We are all just waiting for our number to be called. I’m not philosophizing, I’m at the Department of Motor Vehicles. By necessity. I doubt that anyone in this frowning, muttering multitude is here by choice. Not even the government employees. Especially not them.
The clock was the only thing moving. I was near the back of a long queue of statues. All slouching, all frozen in place as if under a spell. The line hadn’t moved at all since I’d used the restroom. Twice. It gave me time to think, too much time. At that moment, I was thinking how much I disliked subways. The mode of transportation, not the sandwich place. If I hadn’t taken the subway one evening, I wouldn’t be here right now. To be fair, I was the one who left my wallet behind. At gunpoint. But that’s another story.
For the most part, I’m a patient person. It’s a virtue, my virtuous parents’ voices in my head admonished me. It wasn’t the wait that was bothering me, I rationalized, it’s the fact that I just don’t like crowds. And this was one, that fact could not be ignored. Every single person had a number. And there were at least four, so, by definition, a crowd. I cracked my gum out of habit, and immediately regretted it. I stared at the dirty tile floor apologetically, feeling disapproving stares of strangers.
Some smartass in front of me grumbled, “DMV. They should call it the Dumb-Vee.” These people weren’t dumb, though, just mean. Here in Bartonsville, they run the office like the military. Or the FBI. They have matching uniforms, and name badges that read Agent So-and-So. “Stay a while,” one of the agents (Agent Smirk, since I couldn’t read his tag) greeted me sarcastically as I arrived. He looked me right in the eye, with a smile, or half-smile. Whatever it was, it was all snide. But I got the message, loud and clear. It was going to be quite a wait. I wish I’d brought something to read. Like the phone book, or dictionary.
I was considering leaving. I glanced at the door. Or? I could gut it out. Why not? The voice in my head encouraged. I easily thought of 477 reasons why not. “Number 477! Jill Robinson!” The bellow made me leave my thoughts, much like I’d abandoned all hope a half-hour ago. A woman in a pinstriped business ensemble stood up excitedly and marched forward, heels snapping sharply. She’s too perky, I thought. She strode up confidently to Agent Flat-Top, explained her situation, and was promptly redirected to the back of a different line. “Take another number,” Flat-Top ordered. Her shoulders slumped. I cracked my gum again.
Half an hour later, it was my turn for the requisite abuse. “Number 480! BERT REYNOLDS!!” The agent who’d screamed it gave it two powerful lungs full of harshness and reverberation. It got the cheap laughs she’d expected, and the involuntary blush from me. I should be used to it by now. Forty-plus years as Bert “With an E” Reynolds. The different spelling gives no one pause. They dig up their wittiest remarks and come up half lacking. Here we go, I said to myself. Someone shouted “Smokey!” Another corrected, “The Bandit.” It wasn’t the first time that happened to me. Or the hundredth. “Getting a license for the Trans Am?” a man in a plaid shirt that was red as my face asked the crowd more than me. Agent Smirk couldn’t resist crossing the lines of professionalism and joining in. “No, he lost his license. Reckless driver!” Another fan of fine cinema chimed in. “And now, he’s in the longest line!” Not giving anyone a chance to marvel at his brilliance, he explained his joke. “You know, Burt Reynolds. The Longest Yard.” There were more giggles than groans, even counting mine. “Now I’m just waiting for my Deliverance,” I obliged the crowd. Whether anyone laughed was drowned out by a familiar bellow. “NUMBER! FOUR HUNDRED! EIGHTY! BERT! REYNOLDS!” She made it clear it was the last time she’d repeat it. Thank God for small favors. I stepped up to meet her.
I had barely two phrases out, when a meaty hand was palm first in front of my nose. “Wrong line,” snapped Agent Ford, who was built more like a bus than an automobile. She had a victorious smile on her face, as she stabbed a finger in the air to the end of a different line. The agent at the next station, Agent Andersen, her tag read, gave me an apologetic smile. She got a glare from her surly coworker for her kindness. I smiled at the pretty brunette. She was dark and exotic. Hawaiian, I guessed. A loud, rude, and unnecessary throat-clearing told me it was time to move on. I thanked Agent Ford aka Bus insincerely, chewed my Dentyne vigorously, and got in the right line. At least I hoped.
It was a beautiful crisp autumn day. Outside. Inside, the where DMV was holding us against our will, the thermostat was set to “Underworld.” People, in my observation, tend to get a bit crabby when they’re being slow-roasted. And when they’re hungry. Things were going to get out of hand if somebody didn’t do something. So, I did something.
“Alfredo’s?” I used my cell phone, despite yet another glare from Agent Ford. She seemed to have an unending supply of them. Alfredo’s baked ziti is out of this world. But this situation obviously called for pizza. A lot of it. I ordered one extra-large each of their New York style, Old Forge style, and a Square Sicilian for good measure. Something for everyone. I could feel a pair of evil eyes boring into the back of my skull. Almost everyone, I amended my thought. “BERT REYNOLDS,” I said loudly, giving my phone number and current address to the woman who’d taken my order. I saw smiles of approval around me. Someone even clapped. Or cracked their gum.
For the next forty minutes, the atmosphere was charged with hungry anticipation. When Alfredo’s delivered, they really delivered. Three fifteen-inch pies for the grateful crowd who were missing their collective lunch. Agent Ford cleared her throat again. It sounded like a jackhammer in need of maintenance. When she had everyone’s attention, she pointed forcefully at the opposite wall. At her pride and joy, the sign that read “Absolutely No Food Or Drink Allowed.” Someone had underlined “Absolutely” in black Sharpie. I had a pretty good idea of who that might have been.
I refused to accept defeat. I paid the delivery person, donated my numbered tag to the bearded man behind me, and took my oversized boxes of cheesy goodness outside. A small but eager assemblage followed. One woman spoke up. “I’ve got a card table in the back of my van.” She helped me set it up, somebody else brought a roll of paper towels, and the headquarters of Pizza Party Central were established in the DMV parking lot. The Pepsi driver beat the Iron City driver to the punch and offered to supply cold drinks to everyone. Beer would have been nice, but I had a feeling that Agent Ford would have frowned upon that. Who was I kidding; she was frowning upon the whole situation.
Actually, she wasn’t. She was at the window with a wicked smile, ruby eyes gleaming as she watched her prisoners escape. I read her lips. “You’ll all miss your turns,” she gloated. She had a point, I thought glumly. Our rescue came from an unlikely source: Agent Andersen. She was clearly siding with us. She propped open the door, letting out the hellish stale air, and called out the next number. Her loud voice was so much nicer than the other woman’s. As the crowd ate quickly in the parking lot, she continued calling each number from the door, even after Agent Ford snapped it back shut. I offered the brave girl a warm slice of thin-crust appreciation. She declined, her eyes darting nervously behind her at her clearly displeased superior. She did, however, accept a stick of gum. I admired her spirit, and the smile she gave me before she disappeared back inside.
The day was saved. Everyone got their turn to eat, and their turn to settle up with the DMV. The lively atmosphere was an astonishing turnaround. Strangers chatted with one another, laughed together, slapped each other on the shoulders. It was a thing of beauty. My eyes watered. The way they do when I take a big gulp of Pepsi. Finally, Agent Andersen informed me that it was my turn. “Go on, we’ll clean up,” said a member of the miraculously fed mass. I wiped my face and hands, and headed inside, ignoring the scalding glare from Agent Ford.
Then it was time to be photographed. The smile on my face was wider than I would have thought at the beginning of my day. “You’re all set, Bert Reynolds,” the most beautiful girl in Bartonsville said to me. She was smiling broadly, too, but not at my name.
“Listen,” I said, trying to avoid her hypnotic eyes, and failing, “I just want to thank you so much for your courtesy and assistance, Agent Andersen.”
“Thank you, Bert,” she said. “Call me Lani.” Her eyes twinkled. She shook my hand and held it for an extra beat. Agent Ford huffed and rolled her eyes. Lani’s teeth gleamed as she looked past me, calling out, “Number 68.”