The Key
Margaret, June 1, 2004

We were standing by the edge of the quarry, water dripping from bathing suits and hair as we laughed and playfully tried to pull each other back into the man-made lake. “Okay. Time to go?” Ben asked. Yeah. I picked up my towel and wrapped myself in it, as Ben fished in his bathing suit pocket for the car key he had secured there.

His face fell quickly. “It’s not there,” he said. Ha, ha, very funny. “No, I’m serious.” He faced me with no dancing laughter in his eyes, no teasing tug at the edge of the mouth. He was serious. We began scanning the rocky expanse beneath us that the locals substituted for a beach. No shiny metal. No key. The water? We couldn’t see the bottom much past a couple feet, and anyway, we’d been swimming out to the middle of the quarry. No key. The car was locked. No key. We began to feel slightly panicked.

Okay, no key. What next? I had a spare car key, but it was, well, locked in the car. We had wanted to keep our personal effects to a minimum on the shore, and so had just taken the one key, safely – or so we thought – tucked into Ben’s bathing suit pocket. And the car acted as a locker for us, keeping safe our wallets, keys, and my cell phone.

Home wasn’t far away, but the apartment keys were locked in the car, of course. Even if we had walked or hitched, we couldn’t get inside. And even if we could have, that wouldn’t have solved the car problem. No, we needed to get inside the locked car. Luckily, I thought to myself, I have ADAC. ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club) is the German equivalent of the U.S.’s AAA, and one of my coworkers had encouraged me to sign up almost as soon as I set foot on German soil. As it was, I signed up the day after, three weeks before my car even arrived. So, no problem. I’ll just call and have ADAC come and jimmy open my car so that I can get my keys, and wallet, and… cell phone. Right. Just call. On my cell phone…

There was nothing for it. I turned to my right and accosted the first set of sunbathers who had the misfortune of setting up camp next to us. Three young women and a guy. It seemed a pretty good bet that one of them would have a cell phone and would be willing to help us out.

This all happened last summer, in August, shortly after Ben had arrived. He spoke no German. My German consisted of a crash course in the States, followed by a couple evening courses once I had arrived in country. It wasn’t very good. I stammered my way through the issue at hand. I knew the word for key (Schlüssel) and car (Auto) and figured that I could get across the fact that my Schlüssel was in my Auto and that I needed to call ADAC. Sure enough, one of the women was brave enough to try to communicate and got out her phone. She decided, wisely, that it would probably be better if she did the talking.

My cell phone (or Handy as it’s referred to in German) came pre-installed with a bunch of useless phone numbers, like a sports score line and company from which you can download games. But it also came with ADAC’s number, and I guess that was the case, too, with my new acquaintance. She dialed and then after a pause talked a bit, I assume explaining my issue. She asked if I was an ADAC card-carrying member. Yep. What was my membership number? Oh, well, yeah. That number was on my membership card. Which was tucked safely in my wallet. In the car. She relayed the information, paused, and turned back to me: “What’s your name?” I said it and spelled it out. They couldn’t find me in the database. My stomach tightened slightly.

But that didn’t seem to be a sticking point. She quizzed me on my car – make, color, license plate number. And then, where was it? I pointed to the rim of the quarry where cars lined the street. She started talking then turned to her friends in mid-sentence. What is this place called? It was true: we were at a quarry out in the middle of nowhere, off a small street that led out of a tiny village about a mile away. The friends helped. The nearby village was called Högling, a typically Bavarian name pronounced deep in the throat. The person on the other end seemed to know the quarry near Högling, and after a few more words the call was over. She looked at me and nodded. “He’s coming. But he’s at Chiemsee so it’ll be a while.” Chiemsee was a lake at least an hour away.

We thanked her and her friends for their help and went up to wait, slightly dryer by now, by the car. Time passed. The sun sank lower. People walked by us to their cars and sped away. Occasionally a new car would round the bend at the end of the street, raising our hopes anew, then dashing them as we realized it was not the ADAC man. It got colder. More and more people left. If the ADAC man didn’t show, we would have no one left to ask for help. The sun set.

Finally two headlights appeared and came creeping towards us, as if examining all the cars along the way. Our ADAC man at last! Without fuss, he slid a metal hook down along the window into the car doorframe. Click. And it was open. I showed him my ADAC card and he dutifully wrote down the membership number. I thanked him profusely for his assistance, but he just nodded nonchalantly; it was his job. Then he got back in his truck, we got in our newly unlocked car, and we all drove off.

Back at home, as Ben showered, I noticed something shiny under the bed. It was a key. A car key.