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Tracy Heinlein

The Brakes

My brakes gave out this morning in front of my daughter's daycare. There was the grinding noise I've been hearing and the usual resistance, only, for just a few seconds the foot pedal continued to ease downward, no longer of any consequence. So this is what it feels like, I thought, yanking the emergency brake, the way Mr. Clack, my Driver's Ed teacher -- who was unable to maintain direct eye contact with the girls -- taught us.

The car's about had it, taped and wired, but paid off, and that's what matters, since I'm raising the kids by myself. If the repair is small enough, I take it to my boyfriend. He can stretch a dime farther than anyone I've ever known, which is good, but sometimes his repairs scare me. Like the time my exhaust pipe broke loose, sparks flying all the way home. Or when I offered the kids' Sunday-school teacher a ride and the door handle fell off in the parking lot.

I've learned not to complain though, because he'll leave the work right where it is, jacked-up in my carport, head back to his place, and not speak to me for days, maybe weeks, until my anger shifts to loneliness, eventually forcing me to make that phone call. That's exactly where we are now --not speaking -- and all the parts he'd special ordered to fix the brakes are already bouncing around the back of some UPS truck returning to Omaha.

My real mechanic has a shop outside town. Riley's a good ol' boy. A country boy. A redneck. Blew his left hand off playing with dynamite when he was young. His father stored some on the farm, same one Riley's on now, was his grandfather's dairy before that. The drive's not bad, especially on a warm, sunny day, like today, meandering around farmland, cow pastures, man-made lakes.

I veer off the blacktop onto the packed gravel that gradually climbs toward the barn Riley and his wife Laura converted into an auto shop. While they were at it, they built themselves a new house out of cypress and pine: two-stories, four bedrooms, and a wraparound porch complete with wooden rockers, Boston ferns, and a wind chime. Out back they installed a swimming pool next to the remains of the concrete dipping trough once used for the cows. They've been together twenty-seven years. Raised three kids. Are expecting their first grandbaby.

In a few more months corn will line the drive. There's rye grass, now. Tiny blades the color of astro-turf. On my right, three horses are grazing in a pasture just beyond the new grass. The other way are Riley's hunting dogs, relatively quiet in their cyclone kennels. Sometimes, when the wind shifts, you can smell them. They get hysterical, jumping and scratching against the heavy-gauge wire, their excruciating yelps.

The car shudders to a stop outside the barn. Riley strolls out carrying a kitten. "Can't believe those still ain't fixed." He's tall, slender, and pretty good-looking in blue-jeans and flannel, especially for an old guy with only one hand. I'm not seriously interested; I just play along with him so he'll give me a good price on the repair work. Of course, my boyfriend, Jack, doesn't know anything about all that, would piss him off good, and maybe more to loose the discount, only it isn't his money. It's mine, and now I'm forced to spend it at Riley's. Not that I won't hear about it later like, "Whoever installed those tie-rods must have been a complete idiot," he'll say, diagnosing the front end pulling too much. "Gonna ruin your tires." Making me wonder. Making me doubt. After awhile, I don't know who to believe. Even so, I think Jack loves me, would protect me in a big city or against foreign-enemy invaders. He jokes about that whenever I describe brutal newspaper stories of random violence, indulgently guestioning him at the moment of truth, "Would you shield me with your body?" pretending it doesn't really matter, and he'll laugh, one time pulling me up close as if he were hiding behind me. "She's all yours, man," he said, or some nonsense, then got quiet and held me for just a moment longer.

"Why don'tcha take this home, give it to your kids?" Riley's holding the kitten up by a leg. It's squirming, clawing the air. "The mama won't have nothin' to do with them."

"My kids are too young." I'd rather their first pet be a goldfish or maybe a turtle. He hands the kitten over for me to hold, and I do. Its whole body is warm, purring. "They'd probably kill it."

"That's all I'm gonna do."

"Ask me again before I leave," I say without flinching. "I'm going to visit my friends."

I reach through the car window for the bag of rotten carrots I've been saving for the horses. The kids will be upset; this is one of their favorite outings. The horses are still grazing the far side of their pasture. "Come on, Gizmo." Laura's champagne Pomeranian scurries along. There's an electric wire, I don't know whether it's hot, so I bend way down and swing past it. The horses look up, freeze, waiting. I shake the bag high over my head. They don't budge. I try to imitate Riley's feeding-time whistle. Close enough; they begin rambling across the field. I walk out to meet them. There're two quarterhorses and a black and white pinto, a small one, maybe ten hands, tops. The other two nip and kick at him to stay back. They saunter forward, give the food on my flattened palm a big horse-sniff before lipping the carrots. I lean into the darker one's neck, pushing downward like I'm going to bridle her and she tosses her head, avoiding the imaginary straps. I cluck to the pinto and scootch toward him, but he shifts his weight, pulls back. Dropping some carrots, I fake indifference, focusing on a tossed-off ball of foil from a gumwrapper. He advances hesitantly and rolls a carrot. Soon as he starts on those, I reach out with more, and this time he doesn't spook. He lets me run my hand over his back. The other two are watching, heads lowered, snorting dirt. I bare down on his back, testing his reaction. Nothing; so I jump up, draping myself across him like you see dead cowboys in the movies. His coat is thick, raggedy, winter. Needs to be combed out. His mane is long. I wrap my hands in it for stability, sit up, and nudge him with the heels of my loafers.

I'm five years old again, riding bareback in the pasture outside our old house up north --the U.S. Army's house, really -- an olive-green, wooden, ranch-style crackerbox with a portable tetherball in the backyard, set in concrete inside a tire rim, next to a pile of hefty rocks, ten-cents apiece, gathered by all us kids to surround the barbecue pit my dad and some of his army buddies intend to dig. The saddle was too heavy and bulky for me, but I do have a bridle, and I am hauling across the field, flat out, to feel the rush. There is electric fencing there, too. My dad said the horses were so dumb, they'd walk right into it. Occasionally, one would defy the fencing altogether, escaping into the neighborhood -- the funniest sight I'd ever seen: a full-grown horse sniffing around the front yard just like someone's stray dog. The neighborhood kids could barely stand it, either, such a breach. We'd run helter-skelter with sticks, slapping our thighs to the rhythm of a real horse underneath us, squealing with utter delight that a dumb horse had broken free and entered our world. You'd hear stories after how that horse had stuck its head through the curtains of some kid's bedroom window, or the way some other kid's older brothers chased the animal down our street and onto the main road before finally lassoing it.

I fast-forward five more years. Now I'm ten-years old, strattling a stubborn, skinny, mangy, Chinese circus pony pulling double-duty, outside our U.S.-Army-house in Taiwan. I'm wondering whether this pony is dumb, too, enough to keep backing up, not paying attention to the open, concrete, two-foot-deep, sewer ditch only inches from its back hooves; its handler a worn-out actor from the traveling opera setting up their stage a couple hundred yards away; the music clanging, the brocade flowing. He's imploring the pony, "Lai, Lai, Lai," chanting "come, come, come" with a worthless switch in his hand, green leaves still attached, before the pony surrenders and carries me around the splintered, make-shift wooden benches that will soon be shared by villagers, excited too, by the promise of false accusations and unrequited love, fumed by musicians plucking ancient instruments, the colorful spectacle of the facepaints, and enormous head pieces; the heavy costumes and the impossible agility of the young actors, mock-fighting, their swords in constant motion.

Gizmo's barking at us. The pinto is heading straight for the electric wire. I jerk its mane, the guitar-strings hair cutting into my fingers. Too late. He walks right into it, holds there for just a second before the electrical impulse floods his prehistoric brain, then bolts, leaving the ground sideways. I tighten my grip and hunker down, squeezing my legs against his sides.

"What the hell are you doin'?" Riley calls to me, smiling, must have witnessed the whole thing. "You want me to saddle him for you?"

I untangle my hands. They ache; one finger is bleeding. I slide off.

"Suit yourself," he says, stepping closer. "Anything else you need?" He wraps his good arm around my shoulder. "That boyfriend of yours can't take care of you?"

This is especially uncomfortable because a month earlier I was standing right here getting an estimate for the same job. I had given Riley the go-ahead to order special parts, then Jack said he'd do it, so I called Riley back and cancelled. Riley was okay with that, only, he was wasn't thrilled to pay a re-stocking fee. At this point, I have no desire to explain that Jack stormed out on me, again. It's enough that I'm back trying to re-weasel a good deal. I'd go somewhere else if I thought I wouldn't be robbed blind with no guarantee on the work. Besides, I sort of trust Riley.

"He didn't have the right tools," is all I can muster. That's for the return charge, I say to myself. It's all so routine by now.

"Wellll, that's never been a problem here." He drops his arm down around my waist, presses up against me.

"When you gonna come relax with me?" he murmurs in my ear for the 350th time since I've known him.

"Right after your wife dies?" This is when he's supposed to let go, only he's still got me.

We hear a phone ringing in the shop. One of his mechanics steps outside to inform Riley of the call, sees us and grins. "I'll take a message," he says, happily, no doubt realizing his discretion is redeemable for a six-pack.

Riley faces me, again. "She says it don't matter. As long as I tell her who and when, it don't matter." This is new. I'm not prepared. He appears dumbfounded by the skeptical look on my face. "You want it in writing?"

"Yeah, sure," I say, trying real hard not to laugh. For a moment, I can see Jack throwing himself in front of me, intercepting the bullet from Laura's .357. "Darling," I'll cry to him. "It was true. You do love me," and I'll drop down beside him like in a movie or something. I look at Riley, who still has me tight around the waist, and I punch him and I say, "You are a wild man, you know that? You are a fucking wild man."


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