You picked up the phone and you hoped for the best.

That’s how it was before everything went to voicemail.

I’d returned to the big city after a daring rescue mission to free food from my parents’ pantry. I’d opened my apartment door to a ringing telephone. It was a friend who was working out of town. We played basketball together.

He said he thought he’d left the keys in his new-to-him car and asked if I’d snatch them from its ignition. I told him I probably might could. He said it was a red Ford Falcon with a mismatched front fender. The previous owner, a deranged rodeo clown, had hit a bull with it. It was a short walk to the street where the vehicle was supposedly parked, but I was unable to locate the car.

I called him back. He accused me of not being able to find my south end with both hands and radar, and suggested I take another look. This time, I organized a search party made up of a couple of guys I knew, some innocent bystanders and an inebriated fellow clutching a bottle of Thunderbird wine.

We found no car, but our legally assembled group attracted the interest of a friendly policeman, who kindly told us to beat it. I told him we were searching for a red Ford Falcon with a mismatched fender.

“Why?” he asked reasonably. He said it had snowed a couple of days earlier and a snow emergency had been declared. Any cars that stubbornly rested upon this street had been towed. The officer told me what company had towed it and where to.

I placed another call. My buddy on the other end of the line sounded frazzled or frustrated, I forget which. “You’ve got to get my car back. Those vultures charge by the minute for storage. They pick the bones of unlawfully parked cars. Write out a check for whatever it costs and I’ll reimburse you when I get back in a couple of days.”

I needed someone to ride with me to the impound lot, located so far away it might have been in a foreign country, to drive my car back to my apartment while I steered the red Ford Falcon with the mismatched fender to its rightful parking place. I convinced the only one of my ex-girlfriends still talking to me to be that person by proclaiming the grand improvement I’d made as a human being. I boasted I was nearly housebroken.

It was before a GPS voice said bossy things. We found the lot after the requisite number of wrong turns. I didn’t have a copy of the ticket, but I described the car. The guy at the lot knew the car. He referred to it fondly as a piece of crap.

He tabulated the bill. It took all his fingers, two pencil sharpenings and a notebook. He was like the federal government. He could manufacture money. I wrote out a check for the ticket, tow and storage. He told me where I’d find the Falcon and that the keys were in the ignition.

I walked to the car. It wouldn’t start. I raised the hood and looked bewilderingly at the engine before seeking help. The lot guy smoked a Camel cigarette that bounced on his lips as he said, “Let’s see what we got here.”

The battery needed a jump. He used jumper cables, the ketchup for neglected cars — it makes them better. It started. I wrote out another check.

My companion had left, obviously not that impressed with the new me. I drove the Falcon. The radio worked, the epitome of driving excellence.

“Here are your keys,” I said as I handed them to the owner upon his return.

“Those aren’t mine. There’s no lucky rabbit’s foot on that keychain.”

“They are yours. The car had a mismatched fender.”

“Which side?”

“The passenger side.”

“Mine is on the driver’s side.”

It was the wrong Falcon. I was knocked sideways. My heart rate surpassed that of a hummingbird. I’d stolen a car. Would a judge believe I’d accidentally stolen a car? We had to go back to the impound lot. Every gauge, light or meter on the filched Falcon’s dash signaled a warning, but we made it.

I was in a better mental state after the cars had been exchanged. The lot guy charged for the extra storage. That made him happy. As we left, he said, “Toodle-loo.”

I’ll bet he said that to all the car thieves.

Al Batt is a writer, speaker, storyteller and humorist from rural Hartland, Minnesota. He can be reached at snoeowl@aol.com.

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