By JEN MICHALSKI
Everyone in the waiting room of the city towing office smells drunk. Even the children. The tape that secures the bandage to your face no longer sticks, and the gauze brushes your lips where it has fallen from your nose.
“I was in the hospital,” you explain to the clerk through the barred window, pushing across the title of your car. She is decision maker almighty, able to wave your towing fees and parking tickets with a click of her mouse.
“You got your license?” She picks up your title with two fingers. There’s a process— convoluted, inefficient—that presses people into two adjoining offices holding five chairs and six teller windows, windows to sign forms and windows to pay fines and windows to submit receipts to the man who will take you to the tow lot. All of the numbers have been called. It’s almost closing time, and yet everyone waits, talking, texting, farting.
“I don’t even use your car that much.” One standing woman, wearing pajama pants and a parka, accuses another. “Not two hundred dollars towing much.”
“Yes, you do.” The other sits, a child tethered to her, not looking up from her phone.
“I put twenty dollars of gas in it every week.” The standing woman stares at her.
“How does that help me now?” The woman sitting stares back.
You got mugged. You remember walking home from yoga class, then waking up in the hospital. When you took a taxi home, two days later, your cat had eaten a hole in the arm of the sofa and vomited stuffing everywhere. Your car was gone. You thought it was stolen until you remembered you had parked in a six-hour spot. On your next taxi ride, this one to the tow lot, you were irritated at the hundreds of dollars you’d have to pay for something that wasn’t your fault, and now, crowded in this room of people somehow covertly drinking, you are much more than irritated.
“Every time I come out here, aye,” the tow truck driver who’s come in complains, leaning against the counter, to one of the clerks. “I lose money. Time is money.”
“You have to wait like everyone else.” The clerk’s eyes are a concentrated beam of warning.
“When you gonna go out with me, bad ting?” He doesn’t budge. “You break biche with me?”
“What the hell you talkin’ about?” She doesn’t look at him this time. “You talk like that in the county, not in here.”
“You know I’m a millionaire.” He pulls his phone, vibrating, out of his back pocket. “Ask anyone work here, aye.”
No one has looked at you since you arrived—your floppy bandage, your black eye, your reddened, scraped hands. You had too much of a headache to put on makeup, but you put your hair in a ponytail, showered, made an effort. You’re used to being seen. But not even the Trinidadian tow truck driver, who barely breathes five feet and whose libido is at least seven, gives you a once over. You lean against the wall. Mark, the man you’ve been dating for several months, didn’t call or notice your absence. Two days. Why hadn’t he knocked on the door, asked neighbors, asked about your cat?
You are going to move, you decide. Out of this dangerous, terrible city. And become celibate. Or a lesbian. Maybe you will have better luck, then, or at least live someplace safe at some equilibrium between assault and obscurity.
The man who drives the shuttle to the tow lot returns with another man wearing a shiny black jogging suit.
“It’s not his car,” the shuttle driver says to one of the clerks.
“You don’t have a silver Honda?” The clerk looks at the man suspiciously. He’s young, the man. His face is round but pointed at the chin, like an acorn.
“I drive a white Accord.” He reaches for his wallet. “I got my title right here.”
“I only go by what the people write on the form,” the woman says, as if this is the end of the matter. “You sure you got the right key?”
“It’s not my car,” he smiles with all his teeth. They are almost blinding against his dark skin. He shakes his head like he’s used to skepticism. “I got my title right here.”
“It’s not his car,” the shuttle driver repeats.
It seems simple enough to you. It seems reasonable to shuttle the man past the rows and rows of cars until he sees his own, then let him drive away with it. But there are more blank stares, more shuffling papers. You worry when you are led to your black Nissan there will be a red Ford, and you won’t be nearly as composed as this man. You don’t belong here, with this rabble. They don’t look like you. They don’t sound like you. All the more fitting they should pretend you don’t exist. It wasn’t your fault, you think. Was it theirs? Yes, somehow it was theirs.
So many people wait. The clerks may forget about you completely, if they haven’t already. Just like Mark. Just like your cat, except when she’s hungry.
“Go.” The clerk slaps a receipt down on the counter in front of the Trinidadian man.
“You be ready when I coming back, aye.” He winks at her.
After a while, it’s only you and the man in the jogging suit. You pay your fine and get your papers. When it’s your turn to go out to the lot, he jumps up and follows you and the driver to the door, ignoring the clerk who tells him to sit down. He’s waited as long as you, longer, smiling incredulously, shaking his head. You admire his persistence.
In the shuttle he holds his key like a compass, eyes wide and hopeful.
“I hope you find it.” You turn to him in the seat. “You’re taking this a lot better than I would.”
“It’s out there.” He doesn’t look at you, either, but he’s smiling, at least. “I know it.”
The impound lot is what you’re expecting but maybe not prepared for. Hundreds and hundreds of cars in rows, most towed from accidents, tires pressed onto their sides but still attached, hugging the ground like dune buggies. Entire front and back ends are unrecognizable, the metal shredded like iceberg lettuce. Doors sink inward like fallen cakes. Spider web cracks stretch across windshields where heads have hit the glass.
And then there are cars, here and there, like yours, that have survived among the wreckage. Like you, they are only temporarily displaced, waiting to go back out in the world, luckier next time.
But maybe, you think, you were lucky this time.
You see it before the man in the jogging suit does, but you don’t say anything. He points and taps on the window as the shuttle passes the white Accord.
“Never worry.” He winks at you and gets out.
You want to spend a day behind his eyes. You want to see things differently. Maybe it is not being seen, you think, but the seeing that matters.
As the shuttle lurches forward, you scan the lot again, spot people from the office getting into their cars, pulling slowly onto the rutted mud road that leads back toward the highway. You rip the bandage from your face and pat it in your palm until the shuttle stops in front of your Nissan. You leave it in the backseat—a gift, a warning, you aren’t sure.
In your car, you grip the steering wheel and try to remember who you are. You glance at yourself in the rearview mirror, then turn the ignition, look ahead. A trace of lavender air freshener lingers in the cabin. A few days ago, before all of this, you hadn’t noticed it at all.
Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King, the collections From Here and Close Encounters, and a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now. She is the managing editor of jmww and host of the monthly fiction reading series, Starts Here!