Drive Like a Champion: Part I

On a Friday morning in June, Dan sat in a booth at Hardee’s with a cup of coffee and a plain biscuit. He didn’t have the appetite for either, but eating was a comfortable routine. Every few minutes he pulled out his cell phone and checked the time. He’d shown up at the bank right when it opened at nine o’clock, the agreed upon time, but was stopped by Chuck’s secretary when he tried to walk into the manager’s office.
            “Mr. Palmer is in a meeting.”
            She was a little too curt for Dan’s liking. And the whole “Mr. Palmer” thing was obnoxious too, considering they’d all known each other since high school.
            “I know, Susan. I am the meeting.”
            “No, they don’t need you in there yet. Didn’t you get the email? You can come back at ten.”
            He only lived five minutes away but didn’t feel like going back home, so he killed the hour at Hardee’s. Grabbing a bench that faced Highway 49, he sat watching the morning traffic flow past the window. Most of it was headed south into Charlotte and would all be crowding its way back come the end of the workday.
            Dan knew several of the people who came in and he nodded and waved. One of them, Ron Coley, came over and sat down. He and Dan talked about the heat and Ron’s grandkids. Also, a recent storm had knocked over a tree in his yard, and he offered Dan free firewood, if he wanted firewood in June. Much to Dan’s relief, Ron didn’t ask about the dealership.
            Not that Ron knew anything. It would have been an innocent conversation, but, still, it would have been hard. After 23 years of providing jobs to Harrisburg and selling quality automobiles, Dan Stewart Toyota was bankrupt. He had filed for Chapter 11 several months prior, but was unable to afford even the reduced loan payments. His creditors had found a buyer for the dealership, and, at their strong encouragement, he was signing it over today.
            Ten o’clock finally came, and Dan returned to the bank. His lawyer, who had evidently checked his email, arrived right on time. The meeting with Chuck was humbling at first, then it descended into tedium. There were half a dozen attorneys in the room – some representing the buyer, others Dan’s creditors. Dan must have signed his name at least three dozen times. Finally, he stopped reading the forms or listening to the lawyers’ explanations; he was a robot: scribble, push across desk, scribble, push across desk, scribble, push across desk, yawn. When it was over, both he and Chuck seemed embarrassed at having to shake hands, and he avoided Susan’s eyes when he walked out.
            Back home, Dan went online and checked the weather forecast for New York City. He packed a suitcase and hung dress shirts and slacks from the dry-cleaning hooks in the backseat of his Land Cruiser. Unsure how long he would be gone, he left on a few lights and moved his second car from the garage into the driveway so the place would appear occupied. By one o’clock, he was headed north on Interstate 85, his GPS directing him to “287 Marin Boulevard” in Jersey City, a budget motel located a few train stops from his daughter Abby’s apartment in Manhattan.
            This trip had been on his mind for several years, Dan always saying he would make arrangements next month, once things slowed down at work, assuaging his guilt with impotent good intentions. But recently it had begun to gnaw at him, how long it had been since he’d seen his only child – four years. And as the dealership became more and more of an albatross, the thought of seeing Abby was something he clung to. For the past week, as Dan packed up his office and made the necessary arrangements, he found that Abby was all he thought about. When he looked at the clock at 10:25, he wondered what she did at that time. Did she have a routine, so that 10:25 every morning was the same? He often got lunch at Chong Chin’s, a greasy Chinese joint in the Food Lion parking lot, because that was her favorite as a kid.
            I-85 was empty that morning and Dan had just passed the mall when he looked up and saw himself, 50 feet in the air and 15 feet tall, grinning at midday traffic: “With our easy financing plans, anyone can drive like a champion!”
            When he first had that billboard put up 12 years earlier, he was proud of it. Every time he passed it, he would slow down just to look, even changing his family’s route to church so that he could see it on Sunday mornings. Ostensibly, this was so he could ensure it was well-maintained and that his advertising dollars weren’t being wasted; really, he just liked to look at it. Every feature was memorized—the way the orange background at the top faded to white at the bottom, the red letters and slanted font of the text, his confident, arms-crossed stance, the gaudy national championship ring on his finger, complete with reflective silver paint for the diamonds.
            But recently, as the complications of running the dealership weighed heavier and heavier, he was less enthusiastic about having his face plastered up for the whole town to see, and as he drove past the billboard that morning, on the way out of town, he had a vision of blowing the whole thing up. He looked at the base, a three-foot thick metal cylinder, and wondered how much dynamite would be required. He pictured it toppling onto the interstate in a cloud of dust, one less high-profile reminder of who he was.
            In two hours he was out of North Carolina, and the drive through Virginia was similarly uneventful. Outside Baltimore he stopped at a Motel 6 and got a room. There was a 7-11 across the street and he bought a six-pack of Heineken and fell asleep watching an unfunny sitcom.
Tuscon Motel Pool
The split with Abby came near the end of her time in college. At that point, Dan had been divorced from her mother, Cynthia, for several years. He saw Abby often, driving up to Chapel Hill to attend football games with her, Abby sometimes staying at his place when she came home on weekends, driving the shiny green 4-Runner Dan had given her at high school graduation.
            In April of her senior year, she had been in town, and they met for their customary dinner of chicken fried rice and egg rolls. Since she was one month from graduation, the conversation centered on jobs.
            “You know there’s a place for you at the dealership,” Dan said, not for the first time. “At first you’d be answering phones, but soon enough you could be a supervisor.”
            “OK, Dad. I’ll let you know. I’m still waiting to hear back from some people.”
            Her tone was short. She had been short all throughout dinner, hardly eating or looking at him, a stark contrast to her normal ebullience. The waiter put the bill on the table. Dan opened it and shook his head. They had both had alcohol and it was higher than he’d expected.
            “I might take this out of your mother’s alimony for next month. She’s been gougin’ me,” he said with a chuckle.
            “Well, you’re the one who cheated—not her.”
            He looked up from the check. “She told you that?”
            “Not really.”
            “So she did tell you.”
            “I figured it out and she just confirmed.”
            “What does ‘figured it out’ mean?”
            “Come on, Dad. You’re Mr. Football Star. I know how that goes.”
            Dan’s ears burned red. In a daze, he opened his wallet, rifled through old receipts, pulled out his credit card. The waiter swooped in, then left.
            “How long have you known?”
            She glared. “She told me a month ago, but I’ve suspected for longer.”
            “I’m sorry. It was dumb, totally my fault. But you need to understand – we were going to divorce anyway. Your mom and I are both happier apart.”
            “Was it just one woman? Were there others?”
            “Just one.” He said this weakly, unable to make eye contact. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself with a sip of beer. Abby stood up and walked out without another word.
            Dan attended her graduation the next month, afterwards meeting his daughter and ex-wife for an awkward lunch. A few weeks later, he drove a U-Haul up to Manhattan and helped Abby get set up in her new apartment. They spoke several times after the move, but she soon stopped returning his calls. Dan persisted for a while, leaving weekly messages in which he encouraged her to work hard and stay safe. But the lack of a response wore him down. He started to imagine her reaction as the phone rang: the eye roll when she saw him on the caller ID yet again, the snide comments she made to friends as she pocketed the phone without answering. Enough of these thoughts and he finally stopped calling.
            He didn’t totally cut off contact. Every few months he’d try again, doubting she’d answer, but wanting her to at least hear his voice. And for her birthday and Christmas, he sent IKEA and Lowe’s gift cards, his way of helping her keep up the apartment. He got a number of stiffly worded thank you notes in response, but no calls.
The night before he signed away the dealership, Dan saw himself on TV. This was not an unusual occurrence and, really, it would be odd for a resident of the greater Charlotte area to watch TV for a whole night and not see Dan.
            He came on during a King of the Hill rerun, right after an ad for barbeque sauce. It was one he’d filmed a few months earlier. He watched himself walk in front of a row of gleaming cars, wearing a #58 football jersey. He stopped in front of the grand prize, a gleaming SUV: “And I’ve saved the best for last. You can be driving this beauty for one-ninety-nine a month. You heard me right: one-ninety-nine a month! Come on out where champions shop: Dan Stewart Toyota!” Dan on the TV was yelling and Dan on the couch turned the volume down. Why did he always have to yell? Maybe they needed better audio equipment. The Dan Stewart Toyota logo filled the screen while his theme music played, a generic pep-band-sounding fight song that the ad agency came up with years earlier.
            The next commercial featured a family of cats who shared a cell phone plan, and Dan turned the TV off. He got a beer from the fridge and went out to his back yard, grabbing a putter and bucket of golf balls on the way. Sounds filled the wet air, the humming engine of a summer night – crickets and cicadas and 18-wheelers on the highway.
            He had a putting green in his backyard, a 20 by 20 patch of earth that he’d tamped down and planted with Creeping Bentgrass. It required a significant amount of maintenance and there were some years it got out of control, but this summer he’d been meticulous, trimming almost daily, welcoming the Zen-like distraction it afforded in the midst of his financial chaos.
            He lined up a row of balls and began hitting three footers. He was a fast putter, always using the same motion – eyes on the ball, trace the path to the hole, trace it back to the ball, swing. No interminable practice swings or eye-level inspections of the landscape.
            Dan’s mind was full, and he hoped to empty it, if only temporarily. He wanted to shake the feeling of smallness he’d been contending with all day, an uncomfortable concept that took root in him as he grappled with what it meant to no longer be the owner of anything or employer of anyone. He’d passed the dealership earlier that day while driving, and had the uncomfortable thought that he would soon be just a customer, not even able to use the employee bathroom.
            After ten minutes of erratic short putts, he moved on to fifteen-footers. There was a break in the green he liked using, a gentle pitch that moved the ball from left to right. With long shots like this, the goal was not to make it, but to drop the ball within a six-inch radius of the hole. But what kept Dan coming back was the rare occasion when one of these actually dropped in, when the ball rode on the edge of the ridge until the exact right spot, finally breaking in its long, preordained arc towards the cup, where it would drop with a satisfying plunk.
            He had gotten through one bucket of these – no makes and few within his precious six inches – and was collecting the balls in the bucket when he heard his neighbor’s garage door open. He had been hoping for privacy, but he dutifully emptied half the golf balls in a spot five feet from the hole, on the opposite side of the green from his putting line. A young boy with shaggy hair and a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt walked across the yard, holding a putter that was nearly as tall as he was.
            “Hey Alex.”
            The kid nodded in response and went to the pile Dan made. Without a word, he began putting, swinging his oversized club in the pendulum method that was currently trending among pro golfers – top of the club nestled under his chin, one hand on the top, one in the middle, the motion just like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Alex swung this way from necessity. He had no child-sized clubs of his own, so Dan had given him an old one and taught him the long-putter technique. Dan watched as he lined up five-footers, sinking about half.
            Alex grinned and Dan returned to his long shots. Alex soon mimicked him, eschewing shorter putts and kicking his collection of balls to a spot about fifteen feet from the hole on the opposite edge of the green. There was a slight ridge there, too, and when two people putted simultaneously there was a pleasing symmetry to the motion of their shots, the balls’ curving paths bisecting the green into a yin-yang.
            Dan was normally a good putter, but tonight he couldn’t find his groove. After several minutes of him and Alex taking aim from the same distance, Dan noticed with slight annoyance that, of the cluster of balls sitting near the hole, the majority weren’t his. Alex was also good. Dan had given him permission to use the green whenever he wanted, and several nights a week he would look out his window to see a familiar small figure with his head down, diligently putting away. Dan wondered if the pendulum motion was the reason for the boy’s success, and considered buying a long-putter for himself.
            Eventually, Alex’s mother called him home. Dan putted for a while longer, then went inside, too. He checked his email before going to bed. He’d just started applying for positions he found on internet job boards and since then had been compulsively checking his inbox, hoping for a response. He hadn’t heard anything yet, however, and this night was no different. The only new mail he had was spam.
Dan was Harrisburg’s favorite son, a high-school football star who went on to even more success in college as a starting defensive tackle on Clemson’s ’81 championship team. In church, at the grocery store, at the Little League fields, he’d catch people glancing at him, pointing. Young boys, escorted by their dads, wanted to talk to him, and he would tousle their hair and let them try on his Orange Bowl ring, which swallowed their tiny fingers. Older men would corner him and recount their memories of his games, both from high school and from Clemson. Women took notice, too. Most of the girls he went to school with were still in town, and, husband in tow or not, they always seemed eager to “catch up” and laugh at his jokes. He was accustomed to the attention and felt that he handled it well.
            Dan was a large man, six foot three and over 300 pounds. His waistline had expanded significantly since his youthful heyday, but his arms and hands retained their vigor. Even though he had not exercised in years, he used to perform occasional feats of strength that impressed his employees, swiping up 100-pound boxes with one arm and sliding heavy equipment around the garage like chess pieces. His hair was a close-cropped flattop, dyed black, looking the same as it had in his high school yearbook.
            Owning a car dealership wasn’t in his plans when he graduated from Clemson. His degree was in Interdisciplinary Studies – the stereotypical easy jock major – and he went to class mostly to stay eligible for football. Naturally, he hoped to play in the NFL, and the summer after graduation, he flew to Texas for the Cowboy’s training camp.
            It was a sobering experience, the first time in his life he felt physically outmatched. When he got cut, one of the coaches suggested that the Chargers might be a good fit for him, but that turned out to be more of the same, and he was cut within a week of arriving in San Diego. He was not NFL material. Flying back east, Dan contemplated for the first time a life without football. A sad thought, surely, but it also never occurred to him that things wouldn’t work out, that without any marketable skills he might struggle to find work. He blithely assumed that things would just fall into place – a reasonable assumption, because they always had in the past. People made accommodations for him; the world seemed to bend to his wishes. The death of his NFL dream notwithstanding, Dan’s confidence was back by the time he landed at Charlotte-Douglas Airport.
            His faith in himself was rewarded, because it took less than a week of searching to find a plum job in sales at Braswell Motors – great base salary plus commission, his starting pay on par with some of the more experienced salesmen. Mike Braswell did this not because he was a football fan, but because Dan added prestige to his business. Several years later, Dan became a manager. He eventually jumped ship for more money at Zickerman Toyota, a brand-spanking new dealership that opened in Harrisburg in ’89. And when Ed Zickerman got ill and had to sell the place a few years later, Dan had no trouble getting approval for a loan to buy it himself. After all, several guys at the bank were Clemson boosters.
            Later on he became known as much for his ads as for his football. The whole “drive like a champion” thing started soon after he bought the place from Zickerman and changed the sign out front to read Dan Stewart Toyota. The ad agency he hired suggested that he use his football success to help with marketing. Soon after, he was on TV holding a football and loudly exhorting viewers: “Y’all come visit us today, and we’ll have you driving like a champion by suppertime.” There was a huge inflatable football out front, as well as hash marks and an end zone painted on the floor of the showroom. And then there was the billboard on 85, which had been up for so long it became something of a landmark, useful in giving directions.
Last to Go
Dan woke up in his Maryland motel room and stared at the ceiling for twenty minutes. Getting out of bed in the mornings was a chore, his body creaky and aching from years of football. He spun his championship ring around on his finger. He used to remove it when he slept, but now it would come off only with great effort. His fingers were swollen and gnarled, the product of untold collisions, jammed and abused by an endless array of offensive linemen. He finally got out of bed, slowly, feeling for the brittle motel carpet with his toes, then shambling over to the sink to down four Advil. His knees would feel better once he got moving around.
            The motel had a meager continental breakfast, and Dan helped himself before leaving, balancing his weight on a flimsy chair, squeezing his legs underneath a postage-stamp of a table. Sports highlights played in the background, and he halfway watched while eating two bagels and drinking watery coffee. The other patrons were business travelers, not tourists, dressed in the polos and buttoned-down shirts of their professions. After refilling his coffee for the road, he left, planning to be in New York by the afternoon.
            He stopped at a gas station outside Wilmington, Delaware. His SUV burned through a lot of fuel, but only now was Dan, newly unemployed, feeling the sting. It cost $78 to fill up, plus a 20-ounce Coke and a gas-station hot dog. He thought about how Abby used to chide him for his eating habits.
            He listened to AM radio as he drove, flipping back and forth between conservative opinions and sports talk. The phone rang soon after he crossed into New Jersey, a number he didn’t recognize with a South Carolina area code.
            “Dan here.”
            “Hey there, Dan! Randy Blackmon. How are ya?”
            Randy owned a Toyota dealership in Columbia, SC, two hours south of Harrisburg. Dan had run into him at numerous corporate get-togethers over the years.
            “Doing great,” Dan said. ”Hope you and the wife are well.”
            They went back and forth for a few minutes about various topics – kids, mini-van sales, Clemson’s recruiting class.
            “Alright,” Randy said, in a tone that indicated he was finally getting to the point, “I imagine you’re wondering why I called.”
            “I have a job offer.”
            “A job?” Dan’s initial reaction was to ask how Randy knew he needed one, since Dan Stewart was still on the sign out front of the dealership, the TV spots were still running, and his face was still on the billboards. It was one thing to post his unemployment for anonymous HR reps to see, quite another to talk about it with a man who did what he did, only more successfully. But his Chapter 11 filing had been no secret, and he had to assume his loss of the dealership was now making its way through the corporate grapevine, too.
            “We’re trying to figure out a new ad campaign,” Randy said. “Sales have been hurting lately, what with the economy and all the safety mess.”
            The “mess” he referred to was Toyota’s sticky accelerator pedals and top-heavy SUV’s that had been all over the news in recent months. Suddenly it was no longer safe for Mom to cart the kids around town in her 4-Runner.
            “I love what you’ve done with marketing. The whole ‘drive like a champion’ thing. You’ve really carved out a brand for yourself, something I’ve been trying to do for years. And heck, we’re right in the middle of Clemson country. I want you to do ads for us.”
            “No kidding.” Dan turned the radio off. “Commercials, you mean?”
            “Yeah, but everything else, too. Billboards, promotional events, what-have-you. You know better than I do what all that entails. I think it’d be a huge hit down here.”
            “So, what else goes along with the job?” Dan tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. “I mean, making commercials isn’t a full-time thing. Did you guys have a management position that’s opened up?”
            “No, we don’t have any openings in management.” Dan paused and an air compressor churned away in the background. “We’re just wanting you to help with advertising.”
            “That’s great and all. I’ve been doing ads for the last fifteen years, but I’ve been managing for over twenty. I’ve got lots of experience in that area, Randy.”
            “I know, I know. You have a ton of expertise in management. But we just don’t have a need. You’re welcome to a spot on our sales team, if you like. I can make room there. But listen, we’re going to be paying you full-time. If that’s your concern, don’t worry about the salary.”
            Randy waited for a response, but Dan didn’t speak. “Sound like something you’re interested in?”
            “You just want me to do commercials?”
            “Yeah, commercials are the main thing, but we do lots of promotional stuff as well, making appearances at events, et cetera. You’d be an in-house advertising consultant, basically.”
            Dan scratched the back of his neck and shifted in his seat. Randy sensed his hesitation.
            “You don’t have to give me an answer right now. How about you let me know by next week?”
            “Sounds good.”
            “Thanks for the time. Nice talking to you Dan.”
            “Same here.”
            Dan hung up the phone, tossed it on the passenger seat, and turned the radio back on. It was a New York sports show, a bunch of callers with thick accents yelling about the Yankees’ bullpen, and it annoyed him. He turned it off and rolled down the window, the thick summer air whipping around the car.
            “They want me to be a damn mascot,” he said aloud. However, for the rest of the drive, he thought about it. Randy was offering a steady paycheck, as well as a chance to stay on Toyota’s health insurance. Dan knew he had to figure out something to do next. He wanted to branch out, maybe find a different line of work, but every decent position required experience in the field, and his only experience was the auto business.
Dan Stewart Toyota had not always struggled. In fact, profits flowed in steadily for the first fifteen years he owned it. He bought a house on Lake Norman and two boats. He bought a new Lexus for Cynthia every couple years. But in the early 2000’s, Dan decided to renovate, a decision that confused a number of people, Cynthia included. Sales had not slipped – they were in fact increasing – nor were the facilities outdated. Dan was just tired of the building and felt it was time for an upgrade.
            He began subscribing to an architecture magazine and contracted with a firm in New York City, several times paying for their designers to fly in and hear his ideas. The end result, after four years of planning and construction, was a gleaming palace of glass and slick concrete. The showroom floor doubled in size, the garage sparkled with new equipment; and facing the highway for all to see was a vast window of expensive smoked glass, 20 feet high by 80 feet long. All this trouble earned him a glowing article in This Way, Toyota’s corporate magazine, which wrote that Dan “represents Toyota’s tradition of never settling, always innovating.”
            The loan he had to procure for this work was enormous, but for several years he made his payments on time, just one more check for accounting to send out that Dan hardly thought about. However, in 2010, two events combined to make his situation untenable. At that point the economy had already been in the dumps for several years; Dan was feeling the squeeze, but he was managing. Then the knockout blow came in the form of the safety recalls. Sales dropped for all Toyota dealers, not just Dan. However, the other dealerships didn’t have the debt-load that he did. He made layoffs, which bought him a few more months, but by the beginning of 2011 he could no longer afford the payments. His creditors sued and he filed for Chapter 11.
            In addition to the private equity firm that had financed the renovations, Dan Stewart Toyota also owed money to the bank. Chuck, the Wells Fargo officer in charge of Dan’s account, was an old high-school classmate who had idolized Dan, the havoc-wreaking defensive end. For years, they had talked football whenever Dan was in the office, and Chuck did all he could to ease the tension once Dan’s financial situation deteriorated. In their first meeting after Dan’s bankruptcy filing, he started off by talking about their senior year, when Dan had led Central Cabarrus deep into the playoffs, only to lose a controversial game to Sun Valley. Dan stonewalled him and after that their conversations were strictly business.
Evan Howell is a North Carolina-based writer who has published fiction in Muscle & Blood, Swill, Relief, and Write This.

Photography by Kathleen Babarsky, William J. Stribling, and Christopher Woods.