You can tell which cars someone died in, the guys at the auction say — just look for blood on the seats.
I don’t ask why you would want to know, don’t point out that it is possible to walk away from a freeway pileup or die in a fender-bender. I need the eight dollars an hour I’m promised at the end of the day and I’m not getting paid to bullshit.
It’s ten-thirty in the morning and the sun is burning through clouds and smog over this gravel outcropping in a desert of concrete, razor wire and tin-roofed warehouses. The five of us from the temporary labor agency have been picking up trash for an hour as heavy-equipment movers spear and shuttle cars across the lot. Now the boss comes over with a clipboard and a clean white collar and tells us to quit fucking around because the auction is about to begin.
We kick up dust shuffling to the waiting cars. Battery chargers are stationed all around like defibrillators in a hospital.
The rows of smashed and scratched and dented vehicles stretch off a couple hundred yards. There is a story behind each one, I’m sure, but no one here knows them. Every one of these cars has been in an accident and the insurance companies are selling off whatever will still turn over. They’ll be parted out or scrapped or sold to some poor sucker.
The real wrecks stand apart. Metal twisted and shorn or charred the dead gray and black of cans left in a bonfire, automotive husks foundering in the gravel lot like ships run aground. No one could have survived such damage.
The bidders ride the fifty yards from the entrance in a beat-up minibus and take their places around a stand of aluminum bleachers. They’re middle-aged white men with beer guts and old Mexicans in cowboy hats chewing sunflower seeds and I can already see them producing little bank rolls and wincing as they peel off bills.
My first car is a rattling Volvo with opaque plastic over the passenger’s window and a burst airbag sprung from the steering wheel like a mechanical blossom. I start her up and lurch along a few paces behind the vehicle in front.
The air-conditioning doesn’t work and I can’t figure out how to lower my window. I’m already sweating when I reach the bleachers and the auctioneer motions for me to stop as the bidding begins.
Seconds pass. Half a minute. I consider opening the door to get some air but he seems to sense it and motions me by.
I clatter around another column of clunkers and turn into the back stretch. A couple hundred yards, another turn and a bit more gravel dust and sweat and I park back at the start and jump in the next car.
We drive in slow circles, parading scrap cars for hard-eyed buyers and a salesman talking in tongues. Then we switch cars, jumping in and starting ignitions without looking, and do it again. The cars are full of clues about their former owners: compact discs and fast food wrappers, child car seats, insurance papers, empty beer bottles behind a passenger’s seat, the trash and treasures of strangers’ lives.
I drive a jacked-up truck atop huge tires, a flatulent Mercedes and a Toyota that’s the same model and year as mine but drives better, then a late-model Town Car with leather seats and a windshield that has been shattered from the inside. The only constant is no cool air. The sun is six inches overhead and it’s getting hard to think straight.
We keep driving in circles, accelerating now and then but always winding up where we started. I get the idea that this line of cars is not operating under its own power, that we’re all being pulled along somehow. I rev the engine just to feel it.
I wonder how the hell I got here, forty-two years old and being paid to go nowhere when I’m going there anyway. But there are only a handful of cars left in a row that looked unending when we began.
My last car is a little Jetta that hums to life immediately. I fiddle with the dashboard controls and cold air chills the sweat on my face. I wonder what’s wrong with the car — there must be some damage or it wouldn’t be here.
The auctioneer shows me his palm and I idle, checking my rear-view. A tassel dangles from it, multicolored string and gold plastic digits from someone’s high school graduation. Whoever it was graduated last year.
I lean back in my seat and close my eyes for a few moments. The headrest is loose, hanging at an odd angle.
The auctioneer slaps the hood with both hands, startling me awake. He points and I drive on, make my last dusty lap and park. I’m shutting the door when I notice the rust-brown stain high on the driver’s seat.
Back at the apartment house where I’m staying, I set my pay check for the day on the Formica kitchenette counter and head straight for the bathroom, stripping as I go. The hot water is out, but I remain in the shower for a long time.
Gregor McGavin is a journalist and fiction writer who has lived and worked all over the United States and Canada. He currently resides in Southern California with his wife, Katie, and their menagerie.