Eddie shifted his ass on his vinyl office chair and looked out the window. The plexiglass was scratched up, and clouded everything with a milky haze like a cataracted eye. The cars baked in the sun, fluorescent yellow price tags screaming on their windshields, crayon-bright pennants hanging limp from the lines strung above the chain-link fence and the broken bottles on the sidewalk.
Eddie brought his hands together in front of the sagging pillow of his gut and scratched the white hair on his forearm. A little skin flaked off and he checked his watch. Across the street, three hispanic guys stood at the bus stop.
“Hey Mike!” yelled Eddie. A man with a black buzz-cut and saddle-brown skin appeared in the doorway of the tiny office. He put a socket wrench in his pocket and rubbed a black smudge of grease from the back of his hand. “Get that Jeep up front and air it out,” Eddie said. “A guy’s driving up from Worcester to see it.”
Mike nodded and walked out through the shining vehicles on the cracked and faded asphalt. He fired up a pine-green Jeep and drove it to the front of the lot, almost blocking the driveway. He doused it with the hose and toweled it off. The paint gleamed in the sun.
Eddie stuck his head out of the office door and called “Mikey. Put a couple of them trees in it. He was worried if it smelled. I want to get this done quick.” The windshields shimmered silver in the heat.
The guy from Worcester showed up in khakis, a windbreaker, and a button-down shirt. With him was a scruffy friend in dirty jeans who claimed to be a mechanic. They spent half an hour running their hands along the seams of the body panels, nosing around under the hood, and checking for dents by squatting beside the car with one eye closed, peering down the length of the vehicle like they were lining up a putt. The guy in khakis looked up, and before he could ask the question, Eddie slid open a window and said, “The keys are in it. Have a good time.” The guy and the grease-monkey friend started the Jeep and played with the controls for a minute, then drove off.
Eddie went back into the office and the metal joints of the chair groaned as he sat down. He noticed the wall calendar was wrong and flipped it to the next month, taking in the picture of the nude woman on it, her legs spread wide and a sneering, defiant look on her face. The phone rang and Eddie picked it up. “Hillside Motors,” he said.
A voice came out of the receiver like a mill saw ripping through hardwood and Eddie rubbed his temple. “Gloria, Jesus, I’m working. I’ll call you later.” The voice pressed on. “I’ll call you later,” Eddie said and hung up. He sighed, blowing the air out through the gray thicket of nose hair that mingled with his mustache. “I’m fuckin’ workin’ here,” he half-whispered. A fly buzzed its head into the windowpane, banged twice, and decided to walk.
Mike came into the office and ran a hand over the black bristle of his hair. He leaned against the wall and put his hands in his pockets.
“How long they gonna be?” said Eddie.
“They already went over every fuckin’ inch of the thing. What else is there to see?”
Mike looked out the window to where the traffic had stopped at the light. “He asked if they could use the lift.”
Eddie made a pained expression and threw his pen down on the desk. “Jesus crimson Christ,” he said and leaned back in his chair. “I was gonna go down the Tip-Top and see Sofia. How I’m gonna do that now?”
Mike squinted at the sun-bright traffic, which had begun to move. The corners of his eyes were creased like a cowboy’s.
Eddie followed his gaze past the cars in the lot, the traffic, to the guys across the street. “Guats?”
Mike nodded. “From next door.” He tipped his head to the left, indicating the glazed-brick housing project one block over. “The one on the left is Tito. In white. My mother’s best friend’s nephew or something. Bad kid. I never kept it straight.”
Eddie watched them for a moment, then turned to his gray navy surplus desk. He shuffled through the papers on his desk until he came up with the title for the Jeep. He rubbed the spot where his glasses pressed two red ovals into the bridge of his nose and looked at the photographs affixed to the wood paneling with thumb tacks. There was a picture of Eddie and a bosomy woman with a puff of white cotton candy hair, both clutching drinks with umbrellas in them, and an arial shot of a long a beach with waveless aquamarine out to the horizon. The fly tried the window again and gave up. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he said. Mike looked at him briefly, then out the window again.
“I’m serious, Mike. It’s easy money and all, but I’m just getting tired of this shit. I need to get down to the condo and stay there. I mean stay.” He looked at the beach scene, then took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Besides, you’re ready to run this place.”
Mike’s face betrayed no expression, as though the words had not been said, or had been said so often that they had lost their meaning. He sat on the edge of the desk, still as a lizard.
The phone rang and Eddie picked it up. “Hillside Motors.” The voice screeched from the receiver again.
“Now hold on just a–hold on–would you just be quiet for a minute, dammit? I haven’t been hanging out anywhere, let alone getting hand jobs from anybody. Not anyone, ok? And that includes you.” The voice started in again. “Look,” he said, “we can talk about it when I get home, if you’re that twisted up. I don’t care what Maria said, you can come here any day and you’ll find me right here working, ok? But like I said, I’m working.” The voice said something else, and Eddie interrupted, “I got a customer. I gotta–I gotta go,” he said and hung up.
“You can have the business,” Eddie said, “but on one condition: you gotta take Gloria, too.”
A wide smile broke across Mike’s face and he shook his head. “No way. Su problema.”
Eddie laughed. “Tu madre.”
Half a second later, Mike laughed too. The sunlight shifted on the wall and he looked up. The green Jeep was pulling into the lot. Eddie checked his watch and shook his head.
The guy in khakis and his greasy friend got out of the car and walked around it, checking under the wheel wells. The friend opened the hood and tasted one of the fluids, while the other guy stood there in his windbreaker. Eddie wondered what catalog image the guy thought he was living up to. Eddie was sweating in nothing but a polo shirt. “Whaddaya think, Mike?”
“Mid-level finance guy, figures he’s gonna breeze in with his MBA and swindle us suckers in the ghetto,” Eddie said.
Mike pursed his lips and nodded once.
Eddie stood up from his chair. “Tell you what,” he said, “help me get this guy outta here and I’ll buy you a round at the ‘Top.” Eddie walked out of the office and stuck his head through the outer door. “How we doing, gentlemen?” he called. “You have a good ride?”
“Mind if we put it up on the lift?” asked the guy in khakis.
“In there,” said Eddie, pointing to the solitary garage bay. The guy half-waved a perfunctory thanks and his greasy friend pulled the Jeep into the garage. They walked under the lift with flashlights, pointing and muttering. They spent twenty minutes under there, craning their necks to peer up the Jeep’s skirt, checking the bushings and belts.
“I wish my doctor was half as thorough as you guys,” Eddie said.
“When did you say you did the back brakes?” asked the guy in khakis.
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Two weeks back.”
“The back brakes haven’t been touched,” said the greasy friend. “These are stock rotor covers, and I can see the pads are almost gone.”
“Did you say back brakes?” said Eddie. “I thought you said front.”
“Those have been done,” he confirmed.
They came out from under the car and the lift whirred down. The friend backed the Jeep out onto the lot and the sun beat against the paint. The traffic light turned yellow. The guy in khakis tugged at his windbreaker as Eddie waddled over to him. “Wanna talk inside?” Eddie said.
“So you’re asking ten-nine,” said the guy in khakis. “And on the phone you said ten-six, which would be fine, except those back brakes are cooked, and the tires all need to be replaced.”
“Those are good snow tires,” said Eddie.
“They’re down to the wear bars. And the serpentine belt is going to go soon,” said the guy, parroting his friend’s advice like he knew what he was talking about.
“Look,” said Eddie, “if you don’t want it, that’s fine.”
“No, I do,” said the guy. “So what I propose is we just work the price down a little based on those things and we’ll have a deal. I have ten grand–”
“Oh come on,” said Eddie, waving the guy away.
“–in cash.” The guy in khakis pulled a gray-green wad of money from the pocket of his windbreaker. He unfolded it and the bills waved in front of Eddie’s face like a palm frond. The traffic light turned yellow. Eddie looked at the money. One car zipped past as the light went red, a drop of crimson swaying in the air.
A breeze snaked through the lot, tickling the sweat on the back of Eddie’s neck. The three Guatemalans dropped off the curb and loped through the cars stopped at the light.
Mike gave a low whistle from the doorway. Eddie looked up and Mike nodded to the men as they converged on the dealership like coyotes at the edge of a campsite. The guy in khakis followed Eddie’s gaze and his hand stopped fiddling with his windbreaker. One of the men ambled over. The other two moved around the far side of the Jeep.
“What’s going on, esse?” said the man, his eyes fixed on the guy in khakis. “You buying a car?”
“We’ve got it, pal,” said Eddie. “Go have an empanada or something.”
The man’s eyes never left the guy in khakis. “I’m not talking to you, blanco. I talking to him.” He flashed a smile.
“If you don’t mind,” said the guy in khakis, “we’re in the middle of a business discussion.”
He arched his eyebrows. “So discuss. I like business.”
The guy lifted the hem of his windbreaker and rested his hand on his hip.
Eddie held a hand out to the Guatemalan. “Come back in half an hour and I’ll sell you something nice too, ok? Best in the barrio.”
The Guatemalan took a step closer. The guy in khakis leaned to the left as he stepped back and pulled something from his waistband.
Eddie put up both hands and backed away.
The Guatemalan was the last to see what was happening, and his eyes went wide as the gun came up.
“Whoah, everybody easy,” said Eddie. “Let’s just be calm, okay?”
The Guatemalan stood his ground. “Look at you, grand blanco. You think you the only one with a piece? My boys pop you like that.” He held his hand up sideways, thumb cocked, imitating a pistol.
Mike disappeared inside the dealership.
“Why don’t you put that thing away, ok?” said Eddie. “We’ll cut a nice deal, and everybody gets to go home happy.”
The guy in khakis kept his eyes on the Guatemalan, who smiled again. “You like that, esse? You want to go home happy? Put your piece in your pocket before you hurt yourself, and I take you to a homegirl make you happy cheap.”
The stoplight turned green, and the traffic in front of the lot flowed away like water out of a bathtub. The sun shone on the empty street and a white sedan came barreling through the gate. Its tires squawked on the pavement as it rocked to a halt. The driver’s door flew open. An over-tanned woman with a puffy halo of platinum hair heaved herself out of the car and leveled a finger at Eddie. “You no good son of a bitch, I just come from Maria’s and her daughter tends bar at the ‘Top and she seen you–she seen you, Eddie! Gettin’ that pathetic little thing rubbed by some slut! Her daughter, Eddie!” She capped the tirade by throwing her door closed. The report of the door slamming shut startled everyone, and the right hand of the guy in khakis jumped as though it had been bitten. There was a popping sound and the Guatemalan spun around. A small red spot, like a logo, appeared above the breast of his white shirt.
Eddie looked at the logo and it shifted, lengthening before his eyes, growing long. His ears thundered with his heartbeat, and the gravel in front of him kicked up as through flicked by an invisible finger. He saw one of the Guatemalan’s friends leaning on the hood of the Jeep, his hands cradling a silver automatic. It barked fire, and the guy in khakis ducked.
Eddie half-crouched and yelled to Gloria to do the same. The guy in khakis turned and shot back at the two behind the Jeep. Gloria launched a fresh fusillade of accusations.
Out on the street, the stoplight turned red.
Eddie held his hands out palms-down, motioning for Gloria to get on the ground. She took an awkward step and pirouetted, and her head tipped back the way it used to when she and Eddie were just out of high school and she would laugh while they drank Narragansett beer on the dock at Pequot pond.
That laugh was the thing, even if he told his buddies it was the curves, or the enthusiasm with which she shed her sturdy brassiere. That–and the pregnancy–had made staying in Springfield seem like a good idea, or at least the right thing, instead of going to Worcester Polytech.
Gloria tipped farther back, her mouth open, and Eddie thought of the first time in Florida, when they rented the condo they wound up buying, how they’d made love on the balcony, both facing the ocean. She’d arched backwards and cried out to the sky. They hadn’t made nearly enough love, he thought.
Gloria leaned back off her feet and it occurred to Eddie that they might somehow have failed at something in all this. He couldn’t pinpoint any singular mistake, no decisive moment when things turned. It rather seemed to be the product of a steady accumulation of small errors, too many nights when he watched the game with a couple tallboys instead of snapping off the TV and heading upstairs to see if they could still start the ole’ motor, too many fights raw and unresolved, too many cold silences, cold mornings, whole winters.
Gloria lay back in the air as though she were being baptized. An arm and one leg extended comically upward, and her face was wide, surprised. One sparkling drop of drool had been flung from her lips and glinted like an opal in the sun. Eddie felt like she was far away, tilting slowly as a shadow in the afternoon, as though she was getting on with her life somehow, and he was being left to rot on this oily patch of asphalt with its plastic pennants and dripping transmissions. He felt a pang in his heart, like when he was a boy and his mother would leave him at the neighbors’ while she went to work in her puffy winter overcoat, disappearing into the city bus as though it had eaten her whole.
Gloria hit the ground like a burlap sack of coffee beans and slid on the gravel-studded pavement. Her head bounced once with a ‘pop’ like a dropped coconut, and the sounds around him rushed back. There was a thick, metallic chunking sound and a ‘boom’ rolled across the lot. Eddie looked up.
Mike was standing in the doorway holding a shotgun in the air. A blue-gray cloud of smoke billowed from its muzzle, and Mike spoke to the men crouched on opposite sides of the Jeep. “Put ’em down,” he said. “We’re closed.”