Chapter 18: The Negotiator
She checked the kitchen window for his car. Not yet. She went to the stove to taste the cream of corn, stirring it and adjusting the temp, before opening the oven to check on the turkey. Maddy was right under her every step of the way.
“I’m just helping, Mom.”
“Go set the table,” she said. “Evan! Turn your game off and come down here.”
“He’s not eating,” said Maddy.
“The hell he isn’t.”
“Mom, you said hell. That’s not nice.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Evan! Now!”
“He said he doesn’t want to meet Blane.”
“Maddy, you need to call him Mr. Barrington, okay?”
“Why? Mason’s a grownup and I call him Mason.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can we please not talk about Mason tonight?”
Evan appeared in the doorway. “What about Mason?”
She looked up at the ceiling, willing her anxiety away.
“Are you finally gonna let me play with him?”
“Because he’s a convicted felon and you’re eleven,” she said. “Listen guys, I need you to be on your best behavior tonight. This means a lot to Mommy.”
Evan smirked. “So you can impress Blane?”
“Evan, please. It’s Mr. Barrington, okay?”
He crossed his arms. “I’ll be on my best behavior if you let me do push-ups with Mason.”
“This is not a negotiation,” she said, removing the cranberry sauce from the refrigerator and slamming it on the counter. “I’m the parent. You’re the child. You do what I say!”
The doorbell rang. Evan ran down the hall and flung open the door. The sound of his invisible machine gun filled the house.
Blane threw up his hands. One held a bottle of wine, the other a bouquet of flowers. His smile was uncertain. “You must be Ethan.”
“His name’s Evan,” said Maddy, ever the little hostess. “Mine’s Madison. Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Barrington.”
“Yeah, Blane, happy Thanksgiving,” said Evan. “Is that your car? I like trucks. How many push-ups can you do?”
“Well, at the club we generally use the Nautilus—”
“I can do forty,” Evan shouted, dropping to the floor for a set.
Brooke stepped across her grunting son and kissed Blane on the cheek. “Hi.”
He frowned at Evan as he presented her with the flowers. “Certainly a rambunctious little chap, isn’t he?”
She fought to maintain her smile. “He is. Can you excuse us for a sec?” She reached down and seized Evan’s wrist, pulling him across the foyer tiles to the downstairs bathroom. “Madison,” she called over her shoulder, “will you put those flowers in the kitchen for Mommy?”
She slammed the door. “Evan, you know how much this means to me. Why are you doing this?”
“Because I don’t like him! He’ll never take Dad’s place!”
“Shhh. Hold your voice down. You’re humiliating me.”
“You said you valued my opinion.”
“And you agreed to give him a chance.”
“I did. He sucks.”
She grasped him by the shoulders. Her husband stared back at her through his eyes. He was such a miniature David. From the slope of his forehead to the length of his lashes to the flare of his nostrils.
“Evan, can we just get through tonight? Please. For me. Blane is a lawyer. You’re my evidence. Evidence that I’m a good mom.”
“Will you let me do push-ups with Mason?”
She exhaled. “One hour. That’s it.”
She rolled her eyes. “You know what? Fine. But I’m putting you on medication.”
Chapter 19: Sticks and Stones
Laughter. He looked up from under the hood and saw his neighbor, Tammy, holding hands with a tall stranger in tight yellow jeans.
He shook his head. Tight yellow jeans. Times had changed.
The old fuel pump was attached to the engine block by two parallel bolts and thirty years of inactivity. He loosened it with a 9/16 socket wrench and set it on the radiator. He was about to install the new one when another wave of laughter hooked his attention, this time closer and more childlike.
Two eyes popped over the right front quarter panel, then two more.
“No way,” he said. “This isn’t the hangout, guys. You know your mother doesn’t want you down here.”
“Evan talked her into it,” the little girl explained.
He glanced over his shoulder. Down the street he could see the blonde sitting on her porch, arms crossed, watching.
“But we’re not allowed to go in your house.” She held up a cell phone. “And we have to call 911 if you act weird … and run.”
He shook his head. “You have a cell phone? But you’re only what, eight?”
“Seven,” she said. “When I turn ten I’m getting a smart phone like Evan. His can do everything. Mine can still take pictures though. Say cheese.”
He turned his head. Too late. The back of her phone said Maddy in purple bubble letters.
The boy was holding his up too. “Mine records video.”
Mason fitted the new fuel pump on the bolts. “Well listen, I’m honored that your mom let you come down here and…” He glanced up. They were still aiming the phones at him. “…and film me. But I’ve got work to do and honestly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. So you need to leave.”
The boy leaned in over the engine. “What kind of work are you doing?”
He ignored the question, tightening the bolts with the socket wrench.
“Yeah,” said Maddy. “We can help.”
He stopped and glared at her, summoning his most malevolent prison yard stare, one he had practiced and perfected over the years. “This is man’s work. Greasy. Sweaty. Bloody. There’s no room for little girls under the hood of this truck.”
“Yeah,” said Evan. “Man’s work. Go home, Maddy.”
“Little boys either,” he growled, leveling his gaze at her brother.
“That’s not nice,” said the girl, lip quivering, face reddening, eyes filling with tears.
Mason had dealt with a lot of things in his life. Heavy things. Stabbings, riots, solitary confinement, Alzheimer’s. But in that moment, he was totally unprepared for the tears of a seven-year-old girl.
He dropped the wrench on the engine block and hurried around the front of the truck. “Wait a second. Hold up. Where’s the tough little girl who didn’t cry when she skinned her knees out there in front of the mailbox?”
She stared down at her shoes. A tear fell on the driveway between them. “You’re mean.”
“Nah, not really,” he said, “I was just … I was just testing you.”
Her voice was barely audible. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will break my heart.”
He frowned. “That’s not how I remember that saying.”
Her brother rolled his eyes.
“Come on,” said Mason. “I actually could use some help with something.”
He lifted an eight-foot piece of cut garden hose and three paint buckets from the bed of the truck. “Either of you guys ever siphoned any gas before?”
They shook their heads.
He popped the gas flap and unscrewed the cap. “Take a whiff.”
Maddy wrinkled her nose.
“What is that?” said Evan. “That’s not gas.”
“Not anymore. Turpentine. It’s what happens when gasoline sits for thirty years. So in order to get this old dinosaur running we need to get that stuff out of there and replace it.”
“Why don’t you just buy a new car?” said Maddy.
“Because they don’t make them like this anymore. Plus my mom and dad bought it for me when I was sixteen. It has sentimental value.”
“Sentimental value,” she repeated, testing the words.
He handed her the hose. “So here’s what I need you to do. Can you feed this into the gas tank? All the way down. Just like that … good.”
He turned to Evan. “All right, man. It’s on you. I want you to blow.”
Evan stepped forward, unsure.
“Go ahead, dude, straight into the hose. Perfect. Hear it bubbling?” He took back the hose. “Okay, this is a thirty-gallon tank. The dash says we’re half full. So that’s like, what, twenty gallons?”
“Fifteen,” said Evan.
“Testing you,” Mason smiled. “And those buckets are one gallon each. So what I’m going to do is draw that stuff up into this hose, get it draining good, then as each bucket fills, we’ll dump them in shifts, fifteen trips, like a relay race.” He glanced at the girl. “You take the first one.”
“But where should I dump it?”
He nodded toward the side yard. “Back behind the river birch, in that big box of sand.”
“What’s the river birch?”
“The tree with the cool bark.”
He knelt beside the truck and began to nurse the putrefied petroleum up into the hose, sucking hard enough for extraction but carefully, so as not to get a mouthful of turpentine. Once he felt it surging, he tipped the hose into the first bucket. Glug, glug, glug, it filled quickly.
“Ready Maddy? Take off! Evan, you’re on deck.”
At the midway point of the second bucket, the hose dripped to a stop.
“What happened?” Evan asked.
“Hose probably wasn’t deep enough in the tank.” He withdrew it partially then fed it in again.
Maddy came running back. “The river birch does have cool bark!”
He was about to restart the siphoning process when Evan said, “I wanna try it.”
Mason raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, man.”
“I can do it.”
He shrugged and passed him the hose. “Okay. Just remember, when you get it coming up, back off and stick it in the bucket.”
Evan put it to his mouth, puffed and breathed, cheeks hollow, eyes wide behind his bifocals, until the brown fermented gas was spilling down his chin. He coughed, spat, heaved. “Ughck!”
Maddy giggled and snapped a picture. “Wash it out Evan! Hurry!”
“Come on, man. The faucet’s over here.”
While he was supervising the rinsing, a hand tugged his shirt. He looked down at the girl. “Yeah?”
“What’s that tree behind the river birch?”
“Crepe myrtle,” he said without looking.
“What about the one by the fence?”
“The stuff growing on the fence is Confederate jasmine. The big tree is a Cleveland pear.”
Evan removed his glasses and cleaned them on his sleeve.
“Did you already pick all the pears?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t grow pears.”
“Weird,” she said, snapping a picture with her phone. “How do you know so much about trees?”
“My mom taught me.”
She sighed. “I love your mom.”
He glanced at the empty chair beneath the river birch. “Me too.”