Crooners hum softly behind a radio announcer I try to ignore. But my subconscious is on high alert. Out of nowhere my car veers from an intended destination toward Mel’s Super Auto Liquidation Mall. Gaudy banners flutter in the desert heat near a large neon sign that winks to all passers-by: EXTRAVAGANZA SALE. Halogen sabers crisscross above as acid cascades into stomach. I hate car dealers, all car dealers, but especially Mel’s Super Auto Liquidation Mall.
I was pinched here in one of Mel’s you’ll-never-be-sorry-nothing-down-free-financing-bodacious-liquidition deals. Pinched? Yep. Jerry, a glib salesman who lassoed me into what he insisted was an outright steal. Jerry, by the way, is impossible to evade.
He is always there. I’ve cruised by Mel’s at midnight, crept by in sub-zero blizzards, zipped around the lot. Even once during a tornado alert. But Jerry is always there. And he never fails to see me. I could sport mobster wrap-around shades under a deerstalker and he’d shout from the nether regions of the lot, “Fran! Time to trade in that old clunker!” In a sprint he’ll trip over his white bucks to reach me. It matters not that I just had my car washed and hand waxed. To Jerry it’s now an old clunker.
I recall my emotions the first time I entered Mel’s lot. Smooth talking Jerry just may be able to make the deal of a lifetime for me—if I trade now for a new model. My timing is impeccable. Mel is behind the eight ball. In a confused state he’s once again overstocked. Newer models are being trucked here as we speak. And unless wily buyers such as the likes of ole Fran are willing to snatch one of his current creampuffs off the lot at a thieves’ price, Mel will be stuck. Stuck. Out of business.
Jerry’s beady eyes narrow above a wide arc of mendacious kindness. Follow me to my tent, his countenance suggests. We have just received word from the sultan that our daily quota requires each of us to service one more Arab broodmare before the sun sets. I remind him I’m just comparison shopping today and Mel’s is my first stop. In a dramatic pause, Jerry stops to listen to the homing signal of an over-passing sales quota satellite. He hears nothing I say.
Jerry takes my arm and scoots across the lot as if John J. Pershing has just issued orders for all available doughboys to plug a hole on the Western Front. My heels sink in the melting tar on the edge of the lot.
If I take two steps back, I’ll be in a ten foot drainage ditch that borders the back of Mel’s Super Auto Liquidation Mall. Jerry hasn’t noticed this. He’s staring at a shiny new model in front of us. His pencil mustache twitches as his jaws engage. He says the car is blue and has four wheels. But his squeaky voice has modulated into a soft bass with sonorous rhythms. “This moon teal tint reflects a certain glow on those radials, as you can see, Fran. Sort of a diminished liquid radiance, wouldn’t you say?” No, I’d like to say, but a thick numbness has settled into my tongue. I smile and nod as if to say, yes, broccoli is sometimes tolerable with a mild cheese sauce, Jerry. With reluctance he unlocks the spell and I once again remind him I’m just looking. I face the back of his moussed coif as he gazes out over the lot, perhaps in search of more pliable prey.
I decide it must be my duty to commiserate with the crickets in the drainage ditch below while he muses over his next strategy.
Jerry looks at the car, rubs his chin, and begins to describe the chrome and the pin-striping. It sounds as if this car had been hand-tooled for a European Grand Prix contender, but, alas, at the last possible moment the fool opted for a red Ferrari instead.
Jerry peers over my shoulder toward a field of cacti. Then he cuts his eyes around in a furtive glance to assure himself we are indeed alone. His face contorts as if his lower intestines have encountered a blockage. I’m being briefed on a state secret: this is the last day of the business month for salesmen here. And we’re in the final hours of Mel’s bodacious extravaganza sale. My sales guidance counselor confesses he’s yet to meet his quota. The little woman at home is mewling for a week at the beach. Jerry is frantic. The boss has demanded he clear the lot of all current inventory—no matter what. Stupid Mel has overstocked, he reminds me. The banks are at his heels. And sweet Fran could be the messiah chosen to heal all living souls dependent on the dealership payroll. I look down in acute anguish. My feet hurt.
Jerry leans into my face like a teary-eyed father about to kiss his bride-to-be daughter adieu at the altar. His eyes widen. He whispers the secret password, “below cost.” My first revelation is that my sales guidance counselor consumed a burger with onions at lunch. He surveys the plains again to reassure himself I’m still the lone unsuspecting wildebeest on the Serengeti today. Jerry spots no other game about.
An errant whistle escapes between my teeth. “Below cost?” I could swear not one synapse between my brain and my tongue is in good working order today. “Shhh,” he says, “this is just for you.” Un huh. Another marriage proposal born on a primal instinct of the moment. At least he has the wisdom not to ask if my spouse will be along soon. I’m shocked. Maybe it’s my white uniform.
A gargantuan effort will be required on Jerry’s part to bend the boss toward my penurious demands. Strange, at the moment I don’t recall making any demands. Jerry clasps his hands in humble supplication over his generous middle. His shaking head portends an ominous battle approaching. Jerry is a fearless gladiator, but, alas, my case may prove imperiled in this arena. Only a miracle can save poor Fran now, but Jerry will make the attempt. “I don’t know…the boss, well…I’ll run it up the pole.” He flashy his pearly whites as his thick brows rise like dust clouds behind an approaching Roman legion. This is war. My mentor and counselor, battle hardened, is about to step into the dusty Colloseum below bloodthirsty hordes and face off with ole Mel himself. It’s a fight to the death. And all for me. Right, Jer.
I sign away my life on a clipboard, a mere formality, I’m told. Jerry hesitates, checking his appearance before he dashes toward Mel’s peeling hut. By now I’m in a trance. If I were quizzed on such simple matters as the local time, the day of the week, my name or how I got here, I’d fail. Any rational thought pattern that arose from my bed with me this morning has split to Vegas for a quickie divorce. I’m bereft. Stark naked. I don’t want to think about it.
The digital numbers on my clock flip to midnight. I’m safe at home in the sack. My new teal creampuff is snug in the garage of the apartment complex. Engaged across the steering wheel is a new reduced-for-quick-sale anti-theft safety bar. No cunning carnappers will abscond with my baby before daybreak. Or will they?
My apartment “sup” will scream when she realizes I’ve just moved my new car out onto a patch of grass beneath my bedroom window. If I lift up slightly, I can see the reflection of the summer moon across its shiny top. Hmm, it does seem to glow. What if I find nothing but depressions in the grass where it awaited my return? And a morning newspaper anchored under my abandoned wheel lock announces in broad headlines: LOCAL THIEVES OUTWIT FRAN’S FAILSAFE STEERING WHEEL LOCK WITH EASE.
When I confront Jerry tomorrow and tell him my baby has been stolen, he’ll have forgotten the double deluxe consumer protection all-causes car theft insurance option he graciously sold me today. And when I remind him, his eyes will widen like a deer caught in high beams at midnight. He’ll race off to check the papers while Angel Falls dumps a mountain of acid into my stomach once again. My tummy braces as if this just happened.
My teal blue car is seven years older than the day it rolled off Mel’s Super Auto Liquidation Mall with me in stunned delirium. The odometer has hied well into six figures. Maybe Jerry has taken the little lady on a picnic today. It’s Sunday. And a Death Valley sun is on full alert. I try to imagine all decent care salesmen bivouacked in a cool, dark pub watching a pro football game on TV and working up a Monday morning hangover as I ease into Mel’s deserted lot.
I gaze out over the wheel at the expansive lot of sleeping metal cash munchers. All is quiet. I slip out of the car seat to take a quick peek at a few would-be-debits. Without warning the Guns of Navarrone boom out behind me. “Fran! Time to trade in that old clunker!”
I sigh. Swallow hard. My first impulse is to leap back into the car, lock the doors, and belt out the first stanza of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. But then Jerry would just join in on the chorus. Once again the car gods have looked down on me and frowned. I smile like an innocent bovine munching away with patience, waiting in an endless line at the local abattoir. Let the execution begin.
Fred Miller, born in Mississippi and currently living in South Carolina, is a retired Wall Street executive who holds two university degrees. His first short story was published in 2003 and he has been published in Puckerbrush Review, Oxford Town, and ScarlettRosebud.