“Well, if it isn’t the Highway Star himself!”
“Is he actually getting louder as time goes by or is it just me?” Thomas though as he closed the door to Jack Hugh’s office with his free hand, the other holding a filled coffee mug. The owner of Jack’s High Gear called everyone by nicknames which he settled on the moment he first met the person. Thomas had once brainstormed nicknames for Jack himself with Naomi, or Starry Eyes as he liked to call her, and had suggested “a possible candidate for coronary artery bypass surgery” which she had dismissed, citing its length and how Jack seemed too indestructible to ever need medical intervention of any kind. She had suggested “Teddy” as an appropriate moniker, which was something Thomas would never say out loud, but he could see what she meant: as Jack rose from his leather chair to welcome him, he reminded Thomas of a jolly bear on its hind legs. He was one of the few men Thomas had to look up to and was at least twice as wide as him, with greying brown beard and hair cropped short. His arms were nearly as hairy as his face. He was the gentle giant type of a large man, always greeting people with genuine warmth, invariably in good spirits. He was wearing his trademark cowboy hat and boots with jeans and a flannel shirt.
Thomas sat on one of two leather chairs opposite Jack. Between them was a heavy, dark desk upon which stood pictures of Jack’s children from when they were still kids and a miniature of a Ford model T. On Thomas’ both sides were bookshelves filled with car manuals, lecterns and mementos from Jack’s many road trips. On the wall behind Jack hung a moose’s head, its wide antlers almost touching the opposite walls of the cramped room.
“Morning, Jack. You needed something from me?” Thomas said, trying to cut to the chase. It never worked with Jack.
“So, Star, how was your weekend?” Jack asked, his face the epitome of calmness as he ignored Thomas’ question.
“Nothing special.” He shrugged, looking Jack in the eye. He had spent most of his free time in the nearby bar, as per usual.
“Hm-hmh,” Jack hummed in an agreeable tone, nodding. “How’s the car?”
“Like a dream” he answered, taking a deep sip out of his coffee.
“Good to hear, good to hear” Jack said, leaning back in his chair and intertwining his fingers on his large belly. Thomas sensed that he was about to get to the point.
“So, the woman from the advertising agency called,” Jack began: “The shoot’s this Thursday. Have you worked on your lines?”
Thomas’ already subpar mood sank. They were launching a new advertising campaign where he was to play a major part due to his past fame. He found the idea of appearing on an advertisement reading cheery catchphrases humiliating, like he was part of a baseball team, but as a mascot instead of a player.
“This will really help our business,” Jack continued, leaning forward when Thomas didn’t immediately answer. “We certainly won’t have to downsize.”
Thomas raised his slumped posture slightly. “I’ll get the lines right.” Jack certainly knew which strings to pull. Even if it wasn’t Thomas’ first choice of a workplace, he still enjoyed High Gear. Despite its tacky interior design, the place had grown on him, and his coworkers were his last connection to mankind. Thomas was also the type to take one for the team. The dealership and its employees were a familiar oasis in a world which didn’t really suit him anymore and even Jack’s at-times overbearing cordiality mostly just amused him instead of causing annoyance. The dynamic of him being the foil to the exuberant patriarch had cemented itself over the years, but they both knew it was part of the joke.
“That’s the spirit!” cheered Jack, showing him two thumbs up. “Does the old suit still fit?”
“I haven’t tried it on.” His old racing overalls had hung untouched in his apartment closet since his racing days ended, years ago.
“I’m sure it’ll feel loose on you” Jack said, laughing and slapping his barrel-like stomach with his palm. “That’s what you get for never marrying, malnutrition! It’s not like you have the patience for cooking. But you still have plenty of time to grow man-sized like me, oh what I’d give to be forty-five again.”
Jack was the only one Thomas knew who could call him small with a straight face. In addition to his height, Thomas was well-built, looking more like an American football player instead of racer-turned-car-salesman.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Jack said as Thomas finished his coffee. “A client called. He will be arriving soon to browse the cars with his son. He wanted to know if you still worked with us. Sounded like one of your few remaining fans, this one. I’d like you to join us, could really help with the sale.”
Thomas nodded, finding no reason to decline. He wasn’t much of a salesman himself and he knew he benefitted the dealership with his reputation alone. If he had been a liability to Jack and High Gear as a whole, he would have left long ago out of his own volition since Jack wouldn't have had the heart to fire him.
They rose from their chairs in unison. “There’s still plenty of time for another cup of joe,” Jack proclaimed, slapping him on the back of his racer style leather jacket. Thomas took one last look at the moose’s head.
“The former king of the forest with its large crown,” he thought. “Now an ornament in a failing car dealership. I wonder what that would feel like.”
They were finishing their coffee, leaning on Naomi’s desk as a red convertible turned to the parking lot. Thomas could see two people in the car, the driver swiftly stepping out, the passenger staying seated, not even lifting his head. The driver was an older man, wearing brown pants and grey sweater. He beckoned with his hand to the passenger—a teenage boy wearing baggy clothes, all black, even his hair—to follow him but if the boy noticed him, he didn’t acknowledge it.
“Time to work our magic,” Jack rallied, adjusting his cowboy hat. Naomi gave Thomas an encouraging smile and a thumbs up. He wasn’t feeling optimistic. He pushed his hands in his jacket pockets and trailed Jack out of the dealership to the customers. They stepped in what was clearly a father-son argument.
“Get. Out. Of. The. Car.” the father said, articulating and pressing each word slowly and forcefully. The son didn’t react. He was wearing smartglasses whose screen he controlled with his right index finger via touchpad built to the palm side of his left glove. Thomas didn’t much follow the device’s development but knew to be a slightly outdated model, the newer ones functioning by visual recognition or tracking finger movements with integrated sensors.
“Howdy pardner,” Jack intervened with his characteristic cheer. “You must be the Gallaghers. I’m Jack Hugh and the man here needing no introduction,” Jack winked, “is Thomas Walker. How may we assist you this fine day?”
“Morning, I’m Wayne, and this here is Dylan.” The father said, turning towards them.
“We’re here looking for a car for my son.”
“That’s what you’re here for,” the teenager interrupted. “You just want another one of these antique carts, but you can’t buy one for yourself since mom doesn’t let you. You know I want an Ampere.” The boy had gotten out of the car during his remonstration.
“But many of these cars are so much cooler than those Amperes, “Mr. Gallagher tried lamely. He looked at Thomas, as if waiting for him to make his son see the light.
“Might as well try to pull my weight around here.” Thomas stepped slightly forward.
“Just because a car can drive you from one place to an another doesn’t mean you should always let it. Once you get the hang of driving, you’ll never consider being chauffeured again. An eye-catching car and the skill to handle it is also a great way to impress.”
When talking to a potential buyer Thomas usually stuck to curtly stating technical details and avoided rhetoric. However, their customer base had been steadily shrinking and these days most customers coming in were already biased against manual cars and had to be convinced that their automotive could offer them something a self-driving car never could. If a deal was made, it usually happened by promises of increased freedom, confidence and a sizeable discount offer. Thomas found haggling and persuading people disagreeable, since he though everyone’s opinion was their own business and the decision of a man who has made his mind should be respected. Patiently coaxing customers to change their minds was just one of the many little sacrifices Thomas made on a daily basis to support his team.
Young Gallagher wasn’t impressed by his pitch, however. “Yeah, impress old guys like my dad here,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I could let my car take me from place to place while I do whatever I want or I could get one of these climate-destroying relics and be hated for it,” he said, ponderously moving his cupped palms up and down like scales. He pointed at Jack’s cowboy hat. “If I get famous enough, maybe I could even join your Village People act here! I’ve always wanted a life-sized cardboard cutout of myself.”
Thomas’ lips tightened. Next to the dealership’s driveway stood a cardboard advertisement of himself with the text “High Gear with Thomas Walker” written underneath it. It used one of his older photos where he was still wearing his racing overalls. He had learned to instinctually avoid looking at it as he drove to work and had even managed to forget its existence until the wry reminder. The neon sign, exhuming his old racer persona and Jack’s cowboy getup where all part of High Gear’s sales plan: they had to attract customers and could hardly compete with prices, technology or other material benefits. So, Jack had decided years ago—before Thomas became part of the brand—that since they were already considered old-fashioned, they should go unapologetically all-in, capitalizing on nostalgia. Originally Thomas had been of the same mind as Dylan Gallagher, considering the façade more like a cheap Halloween decoration rather than respectable place of business. But over time even that had rubbed off on him and he had come to enjoy it. He would take cowboy gear over the teenager’s shapeless clothes any day of the week. He still remembered when he had first started to work here, feeling betrayed and hounded by everyone outside. Jack had shaken his hand briskly after he signed the contract of employment, and, firmly grasping his shoulder with his free hand, said “I’m sure you’ll do great here. Oh, and those clothes will be fine. You don’t have to wear any special attire like me.”
At first, he had though it was because he was considered plenty recognizable without any special gear. Later, he had started to wonder if he was a walking caricature to begin with. He never asked.
The riled-up adolescent wasn’t done with his tirade just yet. “I looked you up online, Wreck-It Walker,” he said, emphasizing his old track epithet. “You didn’t stand a chance against a real driver, that is the Ampere AI, so why should I be on the wrong side of history? Who in their right mind would willingly join the losing team?”
Anger clouded Thomas’ better judgment. This brat needed to learn some respect. He took a sudden step towards the kid, stopping inches away from him. “Listen now, you piece of-“.
His castigation was cut short as the boy’s eye’s widened behind the lenses, witnessing the charging mass and he took a step backwards, tripping on a pavement stone and hitting the back of his head on his father’s car as he fell.
“Dylan! Are you alright?” Wayne Gallagher exclaimed, kneeling down. But before he could even reach out for his son the youth was already getting up, fortunately unharmed.
“You god damn-“ the juvenile began, launching into a volley of swear words and insults that were popular among the teenagers. The language had many influences from other languages such as Spanish and certain African dialects, and Thomas was unfamiliar with many of the words, although he was sure they were quite unflattering. The worry he had momentarily felt for the lad had calmed him down, and he let the defamations blow past him, like a stone unmoved by a gust of wind.
“Sorry about this,” the older Gallagher said, pushing his heir into the car. “We won’t take any more of your time.” He waved his hand apologetically as they drove away.
“Well,” Jack drawled, “that could have gone better. We didn’t even get a chance to exhibit the cars.”
Thomas lit a cigarette, inhaling the smoke deeply.
“I should have trusted my gut when I was called to the office,” he thought.