Six thirty-one P.M. The end of another grueling day at work, which Marla couldn’t wait to drown in some cheap wine and TV drama. Luna was already dozing off in the baby seat, so perhaps she could have the evening free of baby emergencies.
God knew she needed one.
She turned left on her street and drove onto the parking lot. Over the months the lot became a sort of mental trigger for her. She knew that as soon as she turned the engine off, she could start to unwind.
Marla felt the stones of stress starting to loosen as she took her usual space at the end of the lot, under the birch tree. A little piece of nature in the urban jungle. It might not have been much, but to her, it was a beacon of hope. One day she'd get out of the city and away from all the chaos…
As she stepped out of the car and went to the passenger’s side to pick up sleepy Luna, she heard footsteps approaching - solid, purposeful, boots tapping on asphalt.
“Excuse me, do you live here?”
Marla turned around with Luna in her arms. A man wearing the security guard’s uniform stood in front of her, thumbs tucked under his belt.
“Transferred. I’m his replacement. Do you live in this building?” He pointed to the new luxury apartment complex that she had to look at every day through her kitchen window.
“I live across the street,” she said, speaking softly so as not to disturb her daughter. “Why?”
The man gave her a surprised look. “This parking lot is reserved for the residents of this apartment complex. If you don’t have a permit, you can’t park here.”
“I’m gonna have to see your permit.”
Marla repositioned Luna so she faced away from the guard’s too-loud voice. “I don’t have a permit.”
“Then I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”
“But I’ve always parked here. Douglas never asked for any permit.”
“Yeah. Now you know why he’s not here anymore. He’s been piggybacking too many freeloaders like yourself. Somebody has to draw a line before the whole city falls into chaos.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her mind had already begun the winding down process, but now a spike of stress cut through it like lightning on a blue sky.
“Surely you can make an exception,” she said. “I live right across the street.”
“So park there.”
“Everything’s full,” she said. “Look.”
The guard didn’t turn. “Miss. Without a permit, you can't park here. It’s not that hard to understand.”
She gaped at him, feeling heat flushing her cheeks. “Actually, I don’t understand. I’ve been parking here for months and nobody said anything. Now all of a sudden you show up, demanding a permit! There are always free spaces here that nobody takes. This parking lot is too big for that apartment building anyway! Are you telling me that five new tenants just came in overnight, filling up all the spots?”
The man gave her a flat stare, standing with feet planted broadly before her. “Miss, please remove your car from this space.”
Luna whined in her arms, so Marla coed her. “You’re being unreasonable.”
“Me?” the guard balked. “You’re the one who just admitted to having illegally parked your car for months! Do you want me to report you to the police? Just get in your car and go.”
“Hey, I won’t tolerate that kind of tone!”
Luna stirred, whining again. Her sleepiness was gone.
“Miss, are we going to have a problem here?”
“Only if you start one.”
He stared at her, trying to scare her with that aggressive posture. Marla stared back with defiance. “I’m a single mother. When I come home after six in the afternoon all the spaces in front of my apartment are taken. If I don’t park here then I have to walk five blocks just to get home. Five blocks, with a daughter that’s only eleven months old and bags of groceries. I don’t just park here because it’s convenient. I need this space.”
The guard sighed, pulling up on his belt. “Look, I don’t care about your inconveniences or your needs. All I care about is that nobody who doesn’t have a permit fills up space in my lot. Because if I ever catch one, I have the authority to write them a steep fine. You got that, single mom?”
Luna sobbed, gripping at Marla’s hair. Marla stared at the guard, her mind struggling to cope with the fatigue, the stress, and the rudeness. She felt a surge of rage rising but she pushed it down.
“Please,” she said. “Just this once. I’ve just come from work, I’m exhausted and have a car full of groceries. I’ll try to park somewhere else tomorrow but can you let me park here tonight?”
“Rules are rules,” he said, his voice as hard as the lump of rock he had for a heart. “No exceptions.”
Luna kept sobbing. She didn’t like the cold.
“Have you no heart?”
“Cut the sympathy crap and beat it, lady, or I’ll write you a ticket. What, you think you’re the only one with problems? The only one with a shitty job? Well, tough luck, that’s life! You’ve been getting away with it for long enough, but now that I’m here, this place is going to see some proper order! Now remove yourself and your car, or I’ll have it towed and throw you out myself, you got that?”
Luna started to cry, upset by the man’s voice. Marla felt her own tears on her face, unable to control her emotions. She coed Luna as best she could, then placed her back into the baby seat. She closed the door, then turned to the security guard.
“You son of a bitch.”
The man’s eyes bulged out. “What did you-”
“You made my girl cry. You made me cry. Who do you think you are? Some hot-shot law enforcer? No, you’re just a spineless man who likes to take it out on those he thinks weaker of him. What, your daddy didn’t love you enough? Were you too stupid to pass police school, so you became a parking lot guard - guarding a piece of asphalt for the rich and lazy while taking it out on desperate people? You disgust me!”
She was trembling, letting it all out. She didn’t care if she shouted, didn’t care who heard her. All she knew was that this man made her girl cry and was a monster.
“Oh, and you think you’re such a victim, huh?” the guard said. “Poor little single mom, all alone for everything. Can’t even take a little walk with her baby, even though it might do good for her health. Your type sickens me! You think that just because you’ve got a problem you can do whatever you want - just because you’re a single mom doesn’t give you the right to steal other people's property! And it sure as hell doesn’t give you the right to break the law!”
“What law am I breaking?” Marla exclaimed. “Have I robbed a bank? Killed someone? What did I do that’s so unacceptable?”
He stomped forward, pointing down with his index finger. “You broke the law on my parking lot!”
“It’s not even yours! You’re just a thug working here! A thug who thinks way too highly of himself and his pathetic duty!”
At that moment, she thought he was going to hit her. His hand moved from the belt and his eyes twitched… but he paused in the last moment. Instead, he just turned away and took out a pad and pen.
Seeing the white ticket form sobered Marla and she realized she’d just yelled at a security guard.
The man wrote like he was carving a tombstone. He tore the ticket off the pad and handed it to Marla without glancing at her.
“If you pay in a week, the fine is halved,” he said plainly.
Marla looked at the ticket, but could barely see the number in the dark. She turned toward a street lamp.
“Five hundred dollars?”
“I asked kindly for you to leave. You refused. Remove your car or I’ll have it towed and you’ll have to pay for that too.”
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said, holding her head. “I just paid all the bills and got the groceries. My paycheck isn’t due for another two weeks!”
The man shrugged and took away his pad and pen. Without sparing one more moment, he walked away to his booth.
Marla stood in the cold, staring at the number on the ticket. Only Luna’s crying brought her back and she got into the car, turning on the engine. In a daze, with tears drying on her cheeks, she drove off the parking lot, trying to comprehend how people could be this cruel.
Ever since that night at the parking lot, Seth couldn’t sleep. He would lay in bed, close his eyes, and think of her. Of what he did. Of what she said.
She was right in every word of course, and that’s what pained him the most. He wasn’t a real enforcer of the law, no matter how much he tried to pretend. He was barely even a security guard, having passed the exam only because he knew the guy releasing the certifications.
Seth was a failure and he knew it. When did his life change so much? When did he let his goals and dreams slip through his hands, not even noticing them breaking as they hit the ground?
When did I become so cold? So… lifeless?
He watched the building across the street every day, hoping to see her. She never came to the parking lot again and for the first few days, he hadn’t seen her enter the building either. Guilt tore through him, thinking something might have happened to her and he was the cause of it.
But then, a week after their encounter, he saw her. She was walking on the sidewalk, holding her little girl in her arms, both of them wrapped in winter coats and caps. He noticed her coming hope around 7.15. P.M., sometimes later. He also noticed that every parking space in front of her building had been taken well before she came home.
Often, someone would try to park where she once did, without a permit, and Seth would turn them away, saying it was private property. He received looks of contempt and resentment, no matter how kindly he tried to explain. He’d often lose his temper, though. Why did people always assume he enjoyed doing it, turning them away? It was just his job. And he needed it to pay his bills.
He had remembered the car she drove - a green Chevy Impala, the 2002 model. He paid attention to every green car that passed, but he hadn’t seen hers. He figured she’d probably given up trying to find a space in front of her building.
After three weeks of mulling over, Seth had enough. He couldn’t take it anymore. After his shift ended at 6 A.M., he bought himself a coffee and a donut and decided to wait outside her building. He had to see her and say something or else he feared he’d never sleep again.
He could barely feel his fingers when she finally came out at around 9 P.M. She walked right past him, probably not even recognizing him.
“Excuse me,” Seth said.
She froze. Her head slowly turned, face pale like she’d heard a ghost.
Seth felt ice blades stabbing his stomach as he forced himself to look into her eyes. “I’m Seth,” he said. “You know… the security guard.”
The shock on her face turned to a hateful glare. “What do you want?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened,” he said, trembling. He didn’t know if it was from the cold or the confrontation. “I… I’m sorry.”
She puffed, her breath a cloud in the cold air. “Sorry? You’re sorry?”
“I shouldn’t have thrown you out like that. It wasn’t right… considering the circumstances.”
She stared at him for a moment, then stomped forward. “I had to sell my car to pay the fine,” she hissed. “I walk every day to and from work, which takes me an extra two hours from my life. I have to pay the babysitter for two more hours each day, and in the evenings I clutch to my bag as I walk through the streets, listening if anyone is stalking me. A guy tried to mug me one time, but luckily someone walked by and he ran off. I cry myself to sleep every night, struggling to think of a way to prevent my daughter from having to endure the same things I have to. And you’re sorry?”
Seth swallowed in a dry throat. “I… didn’t know…”
“Leave me alone,” she said, turning. “Don’t ever show up to me again.”
Seth stood there, feeling like the five-year-old version of himself again, listening to his parents argue over him. “Wait,” he said. “Please. Let me make it up to you. I’ll… I’ll buy you a new car. Well, not new since I can’t afford it, but a second-hand one...”
She started walking away, so Seth followed her. “You were right,” he said, ignoring the people giving him glances. “What you said about me. I’m hollow inside, a failure. I’m dragging things in my mind left to me by my childhood, unable to move on. I take it out on the world because I cannot find the strength to realize my true dreams… or even cope with the reality of what my life is like.” He shook his head, chiding himself for spilling like this to a stranger. “Please, just… let me do something right for a change!”
She stopped and he caught up to her. Her shoulders were tense, though her head was down.
“Please,” he said. “I beg you. You don’t have to forgive me, just allow me to make amends. I… want to be able to sleep again.”
She turned, tears in her eyes. “All I wanted was to park my car close to home, so I didn’t have to carry Luna in the cold so far.”
“All I wanted was to do my job right… but I guess I can’t do even that.”
She looked at him, then raised her hand. “Just… leave me alone, okay?”
“I want to help.”
“And what will you do? Buy me a car? I’m not sure I’d even want to accept that.”
“I could lend you mine,” he said. “You could park it at my spot on that parking lot.”
“And how would you get to work?”
“I don’t live far,” he shrugged. “Besides, walking would do me good.”
She crossed her arms. “Do you have a permit?”
“Well, no, but I work there…”
“I can’t believe this! You don’t have a permit but you threw me out anyway!”
“I work there. It’s not like I can park somewhere else…” He trailed off.
“I need time to think,” she said. “This is all too weird and I’m late for work.”
“I can drive you.”
She shook her head.
“At least take my number,” he said. “Call me when you’ve made a decision.” He took out his ticket pad and wrote his number on it. “Here,” he said. “This one has no expiration date, but please call.”
She took it, stuffed it in her pocket, and was on her way.
Later that day, when Seth was getting ready for his shift, the phone rang. He picked it up, crossing his fingers. It was her.
“Sorry I yelled at you,” she said. “And those things I said. I was… upset.”
“It's alright,” he said. “I deserved it.”
“I can’t take your car,” she said, “but I would take the space when, if, I get a new car.”
Seth’s heart fell. “Please, I want to do more. I feel terrible about all this.”
She paused for a moment and Seth feared she had already hung up. But then she spoke. “You’re a security guard, right?”
“Could you… this is crazy.”
“Could you walk me from work?”
“I can drive you.”
“No. I’d feel trapped, sitting next to you.”
That stung, but he took it. “Okay,” he said. “I could do that, though I’d have to ask for different shifts.”
“Okay,” she said. “It’d be only in the afternoons when the streets are dark.”
“I’ll make sure nothing happens to you.”
She thanked him and hung up. That was an unusual request. Why wouldn’t she just let him drive her?
She probably wants me to walk as punishment. He smiled, realizing he wouldn’t mind that at all.
Marla hung up the phone, wondering if she was crazy. He was the reason her life had turned upside down in these past weeks, why did she even speak with him?
It must be the fact that he came to apologize, all weak and hurtful. She had never seen a man so crushed, having admitted he’d been wrong.
She smiled, surprising herself, and realized she wouldn’t mind hearing the rest of his story.