The service bell rang. Wesley looked up from his book and saw a silver hatchback gliding to a stop in the gas station island. Steam rose from the front of the car, and two short, shirtless men with skin the color of new motor oil got out and propped up the hood with a length of two-by-four. They spoke to one another in an unfamiliar language, their voices rising and falling. As Wesley approached, a pale woman emerged from the backseat wearing fresh red lipstick, though she had the sleepy look of someone who had just woken up. A tow-headed boy, perhaps four years old, appeared from behind her. The perimeter of the boy’s mouth was dark with grime, and he was sucking on what seemed to be a hearing aid; he had another clinging precariously to his too small ear. His eyes crossed as he looked up at Wesley.
“Is there a restroom?” the woman asked. Her voice was raspy.
Wesley pointed to the side of the station office. “Around that corner.” The boy darted towards it, and the woman followed.
The two men were still bickering. The more muscular one was about to unscrew the radiator cap, but Wesley quickly stepped in. “No, no, no—too hot!” He pulled his rag from his pocket and fanned it over the engine, and the man did the same with his T-shirt. He had a crucifix—two slashes crudely tattooed in faded blue ink—on his shoulder. His chubby friend reached into the car and retrieved a pizza box with which he began to fan, too, sending gusts that made the other’s dark hair wave. The car was leaking coolant in a single, steady drip, Wesley noticed, just a pinhole somewhere. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
The woman and the boy were already inside the office. She was hovering at the counter, near the cash register. The boy sidled along the candy display, dragging a finger across the dusty wrappers, leaving a thin wet trail behind. Wesley announced himself with a cough, and the woman picked up his book, an old paperback copy of The Idiot by Dostoevsky.
She examined the cover. “Is this funny?”
He walked behind the counter and took the key from the cash register and put it in his pocket. “Depends on your mood, I guess. Do you need help with anything?”
“How much are these?” she said, holding up a bag of chocolate-chip cookies that the boy had gotten his hands on.
She put the cookies back.
The boy looked up at her and silently put his hand in his mouth. His hearing aid—the one he had been sucking on—was gone.
“It’s OK,” Wesley said, “he can have them. Everything’s stale anyway. Have some drinks, too, for you and your friends.” He wanted them all to leave, the woman, the boy, the men. “Have whatever you want.”
The woman gave the cookies to the boy. He stuffed one into his mouth and began knocking the side of his head against her thigh as he chewed. A fresh ring of chocolate and saliva glistened around his mouth. The woman managed to fit two candy bars and a bag of chips into her small denim purse. She asked Wesley his name, and he told her.
“I can pay you back, Wes,” she said, and pulled her earlobe; it was cleft, like a snake’s tongue. “Lock up for a few minutes and I can pay you back.”
“Let’s just call it even.”
“You got a girlfriend.”
Did he? Wesley rifled through the junk drawer below the cash register, scattering pens, pencils, matches, and rubber bands. He had gotten his girl—his first real girl—into trouble just as spring erupted, and her parents had needed to get involved because she was only seventeen, like him. He’d thought she was just waiting for things to blow over, but it was now almost August, and the few times he had been able to work up the courage to call her the phone simply rang and rang and rang. “There,” Wesley said, and gathered up five small white packets. He explained to the woman that the pepper inside would find the radiator leak and form a seal. “It’s just a temporary fix to get you where you’re going.” He paused. “Where are you going?” He immediately regretted asking her.
“Not too far,” she said. “Just up north, I think.” After a moment she added, “To the beach.”
“Do you need help?” he said. He looked outside, at the men, then turned again to the woman. “Do you need help?”
“Not help. A favor.”
“I can’t give you money—”
“Not money.” She placed a hand on the boy’s head and stroked his hair with her thumb. “If you could—”
“I can’t do that. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“It won’t be long. We can be back in an hour.” She looked at him imploringly and touched his arm across the counter. “I don’t like him to be around.” She squeezed his wrist. “Please.”
Wesley pulled away from her. “One hour, then I call the cops, give them the license plate, everything.” He shut the drawer.
The radiator let out a dying sigh when he finally opened it. In went the pepper. Then, after a few minutes, he added a mixture of coolant and water, filling the radiator and topping off the overflow reservoir. He went on hands and knees to make sure the dripping had ceased, and the boy, small enough to crouch under the car, mimicked him. Wesley stuck his tongue out, and the boy laughed. He decided he would call the cops as soon as they pulled away without the child.
As Wesley brushed himself off, the muscular man took out a twenty-dollar bill. “Fill ‘im up,” he said.
Wesley added the money to the bankroll in his pocket and began filling the car with regular unleaded. He rested his free hand on the top of the pump and let the vibrations carry up through his teeth. He was distracted, thinking about the woman and the men and his girl, when he felt a tapping against his leg and looked down to find the boy showing him his tongue.
It was then that the car’s hood slammed violently, and Wesley turned and saw how the two-by-four was now going to be used.