“Flip that over here Midge!” the man said. The young woman in the aqua sweater handed him a metal flask that reeked of Thibodeau’s moonshine.
Peebo squeegeed the windshield a final time, then finished with a clean rag from his pocket, making sure to catch every dirty drop. It was a marvelous piece of glass, clear, smooth, like a big jewel shining in the hot Florida sun, armoring the inhabitants of the car against wind and rain.
The squeegee plopped wetly in the bucket.
“That’ll be $1.89, sir.”
The driver, a beefy middle-age man with a square face and day-old stubble, grinned strangely.
“You ain’t done yet, son,” he said. “What about that right there?”
Craning his neck, Peebo examined the spot. He dabbed it with the rag and frowned. “That seems to be a nick in the glass sir. Probably a stone got throwed–”
The driver rolled his eyes. “Bullshit!” he roared, half rising in his seat. “This is a fucking new car nigger! That ain’t no fucking chip-mark in my new windshield! My new god-damend windshield! That is a perfect piece of Detroit’s finest glass!”
A bit of spittle struck the back of Peebo’s hand.
“I’m sorry sir, but this is clean water. There ain’t no–”
“The only thing that’s touched that glass is those black, filthy hands,” the driver barked as a primitive look of amusement and rage playing across his face. The grinning girl hovered between terror and mirth, alternating between the two based on some invisible cue. “But I tell you what boy, it’s your lucky day!”
Without looking up, Peebo checked on Dennis. He was sweeping up the butts at the edge of the lot. He was watching.
The girl giggled as if she’d realized the punchline of a joke she’d heard last week. The driver looked at her and grinned back, then turned to Peebo and growled.
“You know what? I ought to tan your hide right now.”
Peebo’s leg twitched. It still hurt when the weather was right. In his mind he asked God for mercy, for there was no other help or aid of any kind to come to his assistance, and there never would be. The driver’s breath came hard and rough, as if the air circulated through a cage. The girl, in contrast, seemed to hold her breath while she waited to be impressed, wondering whatever a woman like that wondered.
“Mr. I’m real sorry about your windshield, but–”
“But nuthin’. You’re lucky I ain’t got time for your kind today. But you remember my face, hear? Next time I come through here I’m gonna talk to your boss. You hear me? How’d you like if I did that?”
Peebo said nothing. He froze in place, waiting for God to show him which way this would go. Then, in a carefully modulated tone, he replied.
“I’m sorry sir.”
“He’s sorry, hear that Midge? He’s sorry. You sorry? Ain’t that sumpthin’? I got me a damaged windshield and one sorry nigger.”
Cicada’s buzzed in the marsh.
A giggle erupted from the girl, frigid and cold, like ice cubes dropping in an empty cup. She leaned over the driver’s lap to leer at Peebo with glittering brown eyes. Her teeth looked sharp. A gust of wind flushed the oppressive scent of lilacs from inside the car.
“Tell him how much you paid for this car, honey!”
The driver blew a raspberry. More ice fell in the empty cup.
“For this car? Honey, that windshield alone cost more than $20! I paid more than a thousand dollars for this car boy! More money than you’ll ever see, boy.”
“Yes sir,” Peebo whispered. Dennis was still watching.
“Well, we got to get to Miami,” the driver spat. “You’all consider yourself lucky if I don’t send some of my friends over here to teach you how to wipe glass the right way. Mebee talk to your boss and get you fired.”
The engine started with a roar. The gray beast of a car trembled like a tank about to enter combat.
“You tell you boss he’s lucky I ain’t suing him. And I ain’t paying for that gas. That’s for ruining my windshield, you stupid piece of shit.” He pointed a sausage-like finger at Peebo. “You pay for it boy, and you think about that the next time you want to ruin someone’s car!”
Stones bounced painfully off Peebo’s shins and ricocheted off the gas pump safety rail as the car shot forward. Mouth agape, Dennis stared after it, oblivious to the fact that it had barely missed him as it exited the lot.
Sweat soaked Peebo’s collar and stung his eyes. He looked at his only employee and smiled. He dumped the bucket of water and filled it with fresh as Dennis ambled over to ask if he was all right. Peebo reassured him that everything was OK and there was no need to worry about anything, but the shadow behind his only helper’s eyes did not go away.
“When you’re done with the sweeping, why don’t you take that trash and put it in the burn barrel, OK?” He pointed to the refuse can next to the pump. “Then you can have a soda pop. OK?”
Back in the store, Peebo sat next to the fan by the cash register and marked off the cost of the gas on a loss-sheet he kept there, and jotted down the license plate number of the big gray car. He was in the back room looking for the can of cream-colored paint that matched the the enamel on the gas pump when he heard the door bell jingle. The voices told him it wasn’t Dennis.
Two women and two men had entered the store. The men were already heading for the cooler near the back, following the signs that promised beer, cold cuts and ice cream.
“Why hello folks! How you’all doin’ today?” Peebo asked as he took up his position behind the cash register at the front of the store. The ladies gazed about and held themselves as if a bit of dirt might suddenly assault them. After gifting him with a cursory glance they joined their boyfriends, whispering and giggling.
While the men picked out cases of beer their girlfriends ranged about the store. There wasn’t much to see, so it didn’t take long for them to find the most anachronistic item in the place, the Carlisle Company display case.
Locked safely under the thick green glass rested a number of items rich in local history. A shiny nickel-plated Rayovac flashlight occupied one corner. A little card beside it informed readers that it had been owned by Jack Spears, a company security guard who had worked on the property when it was an unnamed psychiatric center for children, in the days when warehousing was the only option. A switch on it’s dented side made it work in spotlight or floodlight mode. A heavy round Detex watchman’s clock sat a finger’s width away, next to its original leather case. Beside it was station key Jack, or perhaps another security guard, had used to mark those long, dark hours patrolling the main building and adjoining grounds. Wire-rim sunglasses, a whistle, and a yellowed notebook with a Florida State seal completed the collection, but visitors rarely looked at them for long, or even noticed because of the thing that sat in the back of the case, among an assembly of short brass tubes and shiny valves.
The boy that had made it called it the Broiderand, a contraption of wires and gears and odd bits of metal that gave the impression of what a child might imagine a steam engine would look like, especially if it was designed to fit on rails. And for the people who didn’t get the obvious connection, Peebo and Dennis had placed framed photos of actual steam engines, trains, and steamboats on the wall nearby.
The ladies followed the men to the car. Dennis watched them leave, not knowing or caring that they were destined for the Pullover-Here Campground near the Interstate, where Tom would drink too much and punch Linda in the puss at five minutes to midnight. He concentrated instead on the wadded tissue blown out of their car, spearing it with the stick with the nail on the end, and then dropping it in the bag he carried.
Dennis walked around to the back of the store, to where they burned old papers and refuse. Careful of the soot, he made sure each piece of trash went into the smelly old barrel, then he went inside to fetch Peebo to start the fire. Ten minutes later he was on the back door step, sipping an orange soda, watching the barrel for stray sparks in the deepening gloom as the frogs and crickets tuned up for the night. It was still-sittin’ time.
He knew how to sit still. He could turn into a statue for a long, long time. He did it a lot when he was at the old home. It was something to do around strangers, especially when they were weird or mean. Sometimes he just did it for something to do. The funny thing was, when he stopped, when he went still, the movement around him did too, and so did the chatter in his head. But when it was dark, and he watched the fire for sparks (which never came out), something else happened.
A breeze came off the marsh, laden with thick odors of life. Dennis stilled himself, inside and out, from the outer husk to the core of his being, still and deep as the black of the sky, silent as the moon. Then the crickets began, as usual. Their stories came between the chirps.
The screen door creaked behind him.
“That’s a good nice fire,” Peebo said. “Dinner is gonna be done in about 15 or 20 minutes son.”
“Yeah, we got baked potatoes tonight, and some of the Jones’s butter.”
Crickets chirped. Something in the barrel made a fizzing pop.
“Well I guess you got all this under control. Come on up when you’re ready to eat.”
Peebo opened the back door.
“We gonna get the car fixed tomorrow?”
“Maybe son, maybe. But right now it’s sick. But it’ll be OK, we’ll get it running soon.”
Peebo opened the door.
The sitting man fidgeted. He looked at his hands.
“What’s the matter son?”
Crickets chirped. Bats screeched around the nearby street lamp.
Peebo eased the door shut. He sat beside Dennis and waited. Dennis found the words.
“Were those mean people?”
“Those four folks? No, no, they was…” Peebo paused. “Oh. Do you mean the man and the lady in the big gray car?”
“Well, they were a little upset, maybe. That’s all Denny. A lot of people get real upset if anything happens to their cars. They have, like…” He searched for the right words. “Some times people think their car is just as important as a person, and they get upset if something happens to it, that’s all. “
A quiet moment passed.
“They made me scared.”
Peebo put his hand on Dennis’s shoulder. “Sometimes people like that make me a little scared too. It’s OK to be scared sometimes, you know.”
Frogs croaked loudly in the near dark.
“But they always go away,” Peebo added. “Like rainy weather, right?”
The peel of a cicada’s buzz drowned out any reply Dennis made, if he made one. Peebo patted him on the shoulder.
“Time to eat.”
“Car sick,” Dennis said.
“Yep, car’s sick. For now, anyway.” Peebo sighed. He opened the screen door. “Maybe I’ll get parts tomorrow from Mr. Howard. Now come up soon Denny, you don’t want your dinner to get cold.”
“OK,” Dennis replied, eyes on a bush near where the marsh began.