“Coach says I’m not allowed to leave you alone until you’ve bought a new car.” The game was up, apparently.
Charlie the defensive end leaned against the edge of his locker, weary now after an especially brutal practice. His whole body ached from countless hits on the tackling sled in the scorching heat. All he wanted was a quick shower before heading back to his condo to rest. He didn’t like talking about his car, period. Especially not right now, after what had happened this morning.
Mike the punter stood there, a solemn look on his face. A serious countenance betrayed the sincerity with which he regarded his new assignment. Charlie knew there was no point in arguing. It was one thing when his old Lumina, the butt of so many locker-room jokes, quit on him when he was on the way to the grocery store or the gym. It was another thing entirely when a long-suffering coolant hose finally gave out on the freeway, leading to a huge white cloud of sorrow and a two-hour delay in his attendance at practice. Unacceptable, especially in the NFL. Now Coach had roped in his closest friend on the team to make sure the incident was never repeated.
“We can go to the dealerships this weekend. You know, that big row by the beach: Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Lex-“
“I don’t want a fancy car.”
“You deserve it. You have the money.”
“I don’t care.”
“Charlie, you gotta live some, man. There are guys in the AFL with nicer cars than you.” Mike leaned in closer and told him in a tense whisper: “Stepping up the car game is the first part of stepping up the lady game. You know what I’m sayin’?” Charlie waved his hand dismissively, then turned back to gathering his things into his duffel bag.
“Sometimes, I think you shoulda gone to preacher school rather than pro football.” They both laughed at that one. But Mike turned serious again, intent on completing his mission.
“9 AM, Saturday. I’ll come get you. I better drive anyway because you’d never get the time of day if you rolled up in that P.O.S.”
“All right.” There was no point in fighting it now. The writing was on the wall. Satisfied with Charlie’s commitment, the punter turned to leave. But Charlie called after him. “Mike, wait! Can you give me a ride home?” Mike laughed as they headed out to the parking lot together, two friends swimming in a sea of expensive automobiles.
At home that evening, Charlie gazed out the window towards the ocean, lost in thought. His car was well and truly dead now. A quick phone call to the towing company meant he had washed his hands of the matter. They’d probably sell parts of it on Ebay to the rabid souvenir hunters that always sought his autograph. Oh well, not his problem now. Even so, he felt pangs of guilt.
He remembered the first day he’d got it, cruising around campus with that nervous athletic trainer in the passenger seat. It was a surprise gift from a booster; not exactly NCAA kosher, he figured, but he was always told not to worry about such things. A casual mention that he’d like to be able to go home and visit family more often was all it took for a set of keys to magically appear. He’d never driven before, but the feeling was incredible. For the first time, he was in control of a machine that was bigger, faster, and stronger than his own body. Around town, he drove cautiously, but on the freeway, he hammered it. That earned him a very friendly traffic stop from a local deputy, who gently admonished the local university’s star defensive player that he shouldn’t be driving quite so fast. Some might have seen this as evidence of invincibility, but afterwards he was more cautious. Keep the speed runs confined to late at night, and there wouldn’t be any trouble.
The sentimental value of the car came from what it enabled him to do. Go anywhere, especially to faraway places where nobody could bother him. Blend in with the crowd, and avoid the unwanted attention that had been heaped on him since the start of his college career. He knew full well that the car itself was junk. By the time the Lumina filtered down to his ownership (or “extended borrowing,” as the booster had so elegantly phrased it) it was already a decade and a half old. The paint was coming off in large chunks, a trend that only worsened with time. The radio worked occasionally; the A/C was long since dead and gone. The velour interior was shredded and stained, and the dash curled and cracked from years spent baking in the sun. As he slowly pushed it past a quarter million miles, more important things went wrong. First it was a radiator. Then an alternator. Then a new intake manifold, followed by a head gasket. The latest had been a transmission rebuild, to the tune of several thousand dollars. His teammates castigated him for pouring money into the car, laughing as they jingled the keys to their S-Classes and Range Rovers. At that point, the car went from being a mere tool to a form of silent protest. He kept it as he watched rookies and scrubs with far less talent trade in yearly for the latest in automotive jewelry. He knew half of them would be out of the league in two years, flat broke in three. The madness had to stop somewhere.
He had never been comfortable with wealth. There was one car in the immediate family growing up, and Mom and her sister used that for going to work. That was it. It was their lifeline; it was too valuable to risk on long trips or pleasure drives. They didn’t have the money for gas anyway: not to put in the tank, nor to heat the house in the winter. He’d never have gotten into football, had it not been for the eagle-eyed high school coach who saw what a rare opportunity he had in front of him. He was more than willing to pay Charlie’s fees, to give him rides to practice, to do whatever it took for the privilege of watching that gigantic teenager ruin the state’s top offenses on Friday nights. The number three most recruited prospect in the country still needed a lift to campus four years later; somebody stepped in and bought a bus ticket.
The glitz and glamour of a major D-1 program was bedazzling, but he tried to keep his wits about him. Go to class, go to practice, go out and play as hard as possible on Saturday. He was a god as they cruised to multiple national titles, but he used his privileges sparingly. A groupie here and there, a few late-night food deliveries, a new suit for when Grandma died and he didn’t have anything to wear to the funeral. There was always a fear in the back of his mind that the gravy train might be cut off at any moment, and then he’d be right back where he started. He waved aside the talking heads and the other know-nothings as he stayed out of the draft and finished his degree. He never asked for their attention in the first place.
The weekend came. After sidling his immense frame into Mike’s nearly-new A8, they headed towards the beach. In the most expensive part of town (far from Charlie’s discrete condo), a row of luxury dealerships stood on the main boulevard, a few blocks from the ocean. The glimmer of paint and chrome in the morning sun oozed money.
“Well, where do you want to start?”
“I don’t want to start,” Charlie responded cheekily. Mike sighed. “Oh fine, Mike. Just pullin’ your leg. Let’s check the Audi dealer first, since you seem to be keeping them in business anyway.”
“Yeah man! You’ll love it.” Thus began an eight-hour adventure into the world of luxury motoring. They formed quite the odd couple, wandering up and down the strip: a thin and dapper ex-soccer player in a thousand-dollar tailored shirt and Italian leather shoes, alongside an enormous wall of a man in a team logo sweatsuit, ballcap, and worn crosstrainers large enough to fit an elephant. Of course Charlie was instantly recognizable, and they had no problem getting attention at any dealer they entered. Too much attention, at times. Many overeager salespeople rushed to what they assumed was an easy mark, not knowing the hesitation of their reluctant customer. Perfunctory autographs and Instagram photos were followed by ecstatic sales pitches, with Mike chiming in as an echo. Although Charlie tried to maintain an air of bemused indifference, he found himself getting drawn in more than he would have liked to admit. He was no stranger to seeing the chariots of his teammates, who were forever champing at the bit to show off their latest acquisitions. He usually paid them as little attention as possible. But these cars… they really were something else.
Steering wheels with ten different heating and cooling levels. Twenty different settings for interior ambient lights. Radar adaptable cruise control. Infrared night vision. Monogrammed umbrellas that shot out of hidden pockets. Refrigerated compartments. And this was all on the “low end” cars; they hadn’t even touched the exotics. Mike begged him to go in the Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley and Rolls Royce place across the street, but Charlie put his foot down. He might wind up with a Lexus or BMW after all, but he was not going to go crazy. “Besides,” he told Mike, “God didn’t build me to fit into Italian convertibles.” Even though he was beginning to awaken to the pleasures of high-priced cars after years spent in his velour-lined hooptie, Charlie still couldn’t bring himself to sign on the dotted line. Even the plainest cars on offer seemed ridiculously flashy. He had settled in comfortably to the front seat of a Lexus LS, and thought to himself that maybe this was the one. But when he stepped out and looked at that front grill… Ugh. Maybe he could get them to put a new bumper on it or something.
It was getting late. They were nearing the end of the strip, and they were both tired. Mike refused to drive him to the more pedestrian dealerships on the other side of town, which would be closing soon anyway. Charlie steeled himself to buy a car he didn’t really like, just to get it over with. As they argued over the relative merits of an S-Class or a 7-Series, they came up on the last dealer in the row. It was a small place, with a tiny showroom. It clearly played second fiddle to the rest of the luxury crowd. Charlie looked up bemusedly, wondering if he might yet find something he could tolerate. Suddenly, he froze. As he looked at a car parked in the front row, festooned with balloons and big “FACTORY REBATES” signs, memories came flooding back. He remembered riding along with his assistant coach in one of those, along with four other poor kids. Coach rocketed around town in that thing, yammering a mile a minute about everything under the sun and forever puffing a fresh Marlboro. All as his cargo of awkward, overgrown highschoolers did their best to be polite and not gag on his cigarette smoke. Those were days he’d never forget. He rushed over to the car, leaving an incredulous Mike standing on the sidewalk.
Finding the door unlocked, he climbed inside. They might have the same name, but this one was infinitely more luxurious than what Coach drove. Leather seats ensconced Charlie as he marveled at the dash. The best part, though, was the interior room. No rubbing knees or banging heads. He checked the window sticker. Not an inexpensive car by any means, but only a fraction of the price of most of the other machinery he had examined that day. The exterior was to his liking. A few chrome accents here and there, and wheels that gleamed, but nothing over the top. As an added bonus, the trunk promised to be far more useable than anything else they’d looked at. He noticed a gaggle of salespeople headed his way, but he didn’t need a pitch. This was perfect. He waved to Mike, still standing where he had left him. “Found it!” he shouted. Mike broke out laughing, but he was happy. That car had Charlie written all over it.
Charlie turned back to face the five breathless salespeople, fresh from their sprint to the edge of the lot. One of them broke into a wide smile and held out his hand, which Charlie grasped with enthusiasm. “Sir,” he asked, “Can I answer any questions about the new Chrysler Town and Country for you today?”