THIS BUICK BROADSWORD in glittering goldeny green was not new, nor was it ever likely to be considered a classic, but nevertheless this was what Stan Murch drove, early on that hot sunny Wednesday morning in August, for his visit to Maximilian's Used Cars, so far out in Brooklyn, or possibly Queens, that the city buses run on firewood.
And there it was at last, in all its tattered glory. A small pink stucco office structure stood modestly at the back of a black-topped expanse lined with such melancholy, timeworn, mistreated, unloved jalopies, it looked as though a demolition derby were about to start up. Or had just finished. The triangular many-colored plastic pennants strung above these heaps, and the sentiments chalked on their several windshields — !!!Creampuff!!!!!!Ultraspecial!!! and such — did little to lift the aura of hopelessness that was all these vehicles had left.
Stan turned in at the narrow lane leading past this anthology of automotive misadventure to the pink stucco office building, where there was already a car parked, of a very different kidney. First, it had been manufactured in this millenium. Second, it had no dents or scratches in it at all, but was a clean and gleaming black Olds Finali. And third, it wore license plates — New Jersey, but still.
Stan parked the Buick behind this aristocrat, noticed that there were no personal items visible inside the Olds, nor a key in the ignition, and went on into the office.
The interior was simple to the point of anonymity. The walls were gray panels, the two desks utilitarian gray metal. At the larger of the two sat Maximilian's entire office staff, a skinny, severe, hatchet-faced woman named Harriet, who at the moment was doing a lot of rapid-fire typing on state motor vehicle department forms, using an old Underwood office machine so big and black and ancient it looked as though it should come with a foreign correspondent attached.
Harriet did not stop typing. She looked over at Stan as he entered, nodded, and finished a staccato of jabs at the form in the machine, then flipped it out and onto a pile of such forms in a mesh metal in-basket, and said, "Hi, Stan."
"Max in his office?"
"Where else would he be?" She glanced at the pile of untyped forms by her left hand, but did not reach for them. "He's in there," she said, "with a lawyer."
"From Jersey? Is that a good thing?"
"Nobody's done any shouting in there," she said, "which I count a plus, but let me buzz him."
Which she did. "Stan's out here. The one we like."
"That's nice," Stan said.
Hanging up, Harriet said, "There are Stans and Stans. He's coming right out." She reached for the next form.
"With the lawyer?"
Yes. The inner office door opened, and out first came Max himself, a bulky older man with heavy jowls and thin white hair, his white shirt smudged across the front from leaning against too many used cars. Behind him came another person of jowls and heft and thinning white hair, but here the resemblance ended. This one was decked out in a pearl gray summerweight suit (of which there is no such thing), pearl gray loafers, pale blue shirt with white collar, rose-and-ivory-striped necktie, and a neckpin, yellowish, shaped like a dollar sign. The man wearing all this finery, plus a number of rings with stones in them, could have been any age from a hundred to a hundred and nine.
"Stanley," Max said, "listen to this."
"Sure," said Stan.
Max looked at the lawyer and gestured at Stan: "Tell it to him," he said. "I want to hear how it sounds when I kibitz."
The lawyer gave Stan the smile that had charmed a thousand juries, and said, "Our friend Maximilian, as you know, provides a truly worthwhile public service."
Stan had not known that. He wondered what this public service was, but didn't interrupt.
"By providing affordable transportation to those of modest means," the lawyer explained, gesturing at the heaps outside with the graceful wave of the arm that had enchanted a thousand juries when he had employed it to indicate the evidence, the defendant, or occasionally the jury itself, "Maximilian enables those unfortunates to seek — and at times obtain and possibly even hold onto — employment."
Stan gazed at the array of crates out there. "Thinka that."
"However," the lawyer continued, raising the stern finger that had alerted a thousand juries, "we must be realists here."
"Those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who would be most likely to take advantage of the service Maximilian supplies, tend to come equipped with minimal education and marginal skills. Also the automobiles, those out there, have for the most part already provided many years of faithful service. Given those vehicles, and given the caliber of most of their operators, there will be accidents."
"This," Max said, "is where I don't track it no more."
"No," Stan said, "I'm with him. Go ahead," he told the lawyer.
"Thank you. Now, we can assume, I believe, that when one of these accidents does occur, it will certainly not be the fault of the automobile, nor of its operator."
"Natch," Stan said.
"But some entity will be at fault," the lawyer went on, "and justice requires that responsibility be fixed, and that damage, both physical and emotional, be compensated."
"Sue them," Stan suggested.
"That is the way our system works," the lawyer agreed. "But sue whom?" With the two-hands-outspread gesture that had calmed a thousand juries, he said, "There are some, either misguided or led astray by false counselors, who might consider suing their benefactor."
"Max here, you mean."
"Oh, they consider it," Max grumbled. "Believe me, they consider it."
"It is my suggestion to Maximilian," the lawyer explained, "that in furthering his good works, and in protecting himself from the onslaughts of the ungrateful, that at the conclusion of every sale of one of his vehicles to one of his customers, he place in the hand of the customer, in addition to the bank contract and the ignition key, a copy of my card, which looks, in fact, like this."
So saying, the lawyer whipped out the advertised card with the sudden snapping motion that had startled a thousand juries. Stan accepted it and looked at it, while Max said, "Mostly what they do, they come around with baseball bats. I'm a great contributor to all the charities at the precinct."
Stan looked from the lawyer's name and phone number to the lawyer. "So the deal is," he said, "they get your card when they get the car, and that way, when they get the accident they'll probably call you, and you'll find somebody they can sue instead of Max."
"Precisely," the lawyer said, with a beatific smile, and folded his hands at his waist in the comfortable pose that had put a thousand juries to sleep.
Stan, staying awake, looked at Max. "What's the downside?"
"It sounded better this time," Max admitted, "but I don't know. You got somebody wants to buy one a them heaps out there, I don't like to use the word 'accident. "
"So don't use it," Stan said. "Look. You give them the card," and he gave the card to Max. "You say, 'You ever got a legal problem with the car, this is a guy that knows laws about cars. Keep it in the glove compartment."
Max beamed all over his face — a sight so rare that Harriet actually stopped typing for three seconds. "Fantastic!" he said. "Stanley, I knew you were the one to ask. Okay," he told the lawyer, "I'll be your tout. Cuts out the ambulance chase."
"We'll both be happy," the lawyer assured him, and from within his suit he brought a little stack of his cards, wrapped in a rubber band. "A starter set," he said, handing them to Max. "I'll mail you more." Then, with his own broad, beaming smile, he shook Stan's hand, saying, "An honor to meet you, sir, you have an agile mind. If ever the occasion arises, I will be happy to assist you in any way possible."
"Sounds good," Stan said, and waited until the lawyer, with more effusions hither and yon, took his leave.
"Thank you, Stanley," Max said, "I just couldn't get my head around the proposition."
"And if any of them ever does sue you," Stan said, "you can make that bird take the case, on the arm, or you'll have Harriet write an innocent inquiry letter to the Bar Association."
"That much I know," Max assured him. "What's this you got out here?" He stood at the window to frown out at the Buick as the snazzy Olds took itself off. "You usually pick with a little more discrimination, Stanley," he commented.
"It has one great advantage," Stan told him. "No Global Positioning System. But that out there, that's just a little taste, something you can give me cabfare for. What I mainly want to do is bring you, tomorrow, a beautiful BMW, which I will give you straight up, in trade for one midsize truck for which the only requirement is, it can't be hot."
"A new complication?" Max squinted, as though a fog had formed between Stan and himself. "You wanna give me a BMW, no charge—"
"A free gift."
"— and I should give you a truck?"
"You got it."
"No, I don't." Max waved at his lot. "You see what I got here, I got cars. No trucks."
"You're in the business, Max," Stan pointed out. "You can find a truck."
"It's a little work you're asking."
"With a beautiful BMW at the end of it," Stan said, "that the owner's out of the country for years, it won't even be reported stolen for who knows how long. And it's a gift, for you."
"Well, the BMW is or it isn't," Max said, "and I'm not saying I'll kick it outa bed, but I'll tell you the truth, Stanley, if I'm gonna put myself out to find you a truck it's mostly because you made me see the legal issue a little better. You know, when a lawyer talks to you, the natural thing to do is not listen."
"Certainly, not believe. But you listened, Stanley, and you heard the kernel of good in there, and so for that reason, plus the BMW, I'll see what I can do, get a truck. Call me day after tomorrow."
Stan said, "Not today?"
"Today is when you asked the question. Give me a little break here, Stanley, call me day after tomorrow."
In his mind, Stan could hear the low rumble of Tiny saying, "Another delay." But what could be done? "It's a deal, Max," he said. "I'll call you day after tomorrow. And now, if it's okay with you, we'll exchange a little cash and I'll call for myself a cab."
Max said, "You wouldn't want to buy a little runabout for yourself?"
Stan and Harriet both laughed politely, and then Stan called himself a cab.