—–Late Tuesday afternoon after dispatching, in person, monthly payments to the downtown offices of Excellus Blue Cross and Rochester Gas and Electric, and feeling, somehow, lighter on my feet as a result, as if had just purchased something, rather than paid a succession of debts, I decided to go a-browsing at Greenwood Books, down the block on East Ave. After some customary, elevated dialogue with the smart-as-a-whip proprietress, the low-key but learned, Franlee Frank there at her desk at the front of the bookstore, I grabbed a fistful of Hershey chocolates from the dish she keeps for starving customers, and disappeared down the aisle marked Fiction. Something tugged at my memory, as will happen when I put myself in the path, in the company of titles, associations, earned during a lifetime . . . Right, I meant to look for a copy of The Book of God by Gabriel Josipovici, and this turned me around to face the Literary Essays section. At that precise moment, just as I reached in fact for a volume by this author called Writing and the Body, (how well I remember this now!) it occurred to me that I should have stopped in the Spot Cafe on the way here, and gotten an iced coffee. For then I would be all set, if I had brought that iced coffee here, in this moment–for I was in gear, I was cruising, ready to linger, over the titles and the dreamt of, unread, unleavened!, content in books, stacked to the ceiling in this refuge.
–—-I always come here after paying my RG&E bill, to get my, um, personal energy back. And it was just at this moment, which seems so finely balanced and rare, and is so worth trying to fix in some literary description, when that fleeting desire for the iced coffee suggested itself, that an opposite insinuation was born, like I was suddenly caused to think I was missing something. And this compelled me do a little security check on my person, and like dominoes I was done in, with the sudden dread realization that I had lost my car keys.
—–I hate situations where I am the main character and also the victim of complete, unforeseen random negligence. Who doesn’t? And where the negligence is my own, and there is no one else to blame, and therefore pity, that is really unnerving. The blood drains from my cheeks, I can feel them dry out until they are cardboard, and my shoes melt into the floor; it is hard to turn around and face the future. I look around to see if anyone has noticed that I have just inwardly collapsed. How could they! The slow-moving carrousel, or should we say in this case the parnassus on wheels, has not stopped. It is only me that has been knocked off course. And so recently! I had only been here a few minutes, and before that the payment window at RG&E, right down the block, and before that, my car! I took it upon myself to repair this situation, with the same kind of mechanical dispatch with which I had apparently walked into it. “Hey!” I said to the equanimous bookshop owner, Franlee, startling her no doubt, “I just lost my keys!” Then, as I had her immediate attention and concern, even, I announced that I was off to retrieve these errant, misbehaving car keys. “Obviously,” I said, “I left them at the counter when I was writing a check . . .”, trailing off, explaining it more to myself as I was already half out the door.
—–On the way down the block I fully imagined the sight of my keys, which are distinguished by the inclusion on the key ring of a toy metal soldier from my childhood. Let me describe this metallic, ancient, battered soldier. No, that can wait. I am visualising the drab, unoccupied counter where I stood alone and ritualistically wrote a check, with my back to to te row of payment windows where those lonely girls are all day putting on make-up–for nobody pays in person anymore, only me whose rounds are becoming quaint–only me, who therefore could at least be vigilant, if he has to be so obscure. Because three or four miscues in a row like this, enacted by one person, are liable to render them . . . irredeemably unfit for society. Banish these thoughts! That soldier was gaily painted once, now he is worn down to a metal patina, a grey sheen, and his flat stand-up base has fallen off, he is only a battered keychain ornament, and if one should find this lost key chain, say on the city street, one would have to wonder what poor soul with this key chain ever trod these downtown streets . . . I say, cut this ridiculous line of thought right out! I am arriving just in time at the RG&E building, and marching now past the security guard, with whom I had already exchanged a greeting not ten minutes ago, on the way out, you see, and I went right back to the spot where . . . tho’ I expected them, the anticipated keys were not!
—–I stared at the vague fish swimming in the linoleum pattern on the counter, then the speckled floor for about twenty intense seconds. Then I went back to the payment window where I had held down my check with trembling fingers (because random winds blow through these office spaces, these transaction points–those of us who pay in person have noticed, fearfully), where eventually the gorgeous girl, after she had finished putting on her make-up, had picked up the check with her magnetic fingers. I remembered all that as soon as I returned, such precious memories seem wholly made in the repetition!
—–“Any keys left here by someone just recently,” I asked. “No keys,” twittered that actress/clerk. She seemed to be ready for me, but I didn’t have the next line. I recognized her perfume, good Lord, from my recent visit. All details are not relevant to the mounting suspense. Or are they? The office wind carried the query, relayed it down the row of windows, and the same negative answer echoed. No car keys retrieved in the last half hour in the whole set of payment windows there–my crisis became quickly the talk of the place. It was dominoes. There really are too many payment windows here, and too many unemployed actresses imprisoned here, I thought.
—–Outside in the marbled and mirrored lobby, the uniformed security guard was officially, manfully you might say, concerned for me, I could tell. But he also had nothing–except he told me: “It was eleven minutes since you were in here the last time.” Put that in your pipe, and . . . These security guards are good; they don’t just idly read paperbacks, or secretly write novels on the job. They are stalwart, they are existential. I had to make to leave the cold-as-hell lobby, and glide thru the automatic doors, with an air of one who has just remembered something. A pure cover-up. I hit the sidewalk again, like coming out of a movie, and slowly made my return to the haven of Greenwood Books.
—–“Can’t understand it,” I said to Franlee, whom I now greeted like my oldest friend. “I’ll call my wife,” I then pronounced. “If I can use your phone, I will call my wife.” Ah, this sounded like an equation, uttered with the air of a solution, that the one who was offering it, was . . . quite familiar with.
—–“All I have to do–I guess what I am just go have to do–is . . . get my spare car keys,” I explained to patient Franlee, who was regarding me with increasing concern– rather than humor. For I was not a comedian yet. But, it was only five o’clock, it was a beautiful day outside, this was a blip, I could still say, nothing really.
—–“What you want to do,” I was saying to my wife Janet, who I only speak to like this, on the telephone I mean, in extraordinary situations–since mostly we are not so far apart as to need these . . . devices, and I was already stumbling. “What you want to do now,” I said to her, “is get my spare car keys which are in the drawer of the big desk, you know . . . where are you?”
—–She didn’t answer for a while. I had Franlee’s cordless extension and was wandering with it, as it appeared other customers were coming in the bookstore. Then Janet said, “I am in your upstairs office.” Good, I said; I told her to go downstairs, get the spare set of keys and then go get Mike next door and tell him to come deliver them to me here at Greenwood Books.” I dispatched these orders like battlefield commands. Chop, chop, I almost said. Aside from the urgent tone, it is my usual style and instinct to try to make it dramatic for everybody involved–even for those to be be involved. Since situations inevitably ripple, and often explode. “First make sure the keys are there,” I added, “I could take a bus back, but—” I just stopped. Really, our neighbors are so friendly they leap to your aid in such an easily addressed small crisis, I continued thinking. I heard her knock the phone on its head, as she put it down in an apparent rush to fulfil my command. Some large fellow wearing workboots was planted next to me there in the bookstore; he was so huge I had to step away just to get a look at him, in his checkered shirt and suspenders. I gazed up at him like the Jolly Green Giant, with the phone dangling in my hand.
—–It was some larger-than-life, storybook farmer like Paul Bunyan–no! It was only, I mean actually, and favorably, an old friend! Plain as day, it was the affable Roy Sowers, in one of his guises as book collector, in for a chat with Franlee Frank.
—–Now it is a story.
—–“Hey Roy!” One wrinkle, a twist, a plot development if you like–you can’t plan these things, the story generates itself. Everything causes a chain reaction, a path in a mirror . . . Briefly, a person can glimpse the unknown future. Or is it the familiar past? No time to figure that out.
—–Roy Sowers used to make these photo-collage panels of overlaid images from . . . God knows where, except they were all familiar, and they generated each other like in a torn apart kaleidoscope. Roy is a character, I am thinking it is a wonder he even has a car, he is an antique himself and proud of it, just like me and probably Franlee here–we ought to form a club. The Lost Keys, we could call it. Partridges in the same pear tree . . . But I eventually stop dreaming, and say, “Hey Roy, you can save me!” I can see he agrees right away, and then needs to make a formal declaration, in that drawl he uses to slow down time to the pace of the turning of the pages of large picture book of photos, say, of the Prussian Army advancing inch by inch, for Roy likes to tell narratives of World War I . . . also. He’ got so much knowledge and it is stacked sideways in nooks and crannies in his mind, like the books here at Greenwood. I didn’t have all day to develop these splendid similes. I told Roy what Franlee already knew, about the blip in my anyway unplanned afternoon. And meanwhile I felt the pull of that parallel universe where I had sent Janet; she was outside right now, running down the neighbor, and I was holding the phone waiting for her come back with a report on her success in commandeering someone to do what Roy just agreed to. At which point Roy said, measuring each word, “This I can do, I can do this.”
—–People love doing painless favours of this sort, don’t they? Well, some people. Usually no matter how agreeable they are, they do manage (and rightfully) to tell you what it was they would have been doing, otherwise, at this exact moment, as they are being detoured by your problem instead. And you also are, likely as not, going to get the story of some analogous time when they did what you have just done. (Lose their keys.) In fact, I am not a person who does this sort of thing, but usually the one who helps the person! So there, for balance. Reap what you sow. Often it is when sitting in the the car, as a passenger, watching the scenery, that one idly thinks up these maxims and how they might apply in life. Did I say it was a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in the city?
—–Anyway, Janet comes back to the phone, and it seems like she has produced a little havoc all on her own. She has picked up the downstairs phone now, the one that readers of my previous harrowing tales know is in the front hall, below the mirror where usually, where always, I drop my keys when I come in, saying to the guy in the mirror, “glad you are back.” But Janet hasn’t gotten Mike, instead she has run into our neighbor from across the street, Peggy. Peggy was just driving up, and agreed to turn right around without even getting out of her car and bring the keys just like that. But something else happened during the commission of this request. She was breathless, so much to tell; I couldn’t even get my news, hey, the key development here in the bookstore, as she began rolling out her story so fast. “I have to give this guy from across the street a can opener,” she said.
—–What? She said she had to get a can opener. What can opener, and who wants it? This was highly incongruous! “Who wants a can opener?” I asked her. She said, “the young guy who just moved into the apartment next to Peggy came out as I was talking to her.” Seems he was in some major panic, and needed to open a can. “He needs to feed his cats, and can’t find a can opener.”
—–Oh, what a crisis! Can’t feed his cats! The truth is, I felt snubbed. I think this influenced my tone of voice, as I said, “well, incredibly, Roy Sowers just walked in here, so I won’t need Peggy after all.” That was short, and in the pause on the other end I added, “Roy will drive me, you just leave the keys next to the phone.” I wanted to ask, what is a guy with cats doing without a can opener. How trivial! On the other hand, losing your car keys isn’t so swift, either. Janet said, “Fine, I have to get this guy his can opener now,” like, I swear, he had totally upstaged me . . .
—–In the bookstore, Franlee said she would have driven me to get the keys herself, but I would have had to wait until she closed. Stand in line! I forgot about that guy who needed a can opener soon enough, as then Roy and I ventured out. And as we walked to his car he told me, “well, I had planned on going to Java Joes after the bookstore, but . . . I guess . . .“ Roy has this ability to make you hang on his every word, and also the tremendous spaces he puts between his words. I asked him what he ever did with that book illustrated by Maxfield Parish, that he bought for ten dollars in a yard sale. He sold that to a dealer who gave him $650. “I have to live by trading things,” he said, “I am a photographer and collector and basically unemployable.” I knew what he meant. Most of us radically conscious people are misfits, each with our enthusiasms! Yeah, so we have to pick each other up, when the other has lapsed, because when you are radically alert, and harassed by a thousand images, you might be also . . . in a cloudland. A man of imagination lives always in a dangerous terrain, sees options and avenues, digressions, pitfalls, and that is how, sometimes, you end up leaving your car keys somewhere.
—–Of course Janet wasn’t in the house, she was off on her own tangent, when I dashed in the front door and grabbed the spare car keys from the table, next to the phone–which, incredibly, rang loudly, startling me just as I had stepped away. I didn’t even answer it. There is one line of begging adventure denied, I thought, with a kind of savage glee. One domino left standing. I was in a hurry, for Roy was in his car, idling on the street which, furthermore, was now clogged by a chance meeting of two oversized delivery vans, facing each other, two houses away. Dazzling sunlight was bouncing off all the car windows and zapping the gardens on our super-real street.
—–We got back to East Ave and Greenwood Books in no time, and he parked in front of Java Joes. “Right on time,” I said to Roy. “You barely missed a beat.” He laughed.
—–Then I went into the bookstore, rattling the keys, showing Franlee that I had succeeded. “I thought you might want to know I have survived,” I said jauntily.
—–“What I really want to know,” she said, “is what happened to the original car keys.”
—–Oh, right! The original keys, where were they? Lost in a black hole of memory, or maybe just dumbly locked in the car. How should life turn out? Choose your mystery. So I had one more thing to do before wrapping this up, and repairing the tape loop, so to speak. Mechanically, I went to my car, which was parked right there in front of Greenwood Books, and gingerly opened the driver’s side door.