Phil Leggett peered through the porthole in the side door of the Nyquist's garage. As usual, Ratchet was at his father's workbench, hunched in utter concentration over his latest dubious experiment, oblivious to the world around him. Phil knew he was taking his life in his hands just being near the guy, but at least he wasn't boring. He wasn't sure if he should frantically pound on the door first and scare Ratchet out of his wits, or sneak into the garage and creep up behind him and scare him out of his wits. Either way, it would be entertaining enough.
Phil couldn't quite make up his mind. He decided to flip a coin—if he could find one. He reached into the pocket of his jeans. Nothing. He thrust his hands into his jacket pocket. Still no coin.
Something better. Something much better. A string of firecrackers!
Phil didn't know how long they'd been in his pocket; probably they were all pretty stale by now. But at least it was worth a shot. He patted his jacket again, and to his even further delight, he discovered disposable green plastic butane lighter, probably from the same era as the firecrackers. Life couldn't get any better! Phil shook the lighter, and discovered there was still a dribble of butane left, which was all he needed. He peered in the window again; Ratchet was still in deep concentration.
With utmost care, Phil quietly opened the door, just wide enough to slip the string of firecrackers in. He flicked the butane lighter a few times, to no avail.
"Rats!" he whispered under his breath. Just before he tossed the lighter into the flowerbed in disgust, he decided to try it one more time.
Phil touched the sputtering flame to the fuse of the first firecracker in the string, and quietly pulled the door closed, calmly waiting for World War III to erupt inside.
The echo of the rapid-fire explosions had to have been deafening inside the hard-walled garage; it was loud enough to wake the dead even outside. However, after the racket died out, one thing that was oddly missing. No screams, yells or cursing from Ratchet! Phil immediately panicked; certain that he had given Ratchet a heart attack!
His heart pounding with remorse, he quickly opened the door to investigate; his nostrils burned from the smell of burnt gunpowder, as a gray haze filled the garage. To Phil's utter astonishment, Ratchet was calmly soldering away at something on the bench.
"Most of my friends just knock," Ratchet said evenly, not even bothering to lift his eyes off his project.
"Next time it will be a M-80!" Phil grumbled to himself.
Ratchet stuffed his soldering iron into its holder and stretched. "Now that you've had your little giggle, would you care to do something useful?"
"Useful is my middle name," Phil said, cracking his knuckles.
Mr. Nyquist entered the garage through the kitchen door, stopped and sniffed the air, curiously. Ratchet turned around on his swivel stool.
“Oh, hi Dad.”
“Greetings, next generation. Give me a reason to hope for the future.” He pressed the electric garage door opener by the kitchen doorjamb.
Ratchet lifted his “device” off the bench, and placed it on his knees. “Funny you should mention that, O paternal unit. As a matter of fact, this is going to make us all rich. It’s a robotic control for a lawnmower.”
Mr. Nyquist peered out the open garage door toward the somewhat overgrown front lawn. “Evidently, it’s not quite ready for prime time. Alas. Your unbridled optimism had me on the very precipice of turning in my two-week notice.”
Ratchet took the not-too-subtle hint. “I’ll take care of it, Dad. By the way, are you by any chance going by Selectronix today?”
“I could probably deign to darken their door.”
“Cool. Could you pick me up a multimeter? Just get one of those El Cheapos by the counter. I fried my old one.”
Mr. Nyquist shook his head in mock disgust. “Why can’t you boys just do drugs like normal teenagers? Why, when I was your age...” his words tapered off as he entered the minivan and started the engine. As he backed out of the garage, Phil stared at Ratchet in astonishment.
“Your dad was a druggie?!”
Ratchet laughed. “I don’t think so. He was more of a nerd than you and me put together. He still is.”
“Yeah, I sort of gathered that. I wonder what my dad would have been like. Sometimes I think even a butthead of a dad would be better than a dead one.”
Ratchet lowered his eyes to the robot on his knees. “Yeah, that sort of sucks.” He lifted his head. “But you can borrow my dad whenever you want. He needs another hobby, anyway.”
Phil nodded. “Well, I think I’ve been borrowing your refrigerator for a few years already.”
Ratchet turned and fixed his eyes on the gas lawnmower by the clothes dryer. “I know how you can pay me back. After all, you just told me your middle name is ‘useful’.”
Phil sighed in resignation. “Yeah. I guess it won’t kill me. By the way, sorry about the firecrackers, man.”
Ratchet shifted his eyes back and forth, mystified. “Firecrackers? Oh...that! I just thought you’d come back from Frijole Federico’s. Thought it smelled a little better than usual, though.”
“You’re a strange individual, Ratchet. Speaking of gas, is there any in that lawnmower?”
“Should be. If not, there’s a can back there somewhere.”
Phil scanned the area quickly, and spotted the red plastic gas can atop Mrs. Nyquist’s potting bench. “Ah. Got it.” He grabbed the can and rolled the lawnmower out to the driveway, as Ratchet returned to his mad scientist work. Within a minute the air was filled with the fragrance of free labor and new-mown grass. The putt-putt of the little engine was music to Ratchet’s ears.
After a few moments of deep concentration, Mrs. Nyquist poked her head into the garage.
“Ratchet, you have a phone call.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s a girl.”
Ratchet knew that couldn’t be good.
Mrs. Nyquist passed Ratchet the phone after he washed the grease off his hands.
“Hi, Ratchet. This is Marzo.”
“Oh. Uh, hi Marzo.”
“You always sound so thrilled to hear me.”
“Uh. Right. What did I do wrong this time?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to ask you for a favor.”
“Why me, pray tell?”
“Because you’re madly in love with me and would do anything for me.”
“Let me put you on speakerphone so my mom can hear this.”
“Ratchet! This is me!”
“I know. That’s what worries me.”
“Quit being so juvenile. I just need a babysitter. Well, actually a doggy sitter. Just for a few days.”
“You mean for that four-legged bat?”
“Juan Valdez is not a four-legged bat. He’s a pedigreed Chihuahua! Anyway, you’re the only one I’d trust with him. You’re so...reliable.”
“It’s a curse. Oh, all right. You’ll owe me big time, though.”
“You’re a sweetie. Thanks. I’ll bring his stuff over right away.”
“You’re bringing him here?!”
“Of course! I just want to make it convenient for you.”
“I don’t think so! Chihuahuas shiver and pee. I don’t want to be shivered at and peed on while I’m not looking. I’ll make the trip.”
“Okay. Suit yourself. Sunday through Monday, next week. I’ll have everything set out for you. Okay?”
“Okay,” Ratchet sighed. "Where do you live?"
"You know where I live, you geek!"
"Refresh my memory. I was delirious when I dropped you off that time."
"3 Harland Court."
"3? Just plain 3?!"
"What's wrong with that?"
"What kind of street address has a one-digit number?"
"Like...maybe a street that has between one and nine houses, inclusive, on it?"
"It just doesn't sound right."
"Okay. Just for you, it's 0003 Harland Court. Happy now?"
"Yes. Much better. Thanks."
"Should I pay you first, or when we come back?"
"Don't worry about that. I'll consider it a charitable donation."
“You are a sweetie. See you soon!”
Marzo made a kissing sound in the phone, and hung up.
Mrs. Nyquist returned to the kitchen. “Who was that, dear? She sure sounds adorable.”
“That was, uh, Marzo.”
“That’s an interesting name. Why don’t you bring her around some time?”
"What do you mean, 'Right, Mom'?"
"She’s not exactly my type.”
“Well, let’s just say, she’s not exactly what your generation would call "dainty." She could change a truck tire without benefit of a lug wrench. Or a jack, for that matter.”
“Is she cute?” Mrs. Nyquist persisted.
“Define cute. Cute as in baby rhinoceros cute, or cute as in...well...girl cute?”
“Now that’s not nice, Ratchet. She obviously likes you a lot.”
“What?! How can you know that? You only answered the phone!”
“Women know this stuff, Ratchet. We can tell.”
“Thanks, Mom. That’s just what I needed to hear. Point me to a monastery.”
Mrs. Nyquist was undeterred. "Say, isn't there a spring dance coming up soon? You aren't seeing anyone. Why don't you take her?"
"I already have a lug wrench in my trunk. And a perfectly good jack. And besides, I'm going to be doing homework that night."
Mrs. Nyquist shook her head. "You're something else, Ratchet."
"Yeah, but I'm all your fault. Gotta run now!"
Ratchet beat a hasty retreat to the safety of his workbench. However, he realized there wasn't much he could do on his project without the multimeter. He decided to supervise Phil for entertainment until his dad came back.
After a few minutes, the lawnmower sputtered to a halt, out of gas. The job was about ninety-percent done, since it was a small lawn.
"I can finish that up, Phil. I need to do something pointless for a while."
Phil sputtered in disbelief. "What's wrong, Ratch; did you see the grim reaper?"
"Worse. Much worse. Mom's trying to set me up with Marzo."
"You mean...as in...Marzo? That Marzo?"
"The one and only."
"Has your mom ever seen Marzo?"
"No. I don't think it would make any difference, though. Mom's sort of weird that way. She gets this 'intuition' about stuff."
"I feel for you, buddy. Well, maybe you'll get a real girlfriend and this will all go away."
"I'd settle for a fake girlfriend if it would make Marzo go away."
"Hey! That's an idea! I could probably arrange that for ya!"
"Whatever. Well, I'd better finish this up before the P.U. gets back."
Ratchet refilled the tank on the lawnmower and finished mowing the remainder of the lawn on mental
autopilot. He shut off the mower, rolled it into the garage, and retrieved the push broom. He swept the stray clippings off the sidewalk into a pile, which he then scooped into a garbage bag. He put everything away and joined Phil, who was seated at the bench, inspecting Ratchet's handiwork.
"Mass producing these things is going to be the hard part."
"Well, yeah," Ratchet admitted. I don't really plan on going there. If we can come up with a good prototype, we can license it to someone else and move on to the next project."
"Which is?" Phil probed.
Ratchet rubbed his head. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe a meddling mother disabling protocol or something like that."
Mrs. Nyquist poked her head into the garage again. "Are you boys hungry? I've got some leftunders. Whatever was left under the top refrigerator shelf."
"Sure, Mom. We'll be right in."
Ratchet and Phil properly raided the refrigerator, settling themselves at the kitchen counter. Mrs. Nyquist poured some coffee into some big mugs for the boys, and pulled up a stool next to Ratchet.
"So, how's your Mars rover going out there, dear?"
"Well, if it doesn't get lost in the front yard, we're doing pretty well."
"I see. Well, at least it's keeping you off the streets. I'm glad you have a hobby like that to keep you occupied. As long as it doesn't cost too much money."
As if on cue, the door of the kitchen opened, and Mr. Nyquist entered, several parcels along with the Saturday mail haul under his arm. He approached the counter and set a yellow-cased multimeter on the counter.
"Per your request. One each El Cheapo multimeter. Might I anticipate a substantial return on my investment, or will I forever rue the day the seed which issued forth from my loins bore fruit?"
"The former, O paternal unit."
"Excellent. Carry on, then."
Ratchet turned left off of Lloyd Avenue onto Harland Court. He now realized why the house numbers on Harland Court were in the single digits; they were all mansions.
Ratchet steered his olive drab Pacer to the curb in front of the third mansion, and pondered whether he should pull into the driveway. He didn't want to desecrate the pristine white concrete with oil drippings from his incontinent crankcase. He figured the risk was too high, so decided to leave his heap in the street.
He sauntered toward the front door, which had a large wrought iron placard overhead that read MOZZARELLA. He'd forgotten that was her last name. He wondered why anyone would add insult to injury by naming their kid Marzo on top of that. He pressed the doorbell, hoping nobody was home. To his disappointment, the door immediately opened. The dishwater blonde amazon, cradling a bulgy-eyed pooch in her immense arms, cheerily greeted him.
"Come in, Ratchet, we're so glad you could make it."
"Likewise, I'm sure," Ratchet retaliated, as another blonde lady, this one tall, slender, and stunning, entered the foyer.
"Mom, this is Ratchet," Margo swooned, her words as sticky as pancake syrup on a fork. "He's going to take care of Juan Valdez while we're gone."
Mrs. Mozzarella extended her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Ratchet. Marzo has told me so much about you."
"And yet you let me in your house," Ratchet quipped.
"He's cute and funny!" Mrs. Mozzarella said, winking at her daughter with frightening approval.
Marzo handed Ratchet a list of Chihuahua-watching instructions. She directed his attention to a fenced-off section of the kitchen. "All his stuff is right in there. If you can take him for a little walk once a day, he'd really appreciate it. He can use the yard out back to do his business. But not the lawn."
Ratchet scanned the list. "I think I can handle this. So, where are you going, anyway, if I can ask?"
Mrs. Mozzarella straightened a stray lock of her daughter's hair with her fingers. "Marzo's father is in Virginia on business for a while. He insists we come out there and see the Smithsonian while he's there. He's like a kid in a toy store when he talks about it. So, I guess we should see it once in our life. I guess it takes about a week to see the whole thing."
"Yeah, I've heard that about the place, too. Well that's cool. I wish I was going with you," Ratchet said.
"Maybe that could be arranged," Mrs. Mozzarella suggested, sounding much too serious for comfort.
"Uh. Well, that was just a rhetorical statement. I'm sure you have your arrangements all made already. It was just a passing thought. I have lots of passing thoughts."
"Well, I'm sure some day it could happen. Keep your options open."
Marzo gave her hapless pooch a crushing hug, which seemed to make his eyes bulge even farther out of their sockets. "Ratchet is going to take good care of you, Juan. You behave now. We'll be back before long." She lowered him over the fence onto the kitchen floor.
"I hope you don't think we're being terrible by making him stay in the kitchen. But we like to keep the carpet really nice."
Ratchet scanned the kitchen, which was about the size of Rhode Island. It was really hard to feel too bad about the little guy.
"I'm pretty sure he'll forgive you."
Mrs. Mozzarella handed Ratchet an extra set of house keys. "Feel free to make yourself at home; just be sure to lock up when you leave. There's some food in the fridge. Better to have it gone than spoiled. I told the neighbors you'd be coming around, so nobody's supposed to be shooting you without asking first."
"Ahh. Good call. Well, I guess I have all I need. When are you people taking off?"
"Our friends are driving us to the airport at nine tonight. You won't have to do anything for Juan Valdez till tomorrow morning."
"Okay. Well, I'd better get out of your hair and let you get ready. Have a safe trip." He turned and headed toward the door before anything unexpected and terrible could happen, like Marzo giving him a bone-crushing hug and forcing his eyeballs out of their sockets like that poor mutt.
As he stepped onto the porch and the door closed behind him, he slapped his head in disbelief. "I wish I was going with you??!!" he quoted himself, in horror. "Where in God's Green Earth did that come from? Eeeeyaaahh!"
Ratchet started up his Pacer, drove to the end of the cul-de-sac and turned around heading toward Lloyd Avenue. He noticed the number 9 on the last mansion. He was reminded of Marzo's snide remark on the phone.
"Like...maybe a street that has between one and nine houses, inclusive, on it?"
It suddenly struck him odd that someone like Marzo would have said inclusive in such a context. Marzo seemed like the last person on earth who would use the word inclusive, especially in the mathematical sense. Something didn't add up.
Ratchet decided it wasn't worth wasting any more brain cells on such a trivial point, and instead thought about his lawnmower robot on the drive home.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.