Shystered by Roland Goity
The old woman stumbles so close to the driver-side door that she paints overcast clouds with her hot breath up and down its window.
“You won’t find a better deal anyplace else, Mrs. Quintana,” I say. “Not on this car.”
Sales are down at the lot and I’m down, too—real down-in-the-dumps lately. But today a true pushover has serendipitously arrived in an olive-tone floral-patterned dress, a color to match her complexion. The dress could double as circus tent. Mrs. Quintana is sizable; she’ll soon fill the driver seat of the sedan that she’s peering into, and fill it amply. Also, from what I gather, she’s an honest, earnest woman, who’s worn a brave face of late. Her husband died a year ago this week. She’s volunteered such information within the past hour.
“Wanna take it for another spin?” I ask.
“No, is okay,” she smiles. “But, please Mr. Tony, you ask the boss how much he come down. See if he will do twelve. Maybe I go thirteen.”
She’s setting herself up to be swindled. The sticker means nothing. It’s a used car she wants to buy, not one of our new ones. A “previously owned vehicle” is the more euphemistic term we use for it. The odometer somehow reads a hair below 42,000 miles, but my gut tells me this thing will be in and out of repair shops for ever more.
“I’ll see what I can do. But he ain’t crazy,” I tell her, as I head into the showroom and toward the offices.
Minutes later I’m going through the ritual, standing on cold linoleum tile and leaning against the faux woodgrain paneling in my boss’s office, smoking another cigarette down to its nub. Hazeltine isn’t here. He’s out and about somewhere. Word is he split a half-hour ago and won’t be back anytime soon. So I could sit in one of the two chairs he’s set aside for guests. Hell, I could sit in his chair if I wanted. But I don’t. I like puffing away and losing myself in the curly Q smoke rings while imagining my boss is here too, silent.
I’m in no rush to have him return. I got his consent soon after old Mrs. Quintana arrived to sell her the vehicle for nearly two grand below what’s she’s offered, so I’m golden. He’s left a written contract full of dotted I’s and crossed T’s and all I have to do is fill in the final agreed-upon price and get her to sign. Well, that and deal with the financing papers, which I never enjoy. Particularly in this case. Mrs. Quintana is a little down or her luck. Her credit is sketchy at best, and she’s prime for the pickings. It’s really a travesty how the financially downtrodden are the ones expected to pay exorbitant rates so the wealthy can float by without a hitch in their step. But it’s a problem for which neither I nor anyone here has a solution. That is, unless the perpetually broke are willing to do as I’ve done: to give up any attempts at earning an honest living—something I found impossible to achieve—and go about their days trying to cunningly tip the monetary scales in their favor during life’s give-and-takes. I drop my smoke to the floor and smolder it under my wingtip shoe, thinking I need to kill a few more minutes before rejoining Mrs. Quintana. I kick the ciggy into the corner for the midnight cleaning staff to find. It hits a bump in the floor and jumps the tile, becoming momentarily perched on a low-lying ridge at the base of the wall paneling. There it teeters for a few seconds until I wonder if it’ll stay secure there. But a moment later it tumbles off.
Dirty floors, stale cigarettes and car sales. That pretty much sums up my life these days. A shyster to the unsuspecting. To the shystered.
It wasn’t always this way. I was once an innocent, too, one of the unsuspecting. But then one day when I was a kid my mother took me to the county fair. We looked at livestock mostly, took in a few rides. On our way to the fairgrounds exit, barkers and carneys pressed me to try my luck at winning a fabulous prize. There were life-size stuffed animals wherever I looked, and I tugged at my mom’s dress, begging her to give me money for a try at one. I wanted to win something for my sister Angela who stayed home sick that day under the watchful eye of my dad.
“Here’s five dollars,” Mom said. “You get three throws for a dollar. Make sure you come back with change.”
Cash in hand, I ran to the ring-toss booth and waved the bill at the man behind the counter. “Three throws please,” I told him. Like the teetering cigarette from moments ago, the rope rings fooled me for a second, dangling on their mark until harmlessly falling aside. When I asked for my change, the man fished his pockets and gave me two ones. “Sorry, that’s all I got, kid,” he said. “But tell you what; I’ll give you seven tries. That’s one more than I owe you. You’re getting a deal.” I don’t specifically remember the ensuing results; I only know I never stood a chance.
Now, as I prepare to exit Hazeltine’s office and to tell Mrs. Quintana what a deal she’s getting on the clunker sedan, I remember my reaction that day: I tossed two crumpled dollar bills into my mother’s hand and bawled into her clutches. Then I wonder what Mrs. Quintana’s reaction will be when she realizes she’s been taken. Anger? Sorrow? Perhaps a feeling as empty as her bank account? Because the realization will hit, whether it happens later today or a year or two from now is all that remains in question.
There are aspects to my profession that I like, when selling cars seems more of a game rather than simply a dreaded means to a livelihood. The times when I turn on the charisma and assume a new persona, and rekindle the glory days of my acting career, when I had the lead in a 7th grade adaptation of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and a few years later, in high school, a prominent role in “Our Town.” But there are mostly times—like now—when acid roils my stomach so bad I could almost double-over knowing that I prey on good, everyday people who are so excited to buy a new car and take it for a ride that they don’t realize that we—and me—at the lot are, in turn, taking them for a ride.
I decide today’s going to be different. Some small penance will be paid to some karmic force as I’ll take Mrs. Quintana aside, and suggest she’ll find a better value for her needs without taking on a sizeable debt at the Japanese import place two blocks down from this place. A smile sweeps my face and I suddenly get a spring in my step. I swing open the showroom door and make my reappearance on the shadowy lot.
“Mrs. Quintana!” I practically shout, as I jog up to her. “There’s something I want to tell you…”
“He go for it?” she asks. Her hands are cupped and resting on the shelf of the flowery olive fabric covering her breasts, as if in prayer.
I’m ready to come clean, to give her the real skinny—I really am—when suddenly, I blurt out: “Yessiree.” “Fantastico!” she shouts.
“But I had to fight to get him to come down; he wanted fourteen-five,” I say. “So I got it for you at thirteen and a quarter. Pretty much what you asked for.” A heavy sigh whistles through her lips and she looks like a piano’s been lifted from her back. I extend my arm and she shakes my hand with gusto.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Quintana!” I say. “You’re about to become the proud new owner of this magnificent vehicle.”