The Shade-Tree Mechanic

Bryan Miller

2022

Introduction

Things start bad, then get worse—that’s probably as good a definition for noir as any. But the ‘worsening’ can be handled in many ways. Bryan Miller’s ‘The Shade-Tree Mechanic’ is perhaps what is typically called country noir, but its main character is far from our conception of all-action protagonists. He’s no driver (cue ‘Drive’ by James Sallis), he is a mechanic. He lounges all day on his porch, accompanied by his equally easy-going dog (named ‘Dog’). He waits for things that need fixing to come to him. And come they do.

We start as a car with a big problem inside skids to a stop in the mechanic’s dooryard. There is the stink of burned human flesh, which to our mechanic is ‘exactly what ambition would smell like, if ambition had a smell.’ As to how the mechanic fixes this—well, that’s the story.

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

The Shade-Tree Mechanic

I guess I’m what they call a shade-tree mechanic, although when the car pulled into the long driveway off the main gravel road I was having a snooze under the shadow of my porch, not some tree. I prefer to sit back and let the work come my way. Some folks’ll chalk it up to a lack of ambition. To that I say okay, sure, but the work gets to me just the same, and I never yet had any complaints. Besides, it seems to me that all the trouble anybody ever come by in this world started with ambition. And the way the car headed my way, slip-sliding all over the gravel, told me this fella was in the kind of hurry that leads to trouble, or maybe he was in the kind of trouble you get when you get in a hurry. Either way.

The sun had crawled partway across the sky so that every now and again I had to scoot my chair to stay in the shade of the awning. The dog did the opposite and kept interrupting his nap to move back into a patch of light. He raised his head and perked up his pointy mutt ears to regard the cyclone of bleach-white gravel dust coming our way, but it didn’t concern him much. Me and the dog have the same general philosophy. I tipped the brim of my cap up to watch the car skid to a stop in the dooryard. Along with the cloud of fine white dust there was the unmistakable stink of burned human flesh, which, to my nose, is exactly what ambition would smell like, if ambition had a smell.

The driver’s side door swung open and a fella jumped out quick like he intended to keep running, but he’d plum run out of place to go to. My house was the end of the road. There was a shadow slumped in the passenger seat, but the guy riding shotgun stayed put.

“Howdy,” I said.

The fella ran up to the foot of the porch stairs all out of breath, like he’d been pushing the car instead of driving it. He wore expensive-looking basketball shoes with blue jeans and a white Memphis Grizzlies T-shirt with a little bit of blood on it. He was skinny and young and pale and his eyes bulged like they might pop right out of his head.

“You Harry? Bobby Lynn sent me. He said you’d know what to do. Did he call you? He said he would. Fuck! I don’t know. This is the place, right?”

You can tell somebody is from the city by the way they never wait for you to answer their questions.

“Slow down there, friend,” I told him. Me and the dog stayed right where we were. “What’s your name?”
“Deacon. Look, man, we don’t have a lot of time, so let me just tell you what happened and you can just, I dunno, do your thing or whatever.”

“Deacon?” I said. “Not like a church deacon, I s’pose?”

The fella grabbed two handfuls of his own short, scraggly hair in frustration.

“It’s just a name, man, okay? Come on!”

I stood, hitched my pants up, straightened my belt. Then I took a long look at the big empty sky. It made the sun look scrawny.

“Don’t seem to be any big rush around here to me,” I said. The dog sighed like he agreed. The dog was always sighing, even though he didn’t have anything to do. Or maybe that was the reason.

“Alright, there, Deacon,” I said, and started down the porch steps. “Show me what the trouble is.”

He hustled back over to the car and stopped by the front passenger door. When he saw I wasn’t but halfway there myself, he jogged back impatiently to meet me. The dog does the same thing sometimes.

“I told him to stay out of that shit,” he started up again. “It’s not ours, we don’t know how it’s cut. I got my own, straight from Bobby Lynn, wherever he gets it, but Derek said no, just a little bit to hold me over, nobody’ll never know I sneaked a little —”

I held up my palm flat like a crossing guard.

“Slow down there, Deacon,” I said. “You ain’t gotta start at the dawn of creation. I just want to know what we’re dealing with here.”

“What we’re dealing with,” he said, “is this.” And he threw open the passenger side door.

The fella in the shotgun seat was dead as disco and George Washington and all the rest. Deacon had clipped him in with the safety belt to keep him from flopping all over the dashboard, and now he tipped forward against the restraints. The dead fella wore his own expensive-looking basketball shoes and blue jeans and a T-shirt too, but you couldn’t tell what the front used to advertise, if it did. Most of the shirt was burned away, except for the bits of fabric that had cooked right into his barbecue-pink flesh, crispy as pork cracklins. His chin and lips and the tip of his nose were all scorched black, and the front part of his hair had cooked off. His lashes and brows were gone, too. Both his eyelids had fused shut, which was just as well.

“Mmmm-hmmm,” I said. “Yep.”

“Bobby Lynn said you’d know what to do.”

I left the door open to air out the smell and took a few steps back to survey the situation.

“So, let’s see, that’s a 1988 Camero. Or maybe a 1989? What do you think?”

My new friend Deacon’s jaw about hit the dust.

“I don’t know, it’s not even my car, it’s Derek’s cousin’s. You’re talking about the fucking car, man?”

I nodded. “Yep, you’re right, good idea.”

I stepped back over the passenger side and pushed the dead fella snug against the seat. I tried to grab him by his least-crispy shoulder. He made a peeling sound, which was disconcerting until I realized it was just his pants stuck to the seat. All his clothes and skin that wasn’t burned was sticky with syrup and had gone tacky against the car seat’s fabric, like the floor of a movie theater. With my other hand I opened up the glove box. There was a pistol inside, and some fast-food napkins, a lonely packet of soy sauce, and what I was looking for.

“Owner’s manual,” I said to Deacon, waving the book at him. “Fixing cars is easy. They let you take the test with the book open.”

I thumbed through the pages.

“Yeah,” I said after awhile.

“Yeah, what?” Deacon wanted to know.

“Mmmm-hmmm.”

“Dude, I have to get back to Memphis. Tonight.”

“You know, I got a seat in the garage should fit this here vehicle. Whole seat’s gonna need to go. They’s burn marks all up along it, and some blood. That ain’t coming out. Rest we can fix.”

Deacon slapped the owner’s manual out of my hands so I’d focus on his big bugged-out eyes, which I didn’t take kindly to.

“Bobby Lynn is gonna want me back with his money tonight,” he said again. His voice was getting louder even though we wasn’t but two foot apart. “As in, not tomorrow morning. Tonight tonight. Dinnertime and shit.”

I gave myself a little thwack on the side of the skull. I can be forgetful sometimes. I won’t deny it.

“Bobby Lynn! He probably called. I been sitting outside here all day, musta slept right through it. I had a lady friend once tell me, ‘Harold, you can’t hear a damn thing you don’t want to listen to.’ She’s probably right, too, although where’d that get her?” I waved Deacon along behind me and started back toward the house.

“Let me go call Bobby Lynn right back. Then we’ll get you situated.”

My house isn’t much but it suits me just fine. Two bedrooms, one story, one bath, built in the ‘50s when there wasn’t nothing out here but trees and field. And there still ain’t. That’s what I really favor about this property. The privacy. Plenty of room for my business enterprise, which mostly consists of a dozen or so cars that rotate out from the grassy field on the house’s east side, depending what I’m tinkering with at the moment, and whatever fits in the garage. The garage is actually a big old Morton pole barn built over a flat slab of concrete, but I keep my tools and spare parts in there along with an extra car or two, just in case that particular car needs to stay out of sight for awhile.

I told Deacon to stay on the porch while I checked in with Bobby Lynn. I called him back and he answered right away and we got everything all straightened out and I went back onto the porch where Deacon was snorting a line of cocaine off the back of his wrist.

“That’s enough of that now. I believe you’ll stay awake,” I told him, which he didn’t appreciate. “What you need to get this job done is to calm down a little. In fact—”

I popped back into the house and returned with two Budweisers from the icebox.

“Have you a barley pop.”

Deacon sucked half the thing down, all foamy. He scratched at his sweaty neck. There was ink there, FAMILY, written in script. He had diamonds drawn on his knuckles and an eight ball darkening the underside of his forearm and some more up underneath his T-shirt. Everybody’s got tattoos these days. It never means anything, not like it used to.

“What’s the dog’s name?” he asked, leaning down to give the mutt a scratch behind the ears.

“Don’t have a name. Dog.”

“He doesn’t have a name? That’s fucked up.”

I took a drink of my beer.

“We ain’t got mixed up yet.”

I showed Deacon into the garage, which was dark but a good ten degrees hotter than the sticky outside air. A lazy wasp buzzed along the underside of the metal roof. Deacon followed me through a little obstacle course of half-took-apart engines and a pile of splintery wood ends from a little bookshelf project I keep meaning to finish.

“Watch your step,” I told him. “You’re liable to wind up with tetanus.”

We found what I was looking for: a car seat propped up against the back wall, which I had Deacon carry out. I grabbed my toolbox a big blue tarp I dragged behind me back out of the stuffy garage and into the light. It was kind of comical the way Deacon tottered under that heavy car seat, weaving and stumbling and sweating. When we got back to the Camero he dropped it next to the open passenger side door and took a minute to catch his breath while I spread the tarp out and dragged the body down onto it.

“Jesus,” Deacon said, looking at the dead fella stretched out on the ground. “I’ve known Derek since seventh grade.”

“The plowman homeward plods his weary way, and leaves the world to darkness and me.”

Deacon said, “Huh?”

“Just somethin’ I heard one time.”

I draped the long end of the tarp back over the dead kid, to be respectful. Then I got out my ratchet set and screwdriver and started working on getting that ruined passenger seat loose. It took some doing. There was always another set of bolts, another set of screws, another adjustable mount to detach. Deacon started to tell me a story about his dead friend — the kid couldn’t stop talking — but partway into it his cellphone rang.

“Bobby Lynn!” I heard him say. “Yeah, I’m here.” Pause. “Uh-huh, yeah, he’s taking care of it just like you said.” Pause. “I knew you’d—”

I could hear the kid get to his feet. He started pacing back and forth across the half-dead grass while I worked up a sweat popping bolts out of the seat.

“Okay, yeah, so I was wanting to explain you,” I heard him say into the phone. “You know that tweaker, Boone, who Big Dave is always having to bounce out of the Deuce Deuce for hassling the customers? Well, he was there last night buying everybody drinks, third shelf and shit, and when he got good and liquored up he told me and Derek how he’d gone into this stash house that was empty after the cops raided it, just looking to pull some copper out of the walls. But when he was yanking some pipes out of the drywall, plop, down comes a brick of cash and a couple baggies of coke, like he hit the junkie jackpot. He couldn’t help himself bragging about it.

“So my boy Derek, he got this idea. You know, he always respected you and the way you ran your business. When Boone is in the pisser he says to me, ‘Let’s follow this motherfucker home, roll him, find his shit, and bring it back to Bobby Lynn.’ ‘Cause he knew you’d know how to move it right.

“So we stick around until closing time and tell Boone we’ll give him a lift back to where he’s staying, this Motel 6 in Parkway Village, and as soon as he gets the door unlocked we jumped him. He was so drunk we practically had to hold him up just to kick his ass. He had all his shit in the nightstand next to the Gideon Bible.”

I got the old burned-up seat loose and chucked it onto the grass next to the Derek-shaped lump under the tarp while Deacon kept wearing a rut on my lawn and explaining himself.

“Anyway, we went driving around with some beers to celebrate, but D., he wanted to dip into that coke a little to celebrate. I told him to lay off, I got my own little stash, but he said he’d, like, reimburse you for it. You know he always respected the way you did business. He did a couple of real fat lines and then all the sudden he just, he just, like, stops. Moving, breathing, everything. I slap him, roll down the windows, nothing working. I figure that coke must be all chopped up with too much Fentanyl or something, and he’s just, like, ODing right there. Not breathing, mouth getting foamy. No time for a hospital. So I had to do something.

“I was thinking how doctors, when your heart stops and shit, they shock it back into action. You just need that little jolt and you’re back to good. I didn’t have that kind of electricity, but I got to thinking, you know what’s just like electricity is fire. D just needs that jolt. So I pull into a gas station real quick and I buy some lighter fluid and then I pull the car into the alley where can’t anybody see us and I give him a couple real good squirts on the chest right over his heart and I lit him up. You know, to give him that jolt.

“But he didn’t wake up. He just sat there, burning, and the fire went up into his face and his hair caught. I got him put out with my fountain soda. Then I went home trying to figure it out, but you could smell the smell from outside the garage. It wasn’t going to keep. That’s when I called you ‘cause I know you’d know what to do .”

Pause.

“Yeah, it’s his cousin’s car. If we don’t get it back he’ll know something’s up.”

Pause.

“No, yeah, I still have the money and the blow, although you might want to cut it—”

Pause.

“No, I mean, I don’t think anybody saw us.”

Pause.

“Well, Boone, I guess.”

A long pause. Then Deacon’s footsteps crunched across the grass in my direction and he handed me his cellphone.

“Bobby Lynn wants to talk to you again.”

I took the phone from him and listened to what Bobby Lynn had to say. He asked me what I thought and I told him, yep, I thought he had it about right, and he asked me if I could take care of it and I said I would.

“What’d he say?” Deacon asked.

I told him I needed some help getting the new seat set down in place. Deacon finally quieted down while I got to bolting the thing in tight, which was easier than getting the old one out. When it was done I pulled the levers to recline it, slide it back away from the dash. The color didn’t exactly match the driver’s seat and it was dusty as all hell from the garage, but otherwise it worked good. You couldn’t tell somebody had been set on fire in the car except for a little singed spot of cloth on the roof’s interior. Well, that and the smell.

When I stepped back to admire my handiwork I saw that Deacon had sat himself on the grass a few feet away from the body in the tarp, two empty beer bottles lying next to him. The dog had wandered over to keep him company. He shook his head, sniffled again, wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.

“It’s just crazy. I’ve known Derek since before we had hair on our nuts. He was always kinda, like, unpredictable, but he had your back. This kid Javier used to pick on me when we got to high school, always shaking me down. One day D waited in some bushes by Javier’s house, and when Javier walked by, clang! Hit him in the back of the head with a pipe. Like a real-ass pipe he found in the alley. He really cared, you know.”

“A fitting tribute,” I said. Then I ambled back to the garage and rifled through a cardboard box full of cleaners and solvents and Turtle Wax. I found the spray bottle I was looking for and brought it back to Deacon, who was leaning against the car, trying to seem casual again after his little fit of emotion.

“Seat looks good,” he said.

I put the spray bottle in his hands and told him to get to work spritzing down every surface of the inside of the air.

“That there is enzyme cleaner. They market it for cat piss, but it’ll break down just about any kind of smell there is. Most of it, anyway. Might want to smoke a couple packs of Marlboros with the windows up to cover over the rest.”

Derek spritzed away at the inside of the Camero while I had me a little rest and worked on my beer, which had got half-warm in the sun. When the breeze blew the right direction you couldn’t even smell the burned seat, just the blue cornflowers growing in the shade of the trees out front.

“Hey, Harry,” Deacon said, “I’m real sorry I like came in so hot earlier. I was just freaking out. I appreciate you helping me. Bobby Lynn was right. He said you’d take care of everything.”

“Uh-huh, well, we got one more thing to do. We gotta get your friend outta sight so’s he’ll stay that way.”

I told Deacon to sit tight while I went around to the other side of the house where my little fleet of old cars sat collecting rust. The grass had growed up long underneath a couple that were stripped of their tires and up on blocks, probably wouldn’t ever see the road again. The one I was looking for was a little ‘97 Ford Fiesta that still had a little giddyup under the hood. I opened the driver’s side door and checked the handle from the inside, which was just as broke and useless as I remembered. I never had gotten that handle fixed right. The keys were in the sun visor where I left them. The Fiesta struggled a little bit but started up well enough for my purposes. I tooled it through the grass and across the yard back, popped the trunk.

“You get the head, I’ll get the feet,” I said.

We rolled the body over one more time so it was practically a mummy in that blue tarp. Deacon did the heavy lifting while I got the legs bent and jammed into the little truck. Poor old boy just narrowly did fit. A Fiesta ain’t barely got room the driver up front as it is.

“There’s an old quarry about two mile from here. Ain’t been in use for a long time on account of all the chemicals that seeped into the water. Follow me in that there Camero and we’ll get this squared away.”

Deacon followed my dust trail back down the gravel driveway he’d come screaming up an hour ago. We took our time. No need to hurry for this part. I nursed the little Fiesta along a back road, then onto a little stretch that was just a couple shallow ruts in the dirt, where trees had started to grow back over where the old access road used to be. The lock on the gate to the quarry was just the way I left it, rusted and hanging useless, just for show. I nosed it open with the bumper of the little Ford and eased it further along the old industrial road, between two enormous gravel piles, brought it right up to the edge where the rocky ground drops off into wide-open space. The quarry was big around as a football field. The still surface looked awful serene, reflecting the sunlight and the green of the trees growing along the far side, but that water went deep, at least a hundred feet, and down at the bottom it was frightful cold.

I rolled the driver’s side window down a crack, reached out to open the door from the outside handle, stepped out. Just then Deacon pulled up behind me in the Camero.

“Say a few words over y’buddy, if you think you ought. Then we’re gonna give him a burial at sea of sorts.”

Deacon nodded and put his hand on the Fiesta’s trunk and said a couple real nice things about the dead fella in there, about how he was always good to his momma and a true friend and he never really meant to hurt nobody, which sounded to me like kind of a low bar, although I can’t rightly say that all of us clear it.

“He just wanted to make a big splash, you know?” Deacon said, and I didn’t have the heart to point out the poor choice of words. “He wanted to be somebody. Do something big. Move up in the world. Me too, I guess.”

“Mmm-hmmm, yep,” I said. “Tale as old as time. Now give me a little push here while I pop this old Ford into neutral and guide it over the edge. Ground gets a little tricky right around the lip.”

“Thanks again, Harry,” Deacon said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

I got back down into the bucket seat of that little Fiesta and eased the door not quite closed.

“Alright!” I shouted back. “Give her a push and I’ll dip out right quick before she goes over!”

I started the car, yanked the stick into neutral. The Fiesta rocked a little on its broke-down old shocks as Deacon got a little momentum going, and then we were edging up, up, right to the rim where there was nothing but space over that still, green water.

I eased my foot onto the brake. The car ground to a stop. Deacon grunted with the effort of pushing, but it wouldn’t quite budge.

I leaned out of the open door.

“Get in here and steer, lemme see if I can get ‘er moving,” I said. He wiped a fresh sheen of sweat off his brow, happy to trade paces.

“Now, be sure to hop on out when I say go,” I told him.

I shut the driver’s side door behind him.

Deacon flashed me a thumbs-up through the back windshield. I gave the Fiesta a good hard push. Without my foot on the brake pedal, she rolled right over the lip of the quarry.

I heard a rattling sound. That was Deacon jerking at that useless interior driver’s side door handle, which had been broke since the car came into my possession. Of course, he could have rolled the window down and reached out to the exterior door handle. Even easier, he could have stomped his foot on the brake to stop the car at the last second. But he was caught off guard, too focused on getting the Fiesta over the edge and too surprised by the broke door handle, and I didn’t have no trouble at all giving the Ford one last shove. Deacon turned back and I could see the panic in his eyes. He still thought this was all an accident. The front tires lost traction and the weight of the engine pulled the car into the emptiness. It was blissful quiet for a second while the Fiesta fell the twenty feet or so, and then it made a hellacious splash. The rear wheels kept spinning until the front of the flooding car jerked them down under the surface in a little spray of white foam that spun and frothed then went still. It got real nice and quiet again. I stayed and watched air bubbles fight up to the surface for a few minutes. There wasn’t no ladder or rope or anyway to climb up the quarry’s edge, even if you did manage to swim back up.

Nobody ever had come back up before. I always checked.

Now there wasn’t nothing left to do with the day but drive the Camero back to the house to tell Bobby Lynn it was done with. He could send some boys over to get the car on his own time. I was in no rush.

I been a mechanic most of my life, and a mechanic of a different sort for Bobby Lynn for several years now. But, like I say, I’m kind of a shade-tree mechanic. I wait for the work to come to me. I suppose I do lack ambition. But the work always comes my way, and I never yet heard a complaint.

Contributor

Bryan Miller

Bryan Miller is a US-based writer and performer. His stories have appeared on The Drabblecast, in The Monsters We Forgot and Shadowy Natures, and it several other magazines and anthologies. His other work has been featured on Sirius/XM Radio and The CBS Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Acknowledgments

Cars and crime. Have there ever been better pals? One almost wonders how crime ever got done without cars to get away in, or car chases, or car “dickies” to hide bodies in. The banner image for this story is a shot from the much-praised indie movie Blue Ruin. The car in the movie is a Pontiac, whereas the story has a  Camero! No true aficionado of cars would countenance this visual crime. To forestall the angry letters, we tender, in advance, our ‘umble apologies.

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