Late Night Business
by Corey Mesler
When the call came Tom Newman was in his bed but he was not yet asleep. He was preparing for sleep, preparing for those delicious few moments of pre-sleep beside his wife, reading a book, or looking at the latest Sports Illustrated. It was down-time for Tom, a letting go of the work-a-day world. It was precious to him, perhaps ridiculously so. Perhaps he was set in his ways.
But he told the caller, his boss, that he was asleep anyway. It was part anger, part desire that his boss know Tom's sacrifice, which created the lie so readily.
"That's ok," Tom said when his boss gruffly apologized.
"Tom, I need you to go down and open up the dealership."
"What? Now?" Tom sputtered. It was after eleven o'clock.
"Yeah, now," Mr. Breston said, withholding the reason from Tom as a petty remonstrance.
"Ok," Tom said, somewhat uncertainly. Maybe this was a joke. Tom didn't want to be one of those guys who took everything too seriously.
"Look," Mr. Breston said. "Elvis Presley is in town. He wants to buy Cadillacs for his cop friends."
"You're shitting me," Tom said, a slight chuckle to his voice.
Mr. Breston's silence answered for him.
"Yep," his boss said. "I just got a call from Bill Hayward. Chief Hayward. Apparently Presley loves cops."
"Denver cops," Tom said. A hint of sarcasm worried the edges of his speech.
"Look, I don't know all the particulars. I can't go myself or you know I would. Get down there and open the showroom up for the guy, wouldja?"
Tom thought, I bet you would go. He was sure Breston thought Elvis Presley was a jerk and a lousy singer, a sad reminder of the sixties, a time Breston hated. But Breston didn't even feel he had to explain to Tom why he couldn't go.
"Ok," Tom said. "Take me a half hour or so. It's cold as hell outside," he added as if that explained why it would take him that long.
"Just get there as soon as you can, ok? I think they're already there waiting."
Breston hung up. Tom sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. He did not relish getting dressed and going back outside, where the wind-chill factor was about ten below. A light snow was falling.
He turned to Kathy, his wife. She lay looking at the ceiling, her eyes open, showing no emotion, not even curiosity.
"I gotta go back to the dealership," Tom said.
"I figured," Kathy said.
"Shit," Tom said.
"Why did you say 'Elvis Presley?'"
"That's who's down there, looking to buy some cars."
"Really?" Kathy said. Her voice was still without feeling, excitement, animation. Kathy was a tired woman, a woman in her late thirties who thought she would be doing more with her life by now. She sat up a bit in bed.
"You want me to fix you some coffee?" she asked.
"No. Thanks," Tom said. "I gotta get down there."
"Be careful," Kathy said, turning out her bedside lamp and turning away from her husband. Tom smiled ruefully. Kathy didn't love him anymore, he knew, but things could be worse. He figured her for a sticker, a woman who would be loyal because she had said she would, in a church, in front of family and friends, a long time ago. Their childlessness hurt her, he knew. It was too late. Everything was too late.
In the dark Tom struggled into his clothes, which he had left hanging over the back of a chair. The clothes were cold because their house was drafty, one of those houses built with poor insulation in the walls. Someday, when their financial situation was a little more stable, they were going to re-insulate.
Tom made his way into the kitchen. The coffeepot on the stove held about half a cup. He turned on the flame underneath the pot and contemplated the night through his kitchen window. The snow had picked up some. It looked bleak outside, like the tarmac of an airport, a desolate space without human habitation. It seemed blacker than was normal, a denser black, like obsidian.
When the coffee was hot he poured it into a car-cup and headed out the back door. He didn't know why he did it, but he reached back inside and flicked on the cheap string of Christmas lights he had strung across the house-front. They lit the house somberly, dull colors against the grey siding.
The wind bit his face like the little ends of nothing, small needle-pricks. Tom felt as if he were driving toward his own funeral.
When Tom got back home he let himself quietly in through the back door. It was a little before four a. m. He was supposed to be at work again by nine but maybe Mr. Breston would cut him some slack, since he handled this middle of the night duty. He had sold five Cadillacs. The total sticker price was just under $80,000. Elvis had paid in cash. Besides the five cops who were getting cars, there were three other guys there, beefy guys with faces like boxers. They didn't even smile. Elvis was friendly, though, laughing a lot, if only to himself, and his thanks at the close of the transaction seemed sincere.
Tom stripped out of his clothes in the kitchen so as not to wake Kathy. He had to get up with her in about two hours but he still wanted to slip into bed and sleep as much as possible.
Kathy's back was turned away from him, exactly as he had left her, when he entered the bedroom. He could barely make out her sleeping form in the dim room, lit only by a little moonlight which leaked in around the shade. The sky had cleared while he was selling Elvis Presley the cars, but it was still cold as hell out there.
Tom carefully raised the covers and slid himself under them. They were chilly against his feet and ankles. The whole room seemed cold, as if the heat wasn't working at all, yet he knew it was, struggling against the odds. Sometimes on the coldest nights the house barely reached 60 degrees.
Tom lay under the covers, his eyes wide. He was as tired as Old Nick but his heart was racing. Perhaps it was just the brush with celebrity. The human body was such an odd casement of nerves and organs; the slightest slip in its normally calibrated day and it went off, like a car with a delicate engine. Tom had had a car like that once, a little Italian sports car when he was in college. It would do a hundred easy on a straight-away, purring like a kitten, but if you didn't tune it constantly and keep the oil level just right, it was like a fine watch with a piece of grit in it.
Tom gave it up years ago of course. He got married, got a job, got a Cadillac from the dealership. Besides, the little bug was too much trouble. He couldn't imagine himself now paying that much attention to how his car ran, worrying about fluid levels, etc. He had larger concerns now.
Sleep never did come for Tom that night. Once he started thinking it was all over; his mind jumped from subject to subject like an emotional pinball machine. By dawn he was worried about his marriage, the constant piece of grit in his works.
Once, long ago, Tom remembered, Kathy had met him at the door when he came home from work, wearing only Saran Wrap. She got the idea from a book.
"Ta da," she sang, as he opened the door.
To be honest the Saran Wrap looked ridiculous, making her breasts appear distorted and bunching over her fine hips. Nevertheless, he closed the door swiftly behind him and they had made love in the living room, on the floor and partly on the couch, with an abandon that was never repeated. Shortly after that Kathy had discovered she could not have children.
When the alarm went off at six Kathy sleepily threw her hand over her head to hit the snooze button. Tom pushed it for her and she rolled over and opened her eyes.
"You're up," she said, stupid with slumber.
"Yeah. Couldn't sleep."
"Sell some cars?" she asked.
"Yeah," Tom said.
Kathy rolled back away from him.
"Could you make the coffee this morning?" she said over her shoulder.
Tom slowly uncurled his body from the bed. He was stiff and the cold seemed to have gotten inside him, between his bones, settling in his joints and connective tissues. His feet hurt when they hit the floor.
In the kitchen Tom looked out over the land around his property. New houses were being built a half-block over and Tom could see the naked frames backlit by the rising sun. Snow lay over the land, white and clean, covering his side-yard where he had been unable to get grass to grow, covering what was normally a sough of mud. Tom concentrated on the whiteness of the snow as the coffeepot heated. As he stared at its inert vacancy, it seemed to go on forever, a cleanness, a purity, which made Tom as sad as death itself. It made him mistrustful of the future, of the next day and the next, of the faith it required.
Copyright©2003 Corey Mesler