A beefy hand squeezed the back of Jay’s neck. Jay struggled but the grip tightened thrusting him closer to the building. The assailant reached with his other hand and pulled wide a door, heavy as a bank vault. The door resisted, and then picked up speed like an 1800’s locomotive, slamming into the frame with a spine-jolting crash. All activity inside the garage stopped. Jay turned his head to get a look around but only caught a glimpse of glossy red lacquer paint and chrome. Oil and paint fumes mingled in the air.
“What do you think you’re doing bringing a kid in here?” yelled the painter.
“I caught him out in the alley, spying,” said Beefy-hands. He pushed Jay into the middle of the oil stained concrete floor littered with car parts. Jay rubbed his neck where the feeling of clenched fingers continued to sting.
A hissing sound came from the corner. A guy with a blow torch decapitated a BMW. He pushed back his welder’s mask, wiped sweat from his eyes and squinted at Jay.
“Is that right, kid? You spying on us?” said the welder, holding the lit torch close to Jay’s face.
Jay retreated from the flame. “No, I wasn’t spying. I just wondered what was going on. You guys are into cars, right? You modify cars and then sell them like those motorcycle guys on TV. Nice place. Ok, I guess I’ll see you around then.”
Jay took a few steps back.
“You’re stupid, kid, if you think we’re stupid enough to think you’re that stupid,” said another guy from behind a desk. His head was shaved to a shine; only a handle-bar mustache gave away his former hair color. He rolled back his chair, and was on his feet in a split second.
“Kinda far from the reservation, aren’t you?” said Handle-bar. He swaggered across the garage past a rack of wrenches.
“I’m not an Indian,” said Jay.
“Yeah, right. What are you doing out this late, anyway? Shouldn’t you be in bed, kid?” said Handle-bar, closing in on Jay.
“You’re right, I should get going. I have school tomorrow,” stammered Jay as he turned toward the door.
Jay was stopped in his tracks by the man with the beefy hands. His bulging arms crossed over his barrel chest. He stood between Jay and the door like a night club bouncer.
“Don’t worry about school. You won’t be attending,” said Handle-bar.
Jay’s heart pounded harder. Adrenalin rushed through his veins as his eyes darted toward the open door.
“Shut the door,” yelled Handle-bar to Welder.
Jay’s attempt to pass failed as Beefy-hands grabbed a mitt full of Jay’s hood and didn’t let go. Jay took a step back to avoid strangulation by his own clothing.
The two hot dogs he ate for dinner rose in Jay’s throat. Welder, lit torch still in hand, moved past Jay to shut the door. Without thinking, Jay pulled the can of spray paint out of his pocket and pressed the nozzle, aiming for the flame. The paint ignited in a whoosh. Everyone ducked and shielded their eyes. Jay dropped the can and ran out the door, down the alley.
Jay had almost reached the safety of the cross street when he hit the ground. The air exited his lungs as Welder tackled Jay from behind, pressing his face into the wet asphalt speckled with gum and cigarette butts.
“Let me go. I won’t tell. I promise,” pleaded Jay. He breathed through his mouth to save his nostrils from the urine scented alley.
“Get up, you little puke,” said Welder. He hauled Jay to his feet and back to the garage.
The place smelled like burnt hair.
“You got guts, kid. I’ll give you that,” said Handle-bar, checking his mustache.
“Are you going to kill me?” asked Jay.
“No, but he might,” said Handle-bar, nodding toward Beefy-hands. “Killed his ma a few years back.”
Beefy-hands strutted up so close Jay could tell lunch had consisted of either Italian or Greek. “My mother wouldn’t get me a beer, so I stuck a knife in her and stuck her to the wall,” said Beefy-hands. His lip curled over crooked teeth.
“I, ah, guess you didn’t get your beer then,” said Jay. The garage went library quiet. He waited for the life to be squeezed from him.
Handle-bar snickered. “I guess you didn’t get your beer then,” he repeated and roared.
Welder and Painter joined in, laughing and smacking Jay on the back.
“I like this kid,” said Handle-bar, catching his breath.
“Are you kidding? He tried to blow us up,” said Beefy-hands. He poked Jay in the chest.
“Shows the kid’s got balls. What were you doing with spray paint in your pocket?” asked Handle-bar.
“Painting stuff; walls, garbage cans, underpasses, whatever,” said Jay, rubbing his chest.
“Just like you used to do, eh,” said Handle-bar to Painter. “Maybe we got ourselves a new apprentice.”
“That’s ok. I’m getting a paper route,” said Jay.
“We both know it’s too late for that. Unless you want me to talk to your mom or maybe the cops and let them know what you’ve been up to?” said Handle-bar.
“You’ll get in more crap than I will,” said Jay. His voice sounded braver than he felt.
“No way, I gotta couple of cousins on the force. We support their charity ‘donations for donuts’ so they don’t mind our little side business. I figure they’ll get to us one day but right now we’re low on their list,” said Handle-bar.
“I was talking about my mom,” said Jay.
The room erupted in snorts of laughter like feeding time at the pig trough.
Handle-bar put his arm around Jay. “You could make a lot of money and help us out. How ‘bout it, kid? You work for us and we let you reach puberty.”
“Do I have a choice?” said Jay.
“You always have a choice,” said Handle-bar. All eyes shifted as the door clanged open.