September 13, 2017

Fiction by Jeff Burt: "The Fragrance of Fumes from an Internal Combustion Engine"

Jeff Burt works in mental health and has been published in Amarillo Bay, The Nervous Breakdown, Atticus Review and forthcoming in Per Contra and Clare Literary Journal. He has work published previously in Indiana Voice Journal.

"The Fragrance of Fumes from an Internal Combustion Engine"

Saturday Hector and I ride the bus past Mrs. Linares’ house and walk half-a-mile from the bus stop to the home of Mrs. Ruiz. The music and chatter of a group of women can be heard about half of a football field away. We are day laborers, the semi-fancy name for homeless.
Mrs. Linares walks us around the fields of melons, gourds, and pumpkins we will be harvesting, instructing us. She has gloves for us, but the gloves are small.  Hector’s fingers do not fit.  
“See,” Hector crows, “I have been working with fences and corrals, so my hands have gloves on them already.  See the calluses?  Vegetables will not harm them,” he brags.
Mrs. Linares takes my right hand, turns it over, looks woman. There is much about you like that.”
My hands become the day’s running my palm and my scarred fingertips, and suggests they look like an old woman’s hands.
Hector laughs when we move to the field.  “Hands of an old e bring them by wheelbarrow and little red wagon to the pallets.  It is a full morning’s work. Mrs. Linares sorts the soft melons and cuts them open with a single hack, then places them on a cranberry-colored juicer, places her hands over the half-melon and presses with her upper-body weight. Melon juice pours through wire mesh into the bottom of the juicer.  All of the women seem to take joy in splitting a melon, wielding a force with military precision.  
“We are all divorced or widowed,” Mrs. Linares tells me, “which may generate our vicious swings.”  They cluck, chuckle, and chop.
“We’ve heard both of you have been out of work for some time?” Mrs. Ruiz asks during lunch break.
“We have not had steady work,” I correct.
“Are you truly homeless?”
“Mike sleeps in a shed, I have a tent in the woods,” Hector says almost proudly.
“What do you do for a bathroom?”
Hector laughs. “Public bathrooms. The great outdoors.”
“You’ll get back on your feet.  What are your prospects?”
Hector and I look at each other.  It’s a question we can’t answer.
“Do you have cars, transportation? A license?”
“No,” Hector booms.  “Dogs have a license, but not us.”
Suddenly Mrs. Ruiz rises. “You can drive a truck on a farm without a license.  I need that flat trailer over by the barn brought over by the pumpkins.”
I jump up and agree before Hector has a chance.
“Good,” he says, “now we’ll get to see you drive like an old woman.”  
I hitch the trailer to the old green Chevy truck, which looks more like an old military truck in color and size.  The bed has a rigging and a cover over the bed, looking like a hybrid between truck and trawler.  The truck shakes when started, and does not relent.  The clutch vibrates under the ball of my foot, the shift rattles in my palm, and joy shakes my limbs. I cannot express an engine’s ability to spread pleasure except with a big, ear-to-ear grin, and now I am not an old woman, I am a boy on his first spin, with his grandmother beside him, I am in love with smell of exhaust, of gas, of the manifold getting warm and pinging, of the dash creaking, of the glass knocking against the inside of the doors, the steering wheel so worn in two spots the plastic is smaller in circumference.  
I take it slow, drop off the trailer, go around the field to a large woodpile of dried and drying oak, we throw in forty pieces and then take them to the side of the house.  Then we go to the back of the barn and take four fence posts out to the side of her property where the fence has been mangled and is supported by a few iron bars wedged in the soil.  We park, and Mrs. Linares replaces Mrs. Ruiz on the passenger side.
Head for the road, she instructs.  When I come to the end of the driveway, she says to keep going and turn right, and then I am driving on the road, the window is down, the warm air rushes up half of my face, I reach thirty-five, then forty, the Chevy shakes and runs at an angle the way a fox flows down a path, out of alignment, as if wary. We go the half mile to Mrs. Linares’ house, and when we arrive she says now go back, but faster, and I take the Chevy to fifty-five but the shaking is so severe I don’t go over.  I can’t stop grinning.  I pull into the driveway and park the truck near the barn.  
I smell the fumes, feeling my body shake with the idling hum of the engine, and look at the field, at the two women now cutting in the field with Hector at a furious pace.  
I do not know how long I let the Chevy idle before Mrs. Linares gently reaches over, touches my arm, and tells me I can turn it off.  

© Jeff Burt

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