A late-model Chevy Blazer cruised in, dusted with red dirt and caked with mud along the wheel wells and undercarriage. Tony waved to the three guys stuffed into it, brawny and thirty-something. He followed it in as they parked, noting the dried glob like dookie sitting on top of the tail pipe. Good-old boys reduced to driving around in their hunting truck. Easy call.
He stood by the driver’s door, waiting for it to open, but for the moment it was a stalemate. The Blazer idled, and it appeared no one wanted to get out and face the car salesman. Surprise, surprise. Then the passenger door opened, and a guy slouched out wearing a faded-yellow T-shirt with a breast pocket. Then another dude crawled out from the backseat after him. They looked almost alike. Dirty baseball caps and baked skin, and neither had shaved in at least a week. The same went for the driver, who wasn’t budging.
“How y’all doing?” said Tony. “Welcome to Hank Hood Automall. I’m Tony.” He stepped in close to greet them.
They glanced at him with clenched teeth and reluctantly shook his hand.
“So which one’s shopping?” he asked.
The backseater turned to consult yellow pocket, who stood a little taller, a little broader, and yellow pocket lifted his chin to announce himself.
“Looking for something good on gas,” he grumbled, like Tony had come onto his property to look at his product. Surprise, surprise.
“I hear ya, with the way gas prices are,” said Tony. He nodded and shook his head and the waves of his hair waved like they could and he smiled, too, like what can you do? Because gas prices were crazy. “And your name? Sorry, I didn’t catch it.”
Yellow pocket flexed his jaw muscles. “John,” he said.
“All right, John,” said Tony, “so have you ever financed a car before?”
“Yeah, you don’t have to worry about my credit. I got good credit—me and my old lady both do—and I’m gonna be putting a thousand down. Cash in pocket,” he said and slapped the right leg of his jeans, as if his pocket went down to where he slapped, like he wished. “So just show me what ya got. Let’s see the best on gas ya got,” and then he started tromping toward GMC trucks.
“Actually,” said Tony, “the best will be over here, John.” Yep, yellow pocket was a roof ape, for sure. Half the men in Lower Alabama were. Roof apes with hammers for all the snowbirds.
Watch them follow, thought Tony some more, as they followed him to the Pontiac Vibes. Tony stopped at the most convenient one to show, a white one on the end, a white called Frosty. “This is it,” he said. “Nothing else can touch it.” Tony pointed out the mileage on the Monroney sticker, then retrieved the keys from the lockbox and opened the car. “And the best thing,” he said, reaching in and releasing the hood, “is that it has a Toyota engine. In fact, it’s the exact same engine that goes in the Toyota Matrix and the Toyota Corolla.” He pointed out the Japanese writing on various parts, and John leaned in to see.
“A rice burner?” said John.
“Yep, the Vibe is the first joint venture ever between Pontiac and Toyota, and what that means for you,” said Tony, “is you get a Toyota at a Pontiac price.” That was his standard line, something he’d crafted on his own, the line that usually closed the deal if anyone was remotely interested in driving away in a four-door hatchback four cylinder. And the beauty of the line was that it was true. The customer did get a Toyota at a Pontiac price. A higher price. Hard to believe.
Tony shut the hood, then walked around to the hatch to show him all 54.1 cubic feet of cargo space—that is, when the back seats were folded flat, like so. “Pretty impressive, don’t you think?”
John and his bud stared in blankly.
“With this durable hard-plastic flooring,” said Tony, rapping his knuckles on it, “you could carry firewood, bricks, football equipment, whatever, and not tear upholstery.” Tony wasn’t getting any reaction, but he nodded with a smile anyway. Because sometimes work was work. “This would be the most practical, versatile car we have on this whole lot, and certainly with the best gas mileage, by far. By far.”
He shut the hatch, then popped the rear window open to demonstrate that nifty feature. “So your wife can drop groceries in and not have to lift the hatch.”
“So when we gonna see how this thing rides?” said John.
“Yeah, I don’t wanna be out here all day,” the other guy said.
“Right now,” said Tony, perking up, his inside finally resembling his outside. “Right now,” he repeated, shutting the rear window and watching the car sink to the left as John squeezed into the driver’s seat. A real go-getter. A no time waster.
“Shotgun,” John’s bud called, jogging around to the other side.
Tony walked up to John, already adjusting the rear-view mirror. “You have a driver’s license, don’t you?”
“A course,” said John, gripping the wheel and making it look shrunken in his hands. “Why, you gotta see it?”
“No, I trust you, but gotta ask. We’re good. But I’m gonna have to be the one to drive it off the lot. For insurance reasons.” Because you can’t give them what they want too quickly. Because you got to make him want it. Make him wait. Make him listen. Like fishing. Hell, like dating. “But we’ll stop up the road and switch over. How about that?”
John looked at his bud, then shoved himself up without a word.
Waiting for the click could be grueling—that moment when Tony had finally built up enough rapport with his customers that he could feel something shift, could see and hear it come over them, almost like a snap of hypnosis, and then he could joke with them, saying almost anything, things that before would have insulted them and made them bolt. He could tell them to buy him a Coke if he wanted, or he might just go for the close, because they were ready and he’d earned it.
Tony pulled the driver’s seat up as far as it would go, then turned to John behind him. “How’s the leg room? Not bad for a little bitty, right?”
John shrugged. “I won’t ever sit back here.”
Tony nodded. “I hear ya. Well, up here, let me show you whatcha got.” He eased the Vibe from its space and pointed out the Over Drive button on the shifter, then before leaving the lot, he singled out the 115-volt household-style power outlet. “Let’s say you and your old lady had to evacuate for a hurricane and needed to live outta your car for a couple days. She could plug her hair dryer in, no problem. Or let’s say you’re running late before an important job interview, John.” Tony looked at him, big and whiskery, not amused, in the rearview mirror. “Now, you could use your electric shaver while you drive.” He shrugged, then seeing the lane was clear, he pulled onto 98 and turned on the radio. With all their weight in the car, that 1.8-liter rice burner would soon be humming awfully loud. He usually preferred, before the RPMs got up too high, to have a little cover-up music.
“How’s that?” said Tony, landing on a country station, a sugary baritone: If America was Mama and could make a spread for all. Something like that. Neither John nor his bud answered, were looking elsewhere, lost somewhere else, so Tony guessed he’d guessed right with country. They were probably humming along. Then Tony felt his cell phone vibrate in his pants pocket.
Heather had told him she might drop by the dealership for a minute on her way to work if he wasn’t tied up with a customer, so he reached fast into his pocket for his phone to tell her not to bother, and when he saw he was right, her number on the ID, he answered and said her name. But she wasn’t there, nothing, so he closed his phone and slipped it back in his pocket. One thing he really didn’t like to do if he could help it was talk on his cell when he was test-driving. She’d figure it out.
“What do you think? Nice ride, isn’t it?” Tony glanced up to consult John in the rearview mirror, but John’s head was tipped down, the curled bill of his cap hiding his face. “I’m gonna pull in at this church right up here, John, and we’ll swap places, all right?”
“Awwwright,” said John, not looking up but appearing finally, by the sound of things, to be loosening up. Maybe he and Tony were getting closer to the click, after all.
John’s bud, in his own world, drummed on his knees to the quick horse-trot beat of the next song, and Tony recognized this one by the banjo, a Dolly Parton song he hadn’t heard in years, so he turned it up a little louder.
“Y’all don’t mind, do you?” Tony laughed as he slowed for the church’s entrance. “Man, sounds good on this sound system, doesn’t it?”
But John was still looking down. John’s bud was still looking down, still drumming his knees, and Dolly kept pleading, kept praying, her vocals a bittersweet lament as a fiddle rose and fell.
Tony eased the Vibe into the shade of the oaks and parked. “Here we go,” he said, releasing his seatbelt, and as he and John opened their doors, so did John’s bud. “No, buddy, I’ll sit in the back,” he told him. “I don’t mind.” Once on pavement, he noticed that John’s bud kept coming, allegro, like he hadn’t heard anything Tony had said.
“Really, I don’t mind,” called Tony, and when he stepped back to let John by and casually flashed him a professional smile, he was surprised to see the rage.
“Motherfucker,” John spat, up on his toes as if he wasn’t tall enough, and John cracked him in the face with his fist.
That first one was the only one Tony felt the pain of. Other fists came, which moved him back and forth and doubled him over, collapsed, but those didn’t hurt.
He’d been robbed once before, over in New Orleans, with a muzzle in the ribs, but this was L.A. This was low-key beach houses and condos, not cribs! This was Trent Jones golf, camellias, and Spanish moss. This was deep-sea fishing with the Gulf out there like the shiny edge of a razor put to the sky. This was America at its finest. And now this. This white-on-white crime. This blue collar on blue collar. Made him want to cry and call Heather, as if they’d been seeing each other after work and sometimes at lunch for much longer than two months he so needed her. He didn’t want to look at this world without her.
Tires too big for the Vibe squealed up like they would run him over, sprawled face-down and hardly breathing, but then they skidded to a halt. A slight gurgle in his throat announced itself, a throb developed in his front teeth, but he quit moving from punches and kicks. Doors opened and shut. Then the tires of whatever had peeled up were now peeling out with equal haste, pelting rocks and sand and casting a sour pall of burning rubber over Tony.
He tried to open his eyes but they were already open, so he lifted his cheek, dripping with blood and embedded with pebbles, and coughed. His eyes opened wider and blinked. Hazy red light, the mud-caked Blazer, a swirl of motion, and from the Blazer, on the road below the water tower, one of them shouted, “Fuck you!” Far from a grumble.
Or was he remembering the only thing John had said over and over as he hit him over and over? Yellow pocket. Fuck you!
He coughed again and drooled a string of blood as he struggled to work his arms to push himself up to dig for his phone and call Heather or the police or the dealership. Maybe Hank Hood himself would make him employee of the month for this shit. Get to park up front with the handicaps. But more than that he wanted to talk to Heather.
He fumbled with his phone and dropped it. And then he had it again and backed up to prop himself against the Vibe, his legs forked, and with slow, child-like motions, he pried his phone open and dialed Heather’s number. To see what she wanted, and then he could tell her what he wanted, and what he wanted was for her to drive to him, to leave work or her husband or her son, wherever she was that was not here, and race to him.
He could hear wind in their connection, as if she were driving and was on her way to him already. Hurt flooded his lungs and his bitten tongue. He tried his swollen jaws. Was she aching for him, too? Two silences like two towers, two trees, two buoys. “Hea-ther?”
A man’s laughter filled the line. “You dumb motherfucker! You dumb motherfucker!”
“John?” he said with a lisp.
Then he shouted it again, buzzing the phone and his ear with his “Fuck you!”
Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow. His stories, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, have appeared in numerous anthologies and in The Carolina Quarterly, The Cortland Review, Danse Macabre, Grey Sparrow Journal, NANO Fiction, Ostrich Review, Prick of the Spindle, Ragazine.cc, The Southern Review, storySouth, and elsewhere. He lives in Fort Worth, TX, where he teaches creative writing at Texas Christian University.