Note: I am publishing this without permission of the persons involved, so I will try as much as I can to keep them anonymous. Also, I barely edited this, so if there are errors please bear with them.
I didn’t know how I wanted to start this. I didn’t know if I wanted to tell you the truth immediately, or allow it to come through on its own. I guess all I will say to start is Ashley needed a new car.
I had helped her look for a couple days. It was a little over a week ago today when we began looking. Ashley had her heart set on a Kia Soul from the beginning, and that’s where our search started. We looked at other cars in the same vein, crossovers and small SUVs. We decided, a week ago today, to go to our local Kia dealership to look at what they had to offer before she made any decision. We had to make a decision quickly though – she has a trip coming up in a few weeks that she just couldn’t make in her brave old Pontiac.
It was around 10 in the morning last Saturday when we got to the dealership. We met Ashley’s dad there; the sun was already shining and I was looking as tough as I could with my excessive sunglasses and purple v-neck t-shirt. We parked in front of the dealership, left our cars and began heading to the used car section. Three sharks were lined up in front of our walk, and one broke off in our direction.
Dressed in the Kia dealership uniform with matching black polo shirt and pants, you could see from a pretty fair distance away that our guy could barely fit in his uniform. He could hardly cover up his broad chest, and his arms were far too big to fit in this poor little polo he was assigned. For perspective, I have always been told I have strong arms, even had some jokes thrown my way by friends and family about them. This guy’s forearms were easily bigger than any part of my arms.
His head was smaller than mine though. It was obvious we were built for different things, even if I don’t know what I’m built for yet. He greeted us plainly, with a slow southern accent. Ben was his name. Ashley’s dad and I watched as Ashley talked to Ben about the Kia Souls she’d seen there, and asked which ones she could look at. Ben, with delay and some reservation, showed us to the Soul Ashley had seen online. He didn’t have much to say about it other than what it said on the tag.
I was mad. Of course, of all the cliché salesmen we could have, we had to have the muscle-bound gorilla jock who only sold cars to get a quick rush and pay for his protein powder. I was mad at his lack of assistance, his slow southern accent, his undersized polo. I didn’t want to deal with him, but the Soul was perfect for Ashley, so we went inside to talk about it some more.
The car was a great deal – “it was reduced in price and about to be moved off their lot, so Ashley came at the perfect time,” Ben’s orange-tanned-gray-spiked-haired-bleached-white-teethed supervisor told us. We were pleased. Ben took Ashley’s information down slowly as he told us about himself: he just moved to our area two months ago from Kentucky with his wife and child. I told Ashley before we went to not be suckered in by this kind of story.
We tried to make small talk with Ben. We made vanilla jokes about cars, credit and jobs; jokes about the area. The weather. He never laughed, or cracked the slightest smile, even as a courtesy. I was even more offended. Stupid meatheads – I don’t mind if you’re new to your job, and don’t know everything there is to know yet. We are patient; we understand these kinds of jobs.
But it ain’t cool to brush off my mauve hilarity about the surrounding cities. Show some respect to your customer please.
Instant judgment and dislike of nearly every person I meet aside, I am an awfully antisocial person. I am generally not good (capable) of making small talk, but at that point we had found ourselves in an awkward situation. Ashley’s credit was being checked, she had left to go to the bathroom to I assume throw up, and her dad had to make a phone call, so I was left with Ben. I couldn’t stand the silence.
“So…what did you do before this job Ben?”
“I played football.”
“Oh that’s cool, where?”
Interesting, I thought. I remembered St. Louis college from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, so I suppose someone could play football there too…
“The St. Louis Rams.”
I had never (aside from my uncle Jim McCusker) had a chance to talk to anyone about playing professional sports. I wanted to know everything about Ben’s time with St. Louis – I wanted a personal perspective. I wanted him to tell me everything. The conversation suddenly became very easy for us.
I asked more questions about the Rams, and what Ben did before Ashley and her dad came back. His entire demeanor changed as completely as mine. We talked like we were friends who hadn’t seen each other for years, and we were just catching up. He told me stories about him being an undrafted free agent, playing special teams, fullback, wherever they needed him to play. He told me stories about the film room, watching Patrick Peterson return punts and how impossible it was to stop him. Ashley and her dad came back, and I was catching them up on what we were talking about like they had missed the middle of Field of Dreams (read: neither of them cares about sports and Field of Dreams is one of my favorite movies of all time).
Ashley made fun of me when Ben left to find out about her credit check. She said I fell in love with Ben all of a sudden, and it was all over. What I was in love with was the Cleveland Indians. The Cleveland Browns. I was in love with whoever had a chance to live my kid dreams.
Ben told me stories with details that I more than knew: how a punt returner is not supposed to catch a ball inside the 10-yard line, the fullback’s role on a team, the brutal life of a special-teamer. I didn’t care; I let him tell it all like he wanted to tell it. Not only because he didn’t know how not to (it was like he rehearsed the stories), but I didn’t want to diminish – not in the slightest – the joy he had in telling them.
He laughed as he talked about getting blindsided on a kickoff, or hammering a linebacker for a run block. It was a real laugh. A happy laugh from the gut. He smiled wide when he talked about hitting people. He smiled.
It was a large kid grin. I could see every tooth in his mouth. He told his stories, and I could see the joy in someone who lived his dream – his honest-to-god dream for his life – and it was everything he believed in.
Then he laughed a little more, and smiled as he told us how much he missed it. He had been cut the year before by the Rams, and recently had a tryout with the Giants in which he obviously didn’t make the team. He told us how he still follows the Rams, even if he didn’t like them so much anymore since they cut him.
Ben told us his son still had a Rams jersey, and he still roots for his brothers on the team. He told us – with another great smile – how he is angry, now that he had been cut. He told us he still works out; he’s ready to hit someone. With that anger.
Ben’s supervisor came back to check on us and correct Ben for a mistake he made earlier. I watched Ben’s smile vanish, and his shoulders sink. His eyes grew dull and dimwitted again. I watched Ben, the massive man he is, be made sheepish by his weakling of a boss.
He apologized for whatever mistake he made throughout the process, and we went back to Ashley’s paperwork. Ben slowly laid out the wording on each paper, and we listened respectfully.
My heart sank. I didn’t expect Ben to leave a tear on Ashley’s papers – all of a sudden, only after a few brief minutes had passed since he could smile, Ben had returned to the place he was when he met us in the morning, the place where he accepted this job: a place past tears. Those days happened a long time ago.
Ashley ended up getting the car. It is a perfect car for her – it sits up above the road just the way she wants, it’s slick, and drives well. It has cool features like Bluetooth for her iPhone that Ben set up for her as we left the dealership.
I waited my turn to shake Ben’s hand and say goodbye to him with a great deal of trepidation. I shook his hand, thanked him for helping Ashley through buying her first car, and wished him luck. I told him I hope he gets to play again, and I meant it.
I will say, as I left, I realized it was unfair for me to only root for Ben. I could stop in thousands of car dealerships or insurance offices around the country at any moment and find a story like Ben’s.
I couldn’t, however, go everywhere to find that story. I do root for Ben, and I hope I see him on Sundays playing for the Browns. He has two small children and a wife to take care of. I cannot root for all of us, because only a relative few have reached a place Ben has – a place that takes a person with a certain amount of courage to reach. A place I don’t know if I’ll ever reach, nor will most of us in this world. A place where Ben knows he can reach, if given the chance.
He may not have expressed it with the same grace as Moonlight Graham, but in that Saturday last week I could feel that feeling, and I can only hope it doesn’t end for Ben the way it did for Moonlight.