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Carmen swiveled her wrist to glance at her wristwatch as she shuffled up the steps of Nikki's apartment building. It was 6:00 a.m. on Saturday and the Chicago air was already heavy with sweaty humidity.
"I hate this sticky and clammy weather," Carmen complained as she wiped perspiration from her forehead and the base of her neck. "Nikki had better have her behind out of bed," Carmen muttered as she noticed a peculiar, scruffy-looking man exiting the brick building. The man was wearing a green T-shirt and cutoff blue jean shorts with black grime stains on the thighs. The grungy man had a face that only a mother could love and reminded Carmen of the scrawny rock and roll icon Mick Jagger. As she approached the entrance, he held the door open for her.
"Thank you," she whispered as she eased by him and walked over and pressed a silver button on the wall to call for the elevator. She stared mindlessly at the orange elevator light, paused on the eighth floor. She sighed impatiently, then turned around to look out a nearby window while she mulled over her thoughts. Carmen was disillusioned with the fact that Nikki wasn't doing anything useful with her life. Her baby sister had a day job at an adult bookstore as a peep show girl and an evening job as a stripper at a seedy gentlemen's club. Carmen was sure their parents had to be turning over in their graves, knowing that Nikki was making a living exposing her body to men old enough to be her grandfather. That wasn't the way either of them were raised. Yeah, Carmen whispered to herself as she continued to glance out the window. Nikki's life is dreadful, in my opinion.
Carmen shouldered much of the blame for Nikki's appalling lifestyle, and the guilt she toted around was a heavy burden on her heart. Carmen continually attempted to clear the unspoken tension between her and her sister, but reconciling with Nikki was turning out to be a monumental task.
Their mother had passed away years ago from a combination of cancer and being a perpetual worrywart. Two years later, their father, Anthony, died. At the time of his death, Carmen was twenty-one years old and became guardian of her then fifteen-year-old sister, Nikki. The untimely loss of their father was the root of the tension between them. Nikki blamed Carmen for the death of their father and she knew it, although Nikki hadn't verbalized it as much lately. Blame and guilt were parasites eating away at Carmen's soul and she was tired of toting around her baggage of unhappy feelings. Carmen exhaled, hoping the shift in her breathing pattern would rid her mind of the unwanted and haunting thoughts. She turned back around to check the progress of the elevator and noticed that the scrawny man who had held the door for her was still hovering around the doorway, glaring at her. He licked his lips, flicked his tongue at her a few times, sounding like a dog slurping up water, and brushed his fingers across the stubble on his chin. Carmen translated the glint in his lustful eyes and realized he was having a sexual fantasy about her in his mind.
"Go to hell," Carmen snarled at him as she flipped up her middle finger. "Damn weirdo." The man didn't seem to mind Carmen's harsh words because he continued to glare at her. "Nikki has to stop moving into these apartment buildings filled with freaks and crackpots," she muttered as the bell on the elevator chimed.
Carmen stepped inside the elevator and pressed the third-floor button. When she got off the elevator, she noticed that the hallway carpet was wet. She wrinkled her nose because the musty and moldy odor was overpowering. She moved quickly down the enclosed corridor toward Nikki's apartment. Curling her fingers into a fist, Carmen drummed on the door with her knuckles. A short moment later, Frieda, Nikki's roommate, answered the door.
"Hey, Frieda," Carmen greeted politely as Frieda allowed her access to their small, cluttered, two-bedroom apartment. The place was littered with piles of laundry that needed to be either cleaned or folded but Carmen couldn't tell which.
"Is Nikki out of bed yet?" Carmen asked, crinkling her nose while comparing the untidiness of the apartment to Nikki and Frieda's chaotic and messy lifestyle.
"Why are you asking a question that you already know the answer to?" Frieda scraped her fingernails up and down her belly before releasing a loud yawn that assaulted the already stale air with the rotting smell of her morning breath.
"You know damn well Nikki and I are vampires and function only after the sun goes down." Carmen tried to inconspicuously cover her nose with the palm of her hand. Frieda's breath literally smelled like spoiled food and its foul odor was making her dizzy.
"Well, she's the one who told me to be here this early. I've got to drop my car off at the repair shop, and she promised me that she'd drive over there with me, so that I wouldn't have to sit there and wait while a mechanic worked on my car."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Frieda answered as she scratched the side of her neck. "She told me all about it. I think that she would have left work earlier but this older dude walked into the tavern and started paying her some attention. And you know how Nikki has a soft spot for older men."
"I know," Carmen answered. She wasn't giving her full attention to what Frieda said because she didn't want their conversation to last longer than necessary. The only thing she wanted her to do was to stop talking. Carmen sauntered into the kitchen area and inspected a banana sitting on the countertop. After checking it thoroughly for bruising, she decided that it appeared safe enough to eat.
"He was a nice-looking man," Frieda continued, to Carmen's annoyance. "He looked like he used to play football or something. You know the type that probably has a large stash of money hidden somewhere."
"Humm," Carmen coyly answered, hoping that Frieda picked up that she didn't want to continue their conversation. Carmen noticed a chair that wasn't cluttered with clothes positioned in a corner of the room. She decided to sit down and wait for her sister.
"You don't seem like you're in a talkative mood. But then again, you never are. I'm going to go back to my room. Besides, Francisco came over early this morning and gave me some grownman loving. My body trembles just thinking about having my ass in the air while he sucks on my sweet, juicy Spanish pussy." Carmen could not have cared less about Frieda's sex life; and if her pussy was as funky as her breath, Francisco had to be one nasty motherfucker to put his face anywhere near her smelly ass.
"Yeah, whatever. You're telling me way too much information," Carmen said and began to leave. She was glad Frieda was taking her body funk back into the bedroom.
"There is no need to be jealous, honey."
Oh, Lord, here we go, thought Carmen. Now she thinks that I'm being insulting.
"You and your stuck-up attitude will get a man to fuck you right one of these days. Hopefully he'll be able to mellow you out some. How long has it been now since that no-good professor dumped you? What, nine years? Or is it ten?" Freda snickered. "He had your head all messed up when he cancelled the wedding on you after you'd spent all of your money planning this elaborate event, which you specifically told me I wasn't invited to. I still haven't forgotten that evil shit. I'm glad he cracked your prissy little face and left you all broken up. You needed to be taught a lesson." Frieda used threatening hand gestures to emphasize her point.
"Frieda, it's too damn early in the morning to dig up old shit and start a fight with me. I didn't come over here for that." Carmen was more than willing to bare her claws and stir up an ugly argument if Frieda didn't back down. "Trust me; you do not want to toy with me this morning."
Frieda chuckled. "You don't scare me, honey. Not one bit." Frieda said her peace and then made her way down a narrow corridor to the bedrooms. She banged hard on Nikki's bedroom door.
"Your snooty-ass sister is here," Frieda said, loud enough for Carmen to hear her. The animosity between Frieda and Carmen was like a knife in her back that she couldn't reach. In fact, as Carmen saw it, Frieda was a part of the reason that her relationship with Nikki was so sour at times.
After the death of their parents, Nikki and Carmen moved into an apartment in the Ravenswood community on Chicago's North Side. Carmen, who had always been more mature than her years, worked as an audiovisual supervisor at a branch of the Chicago Public Library and attended Truman Community College in the evening. Carmen was responsible, levelheaded, and ambitious. Nikki, on the other hand, was an impressionable and rebellious high school sophomore who didn't respect her older sister as her guardian. Nikki was an untamed free spirit who was fascinated and seduced by Chicago's nightlife and the freedom it represented. She would often sneak out of the house on school nights and hang out with her friends at the beach, someone else's apartment, or a neighborhood park where she and her friends would loiter and be loud as well as rude. One night, after waking up and discovering that Nikki had once again snuck out of the house, after she'd specifically told her not to, Carmen decided she'd had enough of Nikki's disobedience. She went searching for Nikki to confront her and perhaps physically fight her, if that's what it took to make Nikki abide by her rules.
"Nikki! I am not going to allow you to hang out on street corners all night with your friends and come home whenever you feel like it!" Carmen shouted at Nikki after she'd located her and forced her to come home against her will. Carmen had spent an hour combing neighborhood streets, and her temper had reached its boiling point.
"Are you listening to me?" Carmen barked at her sister as they reentered their small apartment. Nikki's ears were completely closed to Carmen's ranting. She stood defiantly in the center of the living room with her arms folded across her chest and her eyes fixed on a wooden support beam in the ceiling.
"What are you trying to do? Get pregnant and drop out of high school?" Carmen continued her ranting, not worrying about whether or not her neighbors would make a phone call to the police and report a domestic disturbance.
"For your information, I am not trying to do anything, especially get pregnant. It's boring around here and I'm just having fun." Nikki had no respect for her older and wiser sister.
"No, not yet, but if you stay on the path that you're on, you will end up being another teenage mother, or even worse, some young girl locked up."
"Please! I'm not even going out like that. Your comment proves how little you know me," Nikki answered defiantly.
"Then who are you? Tell me; I want to know. Tell me what you're about, Nikki. What do you want to do with yourself? Help me understand." Carmen genuinely wanted answers but wasn't sure if Nikki even had a clear idea of who she was or what she wanted to do with life, outside of aggravating the hell out of her. Nikki responded by working her neck and allowing her body language to speak as loudly as her words.
"There isn't anything for you to understand except that I've got my own life. And I control what I do, when I do it, and how I do it. So get off of my damn back and leave me the hell alone!" Nikki said her peace and felt as if she'd finally put Carmen in her proper place. Nikki was about to step away, but Carmen blocked her path.
"You may have your own life, but you don't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. I pay the bills here, Nikki. I am the one who is making sacrifices so that you can complete school. I'd like to go out and party, too, but I can't because I have to set an example for you. Don't you understand what I'm trying to do? Don't you care about the sacrifices I'm making for you?"
"Carmen, you're trying to be someone that you're not! You're not my mama and you're not my daddy. And if you keep trying to control me, I'm going to make you regret the day you were born." Before Carmen could stop herself, she hauled off and whacked Nikki with the palm of her hand as hard as she could.
"I'm tired of your damn mouth and attitude, Nikki. If you don't get your shit together, you and I are going to do something we'll both end up regretting!" Carmen howled at her baby sister.
Nikki's chest began heaving with anger and resentment. She lowered her eyes to slits as she allowed her rage to consume her.
"Oh, you've done it now!" Nikki hollered out as she allowed her fists to fly and fight Carmen back. The two of them fought and flung each other around the apartment, knocking over furniture, until they finally wrestled to the floor. They pulled each other's hair and clawed at each other's skin. They shouted angry words as they tried to gain an advantage over each other. After struggling on the floor for a long moment, they both stopped once they'd reached exhaustion. Although Carmen had gotten the best of Nikki, she wasn't willing to concede her loss. When Nikki finally had enough, she asked Carmen to let her go. Carmen stopped pressing her elbow against Nikki's neck and allowed her to stand. Once she was on her feet, Nikki went directly to the bathroom. Carmen lightly touched her stinging face, then looked at her fingertips that were spotted with blood.
"She's scratched me all up," Carmen uttered as she took a glance around their modest apartment, which now looked like a train wreck.
After their confrontation, Carmen went into her bedroom, picked up the phone, and called her girlfriend Millie. Millie was special and unique; she was an Irish girl who was raised by a black family. Millie was twenty-six and five years older than Carmen. Millie was Carmen's confidante as well as a close friend.
"I don't know what I am going to do with Nikki," Carmen explained to Millie. "We actually had an all-out brawl tonight. I'm surprised no one called the damn cops. I pushed her so hard against the wall that there is a big body imprint in it now. After I did that, I thought she'd had enough, so I turned my back to her. She snatched a lamp off of the end table and smashed it against my back and shoulder," Carmen said, still fuming with anger.
"Do you think it's safe for you to stay there?" Millie asked.
"Yes, it's safe. I'm not afraid of Nikki. After she smashed the lamp against my back, I lost it. I was on her like flies on shit and I damn near choked her to death. I am not going to allow Nikki to run me out of this house."
"Have you guys ever considered going to a therapist? You know, to get some professional help?"
"Trust me, there will be no need for professional help if she tries to fight me again. I will put her six feet under and that's no joke." Carmen was filled with anger and vengeance.
"You don't really mean that. She's your sister and siblings fight sometimes. Although you guys really take it to the extreme."
"Millie, I tell you, I'm doing everything that I can to get her through high school. I'm tired of being nice; I'm putting my own happiness on hold to make sure she has a fighting chance and she doesn't appreciate any of it. She's a selfish and trifling little girl who thinks she knows everything. I can't tell her anything. She will not listen and it's frustrating. I think she's bipolar."
"She's not bipolar. A little high-strung, but not bipolar." Millie wasn't about to support Carmen's rationale. "Maybe it's the crowd she's hanging around with. Maybe she's under a lot of peer pressure; that's always difficult to deal with. Who was Nikki with when you found her tonight?"
"Her tack-headed friend named Frieda. The daughter of the devil, in my opinion. Frieda is a rough-looking girl who has been in and out of juvie countless times. She's standoffish, has a nasty attitude, and is quick to jump to her own conclusions."
"She sounds like a real piece of work." Millie cleared her throat. "This Frieda girl might be the cause of the tension between you and Nikki, if you think about it. When you and your sister first stepped out into the world on your own, everything was going smoothly. Then, when she transferred to her new school and hooked up with this Frieda chick, everything seemed to spiral out of control."
"You could have a point there, now that I think about it. I remember Nikki telling me that she had a hard time making new friends and how everyone at the school seemed to have it in for her. It could be that she's behaving like this to prove that she's tough enough to hang out with this Frieda girl and her clique."
"Maybe you should consider moving. Getting Nikki into a different environment might help."
"Millie, I'm not Rockefeller. I don't have the resources right now to make a move. Besides, I don't want to go through the hassle of breaking the lease. Even if I did move, I wouldn't be able to go far. I need to stay close to my job and school. But Nikki and I are going to have to work out our problems before we kill each other." Carmen paused and then rotated her neck to release some of the tension that was trying to provide her with a massive headache. "Look, I don't want to talk about Nikki any more. Let's talk about something else. How are things with you and Chuck, now that you guys are shacking up?"
"Things are going good, although he's still talking about moving back to Kansas City so that he can be closer to his family."
"Well, what are you going to do if he does?" Carmen asked as she moved over to the mirror and inspected her wounds. Her face was rather red and she could clearly see where Nikki had scratched her. I should kill that girl, she thought to herself as she reached for a towel.
"I'm not going anywhere until I finish school. I only have two semesters left at Truman Junior College and then it's on to a four-year university. After that, I plan to go to graduate school," Millie said with absolute certainty.
"So what's up with you and the English professor? Why did he want to see you after class the other night?"
"To ask me out on a date." Carmen laughed nervously.
"You're kidding me. Why didn't you say something to me?" Millie was upset that Carmen had failed to mention this.
"I'm frustrated and at my wit's end with Nikki. It slipped my mind. I meant to tell you about it."
"Look, girl, Nikki is going to be Nikki. When that girl turns eighteen, she is not going to be worried with you, especially if she continues to defy you as she's been doing lately. I know that you want the best for her and all, but you have got to think of yourself as well."
"It's hard for me to let go. I feel such a sense of responsibility for her. Especially now since both Mom and Dad are gone." Carmen paused as she briefly thought about her parents. She missed them deeply and longed for the chance to talk to either of them one more time. She stopped thinking about her parents and answered Millie.
"Anyway, Professor Green is a nice man but -- "
"I had a feeling that the professor had a thing for you," Millie interrupted. "He is a handsome-looking man and you're a beautiful woman. If you guys hit it off, you're going to be a hot couple. If I were you, I wouldn't let him get away."
"Can I tell you something, Millie? Something personal?" Carmen asked.
"You know I'm your girl. I know that we haven't known each other all that long but I truly feel as if I've known you for much longer. So ask as many questions as you'd like; I'm all ears."
"I like Professor Green a lot, but I'm afraid of dating him. He is thirty years old and more experienced."
"What does his age have to do with anything? You're twentyone and he's thirty. So what?"
"I see with you, I have to come right out and explain it."
"Come right out with what?" Millie asked, utterly puzzled.
"He's experienced and I'm not. He's probably been with other women and I've never been with a man. I'm afraid that I will not know what to do or he may not like my body. Do you catch my drift now?" Carmen asked.
"You're still a virgin?" Millie chuckled. "That explains a lot."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Carmen had taken offense to the comment.
"It means that I can tell that you haven't been getting it; that's all. You're all wound up. But there is nothing wrong with being a virgin. If I could turn back the hands of time, I'd be a virgin, too. I wouldn't have given in to peer pressure."
"I've been with boys before, so I'm not at a total loss. I've never gone all the way. I've come close a few times, but I changed my mind." Carmen sighed. "So, what was your first time like?"
"I'm not going to lie to you. My first time was supposed to be perfect, but it wasn't -- the first time happened when I was seventeen and going into my senior year at Proviso West High School. I gave up my virginity to a college boy named LeMar. We were at his house in his bedroom one afternoon while his parents were at work. I got caught up in a Luther Vandross song called 'Superstar.' Luther's voice was sweet and clear and LeMar was positioned on top of me, nibbling on my ear and telling me how much he loved me. I remember feeling his hands gently gliding over my nakedness and getting goose bumps while I spread my legs open a little wider for him. LeMar had a mighty chest, strong shoulders, and an ass that had dimples in it. I caressed his ass and thought that his strokes were going to feel so strong and powerful. LeMar was an excellent kisser and when he held my face in his hands and kissed me tenderly, my body responded immediately. I raised my legs in the air, wrapped them around his body, and locked my legs at the ankles. He positioned himself just right and began to enter me. I thought, 'Oh my God. This is it. I'm actually going to do it.' The first moments of penetration made me cringe."
"So, what did you do? I mean, when it was hurting," Carmen asked.
"LeMar wasn't a rough guy who jumped up and down on my stomach. When I said that it hurt, he stopped. He was very patient with me. It took a few more tries before he actually penetrated me. I'm not going to lie and tell you that my first time made me see stars. I think I was so wound up and nervous at the time. When we tried again later, I'd learned how to relax and it felt better."
"So what ever happened to LeMar?"
"Unfortunately, our romance was a summer thing. We spent a lot of time together during the summer, but then he went back to school in the fall. He completed his bachelor's degree in Texas. We kept in touch with each other for a little while. We talked on the phone and wrote love letters. Then his parents divorced and he ended up living in Fort Lauderdale with his mother."
"Did you love him?" Carmen asked.
"I have loved every man I've ever laid down with. That's not to say that I have a bunch of skeletons in my closet, but I believe in love and I believe that there is someone for everybody. LeMar was special, though. Although he wasn't my best lover, he was my first, and you never forget the first person you made love to." Millie paused and there was a brief moment of silence. "So, do you think that you're going to give Professor Green that opportunity?"
Carmen laughed nervously. "I believe I will let him take me out on a date. Lord knows that I haven't been on one in ages and I'm way too young to be sitting around the house like some old woman. And as much as I hate to admit it, Nikki is probably getting more action than I've ever gotten." Millie and Carmen chuckled.
"Thank you for listening to my madness, Millie," Carmen said, truly appreciating Millie's attention.
"You don't have to thank me for that. As much as you've listened to me ramble on about all of my issues, it's welcoming to hear someone else's drama for a change."
Carmen could hear the smile in Millie's voice, and the image of Millie's smile blanketed her and made her feel warm and at ease.
Carmen's train of thought was interrupted by Nikki, who came out into the living room wearing blue sweat pants, a "TLC" sweatshirt that said "Ain't too Proud to Beg," a baseball cap, and dark black sunglasses. Nikki had not matured much since she'd been on her own. She still liked marching in the opposite direction of what was normal.
"Nikki, it's humid, hot, and sticky outside. You're going to sweat like a pig in those clothes."
"It's okay. I got the air conditioner in my hoopty-mobile fixed. One of my neighbors, who looks like Mick Jagger, fixed it. I can turn it on if I get too hot, but you know me. I'm always cold so it's unlikely that I'll get hot."
"That guy doesn't look like the mechanical type." Carmen gave her sister a sarcastic glance.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Nikki instantly picked up on her sister's sarcasm. "Why are you always judging people?"
"Never mind," Carmen uttered. She was not in the mood for an argument. "Let's go, so we can drop off my car and get it repaired."
"Yeah, let's go before you piss me off." Nikki moved past her sister and walked out of the apartment.
Carmen pulled her blue Dodge Daytona into the parking lot of the Magic Muffler and Brake Shop on Stony Island Boulevard. It was a quarter to seven and there were already five people standing in line at the door because service was given on a first-come, first-served basis. Carmen parked her car and then stood in line and waited with the other patrons. A few moments later, she saw Nikki creeping into the parking lot in her rusted-out Nissan Sentra with one red door and one white door. Carmen noticed that all of Nikki's car windows were rolled down. It was a clear indication to her that her air conditioning wasn't working at all.
The shop owner finally opened the door and began attending to customers in the proper order. While the owner was out inspecting the car of another customer, Carmen noticed one of the mechanics arriving. Carmen stared at the brawny man wearing a blue mechanic's suit that zipped up the front. His skin was the color of gingerbread, and he had sizable arms, a wide chest, and broad shoulders. He didn't appear to be the type that worked out at the gym; his burly build seemed to be more genetic. The brawny man went to the back of the garage where the supplies were stored and then reappeared a few moments later behind the front counter.
"Who's next?" he asked, with a forceful tone in his voice.
"I am," Carmen answered.
"What kind of car do you have?" he asked without looking up, as he rested his fingers on the computer keyboard, eager to input her information.
"Dodge Daytona," Carmen answered and watched the man's thick brown fingers slowly peck the information into the computer. Carmen didn't understand why she imagined his thick fingers toying with her womanhood. She had to quickly ease the thought from her mind.
"What's your address?" he asked.
"1642 East Fifty-sixth Street."
"Oh, you stay over in Hyde Park. That's Obama's neighborhood," he commented. "How long have you lived over there?" He took his eyes off of the computer screen and met her gaze. She noticed that his skin had become slightly glossy with sweat from the humidity. His face was unyielding and his expression was uncompromising. She suddenly felt as if she were being interrogated rather than flirted with.
"I've lived there a little over a year now. I teach first grade at
Bret Harte Elementary School." She didn't want to tell him that, but for some reason, she couldn't make herself shut up. Maybe it was because of his strict glare. It had somehow overpowered her and caused her to say more than she wanted to. She offered a Pollyannaish smile in an attempt to break the intensity of his glare. That didn't help. He kept his blazing eyes on her. Carmen suddenly wondered what had gone wrong in his life.
"What kind of problems are you having?" He broke eye contact abruptly and continued to peck at the keyboard.
"When I press the brakes, I hear a scrubbing sound," Carmen answered, with a soft voice.
"It is a scrubbing or squeaking sound?"
"No, it's definitely a scrubbing sound. And the brakes almost touch the floor before the car begins to stop." Carmen noticed the monogrammed lettering on his overalls. His name was stitched in yellow letters. Luther was his name. He typed in some more information and then asked for her car keys.
"I need to test drive it before I pull it in and get it in the air."
"Okay," Carmen said as she handed over her car keys. Luther walked out to her car, got in, and drove off. A few minutes later, he returned and pulled her car into the far stall. Carmen observed from a distance through a glass window in the lobby as he pressed the air drill to the wheel lugs and removed the tires one by one. Carmen then felt a light tap on her shoulder.
"Do they have a soda machine in here?" It was Nikki. She picked up a muffler brochure from the countertop and began fanning herself as if she were sitting in church trying to keep cool.
"No, I don't think that they do. There is an Amoco gas station across the street. I think that they sell cold drinks," Carmen said.
"Do you have any idea of how much longer it's going to take to get an estimate?"
"It shouldn't be too much longer. He has my car in the air right now."
"Well, I'm going to run over to the gas station and get me something to drink. It's hotter than hell out here."
"I told you that your ass was going to burn up."
"Whatever," Nikki answered. "I'll be right back." Nikki turned and left without saying another word. Carmen turned her attention back to her car and saw Luther was waving his hand, signaling for her to come and take a look at what he'd found. Carmen walked through the garage toward Luther.
"You're going to have to get the front brake pads replaced. The rotors need replacing as well." He pointed to the silver disk that the pads rubbed against in order to bring the car to a stop. "The scrubbing sound that you were hearing was the sound of metal rubbing against metal."
"Shit!" Carmen hissed, because it was starting to sound as if the repairs were going to set her back financially.
"How long has the brake light on the dashboard been on?" Luther asked as he continued his inspection.
"I don't know -- three, maybe four weeks." Carmen shrugged her shoulders.
"If you had brought the car in sooner, you wouldn't have this problem." Luther didn't mean to be cold with his answer; he was only telling her the truth. Carmen's mood changed in that instant.
"How much is this going to cost me?"
"I don't know. I'll have to look at the cost of the parts." Luther was now inspecting the rear brakes.
"I don't want to spend a small fortune on repairs; I'm letting you know that right now." Carmen became standoffish. She hoped her attitude would indicate that she'd done some kind of research on brake repair jobs and wasn't going to pay one cent over what she considered to be a fair price.
"Your rear brakes will last a little longer, but not too much longer. You'll probably need to replace them by this winter." Luther continued his inspection. He was now focusing on the muffler system.
"Do you see this?" He pointed to a brown rust spot in the muffler pipeline. That's the beginning of a hole. By the time the winter sets in, you're going to have to replace this pipe or your car will sound like a tank coming down the street." Luther did one more check to make sure that everything was tightly secure. Carmen stood with her arms crisscrossed. Her irritation level was rising with each second that ticked by. She simply wanted to know the cost of fixing the brakes; she could not have cared less about the muffler. Her main concern was that her car came to a stop when she pressed the brake pedal.
"Okay, let's go back up front and I'll give you an estimate."
Luther stepped back behind the counter, began looking up the cost of the parts, and calculated the cost of the labor involved. He leaned toward her, resting his arm on the countertop and began explaining the itemized list he'd placed before her.
"The brake pads are seventy-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. The new rotors are one hundred dollars each; you need two of those. The labor will cost you seventy-five dollars. There is a two-dollar disposal fee, plus tax, brings your total to this right here." Luther circled the number.
"Three hundred eighty-seven dollars and ninety-nine cents!" Carmen blurted out the words before she had a chance to adjust her tone. "Don't you have some kind of discount or sale going on?"
"No." Luther was sharp and abrupt with his answer.
"Well, I think that you're robbing me and charging me way too much!" Carmen got loud with Luther. There was no way she was about to let him take advantage of her like this. She wanted him to look at the estimate again and give her some type of discount, especially if she was about to spend damn near four hundred dollars.
"Look, lady!" Luther barked. He had an evil glare and viciousness in his voice. "I wasn't the one who was driving around in the damn car for a fucking month with the motherfucking brake light on. I don't set the goddamn prices; the factory does!" Carmen flinched with fear. She thought for sure the mechanic had lost it. She was not expecting to get an explosive reaction from him. At that moment, the shop owner walked back in with a customer. He'd overheard Luther and quickly pulled him into the garage area for a private conversation.
"What the fuck is wrong with you, man!" Carmen overheard the owner rip into Luther as the door to the garage area slowly shut. "You don't talk to my customers like that!"
Luther glanced at Carmen and his eyes were blazing with resentment. Carmen wanted to leave, but she couldn't because her car was still in the air. The owner cupped his hand and placed it at the back of Luther's neck so that he could hold his gaze.
"She can kiss my ass, man!" Luther howled out loud enough for Carmen to hear.
"That's it. Get out of here!" the owner shouted back.
"Fuck you, man. I didn't need this shitty-ass job anyway!"
Carmen watched as Luther gathered his belongings and left. A moment later the owner came back and spoke with Carmen.
"Look, ma'am, I'm so sorry that he yelled at you like that. I'm only going to charge you a flat three hundred dollars for the repairs to your car. Is that fair enough?"
"Okay, but where is Luther going?"
"Ma'am, he had two strikes against him already." The owner paused.
"But I was the one who provoked him. I don't want the man to lose his job because of me." Carmen felt horrible.
"Miss, we get upset customers all the time. It's part of the business and he knows that. He should not have used that threatening tone with you. I've spoken with him about his tone of voice on several occasions and warned him about it. He had a final warning yesterday. I'm a small business owner and how my customers are treated is very important for my referral and repeat customers. I don't want my customers to have a bad experience when they come here. Do you understand where I'm coming from?"
"ButÉ" Carmen's voice trailed off.
"Ma'am, do you want your car repaired or not? I can get another mechanic started on it right away."
"Yes," Carmen answered as she watched Luther chase down a Stony Island bus that was heading north.
© 2009 by Earl Sewell