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He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.
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I folded the check and put it in my shirt pocket and tried not to grin. The husband, a Mr. Diedre, had just bought a used Buick that had been on the lot awhile, and his wife, a cute little thing in pink chiffon and goofy white ruffles, looked like she was happy enough to keep the hubby busy all night long and not be sad about it.
The Buick they bought wasn’t but a couple years old, a ’62 model, but it had been driven hard and an insane number of miles were racked up on it. The owner, a seventeen-year-old, had a heavy foot. His parents took the car from him and made him get a sacking job at the Piggly Wiggly.
I knew how hard and how much the car had been driven because I had rolled back the odometer, bringing it down to a number so low I could say the car had belonged to a little old lady who bought it to drive to church on Sundays and the grocery store on Mondays; and died suddenly and her son traded it in because he didn’t know what else to do with it. Simple story. Simple lie.
I had the car’s transmission worked on a little, but within a few days, if the couple made a hard hill more than once or decided to get in any kind of hurry, that transmission would drop like a turd, if the radiator didn’t go first. It had a small hole in it that I had plugged, but that plug was like chewing gum stuck in a hole in Hoover Dam. It wasn’t going to hold. It was mostly there on its honor, and it wasn’t a vow it could maintain. But to make up for all that, the car was overpriced and the tires weren’t as good as they looked.
By the time they figured out they owned a turnip that would cost more to fix than what they’d paid for it, it would be too late. Way Smiling Dave worked, him being the fellow owned the business, was any car paid for, once you drove it off the lot, was all yours, and so were any problems that came with it.
We cashed checks pretty quick.
Diedre might come back angry, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. The rule was on our little black-and-white signs. We had them all over the place and they said all deals were final. The signs were many, but small, and the lettering was even smaller. That way we didn’t make people nervous right off. It was also in our contracts, but few people actually read them, and even if they did, they wanted a car and had the money, they bought it. A bought car was purchased and made it onto the street, you were done, and so were we.
On top of that I had been known to knock a disgruntled head or two, and Smiling Dave, about two hundred and fifty pounds of lard on a five-foot-five frame mounted on tiny feet, had a cheap pistol in the desk drawer in his office, which was also my office.
I had a smaller desk and a less comfortable chair. I could look at him and see him coughing over his cigar, hear him wheezing wind, squeaking around in his swivel chair. Place always smelled like someone had set fire to a tobacco barn. I don’t smoke myself. Nasty habit. Winds you and burns holes in your clothes, makes you smell the way the office smells. I can’t handle a woman that smokes. I like to kiss one that doesn’t taste like an ashtray or yesterday’s chewing tobacco.
I came into the office and gave the Diedre check to Smiling Dave and told him he might want to take it to the bank.
He pursed his lips, studied the contract and the check. “Got yourself a nice commission there, Ed. You done all right. What is that, three cars this week?”
“Yeah. And one of them might even last out the year. I got to get home a little early today. Got a dog to kick and an old lady to push down the stairs.”
“Don’t grow a conscience, Ed. It’s bad for your bank account. You know what they say. Buyer beware, and better you fucked than me.”
I went over and sat in my little chair behind my little desk and squinted against the cigar smoke.
Smiling Dave squeaked his chair in my direction, put his cigar in a big clay ashtray his kid made for him at camp. It looked like a hunk of mud someone had beat an indention into with their fist. DAD was scratched into the side of it as if by an arthritic hand.
“I got something I need you to do. Repossess that red Caddy I sold a while back to a couple named Craig.”
“That one was damn near a new car.”
“Yep, and in good shape. Not our usual bucket of nuts and bolts and our best wishes. I didn’t try and have them buy it outright, too expensive, and worth it for a change. I let them pay on it, couple that bought it. Only way I could sell that one for what it was worth. Not many folks going to walk in here with the kind of money to buy a barely used Caddy.”
“So what did the woman look like?”
“You know me, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers.”
“Figured as much, you making a deal like that.”
“Hey, I got to look at her legs, got the down payment and two months of payments, then they stopped paying. Tried calling them, sent a letter. No response.”
“You try carrier pigeon?”
“That would be you, Ed. You’re my carrier pigeon. Might want to take that blackjack you got, maybe some brass knuckles. Her husband is a pretty big guy. Doesn’t look like he could flip over a truck with his bare hands every day, but he looks like he could hit a guy in the eye and loosen some teeth.”
“All right, I’ll get over there after work.”
“No need to do that. Go during work hours, you want. Hell, I’m not paying you enough for after-hours work.”
“You’re not paying much for regular hours either. A few dollars and commission.”
“Shit, Ed. You sell a lot of cars. You get a good commission. You aren’t having to punch the clock and wear a tie. You got those sports coats and tassels on your shoes. Which look silly, by the way.”
“This from a fat man with cigar ash on his shirt.”
Smiling Dave chuckled. “Yeah, but I got my personality to fall back on.”
It was late afternoon after work, and I had a cup of coffee and listened to the radio at the apartment, then I got the papers together I might need and decided to drive out to repossess the Cadillac.
First, I called my sister and told her I would pick her up, and she could drive my car back for me.
“Because I’m at your beck and call,” Melinda said.
“No. Because I’ll pay you ten dollars.”
“Now we’re talking.”
When I got to the trailer park lot where Melinda lived, she was sitting on the steps reading a magazine. It was hard for me to imagine she was nineteen now. She had turned into a smart and pretty woman, and the idea of her spending her time working at the aluminum-chair factory irked me, but then again, I wasn’t exactly a role model. She saw me drive up, left the magazine on the steps, and got in the car, her long black hair bouncing on her shoulders.
“Hello, brother dear.”
“What the hell is that you’re wearing?”
“They call them shorts in a lot of places.”
“Well, they’re short.”
“You like women who show their legs.”
“Yeah, but they aren’t my little sister.”
“Before we go, want to come in and see Mother?”
“Not just now,” I said.
The address on the contract put the Craigs outside of town. They had a large chunk of property with a drive-in theater on it, THE HIGH-TONE DRIVE-IN, and next to it was a fenced-in slice of land, maybe five acres or more, that had a metal sign above the entrance that said PET HEAVEN. All around it was a classy split-rail fence. That seemed like an odd choice for a cemetery of any kind, but that’s how it was done. There were a lot of graves out there, and nearby a couple of buildings, both pretty large, and one of them was larger than the other and looked like it might be a garage.
There were a lot of trees at the edge of the cemetery, and there was a little road that wound down behind them. The house sat close to the road and there was a gravel drive that led up to it. The house was a little white job that needed a new roof and someone to cut the grass. It had a white picket fence around it, and a white slat-board gate, and a flagstone walkway.
I didn’t see the Caddy, hoped it was in the garage.
I parked in front of the gate.
Melinda said, “Not a bad house, and you say they got the graveyard and the picture show?”
“You’d think two businesses, they could make a car payment.”
“You got to have a pet to bury before they get any cemetery money, but the drive-in, maybe. Lot of teenagers go.”
“Yeah, me and Jody go sometimes so we can fool around.”
“Don’t tell me anymore about it, sis. Leaving the keys in the car, just in case you need to go quick. Sometimes people get rowdy. Slide over behind the wheel when I get out.”
I leaned across Melinda and got the blackjack out of the glove box and dropped it in my coat pocket.
“Damn, Ed. You going to beat a payment out of them?”
“Just making sure the conversation stays on an even keel.”
I got out, unlatched the gate and walked up the rock-slab walk to the front door.
I knocked and tried to not look threatening. A woman answered the door, pushed the screen wide, making me step back. I stepped slightly forward when the screen was pressed open, let my body hold it that way. The woman blocked the doorway by leaning on the door frame.
Mrs. Craig, I presumed. She looked about twenty-five or so. She was holding a tall drinking glass with flower designs on it, and the glass was nearly full of a pink liquid that made me think of blood in the water. She was blond in a cheap out-of-the-bottle way, had arched eyebrows and lips that could talk a man into anything, maybe some women. She wasn’t wearing any makeup. She didn’t need it. She was barefoot with long, brown legs in snow-white short-shorts so tight you couldn’t have slipped a shoe spoon into them, and there was more nice business in a tight blue blouse that had a kind of pull tie across her belly. I could see her navel. It was a nice navel. I’d have licked champagne or chocolate out of that navel. Fact was, I might have licked pond water out of it if that’s what she had in it.
Her eyes were kind of narrow, and I’d say that was her only flaw, way those black eyes looked at me standing there, like an alligator that was about to bite my head and roll with me down into deep water from which there would be no coming up.
I found my hand drifting into my coat for the blackjack. I can’t rightly explain that, but I remember that and thinking, It’s just a woman, a fine-looking one, and a blackjack probably won’t be necessary.
“Mrs. Craig,” I said.
“Is your husband home?”
“Nope. You figure I can’t do business unless he’s here?”
“I’m here on a matter that might require both of you present.”
“Nice save, big guy.”
“May I come in?”
“You come here, smile at me, and you think that’s going to move me to let you in?”
“I certainly hoped it would.”
“You through looking at my legs?”
“Not as long as they’re there to look at.”
She smirked and sipped her drink. She studied me the way a shopper studies fish at the fish market. “You look like someone mixed you up with the right ingredients, handsome.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think maybe there’s too much salt.”
She smiled then. She had movie-star teeth. “Who’s that in the car, your girlfriend or your getaway driver?”
I looked back and saw Melinda had slid behind the wheel as I’d asked. She gave me a little wave.
“My sister. She’s waiting on me, but no rush.”
“Come in,” she said.
She walked back into the house, and I slipped in after her, careful not to let the screen door slam.
There was a big swamp cooler in the living-room window. We went past the living room, that cooler ruffling our hair, and into the kitchen. The back door was open, but the screen was shut. It was growing dusky outside, but I could see the cemetery from there, and the two buildings out back, and between them a clearing full of tall grass and the woods beyond.
There was a big pitcher on the table full of a reddish liquid and ice cubes were floating in it. Around the table were cheap chairs with blue plastic backs. There were rubber place mats, and one of them had a water ring that I knew would fit the bottom of her glass.
She sat down and didn’t offer me a chair. I pulled one out and sat down, pulled the folded papers I had with me, the ones concerning the Cadillac, out of my sports-coat pocket and placed them in front of me and smoothed them out on the table.
She said, “Something to drink?”
I didn’t know what was in the pitcher, but it looked cold, and though the swamp cooler was straining, about the only thing it was doing was making the air feel damp. It wasn’t any better than rubbing your face with a warm, wet towel.
“Sure,” I said. I knew I should have just gotten it over with, but something about her kept me stalling. She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to find anything out, so what was my rush?
She got up and pulled a glass out of the cabinet and brought it back to me. Way she moved was like a sex ballet. She placed the glass on the table, poured some of the liquid from the pitcher into it, and sat it in front of me on the rubber mat and partly on the contract.
I moved the glass as she sat down. I took a sip from the glass. It was some kind of strawberry drink, and it had enough whiskey in it to pickle an eel.
“Well, that’s certainly an evening bracer,” I said.
“Yeah, I thought I’d have a glass or two of it before dinner, then skip dinner.”
“I suppose I should get right down to business.”
“It’s about the Cadillac.”
“You mean the one that hasn’t been paid on?”
“Yeah. Well, I got a beat-up old jalopy in the outbuilding out there, but no Cadillac.”
“Well, you bought a Cadillac.”
“My husband did, and he’s not here. He’s in it, or maybe he’s out of it and drinking somewhere, might be fucking or fighting. Maybe both at the same time. I don’t even know where he is. He hasn’t been around in two months or so. He took the Caddy and quit payments. Another couple of weeks, more bills are coming due. I might have to get a job if I don’t start hooking first. That’s a joke, by the way.”
“I see. So he’s got the car?”
“I’m pretty sure I said that.”
“Suppose you did. Being as the payments are due, we need either the money or the car. You can pay me today.”
“No, I can’t. I haven’t got the money.”
“When’s your husband coming back?”
“Can’t say. Don’t know. But if he comes back, he likes a Monday. Rarely comes back on a Tuesday, but the rest of the days are a toss-up.”
“Where’s he work?”
“Seriously. Listen…what’s your name?”
“Damn. Is your middle name Ed too?”
“Thing is, Mrs. Craig—”
“The bill is overdue and we have to either get our money or repossess it. I’m sorry, that’s just how it works. You buy something, you have to pay for it.”
“Let me put it like this. What I said before about money, not having any, nothing has changed since I mentioned that unless a rich uncle died somewhere and left me something. Maybe later I’ll get a telegram. As for the car, you can take it for all I care, but the thing is I don’t have it. You find my husband, Frank, you take it from him. Which, by the way, might require some strenuous effort. He’s what you might call rambunctious.”
“All right, then,” I said. “I guess I’ll go.”
“Drink your drink.”
I took another sip of it, felt my liver try to hide behind a lung, and put the glass down. “That’ll do me,” I said.
I got up and made a production of pushing my chair under the table and picking up the contract. I shook it a little. “You signed a contract.”
“Nope. Frank did.”
“I’ll be back.”
“Lose the sports coat. Dress up next time. Maybe we’ll go dancing. Frank’s home, we can drive somewhere in the Cadillac. But I get the feeling you’re more of a Dairy Queen guy and you like to drink at home with a TV dinner.”
“Sometimes I have my beer and TV dinner with someone,” I said.
“So you have a dog?”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Craig. Until next time, when I take the car.”
“Frank’s home, you might want to bring a tire iron.”
I thought about the blackjack in my coat pocket. I figured that would be enough.
I had Melinda slide over and I slipped in behind the wheel. It had grown solid dark by that time.
“Well?” Melinda said.
“She says she doesn’t know where the car is. That her husband has it, and he hasn’t been around in a couple months, sells encyclopedias on the road.”
“You believe that?”
“Nope. Well, he might not be around and he might sell encyclopedias, but I got this hunch the car is out there in the garage.”
“So I still get the ten dollars?”
“You do. Use it to buy some pants, a dress, maybe.”
“You could give that woman a ten, have her buy some pants.”
“Well, once again, she’s not my sister.”
“She doesn’t look like someone could be anyone’s sister.”
I dropped Melinda off with a ten in her hand, went home, put a TV dinner in the oven, and got a beer out of the refrigerator. I sat at the kitchen table and drank the beer and watched the stove like I was waiting on the Resurrection.
When the dinner was done, I put it on the little table in front of the couch, turned on the TV, got myself another beer and a fork, came back, and flopped my ass down.
Nancy had figured me pretty close. Beer and a TV dinner, but no dog.
I ate the dinner, watched a little TV, mostly cowboys shooting people off horses, and then I turned it off and read awhile. I had three days of newspapers backed up.
When I finished reading them, I realized I could have just as well not read them. There wasn’t anything in them that stuck to me. Right then, maybe nothing would stick to me.
I kept thinking about Nancy and her long legs and that tight blouse and that belly button, and I kept thinking too she seemed excessively world-weary for someone that young. But I was young and felt that way myself. The Korean War will do that to a fella. I wondered what Nancy’s husband was like. I didn’t get the feeling she missed him being gone. I wondered if maybe he was actually around. He might have been in the back room, for all I knew, had let her talk to me and soften me up.
I got the contract and looked it over. She was closer to my age than I expected. Her maiden name was Woodward, and she was from a little town called Gladewater. She had a ninth-grade education and a Baptist raising, as she had written that in where it asked for her religion. She didn’t seem like a devoted churchgoer to me.
Her husband’s name was Frank. He was thirty-six. In the religion slot, he wrote None. Well, me and him had that in common. For occupation, he wrote in sales. Also a connection.
Maybe Nancy hadn’t lied. Maybe he was on the road, and when he got back, he would make a nice juicy payment and fill in the ones he missed.
And maybe not.
I got my coat with the blackjack in the pocket, put it on, and drove back out to the Craig place. I didn’t park in front of the gate this time. I parked down from the pet cemetery, off the little road that was bordered by trees. I kind of liked that idea. I once had a dog and he was buried in an abandoned yard, and now and again I still thought about him. I thought about a lot of things, none of them particularly important.
I could see the lights from the drive-in, and I could see a bit of the screen from where I stood. There was a monster movie on. I loved a good monster movie, but tonight I wouldn’t be seeing one.
I walked over to the cemetery, slipped through the split-rail fence that went around it, mostly as decoration, and started walking toward the buildings behind the house. Nancy said she had an old heap parked there, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t have a ritzy companion by the name of Cadillac.
It wasn’t a bright night, but the lights from the drive-in made it so I could be seen if someone was looking. I glanced toward the house, but there was only one light in a window. A back room.
I took out my little penlight and used it to flash around the cemetery. There were a few headstones, but there were mostly metal markers that had the shape of an animal at the top, dog or cat, though there was one that was either a parakeet or a parrot.
I paused at a marker that said BENNY, HE WAS A GOOD HORSE. Under that, someone had scratched in But he should have watched for cars.
I made my way through the fence on the other side and over to the bigger building, a kind of metal barn, one I thought would serve as a garage, and checked to see if the wide doors in the front were locked. They weren’t.
I pushed one of them back and went inside, pulled the door closed behind me. There was a jalopy there, all right, but there was also a nice little Cadillac, the one that had come from our lot. There was a little motorboat in front of the cars, a lawn mower. Tools hanging on the walls.
I opened the Caddy door, and the interior light came on. I looked to see if she kept the keys in the ignition. She didn’t. I checked behind the sun visor. Nope.
I would have to hot-wire it. I was pretty good at that. While I was under the dash, maybe I could roll back the odometer, just to have it done for the next owner, who in this case would actually get a good deal. I liked the car myself. I thought I’d look good driving it around. I got it back to the lot, I’d call and wake up Melinda, have her pick me up, bring me back to pick up my car.
I was about to slide in and go to work with my pocketknife on the wires under the dash when I heard the barn door open. I pulled my head out of the car and saw Nancy outlined in the open doorway.
She had on a short black dress and was wearing high heels and holding what looked like a cannon in her hand.
- "When funky books need to be written, Joe R. Lansdale writes them. . . . The plot is pure James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, but steeped in hillbilly noir."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
"The prolific Mr. Lansdale…draws on the spirit and themes of James M. Cain in this stand-alone book, which works clever variations on such Cain classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.
—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- "Lansdale really makes this used car purr."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Highly enjoyable . . . Populated with an admirable array of laughable miscreants, this droll, savage novel is vintage Lansdale. The author's storytelling powers remain as strong as ever."—Publishers Weekly
- " [A] down-and-dirty riff on Double Indemnity, a provocative new variation on James M. Cain’s noir classic...an enjoyably cynical cruise down the back roads to perdition."—Lisa Henricksson, Airmail
- "He's genre dextrous, moving fleetly between westerns, mysteries, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, literary fiction, and nonfiction, and doing it all extremely well."—Publishers Weekly
- "Southern crime legend Joe Lansdale channels his best James M. Cain world vision...Readers can expect to be transported in the usual Lansdale fashion, as nobody does those East Texas period details quite like Lansdale, who always delivers with a finely-crafted, engaging, compulsive crime story in his home terrain."—Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads
- Praise for The Elephant of Surprise
- On Sale
- Jul 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Mulholland Books