January 26, 2014 | Author: Mircea Popescu

Ralph eased the new Honda into the parking place. He smiled broadly as he set the brake and unbuckled his seat belt, row 5, slot 13, the perfect place. He always wanted to park exactly here but sometimes it was taken and he had to park in 12 or 14 or even further away. Ralph had started parking here right after that time he came out of the store and couldn't find his car. Now he always knew where it was, or at least very close because it was always in the same place.
Climbing out he carefully locked the door, double checked his pocket for his shopping list and set off for the store. He didn't come to this store every week, really the only reason to come here was that special brand of string beans the other stores didn't carry. Pausing, he pulled out his list to check it while he walked. According to his notes TV dinners were on sale here this week too, a better price than he usually paid at another store so he would also buy those.

Inside he took a shopping cart from the end of the row by the door and began pushing it down the wide bright aisle. Ralph knew well the layout of the store, he could have gone directly to the string beans and tv dinners, but if he did that he might miss something worth seeing and buying. Up and down each aisle he traveled, pushing the shopping cart, which seemed to have developed a sticky, squeaky wheel just feet from the front door.

Ralph considered going back for another, but he really hated backing up, and anyway the next one would probably have something wrong too, they always did.

The aisles should have been spacious, designed in fact to let two people pushing carts pass each other with room to spare, but much of that space was filled with point-of-sale displays and sale items. In fact with all the extra stuff in the aisles it was often hard to get through them at all. Waiting in one spot for some woman to pass from the other direction he noticed on the display next to him a new brand of soap, he had seen the first commercial for it just the other day. It wasn't on his list, but he had thought at the time he would like to try it, into the cart it went.

Six more aisles and 30 minutes later he was waiting in line to pay for the items in his now half full shopping cart.

Back in the parking lot at last, he set off confidently toward the slot where he knew he had parked his car. Groceries were safely transferred to the trunk, Ralph pushed the cart with the sticky, squeaky wheel to the spot labeled 'Car Corral' and parked it. He climbed into the car and pulled out his list, glancing over the items crossed out, only two actually, and saw that his next stop must be the store where he did most of his shopping. They generally had the best prices, except when things were on sale at other places.

At his next stop the parking lot was very crowded, Ralph had to park one row over and 6 spaces up from his usual spot. He took out a pen and carefully noted the location on the bottom of his shopping list, just in case.

Entering the store, his attention was caught by a small crowd of people watching a girl in a very short skirt demonstrating the latest in labor-saving-devices, other than very short skirts. He took the last cart from the long stack and pushed it over to join the crowd and see what new wonder of modern science was being demonstrated.

Watching, his eyes wandered back and forth between the girl's very long legs and her quick hands showing how wonderfully quick and easy it was to perfectly peel a hard boiled egg with this ingenious bit of plastic. Ralph really didn't eat hard boiled eggs, but maybe that's because they were too much trouble to peel? At last, tearing his gaze away from the long legged girl, he picked up a box containing this wonder of modern science, on special sale of course, dropped it into his cart and moved off to complete his grocery shopping.

At the far end of aisle 5 was another demonstrator, this time a young man that looked like he had just stepped off the front cover of some 'beach and surf' magazine. Ralph tried to maneuver closer to see what was being demonstrated, but the way was completely blocked by housewives, each pushing shopping carts and towing one or more small children. A bit frustrated Ralph retreated and squeezed his cart behind the edge of the crowd and turned into aisle 6.

The last thing on Ralph's list today was to find the new store that rented DVD's that he had seen advertised on TV. They had a really good deal for club members and he planned to join, if he could find the place. The address was really not too far from his home, but it was in an older, run down section of town that he rarely visited, while he was there he would also follow-up on a flier he had recently gotten in the mail about a new club there called Asylum, sounded like it might be an interesting place to make some new friends.

Ralph's mind wandered off, trying to add up the day's expenses. According to the statement they sent there were 745 dollars less on his Platinum Visa than should have been there, and that on top of the 255 dollars check he deposited to that account... Where could have all the money gone? Briefly he considered calling the company and telling them somebody must have gotten his PIN somehow and was leeching his credit card... but then, he had done that last year right after Christmas when he suddenly, mysteriously, painfully owed almost five thousand dollars more than he could possibly recall spending, and eventually it turned out he had in fact spent himself every penny, the company charged him for the false alert and he was so ashamed when he had to explain to the lady on the phone he must have lost track of his own expenses. Ralph frowned and banished the thought of calling the company. It was much like in school, when you get a bad mark on an exam that is automatically marked by a computer, and you talk to the teacher, because you are very sure there must have been some mix-up with the silly computer... not because you have much real cause for that, but because it would be so great if it were in fact true, that you can't pass the opportunity, at least not easily.

There was all the grocery shopping he did... slip said something like 75 dollars... and then the groceries at the second store... must have been about same... no, wait, slip definitely was 3 figures... was it a hundred something? Or two hundred something? Couldn't have been just one hundred, Ralph decided, since the egg peeler was 19.99 on special sale (he did save 5 dollars on that, Ralph tried to cheer himself up). So it must have been two hundred something... How much? A little something! Ralph was already arguing with himself, and he always hated that.

So that was that, he had spent over two hundred dollars again, when all he wanted to get were some bloody canned beans. Which actually he could have very well done without since he only knew one way to fix them. This can not go on. For the probably hundredth time, Ralph was about to promise himself he was going to stop shopping that way, do something, anything, but stop with the cart filling.

The club! Maybe he should find that club he wanted to see, they had no mention of a fee, and he was sure the DVD place was all about getting the poor working man's sweated dime. What did he need DVD's for anyway? Well... it would be nice to have some to watch as a pastime in the evening...but then again that's how he got over 100 music CD's last year... and most of them he hadn't even listened to yet, and most of those he had listened to he couldn't stand. Maybe there are some nice people there that won't try to get him to buy anything while pretending to be chatting with him.

Turning onto the street listed in the ad Ralph stopped, stepping on his brakes quickly in absolute amazement. There, suspended almost in mid-air, half in and half out of a storefront window was the reddest car he had ever seen.

Small groups of people stood about in front of some of the shops, watching as a tow truck maneuvered, trying to find the right position it needed to extract the car from its predicament.
Regaining a bit of composure, Ralph glanced up and down the street, finally spotting a place, far enough from the accident scene and not over hung with trees that might spoil the waxy sheen on his car, he parked and got out to look for the club.

Standing next to his parked car Ralph looked up and down the street, seeking an address number to indicate which way he should be going to find the club. His eye fell on the policeman, near the accident scene, apparently taking a statement from a witness, and the witness was none other than Rev. Thomas Asher, the minister from the church he attended some Sundays, when he had nothing better to do.

***

"So there I was, standing like an idiot, looking at my car all covered in little bits of glass. You remember what I went through to have it painted shining bright red, not carmine, not burgundy, not that sickly sort of red they use for ambulances? Well, now it's all scratched by a million little bits of glass. And of all the things in the world, an art gallery! What the heck is an art gallery anyways? What does it do? Just a magnet for idiots that sit there for hours gazing at stupid bits of paper someone puked on. So then they were all gazing at me, with these bovine looks they have."

"Ah, but this was a fortunate event, Frankie. You were exposed to culture."

"Shove it. I was exposed to little bits of glass and they were exposed to real life for a second."

"So why did you get arrested then?"

"Dunno."

"Course, the officer said you threw stuff at him and hit him and scratched him and then wouldn't show a driver's license."

"Well, I didn't have it."

"What, the license?"

"I must have left it somewhere... I don't know."

"But how do you manage to crash a car in this traffic? I certainly don't know."

"Gah! I was trying to go past this asleep idiot at the stop light. Anyone knows you don't stop the second it turns red. Pesky municipal workers always stop before it even is red. So I went past him."

"What, you passed the car stopped at the light? The wrong way?"

"Not exactly... well anyways, some car came from ahead and I had to pull left but then it went sliding and next thing I knew I was inside the museum."

"They must have thought it's an artistic happening."

"Oh anyway, what is the hold up... I'm sick of this place already!"

"Well, they are probably double checking for stolen cars, assaults, soliciting... you know... standard procedure for a car crash."

"Ha, ha. So funny, someone will get killed."

"Anyway, I wanted to talk about something with you."

"Like?"

"See, I went by a place that had an odd name, 'Asylum'. Turns out it's a bunch of losers that got together, formed a sort of loser hang out since they got nothing better to do anyway. Sort of a support group for people that have no friends, no relatives and not even somebody that could be bothered to shoot them."

"Glorious. I'm sure you will be happy."

"I will, just as soon as we join up."

"Who's we?"

"Me, you, and I think Janice."

"What's that slut to do with anything?"

"I have such a strange feeling of deja-vu."

"Have some water. You don't seem that well you know? Old age finally catching up? Listen to him! Join the Asylum? HA!"

"Just consider this. We go there, join separately. Then you do this song and dance about being lonely and looking for a soul mate... you know like in the stupid books they read, 'someone I could just talk to'."

"Do I look like all that much talk?"

"Will you shut up? You haven't seen these people. I bet you will get a box of candies each day. And then they will talk to you see? And offer their best intended friendship. And likely, invitations to visit art galleries."

"Hmm."

"Capisci?"

"This could actually be fun for a change. You know sometimes you are almost as smart as they say."

"Rarely."

"So where in hell is the guy with the key? You sure you posted bail?"

"No, I was on my way, but then I thought I'd stop by."

"Oh! You monster! I want OUT of here!"

"Well, okay, I'll go now. You just stay put."

"I'll be right here, sharpening nails, dear."

***

Ralph moved closer to the accident scene, wondering if the Rev. might need some help. Surely that was not his car, now teetering in mid-air as the tow truck attempted to extract it from its unlikely location in the display window.

"No, officer." Ralph heard the Rev. say. "I was just stopping at the red light, when this car came up from behind, very fast, then swerved, apparently lost control and went flying into the store there."

"Alright, I have your statement, we will be in touch if anything more is needed. Have a safe day now." the officer replied, then moved away.

Rev. Thomas Asher still just stood there, looking a bit dazed and Ralph approached him to ask if there was anything he could do to help.

They stood there together on the sidewalk, chatting quietly about nothing much and watching as the car was extracted and towed away. A few minutes later, a team of workmen showed up with sheets of plywood and began clearing away the broken glass and covering the gaping hole in the front of the building, which Ralph could now clearly see was an art gallery.

The little crowds of other watchers, clustered around other store fronts, began to drift away and the street slowly returned to its usual peaceful state.

The last group to drift away was just two doors down, and as they cleared the area in front of their doorway Ralph saw that one of the crowd was not a person at all, but of all things a wooden Indian.

Continued