Secrets of Small Engine Repairmen, or The Genealogy of the Crows

Fiction by Timothy Boudreau

“A crow craps on your head one fucking time,” Brie’s brother Blake tells her, “and you’re not friends with them ever again.” It’s October, chilly, raw, gray, 1994. They’re sitting on lawn chairs inside a semi-circle of snowblowers, and the crows are cawing, the blue jays crying at the tips of branches, a gray squirrel dashes an acorn across the yard as sparrows tumble out of a bush where they’ve been eating seeds.

“I know,” Brie says. “That’s why you keep an eye on them.”

He watches her, she lets him, as she scribbles with a Bic ballpoint in their mom’s old journal, the soft-backed one with a leaf-print cover, where Brie’s inventing the genealogy of the crows, tracing their bloodlines, the names of their families, their tricks and traits, her sentences piling blackly, shinily. “Just remember a big bird equals a big shit,” he says.

“Cut it out Blake.”

He graduated class of ’92, but when he was still in school he’d step in if anyone was hassling her, fight four against one if he needed to, struggle against two guys pinning his arms while someone else gut-punched him, afterward wipe the blood from his busted nose in his wadded t-shirt.

“You know I’m just kidding Brie,” he says, shivering. There’s still a dusting of last night’s snow on the snowblowers. “I wish I saw the world you see.”

“You have to keep your mind open, that’s all,” she says. “Think of it like a window and fresh air.”

“But I do,” he leans back, “I mean, right?” His voice is barely more than a whisper. “I mean, my mind isn’t closed? I don’t think.” He strokes his stubble, scratches under the collar of his shop shirt. “Oh fuck I don’t know.” He’s handsome like their dad, curls, dimples, softening eyes. “I don’t mind being here,” he looks out at the gray sky over the back garage, “but I don’t want to be stuck here, you know?” “Here” meaning Main Street with its three consignment shops, boarded windows where there used to be restaurants; their own double-wide with two garages, yard filled with broken mowers, rototillers, snowblowers; the dust and drear and dilapidation of tiny Westfield town.

“You’ll never be stuck anywhere,” Brie tells him. “You won’t. I know you.”

“Hmm.” Their dad’s teaching him about small engines, and that’s what Blake’s mind is filling with, how to recognize when it’s a gummed up oil filter, when the spark plugs need changing, when the engine’s flooded. He hates it, she can tell, his hands make fists when he talks about it, but it fascinates her, the delicate movements their strong fingers master to make the smelly engines run.

“You can go anywhere you want Blake,” she tells him.

Some small engine repairmen have the wrong political signs in their yards, but Brie doesn’t hold it against them. The Let Freedom Ring Party appeals to them, they think it’ll let them build a new shed without need of a special Zoning Board Meeting, that it’ll leave them in peace to keep pouring their waste oil out back into the cedar swamp.

In the morning when they drive past the Equal Rights Party sign in front of Miss Lamphorn’s house, their dad shakes his head. “This election is a farce,” he says, “I don’t trust any of them.”

“Miss Lamphorn said in class that there are fundamental differences,” Brie says.

“’Course there are.” He glares at the sign in the rearview. “But that isn’t what it’s all about.”

“The thing is…”

“I don’t know what this country is coming to,” he says, not getting into it with her since they’ve had this argument before, gripping the steering wheel extra tight because (she knows) he’s afraid the Equal Rights-ers will order his ragged garages torn down, that they won’t hesitate to save their favorite pristine view of the White Mountains by kicking him and his family into the ditch. Though Brie can also guess, it’s one of his secrets, that when he runs into Miss L. at Westfield Market she seems frightening and beautiful both, because her eyes, through the slant of her silvery bangs, are so penetrating and kind.

“Best not to talk politics with you though, Pumpkin,” he tells her, patting the back of her head, chuckling low. “You don’t know as much as you think you do, but you definitely talk better about it than I do.”

After school Brie goes into his closet, flips through his senior yearbook. Inside he’s “Mighty Mike Grafton”; his senior profile reads, “Building trades, woodshop, skipping out of Mrs. Humphrey’s class, Perch Hollow Bunch out behind the bleachers. Love you Molly Marie.” Brie imagines him in black and white, shaggy-haired like in the picture, fumbling with his yearbook when he asked a girl to sign. Their mom is even in there: Molly Marie Mathews, a sophomore, glamour girl feathered-hair photo with her effusive cursive beneath it, same handwriting she had twenty years later before she drove her car off the Westfield Bridge, “Love you Mikey, hope I’ll be yours forever and ever.”

Jimmy Shaw of Shaw’s Machines comes by Thursday night. He’s twice the size of their dad, six-feet, big barrel chest. He and their dad smoke and split a six-pack behind the back garage. “She was sweet as hell, that chick,” Jimmy says, about someone he supposedly once knew, whistling as their dad strokes his stubble, plumes of their smoke drifting into the cedar swamp.

Jimmy Shaw’s garage and storefront are on Main Street in Prescott, but they live in a house on a hill on the other side of town, not like Brie’s family in Westfield packed into the double-wide beside the garages, smelling oil and gas all day, surrounded by engines in need of repair. “You’ll get there, just like I did Mikey, just keep working,” Jimmy tells their dad, leaning back, stroking his belly, by which he means, “It makes me happy to see you struggling.”

While their dads drink, Jimmy’s son Jackson hangs with Blake in the garage. Jackson is slim, narrow shoulders, long eyelashes. His slender fingers seem made for some finely-tuned work, but are so far useless with small engines. He spills the oil, fumbles the gas cap, drops the fresh oil filter into a pile of sawdust. When it’s time to pull the engine cord, Jackson lets Blake do it, bites his lip and looks away when Blake rolls up his sleeve before he grabs the cord.

When Jimmy yells into the garage, “Let’s go Jackson,” Jackson and Blake nod at each other, and Jackson says, “Bye Brie”, before going out to drive his drunk dad home.

Afterwards they eat leftovers, Spam casserole with green beans and bread and butter.

“So good Brie, damn,” Blake tells her, forking up another mouthful, softness in his eyes, “you definitely have Mom’s touch,” and she sees his future joy, his understanding, when she unfurls into the world what’s inside her, like a new nation’s triumphant flag, Blake’s the one mind she knows will grasp it, his the one body she’s sure will be there to take her in his arms.     

“Gray squirrels live under constant stress,” Brie tells Blake. They’re sitting beside the front garage looking toward town square, the broad-shouldered guy with a ballcap and blond stubble, the girl with a journal, chewing the pink of her fingernails. “They bury and rebury their food supply every three days.” Chill October wind, swirl of dead leaves. “If you could map their steps around the acre or so of their territories, you’d see squiggles and swirls of pure tension.” Brie looks at her brother but sees their dad, red hands spinning a greasy sparkplug in a rag, “a complex tracing of compulsion and fear.” She closes the notebook as the wind makes her shiver. “Like that little wad of cash Dad keeps stuffed in a coffee can in the kitchen,” she doesn’t add, but could, “or those fake diamond earrings Mom found in a parking lot and kept in her underwear drawer, in case they were worth something.”

When Brie walks to the store she pulls on a winter hat, tucks her hair behind her ears. She has Last Splash in one of Blake’s old knock-off Walkmen, loves the feedback squalls, atonal bursts and overamped fuzziness, but also the liquid bass, funky beats and scraps of pure melody. Their mom loved Styx and Peter Frampton, used to sing their songs around the kitchen. “Brie-Bird, let me show you the way,” Brie holding two fingers of her hand on the way to Kelly’s Grocery, their tiny mom in a winter hat, hair tucked behind her ears, singing while they waited for the light. “I’ll be lonely Miss Brie-Bird, please shine your love to see me through.”

Back home Brie stirs peas into the white sauce as the sun sets, wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, her mom’s recipe cards on the counter. “Do I finish making supper or crawl off to decompose on the forest floor with the leaf litter,” she pretends she’s jotting it in her notebook, “or keep driving until I disappear off the face of the earth in a fireball?” When the men come home she’s thinking of the crows’ circling descent, their rasped ratcheting cry as they angle through the trees across from the library toward the cemetery.

“You kids got enough to eat tonight?” their dad asks them, halfway through their tuna pea wiggle. He started with a beer as soon as he came through the door and now he’s on his third.

“We’re not kids Dad, GOD,” Brie says.

“I know that Pumpkin, I just…”

“It’s okay Brie,” Blake says, “we’ll always be kids to him.”

“You’ll always be—well—my kids—”

“Your descendants,” Blake suggests. “Right Brie? Brie’s got the genealogy angle down.”

“Genes are the key,” Brie stares out the window into the dark yard. “Genes are the code.”

“My genes aren’t all that great, I’m sorry about that,” their dad says. When he’s tired and a couple beers in, his eyes leak, he’s more like Mighty Mike McCabe, the tender-hearted teenager in the yearbook: the door to his feelings swings open on crooked hinges. “But your mom’s were pretty damn good.” He reaches over to ruffle Brie’s hair. “You’re both cute’s a fudge brownie,” he goes on, shuffling their plates into a pile and wobbling to his feet. “No matter whatever happened we always loved you both.”

A week after Halloween there are flattened chunks of smashed pumpkins on the sidewalk, orange shards, seeds, stringy guts. Though the election’s over there are still a few of the winning party’s signs around town. The losers have apparently taken theirs down in the night, so no one could see when they crumpled them and tossed them in the dumpster.

Late Friday Blake’s voice shakes when he tells their dad about Mrs. Simms.

“Emma Simms called back, Dad.” Blake has one hand in his pocket, the fingers of the other fiddling with a ball bearing.

“Who’s that again?” Their dad’s just back from working on someone’s tractor. He barely looks up as he unlaces his boots.

“She had that issue with her generator. It kept stalling. We told her it was the choke.”

“Oh yeah, okay.” He slips off his boots, sets them on the mat, crosses the kitchen to the sink. “It was ready right?”

“She left it running on a pile of dried leaves, she almost set her carport afire.”

Their dad turns back to them, his hands full of soap. “Didn’t you show her how she was to do it?”

Blake slips the ball bearing in his pocket; it clinks when it drops, like he’s got others in there. “I did Dad but—”

“Blake.”

“She was so pissed Dad, she wanted to talk to you, she said there were too many screw-ups with this whole thing, she was gonna sue us if anything else went wrong…”

“You should know how to deescalate something like that Blake, you’ve been at it long enough.”

“I’m sorry Dad.”

He goes back to washing his hands. “I know it’s tricky dealing with customers but Jesus!”

Later their dad goes out, he has a lady friend in Prescott who Jimmy Shaw introduced him to, they’re planning on dinner and a movie. Brie and Blake watch tv until after seven when Jackson Shaw shows up, jeans, sweatshirt, hair slicked back. He steps into the room, nods, drifts back outside; Blake gives it a minute before he follows him.

Brie doesn’t watch them but sometimes she wishes she could. Cool breeze, night skies, their shadows beside the white pickup; she hopes they hold hands out behind the line of birches, beside the cedar swamp. They think they have to hide it, their families wouldn’t understand, but she’s glad they don’t have to hide it from her, that she gets to imagine Jackson’s flat stomach when Blake lifts his shirt, that she gets to see Blake when he returns an hour later with red in his cheeks, that Blake’s smile is softer when he gets back, his breathing easier, that his hands tremble and he’s a little shy when he says to her, “Sorry if I left you alone too long Sis, we lost track of time.”

<strong>Timothy Boudreau</strong>
Timothy Boudreau

Timothy Boudreau’s recent work appears in Reflex Press, Cease, Cows, and MonkeyBicycle, and has been nominated for Best Microfiction and a Pushcart Prize. His collection Saturday Night and other Short Stories is available through Hobblebush Books. Find him on Twitter at @tcboudreau or at timothyboudreau.com.

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