Parking Structure 3
(Editor: This work of fiction was written for “Traffic Life.” More works about traffic, parking and transportation can be found at www.trafficlife.com. This is the companion website for the anthology “Traffic Life: Passionate Tales and Exit Strategies,” edited by Stephan Wehner.)
Something was wrong with the parking structure. It hurt John’s eyes when he tried to look directly at it. At first glance, the gray concrete building seemed perfectly ordinary – a typical square, four-level parking structure just outside the Psychology Department building of UCLA.
But on closer examination, it resembled some of the illustrations featured in the stupid psychology book his wife, Millie, showed him. While Millie drove their big, gas-guzzling 2002 car, John sat on the passenger side.
He picked up the book from the floor of the car and thumbed at the pages. Pictures in the book showed objects whose far side somehow looked closer than their near side – impossible topology distortions. He shook his head and lay the book down.
John squinted through the bug-flecked windshield at Parking Structure 3. The top level, the fourth deck of the structure, seemed fuzzy. He needed to visit his optometrist again. It was hell getting old. He was 52, and the fringe of hair that remained on his head was graying.
John wiped the sweat off his forehead in annoyance – it was a July evening. Heat waves shimmered from the pavement. A dry east wind sprang up out of nowhere and blew an assortment of old newspapers and dead oak leaves, skittering and scraping over the blacktop, up against the parking structure. The wind died, releasing its burden. The debris settled in the white flowered bushes growing along the concrete walls of the structure.
Millie stopped the car just short of the entrance.
John rubbed his hand over his bald head. He shuffled his feet on the car floor in agitation. He cracked his knuckles loudly and chewed at his gray mustache. “Well, what are you waiting for? Are you going to drive in there or are you going to sit here at the entrance all evening?”
Millie drew in a deep breath and sighed. “Be patient. I have to wait for the entry arm to rise and let us in. You asked me to drive today. Want to take over now?”
John said, “We’re gonna be late for your OCD lecture – those useless quack psychologists.”
Millie put the car in parking gear and sat there. She folded her arms and turned to glare at John. She shook her gray-haired head sadly. “Not quacks,” she said. “I’m the one who has to put up with you.”
“Yes, quacks, by God,” John said, “And I’m not compulsive. Things just gotta be logical and orderly around me.”
John was a Harvard Law graduate. He knew better than everyone else. He distracted himself from his agitation by using one finger to trace triangular patterns on the back of his other hand, connecting the freckles and age spots with nice neat imaginary lines. All the lines formed tidy right triangles, straight out of a Euclidean geometry text.
Millie simply sat there behind the steering wheel waiting. One at a time, several cars pulled in behind them, and the drivers began to honk their horns. A real racket. John’s fingers began to twitch.
He pointed at a hand-drawn sign. “Look, it says, For lecture, Living With OCD, push entry button and go to level five. Did you even push the damned button yet?”
The whir of Millie’s electric window was the only answer. She reached out, pushed the button and the entry arm immediately rose to admit the car. John smirked. He sat in his seat grumbling under his breath about logic, common sense, parking lot buttons, the damned people who designed them, and idiots who honked their horns.
The car jerked to a sudden stop, the tires screeched on the smooth concrete surface, and John bumped his forehead on the dash.
“Ouch. Sonofa ... Why?” He rubbed his forehead and turned to Millie.
She pointed at another sign: To Go Up, First Go Down Two Levels.
John said, “Just do the deal.”
“But we need to go up to level five, not down.”
John scowled at her and said through clenched teeth, “Do it.”
The next level down was marked Level Minus One. John said, “They ought to hang the engineer who designed this structure.”
He looked around. All the cars on this level were old. Vintage about 1980. Kept in real good condition, though. Polished, shiny, mint condition. John looked at Millie. He was being an old S.O.B. Too hard on her. She couldn’t help the fact that she wasn’t logical like him. She didn’t even have a law degree.
He looked lovingly at her young face – the smooth face of a nice 40-year-old, not the wrinkled face one would expect on a 50-year-old. He eyed her black hair. She must have dyed it again, and he hadn’t even noticed until now.
“I love you. You look real pretty today,” he said.
“Humph,” she answered.
The next level down was marked Minus Two. The air smelled damp and moldy. The parking spaces were filled with classic cars, all from the era of about 1950 to 1960, and each vehicle was in amazingly good condition. There was some real money here.
“Wow,” he said, “is there a car show here today?”
John squinted out the window into the darkness. There, a dozen yards short of the next turn, his parents’ old 1956 pickup was parked in one of the spaces reserved for the handicapped. He recognized the license plate.
A stooped old man stood next to the car. It was John’s dead father. His father looked up, caught John’s eyes, and darted into a doorway leading down a long corridor that receded into blackness.
“Wait. Stop,” John said. He yelled at Millie. “That was my dad. Dad was right there by his car.”
“Oh, John, John, John,” said Millie. “Your father has been dead 10 years. Your mother too. And their old car was hauled away to the junkyard and sold for spare parts.”
“No,” John insisted, “It was him. Him.” John’s breath came in shallow gasps.
Millie glowered at him. “Whatever is wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?”
John looked out the car window again. He thought, She’s right. Dad is dead. Maybe I’m losing my mind, or at least my sense of logic. Besides, they were 100 yards underground on this so-called Minus Two Level. Where would a doorway and corridor lead to? He wiped his wet forehead with his shirt sleeve.
“Here we go,” Millie said, “Here’s the up ramp to the higher levels. Now we’re getting somewhere.” She sounded young, musical.
John turned to look at Millie. She looked like a teenager. Or was it just the darkness of this parking level?
Several bends later, they passed a sign that said, Plus Two Level. All the cars here were ultra-modern looking, almost weird. Stubby electric vehicles, low-slung cars with ergonomic shapes. Some even had wings. There must indeed be some sort of car show going on. Maybe they could stop by the show after Millie made him sit through the lecture on obsessive-compulsive disorders. He would at least humor her.
He looked at his watch. It was already 7:15 p.m. The date was wrong, though. It said, Tuesday, 2011, and it was really only 2001. Stupid watch. He hated defective merchandise. Another trip to the damned shop. His fingers began to twitch again – he rubbed them along the seams of the fuzzy acrylic wool seat covers.
“We’ve already missed the first 15 minutes of your useless lecture,” John said.
The car slowed again, then stopped. “Something is wrong,” Millie said. “We’re on level four, and there are no cars here anymore. And I remember the sign said this is only a four-level structure. So how can we park on level five like it says we should?”
Her voice sounded tired, defeated. Millie’s hair was gray again. Her face was wrinkled leather. The light in this odd parking structure must have been playing tricks on John’s eyes. Then he saw the tears on her face.
A pang of guilt washed through him. “Let me take over driving so we can make some sort of progress,” he said, getting out of the car and walking around to the driver’s side. As John settled into the driver’s seat and put his hands on the sweaty plastic of the steering wheel, Millie slid over. Her passenger seat clacked as she ratcheted it down into a lower position. She groaned softly with arthritic pain.
He said, “I’m sorry I was so cranky. I’ll try to do better.” As a mumbled afterthought, he added, “I love ya.”
Millie lay back on the reclined seat. “Sorry? That’s what you always say. But you never change. Everything changes around you, but you’re always the exact same person.” She turned away to stare out the window.
John drove round a corner marked Up. They were still on level four; they needed level five, so going up seemed logical, in fact obvious. A few minutes later, they rounded the same corner – still on level four.
“What the hell is wrong with this structure?” John said. He raced the engine and roared the car around several bends, deliberately going the wrong way at the next corner, no matter what the sign said. A new sign said, Level Six. But they needed level five, not six. How had they skipped it?
John turned and shouted at Millie. “You and your stupid psychology lecture.” Millie cringed against the far window. John looked out through the open sides of the parking structure, hoping to catch a glimpse of the university buildings to reorient himself.
What he saw caused him to slam on the brakes. He flung open the door, jumped out of the car and ran to the side of the empty sixth level. He grabbed at the cold concrete column as he leaned forward and looked out over the countryside.
It should have been almost sunset this July evening, but the sun was nowhere to be seen. It was somewhere behind a slate gray sky that hung low over the city of darkened buildings. There were no cars on the streets.
Mounds of snow lay on the concrete sides of the parking structure. An icy wind blew snowflakes onto fluffy piles and onto his shirt. This couldn’t be happening anywhere in July – especially in Los Angeles. He walked back to the car and climbed in. He stared blankly at the steering wheel, breathing hard.
“What?” asked tired old Millie.
“It’s snowing. In L.A. In July. And we’re on a sixth level that doesn’t even exist.”
Millie said, “See what I mean about your trying to force your logic on everything?”
John’s fists tightened on the steering wheel again. “I’m gonna back the car right out of this damned place.” He revved the engine and craned his neck painfully out the window, backing around a turn. He screeched the car to a stop again, just in time to avoid backing over the sharp 2-inch spikes lying in the car’s path. One Way, Do Not Enter, Severe Tire Damage, the sign said. The only possible direction to go was up.
“Those god-damned engineers,” John said. He pounded his fists on the steering wheel and shouted. “This place was built by idiots and lunatics. Isn’t there any way out?”
Millie said, “Maybe it’s like the entry. Maybe we have to go up first, just to get to the turning point for the down-ramp.” She looked at the snow, shivered, and turned on the car heater. She held her bony old arms around her while her teeth chattered. Some of those teeth were missing.
“Hey, that’s good thinking,” John said in surprise. He threw the shift lever into forward and screeched around the corners. As they passed Level Seven, John looked over at Millie. She lay in a huddled heap.
“Millie. Millie. Wake up – are you OK?” He slammed on the brakes and reached for her. He shook her shoulder, and she flopped over onto the floor of the car, face up. It was the white-boned face of a broken-toothed skeleton that stared sightlessly at him from a tangle of gray hair.
John screamed in terror. He gunned the engine and raced, tires howling, up through the next three levels, weaving and darting at random, nearly spinning out of control on the ice-slickened concrete surface of the parking structure. He had to reach the turning point and get back down to the surface, call 911, and then maybe all these crazy things would be OK, and Millie would be Millie again.
John drove on, zipping through level after level. Finally, as he passed under the sign that said Level 449, he thought, This is the second time I’ve passed the 449th level. God, we’re thousands of feet up in the air. Four-level structure indeed. John’s ears popped with the altitude.
A frozen seagull lay off to the side, by the wall, with its stiff feet in the air. He remembered passing it a minute earlier. A minute later, he passed the gull again, even though he could swear he was still driving uphill steadily. He was still on level 449.
“This must be the top level at last,” he said loudly, cheerfully, pretending that somehow Millie could hear him.
But top level or not, there was still no down-ramp. They were still stuck, he realized, as they passed the gull a third time. He stopped the car and then backed down around the turn until he reached another set of the one-way tire spikes. He stopped and set the hand brake.
John climbed out of the car and ran back around one bend after another, heading downward, searching, slipping on the ice, shivering, waving his arms in the sub-zero cold winds that moaned at him. If only he could find some way down, then he would drive the wrong way in the car – who cares about tire damage. His heart pounded in his chest.
In a minute, he again came upon the gull, this time from the other direction. For some crazy reason, when you were at... 449, there was no way up and there was no way down.
John shouted into the freezing gale. “Stupid car.” The words echoed once on the concrete walls and then were lost, absorbed by the white mounds of soft snow that lay along the sides of the drive path. He kicked the frozen gull, sending it sailing through the air, where it crunched against a post and tumbled to the iced pavement. The gull lay still while it was covered by a settling cloud of its own feathers.
John turned and walked slowly back to the car, head hung low.
When he reached the vehicle, he saw that all four tires were flat. He groaned.
“Why, why?” he said. He hadn’t even driven over the one-way spikes yet. He pulled at the door and it came off the rusted hinges right into his hand. The car had been brand new just a few hours ago. The door dropped clattering onto the concrete. Millie’s clothes lay in tattered pieces on the floor of the car, exposing her bare white skeleton to the cold winds.
Seeing Millie like this made John quake. He gasped for breath and reached out for her with a trembling hand, just to touch something that was somehow, someway, her, and to reassure himself that he was still sane.
“I’m sorry, Millie. I’m so awful sorry.” He stroked at her shoulder bones and her skeleton crumbled into chunky gray ashes right before his eyes, wafting little puffs of acrid dust into the cold air. John screamed, “Noooo.” He sneezed. He ran over to the side of the structure and looked out over what had been the city. There were no buildings left. Here and there, a few steel girders and tumbled concrete blocks poked up through the otherwise uninterrupted expanse of a white ice field. A tired red sun sat low above the horizon.
John shook his head. He looked at his watch. It read 9378. He reached up and felt at his face, searching for wrinkles and missing teeth. His face felt just like it always did. He didn’t even have a stubble of whiskers because he had shaved just this morning, or nearly 7,000 years ago, depending on how he looked at it.
He thought of what Millie had said, it seemed like just a few minutes ago ... Everything else changes ... You never change ... Reality wins every time.
John took one final look at the forlorn sight, and then he climbed to the top of the concrete wall overlooking the frozen expanses of rusted girders. He swayed back and forth in the gusts of frigid wind. While he watched, the sun started to sink over the horizon, and a misty gray began to eat away at the scene, as if the colors were somehow draining off, leaving an old black-and-white motion picture in place of reality. He looked at his watch. It had stopped.
John whispered, “You were right, Millie, you were right all along.” He closed his eyes. He relaxed and let himself fall forward into the timeless gray nothingness, letting it take him.
A writer of essays covering science, economics and ethics, Wes Alderson also is the author of literary, science fiction and fantasy short stories – his first love. In 2001, shortly after his retirement from the electronics and acoustics industry, he earned a Certified Professional Writer degree from UCLA Extension in Los Angeles, and says he plans to spend the rest of his life writing.