by Todd Brendan Fahey
illustrations by Rich Mackin
Pat Carmichael lowered the phone into its groove and turned to Jim Price, his manager for the eight years he had been with Scottsdale Imports, authorized dealer of fine road vehicles worldwide. “There goes another paycheck.”
“Glynnis?” Price nodded.
Pat shrugged. “She wants me to buy a laser printer.”
“What’s her take?”
Pat’s head fell backward, and he looked blankly into the air. “I’m scared to even guess.”
Price shook his head. “You’re a stronger man than I, Charlie Brown. You know, a divorce would probably be cheaper.”
“I know,” Pat admitted.
“But you’re fast approaching the point of diminishing returns,” his boss continued. “What is it? The Church? The kids?”
Pat stood in the middle of the showroom floor, next to a Pantera forged in solid chrome. “You should’ve seen me in college,” he said, a slight roll peeking over his collar. “She’s the one who got me sober.” He sighed heavily. “Now I feel like Socrates: Any escape now is proof that I’m a fraud.”
“Oh, that’s so much bullshit,” Price hissed. “You’ve bought into a load of garbage, my friend. You want redemption? Here,” he motioned, “go sell the Lotus to that tanned bastard in the corner. He’s been all over it for the last five minutes.”
Pat Carmichael walked over to the white Lotus and shook the hand of a deeply burnished man of fiftysomething. Though impeccably attired in Polo casual wear, the caps on his teeth and the platinum chain around the wrist gave him away to Pat as either a breeder of Arabian horses or an intensely successful gambler, possibly both.
“Something catch your eye?” Pat said, by way of introduction.
“You’re looking at ‘er,” the man snapped.
Pat ran his hand along the sleek, white hood. “For this year’s Limited Edition line, Lotus has combined 50 years of fine engineering. What you’re looking at here is a 280-horse, digitally cooled, 12-cylinder, 36-valve zircon engine, capable of bettering a Ferrari Testarossa off the line and keeping pace with last year’s Lamborghini.”
The man stared at Pat through prescription aviator shades. “I know what she has under the hood,” he said, derisively. “I want to know what you’ve got. I’ll be driving up to Sedona this evening and I’d like to be in her. Now what can we cut off this bullshit sticker if we do it right now?”
Pat lowered his head for a second or two, then raised his index finger as if to signal a time-out, and took a step toward Jim Price.
“HA!” the man cackled. “I knew you couldn’t do it without sniveling for approval. Sorry I asked, pal,” he said, and began walking to the door.
A new vigor raced through Pat Carmichael, a rare and different and wholly pleasurable feeling which caused his scalp to tingle and tickled the hairs of his scrotum. “Eighty-seven five!” he blurted, and the words that came pouring out of his mouth quite startled him. The man turned back around, sneering. “You can fuck me for eighty-seven five, pal.” But he did not walk away.
For a long moment, Pat Carmichael hung on some high tension wire, throbbing in his fingertips; when he recovered, he spoke softly, deliberately, as if slightly damaged. “Eighty-two, and we’ll put in a custom alarm system. And a free loaner of comparable value during any service or repair work.”
The man looked at the thin, flat oversized face of his vintage 1955 stainless steel Rolex. “Maybe I mistook you for another type of character. If I did, I apologize. Eighty two is a very fair price. Very fair. I tell you what – give me the weekend to think about it. I’ll come back Monday morning.”
Pat felt as if he were undergoing a cleansing immolation. “Why don’t you take her up to Sedona?” he heard himself saying. “It’ll take three minutes to verify necessary funds, then she’s yours for the weekend.”
The man grinned broadly and strode back to where Pat Carmichael stood, and shook his hand. “I have most certainly impugned your person, and for that I offer my deepest apology.” Then he lowered his head and said in a whisper, “Why don’t we take a seat in the little beauty while we work out the details.”
From across the floor, Jim Price saw his beleaguered lieutenant and the prospective purchasee disappear behind the heavily smoked windows of the Lotus, the gull-wings closing after them, followed by the sustained thundering of what he recognized as a track from the Black Crowes’ debut album through the Blaupunkt/Infinity surround-sound system. He felt happy for Pat Carmichael, who needed this sale, for his own self esteem and for the sake of his continued tenure at Scottsdale Imports. Somewhere along a hideous marital road, his friend had lost the Midas touch and with it, the respect of his vicious co-workers.
But as Carmichael emerged from the now-silent Lotus, all that appeared to have changed. His eyes were bright and clear, his step feather-light. Pat jogged over to his manager and announced the triumph:
“OK,” he said to Price, simultaneously signaling with an upturned thumb to Jack Reynolds. “This is so incredible,” he giggled.
“Do you want to sit down?” Price wondered.
“No, but maybe you should,” Pat smiled, grabbing his boss by both shoulders and looking him dead into the eyes with chemically constricted pupils. “What we have here is the producer for the next Van Damme action movie. They want to film it in Scottsdale. If we can work out this deal,” he whispered, “Mr. Reynolds will sign us for their fleet during filming.”
“G-God!” Price stuttered.
Pat grinned. “They’ll need three Lambos and at least a dozen Ferraris. Of course, most of them will be destroyed, but why do we care? He also guaranteed a few seconds of ‘on-film’ time of the front of the store.”
Price rolled his eyes, and pressed the flesh over the length of his face. After a moment of mutual silence, he pursed his lips: “Give Mr. Reynolds whatever he needs.”
Pat returned to the side of Jack Reynolds and planted his palm squarely on a bony shoulder. “Done.”
Reynolds clasped his hands together and bowed slightly. “You’re a prince among men. Now, do you need me to sign anything before I take this baby north, or can I hit it?”
The hand went up to salute, then fell pitifully. “I hate to even ask this,” Pat said feebly. “But for insurance purposes, I’ve got to at least talk to your bank.”
Reynolds began making sucking noises with his tongue against the sides of his cheeks. “I’ll tell you… this might be sticky with the production company.”
“Is there a problem?” Pat wondered, drumming the fingers of one hand rapidly against corpulent thigh.
“A problem?” Reynolds yelled. “The problem are the goddamned buzzards in the Hollywood dailies. You see, the minute my name becomes associated with a luxury automotive dealership anywhere east of Beverly Hills, BOOM!: There goes the element of surprise. And I’m telling you, the element of surprise is everything in this game.”
Pat felt the eyes of his manager prickling the back of his neck like some heat-seeking probe. “Damn…”
Then Reynolds snapped his fingers. “I got it! How about calling the money-man I’m working with out here? He’s got me into a little office in Phoenix, just until the veil can be lifted from this goddamn thing.”
“Let’s do it,” Pat nodded, and picked up the phone. After punching in the numbers, the receptionist at First Home Trust of Arizona answered and directed his call to one Harold Schmidt, Vice President for the Trust’s commercial real estate division. “Mr. Schmidt, my name is Pat Carmichael, with Scottsdale Imports. I’m in the process of selling a Lotus to a client of yours; I just need to verify available funds. Just routine, you understand. Yes, Jack Reynolds. Uh-huh. Oh,” Pat said dejectedly. Then he brightened. “Yes, well… of course,” Pat said. “Of course he wouldn’t have funds available at a bank in a state he was just visiting,” he said, loudly enough so that Reynolds could hear the folly of his ways. Then Pat Carmichael reduced his vocal power to just above a whisper: “But you can vouch for the integrity of this guy, right?. Uh-huh. OH! Well, you two make sure and tear up Sedona. Thank you, Mr. Schmidt. So sorry to have troubled you.”
Jack Reynolds grinned as the salesman laid down the receiver. “I’m glad you got to ease your little mind. Now how ’bout those keys, so I can get the fuck outta here?”
Pat tossed the ring to the ersatz Hollywood film mogul, and waved as the Lotus burned out of the showroom and onto Scottsdale Road, proud to have met the man they call Jack Reynolds.
The bone-white Lotus skidded into the first stall of the temporary AmeriMart lot at 4:15 p.m., Jack Reynolds walking quickly into the building as the gull-wings closed automatically. Behind the receptionist’s desk sat a huge black man, his neck the aggregate circumference of all of Reynolds’s limbs, three small hoops in his left ear matching stylishly a gold bicuspid.
“Where the hell’s Leslie?” Reynolds demanded. “I need to talk to her. There’s been a change of plans.”
The spade bared his teeth and turned his palms slowly toward the ceiling. “Man, it be real easy if you wasn’t insistin’ on makin’ it so dif’cult for yo’self. You got somethin’ to say to Ms. Dunlap, you says it first to me. Is we square?”
Jack Reynolds bristled slightly, then fell cool. “OK, Sergeant. This is how it is: We’re short time. It’s a fun town, but there’s too much heat. So if you would be so kind, I would appreciate you telling that little tart to turn up the pressure a notch. It’ll be our last night here. I also want to discuss with her the possibility of a road engagement.”
Sergeant smiled crookedly. “You mean, like an act?” Then he doubled over in a deep, booming baritone. “Man, I already know the answer to that one.”
Reynolds heard the enforcer laughing as he walked the length of the hallway to the office on which he had spent entirely too much in renovation. Without the Lotus, he would be lucky to break even in his six-day stay in Scottsdale; with it, though, he had a prestige vehicle that would cement any future discussions as to “available funds.” So the plan could only go one way: he would leave a few hours after nightfall, with or without the bitch. In New Orleans, he knew a disreputable mechanic who, for $5,000, would fuse a new vehicle ID number into the dashboard of the Lotus, paint it fireapple-red and help Reynolds relicense it in the state of Louisiana as a kit-car. Any state that could make Huey Long rich, he reasoned, was good enough for Jack Reynolds.
At the rear of the building, near his office, came a fervent knocking. Reynolds waved Sergeant off and answered the door himself. A stocky youth in a T-shirt and long shorts thrust a big catalogue into Reynolds’s hands, an aluminum chain still dangling from its binding.
“I gotta have it back by Monday,” the kid pleaded, his eyes obscured by a pair of Vaurnets. “If the ordering manager finds it gone, he’ll cut my nuts off.”
Reynolds nodded sympathetically, then produced a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to the young larcenist, silencing him. He shut the door and walked back to the front of the small building and gave the catalogue over to Leslie, who had materialized at the last possible moment, and was now paying scrupulous attention to the application of her eye makeup. “This should be all we need,” Reynolds told her. “We’ve got the wholesale price lists for every high-grade carpet and home furniture manufacturer, along with some bogus printouts for home stereo and computer gear. Now it’s up to you,” he said, watching her as she studied herself in a compact mirror. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not listening when I talk to you?”
She continued buffing her face with a light foundation. “Because you’re insecure.”
He glowered and felt his crotch grow tight.
Sergeant chuckled low in his throat.
“I’m packing everything up tonight, and I’m heading to New Orleans after dark. I’ve been considering using a steady assistant. You think you might be interested?”
Leslie snapped the compact shut and tossed it into her purse. “I might be. At 50/50.”
Reynolds was overcome with laughter. “That’s good,” he gasped, his thin, tanned frame wracked in convulsions. “Actually, I was thinking more in the neighborhood of a salary gig. Say, $2,500 a month – for what will be essentially part-time work. You’d still have your nights to make some real change.”
He took her hot glare as a temporary victory, and walked back to his office as the doorbell rang near the reception desk at which Sergeant sat, righteously amused.
“I believe we gots us a bidness call,” Sergeant grinned, tooth agleam.
Leslie smoothed her dress, then walked to the front door and unlatched the deadbolt. She smiled inwardly, noticing the raven Ferrari Dino Boxer which apparently had carried this portly couple into her still young but rapidly-improving life. “Welcome to AmeriMart,” she said radiantly, ushering the pair inside with the wave of a hand, as Sergeant reset the deadbolt. “You must be Pat and Glynnis Carmichael.”
The two nodded, grinning dully.
“I’m Monica Turner, and I’ll be showing you the wonderful world of AmeriMart, where everything you buy is factory-direct. Do you know the difference between retail and factory-direct?” she asked either of them. When Leslie heard no reply, she motioned the couple toward a small showroom, sectioned off in cheap paneling.
“Who owns that Lotus?” the husband said abruptly.
Leslie turned on her heels, her mouth easing into a fixed, professional smile. “I have no idea,” she said, without blinking. “Are you in the market for a luxury automobile, Pat? Through AmeriMart, you can also purchase cars, trucks, motorhomes and recreational vehicles, all for fleet prices. Do you know what fleet prices are?”
Pat nodded. “I work at Scottsdale Imports. That Lotus out front – it’s one of ours. I loaned it to a Hollywood producer less than forty minutes ago.”
Leslie flicked her hand idly. “This block is full of little offices. He probably parked in our lot by mistake.” Inside, she was glowing like a child on Christmas morning. She knew Jack Reynolds, knew him down to his very genetic makeup. He was like most of the men from whom she absently lifted three-hundred dollars each evening: vain, calculating, demanding. Hard sacs of venom which, when pressed, became pliant in her skillful hands. Scottsdale was becoming bad for her delicate skin, and now she suddenly found herself with a ticket out of town.
“What we are,” Leslie began, smiling luxuriously, “is a family buying club, where members across the nation pool their purchasing power to receive goods and services at factory-direct prices. Your dollar stretches farther, because thousands like you have decided that you are tired of paying retail. Frustration is what binds the AmeriMart family,” she smiled. “Now walk this way, and we’ll see just how much you can save by shopping through AmeriMart, were you to become members today,” she said, pointing to a dozen or so well-designed, though perfectly fraudulent, newspaper clippings tacked to the posterboard on a wall.
To Pat, who by marital default had already conceded to joining whatever this turned out to be, it sounded like the chirping of a trained squirrel. He rubbed his arms absently, hearing only intermittent syllables while trying to appear alert, but his mind was far off in the parking lot outside. Justifying to his panging psyche that this low-budget industrial complex was precisely the type of cover that a man such as Jack Reynolds would need while scouting out the locale for his latest $100 million action movie took most of his available strength, and once he had convinced himself of this, he was exhausted and scratching furiously at his arms. Mercifully, the model had finished her spiel, leaving Glynnis to fawn over some thick-bound factory price catalogue.
“Oh, Pat,” his wife gushed, “look what we’ll be able to do for the house: new carpet, Venetian blinds in every window… we’ll buy a greenhouse for the back yard – you know I’ve always wanted to raise orchids…”
Pat nodded vacantly. He scanned the list of AmeriMart prices against that of Suggested Retail. “It’s hard to argue with,” he found himself admitting. “I sell cars myself, and I know what a joke our mark-up is. Take that Lotus out front: after a little haggling for appearances sake, I sold it for $19,000 over factory price. Nineteen grand. Poor sap still thought he was getting a deal.” Leslie beamed. “So are we ready to stop being victims of retailers?”
Pat and Glynnis looked at each other. “Why not?” Pat shrugged, feeling Glynnis squeeze his fingers in hers.”Wonderful,” she said. “Now, what I’m going to do is separate you two for a few minutes. Pat, I’ll be explaining to you our membership structure and showing you our exclusive menswear catalogues. Glynnis, you’ll hear the same information from our branch administrator, who will introduce you to our women’s line. This format seems to be less time-consuming, benefiting active people like yourselves.”
Pat caught his wife, as the hostess lead her toward a closed door. “Just don’t sign anything,” he whispered. “I’ll do the negotiating. You understand?”
Glynnis scowled at her husband. “You understand?” she mimicked. “You’re a perfect pig sometimes. I don’t know why I stay married to you.”
Free of Glynnis, Leslie became aggressively affectionate, taking Pat by the hand and planting him into a chair in her Spartan, 5X7 office. When he grabbed for a pen to begin filling out the cashier’s check in the sum of $15.99, a sum which he recalled from the phone call from Glynnis earlier that afternoon, Leslie plucked the writing utensil from his fingers and stroked his palm lightly.
“Quick on the draw,” she purred. “I like that.”
Pat was taken aback by the behavior, and withdrew his hand reflexively.
“How’s your sex life, Patrick?” Leslie asked brazenly. “Are you satisfied? Or could there be more?” She reached into an expensive leather briefcase and emerged with a catalogue, the likes of which had Pat chewing his tongue. “Do you know the AmeriMart motto?”
Pat jerked his head spasmodically.
“‘Total Fulfillment.’ Now, how long has it been since you’ve been totally fulfilled?” Leslie turned the pages for Pat with her freshly manicured nails. “Ever seen women play with toys like these, Patrick?”
Indeed, he hadn’t. His mother had whipped him savagely once, upon discovering a Playboy under his bed, and in recent years he could barely bring himself to thumb through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Now suddenly, in this small and rapidly overheating office, he found himself grappling with the alter-boy inside, and the process spun him into a giddy panic.”
Here’s how it works: Our base AmeriMart membership is one-thousand, five-hundred and ninety-nine dollars; for that, you make Glynnis happy. For an extra three thousand dollars,” Leslie said, rising from her seat and kneeling before her valued customer, “we’ll keep you happy.”
Pat Carmichael watched numbly, the zipper of his gabardine trousers falling, his tumescence perfectly engulfed by the AmeriMart hostess, giving new meaning, he felt, to the word “service.” As he couldn’t remember noticing any open lesions on her mouth, he let himself relax a bit, the first time in many years, and almost enjoy the clock-like rhythm with which he was being consumed. He closed his eyes and slid down in his seat, running his fingers through her hair. Glynnis had tried the maneuver once, on their wedding night, but stopped after a few seconds, pleading her gag reflex. And while he never forced the issue, for all the tonnage he had seen her stow into her gullet over the years, he knew it must have been a lie.
For the next few minutes, he felt himself on a thunderous rollercoaster, swirling into some sort of vortex that he just knew would end in Nirvana – where he would live forever, happily, never regretting his choices in the Old Life. His breathing became labored, soon he heard the sound of his own laughter, which seemed to echo in his ears in a strange, pulsating volley. With the moment rushing in on him, he became witness to wild, explosive flashes, so intense he could feel heat. Then the motion stopped. He pawed for her head, but found nothing but air. He opened his eyes and found a huge, grinning black man staring down at his slickness.
“Oh, God!” Pat moaned. “No! You bitch!”
“Don’t let me hear you talkin’ like that to m’lady,” Sergeant warned. “You do likes we says, and you getta walk outta here wit some nice mem’ries. Elsewhise, the missus gets to frame some these Pola-roids,” he chuckled, holding a fistful of the fast-developing snapshots, the hostess looking on placidly from her chair.
“How much do you want?” Pat whimpered.
“How much you got?” Sergeant demanded. “And don’t booshit me.”
In his joint account, Pat Carmichael had managed to save close to forty thousand dollars, despite enormous opposition, and the thought of giving it over to even the cleverest con made him tremble with rage. He held his wife accountable: any thinking person would have thrown that promo card into the trash.
“You runnin’ outta time.”
Pat readied a Montblanc. “To whom?” he croaked.
“Leslie Dunlap will work just fine,” the woman said smoothly.
Pat mumbled something inaudible, as he came to realize the depth of his own stupidity. The woman seemed to approve, shrugging to her bodyguard before tucking the check into her purse – a signal which Pat took to be his chance to leave with facial impunity. He rose from the chair, zipping his pants, and asked for permission to retrieve his wife, which Sergeant graciously gave, along with the fistful of snapshots.
Pat opened the door at the end of the hall. “Honey, we should probably be…” he said, the senses temporarily distorted. “Uhhh…”
Across the desk, Jack Reynolds fumbled momentarily. “Yeah… H-hey, ol’ buddy. Can’t thank you enough for the car. She drives like a dream.”
A terrible silence overtook them both, and within seconds, Reynolds began babbling gibberish as he plucked a confused Glynnis from the strictures of her chair and more or less shoved them both down the length of the hall and out the front door.
“Watch for the picture!” Reynolds yelled in an agonized strain, then slammed the door and rebolted it from inside. “Pack up!” he yelled, walking into the office where Sergeant and Leslie sat, laughing riotously. “Pass over the check,” Reynolds insisted. “I’ll cut you your third on my personal account. How much did we get?”
Sergeant moved toward Reynolds, a feral menace in his eyes. “I didn’t see you doin’ much.”
Reynolds blinked, then managed a meager laugh. “D-didn’t…?” he stuttered in disbelief. “I set this whole thing up! All your little slut had to do was answer an ad in a goddamned newspaper.”
Sergeant shook his head, sadly. “Thass it, man. You diss my girl one too many time.”
From the AmeriMart lot, Pat and Glynnis Carmichael could hear the hideous, pleading cries of a full-grown man, interspersed with a hollow, repetitive thud, like that of an airless basketball against a gymnasium wall. With a touch of the “keyless entry” button on the multi-option touch pad, he watched the doors of the Lotus bow upward, like a spectacular bird preparing for flight.
“You’re going to drive this back to the dealership,” he said to his wife.
“I’ll never fit,” Glynnis complained. Then she deadened in the eyes. “You’re being cruel.”
“You think I’m being cruel – just wait until that big spook comes outside and finds us loitering around.”Glynnis hopped instantly into the driver’s seat and revved out of the lot toward the main drag, the gull-wings still open to make room for her enormous gluteals.
As Pat Carmichael followed closely behind, he fiddled with the stereo in his Ferrari, tuning it to the “All Things Considered” portion of National Public Radio, to which he listened religiously in the traffic of Scottsdale Boulevard, and which he now hoped might take his mind away from the ugly facts of his own life. There, he found Nina Totenberg calmly discussing the phenomena of “deadbeat dads” – a sector of his own population which he had, as so much tabloid fodder, almost totally ignored. But as he listened, over and over he heard the anguished stories of beleaguered husbands and fathers everywhere, suffering straits not much different from his own. And the more intently he listened, the more acutely he understood; and he took these stories upon himself, wholly and collectively, took them up as the struggle of his own manhood. He sank down in the bucket seat and was at once released of his surroundings, feeling as foreign as the morning grayness which settled again upon him, the dealership drifting past, his wife staring incredulously, the fire in his dermis cooling, his identity being slowly forged on the burning asphalt, westward.
Todd Brendan Fahey is author of Wisdom’s Maw: The Acid Novel (www.fargonebooks.com).