I noticed the car only because of the fancy sign propped up just behind its windshield, which was fogged like a cataract. The sign, intricately decorated with macaroni and glass beads, read, “Finally For Sale, $4,000,” like people had been waiting for it all this time. The sign was far more eye-catching than the subject of advertisement, itself a nondescript American make whose paint was of some elusive color between beige and gray. The U.S. does still craft nondescript cars, though the heyday of these little charmers was in the mid-seventies. Many of them didn’t live long enough to see the beginning of the eighties. These were cars made without flourish, lacking entirely any kind of stylistic nicety. And a $4,000 asking price was far too much to hope for.
It was kind of sad, this diminutive slab of metal. Each day I passed by, I gave the car a courteous glance. It was the least I could do, I thought. Surely this inert box, a product created to fill a niche market identified in some long-abandoned boardroom, was our responsibility still, wasn’t it? Or had we pulled this lackluster thing into existence to satisfy some immediate need, only now to leave it abandoned? The possibility seemed irresponsible, but perhaps not so unfamiliar to a good citizen of the consumer class.
Less than a week since I’d first noticed the car, something about it had changed. The sign. It was the same sign, but it now read, “Finally For Sale, $3,000.” Certainly headed in the right direction, I thought. I imagined that someone had talked to the owner of the car, struggling to point out in as diplomatic a way as possible that $4,000 was a little more than anyone was likely to pay. Where our irresponsibility as social creatures was manifest, perhaps we were redeemed in some way by our ability to thoughtfully adapt to market expectation. The thought didn’t necessarily fill me with warmth, but it was at least something I could take as a positive.
Still the car sat, an object of mounting rejection, and I felt the weight of it. Save for the occasional flicked glance I began to avert my eyes. The car stared at me unblinking though. It wasn’t like a puppy who needed a home – I had no interest in owning a car. No, it was more like a knowing look: You who would pass by. You who are fallible. You, lost in your world of interior monologue.
A week later the sign caught my eye. The price had gone down again, this time to $2,500. It was like watching a bedridden relative waste away. A few days later and the price was set at $2,000. And the beginning of the next week saw it dwindle to $1,200. By then I was ready to write the whole experience off as just so much noise, until the third Thursday when I saw in the car’s window, “Finally For Sale, $971.”
$971? Seeing this provided a strange relief, an excitement, and it quickened my step. Perhaps it was just enough to cover the cost of a drunken dog-buying binge. What had they been thinking that night? Or maybe $971 would get them that home laparoscopy kit they’d had their eye on. But in truth I suspected something much more clever. The fact is that 971 is a prime number, alone and iconoclastic. It doesn’t even pretend at playing with the other numbers. And so it was that I suspected the seller had finally experienced a breakdown of some magnitude, and this price was the result: a coded call for help that none could hear but me. Like gravity though, such calls are a weak force in the face of the commuter’s momentum. I was not immune to a pang of guilt, but my gait afforded me escape velocity from the woe around me. Anyway, I am at heart a voyeur, not a savior – I savor the thrill of the watch.
So, fine, I was not willing to intervene, and the seller’s silent struggle would have to go unassisted. Imagine, then, my surprise when I passed by the sign that read “Finally For Sale, $1,033.” I wondered at it long after I’d passed the car by, and well into the afternoon hours. Was this some play on the dynamic of market psychology? Thinking about it, I felt watched. Someone was watching to see my response twice a day as I passed by, and I was the unwitting puppet. But I didn’t have long to obsess over the point, because both car and sign were gone the next day.
Someone for whom $971 was too small a sum deemed $1,033 the perfect rate for their ticket to independence. And for the seller, that $1,033 had proven to be the sweet spot. But what about the rest of us then? What about me?
The patch of gravel that remained seemed all too empty, and hungry, and I felt – really felt – a tug as I walked by. How silly and sad this had all been then, this drama, this distraction, half conjured to engage otherwise idle synapses. And, if it was possible, I felt a little embarrassed at myself. It was like waking to a sound only to realize that the sound was your own snore. No harm done though, right? And thus chastened I determined that it was the right time to move on anyway.
So I’ve been staring at other things.