter of the truth?’

Jerry snarled at her. ‘You’re talking like a child.’

Ed said, more kindly, ‘Wait till you’re older and you’ll see we’re right.’

Suzie snapped back, ‘I really hate being told I’m a child with immature perceptions and trivial objections. I think you’ve lost touch with how things really are. You’re the ones living in a dreamworld, trying to get privileges for some at the price of slavery for others. Especially now, with all these new prison laborers. We need more diversity. More sharing. More getting along. Your racist attitudes belong down the disposall of history.’

The men looked at her with open mouths. She was shocking them now. Ed had thought, simply because Suzie was white, she shared his prejudices and beliefs. It was becoming clear that she did not. If they only knew how she really felt, they would have had her arrested on the spot for treachery to the white race.

‘You white supremacists are ridiculous.’ She stomped out of the room and went to hide in the pantry until they were gone, and only returned to the room to clear the table when she heard them leave.

Ed walked out of the bathroom with his cock out, and waddled back into the Honeysuckle Room to give Suzie her tip. She turned with a load of dishes in her hands, and he was there, fumbling at her waistband, breathing on her. She ducked away from him and turned back to see his little dick scrunched up on top of tiny little balls, peeking out of his pants. He grinned hopefully. She turned away in disgust and left the room.

She saw them standing at the top of the stairs waiting for Ed who trailed out after her zipping his pants. ‘If you’re the glory of the white race,’ she said, ‘then nobody has to kill you in your beds. You’ll choke on your fat, slobbery tongues in your sleep, and the world will be rid of you.’ Jerry looked daggers at her; Ed whimpered with desire, seeing her so mad. The doctor fumbled with his jewelry, shocked. They stumbled downstairs, and Suzie broke into tears.

When she got downstairs to clock out and leave, she noticed them across the parking deck getting into their cars after a nightcap. She took note. The doctor drove a white Cadillac, Ed drove a Mercedes SUV, and Jerry drove a BMW. They all Republican bumper stickers. She made a note to replace them with War Is Peace stickers the next time they had dinner.

It was still the full moon. It was high in the sky as she drove down Boulevard going home. Suzie was exhausted, moreso than usual. The guys getting arrested downstairs; and fighting with those assholes; she was very tired, and she was sorry that she’d gotten involved at all. It wouldn’t do any good, and it might get her fired. Maybe she didn’t mind getting fired. Anything beat serving people like that and having to listen to them hate everybody who wasn’t like themselves. Horrible, nasty, fat, rich, ugly white men.

An SUV pulled in front of her halfway down Boulevard. She had to slam on the loaner’s brakes and swerve to the right. She ran up on the curb and hit a trashcan, narrowly avoiding a light pole. The trashcan left a dent in the right front fender. Oops. Maybe Nelson wouldn’t notice.

* * *

next, news at eleven

SPLAT CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

October 4, 2007

Suzie was anxious to see how her artwork looked in the daylight. She had a quick peek at her freshly painted heads as she drove around the side of the building into the back parking lot. She was not happy. Someone had defaced her work, trying to spray it off and rub it out. The faces were smeared, the details ruined.

Suzie felt dissed. Someone had deliberately insulted her, destroyed her personal contribution to art. She was, momentarily, very angry. But Suzie couldn’t stay in one mood for more than a few minutes. That’s why the life of an embittered terrorist just wouldn’t work for her. She lacked constancy.

She didn’t notice a car pulling out of the front lot as she parked. It was that black woman with the afro who was hanging out in her spot the other day. But she wouldn’t have really remembered what the woman looked like, anyway, and so wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

The first thing that attracted her attention was a black dude with the Ford version of her Doohickey sitting on the racks in the emissions bay. The car had temporary plates, and the dude was anxiously pacing outside, watching his new car run the gauntlet. It was not his day. He’d bought this lemon off of some guy, and had to get an emissions certificate before he could get tags. He knew he wasn’t going to pass the emissions test, so he was all worried about what it was going to cost him to make it pass, and then, on top of that, he got a flat tire on the way in to the shop.

He was sorry-looking, moping around nervously, his head hung low, waiting for the bad news. Nelson noticed the flat tire and called for Nathan. Nathan snaked the hose back and put air in. The guy had been driving on it; Suzie could tell by the almost-shredded sidewall and the fucked up rim. ‘Hey, Nelson,’ Nathan called gaily. ‘He’s got a really flat tire. It leaks the air out as fast as I can put it in.’

The guy looked helpless, a face Suzie made often when she was hanging around the shop. Like he wanted to be rescued. Like he wanted Nelson to magically create an emissions certificate and a new tire. Someone probably told the guy Nelson could fix anything, but forgot to tell him that unless you were a pretty girl or a personal friend, it would cost you. Not as much as the State would make you spend, but enough to keep Nelson surfing in the cashflow.

Nathan cranked the car over and ran the standard tests. It was obviously just a benchmark, because the exhaust smelled up the whole shop with that non-air smoke that gets you real high as it starves your brain of oxygen.

They shut the car down, and Nelson called the guy over to huddle by the driver’s side door and arrange to bring it back tomorrow and he’d see what he could do about it. The guy nodded gratefully. Then Nelson told Nathan to put the car out in the lot so the guy could change his tire.

The guy said ‘No, don’t bother,’ he said, resigned. ‘I’ll just drive it on home like that, and change it later.’

Nelson looked at him like he was an idiot. ‘If I were you, I’d change it right now.’

There was a long moment when the guy looked at Nelson and wondered why he wouldn’t just change it for him, since he had all the tools and it would just take a second, and Nelson stared back at him thinking Don’t come here asking me to tie your damn shoes for you. Fix your own goddamned tire. Then the guy gave up, and fished in his pocket for his keys to get into the trunk and see if he had a spare. Nelson headed off to the front of the shop and disappeared around the corner.

Suzie hung out around the wooden worktable, her butt resting up against the door of the GTO. It was hot in the shop. There was a hot breeze blowing from the southwest, curling through the garage and blowing on her hot, sweaty skin.

Nelson appeared suddenly from outside, walking quickly toward the back. He was on a mission, and avoiding eye contact with everybody. A black guy and a white guy in rap clothes followed him, strutting, making large movements with their heads and hands and feet as they sauntered back to the back. Nelson held the door to the parts room open for them, and disappeared through it behind them, turning to wink at Suzie. Nobody in the shop gave it any notice.

They came back out a few minutes later, and Nelson escorted them to the front of the shop with big smiles and laughter, where the guys got into their car and drove away. Still nobody noticed.

‘Nelson, was that just a drug deal?’ she asked quietly as he walked past her.

He looked around in a panic. ‘Shush, Baby, what you got to go drawing attention to it for? Jesus, try to be discreet, will you?’

Nelson had food sitting on the counter in a styrofoam box. ‘Hey, Sweetie,’ he said, giving her a brief squeeze to show he still loved her. ‘Have as much of that as you want. You know I can’t eat in the summer. Somebody brought me that. Help me out, will you?’ He hugged her, and she could feel nothing but bones and sinews through his sticky shirt.

She noticed a distinct pungency coming off him. A rancid, burning smell of car grease sautéing his clothes. And other pongs. She backed off. ‘It must be hell working in this heat,’ she said sympathetically, to show she didn’t take his body odors personally.

‘Yeah,’ he swept the back of his hand across his noble brow and lifted his eyes. ‘I’m miserable. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep at night. It’s just too hot.’

‘Me neither,’ she commiserated.

‘I’ve lost ten pounds this summer.’ He pulled up his shirt and showed her his ribs. Then he looked around the shop quickly, and grabbed her hand and stuck it down his pants, and worked his mouth into an O when she touched his dick. It was clammy. She patted it reassuringly and withdrew her hand.

Nelson marched off to see to his fucked up kingdom, and spent some time yelling at Nathan under a white van that was up on the racks. Nathan stood back and watched Nelson work a starter loose with a breaker bar. It dropped to the floor with a clunk, and while Nathan picked it up and checked for damage, Nelson did a little dance with the crowbar. That’s Why I’m The Boss, he mouthed silently.

Then he noticed a car pulling up outside, and went to meet it, bending double to stick his head in the window and converse with the occupants. After a few moments he straightened up and whirled on his heels to go back into the shop. ‘Abercrombie,’ he called. A bland face popped around a tool chest where he’d been sitting smoking a cigarette. He trotted over in his Abercrombie t-shirt, today accessorized by expensive canvas shorts, once canary yellow, now construction yellow scrubbed over with black grease, looking like ancient lederhosen. Suzie yodeled softly.

‘Go get me a car tag out the back.’ Abercrombie looked confused. Nelson looked around for support. ‘Am I the only smart person here?’ He dragged Abercrombie out to the back parking lot. ‘That one,’ he said, pointing to an SUV in the first row. Abercrombie went looking for a screwdriver.

A customer pulled into the front in a Saturn, tires squealing, and blocking Nelson’s friends in. A woman got out of the car, leaving the engine running, and went into the office. They could hear shouting. A moment later, Glenda and the customer came out into the garage area through the office door, looking for Nelson.

Nelson was out talking to the people in the car again, bent over like an ostrich. He delayed straightening up, wiggling his bony butt while he spoke. The customer stared at the back of his legs, waiting for him to turn around and face the music. Nelson preferred to show his ass. He concluded his conversation leisurely, and reluctantly left whoever it was sitting in their car, waiting.

The customer was red faced and agitated. ‘Someone,’ she glared at Nelson, ‘stole some things out of my car.’

Nelson wore an innocent face, a skeptical face. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘How long have you had your car back?’ Though he was trying to be insinuating, the truth was that he forgot all of his customers and their cars the moment they left the shop.

She got redder. ‘Look. There’s nobody but me drives that car. I went to look for some music this morning, and noticed that everything was in a different place than I always keep it. And some things are just plain missing. I want them all back.’

Nelson started to speculate that stuff must have shifted when they were putting the car up on the racks or road testing it.

She nearly spat out her disbelief. ‘Bullshit,’ she thundered. ‘I’ve been violated. You and your boys went through every inch of my car, didn’t you?’

Nelson backed, off, protesting. ‘The engine only. Why, we never touch the inside of the customers’ cars.’ He looked shockingly innocent and raised his hands to placate her. ‘Now, if you say something’s missing, then I believe you.’

He looked around, his hand to his chest in wounded pride. ‘Nathan,’ he barked. ‘Get over here.’ He turned to the woman. ‘Nathan here is the one who worked on your car.’

Nathan began to protest that he wasn’t.

‘Nathan,’ Nelson said sternly. ‘This lady says someone took some items from her vehicle. I want you to straighten this whole thing out with her.’

Then he charged out the back to see what was keeping Abercrombie, and disappeared around the outside of the shop nonchAllently carrying the plate.

Nathan was standing there, red in the face, spluttering, his cheeks puffy, like a rabid squirrel with dyed-blond hair. He tried to regain his usual sedated composure, but he hated being yelled at, and hated taking the fall, and felt anger and resentment surging up inside of him. He got more red-faced.

Nelson reappeared at the front, bending inside the car telling the occupants they had to have the license plate back right away. He straightened up and said goodbye in a businesslike way, and the driver of the car maneuvered around the Saturn to get out. He drove right over a dwarf azalea that hadn’t been doing very well anyway. Nelson had disappeared and didn’t notice.

The woman listed all the things that had been done to her car. Her Luther Vandross CD was missing (Allen had thrown it out the window). And her magnetic cross. Nathan nodded miserably. She had five dollars in the console, and it was gone. (Nelson bought lottery tickets with it). Some bills and other papers were gone. (Allen had friends in the identity theft business.) Her glove compartment had been rifled. She didn’t come right out and say it, but she had a small gun in her glove compartment, for her own safety. She was afraid to mention it because it wasn’t registered. (Allen gave it to his girlfriend.)

‘I found drugs in my car.’

At once Nelson was back, sidling up next to Nathan and looking concerned. He put his head down next to hers and spoke with her for a few moments, then drew back and rose to his full height. ‘No, Ma’m, that was cigar ash. I can assure you. I’m the one took your car for a test drive, after Nathan here did the work on it. And I smoke cigars. That’s what it was, I’ll swear to it,’ he finished sternly.

He fished a stinky cigar butt out of his chest pocket with grimy fingers and rolled it under her nose. She gave him a look that said she knew damn well what pot looked and smelled like. ‘As for the money,’ he continued, bowing and nodding benevolently. ‘I had to drive it awhile to make sure it was fixed, so I put that in the tank so that you’d have enough gas to get home. I apologize for forgetting to tell you.’

The customer raised her fists in the air and started toward him. Nelson backed off. She began screaming incoherently, and he cowered in front of her saying calming things. In the end, he made a big deal of going to the cash register and refunding her the entire amount of her bill (the $89 brake job), and fishing thirty bucks out of a greasy roll in his pocket for the CD and gas money, insisting that she should bring her car back again for any little thing, assuring her that he would take personal care of everything in the future. The woman left as scowly and angry as she had arrived, still incoherent and loud. Suzie heard her shouting through closed windows as she pulled away.

Nelson appeared out of the bathroom a few moments later with a rolled joint in his hand, and for once they jumped right into his Trooper to go for a ride. Suzie opened the door and piled into the front seat of his ancient, dusty Isuzu, with cracks in the windshield, full of car parts and containers, covered with dried mud.

He kept the windows down during the day, but the car still reeked. It smelled like her friends’ cars smelled when they were in high school. ‘It smells like dope in here. Weed and cigarettes,’ she observed, sticking her feet up on the dashboard and getting comfortable, careful not to rest any weight against the fragmented windshield.

Nelson grinned his wiseass grin as he got in. ‘I got pulled over a couple of nights ago, and the cop smelled dope. I smell dope, he said. It’s real strong.’ He started the Trooper with a smirk on his face, holding up the joint like a Cuban cigar. ‘They took the seats out and went up under the carpets. And the cop’s asking me if they’re going to find any dope in the car and I said Nosir. I told him I just bought the car.’ He slipped it into reverse and started backing out. ‘He said, Well the guy who sold it to you was hauling a whole lot of pot in this thing right before he sold it to you.’ Nelson smiled confidently, as if he’d just fooled the teacher.

‘And did you have anything in the car?’ Suzie asked.

He smiled triumphantly. ‘Nope. I’d just gone through and cleaned it all out, every roach, every seed. Good thing he hadn’t pulled me over a day earlier.’ He patted the steering wheel fondly, and pulled around the building. ‘We sure do smoke a lot of dope in this thing.’

As they passed the side of the building, Suzie saw the mess that had been made of her artwork and felt herself getting angry again. She pointed to the ruined drawings as Nelson drove by. ‘How did that happen?’ Meaning the defacement. She was going to reveal it as her artwork, as a gift.

Nelson promptly threw a fit. ‘God damned graffiti,’ he started as he pulled out of the parking lot. ‘Let me tell you about graffiti. It’s nothing but vandalism, pure and simple. It’s a violation of property rights, and it says Fuck You Society every time someone puts it up. I can’t stand graffiti. It lowers the tone of the neighborhood.’

Suzie looked around at stripmall parking lots and outbuildings and abandoned warehouses close to the Interstate. ‘Tone.’

‘I ask you,’ he said, sounding wounded. ‘Why would somebody mark up my shop?’

‘Graffiti can be for decoration, or advertisement?’ Suzie began.

He turned to her, furious. ‘Gang people use those marks as signals. For all I know, they could be fixing to hit my shop.’ He was scared. ‘At the very least, it draws attention. People in my line of work need to keep a low profile.’ He thought of one more reason. ‘Graffiti is just plain ugly, anyway. Walls should be white and spotless, not all full of scribbles like a public bathroom.’ She’d never seen him so mad.

Suzie resented having all her planning and effort called a scribble, but said nothing. She didn’t want to tell him it was her because he would turn all that fury on her. He would never hit her, but he would certainly pound her into the earth with his scorn and anger, and slice her into a million pieces with his sharp tongue.

Nelson turned into an old neighborhood of ranch houses and pine trees. ‘I made Nathan go out, first thing, and throw a couple of cans of cleaner over the mess. Try and scrub it off. We’ll probly have to paint over it.’ He sounded like it was the most trouble he’d ever had to take over someone’s pure spitefulness.

Suzie hated him for a moment. Those portraits came out so accurate, too.

‘Looked like mugshots,’ he said. ‘Gave me the creeps.’

He drove down the road, and suddenly remembered the unlit joint. Fumbling for a lighter, he busied himself with the first toke while Suzie stared out the window. They passed an apartment complex. She saw a pathetic string of parking lot trees, starved for nutrients and blasted with reflected heat during the endless summer days. The trees had already started turning an anemic yellow, anxiously shedding their leaves for the bliss of early dormancy. Nelson began to cough and passed the joint to her.

Suzie remembered a printout she’d made. Something she’d found on the Internet the night before. It was from the diagnostic manual used by psych doctors. One set of diagnoses in particular caught her eye. Psychopathic. Aggressive Narcissism. Socially Deviant Lifestyle.

She pulled it out of her back pocket, and read it out like a personality quiz. It was all him. ‘Are you superficially charming?’ she asked. Nelson flashed her a beaming smile. ‘Uh, grandiose sense of self-worth?’ He puffed himself up. ‘Are you a pathological liar?’

‘No.’

‘Manipulative,’ she stopped reading out loud for a moment. Lack of remorse. She didn’t want to hear him respond to these questions. He was making fun of each character trait, wobbling the joint to his mouth and leering like a dangerous Groucho Marx. It was almost real. It scared her.

‘Do you have a lack of realistic long-term goals?’ She said, resuming.

‘Hell no,’ he said righteously, taking a hit. ‘I’ve got a million plans for my life.’ He began hacking, and shoved the joint at her so he could hold his belly while he convulsed.

She read further. Proneness to boredom, poor impulse control, antisocial behavior. ‘What’s Revocation of Conditional Release?’

‘Parole violation,’ he muttered as he handed the joint over and tried to stifle a cough.

‘Ever had one?’

‘Yeah, but it worked out okay.’ He started off into a story about his parole officer who operated a ring of criminals who’d do burglaries and car thefts and such on demand. She realized she wasn’t listening to him.

She finished reading the list, wondering about the label promiscuous, and the suggestion of many short-term relationships. That part didn’t seem to fit his lifestyle at all. He was too busy even for her, never mind a bunch of other women.

She thought back to the woman in the shop. ‘Nelson, why are all your customers black?’

‘Because we live in a black part of town, Honey.’ She felt silly the way he said Honey. Like she was so much younger than everybody else. ‘Black people around here need their cars fixed, just like everybody else. Besides, I get a lot of White customers. There’s you,’ he leaned into her and winked. ‘There’s all my friends, and people who’ve heard about me. Hell, I got plenty of Asian customers, and Mexicans too. I’m not prejudiced. I’ll fix anybody’s car. I’m versatile.’ He smiled at her, a leering grin. She could see drying spit stretching between his teeth and his lips. She looked at the bottom of the list. Criminal Versatility.

Suzie was stoned now, and thinking about lots of different things. ‘Nelson, I’m scared they’re going to find me,’ she blurted out, but had to pause while Nelson coughed. ‘And they’ll charge me with all sorts of terrorist shit I didn’t do,’ and had to pause some more. ‘And they’ll put me away and nobody’ll ever see me again.’

She slumped into the seat and accepted the joint while Nelson continued to cough. She was looking for reassurance, but she wasn’t sure he’d even heard her through his hacking. Nelson was probably the last place she really wanted to be if she needed reassurance. He bruised her every time he gave her a hug. There was nothing comforting about him except in the abstract. Nelson was good for quick fixes and the real scoop on something, and in other ways he was sadly deficient.

But he was good with advice. ‘You got to stash all your stuff so it’s completely invisible in case a cop pulls you over,’ he told her, picking the joint out of her fingers.

Or sees me from the next lane, Suzie thought.

‘You’ve got to be able to say But Officer I didn’t know it was there, and besides this is not my car. You got to find hiding places for all your stuff. And it can’t just be the glove compartment. That’s too easy.’ He started coughing, and passed her the joint. She accepted reluctantly, wishing it would go out, and decided to sit and hold it for awhile.

‘The main thing is,’ he continued, ‘is that you’ve got to deny whatever it is they accuse you of, and yell for a lawyer. You can use mine,’ he said graciously, reaching over to give her leg a quick squeeze, and take the joint from her.

‘Yeah,’ he continued. ‘I know all about secret compartments. You’d be surprised where you can hide shit in a car.’ He waved his arms around his Trooper, pointing. ‘Under the seat, in the seat, behind the seat, in the console, behind the dash, under the carpets, in the doors, in the frame. Plenty of places in the engine. The fuel tanks, even inside the battery. Why, I got a favorite compartment under my seat you can’t even get to without unbolting the frame. Nobody finds that kind of thing on casual inspection.’

Suzie looked around his car, and all she saw was filthy carpets and a lot of greasy junk. Nelson took a deep drag and began a cough that he couldn’t stop for several lungfuls of air.

‘I had a Windstar once,’ he said, passing her the joint. ‘Let me tell you about Windstars. Those vans have the most hiding places of any vehicle on the road. Of course, SUVs have taken a lot of the thunder out of the Windstar. That plus everybody and their uncle was using them to smuggle drugs and money and the cops got wise to it.’

He took another drag, and pantomimed for a bit while he tried to choke off a gut-wrencher. ‘My daddy ran shine,’ he continued, his face red behind a lungful of smoke. ‘He taught me all about hiding stuff in cars. Places you wouldn’t believe.’

Suzie was puzzled. ‘Wasn’t your dad a Mason? Weren’t they supposed to be above all that? Drinking, Carousing. Being outlaws.’

He looked at her strangely. She didn’t understand nothing. ‘Honey, people are all the same. Just because they belong to a respectable organization and live righteous lives, don’t mean they don’t run off to get drunk and laid and shoot the shit with each other when they get the chance.’ He shook his head and turned a random corner, homing in on the shop.

Suzie took a small hit and held the joint again. It was getting hot and resiny. ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said. ‘I’m so unhappy with everything. I hate my job…’ She trailed off.

He adopted a downcast expression. ‘Yeah, my roommates are driving me crazy, and I’m sick to death of Cindy breathing down my neck and being suspicious all the time.’

Suzie looked at him. ‘She worships you.’

He frowned. ‘Don’t believe it. She’s just as greedy and mean spirited as they get. All she’s doing is she’s waiting for me to make a mistake.’ He ran his fingers through his hair in distress, and reached for the joint. ‘That’s why I keep playing the lottery. I’m just waiting for enough money to move away from all my troubles and start again somewheres else. Anywhere.’

Suzie saw an opening. ‘Oh, couldn’t we start over somewhere else? That’d fix everything.’

He gave her a sidelong look that she missed. ‘I sure do hate the way my life’s turned out. I got an ex wife I hate, she’s the bane of my existence. She’s like a poison toad. I got so many scars from being with that woman that I don’t know if I’ll ever chance it again.’

Suzie’s heart jumped into her mouth. Oh yes, it said, I’ll be your pillow, I’ll be your comfort. I’ll make you forget that you’ve ever been hurt. Suzie, herself, said nothing. She was fantasizing, feeling the pressure of his eyes on her, his hands on her, his long snaky tongue, his long snaky dick. As long as she didn’t listen to his words, it was a strong, delightful fantasy.

But he went right on complaining, and soon she heard, ‘And all these friends who come down here just to hang out and get high off my weed.’ She felt like he was referring to her.

‘But I don’t come here just to get high,’ she protested. ‘I come down here to spend time with you, because we never get any other time to visit.’ To court, is what she wanted to say. But she was glad she didn’t.

‘Yes, I always love seeing you,’ he said reassuringly, patting her hand. ‘I always love seeing you, Sweetie. You’re the one bright spot in my day. It’s a wonderful thing when we can go off for awhile and make love.’ He leaned in toward her. ‘You drive me crazy, you know that.’

And then he went right back to complaining about the shop, his roommates, his ex wife. Suzie got the distinct impression that he thought of her as someone who came around once in awhile, and now and then went off to fuck him, and otherwise he never thought about her. Whereas, in Suzie’s head, Nelson anchored every thought she had, as if he represented home, the steady state. The fact that he had no intention of marrying again, or having more kids to raise, or even settling down with a woman, never occurred to her. When he’d flap those long eyelashes at her and sigh meaningfully, she warmed inside like a slow electrical shock building up.

As he was turning into the parking lot, he looked over and took her hand, his face a study in responsibility. Feel sorry for me, it ached, because I’m not able to be what you want me to be right now. He looked pained, sorrowful, hangdog. ‘I swore when my wife left me that I’d never date again. But you came along, Sweetie, and changed my mind. If only I’d of met you in another couple of years when my kids were grown. Then I’d be able to do what I want, start life over again, make a complete break. Move away. I was thinking. Remember that place by the river where we made love that time?’

He parked and they got out and scurried to the shade of the building. Suzie remembered. A rambling old farmhouse. Overgrown trees and bushes. A view of the mountains in the distance. A stream that ran behind the house across a farm road. They’d stopped at the edge of the water in his big old car and piled into the back seat, and when they were done making love, Suzie came out and squatted down to wash herself in the stream, feeling the cool sting of the water, feeling the sunshine on her naked body, looking up at the trees and listening to hawks crying over the fields.

‘I drove by it the other day. It’s still for sale. I should buy it. It’s where my heart’s desire is,’ he said, walking away from her, lingering on her with his eyes. ‘It really is my heart’s desire.’

Suzie was filled with possibilities. She felt grateful. Maybe we’ll move in together, she thought. What would I do in the country? She saw the house all fixed up and a garden in the back. We’ll settle down and he’ll fix cars in his own shop down the road. Shade Tree Mechanics, Nowhere Near, Georgia. Maybe I’ll drive a truck until the kids come.

They noticed, when they came back, that Nathan was using the shop roly-jack on the guy’s Doohickey with the flat tire. He’d jacked the car up, and was taking the wheel off, doing all the dirty work while the guy was standing around acting like a girl. Nelson began to mutter. ‘I got customers, and he’s out back helping someone change his own tire. I’m going to kill him when he’s finished.’

Nathan came surfing the closed up jack back up the hill into the shop like it was a skateboard. ‘The handle comes off if I try to drag it,’ he said, coasting by. Nelson kicked at his back, but forgot to pick at him like he said he would.

Suzie looked around for her Doohickey, sitting blocked by other cars in the back parking lot. The blue paint had gotten dusty, and the car was close to the Lake of Doom. She worried about it. It was a piece of shit, but it was hers, and it did anything she asked of it.

The parts guy walked by on his way from the office back to his truck, a middle-aged black guy, small, with a cap and glasses and a graying beard. He had a back brace around his waist for all the heavy stuff he had to lift. Today he’d brought Nelson gaskets in a paper bag.

Nubby came over with a clipboard. ‘The customer wants this,’ he said, pointing.

Nelson thought a minute. ‘We’ve got a match for that out back,’ he said. ‘What does he want to pay for it? Nubby pointed at a circled number. Nelson nodded. ‘Tell him fine. I’ll call him when it’s ready’ He turned to look around the shop. ‘Abercrombie,’ he called, and saw the little head bobbing around the corner. ‘I want you to pull a part for me. Come on, I’ll show you.’

They walked out into the back parking lot, over to a gray Ford sedan sitting behind another car, and popped the hood. Suzie saw the backs of their legs against the front end. Abercrombie’s butt was pudgy and low to the ground. Nelson’s butt was six feet in the air, and nonexistent, just leg bones connected to hip bones.

Suzie found herself trailing after Nelson, standing at a distance to watch all the interesting things he found to occupy the time he never spent with her. For the moment, he was involved with an old car that was pulled up behind the bay where the freon machine sat. She stood next to him as he got the keys from Nathan and fitted all four of them to the gas lock of an ancient blue Cadillac with peeling leather armrests and seats, splintered wood paneling, and missing accessories. He tossed the keys onto the trunk, and put his head down on his arm, whimpering for effect. His shirt rode up on his back, revealing a pair of BVDs with dark smudges at the waistband.

He gestured with the key ring. ‘Hey, Nathan, how do I open the gas cap?’

‘I don’t know,’ he shouted back. ‘The guy just handed them to me.’ The customer was long gone. Nelson would have liked to put some fuel in it, because he’d been driving around in it. There were roaches on the spacious hump between the seats. There was sweet tea in the carpet. ‘I’m going to kill that boy.’

A few minutes later, a new customer came into the shop. It was a salesman type, a white guy with white shirts and black pants, white socks and a stringy tie. Sunglasses. Balding. Fat. A guy just begging to be taken advantage of.

‘My friend said, Nelson, go see Nelson, so here I am,’ he started, his hand stretched out boldly.

Nelson greeted him, ‘Any friend of mine is a friend of mine. Tell me what’s bothering you, and I’ll take care of it.’

The guy was eager. ‘The check engine light came on and I thought maybe it was the gas cap.’ Because he’d been reading about emissions tests and late model cars.

Nelson wagged a bony finger in agreement. ‘It often is.’

The guy went on, full of nervous energy, looking for ways to break the silence. ‘I mean, it’s probly simple. Maybe I should just replace it mys…’ Then Suzie watched him wonder if he’d just dissed Nelson. She could see the guy had decided he liked Nelson, and trusted Nelson. And Nelson was acting like his new best friend. They were absurdly happy to be doing business with each other.

‘Don’t worry,’ Nelson said, slinging an arm over the guy’s shoulder. ‘I’ll treat you right.’ It sounded like he said Cheat you right. ‘I’ll take just as good care of your car as I do my own.’ The guy lapped it up. It was pathetic seeing him so anxious to like The Great Nelson, Master Mechanic.

‘No,’ he says, as if still arguing with himself. ‘I want you to have a look at it, and maybe tell me if it needs something else.’ He was nervous, and spilled out his car story. ‘See, the check engine light came on about a week ago, and then it went off again. And I didn’t see it again for a week. But now it’s back on.’ He rubbed his hands on his shirt to dry the sweat. ‘Any light comes on at all, I get nervous,’ he continued. ‘You just can’t tell what’s going on behind those idiot lights.’ He was looking around the shop and sputtering away. ‘I used to have a car had a lot of dials, you knew exactly what was happening in the engine. Great car.’

Suzie was very amused when the guy asked Nelson to find something else that needed working on. From that point, Nelson only had to decide how much the guy was good for and how badly he’d want his car back.

‘Okay, so I need to know when I can bring it in, and when you can have it back to me. I’m flexible, but I have a whole lot of running around I have to do, and I’d like to work around it if I can.’

‘Why don’t you bring it around first thing tomorrow. We’ll have it right back out of here just a couple of hours,’ he assured him, turning to go on to the next thing. ‘Go on and bring it by tomorrow.’ It was all the same to Nelson when he brought it by. He was just agreeing with the guy so he’d shut up and go away and let him get back to his work.

The salesman guy kept trying to pin Nelson down about how exactly long the job would take and what precisely it was going to run, and what he didn’t understand was that the mechanic business wasn’t precise. You couldn’t schedule anything. You couldn’t say, I’ll fix your car between one and three next Thursday. It all happened whenever it happened to happen at Stoner’s garage. If you tried to schedule something, a million and one things would come up to disrupt that schedule.

Suzie was betting that the guy would bring his car back the next morning, and there would be a bunch of emergency repairs and desperate owners before him, staring daggers at him for coming in with scheduled maintenance.

No matter when he brought his car in, he was going to have to wait until Nelson could take care of him. Just like at the doctor’s office. Only the waiting room at Stoner’s had much less carpet and fabrics, and more stuff you could hit with a hose when it got disgusting.

Suzie was more than bored watching the salesman trying to be popular with Nelson. She walked back to the wooden worktable and poked around for the paper, something to read, something. She found a bunch of wax lying on the table, torn off something the way you’d tear off the waxy rind on a Gouda cheese. She collected up a bunch of the soft yellow stuff and shaped it into a ball, poked her fingernails into the surface in neat patterns, squished it smaller in her hands, and looked about for more pieces. Once she had a good sized ball, she began to smell the beeswax and honey, the rich earthy, resiny smell of condensed flowers. She decided to take it home with her and make a candle out of it. Someday. She glanced over as the salesman guy was giving Nelson his card, and it suddenly struck her that he looked like a cop. His hair was too short. He was creepy.

Glenda slid open the office window and yelled out, ‘Nelson, line one.’

He bounded to the back wall where the phone hung just outside the parts room, and picked it up. ‘Stone’s Auto,’ he said pleasantly. ‘How may I help you?’ Then he found out who was calling him, and his voice dropped. He stared at his toes, his feet started moving, he began bugging with the phone cord out to the extent of its reach.

This was Nelson conducting business over the phone. Suzie had the repertoire down. Calls from a customer had him standing with a hand on his hip, lecturing and reassuring. Calls where he dug his toe into the floor and twisted it were from his sister. Calls about drugs were like talking to a lover: Yeah, you got to get you some of this. Mmm, so sweet. Really soft and juicy. Hot. You can’t keep away from it. Lasts so long. Got to get you some.

This particular call was business. ‘Late model, powerful,’ he said, nodding briskly, looking around the shop with ever watchful eyes. ‘What kind of capacity you need? Where? How long? Uh huh. Uh huh. Aight,’ he was in charge. ‘Tell you what to do. Yeah, we can get you that. By tonight, late. Aight. I’ll give you a call when it’s ready.’

He hung up the phone and wiped his hands on his shirt, then sauntered over to where Suzie was standing playing with the wax. ‘Hey, Baby, why don’t you slip into the bathroom and roll us a joint, and we’ll take off out of here in a minute for a ride around. I know a shady spot.’ He bumped her shoulder playfully with his hip, Scandinavian giant foreplay. Suzie glanced at the clock. He knew it was time for her to go to work. ‘Nelson, that guy was kind of suspicious,’ she said.

He waved it away. ‘Oh, don’t worry about that.’ He stood a ways off so she could admire him and turned this way and that. ‘Did you see about that bust the other day, over in Alabama?’ He gestured grandly. She hadn’t. ‘That was my main connection.’

He was proud. ‘They found a hundred acres sowed with pot plants. The fellow had raised them in paper cups and planted them out in the field himself, and the DEA guys discovered it from the air and set up a lookout. But nobody came and nobody came, and finally they swooped on the guy who owned the farm.’

Nelson chuckled. ‘The poor bastard didn’t know anything about it.’ He shook his head. ‘It was his dad. They got millions of dollars worth. I always get really great pot from him.’

Suzie hazarded a guess. ‘So you’re down to nothing.’

Nelson winked and looked superior. ‘Don’t believe it. When will I ever run out of weed?’

Suzie remembered, for once, that she needed him to look at something for her. Usually she only remembered when she was leaving. ‘Oh, hey, Nelson? The loaner you gave me? Well, it’s been overheating? And now the Check Engine Soon light comes on when I’m driving? Could you look at it for me?’ she asked sweetly.

He exploded. ‘Damn it to hell, I don’t have time for this piddling shit, Honey.’ His expression was of intense anguish, like she’d asked him to cut off his finger right then for her. He stalked off.

Suzie looked at Nubby, who shrugged silently. After standing around for a moment, he went out to check her loaner himself, with some chip that plugged in under the dashboard. He was back in moments, saying he couldn’t get it to work at all, and maybe he’d go ahead and ask Nelson to see for himself some day soon. Nelson understood these devices better than Nubby did. He could always get them to work.

Suzie nodded thanks, and when Nelson came out of the office, she mentioned that Nubby had tried the chip on the car.

He was incensed. He turned on her with bitter scorn. ‘Why in the world would you ask Nubby to deal with anything so stupid as a light? Especially that particular light, which any idiot knows is for getting you to come in here and pay me to turn it off for you.’

She stood there, cowering behind a bland shell of insensitivity. ‘He saw her shock, and softened, came forward to put an arm around her and hug her to his waist. ‘Bring it to me when the car is broken,’ he said gently, ‘and I’ll fix it. You know I’ll do anything for you, Sweetie.’

Suzie felt stunned, but grateful, and allowed him to walk her to the car and put her in, and grab a quick smooch with tongues sticky from the heat.

She didn’t start thinking again until she was on I-75, going to work, assessing the traffic conditions and looking to see if there was the slightest chance of rain.

* * *

next, shit hits the fan at work

The guys still weren’t there when she got home. The TV was on the Cartoon Network, where she’d left it, but she was too depressed to watch the news, or to check out the chance of rain on the Weather Channel. She turned the TV off. The living room was eerie without constant sound and lights. It smelled of mold, stale cigarettes, and dried beer. The odor of freshly burnt house came in through the open windows. Suzie felt lonely, and this made her more depressed. She was all alone in the world. She felt fatigued beyond anything she’d known. Her back hurt. Her feet hurt. Her stomach hurt. Her head hurt.

She put herself to bed, but couldn’t go to sleep. Her mind kept replaying all the conversations she’d overheard, all the snippets of vitriol and self-righteousness and prejudice, all the snide, catty observations, all the cruel abuse hurled at her. She kept thinking about Jerry’s plan to enslave the working class. She kept seeing Jerry’s wife, dying in her party dress. She kept wishing she’d been more forceful with the poor little barefoot woman. Leave the bastard, she kept thinking. Leave him. Divorce his ass and take him to the cleaners. It serves him right for treating his wife like that. Make him poor. Revenge is a dessert best served on a canapé tray.

Suzie’s mind kept spinning. She wondered what she was going to do for a job now that she’d been fired. Fired. Let go. Terminated. She thought about almost being turned over to the cops, and felt cold. The chance of being arrested. Put in jail. Made to serve time with thieves and murderers. She started to shiver. It was eighty-two degrees in the house, and she was freezing.

It started to rain. This should have brightened Suzie’s mood considerably, but she felt even more depressed. She lay in bed, snuggled in the covers, listening to the rain dripping on somebody else’s window air conditioner, listening to the rain hitting the leaves of the dogwood tree outside her window. It sounded sad. She started to cry, and every time she thought of the things that had happened to her, she cried a little more. Her tears increased with the rain. Finally, it reached the intensity of a howling, drenching downpour.

She stayed up all night crying, sniffling, listening to the rain, feeling like she was drowning. When she finally slept, it was fitful, full of angry dreams.

She dreams…she forgot. But the pace was frenetic and confusing and she didn’t know what to do.

She dreams it’s raining. She’s wet but not miserable, and is kind of enjoying herself. Everyone else is scurrying around trying to keep dry. The details are gone now, but she was on some kind of mission.

She dreams she’s riding in the truck with her dad. They’re stopped at a light, and talking easily. She doesn’t remember what they were talking about. To their right is the on ramp to I-85. It looks like they’re at the North Druid Hills entrance. The light changes. Suddenly Suzie is no longer in the truck, but standing at the side of the road, watching her dad drive away. She shouts his name. She thought he would pull over to the right shoulder and wait for her. But he keeps going, and gets into the left lane to take the cloverleaf back toward town, an option that doesn’t exist except in the dream place. She shouts again. His window is down, and as he goes around the curve she sees him dart over in his seat, maybe to unlock her door. She shouts a third time, as he disappears. A stream of traffic is going past, blocking her from crossing the road to catch up. She doesn’t know if he’ll be there when she rounded the curve. She begins to think she’ll have to make her way home on foot.

She swam into consciousness some time late in the morning. The apartment was silent, the rain was continuous, the humidity was 150%, her sheets were soaked. It was getting to be a full moon. Shit happens on a full moon.

The guys were still not home. She knew something was wrong, and was now certain they’d been arrested. She wondered what she could do about it, how she could find out what happened to them, how she could ever raise bail to get them out. Maybe her next paycheck would cover it. This reminded her of having been fired. Her heart sank.

She turned on the Weather Channel. It was good news: there was a hurricane, onshore and barreling straight up the border between Alabama and Georgia, and they were forecasting high winds and torrential rains all day, with the danger of flash floods and possibly tornadoes. But the news didn’t brighten her mood at all.

Wandering through the apartment, picking up trash and pitching old clothes into the corners, she stumbled across a cellphone sticking out from under a couch. It looked like Alex’s. Hmmm. She rummaged around in his room and found the charger, and plugged it in. She turned it on, but it came up with a message to upgrade the minutes. A prepaid phone. Maybe she could use it. It might come in handy to have a phone, especially if she was going to be looking for a job. And when Alex came home, he’d be glad to see that she’d bought him some minutes. He never had the money for cellphone service.

She got into the loaner, drenched to the skin, and started the engine. It was working fine the night before, except for overheating and the Check Engine light, but this morning there was a funny noise when she started it, and it roared to life with a new, loud clanking sound, metal slamming against metal.

Oh shit, she thought, it’s going to die on me. She put it into gear and put her foot on the gas. The noise increased, the clanking went faster. How was she going to drive all the way to Riverdale with it acting like this? How could she get it there before it died? Nelson would be so mad at her for killing the car.

Passing the burned-out house on Seaboard brought tears to her eyes. The devastation reminded her of Jerry. Something she heard him say to Ed made her wonder if they weren’t in back of the house fires. And the more she thought about it, the likelier it seemed. Neither of them had any respect for anyone without a lot of money and power, and both of them were ruthless.

She drove as fast as she could in the downpour, always in the right lane in case she had to pull off the highway with a dead car. She was anxious. She could feel the tension building in her shoulders, her legs. She was willing the car to keep going, sitting forward in her seat, using body english to propel the car down the road, watching the idiot lights and desperately hoping they wouldn’t change. The engine noise gave her a headache. She was nearly in tears from worrying whether she was going to make it.

She pulled into the garage and took her foot off the gas. The sound lessened until it sounded almost normal. She put it into park and left it running so Nelson could hear it, but Nubby told her he was out on a test drive, so she shut it off and went into the shop to wait, slipping and nearly falling on a fresh grease spot. She wondered did they ever mop the floor, or did they just wait for a good rain and hope it would flood the place clean.

Nubby was working on a pickup in the southwest bay. He left the driver’s side door open while he was fooling around under the hood, and Suzie could hear it. Bing bing bing. The sound irritated her.

Nathan pulled a rusty old car into the emissions bay. He grinned at her. ‘We’re going to have to clean-pipe this one,’ he said. ‘I got to wait until Nelson gets back, though. He won’t let me do it myself.

Suzie hung out at the wooden worktable, rummaging through the newspaper, a copy of Hustler, a grease-thumbed parts catalog for the GTO. She found a huge butt-end of a joint, too big to call a roach. She found a picture. It was Nelson, looking smashed. He was sitting sprawled against a booth seat next to a dark haired woman with too much makeup on. The shot was taken from between some stripper’s bare legs and high heels. She turned it over. It was developed a little over two weeks before.

Nelson pulled into the back parking lot and came loping into the shop. Nubby came up to him with a clipboard and they discussed what to bill some customer for taking a part off, cleaning it, putting it back on again, and calling it new. Nathan came up and snagged him to go watch the beginning of his illegal emissions test. Glenda yelled through the hatch that he had a call on line two. He hadn’t even seen Suzie.

Suzie was distracted. The car Nelson had pulled up in looked a lot like the developer’s car. She wondered if he’d taken her advice and brought it down to let Nelson fix it. She wandered over to the edge of the shop, standing out of the way of the rain sheeting off the roof and blowing in at a 45-degree angle, and had a look at his bumper. Sure enough, there was her replacement sticker. The bastard never noticed it. Cool.

She had a sudden thought. Maybe she could get a job working at the garage. Then she could make a side career out of political commentary with her stickers. She decided to ask Nelson if he had anything she could do there. Maybe she could change oil. Nathan certainly wanted to move up the ladder; she could do his job. Or Allen’s, who hadn’t been around the shop lately, probably a parole violation.

But first, she had to tell him about the loaner blowing up. She went up to him and waited for him to finish his phone call. He gave her a distracted half-hug and continued talking. She studied the clouds and rethought her confession. By the time he hung up, she was thinking of other things entirely. ‘Look, Nelson,’ she said, pointing to the sky. ‘A feeder band. That’s the hurricane, right there.’

He gave her a bothered look. He hated rain.

She sidled up to him. ‘Do you want to go for a ride?’ she asked. There was something so exciting about pounding rain. She suddenly felt like she’d really like to go off somewhere and make love. Even in the middle of the mall parking lot. Nobody would see them on a day like this.

Nelson noticed her condition, and dragged her off into the parts room for a quickie. This time she didn’t pull away or feel embarrassed that everyone in the shop knew what was going on. She felt giddy, hearing the rain beating down on the roof, feeling Nelson thundering into her, knowing how close they were to being discovered. She forgot all about the car. Nelson came before she’d even hardly got going. She was sore afterward; it had been so long since they’d had sex, it felt like her hymen had grown back.

When they came out of the parts room, Nelson looked into the parking lot and saw the loaner. ‘Oh, good,’ he said, ‘you’ve brought it back. We’ve got to get that car fixed and out of here today. Let me give you another car to drive until we can fix yours.’ He called to Nathan to pull the car into the south bay.

The car started up and began clanking loudly. Nelson looked at Suzie narrowly. ‘What’s that sound?’ he asked. Suzie was surprised that he had to ask. He should know the characteristics of every sound in every car.

‘I was just going to ask you,’ she said. ‘It started making that noise this morning. That’s why I brought it back.’

He blew up. ‘Why didn’t you call me instead of bringing it all this way?’ he yelled, backing off and staring down at her. ‘You could have damaged it beyond repair, and we’d be liable for it. What’s the customer going to say when he finds out it’s broken?’

‘But the phone’s out,’ she said weakly. ‘I couldn’t call you, and I thought the best thing would be to get it here as fast as possible.’ She held back tears. ‘I didn’t think.’

‘Baby, cars aren’t supposed to make that kind of noise,’ he said, more gently. He was thinking over his options. He turned to Nathan. ‘Leave it where it is,’ he decided. ‘We’ll do something else.’ Nathan shut it off and came back inside, sopping wet.

Suzie was puzzled. ‘Doesn’t the customer need it back today?’

‘By the time I get through with it,’ he said, ‘the owner won’t know it.’

Suzie pointed to Ed’s car. ‘Can I borrow that one?’ she asked sweetly. She had a sudden thought about booby trapping it somehow, putting a paint grenade in the car somewhere, somehow. Something that would pop up and bite him.

‘But we’re working on it today,’ he said. ‘We got to do a brake job.’

‘I told a friend I’d help her move today, and that’s got plenty of room.’ He looked around the parking lot for something big, but except for a pickup with a blown engine, there was nothing. ‘I’ll have it back in a couple of hours,’ she insisted, trying the same type of baldfaced lie she suspected of him, rubbing up against him and stroking his arm. ‘I’ll have it right back. I promise.’

He hesitated only a split second. ‘Sure, Sweetie,’ he said with a show of generosity, handing her the keys with only a shadow of anxiety. ‘Bring it right back.’ She pulled on her driving gloves and blew him a kiss, and left before he could come up with another alternative.

She made her way back into town in Ed’s Mercedes SUV. The rain was still steady, but the sky was lightening above her, and she could see yellow sky between feeder bands. She drove to her hideout, but went in through the cemetery next door so she could work on the car undisturbed. She hadn’t gone in this way for months. The path was completely overgrown, and she had to push aside the undergrowth and step through brambles, watching for poison ivy. It was raining only lightly now, but she was wet through, with scratches on her arms and legs.

The ground was squishy. The trees sounded like it was still raining hard. It was hot, and humid, and everything smelled like a mixture of tropical plants, salt air, and mold.

As she brushed by all sorts of plants descending to the creek, she noticed some tree limbs that had been cut, and saw little dayglo orange flags on stakes. Surveyors had been through recently. Suzie wondered if someone was planning to develop the woods behind Auntie Mae’s house, and thought evil thoughts about Ed and Jerry.

She looked around the clearing. It didn’t look as if the surveyors had gotten that far. Everything was filthy. There was mud everywhere; runnels covered the clearing as the rain converged on the creek. Suzie looked around, disgusted with her silly fantasies of being a superhero. She went around gathering up the junk and stuffing it into a garbage bag, angry with herself.

It took a couple of trips to pack all the stuff into the trunk of Ed’s Mercedes. Her lean-to and stool. Equipment for do-it-yourself paintballs, from an abortive attempt to include a printed message inside the sphere. A bunch of plastic jugs and a length of rope. Cans of house paint, a bicycle pump syringe, a couple of yards of rubber surgical tubing, some ball bearings, a pair of roach clips, cotter pins, some tools, a bunch of old paintgun magazines.

She’d had such grandiose dreams of complex James Bond stealth weapons. She’d spent hours dreaming up fantasy redesigns of her weaponry. She’d cut the paintgun barrel down. She’d disguised her gun as a drink cup. She thought about putting it into a long tube to hide it, but it would have meant shooting out of the passenger side window. She thought about making a gun hole through the back of the trunk, and wiring the trigger to the brake handle. She thought about filling the trunk with paint buckets and dumping them onto the road in front of her target.

Today, she had this stupid idea about cutting a hole in the driver’s side door so she could fire unobserved. But cutting holes in the door wouldn’t give her a good shot; it would confine the gun to a very narrow angle, so she’d be maneuvering the car to take aim.

She realized she was being hasty. She was about to do deliberate damage to a very expensive car that just happened to belong to someone she despised. She realized she was being hateful, and therefore she shouldn’t do it. It would be better to put sugar in the gas tank, and fuck things up for him over the long term; cause him real money to get it fixed.

Then she thought about how much Ed made last year, some bunches of millions of dollars. Why the fuck not destroy his car? And plus, she was really paranoid about someone seeing her gun, because she was afraid of being spotted by Joe Commuter and turned in, or shot at by some vigilante punk wannabe cop. So she got out her screwdriver and started to take the interior panel off the door anyway. She felt silly, though.

She started on the panel screws, and noticed that they were half-stripped. Some were missing. The rain was starting to pick up. She was sitting there on the edge of the door, taking the door panel off, getting wetter by the moment. But she couldn’t get a purchase on the screws. Everything was getting wet, and she was crying with frustration.

Finally she got the panel off. But how strange. Someone had built shelves into the door. She thought for a moment and peeled up the carpet in the back. The metal of the floor had been cut away, and there were more compartments. Suzie sat and thought. Then she examined the shelf in the door. Beeswax was scraped along the edge in curling slivers. There was a scummy gray mass on the ledge of the door below. Something had spilled and gotten wet. She tasted it. Sweet tea and something bitter. Then her teeth went numb. Cocaine. Ed was running drugs? Nelson was running drugs? Some expatriated mexican was running drugs?

She looked closer at the interior of the car. Everything had been fucked with. Not that anything was out of place, because how would she know? But there was ash everywhere, and a roach in the console ashtray. There was grease on the rug, and bolts and screws on the floor. The glove compartment was a mess. Someone had spilled sweet tea on the passenger’s seat, and it was still damp. She wondered what was going on, and put the door back on, bemused. She forgot all about cutting her own holes in the car.

The rain picked up again. She got back on the road. The clouds were low and scuddy, the sky above them lead-gray. She was driving around aimlessly. With no job to go to, she was at a loss for something to do with herself. She was still steaming about getting fired, and her mind was still rolling around the things she’d heard last night. She was beginning to piece everything together. Things that had been too far over her head to muss her hair, now hit her upside the head as they came around again. Her neighborhood was going down the tubes, her roommates were going to jail, and her chances for another restaurant job were finished.

And it was all because of Ed and Jerry, who had been thorns in her side for a very long time. Jerry was behind the new, draconian homeless laws, and the new twist on slave labor. He and Ed were the cause of the house fires, and behind the plan to destroy her fine old Atlanta neighborhood for profit. She grew more and more angry, less and less rational. She felt crazy. She wanted revenge like she’d never wanted it before. Ed and Jerry must be made to suffer, to pay for her pain. She hated being in such a helpless position – no job, no home, no future – and she blamed them.

So she went looking for Jerry. One more quest for vengeance, but this time she wasn’t just out to get a random bad driver. She was out to wreak justice on an evil man. To stop a clear and present danger. To stomp a noxious, disease-ridden bug.

She knew where he used to work, and figured she might could find him t here, so she drove over to the Midtown law offices of Reedham and Wheat, Mohn, Nash, Wayle, Sweat, and Trimble, and parked illegally at the end of a side street, watching the parking deck entrance.

She sat there for several hours peering through the streams of rain on the windshield. She smoked the roach, she read the owner’s manual, she doodled on the leather seats with a ballpoint pen.

But Jerry wasn’t coming out. Maybe he wasn’t there at all. Maybe he was over at the legislature, helping to put new harshness into the legal system. She drove downtown to the Capitol buildings. But there were armed guards, and no way to cover all the exits and parking lots. So she moved on. Perhaps he was over at the old prison farm, the Straight Path Center, advising prison officials on how to get the most use out of their new slaves. So she cruised down Moreland past Auntie Mae’s, out Key Road, and drove slowly by the barbed-wired facility. No luck.

She felt foolish. She’d spent three or four damp hours, sitting and waiting, and cruising and searching, and it was looking pretty hopeless. How stupid she felt. Back on Moreland, the first thing she saw was the Reinsourcing America billboard. Suzie pulled into a gas station and used the public phone, standing in the rain. The operator gave her the street address of the agency. Midtown, not two blocks from his old law office. So she headed back north.

And there he was. Suzie was illegally parked on Peachtree for no more than five minutes when she saw his BMW pull out of the parking lot and head for the highway at . She followed him. Her stomach hardened into a tight knot when she caught sight of him. She tasted bile. She wanted to kill him, to see his lifeless body slumped in his seat. It was a good fantasy. He so needed to die.

* * *

next, a little heavy weather

SPLAT CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

October 4, 2007

Suzie slept like a child. What’s the difference between the sleep of the just and the sleep of the damned? Do you think the wicked suffer for their evil done during the day? Do the good commit heinous crimes in their dreams? Maybe there’s a balance.

Suzie had boiled all her anger away before she got home. Her lust for revenge evaporated while she made her way through the still wet streets. It took Care Bear fortitude to stay awake all the way to Reynoldstown. She got home to a damp, empty apartment and fell into her bed, spent, asleep inside of a minute. She didn’t toss and turn, she didn’t wonder if Jerry was all right, if he’d recognized her, if he’d go to the cops and tell them she was the sniper. She didn’t think about anything but how tired she was.

All her dreams were under the surface, and to tell the truth, they were all about silly things with very little symbolic content. The only snippet she could recall had her in a movie theater in her socks, sliding all the way down the smooth aisle, watching the screen. Then, rather than walking back up to find a seat, cuz she thinks she’s already seen it, she pushes through the exit doors next to the screen and walks out into the sunset. What kind of meaning can be found there?

When she woke up, she was sore all over, so she must have been fighting some kind of battle in her sleep. She felt like she’d been hit with a stun gun. She sat in the living room for awhile, groggy, and watched the Weather Channel while the sun shone outside, wishing the hurricane would turn around and come back. She’d been in no mood to appreciate such impressive weather yesterday, and was sorry now. She waited with the TV on mute until the tropical report came on, hoping it would show another storm boiling up out of the Gulf, heading miraculously their way. But the newest one was still bopping around the Caribbean. She shut off the TV, disappointed. Maybe the next one.

There was nothing to eat. She didn’t feel like macaroni and cheese out of a box, or ramen noodles, or a beer. She wasn’t really hungry. She looked around at the living room. She’d cleaned it up yesterday, but it was still gross and disgusting. It would take more than just picking up trash to make it a pleasant place to live. She went back into her room, and it was in the same kind of shape, so she gathered and sorted and cleaned and trashed until her room was neat for the first time in months. Maybe she’d take all that laundry down to the laundromat and wash it. Maybe later.

She remembered Alex’s phone. It was charged now, so she walked over to the new Edgewood Shopping Center across Moreland to see about buying some minutes for it. The burned out house looked clean now that the rain had washed away a lot of the rubble. A black, picked-over skeleton of some defeated dragon. Suzie felt nothing as she passed it. It bothered her that she was so anesthetized. Yesterday the sight of it had brought tears, but today it was as if it were some sort of art installation. Ruined house #78.

She bought a hundred minutes from the phone store in the new center. It was amazing how fast they’d turned an abandoned industrial complex into dozens of stores that looked like they’d been there for years. She stopped into the new Kroger and bought herself a loaf of bread, some ham, and a carton of milk, just so she could say there was food in the house.

Then she walked back to the apartment and made herself a nice home-cooked meal, and used Alex’s phone to call Uncle Daddy, who’d just gotten back from his trip to Macon and was heading for bed.

He sounded glad to hear from her. ‘Where are you, Honey?’

‘Oh, I’m at home. I thought I’d come over and see you later.’

‘Well, maybe you better not. Things are kind of difficult at the moment.’ He paused. Suzie chewed her sandwich. ‘I heard noises down the back last night,’ he began.

Suzie’s stomach knotted. She put the sandwich down. ‘Oh.’

‘There were lights in the woods, and helicopters. Give me your phone number.’

Auntie Mae would be upset. She never did approve of Suzie’s hideout. The woods were no place for a little girl to hang out in by herself. ‘How’s Auntie Mae feel about this?’

He answered a different question. ‘She’s not doing real well, Honey,’ he said, sounding sad. ‘The doctors had her in for some tests the other day, and she was supposed to be back yesterday, but they wanted to run some more tests. They’re not saying what they think.’

‘My God. What’s wrong with her?’

He sighed. ‘Like I said, they won’t tell me nothing. She’s just been a little tired lately, is all. It’s probly nothing to worry about.’ He sounded worried.

‘Where is she?’

‘I took her up to Atlanta Medical Center there on Boulevard, used to be Georgia Baptist. You might could go and see her. She’s feeling pretty low.’

Suzie thought she would just run up there and ask the doctors herself.

‘Hold on a minute, Honey,’ Uncle Daddy said in a different tone. ‘I’m hearing noises down the back.’ He put the phone down and went to the kitchen window. The back yard was crawling with police, heading toward the house. He picked up the phone and said hurriedly, ‘Honey, the cops are here, coming up from your place in the woods, it looks like. You better stay away from here for awhile. But I want you to go see your Auntie Mae.’

Suzie felt sick. ‘Okay, I will, Uncle Daddy. I’m sorry to bring the police down on you.’

‘Don’t worry, Baby Girl, I’ll be fine. You take care of yourself.’

Suzie had a strong urge to sneak over to Uncle Daddy’s and cruise by to see what the cops were up to. But she knew for a fact that it would be a stupid thing to do. So she got in Ed’s Mercedes and went over to see her Auntie. She parked a couple of blocks away and walked in, to avoid the parking fee.

She had a few qualms about parking such an expensive car near Boulevard, but looking around she realized that just because people were poor and had no jobs didn’t mean they didn’t drive nice cars. There were a lot of expensive cars parked in the neighborhood. Either a lot of poor people living well, or a bunch of cheap doctors that didn’t want to pay the $3 parking fee either.

She left Ed’s car where she’d parked it, satisfied that it was as safe as anywhere. She was feeling that Atlanta was a gentle place. Even if it was urban, people still had manners and respect for each other. For a moment, the world felt like a warm, safe place to be.

She found Auntie Mae sitting up in bed dressed in a hospital gown. She was watching a talk show, looking bored. Her room was mostly empty linoleum and empty wall, the bed and a rolling tray were crammed into a corner almost directly below the TV set, so Auntie Mae’s neck was cricked. Suzie sat next to her and rubbed her shoulders, arranged the covers, fussed over a passive, quiet Auntie Mae.

‘Did they give you any drugs, Auntie Mae?’

‘No. Why do you ask, child?’

‘I thought you were looking a little out of it when I came in.’

‘No. I’m just a little tired. It’s too noisy here to get any real sleep. And they keep coming in and fiddling with me.’

They sat there for a few minutes in silence, absorbing the ads and the details of other peoples’ lives.

‘Uncle Daddy says they don’t know what’s the matter with you.’

‘No. It’s probly nothing. Don’t you worry.’ She patted Suzie’s hand.

They sat there for a few more minutes. Another talk show came on.

‘This is where my mom died, isn’t it?’ Suzie asked in a small voice.

Auntie Mae looked at her sympathetically. ‘Yes, it is.’ She turned to look out the window at the view part of a brick wall someone had painted to look like a field in spring. ‘Lord, it’s been over twenty years since your mamma passed,’ she said, looking down at Suzie. ‘You’ve grown to look so much like her.’ She reached out and stroked Suzie’s hair.

Suzie took her hand. Auntie Mae was the only mother she really knew. She used to be so lively and strong. Now she was like a ghost, the skin on her hands paper thin and dry, a grayness tingeing the beautiful deep brown, making her hand look like it had been pulled from a fire.

‘You’re like her in other ways, too,’ Auntie Mae continued after a silence. Suzie wanted to hear more. Nobody ever wanted to talk about her mom in front of her.

‘Not that you’d ever get involved with the types she ran around with when she was your age.’ She laughed softly at the memory and stroked Suzie’s hair some more.

‘A bunch of environmental activists is who she hung out with. Oh, she was wild, that one. She ran off with her boyfriend who blew up some company’s warehouses and then fled. She ended up in Ireland for years, living as somebody else.’

‘That would be fun,’ she said.

‘You only think so. She had to work a deal with the feds before she could come back home, else they would have arrested her for aiding and abetting a fugitive. They wanted to know where the old boyfriend was, but by then she had no idea, and couldn’t tell them anything they hadn’t known for years.’ Auntie Mae sighed. She’d loved Suzie’s mom like a sister, back when she was a bit of a rebel herself.

‘Yeah, your mom, a real firebrand.’ Auntie Mae picked up a strand of Suzie’s hair. ‘Your hair used to be more gold, more like your mom’s, but it got deeper as you got older.’ She ruffled Suzie’s mop top. ‘And dark blue eyes. She always looked real straight at you. Direct. And she’d poke, if she found a place where you had issues. She’d wind you right up to see how you’d react. Hurt like hell sometimes, but people learned not to try any nonsense around her. She was psychic, too. All that stuff, horoscopes and handwriting and tea leaves. She could read beer suds and sweater lint, that girl. She could really pin someone down, lay it all out. People used to come to her.’

Suzie laughed angrily. ‘I’m like that? I don’t have a psychic bone in my body. And I know absolutely nothing about people.’

Auntie Mae patted her hand. ‘I’m tired, dear. Let me lie down. Hand me my Bible over there, if you don’t mind.’ She pointed to the air conditioning unit by the window.

Suzie got it, took the extra pillows from behind Auntie Mae’s back and arranged the blankets around her. ‘I should go,’ she said, kissing her forehead and blinking back a tear. ‘Try to get some rest. I’ll come see you tomorrow.’ Auntie Mae opened her Bible and started reading where she’d left off.

Suzie went out to the nurse’s station. A big black woman in scrubs sat behind the desk filling out charts.

‘I’d like to talk to someone about my Auntie’s condition.’

The nurse regarded her calmly. ‘And who’s your Auntie?’

‘Mae Wilson.’

The nurse continued to look at her with the same expression on her face. ‘And she’s your auntie,’ she said, unconvinced.

Suzie fidgeted. A white girl claiming relationship to a woman with mahogany skin. Uh huh. ‘Yes. She raised me.’

The nurse cocked an eyebrow. ‘Like, she was your maid or something?’

Suzie nearly shouted, ‘No! I lived with her after my mom died, and…and then my dad.’ She burst into tears.

The nurse busied herself with her charts while Suzie fought to control herself. ‘Well,’ she said, trying to be kind. ‘I’m not allowed to give out details of a patient’s diagnosis if you’re not the next of kin.’ She looked up at Suzie. ‘And I couldn’t tell you anything, anyway. You’d have to speak to the doctor.’ She went back to work. Suzie turned away, dismissed and feeling small, and left the building.

When she got back to Ed’s Mercedes, she noticed something through the back window. It was a can of brake fluid, tossed in the back. Nelson must have thrown it back there. It bothered her. Here she was, driving a real expensive car. It should be neat and clean, polished and fly.

She reached back and picked up the empty can. It wasn’t greasy. She took the cap off and poked at a plastic seal, unbroken. Hmmm. The can twisted apart in the middle. A ziplock bag holding an ounce of pot fell out on the street. She stared down at it. She looked around. Then she stuck it back in the can and threw it in the back. She tried calling Uncle Daddy, but he didn’t pick up the phone.

Suzie didn’t even try to get on the Interstate. It wasn’t completely closed down at this stage, but there were so many bottlenecks, and such a long line waiting to go through or even around that police were warning motorists not to go anywhere near Atlanta if they could help it. Most of the city didn’t bother coming in to work that morning.

She drove down to Riverdale on US 41, a secondary highway that runs from Michigan to Miami.

It used to be how you got there, but after the interstates, it was just streetlights and strip malls between vast sections of scrub trees and farmland. Today it was backed up like a parade going through. Everybody was taking alternate routes. It took her an hour and a half to get to Riverdale, a fifteen minute drive on the Interstate.

She had a lot of time to think about Auntie Mae, about her mom, about various acts of vengeance, about her ex job. The more she thought, the more edgy she grew. She was such an angry person, her feelings so raw they amazed her. She never suspected she was that mad at the world.

But she also had this dead area inside of her, where nothing could get in. She was like a light switch, on and off. Her emotional range swung from fury to sobbing, and that was about it. The care and love she had felt sitting with Auntie Mae was the only halfway peaceful emotion she could point to. It bothered her. She must be some kind of freak.

She finally pulled the Mercedes into Stoner’s garage, and drove around the back past a newly whitewashed wall. She noticed it with intense annoyance. Then she saw through the open bay doors that Ed was there, yelling at Nelson. Nelson made frantic gestures to Nathan, who came running out of the shop to change places with her.

Ed had seen his car come into the lot, and was stalking through the garage toward it. Suzie fled in a panic. She jammed between cars, crouching so he wouldn’t see her. Her bag got stuck going through a small squeeze, and she squealed in frustration trying to pull it through.

Ed looked around, suspicious. He didn’t believe that Nathan had been out driving the car, as Nelson was insisting. He continued to yell. She listened to them argue from around the corner. Nelson was lying through his teeth. Ed started cussing. Nelson acted offended, like he never used foul language. Ed started threatening.

Suzie longed to put her head around the corner to see him fume – standing there belly out, red faced, too short to look Nelson in the eyes – promising to have him killed. Nelson’s response would be to loom over him and growl. Suzie’d seen him do that with dozens of nasty customers.

Finally Ed climbed up into his car and left, but not before having some pretty insulting things to say about the mess inside the car.

Nelson was steamed. Suzie came out of hiding, feeling like it was all her fault. ‘No, Sweetie. I’m not mad at you,’ he assured her. ‘But, Honey, you sure make things difficult for me when you do things like this. That fucking asshole was this far from calling the cops on me.’

She stood in the hot sun, talking to him. He seemed reluctant to go inside. ‘Did you fix whatever he wanted done?’

‘No, you didn’t give me a chance.’

She winced. ‘What did you tell him?’

‘I told him there was a problem and he has to bring it back so I can do something else. I told him I’ve got a part on order and he’s just going to have to be patient. But he took his car and cussed me out into the bargain.’ He shrugged. ‘Now it’s his problem.’

He edged away from her and went running back into the shop, grabbing a socket wrench and burying himself in a pickup’s engine compartment.

Suzie came in out of the heat, and noticed a woman standing around at the wooden worktable, thumbing through the paper. She was black, and beautiful, with a short afro. Well dressed. Bored. Maybe it was the same woman she’d seen before. Maybe not. Suzie floated around the same side of the shop, but apart from saying hey they didn’t speak to each other. The woman read the paper, Suzie watched Nathan testing cars.

Nelson was off under some other car, and then dodged into the office. Suzie looked around for her car and didn’t see it. She wished Nelson would roll a joint so they could go around the block and talk. She had so many things to get off her chest. She still hadn’t told him she got fired, she wanted to know what he thought of Ed, and she was getting more and more freaked out about having shot Jerry.

But he was ignoring her, and staying away from the other woman, too. She felt uncomfortable. The woman was hanging out in Suzie’s exact same spot, and she felt rootless not being there. ‘Which one’s your car?’ she asked brightly, trying to make conversation about how long it was taking and how you had to watch them every minute.

The woman nodded that her car was parked out back, and turned to walk out in the sun and pace back and forth where everyone could watch her. She looked bored.

Suzie moved into her spot and smoothed the paper. She didn’t like the way the woman looked down her nose at Suzie’s ragged t-shirt and worn jeans. Just because she was dressed nicely, wearing makeup, looking good; not wilting in the heat like Suzie was. The woman exuded exasperated patience. Like she was queen of the universe.

‘Who’s she think she is, the owner?’ Suzie whispered to Nubby while he washed up at the hand sink. Nubby mumbled something unclear and scampered back to the car he was working on.

Suzie studied her. As a customer, she’d be impossible to satisfy. No way would she put up with Nelson’s usual half-assed job. She would criticize and whine and bitch and moan until he caved and gave her the best he had, and didn’t make her pay for it. And she’d still be haughty about it.

Suzie always took the least crumb, the most broken down car, the worst repair job, and was grateful. She looked at the woman’s car; a late model Toyota, gleaming silver, spotless. She would have contrasted it with her car, but her car wasn’t there.

Suzie noticed that the woman had no bumper stickers, and thought of one she could print up when she got home. Something like, I’m A Horrible Bitch And It’s Contagious. The woman patted her perfect hair and smiled meanly at Suzie, coming back inside and stand impatiently by the Goat’s front fender.

Nelson was still giving both of them a wide berth. Suzie went after him, and cornered him rising from the oil pit. She loomed above him as he climbed out of the hole. He started, looking around to see who was noticing. What was wrong with him? Suzie figured it was because Ed had yelled at him. She felt awful about making him look bad professionally. ‘Um, Nelson,’ she began, turning her attention to her car needs. ‘I hate to mention it…’

He whirled on her defensively. ‘Now, whatever you think,’ he started. Then he noticed her slouching over, looking at her feet, embarrassed, ashamed. He straightened up and preened slightly, glancing over at the black woman, who was watching the scene intently.

Suzie didn’t touch him. She tried to never show physical affection in front of the boys, and certainly not in front of customers, and he was standing too far away to touch, anyway. But she wanted a hug badly. Something was very wrong between them, and she felt at fault, and she knew there was nothing she could do except go away and let him work.

But she didn’t know where her car was. ‘Um, Nelson, I don’t have anything to drive.’

‘You can have yours back, Baby,’ he said nonchalantly. ‘It’s all fixed.’

‘That’s the problem. I don’t see it anywhere.’

He didn’t blink. ‘One of the boys took it off to a specialist to get the clutch plate turned.’

Suzie didn’t think a clutch could be turned like a brake drum. ‘But all the boys are here.’

A bolt of mental lightning hit him. ‘I know. You can drive this other car.’ He was animated now, and vaulted off toward the front of the shop. ‘Let’s you and me go and get you up and running. It’s a real comfortable car. You’ll love it.’

He led her to a 1990 baby blue Cadillac DeVille and waved her inside like she was royalty. ‘Yessir,’ he said, fishing the keys out of his pocket. ‘This is just the thing for you. Air conditioning, leather seats, automatic everything.’ He spoke quickly, his gestures urging her to start the engine.

He rummaged in his shirt pocket and reached out with a fistful of pot. She stared at it in her palm. ‘I’d rather have a hug and a few minutes to talk with you,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a lot of things on my mind. I need a hug.’

His eyes moved around rapidly. ‘I know, Baby. But I’m so busy.’ He spread his hands. ‘I’ve got to get back to work, can’t leave the boys alone for a minute.’

She nodded. He couldn’t.

‘I’ve been driving this car myself for the last few days.’ He looked at her. ‘That’s how I feel about you. Giving you the car I’m personally driving. Nothing’s too good for you.’ He was so anxious for her to be gone that he was almost spinning on the pavement. He was jumping up and down like an impatient child.

‘How are you going to get home?’

‘Oh, I’ll get a ride,’ he mumbled vaguely. They were out of sight of the garage. Nelson bent down in the door and went to give her a quick peck on the cheek.

‘Where’s my hug?’ She cried.

He grimaced, and looked around, and reached in and grabbed her shoulders, bringing his face to hers with his tongue already out and probing the air for her lips. His mouth was dry, and there was a string of spit between his tongue and upper lip. It was like french kissing a large, drooling parrot.

She turned away and reached for the ignition. The Cadillac started with a rattle and a belch of smoke. Nelson bounded back from the car. ‘Okay, Honey. Come see me tomorrow.’ He backed away. ‘We’ll spend some time together tomorrow.’

Suzie saw through the garage as she was pulling out that Nelson was in there talking to the black woman, his arms by his side, pleading. The woman looked mad.

On her slow way back into town, Suzie tried to call Uncle Daddy again. There was still no answer.

* * *

next, how much worse can it get? ha.

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