At an antique shop, Peter picked up a small wooden car. It vibrated in his hand.
He almost dropped it. He looked at it closely. It seemed to be entirely cut from one piece of wood, even the immobile wheels, and it was covered with a smooth coat of clear varnish. He was a little freaked out by it and started to put it back on the shelf, but then it vibrated again. Peter looked around; no one else was around. There must have been someone who kept the shop open, but he or she wasn’t visible; the place was quiet.
Peter pushed a domed bell on an old desk by the front door. Ding. An older woman appeared from a back room and asked, ”Do you have a question, or did you find something?” Peter said, “Could you tell me where this wooden toy came from?” The lady said, “Oh. Well. I couldn’t say specifically, only that it would have been in a box from an estate sale, most likely.” Peter still looked at her, quizzically. She added, “It could be from anywhere. Does it mean anything to you?” “No,” said Peter, “but how much does it cost?”
Peter didn’t have many toys when he was a child; his had been a difficult childhood. Maybe that was behind the difficulties that he had faced all his life. He was 43 years old, unmarried, in a dead-end job, a parts clerk in a ball-bearing factory. He was never much to look at, but in recent years he had been growing bald and was developing a beer belly.
He thought he knew why the wooden car interested him; he thought it was because it vibrated.
The next morning was Monday. Peter’s alarm went off at 6. He had put the wooden car on his bedside table next to the alarm. Peter sat up, picked up the toy. It looked normal, certainly not as though it might vibrate. He tossed it on the chair where his shirt and pants lay. After his shower, he dropped the toy into his pants pocket. If it were going to vibrate again, he didn’t want to miss it. Maybe it would turn out to bring good luck.
Work was uneventful. The usual task of comparing manufacturing reports with inventory and thinking how to stay only slightly ahead of the curve. Even though his office was above the factory floor, it was still noisy. But today didn’t seem as noisy as usual.
On Mondays, Peter always walked over to the business district to a diner for lunch. There, he always ordered scrambled eggs and hash browns, which never disappointed. Eating, he took the wooden car out of his pocket. It still looked ordinary. It looked to be made of maple. It didn’t vibrate when he handled it and it hadn’t vibrated since the day before.
As Peter walked back to the office, he passed by the big bank on First Street. He did his banking through the union credit union, which had a one-story building with a drive up a few long blocks past the factory. Peter liked the downtown bank, with its high windows and marble columns. He saw a driver in a black Suburban waiting at the curb in front of the main door, just on the other side of the faded blue post office box.
Everything seemed to happen at once. As he approached the main door, the wooden toy in his pocket vibrated. Immediately, he slowed down and turned to look around. There was only the driver in the black Suburban, who seemed to be hiding his face, with a hat low over his face and his head down. The bank door opened and a man backed out of the bank with a pistol in his right hand and a bag in his left. Still looking away, Peter stepped in front of the door just as the man with the gun started to run to the Suburban. Noticing Peter too late, the man with the gun tripped over Peter’s leading foot and went flying onto the sidewalk. His gun went scooting off the curb under the black Suburban and his head went into the post office box. The Suburban driver panicked, started his motor, and squealed off, running over the pistol. The man who had come from the bank was on the sidewalk, knocked out cold and bleeding from his scalp.
Peter put the reward check on his dresser. He wondered if things would have happened as they did if the toy in his pocket hadn’t vibrated. Now what?
The next day, he was back at his office in the factory, but it didn’t feel the same. It had never been a rewarding job, but at least he knew he did it well. He ripped off a page from his legal pad where he had scribbled down a price list during a phone conversation. He balled it up and threw it at his trash basket. The ball of paper just bounced off; no one had emptied the trash. It was all Peter could do to refrain from cursing. Cursing wouldn’t have done any good since he had his own office and the factory downstairs was making so much racket anyway.
It was irritating, and the irritations continued through that Tuesday and the next couple days. Minor delays in deliveries, suppliers who didn’t answer their phones or emails, everything seemed to irritate Peter more than usual. How could a person do a good job when the job depended on so many other people being more responsible and responsive than they were?
Thursday morning, 6 o’clock, he wasn’t sure he was willing to get out of bed and go to work, but he got up, showered, shaved, dressed and put on his shoes. He stood by his closet for two minutes before he got his jacket out and put it on. At least he could deposit the reward check. He slipped the check into his shirt pocket.
When he got to the office, he walked down the hall and poked his head into the office of the secretary for his boss. “I’m walking down to the credit union. Back in a half hour,” he told her.
The air outside was fresh. The sky was mostly cloudy with small patches of blue to the west. To Peter, being out of the office seemed better than quaffing a pint of draft at the pub where he sometimes spent his hours after work. His mood brightened.
The blocks between the factory and the credit union were mainly light industry, like the factory where he worked. There were equipment yards and two-story buildings clad in corrugated iron that featuring windows on the upper floor, which Peter knew would be where the offices were.
After the second long block, on a small factory building Peter noticed a sign, “For Lease,” with a phone number. Continuing his walk to the credit union, Peter began to think about that small factory building. He didn’t remember what it had been used for. It could be anything—steel fabrication, a paint shop, a place that made gaskets, or hose fittings, or fan belts, or one that rebuilt engines or rewound electric motors. He only knew that it wasn’t another bearing factory.
After depositing the check, Peter made a point of returning on the same street. He took down the phone number on his deposit receipt.
Back at his office, he called the number. A woman answered. “I’m inquiring about the lease for the factory building on State Street.”
“Well. What was it used for? How much is the lease?”
“It was a wood shop. They made furniture.”
“Have they left their saws and lathes?”
“Yes. All that is still in the shop.”
“Well, then. How much is the lease?”
The amount of the lease was only a fourth of the amount of the reward. The toy in his pocket vibrated.
Peter told the woman, “I’m interested in taking the lease. When can you show me inside?”
The next day, Peter quit his job. That is, he gave his notice. He had an appointment at 11 a.m. to see the inside of the wood shop. He walked down there with a light step and arrived as an old pickup truck pulled up beside the door.
“Yes. You’re Steve?”
“Do you own the shop?”
“How long have you been here? Why are you leasing it?”
Steve was a hunched over, white-haired fellow wearing bib overalls.
“Here,” Steve said, “only a dozen years. It’s just time for me to retire. If you’d like to keep it as a wood shop, I can recommend a couple good workers.”
“Well. I would think so, but let me look inside.”
Inside, large windows on the roof let in a great deal of light. It seemed brighter on the inside than it was outside. The toy in Peter’s pocket vibrated.
After working for fifteen years at the bearing factory, Peter knew how to run a business. From home, he called the phone and electric companies to turn on their services at the shop. After that, he called the two workers whom Steve had recommended. Both Hank and Tom were happy to come back to work, even though Peter told them that hours would be limited at first, and that they would be making wooden toys, not furniture. Hank said, “Heck, toys or furniture doesn’t matter to me; allowing as it might be refreshing to do something a little different.”
What Peter wasn’t so confident about was designing toys. These had to be desirable, and he had to be able to sell them for less than it took to make them.
He started by doing some research. He went to Goodwill and picked up any toy made mainly of wood. He went to a small toy store and bought representative vehicles and a toy train, keeping track of their prices, and thinking about what he would need to sell them for, considering that the toy store had to have a decent markup.
Then Peter visited the big stores in the mall on the other side of town. When he went into the first one, he looked for their toy section and it was disappointing. At the second store, however, the toy in his pocket vibrated. There, he asked to talk to the purchaser, whom he talked to about starting a toy factory. He showed the purchaser a small number of toys that he had picked up and talked about prices and volumes.
Three more stores on his list, but the toy in his pocket vibrated only once, and, again, that one was a promising outlet. That made two possible outlets at the mall, plus the possibility of selling to the small toy store. Maybe that was enough to get started.
Peter hired Hank and Tom and asked them to start by making toys similar to the ones he had picked up. Vibrations of the wooden car cued all his important decisions. After he was clearly successful, he began to wonder whether the toy vibrated or he only thought it did. Had he been imagining things? After all, they say, a person thinks he has his own life, but he could be only a brain in a beaker, plugged into a computer.