When Jake was eight years old, his father took his brother and him to a salvage yard. They hoped to find a driver’s side mirror for the family’s Buick, which had been hit by a watermelon on mischief night.
At the yard’s entrance, big, angry German shepherds stalked pens on either side of the gate, their saliva dripping down the chain link. Father and sons passed by towering pallets of radios and carburetors, a wall of hubcaps like a thousand-eyed monster, a fearsome mountain of slick black tires. Holding the broken mirror extended from his body like a flashlight, his father smoked his pipe as they walked along. The scent of his cherry tobacco, which usually smelled of safety, was lost among the iron oxides and oil-soaked ground. Over rapid bursts of compressed air, a worker directed Jake’s father to the mirrors, where they spent an hour finding one that matched. On the way back, Jake passed a shelf of gear shift knobs, beautiful chrome ones that ballooned his lips and nose. As his father waited in line to purchase the mirror, Jake ran his hands over the knobs, picking them up and setting them down until he dropped one in his pocket, where it felt twice as heavy as in his hand. He waited with his brother, watching a worker dismantle a transmission, taking off a plate and exposing the oily gears inside. As Jake stood there, a voice told him to empty his pocket.
He was an older man with a gray beard, smudged glasses and fierce eyes.
Jake stared blankly, pretending not to understand. The man grunted, jerked his head back, reached into Jake’s pocket and yanked out Jake’s clenched hand, the ball not even half hidden. The man peeled back Jake’s fingers and took the knob. With his free hand, he smacked Jake hard across the cheek. Jake swung sideways from the blow, and his brother, watching, yelped. The man set the knob back on the shelf and walked away.
“Come on, baby,” said the worker to the transmission, wriggling the topmost gear, his fingers slicked with the green fluid, his forearm pulsing like a frog’s throat.
“You okay?” asked Jake’s brother.
The heat spread from Jake’s cheek to his ear and the back of his neck, the hand’s weight still upon him.
“You should tell dad.”
“Shut up,” Jake said as the worker with a grunt yanked out the gear. The worker held his hand palm up, relaxed his fingers and lifted the part toward his mouth as if he might consume it.
Metal screamed. The hard face of the employee or mere moral enforcer settled in.
As they exited the junkyard, Jake walked on his father’s right side, keeping his right cheek from his father’s vision. He walked farther away than he usually did, he did not want to brush against his father’s body or to smell his father’s smoke. As Jake passed the shepherds’ cage, he rapped his knuckles on the fencing, but still kept his distance from his father.
Alex Austin has had fiction published in Black Clock, carte-blanche, This Literary Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, Heavy Feather Review and Beyond Baroque.