Oil Change, Part 5

Rubber crushing gravel on asphalt. Jen recognized the sound of her car’s engine, turned to see it pulling outside the front entrance. Stopping. She turned back to the younger man behind the counter, who seemed anxious to hear her next words.

“Thanks for taking me in, on short notice.” She fastened the zipper of her jacket, pulled it up to her chest. Handbag slipped off shoulders, pulled back up. “One thing about that no-label policy of yours — haven’t caught your name yet.”

A pair of black eyebrows lifted. “‘s it matter?”

Jen shrugged. “Of course it doesn’t.” She lowered the handle of her handbag onto the crook of her elbow, stuck her hand inside, retrieved her keys. “Which is precisely the reason I want to know.”

The young man snorted a laugh, and extended his right hand across the counter. “My real name’s kinda boring, so why don’t you call me by my friends use — Double-J.”

“Double-J.” Jen took his hand. “Good to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

Jen turned, keys shifted to right hand and handbag slung back over her left shoulder, and walked swiftly out the front entrance, towards her car.

Oil Change, Part 4

“You sound pretty sure of yourself.” Jen lifted the handle of her handbag higher onto her shoulder. “Tell me, when they ‘let you’ graduate in the spring, will they make you a regular employee here?”

Writing notes on a paper laid flat on the counter, the young man glanced up at her, the rest of his body remaining still. fwhrr fwhrr. And then he lifted one corner of his mouth into a toothless smile.

Jen patted her chest below the left shoulder. “Everybody here has name tags. Lefty, Derrick. Tommy.”

“Timmy?”

She hadn’t been sure about that last name. “Right. You’re the only person I’ve seen here without a name tag. Is that because you’re still in school?”

The young man lowered the pen he was holding onto the counter, and lifted his head until it was level with Jen’s. “You said you were a manager at the Stop and Shop, right?” Nod. “Betcha that means you’ve got more than a working understanding of labor laws?”

Jen shook her head. “Hey, I’m sorry, didn’t mean — ”

“It’s OK.” The young man waved a hand between them, lifted his chin while keeping his eyes focused on Jen. “I just needed to know what the ground rules were for this conversation.”

He pointed with his thumb behind him, in the direction of the garage. “Lefty, see, I’ve been living with him since I was seven. Started hanging around here after school, and started helping out. Small stuff at first, inventory and cleaning, fetching tools. But I paid attention to what everybody was doing, learned a few things. Few years ago, started doing oil changes — Lefty’d pay me twenty bucks for each, off the books. When he saw I was good at it, was ready to move on to brakes, tires, steering — this is the part, by the way, you’re not supposed to ask me how old I was at the time — Lefty comes to me, says time to make you a regular employee here! And I says, sure thing — but I told him I had one condition.”

The young man leaned forward, pointed to the vacant area on his upper left chest. “I ain’t wearing no name tag. I don’t do labels, then or now.”

Oil Change, Part 3

“So you’re in school?” The young man responded with a look that seemed intent to push her away. Compression wrench, frrwhrr frrwhrr.

Swipe the moustache. “Graduate this year. Got enough credits now, but there’s some stupid state law, says I have to stay enrolled, even though I don’t need to.”

Glance back at parking lot, still empty. “Well, I hope you’re wrong. About the bridge, not the election. I know a lot of people go back and forth between here and the city each day, that bridge would save everybody a lot of time.”

The young man leaned back, with a smile as insincere as a gift card wedding present. “They ever build that bridge, this town would die within three years.”

frrwhrr frrwhrr

“Die? Wouldn’t the town grow?” She had seen management reports, projections of revenue in the region for the coming decade. “Be easier to commute to the city.”

“Yeah, but there’s a lot more towns closer to the city, they’re already growing.” New store being planned east of the city, pending municipal approval, ground breaking in spring. “Those towns, they’ve already planned for expansion. This town, Bark Bay, they’re putting all their hopes on maintaining the status quo. And as long as Stephens’ in office, that’s exactly what we got.”

frrwhrr frrwhrr

Oil Change, Part 2

“Bridge?” The young man behind the counter stroked his moustached smile. “Sorry miss, you gotta better chance a’ winnin’ a NASCAR race in that sedan a’ yours, then them buildin’ that bridge anytime soon.”

Jen ripped from the blue vinyl rectangle. Compression air wrench bursts from wall behind the counter. She handed the aquamarine check to the young man, as she glanced at his breast. Plain gray sweater. “Isn’t Stephens retiring next year?”

Dismissive shake. Orlando Stephens elected thirty years ago. “Nah. He’ll die in office ‘fore he retires.” The young man put the check in a drawer under the counter, pointed past Jen’s shoulder. “They’re finishing up, pull the car out front in a minute.” Stroke the moustache. “Pretty good chance that’ll happen — no way he loses next year, no way.”

Jen hefted her handbag onto her right shoulder. “Thanks. Isn’t that businessman, Hutchinson, running against him?”

“HA!” Jen heard more accusation than amusement. “If he was gonna do that, he wouldn’t sold that land, where that bridge would go. I know the Hutchinsons, they’re just as happy to stay in that big ol’ house onna hill, count their money. The old man, he don’t wanna get his hands dirty playin’ politics, ‘sides, he knows he ain’t gotta chance ‘gainst Stephens.”

Jen glanced back at the empty lot. Hammer, hammer, compression wrench. “How you know the Hutchinsons?” An open area of gray sweater on his left chest like an empty pool table.

“Daughter. I — ” he blinked — “she’s on the fencing team, at the school.” Point off her left shoulder. Hydraulic lift, descending.

Oil Change, Part 1

“Miss O’Connor?”

Sitting on a chair in the customer waiting area of Lefty’s Automotive, Jen O’Connor, healthy and hefty and in her mid thirties, lowered the magazine she was reading onto her lap and looked up at the young man standing on the opposite side of the register.

“You’re all set.” The young man swiped thin black hair off his face. Like Jen, a few inches over five feet, broad-shouldered. He waited for her to reach the counter. “That dashboard light weren’t nothing, just an annoying reminder to go to the dealer and pay too much for scheduled maintenance.” He turned a piece of paper smeared with grace in her reading direction. “We changed the oil, like you asked. Also wrote down everything you need for the maintenance — Lefty’s prices are pretty good, save you a couple hundred over going to the dealer.” He tapped the paper. “That’s what you owe today, and here — ” tap tap — “is what we’d change for everything else. Drop it off in the morning, we’d have it ready for you by 5. You work in town?”

Jen shook her head, as she laid her vinyl handbag on the counter. “Nah, my office’s in the city.” She retrieved a blue-covered checkbook from the handbag. “I’m a manager at Stop ‘N Shop, come out here once, maybe twice a week to check on the store in town.” She checked the amount on the paper, began writing a check. “Sure wish they’d build that bridge — make these trips a lot quicker.”

Cleaning, Part 5

Seeing Dr. Jasper pause, The Bird replied that she wasn’t worried about what people would say about him.

His paternal eyes widened, gazing down at her in the dentist chair. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “So tell me — what does worry you?”

The Bird blinked, and said she was worried that he’d leave. Just like the pediatrician she’d liked, she added silently, or her mother’s gyno. The lawyer who helped with their easement problem with the state. The chef who opened that great restaurant, and left the next year. Professionals don’t stay in a little town like Bark Bay, her mother had told her. They get bored, or their spouses get fed up. But what Dr. Jasper was describing sounded a lot worse to The Bird than boredom.

“Really now?” He glanced up at the ceiling again. “Leave, after working so hard to establish myself in this community?” As he shook his head, he leaned over her and looked down at her. “No, my little bird — I have no intention of abandoning my practice.”

With a muffled laught, he nudged himself away from his leaning position against the chair, stood upright, and without looking down pressed a lever on the floor, the chair lowering and its back rest rising in a single mechanical motion. “You do realize, that you are perhaps-th the ONLY teenaged girl in Bark Bay who looks -th FORWARD to s-theeing her dentist-th.”

The chair stopped its mechanical movement, and The Bird, glad at hearing the sound of Dr. Jasper’s lisp again, rose from the chair with a broad smile on her face.

Cleaning, Part 4

Sth-o, let me guess.” Dr. Jasper rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger as he gazed up at the ceiling. “Have you been hearing rumors-th at sthcool?”

The Bird nodded from her reclined position in the dentist chair, said her friend at fencing practice, his name was —

A firm shake of Dr. Jasper’s head stopped her before she uttered Rune’s name. “It doesn’t matter, the who that is. This-th friend, did he call me the Tooth Fairy?”

The Bird blinked. She told him she’d heard there was a Tooth Fairy in town, a “real” one (she flexed the middle and forefinger of each hand at that word), since she was eight, hadn’t known they’d meant him until a couple years ago, and didn’t know exactly why they called him that until — that afternoon at fencing practice.

“I see.” Dr. Jasper nodded, his eyes peering straight down. A laugh percolated in his torso, rose to his mouth, but could not escape past his lips. “Odd, isn’t it, the lifespan of rumors, how they evolve, from urban legends to half-learned truths, until finally the truth emerges, like a butterfly from its cocoon.”

The Bird nodded. Either he’s lost his lisp, she thought, or she was no longer noticing it.

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You’re one of the ones who’s worried about me, aren’t you?” She nodded, as he retrieved his hand. “That’s because you’ve heard how people in this town talk about people like myself. You’ve heard their fear, their suspicion.” He looked down at her, smiling. “I wish I could tell you that those words, those aren’t what’s in their hearts. And for some people, that’s true. But the reality is, for some people, what’s actually in their hearts — what they are capable of doing when motivated by fear — is actually far worse than what is in their words.”

Cleaning, Part 3

“I sth-see it all the time, bright-faced boys and girls devolving into sth-sullen young teens-th.” Dr. Jasper sounded more concerned than annoyed. “But those teens, I can tell by their body language — ” he pointed with his left index finger at the corner of his left eye — “the look in their eyes-sth — that they don’t want to talk. They feel they have nothing to sth-say, or if they do, they have no de-sth-sire to tell their dentis-sth.”

He leaned over The Bird and lowered his left hand, the fingers tapping her right shoulder. “But your eyes-sth — there is life in them. They are looking for someone who can be trusted, a pers-sth-on who will lis-sth-en to the words of her mouth.” He stood upright, his head deftly missing contact with the overhead lamp. “Sth-o, tell me — issth there something you want to tell me?”

I guess so, said The Bird, hesitating like a child about to dive into a cold pool.

“Isth something wrong with you?” The Bird shook her head. “Your mother?” Another shake. Dr. Jasper widened his eyes. “Would it be sth-omething that I already know?”

The Bird opened her mouth, but caught the words before she could speak them. Dr. Jasper blinked, then glanced quickly over to the peroxide hygienist, who promptly excused herself and left the room. As the door closed behind her, Dr. Jasper turned, leaned his rear against the side of the dental chair on which The Bird reclined, and turned to look down at her.

His smile seemed paternal, it seemed to The Bird, which, as the thought came to her, seemed somewhat odd, seeing as how she had never been the recipient of a truly paternal smile, having never met her nameless father. She wondered whether she could instinctively trust such a look. Dr. Jasper had always been nice to her, of course — but she was about to stop being his patient.

Cleaning, Part 2

“And HOW is my little bird today?” Dr. Jasper had far too much energy to do anything less than sweep into a room.

The Bird wondered if he knew about her new name, given to her last month during one of her first practices with the fencing team. No, she realized, he’d always called her little bird.

“Hmmm?” Dr. Jasper’s eyes grew wide as he looked down at her in the dentist chair, a surprising amount of severity on his face. He had always spoken to her with kindness, even when reminding her about flossing and reaching into the back of her mouth when brushing. And she had always responded to his generosity of spirit, had enjoyed talking to him, telling him about her friends at school or her life at home, at times even sharing secrets she hadn’t even shared with her mother.

The Bird nodded as she looked up at him, not remembering what he’d asked.

“Well I GUESSSS my little bird won’t be SSSSINGING for USSSS today!” The playful lilt, accentuated by his sibilant lisp, had returned to his voice, and The Bird smiled, feeling at ease once again.

The dentist mouthed a command for The Bird to open, and the reclining teen responded like a baby animal seeking to be fed as he turned on the overhead lamp and adjusted it over his head as he leaned over her. She heard the peroxide hygienist mention something about a chip on 36; Dr. Jasper reached into her mouth with a pick, scrapped a tooth on the back of her lower jaw, then nodded in agreement before standing back up, deftly nudging the overhead lamp while turning off its bulb in one motion.

“We need to sssssee you in a couple weeksssss.” The Bird nodded. “But before we sssset that up — ” he looked down at her with parental concern — “could you tell me what’sssss BOTHERING you?”

Cleaning, Part 1

“Dr. Jasper will be in in a moment.” The elderly woman with the peroxide hair and surgical gown the color of robin’s eggs waved her right hand at The Bird. The slender teen nodded silently in response as she sat in the dentist’s chair, an unlit lamp hovering above her head. A second later the hygienist left the room, leaving The Bird alone.

She was in the same room as usual — the anthropomorphic cartoons of animals having their teeth worked on were different (rabbits this time), as were the potted plants, but the cabinets and equipment were as familiar to her as her aunt’s bedroom. She had been coming to Dr. Jasper’s office at least twice a year since the age of six (Bark Bay not being a town large enough to support a pediatric dentist), and had walked past and at times accidentally into the two other examining rooms. Whether Dr. Jasper always saw children in this room (no, she had seen and heard children in other rooms), or was such a creature of habit that he always saw each patient in one room, or sensed that his patients (especially The Bird) would be put more at ease by familiar surroundings — or if what she was experiencing now was an unusual coincidence, or perhaps a faulty memory — The Bird did not know. But considering these possibilities was a form of entertainment for her.

As was the new word game she had invented. Her eyes scanned the room, searching for words. A sign, about the size of a bumper sticker, attached to a cabinet — Good TEETH Means Good HEALTH! She decided to play the game with the word teeth. Last letter h, eight. Two doubles, t and e, divide each pair to get two ones. Five letters in the word, five and one and one — that won’t work. Works with four letters, add the ones to get b, multiply by d, that gets you to h. To make the game fair she knew she’d have to decide on a rule and stick to it, it was either all the letters in the word or all letters except the end result, can’t change the rules at her convenience. E, that’s five, divide into t, gives you d. Two d‘s, and an e, could she make this work into h
The door opened, and Dr. Jasper stepped into the room, followed by the peroxide hygienist.