by Michael E. Sawan
I’m not one for beautiful days, so take it on faith that this one was a real peach. The type of day where kids think clouds are made of something sweet. The type of day where you may as well not be wearing clothes. The type of day to sell the worst car on the lot to your worst enemy. It was May 6, 1993, I remember it like yesterday, and beauty was the only good thing about it.
I was prowling the showroom after lunch, between the Ranger and the F-150. I can’t remember ever having sold a car right after lunch, everyone being too fat and happy to make such a decision. So, I’d stroll and smile, nodding at the carousers, not bothering anyone. Then who do I see but an old friend of mine from another life, Ray.
He looked thin, and when we shook his grip was weak: “Long time, right?”
We exchanged pleasantries, he talked like he was okay but I couldn’t get over how ragged he looked. Ray used to be a stack of dynamite, 200 lbs. of muscle, always had a beer in his hand and a woman in his arms. Back then I was up for anything and Ray stamped my visa to hedonism; parties, drinking, drugs, women, it was all so long ago but it sticks with me. I used to say I would do it all again.
Even then that was all in the past, and I had a quota so I asked: “You in the market?”
“I guess, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” I parroted, powering on. “Maybe you’re just here for the free coffee!”
He didn’t laugh. “Would you let me drive a Mustang, maybe? Something fast.”
Here’s the thing: we were still shaking hands. I remember the clamminess, how his chill oozed into me. It’s long been my tenet to grip a man’s hand slightly tighter than he grabs mine and I always wait for him to break the shake first. Turned out that my old friend Ray had no intention of letting go. So, there we were, standing in the middle of the Ford dealership, conjoined.
“Hell yes!” I said. “I’ve got just the thing for you, these foxbodies are something else, five-liter engine, 225 horsepower—”
“Yeah that’s great.”
We would have held hands clear out to the lot if I hadn’t broken him off.
Ray wasn’t the worst driver I’d seen. I hate to admit it but he drove like me when I’m arguing with my wife: too quick to shift up, too fast on the clutch. I cracked a couple of jokes about it but he was cold. I was 95% sure there’d be no sale when he decided to truly dip in to the day’s horror.
“This isn’t easy for me to say,” he started. I joked, but he brushed it off. “Look, I wanted to drive the car, but I knew you worked at that dealership. I wanted to talk to you. Because I don’t have anyone else anymore and I know you knew me at a bad time and you’d hear me out now, too, and I remember how you used to make me think all of the BS in the world was nothing and….”
Ray rambled and I let him. Don’t let his recollection fool you, I didn’t ever listen to him. Why should I, when all Ray ever needed was to tucker his mind out?
Wasted patience, sure, but then Ray ran a stop sign. Then he took a hard turn in third gear, at a red light, not even a rolling stop, then he had a straight away with the gas pedal pinned, thrashing that poor Mustang to within an inch of its life. And the craziest thing? All the while he was talking calmly. About what, I can’t remember, but from his presence of mind he must have been describing a beach vacation. Finally, he stopped, cockeyed in the middle of the street, looking over at a Rite Aid and I reached over to the steering column and pulled out the keys. He stopped talking, looking at me for the first time with something that wasn’t malaise.
“Come on, man, I’m just letting the pony prance.”
“Prance on your own time! You’re driving like you’ve got a death wish.”
He finally laughed. It surprised him as much as me, a sheep bleating out before stuffing the sound back in. Then, with a speed that still surprises me, he snatched the keys from my hand, rammed them in, revved that car up to God knows where, and dropped the clutch.
“Like I’ve got a death wish?” he yelled, making a decent harmony with the tires’ screeching. Never in my life had I wanted to see a cop so badly.
Ray kept screaming: “Remember that time we got loaded and climbed the Sunoco…”
I was pressed into the seat, my eyes bulging. I must have looked like the last chicken before the butcher block.
“…we were up there half of the night, talking about ‘what it all means,’ all of that…”
I mean, we were whizzing past Walmart, McDonald’s, 15 Geos and still not one cop in sight.
“…I hate to say it but I’ve got the answer:”
Suddenly I saw him, a little bit behind: the blue and red lightshow, I heard the siren.
“It’s to be afraid every moment of your life until you find something real to be afraid of.” He had seen the cop, too, and slammed on the brakes. I should have gotten out and measured the skid marks.
“We had fun,” he said, stone cold. “We shared women, we shared smack, everything. And it’s probably nothing but you should get tested.”
Tested? My first thought was of my daughter’s entrance exam at St. Francis Elementary. Then I remembered the headlines.
“You’re probably fine,” he continued. “You must be fine, you haven’t been wild like me in a while. But get yourself checked out.”
And that was it, that’s what he wanted to say. He hadn’t taken his hands away from the steering wheel. He turned away from me, eyes glazed, straight ahead. Even in my memory I can’t stand the silence. So, I asked what I already knew: “Get tested for what?”
He must have heard me. I asked him however many more times but still he stared, face forward until it wasn’t and he’s looking at me kindly, without smiling. The cop was knocking at his window but Ray stayed with me.
His expression is in my mind’s eye. The cop behind him, knocking again, the cars driving past, the gas station across the street, and behind it all the giant clouds sweetening the sky.
Ray took the ticket, I took the car, and he told the cop he’d walk home. I didn’t try to convince him otherwise and I regret it. When I saw Ray again he didn’t look anything like that Mustang of a man I once knew, didn’t look like he had lived at all; a face like plastic, the plush of the casket too soft, the quiet parlor the only thing that could have tamed him.
Michael E. Sawan works in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a down-on-its-luck mega corporation. He is unpublished. He uses his free time to write, read, and eat with people he cares about.