.The fascinating, symbolic and sentimental key.
He walked briskly, and I skipped to keep up. I stared at the faded outline of the wallet in his jeans pocket as we entered the shade of a covered outdoor hallway. I looked through the railing at the courtyard. I smelled fresh-mown grass. He threw a look back to make sure I was still following. I scurried past a blur of red doors, itching my head from the too-tight ponytail my mom had tied that morning.

I was seven years old. My dad’s massive set of keys was clipped to his belt. The keys glittered in the summer light and jangled against each other. He stopped at the last red door and grabbed at his jumble of keys. He fingered one and pulled. A thin chain wire tethered the key to the set, and the chain unspooled with a high, shirring sound.

A thin chain wire tethered the key to the set, and the chain unspooled with a high, shirring sound.

He fit the key in the doorknob and gave a leaning push to the right. The door clicked open.

I followed my dad in and felt a wave a cold air tickle my skin. I shivered as the goosebumps appeared. I squinted to find my dad in the darkness. It was a huge room, as big as a tennis court, with covered windows that had never been opened. I followed him through a maze of old coffee tables, stacks of chairs with avocado-colored upholstery, and tall laminate dressers with missing drawers and chipped corners. We emerged from the graveyard of furniture to reach a workbench that covered the whole length of a wall.

It was black, splattered with paint, and caked with the dirt and oil of decades. My dad picked me up and plopped me down on a stool. He reached into little cardboard boxes and walked from wall to wall grabbing tools. He examined some small metal thing and then threw it back into a different cardboard box. He made his way back to the workbench and reached into his pocket to pull out a key. The key was attached to a plastic keychain that was orange, flat and diamond-shaped. He set a shiny brass key on the table, flipped on a light switch, and positioned himself in front of the machine.

That was the first time I noticed the machine. Bolted down to the working bench, the machine had two parts. The shorter part was metal, plump, and the size of a baby watermelon with a rotating disc on one side. A rubber belt wrapped around the rotating disc and connected the squat part to a rotating wheel on the taller part. I stared at two tall metal knobs sticking out.

My dad dragged my stool closer to him so I could get a better view. He rotated the knobs to open and clamp the keys into the machine.

He plugged an oil-stained cord into the wall.
Instantly, the dim room whirred to life with a deep, thrumming vibration.
He plugged an oil-stained cord into the wall. Instantly, the dim room whirred to life with a deep, thrumming vibration.

A single bulb lit the workspace. I leaned in as he cut the keys. Metal cut metal with a piercing shriek. I cringed and shot backwards as my ears filled with the grinding sound. Glinting bits of brass cascaded off the grinding wheel. I opened my eyes wide. I was not going to miss any part of my dad working on this little machine. I admired the glittery shavings piling up under the knobs. Seconds later, the noise died and the keys were on the workbench: one new key and one old key, side by side.

He turned to ask, “Do you want to help?” I nodded. My dad lifted me to a working height at the bench. He grabbed a wooden box with metal number punches. He took one out, set the number side down on the head of the key, and handed me a hammer. I grabbed the hammer with both hands, lifted it high, and slammed it down. He pulled the peg away. An edge caught the light, and I saw the outline of our “1.” I grinned. My dad brushed out the rough edges.

We had made a brand-new key for Virginia Inn Motel, Room 101.

I spent my childhood at our family-owned motel. My siblings and I treated the motel like our giant backyard. Cleaning the pool at the Virginia Inn was my first real job. I had scrawled “pool key” on the baby-blue plastic keychain that held the tiny Masterlock keys. On summer mornings, I would walk to the gate of the chainlink fence that wrapped around the motel pool. Our family painted the fence white every other summer. I could see that it was chipping in places, but the paint job was holding up. I surveyed the water as I reached for the weighty chain and padlock. With a turn of the key, I opened it. I threaded the heavy chain back and locked it onto the fence as I swung open the gate. I walked the thirty-feet across the gray-painted cement patio towards my next lock. It was tiny and rusted. I stuck the key in and yanked open the warped door of the white pool shack. I stepped into the closet-sized space, where the pool pump hummed in the back corner. There were buckets of powdered chlorine strewn about, and my flip-flops ground into the spillover on the shack’s floor. I grabbed the clear plastic pH tester from the shelf.
There were buckets of powdered chlorine strewn
about, and my flip-flops ground into the spillover on the shack’s floor.

I knelt on the rounded brick edge of the pool and dipped the container until the water hit my forearm. This was my daily ritual. I even liked tossing the test water out—it made my job feel more official. I made the pool work. I made it sparkle and look pretty in the summer sunlight. I liked that I felt like a grown-up with real responsibilities. I liked that I wasn’t just the baby of the family.

I inherited the job from my big brother who had moved onto being my dad’s right-hand man around the motel. It was a nice step up for me, especially since it meant that I didn’t have to plead with my parents for money. I earned it. When I carried those keys, I had responsibilities. I had power. I was excited about growing up. I wanted it to go exactly as planned. I would to go to college, fall in love, establish my career, move into a house, get married, and have kids. At age 13, I was an expert in visualizing my perfect home. It would be a renovated two-story home with wood floors, shuttered windows, and a huge wrap-around deck. I even had a small garden where I could plant daffodils. I had the house down, but I couldn’t visualize the man of my dreams.

We entered through the automatic glass door of the local hardware store. A blast of the air conditioning blew my long hair back. I heard my favorite leather sandals flop onto the laminate tile floor. The annoying hum of fluorescent light bulbs filled my ears as we stood at a kiosk in the front of the store. I pushed the dark plastic edge of the kiosk to rotate and see another side—it eeked out an uneven squeak. I wanted to view all of my options. I scanned and sighed as I saw a wall of cheetah and zebra-print blanks. I glanced at my nails. I need to stop picking at my cuticles. I passed over the tie-dye and smiley faces before I finally spotted solid-colored blanks. I chose one red and one bright blue. I didn’t want the plain silver ones—this was a big deal.

As we waited for the copies to be made, I looked straight into his hazel green eyes. I was telekinetically begging my boyfriend to understand the gravity of this moment and why we were exchanging apartment keys. You WILL understand what this means. PLEASE understand what this means. He made brief eye contact and then went back to fiddling with gold-plated flag pins selling for a dollar on the nearby counter. I was entrusting him with access to my private life, and I was freaked. After one year and a recent rough patch in our relationship, it was fight or flight.

I was telekinetically begging my boyfriend to understand the gravity of this moment...

After we paid for the keys, we went to his place. We sat on the sagging futon in his living room. I tipped the little envelope, and the red and blue key slid out onto the coffee table. As he picked up and examined the blue key, he said, “This is big step.” YEEEESSSSSS, he gets it. I smiled and leaned over to give him a kiss.

He came in and out of my place all of time. We ate “family” dinners with my roommate and hung out on our deck. I kept his key on my keychain. I liked the red key mixed in with the boring silver and brass ones. In the two years we were together, I only used his key a handful of times.

He had a friend he always talked about, but I had never met her. I was jealous, but I didn’t want it to show. I didn’t want to be that crazy girlfriend. Instead, the few times I did come over to his apartment, we arranged it, or I called ahead first. I did not want to see what was there if I showed up out of the blue.

I was good at sidestepping our problems, avoiding conversations that would cause riffs. I remember the afternoon I was forced to deal with the doubts pervading my mind.

My best friend, Erika called out to me from her bedroom. I crossed the living room and leaned on the open doorway.

“Hi,” she said. She sat on the floor, folding a pile of laundry.

“Hey! How’s it going?” I asked.

“Um…” she looked down, “I was downtown on Friday, and I ran into Martha. We started talking and she asked if you and Josh were still dating.”

“Oh, that’s kind of weird.” I stood up straight.

“Yeah, I thought it was kind of random too. She asked because she said that he and Jenny had been dating for a bit in the beginning of the summer.”

I stared at her.

“Ann,” she said, “I don’t know if it’s true, but I thought you should know.”

All the color drained from my face. I don’t even remember what I said back to her. I just turned and walked into my room. I spent the afternoon by myself. I lost it. I screamed at the top of my lungs while beating the crap out of my mattress.

I lost it. I screamed at the top of my lungs while beating the crap out of my mattress.

I didn’t know what else to do. Erika came in later in the evening to find me cocooned in my bed in quiet mourning. If I had been brave enough to face the issues in our relationship, I would have gone over unannounced to his place whenever I damn well wanted to. The key had given me access to a truth I couldn’t face.

I like to walk under the shade of trees, close my eyes, and feel the flicker of sun and shade on my eyelids. I was doing this, while linking arms with my friend Raja, through blocks of suburban houses with manicured lawns. I had accepted a spot at the MFA Graphic Design program in Baltimore. I was going to leave San Francisco. Raja and I strolled along catching up with one another.

I said, “Raja, seriously, this guy is twenty-eight and calls his parents his ‘roommates’! What the hell? What do I even say to that?”

She asked, “So what did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything. I just forced a polite smile and shoved some food in my mouth.”

I grinned and continued. “I swear, he said that, and I was pretending to yawn at seven pm. I was obsessively looking at my watch counting the seconds to when I could get the hell out of there.” I shot her a look of exasperated finality and added, “OHhhh, no wait. I didn’t tell you the best part. He picked me up in his little Subaru to the sounds of Christmas music…in July.”

“OHhhh, no wait. I didn’t tell you the best part. He picked me up in his little Subaru to the sounds of Christmas music…in July.”

She laughed and asked, “Wait, like Jingle Bells?”

“No,” I said, “more like Silent Night…classy, right?” We looked at each other and busted out laughing.

We rounded a corner, and I felt the heat of the sun on my black hair. I told her what I knew about my coming life in Baltimore. The small size of the program, the new studio, the insanely nice people, and I noticed that I was walking faster and faster. Raja stayed next to me. She has these big, almond-shaped eyes with pristine whites and deep brown, almost black, irises. I noticed she had layers of thick lashes when she turned to me and said, “I’m happy for you.” I slowed down to a stroll. I stared at the cement. Flecks of shiny rocks in the sidewalk reflected the light. The flecks had hypnotized me when I caught the flash of a tiny metal key. Cheap, small and shiny, it was the kind of key that would open up a diary lock and not much else. I did not stop, I did not pick it up, and I did not point it out to Raja. Just as quickly as I looked down, I looked back up and kept walking.

I called him the morning of his flight. He asked, “What should I wear?” I could tell he was nervous. In March, I exhibited my designs in the gallery of my school as I worked to finish my Graphic Design MFA program in Baltimore. My dad had flown from Kansas to help me with the show.

I met him in my gallery space. He pulled out a giant box filled with all the ephemera of the back room in the motel lobby. I lifted back a flap and rummaged through. I could feel the metal dust and dirt build up on my hands. The scent of metallic residue entered my nose.

I could feel the metal dust and dirt build up on my hands. The scent of metallic residue entered my nose.

My dad took out all the cardboard boxes, locks and doorknobs he had brought. He set them out on our workbench. I untied the clear cellophane bags and dumped the contents out onto the workbench so we could see everything at once. I found groups of key chains with scratch pieces of paper taped around their heads. He had labeled them in his scrawl: “Unknown Key 6-6-08,” “Motel Storage Rm 6-4-08,” and “Lobby Door for Apt.”

He stood across from me and passed me the room keys. Room 108 was the first to go up on the pegboard. We hung them up until 101-116 were lined up across the board.

My dad called out to me. I looked up. He lifted a set of keys with a square-ish orange keychain. I laughed. I could see the geometric head of a key with a squat cylinder body. He had found the keys to the motel’s vending machine.

In the summertime, my sister, brother, and I would spend entire days at the pool. Growing up, most little kids go to the public pool—we went to the motel pool. We were good at occupying ourselves, racing each other from one end to the other, diving for pennies and playing Marco Polo, but by mid-afternoon we would be starving.

The three of us would run barefoot across the grassy courtyard and through a strip of cement sidewalk blazing from the summer sun. The door to the motel lobby was heavy. My big sister had to use her whole body to pull it open enough to get the three of us through. We’d stand there barefoot on the cold ceramic tile. We were still in our swimsuits, dripping from the pool, and shivering from the blasting air conditioner.

We were still in our swimsuits, dripping from the pool, and shivering from the blasting air conditioner.
I looked to my sister to start. She played nice, starting with a “Can we please?” and a smile. My brother repeated, “Please, please, please,” like a broken record. I would add in a well-timed, emphatic nod and use my best puppy eyes.

My dad was always the pushover. He would listen to one round of pleading and then go into the backroom of the lobby to retrieve the vending-machine keys. But my mom really made us work for it. She would cross her arms and shake her head from side to side and say, “You guys just ate lunch. You don’t need a snack.”

We would let out a collective whine, and my sister would protest and say, “Nuh uh, it’s been two hours, and I didn’t finish my sandwich and neither did Ann.” My sister looked my way. I nodded in agreement. My mom made us plead and wait, but she too would eventually give in and hand over the keys to my sister.

We scrambled like hungry puppies to get to the vending machine. My sister would put in the key, rotate it a half turn to the right, and a skinny 6-inch metal plate popped forward. She rotated the plate a half turn to the right, and it became the door handle to swing open the glass front of the vending machine. We were only allowed one snack each. I always snagged a bag of crunchy Cheetos. The fluorescent orange powder would coat my whole hand as I reached in for my first knobby chip…

Seeing my dad hold up that keychain was like being eight years old again, begging my parents for a treat. I laughed to myself as I hung up the vending-machine keychain onto the pegboard.

On opening night, my dad and I looked at each other.

“You ready?” I asked. I was already sweating.

He gave a nod, and I stepped on the switch of the extension cord. People milled about the gallery, and the noise of our engine turned a few heads. A cup of shiny brass keys sat within easy reach of my dad. He picked up a key and clamped it into the machine. He adjusted the key’s placement.

My dad had neatly combed his hair. His striped white dress shirt looked crisp underneath his dark gray sweater vest. I worried that he would get too hot in the gallery. I scanned the area to find his water bottle in case he needed a drink, and suddenly a screeeeceee echoed through the gallery. I jumped. I can’t believe the metal cutting still scares me even after all of these years. I looked across the gallery and could see other people trying to figure out what was causing the sound. He cut about a quarter of the key before he looked up at me. He shouted, “It’s still really loud!” I nodded. I watched the metal shavings float down into a soft pile onto the white workbench. The screeching finally stopped and he unclamped the key. He passed it over to me to finish. I picked up a brush and worked to smooth out the freshly cut edges. I grabbed a baby envelope, dropped in the key, and handed it to the first person in line.

“So what does this open?” she asked.

I replied, “Room 101 at the Virginia Inn in Lawrence, Kansas.”

“No kidding, for real?!” she asked.

I said, “No kidding.”

She brought in the key a little closer to her chest as she voiced her thank you’s to my dad and me. My dad gave a kind smile and nod in return. As we prepared to make the next key, I looked over at the key machine. The bright brass key sat next to the original, rusted key—two working keys, side by side, one old and one young.