Jack pulled into the Walmart parking lot cautiously. He always drove cautiously when he went to Walmart because he found that massive parking lots were generally unsafe. Jack was usually safe and healthy in every way; he didn’t smoke or drink, he stayed away from things like airplanes and rollercoasters, and he always supplemented his vegetarian diet with multivitamins. He wasn’t about to be run over in the Walmart parking lot when all he wanted to buy was some fish food for his aquarium at home.
Like every naive driver who enters the Walmart parking lot, Jack coasted toward the spaces closest to the store, in the vain hope that a spot would actually be open. He stopped repeatedly to let pedestrians cross in front of his car, and waved at various people that he had never met in his life. When Jack approached the end of the line of cars, he glanced disconsolately at the full parking spaces around him. They’re always full, Jack thought, even on holidays. He turned his car around and noticed a good Samaritan by the door who was collecting money for some charity or another. He tried to wink at him, but got confused, and wound up closing both of his eyes tightly for a moment. He then drove slowly toward the back of the lot, looking for an open space.
Jack eventually parked his Crown Victoria, the old reliable car he had inherited from his grandmother, and got out. He locked the door, put on his mittens and his hat, and began the trudge toward the store, where his fish food was waiting. Without quite knowing why, Jack slowed to a stop and stared at Walmart, which appeared as a small gray dot on the horizon. He stood in the middle of the road, his breath creating wispy clouds in the cool January air, and pondered his repeated misfortune. He never got a good parking spot, never. He was always resigned to parking miles away, at the back of the giant parking lot, when all he wanted was some fish food. Jack was a good customer, a faithful customer, but he was never rewarded for his loyalty. There was no choice parking, no spot that read “Dedicated Customers Only.”
For the first time in his life, Jack felt something hot growing inside of him, something in the pit of his stomach that was anger in its most basic form. Why should he stand for such injustices?! Wasn’t he an American, tried and true? Didn’t he deserve a parking space that was at least within a one mile radius of the gosh darned store? Jack slowly lifted his trembling hand and took off his purple and green pom pom hat, letting it fall to the pavement. He then took off his mittens and his coat, dropping them next to the hat. Jack rolled up his sleeves and squared his shoulders off to the store, ready for war. He wasn't going to take it anymore. He was going to get a good parking space if it was the last thing he did.
Jack stood bristling for several moments, and then for several moments more. When he realized nothing was going to happen if he didn’t move, he turned slowly and walked deliberately toward his Crown Victoria, not quite sure what he was about to do. He had never taken a stand in his life, not when his mother made him hold her hand when they went to the supermarket, not when the general store raised the price on his favorite cereal, and not even when the post office once refused to send his mail, when he was only a cent short of the full postage. Quite simply, he didn’t know how to stand up for himself. He didn’t know what to do.
Jack slipped into the Crown Victoria, turned the key, and revved the engine. Feeling good, and rather manly, Jack peeled out of his parking space and began driving toward Walmart at the explosive speed of five miles an hour, determined to figure out how he was going to stage his protest before he ran right through the front of the store. Just as the Samaritan collecting money by the kiddie carousel took a few running steps away from Jack’s car, in fear that he was going to be run over, Jack swung the Crown Victoria around and headed down the second row of parked cars. He had decided what he was going to do. If he had to wait for a good parking space, Goddammit, he was going to wait. He was going to drive the old Crown Victoria around the parking lot till Kingdom Come, if that’s how long it was going to take. Pleased with himself, Jack flipped the radio on and began pretending he knew the lyrics to songs he had never heard before.
By the time Jack had circled the lot four or five times, he was feeling great. Until this point in his life, he had never craved action and rebelliousness. He was usually content with his somewhat hum-drum existence, but not any more. Jack drove steadily, glancing left, then right, for a good parking space. He waved to the Samaritan every time he passed, and the Samaritan waved tentatively back. He rolled down the windows and began shouting his master plan to pedestrians. They smiled politely and nodded, trying to slip away from the crazy man in the Crown Victoria who was babbling about not stopping until he got a good parking space, or some such nonsense. Jack, indeed, was a new man.
After an hour of circling the lot, Jack was still going strong. Every time he passed the vehicles parked in the prime spots, he giggled, knowing that one of the spaces would soon be his.
After two hours of circling the lot, Jack stopped waving at the Samaritan.
After three hours of circling the lot, Jack began to grow restless. He was hungry and feeling irritable. He began cutting off pedestrians when they tried to get to their parked cars. He also began cursing at the Samaritan under his breath.
After four hours of circling the lot, Jack knew that his idea of getting a good parking space once and for all was no longer an experiment, or a silent personal protest. It was a mission. It was a war.
Luckily, the Crown Victoria was ready for battle. Jack had kept the car neat and orderly, washing it and vacuuming it every Sunday after church at the Lucky Duck Carwash, but it nevertheless had its secrets and surprises. In the glove compartment, Jack kept his registration, a pencil and a pad of paper, the car manual, and a box of graham crackers. In the driver’s side door pocket, there were tissues and a bottle of water. Under the seat Jack kept a few monthly magazines, an extra shirt, a toothbrush, and several loose granola bars. With all these supplies, Jack knew that he was prepared. He could eat the crackers and the granola bars, drink the water, and then brush his teeth. Jack would certainly not go hungry, thirsty, or acquire any new cavities. He could read his magazines if he got bored, and doodle on his pad of paper if he wanted. As far as Jack was concerned, his living conditions were set for quite a long time.
It had long since grown dark by the time Jack ran out of gas. To be precise, it was three twenty-seven AM when the Crown Victoria sputtered to a stop and bumped up onto the curb. Jack, feeling devoid of feeling and expression, got out of the Crown Victoria and bent his knees. He had been looking for a parking space for twenty hours, and had not succeeded. Even at three twenty-seven in the morning, the first fifteen or so spaces in every row were filled with cars.
Jack stumbled over to one of the parked cars and peeked inside. It appeared to be a normal car, but then Jack noticed something odd – the vehicle had no interior cupholders. Jack knew that the car must have been bought recently because the model number on the dashboard indicated that the vehicle had been built only last year. All new cars had interior cupholders. His Crown Victoria didn’t have interior cupholders (Jack was forced to keep his bottled water in the driver’s side door pocket), but this was only because the Crown Victoria was old. Surely something must be wrong with a new car that doesn’t have interior cupholders.
Jack bent down to look at the parked car’s tires. He poked around at the undercarriage, pretending that he knew something about cars, and found nothing that appeared interesting. Before he straightened, however, Jack noticed something peculiar. There were two bolts on each tire, driven into the pavement. The cars were bolted into the ground! These weren’t real cars! They were fake ones! Decoys! Jack joyously smacked his forehead, thinking that he had discovered the truth behind his Walmart parking lot mystery. No one could ever find a good parking spot at Walmart because the cars weren’t real!
Jack began tiredly chewing on his lip when he realized that the reason behind his discovery was unknown to him. Why would Walmart make it impossible for shoppers to get a decent parking space? What was going on? Jack leaned against the car and began to think, his mind somewhat muddled by his exhaustion.
Before Jack had too much time to ponder, two men in the Walmart uniform vest approached him from behind and coughed softly to let Jack know of their presence. Startled, he turned around and began backing away from the men cautiously. He didn’t want any trouble. Before he could back away very far, one of the men, apparently unaware of Jack’s discomfort, said “Excuse me, Sir. If you’ll just follow me we’ll get started right away.” Jack nodded in confusion. Get what started? Who were these men? Judging by their friendly blue vests, the men were obviously Walmart employees, but what were they doing out with the fake bolted cars at four in the morning? Come to think of it, what was he doing out with the fake bolted cars at four in the morning? Jack began to reassess his situation, thinking primarily of his poor hungry goldfish who was waiting at home for him. Perhaps circling the Walmart parking lot for twenty hours wasn’t the best idea. He had discovered the strange permanent parked cars, but he had not discovered their purpose. And now he was holding a conversation in the dead of night with two men whose vests asked “What can I do for you” in big white lettering. Jack knew what the men could do; they could go away. All he wanted was some fish food, but he could buy the more expensive kind tomorrow at the pet store on the other side of town.
In response to Jack’s confused silence, the employees looked at each other nervously. Jack heard one of them mutter “Maybe we’ve got the wrong guy.” Jack had no idea what was going on. Apparently the crazies of the Walmart parking lot didn’t necessarily have to be in cars. There were two crazies right in front of him, and even if they got into the car they were standing next to, it was fake anyway. One of the employees spoke up and asked “Informer, what is the password?” In exasperation and confusion, Jack replied “Listen, all I’m trying to do is get some fish food.” The employee nodded and repeated Jack’s words into his friendly blue vest, apparently speaking into a microphone. He accentuated each word, as if every letter had a significant importance. “Listen. All. I’m. Trying. To. Do. Is. Get. Some. Fish. Food.” Satisfied with Jack’s response, one employee stepped behind Jack and the other began walking toward the store. With one employee literally breathing down his neck, and the other leading the way, there was no choice but for Jack to proceed toward the large hydraulic doors of the superstore before him.
Just before Jack was prodded lightly through the Walmart doors, he heard the sound of heavy machinery behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder to see what was making the noise. He watched in horror and disbelief as the cars, the fake Walmart parking lot cars, slowly turned over to reveal large guns and missiles. Jack couldn’t believe his eyes. There were weapons on the undercarriages of the cars. Large weapons. Humongous weapons. Before Jack’s jaw had the chance to hit the floor, he was pushed through the doors and into the Walmart breezeway, where a guard met the three men. Like his fellow employees, the guard wore a friendly blue Walmart uniform vest, but also had a machine gun strapped to his back and toted a pistol on each hip. He searched Jack, making the poor man slightly uncomfortable and even more confused and, satisfied that Jack had no weapons on his person, nodded the small entourage through the second set of doors.
When Jack saw the interior of the superstore he knew that something was very wrong, and began muttering excuses of why he had to go home. Instead of shelves filled with discounted Walmart merchandise, machinery took up the shelf space. It was all gray and metal, and was blinking and beeping continuously. The two employees, who were now positioned at each of Jack’s elbows, just smiled and continued escorting him to the back of the building. Before they arrived at their destination, Jack turned to his escorts and asked tentatively, “Um, does Walmart always look this way at night?” They replied, “Well yes, except during the week before Christmas, when we’re open twenty-four hours.” Jack said weakly, “Oh, how interesting,” and then the three of them continued on to what was usually the home maintenance section of the superstore.
When they arrived, a man in a military uniform thanked the two Walmart escorts and sent them on their way. The military official said politely, “Excuse me, Sir. If you’ll just follow me downstairs, we can begin what you came here for.” By this point in time, Jack had had enough. With his new found manliness, he said in a loud voice, “Unless you’re going to sell me some fish food, I don’t think I want to follow you. This is all a mistake. I really should be going. This isn’t any place for me.” Jack tilted his chin back and stared defiantly at the man in the military uniform, who was smiling. “Sir,” he said, “ I understand that you must be a little nervous. Someone who knows as much as you do must be hesitant to share his knowledge. If you just do your job right, you’ll be fine. Now if you could please follow me. Perhaps you would like a drink at the bar on the lower level to calm your nerves?” With this, the military official turned on his heel and began walking toward an elevator, obviously confident that Jack would follow. When the elevator doors opened, Jack felt he had no choice but to comply. He had never had an alcoholic drink in his life, except at church, but the image of a beer waiting for him downstairs actually sounded quite nice.
Jack stepped onto the elevator and watched the military official press a button that was imprinted with the letter “B.” He then made an attempt at small talk. “So, does Walmart have upper floors too?” The official distractedly replied, “Ah, no. Our elevators don’t go to the top.” Before Jack had the chance to make more conversation, the elevator came to a stop and the military official led him into a small room with several filing cabinets. He was then left alone, and without a beer.
Jack stood motionless for several moments, and then began reevaluating his situation. He had left his house in the morning, with the sole intention of going to Walmart to buy some fish food. Now he was somewhere in the underbelly of the superstore, contemplating why the cars parked in the Walmart parking lot were actually giant guns, and how he was somehow important to all these odd nocturnal Walmart employees. He tested the doorknob, and was slightly alarmed when he discovered it was locked from the outside. With nowhere to go, Jack sat down in a comfortable chair and began to wait for something to happen. He felt almost like he was at the doctor’s office, not quite sure when the doctor was going to burst into the room. He didn’t want to poke around, because if someone walked in, he might get in trouble. At one particular visit to the doctor’s office when he was a kid, Jack had accidentally gotten a spare stethoscope stuck up his nose, and it was rather embarrassing when the doctor had walked in on him in this predicament.
After some time had passed, Jack’s curiosity got the best of him, and he opened one of the filing cabinets, reading the titles of the folders it contained. They all had names on them, many of which he knew. Jimmy Hoffa. John F. Kennedy. Amelia Earhart. Adolf Hitler. Jack began to pull out one of the files for closer inspection, when the doorknob rattled. He slammed the drawer shut and moved clear to the other side of the room, smiling innocently.
The door swung open and five people walked in, all in fancy military uniforms. Jack knew nothing about the military, but he could sense that these three men and two women were very high in rank. They had stars and stripes all over their navy blue uniforms. Jack stood, feeling the urge to salute, and a stern looking woman stepped forward. “Please sir, take your seat,” she said. Jack sat, and as he did so, five chairs raised from panels in the floor and the important looking people took their seats as well. They stared at each other for several moments, Jack wondering if maybe these people had come to bring him his beer, and confused why they were in uniform. His stomach dropped when he realized that maybe these people had come to arrest him. Oh Criminy, Jack thought. I’ve been framed! I’m going to be sent to jail for something I didn’t do! My mother is going to blow her lid.
Before he could give any more thought to this idea, a round table raised from a panel in the floor. The top of the table was a smooth rounded surface, and Jack recognized it right away as a cathode ray tube. It was a viewing screen of some sorts. The tabletop flickered and Jack found himself looking at a map of the world, with quite a few pulsating lights on the United States and several lights on the former USSR. The stern looking woman, apparently the leader of the group, leaned over the table. “Okay, Informer,” she said. “Give us the names.” Jack shrunk down in his chair. “Am I being arrested?” he asked. “Enough, Informer. You know why you’re here. Tell us what you know.”
Jack didn’t know much. He knew his name and address, what he liked to eat for breakfast, and how to build simple bird feeders out of peanut butter and pinecones. He didn’t think he knew what this lady wanted to know. Jack took a deep breath and said, “What names do you want to know? My name is Jack. My parents’ names are–”
One of the military men leaned over and whispered to the stern looking military lady. She, in turn, looked Jack up and down and said, “Perhaps you don’t know whey you’re here.” This seemed quite obvious to Jack. “Informer, answer me honestly. When you were told the names, were you told what purpose they would serve?” Jack shook his head, still not aware of what names the lady was talking about. She swiveled her chair around, cuing the other military people to swivel their chairs around as well. They leaned in and began whispering fervently, apparently disagreeing over something. Jack heard one of the men say, before the lady told him to quiet his voice, “What difference does it make if he finds out why we need the names? He’s not going anywhere any time soon.”
Jack shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He thought about trying to get out of the odd room, knowing that it would probably be a futile attempt at escape. He mournfully thought of his fish, who had been waiting for quite some time without any food. People had said that you can’t trust the longevity of Walmart fish, but he had proved them wrong by keeping his fish happy and healthy for over two months. What if his fish had given up on him? What if he had jumped out of his bowl looking for food and floundered around on the countertop for a few sad moments before he took his last, fitful, waterless breath? Jack knew he would never be able to live with himself if his impatience for finding a good parking space had cost him the life of his fish.
Jack’s reverie was broken by the military lady’s sharp voice. “Informer. We need the names you have in your possession. To facilitate this exchange, you will be told information that is confidential under Code 12:16 of the United States Government. As previously stated, this information is strictly confidential.” Jack furrowed his brow in confusion. The woman continued, “The fact that this information is confidential means that you cannot, under any circumstances, speak about it to anyone.” Jack nodded. He was good at keeping secrets. The woman stared at the tabletop map for several moments and then began. “If you have failed to notice, Informer, the word WALMART is actually the words TRAM Law, backwards. The TRAM Law was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1982, granting each country covert permission to continue the manufacture of nuclear weaponry. When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came to the realization that the USSR and the USA would never be able to make amends, they made the decision to sign this law. They recognized that the American and Soviet people were only an extraneous annoyance in the Cold War, and that the only way the two countries could continue to defend themselves from the other’s attack was if the Cold War would move, in effect, underground.
‘In other words, the Cold War has not ceased. The leaders of the former USSR and of the United States thought it unnecessary to worry civilians, and so they agreed to sign the TRAM Law, which would indirectly convince people that the two countries are on good terms. But we are not on good terms. Since 1982, the production of nuclear weapons has increased a thousand-fold in response to Russia’s threats and its production of nuclear weapons and other devices.
“Sam Walton, the supposed founder of Walmart, is a fictional character, conceived in the mind of Ronald Reagan himself. The United States created Walmart to serve as a front for military operations. To the American public, Walmart is a friendly neighborhood store. To the United States Government, however, each and every Walmart is a military station. TRAM stands for Target Reinforcement Across Miles. This particular facility houses three hydrogen bombs, seven atom bombs, a number of scud, chaff, flare, cruise, and heat seeking missiles, as well enough artillery to supply a local militia in case of emergency and the M7’s you may have seen out there in the parking lot.”
“Um. Ah–” Jack said.
“Furthermore,” the woman continued, “we have stationed a handful of American espionage agents in Russia to attempt to discover the whereabouts of their weapons. We have found bombs and missiles in such locations as Mrawlta, a Russian fast food restaurant, and Lawtmar, a Russian gas station.
“Now that this is all cleared up, Informer, we need the new location names that you were told by Agent 692. The more Russian stations we find, the safer America will be. Your location names will be sent immediately to the CIA and then to one of the satellites we have orbiting over Eastern Europe. So go ahead, Informer. Give us the names.”
Jack laughed nervously. It was obvious that these intimidating military people were not about to let him go until he gave them some names. He eyed the door and feverishly wished that he could be far, far away. He felt uneasy when he was around water guns, let alone nuclear weapons. He didn’t know much about the Cold War, but he knew enough to be scared out of his pants by the military lady’s speech. He needed to think up some Russian word, any Russian word. But he didn’t know Russian. He also couldn’t begin to imagine conjuring up a Russian word that was an anagram for Walmart, or TRAM Law, or whatever the hell these people wanted to hear. But he had to do it. He had to.
Jack quickly formed an image of the word Walmart in his head, and tried to mentally rearrange it. He began humming the alphabet song under his breath but stopped when he saw the military people growing impatient. The military lady had stood up and some of the others were tapping their feet on the floor or drumming their fingers on the arms of their chairs. Jack got to his feet and slowly sounded out what he wanted to say. “Ramlawth.” He grimaced. “Ramlawth. It’s a store.”
“What kind of store?” one of the military men asked.
Jack’s mind raced. “...a fish store.”
“A fish store?”
“Yes, yes, Ramlawth. A Russian fish store. They like fish. The Russians. They have lots of them. Fish. They do. They like them. Lots of them.” Jack sat back down.
The military man who had spoken took a pen out of his jacket pocket, clicked the tip out, and then opened up a folder that had been resting on his lap. He looked up at Jack. “Spell that for me.”
Jack stood up again. He thought back to his second grade spelling bee when he had lost to Mary Rose Jackson on the word “across.” He had stuck in an extra letter, spelling the word “a-c-c-r-o-s-s” and Mary Rose had gone home with the trophy. Jack had never gotten over that. Snapping back to his present situation, Jack blurted out, “Ramlawth! R-a-m-l-a-w-t...” But there was no “h” in Walmart. There was no “h.” Jack yelled, “Yes, that’s it! R-a-m-l-a-w-t! Ramlawt! A Russian fish store!” Then he sat back down and fell silent. He closed his eyes and held his breath.
The military man scribbled down the word on his pad of paper. The military lady said, “Okay, Informer. Thank you for your cooperation.” Jack opened his eyes to see the five military people standing in front of him, and so he stood as well. He was ready to get back into his Crown Victoria and drive home. Then maybe he would pack up and move. To Australia. With his fish.
The military people all nodded and then turned to open the door. They marched away, and before Jack could slip out behind them, a friendly looking man in one of those uniform vests that asked “What can I do for you” appeared in the doorway. Jack wanted to take off the man’s vest and shove it up the guy’s nose. Instead, Jack said, “Hello. I suppose you work for the government. Are you aware that, at any moment, we could be launched into a nuclear war with Russia? Yes, in fact, I’m sure you know this. Everyone here seems to know this except for me.” Jack’s speech began to get faster and faster, and his voice grew higher and higher. “Okay, well, if you wouldn’t mind showing me the way out I’ll just be on my way, because I don’t think I’m ready to go on a tour of the facilities or anything because, well, I’ve never really seen a nuclear weapon in my life and I don’t think I want to see one now, so if you please, I’d appreciate it if you just led me out of this place and, what the hell, maybe you could find me a Goddamn beer before you showed me the door!”
The friendly man just smiled and took Jack by the elbow. He said “Right this way, Sir” and led Jack down a long hallway. They went down a flight of stairs, through several nondescript conference rooms and a large warehouse-type room, through a few doors, and down several more hallways. Eventually they came to a door and the friendly Walmart man took out his key and unlocked the five bolts that kept the door closed. With his hand on the doorknob, the man turned to Jack and said, as though he’s said it all a million times before, “Thank you for the information you gave. I’m sure it will be put to good use. As you’ve just demonstrated, we can’t trust our informers to reenter society once they’ve given over the names and seen the facilities here. This is your new home. Your house and all your possessions will be turned over to the US government. As for your car, it will become a new M7 missile in the lot outside. Thank you for all your help. You have done a great honor to the United States of America.” And with that, the man opened the door to reveal a small room with about twenty wide-eyed, sun-depraved people. The friendly man said “Meet the former Informers. Everybody, this is Jack.” Then he pushed Jack into the room and shut the door.
And that’s why there are never any good parking spaces at Walmart.