“Okay this first rule is the most important of all so listen up,” he said as he transferred a grease-stained wrench from his hands to mine. “The world is not fair, that’s a fact of life alright? So don’t get all high and mighty and act like it should be. Earn their trust, do your job, and run like hell. Now unscrew that right there.” He pointed at one of the nuts that kept a flat tire attached to the axel of his jacked up Ford pickup truck. I crouched in front of the wheel, wiping my sweaty palms on the sides of my jeans to get a better grip on the sleek metal. He reached down and flicked me hard on the ear.
“You listening to me boy?”
“Yes sir,” I replied, careful not to rub my stinging ear in an attempt to feign a hardened demeanor.
“Well shit, son, a little verbal acknowledgement never hurt nobody now did it? I’m here handing out pearls of professional success—the code I live by—the least you can do is give me a little respect.”
“Sorry sir, I agree, life ain’t fair and equal, no use in treating it like it ought to be.” I cranked the wrench until the nut was loose enough to fall off and clang onto the hot pavement of the driveway. “But don’t it hurt people?” I added after a moment. My stepfather came back out from under the hood and looked down at me, a sly grin cracking his sunbaked skin.
“Well now, I guess that depends on how you define hurting people. I ain’t never so much as broke a man’s nail in all my thirty years in this business. I mean, monetarily sure, we may reassess finances quote unquote, but in the long run whose to say they’re not better off? You know Buddhists believe the less material possessions a person’s got clutterin’ up their house the happier they’ll be in life? Now of course I’m a subscriber to the Christian faith myself, but I always did have a soft spot for that chubby little guy.”
“Makes sense,” I said as the second nut fell from the rim of the tire, three more remained locked in place. “Happiness is relative.”
“Happiness is relative, hey now I like that, mind if I steal it?” he chuckled, collecting the nuts from the pavement and placing them in the pocket of his faded grey jumpsuit as he strolled into our garage. He had five of the same grey jumpsuits made up to wear to his job at Greasy Greg’s Automotive, each with “Grayson Webb” stitched over the pocket in bright red thread like the marquee of a movie theater.
The first time I met Grayson was six months earlier, two days after the conclusion of my freshman year of high school. My mother had taken me downtown to introduce us over sandwiches and ice cream. On the ride over, she had briefed me on everything she learned about him during their first handful of dates. According to her he was very kind, handsome, and loved football. “Just like you!” she had exclaimed excitedly. She told me he had messaged her on a dating site called TexasTogether.com and he was planning on buying Greasy Greg’s just as soon as he got the money together.
When I stepped out of the car I saw him leaning against his truck. He was a large man with a goatee and oil-slicked black hair that was almost shoulder length. He noticed my Dallas Cowboys backpack and told me he actually went head-to-head with Troy Aikman back in his high school football days down in Galveston. “I came out on top, and let me tell you, the better player won,” he reminisced. “If I hadn’t blown out my knee in state that year my whole life would’ve been different. But hey, I ain’t bitter.” Grayson promised that with his help I’d be QB1 by the start of sophomore year. “That’s if your mother keeps me around, of course,” he joked with a wink and a million-dollar smile. Two weeks later he moved in.
My own father had been grooming me to be a quarterback since I was old enough to wrap my fingers around the laces. It was his dream that one day I’d play college ball at UT and he’d be able to root for his own son in the Longhorn orange. Grayson wasn’t my father, but it was exciting to have someone to play catch with again.
The third nut was screwed tighter than the first two, and I had to lay all my weight on the wrench just to get it to budge. Grayson re-emerged from the garage with a yellow tin of motor oil and a white rag.
“You still working on that? God damn boy, lets kick it into high gear before your momma gets home and sees.” Placing the oil and rag at his side, he knelt down beside me and began working on the second to last nut with his bear paw of a hand. It came off with ease.
“What’s rule two?” I asked, rubbing the sweat from my dripping brow.
“You’re ready for rule two, are ya? Well ok then, but just remember that just because it’s rule two don’t make it any less important than rule one.” He rose to his feet, his head blocking my eyes from the beating sun. “Rule two is keep it peacefu—” He hesitated mid-sentence, changing his mind. “Actually rule two is don’t be an idiot. Yeah, that’s spot on. Might be the most difficult rule to follow for a boy of your caliber.”
“Hey!” I snapped “I’m no idiot! I once figured out how to catch a raccoon that was eating all the sweet onion’s in my mom’s garden.” Grayson smiled and put his hand in the air, sensing he had hit a nerve.
“Don’t get all swole up on me now, I’m just playing around. Though for future reference, outsmarting an oversized rodent that eats garbage when your momma’s sweet onions ain’t available ain’t the best example of your colossal intellect.” He bent down and placed his hand on my shoulder. It was strong and comforting in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I smiled, realizing I had flown off the handle at a simple joke.
“Okay fine, got any specifics for me, or is that where the pearl of professional wisdom ends?” I asked half joking, half hoping for a real answer.
“Ah, yes that’a boy! Now you’re taking part in your own education.” His eyes lit up. He seemed truly excited that I was showing an interest in his business. “First things first, keep a day job, now that’s just don’t be an idiot 101. I don’t care if you want to be a painter, an actor, a goddamn proctologist, you keep a day job until you make it.”
“Like your job at Greg’s?”
“Exactly, ain’t nothing more suspicious than an unemployed bum looking for a quick buck.” Moisture spit out of his mouth with every round syllable. He moved back under the hood of the car with his oilcan and rag. I began unscrewing the final nut before the wheel could be removed. Right now my day job was fry cook at the Whataburger down on Crown Street. It’s a fine job, but not much for money. My father had been a life insurance salesman for twenty years, commuting forty-five minutes to Austin each day to sit behind a desk. I’m not sure if he was happy. If he wasn’t, he never showed it outright, but I remember how tired and annoyed he seemed after a long day of work. It was a job, and it paid the bills, and his company paid off a generous policy when he died.
My mother used to write children’s books, most of them about a talking bear cub named Bernard. I loved Bernard, and my mother loved reading me his stories. She would revel in the look of pure imagination on my face whenever she immersed me in Bernard’s world. After my dad died, she quit writing for a long time, telling me that Bernard had “gone on vacation to Santa Fe, and wouldn’t be back for a while.” She picked up a job as a teller at the Bank of America down on South Avenue where she’s worked ever since. Though, since Grayson’s moved in I’ve noticed her scribbling down notes and sketching little bears again.
“Another thing, don’t load your gun. Bring it, obviously, intimidation is key, but don’t load it. Murder is a much different charge than robbery. But if it ain’t loaded and you get in a situation where you want to fire it, you won’t be able to anyway, now that’s not being an idiot—preemptively! Ah hah.” I couldn’t see Grayson’s face under the hood but I could see his skyward finger wag as he emphasized that last word.
The final nut dropped to the ground and I pulled the tire off the axel. This was the first time I’d ever changed a tire by myself. I remember we had once gotten a flat on a road trip we took over to the Grand Canyon, our last one as a family. A hare had hopped out in front of the car on a backwoods road, forcing my dad to swerve onto the dirt shoulder. We must have hit a sharp rock or something because the front right tire got torn to bits and we had to pull over. I was only five years old at the time but I can vividly remember my dad coming to my window and telling me the tire was too heavy for him and he needed my muscles to help him lift it. He stood me next to the car and took me through every step of the process. Jack up the car, unscrew the nuts, take off the tire, and screw in the spare. I helped him carry the spare and pick up the fallen nuts. His voice still echoes in my head “That’s my man.”
“Flat’s off,” I called up to Grayson who was still busy changing the oil under the hood.
“Hey now, ain’t that something. Spare’s in the back.” I hopped in the truck bed and rolled the black rubber wheel off the lowered tailgate. Grayson came around and watched me bring it around front. “I reckon you’ve earned yourself rule three about now,” he said as he crouched down to help me line the spare up on the axel.
“Damn straight!” I exclaimed, proud of my accomplishment in the field of manhood that was auto mechanics. Grayson grinned.
“Alright, alright, you little shit, as promised then.” We stood and he grabbed me by the shoulders. “Rule three, and this is crucial, is never use the same partner twice. Trust me on this one. Do the job and part ways, don’t even give him your real name.”
“Why not? I always thought a crook and his partner was thicker than blood.”
“No way, José. Men are men and thieves are thieves, through and through. As long as it lines their pockets and tickles their balls people will always be trying to screw you over. Ain’t no changing human nature, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business it’s that.” He let go of my shoulders and looked at the ground, wiping his hands on the side of his jumpsuit.
“Think you could ever use me as a partner? Now that I’m learning all the trade secrets and all?” I asked hopefully. A shade came over the driveway as the sun hid behind a passing cloud. Grayson looked me in the eyes and then back down at the ground, turning his back to me and heading back around the front of the truck.
“No,” he said over his shoulder. I watched his head disappear under the hood. I had said something wrong.
“I just thought it’d be real helpful to watch you in action is all. Something we could do together. I didn’t mean to be a bother.” I crouched back down to eye level with the spare tire and really examined it for the first time. It looked odd in the set. With such a new sheen that it looked out of place among the dusty and worn down others. It was bulkier than the flat had been and had a much thicker tread. It just didn’t fit the frame quite as perfectly as the original had, despite its best efforts.
Only the grinding sound of metal on metal pierced our silence. I finished screwing in the spare and lowered the jack. I should have known better than to push Grayson too hard. He had only just let me in on his secret last night after I confronted him about cheating on my mother.
I had become suspicious last Tuesday night. I hadn’t been able to sleep, so I stayed up watching television in my room. Around two a.m., I heard the rumble of Grayson’s truck and saw it head out of the driveway into the night. He came back two hours later and snuck back into my parent’s bed quiet as a particularly reticent mouse. “That cheatin’ prick,” I remember thinking to myself in a fit of anger. I decided to stay up for the next few days to gather more evidence—Wednesday and Thursday night came and went with no sign of misconduct. I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe I dreamed the whole thing. But then it happened again last night and all my suspicions were confirmed. When he pulled back into the driveway around four in the morning, I met him in the garage and unleashed my rage in the form of childish name-calling and weak-kneed threats. I must have sounded ridiculous to a man twice my size, but I really didn’t have the first clue as to how to handle a situation like this. I didn’t want to tell my mother, I’m not sure she would have survived the heartbreak, so beating my chest and crying “asshole” was the only option I deemed appropriate. He listened to all my accusations and only smiled, that big charming smile. He told me he wasn’t a cheater, but a crook, and began to fill me in on his side business. I didn’t believe him until he showed me his loot from the evening—two thousand dollars cash in a plastic grocery bag. He said he lifted it from a convenience store just outside Henderson. It was the most money I’d ever seen outside a movie about bank robbers, so I believed him. He pointed to a flat tire on his truck and told me he’d teach me his four rules for professional thievery if I helped him fix it and didn’t tell my mom.
Grayson broke the long silence.
“Alright, look kid, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like an old swindler ruinin’ the romance of the fugitive life. It’s an exciting existence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lonely one too, with a lot of tough decisions. You’re just a kid, you ain’t afraid of nothin’ yet. You ain’t never needed to scramble to survive, and you’re lucky for it. Goddamn, I been scramblin’ since day one. It’s the only thing I know.” He looked back down at the ground and a genuine sadness seemed to flicker in his eyes. “You don’t want to live this life,” he added under his breath. His confident smile was gone, replaced by a look of fear.
“Okay. I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said softly, unsure of the appropriate next move. I stood up and placed my hand on his shoulder, tapping it twice. He recoiled slightly, startled by my comforting touch. I pulled my hand back. My mom would be home any minute with dinner.
“Listen, I know I’m the one who brought this whole thing up so don’t put it on you,” Grayson said, leaning his hands against the truck.
“It just sounded like you might want—”
“I don’t want you to be like me, okay? You’re going to college, UT even, playing football. You’ve got a mighty promising future. I just ain’t ever had anyone to teach everything I’ve learned. That’s all.”
“It’s ok, I’m glad you did,” I replied. My mother had other boyfriends since my dad, but Grayson was the first I had ever bonded with, the first that ever treated me like a man and not an obstacle. Grayson stood quietly for a moment. He looked like he was mulling something over in his mind. The sun, setting now, reemerged from behind its cloud, filling the driveway with ephemeral light. Grayson began nodding his head and broke a single exasperated chuckle that gave way to one of his famous ear to ear grins.
“You know I’m going straight right? Buying Greg’s. Did your momma tell you?” he asked.
“She might have mentioned it.”
“Yup, leaving this life behind and joining the law abiding ranks of American capitalism.” His smile grew even larger and I could feel my lips upturning as well. He had a special way about him, the kind that made you reject common sense and live for the present moment.
“You can call it Greasy Grayson’s,” I joked.
“Yeah, not bad!” he laughed. My mother’s blue station wagon pulled into the driveway and she stepped out holding a full grocery bag.
“Would you grab this for me, hun?” I took the bag from her hands and she kissed me on the cheek. “I got a rotisserie chicken we can cook up, green beans, and that sweet potato stuff you like too. We can have a nice little family dinner.”
“Great. Thanks!” I exclaimed.
“What are you guys doing out here?” She pointed at the truck.
“Must have run over a nail on my way home from work yesterday, came out this morning and it was flatter than a penny on the train tracks. The boy here was just helping me put on the spare.” He placed his arm around my shoulder and I looked up at his strong jaw and slick hair.
“Well that’s a good boy, thank you for helping out your stepfather. He talks a big game but he ain’t as spry as he used to be.” My mother laughed. Grayson raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment of a rare dig from my mom. She usually wasn’t one to poke fun.
“Hey, were you able to stop at the bank, darlin’?” Grayson asked quietly. My mother smiled and crawled back into the car to grab a check from the passenger seat. She brought it out and looked at it for an extended moment, she took a quick, deep breath and handed it to Grayson.
“What’s that?” I felt a pensive shift in the pit of my stomach.
“Well honey, that garage Grayson works at is up for sale, and the current owners want to move quickly.” Grayson nodded with each word she spoke. ”They said its Grayson’s if he wants it but he doesn’t quite have the money for it yet and we still have plenty from your dad’s—”
“It’s a loan, an investment in our future as a family,” Grayson interrupted. “We’ll be owners and operators of a business. Maybe with all your work here today I’ll even give you a summer job.” He winked and held my perturbed stare.
“My boys,” my mother said warmly, grabbing each of us by the shoulder and beaming up at us. “I’m going to go in and start dinner, come on in when you’re done.” She turned and headed into the house. Grayson broke my gaze.
“Well I’m so excited I’m going to make my offer right now! I’ll be back in two shakes,” Grayson called to my mother.
“Okay! Good luck!” she called back.
Grayson met my cold eyes again before climbing into the cab of the truck. I noticed a packed duffel bag on the passenger seat. Only half of the sun peeked out from the horizon of the distant mountains. The big pink and orange sky faded into dark grey twilight.
“How about rule four? I’ve been waiting all day,” I said quietly, almost under my breath. He closed the door and stuck his head out the open window.
“Well, sure, sure, might as well for posterity’s sake.” He revved the engine and the truck purred to life. “Rule four is never be afraid to play the long game.” The pressure in my heart welled to a paralyzing peak. I wanted to scream, like I had in the garage the night before, but this time I didn’t. Men are men and thieves are thieves, through and through. We shared a nod, and I let him go. The truck rolled down the driveway, and disappeared around the street corner, spare and all.
I stood on the pavement until the sun had dipped completely behind the mountain, giving way to the night. The smell of chicken and sweet potatoes filled the air around the house. I went inside to set the table for two.