“We’re gonna bump him,” the general manager, Ted Schwartz, said. “Get him in here.”
I was pretty sure, even then, that we weren’t going to murder anyone—as in bump him off—but since I was brand-new at the Philly dealership as well as straight out of college, I thought I ought to double-check. I’d overheard one of the other salesmen say that Ted had been in federal prison, so my concerns weren’t completely without merit.
But Ted had already bolted out of his office, carrying the monster-sized Styrofoam cup of coffee I’d never seen him without. As I watched his back, his index finger beckoned. I heard, “Come on. Walk and talk.”
When I finally caught up to him, he was halfway down the football field-sized showroom, smoking a cigarette.
“Did you call him yet?” he asked, blowing smoke right in my face, like he somehow knew cigarette smoke nauseated me.
“The customer? No, you just told me…”
“Not now. Before.” Ted’s voice was as gravelly as a rat-pack singer. In his late fifties, he wore an expensive designer suit, with a thick gold chain dangling from one wrist and a massive silver watch on the other.
“No, he called asking for a guy named Bear, and the receptionist gave the call to me. She said Bear didn’t work here anymore.”
Ted snickered and shot me a sideways glance, increasing his speed to Mach 8 as he led me into the new car storage bay. If the showroom was the size of a football field, then the storage bay was the entire stadium.
“Show me,” said Ted.
For the first time I knew what he meant and guided him to the car that had recently come in. I zigged and zagged through rows of shiny new cars, some with the chalk from the freight companies still on the windshield. Ted stayed on my ass the whole way, until I found the gold 1990 Cadillac Allante convertible with the white leather interior.
“Oh, this is gonna be good. This is gonna be like poppin’ a virgin’s cherry. Except you’re the virgin.” Ted laughed and pointed his cigarette at the star-patterned tie I’d bought for the job, my first since graduating college. I backed away when it appeared he was going to actually put a hole through it.
“I remember him now,” Ted said. “Foster. Black guy, of course. Who else would order that color combo? You figured that out, right, when you saw the Caddy? Please tell me you knew at least that?” Off of my save-my-ass nod, Ted started up again, talking as fast as he walked. “Foster ordered the Caddy so he could get it exactly the way he wanted it, but he kept busting our balls on the price. He knew our cost on every option, knew the freight charges, had the invoice down cold. Hell, he should be the one working here, not you. He even knew about the dealer hold-back.”
“What’s that?” I asked and immediately regretted it.
“Jesus fuck, whose dick did you suck again to get this job?”
“Uh, my dad plays tennis with the owner, Mr. Kutner.”
I wanted to explain that we didn’t belong to the same country club as Mr. Kutner, or any country club for that matter. I didn’t want Ted thinking I couldn’t handle the rough neighborhood. The Cadillac dealership was surrounded by boarded-up buildings with weeds as tall as basketball players, and was the lone sign of affluence—or any money really—as far as the eye could see, unless you counted the occasional gas station or fast-food restaurant.
“Lemme guess, English major?”
“Philosophy.” When Ted continued to glare at me while puffing away, I added, “English minor.”
“Well, philosophize this, Einstein. You’re going to bring in this Foster. You’re gonna personally spit shine his car and have it glistening in the setting sun. You’re gonna demo the car he custom ordered and show him every beautiful option it has. He’s gonna float back to your cubicle to sign the paperwork, all high as a kite. And then you’re gonna bump him.”
When I stared at Ted blankly, he took a long drag, finishing the cigarette.
“You’re going to tell him he has to pay more for the car.” He said it slowly like I was retarded.
“But,” I stuttered, “Mr. Foster said he already finalized the price when he ordered it. He said he left a five-thousand-dollar deposit. He knew the exact balance he has remaining. He’s bringing a cashier’s check.”
Ted grabbed me by the back of my neck and pulled me so close I could see that his teeth were fake, even the ones all the way in the back of his grinning mouth.
“What did I tell you? This is gonna be fun.”
After a terse conversation with Mr. Foster to set the time for delivery (5:45, right after he got off work) I got the lightning-fast Caddy (it had the most torque of any front-wheel drive vehicle in the world) into service to be prepped and detailed. On my way back to my cubicle to begin the paperwork, I ran into the only saleswoman at the dealership, Kelly. She was in last place on the sales board if I didn’t count myself, which I didn’t because I’d just started. Kelly was coming out of the bathroom and feigned surprise to run into me as though she’d been searching everywhere for me, including the women’s bathroom.
“There he is. First week and already a sale.”
In her late twenties, Kelly was about as sexy as a woman could be working at a car dealership, which meant she dressed one step short of full-on stripper. She was a light-skinned black girl, a nod to the North Philadelphia inner city neighborhood. I guessed this was how Kelly made her sales, getting guys to think they had a chance with her, if they bought a car. Myself, I knew I had no chance and so had kept quiet anytime I was in her overly fragrant presence.
“Thanks, but it wasn’t really my deal. It was a guy named Bear’s. I just inherited it.”
“Better to be lucky than good, kid,” she said and rubbed against me the way a cat does when it wants attention. I’d noticed the single mother didn’t appear to care about her own sales numbers. She was always the last to jump up whenever a new customer walked onto the sales floor. Maybe the stiletto heels slowed her reaction time.
The lack of commissions didn’t seem to affect her wardrobe budget, however, with each day’s outfit more elaborate (and revealing) than the one the day before. Me, I was rotating my one suit with two different-colored shirts (white and blue) and the three ties I owned, one new. I’d promised myself the first thing I’d buy with my commission from the Foster deal would be an expensive Italian suit.
“Come on, I’ll buy you some Doritos.” Kelly took my hand like we were walking home from middle school and I was the luckiest boy in the school.
At the vending machine, she smiled as she patted her skintight red leather dress up and down.
“Now where is my money?” She alternated between bedroom whisper giggles and barroom cackles as she laughed at her joke. “How about you treat this time? I’ll owe you one.” Kelly put the long, red fingernail of her index finger into her mouth and simulated fellatio. Then the giggles and cackles started anew.
I bought us—meaning her—an extra-large bag of Doritos, a Milky Way, and a bag of Skittles, as well as a 32-ounce Pepsi, which we shared over a rickety card table in what passed for the employee lounge.
“What happened to Bear?” I asked as she inhaled the Doritos like a teenage boy.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, he stole a cash deposit from a customer and went on a cocaine binge. Had a heart attack,” she said while chomp chomping away.
“What do you care? You got a commission out of it.”
When Kelly saw my expression, she stopped shoveling Doritos into her face.
“I’m sorry. That was cruel. Even for the car business.”
She offered me the chips, but I declined. Kelly seemed quite happy about that and broke into a wide smile as she dug back into the bag.
Foster showed up in a cab at 5:45, as the sunlight was beginning to fade. He was big and altogether hostile, as if he already expected a problem. In his late thirties, he wore an expensive three-piece suit, though unlike Ted’s, which hung off the GM’s gaunt frame, Foster’s was filled out like a former linebacker turned TV commentator. He made me—a solid high school wrestler—look puny in comparison. His demeanor thawed slightly when I took him to see the gold Caddy convertible, shining perfectly, the impossibly bright metallic paint illuminating the barbed wire-encased parking lot of the dealership.
“Hop in, I’ll show you some of the features,” I said, cringing at how quickly I’d crossed over to using the hackneyed terminology of the car business. I opened the passenger door and got in, then leaned across to open the driver’s door.
“I know how the car works,” Foster said from ten feet away, smelling the trap.
“Of course you do, but new model years always have new features. Even I don’t know every one.”
Foster came around to my side and leaned down to glare at me through the still open passenger door. “Why don’t you?” he asked, blocking what was left of the sunlight as well as my exit. “Isn’t that your job?”
Now I got the meaning behind Ted’s snicker and sideways glance. In life, there was no such thing as a free lunch or, in the case of the automobile business, a free commission. I was going to have to earn my first sale.
“What do they say? That only God is perfect?”
I don’t know why I played the God card since I’m not religious in the least, but it seemed to work. Foster took a step back.
“I’ve only been working here a week, but I study the brochures and manuals every night when I get home,” I continued, playing the part of the hardworking kid, which I’d been right up until I graduated six months earlier, just in time for a worldwide recession. Since then, however, I seemed to have lost the spring in my step. I’d spent my days lounging about my childhood home, getting a bazillion rejection letters for jobs I didn’t want. My old man had told me I could wipe my ass with a liberal arts degree. It turned out he was right. I still couldn’t believe I was selling cars for a living.
“Let’s get this deal done,” Foster said, and circled the car like a shark, inspecting it for damage. He then turned and headed back toward the showroom.
Foster took up a lot of space inside my tiny cubicle. He was hunched over my desk with his cashier’s check protected between his elbows.
“Okie dokie.” I slid into the desk chair opposite him, taking care not to bang heads. “Let’s start with the registration for your new Cadillac Allante convertible,” I said with the flair of a game show host.
Ted had instructed me to have Foster fill out every single paper related to the car before we got to the purchase contract. That way, Ted said, the man would already be committed to buying the car when the “bump” occurred.
“Lemme see the purchase contract,” Foster said.
“We’re saving the best for last,” I said, wondering again where these hokey phrases were coming from. I’d never said okie dokie in my life, but mountainous student loan debt has a way of making you do things you never thought you would.
“I’m not signing anything until I see the final purchase contract.”
“Of course. I completely understand. Well, since there’s no easy way to say this, I’ll give it to you straight.” Give it to you straight? I wanted to throw up, but I plowed on. “At the moment, I don’t have a finished contract, since we have a small problem.”
I’d expected Foster to ask, “What problem?” but he said nothing, just death-stared me until I found myself beginning to sweat.
“Mr. Foster, the price you were quoted on the vehicle is below what it cost us to buy the vehicle. I’m sure you’d agree that we should make at least something on the transaction.”
Foster pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and unfolded it on the desk. “This is the price your company agreed to when it took my five-thousand-dollar deposit. This is a binding contract. You will sell me the vehicle for this price.” Foster jabbed his middle finger at the bottom of the page, while his other hand curled into a fist.
Ted had given me a number of comebacks and talking points, but they went out the window. All I could think was that Foster was right—and that he was going to kill me.
“I, uh, see your point, but…”
“I want to speak to the general manager,” Foster said and stood.
Ted had prepped me for this too, but it had happened a lot faster than we’d planned. I hadn’t even told Foster how much more we wanted him to pay—not that it was going to make any difference.
“Yes, sir. I’ll go get him.”
When I exited, a number of the other salesmen, all older white men in their forties and fifties, were hovering outside my cubicle, eavesdropping. As I headed toward Ted’s office, I saw more than a few eyes roll.
His door was closed, but through the glass window I could see him arguing with Kelly. Normally, Ted was seated behind his mahogany desk with the door open, but the two of them were standing in front of it, close together. Maybe he was firing her, which would be a shame, since she was the only salesperson who was nice to me, as well as nice to look at.
I knocked, since Ted had instructed me to get him right away if things were going off track. As I did, Ted reached for Kelly, to touch her in some way. The sound startled them and she pulled away toward the source of the disruption while his hand continued toward her, stroking the air where she’d been.
Kelly seemed relieved to open the door, like it had gotten stuffy inside and I was bringing fresh air. I certainly wasn’t bringing good news.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Not well. He wants to see you,” I said, pointing at Ted.
“What’s that tell you, kid?” Ted asked.
“That he wants the deal he was promised.”
“No. He wants the fuckin’ gold Caddy he’s been waiting weeks for, that’s what he wants. He’s leaving here tonight in that car, just you watch.”
“I don’t think so. He wouldn’t even sit inside it. I think he’s gonna walk if we don’t give him his price.”
“How much you wanna bet?” Ted had reseated himself behind his desk. He was stroking his giant pinky ring as he stared at Kelly.
“How about this, Ted?” Kelly interjected. “If you’re right, I’ll let you buy me dinner tonight. But if the kid is right and Foster walks, you have to buy the two of us dinner.”
I’m not sure which of us was more blown away by Kelly’s proposal—Ted or me. It was probably a tie, since we both froze. I was starting to realize the two of them had more than a professional relationship, or perhaps more accurately, used to have more than a professional relationship, and I was now in the middle.
Ted broke the silence, giving me a look like I’d taken his prison bunk. “Get me Foster now.”
When I returned to the office with Foster, the door was closed again and the two of them were standing, but this time their voices were not lowered. Ted’s hands churned in half circles like an agitated Tai Chi master, while Kelly’s flew about in karate chop-like bursts. They were fighting, and it wasn’t over a missed sale or a short commission. It was over a different type of deal gone wrong.
I knocked and the two separated, Ted back behind his desk and Kelly to open the door.
“Ted, this is Mr. Foster. Mr. Foster, this is Ted Schwartz, our general manager.”
Ted rose graciously and swept his arms up to the ceiling like he was a conductor. “Mr. Foster, what a pleasure. What can we get you? Coffee? A soda?”
Foster shook his head no with the slightest of movements as I dropped the Caddy keys and paperwork on Ted’s desk, in case, somehow, he was able to turn Foster around.
“How about a drink? Or maybe a cigar? How ’bout both?” Ted said with a crescendo.
“I don’t drink or smoke. Surprised?”
There was an innuendo behind Foster’s comment that was as dark as the color of his skin, but it didn’t appear to faze Ted.
“Not in the least. Your vice appears to be good taste in fast cars. The color combo you ordered is something else. I’m gonna order a couple more like that. I think they’ll fly out of here. Please have a seat.”
Foster sat in the chair closest to the door, as Ted picked up his enormous cup of coffee and pushed it toward Kelly. “Hon, fill this up for me, would you?”
This time Kelly and I were the ones equally flabbergasted. If anyone should have gotten Ted coffee, it was me, since it was my deal he was working on. Kelly recovered more quickly than I did and took the cup and exited the office.
“Mr. Foster, what’s your first name?” Ted asked.
“You don’t need to know my fucking first name. You just need to honor the terms of this contract.”
Ted’s reaction to Foster’s obscenity was to smile as though the man had complimented his thinning silver hair.
“Here’s my cashier’s check for the balance.” Foster produced the contract and check and stood to place them on Ted’s desk. Foster remained standing as Kelly re-entered and handed Ted the cup of coffee.
“The reason I wanted your first name is when delivering bad news I think it’s nicer to do it informally.” Ted paused to sip the coffee. “Plus, since you knew the man, you might find what I have to tell you upsetting. Please, Mr. Foster, sit.”
The impending revelation seemed to confuse Foster.
“What man? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Sit and I’ll tell you.”
Foster warily sat onto the edge of the padded metal chair.
“Sadly—and tragically—the salesman who sold you the car has died.” Ted let the news sink in for a moment. “Apparently, Mr. Bear had a major drug problem. He overdosed after stealing money from the dealership.”
“Bear is dead?” Foster asked, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Yes, he’s gone.”
“I don’t believe you. I wanna hear it from her.” He gestured toward Kelly, as if she was the only one in the room who would tell him the truth.
“You think he’s lying about somebody dying to get you to buy a car?”
“Girl, answer my question.”
“Mr. Foster, there’s no need to talk to her like…” I started.
“Answer my goddamn question.”
“Yes, he overdosed. Yes, he’s dead. Anything else?” Kelly said, wagging her finger.
Foster leaned back against his chair.
“A terrible situation that has affected all of us here, deeply,” said Ted. “And unfortunately, now you. As you can imagine, Mr. Bear wasn’t in his right mind when he wrote up that deal, a number of deals for that matter. Of course, we feel badly about that and want to offer you the very best price possible. I’ve spoken to our owner, Mr. Kutner, and he’s agreed to sell you the Cadillac for only one thousand dollars over invoice. That’s over three thousand off the list price.”
Foster stared at me, then Ted. “This is bullshit and you know it. Somebody else approved that deal. Bear left me in his office when I told him my number, then he came back, said it was all good, and he signed the contract. Him dying is just a convenient excuse to fuck me over.”
“Mr. Foster, you know the price Bear wrote up is below what we paid for the vehicle. I’m happy to show you the invoice.” Ted rustled through the papers I’d left on his desk, and when he couldn’t find the invoice, I pulled it out for him and tried to hand it to Foster.
“I know what the invoice says.”
“Then you know we cannot sell you the car for that price. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna waive my percentage as well as my salesperson’s commission on this deal—in honor of Bear’s memory. I’ll sell you the vehicle for five hundred over invoice.”
Foster rose and stepped toward Ted’s desk. He put the cashier’s check down and then picked up the keys to the Cadillac, which were also gold. Ted smiled at me. He put down his Styrofoam cup, almost in triumph, like he’d won the battle not only with Foster, but with me. His reward would be a free dinner later that evening with Kelly and, I figured, something else after that.
Foster was dangling the keys, which must have distracted us, or temporarily hypnotized us, since none of us noticed him pick up the cup of coffee until we saw it being poured over Ted’s head, steam rising up and off the old man’s skin. Then Ted started to convulse.
“Oh my God,” Kelly shouted and went to him. “Call 911! He’s got a bad heart; he’s had a triple bypass.”
I was dialing 911 on the desk phone when Ted slid out of his chair and fell to the ground.
“Fuck you,” Foster was hollering as I gave the operator our address. “You want to fuck me? That’s what you get. I’m taking my car. You can sue my ass.”
Kelly left Ted to try to prevent Foster from leaving, but he shunted her aside.
“Fuck you too, bitch. Go take care of your sugar daddy.”
“Wait, you better not go anywhere,” I said, as Foster started to walk out, but he ignored me and left, taking the Caddy keys with him. Kelly went back to Ted, who was on the ground and, for all I knew, about to die.
Kelly screamed at me, “Stop him. He’s getting away.”
Even now—years later—I wonder why I did. I wasn’t that attracted to Kelly, though we did have a brief affair after I replaced Ted as general manager, until I had to fire her for her lack of production. Was chasing after Foster an attempt to show my bravery and win her? Or was I defending an old man from an unprovoked physical attack? Or was it something else?
When I reached Foster, he’d opened the driver’s door to the Cadillac. It was twilight outside and the lot’s floodlights had come on, illuminating the scene that was to play out.
“Stop right there!” I hollered, thinking I sounded like a rookie cop on a bad TV show.
Foster smiled, the first smile I’d seen cross his face, as he removed his suit jacket and threw it across the passenger seat. It wasn’t until he began to roll up his sleeves that I realized what was happening. All of the black workers in the detail shop had come out of their wash bays to check out the commotion, as had the white salesmen on duty, who’d followed me out of the showroom. They surrounded us in a circle like we were on the high school playground, meeting up after school to settle our differences. Foster put his hands up to fight and advanced toward me. I noticed that the blacks had congregated on his side, the whites on mine. A detail guy I’d joked with earlier was glowering at me from behind Foster, while one of the sales guys, all of whom had treated me like shit simply because I was young and had graduated college, stepped forward to take my jacket.
I’d like to tell you I was defending myself—or Ted or Kelly or my job or the rule of law—but I wanted to hurt him for reasons that even now aren’t entirely clear to me.
I didn’t get to, though, since Foster was far too big and strong for me to beat in a fight, which, fortunately, I recognized before I got within his range. Instead, I performed a single-leg takedown, swooping low at Foster, who seemed almost amused by the tactic. There was even some laughing from our supporters—black and white—as I held onto Foster’s thigh while down on one knee, like perhaps I was going to beg for mercy. But the laughs didn’t last long. I pulled Foster’s leg up, and his amusement was replaced by alarm. He began to hop on one leg, which I quickly swept out from under him with my own, sending him crashing to the asphalt. That was pretty much the end of our altercation, though we remained like that, me on top and holding him down, for another three or four minutes, until the police arrived. No one in the crowd wanted to break us up—or even move—for fear of a potential race riot. And all the time, Foster was yelling, “I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna kill you.” All I could say was, “Not if you can’t get up.”
We ended up keeping Foster’s five-thousand-dollar deposit, as well as the Caddy, which I sold shortly after the incident at full list. Ted turned out to be fine. He’d faked the heart attack, claiming he knew Foster would have to agree to give up his deposit in order to avoid prosecution for throwing the hot coffee. I didn’t believe that then, but as time has gone by and I’ve seen and done some crazy shit to make a sale, I know he did do it on purpose.
And I know I’ve done worse.
Robert Kerbeck’s short fiction can be read at Crack the Spine, Tower Journal, and Willow Review. His short stories “Breaststroker” and “Sex, Rugs, And Rock-And-Roll” are forthcoming in upstreet and Green Hills Literary Lantern, respectively. Robert is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the Malibu Writers Circle. A member of the Actors Studio, Robert has worked extensively in film and television. You can like him (and learn more) at www.facebook.com/robertkerbeck.