So, I’m going to do this year a bit differently from previous years. Previously, I kept all my writing to myself save a few excerpts here and there. This year, I’m going to blog-publish as I go, because why not?
If I skip around and jump ahead, I won’t publish those so as not to mess up the narrative, but when I get back to where I’d last posted, I’ll continue. I hope you like it, but I can’t promise anything because I’m not entirely sure where this is going.
There was no damned way this behemoth should have been here. I walked down this street to take the Metro in to work every day. This edifice that stretched the entire length of the block was pretty, yes. It was tastefully designed and decorated, true. But yesterday, it was an exclusive community for active adults.
Where were all the active adults now? Sure, the label indicated that they were only distinguishable from people who’d died of old age because of their movements, but it seemed really unlikely to me that they’d all shuffled off this mortal coil at the same time.
And as far as the building itself was concerned? I live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. We see apartment buildings and condominiums shoot up like other areas see weeds appear. Sometimes we think of them the same way. But even with the ridiculous speed of construction around here, it would still take more than fourteen hours to knock down the sad old beige columns that used to welcome the doddering wealthy and replace them with this glass, stone, and steel work of retail art.
Leaning back and looking up, I figured it was probably just two floors tall but that didn’t necessarily tell the whole story. There were height restrictions around here, so many contractors would dive down deep and give a business an extra level or two below the street. Add on a parking garage and this Wishbook place could easily have five levels. I wanted to take a look inside.
My phone cautioned me against it. That was the alert sound I’d set for a quarter after eight, which was when I had to start jogging if I wanted to catch my train on time.
I frowned up at the shiny white and clear storefront and its unfamiliar logo. It was like a stylized mobius strip inside of a circle. Infinity trapped in a ring. I dared the image to give me a reason to be late to work.
I’m not sure what I expected it to do. Wink at me? It didn’t. I left.
My smartcard had plenty of money on it and everyone else was in just as much of a hurry as I was. I got through the turnstile and had plenty of time to decide which car I wanted to squeeze into before the Red Line train pulled away from Bethesda and carted me off to my destination at Union Station.
“So, Adam, I don’t remember seeing your final reports on Friday. Didja forget to email those to me?”
Yes. Yes, you arrogant jackass, even though I’ve been doing this job longer than you’ve had facial hair, I forgot to do something as routine as clocking out the same way I clock out every day.
“I don’t think I forgot, Dave,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that Corporate told us last week to start sending our Friday reports to the Richmond office. I could double-check my sent mail but I’ll bet that’s what I did.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you followed the new policy. Thanks for doing that for me, Adam.”
I didn’t do it for you, you walking, talking armpit hair. The only thing I’d do for you is strangle you in your sleep.
“No problem, Dave,” I said. “I’m always happy to do my job. And actually, I’d better get to it.”
Dave straightened his wine-colored thin tie, shrugged his athletic cut charcoal suit jacket, and nodded his head.
“Good man, Adam,” said Dave. “Good man. I will see you at the monthly sales meeting at twelve-thirty, right? I hear we’re getting gourmet donuts today!”
And then he slithered away.
I wasn’t sure what saddened me more: that this idiot had been given such a well-paying promotion right past me that he could afford such nice clothes (it was a really attractive suit, and I don’t even like guys), or that the gourmet donuts actually did get me excited. I decided both facts tied with a score of what the hell happened to me?
I was good at my job. My observational skills and ability to completely ignore any emotional considerations when dealing with insurance claims made my work record outstanding. In the eight years I’d been working for Smith & Associates, I was the only agent whose allowed claims had never turned out to be fraudulent. Um. Whoo-hoo?
My problem was that those thoughts I kept to myself with Dave this morning had a way of occasionally overpowering my good sense and leaping out of my mouth to get me in trouble. I was told that I wasn’t a people person. I took issue with that. I figure, “dog people” like to talk condescendingly to dogs, walk them around in collars and on leashes, and preferred that the dogs did exactly what their masters commanded them to do. If that’s how that works, then I was definitely a people person. And when people got out of line, my instinctive response was to smack them on the nose with a newspaper. If anything, I thought I was the most legitimate people person around!
Nobody laughed at that argument either. I thought it was hilarious. I did not get promoted.
So, I metro’d in to work every morning, sat at my desk facing toward the windows (benefit of seniority there), and diligently combed through the hard copy and online claims that came in for processing. I rebelliously used a Mac instead of the same Windows 11 (or whatever) computer that everyone else used. And I always set mine to start up in a crippled unix system when I left, just in case someone decided that they’d like to sit at my desk to browse porn after hours. I didn’t have many victories here, so I took what I could get.
The day passed like most of them do. This one included some sunlight and shadows of clouds passing across the windows in my view. That was nice. I thought about maybe starting up a conversation with that new blonde office manager. She was way out of my league (since I am not blonde) but I definitely thought about it. I might have eaten something for lunch, but I couldn’t swear to it.
And when the end of the day rolled around, I sensed it as I did every day. No computer, clock, or alarm needed to remind me. I could practically taste five o’clock in the air. It tasted like freedom.
The commute home could have been ugly. I’d read on a news report on my phone that the transit authority was going to be doing some brief midday track work at Judiciary Square but that it wasn’t expected to affect rush hour schedules. Of course, I didn’t believe that prediction since I’d been living here for more than a few days, so I took the Red Line away from my home first, to catch a train back in at Fort Totten and then get back on the Red Line at Chinatown. Theoretically, that made my trip home about thirty minutes longer, but as we were leaving Columbia Heights, I got an alert that the Red Line was closed at Judiciary Square and no trains were currently able to get from the east side of the Red Line to the west side, nor vice versa.
I leaned over to show my phone to a man sitting in front of me in a Redskins jacket and said, “Saw that coming, right?”
He responded with the friendliness I’ve come to expect from my fellow city dwellers and said nothing. I’m not even sure he noticed the little screen I shoved in front of his face. Obviously, he’d been living here even longer than I had. I’m pretty sure I’d have flinched if that had happened to me.
My second transfer was easy, and I got back home to my neighborhood better than most Bethesda folk who were trying to make it out from Capitol Hill. I took a little private delight in knowing that even though I was in income-restricted housing and most of my neighbors could buy my entire apartment complex, at least I got home before they did.
Again, little victories.
And that new business was still there. It hadn’t just been an undercaffeinated mirage (always a possibility on Monday mornings, after all) and other people must have been able to see it, too, because there was brisk foot traffic going into the main entrance.
The side I’d examined earlier was as sparse of decoration as I recalled. There were just some windows along the top, some metalwork framing the left, right, and top edges of the building, and the rest was just white stone. Except there was, of course, the blue-gray logo and name of the business embedded near the upper left corner of the wall. The placement gave this side of the building the look of a sheet of personalized stationary.
Out of curiosity, I strode past the entrance on the corner of the block and took a look at the other street-facing wall. This was just the same except that the placement of text and logo were in the far upper right corner. It was so free of decoration that the whole presentation made me think of a hospital or expensive spa.
I had some time before I had to get home. Really, there was nothing waiting for me but some television shows filling up the hard drive of my DVR. There was no reason I couldn’t go inside and find out what this Wishbook was all about.
As I wandered back toward the corner entrance, I hailed a white-haired woman who was trying to get in as fast as she could.
“Excuse me, miss,” I called out. (I’ve been told that some older women like to be called ‘miss’.) “Do you remember the name of the community that used to be on this block?”
She looked annoyed at being stopped short of her goal, but she turned to frown at me and say, “I’ve only been lived here thirty years. I don’t remember what was here before then.” With that, she turned back toward the entrance and shuffled in much faster than I’d have expected from someone wearing what appeared to be bedroom slippers.
I rolled my eyes at myself (figuratively) to have thought I’d get decent recollection from someone with white hair. That’s probably ageist of me, but I can say it because I’ve found a couple white hairs myself.
On my chest.
That made me sad.
No longer moving so quickly to get inside, I looked around and spied a couple of teenage kids moving vaguely but rapidly towards the front doors. Their wobbly approach was probably due to the combination of trying to type things on their phones, trying to talk with each other, and trying to chug their Starbucks drinks. To give credit where it’s due, I didn’t see any spillage on their phones, just their clothes.
“Hey guys, do you remember what was here yesterday?” I asked them, getting in their way.
They tried to dodge around me. They did a good job of not acknowledging my existence for a good two or three minutes. I’ll bet if they’d finished their drinks already, I wouldn’t have had a shot at getting anything out of them. As it was, I managed to bob and weave to block one of them, an Asian kid wearing a t-shirt with some sort of anime chef on it. Really, it was a cartoon character wearing a chef’s hat. Whatever happened to quality icons like H.R. Puff—oh. Touché.
“Hey, man, what do you want?” said the kid, not looking up from his typing.
“What was here yesterday, before it was Wishbooks?” I repeated.
“I don’t know, what? Jesus? I don’t get it.” Still didn’t look up.
“No, I mean it literally. Yesterday, this was not a Wishbooks. Today, it is a Wishbooks. Yesterday it was some old folks’ home, right?”
The kid finally looked up at me and then sneered a bit.
“You don’t even look that old, damn,” he said, and there may have even been a hint of sympathy in there. “There’s an old folks’ home on Arlington ave, a few blocks over. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for, but this place has been a Wishbooks for as long as I can remember. Can I go now?”
Before I said anything in reply, he weaved when I bobbed and was gone.
Now that was weird. It would be one thing if the kid were just oblivious about this place, but he seemed to think it had been around for a while. Was I the one who was going crazy?
I finished my journey to the corner entrance. It was one of those really big turnstile entrances that start turning when you get close from a pressure plate or a motion sensor. I’d only ever seen clear ones before, but this one was built with an opaque glass that gleamed like a limousine window. As the doors turned, I could see little hints of the scene within, but only just. To add to the strangeness, there weren’t any alternative regular doors. I thought it was a safety regulation that you had to have two regular doors at an entrance for every carousel door. Maybe that just a guideline.
I was just about to get concerned that nobody had yet emerged from the store when a couple did just that.
The man and woman came out from having apparently walked through sharing the same space in the turning doors and they carried bags bearing the Wishbooks name and logo. They laughed. They didn’t seem brainwashed or alien. I decided it was safe enough to go inside.
The doors didn’t harm me. Aside from the peculiarity of not being able to see what was on the other side, the turning doors were just like any others. The opening on the inside was large enough and the doors turned slowly enough that I had no problems getting out.
I emerged to see what looked like the inside of the biggest convenience store ever. Have you ever been in one of those fancy new convenience stores with the deli counter, and the fancy self-serve machines, and enough sections to find things that they’re practically little department stores? This was like that, minus the “little”.
In fact, as I looked up I could see that there was a big sign hanging from the ceiling that greeted me with a grand “Welcome to the Wishbooks Convenience Level, Level 1”. Below that greeting were two smaller statements, one indicating that Level 0 was upstairs and was the Dining Level, and the other directing me to the elevators.
I pondered the implications of Level 0 being upstairs. As I stood there in my best pondering pose, an old man with a spring in his step and a smile on his face came up to me to greet me. He held what looked like a little cardboard sign that read, “Tell me your wish!” I found that a little creepy, frankly.
“Welcome to the Wishbooks Convenience Level!” he said. He didn’t even have to look up to read it off the sign. That’s skill. “What are you looking for, today? I can help you!”
“I’m not really looking for anything,” I replied. “I just wanted to see what was in here.”
The smile on the old greeter’s face disappeared quickly and killed all witnesses. “Did you say you’re not looking for anything?”
“Uh, yes. That’s okay, right? It’s a free country.”
“It is out there,” he said with a growl and touched the cardboard sign to my chest.
I heard, no joke, a sound like, “ZAP!” And then I didn’t hear anything, not even when I fell face forward on the ground. A moment later and I couldn’t see anything, either.