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Excerpt: Cal Pender

It had often occurred to Cal Pender, formerly Chuck Prout, that he had to be the only person who’d ever moved to Las Vegas and discovered his spiritual side. It was one of the many ironies of his recent life. 

His previous life hadn’t been rich in irony. It had just been rich, and it was all because of the line. Yes, he used to tell people when they asked, he sure was that Chuck Prout. And when they’d beg him to say the line, he’d strap on a grin, like the performing monkey he’d become, and say it: “So come on down to Chuck Prout Dodge, where we’re prout to serve you!” He’d paid some green kid of a freelance copywriter $75 for the slogan way back in the early days, when he just had the one dealership down on Washington near National. And then, God help him, he’d had the bright idea to buy some cheap local TV time and put his mug on the tube. It had been the most successful and the worst decision of his life. Inside a year he was famous all over Southern California. You couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing him in that ridiculous spangly suit, hair done up in that absurd pompadour like he was Porter Wagoner, his face tanned like latigo leather. He was a smart guy with a head for business, and even he couldn’t figure out how one idiotic catchphrase could induce so many people to buy their new cars from him rather than the guy next door. It wasn’t even a good catchphrase. It didn’t make sense. But within 36 months he was its prisoner, like he was working for the line rather than the other way around. He spouted it at ribbon-cuttings, at personal appearances, on local radio shows, and in an increasingly bizarre series of cheaply-produced TV spots: Chuck in a spaceship, Chuck riding an elephant, Chuck in hand-to-hand combat with the Abominable Snowman, Chuck in a Japanese headband breaking a stack of fake boards with his forehead, Chuck in an oversized toque and walrus mustache doing the line in pidgin Swedish, Chuck and some homies from Compton doing the line in rap. And the more sales boomed, and the more new dealerships he opened, three in the first two years alone, the less he felt like a real person, with a marriage and a home and an interior life, than the keeper of some exotic, unpredictable animal named Prout to serve you! It was ridiculous. It was intolerable. He had everything he’d ever wanted and there wasn’t a week when he didn’t contemplate putting a gun in his mouth and blowing the roof of his head clean off. And he would have done it, except for the absolute conviction that when the paramedics arrived they’d look down at his remains and one of them would say: “Hey, I think it’s that ‘Prout to serve you’ guy!” 

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