Prayers didn’t stop earthquakes. They didn’t stop evil landlords or toothaches, but Hartley prayed anyway because it couldn’t hurt anything and mainly because it was free.
What he prayed for was a little outrageous. First, he prayed that his boss, Kiplinger would stop making his life at the auto parts store miserable, but he also prayed for a magic boat.
He wasn’t sure why a boat exactly, but praying this way—spontaneously before bed each night—allowed weird ideas to creep into his head and he rolled with it.
He supposed that the boat appealed to him because he could float away on it. That was the main thing—going somewhere else. And because this boat was fantastic, he outfitted it with colorful gems and a magnificent sail tall as the tallest building in the city.
For the hell of it, one night Hartley imagined a woman as well. He gave her long blonde hair and rosy, apple cheeks and wide fluttering blue eyes. He imagined this woman on his magic boat giving him the “come on board” signal with her delicate hand. In his mind, he turned around but didn’t see anyone else standing behind him, just the utter blackness of the eternal void and like that, he was asleep.
This auto parts job was probably the worst he’d had, and Hartley had had a lot of jobs. He’d pretty much had the same kind of job since high school, the kind that offered a low rate of pay with little to no insurance. You checked your self-esteem at the door and proceeded to take orders from men with comb-overs, paunches, perpetual heart burn and pinched pig eyes.
Hartley’s problem was he never specialized at anything. Not during junior college and not afterwards. He’d worked sales floors at clothing stores, electronic goods merchandisers and cell phone outlets. He’d packed and shuffled boxes for overnight delivery couriers. He faced the public at the DMV and sold cheaply made furniture.
Now he was thirty, living in a run down but inexpensive apartment in Chicago’s factory district on the near west side. He was learning the ropes at Kiplinger’s, selling oil filters, fan filters, pine-scented air freshener trees and sheepskin seat covers. Leather grip wheel covers were hot too, as if customers were planning on taking a tour of the Indy 500 after they left. These items held little to no appeal to Hartley, but his last employer went out of business and there weren’t many job openings out there.
The first few weeks of his new employment, Hartley worked the counter with Guth, a lanky man who had the same sandy colored hair and mustache as the man in the old Camel cigarette ads. Guth claimed he played guitar in a band called Bombreeze. Hartley liked Guth because he knew about cars and motorcycles and was able to handle the more complicated technical questions.
But one day Guth called in sick. Then he called in again. Then he stopped calling and Hartley found himself running the store pretty much by himself. When Hartley asked Kiplinger about this, he was told Guth wasn’t coming back.
“He does this. He goes off on a tear for a month and then tries to return after he sobers up. Well, I’m not rehiring him this time.”
Hartley was a little sad for Guth and for himself. If his band actually existed, he would have liked to see them play sometime.
The more pressing concern now was that Hartley had to fend for himself alone at the counter. He could handle parts look-ups in the catalogs and computer, but a lot of times do-it-yourselfers wanted advice on repair and he didn’t know jack about cars. Hartley’s first impulse was to refer these people to Kiplinger, but he learned quickly if there was one thing Kiplinger hated, it was answering car questions. In Kiplinger’s view, these customers were often too cheap to get a qualified mechanic to do their repair. Conversely, he was too cheap to dispense information to them for free.
What Kiplinger preferred to do was to sit in his cramped office just out of view of the public with the door propped open so he could hear the trill of the cash register while he read fishing magazines. He had stacks and stacks of them lying around. It was possible Kiplinger would have fielded questions about fishing, but no one ever asked any.
After receiving several gruff responses when he asked Kiplinger to help with repair questions, Hartley knew he was between a rock and a hard place. Even if he had the inclination, there was no time to learn about dual manifolds and vapor lock problems, whatever those were, so his fallback position was to recommend products that were not appropriate to the job at hand. Many customers left in frustration, but many others bought whatever he suggested: calipers, a torque wrench, a new battery. In these latter cases, Hartley was certain the customer would soon return these items for a full refund and chew him out for good measure; some had already.
When one persistent customer with a spider tattoo on his forearm didn’t have his question about muffler tape answered to his satisfaction, he pointed to Kiplinger’s open door.
“What about boss man?” he said. “Can he help?”
A cold stripe of fear zipped up Hartley’s spine. He looked tentatively over his shoulder and said, “Uh no, that’s not the boss, that’s cousin Romero from Italy,” he said. “He’s just visiting.”
“Romero! Hey Romero!” Spider Man shouted at the doorway.
Kiplinger’s wooden chair creaked and he rolled into view, looking over his cheaters.
“Question about muffler adhesive,” Hartley said, swallowing hard.
Kiplinger slapped a fish magazine on his desk and huffed out of the office. “What’s the problem here?” he said, looking Spider Man up and down.
Spider Man immediately launched into a long-winded story about how he just purchased a car from his grandmother, the title wasn’t signed yet, no license and title applied for, but the muffler was making a racket and he didn’t want the cops to pull him over.
Kiplinger took the title from the man since he kept flapping it around.
“Hold on a second,” he said. “This title isn’t signed.”
“I know, I told you, my grandmother is in the hospital and can’t use her hand right now.”
“Woo hoo, no way, José, I’m not getting involved in this one. This is a hot car!” Kiplinger waved his hand like a stove scalded him.
“Hot? What? Hey man, I didn’t steal this car.”
“Go get your tape someplace else,” Kiplinger said firmly. “I’m not going to be an accessory to car theft.”
Spider Man finally gave up and left in exasperation. When he was gone, Kiplinger told Hartley to wise up and get rid of jokers like that guy. “This is a parts store, not a psychiatry clinic,” he said.
That night, thoroughly exhausted, Hartley prayed Kiplinger would hire someone who knew something about cars. And he prayed again for that boat just for the hell of it.
The next morning, Hartley swung his feet to the floor, but instead of meeting uneven hardwood, they touched down on a fine red Persian rug embroidered with squiggly gold and black symbols.
As soon as he tried to stand on this rug, it quivered. A visible ripple ran through its length and it rose an inch off the ground. Without being commanded, the carpet moved Hartley to the bathroom and paused before the toilet so he could urinate, then passed him over to the sink so he could brush his teeth.
It wasn’t a magic boat, but a magic carpet was pretty great, all things considered. Hartley figured this development was a sign he should quit his job and so, after he dressed, he mentally suggested the carpet take him to work so he could tell Kiplinger to stick it.
The carpet responded accordingly. It quickly whisked Hartley out of his apartment and over two miles of Chicago Avenue. While it flew, Hartley wondered if his plan to quit his job was a sound one, but concluded that even if he didn’t continue to get reasonable facsimiles of things he prayed for, he could still take the magic carpet with him on daytime, midafternoon, nighttime, and late-night talk shows and maybe even wrangle a book deal out of it. Yes, this was the right thing to do.
After the carpet descended onto the gravel parking lot of Kiplinger’s Auto Parts, it rolled up and became inconspicuous among some loose, black trash. Immediately, Hartley knew something was amiss. First, there was a foul, burning oil stench surrounding the auto parts store, then he noticed the boarded up windows and soot-covered brickwork.
Inspecting the damaged building, Hartley concluded that Kiplinger had set the business ablaze to recover insurance money. As he stood contemplating his former job site, a police cruiser pulled along the curb.
“Was there a fire here?” Hartley asked the police officer.
“Sure looks like it,” the officer said, his mustache wiggling jauntily. “Know anything about it?”
“Then you should probably get a move on, don’t ya think?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Hartley scratched his head and watched as the cop left, then he collected his magic carpet. Not wanting to do anything conspicuous at what was surely a crime scene, Hartley carried the carpet under his arm, a situation the carpet did not seem to enjoy as it twisted and fought him as he made his way to the Lighthouse Café.
Azita, the Iranian owner, was on duty at the grill and she obliged Hartley with the preparation of a plate of eggs and bacon. Hartley usually ate breakfast here on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
“Here on a Friday?” Azita said.
“I took the day off,” Hartley explained.
“What is this?” Azita said, nodding at the carpet.
“May I see?”
Hartley unrolled the carpet across three fixed red vinyl barstools. As Azita hovered over it, reading the transcriptions, her eyes grew wide.
“This is a very special carpet,” she said, caressing it. “How did you come to take possession of it?”
“It was in the storage space of my apartment complex,” Hartley said. “Previous owner I guess.”
“Whoever lost it must be very sorry.”
“I imagine so.”
“Have you used it yet?” Azita said.
“Um, what do you mean?” Hartley said.
“This carpet is designed to save princesses. Have you saved any?”
“No, but it’s early. I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
Azita laughed and returned to the grill to get his eggs and bacon, which were now ready.
As he ate, Hartley thought over what Azita said and asked the question burning a hole in his head.
“Say, for real? It’s for saving princesses?”
Azita nodded sagely and flipped a patty melt.
“So where would a guy like me find a princess? I’d hate to leave a damsel in distress if you know what I mean . . .”
Azita smiled and pointed her spatula towards the city skyline, which was clearly visible on this fine summer day.
“You could do worse than look high in one of those towers,” she said.
“Thanks for the tip,” Hartley said, then dug into his wallet to provide one of his own.
With much struggle and wrangling, Hartley got the carpet down the block and around the corner to the alley behind the Inject-O-Mold factory and let it unfurl in the brilliant sunlight.
“OK, you heard Azita!” he said. “Let’s go downtown!”
Immediately, the carpet rose up to Hartley’s backside, scooped him up and climbed into the sky.
As they reached downtown proper, the carpet rounded several tall buildings until it selected the tallest one of all, a sleek black icon known formerly as the Sears Tower. It climbed to floor 116 where, just behind some glass sat a woman with blonde, pinned up hair. She was crying silently in her cubicle.
Valerie’s boss Donna had been making her life a perilous hell ever since Valerie had taken a regional promotion to Qualtek’s advertising department. It was not clear why Valerie was despised so, but what was unmistakable was the poor treatment she received. There was little doubt who had scratched her car with a key, emptied a pot of dirt on her desk and infected her computer with a virus.
Only minutes ago, Donna had dropped a verbal assault upon Valerie, commanding her to redo a batch of work that had taken hours to complete.
Valerie was crushed and felt certain she would die in this horrible city with a hateful job and never find happiness.
Something caught her eye then, and Valerie looked up to see the most amazing sight—a boyishly handsome man on a floating carpet just outside her office window. It took her a little while to decipher the odd gestures he was making. Eventually she got the first one: Meet me on the rooftop; the other one took more time.
Through repeated motions to his head followed by fingers trailing like water on either side of his face, she finally understood.
Valerie knew how to get to the rooftop escape; they’d covered that in her first day of safety training. She would meet this strange man on the roof, but she had to do the other thing first.
With a swift pull of a pin and a seductive shake, Valerie’s golden hair spilled around her face and ran past her shoulders. On and on it went.
It was hair that befit a princess.
Hartley smiled and ascended skyward to meet her.