When Sarah Jones opened her eyes, the very first thing she noticed about the local Department of Motor Vehicles was the pervasive, defiant perfection. The immaculate office immediately struck her, the climate controlled setting blotting out the stifling memories of the trek from the asphalt parking lot. Her headache receded as she admired the emptiness which was the antithesis of her prior visits to the DMV. Long velvet ropes cordoned off empty space, like markers wound around a pristine excavation site. Sarah wound through the cordoned line with deliberate glee, directing herself towards the closest counter. The dearth of customers and abundance of central air soothed Sarah’s mind and allotted her a newfound patience. She appreciated the accommodating precinct; soft, natural light glittered upon the freshly waxed floor. Contributing to the exotic environment were the employees, who lined the oblong counter with the perfect posture of sentries.
As Sarah reached the bureaucratic delta, a male teller waved her over.
“May I help you, Miss?” he asked, moving his gold spectacles down from the crown of his bald head.
“I was hoping you could change the title on my car over to my name.” After declaring her single need, Sarah commenced a cold sweat. She clasped the technicolor title in sick anticipation for the drudgery to come.
“Phil, do you think you’ll need any help with this one?” his neighboring coworker asked. Her cheery expression and thick makeup clashed with the apparent rudeness of her interruption.
“Excuse me?” Sarah asked, believing with a cynic’s joy that her benign first impression had been the result of a mere façade.
“Oh, I’m sorry miss, I just thought I could give Phil a hand and get you out of here a lot quicker. We feel it’s best to get the customer the fast service necessary to get he or she back on his or her way.”
“Oh,” Sarah responded.
“And where exactly are you headed today, Miss…”
“Miss Jones. Ready for a date?”
Sarah looked herself over, redirecting the question to herself. She studied her street clothes.
“No, Ma’am,” Sarah responded, “I’m not going anywhere special.”
“Well, you look like you’re ready for anything.”
“Sharon,” Phil interjected, “I think I can handle this one myself. Why don’t you and the others go ahead to lunch?”
Sharon nodded. She turned and exited the lobby through a back door marked ‘Employees Only,’ with each subsequent teller following in suite. Only Phil and Sarah remained.
“Crap,” Sarah said, glancing at her watch. “I forgot it was twelve-thirty. Don’t you all take the same lunch hour?” Her determination to experience frustration overrode her desire for speedy service.
“We do,” Phil responded. “I thought I could stay and help you out, if that’s all right with you.”
“Yes, it’s fine. That’s so sweet,” Sarah replied, each word growing upon the next with a slow, uncertain pace. “Are you sure this is the DMV? I mean, I just moved here this year, and I’ve never actually been inside-”
“Miss, you’ve found the right place.”
“Are you sure this DMV stands for ‘Department of Motor Vehicles’? Is this a different DMV?”
“Yes it does, and no, it isn’t. This is exactly where you need to be, Miss.”
“Alright,” Sarah said, a trace of uncertainty still floating in her voice. Phil removed a pen from his pocket and clicked it on.
“Then let’s get cracking on that title, shall we?”
After a short while, Phil had sorted out the nuts and bolts of the paperwork and only the incidentals remained. He rubbed his blond beard as he examined and re-examined the necessary forms.
“How many miles does your car have on it?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. “I’ll have to go check.” Her eyes wandered back to the entrance and out over the baking-hot asphalt lot. Waves of heat danced up towards the molten sun.
“You can just give me a rough estimate,” Phil said, his eyes still glued to the necessary documents.
“Are you sure?” Sarah asked, surreptitiously reaching her arms beneath the counter and pinching herself. Phil looked up and met Sarah’s incredulous gaze.
Relief and relish pulsed through Sarah as she estimated her overall mileage.
“About one hundred and thirty thousand,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Phil continued as he made a swift notation, “it doesn’t have to be exact.” His lips had formed a smile to follow his comforting words. He wrapped up the remainder of the document and proffered his pen to Sarah. “All the odds and ends are covered. Now all I need is your signature, and we’ll be done.”
“But it only took five minutes,” Sarah said, expecting an arcane annex of red tape to rear up at the moment of closure.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you through any quicker, but my hands and mind aren’t what they used to be.”
“That’s not what I meant. I thought maybe there’d be something more.”
“Nope, only your John Hancock.”
Sarah signed where Phil indicated. He collected his pen and the paperwork, stowing each in its respective receptacle. Then he reached behind the counter and produced a plain brown bag.
“If there’s nothing else I can help you with today, Ms. Jones, then I hope you don’t mind if I have lunch.”
“I don’t mind, as long as, well,” Sarah paused, searching not only for words, but also for motives.
“As long as?” Phil asked.
“As long as I can stay and talk with you for a minute.”
“Sure,” Phil said with a friendly smile.
“Are you sure it’s okay if I stay?” Sarah asked. “Now that I think about it, maybe you want to go have lunch in back with your coworkers.” Sarah already feared the answers she might gain, as if any errant truth could rip apart the framework of reality and reveal The Twilight Zone.
“No, I usually stay out here anyway, in case someone shows up.” Phil removed a sandwich and a can of soda, and set each neatly in front of him. “We’re allotted an hour for lunch, but it only takes me about ten minutes. Might as well be out here and ready for the next customer.”
Sarah’s confusion only grew.
“Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?”
“Go right ahead, Miss. Shoot.”
Sarah closed her eyes and concentrated on the strain of her interrogation. She wanted to ensure she received the answers she needed. A few moments passed, and she aligned her thoughts. Her questions formed, she opened her eyes and sized Phil up, taking in everything from his ironed dress shirt to his gleaming, gold glasses.
“Why did you get this job? No, scratch that,” Sarah closed her eyes again, a brief flash of pain eclipsing her thoughts.
“Are you feeling well, Ms. Jones?”
“Yes, I was merely correcting my thoughts,” Sarah said, her wincing subsiding. She opened her eyes and cleared her mind. “How did you get this job?”
“I applied for it.”
“I figured that. But how did you get to be so desperate?” Sarah caught herself, but Phil had already started laughing. Her apologies perforated his dwindling chuckles, and after a few moments, Phil’s laughter retreated to a mere smile.
“I guess I took this job,” Phil said, pausing to look around the empty, flawless DMV, “because I wanted to help people. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and with my eyesight and looks, I thought this might be the only place I could make a serious dent. Here, perhaps I can do the best I can to serve with honor and commitment, and he
lp out a few harried citizens in need. Plus,” he added, “I really love forms.” It was Sarah’s turn to laugh, and soon the two were sharing a protracted giggle.
“I don’t know why I find this all so difficult to believe,” Sarah said, as much to herself as to Phil.
“Maybe it’s because it isn’t real, Ms. Jones.”
“Maybe,” Sarah said, renewing her giggling.
“Wake up,” Phil said through a grin of his own.
“Wake up,” he repeated, and Sarah laughed even harder.
“Wake up,” he said for the third time, only now the smile had disappeared.
“Wake up,” Phil chanted for the fourth time. Sarah’s smile flickered.
“Wake up!” Phil commanded, punctuating his order with a firm slap. Phil’s blow knocked the smile off Sarah’s face, and Sarah off her chair. She looked up from the floor in amazement.
“Phil, what the hell are you doing?”
Phil stood up and leaned down over her.
“Wake up,” Phil screamed, and after his second slap, Sarah closed her eyes and did just that.
A series of painful moans escaped Sarah’s lips and coalesced into an inarticulate cry. Her senses united; the copper filled her mouth, whining bombarded her ears, darkness assaulted her eyes, dirt touched her hands, and the smell of urine wafted into her nostrils. She sensed a presence standing over her.
“You need to wake up, lady,” the unseen man said. His voice was drained of all humanity.
Sarah opened her eyes and took in the figure leaning over her. After a few moments, a middle-aged bald man came into focus. Familiar eyes danced behind a pair of gold rims, only jovial cooperation had been replaced by sheer malice.
“Phil?” Sarah asked, her voice as bruised as her head.
“I ain’t fillin’ shit for you, lady. You took a real cute spill and screwed up my line nice and fine. Now I’ve got to use up my one sanctioned break mopping up your filthy blood.”
Sarah touched her face and head. Her fingers found a pool of dried blood and traced it back to her dripping ears, and then up and over into her gore-drenched scalp. She fought her aching head and turned over to inspect the floor. A dingy wasteland of chewed gum and scuffmarks isolated a half-dozen singular slick spots. In her pain, Sarah noted that her blood had mixed with a thick mud stain. She looked past a section of sweaty, seated patrons and saw a book rack replete with roadmaps, driving guides, and licensing textbooks. Bumper stickers held up drooping tatters of wallpaper. “Don’t Drink and Drive,” and “I Lost My Patience at the Centraldale DMV” stitched the walls like lurid tattoos. A “Have a Nice Day!” poster peered over the DMV, presiding over the municipal circus like a demented dictator. Razorblade slashes desecrated the familiar yellow smiley face.
Sarah moved her lips, but sound was reluctant to follow.
“Hospital,” she finally managed.
“If you think I’m wasting my time and gas to haul your ass, you got another thing comin’. Like I’m gonna drive you to the meat factory, then come all the way back to this hellhole just so I can punch in for another three hours? You must be dreamin’, lady.”
“Help,” Sarah moaned.
“Ambulance is on the way. Don’t worry your little head. Although, it’s not like we’re liable.”
“Can you help me up?”
“Sorry, Princess, I’m on lunch break.”
“Do you think I care?”
Before Sarah could answer his rhetorical question, he stood up and strode out the door.
Sarah abandoned her goal of sitting up. Instead, she fanned her face with a bloodstained hand. Even on the floor, where cold air was physically bound to sink, heat stifled every surface. In lieu of the ambulance, Sarah tried to calm herself. Minutes dragged like the shadows of the other bureaucratic prisoners shuffling past, momentarily blocking the sharp, fluorescent light. Coughs and complaints peppered the atmosphere, and Sarah groaned inwardly. In the distance, a baby began shrieking.
Sarah closed her eyes and pined for the happy, fictional place spawned by her imagination. The fleeting memories of her ideal errand-run filled the dark space behind her lids, and in the black void she attempted to conjure what was already gone. The buzzing and aching of her brain fueled the hope that maybe it had been real, and would materialize again the next time she opened her eyes.
Sarah kept her eyes closed and kept hoping.