“Alright,” I called to Franklin. “Pump the brakes.”
The Buick shifted with his weight, and I heard the steady thumping of him doing what I asked. For a few moments I thought the job was done, until pressure built in the line. With a pop and a hiss the brake line separated, and I got a squirt of fluid on my neck and shoulder. “Fuck! Stop!” I bellowed and turned away from the spray.
“What happened?” Franklin asked, his voice closer to the floor. I imagined him hanging out the driver’s side, using the door to brace himself as he spoke to the concrete I lay upon.
“Damned brake line is worthless.” I rolled out from under the pickup. “It’s got to be replaced.”
Franklin took one look at me and laughed. He tossed me the rag he had in his pocket. “You look a sight, girl. Best clean yourself off a bit.”
I gave him a sarcastic laugh but took the rag nonetheless. Some of the brake fluid had splashed on my face, and I had an ugly taste in my mouth. I sat up, wiping the goop from my skin.
The bell rang, indicating someone had pulled up at the tanks. Franklin got out of the truck. “I’ll take care of it. You get cleaned up and see if we got a line we can use. Larry wants this thing back for a fishing trip day after tomorrow.”
“Alright.” Standing up, I went to the bathroom. I rinsed my mouth out with water, spitting to get the taste out of my mouth. It didn’t work. A look in the mirror showed that the fluid had gone down the collar of my coveralls. Another T-shirt ruined. If it weren’t for me and my job, Hanes would have lost their market share and gone under by now. “Surprised I didn’t get any of this shit in my ear,” I grumbled under my breath. “I’d have played hell getting it out.”
Out in the office, I heard Franklin moving around and the cash register clattering. “Hey, Slow?”
I poked my head out the door. Franklin held a credit card and receipt in one hand. He rubbed the back of his neck with the other. A shot of adrenalin went through me. He looked pretty uncomfortable all of a sudden. “What? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, glancing out the window. “I’m thinkin’ you need to take care of this, not me.” He held out the receipt.
My heart fluttered hard in my chest. Shit, did one of the husbands catch on? I couldn’t conceive of Franklin letting me get my ass kicked at the garage, though. He’d be more likely to send me out the back door while he kept the jealous husband distracted. For some weird reason, he’d developed a paternal pride over my philandering this last year, like I was his patron saint Casanova or something.
I took the customer’s payment from him and peered down at the name on the card. At the same time, Franklin propelled me toward the door, shoving me into the hot summer afternoon.
My heart dropped to my stomach, and my head shot up to see a familiar red convertible by the tanks. When I saw her behind the wheel, brushing blonde hair behind one ear, I couldn’t breathe. Where the hell did all the air go? There used to be so much of it out here.
While I caught my breath, my eyes studied her with perverse greed. I’d only seen her once since last summer. She’d come during winter break to spend Christmas with her family. She had never tried to contact me; I just happened to see her when her father had driven past the station one snowy afternoon. I guess she went back to the straight and narrow after being drawn through the mud.
Many a lonely night I’d spent daydreaming about what would happen in this situation. She’d come back, and we’d run into each other. Depending on my mood and whether I was on the rag or not, my imagined response was anywhere from a blistering tongue lashing to an equally blistering sex scene. The longer I stood here watching her, the more my emotions veered toward the former. Frowning, jaw set, I straightened my shoulders and headed toward her car.
I was almost upon her when she saw movement from the corner of her eye and turned toward me. Swear to God she winced when she registered it was me and not Franklin coming with her receipt. I felt a perverse pleasure at that, let me tell you. The stab of evil joy fired up my already burgeoning anger, and I fairly strutted up to her. She might have tossed me aside like old trash, but a lot of other women in town wanted a taste of what I could give them.
“Here you are, Ms. Shipley.” My voice was hard as I handed the paperwork and card to her. I fished around in my breast pocket for a pen. “Can I get you to sign this please?”
She opened her mouth and snapped it shut. Her fingers shook as she took the receipt and signed my copy. I snatched it from her before she fully extended it toward me. “Thanks for filling up at Franklin’s Garage.” I turned away. “Don’t come back.” I only got a couple of steps away before she finally spoke.
“Slow? I’m sorry.”
Crumpling the paper in my fist, I almost stopped. But what good would it do, anyway? She was here for summer vacation, spending time at the country club, pretending she had never seduced another woman before heading off to college. Tennis courts and charity auctions didn’t mix too well with the likes of me. All I could offer her was a beat-up pickup truck and hanging out at the Bronc on Main Street.
I stalked into the office, tossing the ball of paper at Franklin. “Here.” I must have looked pretty pissed off, because his complexion was pasty and he blinked as he watched me pass. I didn’t go back into the garage. Instead, I stomped up the stairs to my room, slamming the door. Right about now I’d rather see one of the husbands. At least I could get rid of some of this anger, even if I did get pummeled beyond recognition after.
Downstairs I heard a commotion, two voices arguing. Damn! She followed me inside? Franklin told her I’d gone out the back, but she wasn’t having any of it. She insisted she knew I lived over the garage and demanded to know where the stairs were. Her voice was both a soothing balm from my past and rough sandpaper across my anger. I paced in my tiny room, debating whether or not to go down and confront her, get the mess over with. She beat me to the punch, though, because I heard her light step on the stairs.
“Slow? I know you’re in there. Open the door. I need to talk to you.”
I flung the door open and glared at her. “Yeah, it’s always about what you need, isn’t it?” I said. “Why don’t you get back into your daddy’s car and trundle back over to your side of town? You’re not wanted here.” The wounded look in her hazel eyes pleased me no end. Funny how it also hurt. Aggravated by my emotional confusion, I turned away, letting her have access to my room.
Elle shut the door behind her, leaning against the wood, hands behind her on the knob. About the only way I’d get out of this situation now was to drive her away or jump out the window. I marched over to stare out over the street, arms across my chest. Maybe I wouldn’t break my fool head going out this way, but I might twist my ankle. I resolved to park my truck under my window from here on out. It’d come in handy if one of the husbands busted me.
“I know I hurt you,” she said.
I snorted. “Figured that out on your own, huh? Always knew you were smart.”
She didn’t take the bait. “I didn’t know what else to do, Slow. I had to get out of here. My parents were talking about enrolling me in the city college so they could keep an eye on me.” She was silent a moment. “I finally convinced them it was just a phase.”
That hurt almost as bad as her leaving to begin with. I spun around to look at her. “Might be a phase to you, college girl, but it’s who I am and who I’ll always be.” God, she’s still beautiful. In the small space I smelled the familiar perfume. It triggered memories of summer afternoons spent stealing kisses and making love. It took a serious effort to also remember all those nights after when she’d left me to deal with the fallout alone. “You always said you wanted to get out if this pissant town. Why don’t you just carry your little ass right back down those stairs and get on with it?”
“I miss you, Slow.” Instead of leaving, she took a step toward me.
At least she had the good sense to look shamefaced. The girl I was last year would have caved immediately, and I almost did this time. I’d be damned if I’d let her run the show, however. I had plenty of experience being in control these days. “You got a funny way of showing it. It’s been almost a year. I never got a letter or phone call from you. How many breaks do you get at that fancy university, anyway? You’ve only been home once.” I immediately cursed to myself. I’d given away that I’d been watching for her and I knew Elle was a master at manipulating me. The less ammunition I gave her the better.
Rallying my anger, I left the window to stand in front of her, fists balled at my sides. “And don’t give me any shit about how your parents took the news, all right? My mama hasn’t spoken to me since she found out. I haven’t even been back to the house since September — Daddy has to sneak over here to see me. You and your ‘phase’ have someplace to call home, don’t you?”
She was crying, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.” Her hand reaching out for my face.
Half panicked, I slapped her hand away. “Don’t touch me,” I ordered, taking a step backward. My voice sounded strange to my ears. I tried to clear the lump in my throat, but it didn’t go away. I hated the stinging in my eyes. Resolving not to cry, I sniffed mightily, lifting my chin. “Get out of here, Elle. You’re not wanted.”
She moved closer, forcing me back again. The room was too small. My shoulder hit the clothing rack where my shirts hung. “Damn it, Elle! Don’t make me hurt you!” Like I could do that.
As I suspected, her touch was my undoing. My skin cried out in relief when her palms cupped my face. I reached for her, wanting to push her away, but instead I pulled her close, holding her tight against me for the first time in ages. The feel of her body along mine was pure heaven. I don’t know how I’d ever compared those other women to Elle. She was the first, the one who saw something in me no one else did. Oddly enough, her faith in me had given me the strength and confidence to get through that mess last summer. I never would have survived it without knowing she thought I was something special, at least for a little while.
We were both crying now, her voice cracking as she spoke in my ear. “I’m so sorry, Slow. So sorry. I never meant for this to happen. I miss you so much.”
I couldn’t say how long we held each other. At some point we settled on the floor under the window. I closed my eyes, holding her in my arms, listening to Franklin puttering around the garage below. That reminded me of Elle’s car sitting bold as you please in front of the pumps. Anybody with an ounce of brains would know she was here and, considering the length of time involved, probably thought something was going on between us. The empty hollow that the tears had created deflated, replaced by cold, hard reality.
Sniffling, I wiped at my face. “You need to go, Elle. Your folks will find out you’ve been here.”
She clutched at me, burrowing her head against my chest. Her voice was muffled. “I don’t care. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, but you can’t risk your parents pulling the plug on your tuition.”
“They can’t do that anymore. When I turned eighteen, my trust fund became mine. That’s what’s paying for school.” She took a shaky breath and pulled back to look at me. “I don’t want to be stuck here; I don’t want you to be stuck here.”
Little did she know that what I wanted was something different. Sure, I didn’t want to be stuck here in this podunk town any more than she did. But I belonged here. She didn’t. As I looked into her eyes, I saw our future. Eventually Franklin would retire and I’d buy his shop from him. I’d work in the garage, making a decent living. I’d buy a house out near the new subdivision going in, and Elle would move in with me. We’d set up house and pretend this was the way life should be while she died an inner death. She’d become just like all the other bored little housewives I’d so recently been entertaining. She’d become bitter and we’d end up hating each other before it was said and done. I didn’t have a diploma from high school, dropping out rather than repeating my senior year in order to get one. I had no prospects, no great plans, no way out. I’m Slow Movin’, not stupid.
Elle deserved so much more than that kind of life.
I was suddenly so very weary. I closed my eyes, pulling away. “I gotta get back to work.”
“Slow,” Elle protested.
Pushing to my feet, I dusted off the seat of my coveralls. Worthless, really, what with the brake line fluid all over my clothes. I reached down, and she took my hand. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
My lack of fight affected her more than my angry words earlier. She didn’t argue, letting me open the door for her and accompany her down the rickety steps. Franklin had made himself scarce. I heard him banging on something in one of the bays. Elle and I held hands out the door and to her car, only releasing each other when I opened her convertible door for her.
She paused there, not sitting down. Her hazel eyes were red-rimmed, and her mascara had smeared a little. I didn’t care that we were outside in broad daylight, I reached out and used my thumb to wipe away what I could. Her eyes closed at my touch, and I fought the urge to lean forward to kiss her. She has a chance at a life outside of here. Let her get back to it. My hand dropped away.
Elle looked at me, her lower lip quivering just a smidge. I hardened my heart, ignoring her pain, reminding myself of all the tears I’d shed last fall when she’d bailed on me. “It was nice seeing you again, Elle.”
She finally looked away, dropping her gaze as she bit her lower lip. Without another word, she sat in the driver’s seat, tucking her feet beneath the dashboard.
I closed her door, watching her profile, remembering the first time we’d sat that close at the river. I hadn’t been back there since she’d left for college. It hurt too much. Maybe I’ll go fishing tomorrow. Turning, I walked back to the garage. Behind me I heard her car start, listened to the crunch of gravel as she pulled away from the tanks.
Even now I loved her. Maybe I’m stupid after all. “Take care, Elle.”