Fiction Fiction 2009

Least Resistance

Holding her hand in the coffee shop, I realized how close I’d come to blowing it with the one person in my life who needed me. Her family was back in Oregon. Her husband was distracted, about to lose his reputation and business if he couldn’t pull it together. And here I was, listening.
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A week after the painting, the shop was bright as a new car, the beer cans gone from the back ledge, little giraffes revealed—after a scrubdown with GoJo—on the bathroom wallpaper. Nick and Mary Ann came out to the bays together one afternoon. “Justin,” Nick said, “you got a minute?”

Bent over a Grand Prix, I glanced from Nick to Mary Ann for signs that everything was, all of a sudden and horrifically, out in the open. “What’s going on?”

“I wanted to tell you first while Tommy’s on a test-drive,” Nick said. “He’ll be pissed, but fuck him.”

“What?”

“I just sold the place to Mitch Heedy at Firestone.” He grinned at me and held up his hands. “Hang on, don’t go having kittens. He’s going to hire you on. We already discussed it.”

“You sold it?” I said.

“We’re moving back to Oregon. Mary Ann’s brother wants me to manage a Carquest out there. It’s a glorified counter job, but it’ll be less stress. Reliable income. Anyway, Mitch doesn’t want Tommy, so try not to bust his ass too much.”

The rest of the morning was a blur. Mary Ann stayed behind the counter helping customers, and finally I left her a note that was just a big question mark on a folded scrap.

She came out to the car I’d been trying to finish up for close to an hour. “Where’s Nick?” I said.

“In his office telling Tommy.” She folded her arms and glanced away. Then she sighed and looked at me again. “Be happy for me. We deserve this.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You, you, you,” she said. “I hate to say it, but that mind-set won’t make you very popular with women. You’ll see.” She smiled, but my expression made her look away.

“I’m not joking, Mary Ann. I mean, what the fuck?”

“Don’t do this,” she said.

“What’s in Oregon?”

She blinked at me. “Our lives.”

Suddenly the lobby door crashed into the adjacent wall and stayed there, the knob half-buried in the Sheetrock. Tommy marched out shaking his head, Nick on his heels. “Look, Tommy,” Nick said.

“Motherfucker. Get away from me.” Tommy kicked over a gallon of antifreeze and disappeared into the locker room. Then the metal crash that could only be the sound of a fist launching into a locker door. Again and again.

Nick closed the door to the locker room and turned to us. “Well, that didn’t go as bad as I thought.”

“Can I come out to Oregon?” I said.

When he looked at me his smile broke like a boy’s. “Sure, you can come. You fish?”

“I mean, what’s keeping me here?” I said. “I can’t stay behind without my Pop.”

“What did I tell you about that?” he said, and got me around the neck. We wrestled around, and he pulled back, laughing. He wiped his eye. “All right. Keep it sad around here for Tommy’s sake,” he said, and went back to the lobby, where he pulled the doorknob from the wall.

When he was gone my fingers went digging in my pocket for cigarettes, sticking one in my mouth, fumbling with a match. A couple of screwdrivers rolled off my fender mat onto the floor. Mary Ann was staring at me. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, a surge of color in her face as she bent to pick up my screwdrivers. She brought them to my toolbox and started setting them in their holders. “I’m putting my marriage back together, Justin.”

“He said I could come.”

“This isn’t your life.” She went back to the car, beside which I’d wheeled a rolling tool tray, and started gathering up my wrenches and putting them away as well. And everything became clear to me. The cigarette fell out of my lips. “Jesus,” I said. “It was you.”

She stared at the floor where my cigarette had fallen. “Okay. It was me what?”

“Sabotaging Nick’s jobs. He wasn’t fucking up.”

Mary Ann sighed deeply and closed her eyes. She shook her head, smiled bitterly, and then out of nowhere she lurched forward and slapped me. I’d never been slapped before, and it burned with the ring of a low piano chord. “You took advantage of a situation. That’s it. That’s all that happened.” These things she said with a steady, calculated voice that made her anger all the more icy.

I didn’t say a word. After she went back to the lobby, I gathered sockets off the fender mat and tucked them in their plastic cases silently, as if in fear of waking someone. I didn’t want to hear anything. The hammering in my chest was enough.

Holding her hand in the coffee shop, I realized how close I’d come to blowing it with the one person in my life who needed me. Her family was back in Oregon. Her husband was distracted, and about to lose his reputation and business if he couldn’t pull it together. And here I was, listening.

Wayne Harrison’s stories appear in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and The Sun. He teaches at Oregon State University.
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