Lawrence Block – Nothing Short of Highway Robbery

I eased up on the gas pedal a few hundred yards ahead of the service station. I was putting the brakes on when my brother Newton opened his eyes and straightened up in his seat.

“We haven’t got but a gallon of gas left if we got that much,” I told him. “And there’s nothing out ahead of us but a hundred miles of sand and a whole lot of cactus, and I already seen enough cactus to last me a spell.”

He smothered a yawn with the back of his hand. “Guess I went and fell asleep,” he said.

“Guess you did.”

He yawned again while a fellow a few years older’n us came off of the front porch of the house and walked our way, moving slow, taking his time. He was wearing a broadbrimmed white hat against the sun and a pair of bib overalls. The house wasn’t much, a one-story clapboard structure with a flat roof. The garage alongside it must have been built at the same time and designed by the same man.

He came around to my side and I told him to fill the tank. “Regular,” I said.

He shook his head. “High-test is all I got,” he said. “That be all right?”

I nodded and he went around the car and commenced unscrewing the gas cap. “Only carries high-test,” I said, not wildly happy about it.

“It’ll burn as good as the regular, Vern.”

“I guess I know that. I guess I know it’s another five cents a gallon or another dollar bill on a tankful of gas, and don’t you just bet that’s why he does it that way? Because what the hell can you do if you want regular? This bird’s the only game in town.”

“Well, I don’t guess a dollar’ll break us, Vern.”

I said I guessed not and I took a look around. The pump wasn’t so far to the rear that I couldn’t get a look at it, and when I did I saw the price per gallon, and it wasn’t just an extra nickel that old boy was taking from us. His high-test was priced a good twelve cents a gallon over everybody else’s high-test.

I pointed this out to my brother and did some quick sums in my head. Twelve cents plus a nickel times, say, twenty gallons was three dollars and forty cents. I said, “Damn, Newton, you know how I hate being played for a fool.”

“Well, maybe he’s got his higher costs and all. Being out in the middle of nowhere and all, little town like this.”

“Town? Where’s the town at? Where we are ain’t nothing but a wide place in the road.”

And that was really all it was. Not even a crossroads, just the frame house and the garage alongside it, and on the other side of the road a cafe with a sign advertising home-cooked food and package goods. A couple cars over by the garage, two of them with their hoods up and various parts missing from them. Another car parked over by the cafe.

“Newt,” I said, “you ever see a softer place’n this?”

“Don’t even think about it.”

“Not thinking about a thing. Just mentioning.”

“We don’t bother with nickels and dimes no more, Vernon. We agreed on that. By tonight we’ll be in Silver City. Johnny Mack Lee’s already there and first thing in the morning we’ll be taking that bank off slicker’n a bald tire. You know all that.”

“I know.”

“So don’t be exercising your mind over nickels and dimes.”

“Oh, I know it,” I said. “Only we could use some kind of money pretty soon. What have we got left? Hundred dollars?”

“Little better than that.”

“Not much better, though.”

“Well, tomorrow’s payday,” Newt said.

I knew he was right but it’s a habit a man gets into, looking at a place and figuring how he would go about taking it off. Me and Newt, we always had a feeling for places like filling stations and liquor stores and 7-11 stores and like that. You just take ’em off nice and easy, you get in and get out and a man can make a living that way. Like the saying goes, it don’t pay much but it’s regular.

But then the time came that we did a one-to-five over to the state pen and it was an education. We both of us came out of there knowing the right people and the right way to operate. One thing we swore was to swear off nickels and dimes. The man who pulls quick-dollar stickups like that, he works ten times as often and takes twenty times the risks of the man who takes his time setting up a big job and scoring it. I remember Johnny Mack Lee saying it takes no more work to knock over a bank than a bakery and the difference is dollars to doughnuts.

I looked up and saw the dude with the hat poking around under the hood. “What’s he doing now, Newt? Prospecting for more gold?”

“Checking the oil, I guess.”

“Hope we don’t need none,” I said. ‘”Cause you just know he’s gotta be charging two dollars a quart for it.”

Well, we didn’t need any oil. And you had to admit he did a good job of checking under there, topping up the battery terminals and all. Then he came around and leaned against the car door.

“Oil’s okay,” he said. “You sure took a long drink of gas. Good you had enough to get here. And this here’s the last station for a whole lot of highway.”

“Well,” I said. “How much do we owe you?”

He named a figure. High as it was, it came as no surprise to me since I’d already turned and read it off of the pump. Then as I was reaching in my pocket he said, “I guess you know about that fan clutch, don’t you?”

“Fan clutch?”

He gave a long slow nod. “I suppose you got a few miles left in it,” he said. “Thing is, it could go any minute. You want to step out of the car for a moment I can show you what I’m talking about.”

Well, I got out, and Newt got out his side, and we went and joined this bird and peeked under the hood. He reached behind the radiator and took ahold of some damned thing or other and showed us how it was wobbling. “The fan clutch,” he said. “You ever replace this here since you owned the car?”

Newt looked at me and I looked back at him. All either of us ever knew about a car is starting it and stopping it and the like. As a boy Newt was awful good at starting them without keys. You know how kids are.

“Now if this goes,” he went on, “then there goes your water pump. Probably do a good job on your radiator at the same time. You might want to wait and have your own mechanic take care of it for you. The way it is, though, I wouldn’t want to be driving too fast or too far with it. Course if you hold it down to forty miles an hour and stop from time to time so’s the heat won’t build up-”

His voice trailed off. Me and Newt looked at each other again. Newt asked some more about the fan clutch and the dude wobbled it again and told us more about what it did, which we pretended to pay attention to and nodded like it made sense to us.

“This fan clutch,” Newt said. “What’s it run to replace it?”

“Around thirty, thirty-five dollars. Depends on the model and who does the work for you, things like that.”

“Take very long?”

“Maybe twenty minutes.”

“Could you do it for us?”

The dude considered, cleared his throat, spat in the dirt. “Could,” he allowed. “If I got the part. Let me just go and check.”

When he walked off I said, “Brother, what’s the odds that he’s got that part?”

“No bet a-tall. You figure there’s something wrong with our fan clutch?”

“Who knows?”

“Yeah,” Newt said. “Can’t figure on him being a crook and just spending his life out here in the middle of nowhere, but then you got to consider the price he gets for the gas and all. He hasn’t had a customer since we pulled in, you know. Maybe he gets one car a day and tries to make a living off it.”

“So tell him what to do with his fan clutch.”

“Then again, Vern, maybe all he is in the world is a good mechanic trying to do us a service. Suppose we cut out of here and fifty miles down the road our fan clutch up and kicks our water pump through our radiator or whatever the hell it is. By God, Vernon, if we don’t get to Silver City tonight Johnny Mack Lee’s going to be vexed with us.”

“That’s a fact. But thirty-five dollars for a fan clutch sure eats a hole in our capital, and suppose we finally get to Silver City and find out Johnny Mack Lee got out the wrong side of bed and slipped on a banana peel or something? Meaning if we get there and there’s no job and we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, then what do we do?”

“Well, I guess it’s better’n being stuck in the desert.”

“I guess.”

Of course he had just the part he needed. You had to wonder how a little gas station like that would happen to carry a full line of fan clutches, which I never even heard of that particular part before, but when I said as much to Newt he shrugged and said maybe an out-of-the-way place like that was likely to carry a big stock because he was too far from civilization to order parts when the need for them arose.

“The thing is,” he said, “all up and down the line you can read all of this either way. Either we’re being taken or we’re being done a favor for, and there’s no way to know for sure.”

While he set about doing whatever he had to do with the fan clutch, we took his advice and went across the street for some coffee. “Woman who runs the place is a pretty fair cook,” he said. “I take all my meals there my own self.”

“Takes all his meals here,” I said to Newt. “Hell, she’s got him where he’s got us. He don’t want to eat here, he can walk sixty miles to a place more to his liking.”

The car that had been parked at the cafe was gone now and we were the only customers. The woman in charge was too thin and rawboned to serve as an advertisement for her own cooking. She had her faded blonde hair tied up in a red kerchief and she was perched on a stool smoking a cigarette and studying a True Confessions magazine. We each of us ordered apple pie at a dollar a wedge and coffee at thirty-five cents a cup. While we were eating a car pulled up and a man wearing a suit and tie bought a pack of cigarettes from her. He put down a dollar bill and didn’t get back but two dimes change.

“I think I know why that old boy across the street charges so much,” Newt said softly. “He needs to get top dollar if he’s gonna pay for his meals here.”

“She does charge the earth.”

“You happen to note the liquor prices? She gets seven dollars for a bottle of Ancient Age bourbon. And that’s not for a quart, either. That’s for a fifth.”

I nodded slowly. I said, “I just wonder where they keep all that money.”

“Brother, we don’t even want to think on that.”

“Never hurt a man to think.”

“These days it’s all credit cards anyways. The tourist trade is nothing but credit cards and his regular customers most likely run a monthly tab and give him a check for it.”

“We’ll be paying cash.”

“Well, it’s a bit hard to establish credit in our line of work.”

“Must be other people pays him cash. And the food and liquor over here, that’s gotta be all cash, or most all cash.”

“And how much does it generally come to in a day? Be sensible. As little business as they’re doing-”

“I already thought of that. Same time, though, look how far they are from wherever they do their banking.”


“So they wouldn’t be banking the day’s receipts every night. More likely they drive in and make their deposits once a week, maybe even once every two weeks.”

Newt thought about that. “Likely you’re right,” he allowed. “Still, we’re just talking small change.”

“Oh, I know.”

But when we paid for our pie and coffee Newton gave the old girl a smile and told her how we sure had enjoyed the pie, which we hadn’t all that much, and how her husband was doing a real good job on our car over across the street.

“Oh, he does real good work,” she said.

“What he’s doing for us,” Newt said, “he’s replacing our fan clutch. I guess you probably get a lot of people here needing new fan clutches.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” she said. “Thing is I don’t know much about cars. He’s the mechanic and I’m the cook is how we divvy things up.”

“Sounds like a good system,” Newt told her.

On the way across the street Newt separated two twenties from our bankroll and tucked them into his shirt pocket. Then I reminded him about the gas and he added a third twenty. He gave the rest of our stake a quick count and shook his head in annoyance. “We’re getting pretty close to the bone,” he said. “Johnny Mack Lee better be where’s he’s supposed to be.”

“He’s always been reliable.”

“That’s God’s truth. And the bank, it better be the piece of cake he says it is.”

“I just hope.”

“Twenty thousand a man is how he has it figured. Plus he says it could run three times that. I sure wouldn’t complain if it did, brother.”

I said I wouldn’t either. “It does make it silly to even think about nickels and dimes,” I said.

“Just what I was telling you.”

“I was never thinking about it, really. Not in the sense of doing it. Just mental exercise, keeps the brain in order.”

He gave me a brotherly punch in the shoulder and we laughed together some. Then we went on to where the dude in the big hat was playing with our car. He gave us a big smile and held out a piece of metal for us to admire. “Your old fan clutch,” he said, which I had more or less figured. “Take hold of this part. That’s it, right there. Now try to turn it.”

I tried to turn it and it was hard to turn. He had Newt do the same thing. “Tight,” Newt said.

“Lucky you got this far with it,” he said, and clucked his tongue and shook his head and heaved the old fan clutch onto a heap of old metallic junk.

I stood there wondering if a fan clutch was supposed to turn hard or easy or not at all, and if that was our original fan clutch or a piece of junk he kept around for this particular purpose, and I knew my brother Newton was wondering just the same thing. I wished they could have taught us something useful in the state pen, something that might have come in handy in later life, something like your basic auto mechanics course. But they had me melting my flesh off my bones in the prison laundry and they had Newt sewing mail sacks, which there isn’t much call for in civilian life, being the state penal system has an official monopoly on the business.

Meanwhile Newt had the three twenties out of his shirt pocket and was standing there straightening them out and lining up their edges. “Let’s see now,” he said. “That’s sixteen and change for the gas, and you said thirty to thirty-five for the fan clutch, so what’s that all come to?”

It turned out that it came to just under eighty-five dollars.

The fan clutch, it seemed, had run higher than he’d thought it would. Forty-two fifty was what it came to, and that was for the part exclusive of labor. Labor tacked another twelve dollars onto our tab. And while he’d been working there under the hood, our friend had found a few things that simply needed attending to. Our fan belt, for example, was clearly on its last legs and ready to pop any minute. He showed it to us and you could see how worn it was, all frayed and just a thread or two away from popping.

So he had replaced it, and he’d replaced our radiator hoses at the same time. He fished around in his junkpile and came up with a pair of radiator hoses which he said had come off our car. The rubber was old and stiff with little cracks in the surface, and it sure smelled like something awful.

I studied the hoses and agreed they were in terrible shape. “So you just went ahead and replaced them on your own,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I didn’t want to bother you while you were eating.”

“That was considerate,” Newt said.

“I figured you fellows would want it seen to. You blow a fan belt or a hose out there, well, it’s a long walk back, you know. Course I realize you didn’t authorize me to do the work, so if you actually want me to take the new ones off and put the old back on-”

Of course there was no question of doing that. Newt looked at me for a minute and I looked back at him and he took out our roll, which I don’t guess you could call a roll anymore from the size of it, and he peeled off another twenty and a ten and added them to the three twenties from his shirt pocket. He held the money in his hand and looked at it and then at the dude, then back at the money, then back at the dude again. You could see he was doing heavy thinking, and I had an idea where his thoughts were leading.

Finally he took in a whole lot of air and let it out in a rush and said, “Well, hell, I guess it’s worth it if it leaves us with a car in good condition. Last thing either of us wants is any damn trouble with the damn car and I guess it’s worth it. This fixes us up, right? Now we’re in good shape with nothing to worry about, right?”

“Well,” the dude said.

We looked at him.

“There is a thing I noticed.”


“If you’ll just look right here,” he said. “See how the rubber grommet’s gone on the top of your shock absorber mounting, that’s what called it to my attention. Now you see your car’s right above the hydraulic lift, that’s cause I had it up before to take a look at your shocks. Now let me just raise it up again and I can point out to you what’s wrong.”

Well, he pressed a switch or some such to send the car up off the ground, and then he pointed here and there underneath it to show us where the shocks were shot and something was cutting into something else and about to commence bending the frame.

“If you got the time you ought to let me take care of that for you,” he said. “Because if you don’t get it seen to you wind up with frame damage and your whole front end goes on you, and then where are you?”

He let us take a long look at the underside of the car. There was no question that something was pressing on something and cutting into it. What the hell it all added up to was beyond me.

“Just let me talk to my brother a minute,” Newt said to him, and he took hold of my arm and we walked around the side.

“Well,” he said, “what do you think? It looks like this old boy here is sticking it in pretty deep.”

“It does at that. But that fan belt was shot and those hoses was the next thing to petrified.”


“If they was our fan belt and hoses in the first place and not some junk he had around.”

“I had that very thought, Vern.”

“Now as for the shock absorbers-”

“Something sure don’t look altogether perfect underneath that car. Something’s sure cutting into something.”

“I know it. But maybe he just went and got a file or some such thing and did some cutting himself.”

“In other words, either he’s a con man or he’s a saint.”

“Except we know he ain’t a saint, not at the price he gets for gasoline, and not telling us how he eats all his meals across the road and all the time his own wife’s running it.”

“So what do we do? You want to go on to Silver City on those shocks? I don’t even know if we got enough money to cover putting shocks on, far as that goes.”

We walked around to the front and asked the price of the shocks. He worked it all out with pencil and paper and came up with a figure of forty-five dollars, including the parts and the labor and the tax and all. Newt and I went into another huddle and he counted his money and I went through my own pockets and came up with a couple of dollars, and it worked out that we could pay what we owed and get the shocks and come up with three dollars to bless ourselves with.

So I looked at Newt and he looked back at me and gave a great shrug of his shoulders. Close as we are we can say a lot without speaking.

We told the dude to go ahead and do the work.

While he installed the shocks, me and Newt went across the road and had us a couple of chicken-fried steaks. They wasn’t bad at all even if the price was on the high side. We washed the steaks down with a beer apiece and then each of us had a cup of that coffee. I guess there’s been times I had better coffee.

“I’d say you fellows sure were lucky you stopped here,” the woman said.

“It’s our lucky day, all right,” Newt said. While he paid her I looked over the paperback books and magazines. Some of them looked to be old and secondhand but they weren’t none of them reduced in price on account of it, and this didn’t surprise me much.

What also didn’t surprise us was when we got back to find the shocks installed and our friend with his big hat off and scratching his mop of hair and telling us how the rear shocks was in even worse shape than the front ones. He went and ran the car up in the air again to show us more things that didn’t mean much to us.

Newton said, “Well, sir, my brother and I, we talked it over. We figure we been neglecting this here automobile and we really ought to do right by it. If those rear shocks is bad, well, let’s just get ’em the hell off of there and new ones on. And while we’re here I’m just about positive we’re due for an oil change.”

“And I’ll replace the oil filter while I’m at it.”

“You do that,” Newt told him. “And I guess you’ll find other things that can do with a bit of fixing. Now we haven’t got all the time in the world or all the money in the world either, but I guess we got us a pair of hours to spare, and we consider ourselves lucky having the good fortune to run up against a mechanic who knows which end of the wrench is which. So what we’ll do, we’ll just find us a patch of shade to set in and you check that car over and find things to do to her. Only things that need doing, but I guess you’d be the best judge of that.”

Well, I’ll tell you he found things to fix. Now and then a car would roll on in and he’d have to go and sell somebody a tank of gas, but we sure got the lion’s share of his time. He replaced the air filter, he cleaned the carburetor, he changed the oil and replaced the oil filter, he tuned the engine and drained and flushed the radiator and filled her with fresh coolant, he gave us new plugs and points, he did this and that and every damn thing he could think of, and I guess the only parts of that car he didn’t replace were ones he didn’t have replacement parts for.

Through it all Newt and I sat in a patch of shade and sipped Cokes out of the bottle. Every now and then that bird would come over and tell us what else he found that he ought to be doing, and we’d look at each other and shrug our shoulders and say for him to go ahead and do what had to be done.

“Amazing what was wrong with that car of ours,” Newt said to me. “Here I thought it rode pretty good.”

“Hell, I pulled in here wanting nothing in the world but a tank of gas. Maybe a quart of oil, and oil was the one thing in the world we didn’t need, or it looks like.”

“Should ride a whole lot better once he’s done with it.”

“Well I guess it should. Man’s building a whole new car around the cigarette lighter.”

“And the clock. Nothing wrong with that clock, outside of it loses a few minutes a day.”

“Lord,” Newt said, “don’t you be telling him about those few minutes the clock loses. We won’t never get out of here.”

That dude took the two hours we gave him and about twelve minutes besides, and then he came on over into the shade and presented us with his bill. It was all neatly itemized, everything listed in the right place and all of it added up, and the figure in the bottom right-hand corner with the circle around it read $277.45.

“That there is quite a number,” I said.

He put the big hat on the back of his head and ran his hand over his forehead. “Whole lot of work involved,” he said. “When you take into account all of those parts and all that labor.”

“Oh, that’s for certain,” Newt said. “And I can see they all been taken into account, all right.”

“That’s clear as black and white,” I said. “One thing, you couldn’t call this a nickel-and-dime figure.”

“That you couldn’t,” Newton said. “Well, sir, let me just go and get some money from the car. Vern?”

We walked over to the car together. “Funny how things work out,” Vern said. “I swear people get forced into things, I just swear to hell and gone they do. What did either of us want beside a tank of gas?”

“Just a tank of gas is all.”

“And here we are,” he said. He opened the door on the passenger side, waited for a pickup truck to pass going west to east, then popped the glove compartment. He took the.38 for himself and gave me the.32 revolver. “I’ll just settle up with our good buddy here,” he said, loud enough for the good buddy in question to hear him. “Meanwhile, why don’t you just step across the street and pick us up something to drink later on this evening? You never know, might turn out to be a long ways between liquor stores.”

I went and gave him a little punch in the upper arm. He laughed the way he does and I put the.32 in my pocket and trotted on across the road to the cafe.

The End

Categories: Block, Lawrence