Hal was right, it did smell like urine in the crammed garage that was filled with tools, old car parts and the half-built engine currently in question. He stood with his head cocked sideways at me. “I’m going to give you one more chance. Did you piss on my engine? Because engines aren’t known to piss themselves.” For a moment I thought he was making some sort of joke, but the wrinkles running from behind his flared nostrils to the corners of his downturned mouth told otherwise.
“Why would anyone pee on an engine?” I thought it was a reasonable question.
“You tell me, Ben. Why would you pee on my engine?” He shook his head turned his back to me, surveying the wall covered with tools hanging from hooks and nails. “Same reason you’re always screwing with me. And you know what—” He turned to stare at me again. “I get that. Boys your age aren’t known to like their stepfathers. What’s the problem here is that you’re lying about it. And that you’re always lying about what you done.” He shook his head and laughed without smiling. “Clean this shit up before dinner.” He went through the side door of the shop, slamming it as he went.
“Clean this shit up before dinner,” I mimicked, grimacing the way he did at me. I wound through the old parts and stationary tools, looking for shop towels. A roll was on top of his table-saw. I grabbed them and went back to the engine, tearing off sheets and laying them down on top of the puddle. Bucket, our housecat, came in from underneath the almost closed garage door.
“Well, well, well.” I clucked my tongue softly and he came running over. I bent to pet him. “You just got me in some real trouble, you little bastard.” He stopped purring and licked my hand. Sometimes I think he can understand me. “Why did you piss on the engine?” He purred again.
Hal always had a car or two he was working on outside of his “baby,” as he called it. A white Camaro he’d worked on and perfected for years that he only took out when the weather was good. Most of the time he rode his motorcycle. The best thing about Hal was his collection of motorcycles, both dirt and road bikes. On certain days when I wasn’t doing chores or in school, I’d rip around his property on the smaller off-road ones. I stood staring at all the vehicles lined up, shining chrome and slick paint smooth as mirrors, reflections glinting in the half-light of a single light bulb dangling from a chain.
I put some more towels down on the puddle and then used a shovel to pick them up and throw them away in the large aluminum garbage can outside. The summer air was cool but not cold, and I took in a few deep breaths before going inside the single level white farmhouse. Hal was in the living room, watching television and eating from a plate in his lap. “Food’s on the table,” he muttered, not looking away. “Eat and then go to bed.”
The kitchen was clean and bare, hardly anything on the counters and only two chairs at the small round table. A pot with hamburger and pasta in it was sitting on an oven mitt in the middle of the table. I took a plate from the cupboard and spooned some of the mixture onto it. It smelled cheap and old, leftovers from the night before. I pushed it off my plate back into the pot and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. After I was done I felt my chin and the sides of my face. They were only slightly rough, but I shaved anyway. I’d heard that shaving made facial hair come in quicker.
When I got under my sheets they were soft and cool. I’d had them for years, plain blue cotton that was beginning to wear through in places. My real dad had given them to me for Christmas when I was eight. I heard Hal go into his bedroom and cough for a while. I laid in bed for a long time, turning from one side onto the other, occasionally flipping over my pillow to feel the cool side against my razor-burned face. I kept touching the sheets, thinking about my dad, smelling them, hoping they still might smell like him after so many years. Hugging the sheets to me, I couldn’t help it. My eyes started watering, and I tried to stop because I didn’t want Hal to hear me, but nothing I could do would make it go away.
When I was finished I sat up in bed and felt an angry sort of emptiness in my chest, like someone was pulling all of the air out of me. I hated Hal and I hated that stupid engine, that stupid Camaro, that stupid hamburger and pasta dinner he had made. Quietly I got up and tiptoed from my room, down the hallway and out the door. I went into the shop and over to the Camaro, flipping open the gas tank. I unscrewed the cap as noiselessly as possible and unzipped my blue jeans. The metal was cold against me as I relieved myself into the tank.
Once back in my bed, I smiled in the dark, but the smile didn’t feel real. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. I was lying there wondering if I could somehow siphon everything out of the tank and put new gas in it when I heard my mom get home. Her hospital shifts ended late most nights. She went into Hal’s bedroom and almost inaudibly I heard them whispering to each other. A while later she knocked softly on my door. I pretended to be asleep.
“Ben? Are you awake?” I didn’t answer her but she came in anyway and sat on the edge of my bed. She smelled sterile and clean, like a hospital room. “Ben,” she repeated, touching my shoulder. I opened my eyes and sat up. “Ben, Hal told me what happened.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said loudly, hoping Hal would hear.
“Then how did it happen if you didn’t do it?” Her voice remained soft.
“Maybe it was Bucket,” I said quieter. “He always pees on stuff.”
“So you didn’t do it? You promise me?” She put her hand on my shoulder.
“Why would I do something like that?” I was glad I couldn’t see her eyes. I wouldn’t have been able to look at them if I had.
“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I believe you though.” She bent forward and hugged me. She had two kinds of hugs, quick hello or goodbye hugs, and longer ones, when I think she was trying to say something without talking. “You’re a good kid, you understand that?” I couldn’t reply. “Do you want to come with me into town tomorrow? I have to do some shopping.”
“Yeah, that sounds okay.” It sounded boring actually, but Hal would probably be taking his Camaro out the next day and I didn’t want to be around when he tried to start it.
“Goodnight then. Get some sleep, I love you.” She let go and stood up.
“Goodnight, Mom.” My voice cracked a little bit, but I don’t think she heard. When she was gone I pulled my knees up into my chest and started sort of gasping. My heart was pounding and my head was filled with static. A good kid, I kept hearing her say over and over again. What would she say tomorrow? Why had I peed in Hal’s gas tank?
I tried to calm down for a long time but couldn’t. Eventually I thought of Hal, and the small glass of whiskey he had with dinner every night. Once again I tiptoed out of my room and down the hallway to the kitchen. It still smelled like hamburger. I climbed on top of the counter and opened the cupboard above the refrigerator. Several tall bottles were in it, and I removed the closest one. Still standing on the counter, I uncorked the top and took a mouthful of it. It tasted so awful I almost spit it back out, but fear of what would happen if I did made me swallow it down. I coughed into my elbow for a minute or so before carefully putting the bottle back exactly where it was before.
It didn’t take long before I started feeling warm and the emptiness in my chest went away. I went outside and laid in the front yard for a while, looking up at the stars. I thought about the time I’d accidentally crashed through the fence into the yard on a motorcycle when I was still learning how to ride. I started laughing a little bit. Thinking some more, I got up and went into the shed. Hal’s motorcycle was leaning near the far wall, all plain black and chrome, large and intimidating but still somehow elegant. I took its key from a hook near the door and stuck it in the ignition. If you only clicked it partially forward, just the lights turned on. I nudged the kickstand up and slowly, quietly, backed it out of the side door. It was heavy, and I nearly let it fall over a few times as I pushed it down the long driveway to the main road.
When I got there, I swung my leg up and over the seat. I twisted the key all the way in the ignition and it came to life like a dragon might. Its deep roar echoed up through me. For a moment I just sat there, feeling the hugeness of it underneath me and imagining it to purr, just like Bucket. My blood felt like fire, and I put it in first gear and took off. I kept going faster and faster down the road, it was straight for miles, nothing but farmland. I felt a drop hit my face, then another and another. I looked upward but the sky was clear, the stars glinting brighter than any reflection off a car. It was raining, but there were no clouds. The water felt bright and cold on my face and arms, and I howled along with the motorcycle. I never wanted to leave that road, feeling hot inside and cool outside, the wind trying to pull my hair and oversized clothes off me, yelling into the clear night where no one could see me and no one could hear me, not ever.