As you’ll recall from Part 1, we had more than a bit of a conundrum at Dishonest Used Car Dealership. I had a Volvo C70 on my hands that had burnt to a crisp, and it sure looked like might have been our fault.
Rom and The Amazon had engineered a little scam to keep our liability for the incident a secret, namely that we were going to repair an obviously totaled car at enormous cost and fraudulently mete out the bill to our warranty company. As you’ll also recall, the poor customer had purchased the car in memory of her late husband and no longer wanted the Volvo that tried to kill her. I had promised to do everything in my power to keep the car from being repaired, but I was rapidly running out of both options and time.
For the week following my meeting with the customer, I did everything in my power to keep the burnt-up C70 from getting touched. I endured being shouted down at meeting after meeting with Rom and The Amazon, trying fruitlessly to convince them to abandon this extremely lame scam. I got nowhere. I delayed as long as I could, but by the following Monday morning, we had reached the inevitable impasse.
The Amazon gave me an ultimatum: either work begins on the C70 immediately or I find myself a new place of employment. The thing is, it wasn’t so much the threat of being fired that fueled me. I’ve been fired before, plenty of times. One time I snagged an enclosed trailer on a tree branch and ripped the whole thing open like a tin can. One time I backed a forklift into the boss’s Camaro. One time (ironically enough) I caught a customer’s Bronco on fire. Getting sh!tcanned sucks, but I ain’t gonna cry about it.
But, I was naïve, impassioned, and idealistic in my younger days, before all my edges and corners were abraded away by time to leave behind only a rounded grey pebble of apathy, irritation, and disappointment. I still was young and stupid enough to think I might make some kind of difference in the world, and I had made the C70 my crusade.
Tuesday, 8:30 AM. I’m furiously IMing everyone in the service department and the office staff to call a meeting before anyone allied to Rom and The Amazon came in for the day. It was time for organized resistance. Crammed in the conference room were the four technicians, Colossal Redneck, The Diplomat, and myself. Miami Vice and The Raver would have been there too, but Miami Vice was apparently sick and The Raver just didn’t show up for work. I marched to the front of the room and leaned over the table to try and be as imposing as possible.
Me: “The C70, lady and gentlemen. This cannot stand.”
I made sure everyone was on the same page regarding the condition of the car: that it was burnt to a crisp, not fixable, and could not be made safe for any price. I made sure to cover the issues with the warranty company as well, that in fixing the car and billing them without giving them the option to total the car, we were in clear violation of our contract with them, and that in breaking the repair up into bite-size pieces so they wouldn’t notice we were committing fraud. I relayed the customer’s own story as dramatically as possible, playing up the sadness as best as my monotone was able. It was a rousing speech. I finished with a theatric flourish lifted directly from 9th grade drama class.
Me: “…It is your legal duty, your moral duty, your duty as a decent human being to refuse to participate in this travesty! Now who is with me!?”
The room was quiet. Mr. Sarcastic yawned. There was a long pause, finally broken by Felonious Monk:
He got up and walked out, followed by Splinter the technician and Mr. Sarcastic. Colossal Redneck followed.
CR: “Sorry, dude. Like I’ve been sayin’, this’s yer fight, not mine. All y’all do whatcha want, you won’t get no resistance from me, but I ain’t gonna put my ass on the line over one dumb car.”
Lord Salisbury stood up too.
LS: “Sorry, friend. I support what you’re doing, I really do, but I’ve got to put food on the table.”
I was disappointed, but I couldn’t blame them. Times were tough, jobs were hard to come by. Dishonest Used Car Dealership wasn’t much, but the paychecks usually came in on time, and that’s more than can be said for most shops.
We remained just The Diplomat and myself, not near enough of a force to stage any kind of actual resistance, especially with no support from the technicians. In a half hour, the sales staff would start rolling in for the day and we needed to be back in our respective offices lest we be caught scheming. The Diplomat finally spoke up.
TD: “So… do we have a plan?”
Me: “Not anymore, no.”
Silence filled the room. Finally, she chimed in with a thought.
TD: “What… what would happen if the customer turned the car over to insurance?”
Me: “We’ve been over that, she can’t. Liability only, they won’t even touch it.”
TD: “But do Rom and The Amazon know that?”
Me: “What are you getting at?”
TD: “Let’s say she had full coverage or whatever. What would happen?”
Me: “Her insurance would take the car and, you know, they’re an insurance company, so they’d try and figure out any way to weasel out of paying out, so they’d look it over and figure out real quick that we probably caused the fire.”
TD: “Then what?”
Me: “There’d probably be mediation or a lawsuit between their insurance and ours, and liability would pass onto our insurance. The customer would get paid out and our insurance would probably drop us. That’s if we’re lucky. If we’re unlucky, the customer will sue and/or we’ll have some kind of criminal negligence charges pressed against us, and I absolutely do not want that. But it’s all academic, isn’t it? She just has liability.”
TD: “Right, but Rom and The Amazon don’t know that, do they?”
7:30 PM. I’m in my Jeep, driving to my favorite watering hole on the other side of the lake. On my cell phone, I have the customer. This was before cell phone laws and ubiquitous hands-free devices, so, you know, calm down, Beyoncé.
Me: “Hey, this is 36055512 at Dishonest Used Car Dealership. I think we might have a solution. It’s going to require a bit of your participation, though.”
Her: “Are you calling me from a car?”
Me: “Our tech guy claims that our phone lines are all bugged. I doubt very much that he could figure out how to do that, but I can’t take the risk. Anyway, do you have access to your vehicle’s title?”
Her: “Sure, I have it around here somewhere. What do I have to do?”
Me: “Here’s the deal. For reasons that I am unable to discuss, it will freak everyone out royally if you insist on sending your car back to your own insurance company.”
Her: “Okay, but like I said, I only have liability.”
Me: “But it’s just you, me, and Jesus that know that. Look, make an appointment to meet with the owners and tell them that you don’t want the car repaired, that you don’t feel like you’d ever feel safe in it ever again after the fire than nearly took your life, and that you’d rather your own insurance take care of it. What’ll happen is they’ll cave, and ask you what you want, and then you demand to be paid out for the car. Bring your title with you so they can take the car back.”
Her: “What if they say “go ahead, take it.” My insurance won’t pay on it.”
Me: “I’m just about 100% sure that won’t be something they say. Even if they do, you still could bring the car back for repairs and we’d be obligated to fix it. Were that to happen, though, we’ve got a nuclear option that would still get you paid out. It’d be messier, it’d take longer, but we’ve got that backup plan if we have to. But, let’s not worry about that right now. What we need you to do is come in as soon as possible and tell Rom and The Amazon exactly what I told you to say. When can you get back to our side of the mountains?”
Her: “Any time. My sister’s been coming and picking me up when I need to come over. When should I come?”
Me: “As soon as possible. Tomorrow if you can.”
Wednesday, 10:00 AM. I’ve been hiding in my office all morning. The Amazon storms into my office and slams the door behind her.
TA: “Do you know anything about this!?”
Me: “About what?”
TA: “That customer with that C70 that caught fire just called to make an appointment for this afternoon to discuss “something” with us! If I find out you set her up somehow, there will be hell to pay!”
Me: “I’m sorry, I don’t know a thing about it. In fact, I’m ordering more parts for her car right now. Look, I know I put up a fight at first, but you guys were right, and I’ve come around. We’re gonna repair it.”
This seemed to tame the beast at least slightly, and she marched right back out the door toward Colossal Redneck’s office, where she berated him for a moment on the same subject and then departed once again.
TD: “What’s going on in there?”
Me: “10 to 1 I’m fired by the end of the day.”
TD: “I doubt it.”
Me: “Why’s that?”
TD: “They think you’re behind this, right?”
Me: “Sure. They’re not dumb.”
TD: “Yeah, they won’t get rid of you. If they think you’re behind the meeting, then they know if they fire you, you might narc to the media or the warranty company or whomever. You’ve got ‘em too scared to fire you.”
Me: “Hmm. I hope you’re right.”
1:00 PM. A cab pulls up to the front door and the customer climbs out. She strolls through to the shop toward my office. I smile at her through the window, but wave her away lest we be spotted conspiring. She gives me a look like she’s really not sure this is going to work. She departs through the bay toward the sales office on the back side of the lot.
2:30 PM. Rom and The Amazon alike appear from the sales office and storm through the service department on their way out the door. Rom is actively slamming doors - opening doors just so he can slam them again, over and over. There is absolute fury in their voices.
Rom: “I AM DONE, I AM SO F*CKING DONE RIGHT NOW.”
Rom gave the door to the sales bay a huge kick, punching a ragged hole through the thin veneer. The Amazon pushed him out of her way and whipped open Colossal Redneck’s office door, shouting at him.
TA: “We’re out for the rest of the day. Be f*cking glad if everyone has jobs tomorrow.”
The two departed out the front door, Rom slamming the door so hard the glass cracked. Colossal Redneck stood from his desk and walked out into the hall. He glared at me through the window and shook his head. He walked out to the service bay, presumably to go blow off some steam by the beer fridge.
A minute later, the customer popped her head in the office from the sales bay, where she apparently was hiding. She slipped in my office door and sat down.
Her: “I’ve been waiting for them to leave.”
Me: “How’d it go?”
She opened her purse and pulled out a check, waving it in the air.
Her: “It worked perfectly. They had a meltdown, but we argued and argued until they caved, just like you said they would.”
Me: “You better cash that before they think better of it.”
Her: “Here, these are for you.”
From her purse, she produced a zip-lock bag full of home-made cookies.
Me: “Chocolate chip? Those are my favorite! How’d you know?”
She smiled her sorrowful little smile.
Her: “I guessed. Nobody doesn’t like chocolate chip. Look, I just want to thank you for what you did. This whole thing… it’s just all been so awful, and you were the only one who stood up for me. I can’t thank you enough.”
Me: “Thank you. But, I didn’t do it alone. There’s someone you should meet.”
I IMed The Diplomat and a moment later she hopped in my office door.
Me: “She was the brains behind the operation and came up with the whole scheme. She’s the real hero here.”
I reached in and grabbed a handful of cookies and passed the bag with the other half to The Diplomat.
TD: “Fuck yeah, cookies.”
She quickly remembered she was in the presence of a customer and corrected herself.
TD: “Oh, right. Sorry. Cookies, yay.”
We all laughed and the two ladies exchanged thanks and chatted about The Diplomat’s role masterminding the whole operation.
Her: “So you were the one who came up with this whole scheme?”
TD: “I guess? I mean…”
Her: “You don’t have to be shy about it, darling, it was brilliant. Thank you.”
Me: “So what’s next for you?”
Her: “I’ve got a cab coming in a bit to pick me up, and then back to my side of the mountains, I suppose.”
I walked her out toward the bay to wait for her cab and The Diplomat went back to her office. In front of us sat the remains of her Volvo sitting in the parking lot.
Me: “Hang on a minute.”
I reached inside the dead car and retrieved the charred photo tucked into the corner of the gauge cluster. I handed it to her. She looked at it, sadness and tears welling in her eyes.
Her: “This was him.”
She sat down on the flimsy aluminum chair I kept out there and cried. She told me how they were childhood friends and everyone knew they would eventually get married. She told me how they dated in high school and he proposed on Valentine’s Day when she was 18, when neither of them even had jobs. How they had both grown up dirt poor, and how he really wanted to be an engineer, but he couldn’t afford college and joining the military to get an education wasn’t an option on account of the war. How he somehow managed to avoid the draft, and he worked at a sawmill during the war and times were good and they had a daughter together. And then the trees were gone and the sawmill closed and he had to work every day of his life to provide for his family, sometimes working two jobs or three part-time just to make ends meet, terrible jobs, stressful jobs, working for horrible people in horrible conditions for horrible pay. And how he started to get sick, and he couldn’t work anymore, and what she made just didn’t pay the bills. How he was in the hospital, and the stress and the bills piled up and up and she had a big blow-up fight with her daughter over all of it and over nothing at all. How he had finally passed away, and the wounds with her daughter were still all there, raw and tender. And she tried to apologize and make things right, but now her daughter doesn’t talk to her much anymore and how she calls and calls and her daughter just doesn’t answer. And how she is so very alone.
I winced. I couldn’t help it.
Me: “You know, you remind me a little bit of my mother.”
Her: “Is that a bad thing?”
Me: “No… no it’s not a bad thing. She’s a good person. But that sounds like something she said to me once.”
Her: “Tell me.”
So I told her. I told her about growing up in the middle of nowhere and going to a school that was so small that no one had ever bothered to give it a name. How I was the older child, the difficult child, the one who didn’t learn to speak for so long that they thought I would need to be placed in special needs classes, the one with the ferocious temper and the hideous anger issues, the one with the sharp tongue who didn’t know when to shut up. And I told her about the walls lined with shelves filled with book after book on how to deal with a troubled child. How my parents fought about me, the only thing they ever really fought about, and as the years went on the bookshelves started to fill up with books on how to save your marriage and I knew it was because of me. How they loved me, they really loved me, and they gave me everything I could ever want or need, but one night when I was thirteen my mother had a little bit too much wine and told me that she loved me, but that I was hard to love and that she sometimes wished I were easy to love like my brother.
How I did well in school, but I didn’t do well enough in school and I would get lectured endlessly about it and that made me not want to try at all because it wasn’t ever good enough and my grades in high school finally slipped so far I was nearly held back. How everyone in my family all the way back as far as anyone could remember had been something: doctors, lawyers, a senator, a scientist, engineers, professors, architects, and they were worried that I wouldn’t be. And how I had gotten into college, a really good college in a big city to the north, and done so well on my SATs that they gave me a huge scholarship and put me in the honors courses and how proud everyone was of me, the first time I ever remember them being truly proud without the usual reservation that I could have done even better. And how I ended up hating college, I hated the people and I hated the classes and the pompousness and self-importance of these people who somehow thought they knew all the answers to life’s big questions at age eighteen.
How I had dropped out of school after a year and fallen into the only other thing I was any good at, fixing cars. How my mother had cried and cried when I told her that I was leaving school, and how she told me that I would never make anything of myself that way and that they had worked so hard to provide me with everything and that I was throwing it all away, right in front of their faces and how ashamed she was. And how much that had hurt, how it hurt in places that I didn’t know could hurt. How we had tried to make amends, but it didn’t take and we would have the same fight over and over again, her defensiveness and my anger clashing against each other throwing bigger and bigger sparks until it had lit a fire of resentment in each of us so big that it could no longer be extinguished with mere words. And how we had not spoken in so long that I couldn’t remember the last time we talked. A year, at least. Maybe two.
I slumped down onto the floor next to her and apologized for dumping all of that on her. We were quiet for some time. I heard her cab pull up in the parking lot outside. She and I stood and she walked out into the rain toward her ride. She opened the back door of the taxi, and then stopped and turned back to me.
Her: “You know, we’re just people. Us parents, I mean. We try really hard, but we’re just people in here.”
She smiled her sorrowful smile and slipped into the cab. She gave me a wave from the window and the cab disappeared off into the drizzly haze.
That night I stood on my balcony looking out into the black, listening to the rain patter quietly on the canvas awning. I went downstairs and poured myself a drink in an old glass from the back of the cabinet. It was the only one left from a set we had growing up. I had broken all the others. I found it tucked in a box of dishes my parents had handed down to me when I moved out of the house. It was so scratched and worn you could hardly see through it anymore, the rim chipped from the time I got mad and threw it against the wall but it didn’t break. It was the one that didn’t break.
I came back upstairs and sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, staring out the big sliding glass door into the darkness beyond. I took a sip to steel myself and I pulled out my phone and dialed. The phone rang and the other end of the line picked up.
”Hey, Mom. It’s me.”