The Key of Z: #5

Norm Gibbons

The woman who owned the typewriter was a good friend of my aunt. Actually, they were lovers, but I only found that out later in life. When I was a child, they came over for Sunday dinners quite often. One evening I absented myself from the table, giving the excuse that a book report on the novel, Treasure Island, written by Robert Louis Stevenson, was due next morning. My aunt’s good friend asked if I was far along in the project. I told her it was finished. All I needed to do was type the thing. Then my aunt’s good friend asked how long it would take to type my report. I said a couple of days. Since she had her typewriter in my aunt’s new 1949 Austin A-40, she offered to type the report. Not wanting to impose, I said thanks for the offer, but I could manage just fine, which I knew I couldn’t.

Without consulting me further, my aunt’s good friend ran out to the Austin A-40 and brought back her typewriter. She sat down at the dining table while my aunt and my mother washed the dishes. My aunt’s good friend pulled out a roll of typewriter paper, rubbed her hands together and said, “Give me your report.”

“There’s tons of mistakes. I should correct them first,” I said.

“I’ll edit as I go.” She was a big woman with horn-rimmed glasses, thin lips and very red lipstick.

“But I’ve got fourteen pages,” I said. “It’ll take way too much time.”

Then my aunt poked her head out of the kitchen and said, “Ellen loves to type.”

My aunt’s good friend organized the report pages into numerical order, as I had mixed them up. She lit a cigarette and said,  “When I say ‘Now,’ you turn a page.”

A little surprised, I realized that the typing paper came as a roll. She fed the roll into the carriage and in the blink of an eye I saw “A Book Report on Treasure Island by Ralph Wilson.” I blinked twice more and she said, “Now,” so I turned the page as quick as I could. Fifteen minutes later the report was done.  My aunt’s good friend then whipped out a razor blade and sliced the roll at the end. She rolled  the report up nice and neat. It looked like a diploma.

She packed up her typewriter and said, “I liked that you didn’t have too many Z’s in your report.”

Not knowing what she meant, I asked, “”What’s the matter with Z’s?”

She unpacked her typewriter again and said, “Tell me where the Z is.”

I looked and saw it in the middle of the top row. As it looked like a good place, I answered, “It’s easy to get at there.”

“Ralph,” she said, “tell me why a letter like Z should be in an easy place.”

My aunt’s good friend didn’t let me answer, which was just as well because I didn’t have the answer.

“Z is a letter that gets used seldom, so it should be in a more difficult spot.”

I thought that made sense, especially if you could type the way she could.

She asked, “What letter do you think  Z  should be traded with?”

I didn’t have a clue.

My aunt’s good friend said, “Y.”


Over the years I kept track of my aunt and her good friend. They moved to New York City. My aunt got a job there as a teacher and her good friend got a job at the United Nations typing transcriptions. We heard that she entered a typing contest and won hands down; in fact, she set a world’s record, which was something like 160 words a minute, or maybe it was 260.

Later, I found out that she was disqualified because my aunt’s good friend had switched the Z key for the Y key, which gave her an advantage over the other contestants. I guess her name got a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Not long after that my aunt wrote a sad letter and told us that her good friend had committed suicide.

The other day I looked at the keyboard on a tech guy’s computer, while I vacuumed the rugs, and noticed that the Z key was way down in the bottom left hand corner, and the Y key exactly where my aunt’s good friend thought it should be.


Author’s note: Many times an anonymous, unidentified black and white photograph suggests a story. I’m working on a B & W series.