Just after ten in the morning, Tommy got out of bed, pulled on his jeans and stood at the window looking out onto the highway below. It was pouring rain, as usual, the sky was dark, and plumes of exhaust from the cars idling on the entrance ramp drifted past his view. He yawned, stared up at the ceiling, and admitted that, sadly, the world outside hadn’t grown any more appealing while he’d slept. His room was freezing cold. There had been no magic during the night.
Behind him, in a pile in the corner, lay a pair of muddy work boots and a tattered, orange reflector vest, and they all lay as he’d left them last week, when he’d sworn to himself never to put them on again. In the other corner, on top of a dilapidated chest of drawers, sat a box of charcoals, a few contè crayons and a small stack of drawings. Last night, he’d almost tossed all that shit out the window.
He fixed his hair back into a short ponytail, pulled on a sweatshirt and a faded denim jacket and sat on the edge of his bed counting the change in the Dollar Wise Hotel ashtray that sat beside the telephone. There was a dollar thirty in dimes and nickels and he decided on an egg roll at Jade Palace. He headed downstairs to see if there was any coffee left in the lobby.
Mohamed, the owner’s nephew, sat hunched over the little desk behind the reception counter reading the Koran. He wore sweat pants and running shoes and a thriftstore tweed jacket and was rocking slightly in his chair and mouthing the words as he read. Tommy stood and watched for a moment without speaking.
Mohamed was not old, indeed Tommy guessed he was younger than himself - perhaps early thirties - but he was so thin and bent that he seemed ancient, and as he stood there, it occurred to Tommy that Mohamed was so thin as to appear almost transparent; he thought that he could see the pattern of the wallpaper on the back wall right through his chest.
He shook his head for cobwebs.
"It’s freezing in here, man."
"Is there any coffee?"
"No! No coffee…Wake up earlier next time."
"It’s freezing in my room, Mohamed."
Mohamed looked up from the book and snarled. His breath blew pale green into the chilled air of the room and Tommy rubbed his eyes.
"Builds character. Good for you. If life is easy and warm all the time you forget about God…"
Tommy headed for the door.
"Rent’s due tomorrow!"
As he struggled out into the wind and the rain, he thought that what he would really like to do with the change in his pocket would be to walk down to the Exxon station and buy a Michelob. He couldn’t imagine, just then, that it could possibly matter how he spent his last dollar and thirty cents. But he sighed, and tried to force the thought from his mind, because for reasons that he sometimes had trouble recalling, it did matter. Booze was just out of the question. It had to be.
He indulged himself a moment more anyway, musing that a Camel filter would be nice as well. But again, it was out of the question. He had been sober for six months last Tuesday. And there had been those tiny black spots on the chest x-ray.
As he waited to cross the street, Tommy noticed a bright red Ferrari parked a few spaces down the block. It looked brand new; indeed, it seemed to his sleepy eyes to be radiating in the otherwise dim, dull light. And it also looked very out of place. He couldn’t imagine what sort of business would bring the owner of such a car to this part of town. There was a figure behind the windshield, but it was difficult to see through the downpour. A man. On a cell phone, maybe. Tommy pulled his jacket up over his head and dashed across the street.
Inside the Jade Palace, it smelled like rancid oil and felt like a greenhouse, with steam pouring from the woks and boiling vats and spilling through the window in the Plexiglas partition. There was incense burning on a shelf by the cash register, and a small shrine, painted red and gold, was decorated with tangerines and trays of coins. Behind the glass, Mrs. Zhao, with her birth-marked face and wispy black mustache, was balanced on a battered stool, pounding away on a calculator. The woman’s red, round visage always reminded Tommy of an exotic goldfish and when he stepped to the counter she looked up, frowning.
"What you want?"
"One egg roll please"
"Egg roll, egg roll, always the same – cheapskate! Wasting my time! Why don’t you order Happy Family or Crispy Duck?"
He held out his hand to show her his change but she had already turned and was shuffling towards the deep fryer. She grabbed a frozen egg roll from the cooler and tossed it into the grease, disgustedly.
Back outside, the rain seemed to blow in every direction at once. He would get soaked trying to make it back to the hotel, so he dashed underneath a bus shelter, sat on the metal bench, and began eating, trying to ignore the exhaust smell flavoring his food. Someone called to him and he looked up with a packet of hot mustard between his teeth. The voice was coming from the Ferrari, now directly across from him, and the man inside was leaning out the passenger’s side window motioning to him. Tommy pointed to his chest and the man nodded, waving him over.
What is this about?
He walked over in spite of himself, noticing that the rain had momentarily faded to a drizzle, and when he bent down at the car window, he noticed the smell of leather right away. The car was nicer than his room, and warmer, and cleaner. And he noticed the man.
His linen suit was ivory and he wore it over a pale yellow shirt. He had on loafers the color of cappuccino. He was foreign but Tommy couldn’t immediately decide from where; he had never been good with accents. The man seemed Latin, but more in manner than actual appearance. He was well tanned, slim, and had dark glossy hair, conservatively cut. Tommy noticed manicured nails and a gold ring with a red stone.
The man popped the passenger’s door.
"It’s raining…why don’t you get in?"
Naturally, Tommy didn’t budge.
He wasn’t stupid. Jesus.
"I’m not getting into your car, man."
He guessed the guy was trying to pick him up but it seemed strange because it was ten in the morning and that kind of thing really didn’t go on in this neighborhood anyway. The man smiled, pulled an umbrella from behind his seat and handed it through the window. Tommy took it but didn’t open it
"I know that this must seem odd…" The man stopped and looked off - as if he were trying to decide something - and then turned back towards Tommy, "but I wondered if you might like to have this car?"
The man smiled again. It was an easy smile, full of perfect teeth.
"I am well aware that this seems unusual. I realize that it is not everyday that someone stops a stranger and offers to give him an expensive car but…this is what I would like to do."
The man glanced over Tommy’s shoulder as a bus pulled up at the shelter.
"I’m sorry, am I keeping you from your bus?"
Tommy didn’t look back.
"I wasn’t waiting on the bus."
But hold on…
He blinked his eyes and he realized that he felt very strange all of the sudden.
Wait a minute…
He was leaning through the window, his hand resting on the doorframe and he realized that he felt weirdly sleepy. He thought he might be listing to one side, and there was a warm feeling in his limbs and he felt his eyelids drooping. He tried to speak but he laughed instead, and when he did, he thought his voice sounded stupid, like he was drunk. He wondered if he was being hypnotized.
It’s the sound of the man’s voice.
The egg roll slipped from his hand and rolled into the storm drain and Tommy tried to focus his eyes. He tried to focus on the man and on his smile, and on his long fingers and on the smell of his cologne. He felt like he might fall down, and he tried to raise his hands to his face.
And then it was gone. Just like that.
He shook his head and cleared his throat. The man was watching him, still smiling.
Tommy tapped his temples and blinked. He was fine.
"You want to give me your Ferrari? That’s pretty funny..."
"I’m completely serious."
The man enunciated every word precisely.
Tommy had always had a particular aversion to feeling conned, and this was ridiculous. He laughed and started to move back from the car.
"You don’t want it?"
Tommy peered back inside the car and, for a moment, by the puzzled look on the man’s face, he thought, Maybe this guy’s serious.
But no, come on…
"You want to give me your brand new car? A stranger, you want to give a stranger your Ferrari?"
The man smiled and nodded and Tommy couldn’t think what to say. He frowned and coughed.
"What, is it stolen or something?"
"No, I bought it just a few weeks ago."
He still didn’t know what to say. He shoved his hands down in his pockets and looked up and down the street and squinted down at the man.
"So…what’s wrong with it?"
Slowly and deliberately, the man removed a gold case from his jacket pocket and took out an unfiltered cigarette. He lit it, took a drag, and smiled. Tommy watched jealously as a trail of smoke curled out from the man’s nostril.
"There’s nothing wrong with it that I know of. You see, it’s difficult for me to explain…" he looked thoughtfully out the driver’s side window, "…I know how odd this seems to you, I know this is very hard to understand, but…I don’t know how to put it more simply: I saw you sitting across the street and I thought to myself, That young man looks rather down, depressed…and the thought occurred to me…what a crazy thing it would be…."
He stopped again and then he smiled and clapped his hands, "I thought, what a wonderful thing! I will give this man my car!"
Tommy stared. He had no idea what to say to this guy.
The man opened the glove compartment in the car, took out a small leather binder emblazoned with the Ferrari logo, and removed a set of papers, holding them up.
"This is the title…" and pointing down the block to a hardware store, "…and I believe I saw a Notary Public sign on that store."
In the store, an old lady was listening to a gospel station on the radio. The matter was explained and, seeming completely disinterested, she notarized the sale without question. As she signed the forms, Tommy noticed what seemed to be a large tumor, the size of a golf ball, affixed to the back of her neck and he shuddered in spite of himself.
They turned to leave and the woman shouted behind them, "What the Hell! You think I do this for free?"
The man pulled a billfold from his trousers, "Pardon me madame, I completely…"
"Three dollars!" the old woman shrieked.
A moment later he sat behind the wheel of the bright red Ferrari and watched the man, whose name he had forgotten to ask, walk to the corner and disappear into a cab.
Initially, he had followed his first impulse; he had started the car and pulled into traffic, thinking he would jump on the expressway and see what it was like to drive a Ferrari. As he drove, he kept looking around the interior and saying, "Fucking Ferrari! Fucking unbelievable!" But less then a quarter of a mile down the road he noticed all the traffic; the other cars were flying by, seemingly within inches, the rain had returned and was nearly blinding him, and his knuckles went white around the wheel.
What the fuck am I doing?
He took the next exit and parked as quickly as he could, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. He sat there thinking he might hyperventilate.
What was I thinking?
What he was thinking was that he was sitting in a very expensive car, the value of which exceeded - probably by a long shot - his combined income over the past few years, and that – for the moment – it was uninsured. He restarted the ignition and backed into a space farther away from the other cars in the lot. He got out and stood looking at it, his hand’s on his hips.
In the McDonalds, he ordered a coffee and sat by the window, keeping an eye on the car. He tried to clear his mind.
The absurdity of the past two hours was not lost on him. Come tomorrow, unless he came up with a hundred and eighty five bucks for the Dollar Wise, he was out of a place to stay, and now he owned a brand new sports car. The question, then, was not when or if to sell the car, but rather where and how quickly.
For the first time since the transaction, Tommy realized what had happened. For all practical purposes, he had won the lottery. He headed out the door and across the parking lot to a payphone.
Autos, Autos…Customizing, Damage Appraisals, Dealers. Dealers – Used cars.
Wheel City…Lester’s Thrifty Ride… Jalopy Junction…
Volevich Previously Owned Luxury Motorcars – Import and Domestic.
The place was only ten minutes away and he drove very slowly and very carefully. When he pulled up he was pleased to see several newer model Mercedes and a couple of BMWs parked behind the chain link fence and – even more encouraging – the only other car in front was a banana yellow Corvette with a license plate reading POLAK. He pumped his fist and took a few deep breaths.
He rang the bell beside the front door and, after a moment, he was buzzed in.
Phil Volevich sat in his office, in a black vinyl swivel chair, framed by a large picture window that looked out, through half opened blinds, onto a back lot filled with cars. Behind him on the wall, to either side of the window, hung two framed prints – the Virgin and St. Francis - and there was a large crucifix nailed above the water cooler in the corner.
Tommy’s first impression was that this was the fattest man he had ever seen in person, he guessed three fifty, four hundred pounds, easy. He appeared to be in his sixties, his skin looked rubbery and gray and he wore enormous glasses with thick lenses and a slight green tint. A few strands of dyed black hair were painted back across his head and there was a thick gold chain around his neck.
Tommy stood without speaking for a moment and then pointed back over his shoulder.
"I have a…car, I thought you might want to take a look at."
Phil took a sip from his chocolate SlimFast and licked his lips. He spoke with a thick accent that Tommy couldn’t place.
"Oh yeah, what ya’ got there kiddo?"
Phil chuckled and the flesh below his chin shook.
"You do buy used cars, don’t you? I saw the ad and…"
"Yes, yes, Ok my friend, let’s take a look. Ferrari, huh?"
Phil struggled out of the chair and waddled towards the front, and as he reached the door, spotting the car parked beside his Corvette, his hand froze on the doorknob. He started to speak but then stopped. He glanced back at Tommy and then stepped outside into the rain.
Tommy watched from inside as the man walked around the Ferrari. He watched as Phil peered into the interior and squatted beside the tires. He was getting drenched but didn’t seem to notice. He came back inside, water running down his neck and disappearing below his collar. He eyed Tommy and smiled.
"All right, my friend, I did not step off the boat from Gdansk yesterday. Tell me how you come to have a brand new Maranello 550 and how it is you come in here wanting to sell it, hmmm?"
He realized this might be tricky.
Phil listened to the story and nodded and finished off another SlimFast, and after running out of things to say Tommy sat with his hands in his lap, wishing he had a cigarette.
Phil widened his eyes and shrugged.
"That is a very amazing story, my friend, yes, but…well, as you can see… I am only a small businessman, not used to dealing with such luxury. I wonder, hmmm…I wonder how much money you would expect for such an automobile."
Phil coughed and a patch of sweat blossom on his forehead.
He had picked the number almost randomly. He had no real idea how much the car was worth but he expected that this was so far below its actual value to negate any need for bargaining, which he very much wanted to avoid.
He wanted this to be quick and easy. For reasons that he couldn’t quite explain, he really wanted the money today.
He looked at the clock on Phil’s desk: it was almost two in the afternoon.
Phil opened a door onto the lot behind the office and called to an old black guy and a Puerto Rican kid, both hunched underneath the hood of a silver Audi.
"Julio! Javier! "
The man and the kid shuffled into the office, both wearing blue jumpsuits and both wiping their hands on blackened rags. After receiving Tommy’s approval, Phil made a copy of the title and the bill of sale and instructed Julio to take it down to the DMV and get it checked out. In the meantime, the two of them went out front and stood silently as Javier inspected the engine of the Ferrari.
It was just after four o’clock when Tommy and Phil Volevich shared a cab to National Bank and Trust and on the way Tommy remembered that he had forgotten one important detail.
"Mr. Volevich, I’m not sure how you usually handle transactions like this but…I would like the money in cash."
"What! Cash? Forty grand in cash you want?"
"Yes, I…I don’t have a bank…I mean I don’t use banks…I…"
He really didn’t want to have to get into all of this.
"Yes…well," shrugging his fat shoulders, "I guess so…cash."
At the bank, Tommy waited in the lobby and Phil, after exchanging a few words with a teller, disappeared into a back office. After ten minutes, Tommy watched two security guards and a teller, carrying a small cloth bag, enter the office and then Phil reappeared, waving him over.
Inside the office of the President, he handed over the keys and the title, signed a couple of papers and was handed a bag with forty thousand dollars inside.
He emptied the money onto the desk and as he stood looking at it he felt a curious heat glowing in his fingertips and toes. As he requested, half was in twenties, banded together in four fat stacks, and there were four slim stacks of hundreds. He counted one of the stacks of hundreds and smiled. Phil coughed and Tommy returned the money to the bag, shook Phil’s hand and – for some reason – the hands of the teller and the security guard as well, and walked out of the bank into the rain.
At nine in the evening, he sat in The Boulevard Steakhouse finishing his cappuccino and pushing the last bite of cheesecake back and forth across his plate. He had walked around the city for almost two hours, dazed, the bag of cash under his arm, until he had decided to stop for dinner. He had mulled over his prospects while he ate. He had tried to decide on what course of action to take.
Certainly the wisest thing to do, he told himself, was to take the cash to a bank first thing tomorrow morning, open an account, and then look for an apartment. The money would buy him some time; time to find a new job, a decent job. He knew there were creditors that he would be forced to pay off, once this money appeared on their computer screens, and that would make a sizable dent in his newfound wealth - but he supposed it was the right thing to do.
This is a chance to get back on my feet, to make a fresh start. That’s what he told himself as he carved into his Porterhouse.
The waiter stood beside him.
"Would you care for anything else sir? A cognac perhaps?"
Tommy stared blankly at the man. A cognac, he thought.
"No. No thank you, just the check."
The waiter walked away with a limp and Tommy gazed back out the window. And just then the idea struck him. He pulled a hundred dollar bill from the stack in his pocket, tossed it on the table and ran out the door onto the sidewalk.
Tommy had never been to Europe.
Although he had been an artistically minded teenager and listened to alternative music and gone to see foreign films, he had never followed that up with the traveling that was typical of his peers at the time. During his first and only year of art school, his interests had quickly shifted away from painting and collage and more towards vodka and cocaine, and in the twenty odd years that followed, alcoholism and drug addiction had taken up most of his time. The fact that he had never left the States embarrassed him and he had always lied about it – back in the days when the subject still came up.
Sure, I’ve been to Spain, of course…
Yeah, Tokyo’s great…
He ran to the corner, hailed the first cab he saw and directed the cabbie to the airport, but after a few blocks he jerked up in his seat and changed his request: First he had to go back to the Dollar Wise.
Outside the hotel he paid the amount on the meter and asked the guy to wait. He burst through the lobby and leapt up the two flights of stairs to his room. He could hear Mohamed shouting something from below. His hands shook as he unlocked his door.
Pulling a small suitcase from underneath the bed, he dumped the contents out onto the mattress and began rummaging frantically through the piles of papers and old photographs, and when he finally found his passport and checked the date, seeing that it was still valid, he sat on the bed and nearly wept.
He looked around the room sadly. He looked at all his things.
He thought: it’s all really just a bunch of junk.
He took his overcoat from the nail on the door, picked out a couple of photographs from the pile on the bed, stashed the box of charcoals in his pocket, and bounded out of the room.
Traffic was heavy, the rain was pounding the roof of the cab, and Tommy leaned his head against the window, allowing his plan - his plan to leave the country - to evolve in his mind. He wondered where he would go exactly and he wondered if he would ever return. Specifically, he wondered why he ever would.
Watching the blank faces in the cars around him, he considered, rather sadly, the mess he’d made of his life over the past two decades and he wondered if forty thousand dollars was enough to patch it up. He doubted that it was. He had fucked-up on both coasts and a few places in between, with more broken leases and bounced checks than he could count and he had grown to feel that the country itself held a certain, general contempt for him now. There were no friends left, no couches to sleep on, no acquaintances who trusted him. There was nothing really. Or, at least, he couldn’t think of anything.
It was ten-thirty when he arrived at the airport, and the terminal seemed strangely deserted. There was Musak playing, some porters standing here and there, and a few guys in suits hurrying by, talking into their cell-phones. Tommy found a bathroom, emptied the bank bag, and arranged the stacks of cash in the pockets of his overcoat. He put ten thousand in hundreds in each of the front pockets of his jeans.
There was nobody in line at ticketing and when he approached the agent, Tommy thought he might have woken the man up. He took a deep breath, trying to relax the muscles in his face, and he rested his hands, clasped together, on the counter.
"I’d like a ticket for London please."
The man, his fingers hovering above his keyboard and the blue screen reflecting in his glasses spoke in a soft monotone, "And when will you be traveling to London, sir?"
"Tonight, I…would like to travel to London tonight."
The man shifted from one foot to the other.
"Our next flight for the UK departs tomorrow morning at seven thirty."
Tommy hadn’t expected any sort of delay.
"Hmmm. Well, I was hoping, I was really wanting to leave this evening, I…"
The clock on the wall behind the ticket counter showed it was just after eleven. He rapped his knuckles on the counter and stared at the man.
"What about Paris?"
"Yeah, do you have a flight tonight for Paris…France?"
"Now you wish to go to France, sir?"
The man’s fingers scrambled around the keys and Tommy watched glowing lines of type flash across his lenses.
"Our next flight for Paris leaves at nine sixteen…" he looked up, "…in the morning, sir."
Tommy’s head dropped down. This just didn’t fit into his plans somehow. He looked up and grimaced, wracking his brain.
"Tomorrow morning, sir."
"Let’s see…." he snapped his fingers, "Amsterdam!"
He wrung his hands and the man looked into his monitor.
"There is, sir, an Alitalia flight leaving for Rome at eleven fifty five this evening. I can book it for you if you…"
Tommy looked up and a smile spread across his face.
The plane had started boarding a few minutes prior to his arrival and when he entered he could see a scattering of people towards the back. He took his seat. There was no one else in first class. He fastened his seatbelt, folded his hands in his lap, and sat smiling.
A stewardess appeared from behind him.
"Good evening sir."
He looked up. The woman was quite beautiful and he blinked. She was tall and slim and darkly tanned, and she had glossy black hair that hung to the base of her neck. Her lips were full and glistened red - like rubies, he thought - and his hand rose, involuntarily, as if he might touch her mouth. He stopped himself and swallowed.
She handed him a small leather folder and he accepted it, still staring at her.
"The wine list, sir. I thought you might like to begin thinking about a wine with dinner."
He nodded without speaking. Her voice was soft and resonant and richly accented. The woman smiled and Tommy felt the blood rush to his head.
He suddenly felt very woozy and he laughed.
The woman laughed as well but he wasn’t sure why.
He could smell her perfume and he imagined roses or gardenias.
When she spoke, her breath…there was a scent like…something he couldn’t place…fresh cherries or…
His eyes closed.
He could smell red wine. He was warm and comfortable and his ears his ears felt hot. The muscles in his arms and legs slackened.
When he reopened his eyes she was gone.
Turning towards the window, he saw that they had taken off. He shook his head and absentmindedly flipped through the wine list.
The stewardess returned to his side a moment later and the air around his head was again filled with her perfume.
She smiled and giggled and he again felt faint.
"It has been a hard day for you perhaps?"
He sat up in his chair and gripped the armrests, trying to compose himself.
She pouted and wagged a slender finger with a long, blood red nail at
Tommy turned towards the window. The space outside was pitch black, and when he touched the surface of the glass it felt cold. Far below, soon to disappear behind the wing of the plane, he could see the twinkling white lights of the city. He could just make out the coastline, still barely illuminated, and then beyond that, there was nothing but the darkness of the ocean. The continent was slowly receding behind him.
Inside the pockets of his overcoat he clutched the stacks of bills. He closed his eyes and sighed, and then looked back towards the stewardess.
"Yes. I would like a martini, please. Gin."
She pulled a silver case and lighter from the pocket of her crisp black uniform, removed a single cigarette and offered it to him.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/pearre.html]
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