Benny wheeled the Dodge off the road just as the engine choked up completely. The car shimmied and died underneath a Hooters billboard. He slammed the gear in park and made noisy exhales from his nose.
“Reckon what’s wrong with it?” Verna said.
“I don’t know, Mama. I’m not a mechanic.”
“Shouldn’t you have a look at it?”
“I don’t know what for.”
“I just thought it might be something we could fix,” she said.
“With what? Your knitting needles?”
“There’s no need to be impertinent.”
Only she would use a word like that, Benny thought. That word was never heard anymore except in old Disney movies or Masterpiece Theatre – and from his mother.
He got out of the car and raised the hood. Steaming, popping pieces of metal and wire baffled him. His best guess was that the car had overheated, but he didn’t know what to do about it. Big pieces of metal resembling livers and appendices lay jammed together in a puzzle, and most of them held some type of liquid. Under the hood it all smelled of dirt and road tar, and all around him the heat made the cicadas sing their summer misery song. He hung his head. She’ll think I’m studying this car, he thought. Good. It will give me two minutes’ peace.
“Benny, you know what it is?”
“No, Mama, I don’t. I’ll have to walk to the next exit and call somebody.”
Benny pushed his hand over his sweating forehead and he glanced down the asphalt through the wavering heat. He stuttered a moment, then said, “Thurmond Franklin.”
“Thurmond’s eighty years old, Benny. He can hardly make it to the post office,” she said.
“Then I’ll decide who to call on the way.”
She yelled at him from her window, and her voice trembled. “You can’t leave me here in the car.”
“You can’t walk, Mama.”
“But Benny, it’s so hot in here, and it’s not safe on the side of the road. What if something happens?”
“I’ll be right back with help. I promise,” he wiped the sweat from his eyes. “We’ll roll the windows down.”
“Don’t leave me here, Benny!”
Benny looked down the wavy expanse of road again, and then up at the Hooters girls looming so large above him their proportions looked distorted and ugly. He turned back to see through the open slit between the open hood and the car, his mother sitting stiffly in her passenger side seat.
“All right, I’m coming.” He opened the trunk and lifted out the wheelchair. It was hard to unfold and harder to roll along the grassy slope of the bank where the car was parked. Verna opened her door and eased herself into the chair.
Pushing her along the edge of the road would have been easier, but a car would surely have sideswiped them within seconds. Benny pushed Verna a safe distance from the asphalt ribbon of highway that ran along beside them. The worst part was when a truck passed. It was loud and overbearing like an approaching jet, and it blew up dust and grit in its wake. Verna clutched her pocketbook close to her heart as it passed. Another truck came soon after and it slowed a little as if the driver was going to pull over and give them a ride, but the shoulder of the road wasn’t wide enough to hold his truck, so he kept going. A picture flitted across Benny’s mind of his mother’s wheelchair rolling into the oncoming path of one of those trucks. It would be fast. She wouldn’t suffer. He put a hand over his eyes and shook the thought away.
Benny’s shirt was soaked in sweat from his underarms to the waistband of his pants. His hair dripped onto the top of his mother’s head as he pushed her along, and they’d traveled only about thirty yards.
“How much farther do we have to go, Benny?”
“Don’t know, Mama,” said Benny.
“Surely somebody’ll stop soon enough. Lord goodness, you’d think they would for an old lady in a wheelchair.” She twisted around in her seat but quickly flinched at the passing rush of a Honda carrying trail bikes on the roof rack.
“World’s not what it used to be, Mama.” Benny trudged along, pushing the wheelchair on the side of the slope. He panted, and his eyes stung. No signs indicated the next exit. It could be miles. Benny felt sick. He stopped and squatted down beside Verna’s chair.
“Benny, are you all right?”
“I’ll be okay. I just don’t feel so good.”
“I wish I had my fan for you. I could reach up and fan you over my head while you pushed.”
“That’d be nice, Mama.”
The Rambler that pulled over wheeled to a stop so fast it threw dust all over them. When it blew past, Benny opened his eyes to see a wiry man in a suit standing behind his car with his right hand up.
“Lord goodness! You folks don’t need to be out in this heat. Come on. Let’s get this good lady in the car so she can ride comfable.”
“Aren’t you a blessing,” said Verna.
“I try my best, ma’am,” said the man.
Benny pushed himself to his feet and rolled his mother’s chair to the passenger door. She emitted short, clichéd phrases the whole time she was getting into the car to which the stranger acknowledged with a few “yes’ms.” Benny loaded the wheelchair into the trunk, and the trio took off down the highway. The stranger’s car had no air-conditioning, a real drawback to Benny, but the car moved. A phone would be only a few minutes away.
“I’m Riley Walker,” the driver said, extending his hand to Benny who introduced himself and his mother and explained the car predicament.
“I’m sorry I don’t have any cold drinks to offer you, but I have a mechanic friend just a few miles up. He’ll come right to your car and help you out.”
“Oh Benny, what wonderful news. We won’t have to call Thurmond,” said Verna. Benny let his head loll back against the headrest and he closed his eyes.
“You folks traveling far?” asked Riley.
“We were going to Holly Oak. Mama’s got kinfolks there,” said Benny.
“That’s nice. It’s important to keep up with family. My own dear mother passed away last year. I’d give anything to have another day with her,” said Riley.
Benny stared at Riley’s profile, taking in his shiny, gray suit and his thinning hair. He had a sour smell, the smell of someone who ate all the wrong foods and the scents eked from his pores into his cheap polyester suit. In the floorboard were several dirty paper coffee cups, smashed as if another passenger’s feet had been on them before him. Riley lifted his right foot and surveyed the mess.
“You got any children, Riley?” asked Benny.
“Nope. Just me.”
“Benny and I are all each other have. I’m a lucky mother,” said Verna. The wind blowing in from the open windows tossed her thin, white hair all around.
“Didn’t we pass the exit?” asked Benny.
“I’m taking you to my friend, the mechanic. Remember? He’s about six more miles on down,” said Riley.
“Oh. I hope we won’t be putting him out any,” said Verna.
“No, ma’am. If I say go on down there and help these good folks out, he’ll jump right up and do it.”
“He must be a real good friend,” said Benny.
“What do you do, Mr. Walker?” asked Verna.
“Please call me Riley. I’m between jobs right now. I used to be in the automotive parts business.”
“Is that how you met your friend?” said Verna.
“Oh, yes, that’s how we met. I bet I know every fix-it-up guy across north Alabama. Why, this old Rambler – I bought it off a fellow in Leesburg – was a deal I’d never have found without my connections. Paid five hundred dollars for it, and it runs like a top. Listen to that engine. You ever work on cars?”
“No. I’m afraid I don’t know a thing about cars. I’m an accountant.”
“Benny works for the Braynell Corporation. It’s a real big company.”
“I believe I heard of that. Yeah, that must be a real good place to work. Bet they pay you real good.” Riley’s eyes slipped over Benny, who felt a chill.
“Oh, yes, Benny makes good money,” Verna piped up from the back seat.
“Not that much, Mama. You have to be up in management to make the big bucks,” said Benny.
Riley turned off the highway onto an exit with nothing but tall grass and trees on either side. A few farm houses were visible in the distance, but other than that the landscape looked isolated. They drove on for five or six miles and Riley chatted about a sister in Tallahassee who raised angora rabbits.
“Why, Mr. Walker – I mean Riley – you are about the most interesting man I’ve met in quite some time. You’ll have to come over and let me cook you dinner. I can cook good fried chicken,” said Verna.
“I’ll bet your fried chicken is the best around. This boy of yours don’t look like he’s been deprived much.” Riley poked a finger at Benny’s shoulder. “I’m just joking around,” Riley said.
Benny gave Riley a smile out of the side of his mouth and looked back at the road. “This mechanic must not get much business out this far in the boonies,” said Benny.
“He gets more business than he can handle. That’s why he moved his shop way out here, so people would leave him alone.”
“I never heard of a business trying to hide from its customers,” said Benny.
Riley turned onto three roads within four minutes, the last one a dirt road with tall dusty grass on either side.
“I feel bad about rousing him from his work out of the blue like this,” said Verna.
“There’s nothing to feel bad about,” said Riley. He turned his head all the way around and gave her a wide smile that pushed up wrinkles of skin on either side of his mouth.
At the end of the road sat a flat-roofed, cement block building. Both of the large roll-up doors were shut, and thick weeds grew around the edge of the graveled parking area. The parking lot was empty except for Riley’s Rambler, and the lights inside were off. Riley knocked hard on the metal office door.
“John, I got some friends out here who need help. Come on and get in the truck, and let’s get them back on the road.”
“Everything’s going to be fine now,” said Verna. She patted Benny’s damp shoulder.
Riley waited a few seconds and yelled through the door. “Hey, John, can you hear me? Grab some tools, and let’s ride on out to the highway, buddy!”
“Looks like he’s closed up for the day,” said Benny out the window.
Riley slapped the side of his head. “Lord goodness, I’m not thinking one bit. It’s nearly lunchtime. He’s up at the house having lunch. Just hold on another minute, and I’ll walk up the hill there to get him.” He pointed to a trailer perched on a low-rise hill behind the shop. A worn trail through the weeds linked the trailer to the auto shop.
Verna leaned out the back window and called to Riley. “Please let him finish his lunch. I don’t want to put him out any more than we’re doing already.”
“Don’t you worry yourself, ma’am.” Riley disappeared behind the shop, and the heat began to make Benny sick again. He opened the car door and stepped outside.
“Mama, you want to sit down over here?” He pointed to an old car seat propped against the front of the building. A gray square of shade extended a few feet in front of it from the roof overhang. Verna opened her door, and Benny held out his arm to escort her to the seat. The two of them sat thigh to thigh for about ten minutes before Benny spoke.
“You reckon he got lost?”
“Maybe he’s having a bite of lunch with that other fellow, John,” Verna suggested.
“You’d have thought he could bring us a couple of sandwiches, maybe some water,” said Benny. “He’s a funny bird.”
The sun glanced off the white gravel and hurt his eyes. His mouth was dry and he swallowed hard. Sweat beaded up on his forearms. He put his head down, licking the sweat from the skin on his arms, sucking up all the moisture he could find there. The sweat was salty on his tongue, and he tried to spit but he had barely enough wetness in his mouth to make a proper ball of saliva.
“See if you can’t find a water hose around the building somewhere,” Verna said.
“There’s so many weeds I’m liable to step on a snake.”
“Riley walked around there without much trouble. Seems like you could, too.”
Benny trudged off behind the building. Briars hugged the side walls so thickly that if there was a hose somewhere it would have been invisible. He looked at the rear wall of the garage and over the hill where Riley had gone to the trailer, but he didn’t see any lights or hear any noise. He walked around to the front again, and he heard voices.
“Oh, that’s all right, Riley. We didn’t mind the wait. Benny’s gone off trying to find us some water.”
“Gosh darn it, why didn’t I think of that? I’m sorry as I can be. Here I was sitting in there with John drinking myself a Coca-Cola and didn’t even think to bring y’all one. Come on inside here. I’ll run and get a couple for you and your son,” Riley said. He unlocked the solid metal door of the garage with a key from a large ring of keys.
Benny helped his mother inside where she sat down on a metal chair. The place was crammed full of dirty car parts hanging from every inch of space on the walls. Two 1970’s model cars in various stages of disassembly sat in the repair area. They were covered in dirt and grease as if they’d sat untouched for a very long time.
“John’s nearly finished with his lunch. He’s having some ham and peas, and he likes to take his time. I told him you folks were waiting down here, but there’s just no hurrying that fellow. I’ll be right back with some drinks.” Riley disappeared through the front door.
“I sure could eat a plate of ham and peas,” said Verna, quietly.
“He’s bringing you a Coke.”
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast. It’s hard to make it all day on nothing but toast and apples,” she said. The room was stuffy, and she turned on a table top fan sitting next to her on a desk.
“You said you weren’t hungry this morning. If you had wanted more you could have said so,” said Benny.
“I hated to impose.”
Impose. Another one of those words that bugged the holy hell out of him. She didn’t want to impose. Every breath she took every second of every day imposed on him.
“You should have said you wanted some eggs,” he said.
“I didn’t want eggs.”
“What did you want?”
“I would have liked an omelet, but they’re so much trouble.”
“You just said you didn’t want eggs. What do you think an omelet is?”
“I mean I didn’t want just scrambled eggs. An omelet with fresh tomatoes, peppers, and onions would have been good. But like I said, it’s so much trouble.”
“Now you’re sitting here starving to death. You should have asked for the omelet,” he said.
“We’ll have omelets tomorrow morning. How about that?”
“Sure, Mama. I’ll fix omelets tomorrow.”
Riley came back with two bottles of soda. “I’m sorry, but John was fresh out of Coca-Colas. I got these instead.” He handed one to Benny. The bottle was hot and covered with dust. The name on the front was something he had never heard of. He twisted the cap off, took a long swig, and looked at the label again. Sunny Cola was too sweet to taste good, and it was flat. The soda tasted as if it had been sitting for as long as those cars. Verna took a sip and from the look on her face, she didn’t think any better of it than Benny had.
“Is John about finished?” asked Verna in her most polite voice.
“Yeah,” said Riley. His feet moved in a slow sliding step around the desk, and he picked up a wrench like the kind used on eighteen wheelers. “I’m a fair mechanic myself. I used to fix my mama’s and my little sister’s cars all the time. Evie had a 1969 Camaro. I rodded out the radiator on that thing once. You know what I found?” As he walked behind Verna’s chair, he grasped the wrench in both hands. “Do you know what I found?”
“No, I don’t.” Benny watched the wrench in Riley’s hands. Riley turned it over and over, giving it a squeeze in his fingers each time it rotated, but he never took his eyes from Benny. Verna tried to turn her head around to look at Riley, but he was so close behind her, she could not get herself twisted enough to get a look at him. Benny felt himself slouching in his seat as his eyes drifted to his mother in the chair. She looked so weak and soft, like a half melted ice cream cone. Riley seemed to be waiting for a motion from Benny, a signal. To Benny the moment felt frozen, as if time itself were perched on the air right in front of his face. He felt a wavy little smile creep across his lips. It lingered a moment then disappeared, but Riley saw it.
His hands were fast. The wrench came down on Verna’s head in one quick thwack and blood spurted out toward Benny, just missing his feet. The top of her white head was dented like an overripe cantaloupe. Her face twitched for a few seconds, and her eyelids fluttered. One of them flipped shut, and the other hung about three quarters of the way down like a stuck window blind. Benny sat there with his arms so limp he could no longer feel them. The soda bottle slipped from his hands and bounced on the cement floor. The wind from the fan kept blowing his mother’s hair around her face, stained with a stream of blood. Riley’s fingers were still curled around the bloody wrench. He held Benny’s gaze with his eyes as he slid out from behind Verna’s chair.
“You know what was in that radiator?” He stopped in front of Benny. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” His mouth turned up at the corners in a slight smile, and he pushed open his eyes wider than Benny thought natural. “She didn’t feel nothing. It didn’t hurt her,” said Riley. He raised the wrench with both hands above his head and brought it down toward Benny who was so frozen with fear his body would not obey his brain’s command to move. Guided by what unseen force of energy he could not tell, he jumped up from the chair just as the wrench grazed his shoulder. It bounced off the chair back, and Riley whirled toward him. Benny slammed into the desk and slipped off the side onto the floor. Again, Riley brought the wrench down with both hands, but as it came crashing down, Benny rolled away enough for it to tear only the back of his shirt. The wrench knocked out a chip of cement from the floor behind him. Riley raised the wrench over his head, and Benny grabbed a crowbar propped against the wall. As he swung it sideways into Riley’s ankle, he heard himself whimper. Riley fell forward, grabbing his bleeding ankle.
“No, no,” Benny sobbed. “Leave me alone.”
Riley held onto his leg with his left hand as he swung the wrench at Benny with his other hand. Benny blocked the wrench with the crowbar. When he jerked it back to the right, it caught Riley in the temple and tore into his skull. Benny scrambled to his feet, the crowbar still in his hands, as Riley fell to the floor. Sweat, tears, and snot dripped from Benny’s face. He lifted the crowbar over his head and brought it down onto Riley’s head again. Bits of blood and hair stuck to the metal, and he hit him again and again.
Trembling, he hurled the crowbar away. It landed beside Riley’s body. He buried his face in his hands. Sour hot urine puddled with the blood on the floor. For several minutes he cried, high and soft like a lost child. Then he wiped his face on his shirt tail and turned to face his mother. Her mouth hung open, soft and slack in the stagnant air. She looked the way she did when she was about to ask a question. Benny, could you hand me the newspaper? Why don’t we have some sugar cookies? Are we out of aspirin? Would you push me onto the porch so we can read together?
Benny stumbled outside and vomited in the weeds. He wiped a hand over his mouth and looked back at the door of the auto shop. He blinked, half expecting Riley or his mother to step out, but the door remained empty and dark. A crow cawed from the high branch of a red oak on the hill behind the shop, and Benny realized how utterly silent it had become. In front of him the Rambler sat waiting, the keys still in the ignition. He slid onto the driver’s seat and caught the rancid scent of Riley Walker. He put his hand to his mouth, breathed in deeply, and started the car. It ran like a top. He backed out of the gravel driveway and headed slowly down the dirt road, the cicadas singing him their misery song as he rolled along. Maybe he would study auto mechanics someday.
Cathy Adams asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.