Fiction - Autumn 2014

The Way of the World

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Franz Jachim/Flickr

By Craig Nova

September 8, 2014


 

It is easy to owe money to people, and I have tried all the methods available, but this summer was on the more frightening end of the spectrum. I am sure I don’t need to go into it, really, aside from saying it had to do with drugs, money, and some people who were more than anxious to locate me. One of them, and I am not making this up, was Sebastian Dangerfield, six-two, 240 pounds, and he had had a tryout with a semipro football team, the Santa Monica Sharks, and just missed the cut. He then took a job collecting bad debts.

I owed money in San Francisco, and so I went to Los Angeles, where I could trade cars, at a profit this time. I should say, too, that Hollywood (or the flat part of it, geographically speaking, not the hills) still had a street life that made 42nd Street in its heyday seem sort of innocent. In any case, I needed a base to buy and sell cars, and so I took a job in a place known as the World Gas Station, which was on Western Avenue, right in the middle of what can only be called the Creep Belt.

The World had a bathroom that was just the usual grim place, a flickering sort of science-fiction neon tube overhead, a floor stained with substances of every conceivable sort (I am pretty sure that some of the local prostitutes had used the bathroom for one reason or another), a cracked mirror covered with some unidentifiable flecks, and toilet paper that is on a roller set up to let you get one sheet at a time, although even that is a struggle. I worked the shift from three P.M. until midnight, and I was already looking for the first car to make an offer on. During the day, the cars came in like they were part of a circus, or some mechanical menagerie. Still, sometimes I worked all night, too, from midnight to dawn, when the night man didn’t show.

I knew a couple of tricks, like putting eggs in a leaking radiator, and other unethical stunts, but when you get down to cars and the American Way of Knowledge, you must admit that when you consider buying a car, even from a sort of high-end dealership, you sense an eddy of fraud in the handshake of even the most beautifully dressed salesman.

A man came into the gas station, when I was working all night, and asked if he could trade his portable radio for a dollar’s worth of gas. He said he would be right back for his radio, which was a pretty sketchy item. But it worked. I said, Sure. I put five dollars’ worth of gas in his car, paid out of my pocket and took the radio. He never came back. This was the same night, at dawn, when a woman, who I still think of as the Slum Goddess, came into the gas station to buy cigarettes. She was barefoot, wearing a pair of blue jeans and a Santa Monica Sharks T-shirt. She had blond hair and looked as though she had just gone through some intense experience along sexual lines. I sat in a little booth in the middle of the islands, where I read a book. She stood there, at the door, a curl of blond pubic hair coming out of her unzipped jeans. I noticed that the color of this was precisely the same as the most beautiful dawn. Golden, filled with promise, not inflammatory so much as frank.

“Luckies,” she said. “No filters.”

I gave her the cigarettes. She tapped them against her palm, opened them, lit one in a way that Lauren Bacall couldn’t have done if she had tried, and said, “What’s that you’re reading?”

The Peloponnesian War,” I said.

“Huh,” she said. “You’d think they’d hire someone more stupid to run this place. See ya.”

“Wait a minute,” I said.

“Huh? You’ve got something to say to me?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well,” she said. “I haven’t got all night.”

“Where did you get that T-shirt?” I said.

“Oh, the Sharks and I go way back. Way, way back.”

“Can you get me one?”

“Well, my boyfriend, who’s waiting right now for a cigarette, is the general manager.”

“General manager?” I said. “You know the general manager?”

She shifted her weight, looked at me as though I owed her money and she was being good about it, but still impatient for the dough anyway. She said, “Are you having trouble hearing me? Yeah. Joe Hackman is his name. Can’t say he’s making a pile, but he’s looking for a player to sell up league, you know. Sure. You’re a medium. See ya.”

I am not so sure about her stupidity comment, if only because it came at my first trade. The Ford I owned, with a Thunderbird engine, had burned valves, so I couldn’t drive it any more. I took the car to my friend who worked at the wrecking service just up the road, and who I thought of as the Death Merchant. I thought of him this way because he offered me a job driving a tow truck to pick up the wrecks on the Hollywood Freeway he bought for next to nothing from the survivors of the crashes. He then sold them, with minimal repair, to desperate people. As everyone knows, Los Angeles has been, for many reasons and for a long time, a desperate place. I don’t know the precise figures, but I would imagine that a tow-truck driver lasted about a week before getting flattened on the Hollywood Freeway. I have seen with my own eyes a man who had a cup of coffee on the dashboard of his car, a Kindle in the steering wheel, and he was traveling at 70 miles an hour and doing so about 20 feet from the car in front of him. He had a sip of coffee, glanced up the road, then read a line on the Kindle, then had a sip of coffee. Sooner or later someone like that was going to rear-end a tow-truck driver trying to hook up to a car.

Better, I thought, when considering Sebastian Dangerfield, to be on the seller end, rather than a sort of mechanical hunter and gatherer.

So I went to see the Death Merchant, let’s call him Joey, with my Ford with the burned valves. Joey had an air of menace, too, just like everyone else on Western Avenue in the Creep Belt, a cunning look in the eyes, a certain quality that comes from having a pistol under your front seat, in the glove box of your car, or in some other easily accessible place. He looked at my Ford. He listened to the noise it made. Then he said, with his eyes somehow turning a darker shade, more menacing than ever, “Man, are you lucky. I just picked up a big Buick, all-leather interior, power windows, AC, needs a shot of Freon, but that’s nothing, and all it’s got is a little sort of dent in the front end from a fender bender on the freeway.”

The car sat at the side of the wrecking service, which was a cinder-block building with a crisp new hand-painted sign that said, “Hollywood Wrecking. Cars on Credit. Employment and Credit History no problem.” The windows of the place looked like they had cataracts. This, of course, was from the film of dust, exhaust, and a sort of moral greasiness.

The car was green and white, and the dent was a matter of the front end having been about totaled, so much so that the headlights pointed down, and when they were on, they illuminated about 30 feet in front of you. But I needed a car, and if you are in Los Angeles, a car is right in there with food. Try taking a bus sometime from South Central to the beach. Anyway, Joey said he would have his “body man” come in and fix the front end of the Buick. No problem.

We struck a deal. I would give Joey the Ford and a hundred dollars, and I would get the Buick with the smashed-in front end. And when I came to pick up the Buick, Joey’s body man was at work. Joey had wrapped a chain around the bumper of the car, and then had wrapped the other end of the chain around a telephone pole. Then he put the car in reverse, and hit the gas, and in the cloud of blue smoke, like something from the underworld, the bumper and front end probably lifted about six inches. Not enough for the lights to show much more at night, but it was a little better than before. Joey handed me the keys. I gave him the pink slip of the Ford and a hundred dollars. This is where I learned the meaning of the word tacit. By mutual agreement we did not mention the nonexistence of the “body man,” and I guess this was because I knew and Joey knew that nothing was going to change, and so we were facing a kind of fatalism, about which, I discovered right here, one should say nothing.

But when he had done this to the bumper, he managed to do something to the transmission. You would put it in reverse, say, to get out of a head-first parking spot, and then you would put it into drive and give it some gas. Nothing happened. Then you gave it more gas. Still nothing. Then more gas and the transmission fell into gear, but it did so in a way that lifted the car into the air from sheer torque. It gave me a case of whiplash in the first week.

Also something was wrong with the fuel pump and carburetor, which meant the Buick got about five gallons to the mile. But the leather was terrific. The idea was not to drive it at night.

I didn’t think it was going to be mine for long, since what I was really looking for was a nice, six-cylinder Chevrolet that I could do the maintenance on myself. Then, after that, I’d build up some money for Sebastian Dangerfield. And because of where I worked, I had an endless supply of possibilities, particularly since the World Gas Station had the cheapest gas in town and also sold reclaimed motor oil. This, really, was a very strong attraction.

A green, stick-shift, six-cylinder Chevrolet, just what I had in mind, came into the station. The man who was driving it had a horribly scarred face, and when we started talking, it turned out that he had been in a very bad accident in Arizona and ever since then he had been looking for a “heavier car.” Apparently, in the automobile accident he had gone through the windshield, which had shattered his jaw. He told me that every now and then a bit of bone worked its way through his gums. He was, he told me, a bartender who worked just up the road.

“Well,” I said. “Have I got the car for you. You see that Buick over there.”

I had parked it so I could drive it away without having to back up.

The lust or desire for a car is always clear, and I could see that the weight of the Buick was just what he had been dreaming about. Of course, he didn’t have the money to see a shrink regarding the nightmares he had about going through the windshield (I imagine these dreams had a soundtrack: the bones cracking with the same crumpling paper sound as the glass of the windshield), but he could nevertheless take some practical action. He could buy the Buick.

“Don’t worry about that front end,” I said. “There’s a body shop in Covina that will fix it for next to nothing.”

“I was more concerned about the weight,” he said.

“Sure, sure,” I said.

“You know how you get scars when you go through a windshield?” he said. “It’s not the going through. It’s when you pull your head out, since the glass digs into your cheeks.”

We worked out a deal. I would get the Chevrolet and a hundred dollars (this would bring me close to even), and he would get the Buick. We decided to drive each other’s car. Of course, as I said, I had the Buick parked so he didn’t have to back it up, and after I got in, he did, too. He made a sort of erotic groan when he felt the all-leather seats. He drove it around the block, touched the scars on his face, and seemed to be getting the effect of the weight of an inefficiently heavy American car.

I drove the Chevrolet. It didn’t have any compression, but I planned to put in new rings just as soon as I got the time. So, we agreed. The next day he would show up at the gas station with the papers for the Chevrolet. I would bring the pink slip for the Buick. We would go to the bank.

An awkward moment presented itself when he arrived. Of course, I wanted to drive the Chevrolet one more time before money actually changed hands, and he wanted to drive the Buick, just to make sure there wasn’t some problem that hadn’t been obvious before (like, say, with the transmission). So, we went back and forth about this until I realized that when we got to the bank, and he parked head in, when the time came to back up, the car would be his. I have to say that this was not the high point of my ethical life, but the trouble with ethics is that they show their importance after they’ve been ignored.

We drove to the bank. We went inside. I got the hundred dollars from the man with the scars on his face. We went back to the parking lot and got into the Buick, which he had parked head in, between the white lines, which were painted in a fishbone pattern on the bank’s asphalt, which was already shimmering, with a tint of mercury, in the heat. The man with the scars started the car. He put it in reverse. I braced myself.

“Something wrong?” he said. “You look tense.”

“Allergies,” I said.

He put the car in drive. Gave it some gas. Gave it some more. And then, in a way I should have warned him about, he gave it even more gas. The transmission fell into the gear, and the car lifted off the ground. The man with the scars looked at me with an air of the most profound American suspicion: he had been screwed on a car. This was surely not the first time this man had heard a strange noise, had an engine stop, or ended up at the side of the road, which is an embarrassment itself in American life. Just think of those times when we see someone along a highway and think, “Look at that poor son of a bitch. Probably looking for cans he can turn in for the deposit.” American cruelty often comes in the smallest details.

“Funny thing,” I said. “That never happened to me.”

He went on staring at me for a while, alternately rubbing the back of his neck and touching his scars. That was the tradeoff, it seemed.

This is where things began to go wrong. And if there is a lesson here, it is not to lose your nerve at a critical moment. But that isn’t what happened.

The man with the scars came into the World regularly, because of the cheap gas, but even I could tell that the Buick was getting worse mileage than before, which, as I said, should have been figured in gallons per mile. I knew, too, that his job as a bartender was in Westwood, not far away, and so the fact that he was stopping in to fill up the Buick three and sometimes four times a week was an indication that he was having more doubts than just those about the transmission. I imagined the place where he worked as being one of those faux Hawaiian restaurants that existed for a long time in Los Angeles, you know, steel guitars, women doing the hula, barbecued ribs, and tiki lamps. Not the kind of atmosphere that leads to optimism, especially if you have had the experience of going through the windshield and then being screwed on a deal for a heavier car. And, as a sign I should have noticed, he started wearing, for no reason at all, a Santa Monica Sharks T-shirt.

I didn’t have the sense to leave it alone. And I know why, too, since it was a way of coming to terms, in a sort of messed-up empathy, with the size of the hands of Sebastian Dangerfield. When the man with the scars came into the gas station, I noticed a slowly advancing attitude on his part. In the beginning, he looked me straight in the face when he asked me to fill it up, but slowly he began not to look at me at all. This should have been a warning, but I said, “Wow. I sure wish I had this car back. Boy, did you get the best of me on this deal. Why, I don’t know what I could have been thinking when I let you have this. Well, live and learn, I guess.”

The same evolving quality took place here, too, in that in the beginning he would grin or say something like, “That’s the way it goes,” but as time went on he began to stare right ahead. I noticed, too, that he was slowly but surely not able to pay for a full tank of gas. It was 10 gallons, then five. He looked like he was losing weight.

But the Chevrolet was no prize, when you got down to cases. First, it had no compression at all, and to get on the freeway, I had to double-clutch it into first gear. This was a neat piece of driving, but it left me with the feeling that the car was going to blow up one time when I ran the rpms that high. When I pulled up at a stoplight, and the light changed to green, I’d let the rpms fall, and the car would stall. Then, and this was the monster that had been hidden in this deal, the car wouldn’t start.

I had to get out, put my shoulder against the door post next to the windshield, and push until the car rolled forward at a couple of miles an hour, and then I would jump in, pop the clutch, and be on my way. I can’t say that this made me feel terrific about the deal, but I was looking for other cars and thought this was just a normal dip in the business cycle. When I worked the night shift, the woman with the blond hair who smoked Luckies came and she had a Sharks T-shirt for me.

“Aren’t ya gonna try it on?” she said.

My shirt was blue, had “The World” printed on the back, and “Sam” stitched right above the pocket. She shifted her weight from one leg to another, as though this was a cheap striptease, and so I took the World shirt off and stood there, in front of her, for a few seconds until she shrugged and said, “Not bad, but nothing to write home about,” and then I put on the Sharks T-shirt. She lit a Lucky and said, “Bring me up to date. What’s cooking with the Peloponnesian War? Read me one of those debates, you know, about how to treat prisoners. Should we mess them up big-time or let them go?” She had a lovely scent about her, a sort of sweaty, just-got-out-of-bed quality.

So, every other night she came in and I read her a few pages, and she smoked a cigarette and said, “Oh, yeah. Man, are they going to get screwed.”

“Listen,” I said. “Can you ask your boyfriend a favor?”

“Sure,” she said. “You want another shirt?”

“No,” I said. “It’s a little more complicated than that.”

“Well, tell me, and I’ll see what I can do. No promises. He’s kind of moody sometimes.”

“It’s about a tryout,” I said.

“You aren’t going to make the cut,” she said. “Put on a hundred pounds.”

“Just ask,” I said.

“It’s your funeral,” she said.

She flicked her cigarette into the street, the glowing tip describing a path that was like a mathematical illustration, a perfect arc.

“You don’t think that cigarette is going to blow the place up, do you, when you put gas in a car?”

“Just ask,” I said.

Still, one day I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard, and when I looked in the rearview mirror, I noticed, with a sudden flash of heat, as though the car had suddenly burst into flames, that a Buick was following me, the front end of the car smashed in, the lights pointing down, and behind the wheel of this thing was a man with a badly scarred face.

Nature hates a vacuum, and the mind does, too, and since I didn’t know why this man was following me, I immediately was certain that I had overdone it. I had given him too much grief about beating me on this deal. I had obviously not taken his problems seriously. I knew, the way I had never known anything before, that this guy had come to his limit. He had bought a pistol. I imagined it as a .357 Magnum, and that he was going to follow me and then kill me for having sold him what, even charitably, can only be called a lemon. The dark hole in the muzzle of a pistol is the perfect place to consider a lack of empathy, a stupidity about the sound of the glass as it cut into his face when he backed out of the hole in the windshield he had gone through. It left me with a guilt that made the colors darken, as though in an eclipse.

So, I was considering a last-minute plea, although I had nothing to say, when I came to a stop sign. I looked in the rearview mirror. He was still there, his face more severe than ever. The light changed. I let the rpms fall. The engine died. I glanced in the rearview mirror again. There he was, unblinking. I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing.

I got out and put my shoulder against the post by the windshield and pushed. The street had a slight upgrade, and it is amazing how much you notice things like this when you are pushing a car. So, I strained a little.

The man in the Buick pulled up next to me. His Santa Monica Sharks T-shirt was just visible. Amazingly enough, the power windows of the car still worked, and so he put down the window on the passenger side of the car to get a more unobstructed shot.

“Funny thing,” he said. “That never happened to me.”

The World Gas station seemed like a good place to think things over, and when I pulled in and parked the car on a slight downhill grade, I realized, with a certain relief, that I was going to work the night shift, from midnight to dawn. And, right on schedule, the woman with the blond hair who smoked Luckies came in. She sat on the edge of the island, and I gave her a carton of them.

“I don’t know what it is about you and that messed-up war. But let’s have it. What nonsense are they going to pull now?”

“What did your boyfriend say? About the tryout?”

“Maybe it’s that war we’re reading about, but when he said no, it brought out the worst in me. So, he gets in a huff and I tell him about the war and he thinks it over, since I am not, and I mean not getting into bed with him, so he says, Okay. Here’s the deal. Anyone you send over will get a tryout. He’s let people try out three or four times, if he’s in the mood, but you got to remember the most important thing is the time in the 60-yard dash.”

She took my bicep in her hand.

“Nice, but no cigar,” she said. “Read.”

The days passed. It wouldn’t be long.

Dawn in Los Angeles, when the air is just right, a day after the Santa Anas, still dirty but not totally toxic, the sun rises with a glow that’s hard to describe but still there for all that: it looks just like the lights at a dog track when a dog that went off at 40 to one, some mutt you’ve got, comes in three lengths ahead. Mysterious, golden. I hoped the woman who smoked Luckies was going to arrive. She was a little goofy, but still the best company I had. Instead, Sebastian Dangerfield’s Porsche stopped by the piles of discount sodas, and he got out with that air of menace so perfectly matched with disappointment.

“So,” he said.

“Have I got a deal for you,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” he said. “Let’s step around to the back of the station.”

The dumpster there hadn’t been emptied, but that’s where we stood, the stink of the world all around us.

“Now,” he said. “I don’t have to go through the whole routine with you, do I?”

“No,” I said.

“Just give me what you owe, plus the interest, and I’m not going to do anything.”

“Hmpf,” I said.

“Did I hear you say that?”

He made a fist.

“You remember the Sharks?” I said.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve got you a tryout.”

He stepped back, as though hit.

“You what?”

“I got you a second tryout,” I said. “Just tell the general manager I sent you. It’s a done deal.”

The woman who smoked Luckies came around the side of the building and stood with her hands on her hips.

“What do you have to do to get some cigarettes around here?” she said.

“Tell him about the tryout,” I said. “For the Sharks.”

“It’s for you?” said the woman. “Just ask for the general manager, Joe Hackman. Tell him Cherry sent you.”

“Listen,” I said. “The key is the 60-yard dash. That’s where you have to work.”

Sebastian shook his head and started to cry.

“Ah, shit,” he said. He wiped his eyes. “A second chance.”

His Porsche was cobra-colored, vaguely silver but not quite, and he had trouble getting in because of his size, but then he started the engine, smiled with his teeth, which were probably false, and said, “Forget the money. We’re even.”

“Luckies,” said Cherry. “I haven’t got all day.”


Craig Nova is the author of 14 novels and an autobiography. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and elsewhere. He is the Class of 1949 Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.


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