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Chapter Five

Muskrat's Auto Rescue was Bubba's home away from home, and today especially, he was grateful. It didn't matter that Officer Budget had let Bubba go with only a warning. Bubba was traumatized. The cop had called Bubba names. The cop had brought back old injuries and humiliations and then had been so unfair and ugly as to accuse Bubba of being the one with prejudices.

Muskrat's shop was behind his brick rancher on several junk-scattered acres off Clopton Street, between Midlothian and Hull. The fence bordering Muskrat's garage and its outbuildings was built of old railroad ties piled like Lincoln Logs. Transmissions littered the hard-packed dirt tail housings covered with plastic quart oil bottles to keep out the rain. Cars, vans, pickups, a tractor trailer and an old fire truck used each year in the Azalea Parade were parked wherever Muskrat had left them last. Bubba pulled up to the shop's open bay door, cut the engine and climbed out.

He was momentarily cheered by Muskrat's automotive kingdom, which could very well have passed for a chop shop were most of the parts not rusty and from an earlier stage of vehicle evolution. Bubba stepped around an ancient air jack and a bearing press. He made his way through miscellaneous flowerpots, coils of garden hoses, fenders, headlights, hoods, bumpers, car seats, stacks of split firewood and fifty-five-gallon drums overflowing with junk parts.

Bubba was convinced, although he spoke of it rarely, that there was a Bermuda Triangle for vehicles. He believed cars and trucks swept up in floods and tornadoes, or perhaps gone and believed stolen, ended up in places like Muskrat's shop, where they would be cared for and used to help humans continue their journeys through this life. Bubba intended to write this insight to Click and Clack's Car Talk on the Internet or perhaps to his favorite, Miss Lonely Parts, a syndicated columnist who was really a man.

'Hey Scrat!' Bubba called out.

He walked inside the garage, where an old furnace burned a mixture of dirty motor oil and firewood.

'Scrat? Where the hell are ya?' Bubba tried again.

Muskrat wasn't always easy to locate within the jumbles of heater cores, batteries, oil pans, grease guns, chains, tow ropes, bungee straps, gas lines, vacuum hoses, homemade jumper cables, stands made of old Ford wheels, clutches. Pressure plates were stacked like doughnuts on sections of exhaust pipes. There were grinders, a chain horse to lift out engines, and hundreds of American and metric wrenches, ratchets, pliers, chisels, awls, vises, presses, springs, drill bits, spark plugs, dead blow mallets and brass hammers.

'How come you got the heat on, Scrat?'

'To keep my joints from aching. What'dya try to fix this time?' Muskrat's voice was muffled under a jacked-up 1996 Mercury Cougar.

'Who tried to fix?' Bubba accused.

Muskrat was flat on his back on a creeper. He rolled out from underneath the car, suddenly there, a wizard in a mechanic's blue work pants and shirt and a NAPA Auto Parts cap.

'What do you mean, I tried?' asked Muskrat, who was at least seventy, with hands rough and hard like horn.

'Windshield's leaking again,' Bubba let him know. 'You fixed it last, Scrat.'

'Uh huh,' Muskrat said blandly as he snatched toilet paper from an industrial roll overhead and began cleaning his glasses. 'Well, drive her on in here, Bubba. I'll take a look but I keep telling you to get the boys at Harding Glass to put in a new windshield. Or dump the damn thing altogether and get something that don't break down every other minute.'

Bubba walked out of the garage, not listening. He got into his Jeep and cranked the engine as anger pecked at him. He could not and would not believe that his buddy Smudge had cheated him. It couldn't be that Smudge had sold him a piece of shit. The possibility of it resurrected other injustices as Bubba parked inside the garage, in the bay next to the Cougar, and climbed out.

'I got to tell you right now, Scrat, there's police brutality in this city,' Bubba announced.

'Oh yeah?' Muskrat mumbled as he started looking at the windshield.

'I think something's telling me to do something about it.'

'Bubba, something's always telling you something.'

'There're reasons too complicated to go into that the new chief, that new woman who just moved here, needs my help, Scrat.'

'And you always got complicated reasons, Bubba. I'd stay out of it if I were you.'

Bubba could not stop thinking about Chief Hammer. He had heard her name on his cell phone this morning. There was a reason for this; it was not random.

'It's time we mobilize, Scrat.'

'Who's we?'

'Citizens like us,' Bubba said. 'We gotta get involved.'

'I can't find your leak,' Muskrat said.

'Right here.' Bubba pointed to the top of the windshield, near the rearview mirror. 'The water drips in from this spot here. Want a cigarette?'

Bubba pulled out a pack.

'You need to cut back, boy,' Muskrat said. 'Chew gum. That's what I do to kill the craving when I'm around gasoline and what all.'

'You forget I got TMJ. My jaws are killing me.' Bubba clicked them side to side.

'I told you not to get all those damn crowns,' Muskrat said as he retrieved a Windex spray bottle full of water and uncoiled an air hose. 'You'd probably be better off if he just yanked all of 'em out and fixed you up with a pair of clackers like I got.'

Muskrat grinned, showing off his dentures.

'I'll get on the inside with the hose, and when I tell you to, you start spraying,' said Muskrat.

'Same thing we did last time,' Bubba said. 'And a lot of good it did.'

'It's like fixing those crowns of yours,' Muskrat wouldn't let up as he sat in the driver's seat. 'All you do is go to the dentist. I'd get new ones that don't look like piano keys if I were you. And you sure as hell ought to replace this windshield. The car's been wrecked.' Muskrat had told him this before. 'That's why everything keeps going wrong with it, that and the fact that you're always trying to fix it yourself, Bubba.'

'It ain't been wrecked, good buddy,' Bubba said.

'It sure as hell has. Where you think all that Bondo came from, the factory?'

'I won't have you talking about Smudge that way,' Bubba told him.

'I didn't say a word about Smudge.'

'Smudge has been my good buddy since we were in Sunday school together, way back.'

'Way back when you used to go to church and listen to your daddy,' Muskrat reminded him. 'Don't forget, you was the preacher's kid.'

Bubba was shocked by another memory of name-calling. The flucking preacher's kid. He had forgotten all about it. For a moment, he couldn't speak. His bowels came alive.

'I'm just pointing out, for your own good, Bubba, that it didn't hurt Smudge one bit to be on the preacher's good side. Not everybody has as high opinion of Smudge as you do.'

Muskrat had heard every tale there was about everybody in the city who had ever owned a car that needed fixing, including the Dodge Dart belonging to Miss Prum, who happened to be the director of Christian education at the historic downtown Second Presbyterian Church, where Dr. But Fluck had been the senior minister.

'Look, it's already six-thirty and I gotta start my shift early tonight, as if my day hasn't been bad enough. So I guess we'd better get this leak taken care of,' Bubba said as an Escort drove up and parked outside the shop.

'I'm going as fast as I can,' Muskrat said.

He peeled the Jeep's headliner and its cardboard away from the ceiling and examined the rubbery black polyurethane in the pitch well.

'Least you didn't try to fix this one yourself,' Muskrat observed.

'Didn't have time,' Bubba said.

'Good thing, since you're always screwing up things worse,' Muskrat said candidly.

They did not see the clean-cut kid walk in until he was so close he startled them.

'Hi,' the kid said. 'Didn't mean to scare you.'

'Don't go sneaking up on people like that, son,' Muskrat said.

'I got a stuck window,' the kid told him.

'Well, you just stand on back and hold your horses,' Muskrat said. 'I'll get with you as soon as I wind up here.'

Bubba hadn't finished arguing yet.

'I did my own pigtail wiring on my trailer hitch,' he said.

'And you got the turn signal lights backwards,' Muskrat countered.

'So what, big deal.'

'Well, I'll remind you of a big deal. Remember the serpentine belt?' Muskrat talked on.

The directions weren't clear,' Bubba answered.

'Well, you fought it out with that one for five hours and still put it on wrong-ribbed against smooth instead of ribbed against ribbed and smooth against smooth, and next thing you've lost the alternator, power steering, water pump. You're just lucky you didn't lock up the engine and have to get a new one. Bubba, you can start spraying.'

'Excuse me?' the kid said politely. 'You know how long you'll be?'

'You'll have to hold off for just a minute,' Muskrat told him.

Bubba worked the Windex bottle along the top of the windshield, spraying water near the rearview mirror while Muskrat blasted compressed air at the seal from the inside.

'Before that,' Muskrat picked up where he'd left off, 'you replaced the mercury switch in the trunk and did that wrong, too. So the trunk light stayed on all the time and your battery kept going dead. Before that it was replacing your brakes and putting the pad in backwards, and the time before that, you left out the antirattle spring, the horseshoe clip in the emergency brake, and the lever fell into the drum.'

Bubba winked at the kid as if to imply that Muskrat was exaggerating. Muskrat walked over to a workbench, where the heater box was warming up several tubes of SikaTack Ultrafast polyurethane. He picked up a caulking gun and dropped a tube inside it.

'Remember the time you forgot the cotter pin and the tire rod fell off and both wheels went out spread-eagle?' Muskrat kept on.

'He can tell a story,' Bubba said to the kid.

Water trickled down the inside of the glass. Muskrat ran a thick bead of black polyurethane, licking his finger and pressing it flat. He stepped out of the car and ran a thin bead on the outside of the glass.

'We need to wait about fifteen minutes to test it again,' he said. 'Truth is, none of the seals in this thing are tight. Bet you get a lot of wind noise.'

Bubba wasn't going to admit it. Muskrat walked over to the solvent bin and dipped his hands in the murky fluid.

'What'cha need?' Muskrat finally said to the kid.

'My left rear power window won't work.' The young man was courteous, but his eyes were hard.

'The motor's probably gone bad,' volunteered Bubba the ace mechanic. 'But you're gonna have to wait. I was here first.'

'We got a few minutes,' Muskrat told Bubba. 'Let me go on and take care of him.'

Muskrat dried his hands and walked outside to the Escort. He opened the back door and popped the panel off as the young man scanned his surroundings.

'Bubba, how 'bout bringing me the wire strippers,' Muskrat said. 'You're lucky,' he told his young customer. 'It ain't the switch or the motor. You got a broke wire between the door and the jamb. All I gotta do is splice it. What's your name, by the way?'


'Now that's a new one,' Muskrat commented.

'What everybody calls me.' Smoke shrugged. 'Hope you get your problem taken care of,' he then said to Bubba. 'I'm new around here. People seem really nice.'

'It's the South,' Bubba bragged.

'I guess you're from here.'

'Couldn't be from anyplace else. In fact, I'm even more southern than I used to be.'

'How so?' Smoke asked with a smile that might have been interpreted as a faint sneer had Bubba paid attention.

'Born on Northside and moved to Southside.'

'Oh yeah? Where 'bouts?'

'Forest Hills. Over on Clarence,' said Bubba, who was flattered by the boy's interest and his respectful way of addressing him. 'Can't miss my house. The one with the coon dog in the pen. Half Shell. She barks nonstop and wouldn't hurt a flea.'

'Not much of a watchdog if she barks all the time,' Smoke said.

'You got that right.'

'You hunt with her?'

'Big into that,' Bubba said.

'Seems all us southern guys are big on guns.'

'You bet.'

Muskrat twisted the wires he'd stripped and was done.

'When I was your age,' Bubba said to Smoke, 'I started fixing things like this myself.'

'I'm not very mechanically inclined,' Smoke said.

'You can work on it, son.' Bubba beamed. 'Go out and get the proper tools, some books, and it's trial and error. Same with things around the house. You build your own deck and fix your own roof - hell, just the other day I bought a new garage door at Sears. Installed it myself 'No kidding,' Smoke said. 'Remote control and all?'

'You bet. Gives satisfaction money can't buy,' Bubba said.

'You must have quite a shop,' Smoke said.

'Had to add an addition to the garage. Everything from grove joint pliers to a DeVilbiss air compressor rated at 7.6 CFM at 40 PSI and 5.6 CFM at 90 to diagnostic tools like a Sunpro Sensor Probe so you can test manifold absolute pressure, mass air flow and vane air flow sensors.'

'Don't need shit like that, and neither do you, Bubba,' Muskrat let him know. 'At least I know how to use what I got.'

Muskrat replaced the door panel and got up. He climbed into the driver's seat, started the engine and tested the window. It hummed up.

'Smooth as silk,' he announced proudly, wiping his hands on his pants.

'Gee, thanks,' Smoke said. 'How much do I owe you?'

'The first time's on the house,' Muskrat said.

'Gee. Thanks a lot,' Smoke said.

'Hey, the Gun and Knife Show's coming in two weeks,'

Bubba suddenly remembered. 'Looking for a couple after-market clips, twenty rounds, for my new 92FS M9 Special Edition, finest military handgun in the world. Now that I gotta show you, Muskrat. Comes with pistol belt and holster, magazine pouch. Same thing used in Just Cause, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Restore Hope, Joint Guard.'

'Do tell,' said Muskrat.

'I'm debating if I should've got the presentation case. Walnut, etched glass cover. And the walnut grips,' Bubba agonized.

'Wouldn't be as practical if you ever plan to shoot it.'

'I sure as hell do. Winchester 115-gram Silvertip high-power." 'How come you ain't in school?' Muskrat asked Smoke.

'Free period. In fact, I gotta get back.'

Muskrat waited until Smoke was in his car, driving off.

'You notice that boy's eyes?' Muskrat said. 'Looked like he'd been drinking.'

'As if you and I didn't at that age,' Bubba said. 'So what d'ya think? This urethane hard enough yet?'

'Should be. But don't get your hopes up.'

They used the air hose and spray bottle again. The leak was still there. Muskrat took his time studying the problem until he'd figured it out.

'You got a hairline crack in the roof line,' he said.

Chapter Four | Southern Cross | Chapter Six