“Happiness is a pie to the face.”
-Nippy the Cat
Mercifully, the light turned red. As he eased his foot against the brake, Sammy once again considered spinning the wheel and heading in the opposite direction. With those awful cat ears peeking just over the tree line, this was his last chance to turn back.
His knuckles grew whiter over the steering wheel. No cops were around. If he wanted to, he could absolutely cut across all three lanes and make that U-turn. Rid himself of the haunting that was about to come. Who would stop him?
His stomach groaned. His boss would stop him.
The meeting invitation sat on the passenger seat, collecting flecks of grease from his burger bag. The message on its face was clear.
Sorry about this one, Sammy. But business doesn’t always respect our feelings. Or our memories. Be on time.
The burning in his gut had yet to leave, but now it burned hotter. Sammy didn’t dare glance in the rearview mirror for fear it might trigger thoughts of his son again. Otherwise, he’d never get through this.
He took a breath. Remembered his job. Memories were on fire, but the past was dead. And it wasn’t a zombie’s job to go to a theme park. Not usually. Didn’t mean it wouldn’t stop the past from picking at his brain, though.
Perpendicular traffic began to slow.
The meeting invitation wasn’t helping his mood, so he took it in his hand and crushed it. Professionalism was a jerk, but it was right. Time for him to become a professional again. Maybe his son would forgive him for it. If that was even possible.
The light turned green.
He removed his foot from the brake and headed through the intersection. No more time to second-guess. Time now only to stiffen his chin.
Traffic locked him in that forward motion, flowing onward to his destination, onward to where the cat ears rose higher and the evil grin of Nippy the Cat now broke the tree line.
* * *
“I am not amused by your policies,” Sammy said, as he nearly squeezed the vinyl out of his steering wheel. “I am here for business, not for play. I expect to park for free.”
The parking garage attendant, a dainty forty-year-old with auburn hair and freckles, put down his neon cigarette and whistled at his guest’s predicament. It was not the low rhythmic chime of a work tune he whistled, nor the low-pitched collapse of regret, but the simple O-shaped exhalation of apathy that escaped his mouth, along with a puff of smoke, and it cut Sammy deep beneath the skin. The attendant had the bright doe-eyes of a ventriloquist’s dummy and the compassion of a ventriloquist’s audience. His thick lips and yellow chalky teeth formed some kind of smile, looking like they were better fit for a cadaver.
“Unless I have special clearance, happy sir,” the attendant said while maintaining that wretched smile, “I have to charge you the normal ten dollars.”
As he spoke with that raspy, singsong voice, he danced in place, doing a basic three-step maneuver, flailing his arms over his head. A sway here, and a jungle thrust there: he may as well have been a dancing balloon strapped to a high-powered fan, trying to encourage new drivers to enter here and forever lose their souls. Was this the future of customer service? Sammy grunted at the thought.
“Your sign says five dollars.”
“That’s a conditional fee, astutest of all astute sirs.”
The attendant smiled and bobbed his head. His hair flopped all over the place.
“On what?” Sammy asked.
“We charge a minimum five dollars for some cars, but we charge ten dollars for new, shiny cars with plush interiors. Not that we’re prejudice here at the Happy Fun Land parking garage or anything. Certainly we’re tolerant of all makes and models. But new cars encourage greater freedoms, and thus greater attention. It’s an insurance thing, most indubitably.”
“You are charging me ten dollars? To park? At a park? For insurance?”
The attendant swung his left arm in an arc and thrust his thumb up and smiled.
“Because my car is shiny?”
The attendant shuffled in place. This must’ve been how they said “yes” at Happy Fun Land.
Sammy McGuinness, businessman, looked past the gate and across the ground floor, hoping to find an empty spot close by. All he saw, however, were SUVs and vacant handicapped spots available. Figured. He sucked against the back of his teeth. He could feel a piece of meat stuck between the center groove.
One way or another, he was getting in. Not that he wanted to, of course. But getting in was on the agenda.
“Do you at least validate?”
The parking attendant slapped his knees, pointed, and laughed at him.
“Get me your supervisor,” Sammy whispered.
“He’s not here, delightful sir,” the attendant said, still laughing.
“Go find him then.”
“I can’t. He’s in the South Pacific this weekend getting a rapturous tan.”
Sammy glanced over his shoulder for a better look at the vehicles waiting behind him. He expected to hear the blaring of horns by now, but they remained silent. Through their sparkling windshields he noticed the drivers’ faces and their toothy smiles gleaming like rows of ecstasy pills. Sammy crossed his arms and focused on the parking attendant.
“Who is in charge right now?”
“I am, happy sir.”
The attendant continued to dance. Sammy stroked the side of his vinyl steering wheel, trying to figure out what to do next. He looked to the passenger seat and noticed his Burger Ace bag folded over and lying on its side. If he had only skipped lunch, then this wouldn’t have made him late. He focused on a point through the parking attendant’s eyes and held his contemptuous gaze until he considered what he might do to rectify the wrong taking place against him. Once again, he sucked against his teeth.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“I’m doing fine, how ‘bout you?”
Sammy paused again. He rolled his eyes. He now understood what he had to do, and he didn’t like it. Number one rule in customer service: treat your customers like human beings, lest your customers treat you like an animal.
“Give me your name tag,” he said.
“What?” The parking attendant stopped his jig and flashed a glance at the multicolored name tag pinned to his lapel. He slipped his spidery fingers and then his entire hand over it. “No . . . I mustn’t.”
“Give me the name tag, right now.”
“No, I have to wear this. It’s part of my job.”
“Getting past this gate is part of my job.” Sammy pounded his fist against the steering wheel. The whole dashboard vibrated under his power. “Give. Me. The. Name tag. I need to report you.”
The attendant lowered his gaze at Sammy.
“Now, joyous sir, it appears you are losing your happiness. This can’t be.”
“I’m this close to losing more than my happiness. Give me your name tag.”
The attendant shook his head.
“Sir, I don’t understand why you want my name tag. To report me? That sounds so . . . awful. My name tag is my identity. Would you have me lose my identity?”
Sammy had enough of the back-and-forth. The attendant was not only threatening to commit robbery; he was committing an even greater injustice: wasting Sammy’s time. So Sammy did something he didn’t think heh ever have to do, here or anywhere. He flung the door open and lunged for the attendant’s hand.
“Sir, what are you—”
“I said give me the name tag!”
After they swatted at each other for a few seconds, Sammy pulled the attendant’s arm far enough away from his chest to rip the name tag off his jacket. As the pin tore a small hole in his uniform’s lapel, the attendant screamed.
“Give that back! I have to wear it! It’s Happy Fun Land policy!”
The parking attendant threw some weak, open-palmed punches to rattle Sammy’s nerves, but Sammy blocked each one. He counteracted by removing a wrapped cheeseburger with pickles from the recyclable paper Burger Ace bag and shoved it into the attendant’s face. The forced contact caused an explosion of bloody condiments to burst, and seconds later, ketchup dripped from his nose. The attendant stopped his resistance to wipe the crimson smear clean with the back of his hand.
“Why are you being so unhappy?” he said. “They told me ten dollars for shiny cars and twenty for buses. It’s our policy.”
Sammy placed the name tag in his pocket.
“Maybe it’s time to change policy. Don’t charge people who come here on business.”
“But it’s Happy Fun Land. That’s what we do. Don’t take it out on me. Please. Give me back my name tag, I’m begging you.”
The parking attendant got down on his knees and clasped his hands together.
“I have a wife and three cats to feed. I need my name tag back, please. I want them to be happy.”
Sammy shoved his hand in the attendant’s face and pushed him aside, getting ketchup residue on his fingers. The attendant wavered a bit but stopped from falling over. Sammy wiped the tomato smudge on the attendant’s orange and yellow striped shirt.
“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you wasted my time.”
Sammy breathed a sigh of contempt as he looked at the line of cars building behind him. None of the faces he saw in the vehicles appeared upset. He scratched his forehead, then reached in the attendant’s shack to push a green button. As the whisker-covered gate rose, Sammy climbed back into his polished black car and slammed the door shut. He drove through the open passage without incident.
As he drifted up the ramp and arced around the first turn, he pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. He didn’t understand what had just come over him. Taking the man’s name tag in such an aggressive way was very unprofessional. There were better ways to handle the situation, up to and including a phone call to Happy Fun Land’s corporate offices, if he dared. This was no way to represent Dinners and Waters. He’d have to return the name tag to the attendant and apologize before he left the garage. It would be the right thing to do.
On the next flight up, Sammy nearly hit a costumed performer who was standing in the middle of the parking lot directing traffic using a pair of ice cream cones. The performer, dressed like a squirrel, was performing the same three-step dance that the parking attendant had performed. Sammy swerved to avoid him, and the performer waved at Sammy as he slipped on by. Sammy’s heart raced at the close call. Last thing he wanted was to run up Dinners and Waters’s insurance bill, too.
After parking and getting out, he armed the theft deterrent system on his Windsnatcher luxury car with the press of a button. Once he heard the ba-beep from under the hood, he looked up in time to see the vehicles behind him slowly coasting by. Smiles continued to glow at him through their blue-tinted windshields, and he couldn’t figure out why. Surely the drivers were hit with the “conditional” parking fee. Did they sneak in while the gate was up? Were they breathing carbon monoxide or completely void from reality? He stuffed his keys in his pocket, trying to cast away the thought. He never understood why anyone would come here under free will.
With the insanity behind him, Sammy strolled through the third floor of the parking garage to find the stairway down. His posture was stiff, but his feet were light. According to his watch, he was twelve minutes late, and he needed every ounce of composure he could manage in his sharp, tailored, gray Nomani suit to avoid making an issue of it. Lateness was the opposite of professional, and he was already annoyed with the potential business partner for this distraction.
A moment later, a car door closed, just as car doors always did in parking garages. Then the sound of metal scraping cement came from a short distance behind, and the noise scratched at his eardrums. He looked around to see the trembling-lipped parking attendant standing next to a blue Fort Temper. He waved a rod of metal rebar high over his head like a madman, distorting his mouth between a smile and an O.
Sammy’s lower jaw hung as the parking attendant ran up to his Windsnatcher and brought the rod down with extreme force against the windshield. His adrenaline pumped hard as he ran back to watch the glass collapse in a crumpled mess and his car alarm shriek with massive decibel spoliation. Sammy reached out as he closed in, hoping to grab the attendant by the neck, but the attendant assumed a defensive stance with the rod pointing at him.
“I want back my name tag,” he said, with an unexpected smile. “Give it to me now or you’re next.”
Sammy felt his insides burn with anger. How could this man do this to his car? And why was he still smiling? Sammy reached deep into his pocket and flung the name tag out like a cap flying off a plastic aspirin bottle. It hit the floor with an anticlimactic clack.
They looked at the fallen object and then at each other. The attendant kept an intense gaze on Sammy as he reached down to pick it up, pawing around until his fingers made contact. After widening his eyes and smiling a bigger smile, he stood up and tried to pin the tag onto his lapel with one hand. He couldn’t do it.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” said the attendant. “Since I’m such a happy person, I’ll let you park here for free if you forget about the window.”
Sammy, with the speed of lightning, reached out and grabbed the metal rod from the attendant’s hand. With a quick continuous motion, he brought the rod up to a striking position. The attendant covered his face.
“Don’t hit, don’t hit!”
Sammy paused. His burst of unquenched anger tangled with reason. A split-second of mental processing revealed folly in his action. He was not a man who cared for folly. This was neither the time nor place for violence. In his line of work, violence was the enemy of professionalism. He threw the rod to the ground, its harsh, clanging echo screaming with displeasure.
“Get a new job,” he growled.
Sammy reached in his pocket and thumbed the button to deactivate his security system. All became silent again.
Mentally exhausted from the pointlessness of battle, he turned around and walked away. He couldn’t believe how close he had come to being unprofessional again.
Almost immediately he heard the earsplitting sound of a car horn in his ear and the cold, metal edge of a bumper pushing into the back of his thighs. Next thing he knew, he was on the hood of a car, then up against a windshield, staring at the side of the face of a driver who was looking and waving at something behind her. Just as the ground upended on itself and came smashing at his face, sending him to that inky black space that the unconscious always visits, Sammy saw whom the driver was waving at. That stupid squirrel was ten feet behind, waving back at her.
“Welcome to Happy Fun Land,” the squirrel said in the darkness.