Friday, March 6, 2009

Finding Keys

Buck squeezed past the tightly-packed cars into the stuffy cabin of the RV that served as a makeshift office. Behind a chequerboard formica table hastily drafted into service as a makeshift desk sat a tall, greying man in a smart but unironed suit.

Without looking up from his newspaper, the man mumbled in a weary voice, "Sorry, the lot's full. Can't take anything else. Try the junkyard down on East Central Road."

"I'm not here to sell, I'm here to buy," Buck replied, stooping to fit under the cabinets that jutted from the ceiling.

The dealer looked up from the fine print obituaries that flooded the back pages of the Chicago Tribune and beamed at him, without making even the slightest attempt to disguise his glee. He stretched out a leathery hand - Buck noticed a conspicuous tan line around his ring finger.

"Michael Peters."

"Cameron Williams. But please, call me Buck."

"Please, come this way!"

He folded up the table quickly, letting the papers that were on it slide onto the floor, and led Buck back out onto the sun-drenched lot.

"What you looking for? We just got a great bunch in today from that parking lot down on Dempster - they've finally got round to clearing that out. Some a' them got a bit dented when they winched them out, but they're in good shape otherwise. Should still have a full tank a' gas, most a' them. Some of them I've already siphoned."

"Siphoned?"

"Yeah. Gas is running pretty short these days. I can get a hundred, hundred and fifty bucks for one tank of fuel - that's more than half these cars are worth."

"How about that one?" asked Buck, pointing to a sky blue Camaro. The rear fender was covered liberally with faded bumper stickers that politely but firmly asked tailgaters to get saved, protest abortion and vote Dole.

"Ah, not that one. Not yet anyway. The driver was one of the... Disappeared," said Michael, still not quite used to the new, horrifying meaning of the word. "She was in the mall when it happened. Five hundred people Disappeared in the mall that day - a hundred of them were adults. Still haven't matched all the keys to the cars yet. Cops say they're trying, but frankly, they've got bigger fish to fry."

He hurried Buck past a bank of people carriers and station wagons, still morbidly carrying child seats and fluorescent yellow 'Baby on Board' signs.

"So," asked Buck, running his finger along the dusty hood of a Plymouth Voyager, "how'd you get into the car selling business? I mean, judging by your accommodation, this wasn't your regular job."

Michael chuckled, his laugh empty and hollow.

"Very perceptive. It was my wife. She died in the Event."

"She disappeared?"

"No. She was crossing an intersection. Oncoming truck lost its driver at the worst possible moment." His bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes began to fill with tears. "I was a face-painter for parties - even before the Event, I barely made enough to scrape by. She was the breadwinner. So I was left with no savings and a useless fucking car - I can't even drive! Then my neighbours - they lost three good kids that day - they saw I was selling my car and asked me to deal with their RV. Too many memories, I suppose. Then it just sort of went from there."

Michael stopped suddenly and sat on the hood of a badly bashed Ford Focus. Buck joined him, jotting down notes on the pad he always carried with him.

"At first, business was great. Everyone wanted to trade in their SUVs and minivans for compacts, or replace vehicles written off in the pile-ups. But I was stupid to think it would last. I spent every last penny on old models - I even pawned off my wedding ring to do it! Now I make maybe two, three sales a day. And most of those are on old junkers - I only just make back their scrap value."

Buck toyed with placing his hand on Michael's shoulder, but decided against it.

"Still, every cloud has a silver lining. Have you heard? The Wilkes's across town say they're pregnant again. Not just them either; I reckon there's at least half a dozen like 'em in Mount Prospect alone. If I can just sit on these cars for eight, nine months, I'll be back in the black."

They sat in silence for a moment. Suddenly, Michael leapt to his feet.

"Come on then, let's get you a car," he yelled excitedly, half-leading, half-dragging Buck through the rows and rows of old autos.

They rounded a heavy chainlink fence and Buck saw in front of him, gleaming in the midday sun, a brand new Hummer H1.

"Wow, is that for sale?" asked Buck, jogging over to the gargantuan vehicle.

"To be honest, I just have it out for show. It does less than 15 miles to the gallon - the old owners traded it in for a smaller model when gas prices hit $20 a gallon. I'd probably pay you just to take the thing off my lot."

"Well, what features has it got?"

Michael shrugged.

"Airbags, air-con, a carphone..."

"I'll take it!"

3 comments:

Abelardus said...

When I read about Buck taking down notes, I almost had respect for him -- a journalist finally doing his job!

And when I learned that this Buck also has a phone fetish, my respect vanished in a flash of laughter.

Touch of humor at the end or no, I think this is a good illustration of what the post-Event world should have looked like.

Anonymous said...

So awesome. A great sense of personality, and the part about 8-or-9 months was poignant.

jackd said...

Nice job, but one thing jumped out at me: "He stretched out a leathery hand - Buck noticed a conspicuous tan line around his ring finger."

This sounds as if he either wore his wedding ring on the right hand, which would be unusual, or he's shaking hands left-handed, which is awkward unless for some reason both parties expect it.