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Authors: J.M. Kelly

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BOOK: Speed of Life
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“What's that mean?”

What did Jocelyn tell us? Oh, yeah. “How to act when you get pulled over by the cops.”

“You already know that.”

“And getting your utilities turned back on. Stuff like that.”

“Huh,” Amber says, not looking up from her puzzle. “Maybe you should send Mom to that one.”

“Yeah, seriously.”

Our phone gets shut off about four times a year. And last winter, our electricity was out for two weeks before she won enough at bingo to get it turned back on. The house was so fucking cold. I shiver now just thinking about it.

“If you really don't mind going,” Amber says, “I'm beat.”

“I know. It's cool.”

“But don't dig through the free stuff until you get home.”

“I won't. I promise.”

At Forward Momentum they always give us a bunch of freebies for the baby, and at the first meeting of the month, the moms get a bag too. Natalie's sack has boring but totally necessary stuff, like diapers, formula, zwieback, and sometimes a toy. But the bags for the moms are all fancy because they're donated by rich ladies. In September, we got Godiva chocolates, nail polish, a set of towels, and a gift card to Safeway. In October there was an MP3 player. We had Han sell ours on eBay for fifty bucks.

Tonight's meeting isn't too bad at first. Jocelyn's brought her tall, lanky nephew to act like the bad guy. Before we start, she makes each of us draw a slip of paper with a problem on it. Travis is supposed to be the guy in power, and he sits behind a table like it's a counter and we have to go up to him with our issue.

My slip of paper says “Trouble with the landlord,” which makes me laugh. Isn't that my life already? Mom and Gil are so far behind on the rent that we'd all be out on our asses if the place wasn't such a hellhole. But no one else in their right mind would rent it, so I'm sure the landlord figures a few hundred bucks whenever Mom wins at bingo is better than nothing.

The first girl who volunteers is one of the Haileys (there are three here tonight) and she really gets into it. Too into it, in fact.

“My electric's out,” she says to Travis.

“Do you know your account number?” He's smiling at her and nodding his head, making his dreadlocks swing.

Hailey looks at Jocelyn but gets no help there. “Uh . . . I guess not.”

“What's your name?”

She tells him, and he pretends to type it into a computer. “Your account's a hundred and twenty days past due,” he says. “It shows here that we issued a final notice for payment on the thirtieth of October.”

She crosses her arms. “I didn't get it.”

“There's a note in my computer that says you called and promised to pay it in full the next day.”

“I never got nothing.”

“But—”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Hailey demands.

We all look around at one another, and a bunch of us are trying not to laugh. One of the other Haileys says, “Look out, Mr. Electricity.” And then we do crack up.

“No, ma'am, I'm not calling you anything.” Travis's smile wavers. “I just—”

“I got a baby. And it's freezing in my house. What're you gonna do about it?” Hailey asks, her voice getting louder.

Now some of us are full-on laughing. Travis is leaning back in his seat, out of face-slapping range, which might be smart.

He tries again. “I'm sorry, but I can't—”

“This is bullshit!” Hailey yells. “I have a baby. Do you understand what that means, you sorry suck?”

“Okay, okay, okay.” Jocelyn steps forward. “Let's back up here a minute. How many of you think Hailey's going to get what she wants if this is how she acts?”

Two girls and Hailey raise their hands, but the rest of us shake our heads.

“Let's talk about how she might handle it differently,” Jocelyn says.

After that, the class gets kind of boring. By the time it's over, Travis looks a little shell-shocked and I'm ready to grab my free stuff and go home. I manage to pull Jocelyn into a corner and ask her for a recommendation first, though.

“I'd be happy to write you a letter,” she says. “I think it's great you want to continue your education.”

“Thanks.”

“But,” Jocelyn says, “I want something in return.”

Great.

“What?” I ask.

“I want you or Amber to come to Forward Momentum
every
week from now on.”

“Sometimes we both have to work,” I tell her. “You said it was okay to miss if—​”

“It's time the two of you start making parenting Natalie a priority.”

As if our lives don't revolve around the baby already?

“Think of this class as part of school,” Jocelyn says. “In other words, it's not optional anymore. Either you or your sister need to be here for every class.”

I sigh.

She holds out her hand to shake. “Do we have a deal?”

I'm pretty sure I can get off work even if Amber can't, because David keeps stealing my shifts. And I really need this letter. “Yeah, okay.” I start to leave but remember one important detail I forgot to mention. “Hey, Jocelyn? Don't tell Amber I'm applying to college, okay?”

“Why not?” she asks.

Because she'll kill me? Because she'll think I'm ruining our lives and going back on my word? Because she'll know I lied to her about the money to fix the car?

Because I might not actually apply.

“I don't want to get her hopes up.”

Jocelyn nods. I can't tell if she believes me or not, but I grab the freebie bags with one hand, balance Natalie on my hip, and get the hell out of there before she can ask any more questions. Two recommendations down, one to go. I'm not looking forward to asking Jimmy. Getting him to say yes is one thing; him actually making time to do it is another thing entirely. He hates paperwork even more than Amber hates school.

Chapter 10

Saturday morning is my first shift back at work after the whatever-you-want-to-call-it on Tuesday . . . the not-getting-robbed-but-feeling-like-we-were situation. I thought I'd be nervous, but it's a bright, cold morning, and in the light of day, the station looks exactly like it always does. People are hanging out by their cars, talking while their tanks fill, there's a line of hopeful losers at the lottery counter, and some kids are choosing—​or probably stealing—​Jolly Ranchers in the candy aisle. When I go to punch in, Jimmy's waiting for me.

“I need you in the garage. Raul's got the pumps.”

“Excellent,” I say.

He pats me on the shoulder and goes back into his office to grab his coffee and smokes.

“He told me he misses working with you,” Rosa says, which makes me stand a little straighter. “Apparently that David kid never shuts up. Asks about a thousand questions an hour.”

I'm like Jimmy—​a silent hard worker who only asks when I really need help. Otherwise, I figure it out on my own. Sometimes when I'm doing a tricky repair, I sneak inside the store and Rosa lets me use her cell phone to look things up on YouTube so Jimmy doesn't know I'm not following what he showed me.

He comes out and we head across the parking lot to the garage. Jimmy would love to have a full-time shop and ditch the gas station, but there's not a lot of restoration work for such a small outfit. He could fix new cars after they've been wrecked, but he refuses to do it. “Anything with a computer in it is bullshit,” he says. Mostly, we do small repairs on vintage cars that have already been restored, and mechanical stuff like changing brakes and shocks.

“Today, we got something special,” Jimmy tells me. He unlocks the garage and puts in his alarm code. The lights flicker to life, illuminating the shop. In the third bay is a Studebaker Hawk, stripped all the way down to the metal.

“'Sixty-two?” I ask.

“Good girl,” he says.

We cross over to it, and I run my hand along the smooth hood. “What's up?”

He leads me around to the back and shows me a dent in the right rear fender. “They trailered it into Custom Designs to have it sprayed and some idiot lost control and backed into something. I don't know what.”

“Couldn't they fix it there?”

“Sure,” Jimmy says, “but the customer was royally pissed off, so he brought her to me instead. They're taking her to Frank's for the paint job after that fuck-up.”

I nod.

“She's all yours,” he says. “I gotta get the timing belt on that Camaro done before the guy gets here. I was supposed to do it last night.”

“Cool.”

If there's one thing I know how to do, it's pull out dents and make the body look so perfect that once it's painted you'd never know I'd been there. The Mustang was full of dings and dents when me and Amber bought it off Jimmy three years ago, and I fixed every one of them.

I'm mixing up the Bondo when David comes in around nine thirty. He hovers over me, asking questions, but I “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” him until he goes off to bug Jimmy. In the few weeks he's worked here, we almost never cross paths, and when we do, I'm like a brick wall. The asshole stole my job.

When Jimmy finishes the Camaro, he comes over to check on my progress. Not that he needs to or anything. David's following him like a looming shadow. “Looks good,” Jimmy says.

David nods like he's an expert too.

“Thanks.” I stand up and stretch. I might as well get a cup of coffee while I wait for the Bondo to dry.

The dent isn't very big, but it's in a tough spot, right on a curve, so it's detailed work. It takes me until lunchtime to get it right. Jimmy sends David out for subs, telling him to get me one too, and he even pays.

“You could do this for a living,” Jimmy says.

I throw my rag on the floor. “That was the plan before David showed up.”

“I know, I know . . . Come outside with me?”

I follow him to the parking lot and he lights up a cigarette. I stand close, inhaling deeply.

“The deal is,” he says, “the kid wants to go to some fancy school where they teach you how to restore old cars, but my sister and her husband, the dickwad, want him to go to Stanford or some bullshit school like that to be a doctor. They think if he spends some time with me and sees what it's really like to work in a repair shop, he'll give up on the idea.”

I wonder if Jimmy is talking about McPherson College in Kansas? Probably. I mean, how many schools could there be that teach people how to restore cars? I know this is my opening to ask Jimmy for a letter of recommendation, but it seems like once I do, then I really will have to commit to applying. He'll ride my ass for wasting his time if he writes it and then I don't use it. So I chicken out.

I nod. “Yeah, okay. I know it's not your fault he's here.” I consider bumming a smoke, but I had two after the pseudo-robbery, and if I have another one so soon, I'll never be able to stop and Amber will kill me. “How much longer is he gonna be around?”

Jimmy shrugs. We hear the engine on the Chevelle half a block away, and by the time David shows up in the break room with the sandwiches, I've filled my plastic cup with pop and I'm kicking back, waiting.

He hands me my three-cheese-and-sautéed-peppers special, and he and Jimmy sit down across the tiny table. I can't tell what David's eating, but at least it has some lettuce poking out. Jimmy's sandwich is a meatball sub oozing tomato sauce. It smells a lot like Bonehead's dog food, and I try not to gag.

“So this school you're gonna go to,” I say. “Is it the one in Kansas?”

David nods, his mouth full. Once he swallows, he says, “McPherson. Yeah.”

I try not to think about how weird it is that a few weeks ago I had never heard of this program and now I've met someone who actually wants to go there. I mean, it's not really that much of a coincidence, considering where I work, right? It's not like the gods are telling me something. (That's one of Mom's favorite sayings when she lays down a bet . . .
The gods are telling me to bet on seven.
) It's just a fluke, right?

Jimmy has wolfed down his sandwich before we're even halfway through ours, and he goes back outside to smoke and probably call his wife. She likes to grill him about what he eats for lunch. He'll tell her he had a salad, and then she won't bug him when he wants a steak and a couple of beers for dinner because it's Saturday night.

Except for that first time I saw David in Jimmy's office, I haven't ever really looked at him. But now he's sitting three feet away and I can't help it. The only other thing in my line of vision is a girlie calendar. He's not bad-looking—​not as hot as his car, but he does have thick blond hair and blue eyes. He took off his coveralls before he went to get the sandwiches, and he's wearing a white polo again, which makes me want to smear grease on it, just on principle.

“My parents don't want me to go to McPherson,” he says.

“Yeah, I heard.”

I remind myself he's the enemy and stop looking at the way his hair curls around his left ear. The only real reason I got to do the fender job today is because Jimmy's pulled a million and one dents, and after seeing my stellar work on the Mustang, he swore he'd never do another one if I was around. If it had been anything else, I'd be pumping gas and he would've been showing Stanford Boy the ropes.

I crumple up my sandwich wrapper without saying anything else and toss it in the trash can. On my way out, David asks me if I'm going to college, but I pretend like I don't hear him and keep walking. I've almost decided to apply, but the idea of actually going is not really something I think will happen. People like me work at gas stations their whole lives, go to cruise-ins with their cars, and join softball leagues for fun. If I had to lay a bet on our futures, that'd be mine, and David would be wearing a Stanford sweatshirt next fall and studying pre-med.

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