On the corner of Pulaski and Washington streets in Athens, there’s a shoebox structure. In 1970, the squatty rectangle with plate glass windows was Trussell Ford’s used-car office. For the four salesmen who occupied the box, it was also an observation post.
Two of the salesmen—Rufus and Sam—were been-there-a-long-time fixtures. They were popular and had enough repeat customers to plump up their paychecks. John and I were rookies. He’d just given up his potato-chip truck route. I was filling a gap between college graduation and Army basic training, while trying to keep the mortgage paid and food on the table for my still-in-college wife and her husband.
That meant everyone who walked onto the car lot was a prospect. Rufus and Sam saw it differently. Often they’d look up from their card game or conversation and say, “Nah, he’s not going to buy a car,” or “She doesn’t have the money.” And that was that.
Growing up in NeSmith Funeral Home, I’d seen men unzip bib pockets in their overalls and pull out wads of cash “big enough to choke a mule.” Prejudging a buyer’s potential can fool you. Besides, I wanted Santa to find our tiny townhouse, even if we didn’t have a chimney.
I got the Christmas spirit—sure enough—when Bill Winter, the boss, announced: “Sell 10 cars in 10 days and win $100.” I was the only salesman to collect the Benjamin Franklin. Santa’s helper found Pam’s wish, the fashion rage of the season: a beige Naugahyde trench coat. Davidson’s, in downtown Athens, had one on sale for $95. And at the company Christmas party, she won a door prize—my gift: a Timex watch.
Ho, ho, ho!
But there wouldn’t have been merriment without the 10th car sale to Alice. She appeared about closing time. Rufus, Sam and John gave her a quick glance and went back to whatever they were doing. I scrambled down the steps to greet the stranger.
When I walked up, she was stroking the hood a of a maroon 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 station wagon. We shook hands and exchanged names, but she kept rubbing her hand on the car as if it were a mink stole. “This” Alice cooed, “is the prettiest car I’ve ever seen.”
“Would you like to drive this pretty car?” I asked.
“No,” she said, gliding her hand back and forth.
Opening the door, I invited her to slide behind the steering wheel. Climbing into the passenger’s seat, I switched on the radio. She repeated, “This is the prettiest car that I’ve ever seen.”
“Alice,” I said, “would you like to own this pretty car?”
“Do you think I can?” she asked.
“Let’s go see,” I suggested, and we walked into the cramped office.
Alice worked at a textile mill, so I called its credit union.
“Sure,” they said. “We’d be glad to finance Alice’s car.”
After explaining the terms, I said, “If you sign right here, Alice, you will own the prettiest car you’ve ever seen.”
That dropped the jaws of the naysayers, who always razzed me for “wasting my time.” But they didn’t fall out of their chairs until Alice handed the keys back to me.
With a blush almost as maroon as the prettiest car that she’d ever seen, Alice said, “Mr. NeSmith, I need you to do one more thing. Take me and my car home. I don’t even know how to drive.”
“Gladly,” I said, extending my arm to escort Alice to her car, gracefully stepping over three salesmen on the floor.
Ho, ho, ho.