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table of contents — stories


As I was emerging from the fog of sleep with the help of a little coffee — it was still somewhat dark outside — I noticed that my car was missing. On this day I had to drive to work, to a small city an hour or so from where I lived, and my car would be necessary to get there in a reasonable amount of time. I couldn't remember what had happened to my car. Instead, in front of my house there was an unfamiliar black car, rather large. Then I remembered that I had taken my car in for repairs, so I guessed the black car was a loaner from the repair shop. Sure enough, there was a strange key on the glass-covered top of the bureau. They must have delivered the car and handed me the key the night before, and I had forgotten all about it.

I prepared for the day and drove off. I thought I knew how to get to my destination, although I had never been there; it was an old factory or warehouse used by the company I worked for whose purpose wasn't clear to me. Nor was the work I was supposed to do. I just knew I was to go there, and I'd be filled in on the work when I got there. I had worked for the company for a long time and in recent years had acted as a sort of random engineer, handyman and fixer, usually for the older machinery, although I was familiar with electronics, telephone equipment, and computers as well. I was not afraid to pick up a screwdriver and was relied on as someone who could usually figure out how to make things operate even when manuals were long gone and the regular operators were totally ignorant. As I drove I amused myself recollecting some of my past miracles of mechanical demystification and resurrection.

It seemed like a very short time later that I found myself pulling up to the company's building, which I recognized from pictures. My arrival was so sudden I wondered if I had passed out while driving. This alarmed me, but if so, I had correctly navigated the roads anyway. I drove into the adjoining parking lot, separated from the street by an old, rusty Anchor fence. Part of the lot was paved and the rest was gravel and cinders. A side wall of the company's building loomed over the lot, old, dark brick, five or six stories high, with only a few small windows and a narrow door in it. I parked the car and walked around to the front of the building, which looked a lot like the side, but with more windows, doors, and in front some rather tired hedges and walkways, a little very minimal landscaping that probably hadn't changed in the last fifty years.

I walked in, not knowing who to ask for, but a man appeared from a hallway and called my name. He proposed an immediate, somewhat early lunch. I supposed it had taken me longer to get to the place than I had expected and resolved to start earlier next time. There was a small cafeteria and we got some sandwiches and coffee. I expected to hear about the problem I was to solve but instead a got a great deal of small talk. Finally he said he would send someone to see me, and meanwhile I could walk around and 'get the lay of the land.'

In fact, there didn't seem to be a lot going on. Mostly, the building was being used for storage. The larger machinery was inactive and generally covered. Some of it looked like old printing or paper-processing stuff, suggesting the production of marketing or training materials. Where there was activity, it seemed to be ordinary office bureaucracy of indeterminate purpose. About the most complex thing visibly working in the place had to be the telephone or maybe the computer network if any. I went back to the cafeteria and got another cup of coffee. There were many magazines lying around in an adjoining lounge, so I went in there and read them. It wasn't the first time I had come to a job where the locals were too ignorant or inefficient to say what was needed, and I had learned to bide my time.

Finally a young man showed up and told me they wouldn't be able to start me working on the situation that day, whatever it was. It was too late in the afternoon. I was surprised at the way time had slipped away. I told the man I guessed I would go home and come back the next day. I started out for the parking lot. He offered to come along. After apologizing for the delay, he too mostly did chit-chat until we got out the door. It amazes me how much people can talk without saying anything.

Once out into the lot, I didn't see my car. Of course I was unfamiliar with it, and it was getting dark, and there were several cars in the lot, but I was surprised and somewhat disturbed. I wondered if it had been taken away, towed, stolen. I told the young man that I didn't see the car.

'Let's walk around outside a bit,' he said. 'Maybe you parked it on the street.' I was sure that I hadn't, but I thought walking around might clear my head and clarify my memory, so I agreed. We walked past the large building and some smaller stores, down a side street, and turned into another side street. There was a bar or club on the corner here, and loud party-like noises, music and loud talk, came out of it. We stopped to look and a yellow door swung open. Inside, in a brilliantly lit space, we could see a number of people, all of them Black, talking loudly, gesturing broadly, brightly clothed, and moving around, perhaps dancing. It looked like quite a party. Some of them looked out at us. A man came out of the door and it swung shut. He grinned at us as he passed, and said, 'Don't pine away in the street. Come on down.'

I didn't think I could add much to the party, however, so we moved along. We finished circling the block and game back to the lot. We hadn't seen my car.

'The car must be in the lot', I said to my companion. 'I'll just wait until all the other cars leave, and mine will be the last one. You don't need to wait around for me.'

'All right', the young man agreed. 'I'm going to get on home then.' He walked off into the darkening evening.

I couldn't see the color of the cars too well any more. There were only a few left. I got the idea that if the key would fit into a car door, it would indicate I had the right car. I tried the nearest one — it seemed suitably large and dark. The key fit in and turned, but then a man popped out of the car, as if he had been activated by the key, and asked me what I was doing.

'I'm sorry,' I said, 'I thought this was my car.'

'Well,' he said, and stopped for a moment, as if confused by what I had said. 'Well, it isn't, you see,' he finally added.

'Of course,' I said. 'I'm sorry to have bothered you.' I withdrew the key and dropped it into my pocket.

'No problem,' said the man. He got back in the car, started the engine, turned on the lights, and drove away.

Now I saw that there were no cars left in the lot at all. A little light came into the lot from the street, and there was a single floodlight at the top of the company building, five, six stories up, shining weakly down, creating sharp shadows along the irregular faces of the bricks. Otherwise it was quite dark and I was alone in the lot. The air was getting chilly.

Puzzled, I reached in my pocket for the key, but of course it, too, was gone.