Couple Trades Baby for Chevrolet
by Ron Burch
I’d been sweating it out in the gravel for over an hour, watching the cars cruise by on Vermont Ave. A blue Volkswagen slowed down and I waved them in with a bright smile, but they hit the gas and sped right out of there, tempted but afraid, as most of our buyers were.
I was working the lot on a Sunday, noticing that the letters were starting to peel off my signage, and wondering what I was exactly doing with my life. It was a gray day, overcast, maybe rain coming, usually a slow day with people going to church in the morning and watching football in the afternoon. Saturday’s the big day, but I let Wendell have that shift so I can take a day off. Since it’s so slow in the lot, there’s just me and Louise.
Then, this blue Impala barely pulled into the lot, a cloud of gray smoke kicking out from the exhaust, clearly not up to state standards. I straightened my yellow tie, threw in a breath mint, and put on the smile. The Impala was just asking for directions to the turnpike, but behind me, I noticed this young couple, probably in their early 20s, walking around the lot, looking at Louise’s handmade signs taped on the car windows. I hadn’t seen them pull in, but the old guy in the Impala was having trouble reading the map, so I was distracted.
“Afternoon,” I called to them. “Name’s Gene. If you need something, let me know.”
The guy nodded at me as his wife walked over to the red ’98 Camaro sitting out front. I sauntered back over to near the front door, sucking on my breath mint, and watched them wander around the lot. She was wearing a dusty brown corduroy jacket with a hole in the right sleeve and blue jeans, and she had blond hair that didn’t look combed. She was not a bad looker, but I could tell she wasn’t going to age well. He looked a few years younger with a black goatee, missing a few patches here and there, and black-framed glasses, the kind that appeared in the army. He wore a flannel jacket, blue jeans, these heavy black boots, and a hunting cap. Neither one had on a wedding ring.
I looked inside the office to where Louise was sitting behind the desk. She was watching the TV, one of the talk shows where someone always cried, but it was okay because Louise answered the phone and always kept the coffee made. I did mostly everything else on the lot. Louise did the typing, which I couldn’t do, since my fingers seemed too big for the keyboard, and people seemed to like her. She said things with a real smile, even though her husband was a drunken bastard who sometimes called because Louise hid the bottles and he’d yell at her over the phone, trying to find out where they were. I told him a couple times that wasn’t going to cut it, but he still did it, and she pretended that it was her sister in Palm Springs.
I could give Louise a better life.
The couple stopped at about six different cars, one being the 2000 black BMW convertible, which really was a good deal, even though the top wouldn’t go down. She kept making a beeline back toward the red Camaro.
The woman came over to me.
“We need a car to get us out of state. How much?” she asked, pointing to the Camaro.
“Price is on it.” I didn’t move, but I did smile at her—Smile #4, which I called the Beatific Smile, warm and harmonious, letting the buyer know she was going to have a good car-purchasing experience here.
When you knew they wanted it, there was no reason to give it away.
She nodded and walked back over to the guy. They had this heated conversation—she’s pointing at the car and he’s shaking his head. I turned my head away from them, not wanting to be a witness if one of them, him most likely, turned my way. Domestic squabbles were always invisible on the lot.
I heard her coming, but I pretended to be occupied, rearranging a price sticker on a white Ford Escort that used to be owned, really, by a little old lady and had low miles. She rode the brakes like a trucker, but they weren’t worn down to the metal yet.
“We’d be interested in the Camaro.”
I glanced over to her and she stood there, her mouth pulling down. I put on the smile.
“Of course. It’s a great car.”
She followed me over to the Camaro where her husband or boyfriend already stood. He had his hands in his pockets and walked circles around the car. I told them all the great things about the car as I proceeded to take the sign off the windshield. Still talking, I turned and walked toward the office. She followed first. He lingered behind and then followed.
We moved through the lobby, which admittedly didn’t have much, since it was the front part of my house that I used as office space for the car dealership. We walked past the TV and Louise, who gave them a big smile, and I brought them to my office, right next to the “AFFORD IT?” signage.
“Coffee?” I asked them.
She was sitting down and shook her head. He didn’t even respond.
“Anything I can get you folks?”
“No,” she said.
As I sat behind the desk, I made a big show of things while looking for the paperwork and the right pen. I found out that they were Amy and Ted Nabb from their forms. Both lived in the county. He worked for a distribution center on San Fernando Road that closed, but she didn’t list anything. We went through the numbers and they nodded as I talked, which was a good sign, since it meant that they were with me and not fighting it. I talked about financing and I gave them our rates, which were fair, and asked them about a down payment.
“We don’t have it,” he finally said. His voice was deep, deeper than I thought.
“Hmm,” I replied. I didn’t know what to say. Basically, from my years of experience as the number one salesman, they were telling me that they couldn’t afford the car.
Then, he just got up and walked out.
I really didn’t know what to make of that. She didn’t say anything, just looking down at her hands or maybe her lap. She pressed her fingers together until they knuckled white and released them and I started wondering if they were going to hold me up for cash, which I didn’t really have much of, or for one of the cars in the lot.
I put my hands on the desk and interlaced my fingers. This is Gesture #13 in the book I’ve been writing about being a salesman. Having been one my entire life, I felt that I could share my knowledge of this trade, so I assumed the delicate Gesture of Consolation and Benevolence. It was a kind gesture, understanding and patient, yet slightly judgmental.
“Do you have any idea of how you’re going to pay for this car?”
Her husband Ted walked back in with this white plastic, two-handled carrying case.
“We want to trade this in.”
Inside was a tiny baby, maybe not even a year old, in a red coat and boots, a little green ski hat on its head, and tufts of blonde hair sticking out the sides. The baby looked like it had just woken up.
“Oh,” I said. “A baby.”
I bent over the carrier. She was frail. Her dark eyes were barely open. Her green ski cap was crooked and I straightened it.
“No, Gene,” Amy replied. “Her name isn’t ‘Amy.’ It’s ‘Amy Jr.’ so none of us get confused.”
“Can you name babies that?”
“Why not?” Amy motioned to Amy Jr. “We want to trade her in.”
I laughed, thinking she was joking.
“I’m not kidding,” she said.
“You can’t use a baby as a trade-in.”
“Because it’s illegal.”
I probably should have let it go right there. I should have called the cops and turned them in. It was illegal, this laundering of babies or whatever you wanted to call it, but clearly they did not want this kid. I wasn’t really surprised. You eventually saw enough crazy shit in a city the size of Los Angeles, and if I called the LAPD, the city would take the baby away from them, rightfully so, and this child would lead a miserable life from then on, from what I read about in the Times and seen on TV, going from a ward of the court to one uncaring foster home after another, where some of them died. Sure, maybe Amy Jr. would get lucky and land in a good home, one where the parents weren’t after government money or were trying to get a one-way ticket to heaven, that really cared about the kids. However, I didn’t know if those places really existed and looking at that little baby there sleeping, her mouth opened in a tiny “o,” I just couldn’t call the cops. I knew if I let the kids go, if I refused to sell them a car, then they’d just go down the street, probably to O’Riley’s lot, which would be a big mistake because his cars were the worst on this side of town, straight lemons, and they’d just try to make another deal for Amy Jr. Maybe they’d get arrested, maybe not, or maybe something even worse could happen to this little baby.
Inside my house, Amy and Ted sat on the green sagging couch with Amy Jr. between them. Amy surveyed the living room.
“Who’s the woman in the picture?” Amy asked. She was talking about the picture next to the TV.
“Oh. That’s my ex-wife.”
“You married?” She laughed, a snorting sound in her nose.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just can’t picture you married.” She looked at Ted, who was glancing around the room, his mouth twisting sideways. I didn’t know what to think about Ted. He was either a confused kid or someone you didn’t hand a knife to.
“So you got kids?” Amy was a chatterbox. I thought that she kept talking because silence made her nervous, so she would just talk on and on to keep filling up the silence with noise, which seemed ironic, since Ted seemed to be a nexus of unsaying.
My house smelled like old beef in the refrigerator—not beef that’s gone bad, but the type that had sat in its own blood for a couple days. I didn’t know why my house smelled this way. I kept it pretty clean and took out the trash frequently, much better than most bachelors. I thought it was just my house. I didn’t have any pets. I used to have a dog, Rooster, a Pomeranian that belonged to my wife, but when she left, she didn’t take him and he just stopped eating and died. That was years ago. In fact, I was proud of how organized my house was. There were no dirty clothes thrown on the floor or hanging on a chair, nor dishes, dirty or clean, in the sink. I wiped crumbs off the counter, folded my laundry, made my bed every morning, and put my shoes underneath it.
“Hey, you got kids?” she asked again. She was popping her gun and I watched her tongue rolling it around. It wasn’t erotic. For some reason, it reminded me of a seal playing with a fish.
I shook my head. It was kind of a sore spot. My wife and I split over having kids. We kept putting them off, telling ourselves we were waiting for the right time only to realize that moment had passed us years ago. Finally, we didn’t seem to have that much else to say to each other anymore, so she moved to Dayton to be closer to her sister.
Ted was arranging the blanket over Amy Jr., who was still so quiet. Amy was sitting there, her corduroy jacket still on. She had a stoic look on her face. She wasn’t as pretty in here as she had been outside. Sometimes that happened. Sometimes light made people seem more appealing. The wrinkles on Amy had started, noticeably around the corners of her eyes and across her forehead, like power lines across the horizon. Her hair had lost some of its blondness.
I didn’t know what to make of Ted. He looked a few years younger than Amy. He seemed to be intentionally fussing over Amy Jr. He didn’t look up.
“Doesn’t it make you nervous leaving your baby with a stranger?”
She shook her head.
“Why’s your office in your house?” she asked.
Ted leaned back into the couch, playing with the striping on the arm of it.
“Don’t you want to know why his office is in his house, Ted?”
Ted didn’t say anything, just lazily leaning his head back against the wood paneling.
“Huh, Ted, don’t you want to know?”
Built in the 20s, my house was behind my lot, with commercial space in front. The commercial space, having looked it up in the records, had been a variety of things from a small chicken farm to a tire shop. I had to admit, it wasn’t much of a house—a small ranch with a one-car garage and no land, except for the lot.
I shut the door. I didn’t want Louise to overhear.
“I just think this kind of transaction should be done in private.” I put my wise face on—Wise Face #3, where I tilted my head slightly and looked at them down my nose with mostly my right eye. I found this effective in many situations. In fact, when Louise approached me about changing the brand of coffee that we used in the office, I always assumed this stance because I did not want to decaffeinate. Wise Face #3 was a tad more parochial than Wise Face #2, into which I let creep a little understanding, a little patience. Wise Face #3 indicated that I knew what I’m saying and it should be respected.
Ted nodded his head, an unexpected reaction. Clearly, one of them understood what was going on here. They had no collateral. They had no down payment. They wanted the American Dream and all they had was the baby.
“Did Louise see you bring that baby in?”
“Who?” Amy asked.
“The woman at the desk.”
Ted shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think she was in the bathroom.” Ted pursed his lips and scratched at his beard, his fingernails slightly yellow and worn down like an old person’s.
“So are you sure you want to use this baby as a down payment?”
“We can make another baby,” she said. “Easier than we can get some cash together.”
He nodded, being the kind who didn’t seem to say much. Maybe he didn’t have that much to say. Some people didn’t. They thought it. They rolled it around in their brains like a ball bearing in a pan, but they didn’t have the urge to say it.
“I could get in a lot of trouble for this,” I said, and I meant it. I could end up in jail, have my name splattered across the paper, and probably most of my friends wouldn’t understand at first. I could even lose my business, which, admittedly, wasn’t much, only a 10,000 square-foot lot with about forty used cars on it, most of them pieces of crap that weren’t much when I bought them. Hell, I might even lose Louise, who was one of the few things that got me out of bed in the morning, even if she ignored me most of the day so she could watch the talk shows while sitting behind the desk, not answering the phone that barely ever rang. I once tried to tell Louise how I felt. I brought her lunch. She liked submarine sandwiches from the place down the street, the sub shop, and she was surprised when she opened it up that I knew exactly what condiments she preferred and which she didn’t. There were no onions and extra tomatoes. She had said that even her husband didn’t know half the things I knew about her and we sat and ate our sandwiches around that old metal desk that I bought at the used office furniture store. I knew it wasn’t romantic, but it was the best lunch I’d had in a long time, even when we were not saying anything. She talked a little about her husband, Robert. I thought he was a frumpy little man who slouched so badly that he seemed half of his own height and had such a face of dough that it made a person want to knead it. Robert and Louise also never had children. Louise said she didn’t want to subject them to Robert’s depressive moods—Robert who just couldn’t take the world as it was—but I knew Louise liked kids. She wasn’t happily married, not with the kind of shit he pulled. When we were done eating, I cleaned up her plastic dish and paper. She thanked me, looked me in the eyes, and she knew what I had inside, but could only thank me again.
From her coat pocket, Amy brought out a folded, crumpled piece of paper. She opened it up and showed me a birth certificate for Amy Jr., identifying that they were the parents.
“In case you didn’t believe us,” she said. I didn’t say anything, but nodded. Solemn Gaze #2 inspired trust and hope and often encouraged the buyers to confide.
She thrust the birth certificate back into her pocket, dipping her head. She was a dirty blond with a crooked mouth. They both had crooked mouths. I wondered if it was what brought them together. I looked over at Amy Jr. She didn’t have a crooked mouth, not yet anyway. Maybe it was something that was genetic. When she would become thirteen, her skin would break out, her hair would turn greasy, and her mouth would suddenly grow crooked. That was the unknown possibility. These were the things that could happen in our lives—the unknown. Things suddenly changed in our lives and we had to be ready to deal with them, or we would be lost. That I believed in. That was why I keep the sign on my desk—“Shit Happens”—because that best summed up the sudden reversal of fate, which was a constant part of all our destinies.
I thought if I pushed them, eventually they’d start having doubt, especially Ted, who fussed over the baby. He couldn’t seem to keep his hands off her.
“Okay,” I said. “We have a deal. Let me draw up the paperwork.”
“Great,” she replied, seeming a little more at ease.
I did the paperwork. Ted played with the baby the entire time and Amy once leaned over and said, “You’re my good girl.” At the end, I handed them the keys to the Camaro.
“She’s all yours.”
Amy grabbed the keys and took Ted by the hand. I assumed Gesture #8, head up, arms crossed, and a smile on my face—the Gesture of Completeness that I usually assumed at the end of the sale to let the buyers know that all was well. It was a done deal and we both were happy and mutually benefited.
Ted looked down at Amy Jr., who was just sitting there. He bent down, leaning forward on one knee, and put both arms around her, not squeezing her because she was so small, but with arms more of an enclosure. Amy kissed her on the head, tousling her hair.
“Bye, baby,” she said and then they left.
The two of them crossed the lot, which was empty, since it was getting late in the afternoon and the sun was starting to decline. Ted got in the driver’s side and they roared out of the lot. Hell, I don’t even know if they looked back or not.
Amy Jr. was just sitting there content as could be. She looked as if she was falling asleep. I dug through her bag and found a couple pacifiers and empty milk bottles. I’d have to go to the store and pick her up some food.
I knew Ray Spirit, the captain of the Northeast Division of the LAPD. I’d gone to school with his sons, and he stopped in a couple times a week when things were slow and no one was being murdered. We’d have some coffee and shoot the shit about how the Kings were doing and how his son, Teddy, was a fucking loser and got his wife pregnant again—didn’t he know what the hell birth control was? I always gave Ray a good deal on his cars, so we were pretty tight. I’d tear up the paperwork and tell Ray that someone abandoned her here. She’d be taken away for awhile, but there was a good chance I’d eventually get her back, especially if Louise would look my way.
Little did Ted and Amy know that they got screwed on this deal. That Camaro was a piece of shit, but it was their loss. I looked at Amy Jr. with my Gesture #1, ultimate love. I turned it on her, shining it real bright, and she saw it and laughed. Louise walked in, we all looked at each other, and it was like the world exploded into colors that I’d always heard about, but finally saw for the first time ever.
Ron Burch’s novel, “Bliss Inc.,” was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles.