BY JIM O’LOUGHLIN
Copyright is held by the author.
SYDNEY HAD just wanted to run into the grocery store for a minute. The opening for her photo exhibit was starting in just a few hours, and she should have been relaxing, but it was just like Himari, to call her to ask her — the photographer! — to pick up more plastic champagne flutes for tonight. Himari owned the gallery; that was her job! But Sydney didn’t say anything. She just drove down to the store and bought them as asked. She knew she was fortunate to be showing at Himari’s gallery at all.
But the whole situation put Sydney in a bad mood, and she must have been distracted because it wasn’t until she opened up her hatchback that she even noticed the car next to her. It was a car like nothing she had ever seen before, like nothing she even could have imagined. Of course, there had to be cars like this in the world. When you consider all the junk that one might find in a hoarder’s house — the piles of unread books, the closets full of musty clothes, the uncleaned litter boxes — that all had to come from somewhere. So, of course, a hoarder’s car would also be an unlivable mess. At least, that’s how she explained it to herself as she stared at the ancient Chrysler Pacifica in front of her. It was blue, or at least it had been at one time, with rusted side panels and a rear bumper tied on with rope. But the truly remarkable thing was that aside from space that had been carved out for the driver, it was completely full of garbage right up to roof of the car — old road atlases, winter jackets, plastic bags of bags, flattened cardboard boxes, a frisbee, t-shirts that looked more like rags, the remains of who know how many fast food drive thru trips.
It was, of course, disgusting, but it was also incredible, and Sydney couldn’t take her eyes off the car, staring at it as if it was a multimedia collage hanging in a museum like a prized work of art. And, in a way, it was. It must have taken years to make this . . . this . . . thing.
She took out her phone and started taking pictures, wishing she had taken her SLR with her. Fortunately, she had paid extra to get a phone with an excellent camera. She took a few wide shots of the car from different angles. Then she zoomed in on the interior, angling her phone to minimize the glare off the glass. What was that on the dashboard? Oh, God. Was it an actual dead bird or one that had taxidermied?
“Can I help you?” a voice behind her said.
Sydney almost dropped her phone, she was so surprised. She spun to see a man carrying two white plastic grocery bags. He had a long, scruffy beard. His belt was notched tight to hold up an ill-fitting pair of jeans. She didn’t have to ask who he was. He was obviously the car’s owner.
“No, I’m — I’m sorry,” Sydney stuttered. She pointed to her phone “I’m a photographer. I’m a professional photographer.
“Uh huh,” the man said flatly.
“In fact, I have an opening tonight. That’s why I’m here. I needed to pick up some…things.” She held up the white plastic bag in her other hand.
The man gestured to his car behind Sydney. “You’re blocking my door.”
“Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry.” She stepped back, brushing her jacket against the passenger’s side door of her own car.
The man opened his driver’s side door. It creaked. “So, you’re a photographer,” he said to her without making eye contact.
“Yes,” Sydney said. “I am.”
The man sat down in his car and slammed his door closed. Sydney was left standing there, and she could feel the heat rising in her face. The man started up his car. The engine loudly whined before the motor caught. The car rumbled and sounded to Sydney like it needed a new muffler.
The car started to back out of the parking space, and Sydney wondered how in the world the man could see what was behind him. Then the man rolled down his window.
“So, how many pictures do you have on that phone?” he called over to her.
“On this phone?” Sydney was flustered. “I . . . I don’t know. I must have thousands.”
“Thousands, huh.” The man resumed backing up. “Why haven’t you deleted the ones you don’t need?”
The man rolled up his window, put his car into drive, and left Sydney standing with her bag of flutes.
Jim O’Loughlin is the author of the science fiction novel The Cord (BHC Press), a Midwest Book Award finalist. He is also the author of the firsthand account, The Last Caucus in Iowa (Ice Cube Press) and the flash fiction collection Dean Dean Dean Dean (Twelve Winters Press).