**The following is a short story I’ve been working on over the past month or so. It’s still rough, but feel free to read and give some criticism. It starts and ends with a parking spot…
The sun was still sunk below the horizon at six in the morning, nothing more than a distant hum etching away the last vestiges of night. The air was light and cool and most of the apartment windows at King’s Court were inert. Two joggers running apace one another flitted past in a perfect, dream-like synchrony.
I walked up to my truck and put the key into the lock. I paused for a moment. I felt a strangeness, an aberration in my morning routine, edging its way up into my conscious mind.
I looked up. There, at eye level, fixed to the window of my truck, was a sign, crudely constructed from an old pizza box. “Stop parking like a fucking asshole!” it read in heavy, black script. “If you don’t, consider your vehicle fucked!”
I pulled the sign from my window. The tape snarled and left behind crinkled, translucent trails that turned white when I scrubbed them with my thumbnail.
I turned the sign over in my hands and read it again and again till concrete belief could set in. I looked down at the ground, where my front driver-side tire edged slightly over the painted yellow line. I glanced around the parking lot, perhaps hoping for some trace of the author of the sign, but, other than the two joggers, the lot was empty of all human presence. Nearby, there was a Honda, a dusty old Volkswagon, and a Hummer the color of a yellow jacket.
“Shit,” I said. “I don’t have time for this.”
We had moved to this apartment complex earlier last year. I lost my job and the bank took the house not too long after that.
I took a new job at a plastics factory called Oldcastle. They had me on a line making bags for grocery stores. The plastic from the machines coated my arms and the smell of burnt plastic followed me home each night. Till I worked at Oldcastle, I’d never given the plastic bags piled up in my storage closet or blowing aimlessly around parking lots much thought. They seemed like a natural and unavoidable part of the landscape. A part of me thought that maybe they’d always been there, or that they had called themselves into being of their own volition. My father once said, “Everything you see in this world has a shitty job behind it.” I guess he was right.
I used to work for a local business installing invisible dog fences. When the economy hit bottom, though, they didn’t have enough work to keep me around.
“I’m sorry,” my boss, Shari, said, her head tilted slightly downward at a grave angle. “In tough times, people don’t buy things they can’t see. They get literal-minded, real quick.”
She promised she’d call me when things picked up, and that was it. I was unemployed for the first time since I was fourteen years old.
After that, my girlfriend, Crystal, and I watched the news every night, helplessly transfixed by the reports of long unemployment lines, people camping in parks downtown, and politicians firing accusations at one another. Before I lost my job, these reports seemed like a far-off thing, a cautionary tale for the rest of us, reminding us to be thankful for what we had. Now, it was an unavoidable reality.
Crystal was the first to say the obvious. “Maybe we could find a nice apartment?”
The suggestion was a small heresy. We’d both lived in houses as long as we could remember. When she said these words, we sensed that we were turning our backs on something unspeakably, indefinably important.
We felt like tourists amongst the Craig’s List ads and amateurish Web sites. They were written in a vocabulary that was arcane to us, with phrases like “w/s/g” and “2×2.”
Within a week, we’d become fluent.
The strange thing is, once we started looking, a secret world, one that had always been present but just out of the range of our senses, revealed itself. An invisible network of apartment complexes, advertisements, and “Now Leasing!” signs were everywhere, permeating the very fabric of reality. We saw the entrances to complexes we’d passed daily but never noticed. They had these absurd, regal names, like Gentry Walk, Shady Lanes, Palace Gardens, and Oak Grove Apartments.
I had a dim awareness that now we’d learned to see, we’d never be able to go back to not seeing.
“Oh, look at this one,” Crystal said one day. “King’s Court.”
I looked. The Web site was streamlined with a minimalist, unobtrusive aesthetic. Ambient piano music lilted in the background. Somehow, unconsciously, the site guided us with ease from one page to the next. The pictures of the apartments were subtle but suggestive, the angles precisely calculated to appeal to our sense of space and scale. And the grounds were appealing. Attractive people sautéed in hot tubs, and mothers, fathers and children were frozen around fire pits in various states of perfect, familial bliss.
“Let’s check it out first,” Crystal said, cautiously. “The rent’s a little on the high side.”
A young, college-aged girl named Jennifer wearing a pinstriped suit and stilettos whisked us around the apartment grounds in a sleek golf cart.
“There’s the coffee shop,” Jennifer said, “and the club house.” We glanced to our right and saw a building fashioned with a palatial theme, parapets and all. There were even fake shields made from plaster painted with intricate, indecipherable designs hanging on the masonry of the building.
“And there is our sixteen-seat movie theater,” Jennifer chirruped.
“We’ll never need to go anywhere,” I said.
Crystal cast a sidelong glance at me. Before our appointment, we’d talked about maintaining a distanced stance of neutrality. I couldn’t help it, though. Something about that moment, chauffeured around the parking lot like the fucking pope overpowered our agreement. My knees bounced with nervous energy and I rubbed my hands together. Somehow, the wood paneled basketball court and even the cheaply made towers leering into the sky suggested something that I’d given up somewhere in the intervening years, something forgotten and unspoken but something that I thought I deserved.
We balanced our bills, calculated our income, and checked our budget. I convinced Crystal that the apartment was a good deal, and we were moved in a month later.
“Ken, do me a favor. Just let it go,” Crystal said to me.
I was standing at the kitchen sink, scrubbing my hands under hot water with a Brillo pad and dish soap.
“What, and let some fuckhead who wants to play Godfather push me around?” I said. “No way.”
“Is this going to be one of your things?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. You get fixated on these things,” she said, flouncing onto the couch and flipping on the television. “It’s exhausting,”
I peeled plastic from my forearms. It came off in long, thin strips, like sun burnt skin. When I come home each day, my arms are shiny and smooth, like a mannequin’s.
“Maybe we should just cave and pay for a parking spot,” Crystal said. “Then you wouldn’t have to cram your truck into those compact spots.”
“We can’t afford it,” I said. “You know that. Besides, we shouldn’t have to pay for a spot. The right to park should be guaranteed, inalienable. One person, one spot.”
“Hey,” she said, “did you pay the water bill today?”
“I thought you were going to pay that.”
“No. It’s got to be in by the end of the day.”
“Okay, I’ll pay it. Where’s the bill?”
“It’s in the letter holder. You sure you have enough in your account?”
I nodded, grabbed the letter and my pack of smokes and went down to the leasing office, check in hand.
The day had warmed considerably. I swung past my truck and walked around it, closely looking for any sign of tampering. Everything seemed fine. I’d made sure to pull in nice and careful so that my truck was perfectly situated between the lines. There was only an inch or two to spare on either side and the bed extended a good three feet beyond the parking spot, but all four of my tires were inside the prescribed space.
On the way to the office, I saw Mrs. Owlsey. Mrs. Owlsey was a fixture at King’s Court. She was a thin, spectral figure who sat in a wheelchair, smoking cigarettes, looking out absently, contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Her thinness suggested that she was very ill. We watched over the months as her corporeal substance withered away.
Mrs. Owlsey was sitting in her wheel chair in her usual spot, an empty parking spot by the mail boxes. She gazed out over the town at the foot of the hill and trailed thin blue wisps of smoke into the cross breeze. I skimmed past Mrs. Owlsey on my way to the office, close enough to gaze at the spectacle of her evaporating presence but not too close to have to make eye contact.
The drop box for the water bill was a tiny slit in cheap stonework underneath the apartment complex’s moniker. “King’s Court,” it said, in huge, dramatic, curlicue letters. You had to walk over a cheap, kitschy moat to get to the box.
I dropped the check off and pitched the stub of my cigarette into the bushes.
“Mrs. Owlsey isn’t looking so good,” I told Crystal back at the apartment. “I think she lost even more weight.”
“I wonder how much longer she has,” Crystal said. “We should go over to her place sometime. You know, introduce ourselves, see if there’s anything we can do.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, shrugging casually.
The days had finally warmed enough to justify pulling our grill from the storage closet. Most places, we’d learned, didn’t allow grills, which was a deal-breaker for us.
The old Weber had accumulated six months’ worth of cobwebs and the valve on the tank needed oiling before it would even turn. I scraped the bars with a grill brush so that the junk and detritus from last summer fell away.
The grill took up a third of our porch, but I was happy to sacrifice the space for a sign of warmer days.
“Do you want potatoes?” Crystal asked.
I popped the tops off two IPAs, passed one to her, and settled back into a folding chair. I lit a cigarette. Three stories below, on the sidewalk, a group of kids chattered excitedly and tossed a Nerf football around. One child darted around and between the kids on a small scooter. We sat silently and listened to them play, enjoying the din and clatter of children.
Fluttering waves radiated out from under the grill’s lid and bent the space around it into watery mirages. I sprinkled seasoning on the two steaks and tossed them onto the grill with a sharp, hissing sound.
Crystal went into the house and came back out with the record player. She set a record onto the turn table, gingerly placed the needle into the groove, and settled down next to me. A light, ambient aria drifted out of the speakers.
Beyond the parking lot, steep bluffs rose up above the complex. Wild, untamed brush encircled the top of the hills. Crystal gazed out at them, her brow furrowed in thought. I wondered what she was thinking.
“Hey, did you see the new neighbors?” she asked me.
“It looks like a younger couple. I think they had a baby.”
I got up, flipped the steaks and closed the grill lid again.
The children below were playing some combination of hide-and-go-seek and dodge ball. One child buried his head in his arms against the retainer wall at the foot of the hill and counted loudly while the others scattered throughout the parking lot.
I pulled the steaks from the grill and we ate them out on the deck and talked of our plans for the coming summer. We talked about heading up north, to Bellingham Bay, and spending a week fishing, or maybe flying back east to see family. We talked about camping at the foot of Mount Rainier.
The plans sounded nice. We did this every summer, made these grandiose plans, but we almost never did them. When the time came, we were too busy or we couldn’t afford them. Last summer, I had to replace a water pump and a cracked radiator, so we spent the rest of the summer trying to catch up on our bills. It was nice to sit there in the lilting summer breeze and talk about things that would never happen.
We finished our steaks and sat outside, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. Before long, the sun had started to ebb and the darkness crept in and filled the space between us. Soon, all we could see was the ghostly outlines of the bluffs perched above us.
When the last crimson arc of the sun disappeared, the bugs descended on the complex from the woods, so we retreated inside and watched an old Law and Order rerun, one we’d never seen before.
There’s a certain pleasure to moving into a new place. It gives you a chance to find new places for old things.
Crystal and I debated endlessly over the layout of the living room. We tried three or four configurations and discussed at great length the merits of each. To test them, we would rehearse the motions of our everyday lives. I would walk from the bedroom to the living room, or step outside and come back in, hang up my coat, and nonchalantly sit down onto the couch.
“How did that feel?” she would ask.
“I don’t know. The couch seems to be sticking out too far.”
We’d move the couch over a few feet and push the armoire over next to the TV.
“How about now?”
We wandered aimlessly around Bed, Bath and Beyond, searching for items that fit together in just that right way that would bring some sort of sense of meaning to our bathroom.
After the first week at King’s Court, we’d put the finishing touches on our domestic space. The last of our possessions had found their rightful place in the hierarchy of things. We stepped back and looked at our work like an artist viewing a finished painting for the first time and we felt a sense of accomplishment. Knick knacks and ornaments populated nearly every surface—a ceramic owl, an old-fashioned ship on a wooden pedestal, a tin Coca Cola bas relief of a family picnic.
We thought then that we could live here in this space and start over again, live a new kind of life. Volunteer, work out, eat right. Things were good.
It wasn’t long, though, before a slow but steady litany of annoyances began to pile up.
We noticed the cupboards weren’t big enough to fit all of our dishes, for example. Or the living room wasn’t so spacious once the La-Z-Boy was moved into position.
At first, we danced around these inconvenient realizations. “Huh,” she would say, “that’s strange. I can’t seem to fit these plates here.” And I would say, cheerfully, “That’s okay, you can put them into the hallway pantry.”
It was the parking that finally ended the romance. One night, after working a double at the factory, I couldn’t find a spot. I drove around for almost a half hour, squeezing my truck through the narrow lanes and getting trapped in the arterial dead ends and cul de sacs. The lot was full. Cars were piled up illegally into the fire lanes. After almost a quarter tank of gas, I caught a sedan as it was pulling out and I greedily snatched the open spot before another circling vehicle could take it.
Crystal and I went down to the office the next day to see what we could do.
“You caught us just in time,” Jennifer said. “We’re offering our fall discount on parking. Fifty dollars a month can snag you two guaranteed spots. That’s covered parking.”
I explained to her that we hadn’t left room in our budget for parking.
She listened with a poised, sympathetic face. “I know, sir,” she said, “the parking is a little cramped.”
The realization that we would have to fight the unwashed masses returning home from work each day peeled back the photographic reality the Web site had promised. The flaws that we’d overlooked before were now glaring and unavoidable. We began to regard the small kitchen or the lack of windows through new eyes.
I told my father this on the phone one day. He laughed.
“All you’ve done for the last month is talk about how great your new place is,” he said.
“Yeah, well, I guess I see it a little differently now.”
“You know, your mother and I lived in an apartment once, right after we got married,” he said. “I tell you, the small things overshadow the big ones. Your mother calls it the ‘glow effect.’ You know what got us? The size of the goddamn fridge. It was this beautiful, sleek and sexy, double-doored Frigidaire, better than any fridge we’d ever owned before. But while we were looking at that fridge, we didn’t notice how the front door stuck when you tried to close it or how the drain moved slow or how the dryer would take two or three cycles to dry anything. All we saw was that fridge.”
There was a brewery about a mile or so from our complex. Morning Star Brewery, it was called. For the first few months, we hadn’t even known it was there. The brewery was in an unlikely spot, situated amongst a cluster of non-descript, aluminum buildings—an exhaust warehouse, an awning supplier, a chemical fertilizer distributor.
Crystal was the one to notice the brewery. She spotted a sandwich board sitting on the street corner displaying the dinner special for the day—two kielbasa sausages and a pint of beer for eight bucks.
So we crept in one day, cautiously. The chain link gate was open, but there were no signs encouraging or directing us forward. We had the uneasy feeling that we were going into a space where we weren’t allowed to go.
When we entered the industrial yard, we saw, hidden behind the facade of the aluminum buildings and invisible from the road, an expansive, overgrown field littered with the rusting carcasses of old semi-trucks. We inched forward and saw a neon sign tentatively blinking “Open.” We parked the car. Inside, locals lingered on bar stools, hunched forward over their pints. A young, pretty girl greeted us.
We were surprised that, in the middle of this forbidding, artificial landscape, there could be such a warm and jovial space.
I was exhausted after a long day at the factory and Crystal was cooking dinner when I came home—green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and a small pork shoulder roast. I could smell it cooking halfway up the stairs, and when I walked in, the air steamed my glasses and the fragrance nearly knocked me to my knees.
“Looks great,” I said.
“You want some salad to go with it?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m starving.”
She chopped some vegetables and I leaned back in my chair and watched the ten o’clock news. There was a segment on homelessness in Seattle. The reporter was interviewing a man who had lost his house in the foreclosure crisis, another hapless victim of the economy, and was now living in a van.
“It’s not so bad,” the man said. “I think of this as a temporary setback.”
“You certainly have a good attitude about it,” the reporter opined. “What’s the hardest part about living in your vehicle?”
“The parking,” he said.
I turned up the volume. “Honey, listen to this,” I said. “We’re not the only ones with parking issues.”
“Most spots in downtown Seattle,” the man said, “you can’t park more than seventy-two hours. You have to move every three days. That gets expensive, especially with gas prices right now. So you spend all this time looking for that perfect spot. You hear stories from other people about this or that spot down on the south side or whatever, but when you go and look for it, it’s the same as where you were before. After a while, it seems like your whole purpose in life is to find that spot, the one where you can park forever and nobody cares. The one where there’s a bathroom nearby.”
Crystal set the plates on the table and placed the food dishes onto potholders. “Dinner’s ready.”
I sat at the table and spooned green bean casserole onto my plate. The news report lingered in the background, the volume down low. I could hear a report on the dangers of over-prescribing penicillin.
“I had a weird dream last night,” Crystal said. She scooped some salad onto her plate. “I was driving a really nice car—a Lamborghini, I think—and the cops were chasing me. Only, it was like I was in a movie. There were all these slow motion shots and quick cuts. I knew that I was an actress, but the chase was somehow real, too. I had all these cop cars behind me and I was whipping through traffic and down back roads. Can you pass me the sweet potatoes?”
I slid the dish toward her.
“The cops eventually catch me after a really long, dramatic chase. One cop walks up to the window and he starts flirting with me. I recognize him—he’s a cop from one of those crime shows we watch all the time, I can’t remember which one—and I agree to go back with him to his apartment if he agrees not to give me a ticket.”
“Where’s this dream going?” I said.
“So I go with him, only his apartment is also where I work. There are clothes racks and mannequins all over the place. He throws me down onto a table and everybody I work with is watching, even the mannequins, so I get nervous and run away. Next thing I know, I’m in jail. I have these papers in my hand. Somehow, I know that I need to hold onto them because they’ve got important information that will set me free. But a girl steals them. The cops tell me it’s okay, it doesn’t matter. If I can walk a straight line for them, they say, I can go free. So they take me out of my cell and make me walk along this yellow line on the floor, but I have a hard time doing it. I keep falling over. Then I wake up. What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
In the background, the news reported on a hit-and-run. “The police released a description of a man today that allegedly opened fire on a car while traveling south on I-5,” the report said.
“I heard about this,” she said. “In Tacoma. Can you believe that? This car full of teenage kids cuts a guy off, so he pulls out a gun and just opens fire. He shot one of them right through the shoulder.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Unbelievable. I hope they catch the guy.”
“Me too. Who knows, though. Maybe they won’t.”
“No way,” I said. “These people always get caught. With technology today, there’s no way to get away with anything. I don’t even know why people still bother committing crimes.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “People get away with things all the time.”
“I saw this forensics show the other day about a guy they caught fifty years after he committed a murder,” I said. “Think of that. Fifty years, and they still got him.”
“Of course they show that story. It makes the cops look good.”
“People always make a mistake somewhere, or leave some piece of themselves behind. Human nature is no match for science,” I said.
“If you believe these shows, yeah, you’d think that everybody is just leaving little traces of themselves behind. Fingerprints, DNA, semen.”
“Maybe we do,” I said.
“I don’t know. I think the whole fingerprints thing is a big myth. My father had a friend who worked in homicide and he’d tell us stories all the time about crime scenes where there just weren’t any fingerprints or any evidence. People don’t always leave traces behind, and when they do, those traces can be so muddled and intertwined with everything else that they’re indecipherable. Of course, they don’t want us to know that.”
“You know, they. The government, the police, whoever. As long as the myth of fingerprints is alive and well, people will behave. But as soon as the old motivator of fear dissolves, it’s total anarchy.”
“But look at the guy they caught fifty years after the fact. The cops show up one day at his grandchild’s birthday party, cuff the guy, and take him away. You know how they found him? He left behind a hair. It took fifty years for DNA technology to catch up with him, but it did.”
“Didn’t that guy kill a couple of cops?” she asked
“Do you think they would’ve put the same effort into catching him if he’d killed a drifter or something?”
“That’s not the point. The point is, the clues are there, as long as people are willing to look. I’m not talking about politics or whatever.”
“But I am. That’s part of it. The clues don’t matter if you’re not looking. Yes, this guy was caught, but I bet for every guy they catch, there’s two that get away. This guy could’ve lived his entire life without ever getting caught.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Let’s assume he did get away with murder, and he lives out his entire life as a free man. The guilt still had to leave a mark on him. I bet he thought about it all the time and it tore him up inside.”
“I don’t know. Maybe the truth is that he’d forgotten all about it, that after so many years it faded away, the way a dream does when you first wake up in the morning. The truth might be that he lived his life just like any other man. That old man could’ve gone till the day he died, and died perfectly happy, leaving behind a generation to remember him by. And then you get some homeless guy, who’s nice to everybody, and has never murdered anyone, and he dies on the street, anonymous. Think about that.”
“I don’t know if I want to live in that world,” I said.
We decided to do a little spring cleaning that weekend. Though we’d only moved in six months ago, the debris of everyday living had begun to accumulate in the drawers and corners of our apartment.
Crystal gathered together the cleaning materials and rubber gloves. I pulled out the drawers, set them on the floor, and sorted through the mass of rubber bands, old batteries, and bottle caps that had worked their way into the drawers.
“You should clean out your truck, too,” Crystal said, picking up the sign that had been left on my window. “Do you still want this?”
“Yeah, don’t throw it away yet.”
“I don’t know. Just hold onto it.”
She looked at the sign, turned it around, and worried the duct tape stuck to the back. A piece of tape came loose.
“What’s this?” she said. She pointed to the upper right-hand corner of the sign. Underneath, where the tape had been, faint and worn but clearly visible, was a name written in blue marker. “Jeff,” it read.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She looked at the name for a minute and furrowed her brow.
“Hey, this is a pizza box, right?” she asked.
“Maybe the delivery guy wrote this. Maybe this is the name of the person he delivered it to.”
We went down to the brewery to take a break from the cleaning. The lot was nearly full. I wedged my truck into a tight spot and walked around and opened the car door for Crystal. The door would only open a foot or so.
“So chivalrous. My knight in shining plastic,” Crystal said, brushing my arms with her fingertips.
We sat down at the bar and ordered two Midnight Ales. A flat screen hung above the bartender. The game was on. The Mariners were playing the Yankees. It was the eighth inning and the Yankees were up by five.
“Fucking Mariners,” a man seated next to us said. “Every year, I get my hopes up, and every year, they let me down.” The man shook his head back and forth in exaggerated sweeps and tossed a few kernels of popcorn into his mouth. “I’m no fair-weather fan, though.” He said this with an indignant snort and tilted the bottom of his cup back toward the ceiling. “How are you folks doing this afternoon?” the man said to us.
“Good,” Crystal said.
“The name’s Joseph.” He extended a hand forward. His face was wide and friendly.
“It’s nice to meet you, Joseph,” I said.
He scowled. “Do you really mean that? Is it really ‘nice’ to meet me?” he said in a stern but inviting way.
“I guess it’s just something I say,” I said. “Have you been a Mariners fan long?”
“Yeah, I grew up watching them,” he said.
“Did you grow up around here?” Crystal said.
“Sure did. Born and raised. What brings you folks down here on a Sunday evening?”
“Just catching a break,” she said. “Cleaning.”
“Ah,” he said. We chatted amicably for a few moments—about the brewery, about the Mariners, about the weather. Crystal asked him what he did for a living.
“I work for the city,” he said.
“Oh yeah? Doing what?”
“Do you know those cameras they put on intersections? The ones that snap your picture when you run a light?” he said.
“I maintain and install those.”
“So you’re kind of like a Big Brother, huh?” I said.
He laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that. It’s funny—if you could go back in time, to the sixties, and tell my past self that I would someday work for the Man, I never would’ve believed it.”
“It can’t be all bad,” I said. “I mean, do you at least get to see the pictures?”
“Sure do. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve caught on camera. People driving naked, people dozing behind the wheel. This one time, a few years back, I got a nice snapshot of a man running a light and you could just barely make out the back of a woman’s head, face-down in the man’s lap.”
“No shit,” I said.
“Oh yeah. Do you folks live nearby?”
“Just up the hill,” Crystal said. “King’s Court.”
“Ah, King’s Court. I’ve done some contract work there before. Nice place. Do they treat you like Kings?”
“No. The parking sucks and the rent’s too high,” I said.
“I live in an apartment, too,” he said. “You know what’s really amazing about those places? It’s a marvel of modern social engineering, really. They’ve figured out how to pack hundreds of people into a small space with total consideration for utilitarian economy, and to do it without the thing they fear the most.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“People getting together. People talking. That’s the scariest thing that can happen, in their eyes.” The bartender set another mercurial pint in front of him. He snorted again and took a sip.
“They who?” I said.
“Not that they need to worry,” he continued. “People are never going to start talking to one another anyway.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because. Look around. You’ve got flashing images in every corner of your eye, telling you to buy this, you deserve it, go ahead, take that vacation. If you sell people their reflection, they’ll never stop looking in the mirror.”
Joseph pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket. “Anyway, I don’t mean to get all doom-and-gloom. You folks want to see a magic trick?”
He set the deck of cards down in front of me, face down, and moved them around.
“Pick a card,” he said.
I did—the three of spades.
He shuffled the deck again and pulled out another card, seemingly at random.
“Is this your card?” He showed me the king of hearts.
I shook my head and laughed.
I nodded. “Looks like you need to work on your magic trick a bit more,” I said.
“Look again,” he said.
I glanced at the card in my hand. What had previously been the three of spades was now the king of hearts.
“Holy shit,” I said. “How’d you do that?”
Joseph laughed. “A good magician never reveals his tricks.”
“Not even a hint?” I said.
“Distraction,” he said. “People are easy to distract. Easier than they realize.”
“He’s full of shit,” another man, further down the bar, said.
“Shut up, Henry,” Joseph said. “Hey, when are you going to buy me that drink?”
Joseph moved further down the bar, his deck of cards in hand, and proceeded to show Henry another card trick. We settled back and watched the rest of the game.
The Mariners lost. The Yankees swept them, ten to three. The post-game show came on. Two men in suits analyzed slow motion footage from the game. The bartender turned the volume down and the jukebox cut in right in the middle of “Paint It Black.” We bought another round, drank it silently, and paid our tab. We said a quick goodbye to Joseph and left.
The next day I took the sign down to Roundtable Pizza. The place was mostly empty, except for the back room, where there was what looked like a birthday party. A frenzy of young children zoomed around in chaotic, disorderly loops. The adults sat at the center of the disarray, quaffing pints of beer and seemingly ignoring the children.
Behind the counter was a frumpy, disgruntled woman. Her hair was messily pent up and writhing around loosely in a way that reminded me somehow of a Claymation Medusa from an old movie I’d seen when I was young.
“Hi, welcome to Roundtable Pizza, the last honest pizza, what can I get for you today?” the woman said. She said the words with the intimate, tired familiarity of having said them hundreds of times before.
“I’ve got a strange question, actually,” I said. I dropped the cardboard sign on the counter between us. She picked it up, cautiously, and read it. Her eyes widened.
“This box is from here, right?” I said.
She nodded. I pointed to the name written on the back. “Can you tell me about this?”
“Sir, I can assure you that no one working here would’ve ever written this.”
“I’m not accusing anybody. I’m just wondering about this name. Do your delivery men write the names of the people you deliver to on the box?”
She shook her head back and forth to toss the loose, serpentine curls out of her face. Her hair seemed to shift and squirm with each toss of her head. “Yes, sir.”
“I’m just trying to find the guy who wrote this,” I said.
She breathed out deeply and her demeanor changed. A heaviness seemed to flow out of her. “Well, this guy’s an idiot, huh?” she said. “Leaving his name behind like that.” She turned the sign over in her hands a few more times. “Some jerk left a sign on my car a couple weeks ago,” she said. “He saw a fleck of paint on his side panel and thought my door had nicked his.”
“Ridiculous,” I said.
“Ridiculous,” she agreed. “People are so angry. Did you hear on the news, about that hit-and-run?”
“Yeah, I heard about that,” I said. “They still haven’t caught the guy.”
“What’s wrong with people?” she said.
“You know what I think it is?” I said. “I think people feel safe, anonymous, sitting behind the wheel, chugging Big Gulps, shooting down the highway in their giant, two-ton ego machines.”
“Well, good luck finding this guy,” she said.
I went to the leasing office to talk to the staff, sign in hand. Jennifer listened carefully as I told her the story.
“Do you think you could look up his name?” I said. “Maybe tell me which apartment he lives in?”
“Sir, we can talk to him for you.”
“That’s fine, but I’d like to talk to him,” I said.
“No, sir, I’m afraid I can’t condone that,” she said in a calm but tersely bureaucratic way. Her facial expression was implacable. I could see that I was getting nowhere. I thanked her and left.
I went back to my apartment and spent the next couple hours doing Google searches and prowling the Internet. I found a Web site called “People Finder.” The site had testimonials from its users with touching stories that could’ve come straight out of a Hallmark movie. “Brothers unite after 66 years apart,” one read. “Long-lost lovers find one another after three decades,” read another. “With the click of a mouse, our people search database will explore millions of records to bring you the results you are searching for,” the site promised.
I tried a few searches. I entered “Jeff” in the “First Name” field. I entered the city, state, and zip code.
A few names came up, so I narrowed the search field to “King’s Court.” A second later, a single name and address showed up: Jeff Redwick, in apartment B-202. He’d previously lived in Redmond, Spokanne, and before that, Butte, Montana.
I heard the door open and the sound of keys hitting the table. Crystal was home from work. She walked into the room.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Check this out,” I said. “I found the guy’s name.”
“Still?” she said. “Are you still obsessing over this guy?”
“I’m not obsessing. It’s not right, what this guy did.”
“He didn’t do anything wrong, except maybe act like an asshole. And as far as I know, that’s still not illegal.”
“It should be.”
“Have you ever stopped to think that maybe you’re the one being an asshole? That maybe you really do park badly?”
“Don’t defend him,” I said.
“Well, what now?”
I held up a sign I’d made from poster board. “Touch my truck and fucking die!!!” it said.
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said. “That’ll teach him. Do you even know what he drives?”
“No,” I said. “But I know where he lives. I figured I could keep an eye on his apartment, wait till he leaves one day, and trail him to his car. Then, I’ll sneak out late one night and stick the sign to his window.”
“Great. Now you’re a stalker,” she said.
“Stalking’s not illegal,” I said.
I crawled out of bed later that night. Crystal stirred a bit, but I quietly slid on my shoes and slipped out the door before I she could wake.
The evening was cool and silent. I shuffled around the grounds, looking for a place where I could stand and wait. I lingered under the carports, stood next to the mailboxes, walked around the playground. Everywhere I went I felt conspicuous. I lit a cigarette to give my presence some semblance of legitimacy and purpose to any outside observers.
Apartment B-202 was on the other side of the parking lot, up a flight of stairs. I found a spot on a grassy hill that gave me a perfect sight line of the door.
About fifty yards from where I stood, three teenagers—a girl with two boys on either side—sat on the back of a Buick and passed a bottle in a brown bag back and forth. The two boys were nudging the girl playfully with their elbows. She laughed piercingly into the night.
I waited there for a half hour, but it wasn’t long before the cold nighttime air cut through my thin sweater and my teeth were jouncing off one another. I pulled my hood over my head and shoved my hands deep into my pockets.
Redwick’s apartment was dark. I could see the pale blue flicker of television through the sliding glass door. It seemed he was settled in for the night.
I looked around the lot and tried to figure out which car belonged to Redwick. An old run-down Volkswagon with a bumper sticker that read “Free Tibet.” A minivan with a “Baby on Board” sign suctioned to the back window. A Chrysler with a “Jesus was a liberal” sticker parked next to a jacked-up, F-150 with a chrome fetish. The F-150 had a sticker that read, “I’ll keep my guns, money, and freedom. You can keep the change.” Freedom of speech, it seems, was alive and well at King’s Court. The parking lot was a veritable marketplace of ideas.
An hour went by. The moon boldly strode into the sky and haloed everything in a warm glow. From the corner of my eye, I saw a flicker. I looked and was stunned to see Mrs. Owlsey, arrested in a beam of moonlight, parked in her usual spot. I hadn’t noticed her before and I wondered how long she had been there. In the moonlight, she looked like an apparition, unnatural and still, and yet, there was something very natural and right about her presence, as if she were exactly where she belonged, a creature of night. To pass the time, I watched her for some time, silently fascinated by the way the moonlight played off this strange, dream-like figure. The moon was fully overhead and I didn’t know how much time passed. I’d stared at Mrs. Owlsey so long that she had become a white blur. I could hardly tell where she ended and her wheelchair began. Something about her presence struck me so deeply that I thought about going down there and striking up a conversation, but her distant, emaciated aspect in the deathly glow of the moon frightened me.
The teenagers were in motion. One of the boys pitched the now empty bottle into a cluster of bushes and the three of them capriciously threaded their way through the parking lot, under the pools of light cast by the halogen lights, around the mailboxes, past the parked golf cart. One of the boys climbed into the cart and gripped the wheel and wrenched it back and forth. The other hopped on the back bumper and jumped up and down. The cart bounced and the shocks cried out like a dying animal. The girl laughed. After a minute or two they grew bored and headed off again.
From my vantage point, I could see that they were heading toward Mrs. Owlsey. I approached from a side angel under the cover of some trees to get a closer look. They walked only a few feet in front of me, unaware of my presence, laughing and stumbling along.
When they were twenty paces from Mrs. Owlsey, they stopped and huddled together. They whispered back and forth indistinctly.
“Hey,” one of the boys shouted out at Mrs. Owlsey, “the handicapped spots are over there.”
The girl slapped the boy’s arm and said, “You’re such an asshole.” The three entwined arms and darted off down the sidewalk. I watched until they disappeared.
I looked at Mrs. Owlsey closely for any sign of change in her demeanor, but she was the same unperturbed, stoic, distant Mrs. Owlsey.
I felt a sudden urge to step into the moonlight and talk to her. I strode forward, as if in a dream, aware of my actions at a distance.
“Hey,” I said.
She didn’t respond or move.
“Are you all right?”
She looked in my direction but still said nothing.
“Those kids, those assholes that were bothering you. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“I can do something about it, if you want me to,” I said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.”
“They’re just kids,” she said. “They don’t know any better. I make them nervous, and they don’t know how else to deal with it.”
I nodded and lit another cigarette. We stood there a few moments, silent.
I said, “You know, I see you out here a lot.” I waited for a response, but there was none, so I continued. “I’ve known for some time that you’re sick.” I held up my cigarette and said, “I guess I should quit smoking these, huh?”
She looked at me. “I am sick, but not because I smoke. I didn’t start smoking till the doctors told me the news. I figured it would be nice to have something to blame it on.”
“How much longer?” I said. “I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Who knows? The doctors keep telling me another month, and then a month goes by, and they say another month. Any day now, really.”
“You know, my girlfriend and I could help you out, if you ever needed it,” I offered.
She shook her head. “I’ve got an in-house nurse, and she helps me with shopping and cleaning and other errands.”
“I’ve wanted to talk to you for some time, but I never felt like I could come up and talk to you.”
“Why’s that?” she said. “Do I make you nervous, too?”
“No. Well, maybe that’s it, but I don’t think so. It’s more like, I don’t know, I don’t want to accidentally cross some line I’m not supposed to.”
Mrs. Owlsey nodded. “Sometimes you can’t help it.”
“You never know how people are going to react, though,” I said. “People get mad for silly reasons.”
“They do,” she said. “They get mad when people cross the line, but they never seem to get mad at the people who drew the lines in the first place.”
“My dad told me this story once,” I said, “about a hunting trip.” I was unsure of where the story was coming from or where it was going. “He was camping up in the UP for a few days, hunting for deer. On the second day of his trip, he shot this big buck, right through the lungs, but he missed its heart. So the thing darts off into the forest, fast. My father and his friends spend the next three hours tracking the thing through the brush and snow. He keeps losing the trail and picking it up again, losing it and picking it up again. Every now and then he’d see some blood in the snow. Finally, he finds the buck in this small grove, hunkered down and breathing fast. Its chest wound is bleeding real bad and it can’t even move, so he shoots it through the head with one clean shot and kills it. They have to haul the thing all the way back to camp on some sort of makeshift sled.”
Mrs. Owlsey looked at me with widened, aware eyes. The dramatic moonlight deepened the shadows on her face. “Why are you telling me this story?” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know, exactly.” I thought about it for a moment. “When my father told me that story, there seemed to be something so invigorating, the nearness of life and death in that moment. I feel like I’ve lost that nearness.”
“Is that what I am to you?” she asked. “A museum exhibit? A reminder of your own mortality? That’s a little narcissistic, don’t you think?”
I didn’t respond right away. I weighed my words carefully in my head and shifted my weight back and forth. I said, “Maybe. I didn’t mean to offend.”
“Those kids didn’t offend me, and you’re going to have to try pretty hard to top them,” she said.
She sunk back sullenly into her chair and her mood turned taciturn again. When my cigarette was done, I told her it was nice to meet her and headed back to my apartment. As I walked away, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw her poised there, like a marble statue, frozen in that single moment of time.
I never talked to Mrs. Owlsey again. I continued to see her on my nightly patrols over the next week, and I continued to watch her and wander what she was thinking about as she gazed out at the hills in the nighttime.
Then, one night, just after midnight, Jeff Redwick emerged from his apartment. He was middle-aged and tallish with a scraggly beard and he wore an oil-stained flannel. He bounded down the steps and climbed into his car, a used Honda Civic, started the motor, and fled off into the darkness.
The next day at work, several people called out. We were behind on our quota for the day, so I stayed late to get the line back up to speed. I was busy most of the day, but all I could think of was the sign waiting at home. Tonight, I told myself, I’d put the sign on Redwick’s window, and the universe would be balanced again.
When my shift was up, I threw my overalls into my locker and took a route through the back area of the factory in order to avoid my co-workers. The sun was bright and people were out on the roads. The traffic was thick and I impatiently wove from one lane to the next. I thought of the cameras nested in the little metal boxes and eyed them with caution as I powered through stale yellow lights.
As I approached King’s Court, I could sense something amiss. I pulled into the lot and saw a crowd that had formed outside one of the buildings. The complex was a boiling cauldron of emergency response vehicles loosely scattered around the parking lot. I stopped in the middle of the road, threw my truck into park, and flipped on the hazard lights. I ran up to the scene and elbowed my way through the crowd of restless soccer moms, hyperactive children, and semi-concerned fathers. The lights from the vehicles skittered along the sides of the buildings and created a disorienting carnival effect.
I saw Crystal standing in the crowd of strangers. I worked my way up to her.
“What happened?” I asked. “Did someone get murdered?”
“No,” she said. “It’s Mrs. Owlsey. She passed away.”
The cops had sealed the perimeter around Mrs. Owlsey’s apartment. “Police Line—Do Not Cross,” it said. I watched the yellow police tape flicker in the wind. Two paramedics lingered around the entrance to Mrs. Owlsey’s apartment and spoke casually with an officer.
“The funeral is on Saturday,” Crystal said. “I talked to her sister, before you got here. I think we should go.”
“We didn’t really know her, though,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be strange?”
“Probably. But I feel like we should go.”
After the cop cars and ambulances left, a profound silence fell over the parking lot. I lingered outside, unsure of what to do next. I looked over at the space where Mrs. Owlsey would sit for hours and hours, thinking. The spot was empty. There was no trace of her ever having been there. I began to doubt the reality of that late night conversation in the moonlight. It seemed too strange, too far removed from everyday experience, to be real.
I smoked a cigarette, walked down to the mailbox and swung past Mrs. Owlsey’s spot en route. I put in my key and opened the mailbox. It was empty. I shut the tiny metal door, locked it, and headed back.
I saw Jeff Redwick, in his Honda Civic, round the corner and pull into the lot. He parked in the same spot where Mrs. Owlsey’s would sit and threw the car into park. A flare of rage jolted through my gut and I wanted to tell him he had to find someplace else to park. I couldn’t force the words up into my mouth. Instead, I walked past and made eye contact with him. I nodded and said a cursory, “Afternoon.”
I went back up to the apartment. Crystal was watching the news.
“Coming up, survivors tell the harrowing tale of their last few moments aboard the Concordia,” the report said. On the screen were pictures of the enormous cruise ship, tilted lazily over into the azure water. The footage looked photoshopped, I thought.
I took the two cardboard signs from off the table and tore them into pieces and tossed the pieces into the recycling bin. I dropped down onto the couch next to Crystal and put my arm around her.
“What time is the funeral again?” I said.