Thursday, January 11, 2018

Who's Going To Stop Me

We all know we fucked up and continue fucking up. The problem is that if we continue this pattern we will let the bottom fall out of the American auto industry. Start with the numbers --- and what they don’t tell you. The global outlook is still very healthy, showing 2.7% growth in 2017, while sales in the United States dipped just 1.75% for the year. Those metrics are both irrelevant to the “plateau” the US auto industry is expected to face from 2018-2019 though, and the reason is because they were generated by pulling out every last ethical, legal, and tactical stop.

It’s not that we have nowhere else to go but down; it’s a case of having no further down to go. Everybody has accepted and acclimated to the way we generate new auto sales, from the desperate desk manager who will do anything to get a deal bought to the customer who has no ability to think beyond a payment and a new-car smell.

This dark momentum could strangle the industry, but everyone refuses to stop it. Every time a customer accepts a $500 monthly payment on another overpriced compact crossover, they are feeding that momentum. When dealers structure deals for far more than the car is worth, they are feeding that momentum. The problem is: who is going to actually tell anybody no? Customers want their cars and refuse to put money down to get them. A large number of dealerships are fighting to attain sales numbers the market can’t currently support.

I get cursed out every month when our store misses the targets set for us by the manufacturer, even though I’m fighting against larger stores offering deeper discounts on new cars. On top of that, it’s not just your credit criminal customer that isn’t reading what they’ve signed anymore. When you have consumers with 700+ FICO scores rolling over portions of debt they already couldn’t handle on top of new debt and financing the whole thing over increasingly long terms at interest rates they arguably no longer deserve. The problem is that prime credit customers are slowly becoming credit criminals.

Let me tell another story. I’ll leave the name of the lending institution out of this one due to how recently this all happened. About a month ago a couple came in the store with a 2017 Pathfinder in fully-loaded Platinum trim. They had an $750 per month payment, and wanted to see if they could move to a cheaper vehicle to reduce that. We sat down to put everything together, I figured out they just bought the vehicle from us six months earlier. Their payoff exceeded $52k on their six month old Pathfinder that was realistically worth $37k.

They seemed very anxious to get out of the car; I figured it was the high payment that had them nervous. Once we had already assumed that they were at least $10k flipped we took a look at their credit information. That’s where we found out the real reason they were nervous: they were four months behind on their 84 month loan. I walked over to the customers to break the bad news that I wasn’t going to be able to save them from the inevitable. In the middle of my first sentence, the wife screamed, and we looked out the front glass to see their Pathfinder gliding away behind a repo man’s tow truck. I told my manager the situation. He told me to grab a service loaner and take them home as a courtesy.

I didn’t hesitate to break the silence on the somber drive back to their home. WE began to talk, and they quickly opened up about their situation. They both had 800+ FICO scores when they bought the car. They agreed that they bought more car than they needed after they dealer made them believe that a fully loaded Pathfinder was the smart way to get out of their 2015 Rogue in which they were $8k upside down. When I asked the husband why they did it, his response was disheartening: “Honestly we just wanted it. We knew the payment was too high when we had to go to 84 months to get it. But we just couldn’t stop ourselves.”

That’s the root of this whole fiasco. No one's stopping to think about what they're doing to themselves. Instead, people are walking into dealerships with the mindset that not one soul will keep them from being able to buy the car they want. Those same people are running into a desperate dealer staff that will stop at nothing to try and sell them a car, because they are under immense pressure from the manufacturer to move product. It just seems like everyone is asking: “Who’s going to stop me?” Who’s going to stop you from taking out a 96 month loan on a car you truly can't afford? Who’s going to stop the sales manager from shoving the monthly payment down your throat? Who’s going to stop approving loans for people that they simply cannot afford? Who’s going to stop the madness?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Trade Equation

The armchair financial advisors of the internet have two favorite words for those that have become deeply entrenched in negative equity:  uneducated and unintelligent. They’re wrong more often than they are right. Like it or not, higher amounts of negative equity have become a necessary evil for a wide swath of the American population. There are two main factors that usually play into the creation of unrepairable negative equity: trading in vehicles with an existing lien and choosing loans with high interest rates. Factor in a recent across-the-board drop in used car trade values, and you have a recipe for an upside-down cake.

Everyone knows the concept of negative equity, but many people cannot tell you why the numbers tend to get so high. I can, however, because I help create those numbers everyday. When a car dealer structures a deal to send to the bank, the loan-to-value (LTV) percentage is a large factor. Lenders have began allowing higher and higher LTV on new and used vehicles because otherwise they won’t be able to meet their targets for loan volume. Some “captive” lenders (those affiliated directly with a manufacturer) are allowing the LTV to be as high as 135% on new cars, while some other lenders are allowing 125% on new and used also. 

These banks are not totally treacherous. The high end of the maximum LTV chart is reserved for “prime” creditworthy customers of the captive lenders, while deep subprime customers are still restricted to sub-100% in most cases. That being said, most lenders will give most of us more money than the car is valued at. 

Here is a real life scenario I encountered back in late 2016: A guy comes into the store around 7 o’clock in the evening. He is driving a 2015 Nissan Altima, an unremarkable “S Special Edition” that had 45 thousand miles, roughly a $25,000 MSRP car when new. I called NMAC to get an accurate payoff for his vehicle and nearly passed out when I heard the number: over 31 thousand dollars. Now let me break this down for you, he owned this vehicle for over a year, had a FICO just below 700, yet his payment was around $600 per month. Now where this situation goes completely askew is the fact his car was only worth $12,000. So now he was a whole $19,000 in debt already before he even got started. I asked him how did he manage to borrow so much money on that car. He told me he had an Infiniti G35 that had the transmission go bad, so he ended up transferring a few grand in negative equity on top of the new car. Then he managed to also fit in a warranty and a protection plan. The dealer kept the rebates.

That scenario is an outlier right now for sure, but I see more and more of them everyday that are or will be just as bad. This is where my lack of optimism for the industry as a whole begins. There’s a “magical wall” of $10,000 negative equity where most lenders simply will not approve a new-car loan. There are exceptions, most of them for people with credit scores north of 750 and after-tax income of more than $3k a month, but they are rare. 

When a customer is “stuck” due to negative equity, it leads to one of two things happening. Either the customer waits longer before they buy a new vehicle, or the dealership encourages the customer to “kick” their trade-in. The process of kicking a trade is simple: get a bank to approve a loan for the car with no trade-in, then lightly suggest that the customer let the bank repossess their current vehicle. Presto! The negative equity disappears… at least until the customer is called into court by their previous lender.

Only the least credit-conscious of new-car customers will accept “kicking” the trade, which means that more and more customers will simply be forced to sit on their current vehicle until they’ve paid off the negative equity. Often, this process can take three or four years. For the consumer, it makes a lot of sense. After all, most new cars are 150,000-mile reliable nowadays. Very few people would suffer a genuine negative outcome if they just made all the payments on their current car before trading it it. 

For the manufacturers, however, this process drastically cuts the “churn” of new-car sales. If customers are trading in every six or seven years instead of two or three, it cuts sales to that customer group in half. Which might lead to the manufacturers facing a bit of “negative equity” themselves. Ask yourself: will those armchair financial experts call them “uneducated” when it happens?


Thursday, December 21, 2017

What's Going On?

I love selling cars, the industry gave me a purpose after the shitty experience of being a corporate cog. But I’m truly starting to fear the worst for the American car industry. The industry has shown growth since the dark days of the recession but the business model morphed into an ugly free for all. Automotive credit has become easier in the last few years, and manufacturers are still seeking whatever growth they can come up with in our market at any cost. 

People are buying cars they can't afford or shouldn't even have been able to buy. Used car depreciation is at an all time high for many cars and yet everyday more and more people are trading them in. This whole scenario has a bleak end that became evident when I went to my buddy Paris’ repo lot. He called me to check out a 2016 BMW 435i he jacked for BMW Financial Services. It was a beautiful Estoril Blue M-Sport car with just under eight thousand miles on the clock. I could only imagine the circumstances where someone let go of a year old BMW, but as we walked through I noticed all of the cars seemed to be nearly new. Paris confirmed my fears when he told my about nine-out-of-ten vehicles he’s repossessed in the last few months were model year 2016 or newer. To make matters worse Paris only does work for prime and a few captive lenders, meaning a majority of these cars went out to consumers with good credit. 

On the other end, every time I look up from my desk there is a customer who is absolutely drowned in their vehicle. Six thousand dollars in negative equity is the norm, but I’ve witnessed numbers as high as twenty thousand in the last year. Customers are always astounded by how their car has lost so much of its value so quickly. What they fail to realise is their car was worthless from the beginning. Rebates and incentives are at an all time high at many manufacturers, J.D. Power quoted an average around four thousand dollars earlier this year, and I’m sure that number has risen since then. The problem with high rebate numbers is it absolutely kills the resale value of a car. 

Think about it like this: late in the model year for a new car incentives are through the roof, to the point you could buy a used version of the same car with a couple thousand miles for almost the same price as a new one. This is great when you're taking advantage of the huge upfront savings, it's not so great when twelve months later you find out your car is worth almost half its original MSRP. The used car market reacts to the savings offered on new cars, this trend happened back in the mid-2000’s a few years before the housing bubble burst, when all the domestic automakers offered up “employee pricing” on everything. It was supposed to be a smooth way of marketing large incentives without spooking everyone, but really it was a free-for-all that led to trade in values dipping leading into the opening years of the recession. 

The picture I'm painting for you here is a dark portrait of the American car industry as we know it. When you have consumers packing on massive amounts of negative equity, and taking on payments and debt they should be never be allowed to, it leads us to a dark end. Many analysts have called for a plateau in the upcoming years, but you'd be hard pressed to see the market maintain under this pressure. You're going to see more new cars being repossessed, and more consumers being turned away from new cars because they can't afford the payments. It's a cycle that can only end when the manufacturers and lenders agree to curtail this cycle. I get the question from guys who analyse the industry all the time: “what's going on?” Honestly, I'm not sure, but it's not good. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Will You Be There?

As a shameless person, I have very few spots that bring me to tears. Most of them involve deaths. I've never done well with grief, it always consumes me in a darkness that stains my whole existence. One of those deaths that will always be stuck to my soul is of Whitney Houston. I have a complicated structure of emotions attached to her death. The strongest joist in that structure was the death of my close family friend Franklin Clark the night before her funeral.

I died a little that Friday evening when I got the news from my mother. The following day I gathered around a television with friends, and watched Whitney’s homecoming with pain streaming from my eyes. It hurt in more ways than one because of the tragic way her life came to an end. Whitney Houston died because of the negligence of an entire group of people who were supposed to support her greatness. She was an angel, not just an angelic voice, but an angel. Her life was cut short every time she was forced to be who she wasn't. She died because she lived in a constant battle to be herself. That's more tragic than anything I can think of. That tragedy parallels with the death of Mr. Clark. He too was an angel, a man who spent all of his adult life taking care of his friends, family, and people he didn't even know. Every summer he took me into his home in Los Angeles and I watched him take the spotlight wherever we went. But even though he took on the world all his life, he took ill and the whole world sat and watched him die. A man who gave tremendously of himself all his life, died poor and heartbroken.

That’s truly what makes me the saddest, is the people you love leaving you at your worst, because they want money or just simply don’t care. I’m probably rambling at this point, but it’s a truly ugly thing to see. It’s hard to watch someone have their family run them dry as they lay on their deathbed. It’s hard watching someone perform emaciated and haggard at a concert and no one lead them to the help they deserve. Will we truly be there for those who we love? It leads me to the words at the end of Michael Jackson’s 1991 song Will You Be There:

In our darkest hour, in my deepest despair
Will you still care?
Will you be there?
In my trials and my tribulations
Through our doubts and frustrations
In my violence, in my turbulence
Through my fear and my confessions
In my anguish and my pain
Through my joy and my sorrow
In the promise of another tomorrow
I'll never let you part
For you're always in my heart

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Miami Stories Vol. 5 Part 2


It was pitch black inside Dani’s apartment. I never really paid attention to the decor when I came over. In the dark it was terrifying, especially given the circumstances. I thought about the first time I ever made my way back to her bedroom as I tripped over a pair of shoes. It was bright and warm that day as I walked past all her furniture. Her smile was bright and inviting as I followed her past all the pastel colors. We walked back into a bedroom lined with posters of cats and terrible bands. I remembered how open she was when she laid there on her bed and I immediately snapped back into the darkness. She was nowhere to be found in the apartment. I stumbled back down to my car in a fog. 

As I sat back in the seat and started the Porsche I began to think of where Dani might go. Before I put much more thought into it I called Erin. The phone rang twice and she greeted me in a groggy tone:

“Hello?”

“Erin, are you okay?”

“Yeah I was sleeping.”

“I’m on my way back, okay?”

“Okay.”

The Porsche flew down the avenues towards the bay. I was paranoid at this point that everyone was in danger of losing their life. The Porsche snarled as I wrestled it through the parking deck. I parked and grabbed my pistol from the passenger seat. I got out and rushed my way to the elevator. I made it to the 26th floor with the gun tucked close to my hip. I hugged the wall to my door and quietly placed my key in the lock. I pushed through the door into a well lit space, nothing seemed out of place. I lowered my gun as I walked into the kitchen and saw Erin had helped herself to all the Guinness she could drink. I made my way down the hallway to the bedroom containing a slumbering Erin.

I let out a relieved sigh as I laid the gun down on the nightstand. I sat on the edge of the bed and glared lovingly at Erin’s sleeping face. I got back up and walked back down the hallway to the glass leading to my balcony. I slid the door closed behind me as I stepped out. I pulled out my phone and called up Tony. The phone rang twice and he picked up in a confused tone:

“Paul?”

“Tony, have you heard from Dani?”

“Fuck no! Fuck that bitch!”

“My sentiments exactly. Look bro, be careful-”

“What?”

“I’m pretty sure she killed Taylor, bruh. She showed up at my place in Charlotte a few weeks ago out of nowhere.”

“Fuck bro, I’m sorry. I can’t believe this shit.”

“It’s okay, but I need to find her before she hurts anybody else.”

“I’m not sure where the fuck she is. I haven’t talked to her since I found out she was a lying bitch.”

“I’m in town, I’ll make the run out to Homestead tomorrow bro so I can catch you up on everything.”

“Okay man, just hit me up.”

I hung up the phone and stared from the balcony out at the water. It was like wherever I went or whatever I did, I was destined to be miserable. I began to wonder if I could trust myself after doing the same to Taylor that Erin did to me. I ran away from the problems facing me and ended up in someone else’s arms. Honestly, I felt alone still after everything that happened. I had to live with destroying the lives of others around me on a regular basis. 

I walked back to the bedroom and Erin woke up as I walked through the door. She opened her big brown eyes and smiled as she looked up at me. I sat down on the bed and gave her a kiss, and she greeted me:

“Well I’m glad you made it back alive.”

“Yeah me too.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. I’m gonna go take a shower, I have a long day tomorrow.”

I started the water and looked through the glass at Erin laying there as I washed the day off my body. As the water ran over my face I could see Taylor walking across the room looking out the window at the city. I could hear the conversation I had with Jack when I met him in Ohio in my head:

“Paul, I don’t care what you do, just take care of my little girl.”

“I promise you I’ll keep her out of harm’s way.”

“I’m gonna hold you to that, kid.”

I walked out of the shower and grabbed a towel. I walked over to the bedroom and sat down next to Erin and gently prodded her awake. She looked up at me and asked:

“What?”

“You should go back home.”

“Wait, what?”

“This isn’t your fight and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Paul. Don’t do this.”

“Erin, I’m putting you on a plane in the morning. Please just go.”

“Paul, what are you about to do? Let the police do their jobs. This isn’t the way you want this to go.”

“I’ll be fine.”

I kissed her forehead and headed to the living room. As I walked down the hallway I could hear her sobbing in the bedroom. I grabbed a spot on the couch and turned on the TV. As the images lit up my face, the tears welled up in my eyes. I knew I couldn’t avenge Taylor’s death, but I could at least confront the maniac that killed her. I slowly drifted off to sleep as the TV played all night.

I woke up to the morning news playing. I called the US Airways reservation line and booked Erin’s flight home. After hanging up, I got off the couch and walked back towards the bedroom. Before I made it to the kitchen, my phone rang, it was my assistant:

“Paul, that flight better be you coming back home.”

“Liz, I have to take care of a bunch of shit here in Miami.”

“Like what? Because it seems like you have a bunch of shit to take care of here too. Tim Sloan is under the impression you abandoned your job. And if you don’t-”

“Liz! Just figure it out.” 

I hung up the phone and walked through the entrance of my bedroom to still find Erin slumbering, I noticed the hazy glow through the windows. I walked past her to my closet and stepped inside. I opened the security app on my phone scanned my fingerprint, and a small shelf appeared from the wall. I grabbed a $10,000 bundle and closed the safe. I walked back out into the room and sat the money on the bed right next to Erin’s face. I poked her shoulder a few times and she came alive with a cough:

“Paul?”

“That’s 10 grand. Get on the plane. I’ll see you when this is all over.”

“Paul what about your job? Don’t you need to get back?”

“Erin, take the money and go home. There’s a car coming in an hour to pick you up.”

I walked back out of the room towards the kitchen, and heard Erin yell out from the room behind me:

“Paul, why do you always have to do this shit?”

“What?”

I could hear her bare footsteps running down the hallway as I reached into the fridge for the eggs. As I closed the door to the fridge, I see a naked, scowling Erin standing in front of me. She looked me in my eyes and yelled:

“I’m sick of this self-destructive shit with you. Do you want me to feel sorry for you?”

“No, I want you to go home and relax.”

“How am I supposed to do that knowing you’re here on some wild chase to exact revenge on somebody?”

“Can you just trust what I’m telling you for once?”

“Fine, fuck you Paul. Just please come home.” 

“I will.”

Erin stood on her toes to give me a quick kiss and scurried off down the hall to the bedroom. Erin got herself ready for the ride home as I watched the eggs sizzle in the pan. By the time the eggs were firm, Erin returned to the kitchen, ready to leave. I grabbed some plates from the cabinet, and encouraged her to eat with me before the car came to pick her up. I walked with her to the elevator, and rode down to the lobby. The elevator was pure silence as I held her bags in the corner. I strutted two steps behind her out to the Suburban where the driver grabbed the bags from me. Erin turned around and lifted her arms over my shoulders and whispered in my ear:

“Just come back in one piece. Please.”

“I will.”

I craned over to briefly kiss her lips before she turned and climbed into the back of the oversized vehicle. I stood and watched as it made its way down the block. As the giant, black SUV disappeared into the morning sunlight I made my way back into the building. I made my way back up to my condo to get myself ready for the day. As I walked through the door, I pulled my phone from my pocket to check the time. It was 9:07 and I wasn't even close to ready to start my day. I dialed up Tony to only receive many rings in return. I assumed he was at work already toiling away but I didn’t think he wouldn’t answer his phone. I had other matters I wanted to attend to first though.

I sat on the couch and grabbed my laptop from the end table. I was scheming, the 911 GTS had become a bit too conspicuous for my liking and I really wanted something suited for Charlotte’s four-season climate instead of Miami’s sunbathing-in-the-winter type of weather. I pulled up the website of my favorite local dealer, The Collection. I quickly searched the new inventory and there it was, a new 911 Targa 4S in Macadamia Metallic with a cocoa leather interior. I called my go to salesman at The Collection, Manny, the phone rang twice to his excited voice:

“Paul! Where have you been buddy?”

“You know me, I’m always on the move.”

“What can I do for you for my friend?”

“You got a brown targa. I’m gonna come get it today.”

“Oh man! You want that thing? What about your GTS?”

“I’m trading it in. Tell Jimmy I’ll do an even trade for it. That’ll definitely put some money in your pocket.”

“Buddy why would you want to take that big of a loss on that car?”

“Because I don’t want it anymore. I’ll be over in like 30 minutes.”

“Okay buddy I’ll get everything ready.”

I hung up the phone and sank into the couch, my phone buzzed and I saw a text from Erin. “First class was unnecessary, but thank you.” Before I could manage to be annoyed I decided to get dressed. I ran my arms into the sleeves of a white Ike Behar spread collar oxford and pulled up a pair of navy Ralph Lauren chinos to my waist. After buttoning and tucking everything into place, I slung my gun holster over my shoulders, and grabbed my favorite navy blazer off the rack. I holstered my two Smith & Wesson M&P .40 pistols. I strutted back out to the living room and looked out over the bay one more time before heading out the door.

I made my way out of the elevator to the parking garage, and chirped the alarm on the Porsche as I rounded the corner. I quickly settled into the seat and listened for the distinct, low howl as I twisted my left wrist. I cruised slowly on the short drive to Coral Gables. As I waited at a light I saw a green Mustang convertible roll through the intersection. I almost thought I caught a glimpse of Jamie’s face as it went by, but I knew it was just my mind playing terrible tricks on me. 

I came around the corner to the covered parking area behind the store. I handed the porter my keys as I walked through the door to Manny loudly greeting me at the door:

“Paul! What are you dying or something man?”

“Nah, Manny I’m finally coming alive!”

After a tight hug, we walked over to his office and I started a quick conversation:

“Manny, I told you what I was ready to do over the phone.”

“Look, I have good news Paul. You paid 160 for the GTS and Jimmy got a buy-bid of 140 for it. The Targa you wanted is only 120. Take from that what you will my friend.”

“So you’re saying I'm breaking even…”

“Jimmy will get them to cut you a check right now, and you leave in the Targa.”

“Well let me take that before I fuck it up then.”

“Congratulations my friend!”

As Manny shook my hand to death I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I handed Manny my license and insurance card and he scurried out the office. I pulled my phone from my pocket to see a new message from Dani. It was a picture of a jetty with an ocean view. I thought nothing of it until another message popped up on the screen: “Key West is still pretty this time of the year.”

I immediately dialed Demitri on the phone and he picked up half asleep:

“Paul, what’s up?”

“Are you in Key West?”

“No I’m in North Carolina visiting Nate, is everything okay?

“Yeah, I was headed that way to go check my boat at the marina and just wondered if you were home.”

“I’ll be back down there tomorrow if you’re sticking around.”

“Nah, I’ll see you next time I’m down there though.”

“Okay, if you want to stop by the house and refresh yourself the doors are all unlocked.”

“I just might do that.”

“See you later, Paul!”

“Tell Nate I said hello for me.”

As I hung up the phone, Manny made his way back into the room with a folder ripe with papers. After 30 minutes of randomly signing papers and having different faces from the dealership smile in my face I walked outside to see my new ride. Even under the artificial light of the valet lane, the beautiful, deep, brown paint woke up all of my senses. Manny handed me the keys and with a strong handshake and a nod I left. I hopped in the Targa and with a light flick of my left wrist I brought it to life. I set my GPS to Driftwood Rd and set off for Key West. 

It was bright and warm as I made my way down the Dixie Highway. The view of the sky through the glass roof was way too beautiful for the somber mood of the day. After paying the toll on the Reagan Turnpike I couldn’t keep my mind from racing to the most morbid thoughts Before I could sink too far into my thoughts I remembered that I needed to get in touch with in Tony. I dialed up his number one more time and a male answered in a stern voice:

“Hello.”

“Who is this?”

“Detective Comford from Homestead PD.”

“What the hell is going on?”

“You know Tony Wegmann?”

“Yeah he’s my best friend.”

“When was the last time you spoke to him?”

“On the phone last night. Please tell me what is going on!”

“Calm down sir, I don’t know a good way to say this but Tony was murdered this morning. Do you know what he was up to last night?”

“No.”

“Okay, if you know anyone with information as to how this happened please contact us.”

 “Will do.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

As the call ended I pushed the accelerator to the floor. Dani had went too far, and I needed to stop her before she took out anybody else. I focused on the journey ahead as the everglades sped by outside the window. Traffic was light as hustled around the few cars that got in my way. The afternoon sun beamed down on my head and the traffic slowed as I passed Boca Chica. I pulled onto the causeway to Raccoon Key and stopped the car. I really didn’t know what I planned on accomplishing. I reminded myself of the conversation I had with Erin before she left for Charlotte. I wasn’t here to do anything, just stop the killing. After sitting for a few minutes gathering myself, I drove on. The Porsche whirred smoothly down the street and swung into the front courtyard with a quick flick of the steering wheel. 

I made my way out of the car and spied Dani’s Tiburon sitting across from the Targa. I grabbed one of the guns from the shoulder holster and quickly checked the clip and walked up to the front steps. The front door clicked open as I made my way through the house with my gun pointed around each corner. As I made my way further back, I could feel the warm ocean breeze wafting through the open back door. I walked out onto the rear porch, and saw an obviously distraught Dani facing me on the jetty. She was holding a pistol in her hand, the barrel pointed at the ground. I gingerly tip-toed down the steps towards her. As soon as my toes touched the last step she screamed:

“Stay there!”

“What the fuck are you doing, Dani! You didn’t have to do this shit!”

“No Paul, you did this! You did all of this!”

“Bitch, I wasn’t the only person lying all this time!” 

“I did this because of you! You made me feel things but never made me whole.”

“Dani! This was never supposed to be this fucked up! I was clear with you the entire time.”

Dani began an intense, wailing cry. I walked down the remaining step and she glanced up at me through the tears. The only thing I could hear in that moment was the percussive clap of the gunshot. I looked down for a bloody hole but couldn’t see it. Her body dropped to the ground as soon as I looked up. 

This was the fruit from the tree I grew. Dani lay in a pool of her own blood because I didn’t want hurt anyone. Taylor was gone and my best friend just got scraped from his living room floor, I guess I didn’t get hurt. I holstered my gun, dialed the police, staggered back to the stairs and sat. I remained there as the sun set answering the detectives questions. I finally dragged my way back through the house and sat on the fender of the Targa. I dialed Erin and she answered in an excited tone:

“Paul! I was so worried about you!”

“I can't help you.”

“What?”

“I don't need to be around you. I'm bad for you and everyone else around me.”

“Paul, you made a mista-”

“Don't be there when I get back.”


 










Saturday, April 1, 2017

Miami Stories Vol. 6 Part 1

It was a sweltering, windy Sunday as I gently cruised across Lake Norman on my Hacker-Craft runabout. I was alone, reflecting on poor choices I made. I could see my cell phone ringing next to me in the seat. It was Erin. I averted my gaze from the phone and throttled the big Crusader 454 motor to hurdle me across the lake. I headed north towards Sherrills Ford to the quiet cove where my lake house sat. 

I slipped into the darkness under the trees lining the cove. The shade chilled the air as the boat trundled under the swaying branches. I approached my boat lift and used the remote control to drop the platform. As I idled the boat into the lift I looked up at the little green house lined with a back wall full of glass. 

I stepped off onto the platform and walked up through the garden towards the house. As I approached the back of the house I heard a vehicle digging through the gravel in the driveway. I walked in and approached the hallway leading to the front door. As I approached the door, Erin came bursting through with a scowl covering every inch of her face. As she stomped toward me she yelled:

“So this is where the fuck you’ve been hiding!”

“I wasn't hiding.” 

“Then why haven't you answered your phone for five fucking days!”

“Look, stop yell-”

“I was worried about you!”

“Can't you let me suffer in peace?”
 
I slinked past her and walked upstairs to the bedroom and spread out across the bed. Erin stomped up the stairs and stood at the foot of my bed and stared. I looked out from the loft to the views of the water through the back of the house. I didn't even know how she got there. I never brought anyone to the lake house. It was too late to run from her now. So I broke my silence again:

“Tell me something Erin, what are you going to do to help me right now? If I don’t end up in prison for the rest of my life, I’ve betrayed everything I have left here. I’m trying to leave you out of all this. None of this has anything to do with you. Jamie did this to me.”

Erin laid on the bed next to me and responded:

“Paul, I understand that. I love you. I’m here because I love you. Why don’t you understand that?”

“I’m just trying to keep you out of this because I don’t want to harm you.”

“It’s okay. I’m ready for whatever happens.”

“I’m not so sure of that.”

I knew that was the wrong thing to say, but it was too late. 

 “Oh?”

“Erin if I make it through this, I’m leaving Charlotte. There is no point in me staying. Will you come with me?”

“Where?”

“Miami.”

“Miami? Just up and leave for Miami? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea for me.”

“Says the person who travelled all the way across the country for months on a whim.”

“I don’t know if it’s the right time.”

“It’s okay I’ll go alone like I do with everything else.”

Erin got out of the bed and barrelled down the stairs. Before I could even get up I could hear the tires of her Jeep digging a path through the gravel in my driveway. I sat up and looked out over the water again. I must have been crazy to think my luck would begin to change. I got up and walked back downstairs to my kitchen, where I had briefcase of documents sprawled out over the counter. The next day was the first day of pretrial discovery hearings for my federal tax evasion trial. I was hoping that my attorney would be able to get all the evidence thrown out, or else I was in for a real ride.

What I didn’t tell Erin earlier that day was that I had movers taking my things from my other house to Miami already. I used most of my stashed cash to have a friend secure a condo for me last month. If I went to prison or not I wanted to get away from Charlotte when it was all over. 

I got up and walked out to my backyard and took in the late afternoon sun. I sat in the garden and watched the water lap on the shoreline. It all seemed unfair, the lack of cooperation from those I loved was too much. I knew I had an early start the next morning so I decided to go back to my home. I went out to the mostly empty garage and hopped in my Volvo 850 Wagon. The black brick started with a quiet whoosh, and I took off down the gravel driveway. I rolled down I-77 towards home contemplating my every move as the miles counted down. My thoughts raced about a future in prison. It was already bad enough that I had almost all of my money taken from me in the prior months. What I had left was enough to live and just enjoy what freedom I had left. 

The headlights danced off the windows of my house as I pulled into the driveway. It was dark and warm inside the house when I walked in. I climbed the steps to my bedroom and grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniels on the nightstand poured it into the glass next to it. I took a long sip and took off my shirt. I grabbed the bottle and glass and proceeded to the bathroom where I drank what remained in the glass. I started the shower then poured another glass of liquor. I stripped and grabbed my glass and hopped in the shower. I leaned against the wall as the water ran over my body. 

I took another long sip as I listened to the patter of water running past me. I began to cry my tears and the water running together down my face. My mind ran back to the feeling when everything I built fell apart around me. It hurt knowing I worked so hard to just end up destroying my own life.

I remembered everything, Jamie had left me months ago. She said my life was too much for her and I didn’t support her dreams. I was spiraling and my only friend who wasn’t dead or in jail was Erin. She wasn’t at my home the day I walked out my front door to five federal agents walking towards me. I remember dropping to my knees on the front porch and putting my hands up as they continued to approach me. All I could think about was the humiliation as I rode in the back of that black Suburban. 

I snapped back into reality as the water in the shower began to run cold. I cut off the water and walked out of the shower to my mirror. I looked deep into my own eyes and tried to reason with myself about the whole mess my life had become. As I started to reflect again, my phone rang in the bedroom. I ran over to pick it up, my lawyer greeted me on the other end:

“Paul you ready for tomorrow?”

“You tell me.”

“Are you drunk?”

“I wouldn’t say drunk, I’ve only had a few today.”

“Straighten yourself the fuck up. You better be ready at 9:00 for me to bring you to court.”

“Brent, I’ll be ready. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t tell me that.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow man.”

I turn around to my assistant, Liz Graf standing in the doorway covering her eyes. She was a stout 5’4” with full breasts and strong legs. She greets me nervously:

“I didn’t want to interrupt your call.”

“Please uncover your eyes it’s weird.”

“Could you at least cover yourself?”

“Oh, my bad.”

“Your suit for tomorrow is downstairs, and I dropped off some groceries you needed.”

As I wrapped a towel around my waist, I replied:

“Thank you so much. By the way, I left your money on the island in the kitchen. Sorry I can’t pay you by check, but obviously I can’t do that right now with everything going on.”

“It’s no problem, I’m starting to like the cash.”

“Well good. Make sure to handle everything tomorrow while I’m in court.”

“No problem.”

Liz bounded back down the stairs and I laid on my bed. I drifted off into a deep slumber as I began to dream up images from when me and Jamie fell apart. The green Mustang I bought her was still in the driveway by itself in front of my garage. As soon as we broke up, federal agents swooped in to get whatever information from her they could. I’m just glad she didn’t know as much as she thought she did. As I slept I continued to see her face running through the halls in the house, smiling like a child without a care in the world. 

I woke up to my alarm blaring from my phone. It was 8:00 and time for me to get myself ready for court. I was just glad to see the room wasn’t spinning. I grab my phone from the nightstand to see a text from Erin “I’m thinking of you. I love you.” My heart warmed thinking about how much she really cared about me. But I was still dreading the thought of facing my mistakes in public. 

I made my way downstairs to the living room where my suit was laid was on the sofa. It was strange walking through all that empty space alone. Overpriced furniture and thick walls toned down the hollow noise. I grabbed my suit before I let the emptiness of the house get to me. I made my way back up the stairs to get prepared for the day. I walked into the bedroom and looked out the window as I slowly dressed for court. I prepared myself for disappointment and shame. I wondered where all my friends were while I faced the most monumental misstep in my life. Before I could get misty-eyed, my lawyer made his way up my driveway.

I pulled my tie snug to my collar and grabbed my coat as the doorbell rang. I made it to the front door to see my lawyer, Brent Walker. He was barely 5’2” but had the voice of a man who stood 6’8”. He looked up at me through the door frame and spoke:

“You ready for this?”

“No.”

“Good, hopefully this is the last time we do this.”

“It will be.”

I straightened my back as I made the walk to my driveway. Brent unlocked his black LS460L and we took a seat. As we made our way down the avenues to the federal courthouse, Brent asked:

“Do you feel like you did anything wrong?”

“Of course.”

“What are you going to do if we win this?”

“Go down to Miami and drop off the face of the planet.”

“What?”

“I'll find something to do. They didn't nab all my money.”

“Remember, I don't have any friends in Florida. Hopefully today is the last time you need me for this shit.”

We parked in a nearby lot and made the short walk to the courthouse. As we made our way towards the front steps I stopped and asked Brent to join me in prayer:

“Lord, I humbly ask you today to shed favour upon me. I ask you to forgive my transgressions and bless those I may have transgressed against. Please bless all of your children who have made themselves a part of my life. Thank you for allowing me to continue to draw breath. Thank you for continuing to bless me. Amen.”


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Open Letters Series: E.N.

I threw my iPhone across the room as soon as I read it. I’m toxic, I know that about myself. I mangle even the semblance of your innocence. I’m terrible at this, I’m a deviant in the worst way. I made your head swim in a matter of moments and I wonder why I’m alone or why I can’t ever get a good woman to stay. I always have this crude fight with myself: my sexuality, my faith, my morality, and my heart. I scared you because my spirit is so out of sorts; ghosts of my upbringing and my environment appear repeatedly when I’m with you.

The thing is that text you sent me is right: we are better as friends. The problem now is we can’t be friends, we shot that notion down the moment I made my way inside you. We’re both scared to send that first text now, it’s too strange, too painful, too difficult. No one wants to look inside for the courage to lie to yourself, to lie and say you can move on from a difficult decision. Who wants to be face-to-face with someone that you expressed levels of gratitude for you may never feel again in your life? Who the fuck wants to feel that pain? 

The last time me and someone else decided to be greedy and hoard each other’s love we ended up creating an even bigger disaster for ourselves. Since then, I haven’t wanted a thing to do with greedy love. No matter how consumed I am, how deep the infatuation runs, or how stupefying the sex is I can’t do it again. It creates a horrendous pain in my soul, but it keeps me from destroying myself or you for that matter. So yes, we may never see eachother again.

I’m not okay with that; never seeing you again. It’s unfair that we were brought together to never see each other again. It’s unfair that we ultimately wasted each other's time. I know I may be painting this situation in black-and-white, but the grey areas are the most dangerous in love. Staying out of the grey areas will protect both of our hearts well into the future. Even if that means I’ll never see you again, embrace you again, kiss you again, or look you in your eyes and feel that electricity again. 

I’m not okay with never seeing you again, but I know it has to happen. I don’t regret one moment we spent together though. I’m so happy that you reminded me I could truly open myself back up to someone, and not hold back my emotions. If anything, I can take solace in knowing I was able to seriously put myself out there. I’m delighted I got to know you, even if it won’t continue into the future. Never seeing you again may be the worst feeling in the world, but it will give both of us happy futures. I wish you all the best, even though I’m pretty sure you got me sick. 




In loving appreciation,
Ethan Gaines


P.S. Don’t you dare duh me again, sweetie.