Jude could barely guide his truck off to the side of the road, so intense was the jack-hammering of the steering column. The vibrations rocked him all the way up his arms and clattered his teeth like plates. Jude knew instantly what happened. He’d just rolled his eyes about it a few days ago. But did it have to happen in the snow?
“Bald as bedrock, Jude. You gotta change ’em tires,” his father wagged his finger at Jude, same as he did to the dog when he’d chewed up a shoe. On the umpteenth finger-wagging, Jude indulged himself in a little dream of ripping that calloused old finger out like a weed.
“What’s wrong with you, Jude? You on drugs?” Jude rolled his eyes and stomped out the door.
That was not even a week ago. Now Jude needed that calloused finger and the other nine to help him change the tire on his ’95 Ford pickup truck he bought for less than what it would cost him to buy proper tires, but he bought it sans Father and at the time that was all that mattered. The thought of calling his father now turned Jude’s stomach into a cauldron of needles. When he scrolled down his favorites, he passed Mom to get to Pisshead and hit the field to dial.
“You know the Browns are on, don’t you?” His father didn’t do hello.
“Yeah, um, sorry Pop. I didn’t realize the time.”
“Well, what d’you want?”
“My tire blew out.”
“Oh Jeezus-H-Cries you friggen imbecile…” and on it went. Jude held the phone at arm’s length so the words became bugs without stingers that missed his ear entirely and whizzed off into the air.
When his father stopped for breath Jude nearly shouted, “I’m at 58 just over the hill past the BP station,” and hung up.
Jude was on his way home from Buehler’s Hardware & Handy when the tire blew. Jude’s ignorance on all things home repair turned frustrated, coiled customers into exploding Roman candles. All they wanted was someone who could tell them what they needed to fix the damn X or seal the damn Y or for-God’s-sake! Don’t you know anything, boy? Where’s Buehler?
“He’s out, sir.”
“Well, hell’s kittens! …you tell Buehler…”
Of course Jude would never tell Buehler. Buehler was down the road at the internet gaming cafe slaying his dragons. The slaying urge would come randomly as far as Jude could tell. Buehler would be practicing his magic trick on customers, using his amiable and self-effacing manner to fool them into thinking they’d Sherlocked their own way out of their home repair problem. They’d known all along what they needed (and wasn’t it a beauty? nothing but the highest quality) –thanks, John Buehler. Customers left Buehler’s with the most essential home repair product: confidence. I just knew I needed an X.
At 16, Jude was no John Buehler when it came to home repair. He could take the money and make perfect change; he could work the credit card machine and carry a 50 lb. bag of bird seed and sling it in the trunk with a smile. Heck, Jude could recite the Pythagorean Theorem and the Quadratic Equation from memory but please, for the love of honey and hate of bees, don’t ask about home repair.
Jude knew when the store was about to be bequeathed to him. Like earthquakes, he didn’t know what triggered them, but once begun, Jude could sense the course of events like a seismograph sensing earth’s nerves. Buehler would get introspective, even when a customer was in the store. It only took a few minutes for him to slide away into another place, a glitzy room where Lady Luck did her lap dance on his eyeballs.
Next thing you know Buehler would amble to the door in a forced casual way like he really wanted to sprint.
“Take over, Jude. Back in a jiff,” and the jiff would be till past closing. That was how John Buehler tossed control of the whole store to Jude as if it was just the most natural thing in the world.
At twenty minutes past closing time, Jude would turn the open! sign to closed, turn off all the lights, and leave the door unlocked because he didn’t have a key. John Buehler couldn’t run his own store and make it back at the same time. 100% off at Buehler’s, walk on in. This was the third time in two months. The next shift Buehler wouldn’t mention it. Jude wouldn’t either.
The cauldron of needles got a dollop of jellyfish stingers when Jude saw his father’s dinged-up Volkswagen Jetta crest the hill. He could always tell the car because it had circles for lights which none of the other cars had. The car suited his father.
“Jude! D’ya see this? Tire’s turned clean into dust! And you got gators all over the road… don’t just stand there, pick ’em up!” Jude protested he couldn’t learn how to change the tire if he didn’t watch his father do it. Besides, the pieces would get pushed off to the berm by the snow plow.
Pop wouldn’t hear it. “Not loosening a single lug till you get going on ’em gators. You should’ve done ’em while you were waiting.” He crossed his arms over his chest, oblivious to the puffs of vapor that gusted out and died off with each staccato word.
So that was it. No tire-changing lesson. Jude saw the red barn while he was walking toward the last road gator, a chunk the size of a dog that probably tore off in the initial blowout. Jude could make out a barn the color of a scab, its red screaming against the white-washed field. Had the trees been wearing their verdant curtains, Jude would’ve missed it, but the brown tree bones let out the secret of the red barn.
Jude considered asking his father if he’d ever noticed it, but he was grumbling oaths as he wrenched the lug nuts tight. The words Monday night, sonofabitch, and football stood out clearly from the rest. Pop’s red nose dripped. Jude could see trails on his leather gloves where he’d been swiping away at his nose, trying to catch what the cold wanted to thrust from him. Next to his father’s hunched and grappling form stood Jude, hands clasped in a cupped prayer, head down, looking for all the world like a graveside mourner.
“There,” his father straightened up. Jude supposed his father felt he’d done his duty, that he expected a Thanks, Pop. Jude gave it, but not because he felt it. Jude gave the words the way you give weeds to the rotting compost pile. You give because what’s in your hands is worthless, but you believe in time and in ignoring things.
*This is an entry for my library’s creative writing contest. Please comment me on what’s confusing or what you’d like to see happen in the story. I have 400 more words to play with before I reach the limit! 😉 Tangential fact: this title is the same title as my novel-in-progress. This began as a scene out of my novel and grew into something else entirely. I wanted to nix the title so as not to confuse, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I’m also taking title suggestions.