Buying a New Car

by Rochelle Ratner

(Originally published in Sugar Mule, Number 3, 1997)

My wife Margie and I get in the car to go for a Saturday drive. It’s spring even though it’s still February, and Saturday’s one of the few days we get to spend together, so we like to enjoy it. (Margie works in a Madison Ave. boutique, and has to work Sunday afternoons except for July and August when they’re closed on Sundays).

I put the key in the ignition, turn it, and the car won’t start. That does it. I’ve hated this station wagon ever since I bought it three years ago. Margie was pregnant at the time and we thought we’d need a bigger car for our family. Then Margie lost the baby, and we were saddled with this awkward lump. It’s hard to park it in the city, it’s a monster on gas, and still doesn’t have the power cars had back in the 1950s. But this is the final insult.

I pump the pedal a few times, firmly, turn the key again and this time it catches. “We’ve got to buy a new car,” I mumble over the putt sput putt sput of brewing disaster. This is no longer a simple Saturday drive up the Hudson.

“Can we afford it?” Margie asks, quietly, carefully. After seven years of marriage, she knows better than to push me at a time like this.

“We can afford it,” I say. At the next light I turn to her. “Look, I’ll drive you home, if you want. You don’t have to come with me.” Having grown up in New York City, and lived here all her life, Margie’s one of those people who never learned to drive. I can’t say I’d blame her if she wanted to stay home and catch up on some reading.

“I’ll go with you,” she says. “It’ll be fun. We can sit in all the cars in the showroom and pretend we’re driving.” She squeezes my hand.

I grimace. When we bought this car, three years ago, we talked about how, by the time we bought the next car, we’d have a son or daughter with us, and little Steve Junior or Margie would sit in the cars on the showroom floor, pretending to drive. Pretending to drive in the showroom is one of my fondest memories of what wasn’t, ultimately, a very happy childhood.

“I probably should have told you this before,” I say as we line up at the Holland Tunnel, “but I’ve already spoken to Pete at Asbury Motors about buying a new car.” I go on to say I know just the car I want: the new Dodge Spirit, one of the few small cars available with a six cylinder engine. “I talked to Pete last week and he said he has one in the showroom that we can test-drive. That’s important — I want to drive the car before I buy it. That’s the real mistake we made with this car.”

Margie clasps my hand and settles in for the long ride. Asbury Park is a good hour’s drive away, but it’s where my parents always bought their cars. Even though my father died ten years ago, I still feel comfortable going back there. I feel as if they’re looking out for me. Too many car dealerships try to take you for a ride.

“Now’s the best time to buy a car,” I continue, repeating what Pete told me on the phone. “Sales are down and car dealers, especially American car dealers, are hurting bad. They’re coming rock bottom on prices to begin with, and the fact is I’m also trading in a late-model used car with low mileage, which should be easy for them to sell.” He also told me he still feels bad that we lost the baby, and he’ll do everything he can to give us an even better deal, but I don’t tell Margie that part. She’s still in mourning for the lost baby, and can’t even bring herself to try again.

The first time I realize something’s wrong is when we’re sitting with Pete at Asbury Motors, and he tells me no, the Spirit’s a much bigger car than I need, I must be mistaken if I think he recommended that the last time we spoke. “Anyway,” he says, “let me show you the Hyundai I’ve got.”

“Does it have air conditioning?” Margie asks.

“Sure it does. It’s a metallic blue convertible, complete with all the extras.” He picks up his phone, dials the lot, and asks the guys to bring it around.

I’ve never heard of an air conditioned convertible, but I don’t say that. Instead I point out that we keep the car on the street and a convertible would probably get broken into all the time.

“Well look,” Pete says, “why don’t you test-drive this car. If you like it I’ll order you another one.”

I know even before Margie nudges me: this is exactly what I promised myself I wouldn’t do. But I’m tempted. Besides, Pete says he can give me $6,100 for my car. And that’s decent money.

“Here she is now,” Pete says, looking out the showroom window toward the lot. He places an arm on Margie’s shoulder to guide her out. For a moment it looks like he wanted to pat her ass, but I chalk that impression up to paranoia. I’ve known Pete for years, he sold cars to my parents, for God’s sake.

We stop dead in front of the car. If you can call it a car. It’s more of a box with straight-backed wooden chairs. When the top comes down, the doors seem to come of with it.

“It’s a pretty color,” Margie says.

Pete rubs his hands together. “Time for a test drive.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. If I take this thing on a highway, I’m certain to fall out.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” He ushers me in, like I imagine you’d usher a convict back into his jail cell.

I look down, and can’t find the right pedal. “What’s this pedal here?” I ask him. “It says something on the rubber, I think it says clutch, and there’s a little red button on the side of it.”

Pete finally looks. “Uh-oh, this is a manual transmission,” he says. “Let’s go inside and I’ll call the lot again, get them to send the right car down this time.”

I hear him talking on the phone, and think of Ronald Reagan with his red phone on his desk, how war or bombs are just a phone call away, and he might call for one as a joke, shake the country up a little. Pete wouldn’t do that to me, would he?

Pete puts the phone down. “It turns out we don’t have a six-cylinder automatic in stock, after all. But why don’t you test-drive the four-cylinder, and if you like that I’ll order the six, which has more power. They’d both offer the same comfort, nothing changes but the engine.”

“Not on your life,” I shout, standing up and knocking over the chair which is more comfortable than the chair in that car was. “I’m not going to fall for this one, not this time. I already bought one car from you I don’t like. We’re taking our business to another dealer. Come on, Margie. Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait a minute, Steve,” Margie says, pulling her hand away. “Let’s listen to what Pete has to say. I’m sure we can work this out. After all, he was a friend of your father’s.”

“That’s right,” Pete screams, “I was a friend of your father’s. Thank God he didn’t live to see what his son turned into. You’re no damn good, let me tell you. Go on, get out of here.”

I make a dash for my car, with Margie a step behind me. Oh, my God. I should have realized something like this would happen. There my poor car is, all the doors open and some broken off their hinges. Inside, there are a few wires hanging out from where the radio and cassette deck was. And my tapes are gone, all the tapes I had friends make of out-of-print, hard-to-find records.

I run back in and pound my fists on Pete’s desk. “What the hell’s going on here? What did you do to my car? I want my radio back! I want my doors fixed!”

“You’re crazy!” Pete screams. “No one touched your car!”

“The hell you didn’t!”

“Well, we’ll just take a look and see what’s going on,” the sales manager, whose desk is next to Pete’s, says. And a group of us head for the car again.

“God, what a mess,” the sales manager says, lifting a door up and trying unsuccessfully to shut it. He turns to his secretary and tells her to call the police. “You’re going to need a police report before your insurance will reimburse you,” he tells me.

“What do you mean, my insurance?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid Asbury Motors can’t be held responsible for this.”

“What do you mean? It was parked on your lot! You’re responsible!”

“It’s not our fault! Cars get stolen, radios get ripped off. It’s the drug problem, a car radio sells on the street for $5.00. And that’s exactly what a vial of crack costs.”

“Don’t let him sweet talk his way out of this,” Pete says, nudging the sales manager’s elbow. “I’ve never in my life seen such a demanding customer. He expects the world to crawl to him. Brings his car in for repairs every other week.”

“I’ve brought my car in twice in three years.”

“And insisted we didn’t fix it right. If you ask me, I’m glad this happened. It serves you right. I thought I’d be nice, for your father’s sake. I offered you a new car, at a great price, and you don’t want it, so forget it, buster. Goodbye and good riddance. Go on, take your business to another dealer. But let me tell you, you’d better move quick. Because I have every intention of warning all the dealers in the area about what an ungrateful bastard you are. We’ll just see if any of them want to sell to you.”

“I’ll make you pay for this!” I scream, kicking a wobbly tire. “I’ll be damned if my insurance rates are going to go up for something that’s your fault!”

“Just you try, buddy!” the sales manager screams. He, Pete, and the other guys who have been standing around gaping go back inside. The only people left here to talk to me are the women, secretaries, I presume.

“I called the insurance company,” one of the women says, “and they can’t send an investigator here until Wednesday morning.”

“I’ll lose my job if I wait here till Wednesday morning!”

“I really don’t see any need to wait,” the woman continues. “As the manager told you, it’s really not our fault. I’m certain the investigator will agree with us.”

“After all,” one of the other women says, “who gives the insurance company more business? Us, with over a hundred cars on our lot, or you?”

“I don’t believe this!” My face is red. I’m having trouble breathing.

“Calm down,” Margie says, stroking my back. “Why don’t you let me handle this? I’ve always been better at talking with people than you have.”

What the hell is she talking about? My little wife’s afraid to tell the butcher how to cut the meat. I have to handle everything at home.

I’ve got to get out of here before I crack up totally. I get in the car and find the motor’s running — the thieves probably didn’t know how to turn it off. I close the doors — or what’s left of the doors — and drive off. This is as bad as if I’d taken that box for a test drive, I’m sitting on a wooden seat and clutching the wheel for dear life, frightened I’m going to fall out. But at least the streets are familiar, I remember them from childhood. They’ve made some of them one-way now, though, and I keep driving the wrong way on them.

I’m almost to the edge of town before I realize I left Margie back at the car place. Well, let her rot there, for all I care. I hope she has to walk home, even if it means she’ll lose the baby.