Monday, February 13, 2012

Leland Neville

Cave of the Winds
Fiction by Leland Neville

“Write,” he ordered. “Write everything.” He threw a yellow paper tablet and a Bic at the table in front of me. “Don’t stop until you’re done.”
Well, I’m going to write. And I’m not going to leave anything out. I need to figure this out too.


I didn’t love working at the Cave of the Winds Carwash in Niagara Falls, but I didn’t hate it. (I hated the Souvenir Outlet, Pizza Place, Subway, and Target.) As an assistant scrub associate, it was my job to blast the heavy duty grime off the cars before the robot soapers, sprayers, waxers, and driers did their thing. The assistant scrub associate is considered by one and all to be the déclassé carwash position. Working at the sales kiosk is better. Working in the detailing bay is better. Working in the polish and buff bay is the best, especially if you are a toned female who just happens to be wearing a too-tight Cave of the Winds T-shirt. But my lowly status did have one advantage: I could simultaneously work and be wasted. Dilated pupils? Blame the chemicals in the suds. Slurred speech? Blame the carbon dioxide.
The first time I saw a car enter but never emerge from the Cave of the Winds I assumed some bored coworker had spiked my midmorning tonic. The pick-me-up, less toxic than a 20 proof Grande Coffee, normally induces a transitory state of lucidity. (I liked to be sentient by the time my lunch break rolled around.) I closed my eyes and quickly located my force center. My focal points were stable and well within an acceptable range. I could only conclude that the red BMW had most definitely vanished. We didn’t get too many high-end cars at the Cave of the Winds so there had probably been a doomed carjacking attempt. I knew I’d probably be blamed. (That’s experience talking, not paranoia.) The police were going to grill me about the BMW.
My marginally drug addled condition had, unfortunately, prevented me from beholding the total perfection of the driver. (Yes, I began shooting suds at the BMW before my laggard brain signaled a cease and desist.) But even my all too fleeting visual encounter of her glistening beauty made me briefly consider: getting sober, returning to college, getting married, and having kids. She was a goddess bathed in radiance. Of course I needed to see her again – if only for a few seconds - but the BMW never reappeared. I tried to remember something else, anything else, about the BMW, but I couldn’t say with any certainty if it even had had a license plate. Except…the letter “S” had been etched on the windshield with a wax pen by the kiosk attendant. All the lovely lady customers, without fail, purchase the Super Detail Wash and Wax for their cars. They treat their cars, themselves, and their men to the best. I briefly wondered if computer science was still the way to go in college. Briefly.
I must interrupt my narrative in order to give a quick history of the Cave of the Winds Carwash. Because the wedge shaped lot is too small for a normal inline carwash, the Cave of the Winds is an awkward semicircle structure. The drivetrain is always disengaging; customers can sit inside their marooned cars under sputtering hoses for up to 15 minutes before repairs are made. As a result of the breakdowns, the Cave of the Winds prices are 20 percent cheaper than their rivals. But the most awesome attribute about the Cave of the Winds, what makes it worthy of landmark status, in my opinion, is the surreal artistic rendering of a magical cave shrouded by the thunderous Niagara Falls. Inside, the entire length of the carwash is a compelling mural of bold green and blue acrylic slashes, twisting and crashing. (The artist was the original owner’s daughter, a frustrated genius who either committed suicide or moved to New York City.) Rambling through the carwash on a hot day with just the right dose of Vicodin in your bloodstream is soothing and regenerating. The mural vibrates to ancient Native American rhythms; the foam cleanses your soul.
Back to business. When the red BMW never exited from the carwash (the view from my assistant scrub associate station was unobstructed) and I had convinced myself that I was not experiencing an episode of lost time, I very possibly overreacted. I screamed at Scott, the senior scrub associate—whose added responsibilities included snarling Car in neutral! Foot off brake!—“Something is wrong! There’s been a breakdown!”
Scott shook his head in disgust. How could there have been a malfunction since the drivetrain was obviously operating? Scott’s goal was to someday become a Navy SEAL. He was ever vigilant.
“Didn’t you see that the red BMW that never came out of the carwash?”
“Negative,” answered Scott. That’s the exact word he used. Negative.
“Did you even see the BMW?”
“You’re totally wasted,” Scott yelled back at me. “You’re seeing things. You’re delirious. Certifiably insane. You do know that – don’t you?”
“Affirmative,” I replied. What would have been the point in arguing? “Stay away from me you giant spider,” I shouted just before blasting him with my spray gun.
“I’m going to report you,” he barked.
But think about it – who has ever hallucinated a BMW and a beautiful woman? People hallucinate foul stuff like giant spiders or zombies. I know I do. Otherwise everyone, not just the chemically adventuresome, would scarf down drugs and mushrooms. I had not hallucinated. No way. That’s a negative. Although I later explained to the assistant manager that I was just having some fun and boosting morale, I still had to sit through a video on carwash safety during my lunch hour, a clear violation of the New York State Labor Code.
Anyway, a day or two later a green Corvette all prepped for the Super Detail Wash and Wax caught the attention of my dilated eyes. The lone occupant, a blonde who could have been the better looking sister of the goddess in the missing red BMW, never gave me a sideways glance. Scott issued his verbal commands. “Car in neutral! Foot off brake!” The Cave of the Winds churned steam and swallowed the Corvette. I observed the exit. An uninterrupted trip through the carwash takes about 90 seconds. I waited. Cars emerged, but not the green Corvette. When I saw a yellow VW that most definitely had entered the carwash after the Corvette, the Adderall kicked in. I located the red emergency cutoff switch, lunged past Scott, and pulled the lever.
“There’s a trapped car,” I shrieked.
That’s all Scott needed to hear. He rushed past me, visions of heroism dancing in his head. I followed, but quickly lost sight of him in the steamy mist. I stopped once to catch my breath and coincidentally admire an awe-inspiring soapy stalactite. There were also cars with annoyed passengers, but no green Corvette. The car and the goddess had vanished without a trace. I leisurely completed my expedition through the carwash, admiring the mural’s intricate flourishes that are impossible to appreciate from inside a car. The artist was (is?) a genius.
Scott, his dream of valor dashed, clenched and unclenched his hands to the rhythm of Anchors Aweigh.
A half dozen employees had meanwhile gathered around the hot and wet assistant manager. Cell phone videos were surreptitiously anticipating his reaction. He was just one reckless rant away from becoming a YouTube celebrity. He continued to gulp air until his red face reverted to its natural pink. “Was that supposed to be another morale booster?” he asked through gritted teeth.
I obviously should have been fired, but let’s just say that I’ve been known to share party supplies with the assistant manager’s younger brother. Under normal circumstances I would have welcomed my termination. (I was ready for, as Scott would say, a little R&R.) But times were not normal and I had a mystery to solve.
Sex and money. Isn’t that always good place to start? Maybe, I surmised, sexy women were “borrowing” wealthy men’s overpriced cars and then driving them into the Cave of the Winds where they were temporarily stored in a secret underground parking lot…a chop shop. The wealthy men were of course reluctant to report the crimes. Was the assistant manager privy to the scheme? Maybe that’s why I wasn’t fired? Sure, they needed to keep an eye on me. All right, not too plausible. And really, how worried would anyone be about some half-baked assistant scrub associate? So I kept my mouth shut, watched and waited. I even cut back on the drugs. I was engaged with life.
The answer came a week later in the form of a silver Mercedes Benz. I knew that on the other side of the tinted windows sat a woman, even more beautiful than the Corvette and BMW goddesses, who would solve the mystery, maybe over coffee, maybe at her place.
“Car in neutral! Foot off brake!” Scott bellowed. A full-frontal attack from my soap gun brought the wannabe SEAL to his knees.
“I think I’m blind,” he moaned.
I ran to the Mercedes and grabbed the handle, expecting the door to be locked, preparing to sound the alarm about the car being on fire and thereby provoking a hasty exit and, later, her confession to me over coffee. (Yeah, that was the gist of my plan.) Only after the unlocked door swung open and I was drawn into the plush beige leather seat did the underused rational part of my brain begin to comprehend the potential consequences of my ill-conceived and insane action. The driver, maybe some geezer with bad knees and a badder attitude, was probably packing pepper spray, mace, or an unlicensed .38 Smith & Wesson Special.
“Hi,” I whispered.
I could not avert my gaze from her azure (yes – azure) eyes. They were like an ecstasy enriched cloudless sky, shimmering, infinite. Time stopped. The universe was azure. I wish I could describe this goddess, but all I saw were her mesmerizing eyes. But that was enough.
“Do you like Bach?” she asked. I detected a Southern Drawl, a welcome antidote to the harsh nasal accent that assails you in Western New York.
Music flooded the Mercedes. There was no sensation of movement; we were in the vortex of a dazzling light show, a real LSD flashback scene plucked right out of the 1960s. I had no idea I loved Bach. I wanted to ask her who she was or where we were going, but I’d been rendered mute. And anyway, her name didn’t matter. Neither did the destination. I just wanted the trip to last forever. But it didn’t. I wanted to have indelible memories of every second inside the Mercedes, listening to Bach, lost in her azure eyes, but I don’t. I only have a secondhand memory. A memory of a memory. Sorry.
When the officer picked me up inside the 7-Eleven, desperate for a Bach CD and a Twizzler Slurpee, I thought we had stopped for gas somewhere just south of Buffalo. I couldn’t believe I was in North Carolina. I think I flew over North Carolina on the way to Disney World when I was a kid, but I don’t know much about it. Mayberry. The Wright brothers. Tobacco.  


Well, that’s about it. You can see why I don’t need a lawyer. I understand and can appreciate why the police are required to investigate all possible leads, but you are wasting your time on me. The real carjacker is still at large. And don’t I have to be charged with a crime within 24-hours? Or is it different in North Carolina? Maybe I do need a lawyer. But the missing woman is not my azure-eyed honey. Not even close. The police have shown me the victim’s Facebook page a hundred times. Half the pictures show her chugging beer. I’m thinking there is a pretty good chance that someone will soon spot a crashed 1988 Dodge Omni in a ditch in upstate New York. I pray I’m wrong, but I do have a working knowledge of substance abuse. And no one, no matter how wasted, has ever confused a silver Mercedes with a green Omni. Also, the missing woman’s eyes are brown.
When I’m released from jail I will need to find a job since I have zero money and my parents have long ago given up on me. When I mentioned this to the fingerprint clerk he told me not to worry because there are plenty of jobs for anyone willing to work. He also told me that there are lots of people from the Buffalo area who have relocated to Charlotte (Thomas Jefferson’s old stomping grounds?) and maybe one of them will help me out. “Soon there’ll be more Buffalonians than rednecks,” he laughed. “More and more show up every day.”

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