The cars in the parking lot below Louisa were playing puzzles. They had tied themselves in a knot, with cars moving in three different directions. One of the cars, a little white one, was backing out of the tiny spot it had earlier slid into, while all around it, other cars of varying shapes and colors drove back and forth and rolled around the lot. Just for the white car to be able to leave, the red car to the left of the spot had to back up and the blue van behind the spot had to back up, causing the red car to pull forward again so as to avoid collision, and then the silver SUV, a goliath of a car, was gently inching forward with the intent of taking the little white car’s spot. Meanwhile, a black car had come into the lot from the opposite entrance and headed a slowly forming line of new cars from this new direction. As the blue car backed up a little more, a cyclist sprung out behind it, and for a second, Louisa held her breath, fearing a crash. The cyclist slipped by, however, seemingly unscathed, and continued on out of the dreadful lot.
The lot was shaped like a U, with two little tails, one at either end of the U. It was surrounded by lovely little businesses, and Louisa lived above the Chinese restaurant in a cozy red apartment. From the balcony, and her kitchen windows as well, she had a clear view of the puzzle below. Being a peculiarly warm day in late March, Louisa was riddling the puzzle from her porch. The trees were still bare, and the grass still a sickly brown. She would soon need to buy flowers for the porch, although in due time the bareness around and below her would dissipate. That was a little while away though, as spring tended to hesitate until the end of April to appear. In the meantime, Louisa was puzzling out the knot below. It was not unlike a game she had as a small girl; a little plastic square, and the object was to move around the little plastic cars until a particular red one could get out. But that, Louisa decided, was oversimplifying the matter, for the game had no cyclists or goliaths, or dead trees for that matter, and really, who could ever decide which color car was going to be the lucky one?
Beyond the lot were houses, and a park, and a town hall, and a church. A dark alley connected the lot to the main street. People were strolling all about the park, though they left the church alone, it being Saturday and all. What Louisa really found fascinating though were the faces of the people within the cars. They were unlike the people strolling because those people were already free from the constraints of the lot. They would have to go back, of course, to retrieve their cars and return to their own houses and apartments, but unlike the stream of drivers and passengers, they were able to continue with the pleasantries and un-pleasantries of the day. The faces of the people in the cars all told Louisa the same story, and that was what she was really fascinated by.
While some of the stuck faces looked a little happier and some a little sadder, they all had the look of apprehension as they peered around for parking spots. Oh, all individuals, undoubtedly, but nevertheless, individuals with a common goal, whose different lives had all decided to converge here, in this lot, on this warm day in late March. Despite all the differences that existed between them, it seemed as though the lot was the world’s greatest equalizer—no small feat, Louisa guessed.
She herself was no stranger to difference though.
Louisa thought of her life as a whirl, a wonderful spinning pinwheel of days. She was young, of course, in her last year of that exciting institution known as university. Her life, at this moment, was finishing papers and starting papers, waiting for dates, and attending a never-ending array of glittering, drunken parties. Her life was perhaps a pinwheel, but Louisa was, in that case, most certainly the air which set the wheel in motion. She was intelligent and witty and spoke with a gentle, clear voice. And she was beautiful.
So Louisa was no stranger to difference. But she was no stranger to sameness, either. It was her second year in that cozy red apartment, the second year living with the same roommates (who had stepped out into the town below), her twenty-first year living in Massachusetts, and her fourth year of peddling about in that small town, walking back and forth to classes. Not unlike the cars in the lot, puzzling about, and not unlike the drivers with those hungry, aching looks, Louisa was searching for something in the familiarity of it all. Where, or what it was, she could not quite say.
High above the lot, a hawk flew. Louisa saw it fly. If it were searching for food, she thought somewhat irritably, he had better try the park next door. This lot held no sustenance. A car door slammed below, bringing her back to Earth. From the newly parked white car emerged a family. A father, a tired mother, a boy of perhaps twelve, and a little girl of about seven. The girl was wearing a blue dress and had gold ribbons in her dusty brown hair. She was holding her mother’s hand and looking mournful. Her brother and father were walking some strides ahead when the brother turned and yelled something indistinguishable to the girl, prompting her to turn her little head into her mother’s leg. The mother looked reproachfully at her son who grinned gleefully and skipped backed to his oblivious father. It was a moderately interesting scene, Louisa decided, but of no real concern for within a minute, the family had disappeared into the darkened alley which cut through the pizza place and the art studio and led onto the main street and, with their figures, left their conflict from the lot.
Louisa was just about to direct her attention to a green van pulling into the lot when she noticed a glint of gold coming from just before the alley. She squinted. It looked to be a hair ribbon, presumably from the girl who had just left. She was oddly moved, for this was a new puzzle piece which she had not counted on. The cars and spaces were the game pieces and the people the players, but this abandoned ribbon was unplanned for. Even a silly thing like a hair ribbon, Louisa thought, could mean an awful lot to a small girl, and it would be a shame for the child to have lost her pretty belonging. It would be easy, Louisa thought, to descend her red staircase and return the ribbon to the car.
But then again.
But then again, Louisa thought, the family would be returning from the same alley in only a few hours. This, after all, was not Louisa’s puzzle, and she was not god, no matter how high above the lot she sat.
But then again.
But then again, here was a chance to muddle with fate. That ribbon was supposed to slip from the girl’s hair. What made the puzzle below so entertaining to Louisa was that it was entirely not hers to sort; the game was watching the cars struggle to park and the dreadful conformity of it all. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a strange desire to involve herself by returning the gold ribbon. Louisa did not like being overly-involved. But she did not like thinking that the girl would cry upon losing her ribbon. Once people left their cars they were supposed to be free again and how horrible it would be, to be free and without happiness. Still, Louisa reasoned, many of those people are free and unhappy. Still, she acknowledged, this was a happiness she could ensure.
The green van slipped into a spot next to a yellow car.
For a brief moment, Louisa tried to direct her attention to the green van, but it was too late. She had missed a move somewhere, and the puzzle was nearing completion, and a glint of gold from the alley tempted her eyes back towards the ribbon. The glare being unyielding, Louisa made her choice. She descended her red staircase with light and airy steps. She walked calmly past the gray faces inside the cars and crossed the churning lot. The gold of the ribbon shone brightly on the concrete, and Louisa picked it up and returned it to the spotless dashboard of the white car.
Satisfied, Louisa drifted back to her apartment stairs and dutifully returned to her porch. The warmth in the air was dissipating now, and the first hint of evening was emerging in the sky. It was time to return inside and attend to her own puzzles. But as her hand grasped the cold metal of the doorknob, Louisa turned to admire her interference in the game below.
Her admiration was short-lived. For just as she turned, the street lights below flickered on, casting a light upon the golden ribbon. How brightly it shone from its place upon the dashboard! And then, without warning, a sudden breeze blew past and Louisa heard a noise, not unlike the cutting of a string. When her focus returned to the dashboard, the ribbon was gone, and a hawk was flying overhead with something long and gold and wonderful dangling from its wretched talons.
The comings and goings came and went and Louisa watched them all. If anyone in the lot had ever looked up at the red balcony above the Chinese restaurant, they would have seen a bright and beautiful face watching them with glazed and hazy eyes. They didn’t often, but if they did, that’s what they would have seen.