Somebody keyed my newly acquired, spit-polish, fire-mist red 2006 Mazda 3 with the manual windows and Sirius radio left by the previous owner.
“Keying” had not been in my vocabulary—or anyone’s until recently. I believe no one in the 1950s conjugated what is now a verb: “I key, you key, he keys, we key, you (pl.) key, they key.”
It took my breath away. At first one doesn’t even notice but sees only the perfection: neither ping nor blemish. Belatedly the eye is drawn to a thin horizontal ribbon almost nonchalantly etched along the side of the car, as if by an absentminded child at play, from right tail light, across gas cap, and continuing through the rear passenger door.
The mind scrambles for comprehension. It is the same kind of perplexity I imagine experienced in the final dazed seconds of a person looking down the barrel of a smoking gun held by his lover that has just discharged into his abdomen. “What?”
“Gratuitous” is a word I know better: “given unearned or without recompense; not involving a return benefit, compensation, or consideration.” This is it! What arrests the respiration is that the act of keying has so little motive and so little payoff. Inasmuch as I am a stranger to the person who idly ran the sharp point of his key along my car, his effort has not even the thrill of revenge to recommend it. And if his exertion was minimal, so was his “return benefit” or “compensation.”
One hears of the acid-throwing practice in Muslim countries: women’s pretty faces disfigured as punishment by some disgruntled husband. There is a chilling quality to the asymmetry of instantaneous act and irreversible marring of beauty. I believe I am right to find it obscene, even in a six-year-old Mazda, because God is a God of beauty. He commissioned the temple’s pillars to be festooned with “pomegranates in two rows around the one latticework to cover the capital” (1 Kings 7:18). Talk about gratuitous.
Someone I know who saw The Dark Knight Rises said what terrified her was that the villain had no motive. We want to argue with her: “Come on, of course he had a motive; you just couldn’t figure it out but surely he had one!” But maybe it’s true.
I can’t speak for Gotham’s Bane, but what of Camus’ Meursault, who empties a revolver into a man on the beach, because the sun is beating on him? And is it revenge or bloodless “keying” behind Othello’s Iago, whom Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls “motiveless malignity”? The best that Shakespeare’s villain can say to satisfy our desperate need to know is: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”
The keyer of my car (Is that a proper noun?) “never will speak word” to me about his rationale—which is perhaps a delightful collateral bonus for him, a milking it twice. Or perhaps he even forgot he did the deed five minutes later. Emperor Caligula once had a few seats of spectators at the arena thrown into the tiger’s pit because there were not enough condemned criminals and he was bored.
“In the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, … ungrateful, unholy, heartless, … without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4).
Keying is a very little thing that tells a lot. It is the silver serving trolley that rolls a couple of feet, unnoticed, on the Titanic. It is the old collie looking up from his nap a half hour before the tornado. It is the dead canary warning miners there is methane in the shaft. It shows, ahead of the pundits and philosophers, that civilization has taken a decisive turn.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) said of every species: “His aim can only be to stick around as long as possible, to have some fun while he’s at it, and, if he happens to be a moral agent as well, to worry about staying the course with honor” (Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville).
Or maybe skip the moral part and just have fun.