It was fall. My semester at the University of No Hope had picked up and I cut my hours to part time at the Home Depot. This didn’t pay my rent so I picked up a job at Domino’s Pizza delivering pies on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Home depot I worked on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. The late nights of being a pizza boy took their toll, but compensated quite well. I began to wonder if I really needed to be working at the Home Depot.
When summer ended, most people in New England weren’t concerned with their lawns and other flora as the natural process of seasonal dying began. As such, the hours allotted to the garden department were minimal, really only enough for two full timers. By dropping to part time, my manager decided to relocate me to the Hardware Department. I didn’t mind. I was able to learn practical skills in the Hardware department, such as cutting chain and re-keying locks. I particularly liked re-keying locks. Many of my Hardware coworkers found the tedious process of replacing the individual bearings as a pain in the ass. I liked the fact that I could tune everything and everyone out until I had finished with the lock. I felt useful. It was because of my enthusiasm for locks that I started to get called over every time a customer needed one re-keyed.
It was a Sunday morning, I was called over to the lock aisle. I had been at Domino’s the night before delivering pizzas until four a.m. My mind was fuzzy with exhaustion and the remnants of pot. I trudged over to the key station in my orange Home Depot apron and was greeted by the Hardware manager standing next to an early thirty-something’s couple. The woman was out of shape with long brown hair that spilled down her back, strands were pinned between rolls of back fat. The man was well over six feet and skinny as a rail. He smiled at me and there were only three teeth in the front. They both wore jean jackets, jeans, and beaten up white sneakers. The main difference in their attire, was the fact the woman’s shirt was black with a melodramatic painting of a wolf howling taking up the majority of her breasts. The man’s shirt was red with a white dragon blowing a blast of fire across his abdomen.
“Hi,” I said when I reached them.
“Thanks for hurrying over,” Bob, the hardware manager said. “This couple needs you to re-key their lock.”
The man in the red shirt held his left hand out in front of him, a lock with a plaster outline rested in the middle of his palm.
“Sounds good,” I said.
Bob walked away, saying hi to all the customers he passed. I turned my attention to the lock. It was old. Maybe it just looked old. A fair amount of rust had swallowed half the handle, and the remaining half was black with tarnish.
“It’s an old lock,” the man said.
“Classic,” I said. “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
The woman thought this was funny and gave a nervous giggle. “Is there anyway you can get it done quickly?”
“I’ll try,” I responded. “It all depends on how easily the lock comes apart. Never seen one like this, but I figure they all work on the same principle.”
The woman nodded at this response but didn’t seem pleased with my answer. The man put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you,” he said to me.
I fell into my regular schpeal and informed the couple it would probably take fifteen to twenty minutes, if they had any other shopping they would like to do, now would be a great time. I just needed the key they would like as the master.
The man shook his head. “Don’t have another key,” he said shifting his shoulders beneath his denim jacket. “No shopping to do either, just here for the lock.”
“You don’t have a key?” I asked.
“Are there any extra keys you could use?” the woman asked. “We just need a different key for the lock. I don’t care what key it is, just a different one.”
“There may be one lying around,” I said. Beside my feet we kept a ten gallon bucket of discarded keys.
“Please do it quickly,” the woman said.
I smiled at her, my annoyance slightly raised. “Of course,” I said.
After grabbing a set of keys from the ten gallon bucket, I set about re-keying. It is a simple procedure that requires patience. The most tedious part is taking the lock apart. Locks could be stubborn curmudgeons sometimes. This lock was the biggest stick in the mud I’d ever dealt with. The handle refused to be pulled off, and I was unsure of whether it was the rust, my exhaustion, or just a bad lock. After seven minutes of struggling with no sign of progress, I stopped messing with the lock. I looked up and realized the couple was still standing directly behind me, the man continuously shifting his shoulders, and the woman shifting her weight back and forth between her feet.
“I can’t do it,” I said. “The lock is no good. My guess is the rust, but it could just be the make and model. Either way it can’t be re-keyed here. Best off going to a locksmith,” I said.
The woman looked horrified at the idea. She turned to her man. His jaw was clenched. Usually, people just left.
“You have to,” the man said. “You have to do it.”
“We don’t have money for a locksmith,” the woman pleaded.
“Well, I can’t do it,” I said keeping my voice level, hiding my frustration. “I don’t have the tools here to re-key every type of lock, and unfortunately this just happens to be one of those locks.”
“You have to,” the man repeated.
“What’re we going to do?” the woman said to her man.
“We’re gonna get the lock re-keyed.”
“Not here,” I interrupted. “I can’t do it.”
“It has to be done,” the man said. He glared at me.
“Look,” the woman pleaded with me, “we have to get it done, and we only have-” she checked a minnie mouse watch on her wrist- “an hour before he gets home.”
I didn’t understand where this was going so I kept my mouth shut, and wished I had called in sick today. The paychecks at part time weren’t worth how I felt right now.
The man stopped shifting his shoulder and looked me straight in the eyes. “Look, we have to get his done today,” he stated.
“It’s my sister,” the woman explained. “Well, it’s not my sister, it’s her boyfriend. He got out of jail, released after serving his year. We thought things would change, but they haven’t changed.”
“He’s a son of a bitch,” the man suddenly roared.
“He broke her arm with a pipe,” the woman continued. “We thought jail would cool him off, but it didn’t.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. I had no idea why they thought a hardware associate at the Home Depot would know what to do.
“He’s at work,” the man said. “At his construction site, but he’ll be home in an hour. He beat her up bad last night. Just his fists, but he knocked out a few teeth, swelled up her eye.”
“You have to fix the lock,” the woman pleaded again. “We need to switch the lock before he comes home.”
I looked at the rusted and tarnished lock on the workbench. Shit, I thought.
The woman wiped her eyes with her fingertips and I noticed she was crying. I shook my head to clear it.
“Look,” I said. “This lock is no good. It can’t be fixed.”
A thousand tears replaced the one the woman had just wiped away. She started to make pitiful breathing noises and her shoulders shook underneath the black wolf shirt. The man’s shoulders dropped. He looked at his woman and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but I don’t think his three teeth convinced her all would be well.
“I can give you a different lock.” My eyes squinted when I realized what I had just said.
“I can give you a new lock,” I repeated.
“We don’t have fifty dollars for a new one,” the woman said, her voice coming in staccato bursts.
“Free. I’ll give it to you. No charge.”
The man gave me a stern look. “Don’t fuck with us.”
“I’m not,” I said. To prove my point, I grabbed a lock off the workbench. “I can’t give you a packaged one, cause you’ll get accused of stealing. But I can give you one of the ones we’ve got lying around. I’ll re-key it, cause it probably is lacking all it’s pins. All you’ll have to pay is the re-key charge, eight dollars.”
The woman continued to cry, but a smile appeared and began funneling the thousand tears to her chin. They dripped off her face to the concrete floor below.
Bob the hardware manager walked by. He noticed me holding the lock and raised an eyebrow. I nodded at him, then turned back to the man and woman.
“Don’t tell anybody,” I said once Bob was out of ear shot. “Don’t tell anybody you were given this lock for free.”
“We won’t,” the man said. “Thank you.”
“Ok, give me fifteen minutes to re-key it and you should be fine.”
“Thank you,” the woman said. “I’m Rebecca.”
“Hi, Rebecca,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.
“This is Jerry,” she said giving her man a plush hug.
“Thank you,” Jerry said.
I turned back to the workbench. I began to systematically take apart the new lock. My head throbbed.
“She’s a sweet heart,” Rebecca said.
“She is,” Jerry agreed.
I stayed quiet and continued working.
“She picked the wrong man.” Rebecca said. “Five years with him, and she can’t leave.”
“What can she do?” Jerry asked Rebecca. “He’s fucked. His brain ain’t right. Ain’t been right since they got together. She’s a grown woman. She needs to get out of it. She puts up with it. Didn’t even call last night when he ripped into her. If we hadn’t gone over this morning who knows if she would’ve told us at all.”
Rebecca walked to my side and stared over my shoulder as I started placing the pins into the chambers. It was all a matter of choosing the correct size to fit the key’s grooves. Bob could look at a key and guess the size of every ridge. I was not as trained. It took me a bit of trial and error, but I was usually within a two size radius. Rebecca stared at my fingers as they dropped a number five pin into the first chamber. Too small, I needed at least a seven.
“Lily ain’t never had good luck with men,” she said. “I blame it on her looks.” Rebecca gave a disparaging look at herself. “Girl fell on the other side of the tree from me. No good bein’ beautiful. Nothing but trouble.”
“Sweet girl,” Jerry said. “Pretty as a sunset, and sweet. Goddamn Todd. Loser had to woo her with his damn words. Not one good thing’s come from five years of them bein’ together. Goddamn late night trips to the emergency room. Callin’ us at 2 a.m. cause the bastards drunk and she’s locked in the toilet.”
“That’s not true,” Rebecca said. “One good thing has come from all of us.”
Jerry nodded. “Violet,” he said.
Rebecca looked at me as I started work on the third chamber.
“Violet don’t deserve to watch her ma get beat up by that no good son of a bitch. She don’t deserve to start life off that way.”
I tried to concentrate on the lock. Probably another five minutes and I would be done when Rebecca asked, “How old are you?”
I didn’t know she was talking to me at first until she repeated the question and nudged me when she said it.
“Twenty,” I responded trying to decide whether the third chamber needed a size two or three.
“You just work here?” she asked.
“No,” I said pulling a two out. “I deliver pizzas for domino’s at the college as well.”
“You go to school?” Jerry asked.
“Yeah,” I said pulling the two out of the chamber. It was too small, the three fit perfectly and I was on to the last chamber. “I’m studying economics.”
“Why the two jobs if you’re at school?” Rebecca asked.
“Need to pay the bills,” I responded as I pulled out a seven, eight, and nine from the toolbox.
“I respect that,” Jerry said. “You’re a good man.”
“To think Lily’s only twenty one,” Rebecca started, “and stuck with Todd, when there’s good guys like you out there. And she’s so pretty.”
“Makes a lot of money at the club,” Jerry agreed with a nod.
“That’s good,” I said.
“She needs a nice guy,” Jerry said. “Needs someone who’ll appreciate her.”
I nodded. The seven didn’t fit. I tried the eight.
Rebecca had long since stopped crying and she kept staring at me.
The eight didn’t fit so by rule of elimination I knew the nine would. I dropped it into the chamber.
“You single?” she asked.
I froze. “What?”
“You’re being so nice. I can’t imagine a mean bone in your body. Lily needs a man like you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m with someone,” I lied.
“She’s a lucky girl,” Jerry said. “You treat her right, but I’m sure you already do.”
“Yeah,” I responded trying to avoid the discussion of me dating their white trash sister. “Yeah.”
I popped the handle back onto the lock. I removed the key, placed it back in, and tested the lock a few times to make sure everything was fine. It was. I handed Jerry the lock.
“Thank you,” Jerry said. “You don-”
“Don’t tell anybody,” I interrupted.
“Thank you,” Rebecca echoed.
The two took the lock and key and walked down the aisle and away. It was an hour before I heard my name paged to the Human Resources office.
There used to be two HR employees, but it was now down to one. Her name was Lisa. She was a middle-aged woman still in shape with the darkest hair I’d ever seen. Bob was in the office with her when I arrived.
“James,” Lisa greeted me.
“We have an issue,” Lisa said.
I looked at Bob. He gave a stern look back.
Goddamnit, I thought before Lisa stood up and closed the office door.
I was sent home early that day with instructions not to come to work on Monday or Tuesday. Bob had figured out what I’d done, and bless Jerry and Rebecca they had never told anyone. When Lisa and Bob confronted me with the fact I technically stole from the store, I agreed. I made no defense nor bothered to explain the reason why. Lisa urged me to tell. I didn’t.
“We’ll call you when we’ve figured out what we’d like to do,” Lisa said to finish the meeting.
When I got home, I sat on a plastic garden chair on my apartment’s porch. One of my roommate’s came out and offered to smoke a bowl with me. After our third rotation, he asked why I was home early. I told him. When he finished laughing, he walked inside. Before he closed the door behind him, he turned back to me. “Just think of all the love locked in Lily,” he giggled then slid the door shut.
The weed mixed with my thoughts and the nicotine of a fresh cigarette giving me a small case of the spins. I closed my eyes and tried to control the sensation of falling in the pit of my stomach. I imagined a beautiful girl swinging topless on a stripper pole with a baby carriage to the side of her stage. On the other side a man kept trying to grab her, screaming obscenities until it sounded like a foreign language. I sat directly in front of her throwing keys on the stage as if they were dollar bills. The stripper picked them up whenever her feet touched the stage, only to shove them into her door handled g-string. I opened my eyes to realize I had fallen asleep. It was evening and I had a slight sunburn on the side of my face. The night was getting cold.
My phone kept bumping against my thigh as I walked back inside. I took it out, and without thinking about it, I dialed the Home Depot.
“This is Leslie at the Home Depot, how may I direct your call?” a voice answered.
“Hi, Leslie,” I responded. “This is James in the hardware department, is Bob still around.”
“Let me check for you.”
I was put on hold for a minute, and began to think he had left for the night when I heard the sound of a phone being lifted off a receiver.
“This is Bob, Hardware Manager.”
“Hi Bob,” I said. “It’s James.”
“You’re supposed to be waitin’ for us to give you a call.”
“I know,” I said.
“Lisa and I decided not to involve the police, but I dunno James. How can I trust you after watching you blatantly steal product from my department-”
“Bob,” I interrupted, “I just wanted to let you know, I quit.”
I hung up the phone.