Ralph Packer drove thirty miles to work every day, most of it on a desolate highway with few diversions to pass the time. Radio reception was poor between the mountains so he spent a lot of time evaluating his life: most of his appraisal focused on Jack Sprague, his long-time employer, and Nancy Willis, Sprague’s secretary. Jack Sprague operated the town’s sole auto repair shop, where he serviced all the city vehicles. Sprague treated Ralph, his bookkeeper, pretty well, knowing he’d never find another sap with a college degree who’d work for less than $50, 000 a year and make the books balance no matter what. Packard stayed on because Sprague made him a partner of sorts, giving him 30% of the business over time.
Ralph was also in love with Nancy Willis, the secretary, but had been too shy to make a move. Leaving Sprague’s outfit would end both his chances with Nancy and his share in the business, Sprague’d written that stipulation into the contract. Ralph was an indentured servant for all purposes.
Nancy Willis bore the brunt of Sprague’s considerable hostility. She wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but she worked hard, was honest, and had been prom queen in high school. Sprague never let a day pass when he didn’t find a mistake Nancy’d made. Sometimes it was a typo; other days it was a missed appointment or a late arrival. Along with the scoldings came a constant stream of innuendo and more than the occasional squeeze on her arm, waist or thigh. Somehow Sprague intuited Ralph’s interest in Nancy and liked to brush up against her breast whenever Ralph was watching, breaking into a grin every time.
Nancy never complained, being the sole support of her younger brother and grandmother. She was smart enough to know she was only kept on because of her physical appearance. Petersboro was a small town with few opportunities; it was Sprague’s Auto Repair, the paper mill, or Walmart.
“What brought you here in the first place?” Ralph finally asked Nancy one day. Sprague was out of earshot in the yard, under the town’s ambulance. He liked to do the important jobs himself, even though he was only a so-so mechanic. “You don’t seem suited to the job.” Ralph had never got his nerve up to say this much before and it was coming out all wrong.
“I was hoping for a job as a grease monkey. My older brothers taught me everything they knew about fixing cars. They work in the Army Motor Pool now.”
Ralph’s eyes grew wide. “Did you tell him that? That you can fix cars?” He looked out the window where only Sprague’s legs were visible.
She nodded. “He just laughed and said he never met a woman who could change a light bulb much less a transmission.”
Ralph shook his head. “He could use a good mechanic. Why don’t you remind him?”
“He says he wants me right where I am.”
Ralph couldn’t think of anything to say after that though he wished he could promise Nancy something more. His 30% share didn’t give him any say in hiring decisions. “Don’t worry,” Sprague had told him when he questioned its worth. “If I die, the new owner will have to buy you out or keep you on at 45%. I wrote that into my will.” Then he flexed his muscle. “Though it don’t look like I’m dying anytime soon.”
One day Ralph came into the office and found Nancy crying. “What is it?” he asked, throwing his jacket off. He’d never seen Nancy cry before and was struck by how it made her eyes brighter and put a pink glow on her cheeks. He’d never imagined crying could improve someone’s looks. Still he didn’t like seeing her like this and wanted to put his hand on her shoulder. But something held him back. Maybe it was the stiffness in her back.
“Mr. Sprague sort of raped me last night.” She looked around fearfully as though their boss might have heard.
“Don’t worry. His car’s not in the lot. What do you mean—sort of?”
“I guess he did rape me.” She said it resolutely now. “He pushed me into his office and onto his desk. And then he did it.”
“Did you go to the police?”
“Sheriff Conway’s car’s out in the yard waiting for a lube job right now,” she said, looking out the window. “They play poker every Friday night.” She opened her appointment book. “And Officer Diehl hosted Mr. Sprague’s sixtieth birthday party last month. At the Kiwanis Hall.” She flipped through the pages. “My doctor gets his car serviced for free three times a year. Judge Mercer at the County Courthouse is married to Mr. Sprague’s sister.”
Ralph cleared his throat. “There’s other towns. Other police officers. Judges.” He couldn’t even persuade himself. “It’s not too late.”
Her eyelids fluttered. “Mr. Sprague has a long reach.”
Ralph paused a few seconds. “So you’re pretty good at fixing cars, huh?”
“Pretty good, yes.”
“How ‘bout fixin’ auto lifts?” Nancy shrugged.
The town of Petersboro’s ancient fire engine fell on Jack Sprague on Thursday afternoon. He’d just slid under the truck to take a look at the problem when a loud, shrieking sound brought everyone running.
One of the volunteer fire fighters, idling while Sprague examined his truck, raced over and covered Nancy Willis’s eyes. “You don’t want see something like that.” She turned away as they began the process of extracting Sprague’s body.
Ralph Packer and Nancy Willis married the next spring and renamed the business Packer-Willis Auto Repair. “Too bad Sprague never realized what a jewel he had hiding in his office,” the police chief told the fire chief as they watched Nancy work on the town’s ambulance.
“Bet he thought she was only good for the one thing,” the fire chief told the police chief.”