Rik Barberi 2600 words
139 N Plain Road
Great Barrington, MA
413 528 1498
Copyright © Rik Barberi 2011
WHEN I came around the bend on Moses Hill Road, a girl was kicking the tire on her car. When I got closer, I saw the car was jacked up, though I couldn’t yet see who it was – if I even knew her. It’s a gravel road that doesn’t really get you anywhere unless you live on it and I likely knew everyone who did. She looked high school age the way she kept kicking the tire. When she flung the lug wrench behind her into the weeds, I knew it was Brandi McTeel. Maybe I recognized her face first, I don’t know, but I’d seen her toss Lilly Brewster’s backpack the same way in school.
“Might’s well just give up now, Brandi-girl,” Lilly had said. “You’re already two years behind. Nobody shows their belly button like that anymore. You’re never gonna catch up.” I didn’t know what had come before in the conversation, but everyone knew a McTeel didn’t have money to buy clothes new. “I feel sorry for a girl whose belly button hangs over her belt,” Brandi said back. “You feel sorry for me?” Lilly said. “Actually? No,” Brandi replied. That’s when she grabbed Lilly’s backpack from where it was leaning against her locker and flung it behind her down the hall like she didn’t care where it went.
“What’re you staring at, Derry Brewster?” Brandi said when I’d pulled up next to her.
I have the same last name as Lilly, but she’s just my great-aunt’s niece or something. I wasn’t staring, but I couldn’t help noticing a few buttons had come loose on her shirt. “I’m not staring,” I said. My parents wouldn’t want me being friendly with a McTeel, but Mother always said, You have to help people. Even those you wouldn’t normally socialize with. She had sent me to move Mrs. Steinbrach’s refrigerator, so she could blame herself for me being in this particular spot. “Thought I might help.”
“I don’t need help,” Brandi said. “Just the right size lug wrench.”
I told her I’d get mine to see if it fit. I’d just popped the trunk when a pickup came speeding around the curve, fishtailing sideways on the gravel. It was Brandi’s brother, Luke. He would have graduated the year before, but had a run-in with Coach Barton and just quit – football and high school. He’d played tackle and had kept growing since. After straightening out his truck, he slammed on the brakes. We looked at each other through his passenger-side window while the dust settled on us in the still air.
“Brewster. You’re slumming up here on Moses Hill, ain’t you?”
I went back to searching in my trunk without giving an answer, because when I’m nervous I tend to blurt out nonsense. I tried to act like I wasn’t afraid of him, but he could probably tell I was. Anybody else would be, too. He was big, and if a smile ever did pass his lips it wasn’t a friendly one. When I found my lug wrench, I raised it up to show him – and Brandi. It briefly felt like a weapon in my hand, but it would be like a feather against Luke.
Luke spit on the ground. I guess he chewed. “I know mine won’t fit that Toyota, but she’s got a lug wrench,” he said from where he still sat in his truck. “Put it there myself last week.” He switched to a high girl’s voice. “Look in the trunk, little sister.”
“I did. Next time get the right size.”
“The hell you say.” Luke got out of the truck and marched toward the rear of her car. He’d cut the sleeves off his sweatshirt, like his arms had been too big for them.
“It’s not there anymore,” Brandi said. “You can find it yonder in the ditch.”
That’s when I should have closed my trunk and drove off, which is the other thing I do when I’m nervous – just leave. Instead I walked into the high grass where I found the tossed lug wrench and carried them both over to Brandi’s car.
“The red one was in my trunk, know-it-all,” she said to Luke.
Maybe I was sticking around just to hear someone talk trash to Luke.
“I know what I put there,” Luke said. He took it from me and kneeled down at the tire. The wrench slipped around the lug nuts. He flipped it sideways onto the road, close enough to send pebbles against my shoes. He held out his hand. After giving him my wrench, I took a few short steps toward my car.
“Brewster’s don’t work neither,” he said after trying mine and throwing it on the ground.
“Aren’t you two about the most worthless fools on the planet?” Brandi said.
I didn’t like being put in a category with Luke, and probably he didn’t like it either.
“If you shut your mouth I might – might – give you a lift home,” he said.
“I ain’t gonna shut it, so you just go on wherever you were going. I’ll get a ride with Derry here. Looks like he could find the right size.”
I stopped moving toward my car. “I’m on my way to help Mrs. Steinbrach move furniture,” I said, jerking my head in the direction of her house up the road. It was my excuse to get out of a situation that could easily go downhill – after all, Luke McTeel was there – but it came out sounding lame.
“Brewster has to go have tea with the widow Steinbrach,” Luke said, using his high voice again. He walked back to his truck. “Good luck, little sister,” he said and started his engine.
I retrieved my wrench and headed for my car through the dust raised by Luke’s spinning wheels. When I looked back, Brandi was watching me with one hand on a hip that was cocked sideways, making me wonder what I was leaving behind.
“If you’re still here when I come back through…”
“I’ll be gone,” she said.
I asked if she knew Mrs. Steinbrach, just for something to say until I reached my car.
“I tend her vegetable garden,” she said and walked toward me. “I’ll help you move furniture and I’m thinking there might be a wrench in her old man’s tools.”
Pretty soon she was in my car without me really asking.
In the end, I was glad to have Brandi’s help at Mrs. Steinbrach’s. Her husband had died recently – I spoke my condolences – and she wanted to switch the refrigerator around with the hutch because she no longer needed room for a wheel chair to come through. Brandi showed her strength when she lifted her end of the hutch.
When I refused the ten dollars Mrs. Steinbrach held out to me, she pointed to a tool box in the entry way.
“I’d rather give those tools to you than the Goodwill,” she said.
I thanked her. She had sent Brandi out to pick some lettuce and radishes. Through the window, we could see her bent over in the garden.
“Brandi’s a good worker,” Mrs. Steinbrach said. “But she is a McTeel, you know.”
She thought giving me the tools made it okay for her to comment on who I let ride with me. It made me want to return them, but that would have seemed a slight. “I couldn’t leave her with a flat tire,” I said. Mrs. Steinbrach couldn’t refute that, but the news that I’d helped Brandi would beat me home.
When Brandi came in from the garden, we left. I picked up the toolbox, surprised by its weight. I thanked Mrs. Steinbrach again. Brandi had a curious expression on her face as we left. I wondered if she was jealous of me getting the tools.
Along with screwdrivers, pliers and small wrenches, the toolbox contained a breaker bar and some big sockets. One of them had to fit Brandi’s lug nuts. When we got back to her car, I began to try them one by one with Brandi looking on.
“My hero,” she said, when I found the right one.
“Nice set of sockets,” I said.
“Brought them in the kitchen myself last Tuesday. But did she offer them to me?”
When I pulled the tire off, I saw it was mostly bald. “You like to live dangerously, don’t you?” I said.
“Sometimes it’s the only way.”
The spare she lifted out of the trunk wasn’t much of an improvement. I was tightening the last nut when a car stopped next to us. The McTeels all live on Crossing Road that goes off Moses Hill in a T and ends at the Huygens Kill. The bridge wasn’t replaced when it washed out in the 1955 flood. No one but McTeels go down that road and it’s hard to keep them all straight. This turned out to be her mother. Two kids were fighting over a water pistol in the backseat.
“I heard you had a flat, Sis,” her mother said. Her eyes were on me when I stood up, finished with the tightening. “What’s taking you so long?” Her eyeballs moved closer together as she spoke. “You were supposed to be home at noon to watch these two devils.”
Brandi released the jack and the car settled on the tire. “Luke put the wrong size wrench in the trunk.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” her mother said. She was still looking at me, but only talked to her daughter. “I’ll expect you in five minutes, so I can go do my shopping.”
Brandi straightened up and saluted. Her mother backed up, turned around, and drove off. I put my new toolbox in the trunk of my car, while Brandi put her jack and flat tire into hers. Our trunks slammed closed simultaneously.
“Buy you an ice cream at Walt’s Diner,” she said.
“But…” I pointed in the direction her mother had gone.
Brandi waved her hand in that direction. “They’re her grandkids, not mine. Maybe if she asked nice, but she don’t know nice. I’ll catch hell later, but I’m no slave girl.”
Walt’s parking lot was empty when we pulled in. We brought the ice cream cones outside and each leaned against our own cars while we finished them.
“I can’t wait for school to start next week,” she said.
I hadn’t really thought about it. “Why?”
“That’s a whole lot less time I have to spend at home.”
I didn’t feel right commenting on her family, so we talked about teachers some. No one else came in while we were there. When I finished my cone ahead of her, I realized I was itching to leave. I didn’t know what to think about hanging out with Brandi. When we drove away in opposite directions, I was sorry I’d been in a hurry to go.
I live with my parents on a lot that was cut out of my grandfather’s farm. He gave it to them when they married. It’s a five-minute drive to Crossing Road, where the McTeels live, but I can walk there in five minutes if I go down along the Huygens Kill. My father said if we had to be that close, at least we were upstream.
I set off in that direction one day with a vague notion that I might catch sight of Brandi swimming. I wasn’t sure if I’d let her know I was there. The end of the road at the stream was a public spot. Town plows cleared the snow right up to the last house, which was at the stream bank. But the McTeels could make it uncomfortable for anyone who came in there to fish or swim.
I followed a faint trail along the bank that fishermen used. I had to bushwhack in certain places, which kept me from hearing the squealing kids until I was nearly upon them. From behind a honeysuckle bush, I recognized the same two boys that had been in the car with Brandi’s mother. They had the red McTeel hair. Brandi was there with them. Somehow her hair had turned out brown. After making sure it was only the three of them there, I walked over.
I guessed the boys were around eight years old, but I couldn’t really tell. They looked at me warily, but Brandi smiled when she saw it was me. I asked if she’d gotten a new tire yet. She said no. When I asked what had changed her mind about babysitting, she said, “They’re my older brother’s brats,” and went on to say she was helping him out because his wife had left him. He’d heard she was in Henrytown and had gone up to fetch her back.
“I always wanted a brother,” I said.
“Well. It’s just me and my parents.”
“I hear you,” she said. She nodded toward the two boys, who were splashing around in the water, looking for something. “I keep telling Skeeter and Leo they’ll never catch a crawdaddy making all that fuss.”
I sat down on a rock, took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pant legs. When I motioned to the boys to follow me, they looked at Brandi, who nodded it was okay. I shushed them quiet with a finger to my lips and led them into slower water. They already knew to look under rocks, but didn’t know to grab the shell behind the head and pincers.
“They’ve both been pinched more than once,” Brandi said.
“Shuffle your feet real slow along the bottom,” I showed them. “That little commotion makes them move around. The other thing is, they always take off backwards.”
“Any damn fool knows a crawdaddy takes off backwards.” Luke had sneaked up behind us. He carried a shotgun, though it was pointed at the ground.
I was glad not to have left my shoes and socks near where Luke stood and went over to put them on.
“I heard yelling,” Luke said. “Thought maybe some stranger had wandered in.”
“Wasn’t nobody strange here before you came,” Brandi said.
I didn’t know what she might say next and decided not to stay and find out. Luke didn’t say anymore and didn’t have to. He looked downstream like he was searching for something, while I got my shoes on. “Good luck,” I said to the boys and gave a quick wave to Brandi. Walking upstream, I pretended Luke’s gun was pointed at my back. That was silly, but it made it seem all right that I hadn’t stayed and confronted him.
A month later, I was mowing our lawn when Brandi stopped on the road. I cut the mower. I’d passed her in school some, and said “hi” a couple times, but had never stayed around to talk.
“The lawn looks good,” she said.
I shrugged my shoulders, trying to act casual.
Brandi pointed to the rear of her car. “I stopped to show off my new tire.” I walked back to see. “I got tired of riding around on that onion skin.”
It wasn’t new, but the tread was good. “I’m glad,” I said. “I worried about you going over Moses Hill at night on that old spare.”
By now Mother would have noticed the mower had stopped. I could feel her watching from the living room picture window. I stepped closer to Brandi. Her face alternated between skeptical and pleased. Either way, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. A shiver ran through me. When I asked if she’d go to the prom with me, she gasped and clutched a hand over her mouth. But she didn’t look away.