The Wind Up Key

by Cecilia Kennedy 

The sky bridge that connects the parking garage to the fancy department store on the other side gives me a sense of excitement when I cross it.  The glass to the right and to the left of me offers a view of modern buildings and the carefully spaced tiles below my feet feel deliciously dangerous. Certainly, I’m out of place in old jeans and running shoes.  Women hurry past in their heels and tailored skirts. A glorious haze of perfume settles in the air and I can catch the edge of an expertly outlined eye in black.  I know better than to pair powder puff pink shoes with neon laces and a red jacket that advertises the local outdoor clothing store chain.  Such things are for tourists. I live here now, which is why this trip to the department store is particularly important, I’ve decided.  I’ve decided that it’s time to look and dress like I live here.  Like I belong here.

Everything inside the store gleams, even the mannequins that model sleeveless classic dresses I know I could pull off with style, but I don’t really go anywhere in particular these days.  And then I remind myself that this is why I’m here: to treat myself a little better.  I don’t have to be going anywhere in particular in order to look nice.  So, I dare to glance at the price tag and realize that my expectations of shopping for $20 dresses to treat myself are unrealistic, so I move on.  Maybe I’ll change my mind and come back.

In the meantime, I watch the women go by and I take the escalator up to the second floor.  I think I might find a plate or a shiny glass object that could buy me some temporary happiness in the furniture department upstairs.  When I reach the moving stairs, I count: one, two, three, so I don’t trip and fall on the first edge that rises.  I make sure I wait before I count, so that I don’t hold others up. There are plenty who would be annoyed by someone like me, who counts before using the escalator.

As my escalator goes up, there’s another one that goes down in the opposite direction and I can continue to watch people as they ride the stairs. I carefully observe how they are dressed and how ashamed I should be to even go into a place like this dressed as I am.  

On my right, is a very clean, silvery mirror.  I don’t dare look at my face, for fear of finding all kinds of flaws like smudges of makeup, lines, or gray hairs, but I force myself to look anyway and I realize that the face that stares back is pretty much okay.  But then, I notice something about my hair, so I turn my head slightly to the side while keeping my eyes trained on the mirror.  At first, I think I see a bald spot near the right side of my head, towards the back, but then I realize that it’s just the spot where I slept hard last night. I reach my hand over to cover up what I think is just bare skin, but my hand hits something metal and hard.  I can’t quite see what it is in the mirror, but I feel around using my hand and I come into contact with a hard, metal, zipper-like surface that trails the protruding object I believe is sticking out from my scalp.  I don’t remember it having ever been there before and now, I need to know what it is, so when I reach the furniture department on the second floor, I turn the corner and head back down the escalator to find a dressing room on the first floor.

The harsh lights of the dressing room are unforgiving, but I must know what’s sticking out of my head—what has been there for so long.  From my pocket, I pull out a powder compact with a mirror so that I can angle it into the full-length mirror and see the right side of the back of my head.  The hair is definitely a little thinner in that spot, which is not something I really want to fully accept at the moment, but my main concern is the metal object that’s sticking straight out.  It looks like a large, flat key for a wind-up toy that’s been implanted into my head, and it seems to be placed right over a very jagged and sharp metal zipper that runs from the spot just above my neck right into the middle of my skull.  I’m afraid to pull it, so I gently try to tug on it first to see if anything moves. The key won’t turn and the teeth of the zipper don’t appear to unzip in any way. For the life of me, I can’t remember why it’s there or when I had this done. Surely, I must have consented to this; it must have been done for a reason.

My hair is long enough to try to push several strands over the metal parts to hide it, but when the wind blows or I move my head, it must be a noticeable thing.  I’ve not seen anyone stare at me before, though.  In fact, I have been able to walk through this entire department store without seeing anyone look at me in an alarming manner.  But then again, this is not the place for anyone to stare at anyone else.  Here, people look straight ahead and mind their own business.

When I get home, my Radin asks me why I don’t have a load of shopping bags to take in from the car.

“I lost the will to shop,” I say.

“But that was the point—to go out and cheer yourself up—spend a little money on yourself.”

“I thought it would help, but things are so expensive and then. . . I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before.”

“Like what?”

I turn my head to the side a bit and lift up my hair.

“How long has this been here?” I ask.

“You had that done a year or so after we moved to Holmsville—before moving here.”

It takes a while for my brain to register Radin’s words: I had this done.  I clearly consented to this procedure.

“It was all the rage in Holmsville,” Radin adds.

“Was there a surgery?”

“Oh, yes—an expensive one, but you’d saved up your money from teaching overtime, so you could have this surgery and fit in.”

I vaguely remember watching the other Holmsville women run off to meetings and to ball games.  They all had the same sporty, effortless hairstyle with just a hint of shiny metal underneath—with a wind-up key inserted directly into the scalp.  Everyone had one and I decided I had to have it too, but I don’t remember the day I went to get this done or how I’ve been able to sleep at night with this thing sticking out of my head. I’m surprised my scalp doesn’t itch or hurt.

“Why don’t I remember this?” I ask.

“I have no idea.”

“Do you hate it?  Is it ugly?”

“It’s fine—especially in Holmsville. When you comb your hair over it, it’s hard to really see anything anyway.”

“But what about when the wind blows?  Surely you see it then?”

“I . . . I guess,” Radin says—and I can see he’s just trying to protect my feelings.

When the wind blows—and it always does—the key and all of the jagged metal is exposed and now I wish I’d never done this, but I hadn’t counted on living anywhere else but Holmsville.  I never thought I’d ever move.

“Do you suppose I could have it undone?”

“I guess it’s possible.”

But I know it’s not possible.  It would hurt too much. I don’t want to subject myself to so much pain anymore.  What’s done is done.

“I think I’ll go back to the department store. I think I saw a dress I’d like to buy.”

“Want me to come with you?”

“No—it’s okay. I won’t take long.”

The entire drive over to the fancy shopping center downtown is unnerving.  All I can think about is the wind-up key and I can feel it.  I can feel it stuck into my head and I just want to pull it out. When I reach the parking garage, I walk slowly towards the sky bridge.  Then, when I reach the first glass tile, I spread out my arms like I’m walking on a tightrope.  A few people look up to watch me with curiosity, but they don’t stare for very long.  

When I reach the middle of the bridge, I turn to my right and face the wall of glass that overlooks the downtown buildings.  In the reflection of the glass, I can see my face.  Clouds of cherry blossom and cucumber perfume breeze by.  The finely painted faces and sleek, straight hairstyles zigzag behind me. With my right hand, I reach up to push away the strands of hair covering the key and I give it a firm turn—much firmer than I’d done in the dressing room earlier.  Nothing happens.  I don’t even feel anything in my scalp, so I crank harder—as hard as I can—and the key finally turns.  Strands of hair fall about my feet. From the follicles, the blood flows, and in the reflection in the glass on the sky bridge, I see my days of fitting in are over.

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2 Responses to “The Wind Up Key”

  1. mydangblog Says:

    Wow–loved this piece!

  2. Cecilia Kennedy Says:

    Thanks so much, Suzanne!!

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