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Caldwell's Books

Somewhere in the Midwest, scattered throughout the parking lot of Caldwell’s Books, were white-and-gray signs proclaiming that parking spaces were for bookstore customers only, all others would be towed. These signs were for the most part ignored, and on any given day the parking lot would be filled with minivans and pick-’em-up trucks as part of the overflow for the barbecue restaurant next door. Many of the signs were crooked from being rammed into by cars trying unsuccessfully to park between the lines. This was unfortunate but understandable, as the lines were hand-painted by Mr. Caldwell himself and were most often than not at funny angles or oddly spaced. The few signs left standing had been graffitied into illegible oblivion by local gangs with a fixation for female reproductive organs.

Employees at the store agreed it was for the best, as the officious-looking signs were obnoxious anyway, and the obscenities provided a welcome levity to the cashiers stuck working past 9 PM.

There were several employees who may or may not have helped the defacement along, by sneaking out during the early-morning shift under the pretense of needing a smoke, while in reality shifting their cars to nudge over a sign that had previously been mostly vertical. No one confessed to this, of course; and if there were a few dented employee bumpers marred by flakes of white-and-gray paint, well, no one was really looking that closely, anyway.

In fact, the signs were pointless even when you could read them, the argument went, since there was really no way to tell which cars in the lot were parked there for the bookstore or as overflow for someplace else. This argument was usually delivered in a whisper and accompanied by furtive glances to check if Mr. Caldwell was nearby. It was often followed up with the assertion that “the damn things were asking for it, anyway.”

Quiet mutiny notwithstanding, Mr. Caldwell had a remarkably ruthless response to the arguments. Every few months or so the mood would strike him to glare at the parked cars taking up space in his parking lot. Standing behind the counter, he would stare out at the rows of haphazardly parked cars through the wall of plate-glass windows that made up the north wall of the store. Mr. Caldwell would slip on his favorite pair of rimless reading glasses and squint at the cars, then turn to face the store, his practiced eye gauging the number of customers peacefully perusing the stacks of books. One of the cashiers working the register would spot his calculating expression, would connect it with his stiff posture and the tendon jumping in his neck. Word would spread quickly, and soon there would be a small crowd of employees gathered casually gathered casually around the front counter. They would offer to help customers check-out or find books, all while watching their boss out of the corners of their eyes with equal parts worry and anticipation.

Mr. Caldwell would disappear into the back office. Minutes later, an announcement would come on over the P.A. system: would the owner of the red Lexus please exit the store, his car was being towed.

The employees’ heads would snap up, and they would shoot each other grins across the aisles. customers would look up more slowly, staring around in confusion as a short Japanese man in a wrinkled business suit hurtled past them on the way to rescue his car. By the time he got outside his car would already be hooked up to the tow truck, its glossy paint obscured in a cloud of exhaust. The distraught owner would have no choice but to climb into the tow truck and accompany his car to the tow lot.

Mr. Caldwell would watch it all, the crafty glint in his eye faded into smug satisfaction.

Money changed hands among the employees as bets on which car would be towed were cashed in. Older employees, veterans of this process, would once again attempt to explain to the newbies which cars got picked. It was always the fanciest one, they would say, or the dirtiest, or the one with the missing hubcaps. No, it was the ones with broken taillights. With Missouri license plates. The idea that Mr. Caldwell chose cars at random was considered briefly, then discarded; cracked though he might be, Mr. Caldwell always had a reason. Losers of the betting process didn’t bother discussing the whys of the choosing, just emptied their pockets and thanked God it only ever happened two or three times a year.





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