I’m 24 years old, a Nebraska Yankee in a South Carolina backyard garage.
The hand painted sign on the outside tar-papered wall (Billy’s) is the only hint that this is a professional establishment.
That, and the fact that Billy wants my neighbor Marty to pay him for some work on the belching old Comet we arrived in.
It’s Marty’s car, and it’s been acting up outside the apartments for weeks—spewing black smoke, sputtering, chugging.
Dying at stop signs.
Billy listens to the engine for a minute, then says it’ll cost “a few hundred” to fix.
Marty doesn’t have a lick of sense about cars. I know this because it was part of his plea to get me to accompany him to Billy’s garage.
Billy’s a guy Marty’s sister told him about, and he’s everything I expected, having grown up around a lot of guys who worked on cars.
Tough, lanky, chain smoking. Grease outlining every crease and crack in his hands like a spidery tattoo. Part of his index finger is gone.
I like him.
“You got two choices. Let me fix it, or take it to a dealer.” Billy sucks down half a Camel so hard I can hear the paper crackle. “You know what them bastards’ll charge.”
Marty looks at me for guidance.
I could nod, clap my neighbor on the back, and abandon the broken down Comet—and Marty’s bank account—to its fate.
Instead, proud of my own knowledge of motor vehicles, and ignorant of certain kinds of social situations (which I realize later), I decide to engage Billy on the finer points of his craft.
After all, he’s an affable guy.
“What d’you think it needs?” I ask.
“Rings. Valves. Head gasket.”
Like I said, affable.
“Burns a lot of black smoke,” I say.
“Bet she eats a lot of oil,” says Billy.
“Not so much,” says Marty.
“Oh, no?” says Billy –sort of like you just insulted his dog.
He rolls with it and nods. “We’ll take care of it.”
“Black smoke usually means it’s burning rich,” I say.
Billy’s not so affable now. His voice takes a certain—tone.
“Rich.” He chuckles and tosses his cigarette butt to the oil stained floor.
“Rich? Ain’t that your name? Rich?” Billy’s eyes are wide, boring into to me.
“He was thinking it might be the carburetor,” says Marty, not helping. “That’s what he told me on the way down.”
“Did he?” Billy walks around the back of the Comet and stands between us.
“What else do you know about it—Rich?”
“Not much,” I say. Too soon stupid, too late dumb.
“No, I want to hear it. What else should I look at?”
“Used to have a Camaro,” I say. “Used to adjust the jets when it burned rich.”
Billy puts his hand on my chest and takes a step.
“How about you leave the garage business to me?”
Marty stands by, toeing the dust. Nervous smile on his face.
Billy pushes again, and I realize I was mistaken about him.
And Marty too.
I don’t like either one of them.
“HOW ABOUT,” says Billy, “YOU KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT?”
I don’t like Billy’s hand on my chest.
Or his sour breath in my face.
Time stands still.
The moment is mine to decide.
See, right there—Billy has told me what he wants me to do.
I can do it, and probably go in peace, or I can keep talking—and maybe leave in pieces.
I make my decision.
I’m a mile down the road, walking on the shoulder when Marty pulls up in an old pickup that’s sputtering worse than his Comet.
“Billy gave me a loaner,” he said. “Want a ride?”
I risk it.
“You owe me lunch,” I say.
“Basket,” I say. “Sandwich. Fries. Slaw. Iced tea.”
“Just get in.”
I crawl into the passenger side, wondering if Marty learned anything today.
I think I did—but I won’t figure it out until after I stop shaking.