“Where are my keys?”
A whole family question that James dad asked at least once a week. A question hoping for answers it didn’t get from the back room where James mother separated the unmentionables from the clothes you could talk about, from the upstairs bathroom where his sister committed early crimes of beauty or from the back steps where James sat now.
James knew where the keys were supposed to be—on top of the hall table with the inkless pens, partly gone-over fruit, the math book with unreasonable fractions, overstretched hair bands, and the dusty cardinal
salt n pepper shakers that his mother only used on red-themed holidays.
Next to and just above this scatter of unrelated things made by related people was a key hanger from Aunt Cindy, a rectangular plaque with metal hooks and “Keys” carved or maybe burnt into the wood, perhaps so it might never be mistaken for a tie rack. The only keys hanging on it were to things that were lost or broken. Despite its nearly vacant purpose, Aunt Cindy’s gift would not be removed, not as long as she came to visit and would notice. IF there was a next Aunt Cindy visit, now that James parents had decided to be-apart-for-awhile-because-they-had-to-think-about-things-James.
“Keys? Little help…anybody?”
His father sounded more needle-y now as if turning up his voice would guarantee a response. It didn’t. James thought about another easier time when no one knew where the keys were. His sister found them in the refrigerator lying right on top of the mozzarella. “Moz-za-REL-la,” James spoke a little bit out loud. It was a good word to say, especially all by itself with no other words near it, the best was the “REL” part. “Moz-za-REL-la,” James repeated as he walked away from the house of unanswered questions and into a morning shined up by the night’s rain. He thought the thoughts of a boy on his own time….
…Like how good cereal tastes when you first put milk on it but doesn’t even one minute later when the milk gets too far into it. How balloons lose a lot of air even if you keep them in your room in the closet and nobody touches them overnight. How cats could change their minds about liking you in two seconds but dogs couldn’t. And then, because his sneaker lace loops were too big, James tripped and fell.
James didn’t cry. In 4th grade the ground isn’t such a long way to fall yet and besides, no one was around to see. Instead, James took the accidental opportunity to get where he already wanted to go which was level with a cool, soaked earth. A water bug danced on a puddle nearby. James tried to go eye to eye with it until he realized he didn’t know where its bug eyes were. Before he could figure it out, the bug lifted off into sunlight too bright to show James where it went. He accepted it with unselfconscious awe and no regret.
James sneaker was already up to the next thing, toeing a hole into the wet ground two paces beyond Mr. Murphy’s crabapple bush. The number of paces was how a pirate gave directions to his long buried treasure. Paces were Genius! to James because, even if a dirty map thief came along, the only way he could find the treasure is if he had the exact same size feet as the pirate who buried it. James didn’t need a map because his feet wouldn’t be the same size next year as they were today and because he didn’t want to come back.
The dirt of the treasure hole got drier as it got deeper and more stubborn. James put his full attention into the work, his young brow decorated with scuds of dirt and sweat-made mud wiped from the back of his hands.
He wanted the keys to go away for good, to trust this hole with no reminders of how to find it again. Because if the keys disappeared without paces or pirates, even if James had to hide his stealing inside for all eternity plus one day, it would all be worth it to keep his dad…home asking whole family questions, in regular and sharp tones if he wanted, on or off holidays with red themes and salt n pepper birds. The keys dropped from James hand like the last tear of someone tired crying, down into a hole that had to be quiet forever.
As James was covering the keys as fast as he could so he could begin to forget where they were, his father stopped asking questions. Instead, James father began looking and feeling among the still life of discards on the hall table. In the time it takes to break a heart, he lifted the math book of unreasonable fractions and picked up his wife’s extra set of keys.