Excerpt

Palomino

Bret Anthony Johnston

July 28, 2017 
The following story appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Remember Me Like This: A Novel and Corpus Christi: Stories, as well as the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. 

The fat man and his wife came into Checkered Flag Auto just as I was locking up. He wore shorts and orthopedic shoes and a yellow T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. She was still in church clothes, heels and a floral dress, and she must’ve brushed her long hair and applied makeup just before getting out of their little Mazda coupe. I let them in because I hadn’t made my quota for the month. I also didn’t have anywhere better to be.

The fat man’s face was beaded with sweat. He fished a bandanna from his back pocket and blotted his brow. His wife appraised the office—a wood-paneled trailer with two desks and a gurgling water cooler—like she was hoping to move in; I half expected her to start taking pictures with her phone. The fat man offered her the bandanna, but she declined with a demure wave. He shrugged as if to say, Your loss.

Then he said, “We want a look-see at your palomino out front.”

“We know it’s after hours,” his wife said, “but Mr. Morales loves old trucks.” “I can shake hands with that,” I said.

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“See?” the fat man said to his wife as I plucked the keys from the pegboard. “Motivated.”

I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I liked him calling our ’86 Chevy a palomino. It reminded me of old-timers who nicknamed boys Chief and Sport. The truck was a consignment: two-tone tan and brown, mileage north of two hundred thousand, a long-bed Silverado that had sat on the lot for months. I lowered the price every few weeks, posted and reposted Craigslist ads. Just yesterday, the boss said, “You’d better sell that sorry son of a bitch before I set fire to it and collect insurance.”

But now I was getting the headlong rush that comes when a customer’s on the hook. It could’ve been that the fat man was retired and wanted a project. Or he was buying a kid’s first car. Or he needed a beater for a ranch. Show me a man who can’t find an excuse to waste money on an old pickup, and I’ll show you someone not long for Texas.

As we crossed the lot, I bragged on the Chevy: one owner, A/C still blowing cold, two gas tanks and no rust. I didn’t say that the ball joints and drive shaft yoke were rotted out or that the timing was shot or that it leaked so much differential fluid that their driveway would shortly look like an abstract painting. I said the tags were current and the tires had good tread. I said I had paper work for all of the repairs that had been done over the years.

When I unlocked the doors—pointing out the power locks and windows—the fat man and his wife just stood there, holding hands and gawking, like they were on a game show and I’d just revealed their prize haul. I wondered if they were a little slow, if they were millionaires. Over our heads, the zero down pennants snapped in the wind. The traffic on the highway sounded like waves plowing the shore. Checkered Flag was half an hour from Corpus. Our slogan was, “Drive a Little, Save a Lot.”

“She’s a smooth ride,” I said. “The owner used to put her morning coffee on the floorboard and not spill a drop on the way to work.”

“She’s a palomino,” the fat man said. He set to circling the truck, regarding it.

He whistled.

His wife hung back, affording him privacy. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and the vanilla scent of her perfume wafted. She said, “You’re a gentleman to stay late. I told Mr. Morales that whoever was here would be needing to run home for Sunday dinner, but he said used-car salesmen are motivated.”

“The customer comes first at Checkered Flag,” I said.

“Hospitality you can hang your hat on, that’s what Mr. Morales says,” she said.

Her voice was wistful, and for reasons I couldn’t name, I understood the fat man wasn’t her first husband. She’d been jilted, had suffered men who didn’t appreciate her. She’d been beautiful once, that much was obvious, but she’d survived it. Now she was content, living a decent little life. The diamond on her ring was smaller than I expected.

“Every Sunday,” she said, “we pass by and Mr. Morales asks why anyone would put such a fine palomino out to pasture. Sometimes he’ll ask at dinner or when we’re watching our shows. For him, it’s a gripping mystery.”

“People just decide they want newer things,” I said. “They move on, but leave good stuff for the rest of us.”

“Let’s giddy up,” the fat man said. He’d staked himself by the driver’s side door. “Let’s see how the old saddle sits.”

 

I tossed him the keys, a move I immediately regretted, but he caught them clean and I knew he liked his wife seeing it. I thought: Money in the bank.

His wife hurried to the passenger’s side—or tried to. Her high heels teetered like she was on cobblestone. I worried she’d snap an ankle. When the fat man hefted himself in, the truck felt it. The steering wheel notched into the soft swell of his gut. He labored to reach down and slide the seat back; it required considerable effort, and once he got situated, he needed a rest. He dabbed his face with the bandanna while his wife climbed in. I thought: Please don’t have a heart attack.

I expected the fat man to crank the ignition and blast the A/C, but what he did was drape his thick arm across the top of the bench seat and face forward. Like he was settling into a Jacuzzi. Like he was on a couch in front of a fireplace. His wife scooted toward him and nestled under his shoulder. He kissed her scalp. Strands of her hair webbed to his sweat-sheened face.

Together, they looked up at the headliner and then down at the dashboard. She opened the glove box, shut it. The same with the ashtray. She fiddled with the radio knobs and air vents, maybe just to make sure she could reach them from her position. He adjusted the rearview mirror, pressed the accelerator, tapped the brakes. Then they tilted their heads together and exchanged words I couldn’t hear; I felt like I’d happened upon strangers in a private moment and should turn away. They conspired long enough for another wave of traffic to pass, then he straightened up and put his left hand on the wheel. She leaned against his shoulder, rested her hand on his knee. They looked like they were on a lazy drive, watching the open country whoosh by, posing for a portrait of what happiness could be.

I’d waited a year before deciding to sell it. I kept remembering how we’d park outside the airfield, how we’d lay on our backs in that long bed and watch the pilots practice touch-and-go landings, how you’d get scared and koala onto me. And the time we drove it to Choke Canyon and saw that stray dog rooting around the truck stop garbage cans, how you came out of the store with two roast beef sandwiches, not for us but for him. And how every night after work, for that whole long year, I’d see the truck in the driveway and for a moment—always too long, always too short—I could forget that you’d left.

“Where do we sign, sheriff?” the fat man said. I hadn’t noticed him and his wife getting out of the truck, but they were in front of me again. He said, “Where do I scratch my X?”

“Do what?” I said. I was sweating, jelly-kneed, light-headed.

 

“We’re ready to take this filly home,” he said.

“You didn’t even turn the key,” I said. “You haven’t even raised the hood or kicked the tires.”

“We’ve taken up enough of your time,” he said. “We’re ready to ride into the sunset.”

“You’re very generous to stay late with us,” she said. “Mr. Morales has had his eye on this palomino for a long while.”

The pennants were being bullied by the wind, flipping over themselves, tangling up. I imagined the boss noticing the truck gone in the morning, imagined which car he’d park in its place.

“Why do you keep calling it a palomino?” I asked.

“The only thing Mr. Morales loves more than an old truck is a good horse.” “Let’s go to the rodeo,” the fat man said. “Let’s do-si-do.”

“It leaks differential fluid,” I said. “The gearbox might as well be mesh.” “Never look a gift horse in the mouth, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

“The timing’s off. It’ll strand you where you stop.”

“Mr. Morales can’t believe she’s been here as long as she has. We feel blessed.”

I wanted to ask them how long they’d been married, how they solved for all the variables, what they’d figured out that we hadn’t. Instead I said, “It needs new brakes, a whole new front end.”

“She’s got colic and wants some TLC,” the fat man said. “I’m chomping at the bit.”

“Mr. Morales is good with tools. He’s excellent with—”

“The ball joints are rotten. The drive shaft is ready to fall out. The old owner spilled her coffee on the floorboard every morning. There are stains under the mat.”

“A cowboy never lets his horse drink water he wouldn’t drink himself,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re saying,” I said. “I don’t know why you keep talking

about cowboys and horses.”

The fat man screwed up his face, like I’d started speaking a dead language. He said, “Have you got another desperado raising the ante? Is that it? How about an extra five hundred?”

“I can’t do it,” I said.

“We’ve got cash money right here,” he said, and like that, his wife slipped her purse from her shoulder and went for her billfold. She was peeling off bills in no time. Her perfume wafted again. Her hair dangled like a broken wing.

 

“I’ve already shut down the system,” I said, hoping to sound definitive and professional. The closest thing we had to a system was the window unit that sputtered water when we ran it too long.

“This is like no horse trading I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I was.

“You’re a highwayman,” he said. “You’re a low-down—”

“Keep the keys,” I said. The idea must have been forming for a while—maybe an hour, maybe a year—but I could only see its full shape now. Just then I felt sure of myself, the future. And I felt like I’d already wasted too much time. I said, “Come back in the morning.”

“How about another seven fifty?” he said. “Straight into your saddlebags, just between two cowboys and a little lady.”

“I’ll be here by eight. I usually bring doughnuts,” I said, not a word of it true. I still had a key for the truck on my key chain—the one with the guitar bottle opener from our Nashville trip—and I was already wondering how long it would take the boss to realize I wasn’t coming back, how long it would take me to drive to wherever you were.

“An extra grand,” he said. “Final offer. No one else will pay anything close to that for an old swaybacked mare.”

“We’ll square up tomorrow, pardner,” I said. “Your palomino will be rearing to go at sunup.”

The fat man squinted at me, then at his wife, then back to me. It could’ve been that he hoped she and I were pulling one over on him, that we’d been haggling all this time and she’d already paid and we three were about to start celebrating. He bit the inside of his cheek and shook his head. The heat bore down. The wind barreled over us. The fat man started to say something, then quit. He turned and walked toward their little Mazda. He paused to wring out his bandanna. I hoped he’d tie it on his face outlaw style, maybe come back and spit on my boots, call me a yellowbelly. He didn’t.

His wife stayed put. She was glaring at me, furious and aghast and unwavering. Her hair whipped across her eyes and she didn’t blink. I figured she was about to cry or curse or slap me. She had the right. But I also suspected she’d hear me out if I told her our whole story. She’d soften. She struck me as a woman who’d been accused of impulsiveness in the past, of loving too recklessly, too blindly. I thought: You’re one of my kind.

 

Overhead, the snapping pennants sounded like rifles being cocked. The highway was quiet, but in the distance was the gathering rumble of traffic, a stampede that would soon overtake us. I wanted to apologize again, to plead my case, to receive her blessing and light out on the road. All she wanted was to buy your truck, the one you and everyone else had told me to sell. She didn’t speak or flinch. Neither did I. We were in a corral, the late sun casting shadows of stallions and quarter horses and the old palomino at our feet. We were a few paces apart. We were two gunslingers waiting to draw. We were about to lay everything we had on that lonesome line.

 

From The Southern Review.  Used with permission of LSU Press. Copyright © 2017 by Bret Anthony Johnston.




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