It was a Magic Money weekend at Waterfront Automotive—crazy deals! $1000 cash back! No payments for three months!—when the first apparition appeared at the competitor’s dealership—Buzz Tarver’s New and Pre-Owned—across US Highway 19. A pearlescent shadow of a ghostly face and thorny, haloed crown the color of an oil slick bloomed overnight on the mirrored black glass of the Customer Service Center. It was snowbird season in the small Gulf Coast town, and word spread fast. Crowds of the faithful, among others, flocked to the edge of Tarver’s pre-owned lot as the owners of Waterfront Automotive watched in dismay.
“That goddamn redneck…,” Hector Petrelis said. Slight and fit at 45, the Greek frowned deeply at the spectacle across the street.
“Buzz Tarver is a devious man,” Hassan Tariq agreed. “But not a fool.”
From her perch inside the stifling hotdog cart, a special customer perk that got rolled out every Magic Money weekend, Athena Petrelis, 17, thought about what a bad year it had been for reasonable people; of course, blessings on businesses belonging to red hats like Tarver (making America great one lemon Buick at a time) was the next step. This could not stand. Next to her, manning the grill, Miriam agreed.
“You can always count on Mr. Tarver for a spectacle,” Miriam Tariq said. “My dad said Buzz gave the Grand Wizard out in Moon Lake a deal on a used Tahoe.” She pushed the sleeves of her shirt up to her elbows and brushed the edge of her hijab over her shoulders. Sizzling flecks of grease from a row of hot dogs popped off the grill, and both girls jumped back.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to do that?” Athena said. “I don’t want you to go to hell over a pack of hot dogs.”
“They’re all-beef,” Miriam said. “It says so on the packaging.”
Athena looked skeptical. “If you say so.”
“Mind the bun warmer. If you leave them in too long, they just taste stale,” Miriam said. “Do you think he thought of it on his own?”
Athena watched the timer on the bun warmer. “No. This has happened before. Not here, but in Clearwater, before you guys moved here.”
Athena nodded. “One day, Mary appeared on the side of an office building. She was huge, three or four stories tall. They called her The Virgin of the Glass. People thought she was a miracle; visitors came from other states. Vendors made a fortune selling little bottles of holy water—I bet it was just Zephyrhills—and crosses and postcards and rosaries made out of sea shells. Someone finally had enough one night and blew out the windows with a shotgun. Took her head clean off.”
Miriam rotated the hotdogs, skins blistered with just the right amount of char. “Did you hear that someone painted a cross on the Cohen’s garage door last week? He left a note in their mailbox telling them it was painted in pig’s blood, just in case they didn’t get the point.”
The afternoon rolled by as the girls handed out a couple dozen money dogs and watched the crowd swell. Some were on their knees, palms kissing the sky. Athena wondered how Tarver had done it. A news crew from Tampa came and went. “God Bless America” played on a loop over the loudspeaker, and Buzz Tarver himself strolled through the crowd like a returning warrior fresh from conquest. Even from across the street, Athena could see the thick patches of sweat soaking through his golf shirt.
“Do either of you have any suggestions for competing with this miracle?” Hassan asked them later that afternoon.
“Burn it to the ground,” Athena said. She was instantly greeted with three looks of disapproval, because her people weren’t like that. They weren’t like Tarver. They were better, just plain better, all of them. Athena knew the buyers who shopped across the street were never going to shop here, anyway, even before they got the red hats. Her dad was too dark and Hassan was too Muslim. No matter: Waterfront Automotive would welcome everybody else—people like the Tariqs and the Cohens and the Lopez’s and the boy at school with two dads, both of whom drove Toyota
Land Cruisers, and all the people who were just generally sick of this shit. They saw Tarver and knew him for what he was and said nothing because that’s how you get by in America now. But they knew, and they wouldn’t forget.
When the dealership closed for the night, Miriam said, “Stick around here, okay? I’ll be back.”
“Sure.” They were teenagers marooned on the gulf coast of Florida—whatever Miriam had in mind, Athena was down for it. In the meantime, she crossed the highway to get a closer look at the apparition.
The crowd of the faithful was thick and Athena saw many familiar faces. Up close, the apparition was less impressive than it looked from a distance. The image was clear, but it had a buffed, studied quality. It was no Virgin of the Glass, that’s for sure. The crowd didn’t care. They stood there under the fluorescent lights that blurred out the stars on that humid Florida night, basking in the presence of the empty face.
When Athena returned to her own deserted dealership, Miriam was back with plastic bags from Wal-Mart. Athena raised her eyebrows.
“It turns out the trick is ammonia,” Miriam said. “That’s what makes the image look so fiery. I looked it up online. I think we can do a better job.”
Athena nodded. “I didn’t realize we’re in the business of performing minor miracles.”
“We are now,” Miriam nodded at the gathering across the street. “Tarver needs to understand. They all do. I’m thinking angel wings across the luxury showroom should make the point well enough.
You can see it from the highway.”
Athena smiled at her friend. “Let’s get started.”