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John Holman
damaged luxury


At eight on an August Monday morning, Phyllis Clark, called Butter by her boyfriend, Grim, and by most every other adult she knew in town, brought her Corvette to be polished at Belly Man's Exchequer Car Wash and Detail Shop. Belly Man had a deal to wash all of Grim's tow trucks and used cars, so as a favor he loaned her a teal Electra 225. The car had a black fake-convertible top and gleaming gold chrome trim. Along the bottom side panels, from front wheel to back, ran a strip of gold mirror bearing the words, "Layin' Low," in hologram.

It was a hard car to drive. The exhaust thundered, the ceiling fabric sagged and the signal lights didn't work. The electric seats moved backward only. Butter wondered whether or not the brake lights worked, and whether or not the car would bring the police down on her. Belly Man's reputation meant there was no telling how he had gotten the car, or what crime it might have been used for. It practically screamed, "Search me." If Grim could see her now, he'd either laugh out loud or demand she get out of the car immediately. She couldn't decide which would please her more. She had met him almost a year ago when she hit town and was looking for a used car. He fed her grilled fish and sold her the Corvette, saying it fit her, that it was freedom formed of fiberglass. He made himself irresistible. Now, he seemed pretty much like family.

She was on her way to Sacred Lamb School, where she taught first grade. Classes wouldn't start for three weeks, but she wanted to hang posters of clever-looking animals representing the alphabet, and to have a look at some of the new children who would be there to take diagnostic tests. Besides, she had been spending too much time with Grim and his cronies--filling in as tow-truck dispatcher and playing hostess at Grim's parties. She had to stick her arm out of the window to signal turns, but most of the trip was freeway. She eased into the school's neighborhood of old houses, on a block of brick side streets, and then had to wait behind a cream-colored station wagon at a stop sign, where a barefoot man was leaning into the driver's window. The man was bearded and animated. He smiled big, and Butter began to doubt he was begging; maybe he and the woman behind the wheel knew each other. It was a sweet idea--delight shared across socio-economic classes like that. A little girl's bright red pigtails popped into view in the back seat. Finally, the car moved on and the man waved goodbye.

As Butter rolled to the stop sign, the man stayed in the road and waved. His beard was thick and gray, and his skin was glistening and dark. His smile was beautiful, Butter thought. Where'd he get those teeth? He bent to her window and said, "Give me a goddam, motherfucking quarter."

Butter laughed. "You want a quarter? I might have a quarter." She looked in her purse. "All I have is a son-of-a-bitch dollar."

"Give it to me, baby. You want my shirt? I already gave away my shoes. I'm just out here, doing nothing wrong."

"Sure."

"Everything I do is right." He began to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, while Butter found some change in the bottom of her purse and handed it to him with the dollar.

"Enjoy these shitfaced dimes, too," she said, interrupting him.

The man reared back on his heels in laughter. "I ain't got nothing else." As Butter drove away she watched him in her rearview mirror. He was hopping up and down laughing. His happiness must have scared that other woman and little girl to death, she thought. They hadn't given him any money.

She maneuvered the Buick into a faculty space on the school lot. Children and parents were getting out of station wagons and minivans in the paved courtyard, and a girl new to Butter came over to her. "Hi," Butter said.

"Nice ride," said the girl. She looked to be about nine years old, fourth grade. She wore a dress, blue with white rosebuds. Her feet, in brand new cross trainers, looked oversized.

"I borrowed it," Butter said. She squeezed the sore muscle at the nape of her neck and wagged her head. "It's painful."

"I can drive," the girl said, scanning the car. "My dad lets me."

"Really? Are you going to be a student here?"

"Me and my sister--the one just under me, not my two baby sisters, because they're just babies. You're a teacher, I guess. Why don't you have your own car?"

"I do," Butter said. She reached for the posters in the back seat. Loose tobacco lined the creases of the tight leather upholstery. "It's a Corvette. Can you drive a Corvette?"

"My sister's name is Corvette. All of us are named for Chevy's, because my daddy likes them so much. Beretta and Lumina are the babies. I'm Camaro. So of course I can drive a 'Vette." She smirked.

"Well, all right. That's all right. Where are you supposed to be now?"

"In there." She pointed to the school office. "I gotta show these new Sisters how smart I am. I always make A's. Nobody can believe me. You won't either. Don't you want to know my last name?"

"O.K."

"M-e-l-l-o. Mello."

"I'm Miss Clark." She decided not to spell it. "First grade."

"I'm way past that," Camaro said. "You might get my sister, though."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Butter said.

"This is a sharp car," Camaro said. "It's loaded, isn't it? What's it got? Remote entry? Turbo? After-factory specials? Automatic inside and out?"

Butter looked at the car, and noticed for the first time the thin, gold ribbony swirls under the gold door handles. With its blue tinted windows and gold hubcaps, it looked like something won at the fair. "What doesn't it have?" she said.

They went to the school together. Parents and children filled the office and the small chairs set up in the hallways.

"There's my mom," Camaro said. "See you." She bounced over to a woman who didn't look like she would allow her children to be named for cars.

=====

Half an hour later, Butter had hung her posters and organized the materials she would use in her classroom. First graders were lining up in the hallway beside Sister Eunice, the vice-principal, who was about to lead them into the media room for the exam. This was what Butter had wanted to see, the gathering of sweet-faced children still small and soft, before they hardened into individual personalities and Butter hardened into teacher.

She tried to remember which of the children was Camaro's sister. There were only four black children in the line of a dozen, and all four were girls. The one that most resembled Camaro had, like one other girl, a head full of thick braids and colorful translucent barrettes. And then Camaro's mother went over to straighten the child's elastic-waist skirt. When Sister Eunice had led the first-graders away, Butter decided to introduce herself. Camaro was already saying, "Mom, that's Miss Clark."

"I see Camaro has told you about me," Butter said. "She's some super girl. I wanted to meet you, because I might have your other daughter in class this year."

"Then you'll have your hands full," Mrs. Mello said. "These girls are too excited about coming here. They love school."

"So do I," Butter said.

"If I were six years old and you were my teacher, I'd be ecstatic. You look so with it with the earrings and the pretty short hair. You're beautiful."

Butter said thank you and blushed and touched the earrings. They were an abstract arrangement of triangles she had bought at the art museum. She could handle a compliment.

Mrs. Mello said, "We just moved here from the most well-behaved town on the planet, in Alabama. I learned to acquire non-disturbing possessions just to live peacefully there. We're lucky my husband is an engineer and keeps getting better jobs. It's so liberating. We only lived there three years. We're a restless family." She laughed. She sat with terrific posture, knees together, hands in her lap. She wore crisp lime-green pants and blouse--some kind of linen blend--and her longish curled hair had a gray patch at the widow's peak. She looked about Grim's age, early forties. She would be Grim's type if he went for women his own age.

"Mrs. Mello," Butter said. "Did you go to charm school?"

She reached to touch Butter's hand. "Don't flatter me," she whispered. "I was trained to be a teacher myself. My only job was in a Louisiana swamp--my home state, mind you, and it scared the poise out of me. I wasn't trained for that, let me tell you." She laughed again.

"Tell about the boy," Camaro said.

"Oh, a boy attacked me with a lawn mower blade. He hacked the chalkboard to pieces and set the whole class to screaming. I escaped by hiding under my desk to compose my resignation letter."

"My mom is so cool," Camaro said.

"Well, that's a requirement," Butter said. "Where else have you lived?" she asked Mrs. Mello.

"Arizona, California, Massachusetts. Camaro was born there. Corvette is my California girl. It's a wonder we didn't name her Malibu."

"I lived in Philadelphia," Butter found herself saying. There was something intimate about know the names of this woman's children, and she felt compelled to give something about herself. "I was called Philly Pie by everybody all through high school, and then my parents divorced and my mother began calling me Phyllis. I think it was part of her plan to get more distance from Dad. That was tough, but I escaped when I got them to send me to a Minnesota college where I was just plain Phyllis universally. And now I'm Butter, by the way, which was my point."

"Good. I'm better, too."

"No, I'm sorry. I mean that I'm called Butter."

"Why?"

"My boyfriend started it." No need to tell her his name. "I think it's a Southern thing. Something about my skin, he says."

"Oh, oh, oh," Mrs. Mello said, rolling her eyes.

"What?" Camaro asked. "He likes butter a whole lot?"

"I guess so," Butter said. She looked at the book Camaro was holding, an outdated third-grade reader she must have gotten from the counter in the office. It had a silvery cover of a racoon in a rowboat, and it highlighted the girl's innocence, making Butter feel both young and mature at the same time. This same feeling was precisely why she loved the company of Grim, who was twenty-one years her senior. She let the satisfaction of having figured all this out shimmer through her.

"Anyway, this is a great school, she said. "No lawn tool crimes."

"It's why we chose it, exactly," Mrs. Mello said.

Camaro stood up, spun around, and sat back down. "Let's go get something to eat," she said.

"Honey, you've already had breakfast," Mrs. Mello said.

"Yeah, but that wore off. There's a whole hour before they call me."

Mrs. Mello looked at her watch. "But we have to be here when Camaro comes out." Mrs. Mello turned to Butter. "Is there a snack machine in the school?"

"I'm afraid not," Butter said. Strange children and parents were making friends all up and down the hall. The school librarian hustled by and nodded to her. "I know a place about seven minutes from here," Butter said. "I'll take you. I'm hungry, too."

Mrs. Mello stared at Butter a moment, seemed to look at her earrings and eyes, and then stared at Camaro. Camaro jutted out her neck and widened her eyes to plead for a "Yes." Mrs. Mello adjusted the blue bow on Camaro's hair, and regarded Butter again. "I'd better stay. Take the munchkin."

"Yes!" Camaro said.

"Oh, no," Butter said. "You have to come, too. There's a rule, I think. Anyway, I'd prefer it."

"A rule? Really?"

Butter looked at Camaro. "It was a bad idea," she said.

"Come on, Mom."

"Let's put it this way. You have my permission. It's perfectly all right. You'll bring me something back." She pulled some money from her purse and gave it to Camaro.

"Be good," Camaro said to her mother.

=====

"What's this place we're going to?" Camaro asked. She sat low beside Butter in the car, the safety belt almost across her face.

"It's a bagel shop," Butter said. "You can get sandwiches and salads, too. Chips." She wished she had time to take Camaro to meet Grim, but that was outside the city limits. He would appreciate Camaro, the whole Chevrolet family, and the beautiful, profane beggar, too. She hadn't met people this entertaining until she started hanging out with Grim. Belly Man, the paroled car wash entrepreneur, whose office door had a "Gangsters Only" sign, and Dr. East, the filthy chemist who came around collecting aluminum cans in a ragged El Camino--curious people were always coming through Grim's house on business or to play. Now she was even meeting them on her own.

Camaro fiddled with the radio and surprised Butter with the discovery of a CD player in the dashboard. Camaro pushed buttons until Howlin' Wolf started rattling from the split speakers. Grim had the same music on cassette and played it at happy high volume anytime no one complained. Camaro toyed with the digital climate-control awhile, and reset the clock to the right time. The odometer, Butter noticed, was stuck on eighty-three thousand miles. Camaro opened the glove compartment and pulled out a gun.

"Whoa, put that back," Butter said.

Camaro turned it over in her hand. "It could be a pellet gun," she said. "My cousin has one kinda like it." She put it back in the compartment but left the door open. "Looks like a Luger, though."

Butter looked from the road to the gun to Camaro. She pulled over, shut off the engine, and used the key to lock the glove compartment.

"Do you know about guns?" she asked Camaro.

"You?"

"Why would that fool leave that thing in the car?" she said.

"What fool?"

"Never mind." She didn't look forward to explaining this to Camaro's mother, nor to the school principal. Camaro would never keep it quiet, she knew. Belly Man would have to be explained, and Grim.

She drove onto the interstate and got off at the second exit, a gentrified area of bungalows with beveled windows and wide porches. A few blocks along was a small business section, including the blue-shingled mini-mall. It had a lush, narrow lawn backed by deep-orange flowers, a grocery, video store, pet shop, florist. Butter lurched to a stop beside a Previa van in front of the little bagel restaurant.

Purple bougainvillea spilled from baskets hanging outside. Butter liked to stop here on school mornings for a serene moment between a loud night at Grim's--tow trucks, police scanner, stereo, and odd characters blaring--and a day at work with the six-year-olds. Camaro was already out of the car, examining its gold grille and asking how to open the hood. They might as well be at Grim's after all, Butter thought--two car-crazy girls with a gun.

The bagel shop was staffed by the owners, a fiftyish woman and her son. The woman wore white overalls and a black derby. She asked where Butter had been hiding. The son wore gray shorts and a yellow plaid shirt, and listened to Camaro read all the labels on the Lucite bins of bagels. Butter ordered coffee and a toasted wheat bagel with vegetable spread, Camaro cinnamon-raisin and cream cheese.

No one else was in the shop, but several tables still needed to be bussed. They sat at Butter's favorite table, by the window, in soft salmon-colored chairs. There were oil-on-canvas paintings, royal blue and emerald green surfacing from spaces of black, bright as illuminated glass. Camaro took a long time chewing, shifting her bagel from one hand to the other to lick cream cheese from her fingers. "Tricky," she said. When she went to wash her hands, Butter told her to also clean her face. Butter pushed her own plate away, but accepted a refill of coffee when the bowler-hatted woman came around with a fresh pot.

A silver Lexus sports coupe pulled up beside the teal Electra. The man who got out was Jerry Austin. He was wearing mirror-lens sunglasses, and recently he had been stopping by Grim's and at Grim's drink-house haunts, on a Harley that Grim coveted and Butter was afraid he'd buy. She joked with Grim that all he needed to hold on to his youth was her. A motorcycle would push his wildness over the line.

When Jerry went to the counter, the woman took off her derby and plopped it onto his head, and he thumped its crown and bowed before giving it back. Butter was glad to be needing to leave soon. He turned with his tray, and smiled in her direction. He wore loose jeans, a blousy white shirt, and a wide silver bracelet on each wrist. When he got to her table, he said, "Look at that, Buttercup. You got the same thing I did." He set down his tray and put his glasses in his shirt pocket. His eyes shone with ambiguous delight.

"You got the same thing I did, Jerry. Don't call me `Buttercup'."

"I'll just sit here with you if you don't mind."

"I'm with someone, but O.K. We're leaving in few."

"Hey, you're not here looking for me are you?"

"Of course not. Were you looking for me?"

"You're the woman a man searches for all his life. But I came for this veggie spread. I live right around the corner. I'm on my daily schedule."

"I was kidding, Jerry, as I'm sure you were."

"What about? Really, I thought maybe Grim sent you about buying my bike. You live out there with him, don't you?"

"Not with him. Near him."

Camaro came back and stood at Butter's side. She cupped her hand over Butter's ear and whispered, "Who's this?"

Butter put her arm around Camaro and introduced her to Jerry. "You look like an artist," Camaro said. "Did you paint these pictures in here?"

"No, I didn't." When he smiled, he looked harmless. His skin and teeth seemed flawless.

Butter explained why they had to leave soon.

"You mean you two just met?" Jerry said. "Women are great." He bit into the bagel and made a face of exaggerated pleasure. "And you, Miss Butter, are a sanctified woman, like the song says. That's what we like about you."

"Who are `we' and what song?" Butter asked.

"All the guys and dolls are we. And I'm talking about that old Marvin Gaye song."

"`Heard It Through The Grapevine'?" Camaro asked.

"No," he said, chuckling.

`"Ain't No Mountain High Enough'?"

"No. It's called `Sanctified Woman.' You're a `good girl,' like Marvin sings about. You like priests and preachers, I'll bet. You teach the Catholic children and everything."

"They're not all Catholic," Butter said.

"I'm not," Camaro said.

"I went to that school myself," he said. "I'll bet we all have a lot in common."

"What's with those bracelets, Mr. Austin. They soak up arthritis or something?" Camaro asked.

He extended his arm. His fingernails were buffed. "Copper does that," he said. "I'm just into silver."

"So that's your ride out there? The Car of the Year?"

"Yes, and I recognize that Electra beside it. It's Belly Man's loaner, right?"

"Billy who?" Camaro said. "I'm going to have a peek." She looked to Butter for approval. Butter told her to ask Jerry, and he grinned.

"Just stay where I can see you," Butter said. "Don't touch anything. Watch out for cars."

Camaro laughed. "Right." She went out the door.

"It's hard to avoid having things in common," Butter said, gazing after Camaro.

"Thank the lord," Jerry said.

"Yeah? You can lay off the religion talk. I don't teach religion."

"It's O.K. to like me, Butter. Grim and I are friends."

"Like, are you a drug dealer or what? Everybody else is at work."

"I'm serious about my admiration of you. You got me stereotyped."

"I just met the proudest homeless guy on the planet, probably, and Camaro out there is from a brilliant family named for Chevrolets. All of that is quite beautiful and sad to me. You, on the other hand, are not so original."

"I'm just like you."

"I think maybe you sell guns or something. And you don't respect the fact that Grim cares about me."

Jerry laughed. "Grim wants to marry you. I'll bet you didn't even know that. We all want to marry you. You're great."

"Oh, please."

"Ok. I'll be quiet. Let's be quiet together. I'd like that."

She looked out the window, but Camaro wasn't at the cars. She couldn't remember whether or not she had locked the Buick. She considered the idea of Grim's wanting to marry her. She had tried to imagine it before, but it wasn't his style. Certainly not hers. She knew that. She had locked the glove compartment.

She realized she was enjoying the scent of Jerry's cologne, an expensive-seeming, green scent. He ate his bagel expertly, with big, neat bites and slow clean-lipped chewing. The muscle in his jaw was like a pulse.

"What?" he said.

"Most of Grim's friends drive around in some kind of damaged luxury, like that Electra out there, like my used Corvette," she said, just to bug him. "So tell me, what do you do?"

"I adore bourgeois babies like you. I'm not a criminal, as the world leaders say." He put his napkin to his mouth, and draped it on his lap again. "Besides, Grim's a better player than I'll ever be. There's nothing damaged about any of his luxuries."

Butter stood up and unlooped her purse from the back of the chair. "I have to go."

Jerry rose with her. "Me too. Off to my mysterious trade."

She stopped to say goodbye to the owners of the restaurant, and then Jerry held the door open as she went outside. "Thank you," she said. "Now be a good mystery and disappear."

"Oh, you're so pretty and mean. I love that. You remind me of a mother."

She still did not see Camaro. Noise from street traffic and a bread truck being unloaded at the grocery made it easier not to talk anymore to Jerry. She thought Camaro must have sneaked off to the video store or the pet store, and she was grateful to have to look for her there rather than have to walk with Jerry to their cars. The man stacking the bread crates onto a cart looked clean and strong, in tight blue shorts and a light blue shirt with the short sleeves rolled, like a delivery man on television. She stood watching him, waiting for Jerry to walk off, but Jerry put his hand on her back to urge her into the parking lot.

"Listen," he said.

"What, Jerry?"

"Do you hear that?"

Butter faltered. "What is it?"

"Give me your keys," Jerry said, holding out his hand.

"Hell no. Why?"

"Just give them to me, Butter." He grabbed the keys from her hand and trotted to the Buick.

"Come on, Jerry. I don't have time for this tease."

He got behind the car, raised the trunk lid, and after a moment, stepped to the side cradling Camaro.

"Damn it," Butter said. Jerry set Camaro on her feet. Butter ran to her and felt her small damp face and arms until she was sure the girl was all right. She opened the passenger door and sat Camaro down on the seat. "You're supposed to be smart," Butter said.

Jerry jogged back to the bagel shop and brought back a cup of water. Camaro drank half and said, "Oh man, suppose you and this guy had gone to a motel or something. I might have died in there."

"Why were you in the trunk?" Butter asked.

"You can open some trunks from the inside, my daddy said. I thought this car was like that."

"You didn't have to scare me so thoroughly to find out."

"He must have meant from inside the passenger area--the trunk release," Jerry said.

"No kidding," Camaro said.

"We should call you Adventure Girl," said Jerry, laughing. "A budding Houdini. Or better yet, a fearless black hole explorer. Yes, I see your future--Camaro, the intrepid galaxy voyager." He spread his arms out over his head, as if tracing the arc of the heavens.

"Hey, I get it," Camaro said, her eyes brightening.

"Go home, Jerry," Butter said. "Thanks and all that."

=====

She strapped Camaro and herself in the car and headed back toward Sacred Lamb, leaving Jerry in the parking lot. She tried to see the fun of what had just happened, as Jerry had. Mrs. Mello ought to have her fired or arrested. She wished she was on her way to see Grim, with whom all manner of catastrophe often seemed kept just distant enough to be a joke. She considered throwing away the gun, but it wasn't hers, and maybe it was a fake gun. Anyway, it was locked up. Camaro suggested they say nothing about either the trunk incident or the gun, and Butter explained why they had better tell the truth about everything. It was an opportune and easy lesson in honesty. But what she really wanted to say was that you can't trust anybody--not your teacher, your parents, even yourself.

They were on the interstate now. Camaro nudged Butter's knee and pointed out Butter's window. Butter turned to see a red-faced man with a yellow buzz-cut driving an impeccable gray Cadillac right beside her at fifty-five miles per hour, his open white shirt collar flapping in the wind. He was motioning for her to roll down her window. Butter shook her head and gestured for him to pass her, but he cranked his fist again. She sped up sluggishly and heard a rattling knock in the engine, the front end shook, and he stayed with her. Maybe he wanted to tell her about a fire in the tailpipe, she thought, or oil gushing from underneath. She slowed, rolled down her window, and he shouted something she couldn't catch. "What?" she yelled back, now wishing she could at least get to the gun.

"Just like it," he screamed, pointing, half-frowning and half-grinning, snarling maybe. "I'll sell you a car just like that one!"

"This one?"

"Exactly!"

"Cool," Camaro said. Butter laughed. She didn't know whether to try to pass him again or to slow down more and hope he passed her. The guy was crazy, obviously, offering her something she couldn't possibly want, that couldn't possibly be. She wantedsomething with rocket fuel, something ballistic. She was ready to blast away to elude this guy, leave this scene behind in trails of fiery smoke.


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