Before arriving on the island, the narrator lived in Boston, which in her retrospective account seems hardly less opaque and strange. The American-born only child of Ethiopian parents, she grew up alone with her father in a basement apartment that “never smelled like anything because we didn’t cook anything that smelled.” As a child, she already felt stranded, she recalls. “I would follow his progress as he heated up coffee or smoked and wonder how it was possible that we were here, together, in this place.”
Moving through the world, a solitary soul now in high school, she maintains a practiced skepticism—rigorously aimed at her own perceptions, not just others’. Her detachment runs deep, and lends her story the feel of an allegory of alienation and hybrid identity. At 15, she says, “I might have actually believed my parents and myself to be the only Ethiopians in the world. The concept of ‘Ethiopia’ seemed too fantastical to entertain as anything but a lovely origin story.” It’s as if the distance from the old world renders the reality of the new one suspect; the very concept of place is elusive.
Not that the narrator has found people any easier to feel tethered to. She’s a loner at school, and doesn’t seem to have a social life outside it. She and her father never speak of her unnamed mother, who disappeared when she was 6. Meanwhile, the primary character who does have a name is a mystery on every level. The narrator meets him almost by accident, and her rootless life is abruptly transformed. Wandering around the city after school one day, she hears some men speaking Amharic and stops to talk. Ayale, their apparent leader, is the eponymous parking lot attendant, somewhere between the age of 35 and 50, “his face this side of perfect.”
Their chance encounter is the catalyst for an inspired meld of the teenager-meets-mentor plot and a noir-ish mystery, as the narrator eagerly trades solitude for status as an Ayale-acolyte. Her first reaction is to be stunned by Ayale’s apparent omniscience: He seems familiar with intimate details about every Ethiopian in the Boston area, her father included. He is the self-styled ruler of a place as foreign to the narrator as the mother country itself: Ethiopian Boston. Suddenly, she has access to the lives of people outside her muted home; from Ayale, she hears their stories and their woes. To know so much about so many seems both dangerous and important—as context for her own life, and as a way to connect with the larger world. Sheepishly, then unabashedly, she becomes a fixture on the lot, the sole young woman among Ayale’s many male “disciples.”
Time and again, his magnetism overpowers her doubts. Convinced that he can read her thoughts, she dreams “of a God with Ayale’s face,” mistaking this reverence for growth. “What I saw,” she recounts, “was being remolded into what Ayale wanted me to see, a state that I defined as ‘adulthood.’” He conscripts her as a messenger and, without knowing what’s inside, she delivers packages to members of the community. But as Ethiopians around Boston start dying, one by one, the mysteries deepen. The consequences of what the narrator is not seeing may be rather dire. Is Ayale connected to these deaths? And if so, is the narrator?