Cooper had his Jetta going eighty. He couldn’t believe what he had to do to knock somebody’s dick in the dirt.
The bayway stretched far ahead of them over black water, sparking as the black sky sparked, while Mobile’s skyline, miniscule at first, a portal of pulsing light, gradually bloomed spiderlike, rising before Cooper and his sales manager, Jimmy, in mangled contortions of cranes from shipyards.
Jimmy idly opened and closed the Velcro strap on his holster.
As if the store hours weren’t long enough. As if being a car salesman wasn’t degrading enough. As if Cooper didn’t already sometimes feel too white when he shopped at Target or Old Navy and ate at Ruby Tuesday. Fearing that his skin could suggest otherwise, he always made the extra effort. That’s how he’d been raised. He opened doors for black folks coming and going, sometimes had even lingered at doors as if he wasn’t in a hurry at all. He also looked his cashiers and bank tellers in the eyes and told jokes, was folksy, and he could be just that personable at the beach, making sure they knew it wasn’t strange at all to see them there. He’d made every effort to prove his entire life that he was one of Alabama’s good ones. Sure, his generation had been raised on The Dukes of Hazzard, but Cooper had watched Good Times and The Jeffersons instead. That he’d never dated a black girl was no proof of the contrary. Once he’d even stopped hanging out with a white girl for using the N word. She’d been the new girl of the neighborhood, had moved into the biggest house, a corner-lot two-story with tall, white fluted columns. She wore more crimson than anyone and loved football as much as the next guy. She even played tackle football, and Cooper had tackled her. In fact, she liked to be tackled. Her breasts as round as softballs. Her yellow hair like ribbons. But his father had shaken hands with Martin Luther King, Jr., in an elevator in a hotel in D.C., for Christ’s sake. The Stones wouldn’t have approved of her either. Mick? Keith? Shit!
He took the Bank Head Tunnel exit, then drove up Government Street, where ancient oaks towered and knuckled overhead with Spanish moss. A few rundown antebellum homes and a few glorious, remodeled ones sat far from the street. Cooper clicked on a reading lamp and reached for his directions.
“Here, it’s coming up,” Jimmy said.
Cooper had believed for months that he liked Jimmy. Jimmy had made the job bearable with crude humor typical for the business. But it wasn’t cheap. It was clever, crude and clever. And then sometimes the retired soldier could be almost miraculously sweet. Getting his eyebrows waxed to please his teenage daughter, something like that. Otherwise, though, who was this man shamefully afraid to ride at night into a black neighborhood? Where else did Jimmy take his .45? Cooper took the next right and immediately had to brake to avoid driving into a mountain of clothes piled in the middle of the street.
Shotgun houses tightly lined each side of the street. Deeper into the neighborhood, as Marquis had said, Cooper found a house with a tent in its front yard, and there was the black Yukon, with a red, white, and blue dealer plate, parked in the dirt drive.
Several black people sat in chairs under the cover of the tent. Hardly visible. There was loud laughter, and a radio thumped. Two children ran across the porch and ducked inside the house, letting a screen door slap behind them.
“Nothing to sweat,” Jimmy told him.
Cooper nodded. Of course not. He pulled the trunk release, and while Jimmy heaved the dealership copier into his arms, Cooper grabbed the paperwork.
“Y’all doing all right?” someone said from the tent, a man who wasn’t Marquis, with feet propped on an ice chest.
“Evening,” Cooper said.
No one else drinking beer under the tent was Marquis or his girlfriend either. “I’m guessing Marquis and Vashay are inside?” Cooper asked.
“That’s right. Go on up.”
Cooper stepped quickly to stay ahead of Jimmy bulldozing behind him, and behind him the porch creaked under Jimmy’s weight. Through the screen door, Cooper saw Marquis and his girlfriend sitting on a gold couch from the seventies watching TV, while the purchaser, it had to be, sat alone at the dining-room table like a woman who never left her home. She was telling four or five children running from room to room to slow it down.
Cooper knocked. “Hey,” he said through the screen, watching Marquis hop up.
“Yeah, come on in,” Marquis said.
Cooper opened the door and stood back as Jimmy went in first and set the copier down on the floor, and that’s when Cooper saw the black handle of the .45 sticking out of Jimmy’s pocket.
“Whew,” Jimmy yowled, stretching his back.
“Good gracious, what’s that thing for?” the lady at the table said.
“Oh, this is a copier,” Jimmy said. “So we can make a copy of your picture ID. You’re Elnetta Johnson, aren’t you, ma’am?”
She chuckled. “That’s me.”
Jimmy crossed the room as he introduced himself and shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, and congratulations on your new vehicle.”
“Oh, I don’t get out no more. Marquis the one paying that big note.” Ms. Johnson pointed an arthritic finger at her grandson. “And if he gets behind, I won’t hesitate to call y’all to come get it. You hear me, Marquis?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marquis bent over, picking up the plug of the copier, eying it. “I know it’s on me.”
Jimmy smiled and turned to face Cooper, the bulge of a gun clearly visible. “The paperwork,” he said. “Bring it over.”
Cooper crossed the room. There was a gun in the room. And not far away, beside the table Ms. Johnson was sitting at, there was a lawn mower. And beneath the table at the opposite end of where Ms. Johnson was sitting, there was a grill and a bag of charcoal.
Cooper handed Jimmy the paperwork and watched Marquis pass by, going into the next room. He heard Marquis rummage in a drawer.
“Vashay, baby,” Ms. Johnson said, setting aside her crossword puzzle, then putting on her reading glasses, “get me my purse.”
Vashay picked up the large burgundy purse with brass buckles from on top of the coffee table and carried it to her, and Cooper was reminded of what Marquis did earlier in the day at the lot. How when he and Cooper walked behind Vashay to check out the inventory, Marquiz pointed at her ass and grinned. Sure, Cooper had grinned politely back. It was shapely. Sure was.
“Thanks, baby,” said Ms. Johnson.
Marquis still rummaged in the next room, and Ms. Johnson was stirring the contents of her purse. Cooper glanced at Jimmy’s pocket. Jesus, the handle was hanging out now like a hitch.
A drawer slammed shut in the next room, and Ms. Johnson said, “Here it is.” She produced her ID like a rabbit from a hat, and Marquis walked back into the room holding up a three-prong adapter.
“We rolling now,” Marquis said.
Cooper hiked up to Ms. Johnson, bowing as he reached for her ID with his fingertips, and followed Marquis, watching him attach the adapter to the copier’s plug, then plug the two prongs into a wall socket.
Marquis looked up at Cooper and smiled. “Seven seventy-three, that ain’t too bad a month, is it? I mean, not for a ride like that, right?”
Cooper stared blankly, caught off guard by the innocence of the question. And then as children burst into the room and Ms. Johnson raised her voice to hush them, the car salesman in Cooper reevaluated the question and decided Marquis wasn’t probing for truth. There was nothing truthful about Marquis’s grandmother signing on a loan for a vehicle she wouldn’t be driving or even riding in. Signing because she believed she really had little to offer and therefore little to lose, while her credit score actually stood snow-white-summit high. The bank probably assuming she was white and could afford the maximum payment allowed.
No, Marquis was looking for something else, and giving that to him was the easiest part of Cooper’s job.
Cooper could have been reaching for a door as easily as he leaned in to brace Marquis’s arm. “Not for a top-of-the-line Yukon like yours,” he said. He nodded, eye to eye, and Marquis grinned.
It wasn’t like they were actually holding the gun to anyone’s head.
Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow, winner of ForeWord's Silver Award for best collection of 2006. His stories, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, have appeared in numerous anthologies, and in The Carolina Quarterly, The Cortland Review, Danse Macabre, Grey Sparrow Journal, NANO Fiction, Ostrich Review, Prick of the Spindle, Ragazine.cc, The Southern Review, storySouth, and elsewhere. He lives in Fort Worth, where he teaches creative writing at Texas Christian University.