“Miz Wilson, I’m towin’ in a Silverado. Engine job, pro’bly. Head gaskit.”
“Umm, b-but Dy, It’s…umm, well, but…”
“I gotta so-lution, Miz Wilson. Jus’ hold on.” Dysart hung up.
Solution? Like as in cleaning solution? Toné pressed sweaty palms to her aching temples. That morning the shop had been a hate speech billboard. Now half of Firewood wanted their cars serviced. Where was this sudden glut of business coming from? It was the middle of a hotter-than-hell Texas summer. Normally trade went as dormant as the people by the end of June. How would she find time to check out potential techs? Could she manage engine jobs fast enough to turn a profit?
As Toné trotted into the shop, phone in hand, it rang again. Caleb had shrugged into his uniform shirt. The Caprice levitated slowly on the whining lift.
“Oak Tree Motors, Toné Wilson speaking.”
“You workin’ on diesels now?” a gruff voice demanded.
“One minute, please, can I put you on hold, sir?”
Clamping her hand around the mouthpiece, Toné stage whispered, “Caleb!”
He ambled over.
“Diesels…c-can you fix them?”
“What kind?” Caleb said.
“Thank you for holding, sir. What kind of diesel?”
“Ford F-three-fifty and a John Dere forty-three twenty.”
“One minute, sir.” Toné covered the phone again and told Caleb.
“Sign him up,” Caleb replied.
“But that’s a big unit…and I’ve never seen you under a diesel…I…I thought you didn’t work on those, Caleb.”
Big Tomato, Dysart’s tow truck, clattered up, both cherry-red doors popped open.
“Ain’t gonna. Can’t.” Caleb hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “But he can.”
“Dysart’s bringin’ him.”
Shaking her head, Toné made the appointment, the rancher telling her he’d trailer in the Dere with the 350 the next day at one. She turned to see the man Caleb and Dysart thought could save the shop.
If rotund Dysart August was a Russian nesting doll, the man slouching along beside him was the little one you found in the center, no taller than Clarence and, as far Toné could tell despite baggy frayed shirt and jeans, skinnier. His clothes were faded to indeterminate colors. Lank dark blond hair fell over most of his forehead diagonally from a side part. He needed a shave. He really needed a haircut. White strings draggled where his jean hems dragged the ground. He had a toothpick wedged in the corner of his thin-lipped mouth. His shirt had the sleeves ripped off. No one would take a bet he didn’t live in a trailer. Dysart had driven him over. Did he even have a car?
Grabbing his two front incisors with a grubby thumb and index finger, he tilted his head. Ice blue eyes inventoried Toné at sternum level and moved upwards. “Yer kinda cute f’a nee-gro Boss Lady,” he finally commented in a light voice with a drawl thicker than oil sludge. “Yup, yew’s cuter than everah one sez. Ah’m Ralph Edgah Chollett, an’ Ah’m th’ bes’ wrench in Rockne Countah. Ah’m fas’, too.” He folded sinewy arms, and Toné saw he had a Camaro with a Holley four-barrel emerging from a circle of flames tattooed on one, a naked woman with her hands on her knees looking back over one shoulder on the other.
No way had this pint-sized country boy seen through her uniform shirt. But it felt like he had. Should she ask him her bra color or eye color? Toné decided to give Mister Chollett a pass due to their height differential. Thank the Lord he couldn’t see her blushing.
“Je-sus, Chollett,” Caleb objected. “That ain’t no kinda way to start a job interview!”
The little redneck confronted the big biker. “Ah, hell, Cartwright, quit yer bitchin’. Ah sez she’s cute, Ah mean she’s damn cute.” He turned back to Toné, pale eyes bright with curiosity. “Ain’t none a’ these fools tol’ yew that? Wat’s wrong wid ‘em? Ain’t they got no mah-nahs? Want meh ta whoop ‘em fer ya?”
Toné tried to wipe some of the sweat off her face with her hand. She closed her eyes to block out the sight of him. “Oh Lord,” she muttered.
“Ralphie,” admonished Dysart in his thick voice. “This is why yew keep gittin’ fired.”
She had to stare. “M-Mister Chollett,” Toné faltered. “You been fired? Um…a lot?”
Ralph twitched hair out of his eyes. “If Ah hadn’t, woudn’t be axin’ fer no job, Boss Lady. How bad yew behin’?”
“Six jobs. And…then this 350 with a tractor…”
“Lew Schmidt’s. Y’know wat? His bark worse ‘n’ his bite. Pro’bly called ‘cuz he knowed Ah’m gonna be wrenchin’ ovah heah. Bin fixin’ ‘is rigs f’yeahs.”
“Is that why…but…” Toné ground to a halt. “Didn’t you used to work at Double A?”
Scratching his armpit, Ralph said, “Sure thang. But Ah got real tired a’ Julio wreckin’ Bono’s biddness. Sumpthin’s real outta kilter ovah theah. One day Bono axe meh ta change th’ vin onna Explorer. Thas’ chop shop shit. Dang. ‘Scuse mah French, Boss Lady. Anyhoo, tol’ him ta kiss mah damn ass rat in th’ centah stripe, packed mah tools, an’ lef’. Oops. Might shouda not said that, neitha.”
Toné quieted down her thoughts. What would Frank ask this compact but unkempt character? “What would you do if I told you to replace the cat on an oh nine Caddy and invoice the customer for the part?”
“Thas’ wha-run’tee werk. Ah doan’ do that kinda shi…ah stuff. Damn, Boss Lady, thas’ jus’stealin’.”
“Charging full pop for aftermarket parts?”
“Dang.” Ralph jammed his hands in his pockets. “Yew testin’ meh.” His lighting-colored eyes narrowed to make room for a grin that took over his sharp-featured face. “Ah likes yew.”