The waitress asked if I was a journalist, and I said I was a part-time science-fiction writer, sort of true, to which she added an awestruck wow. I jumped on my intuition and proposed we go to the movies sometime. I turned to a blank page in my notebook where, before you can say ‘chicken burrito,’ she was writing her name Gabriela, and what I assumed was her personal number.
That Friday, at the train station, reading the paper, I noticed Dawn of the Dead was playing with a not-to-be-missed promotion: buy one, get one 50% off. Gabriela could buy her ticket at the reduced rate. After, if she invited me back to her place, I’d jump at the offer, and who knew what magic might happen from there? Friday night fever had me nearly hallucinating.
Since I didn’t own a cell phone, I had to rely on the station’s public payphone. I pressed the coin return and down came a shiny In-God-we-trust quarter. I snapped open the clasps on my briefcase, took out my notebook with its hard cover in black book-cloth, laid the briefcase against the wall at my feet, then flipped to the page where Gabriela had written her number.
Return notebook to briefcase, pick up receiver, insert quarter, press number buttons. Were there one or two fours? Someone like me should have a legendary memory for numbers except that working in that tax office had turned me off them. Hang up, retrieve quarter, open briefcase, remove notebook, close briefcase, lay it on floor, flip through notebook, open to number. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Some guy in a baseball cap with a big F for Fucker logo or maybe it was Florida Marlins, said, “Mind if I use the phone?”
Who did he think he could fool with his passive-aggressive pretend question? I had a date to arrange. What could be more important?
“It’s urgent,” I said, laid my notebook on top of the phone, then punched in the numbers. When someone finally answered, I realized the number was the diner’s and not Gabriela’s. Her shift was over, and she’d gone home. The lady on the end of the line said she wasn’t a receptionist, and ‘no,’ she couldn’t give me Gabriela’s home number. Nor could she spare a minute to write down my contact information, then pass it on.
I slammed the handset into its cradle and hoped the clatter gave her the heart-skipping start she deserved.
“Excuse me,” Fucker said, then muscled me out of the way.
By that time, I was in no mood for Dawn of the Dead or Gabriela. Friday night fever had burned itself out. I hopped on the next train home where I’d guzzle a few Bud Light and spend the evening flipping nonstop between channels, dodging lame TV commercials.
Meanwhile, I had a thirty-seven-minute ride ahead of me, a time I typically devoted to writing. Pen in hand, I’d stare unblinking, captivated by the blurry stream of images flying past at eighty miles per hour, the constant whooshing sound like white noise, the occasional sway, so soothing. The sense of being neither here nor there was probably the closest I’d ever get to time travel. That hypnotic state had inspired my best ideas. I’d written “Aliens on Vacation” almost entirely on the train.
I opened the briefcase on my lap. It was empty as the day I bought it at the pawn shop. Blame it on Fucker, the non-receptionist, or on me, the idiot luddite without a cell phone. My notebook was gone.
At the next stop, I got off, switched tracks, waited a ridiculous twenty-three minutes for the darn train to show up, then spent the return ride cursing the inefficiencies of public transit. The
cursing continued back at the station every time someone shook their head or said ‘no’ when I asked if they’d seen my notebook.
From the garbage, I salvaged a discarded station notice, blank page on the reverse. In bold letters, I wrote REWARD OFFERED FOR LOST NOTEBOOK along with my number. I debated adding generous but couldn’t afford a reward, generous or meagre. Once I finished the sign, I had to cough up an outrageous $4.50 plus tax for the tape because the station’s only kiosk sold it in packs of two. One thing was certain—the kiosk would never again see a cent from me.
I stayed up half the night expecting my home phone to ring with good notebook news. Not so and no wonder. The next morning when I should have been home, sleeping in, I returned to the station. The ad was gone. I tracked down the janitor, cigarette hanging off his lip, ashes on the floor by his feet. Hard to believe people smoked in public back then, but it’s true. I asked if he knew what had happened to my sign. He told me if I stuck anything else on the wall, they could make me pay a fine.
“Who are they, exactly?” I said, pissed off at his disregard for the value of my property. When he didn’t reply, I said, “Just so you know, I’ve offered a reward for its return.” What did he care? Train stations are magnets for lost items.
Since I hadn’t planned to lose the notebook, my information wasn’t written inside. If the finder contacted anyone, it would be Gabriela. I popped by the diner to see her, but she wasn’t working. I told the lady on the cash that I’d called the day before, then explained the whole story behind the notebook, how important it was to me, and how I hoped to soon publish the stories. “By the way, how’s your day going so far?” I added, nothing like friendly conversation to perk up the ears.
She called me ‘mister,’ then reminded me she was no receptionist and since I was there in person, I could witness that simple truth with my own eyes. Nor was she my mother and didn’t give a baby’s hiccup if I’d lost my mind, let alone my notebook. I suppressed the smart-aleck urge to say, if she was, I’d have long since run away from home and put myself up for adoption. As for how her day was going—fine as usual, until I showed up and ruined it.
That week, I ate at the diner every evening as if I could afford the menu items priced like the joint had a Michelin star. The more I pressed Gabriela about the notebook, the less cooperative she became. She gnawed on her fingernails, afraid some jerk might find it, see her name and the diner’s, then start stalking her. Why had I bothered to ask for her number in the first place? She was obviously more of a Mary Poppins than Dawn of the Dead kind of girl. Before long, the missus who was not my mother, shoved the bill in my face and warned me to leave Gabriela alone. When I politely suggested she mind her own French fries, she told me to get lost or she’d call security. Hands on hip, no less. I knew better than to stoke stubbornness. A brute once threatened to knock out my coffee-stained teeth and replace my pointed nose with a pugged one if I continued to insist that he owed the IRS $918.
Meanwhile, if no one at the diner would help me, what option did I have but to buy a $14.95 plus tax ten-word ad in the Daily Post.
$$$ Reward for notebook lost at Fort John Station 605-579-9221.
The ad appeared the following Saturday exactly as ordered. I stayed in the kitchen the entire day, certain that if I even went to the bathroom, the finder would call, and I’d miss him/her. By midnight, I had enough. I set the alarm for a God-awful 6 a.m. in case the finder was a lark rather than a lazy bone like me who’d stay in bed all day if he had someone to wait on him. The phone rang, finally, Sunday afternoon. My buddy from the tax office, Leon, wanted to know if I’d forgotten our game of pool. I’m rarely late. He knew that. I didn’t have time to tell him anything else because the finder might be trying to call.
After I hung up, I smacked my forehead. Forgetting Sunday afternoon pool—it had come to that. What the blazes was wrong with me? I’d not only wasted $14.95 on the ad, a game of pool, and my entire weekend—I’d lost my notebook. Who leaves on top of a public telephone in a train station the fruit of one’s creative genius? What if someone had the gall to steal my highly original stories of aliens and send them to a publisher, the contents certified as their own?
Monday morning, I might have called in sick so I could stay home in case the phone rang, but no work meant no pay. What did my boss care about my notebook, anyway? At the Christmas office party two years earlier, my mood boosted by an excess of holiday cheer and dark Jamaican rum, I’d told him that, someday, I’d be for science fiction what Stephen King is for horror—a highly read and revered author. He asked me what type of science fiction I wrote. I thought, great, he’s actually interested.
“Stories with alien protagonists,” I said. “Friendly ones.”
It turned out, the only aliens he’d ever heard of entered the country illegally and spoke Spanish. From then on, he called me King Alien, King for short.
“Finished them files yet, King?”
Determined to help me, Leon raised $11 from nine co-workers, $6 of it from him, for a new notebook. Anything good quality with heavy weight writing paper couldn’t be bought for $11. Sure, I was normally a cheapskate, but not when it came to my role as a writer. I feigned an appreciative smile.
Two miserable weeks passed during which I took comfort in self-pity. My mother had done a lousy job raising me—locked me in a closet when I swore and stuck me in front of the TV when I asked her to play with me. My father ignored me for all my forty-two years. As if that wasn’t enough, my power-hungry boss spent his days hovering over employees, me in particular. “You were in the can long enough, King. Trouble with your plumbing?”
Oh, how I longed to say, “Call me King again and I’ll quit this mind-petrifying drudgery, stomp through that door, my clients with me.”
I promised myself if I found my notebook, I’d do exactly that. A month after I lost it, on my way to the track, leaning to the side like my briefcase was filled with bricks, head hanging off its hinges, what did I spy? On top of the payphone, as if by magic, there it was.
One by one, I turned the pages. The stories were all there including my prized three: “Aliens in Love,” “The Alien’s Dream,” and “Ask an Alien.” On the page where the waitress had written the diner’s number, I saw new handwriting in blue rather than my black ink:
Hey there. Sorry it took ages to return your stories. Pity the slow readers like me. An Alien for President was my favorite. Wish I had even half your imagination & talent! See you around, maybe. Break a leg.
Tax season turned out to be a strategic time to hand in my notice. Leon accepted an offer to be a partner in my newly established King’s Drop-off Tax Services. No fanfare accompanied our departure from the office, no so-long-farewell party, no Sorry to see you go card with everyone’s signature and personal best wishes, no cake with sugary, white icing, an inch thick, Congratulations written across the top.
We both adjusted to working from home. Leon got a cat. I traded in my couch for something more comfortable and, as office furniture, tax-deductible. The office staff didn’t miss us, and we didn’t miss them. The train ride was a different matter. I missed it so much, now and then, I’d hop on the train just for inspiration.
A couple of months after the whole incident, I took the train and got off at Fort John station for old-times sake, new notebook in hand, by my side. How else would this Tom fellow ever identify the writer of the stories he so admired? I hadn’t given up hope that I’d someday meet him in person. I pictured that moment. He’d want to shake my hand, maybe ask for an autograph. I’d give him my card and offer to do his taxes for a reduced fee. Someone with his tastes was likely a professional. Was he a Dawn of the Dead kind of guy? A Bud Light drinker? If it turned out that we had similar tastes, maybe he’d want to hang out. I had a few ideas I wanted to bounce off him for my new series.
At the station, on my way past the kiosk, I spotted someone waving an arm over his head. I stopped and waited as he walked toward me.
“Are you who I think you are?” he said. “The all-about-aliens guy?”
I nodded and stared at his cap with its familiar Florida Marlins logo.
He reached an arm forward to shake my hand. “It’s me, Tom, your biggest fan,” he said. “Fantastic to finally meet you.”