In a Little Village

Submitted for Contest #39 in response to: Write a story about a Google Street View driver.... view prompt

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The dispatcher’s voice filled my car: “Gavin, you’ll have to do that street again. Remember to keep a constant speed.”

 “I DID redo that street. Already,” I said into the mike. Those twits at Central processing. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

“Maybe something’s busted,” the dispatcher said. “Get out and take a look at your transmitter, wouldja?”

Now this really got my back up. We Streetview drivers are paid per mile of street recorded, so I hated to stop the car. But stop I did, heaving a sigh loud enough for him to hear. The transmitter was just fine. “Where am I, anyway?” I said, re-entering the car. I know, I know: I should’ve been paying attention but honestly with this kind of job one village blurs into another. I had seen street signs, but they were all in… Polish, I think.

“Your last major city was Lodz. L-O-D-Z,” the dispatcher said.

I craned to look at the street signs. “Okay, in this village I’m at the intersection of Zagrody and Krawczyk,” I said. “I’m outside a bakery.” I lowered the window a little and a mouth-watering scent of freshly baked bread and roasted apples filled the car. My stomach gurgled.

“No, you’re not,” he said. “You’re on a stretch of empty road. According to your images. Do you see the cows?”

“Cows? No. Quit pulling my leg,” I snapped. “Bakery, café, kosher butcher, and a big furniture store. I see… three, five pedestrians.”

“Looks like we’ve ripped the space-time continuum,” the dispatcher said.

“Well, beam me up, Scotty,” I replied. These guys at Central, they must get really bored. “Let me talk to your supervisor.”

“She’ll be here in a jiff.”

I thought he would be miffed that I wanted to escalate. Instead, he sounded relieved. Then it occurred to me: he was likely on piecework rate for the calls he took. He wanted to get on to the next driver—one with an easier problem to solve.

“Hello, this is Suhana,” a no-nonsense voice broke into my reverie. She recited her full name and position in a clipped Indo-English accent. “Your dispatcher, Jeremy, says we have some sort of discontinuity.”

“A discontinuity in what?” I asked, trying to remember if I’d done anything differently today.

“A discontinuity in what you are currently perceiving versus what the transmitted signal is showing at our end,” she said. “They’re extremely rate, but with a project of this magnitude—the billions of miles being traced by our cars—well, it appears there are some unexplained phenomena.”

“Oh.” I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. What kind of weird shit was I getting into now? Had I dropped acid by mistake while noshing on my morning latte?

“Look, Gavin—it is Gavin, isn’t it?—you needn’t worry about what’s happening. We will just make note of it,” she said. “Collect data about the singularity.”

“Does this mean I can get back to driving?”

“Basically, yes.” Her keyboard clattered in the background. “But first we need to establish the location of the start of the discontinuity.”

I did a quick mental calculation. This was Friday and I had the weekend before hitting the road again. Main thing was, I could get back to my AirBnB rental for a couple days’ RnR and let the poindexters at Google take care of whatever signal problems were happening. “What’s my next move?” I said.

“I need you to back up the vehicle about a mile,” Suhana said. “Put the gear in reverse and drive slowly back the way you came. Tell me each edifice you see.”

I put my flashers on and drove backwards slowly, narrating the street view as I saw it and listening to hers. “Flower shop, house, house,” I said.

“Blank, blank, blank,” she said.

We continued like this for several minutes. Then: “Brick house,” I said and she said, “old brick house,” at the same time.

At last we had agreement—of some sort. Except we found out the house I saw was different from hers. I saw a pleasant new-ish two-storey brick house with a rose trellis. She described hers as a run-down pile-of-bricks-type house with weeds in the front yard. “Mind you, the signal is poor,” Suhana said. “Very grainy. That’s why Jeremy asked you to re-do.”

Forget my mileage count. I stopped the car and got out, leaving the camera recording. I climbed the front steps and saw a door—freshly painted cornflower blue. I lifted the brass knocker. Solid. Real. Cool to the touch. I let it drop.

After several raps and no response, I got back in the car. “Did you see me on video, Suhana?”

“It’s against company policies but yes, I saw you brave those rickety front steps and stand at the old blue door.”

My skin began to crawl. I looked back at the house, convinced I saw the curtain move in an upper window. I wondered what the data analysts would make of this.

“I have the weekend off,” I said. “By Monday the weather will be different. And the sunspots or air static or whatever else is causing this will change, too, right?”

“Sounds good, Gavin. Why don’t you clock off early today and we’ll try again on Monday.”

I turned off my mileage counter and camcorder. My stomach growled with hunger. The  pangs had first started outside that bakery on Zagrody Street, or wherever it was, when Jeremy had asked me to pull over and check the transmitter. I remembered the route well. as it drove back, I recalled the day two years ago when I’d signed on as a Streetview driver. Courtney and I had called it quits, and the only legal non-destructive thing that eased my pain was driving. I’d quit my desk job and started as a pizza deliverer but found that was too stop-and-go. A friend told me the Streetview project was hiring dependable drivers. “Your chance to travel the world.” They started me on the streets of prairie towns, with the flat open grid of roads. Then I graduated to the twisty cowpaths of European towns. I aspired to work my way up to Indian villages (as long as I could use a car with air-conditioning) but for now I was still working my way through Eastern Europe.

Every street I drove felt like more distance between me and Courtney. I loved it—until I would see a woman who reminded me of her. Then the old ache would return.

My stomach growled again, just as a big old-fashioned truck turned onto the road in front of me. It blared its horn and I hit the brakes to avoid clipping its fender. A crowd of men in uniforms sitting in the back glowered at me. Some began to point. I slowed down enough to let two cars come between us. I just wanted to blend in with the regular traffic, although my shiny new Toyota was definitely a unicorn in this neck of the woods. Forget Courtney, forget traffic, my stomach grumbled: LUNCH!

*         *         *

The café was an adjunct to the bakery, a brilliant plan when you think of it. I was nearly drowning in saliva by the time I pulled up at the curb and parked between two CWS cars, a brand unfamiliar to me. It looked sort of like Havana in this town, with the number of old putt-putters they kept running. The bakery was hopping, a good sign since it was about 2 PM local time. Middle-aged women wearing babushkas carrying straw baskets, old widows in black with shawls pulled tight, errand boys hustling around with big trays and bicycles.

I stepped into the café, which was less frantic. I paused in the dim light to get my bearings. Talk fell quiet and I felt my foreignness acutely at that moment. Then the babble started up again. I breathed in the smoke and the steam and the aromas of cabbage and roast beef and baked apple. I needed to see if they’d take Mastercard—normally a small icon displayed near to the checkout counter. No icon, but I remember I had some zloty bills in my wallet. A man had entered just before me, and I watched to see how he ordered. Then I, too, took a seat on a tall stool at the counter. A young woman stood before me, ready to take my order. I pointed discreetly toward the man’s plate and said, “Same for me, please.”

She looked at me quizzically. She asked me something in Polish (I think) and then Yiddish (I think). I dredged up a few phrases of my high school French and tried again to place my order.

Soon my server Marja and I were chatting up a storm in my stilted French. She had a broad, pleasant face marred slightly by buck teeth, but it was her kindly eyes that encouraged me most. Time and again with this job I have been the “stranger in a strange land” so I’ve come to rely on Marjas the world over who show basic decency to a traveler. Of course, once they know I work for Google on this giant world-mapping scheme, sometimes I attract groupies but these tend to be teen boys who want to see all the gizmos in the car.

Back to Marja, though. She asked what village I was from because my French sounded unusual to her. I told her English was my native tongue, but she laughed softly and said I looked and sounded nothing like the Englishmen she knew.

“I’m from America and I work for Google,” I said.

“Oh? Is Google a good employer? What does the Google factory make?”

At that moment, my eye fell on the cash register where people were lining up to pay. I realized I might have ended up in a pocket of under-development in the local economy, either due to poverty or the geopolitical situation. “Have you heard of computers?” I said tentatively.

“Computers? Who are they?”

At that moment Marja was called over to a table squirming with fussy customers. I tried to make further sense of where I was. I didn’t want to wait until Monday to find out from Suhana something that I could discover myself.

Half an hour ago, the big truck that had honked at me had been filled with soldiers. Was there a civil war going on? Normally we employees receive travel advisories the minute any conflict arises. That reminded me—I needed to check my cell phone, which I had stupidly left in the car, still in its hands-free perch. I wanted to go get it, but I didn’t want to leave the café without having dessert and coffee.

I turned so I could look out the window at the people in the street. Everyone was dressed like they were film extras for a movie set in the Dirty Thirties. The men, especially, wore hats and dark-colored suits. I was dressed in a pale green polo shirt and khaki pants. My sneakers were an eye-catching gray-and-purple combo. Yup, you could pick me out from this crowd, that’s for sure.

I thought of the shops and other buildings I had driven past on the street. There were line-ups outside the dry goods store and the greengrocers. By far the biggest shop on the block was a furniture store. It was stuffed with big dark furniture, and many pieces of furniture stood outside the store, blocking its windows. Big dining room sets, elegant shelving, solid armchairs. I wondered if the furniture was brought in and out from the store each day, or was it simply fastened with a tarp overnight for protection. They had a glut of stuff to sell.

“Excuse me, M’sieur, will that be all?” Marja smiled at me as she cleared my plate.

Non, je voudrais un morceau de gateau et une tasse de café.”

She brought my tray and lingered nearby as she said do widzenia to satisfied customers.

“What’s going on here?” I asked. “That furniture store—they look like they’re taking over the town!” I said this in a light, jocular tone, hoping that my French was good enough, and that I hadn’t strayed into some colloquialism that translated to “your sister looks like a frog died on her face” or something.

“It is second-hand furniture,” she said, giving me a sad look. “Everybody is trying to sell everything they own and leave.”

“Leave?” I asked. “The village? The country?”

“Yes. Yes,” she said. She pressed her finger to her lips, the universal signal. “Immediately. My family, too.”

“What about the trucks of soldiers arriving?”

In a low voice she said, “The Germans are coming to ‘regulate’ us.” She glanced around the café and, sure enough, near to the window, two men dressed in old-style German uniforms were talking volubly as they ate from steaming plates.

“Regulate? What does that mean?” I said.

She narrowed her eyes. “Please. You’d best go. Don’t ask questions. Try to avoid being on the street with any one of them.”

“My car is outside. Could I give you a ride—anywhere? I can return when you finish your work.”

She paused. She was thinking hard about the offer. Then the maître d’ motioned her over and pointed at the Germans. She tore my receipt from her pad and put it face down. “You are very kind, m’sieur. But I must go attend to them. Adieu.”

I paid for my meal—or tried to. The clerk at the cash register picked up my ten-zloty bill and gave an incredulous look. He showed it to the maître d’ who spoke harshly to me. When I couldn’t understand, he spoke louder and harsher. Marja looked over at me and hastened to my side. She seemed to be explaining I only had French currency. The two German soldiers stood up from their table and advanced toward me. Marja gave me a look of secret panic. At once I remembered I had some coins on me—hardly enough to cover the meal, I thought, but the clerk accepted them while shoving the ten-zloty note back to me.

Vibrating with anxiety, I left the café and hopped in the car. An automatic text from Jeremy asked me to rate the quality of tech support. What the hell, I gave him five stars. I drove back the way I came. I drove and drove until I came to the blue-doored house that Suhana and I had discussed, looking new to me and old to her, and then I kept driving until I could see the familiar glow of franchise signs. MacDonald’s, Starbucks, finally the familiar AirBnB apartment.

That night I dreamed of the café and woke up sweating with dread. I had an inkling that I had gone back in time, but it was so preposterous—time travel? In this one tiny village in Poland? But why? I resolved never to speak of it lest I sound crazy.

I would have to wait until Monday to hear Suhana’s explanation. Could it be a rip in the space-time continuum? I pictured a big silk parachute around the earth that maybe had a wrinkle here or there. In the meantime, I was curious: was this glitch (whatever it was) reproducible?

That Saturday morning I climbed in the car; I just had to find out. Although, I cautioned myself, I would just drive to the bakery-café, have another look, and drive back. Leave well enough alone, etc.

I drove down the same street as before but when I reached the blue-doored house it looked somehow different. Oh, right, the rose trellis! It had fallen askew. Things looked a little faded and patchy, not new and fresh like yesterday’s glimpse. I kept going and when I reached the bakery-café, it was a desolate, burned-out shell. The used furniture emporium had shrunk inside its walls. The windows were soaped over and a couple of panes were broken. A big sign was tacked up: Judenrein.

I turned around and sped back to modernity. I looked up that strange word and learned it meant “free from Jews.”

On Monday, I did not hear from Suhana. I called Jeremy to remind him I was still waiting for an explanation from his supervisor. “Oh, Suhana? Didn’t you know? She was transferred last night.” He reluctantly passed along her number.

I called and left a message. Suhana had seemed so capable and knowledgeable when we’d spoken on Friday. But I had little time to chase after her; I had to continue driving and recording the world, street by street.

After work on Monday, I drove back in the direction of Marja’s café but this time there was only countryside and cows. A wave of disappointment crashed down on me—I wasn’t able to reproduce this phenomenon.

Or was I mistaken in the route? I didn’t have much time to search around. I had to keep my numbers up. Like I say, one village blurs into another.

THE END


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2 comments

Ollie Octopus
15:36 May 07, 2020

Good story! I like the ending!

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Vj Hamilton
19:19 May 07, 2020

Thanks very much! I enjoyed the prompt, and thought, what if it's not just spatial travel, but also (rarely) a case of time travel.

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