No Lemons On My Lot
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
THE trouble starts one night I am taking time off from my used car lot to sit in Mable’s kitchen and chew the fat with her grandpa while I watch Mable iron the old rooster’s shirts.
“Have you heard about Mable being asked to quit her job at the Griddle and be a private secretary?” Grandpa Gains asks. “Maybe you’ll be paying for your western sandwiches from now on, Harry.”
I know he’s just sore because I still haven’t been able to get him the car he wants, so I ignore the quip. “Private secretary whom to?” I enquire. “Simmeon Horn,” says Grandpa Gains.
“What’s that?” I says.
He leans back and slides a big thumb between his
braces and his Merino underwear. Grandpa Gains is an old lumberjack, and at 74 he is still a very rugged character.
“Simmeon Horn,” he says, rubbing his free hand over his jaw, which is like a frosty coconut mat, “is not a‘that.’ It’s a‘he.’”
“It sounds like a new car part,” I crack, trying not to sound like I’m interested. But I am. Mable hasn’t been acting quite as glad to see me as she should, considering we are engaged to be wed.
Later on, when Grandpa Gains has gathered up an armful of newspapers and disappeared into the living room, I say, casual, “Is that guy Horn’s name really on the level, or is it just for laughs?”
Mable whacks the iron down on the board with more noise than is strictly necessary.
“Don’t be droll,” she snaps. “Maybe you should take time off to find out who’s who around town.”
“So?” I says, icy. “Who is this wonder boy?”
“Simmeon Horn,” she says, “is a very brilliant young man who is giving lectures here.”
She goes to the kitchen window ledge and comes back with a picture torn from a newspaper. She hands it to me with a look as if she’s laying out four aces.
Right away I don’t like this guy in the picture. He is very frank and fearless-looking, with a jutting, dimpled chin and a big beautiful smile that comes right out and grabs you by the lapel. But the eyes above the smile look as if they’re not missing any moves.
Maybe this is sour grapes, as I am skinny, with a face that is just a face, and I’ve been told my taste in clothes is too much on the sharp side. Also that I wear them too long.
Anyway, I don’t like this guy.
Over the top of the picture is a caption which says, “Lectures here.”
“What does he lecture about?” I enquire.
“On molding character,” Mable says. “I might add he has already done a lot for me.”
“What was wrong with your character?” I pipes.
I-.Ir.ble, even though she was brought up by her grandpa and so naturally is a bit pigheaded, is put together as well above the ears as she is from there down. That is, of course, if you don’t count her way of getting excited every now and then about some odd idea, like the time a quickie organization got her all worked up about the North American Indians not getting a fair break, and which ends up with Mable being scalped out of a month’s salary that never reached the redskins.
“Simmeon says we are all only half living. All of us,” Mable says. “That’s why we are all so restless and greedy, and why we are always trying to cut one another’s throats. Like trying to get the best of one another in deals, for instance.”
I know this crack has reference to certain jalopies I have sold which don’t run very good, through no fault of mine.
Later, when Mable finishes her ironing, we go outside. I sit down beside her on the porch swing. It is bright moonlight and I can see her face clearly. She looks very pretty.
“Okay, Mable,” I say. “So what’s wrong with
my character all of a sudden? Tell me.” There is a slight softening in her eyes, as if I am a small boy about to get his tonsils out, and it doesn’t make me feel too good.
“It’s not your fault, Harry,” she says. “After all, the business you’re in—” She stops, as if that explains everything.
I say, “Since when was making an honest living selling automobiles been worse than charging people for listening to a lot of hot air?”
The kind light goes out of Mable’s eyes, as if she is glad I am going to have my tonsils out.
“Honest?” she snaps. “You don’t call it honest taking money for that pile of wrecks you deal in?” How do you like that? Me, Harry Spiers, who has always abided by my motto: No Lemons On My Lot!
“So that’s how it is!” I say. “Now I’m a crook.” “Are you going to deny some of those crafty deals you’ve told me about from time to time?” Mable asks.
“Mable,” I say, trying to keep cool and calm, “I am trying to make enough money to support a mother who was unfortunate enough to bring a low character like me into the world; also, to save a bit to someday get married on.”
Mable makes no comment, so I go on.
“But I am in a tough racket. Maybe I have to think fast at times. But when you’re in the used car business everybody you deal with is being foxy. It’s always open season on dealers. People brag about getting rid of their old heap for more than it’s worth. Plenty of them do. But if the dealer so much as sells some 1927 clunker for the price of a baby carriage and it turns out that it pumps a bit of oil, the customer’s around the next day with a cop.”
Mable gives me a little smile, as if, after all, I am a bit simple-minded and should not be blamed for what I say.
“Mr. Horn says: ‘Truth is the best salesman.’ ” “Then I wish Mr. Horn would talk to some of my customers.”
“I still think there are a few honest people in this world,” says Mable.
“Sure there are,” I crack back. “They just don’t come around used car lots.”
We sit there in silence for a minute. Then I say, “Look, Mable. Let’s forget about the used car business. After all it’s only a few months till our wedding. We shouldn’t be fighting like this.”
“I’m afraid things are different now, Harry,” Mable says, looking a bit guilty.
“Different! What do you mean, different?” Mable gets a dreamy expression in her eye. “Mr. Horn has made me realize how small and petty a life I’ve been living. There’s so much great work to be done, so many fine people to meet—people like Mr. Horn, who aren’t grasping and greedy and dishonest.”
“Holy cow!” I explode. “Are you really falling for this guy Horn’s line? With all the stenographers looking for work, why should he pick someone from behind a lunch counter for a secretary? He’s up to no good, Mable.”
“You have a mind like a movie villain,” Mable says, with a glassy look. “Besides, I have a right to choose my own life.”
I DISCOVER that Simmeon Horn has his lecture rooms right across from my lot. I see him often during the next few days, going in and out of the building with a springy step, and it helps me remember I am losing my girl.
Then one day I’m sitting in my shack, thinking of Mable and reflecting on the fickleness of women, when he comes over to my lot.
He is just like his picture, only, naturally, there is more of him. The rest of him is very athleticlooking, and his blond wavy hair gleams in the sunlight.
He has no expert hanging behind him, the expert being the guy they bring along to keep them from being rimmed by such unscrupulous characters as me, but who could be sold a lemon just as easy as the next guy.
When I come out of my shack he is looking at a job we call our flagship because it is the one we use
ourselves to do our errands. He gives me the big smile. It fairly comes over and puts its hand on my shoulder. But his eyes stay right where they are, which is at a distance.
“What are you asking for this?” he asks in that way customers have as if they are just out for a walk and happened to drop in.
I tell him. He holds the smile but one cheek gives a little twitch. “You think you’ll get it?”
“I couldn’t say,” I snap back. “Who knows?” He changes his tactics. “I tell you, old man,” he says, very confidential and chummy, “I have a car I might be interested in selling.”
Nobody ever has a car they want to sell. Always they just might be interested in selling it. So I say nothing.
“It’s in perfect condition,” Simmeon goes on in his large, clear voice. “There’s a little wrist pin knock, but nothing serious.”
I still don’t say anything. He tells me the year, the model, the make. I still don’t say anything.
With his romance riding on its rims, Harry decided that all’s fair in love and war and also the used car racket
He tells me how much he paid for it.
Then I say, “So?”
Those eyes of Simmeon’s have been getting glassier and glassier. His cheek gives another little twitch. He is about to answer, when he sees someone coming up the sidewalk and his expression changes. So does mine, because it is Mable.
She is wearing a pure white dress with big brown buttons down the front, and her auburn hair is shining like polished chestnuts. I am beginning to melt, just looking at her, when she tosses this Simmeon Horn a smile. Something grips my heart as if it is being pried out with tire irons. Mable passes the smile around to me, but it is too late. I am riding on my rims.
“Why, hello,” she says to Simmeon. “I didn’t know you knew Harry.”
“I don’t really,” the guy booms heartily. “We were talking about cars.”
“Oh,” says Mable. “Harry, this is Mr. Horn, the man I was telling you about. Simmeon, meet Harry Spiers.”
He gives me a firm, hearty handshake. “Certainly glad to meet you, old man,” he says, very jovial. Then the cheek twitches. “Well, what about it?” He turns to Mable a3 if the whole thing is very amusing. “I’m trying to find out from Harry what he will pay me for my car.”
“I don’t think Harry likes dealing with people he knows,” Mable says, with a phony little laugh. “My grandfather has been after him for months to pick up a car for him, but he hasn’t done anything about it yet.”
“I am trying to get your grandfather something extra good,” I tell her. “He’s not in a hurry.”
I turn to Simmeon. “I can’t say what I can allow on your car. Bring it in and let me have a look at it.”
“I’ve told you what condition it’s in,” Simmeon explains patiently.
“I’d still like to take a look at it.”
Mable gives me a look that freezes me. “Harry has been horse trading for so long that he doesn’t think there are any honest people in the world,” she says.
Simmeon shrugs, turning to Mable. “I was on my way to the Griddle to have a snack. If you’re going there, I’ll walk along with you.”
“I’d be delighted,” Mable lilts, frosting me over hi3 shoulder.
I watch them go up the street, Mable with her arm through his, swinging her purse in a way that makes me want to kneel down and beat my head on the sidewalk.
The next few weeks,
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every time I call Mable she is too busy to see me. It has me so worried that I can’t operate my business right. I feel too low to even want to talk to customers. I try to figure out what I can do. I even drop out one night to see Grandpa Gains about it.
“What’s the matter with you?” he thunders as I come in the door. “You look as if you could do with a good meal.”
“I guess I’m worrying about Mable,”
I tell him when we reach the kitchen. “It looks as if someone is beating my time.”
Grandpa Gains snorts. “When I was a young fella your age, I’d have left the marks of my caulked boots on anybody tried to steal my girl.” He takes tobacco and papers from his pocket and starts to roll himself a sloppy cigarette. “It’s none of my business, she’s old enough to make up her own mind. Although I sure don’t like the idea of having a son-in-law bristling with character. I’d rather have somebody with no character, like you.” His hoary old jaw juts out in a grin. “I guess Horn has done a good selling job on her. All you can do is try to outsell Horn.”
IT SOUNDS worth a try. That night I drop in at the Griddle. Mable is waiting on somebody at the far end of the counter and I have a good chance to feast my eyes on her while I sit there. Her perky little green uniform is precision-tooled and her white cap makes her hair look prettier than ever.
I wonder what crummy prank of fate lets me think I have closed a deal on such a streamlined model, then leaves me ho'ding nothing but the license plates.
When she comes up to me I try to make with the old routine. “Baby, you look good enough to eat. How about getting rid of the customers and pulling down the shades?”
For a moment I think I see the old light in her eye, as if she has noticed me for the first time in a couple of weeks. Then she begins looking at me in a queer way, as if she would like to start molding my character, and I don’t like it. Not that I would mind Mable molding me, but I don’t want her molding me into something Simmeon Horn cooks up.
“Well, are you managing to keep out of the reach of the law?” Mable cracks.
The spell is broken. Right away I find myself saying things I didn’t figure on saying.
“At least I am no fourflusher like certain parties I’ve seen you with lately,” I say, not too bright.
“I wasn’t going to mention it,” says Mable, kind of quiet. “But now that you’ve started calling people names, 1 might say that trick of yours the other day was the smallest thing I’ve seen even you do.”
“What trick?” I ask.
“Refusing to buy Mr. Horn’s car, and trying to make out he would lie to you, just because you were jealous.” How do you like that? 1 nearly fall off my stool.
“Mable,” I say. “You’ve gone nuts.” “Is that so?” Mable flares. “Maybe I have. But Mr. Horn doesn’t seem to think so. And I wouldn’t marry you now, after I’ve had an insight into your character, even if I hadn’t ever met Mr. Horn.”
I am standing up now. I say coolly,
! “So Horn has been working on m.”
; character, too, has he?”
“Yes, he has. And I can tell you it:, not very pretty.” Mable tugs off the i ring I give her six months ago and plops
it down on the counter. “We are througn, Harry Spiers.”
Now I, Harry Spiers, did not get to be owner of the best car lot in town by being a jerk. I go back to my shack and sit there for a while looking at my calendars. I have been in no jam so far that I have not been able to think my way out of. I tell myself, “Take it easy, Spiers. You are making too many wild swings. Keep your eye on the ball and you will see an opening.”
I am right. Before long I get an idea. I go right to work. I get Simmeon Horn’s phone number from Information and give him a call.
“Mr. Horn,” I say, “I called to find out if you still want to sell your car.” There is a chuckle over the line. “I thought you might be interested,” Simmeon says. “All right, old man. I’ll bring it over around noon.”
When Simmeon arrives I tour around his jalopy a couple of times, kicking the tires. I know I am on the right track. Then I enquire, “What you asking for this job?”
He tells me, and I feel as if somebody has stuck a knife in me. But I pull myself together.
“Hop in while I drive it around the block,” I say.
Simmeon Horn’s smile goes out as if he’s burnt a fuse.
“I told you the car is in good shape,” he says briskly. “There’s no need for you to do that. It has a good clutch, lots of pep.”
“Just the same,” I say, “I like to drive a car before I buy it.”
“There’s no point in you driving it,” Simmeon says, “I’ve told you the condition it’s in.”
“Well, if you say it’s okay, why I guess it’s okay.”
Even the sound of the words makes me wonder if I am going nuts, but I start for my shack. “If you’ll just step into my office, Mr. Horn, we’ll complete the details.”
Twenty minutes later Simmeon Horn is hurrying to get out with his cheque before I change my mind, and I have his car lined up with the rest of my fleet.
Then I call Grandpa Gains.
“At last I’ve got the car you’ve been looking for,” I tell him. “I just closed the deal on it a minute ago.”
I tell him all about it, including what it will cost him. “That’s exactly what I paid for it, Mr. Gains. I’m not making a cent, seeing as how it’s you.” “You’re a good boy, Harry,” Grandpa Gains says. “You go ahead and fix up the papers just as if I was there. After waiting this long I don’t want somebody snapping it up from under my nose.”
Mable does not look any more friendly when I make a trip to the Griddle that afternoon.
“Mable,” I say, looking down at the counter. “When I go back to the lot this morning I begin to feel ashamed of myself. After all, as you say, your life’s your own. I guess I’m just burning up with the old green monster.” Mable looks puzzled, hearing this kind of guff coming from me, but it seems to do the trick. Her eyes begin to soften a bit, and she says, “Well, I’m sorry it turned out this way, Harry. But I guess that’s how it is with affairs of the heart.”
“Sure,” I agree. I take a long breath. “Anyway, what I came in for was I thought you might give me a chance to bury the hatchet and show Mr. Horn I’m not such a bad jerk once I get over being mad. Tomorrow’s your afternoon off. I thought maybe you and Mr. Horn and your Grandpop and me might organize a little picnic. Sort of show Mr. Horn that the people in this town know how to enjoy life in their own way.”
“Why, that’s really sweet of you, Harry,” Mable says, her eyes all dewy.
I stand up. “Well, I feel much better.” This is the truth.
Mable offers to look after the lunch and to pass the good news on to Simmeon, and we arrange to meet at my lot at 12 o’clock the next day.
“I got your Grandpop a car today,” I say as I’m leaving. “And by the way, you might tell him I’ll have it ready for him when he comes to the lot tomorrow.”
The next day is a bit cloudy and I keep my fingers crossed all morning, hoping it doesn’t rain. But by noon it clears. Mable, Grandpa Gains and Simmeon Horn, who looks very trim in fawn slacks, arrive at my lot on schedule.
I make myself appear worried. “Look,” I say, when the greetings are over, “I’m in a jam. I intended for us all to go in my flagship, but it broke down this morning. And the only other cars on the lot ready to roll are advertised in today’s paper. I’ll have to leave them here for my salesman to show off.”
I turn to Grandpa Gains, who all this time has been craning his neck around the lot. “I was wondering, Mr. Gains, if it would be all right if we took your car.”
“Sure thing, Harry,” Old Man Gains says, looking like a kid with a new wagon. “It’ll be a good chance for me to get used to it. Where is she?”
I point to the car. “That one over there.” I turn to Simmeon. “I guess you don’t know about the favor you did Mr. Gains,” I says. “I’ve been looking out for a good buy for him for a long time, then along you come with a car you tell me yourself you’ve handled like it was a baby.”
Simmeon Horn goes kind of grey.
“Was that Simmeon’s car I bought?” Grandpa Gains asks.
“Now don’t get me wrong,” I say, smiling in a good-natured way. “I didn’t cut in on the deal. I turned it over to you at the exact same price I paid Mr. Horn. It was just as if you made a private deal. As a matter of fact, I would have called you and had you deal direct, except that I didn’t think of you at the time I bought it.”
I turn to Simmeon, who is nibbling his lips. “And Mr. Horn only asked half what a car in that condition was worth, didn’t you, Mr. Horn? You said so yourself.”
Simmeon manages to light up the smile, but it is now burning only a 20-watt bulb. “Well, it’s too bad you didn’t let me and Mr. Gains make a direct deal, all the same, old man,” he says. “After all, I could have knocked off a little more for him. I mean, selling to a dealer, you get as much for your car as you can.”
I notice that Mable is giving him an odd look. I smack my hands together and rub them in a jolly way.
“Well, let’s get going. I can hardly wait to hit those great open spaces.”
They get into the car, Simmeon and Mable in the back seat, me and Grandpa Gains in front.
“Out Number Six Highway,” I say, “and don’t spare the horses.”
Grandpa Gains, his face grinning so it looks like a leather-colored prune, grips the steering wheel. He starts the car, and there is a soft tapping under the hood.
“Just a little wrist pin slap,” I tell him cheerfully. I turn to Simmeon: “Isn’t that right, old man!”
Simmeon mutters something. His smile looks as if it’s glued on, but his eyes are moving fast from me to Grandpa Gains.
Grandpa Gains isn’t a very good driver, but even if he was we wouldn’t
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have made a very smooth start. That car makes up its mind suddenly when it decides to go. All our necks slap back, and Mable screams. Grandpa Gains gets kind of panicky then, and slaps on the brakes. Mable and Simmeon end up leaning over the front seat as if they want to talk to us.
“What the Sam Hill is wrong with this clutch?” Grandpa Gains bellows.
Simmeon gives a laugh that is more like a croak. “Just a little jumpy until you get used to it,” he says.
I turn around and waggle a finger at him. “Tut, tut!” 1 say. “You told me the clutch was in first-class condition.”
“Well, after all,” Simmeon comes back, looking as if he’d like to murder me, “I didn’t say it was a new car.”
“That’s right,” I crack. “You just said it ran like one.”
I notice Mable giving him another of those long, funny looks.
This place I’d picked for the picnic was a little creek about 25 miles from town. The car perks along pretty good the rest of the way, and hy the time we get there Grandpa Gains is beginning to get the pleased look back on his face.
We pull up under a nice shady tree and lay our blankets and stuff out on the ground. Simmeon Elorn begins to launch forth on various subjects. He seems to know quite a bit about everything.
We all get sunburned and bitten up by mosquitoes. Comes time for supper and Simmeon keeps right on talking while I’m out gathering wood and Mable is getting the eats ready. Simmeon is perched up on a big rock, with his hands around his knee, and he just talks and talks.
Mable has a little frown between her eyes, and one time she says, “It’s too bad that with all the things you know about, you never learned how to make a fire.”
The sky gets pretty black while we are having supper, and by the time we are stowing away the last things in the car it has started to rain.
This place where we have been having our picnic is down on a little meadow below the level of the highway. We have to drive up a fairly steep grade. Grandpa lets out the clutch and we all start off with a jerk, but we are getting used to it now, so we are ready for it.
But halfway up the hill the jalopy digs into a bit of sand and Grandpa Gains has to slap her into low gear and give her the gun. He is racing the engine, and I see the temperature needle getting up around the red mark.
Then it happens. All of a sudden the windshield is covered with something that looks like brown glue. It is water from the radiator boiling over, and it is very rusty.
“Oh, say! That’s too bad,” Simmeon says. “I guess you must have been racing her too much, Mr. Gains.”
“Racing her too much!” thunders the old man. “What do you expect me to do to get up a grade? Besides, ain’t she been lying idle and cooling off for five hours?”
I get out and feel around the rad. “Why, that’s odd,” 1 say to Simmeon, poking my head through the open window. “You must have been driving this around with a plugged radiator.”
“By the great horn spoon!” shouts Grandpa Gains, swinging around to glare at Simmeon. “If you’ve sold me a lemon, young man, I’ll bat your ears down.”
“I beg your pardon,” booms Simmeon, sounding like a bank manager refusing a loan. “I didn’t sell you anything. I sold this man”—he jerks
his head toward me-—“a car. I sold it to a used car dealer.”
“And does that make a difference?” asks Mable in a very tight voice. “You don’t mean you’d do something dishonest just because you’re dealing with a stranger?”
“Well—er—it’s not that—” says Simmeon, but he gets no further, because he knows it is just that.
Grandpa Gains is now really fuming. He lets the car roll back down the hill, revs up the engine, taking no notice of the water from the rad, which is not so noticeable now anyway, because it has started to pour rain. In fact, it is coming in through two spots in the roof, one over Mable and the other over Simmeon.
Profanity issues from Grandpa Gains.
“Grandpa!” Mable says sharply. “That language isn’t very nice.”
“I don’t give a ding, danged, blasted hoot whether it is or not,” shouts Grandpa Gains above the noise of the rain and the engine.
He zooms the engine, lets out the clutch, and we start up the hill, full throttle.
It is then that a lot of things happen at once. The tapping, which I know is no wrist pin slap, develops into an awful pounding, just as the right front tire blows. Then there is a crash and the car jerks to a stop.
I jump out into the rain and look under the hood. I stick my head back in the car.
“I guess that wasn’t any wrist pin, Mr. Horn,” I say, very polite.
“What do you mean?” yells Grandpa Gains.
“I mean there’s a connecting rod sticking right out the side of the engine.”
Simmeon is quick, I’ll grant him that. He’s out of the car just as Grandpa Gains’ big purple-veined fist whacks into the back of the seat where he was sitting.
“Grandpa! Grandpa!’’ Mable screams.
But the old man is after Simmeon and I am left alone in the car with Mable. I turn around very pleased with myself, but Mable gives me a look that cools me off.
“You engineered this,” she snaps.
“What did I do?” I ask her. “Simmeon told me it was a good car. You wouldn’t have me doubt his word, would you?”
“Harry Spiers, 1 think you are a heel,” she snaps. “To let Grandpa get stuck like this just to prove a point!”
“It just happens,” I say, “that your Grandpop didn’t get stuck.”
“What do you mean? It will cost him a fortune to get this thing running again, even if it’s possible.”
“I didn’t put through any deal for your grandpop. Remember my slogan: ‘No Lemons On My Lot.’ I took the rap on this stove myself. I figured it was worth it.”
I am looking out the windshield, feeling a bit sorry for myself. All of a sudden there is a funny sound coming from the back of the car. I turn around. It is Mable. She is laughing herself into a fit.
“I can’t see anything so funny about it,” I say. “After all, I’m out a lot of dough.”
“I was just thinking of the way Grandpa looked when he started after Simmeon,” Mable chortles. “He looked as if he were going to mold more than Simmeon’s character.”
We both start to laugh then.
“Besides,” Mable says, when she gets her breath, “when we are married I’ll pay you back out of my housekeeping money.”
Which suits me fine.