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"A guy don't walk on the lot 'lest he wants to buy." —Glengarry, Glen Ross by David Mamet
Chapter 1: Wednesday Bell To Bell
The stock market rose for ten years. The S&P 500 set and broke records until middle America, the majority, could no longer afford a car payment. Costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education shook out all the coins, so there was nothing left for the automotive business. Most folks were living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to survive, but there was a group that was flush. Not the one percent, but maybe the ten to twenty percent. At most, a third had spending cash. Spare change in the till to blow on luxuries. I didn't know for sure, but I knew I wasn't one of them. Maybe on paper I was supposed to be, but somewhere we took a wrong turn. I was in real estate sales, but the leads dried up, so I shifted over to insurance sales because a buddy told me it was a recession-proof industry. He didn't tell me it was multi-level marketing, but he'd get a percentage of everything I sold. Another friend told me every insurance salesmen he knew starved for the first six months, and if it weren't for our remaining credit-card limits—brought to you by Visa, MasterCard, and American Express—perhaps we would have. I mean it was either tap rich Uncle AmEx or swindle old ladies into buying a second or third life-insurance policy. A home-equity loan at an exorbitant interest rate sent our eldest off to college. The last year I had any net worth on paper was 2007.
When the housing shit hit the securitized fan, we began sinking under. All at once, my wife lost a PR gig paying high five figures, and I stopped moving units. No short sales, bidding wars, or anything at all. I knew it was over when I took a client to see a two-million-dollar home on an incline over the Atlantic Ocean. We'd driven over from South Jersey, and I'd piled it on in the car. A Cape Cod mansion with a view of Portugal. Catch prize flounder and watch dolphins leap and dive from the rear deck. Big expectations, larger than life, with a fat commission that would pull us out of debt and get the ball rolling again.
But on the outdoor patio—equipped with a $20,000 built-in kitchen—stainless steel, fridge, the works—the land of possibility came crashing down and crumbled. When my client lifted up the grill cover, he found a freshly laid human stool. A ten-incher, not more than a couple days old. A firm brown long one, with an uncorrupted exterior. For a moment, I lost interest in my customer and his impending disgust and stood transfixed. How did the previous owner get it up on the grill in near mint condition?
My client shut the grill cover and led us off the porch. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,300 points over the next three days. Within two months, my new-home inquiries dropped to zilch. You could say that's the life of a commission-based independent contractor, or you could say we were screwed. Two different clients took me to court to undo their deal and get their money back. That's when our slow demise became a race to the bottom. It was hard to adjust to our family's "new normal," so we spent as much in our first six months of living off savings and home equity as we did the next year. Eighteen months after falling through the floor, we'd gathered our wits enough to squint through the darkness and climb out of the mess we'd made.
My wife wound up in small kitchen appliances, and I got into car sales. I had to beg a buddy for work on a lot with a minimum-wage draw. That was 18 months ago. It took a while to get used to it—how blatantly and moronically bankrupt it was, but then I began to get good at it. Okay at it, I should say. I had a conscience; I wasn't a natural, but I hit my ten-car demo bonus every month from last May through November. It felt like we'd landed on our feet. The job came with mediocre, overpriced health coverage, but it covered the whole family. $50 co-pays and $5,000 deductibles, but we were insured. After taxes, social security, and health insurance were taken out of my check, there was enough left over most months to pay the mortgage and most utilities. As long as I hit my demo bonus. So we put food on credit cards and ate out more than we should because this was what Americans did. Corporate chain food where these days they listed calories on the menu, but it always felt and looked like they printed low-ball numbers.
We were scraping by, subsisting, whatever you want to call it. My ten cars a month made me feel solid. Sort of. I averaged 12 a month and hit 15 twice.
My coworkers told me the lot ran dry during the winter time, even with Internet shopping, but I didn't feel it until I was desperately trying to move a fifth car in January, my tenth month in the business.
After that, my luck ran dry. I missed my demo bonus for half the months of the selling season—April through October. We had just enough credit left to flip our mortgage into a fresh 30 years and lower the payment $200 dollars a month, but it was clear we were doomed. Plus I had to worry about losing my job—and access to health insurance marginally better than what was available on the exchanges.
Now it's the day before Thanksgiving, and I have eight cars out—a better month than my last two, but I have to hit ten cars to get my demo bonus. That $500 will put me past our mortgage and utilities—make sure heat stays on, and we stay in our house through the winter. It's two units or bust until the end of November.
10:00 AM. Cold but clear. Not the worst winter weather for moving iron off the lot. A happy guy and his wife are walking right at me. They look like money. I put out a cigarette, and I'm standing by the back door. How do I know for sure they have cash? I saw them park and get out of a BMW Series 6, a full-sized sedan. That's the current model. They're physically fit—thin, not waddlers, and they wear leather winter coats that cost a pretty penny, even off the discount rack.
"We'd like to drive the Avalon XLS."
That's the kind of guy who knows how to buy a car. As soon as I hear his words, the weather feels warmer even though I know not to expect much. Not in the way of commission anyway. The rich never pay more than they should. But if I can work the up and move the unit, I'll be a single spot away from my $500 demo bonus, and I'll snag $100 for the mini deal. There's always a chance we can take him on the interest rate and make back-end money, too. But that's putting the cart in front of the car.
"Great news! Follow me."
I lead them directly to my desk in the back corner of the showroom. After pulling out the chairs, I ask if they'd like coffee.
They politely refuse, and soon I notice it's too easy to get the information.
"Your name is..."
"Your address is..."
"What do you plan to spend for a monthly payment?"
"$300 a month? Ugh, good. And up to what would that be?"
Even the bump is no trouble, and when he recites the nine digits for his social security number and provides six more for his date of birth, I know this is too easy. I don't tell Hank Davidson that, of course.
But they're smiling at me, so I smile at them. In sales, usually it's the other way around. For a moment, I'm stuck. As if I can only do my job if there's resistance to overcome. Finally, I get up.
"I'll be right back."
Out of habit I don't tell them I'm going to get the car because a lot of customers jump up and follow. What I'm doing is following boss's orders, working the up through the system. It's a funnel. If you can't get the information, the boss doesn't let you show a car. He sends an assistant manager in to get the information, and most of the time, your chances at selling a car are shot to hell. Customers buy from a salesman they like, not a doofus who needs his manager to hold his hand.
At the sales manager's thick mahogany desk, I drop off my up sheet. While I grab the keys, put them in the car, and complete the demo, he'll look over the information. If I have a firm commitment to buy a specific car, he'll come in strong with numbers. The price of the car. What we've all been waiting for our entire fucking lives. How much is this ecological disaster on wheels going to set me back? Negotiation comes after that, and if all goes well, they'll sign formal documents in the finance office. It's almost never that easy.
Lately, Sal has treated me like a fuck up. A woman who sits near the front and a young kid who stands by the back have been generating gross for the dealership. The boss is decent enough not to shit-can me for floating under the draw for half a year. Which is good because our health benefits are running through this job even if I'm not generating actual pay. At least, we haven't been forced onto Medicaid like a bunch of paupers.
The boss growls as I approach the desk.
"They wanna drive an XLS. Gave me the data like we were family."
"A lot of guys don't trust their brother with their social security number."
"But you got it on the sheet right here."
The boss takes a good look at me. He doesn't sound grumpy or sarcastic. He sounds paternal.
"Jay, you gotta get these folks over the curb. You need a spot. Move the unit. For old times sake."
Sal's paternal look fades into a firm stare, and I feel like this is a warning. Like I might get one more, then the third time, he'll broom me out the door."
What else can I say?
Ten minutes later, the vehicle is parked by the glass in front of the manager's desk—it wouldn't be car sales if there wasn't constant surveillance—and I've finished the walk-around and have the driver's side door open. I direct the gentleman to sit. Maybe she wants to drive, maybe she doesn't, but having a conversation about it never helps you get the sale.
"I go here?"
He gets in, and I gently but firmly close the door behind him. His wife helps herself to the passenger seat, and I gently close her door before slipping into the rear bench seat. He takes a couple minutes to adjust power controls for his bucket seat and mirrors. Then, he pulls out with ease.
I sit back, relax, and let the couple enjoy the ride. We're on a side road, and I start to imagine what it must be like to have this guy's money. Where I'd go. What I'd do. Islands and diamonds, dorky stuff like that. The check I'd write with ease to pay for the vehicle. Go-to-the-doctor-whenever-you-want dough. Send the kids to any college they'd like to attend. No state school or two years of community college for little Lucy and Larry. No behind on the payments. Or repossessed boat. That actually happened to our neighbors when they got turned upside-down after housing and stocks collapsed.
We pull back into the spot by my boss.
And once we're all out of the vehicle, I give my best smile with direct eye contact and deliver: "Is this the car for you?"
"She's got a chance."
What does that mean? Who gives? Fuck it all, mortgages and customers alike. I push ahead.
"If the numbers are right, are you ready to drive the car home?"
"Let's see about those numbers."
Back at my desk, they politely refuse coffee once more. I try to talk to them, but there's not much to talk about. Weather. News. Catastrophic global-warming event. Weather.
Thankfully, the boss comes over sooner than later.
And it's my manager, not an assistant.
"Jason tells me you like the vehicle?"
"And if the numbers are right, you'd like to drive it home today?"
"If it's my number, yes."
That's when I hear it loud and clear. This guy's a negotiator. A consumer. A stingy prick, most likely. How do you think they got so rich?
Sal leaves the table. I try to take the edge off by easing into Thanksgiving conversation. I smile and start talking about food and family I'm looking forward to eating and seeing. Mostly baloney, but I can tell it makes his wife happy, and his smile is polite, at least.
The boss returns. He smiles as he reviews the numbers in black marker on the sheet. "So we're looking at $36,999 for the car, 7% sales tax, $900 for New Jersey registration fees, and I took off the price of the undercoating and gave you your $1,000 bonus cash."
That gets your total to $41,693.
With the boss's sense of humor, I doubted he even computed the 7%.
Sal moves the sheet, so it is facing the customer and hands the mark a pen. The mark looks at the numbers. He blinks. He puts the pen down and looks at my boss. His statement ends in a broad smile: "To clarify, I'd like to drive the Avalon home for a dollar over invoice."
My boss stares back. I can imagine the swirl of Italian curses running through his mind, but he doesn't say anything impolite.
"I understand, but..."
From there I tune out as Sal tries to build some value in the vehicle. I'm lucky he doesn't step hard on my toes under the table. I tune back in at my boss's return serve: "Please sign at the X to acknowledge that a dollar over invoice, including our processing fee, you'd drive the car home now."
The customer picks up the pen and signs.
The boss returns to his desk, taking the up sheet with him.
I know I should begin gabbing away, continue the holiday talk, but I can't think of much else to say. Seems okay though, as man and wife are busy conversing. Ten minutes later, surprisingly quick, the boss returns.
He smiles and shows the man the new price. The boss has taken $100 off the original 41K and change.
The man stands up.
She stands, too, and they start to walk out. Like a dipshit, I follow as if a few more minutes of turkey or car talk is going to get them to pay four grand more than they want to.
"I could use a sale," is what I abruptly say to him in a low voice.
He bursts out laughing. "A sale! Everyone could use a sale."
The wife gives me one last polite nod, but they are back in their own world. I'm just a Joe Schmoe who couldn't beg my boss to get them a dollar over invoice. I follow them out the door, then duck left and walk to the back of the dealership, so I don't have to talk to management.
Sammy is at the back door, probably on his fifth cig of the morning.
He nods and grimaces.
"Nothing like one of these dollar-over-invoice assholes to start off the day. I feel spent already."
"At least you had an up. I've had two this week, and none of my be-backers pick up the phone. I'm singing the Hamilton soundtrack into the phone message mailbox because it feels so useless. The kid got me hooked on the musical."
"Sammy, you got to cut back on smoking, and act like you want to talk to people."
"Why the fuck would I want to talk to these mooches? They're tapped out, and we're here trying to sweep table scraps off the floor. There's no change in the till."
"To survive, Sammy, to survive. We're here to feed our families and keep the bank from taking our houses."
"You think we got any shot against the banks?"
"We better believe we do."
"Maybe family and housing are overrated."
I let him get the last word, and we stand in silence until he goes back in.
I need a few more minutes to calm down.
I must have had my head down for a few, because when I look up, she's almost at the door walking right toward me. In designer denim and a sheer top. Almost see-through. She has a jacket around her waist. Big eyes, brunette. At least a nine and a half. A knock out. What the hell could the Lord's plan for me be when he has a woman who looks like this striding straight at me?
It must be my lucky day, or not, because just like up number one, she gives me all the information and within 15 minutes I have her seated in the driver's seat and cranking the ignition. "Strike number two," and a frown was all Sal gave me as a warning when I went to his desk to grab an up sheet. Too serious and money-obsessed to even bother with an inappropriate comment.
Now at the front door, Sammy has lit up another, but at an angle where the boss can't see him. He gives me a wink as I escort my pretty lady up to her vehicle. Closer Number Three, aka Skinny Lou, smiles and almost giggles out loud as we walk past him returning with his customers. He's done at least six grand a month May through October, so anything he gets in winter is gravy on top. He has a cushion, so he can ride through the lean cold months. I feel proud of myself for getting her out the door and past those two knuckleheads.
If I can deliver this vehicle, I'll have the cash to pay down my mortgage below the level where the bank is legally allowed to seize the home. But I'm tired, too, and my eyes wander to her cleavage—never high on closing strategies for cars—where her black blouse is perfectly unbuttoned in a way meant to get a guy's attention.
I stay quiet on the demo ride, so she can experience driving on her own. The feel of the vehicle. The feel of the road. After a while she breaks the silence: "My ex-husband took the car and left me the condo I couldn't afford to keep on my own."
Life in America. Your entire existence gets stripped away until the bank kicks in your front door and takes your primary residence. A country full of competitive neurotics and no few psychotics, but we still have chances to commiserate together.
"You look like the guy who hangs on until the last depressing breath of marriage."
Ouch. Not what I need to feel good about my life.
I'm a salesman, so I smile and return serve: "Keen observation."
The woman has ripped what's left of my heart in two, but I'm desperate. What else can I do? Anyway, she didn't say it in a way that was meant to offend. She zooms us past a billboard advertising teacher certification in six months. As if a school district would use me as cannon fodder to stand in front of kids—35 at a time. Hah!
After she handles the curve: "That's sweet." And she smiles. At the windshield, but at me?
Wow. We drive on. We coast along a quiet two-lane road surrounded by woods. When customers make it this far, I know there's a chance. She's enjoying driving the car. I can tell because it feels relaxed in the cabin. Quiet and tension-free. It feels like a sale.
When we get back to the dealership, she parks in the wrong place. In the back, but there is only one space left by the manager's desk, and I know not to interrupt a happy customer. By the side of the vehicle, I finally pop the question.
"Is this the car for you?"
"Please place a sold sign in the window, and I'll pick it up on Saturday afternoon."
"Sold" is great news, but "Saturday afternoon" won't fly with my boss. No one gets out of here alive is how we roll at Toyota. Fat Sal believes in commitments and spots, not reservations for delivery. He doesn't believe in much else.
"Great news! Follow me."
From the corner of my eye, I see the showroom has gotten crowded. It's Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Sal is surrounded by salespeople and his assistant managers—he looks like he's going to blow a fuse in a moment and ask everyone to form a line. Fourth grade for flunkies is what it feels like when the boss is about to lose his shit.
Thinking as quickly as I can, I guide her away from the front entrance to the rear door she originally approached. Her car must be back there somewhere. When we get to the back door, thankfully no one is around.
I establish eye contact and smile.
"For the deposit, all we need is $500 dollars. You tell me when you're coming on Saturday to pick up your vehicle." It's yours, baby!
She nods, and starts sifting through her purse.
"You can put it on a card, right?"
As she looks in her purse, her expression moves from pout to grimace. I'm almost certain that she's going to tell me she doesn't have any plastic on her person. Saturday is still a November spot, but this is too easy, right?
I'm already wondering how I'm going to push a real unit over the curb when she pulls out a black card with the silver Visa symbol on it.
"Here it is!"
She hands me the card, and I make for the cashier.
"Down payment on a Camry V6."
Carla the cashier knows we don't take deposits, so this is the best I can do. I doubt that Pretty Woman will notice what her receipt says. Deposit, down payment—what's the difference?
I return with her card and receipt, hand them over, and deliver my best:
"We'll have your Camry detailed and ready for delivery by 1:00 PM this Saturday."
"Thanks so much."
No hug, but it felt like there could have been one.
Weird. It's all weird. I let her walk away leaving me with the impression I've sold a car. Or I will sell one on Saturday.
I walk back inside where it's raining cats and customers. People all over, including my desk, so I slip into Parts and Service where the waiting area has three empty seats. After fixing a coffee and cream, I slouch low in an inconspicuous corner slot.
I take a few sips, then store the coffee underneath the seat—the safest place to avoid spilling it—then slide lower and close my eyes.
When I come to, I know I've been asleep, at least for a few minutes. But the waiting area is still packed, and no one woke me up, so I haven't been detected as MIA. I gather myself, stand up, and nod to the guy across from me who has one of those frowns plastered on his face that says, "I came for an oil change, and they got me to sign for engine repair."
Back in the showroom, it's still crowded, and four guys who look like extras from Crips Versus Bloods are seated at my desk.
Just what I need. An anchor with bad credit to ruin the rest of my afternoon. Casual racism, yes, and my conscience doesn't even bother to smack me in the face.
Like a dipshit, I approach and say, "Are you waiting for me?"
I'm hoping they'll say they are here to see Reggie—one of two African-American salesmen, and the one who wears $500-dollar suits and answers to Closer Number Two. His steady-back-regular is 12 units a month and a Filipina he keeps in a studio one town over. The suits are courtesy of his wife, who has a solid office job—Administrative Assistant, full-time plus benefits—at a national clothing chain. There's a lot of that around here—wives hustling for the family's health coverage and husbands hanging on for dear life.
"We're waiting for a salesman. Is that you?"
"Yes, sir." It's smarmy—or polite—but calling black men "sir" works when you're white. Or at least better than anything else to overcome 500 years of collective assfucking.
"Would anyone like coffee?"
"Then, I'll pull up a chair and find out how I can help. Be right back."
I return once more to the boss's desk to grab an up sheet. It's less crowded now, only two salespeople and an Assistant Manager—Closer Number Three—standing in line.
I grab a sheet as inconspicuously as possible, but the boss notices. He's working a deal with Closer Number One—a middle-aged HAPA professional more educated than anyone on a car lot ought to be—BS in engineering, but somewhere along the way it didn't work out. Once with anger and invective, he blamed his tyrannical Cantonese-speaking father for all of it, but his expletive-laced language came out so quickly, I couldn't quite catch what he was getting at. The man closes deals; that much, I know. We call it Closer One Gross—a $300 to $500-dollar commission bump he gets us if we're lucky enough to have him at the end of our deals. He takes care of our loose ends—saves our asses, to be frank. "You can't cheat an honest man," is what he says with a wink after an up leaves in our car. A spot. A delivery. A next-to-done deal.
From the corner of his eye, the boss sees my hand on the blank up sheet pile and immediately stops talking to Closer Number One. Instead, he fixes upon my eyes as he puts his pen down and raises two fingers. It could pass for a peace sign, but Fat Sal and I both know it's for two strikes. He probably even knows I'm working guys with marginal credit at best, but what can I do? The best I can, that's it, and then hope I'm still employed by Saturday when Pretty Woman returns to drive away in her Camry.
Marginal credit. Marginal employment. I take a long way back to my desk and pass Skinny Lou—Closer Number Three—at the photocopy machine with an invoice sheet and tiny scraps of papers. He's so smooth I forget that even talent uses dinosaur tactics to move vehicles in this economy. He's doctoring an invoice. For some ups—know-it-alls, professionals, the nerds in glasses who bring their research with them—it's the only way to get them to pay more than a dollar over invoice price. And don't forget to pad the doc and acquisition fees. Our buyer's orders have these, but it never shows up in the commission check.
Back at my desk, I expect Speaking Role to flash a thick wad of $100 bills and decline "drug dealer financing," but it turns out he's a dentist. And a price shopper. And that's how they roll when they aren't "tappin' the nine-to-five-er." Clean credit, but no chance of more than a mini deal here, and I'm tired from my first two ups. It gets to the point where Friend Number Three says to Friend Number Two, "Brother doesn't even to want to sell us a ride."
I have to come back with something, so I say: "Car-shopping is serious business, and I know your buddy wants to compare his notes on a few different vehicles." Silence, so I add: "Hey, we're no pressure here. I don't want anyone to get caught up in an emotional decision."
That gets the ball rolling, and from there, we kick tires, drive a Camry, Corolla, and Echo. The brother from another dentistry is straight edge; he's seriously considering the 40-miles-per-gallon subcompact because he has a two-hour highway commute each day.
As it turns out, one of his buddies is a stay-at-home spouse to a corporate lawyer, another coaches track and field at a high school where he teaches, and a third works as an accountant. He shows me a photo on his cell phone for proof, and we all burst out laughing. Black bougie buddies to the end, but the sale is going nowhere. I'm already dreading having to bring a manager over to my desk, so he can talk to them before they leave, and then scream at me.
You created no urgency, you're no good. You're a loser. I don't know why we pay your draw. You worthless scum.
At least it's easy to get them back in the door. One of them says he could go for that cup of coffee, then the others agree to coffee as well. Although I can't get the dentist settled on a vehicle, he takes cream, no sugar, and wants to see the numbers.
Numbers on what? How do you produce numbers if you aren't set on a vehicle?
"You mean ball park figures?"
"The prices of the cars we drove."
Camry, Corolla, and Echo. This isn't going to be pretty, but I have them back in their seats with coffee served—cream and sugar; cream; sugar; and black—and they're having a good old time talking about the cars they drove as 20-somethings after their fraternity days at Morehouse in Atlanta. It would be fun to waste the remains of the afternoon with these guys. I could be their white friend, and I wish to hell I didn't have to try to sell them, or anyone, anything.
I take the up sheet and go to the boss's desk. There's only one salesperson ahead of me in line. Closer Number One, and he has the manager laughing at his jokes. Laughter before tears, I think to myself.
When it's my turn, Fat Sal gets to the point quickly.
"You have no commitment on a vehicle, and they want prices on all the cars."
I nod. What else can I do?
"Are you sure they didn't ask for my mother's lasagna?"
"What the fuck are you doing here?"
This moment? This showroom? This planet? Would Fat Sal bring his mother's lasagna in for the salesmen?
"Why in hell do we pay your draw?"
I don't know.
"I'd call it commission, but you haven't out-earned your draw in over three months."
I can't disagree.
"Look, Michael, you are striking out left and right. We can't have that. You have less than two weeks to turn this around. Go back to your desk. Sit with your people. I'll send someone over."
At my desk, I tell my customers that a manager will be right over. Thankfully, they're enjoying time together they don't get very often. I offer another round of coffee, and three of four accept. Black. Cream. Cream and sugar. The fourth would like water, and I help myself to three Dixie Cup's worth.
Finally, Closer Number Two comes over with a wide grin over his face. This is my boss's way of helping me. If there's any business we can do today, Reggie will land on it.
Once seated, it's only five minutes before my customers learn that Reggie was in a rival fraternity. At a rival school. But these are successful black men, so it's more than cool. It's a connection. Closer Number Two once cooked 300 pies and fed every black fraternity brother at Howard University. Based on shared graduation dates, he's nine years older. This reminds me that no one blinks twice when they learn that their car salesman has a college degree. Half of us do, and that's the American economy. Same as it was in the restaurant where I bussed dishes right after college. Years ago, maybe a degree led to a defined career or guaranteed a salaried position you couldn't get with only a high school diploma, but those days are long gone.
Closer Number Two does everything he can, talks long and well to my customers, but he can't land the dentist on a car. Everyone has a good old time, and then we're at the back door again. My superior is doing his best not to make me feel like a moron because I couldn't get a commitment on a vehicle.
"Times are tough. People are smart with their money. Smart brothers are the brothers with extra, and they're extra careful."
"Even a dentist doesn't have his take guaranteed for the next year. Half his clients could lose their dental coverage. What's he gonna do then? Charge half off and hope people come up with the cash?"
Times may be tough, but Closer Number Two earned eight grand last month, and I don't need a pep rally. I need a smoke, but I also know I need to quit.
I nod goodbye and wander off toward "Overnight" Larry who tells me he left more than a roach behind the passenger side front wheel of the only copper-colored Avalon on the lot. Just what I need, right?
The first time he told me something like that, I thought it was a joke, a test, or a plot to get me fired. Or arrested. I don't walk straight toward the Avalon, but I'm drifting in that direction. Then I remember I don't have a lighter, but after that, I remember I have a pocketful of keys to cars I need to park. Fifteen minutes later I have the blunt lit with a cigarette lighter from the Echo. The windows are down, but I know the lot guys will take the fall if anyone gets in trouble.
I manage to leave the dentist's Corolla where it belongs, and I'm wandering in the far back of the lot. I hope Larry doesn't mind that I left him less than a roach, and then went back to take it with me.
It's almost dark, but it doesn't feel as cold as it did when I was sober. In the back, all I can see are row upon row of new cars, and I wonder who in hell will purchase these vehicles. Avalons, Corollas, Tacoma trucks. From tail pipes to front bumpers, all shiny and new and looking for a customer to take on a note for 60 or 72 months. Some of these vehicles cost more than a year of college education. I don't have too much time to wonder because Melissa, our 20-year-old salesgirl—er, person—approaches. "Larry says you're holding?" Hah! I hand her the tiny fleck of what's left. I doubt that either of us has a clip or tweezers. She nimbly squeezes it between forefinger and thumb, and hands me her lighter.
Melissa's a good kid who got on the wrong side of the drug trade in high school and didn't have the money for more than a year of college. She meets a probation officer and counsellor twice a month. I shield the roach from a light evening breeze and light it with my other hand. Melissa rarely delivers an automobile. Consistently in the bottom three of fifteen, they keep her around because she shows up to work on time, does what she's told, and doesn't complain. Rumor has it that Fat Sal is tapping it. Maybe even Closer Number One as well, but rumors can be farfetched. Older guys like teaching younger women what they know. It's a chance to show off that doesn't require any extras—cheaper than three dinner dates and a bottle of Viagra. That's likely why she doesn't get shit-canned when the boss brooms the bottom five every other month. Only two or three if a few quit before he is ready to hire new blood.
"How's your fiancée?"
Melissa's dating a lot tech with three years of experience. That's how she found out about the job in the first place.
"He's fine. How's your wife?" She knows I don't love my wife, but I'm stuck with my wife. We squabble or live together in silence. At this point, it's a business problem, and thank god she's smart enough to see that a litigious divorce wouldn't do our kids any good. If we can get them through college, we'll have done as well as most. Who knows? Maybe that will take the pressure off, and we won't mind dying together instead of alone.
I appreciate that Melissa thinks enough of me that she'll talk to me.
"Let's take a walk," is how she puts it.
I'm 43, she's 20. We'll never run away with each other, but I'm glad she's my friend.
"You have big family plans for Thanksgiving?"
My wife's brother comes to town every three years or so, and at the last minute this became one of those years. He's got money, a young wife, and an infant. "My brother-in-law is coming over with wife and kid. Two plus three equals seven. You?"
"We're going to Tony's for early dinner, and my mom's for late dinner."
I can't help but imagine the quickie in the car—maybe full throttle holiday head—Tony will get in between meals. When you're young, sex is a reward. You get older, and you don't even want it, or when you do, you're SOL. There's no chance. Zilch.
I drift for too long, and Melissa splits. When I come to, I see her fine young behind swishing away from me. I need two firm customer commitments to get my demo bonus and stay afloat. Falling further behind on the mortgage would kill us, but all I can think of is Melissa's ass. Three more hours until closing time. At least there's the release at the end of a bell-to-bell.
Melissa's ass and the evening's closing chapter gets me thinking in the wrong direction. It's to near the end of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast—the last book I remember reading cover to cover. I disappeared into sales and family soon after finishing it the first time, but I've read it a couple times since then. It's short. If you avoid newspapers, magazines, and bringing your cell phone to the bathroom, you can read it on the can over a month or two. According to Papa, F. Scott Fitzgerald gets Hemingway to assure his cock length is perfectly fine after Zelda had cut him down to size.
Through my seven semesters of college, I was an English major for almost half of them—after I gave up on pre-med, then mechanical engineering. STEM classes would bore the hell out of me. And they were difficult. At least with English I could read the book—most of them, anyway. The professors held my attention, which would usually be enough to pass. The papers I wrote were never what the professor wanted to read, though. By the end, I'd feel lucky if I'd been granted a C. It wasn't until years later, working in sales, when it occurred to me I hadn't been smiling the right way in class or participating in class discussion in an appealing way. The irony was that I fell into sales because I wasn't good enough at sales at an earlier age. I left college before they had a chance to flunk me out. Early adult life was fine—a bit of a roller coaster ride along with the economy, but I had no qualms about that.
I walk back inside and find a quiet showroom. Whew. A relief. What else would anyone expect the night before Thanksgiving? Television ads have been blasting, so it's hard to know what comes next. I seize the moment, make myself a cup of coffee, sit at my desk, and relax. At this point in a busy day, the boss is too tired to chew us out on an individual basis. He'll buzz into the conference room, then fuck us up as a group. When we're completely empty—dinner time for customers—is when we get it good.
Within minutes, folks start wandering back in after supper. Since Closers Number One, Two, and Three are without customers, I'm sure the boss doesn't mind that I let other salespeople get first dibs on the fresh ups. But before I've finished my coffee, everyone has somebody. I'm the odd man out until a family of four walks in. Just what I need. A perfect opportunity to screw up, so I land even deeper in Fat Sal's doghouse. They look so normal, solvent, and willing to leave happy, it feels like a trap. It must be.
"How may I help you?"
They wandered over to me, so what could I do?
The father smiles at me, and says that they'd like to look at the Camrys—"the four cylinder, yes; no, not the six." A family car for a family—it makes too much fucking sense. Once more I snag an up sheet from the desk; thank goodness the boss is distracted by the evening crowd.
Everything's smooth. We enjoy a test drive. The kids sit with me in the back, and they don't fight. Hardly an impolite peep out of them in fact. In a secluded turn-in—the entrance to a botanical garden, Mom pulls in perfectly to a parking spot although the entire lot is clear save for a work truck parked in the corner. We all get out and use this time to interact with the children while Mom and Dad switch sides. Twelve and nine. Seventh and fifth grade. "I'm the youngest one in my class."
All seems so swell as we slam the doors shut outside the dealership, but somewhere between "Is this the car for you?" and my boss's numbers, I lose the deal. It's not the price or the interest rate as much as it's the negotiation. Some families find negotiation perplexing, inappropriate, rude, or outright unethical. So much so, they'll stand and walk away from the deal. In America, bartering is anti-social behavior.
Near despair, I watch the happy family leave the dealership.
I almost closed them, but almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. As I watch them drive away, it's tempting to believe the boss wanted to cheat me out of my demo. Or make me suffer even more. But he has to get the cars off the lot, too. The line about, "We don't own the cars, we pay interest to the bank to keep the cars on the lot," has an element of truth, but the real truth is we own the cars and managers have to make their unit numbers. That's why new cars sell at a loss, and the service desk is supposed to pad the warranty work and keep the showroom lights on. Anyway, there's still Pretty Woman who left the "deposit." Right now, that's all I got for hope.
Chapter 2: Night Time Is The Wrong Time
There's nothing else to do but gather my things and depart. Gleaming neon against black night greets me as I hustle out the door and toward freedom. Not far from the rear fence where employees park, Closer Number One approaches. He has a wife and six kids, and it's so hectic at home that, although he's a good man who would never ditch, he spends as much time as possible at work. In dealership chaos, he can stay afloat, navigate, and earn. Keep mortgage and utilities paid with his manager's commissions and sneak in late after half the kids are asleep.
"Boss wants you."
Is this it? My final release? I don't know. In the near term, what I do know is that I was almost free for the day, but now, doing my duty, I head back the way I came, all the way to the manager's corner of the showroom.
At Fat Sal's desk, he seems calm.
"I know what you're thinking."
"You're thinking that I cost you that sale and your demo bonus."
I can't think of a response, but it doesn't sound like he expects one.
"Look, Jason. I was trying to make you a G-note off the back end of the loan."
Of course. By showing a $599 payment, he was trying to help me.
"I know you're in a slump. You got to feed your family, but gross, not units, is what keeps the lights on here. You're pressing right now, but believe it or not, I want you to be successful."
Is that it?
"I'm not going to shit-can you to save dough this winter. You earned it. You come to work on time, and you stay through April."
The cruelest month, but not in car sales where the sun comes out, and customers appear. Fat Sal is spotting me all the dead months between now and then.
"Show me effort, make your demo at least twice between now and April."
"Thank you, sir." What else can I say?
But job security isn't family security. It doesn't make me feel any better about the deal I lost. The mortgage payment is due in 15 days. As I walk away from the dealership and toward my car, my thoughts turn to my old man.
He was an IT guy who quit work as often as he could, but always had cash in his pocket when I was a kid. He and my mother split as soon as I went off to college, and their divorce was one reason I left pre-law and retreated to literature. Yes, there was an obligation—stay in the home until the kids left for school, stay in school—but there were also dreams.
My father died seven years ago, before my rough patch began, but at least he knew most of his grandchildren—my brother's pair and ours. He was worried about me—didn't say as much too often, but he made that clear over our last summer together.
In the car, anger shifts to sadness as I crank her up. What the hell would my dad think of my life? I remember when I first got into selling, before car sales and it was going well and I could hear how happy I sounded to have my bases covered, paying all my bills on time.
"It's a trade, not a profession."
I was too delighted with my income to hear my father's words as criticism. I guess my enthusiasm was contagious because he added, "It sounds like you're having fun."
A mile down the road, out of the corner of my eye, I spy Sleepy's Tavern. That's where we go after the late-night bell, so I slow down and pull in. I can't resist commiseration and alcohol. From the cars in the parking lot, I can see Melissa, Closer Number Three, and Sammy are already inside.
Past the double doors, I take in the scene. Broken burgundy pleather booths against faux wood tables and chairs under dim yellow lights. No one looking for anything more than a chance to forget their problems comes to Sleepy's. A perfect place for our gang.
I squint into the dim lighting and spot them at a booth. Lucky me, Melissa's side is free.
"Glad you could join us."
She smiles and pats the seat. The soft faux leather is stitched together with silver duct tape on half the booths, including the one I slide into. A fat silver patch where my ass belongs, but I don't feel a thing.
"Where's your better half?"
But I'm grateful to her for saying it like that.
The whole team has a high ball empty on the table and a couple thumbs toward ordering a third. I was with the too-good-to-be-true family an hour past my 12-hour bell-to-bell, and they've had a head start.
To make up for lost time, I order two doubles. Discount well whiskey like I'm a newbie college kid buried in debt.
In a friendly way, Melissa puts her hand on my thigh every time she laughs at one of Closer Number Three's stories about the car business. He's north of three decades in car sales and has the gut to prove it along with plenty to tell. Skinny Lou, my ass.
"Years ago in North Jersey, the general manager aimed to win a national contest for sales units. He had the assistant manager direct us to drive two dozen Camrys to a secluded neighborhood a mile from the dealership. Then we each were assigned two VINs and ordered to write buyer's agreements—one in all caps print and one in a mix of cursive and print. He shuffled the deck, and when the guy from corporate came to inspect, we had 24 more sales orders than actual units sold. The big boss won a vacation in Bermuda for that."
We smile and enjoy the story. "Nice one, Closer."
He's Closer Number Three in order of production back at the dealership, but we call him Closer because of seniority.
"Here's another. In the 1980s, down at the shore meant cocaine on tap in the men's conveniences and 24/7 weekend shifts to snag the gambler's buck. The boss sat in back watching the fights while the seven Mikes worked the floor. Boss would ring a bell when he saw an upset special. This meant easy money could hit the showroom floor. They called it the Greatest Show on Earth because it was such a circus. Showgirls would turn tricks for a G-note gratuity from high rollers and use that for a down payment on a Cadillac. One time a girl drove a custom convertible long fin right off the showroom floor. Twenty minutes later, she rolled over the same Taiwanese high roller she banged doggy-style, no jacket, for the down payment. This was on Atlantic City Avenue, and the guy was pinned under the Caddy. Five dealers just off shift at 2:00 AM lifted the car while two police officers rolled the man out. This was before everyone had to lie still until a paramedic arrived, even for a twisted ankle. We had our freedom."
He pauses, downs his shot, and proposes a toast: "To twisted ankles and crooked deals."
We all drink to that, then Closer crushes his fag in the ashtray and continues. "The girl is all freaked about the accident being a sign of bad luck that she drives back to the dealership to return the vehicle. The salesman is just out of the can where he did a line longer than the Berlin Wall. He doesn't miss a beat. Does he lose a six-bill commish on the original deal? No way. He works it as a trade, telling her he'll take care of all the paperwork and lower her payment by $100 a month.
"He sends her off in a two-year-old crème-colored V6 he has on the other side of the lot. This is long before certified pre-owned "program cars," but he tells her he's added a 60,000 mile warranty for her peace of mind. He gets the service desk to throw the warranty in at cost without telling them he's making another four bills on the second sale. Over a G-note on one customer, and this is back when a regular two-income couple could still purchase shore property in Jersey."
Closer takes another gulp.
"The salesman knows the G-note is on the way plus his demo bonus, so he places a bet at the roulette table within an hour of leaving work. $1,000 on lucky thirteen. The croupier looks at him like he's nuts. 'You sure?' 'Damn straight, I'm sure.' So it's all in on lucky thirteen. Guess what happens next?"
"He loses," I say.
"He wins," says Closer Number Three. "Or at least he escapes with his money. The pebble gets stuck at the top under one of those little doohickeys. The croupier is going to count that as a loss, but the salesman will have none of it and argues for a re-spin. Before the croupier can sweep away the chips, the salesman starts a big fuss, so the croupier calls management. The salesman is in a bad mood now, so he takes his chips off the table and cashes in before management gets involved."
"So what does he do?"
The three of us shrug.
"He pockets his money, goes home, and sleeps it off. It's Sunday, 5:00 AM, and he sleeps until Monday morning. He wakes three hours before his 12:00-to-12:00 shift. He still has the G-note in his pocket, so he takes it with him to the morning dog races. This is back when AC was 24/7 entertainment. Before every reservation had a full-service casino, and every hard-luck town had river boats with slot machines. When he gets there, he sees the second race has a greyhound named Lucky 13 at 19-to-1 odds. Just like that, he goes all in."
Closer pauses to down his shot and chase with a full glass of water.
"And he wins. Nineteen grand. With the 19K, he slaps it down as down payment on a two-bedroom oceanfront condo. I heard the guy held onto it, bought three more over time, and now he's sitting on two million dollars of oceanfront property."
He pauses again to let it all sink in.
"Of course, his kids parked him in a home where he shits in a bag and enjoys a liquid-only diet, but his children haven't had to work a day in their life. The American dream, to help your kids get ahead. All from a midnight double deal for a hooker. Who the hell knows how many cars she's traded in since then?"
The four of us drink to that. Melissa's hand moves on top of my business. My hand has found its way under her blouse. On the small of her back. After a second order, my fingers inch upward to where I can feel her bra strap. I know this is wrong, but I'm drunk, and she hasn't done a damn thing to stop me. In fact, her hand is firmly over my bulge.
Two more drinks. A haze. I hear myself cursing out the day's customers—the rich guy, the happy family, the black-college frat buddies, then finally, my wife. As soon as I hear the word "wife," I feel Melissa's hand grip harder. So this is how the young do it? We're by the payphone, a relic from yesteryear, fondling each other, then I lead her to the men's room, but she grabs me and pulls me into the ladies'.
But as soon as we burst in, we see triplets at the mirrors. Or twins? Either way, they aren't happy to see a man in the women's room. That sobers me enough that although we walk together to Melissa's shiny but used Celica, we only grapple in the dark for a few minutes before we return to conversation.
"Thanks, Melissa. You're great. You and Stevie will be great."
"Don't worry about Stevie. He gets his."
Then she lunges at me more aggressively. Why do women like married losers?
Sharing with Stevie isn't the aphrodisiac it used to be—or it never was.
She moves down on me while I push down, then away from her shoulders to make my escape. Thank God I don't have to slam the door in her face. In night cold, I stride briskly to my car. I want my over 50 degrees in the afternoon back, but I'd settle for being inside my vehicle—any vehicle with heat on.
Over at my ten-year-old Sentra, I fumble with my keys and get in my car. It's so cold, it's tempting to forget the whole deal—the ring, the marriage, the job, all of it—and run back to Melissa where the heat was on. Try to convince her to make a dash for it with me to Florida and leave behind whatever the hell remains here. I'm drunk, but not drunk enough I can't see how ridiculous that sounds. She's probably just blowing off steam. She'll stand by her man for the long haul but enjoy life when she can. I hit myself—not that hard—in the noggin to shake out the kinks. Get a grip. I have a plan I want to stick to. So I crank the engine and raise the heat. I've never been one to wait until the engine is hot. Half a water bottle rests in the driver-side cup holder. After I shake it to see it's only half frozen, I drink most of the liquid part before I slowly back out.
The car clock says 11:21 PM, which is seven minutes slow. I pull onto the highway and carefully accelerate to ten miles per hour under the speed limit. It's right lane only for me. Committing adultery, or the preliminaries for it, was sobering, and I'm never looking to play Speed Racer. Ten minutes later, I can see the exit to our subdivision and all that awaits me at home.
No more than a minute after I pull into our subdivision, I notice a local patrol car following me. You've got to be kidding. Alcohol's soggy rust has partly worn off, so I make sure I'm five miles per hour under the speed limit and drive past our cul-de-sac. I see more than one first floor light come on as I pass freestanding homes. That's the neighborhood. We smile at each other, spy and gossip behind our backs, and call the police if we don't recognize a vehicle. In this case, I know some neighbors would recognize my old Sentra, but why wouldn't the policeman?
In my sobering state, it takes a moment, but I realize the officer must be a substitute for the holidays. Our regular copper is home dreaming of turkey with stuffing and gravy. But what am I going to do once I get tired of driving?
It hits me then. This is my life. I'm a grown man with teenagers and a wife I haven't slept in the same bed with in several years. And I'm being followed by the police in my own neighborhood. To hell with it. My wife's car and my boxes of stuff share the garage, so I do what I always do, which is park on the street in front of our mostly manicured lawn. From my rearview mirror, I see the police car pulls in right behind me. Fuck. Wouldn't he have checked my plate by now? As I'm gathering my wits, looking back through the mirror, I see the police car door open. A uniformed woman steps out, and she's walking toward me. I have to take a leak, so I begin to pray that I can hold it as I fumble my license and registration. Ten yards behind me, she turns on a flashlight, blinding me in the process.
I have my window rolled down when she arrives at my car.
"What seems to be the problem, officer?"
"License and registration, please."
I hand over my papers. She receives them, then uses the flashlight to do a once-over of the car. I see her grimace as her light shines on the empty Styrofoam coffee cups and other refuse on the floor of the backseat. At least there aren't any liquor bottles, cigarette butts, or worse.
She walks back to the squad car, and I roll up the window. I don't feel like putting my gloves back on, so I shove my hands in my coat pockets. The urge to pee is strong. Thankfully, she returns quickly. At my window she continues the friendly conversation: "Did you know that your right brake light bulb needs to be replaced?"
"No, I did not."
"A bulb in need of replacement can interfere with your ability to safely operate your vehicle."
"I'm issuing you a citation. That's not a ticket. But you will receive a ticket and a fine if you're stopped for the same brake light."
"Okay." What else can I say?
She asks me to sign a yellow pad, which I do. Then, she rips out a pink sheet underneath and hands me my copy. No arrest. No walking a straight line. No night in jail. We're close to broke and losing our house, but I'm free to go. For now, that's free to go home.
The officer pulls away, and as I leave the car, I notice the front room light goes off in our house. My wife wants to see what's going on, but she won't want to speak with me once I'm in the door. I'm the sloppy joker who thinks a diamond ring will alter the facts of our marriage's terminal condition.
I slide around to the kitchen entrance around back, then creep as quietly as possible down to the basement. I've got a couch and television downstairs. My teenage son keeps telling me he wants to move down there, but so far, I've been able to fend him off. He may not realize I haven't slept upstairs in over a year.
Downstairs I fumble in the dark until I find the switch for the corner lamp. Dim light illuminates my living quarters, and I take off my coat and shoes, then situate myself on the couch. I should go straight to sleep, so I can rise and shine and polish off Thanksgiving Day morning chores. This is how we live. She works on commission at an almost bankrupt department store in a doomed shopping mall while I sell cars. Or try to anyway. No guarantees beyond my draw checks and her minimum-wage base salary. Almost no hope.
We signed on the dotted line to send our daughter off to a private school that showed us a 60 percent discount off $70,000 tuition, room, and board. It's phenomenal, it really is, all-American death tag for every last consumer dollar. Tug-of-war until the middle class—poof!—disappears. Maybe marriage will skedaddle along with it? The whiskey has worn off some, but not the cola, so I turn on the television.
It's on PBS, where I left it. They've got an early AM rerun of a piece on old folks traveling the country in vans and campers. Stopping for work where they can get it, according to the seasons. Congregating together at campsites in the mountains and deserts. The Dakotas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Places like that. They share and try to survive.
There's another group that did well, worked the system, maybe worked hard, for enough loot to build a comfortable retirement upon; then, there's a third group that did squat. Medicaid, disability, Section 8, food stamps, what have you. They did nothing, maybe they couldn't do anything, but subsidized housing and everything else keeps them afloat. And alive.
This televised group, the ones living in trailers, worked their whole lives. They showed up on time, hustled nine-to-fivers, busted their tails, and took too much shit from bosses. Some survived white-collar professions—corporate-speak, company layoffs, mismanagement, lies—but college costs, medical emergencies, or bad financial advice devoured their nut and led them to sleeping in a vehicle.
PBS does its best to show us how fucked the country is, considering this is the best we can do for our elderly, but the people filmed don't look tragically unhappy. Hank and Barbara worked 40 years in Iowa, the collapse snagged their pensions, and now they're picking fruit and cleaning rooms at seaside resorts. At least, they don't have skin cancer, and they both speak lucidly. Robots could be coming to pluck apples and change sheets, but for now, they're the seasonally employed.
A minute later, I'm nodding off to Hank's lament that he can't help his kids save for college for their kids, but he's happy enough to see them twice a year. The eldest graduated with under $40,000 in debt last May. Barbara lost a sister a few months ago whose grown children had both been living at home. Now there's a tussle between the bank and the nephews. Who gets the money? Who gets the house? Even if the cash inheritance goes only to one nephew or bank, it's not enough to live on while paying the mortgage. I reduce the sound and turn off the overhead lamp. I slide to a horizontal position, pull the afghan over my shoulders, and drift off to sleep.
Chapter 3: Thanksgiving
Morning's frost wakes me up on my basement futon. Sneaking through slats of the window blinds, slithers of sunlight strand themselves on the grey carpet and die out. The television remains on, no sound. No one has come down to bother me here. Which is perfect, my chance to be alone. My entire life, I've wanted another moment to myself when someone comes and interrupts. Our daughter has told us via e-mail she's going to her friend's house for Thanksgiving. I don't think it's a gay thing, but it sure as hell doesn't bother me based on my experiences with heterosexual union.
My brother-in-law is bringing his young wife over at 3:00 PM. which gives me plenty of time to hide. My wife will clean the house, and catered hors d'oeuvres will arrive around 4:00 PM. So I fiddle with my phone, get lost in mindless social media, until a news item catches me eye. A 49-year-old South Korean man was shot dead by North Korean border guards. They'd chanced upon the man in North Korean waters. He was a career public servant. Left behind a wife and two children. The North Koreans were known for their zero tolerance policy on illegal border crossings, but the article quotes authorities who believe that the man may have been a defector. A man from a capitalist democracy with a job, family, and kids sought escape to communist despotism. The story doesn't add up—or does it?
The grass is always greener, but it's gray November, so I push ahead through the dead leaves. I'm about 500 paces into the woods when I see him. With his lady friend. I'm immediately envious. Jerry scores premium dope and girlfriends who willingly smoke weed with the guys. Two of us anyway, and I find myself wondering what happened to all the other 20-something stoners. Did they quit on their own or discover AA? Too busy to get high? In jail? Dead? Living back home in Mom and Dad's basement? That's a step below a husband's man cave for sure. I got to hand it to Jerry. The rest of us chained to women who want us for sperm and security, but this guy gets actual companionship and common interests.
They smile at me as I approach. I've only met her once, but she's warm.
"If it ain't the crooked car dealer come to get stoned."
"Would you like to take it for a test drive before or after we partake?"
"Dude, this premium blend is doing all the driving."
Jerry pulls out two finely rolled fatties. I'm guessing that half of one will be more than enough, but hey, it's the holiday season.
Ladies first, and we watch his girlfriend inhale after Jerry sparks up.
The herb takes my mind off my problems. No two and a half units needed, unpaid mortgage, unhappy wife, anxiety, or fatigue. Instead, I tune into the sounds—chirping birds and rustling leaves. Jerry and his girl fly in their own direction. The three of us are together but enjoying the woods separately. Nature sounds beat car-lot cacophony every day of the week. They're smiling, and I smile, too, and we're together again.
"You getting by okay?"
I look at Jerry. We don't see each other much more than twice a year, including this annual party going on 20 years. A couple decades ago, we caught each other smoking separately on two consecutive turkey days, and so a tradition began.
"Yeah, Jerry. I'm cool."
"This stuff is good."
"Yes, it is."
We hardly exchange another word before Jerry and his girl trudge off the way they came. We haven't discussed our day's dinner arrangements in at least ten years, so I can only imagine what he's returning to. At least he has a girl he wants to smoke weed with. Melissa returns to my brain, but I know there's nothing I can do. I'm tired and stuck—too tired to force the issue and make a radical change. Inertia plus fatigue. And who the hell knows how long she'd last once she saw what I was like day-to-day? What she'd endure if we were full-time? I breathe in a little more nature, then bid the woods adieu and walk back to the house.
As I enter, I'm relieved to hear silence. Save for my wife in the kitchen and her early fumbling around. For someone who hates to cook, she can prepare a decent Thanksgiving dinner. I'll show up in a couple hours to make mashed potatoes and load the dishwasher. A contribution. Typical weak-assed American male.
No one around to see me, so I quickly slide back down the stairs. I can usually catch a half of bad NFL before my brother-in-law shows up.
For whatever reason, before I can find the remote, my eye catches a book I checked out of the library two weeks ago. Once a month, I pretend to be a reader. A guy who didn't quit books after college like most of America. I check out a few titles, read the first 50 pages of one, return them all a week or two late, and contribute a couple bucks to the local branch of the free library.
The book is Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. A classic. I sold a manual Tercel—get this: no air; yeah, they still build a few—to a high school English teacher to whom I'd confessed to being an English major without emphasizing that I never graduated. On a long test drive, he dished his whole deal—burgeoning student loan debt from a private lender; a fixed-income pension state government has a knife to on the chopping block; 35 students in a room, many raised by single parents working two jobs to make it. Sometimes the single parent is Gramps or Granny.
His life made me feel like more of a burnout than usual, so I couldn't tell him that in my good months my take-home pay was more than his salary before taxes. Of course, I've had lean months since then, and he's getting guaranteed raises. And the politicians haven't axed his pension yet. I can only dream about retirement with two streams of income instead of a single meager Social Security payment.
As I was saying, the guy loved Gatsby. For whatever reason, I always got assigned the same books twice, even three times, and I had Gatsby as a senior in high school, then as a sophomore in college. American literature survey course taught by an old fossil who had a voice for lecture. So I knew Gatsby pretty well for a car salesman, and maybe that's why I moved the unit and scooped up a commission when management closed on an interest rate a point and a half higher than it ought to be. The $300 bonus for selling the no-air manual transmission was icing on the cake.
The teacher loved the American Dream. Not living it, but talking about it. There we were, sweating it out on the long summer test drive, and he was lecturing me as he drove the car.
By the end of the test drive, he'd assessed the psychological motivations of Daisy, Nick, Gatsby, Fitzgerald, Zelda, all of them.
"Guys like you and me"—he'd found common humanity with a car dealer—"We never took a shot the way Gatsby did. We didn't go for it. We chose stable careers." It will always amaze me how little we recognize about professions we're not in. In general, people know not to trust the car dealer, but if they're willing to talk to you one-on-one, they forget the generalities we're all aware of. "Gatsby saw the green light, and he went for it. Your boss here has money. My boss—the principal—tucks a nice slice of cake into his 403b each month"—Where do English teachers learn "slice of cake"?—"but none of us are even close to Gatsby money. Gatsby dreams." When the English teacher pulled in behind the dealership's glass wall opposite my boss, he concluded, "The wheel is tight, just like the novel. I like that."
The Great Gatsby's opening paragraph reminds me of my father. My old man wasn't like Nick Carraway's. He didn't remind me of my advantages. From a young age, he told me life would be hard, that it would kick my ass, and I often smirked when he said this. Yeah, right, Pops. Speak for yourself.
My brother-in-law is wide, white, and wealthy, and he has a smile to match. His wife is attractive. Dyed blonde, yeah, but who isn't? Religious people. The good sales manager. Direct eye contact, firm handshake. No way, not automobiles or appliances. Medical equipment. Another Thanksgiving where he tells me he's saving the world by holding the gross on technology he sells to doctors and hospitals.
"Hi, Glen! Hi, Celery!"
Who in hell names their kid "Celery"?
"Come on in!"
I can hear my wife's effusive greetings as I lumber up the basement steps. I've showered, and I'm wearing clean corduroys and an Oxford shirt, brown against beige. My socks don't match—argyle over beige on the left against the right's solid navy—but I've combed my hair, brushed my teeth, and put on deodorant. The weed smell is gone, I'm pretty sure. Almost, anyway. I'm presentable.
Nevertheless, my own "Hi, Glen," is greeted with my wife's frown. She'll voluntarily prepare the entire dinner but let me know she doesn't approve of me.
"Celery, why don't you bring the baby in with me?"
Glen doesn't like football, but he likes whiskey on Thanksgiving. A few years ago, I asked him if he wanted to join me to partake in the woods, and he looked at me like I was an ax murderer. Or at least mentally disturbed. My wife never said anything about it, not that she wouldn't have greater misgivings at this point.
"Whiskey neat?" I know his drink.
"Jack, if you have it."
"Pretty sure it's Early Times, but I'll check. Follow me."
It works as well when I'm off the lot.
"Hey, we're in luck. It is Jack Daniels."
Which I knew, but why not make him happy over a little surprise?
We settle in the living room. I take a chair so he can have the couch, but he takes the other chair anyway. Glen doesn't talk sports, but he talks markets—stocks, bonds, bit coin, corporate malfeasance, free trade versus regulation, that sort of thing. The crimes and misdemeanors of the men in charge. Thankfully he's too self-involved to ask me about my latest day on the car lot or any of the previous ones.
Dinner is served, and the four of us sit down together. My wife announces our daughter drove with her friend from college to North Adams, Massachusetts, and our son is working late at his package-shipping job. Sometimes they toss the holiday help some extra hours early in the season. The latter is news to me, but I'm happy for him even as I'm saddened I haven't seen my boy in two days, and I'll be working most of Friday and Saturday. I hope he'll look for me in the basement before he heads upstairs to crash for the night.
Most of the conversation concerns my brother-in-law's recent success—a spectacular sale to a gynecological team that leaves him practically in charge of ensuring the health of women up and down the East Coast. A good man, that Glen, whose extensive charity work—both local and international—he prefers to deliver in silence. Or so he tells us now. But, as it turns out, he needs a new car, and we turn our attention to the retailer of such at the table. That would be me.
I breathe a sigh of relief as soon as my brother-in-law leaves. His wife loves him. My wife loves him. And he's going to torture me by shopping for a car on Saturday afternoon. And he's arriving at the same time that Pretty Woman is due to take her delivery. That's my spot. My gimme. Okay, two spots now if the whole thing doesn't end in disaster. Fuck am I'm screwed. At least I have 40 hours before he shows up. Having to listen to more of his success stories—or even worse, his modesty and consideration as he helps me pay my mortgage—will be too much. But I have no choice. I'm a desperate man trying to survive in a world that's kicked me in the ass there and back, but not so badly I'm ready to check out.
Thank god the NFL added a third game on Thanksgiving. A Thursday night contest—cheerleaders, violence, and commercial hypocrisy—nothing better than a showcase game to get America to forget its debt and spend more money—a credit line from home equity, cash advance off credit cards; reversible mortgages, payday loans, free savings when you open any bank account. I don't have any money or anything to do for a few hours, so for now, I'm okay. Alone and at peace. The roar of the crowd, a color commentator who isn't a complete dope, ads blasting at twice the volume of the game. I disappear into corporate-branded stadiums and the dreams of other men risking their lives on the gridiron.
Chapter 4: Black Friday
At 11:00 PM, I awake from a halftime nap that slid into deeper sleep. A little groggy, I rise to a sitting position and proceed to down the half cup of cold coffee and full glass of water waiting for me since late morning. The cloud of milk on the coffee's surface reminds me of my own overcast skies. The game is over, and the local news offers murder, robbery, and fire to distract us from the misery of our own lives.
That's enough to get me off the couch. As quietly as possible, I limp up the stairs. Silence greets me, as if everyone is asleep. I splash water on my face in the hallway half bath between our kitchen and dining room, then creep to the rear door and close it behind me as quietly as possible. I don't slither in the grass, but I try to soft-toe back to my automobile, where I unlock, enter, and turn the key in the ignition, again, as quietly as possible. As I shove off for my mission, I glance back and up at the house to make sure none of the upstairs lights are on. All calm and dark as far as I can tell.
Doors open at midnight, and inside they have the diamond ring. Twenty-five percent fake and possibly more than that, but at $999, it's a bargain. A steal. The regular price is $4,999. It's not the new car my brother-in-law would buy for his betrothed, but it will have to do.
The parking lot is packed with people and cars. I pull in on the outskirts, by a group of motorhomes. These must be the "retirees" from the PBS special. I've never noticed them before in such close proximity. Old people who can't afford rent or couldn't stick to one place "chose" a working retirement. Life on the road until death. Summer jobs at national parks. Winter jobs at Florida resorts. They're blessed.
I look around for the corner crowd of Mexicans waiting to get picked up as day labor, but I don't see them. Then I remember it's close to midnight on Thanksgiving, and traffic for job sites is 7:00 to 9:00 AM.
As I approach the store, I see the tents. People are camping out since God-knows-when. A crowd stands near the door. A couple security guards observe from the periphery. Short and squat, they don't look like much. They don't look like anyone who could prevent a brawl or untangle holiday shoppers. Particularly not closer to the sliding glass doors where oversized and obese consumers abound.
By tents, planning types sit with their portable heaters and television sets. Their idea of fun? Their idea of vacation? Their lawn chairs look worn but comfortable. Few in this area look like they are in a rush to get inside.
Does this mean that they know some sales items will last? Is the mob at the front only in it for the 40-inch televisions and free 12-packs of toilet paper?
I move in, but remain on the periphery. I establish eye contact with a security guard, and he nods and moves until he stands next to me. Does eye contact mean a conversation is due to commence?
Thankfully I'm tired but sober.
"Nice crowd, eh?"
"I was over at Wal-Mart last year."
"We had two fist fights, a duel with stainless steel kitchen utensils, and defecation on the bathroom floor."
"His or hers?"
"Multiple counts, but I'm not at liberty to offer more detail."
We say no more to each other after that. We watch. The amorphous crowd shifts. More people join, but sometimes the mass appears smaller. Suddenly the crowd pushes toward the entrance. They press against the glass doors. A false alarm. A not quite 6:00 AM opening. Low level hum of muttering and noise. Very rarely a phrase or sentence rose above. As if by magic, I can hear it.
"Child support ain't shit."
"He dipped into that honey, and now he pays alimony."
"They best not make me wait for my TV."
"Last year, they ran out."
"Capitalism cold. Make people wait all night for they toilet paper."
"Goddamn, I need an affordable shit."
"Folks wipe extra for the holidays."
"Coffee on sale, too."
That's my wake-up call. I nod goodbye to the guard and move in. I don't want to come home empty-handed.
I walk toward the crowd and see more clearly how smushed together the bodies are. They are pressed up against each other. Partly to stay warm, partly to get closer to the doors. I don't want to get that close to anyone. Not after working a bell-to-bell on the lot.
I stand, watch, and wait. I check my watch. 12:03 AM. So it is past time when the doors open. I realize then that the people know this. That corporate environments open on time, and retail supervisors get reprimanded, even fired, when they don't.
Just then, from the inside, I see a female clerk and a male guard move toward the sliding doors. The crowd presses forward. When the doors open I see the store employees shuffle, hop, and step to either side. The surging mass trips up the guard, and he belly-flops onto the linoleum floor. Thankfully, he falls away from the doors.
The rush is on, and customers spread in every direction, although most run to the back for electronics.
Fewer people move toward jewelry, and I feel a sense of relief. But when I approach the counter I see the area is cordoned off, and there are at least a dozen shoppers who have arrived before me.
There is a space for me at the fluorescent yellow rope, so I take it. There we stand and wait, separated from the jewelry we hope to purchase at discount. From the advertisement, I remember that there are several pieces available, but I haven't read the fine print where quantities in stock could have been listed.
How many of these men want what I want? Are we all intent on saving our marriages or pretending that they're happy ones? Can any of them buy the ring without a tinge of financial regret?
At this point, I'm wide awake, even alert, and I begin to see myself past midnight and standing at a rope for discount jewelry. I turn to my left. I can see all the way down the aisle to the toy section. It's a mob scene. Crowds rummage through blue and pink plastic. Shelves in disarray. Grasping, pushing, shoving. An occasional moment of kindness. Our turn arrives. I stumble forward, almost fall, when a store employee releases the yellow cord. I have to recover quickly as everyone around me is already on the move. But I suppose there is a God because it seems my item—the diamond ring—is not the most desired one. It must be too expensive for the midnight Wal-Mart shopper. There are only three of us, and there are four rings. Just like that, I have one. But now I have to escape from the store.
Clutching my ring as I hold it deep in my front pants pocket, I turn toward the front of the store. Where cashiers wait. I'll only use automatic check out if it looks like I have to wait an hour to be helped by a real person. To help another struggling to earn a wage is the least I can do. But there is a crowd surrounding an island in the center of the aisle, and I can't get through. I have the ring in my pocket, but I have to get out of the store. I see clear space to my right past the Boys Section, and I take it. I walk past Star Wars pajamas, Frozen nightgowns, and Underoos.
I am through, but 20 yards ahead of me I see a mob of looters at the toy section. No, they aren't looters. They're parents. Adults desperate to fulfill the dreams of their children. They punish the merchandise and themselves. Tearing toys from the shelves. Leaving discarded boxes on the aisle floor. Pushing. Tugging. Misplacing. Manhandling. Trashing. There are inadvertent elbows, but no intentional violence. As I stride closer, I hear a pronounced apology. Then, I am among them. Two fleshy women are in a tug-of-war over an Asiatic or Arabic Barbie doll.
I duck, slide, and shuffle to the left to avoid their tussle, but in doing so, I receive an elbow that brushes against my ear before making solid contact with the side of my neck. I am momentarily stunned but not knocked out.
I stagger and bend my left knee as I feel my right knee buckle. Clickety-clack, it likes to remind me of a flag-football injury from years ago.
By pushing my arms out wide, I dance like a dodo bird but maintain my balance. The ring box I hold tight in my hand as I stagger forward until I regain my stride. Then I am past the toy section. I find the cash registers, lines about six to ten customers deep. I pass several queues, then stop at a third where only two of five customers ahead of me has a full cart.
The racks of beef jerky make my mouth water—spicy, original, Cajun, Teriyaki. I grab a two-pack of original and a 12-stick package of Doublemint gum.
Then there's a commotion in front of me. Gasps. Cries. A cashier, bag man, and two customers the size of balloon floats are staring at the floor. A man is stretched flat against filthy linoleum. His neck has twisted awkwardly, so I can see half of his face. Pink white wrinkles. Yellow where the whites of his eyes should be. A trickle of bright red blood runs from his purpling nose. Without a second thought, I take action. I move out of line down the row of cashiers and straight toward automatic check out.
At the console, I remove the diamond ring, search for the barcode, and jiggle it under the blue light until I hear a beep. $999 plus tax. I remove my credit card, fumble it, pick it off the floor, hit my head on the hard steel edge of the register. Fuck! But everyone is busy, so next to no one even turns in my direction. Quick inspection, and I see that I am only bruised, not smashed against linoleum and lying prone. Two EMTs are rolling in a stretcher. Thankfully the other egress is clear. It wouldn't be a moment too soon to leave the big box store.
Outside the biting cold is sobering. I stride as swiftly as I can back to my car. I am almost home free when I realize two men are having a conversation less than ten feet from where I will have to pull out. Each man seems to have a family and a selection of big boxes waiting for him. The families stand apart by two cars askance from the others. There's been a parking lot collision past midnight on Thanksgiving.
How will I pull my car out of its spot?
Chapter 5: TGIF
I work three to nine on Friday, thank God. That's pay back for two bell-to-bell shifts a week—three if you count Saturdays when everyone works a nine to six that can easily turn into nine to seven, eight, or nine if customers are on the lot, and the boss doesn't want to go down to AC to blow through his six-figure salary at the craps table or roulette wheel. Friday is also my chance to sleep in and have the house to myself. My wife always works nine to six on Fridays.
I stay in bed past 11:00—it would be ideal to be asleep past 11:00, even if it's catch-up and not get-ahead sleep, but sleeping hasn't come easily of late. Upstairs in the kitchen, I consider the old filter, toss it, add water, pop a fresh filter in, and add a heaping measure for every six-ounce cup of coffee. As I wait, I check the papers to make sure all the news is bad. My giant mug takes five "cups" of coffee, and then I'm back downstairs. At my small bookcase, I look to grab the Fitzgerald from a pile of library books on top, but instead pull from the middle a book whose faded spine barely reveals a title. But it's a newer book, and it's personal finance.
I grab this sort of title, too, when I'm at the library—a last ditch chance to save my finances as if there were any hope. A lot of them have the same advice—pay yourself first; stay out of debt or only take on "good debt"; invest in low-fee index funds and remember to rebalance. There are a lot of these books, so there must be money in them. But the problem is that it's already too late for most of us. We needed a book two decades back. We didn't get the right information from our parents, teachers, career counsellors, and employers. Or we didn't listen. Now we're in the thick of it. We're in the hole. By the time we slap down $30 for hardcover, we're already in too deep. Even if we were lucky enough to escape medical debt—the dream killer, there's all the other debt that was part of the dream: student loans, mortgage, automotive lease or purchase. Combine that with the common fluctuations of an average American household income over the years, and the last thing in the world we should be doing is spending money on books.
But this guy is grinning at me on the cover, and he has this conservative Christian thing going on. Stuff I don't believe in but find comforting under these circumstances. Could belief in God get me out of debt?
His main shtick is get out and stay out—the opposite of what any car salesman tells his customers. We bullshit about "good debt versus bad debt," then insist, "Chances are, it'll be worth more than your residual when it's time to buy, trade, or return the vehicle" or, "At these prices, it would be stupid not to invest." Our depreciating asset becomes the customer's investment.
I sip coffee and nearly send it through my nose when I get to his good debt versus bad debt section. By "bad debt," the writer isn't even talking about the debt too many of us have—debt that can't be paid, debt that's evolved into chronic interest paid on interest, snowballing principle, ballooning student loan payoffs, second mortgages, home equity loans, reverse mortgages, everything that keeps America from reading too closely the credit card charges that constitute our daily lives. It would be too much to look clearly at the math.
I put the book down, close my eyes again, and drift into an early afternoon nap. I have a dream where I'm asleep on the throw rug near our wide glass windows on the first floor. The curtains are drawn, and there's a twister coming straight at me. I'm terrified, but I can't move. Slowly, though, within the dream, I become aware it's only a dream, and this appeases me somewhat as the twister roars through and tears apart my house, body, and everything else. I am awake watching the dream a split second before I am genuinely awake.
An hour to kill before work, I use the time to visit my parents. It's a stop I make at least once around the holidays. I hope to see them more often in the future. Before their cemetery plot, I stumble past an old friend from high school. An acquaintance then, really, but after college, when we began to recognize that only a few of us had stayed in the area, never made it out, we grew closer. We'd drink at the same bar—no, not the one I go to with my car-lot buddies—and talk into the night. He married young enough that his wife called it quits when we were still imagining what we would be. We hadn't had enough to get wiped out by previous downturns, so in retrospect, it's understandable he'd check out during the last one.
I heard about it from the bartender. His parents were gone, and his little sister was building a life on another continent, so two bartenders—afternoon and night shift—and half a dozen regulars were all he had to pay their respects. True, some guys don't get even that much, and Tommy brought a suitcase of tall-boy cans of Guinness Blonde to take the edge off the ceremonies. We stood there and drank as a rent-a-priest recited a sermon. The departed was at least a quarter Jewish, but he never mentioned religion, and the available rabbi was too expensive. It was sad, yeah, but also touching in its own way. And it certainly brought the regulars closer together.
Unfortunately, the recession—the drop from the cliff, I mean—lingered, and before we knew it, none of us could afford to be regulars at that place, or anywhere. Within six months of the suicide, the bar closed.
Today I don't have a tall one to leave at his grave, so I nod and march through the dead leaves to my parents. My father owned a policy, so he was able to leave us with this, although I don't think my sister and hers visit when they're in town. Mom stuck around seven years after he was gone and enjoyed every minute of freedom.
I stand and stare at the tombstones. Modest grey, nothing special, but their names and dates are clearly legible. A few patches of sallow crab grass are all my parents have for company.
I want to know my father and mother would care about my predicament—that upstairs or wherever, there's no endless, "I told you so," and, "I knew he wouldn't amount to much." But I sense nothing. No hints or clues. No spiritual connection to the next life, and absolutely no certain knowledge they'd give a shit. I turn away, then stare again and pray for the best. For all of us. At this point, that's the best I can do. I can't afford not to.
A v-shaped squadron of geese breaks the silence with their squawking and barking. A late commute south before the frigid temperatures set in permanently, although from my angle, it appears they head east, maybe slightly to the north even. I'm not the only one who has lost his way, that's for sure. A last goodbye, and then I depart for work.
I get in before 3:00 PM. It's a relief I don't have to answer questions about being a few minutes late. As it turns out, the shift is uneventful. The calm before the storm. My be-back and my brother-in-law on Saturday.
Even though I need at least a half unit, maybe more if something goes wrong on Saturday, it's easy to avoid the few ups who appear. There comes that moment on the lot where you don't want to do what you were hired to do—talk to people, face rejection, try to convince them a car is more expensive—much more!—than any price-leader ad says it's supposed to be, but it's an investment they won't regret.
It's raw capitalism. Nasty and brutish. Dog eat dog. Fuck your common man. Fuck up his credit. Do the same to a single parent. Screw your brother. Even your own mother. Fuck a stranger in the ass like he's begging for it. Take no prisoners. Whack 'em on the interest rate. Lie and tell them you have the best rate. The lowest price. They want to believe. The truth is scary. The truth is worse. There is no lowest rate or price. It's a race to the bottom. Even Wal-Mart and Amazon get beat on price. Knock-off brands and third-party resellers will destroy the world. It's all mini deals and dollar stores. Ugh!
But then you go ahead anyway. You have to. You have a mortgage. Utilities. Taxes. Tuitions. Car payments. Vacation debt if you're lucky. You're caught in a jam, and you have to survive. For whatever reason, you thought it would be a good idea to get married. Everyone else was doing it, right? Make babies. Create more mouths to feed. Employers like parents if they can get us. Debt slaves who come to work on time. And now you're stuck on a car lot, and you have to grab an up, smile and talk, convince some other poor soul you have a product they'd do well to buy.
Life in America.
Under the yoke.
Try to survive.
The struggle for capitalist advantage.
I snap out of it and realize I'm in the john, daydreaming clichés, my whole fucking life, and staring at the bathroom mirror. How long have I been in here? I don't know. Am I losing it completely?
I turn the knob, but I can't. It's confusing. It's not stuck. It's slippery. There's soap all over it. Gross!
After wiping with paper towels from a dispenser above and left of the sink, I wash my hands again. Finally opening the door, I see Closer Number One laughing at the end of the hall. At me, of course.
"I couldn't wait to see who I'd get!"
He thinks it's funny. I need a cigarette. As it turns out, that's the most eventful part of my Friday shift other than pretending to be busy if I get caught in Fat Sal's high beams.
Back downstairs at home, I avoid literature and turn on the television. The asshole leading the pro-business presidential primary is on television again. How we wound up with this crooked orangutan as a future leader is beyond me. But what am I going to do? It's already hard enough to sell cars. Saturated market, millions moving into cities, eco-awareness everywhere. Heightened regulation could screw me even more. It's not like I can go back for a year of college, cash in credits 20 years old, and walk off with a degree that makes me employable somewhere off the lot. Recognizing I may well vote for this pink tangerine crook makes me nauseous. But does anyone running for office have better plans to help someone like me?
I turn him off—enough of his chinky Chinaman retard imitations—pull the Afghan up to my neck, turn off the overhead light, and drift into dreamless sleep.
Chapter 6: Saturday Delivers
Pretty Woman is at my desk signing forms when from the corner of my eye, I see my brother-in-law being escorted over to my table. Of course, he would. Closer Number Two walks with him slowly. He knows I have a live one at the table and doesn't want me to screw it up.
"Pardon me, Miss." I'll be right back. I walk up to intercept before the greeting occurs right in front of Pretty Woman. For my sake, as much as her sake. Two deliveries are on the line, and I know what I have to do.
"Hey, Glen. Glad you could make it in before the zero percent expires."
"It's the least I could do."
What a guy. Why in hell do I have to spend three or four more hours with my brother-in-law? Ugh. It's too much. But I have bills to pay. And now I have an idea.
"Pardon me, Glen."
I escort Closer Number Two a few yards away.
"Could you do this for me? An even split, but I'll pay you cash, so I get the whole chip on the board. It's for my demo."
"Jason, I'd like to help out, but I have people on a demo drive and an appointment due in at 3:00 PM."
I check my phone. 1:45 PM.
"Looks like your girl Melissa is free."
I suppress laughter. But then I come to my senses. Let Glen do the paperwork with a pretty young thing. What finer gift could a brother-in-law offer?
"Do you know where she is?"
"Checking us out over by the water heater."
Cool. She's curious.
As I walk over to make my pitch, I recognize we haven't exchanged three words since last Wednesday. That's a detail lost on neither of us I'm sure.
"An even split even though he's my brother-in-law. Could you do this for me?"
She says it like it's no big deal. I realize she could use half a mini deal. Almost anyone would, particularly a share paid in cash. The whole time I've been here, even when I was one of them, only 20 percent of the salesforce is ever out of the draw for more than two consecutive weeks in a row.
I walk Melissa back to Glen.
"Glen, I'm really sorry, but I'm in the middle of a delivery right now."
"I can see."
"Fortunately, Melissa is going to assist you. She's one of our up-and-coming sales reps." Glen doesn't need to know she earns less than 20 grand a year. Likely less than fifteen. "Melissa will draw up the paperwork and walk you to the vehicle after it's detailed by our lot attendants. I'll come by to make sure everything's okay."
"I'm sure she's ready to soak up any expert sales advice you care to offer."
That thick stroke of his ego ought to do it. Glen smiles at me—almost genuine, and without the usual curled lip of condescension. Then, he turns to Melissa, smiles, and shakes her hand—firm and professional. For a moment, I forget my worries and delight in the absurdity of watching my brother-in-law take a seat with the woman I cheated with just days ago.
But then I hustle back to Pretty Woman.
"Do you care for another cup of coffee? I'm running over to the finance office to see if they're ready for us."
Chapter 7: A Day Of Rest
Sunday. A day of rest. After I snuck in my own house to shower and change clothes, I closed my eyes for six hours and slept for a few of them.
Back in my car, on my way to work, I've got my demo bonus and boss stuck in my brain. It's the last day of the month, so everyone works. Boss knows none of us are off a full day again until Tuesday at the earliest, but he loves this shit. Drag the whole salesforce out of the house before we can fall back asleep in front of NFL television. Torture us with an extra selling day. There'll be even more humiliation if we fail to make our demo bonus. Melissa came through big, and my brother-in-law even liked her. He loved lending a helping hand to a young woman eager to get her start in the world. Pretty Woman was a dream, up from beginning to end. So that's one and a half, and if I move a car today, I have my demo bonus. I'm back. Sort of. I'm alive at least, and I have the mortgage covered. If I cover the mortgage, that gives me three new months to fall behind. We can't get the boot until at least March. Warmer weather, then, and getting evicted wouldn't crush us as bad. An image floats through my head of my wife and I moving into our daughter's one room triple with sleeping alcoves—what could be more of a nightmare for freshman in college?
I park in back and make a point of walking in the rear door past the service waiting area and its brewing pot of coffee. Thank God car dealerships always have coffee. Twelve to nine or whenever it ends. The last day of the month. I need a unit to pay the mortgage and buy three more months' grace period from the lender. At this level, America doesn't live paycheck-to-paycheck; it's more like paid-bill-to-paid-bill.
Why didn't I ask my brother-in-law for the dough like any other white guy surrounded by men of means?
I mix myself a tall black with two creams, two sugars, and when I come back in the showroom, I see Melissa with Closer Number Two. When they see me, they both wave me over.
Thanks for what?
"You didn't hear the news, did you?"
Closer Number Two recognizes the fear frozen on my face and says in a low voice: "Not that news, brother. Your secret's safe with me."
In the voice he uses for customers, he continues: "Your brother-in-law bought life insurance in the F&I office."
"He bought life?"
"Whole life. Permanent."
"Why would he do that?"
"I guess he liked a product at an attractive price. F&I has been running a deal with Fair Insurance. Auto plus discount life. And Melissa put him in the mood to sign on the dotted line."
"Again and again," adds Melissa as she winks at me.
"Each of you is due to split another nine bills in the deal. Four-fifty apiece."
May God bless back-end payment plans. I can't hold back a smile. Insurance pays late, so it won't be in the next check, but $450 will keep me out of draw for a couple weeks.
When I turn back to her, Melissa acknowledges me with a longer smile and a nod. So we're cool with whatever that was last night. No problem is one less problem.
The Christians arrive an hour later. Almost everyone else has an up, so I'm their man. Boss gives me the "Don't fuck this up" stare as I walk over to meet the family of five. Has anyone ever brought three kids to a car dealership and left without buying a vehicle?
"May I help you, sir?"
"We'd like to look at the Corolla and the Camry."
Ten minutes later, I have them at my desk—three hot chocolates, a regular, black, and a decaf, two creams, two sugars. Sugar and caffeine must be God's way. I slide a lot guy two dollars and he finds the remote that's been "lost" for a month and switches to the cartoon channel. I remember when we only watched Saturday morning cartoons, and how impatient we'd get waiting a week for our fix.
I'm guessing they're four, five, and seven. The Cartoon Channel solves the problem right away.
Mom looks at me happily.
I'm already counting the extra commission I'll get for that one.
Ten minutes later—Melissa is sitting with the children, and she knows the deal. I can slip her a hundred for babysitting but can't spare half a chip. Hopefully a real up won't walk in the door, not one the boss notices anyway. If my boss doesn't notice, or if he's not a total prick, I have a chance of getting my demo bonus plus a nifty commission.
We're on the test drive—Mom and Dad up front, I'm in the back—and that's when Dad starts in with it.
"We go to church only a mile from here."
We go to church? I go to adultery?
"It's a beautiful area."
"Yes, it is."
We drift back into silence.
"How long have you been in the car business?"
Fifteen minutes later, I'm bullshitting about my own encounter with Jesus.
"I met my wife in church."
I'm sure as hell not going to tell him we met in a mosque. Or that my mother's half Jewish. Or that my father was an airport Hare Krishna during the Reagan years.
"What church is that?"
It seems risky to say Roman Catholic to a Protestant who might buy a car from me. Episcopalian? Methodist? Unitarian? Lutheran?
"A church of Jesus. Christ, our Lord and Savior."
He smiles and nods.
Inside the dealership, he's not glowing, but he's sold. He wants to buy the car from a believer. Wife and husband move quickly to be with their children. Melissa looks happy. She's talking to the kids about the television show. It's clearly time for me to promise her a church wedding. No, it's better to get everyone seated, and go get more coffees.
But the kids don't get a second cup of hot chocolate, and both parents say that they're good. I walk up to the manager's desk to tell him I have a commitment on a vehicle. He nods. He looks grim. Noncommittal. He knows what's at stake for me.
I go back to my desk and sit down. Time to relax and talk Jesus.
Leaving the lot on Sunday night, I feel exhausted. Spent. The last day of the month is over, thank God, even if I still have my Monday nine-to-nine shift. On Monday, we'll goof off. Tell war stories. Smoke cigarettes and surf online from our phones. The owner might stop by to pick up the numbers, and that will stress out the boss. As punishment, he'll make us move the cars around. Park them in different places. Busy work. Some other dumb shit like that.
But for now, I'm good. I played my best believing Christian for a religious man. I told him what he wanted to hear. Moved the unit over the curb. Tipped the lot tech extra to detail the vehicle, so it was as clean as Eden when the Christians took delivery of it. Nice back-end commission on the interest rate. Two points more than he had to pay. I made my demo bonus. I can cover my mortgage. My wife won't express gratitude, but the feeling is mutual. For now, we have a roof over our heads, we work, and we haven't spent down past the point of no return.
I'm at my driver's side door next to the chain-linked fence when I see something dark and shiny slither out at an angle from beneath the engine. Surprised, I drop my car keys, bang my head against the driver-side mirror as I rise too fast after retrieving them off the cracked cement. Fuck. I stomp my feet to shoe the garden snake away, although it's already lost in the crab grass grown over an abandoned overflow lot behind the dealership. No ancient idiotic symbolism is going to ruin the drive home after I made my monthly nut. No, sir, it won't. So seated behind the wheel, I crank the engine. As I pull out of my spot, I hit the stereo and turn up a country station I can't escape. This is America, not the apocalypse, and Thanksgiving weekend has been good to me.