The following is from Percival Everett’s collection, Half an Inch of Water. Everett is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of nearly thirty books, including Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Assumption, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and Glyph. He is the recipient of the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Believer Book Award, and the 2006 PEN USA Center Award for Fiction.
Harold Beaver leaned over the engine and shook his head. “I don’t know about this,” he said. “I just don’t know.” He played with a torque wrench, spinning it around on his fingertips. “What if you’ve got a leak from the cooling system into the oil? I think you might.”
“I don’t,” Donnie St. Clair said. “This motor is perfect.”
“Then why are we working on it?”
“There’s no leak. I have an exhaust tick. Let’s just do it.”
“Okay, listen, I’m telling you one more time,” Harold said. “I pour this liquid glass in there and there’s no taking it out. If there’s even a tiny leak, that’s the end of this engine.”
“Just do it.”
Harold removed the radiator cap. He poured the sodium silicate into a beaker, about a quarter cup.
“That’s all it takes?” Donnie said.
“Listen, I think this is a bad idea.” Harold looked Donnie in the eye. “Just let me replace your head gasket.”
“And how much will that cost me?”
“Four hundred fifty.”
“Pour it in,” Donnie said.
“No, you pour it in,” Harold said. “You can do it and just remember what I told you.”
“Pussy,” Donnie said. He took the beaker and poured the liquid quickly into the radiator.
Harold reached in through the window, turned the key, and started the engine. He joined Donnie back at the engine. “When the engine hits two hundred degrees, I think things should start to happen.”
“You mean that awful ticking will go away?”
“That’s the theory. I usually use this stuff for a quick radiator fix.
Just a spoonful then. And you know what else they use this stuff for?”
“To disable cars. Pour it in the crankcase, run the engine, and no part of the machine can ever be used again. None of it.”
Donnie stared at his truck. “Listen,” he said. “No ticking. You did it. You’re a fucking genius.”
“No, I’m a pussy, like you said. You poured it in,” Harold said. He slammed shut the hood.
“How much?” Donnie asked.
“A dollar fifty.”
“You see, that’s what I’m talking about. Four hundred and fifty dollars, my ass. I’ll pay you tomorrow. I can drive it now?”
Harold nodded. “I’ve got a bad feeling.”
“Relax. I told you there ain’t no leak.” Donnie got behind the wheel and closed the door. “See you tomorrow.” He gunned the motor. “Beautiful,” he said. He rolled out of the garage.
Harold watched him drive to the end of the gravel drive, then stop. The truck made no sound. He could see Donnie frantically turning the key again and again. Donnie got out, stood away from the vehicle, and looked at it. He put his hands on his head and looked at Harold.
“Guess there was a leak,” Harold shouted.
Donnie walked back toward the garage. “What now?”
“There ain’t no ‘what now.’” Harold pulled a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket. “Your truck has experienced what is known as a catastrophic event. It’s shit now. It’s dead. I told you what would happen if there was a leak. There was a leak and it happened.”
Donnie sighed and looked back at his truck and then back at Harold. He scratched his head. “There’s no fixing it at all?”
“I’d have to replace everything. Except the body and electrical system.”
“So, I fucked my truck.”
“You got something I can drive for the day?”
“Take the Duster,” Harold said.
“That thing works?”
“Most of the time. There’s no second gear.”
* * * *
Later that day, Donnie came back with the Duster. “You know, that’s not a bad little car.” He stood at the garage door and looked at the bronze Silverado pickup in the bay. “Whose truck is this?”
“Never-easy-Keasey? He’s back?”
“Yeah, he says San Francisco didn’t work out for him. Says he didn’t like it, anyway. Sounds like he was doing pretty good to me.”
“Nice truck. What’s wrong with it?”
“Just an oil change. Let me describe that to you. That’s when you take the old oil out and put in new oil, thus saving wear and tear on the engine and prolonging said engine’s life.”
“Well, fuck you. So, how’s Keasey looking?”
“Big as ever. Looks good. Got a wife.” Harold finished tightening the new filter. “Nice-looking woman. Pregnant.”
“And he brought them back here?” Donnie asked. “She from here?”
“Black girls are okay. White girls, too.” Donnie lit a cigarette. “Why’d he come back here?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Remember when he got his nickname?”
“We were up by twenty points against those Casper boys. Keasey lost the ball, threw the ball to the wrong man, even tipped a ball into their basket until the game was tied with three seconds left.”
“I remember,” Harold said.
“So, Keasey shoots and the buzzer goes off and there’s that ball going around and around the rim. Everybody was standing up, waiting. Keasey was already running back to the bench with his fist in the air. Then the ball just dropped through the net and everybody went crazy.”
“Every game was like that. Everything he did was like that. He was about to lose a footrace and the two guys in front of him got tangled up with each other and fell down. He won.”
“I know.” Harold poured the last quart of oil into the crankcase.
“One lucky son of a bitch. Never-easy-Keasey.” Donnie shook his head. “I came up with that nickname, you know?”
“He’ll be coming by here to get his truck in a few minutes and you can remind him.”
“I will.” Donnie looked over at his dead truck. “So, what will you give me for that piece of shit?”
“Give you? You owe me a dollar fifty.”
“The body must be worth something.”
Harold looked at the vehicle and then at Donnie. “Fifty.”
“No, fifty and I’ll get rid of it for you. I’m not paying a dime for that piece of junk.”
A 1976 white Chevy Malibu pulled into the yard. A tall, lanky man with a long dark braid unfolded from the passenger side. He walked toward the bay. The Malibu drove off.
“Keasey,” Harold greeted the man.
“All done?” Keasey asked.
Donnie nodded. “Remember me?”
Keasey stared at Donnie and then shook his head. “You do look a little bit familiar.”
“St. Clair,” Donnie said.
“Oh, yeah. Danny, right?”
“Donnie. You remember me, don’t you? I’m the one that gave you your nickname.”
“What nickname is that?”
Donnie let out a confused, awkward chuckle and glanced at Harold. “Never-easy-Keasey.”
Keasey’s face grew hard. He looked away from Donnie toward his truck. “I always hated that name. So, that was you? Well, fuck you.”
Donnie took a deep breath. “I never knew it bothered you.”
Keasey’s face relaxed and he smiled. “I’m just fucking with you, dude.”
“How much I owe you?” Keasey asked Harold.
“So, tell me, Keasey,” Donnie said. “What brings you back here?”
“I’m from here. My wife is having a baby and I want the kid born here, too. Why are you still here? That’s my question.”
Donnie shrugged. “I left for a while. Went to Iraq. I like here better than Iraq. It’s quieter.”
Keasey sneered. “Iraq is for pussies.”
“Fuck you,” Donnie said.
“Just messing with you again,” Keasey said and laughed.
Donnie tried to laugh.
Keasey looked at Donnie for few seconds. “I’m looking for a job.
You know anybody in town that’s hiring?”
“They need some help up on a few of the ranches,” Harold said.
He slammed shut the hood on Keasey’s truck.
“I don’t do ranch work,” Keasey said.
“What kind of work you want?” Harold asked.
“I ain’t choosy. I can work a register, a storeroom. I can make deliveries. I’ve worked in kitchens.”
“Can you do construction?” Harold asked. “There was a guy from Riverton in here, said he needs a framer. He left a card on the wall. He seemed all right. I heard he pays pretty good.”
“No good with tools,” Keasey said.
“What did you do in San Francisco?” Donnie asked.
“I was a model,” Keasey said.
Harold leaned against the truck. “Say what?”
“I was a model,” Keasey repeated.
“Yeah, right,” Donnie said. “Modeling what?”
“I was a hand model.”
“What’s that?” Harold asked.
“You know. In ads for watches and rings there are hands. I have good hands. I had good hands.”
“Had?” Harold asked.
Keasey held up his left hand, all four fingers of his left hand.
“What happened to the middle guy?” Donnie asked.
“Chopped off,” Keasey said.
“We can see that.” Donnie lit a cigarette. “How did you lose the damn thing? Flipping the wrong person the bird?”
“You want a soda?” Harold asked.
“A soda, a drink. Donnie, you want one?”
“Yeah,” Donnie said.
“Sure, I’ll have a Dr Pepper,” Keasey said.
“Wouldn’t you like to be a pepper, too,” Donnie sang.
Harold stepped over and used his key to open the soda machine. “Tell us about the finger,” he said. “What happened?”
“Lost it in a bet.”
Harold and Donnie looked at each other.
“That happens,” Donnie said.
“All the time,” said Harold.
“Fuck both of you.” Keasey took a long pull on his Dr Pepper. “I bet a bunch of money on the Super Bowl. I didn’t have the money. Guy says he’ll take a finger. What could I say?”
“Could have offered him a toe,” Donnie said.
“He didn’t want a fucking toe.”
“I would have given him my little finger,” Donnie said.
Keasey gave Donnie an exasperated look. “He wanted the middle one, all right? Only consolation is that when I think about it I remember I gave him the fucking bird finger.”
“Not much consolation,” Harold said.
“At least I got workers’ comp out of it. Insurance, anyway.”
“How much does a finger go for these days?” Harold asked.
“A nice piece of change,” Keasey said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
Harold raised his orange soda. “To fingers.”
“Hey, you guys want to make a buck?” Keasey asked.
“Let you chop off our fingers?” Harold said and laughed.
“No, it’s a hell of a lot easier than that. I need somebody to pick up something down at the bus station in Laramie. As you know, my wife is pregnant, so I can’t go. I can’t go nowhere.”
“What is it?” Donnie asked.
“I figured that much. How big is the box? Is it heavy? And, most importantly, what’s in it?”
“It’s not big or heavy and it’s just got some personal stuff in it.” Keasey finished his Dr Pepper.
“Why didn’t you just have it mailed to you up here?” Harold asked.
“My idiot friend in San Francisco lost my address and thought Laramie would be just fine. He didn’t how far away we are from Laramie. So, it’s waiting at the station down there.”
“Can’t they send it up here?” Donnie asked. “That’s a long-ass drive all the way down to Laramie.”
“They won’t. Say they need to see my identification.”
“You must be able to do it online,” Harold said. “You can do everything online now.”
“Okay, okay,” Keasey said. “It’s not really a shipment. It’s something I left down there in a locker.”
Harold cleared his throat. “I can’t leave work. I’ve got cars backed up through the weekend.”
Keasey looked at Donnie. “What about you?
“No wheels. I fried my engine.”
“You can take my truck,” Keasey said. “I’ll pay you five hundred dollars. All you have to do is bring it back here.”
“I need to know what it is,” Donnie said.
“What a couple of pussies,” Keasey said. “It’s personal, I told you. You want to make five bills or not?”
Donnie looked at Harold. Harold turned and walked over to stand beneath an old Ford Ranchero on the lift.
“Five hundred dollars.”
“Is it drugs?” Donnie asked.
Keasey laughed. “No counterfeit money. Just some personal items, mine and my wife’s.”
Donnie looked again toward Harold, but his friend was at least pretending to work on the Ranchero’s transmission.
“Listen,” Keasey said, “I got to go pick up some things from the market for my wife. You think this over and tell me your answer when I get back.” He turned to Harold. “Here’s your thirty.” He held up three tens.
Harold walked over and took the money. “Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Keasey said. “I’ll be back in a few,” he said to Donnie. “You’ll still be here?”
Donnie nodded. He stepped over and stood beside Harold while Keasey got into his truck and drove away.
Harold went back to work on the Ranchero.
“What do you think is in the box?” Donnie asked.
“I don’t give a shit what’s in the box.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“Nope,” Harold said.
Harold laughed. “You’re curious about five hundred dollars.”
“Sure. Why not?” Donnie said.
“He’s not going to let you look in the box anyway. Jesus. A bus station locker? Gotta be drugs.”
“Doesn’t have to be.”
“What else could it be? His toothbrush collection?” Harold said. “Just name one thing it could be other than drugs. Hey, if you want to do it, do it. Don’t look to me for permission.”
“I don’t need your fucking permission. Toothbrush collection?”
“I’m going to get back to work now. If you want to wait for Keasey in the office, you can. You can stretch out on the sofa, watch Oprah, and enjoy your last hours of freedom.”
“What are you saying?”
Harold flipped the wrench in his hand. “I’m saying that there’s drugs in that locker and if you’re crazy enough to go get them, then I’ll be sending you cookies in the mail for a few years. And for what? For five hundred dollars.”
Donnie waved his hand, dismissing Harold’s words. “What channel is Oprah on?”
* * * *
The Ranchero was off the lift and parked in the yard. It was the dark side of dusk when the bronze Silverado crunched gravel and Keasey got out. Harold stepped away from the tool bench he’d been straightening. Donnie staggered, nap-drunk, from the office.
Keasey walked over to Donnie. “What did you decide? Want to take a little drive?”
“What’s in the box?” Donnie said.
“Like I told you, just some personal stuff,” Keasey said.
“Any drugs?” Donnie asked.
Keasey made a show of trying to think, scratched his chin. “Nope, no drugs in the box. I would remember something like that.”
“A grand,” Donnie said. “I’ll do it for a thousand dollars.”
“Ain’t this some shit?” Keasey said.
“It’s a long drive,” Donnie said.
Keasey gave Donnie a long, hard look. He glanced over at Harold, then back at Donnie. “That’s a lot of money.”
Donnie raised an eyebrow and stared back at the taller man. “It’s not all that much.”
“Okay, a thousand dollars.” Keasey laughed. He looked at Harold. “Your boy here drives a hard bargain.”
Harold nodded. “You guys mind discussing your business somewhere else? I’ve got to clean up so I can go home.”
“Right.” Keasey looked at Donnie and signaled with his head for him to follow. “Come on, tough guy.”
Harold watched at they stepped away to the far side of Keasey’s truck. He pulled down the garage doors while they talked. They shook hands. Donnie sat behind the wheel of the Silverado and Keasey sat in the passenger seat. They talked for a few minutes more and then rolled away.
* * * *
Harold was asleep in his bed in his house on his street when someone woke him banging on his door. His girlfriend, Shannon, was beside him and made no sign of moving to get up. He looked out and saw Donnie on his kitchen stoop. Harold opened the door and looked at him, then at the sky just becoming light behind him.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I drove down to Laramie and picked up Keasey’s box,” Donnie said. He looked back at the big pickup parked behind Harold’s Duster.
“Drugs. I told you.”
“Are you going to let me in?”
“It’s not even morning yet.”
“Come on in.”
Shannon was tying her robe in the doorway as Donnie stepped into the kitchen. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Hey, Shannon,” Donnie said.
“Go on back to bed, baby,” Harold said.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Everything is fine. Now get some sleep.”
“Okay,” she said. “Night, Donnie. Don’t be long, Harold.”
“Everything is not fine,” Donnie said once Shannon was gone. “Not fine at fucking all.”
Donnie looked into Harold’s eyes. “No drugs.”
“You looked in the box?”
“I tried not to, but I got this feeling somebody was following me.”
“You saw headlights?” Harold asked.
“No, but I got this feeling. I stopped at the rest area outside town and looked inside. I needed to know if it was drugs. It’s not drugs.”
“What the fuck is it?”
“Come with me,” Donnie said. “You got a flashlight?”
Harold grabbed a flashlight from a drawer and followed Donnie out across the yard to the back of the truck. There was a regular-looking cardboard box sitting in the bed.
Donnie lowered the tailgate and pulled the box to the edge. “Look in there,” he said. “Take a peek in there.”
Harold opened the flaps of the box and looked inside, saw nothing, then remembered his light. He directed the beam into the box and saw a plastic bag but little else.
“Look close,” Donnie said.
Harold did. “Is that a head?”
“It’s a fucking head,” Donnie said. He started to pace on the driveway. “Why is there a head in that box? It was on the seat next to me. I just drove two hundred fifty miles with a head on the seat next to me. Harold, that’s a head, somebody’s fucking head.”
“Well, it’s not drugs.”
“I wish it was drugs.”
“What I am I going to do?” Donnie asked.
“I guess you give it to the guy who paid you to pick it up.”
“You don’t think I should go to the cops?” Donnie sat on the tailgate and looked up at the sky.
Harold sat beside him. “That’s going to be a long conversation.” He looked at the box. “It’s not like this guy can be helped now. I say you give it to Keasey and forget about it.”
“See, that bothers me. Keasey has a head in a box. What’s going to keep him from putting my head in a box? He’s going to see that I opened the thing and then he’s going to know that I know he’s running around chopping off people’s heads. Where does that leave me?”
“Then maybe you should go to the cops,” Harold said.
“You’re right about that conversation. I don’t even know if this is fucking Keasey’s truck. It might be the dead guy’s truck for all I know. And I’m the one with his head, driving his truck. I tell them I went down there to pick up a package for a guy for a thousand dollars. What do you think will be their first question?”
“What did you think was going to be in the box?”
“What?” Donnie said.
“That would be their first question,” Harold said. “What did you think would be in the box?”
“Yeah, right, and what do I tell them?”
“Sorry to fucking bore you,” Donnie snapped.
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“It’s morning,” Donnie said. “It’s morning and I’ve got a goddamn head in a box.”
“Let’s tape it up,” Harold said. “Then you take it to Keasey and everything will be good.”
“You’re no help,” Donnie said. He pushed the box back into the bed and shut the gate. “Listen, sorry I got you out of bed. Think about me while you’re banging Shannon in there. Think about your old friend Donnie driving around in a pyscho’s truck with a severed head in a box.”
“What do you want me to say?” Harold asked. “I don’t know what you should do.”
Donnie got in and started the engine. He didn’t say anything else, just drove off into the morning.
* * * *
Harold was dressed for work and sitting at the kitchen table when Shannon walked in.
“So, what was that all about?” she asked. “Is Donnie all right? He looked like shit.”
“Donnie’s Donnie. Believe me, you don’t want to know what’s going on with him. Sorry he woke you up.”
“I’ll go back to bed. Wanna come?”
“Don’t tempt me,” Harold said. “Work, work, work, work, work.”
“Well, don’t forget to eat some lunch.”
* * * *
On his way to the garage, Harold spotted a white Malibu in his rearview mirror. It came up on him fast and rode his bumper. He couldn’t make out who it was through the tinted windshield. The driver of the Chevy flashed his lights and blew his horn. Harold pulled into the parking lot of the Tasty Freeze. He got out of his Duster. Keasey got out of the Malibu.
“What’s the problem?” Harold asked.
“Hey, where’s your friend?” Keasey asked. He leaned forward, his posture combative.
“How the fuck should I know? I’m on my way to work.” Harold turned back to his car.
“I’m talking to you,” Keasey said.
“Give me a break, man. You made some arrangement with Donnie. I ain’t his father, his brother, or his guardian.” Harold reached for the door handle.
Keasey grabbed Harold’s arm.
Harold didn’t like that and he liked Keasey’s attitude even less. He pulled back and punched Keasey hard in his left side. The man buckled, held on to the rear fender of the Duster.
“I told you to leave me the fuck alone.”
“Donnie never showed up with my shit.”
“Not my problem,” Harold said.
“He’s still got my truck,” Keasey said, not yet fully erect.
“Again, not my problem.”
Keasey still held his arm against his side. “Sorry I came on so strong.” He seemed suddenly a completely different person. “Did Donnie get in touch with you? Call you?”
“I’m going to work.”
“He didn’t look in the box, did he?”
Harold wasn’t listening, but he heard. He got behind the wheel and closed his door, started the engine, and left Keasey standing there. In his mirror, Keasey looked like a much smaller man. More, he looked scared, really scared. And this made Harold scared.
Harold pulled into his parking spot at the garage and felt his fingers clench the steering wheel more tightly. His mouth went dry. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Keasey’s bronze Silverado was parked behind the garage. Harold was terrified and angry in turns. He got out and walked to the pickup. The bed was empty. Donnie was nowhere to be seen. Harold called his name. He walked around the building, ending up at the door to his office. It was still locked.
Inside, everything appeared in order, just as he’d left it, just as it had looked every morning for the past eight years. He dreaded Keasey coming and finding his truck at his place. He walked into the work bays and rolled open the big doors. He then went back to the Silverado. The bed was empty. The doors were locked. Harold could see inside. There was no box. At least there was no box. Harold told himself that if Donnie survived this mess, he would kill him.
* * * *
Business went as usual that day. In fact, business was pretty good. People picked up their vehicles, paid in full, and left. Others dropped off their cars and trucks and left without complaint. And not a word from Donnie or Keasey. Still, Keasey’s truck was parked behind the garage.
Harold called Shannon at home and asked her if Donnie had called or come by. He had not. He didn’t have a number for Keasey. He thought about calling the cops and telling them the truck had been left there, but decided that he would sound like a nut or, worse, like somebody trying to cover his ass.
It came time to close up the shop and the truck was still there. He wouldn’t worry about it tonight. He did hope that Donnie was all right, at least alive. He’d just locked the door connecting his office to the service area when he heard a noise. He unlocked the door and looked into the garage. With the big doors down it was pretty dark in there. He reached to the wall beside him and flipped the switch. Nothing happened. He grabbed the flashlight from the bracket by the door. He shined the light past the Land Cruiser in the middle bay and onto the back wall. Nothing. Another sound came from behind him in the office. He tried the light in there as well, but it didn’t come on. He thought he saw someone pass by the window. He got scared. He went to his desk, opened his drawer, and took out his .38. He checked the chamber and saw it was loaded. He picked up the phone and called the cops on speed dial.
“Can you send a car to Harold’s Garage, over on Cypress? I think I have an intruder.”
Harold heard a louder noise from outside, like an empty fuel can falling over. He let himself out the office door. He could see better outside and so he turned off his flashlight. He walked along the wall of the building. He added a new fear to his current one, that the police would show up and shoot the man with the gun. He made his way to the back and the Silverado. He looked around.
It might have been there the whole time and he hadn’t seen it. Regardless, it was there now. The cardboard box was sitting on an oil drum set against the wall of the garage. Suddenly it was hard for him to see, as if the darkness had fallen extra fast. He switched on his light and looked all around.
He looked at the box and stepped closer to it. He opened the flaps and peered inside. He shone the light into the box and could just make out the mass of light brown, maybe blond hair and maybe an eye. The box stank.
And now the police were on the way. His head was swimming. Fucking Donnie, was all he could think. Then he heard footfalls on the gravel around the corner. He hadn’t heard a car, so he didn’t think it was the cops. But if it was and he had the pistol up, they might shoot him. They would shoot him. He saw no beams of flashlights approaching the corner and so he thought it probably wasn’t the police. He was shaking. He looked at the head, trying to figure out what to do.
When he looked up again he saw someone large. Larger than either Donnie or Keasey, but something wasn’t quite right. He shined his light at the figure. The man was wearing a muddy suit, but above the collar of the filthy jacket was nothing. His once-white shirt was red and black, but there was no head.
Harold felt like he wanted to pass out. Was this a joke? The man, the body, was huge, six feet without the head. Harold looked at the box, picked it up, and pushed it toward the suit.
“I take it this is yours.”
The muddy hands reached out and took the box, and the body walked away into the darkness.
* * * *
When the police arrived, they found Harold sitting with his back against the front tire of the Silverado.
“Sorry, boys, it was a false alarm. The power went off and I’m afraid I got spooked.”
The cops looked around. “Are you all right?” one of them asked.
“Well, your lights are back on,” the other said.
“Okay,” Harold said.
“Sir, are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m sure.” Harold stood and nodded.
The police left. Harold went back into his office. He switched off the light in the service area and locked the door. His hands were shaking. He walked over to his desk and was about to put away his pistol, but thought better of it. He put the gun in his pocket.
He sat on the sofa and switched on the television. Somewhere on the West Coast somebody was playing baseball. The daylight was startling even on the screen. Harold knew he would never see Donnie again. He knew also that Keasey was gone, along with his pregnant wife. The Silverado? He’d have to figure out what to do with that. He’d claim it was abandoned, maybe. Then he stopped thinking about all of those things, realizing that he was trying to distract himself. What had he just seen? What would he tell Shannon? Would he tell Shannon anything? Would he show up for work the next day? He looked back at the game. It was so sunny in California.
“Liquid Glass” From HALF AN INCH OF WATER. Used with permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Copyright © 2015 by Percival Everett.