On the phone, the man had struck me as not uncomfortable with English. Was I the guy who’d advertised a used car for sale? Was it still available? Could he come by to see it? Despite his jagged accent, he seemed more or less proficient. But now that he was standing here, scuffing his feet in my driveway, I sensed he comprehended close to nothing. Asked if my directions had been clear enough, he shrugged. The car’s condition—just as I’d described? Another shrug. Mostly he just smiled at me with a Buddhist’s calm detachment, as if from heights of enlightenment beyond my feeble reach. How odd, I thought, that he could grasp so little yet seem so knowing.
Maybe the call had been an act he’d rigorously rehearsed, akin to how I’ve faked my way through taxi rides in Paris, brandishing the handful of French phrases I’ve burnished smooth. Or maybe on the phone it had been a different man, a helpful friend with better English, standing in for him.
He had the soiled but tidy look of an old-time factory hand: his trimly tucked shirt showed an acne of oily stains; his hair was cut boyishly, layered on the sides, but clotted at its ends in thick, tar-like tufts, as if he’d shampooed with creosote. An honestly earned grubbiness, I thought with a kind of envy.
“What country are you from?” I asked.
He grinned. “Guatemala.”
Normally, I might have said, “My dad’s a Latin Americanist!” or bragged of having gone to Costa Rica; I might have tried to wow him with my almost-passable Spanish. At twenty-one, with an Ivy League degree hot in my hands, I was a pro at small-talk-as-grandstanding. But something about his workman’s looks, his halting comprehension, made me too self-conscious to show off. Plus, the week before, I’d bungled a similar situation, and feared making a fool of myself again.
I asked his name.
“Juan?” I said.
I’d taken a sociology course called “Prejudice and Oppression,” and wondered if John had felt forced to squelch his true identity, Anglicizing his name to ward off insult or suspicion. I yearned to say, “I’m on your side. Be proud of who you are!” but I kept my presumptuousness in check.
John got busy looking at the car, doing all the mysteriously authoritative things men do when they evaluate machines. He tickled something that popped the hood, then leaned into its maw: he was in then out, in then out, with intimidating speed, a lion tamer showing the beast he’d be the boss. He sauntered around the body, brushing it with his fingertips, phrenologically reading its dents and bumps. He hunkered near the tires as if they’d whisper him their secrets.
Exam concluded, he asked his only question: “How long it’s yours?”
“How long?” I said. I mustered a chummy laugh. “Long enough?”
I wondered if he understood my joke, or its evasion, but surely he knew a used-car salesman always fudged his story. In fact, the car had been in my possession all of three weeks. Also, it didn’t exactly belong to me.
I wasn’t generally in the habit of selling things I didn’t own, but what had happened was this:
My boyfriend, Chris, and I, after our recent graduation, worked at a summer camp in Vermont. Days before camp ended, as we were readying to relocate to Northampton, Massachusetts, my old Ford pickup’s transmission conked out. I’d bought the heap two years ago from a geriatric farmer, paying only three hundred bucks, and had pushed my luck by nursing it this long.
Coincidentally, the camp director—a stand-up guy named Dave—had just bought a sleek, showroom-fresh Subaru wagon but hadn’t yet traded in his long-abused old model. “Take it,” he said. “Use it till you get yourself set up. Then sell it. Send me what you make.”
I’d have wheels, and Dave would avoid the bother: win-win.
Chris and I arrived in Northampton without jobs or, to be honest, much sense of the sort of jobs we’d like. All I knew was that I wanted to be a writer. I already had a couple of what I considered winningly hard-nosed short stories in mind to write based on real-life stories I’d heard: one about a woman at a stud farm who masturbates stallions for a living, another about a man so fat the cops have to cut him out of his bedroom.
This was 1990, when “dirty realism” was the rage. I worried that my own life—I grew up rich, in the suburbs—was too squeaky clean to ring with realness. What I’d have to do, I thought, was go out into the grungy world and borrow other people’s hard truths. Wasn’t that what my role models, Orwell and Steinbeck, had done? Orwell had scrubbed dishes in a Paris hotel’s putrid basement kitchen; Steinbeck had hit the road alongside Dust Bowl refugees.
It makes me want to chuckle now, and also want to slug myself in the eye, that I imagined leafy, lefty Northampton might bring me closer to the grit I thought I longed for. Chris and I had chosen the town for its progressive atmosphere (two years later, in a notorious National Enquirer article, it would be nicknamed “Lesbianville, USA”) and because we had a couple of friends there who needed housemates. The four of us went in together on a little Spartan two-bedroom cottage. I liked our modest neighborhood: not too far from the fire station, or the Bluebonnet, a classic ’50s diner. Our back fence abutted a Stop & Shop parking lot, from which the roar of delivery trucks, annoying though it was, sounded like a summons to adventure.
The morning after we settled in, I marched downtown in search of a seedy restaurant to toil in. Hard to get more man-of-the-people than waiting tables, I figured, and (as Orwell’s story showed) restaurants were teeming with sordid drama. Waiters’ hours would leave me mornings free to do “my” work.
“I only just graduated from college,” I explained.
“Huh,” she said. “Well, here.” She gave me an application.
I filled it out. Then, seeing how much blank space I’d had to leave, I added parenthetically, in the section for Education, “Double major in English and Religion.”
I left and went down Main Street to a bunch of other spots—pizza place, hole-in-the-wall Chinese—gaining confidence with every application I completed, as though they were standardized tests I’d aced.
That week, as I waited, I tried to start my story about the stallion masturbator—mulling over synonyms for various demeaning acts—but each day my concentration was broken by the sound of the phone not ringing. Halfway into the morning, I’d ditch my pale paragraphs and walk to Stop & Shop for the paper, then sit on our porch and study the Help Wanteds. None of the positions seemed to fit. How could being a warehouse watchman or a Laundromat attendant give me fodder for a saga of hard knocks? I was willing to put up with a certain degree of drudgery, but couldn’t it be a bit more dramatic?
Afternoons, I’d sink into the borrowed beater Subaru, and drive myself literally to distraction: the smear of passing scenery cleared my mind. Summer was holding on by a thread, the cornfields dark and ready, the sky so sky blue it resembled nothing but itself.
Then one day, as I drove across the restless Connecticut River, the car gave out a pitiful creak that shot up through my feet. Or maybe I imagined the feeling: a twinge of premonition. I beelined home and parked the car, vowing to leave it idle, lest it meet its end on my watch. I’d list it in the classifieds right away.
Chris was in the mudroom, about to walk to his new job as a prep cook at a music club downtown.
I asked if there were messages.
“Nope,” he said.
“Why don’t you call them,” he said. “Squeaky wheel gets the grease.” He pecked me on the cheek and headed out.
I looked up the number of the first place I’d applied to, mentally loading arrows into my quiver. I’m a quick study; I’m good at math, so I could help with the books. Bubbly with self-belief, I dialed the phone.
“Ah,” the manager said. “That’s right. The college boy.”
“Now, look,” I said. I felt my carbonation going flat. “I know my background’s maybe not the usual for your waiters. But if you’re worried I’m overqualified, I can assure you that—”
Her laugh was so sharp it stung against my cheek. “Overqualified?” she said. “You think I’d ever hire someone with zero food-service experience?”
Before I could find a comeback, she hung up.
And so it was Chris, later that night, as we were nearing sleep, at whom I aimed the thought that finally came: “If you can’t get a waiting job without having had a waiting job, how does anyone ever get their start?”
He looked at me as though I were a guileless child, and he were a doctor promising that his needle would only pinch. “How do you think they do it?” he said. “They lie.”
Two weeks later, and here I was, urging John to get behind the wheel. I climbed in on the passenger side, and watched as he efficiently checked the headlights, the high beams, the hazards. Sitting there together, toggling switches but going nowhere, we could have been playing at adulthood. I had to stifle the urge to say, “Vroom!”
Then he held his hand out, fingers pinched together, and pantomimed the turning of a key.
“Right,” I said. “Want to hear how she runs?”
She. Who was I fooling with my average-Joe locution?
The car hadn’t been started since the day it made that awful creak, but when John turned the ignition, the engine gamely growled. I flashed him a thumbs-up, hoping he’d flash one back.
He just grinned his knowing grin, and said, “Okay? We go?”
“Go?” I said. “Go where?”
He pointed to the street.
“Oh, you mean a test drive? Of course.”
Before I could buckle my seat belt, John had slammed back out of the driveway, found first gear and pounced onto the road.
Through our quiet neighborhood he squealed at madcap speed. “Whoa,” I said, intending to chide, but it came out as a cheer. “Whoa ho ho.” I braced against the footwell.
John paid no attention to me. He turned right, then right again, onto a bigger road.
“Got some good years left in her,” I said, patting the dashboard, trying to sound the way a salesman should. “She’s only been a country car, you know? In the mountains?” My hands fluttered, suggesting the shapes of peaks.
Now I saw that John was headed straight for the highway on-ramp. “The Interstate,” I warned him. “Understand? Big highway? Fast?”
Doggedly he nodded. “Yes. Fast!”
Up we zipped onto 91 and darted into traffic, gravity hurling my guts against my spine. John drove nimbly, switching lanes, overtaking semis. The speedometer tipped past seventy, seventy-five.
I wanted to ask him to slow down, but the words caught in my throat. An immigrant with scant language skills, a humble low-wage worker (or so his grease-stained clothes had made me think): surely his life was filled with guys like me saying, “Don’t.”
Also, he might guess I feared the car would fall apart.
“Wow,” I said, “you drive so… well. Is driving part of your job?”
“Yes,” he said. “My job.” He gestured toward the blurring road, as if our very speed was his vocation. Or maybe what he’d meant was that the car was needed for his job. Or to get to his job. Or—
I realized I didn’t really care. What I cared about was making the sale.
I was feeling pleased with myself for pulling off this enterprise so smoothly. All we’d have to do now was trace an equal distance home, then John would take the car away—its coming death his problem—and I could turn my energy back to writing and finding work.
I gazed beyond the window at the soft, bucolic landscape—silos and tobacco barns glistening in the distance, magnified by cusp-of-autumn light—and lost myself in a sentimental fog. This would be my first school-free fall since kindergarten, the first September when I would launch a life of my own making. I saw myself as a character in a well-constructed story, coming to the hinge between two chapters.
The exit approached. The world felt loose and weightless.
But John was still in the passing lane.
“John,” I called. “The exit!”
Too late. We flashed right past it.
“Isn’t this far enough?” I said after a moment. “I think so, yeah. Yeah, let’s go back.” I made sure he saw where I was pointing.
“Little more, okay?” he said. “My friend?”
Half a mile from the exit, I said, “You’re getting off here, right?” My knee had started to jitter. My voice was jittery, too. “John,” I said. “You have to pull off. Now.”
He rapped my knee with his knuckles, a playful little punch. “Yes,” he said. “Okay, okay. No problem.”
To my relief, he did pull off, and joined a local highway, aiming the Subaru south, back toward home.
We passed a garden center and its mulchy whiff of rot, a school whose empty playing fields lay hushed. Then, around the bend, a quaint little farm stand: apples in bulging peck bags, ornamental corn, pyramids of cherubic early pumpkins. I thought I knew it from a previous day’s trip.
But next came a seemingly long-shuttered muffler shop, beyond which stood a roofless house, its half-gone rafters charred. Neither seemed the least bit familiar.
I was seized with dread, the soles of my feet twinging, just as they had the last time I went driving—but now it wasn’t the Subaru’s death I pictured, but my own: a body dumped in dark, silent woods.
“You sure of where you’re going?” I asked.
Nodding, he said, “Is fine.”
He turned onto an unmarked road, then, a minute later, onto a smaller dirt lane, darkened by a gauntlet of giant maples. Waves of shadow buffeted the car.
My thoughts began to whirl, but they only came to gridlock, the way a wheel can spin so fast it doesn’t seem to move. Don’t be crazy, I thought; there’s nothing to worry about. Then I thought: Thinking there’s nothing to worry about—that’s crazy.
Trying not to provoke, I asked, “Does this lead back to town?”
“Little more,” he said. “Okay? My friend? Little more.”
I tried to track passing landmarks—a picket fence, a flagpole—but everything seemed generically rural. No house numbers or street signs. No traffic. The car sped on, its odometer like a blood pressure monitor, marking the upward tick of my anxiety.
And then, as the taste of panic trickled down my throat, John braked and pulled into a driveway. Ahead of us sat a trailer, propped on concrete blocks. No one had tried to prettify the yard with plastic whirligigs or recumbent tires sprouting marigolds. The cockeyed porch was missing a bunch of planks.
John looked at me. Insistently he said, “My friend.”
No, I thought. Still not your friend. Not just because you finally stopped driving.
The Subaru’s engine, cooling, went tsk, tsk.
Pointing to the trailer, John repeated himself: “My friend.” He married his thumb and forefinger in the standard sign for money.
The fingers, more like rubbed-together sticks, lit a spark. I saw I’d been reading him all wrong! He wasn’t trying to soothe me with this business about “friend,” just naming our destination: the home of his friend, right here.
“Oh!” I said, “your friend,” and showed him a hopeful smile.
Did John need to borrow money, in order to pay for the car? Or maybe he was undocumented, and couldn’t have a bank account. Yes, I thought, that must be it: he’d come here to pick up cash.
I wanted not to think the worst. More, I wanted not to be the kind of person who would. How could I write stories that mattered—weighty, real-world stuff—if I was so distrustful of a rough-edged guy like John? He was the sort of man my stories’ heroes should be based on.
Gently, as if to a puppy, he said, “Stay.”
Before I could say anything, he got out and walked up to the trailer.
I sat there, suspended in uncertainty. If only we could hash this whole thing out in a common tongue, I hoped John could justify what seemed such odd behavior. Should I attempt to speak to him in Spanish when he returned? No, I couldn’t. The very thought injected me with queasiness. It had to do with my bungle the week before.
What I’d botched was an interview at an after-school youth program, for a job I’d seen listed in the paper: Youth center counselor for at-risk teens. Spanish-speaking ability preferred. It sounded promisingly wrong-side-of-the-tracks. A lode of stories!
The director (I’ll call him Mario) met me at the door. His broad nose and high-boned cheeks looked like an Aztec monarch’s. He spoke with a lilting Latin accent.
In his office, he introduced two colleagues: a female case manager, a male social worker. Then he said, “So, tell us why you can do this.”
I was pleased to be able to cite some do-good work I’d done with kids: a conservation corps for urban youth in San Francisco, a community-uplift group in Spanish Harlem.
The social worker leaned in and said, “I’m glad you mentioned Spanish. You speak? Did you study it in school?”
“Where I really learned,” I said, “was down in Costa Rica. I worked there on a cattle ranch one summer.”
“No way!” said Mario. “A cowboy?”
I shrugged with false humility, as if I hadn’t fished for him to ask. I knew this was my best chance to prove my bona fides: the story of my proletarian summer.
“C’mon,” he said. “Don’t leave us hanging.”
I’d herded cows on horseback, I said, and helped to castrate calves. I’d slashed acres of brush with a machete. At night I was bunking with a farmer and his family, sleeping head-to-toe in a narrow swaybacked bed with the oldest of three livestock-scented sons.
Mario and the others were rapt, and so I told them also of the family’s foul-mouthed parrot, who, whenever we came back from another hard day’s labor, would gaily insult us: “Puta! Puta!”
Everyone laughed and laughed at that, repeating little snippets as though the story were now their own. The room seemed tilted in my direction.
The case manager, beaming, asked, “How’d you get that chance?”
I’m not certain why her question caught me so off-guard. The times I’d recounted my trip before, I’d never hidden its genesis. But here, now, trying to earn my rough-and-tumble cred, I guess I’d hoped to get away with skipping certain details.
“My dad was friends with the owner,” I said, and winced at the spoiled-kid sound of that. But now it would be worse, I thought, not to admit the rest. “The ranch owner… actually, he was, you know, the president.”
“Wait,” said Mario. “You’re talking about the president of Costa Rica?”
“The ex-president, but yeah,” I said.
And now I was all-in.
On Fridays, I explained, he’d fly up from the capital, landing his private plane on a sugar cane field his crew had cleared. My farm boss would hand me off for a weekend of being pampered. “Sailing the Pacific on el presidente’s yacht,” I said, hamming it up, making my voice go plummy. “A butler serving shrimp in silver bowls!”
Then, come Sunday evening, I said, the president would take off. “The farmer picked me up and it was: wham, bam, back to the life of toil.”
The social worker and the case manager shook their heads in wonder.
“Unbelievable,” they said at the same time.
“Right?” I said, tentatively smiling.
Mario stared at me. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, unbelievable… I’m just curious—what was this guy’s name?”
“Whose?” I said.
“Gotcha. Sure. The president.” But I was plunging, plunging, into a blind black void. “His name,” I said, trying to trigger the sound. “His name was… um.”
My skull felt as empty as a magician’s hat after he’s yanked the rabbit.
All I could conjure up was a phrase from Chris: They lie. That’s what people did, he’d claimed, in order to get their jobs. And that’s what Mario clearly suspected of me.
I hadn’t lied. Every single thing had really happened. And yet, so embarrassed by confessing my entitlement, I’d veiled the story’s nuanced, sometimes painful truths with farce. No wonder Mario must have thought me phony.
What I’d failed to mention was the shame I felt on Sundays, returning to the farmer’s simple home. His sons would ask for details of the luxuries I’d tasted, but I would wave them off, claiming to prefer their rice and beans, and joke about the parrot’s potty mouth to change the subject. Later, awake in bed beside those sweaty, wrung-out brothers, I’d wonder if they smelled the ocean’s freedom on my skin.
Mario stared more sharply now. “You can’t remember? Really?”
“Daniel,” I blurted out. “I called him Don Daniel. And his last name was—” I pushed aside the cobwebs of my panic. “—Ortega!” I finally managed. “Of course. Daniel Ortega.” What a relief! I looked for the staffers’ smiles.
The three of them exchanged boggled glances.
Mario said, “I thought you spent the summer in Costa Rica. Ortega was the president of Nicaragua.”
“No, wait!” I cried. “His name was—”
But now even the right name sounded fishy.
We went through the motions for an awkward minute more. Mario said he figured I could find my own way out.
Waiting in the Subaru, all these days later, I still felt the sticky, spattered blemish of my fraudulence, like dye on a bank robber whose loot was marked.
This was the chagrin, I saw—and nothing to do with our language barrier—that had kept me from standing up to John; if John spoke flawless English, I’d still have frozen. The problem was, no matter the language, I’d still be myself: a boy who feigned knowledge of an all-embracing life, but whose only brushes with hardship were, in truth, just another form of privilege.
After ten minutes, John strolled back, finally flashing the thumbs-up I’d hoped for. He sat down in the driver’s seat and gave me his hand to shake—a great big hand but graceful in its grip. “Is good now, we go home,” he said. “Is finished, okay? Sorry.”
His effort to string the words together made me sympathetic: how dreadful it must be to struggle just to be understood, and to sense the apprehension you provoked. At once, my fear that he might harm me crumbled into dust. We started back to town in cordial silence.
This time John drove calmly—done with high-speed antics—and I no longer choked the armrest, just watched the roadside scenery, blithely letting its beauty burble past me. I let my mind turn to the coming negotiation: How firm should I be if John bargained down the price? How low would I draw the bottom line? I was inclined to go easy on him, to compensate for my previous rush to picture him as a killer. I owed it to Dave, my ex-boss, to strike a decent deal, but still there was a way, I thought, as John sent me a friendly look, we could all three end up winners.
Before he’d even shut off the engine, I leapt out and set my feet on the solid ground of home. “Well, you’ve seen how she runs,” I said. “What do you say? Ready to make an offer?”
I shut the door and had started to make my way around to the driver’s side—brimming now with entrepreneurial gumption—when the car lurched back and out to the street, and then, with a cutthroat shriek of smoking tires, was gone.
At first I stood there laughing, giddy with confusion, the car’s disappearance as exquisitely timed as a punch line. I waited for John to circle back and tell me he was kidding, to grin at me and show me a wad of bills and call me “friend.”
But soon my laughter dwindled to a cloggy, mangled sound. A pebble in the driveway was enough to wreck my balance. Beyond our fence, grocery trucks droned.
The rest of the day, I sat in the kitchen, staring out the window, listening for the Subaru’s return. Maybe I’d misunderstood John; I hung on to that hope. He couldn’t steal the car, I thought—not from my own driveway, not in daylight. He knew I could call the cops and tell them what he looked like. What kind of fool would dare a heist like that?
Two hours passed, then another two, and still no sign of John.
Yes, I could report him to the cops, but saying what? I knew no last name to tell them, no phone number, no address; I had no idea where he worked. I guessed I could tell them about the trailer in the woods. But I hadn’t seen who lived there, and I doubted I could find it.
The facts, then: a stranger named John (really? had I believed that?) had taken exactly as much as I’d allowed.
When Chris heard, he struggled to help. Maybe, he thought, the phone company could somehow trace John’s call? But no, I knew that wouldn’t work. Nothing would. Dead end.
Nothing to do but call Dave. Tell him I’d been robbed. Figure out a plan to pay him back.
“But hey,” said Chris. “Now you have an amazing story to write.”
I scowled. Should I really tell the world how I’d been duped?
But then, faintly, through the smother of my abasement, I could see the prospect start to sparkle: maybe I could take the gritty facts and make them gleam, a glassblower molding the shape I wanted. John, the car, the trailer—their realness would seem foolproof, but I would give myself the final word.
And so, a few days later, when my ego’s nicks were scabbed, I sat down at my desk to get to work.
And sat there. And sat there. Minute after minute. Shrinking so far inside myself that everything went dark. Although I’d lived through its events, the story shied away. If John had planned the theft all along, why had we gone to the trailer? If he hadn’t planned it, who or what incited him, and why? My image of him, distressingly, had already started to fizzle. The more I thought about him, the less I understood him, the less I could summon up his face; I’d flattened him into a standard-issue bad guy.
Worse yet—worse, at least, for my own self-regard—I also saw myself as a stock character: the sheltered little prince who thinks he understands the world, but then, on his first step out and into the real arena, slips and falls and face-plants in the mud.
No matter how exactingly I tried to mold the tale, something about it ended up off-center. I wanted to find a hero, but the story didn’t have one. It seemed at once too simple and too finally confounding, a parable that stopped short of its lesson.
I called Dave and told him that the Subaru “had been stolen”—thankful for the cover afforded by the passive voice, and sharing as few as possible of the mortifying details. I’d pay him back, I said, but I might need a while: to get a job, to bank a little savings. He should name a price he thought was fair.
“But Dave,” I said, “you trusted me, and—”
“Nah,” he said. “Happy to have it gone.”
I should’ve been only relieved, but couldn’t help, too, feeling ashamed by my impunity. I’d slipped the noose altogether too easily.
Also, this made writing the story even more confusing. That neither John nor I would suffer any lasting consequence undermined our narrative’s catharsis; now that we were both scot-free, I couldn’t picture where the facts would take me. If ever I wrote the tale, I thought, I’d have to make it fiction, in order to find a harder hitting, morally conclusive outcome. One of us should be made to come off better, and one of us worse—but which should be which, I couldn’t say.
More than twenty years have passed, and here I am, finally writing the version that seems most true. I guess at last I’ve wearied of the urge to sell a bill of goods, to buff a phony shine onto the facts. Maybe I’ve even ditched the thought that facts are what make a story: realness doesn’t come from what you tell, but how you tell it.
A week after my call to Dave, I finally got a job: washing dishes at the club where Chris cooked. I joked about following in a certain famous writer’s sudsy footsteps, but the work, albeit tiring, was nothing like the grind Orwell described. The waiters who brought me dishes to clean were welcoming and playful, like the butch who introduced herself as “Julie Wheeler… you know, as in ‘eighteen-.’” Overseeing the kitchen, the chef steamed with stress; he vented it not by yelling at me or making cruel demands, but by grabbing half a dozen plates and merrily slinging them out the back door.
The club’s nightly music shows were intimate, intense: Richard Thompson, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Taj Mahal. I couldn’t actually see much through the dish room door’s smudged porthole, but speakers had been mounted on the wall above the sink, so I could hear the action from onstage. Scrubbing pots, I’d stroke my Brillo pad to the music’s beat, jigging my feet lightly on an ergonomic mat the chef said would cut down on fatigue.
I was too embarrassed to admit it to my friends, who pressed for horror stories from the job, but I was having a pretty good time.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.