This Parking Lot
by YVONNE GEORGINA PUIG
Have you ever seen a giraffe run? I’ve been told it’s an astonishing sight. Imagine a herd of them from a distance, running across an open plain. Giraffes can run over thirty miles an hour, but their height makes the movement appear slow. They glide in great galloping strides, their necks like young trees swaying to and fro. I’ve never seen giraffes run, but the word I use to describe it is elegant.
What about a field of gladiolas in bloom? Gladiola stalks hold five or six flowers, so I imagine an entire field to be a magnificent blanket a foot deep of color and quivering softness. The field in my mind goes on for miles.
These are the two sights I hope to see before I die.
I’m still young; I’ve got time. I mention it because right now I’m looking out a window onto a parking lot. Beyond the parking lot is a Piggly Wiggly, and beyond the Piggly Wiggly is the horizon. It’s a mountainous horizon, and if I close my eyes and think about it I can smell the pine in those mountains and feel the pine needles pricking my palms. I can conjure the presence of a red fox stealing along a slab of granite. But that’s all so close it isn’t romantic. Giraffes and gladiolas are romantic, miles away, nowhere near this parking lot.
When it snows, before the plows come, it looks like a frozen lake. I cross it gingerly, and pretend there’s ice beneath my feet, and fish, and maybe an undiscovered body. This parking lot will in all probability determine whether I ever pick gladiolas in a field or go to the Serengeti.
We own a key shop, and that key shop is marooned right in the middle of the lot. We are the lot’s center, its heart, or depending on how you want to interpret it, its plantars wart. This is not my term, it’s Mr. Jennings’ term. Mr. Jennings smokes Virginia Slims, owns the Piggly Wiggly, and wants to incorporate our key shop into his Piggly Wiggly. By incorporate I mean he wants to rip it down. The problem for him though, is that we also own the parking lot, and my father won’t sell. My great- grandfather cut down whatever it was that used to grow here in those days and paved it with oyster shells, my grandfather got rid of the shells and smoothed it over with concrete, and my father finished it off with asphalt and built a key shop. Everyone around here calls my father Llave because of his passion for keys, even me. He loves it. I wonder often where those oyster shells came from. They must have come a long way.
The problem for us is that the key shop doesn’t have a bathroom. This is our unfortunate dependency on Mr. Jennings’ Piggly Wiggly. He threatens us saying he’ll sue us if we use the bathroom in the store, and then Llave says he’s just going to get a portable toilet, but then neither of them do anything. Mr. Jennings’ Piggly Wiggly is only twenty years old, but something in him believes that it’s not appropriate for a little key stand to preside over this grand expanse, and that by virtue of his superior size, he should own it instead. I wish we’d just sell it to him. Then we could leave. When I tell Llave this, he grumbles and says if only I had a son who cared to learn how to cut keys, who understood the import of private property and the gravity of owning a piece of earth like this, a place where people bring their automobiles to rest, a space which bears witness to the comings and goings of generations. Llave doesn’t realize that it is significant to me. I took my first steps on it as a child; I learned to ride a bike over it. (I practiced at sunrise, when there were no cars and I could go fast). I even lost my virginity to Jimmy Stewhousen in an orange Dodge Dart parked in space number 154.
And I do know how to cut keys; he taught me. It’s not as complicated as when he learned, operating the machines by hand with cranks. Our machine is automatic. When I was younger I had to wear goggles, but now I sit in the key stand for hours, alone, making keys. It’s bone cold in there, even with the half door shut. I keep a space heater at my feet, which helps, but the keys are like little icicles in my hands and my fingers get stiff. The work is too delicate for gloves. Sometimes I move the space heater to the counter to warm my hands, but then my feet go numb. Llave says it would be ridiculous to install a heating system in a key shack, and that if I embrace the cold I won’t feel it. I try. I listen to the grinding of the copper and think of all the various doors the keys will open, and that grinding stays with me till I fall asleep, even lingers through the night. He’s wrong to accuse me of failing to learn. What I’m guilty of is failing to see the art in the enterprise. No one’s opening any doors for me.
Two weeks ago when I was taking a cigarette break I made a significant discovery. The circumstances are relevant to explain. I was taking a walk because Llave doesn’t know I smoke and it was a nice evening. The ice had melted, and there were clear puddles all over the lot. It looked like a shattered mirror reflecting the sunset sky. I was enjoying my cigarette, and this feeling of stolen delight inspired me to wander inside the Piggly Wiggly to see if I could catch a glimpse of Timmy Jennings, Mr. Jennings’ son, the man I love. Timmy Jennings knows I exist, but he doesn’t love me — yet. He’s kind to me though, and I’ve always thought this is because he’s ashamed of his father. When Mr. Jennings drives by the key shop in his Buick and yells I’m gonna put you in the bone crushing machine! out the window, Timmy sits by in the passenger seat and covers his face with his big, strong hands. Timmy looks like he doesn’t belong here. He never seems to be cold. Even when we were kids he didn’t wear a scarf, just a big jacket left open over a white t-shirt so the world could see his chest, which is muscular now; the tendons of his neck make rivulets down to his shoulders when he smiles. And he’s blond. No one here is blond. It’s too cold to be blond. But Timmy is blond and his hair is thick and he likes to smooth his hands over it. It’s his gesture to fill time. He does it whenever he’s waiting, for a customer to count out her change, for the Coke machine to dispense a Coke, for me to respond when he says hello. When I’m in the key shop alone, staring out at the lot, I think of the giraffes and the gladiolas and I think of Timmy. I run my fingers along the wall of keys waiting to be cut and sing songs about Timmy to the hushed clink of the metals.
I was roaming the dairy aisle when I saw Timmy behind the bottles of milk. He was stocking in the back. I knew it was him because I’ve been looking at him for so long that I’ve memorized the lines of his broad shoulders, especially when he’s bending down. I pretty much only see him at the Piggly Wiggly, and he’s always working, and his job, whatever his exact position is, seems to involve a lot of bending. I keep a low profile at the Piggly Wiggly, so he doesn’t always notice me, but he did that day. I was peering through the milk when he caught my eye.
“Bold move,” he said, also through the milk. “What are you doing in here?”
“Just getting some things,” I said, even though I wasn’t carrying anything.
“Need any help?”
My face was hot and I choked. “No,” I said. “I just need to use the restroom.” I was trying to be casual, but my voice wavered. I regretted saying this as I said it. Whenever anyone tells me they need to use the restroom I imagine them sitting on the toilet and wiping themselves. I would not allow Timmy Jennings to imagine me sitting on the toilet wiping myself. “I mean to wash my hands.”
“Okay,” he said, and picked up a box and turned away.
There’s no explaining why I followed him. All I can say is that something in his manner, Need any help? felt like an invitation. I slipped through the clear plastic blinds into the back area, where I saw him walking down a hallway and into a dark room. He left the door ajar, and I stepped quietly. I imagined he knew I was behind him, which is why he didn’t close the door. Keys did not cross my mind. The fact that I was sneaking around Mr. Jennings’ Piggly Wiggly did not cross my mind. I fully expected to arrive at that doorway and have sex with Timmy Jennings, nothing less. He had asked me if I needed help. I had told him no. But no means yes. He was going to see me there at the threshold and grab me and slam the door and lift my skirt and penetrate me with the force of a heavy machine. I operate a machine everyday; I understand the authority of an effective machine. You permit the machine to do its work; you are at its mercy. All you have to do is turn it on.
What I saw when I reached the doorway was an empty room. The only light seemed to materialize, not shine, from a low corner. I heard grunting. I ran my hand along the wall for a light switch. My faith was still firm. I found a light, and flipped the switch. The new light was bare and green, too real, but I was confident. The grunting stopped, and Timmy emerged from what I now saw was a hole. His face and arms were dusted with dirt. His tight white-tshirt was gray with it, his yellow hair a shade darker. He was expressionless, looked awestruck. I probably looked awestruck too. I was. I said nothing, I was waiting for him to take me in his arms.
Ten seconds or a year passed. Then I said, “Aren’t you going to take me in your arms?”
I’ve been running this phrase over in my mind today, singing it to the clings and clangs of the keys. Aren’t you gonna gonna gonna take me in your arms? Singing it helps me believe I said it. Otherwise, it’s like listening to myself on a recording. I don’t recognize my own voice.
“What?” he said.
Suddenly I was thinking of keys, of the cup of coffee I left sitting next to the cash register at the key shop. I observed myself standing in this back room of the Piggly Wiggly. I felt naked. Powerless. Kaput. I forgot I was wearing a skirt and tried to put my hands it my pockets. The awkwardness made me want to scream.
“You’re covered with dirt,” I said.
He stared at me. He looked rugged and strong covered with dirt. He smoothed his hands over his hair and this made his arm muscles flex. I was short of breath.
“What’s down there?” I asked.
He paused, dropping his brow. “You don’t like that key shop do you?” he said. It was a question but he wasn’t asking. I wanted to say, no I don’t, but I thought of Llave and kept my mouth shut. This was Mr. Jenning’s son, even though it was Timmy. He continued. “Because I don’t like this Piggly Wiggly.”
I swallowed. “I don’t think I like this Piggly Wiggly or the key shop.”
“And I don’t like that parking lot.” He pointed to the door. I understood what he meant. Timmy had grown up on the lot too. I knew his memories were probably fond, but what is fondness worth in the end? Fondness isn’t love. It isn’t hate. There was no use in being fond of the parking lot. Timmy was telling me he wanted to get out. I felt the warmth of perception and I gasped.
“Is that a tunnel?” I asked.
“Yes it is,” he said.
Dazzled is the only word that comes close. He switched off the green overhead light and took me by the hand into the tunnel. A line of gold twinkle lights ran overhead. The aroma of loam and muck was so extreme as to be squeezable. I was dazzled almost to tears. He thought it was the tunnel I found so dazzling. Really it was because I was so in love with him. The tunnel was part of it of course, but the proximity really did it. His back was inches from my breasts, his hand was rough and solid. I wasn’t even in a trance, my feet were on the earth, and I was utterly in love. It didn’t occur to me to ask where the tunnel led. All I knew was that it led to the place where Timmy and I would live when we were married.
We walked silently, deeper in. The ground was soggy and the rubber on my sneakers sucked the ground and made popping noises. He was wearing boots. Finally, he stopped.
“Do you know where it goes?” he said, turning around. His face looked small and intent under the little lights.
“Far away?” I said. I wanted him to smile. Our lips were only a few inches apart.
“Exactly,” he said, still intent. “Where do you want to go?”
“Africa,” I said. I pursed my lips a bit and stood straight. The chill in the tunnel made my nipples hard and I could feel them there beneath my blouse, standing at attention, staring him down. All you have to do is turn the machine on.
He took a step back, and the heel of his boot plashed in a puddle. “Really?” he said. A new tone. Not purposeful anymore, but silly. “I want to go to Paris,” he said.
I nearly jumped. “We can go to Paris. Paris sounds wonderful.”
“We don’t have to go to the same place,” he said. I ignored the implication of this comment and let him continue. “This tunnel goes to the key shop, you know that right?”
I didn’t know that at all. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean I’m going to burn the key shop down,” he said. I remember watching his mouth move, not listening. I just watched and strung the words together. “If I set the fire from below it won’t look like arson. It works out for everyone this way. Llave will get insurance money to build a new key shop somewhere better, and then he can sell the lot to my Dad because he won’t have the incentive to keep it anymore. Everybody ends up with more money, which means you could leave, and I could leave. Problem solved.” He smiled now, beamed.
I saw it all. The key shop aflame. A brand new, more impressive key shop elsewhere. Llave often said he wanted to upgrade, but would he want this? I tried to consider this state of affairs as reality.
“Does your father know?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “If it were up to him I’d live in the Piggly Wiggly forever. This has to look like an accident.”
The harder I think of it now, the less it makes sense. I should have asked him why he built this elaborate tunnel with electricity. From a practical standpoint, it’s absurd. I’m still wondering how he could have predicted that Llave would sell the lot simply because the shop was burned.
Timmy noticed my concern. “No one would get hurt. You’d be free. Africa.”
Llave always says that a keymaker must, above all, be moral. A keyman sees his customers’ addresses. A keyman sees his customers’ cars. A keyman looks into his customers’ eyes. And he makes the instrument that opens the doors into his customers’ lives. You are a keywoman.
“No,” I said to Timmy.
“You might end up here forever,” he said.
I looked up and noticed in the mud above there were shattered oyster shells. I wanted to tell Timmy they were my great-grandfather’s shells, but the context felt strange, and I was still in love. The twinkle lights were so warm, his face beautiful.
“What about us?” I said.
“You can go wherever you want,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I mean you and me.” I moved my eyes to his hand, still holding mine.
“Oh,” he said. He hesitated. Then he took my other hand. We stood across from one other holding hands. I waited for him to kiss me. “Pretty keygirl,” he said. “I’m gay.”
It was a long walk through the tunnel back to the Piggly Wiggly. I didn’t need to tell Timmy to abandon his plan; he knew it was off the table. I climbed out of that hole devastated, and clear-headed. Back in the dairy section Timmy seemed depressed, but gave me a carton of chocolate milk and apologized. He chose the coldest jug and shook it for ten seconds. I hugged him because I felt we’d been betraying each other, injuring each other somehow, all along, without realizing it. There would be no love, no crime, no destination. Right now, there’s another cold alpine wind blowing over the parking lot, and I’m scraping mud off my boots.
Yvonne Georgina Puig is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here.
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