From Chapter II
It was a strange feeling, going back home. For most people, home is their primary identifier, the answer to the single most-asked question when you first meet someone: “So, where are you from?” My working theory is that people ask that question so they can put you into a box that makes sense for them. To the small-minded, for instance, everyone from New York might as well be loud, in your face, and root for the Yankees. People need their boxes – and you’d better fit into one, or they don’t know what to do with you.
Sitting at the airport bar, I contemplated the gamut of scenarios before formulating my response. My top choice was to ignore the middle-aged man adjacent. Still, I decided tempered politeness would extricate me from the conversation the quickest, with the added benefit of preventing a confrontation.
“So, where are you flying to, then?”
“Charlotte. Just got in.”
“What are you doing at the bar? The exit is right over there.”
The stranger chuckled to himself before taking another swig of his drink.
Collin Brantmeyer lives in Longmont with his wife and son. He has a B.A. in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Death of a Car Salesman” is his first novel.
“I’m not in much of a hurry.”
“Charlotte, huh? The city of transplants? You must be the only person actually from here.”
“Something like that.”
He seemed to have taken the hint, since he abruptly stopped asking questions, but I could tell he was debating whether to say anything more, swirling his drink on the bar’s well-worn wooden surface. The ice cubes eddied in the gin and tonic with that perfect clanking sound. My throat felt dry as I pondered my own drink – a lukewarm cup of subpar decaf coffee. I considered swiping through the alcoholic options at my drink station but thought better of it.
My chance convive tilted his glass at a ninety-degree angle and downed the rest of his gin and tonic. In what I believed to be an act of passive aggression, he set his glass on the bar a little too firmly, smacked his gums together and departed for the gate, glaring at me all the while. It must have been a stiff drink – or for him, anyway.
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The real question, in fact, the only question people should ask is, “How did you get here?” That question elicits a far more interesting response.
At that point, the news of Big Al’s death had spread to media outlets across the country. I noticed the local CBS affiliate, WBTV, was running a special segment about Big Al on one of the TV screens mounted above the bar. I glanced down the length of the bar to see if anyone was watching. They weren’t; people were either glued to their phones or checking out the array of baseball games on the other TVs.
The closed captioning allowed me to get a sense of the mood, as the female field reporter stood dutifully, mic in hand, in front of that all-too-familiar car dealership. She was lauding him as the “legendary, wacky car salesman,” famous for his over-the-top late-night TV ads, who had sold more than one million cars across the country during his lifetime. The segment then cut to quick, reaction-style interviews of a few locals, all of whom testified to Big Al being a “great guy.”
It had always astounded me that the public held Big Al in such high regard, never seeming to realize that he made millions upon millions of dollars off them. The news segment ended with a soundbite from my dopey nephew, Luke Washington, in a Halloweenish cowboy costume, mentioning that he would be “carrying on Big Al’s legacy” as the new owner and general manager of Washington Ford. This was followed by that awkward pause, ubiquitous in local newscasts, when the reporter “live on the scene,” isn’t sure whether the video is finished or quite how to sign off and send it “back to Paul and Maureen in the studio.”
Unable to endure the newsroom banter about Big Al as an “institution in the city” or the “king of late-night advertising,” or whatever platitudes the anchor team could muster, I took one last sip of my uninspiring coffee, gathered my belongings and headed to baggage claim. What I really wondered was why the media continued to give Big Al’s misdeeds a pass, even in death. In this particular story, there hadn’t been a single mention of the messy affairs, the numerous lawsuits, the fraud allegations. I wasn’t surprised, merely disappointed.
No one in my family had the decency to call me, so Larry had been assigned the task. Larry – a.k.a. Larry the Lion – was Big Al’s right-hand man for nearly forty years. He always referred to himself as the “Black Tom Hagen,” a reference to Robert Duvall’s character from The Godfather – never officially adopted, but arguably held in higher esteem than the biological Corleone children. Every Thanksgiving, Big Al would retell the story of the day he “found Larry.” It went something like this: Larry, accompanied by his mother, went shopping for a used car shortly after graduation from law school. By sheer coincidence, Big Al needed a lawyer to handle his ever-expanding business, and he offered Larry the job, right then and there. He even threw in a gently used Ford Mercury for good measure, albeit with a few bumps and scrapes (cue the big laughs from around the dining table). Personally, I found it more nauseating than those “how they met” couple stories.
For some unknown reason, Larry had told me not to book a return flight just yet. When I pressed him, he muttered that he would talk to me in person “regarding the matter.” Tell me in person? Was Larry paranoid enough to think someone was listening to the conversation? Or maybe he thought I wouldn’t be able to process the news?
Now outside the terminal, on the curb with my roller bag, the North Carolina humidity immediately stifled my senses. One by one, people got into self-driving cars, scanning their phone on the passenger door just beneath the handle. By the time I’d reached the front of the line, I had programmed my destination into the app. When the car stopped in front of me, I held my phone under the barcode scanner, and voilà, I was good to go. It wasn’t difficult to see why Washington Ford had been struggling, I thought as I tossed my bags into the seat and climbed in after them. People in cities don’t need cars anymore, now that it’s become cheaper, more efficient, and safer to be driven around by a computer. Or who knows – maybe Big Al is right, and it’s just a phase?
I once heard someone describe Charlotte as “the city that always sleeps,” and it is mostly true. The city had never had much of a nightlife, since its citizens were tucked away in their suburban homes by seven o’clock. So, the traffic was light as the car made its way around I-485, a seventy-mile loop that circles the city. The infamous highway took nearly thirty years to complete, and shortly after the project finally finished, the city realized it didn’t have enough lanes to adequately serve the growing population. An expansion project was outsourced, which resulted in a toll lane. And when that finally wrapped up, autonomous cars were being rolled out and traffic had subsided. The whole process exemplifies Charlotte in a nutshell; never-ending sprawl managed by ineffective leadership.
Larry put me up in a Marriott Courtyard right across the street from a bar, with a flashing “TOPLESS” sign in red neon. I figured that he didn’t want me anywhere near the W. Ranch, Big Al’s thousand-acre property on the outskirts of south Charlotte, but I expected something slightly more upscale than a hotel that shared an exit with a strip club.
The hotel’s automatic doors opened as I approached and made my way to the check-in counter, where the front desk person appeared to be missing. Perhaps, they went home for the night? I checked my phone; it was only 9 p.m. Maybe hiding in the back room? I rang the desk bell, but it was a monitor that rose in response, slowly, from beneath the granite countertop. It greeted me with a soothing female voice.
“Hello. Are you checking in?”
“Uh, yes. The reservation is under Washington.”
“Terrific. Thank you, Miss Washington. How many keys would you like for your stay?” “Just one.”
After placing my fingerprint on the directed spot, the monitor spat out a keycard along with a printed guide to the layout and amenities of the hotel. I remembered reading about a few hotel chains laying off massive numbers of their guest-facing employees, but I hadn’t seen it in person, since technology was always slow to reach Alaska.
“I hope you enjoy your stay with us, and don’t forget to take a cookie.”
Sure enough, a transparent jar of double chocolate chip cookies appeared through another retractable surface on the countertop. Do I really trust this cookie? Who could have even made it, and when? I grabbed two. Still warm. After the first bite, I could confidently call it the best cookie I have ever had.
The room was fairly standard: queen-size bed, desk, office chair, and a mini-fridge. I tossed my bags on the bed. It was a little concerning that the mattress didn’t give an inch despite fifty pounds of clothes and shoes testing its durability. I placed both hands on the edge of the bed and pushed down with my full body weight. The mattress still didn’t budge. As I unpacked a few things, I couldn’t help but notice a persistent, low-frequency hum in the room. Of course – the mini-fridge, its silver key suspended from the lock, taunting me. Daring me to open it. It’s okay if you have one drink. Your father just died. You need to grieve, even if he was a bonafide asshole. The blast of chilled air from the fridge was more than welcome on a balmy summer’s evening. Inside, there was an assortment of sodas, bottled water, a few snacks – but no alcohol in sight. Atop the fridge, I found a placard that listed the prices of each item. Sure enough, in bold font, it read, “Non-alcoholic Room.” Thanks, Larry, for looking out for me. You prick. Realistically, I could have walked across the street to the topless bar to score some oxy or at the very least, a drink, but I figured I would rather be sober than play the “Who is More Depressing?” game – the single mother of two, trying to make a living, or a forty-year old dirtbag who told his wife he was working late? I’d rather not run into either of them. So instead, I turned on the TV and took every single item out of the mini-bar, knowing full well that Larry would have to foot the bill. After eating enough chocolate to make my stomach turn, I fell asleep to a local “Breaking News!” report that Charlotte police were investigating the death of Big Al Washington as a possible homicide.
Published by Ready Demolition Books, 2020
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