Stuart turned his beat Cutlass off King St and onto the dirt driveway to his tiny, square tower house up on the hill. He parked and opened the car door slowly, ever hopeful that he could ease it noiselessly past the point where it creaks once, and loudly, like one nerve-jangling dog bark. It barked anyway and he cringed as always. He got out of the car as if reluctantly, then reached back in and pulled out his lunch box. He turned and paused, leaned back some to take in all three stories of his house, shook his head.
Just two years ago when he was building the house, he had been so enthused with it, had made it plain on purpose, not only because he had little money after his divorce, but because a tower should be plain. He’d used his employee discount at Ray’s Lumber and Supply for most of the building materials and he’d bought everything else at auctions. One particularly fruitful haul consisted of thirty-four used warehouse windows, narrow, rectangular ones, and he’d installed them uniformly on all sides. Now the place looked ridiculous to him, like a skinny bird house with gun slits.
He had once prided himself on his design for the interior of the house, on the openness, the open, zig-zagging stairs and the landings onto balconies with only folding fabric screens and rough, sturdy beams to create spaces instead of rooms. The only enclosed room was a bathroom barely big enough to fit within it a bathtub, toilet and sink. He’d thought the design the most innovative thing he’d ever done, and the property a boon, just far enough from town in a country setting where he could enjoy a measure of peace. Now he considered the whole project only another of his many follies.
Stuart shook his head again, shut the car door, and cringed when it barked. He walked slowly up the sad, overgrown path to his plain front door. He turned his key in the lock, stepped inside and set his lunch box against the wall, under the coat hooks. He let his jacket slide off his shoulders and hung it and his keys on their usual hooks. He paused again in thought, his empty eyes cast down. The morning’s court custody battle had culminated three years of war with a decree against him. His house, his actions, everything about him was deemed unfit. Sole custody of Ellie, now seven, had been awarded to his ex-wife. And his afternoon’s work at Ray’s had been as dreary and devoid of fulfillment as ever.
He looked around him as if befuddled, noticed his lunch box on the floor, and bent mechanically to pick it up. He shambled into the kitchen area, poured a can of split pea soup into a pot and let it heat while he dumped the empty wrappers from his lunch box and ran a dish rag around the inside of it to clean it up some. Then he poured the pea soup into a giant-sized mug, stuck a spoon in it, and climbed the stairs to his office area on the third floor. He sat down at his desk, sipped his soup and stared out one of the gun slits at a long stretch of road at the foot of his hill, Sterling Road it was, that cut through miles of fields of corn and soybeans and wheat and oats. A lone power-walker strutted purposefully along Sterling toward King, her arms pumping like a cartoon soldier, her shiny ponytail bouncing. Stuart’s eyes brightened as the light of an idea began to spread out into a plan.
He pulled open the bottom right desk drawer and took care in lifting out a painted tin box full of old keys he’d collected since he was a boy. Ellie had loved to play with them until she’d swallowed one when he wasn’t looking and he’d had to hide them away. There were larger keys to old closets and cabinets and desks belonging to an untold number of people, good and bad people, people who worked hard or not at all, and all of them now dead and gone. And there were smaller keys, keys that he fancied had once belonged to lovely women and pretty little girls to keep their precious jewels and innermost thoughts safe in boxes and diaries. Stuart imagined these sweet, secret keys worn on delicate gold chains around pale necks, close to bosoms where no decent man would dare venture uninvited.
He plunged both hands into the box of keys, felt their cool shapes slide between his fingers. Then, like scooping water, he lifted the keys up out of the box a little way and he watched, eyes aglow, as he let the keys cascade back in. He smiled barely, wistfully, as he listened to the keys clink and slide and tap into each other and against the sides of the tin box. He picked out one of the larger keys, set it on the ink blotter and returned the tin box to the bottom drawer.
He opened the next drawer up, pulled out a small cardboard box with “Ellie” scrawled on the top of it in awkward pencil marks, and he set it down in front of him. He opened the box and pushed one finger around inside it, through a shimmering mixture of rhinestones and plastic pearls and colored beads, until his eyes glazed over. Then, as if an alarm had gone off in his head, he blinked and plucked out six medium-sized rhinestones, two blue ones for him, two red ones for his future wife, and two gold ones for his future child. He set them aside, dug through another drawer, and pulled out a bottle of super glue and a pair of tweezers. He put three dots of glue around the bow of the key, and with the tweezers, he placed one set of blue, red, and gold gems on the dots like a jeweler working on the microscopic gears of a tiny, ladies’ watch. When he was sure the glue had set, he did the same on the other side of the key bow.
He sat back in his chair and grinned, genuinely pleased with his handiwork. Later, when he went on his run just before dark, he’d place the jeweled key on the shoulder of Sterling Road where the corn and wheat fields were divided by a tree line. The next day, he’d wake just before sunrise, don his running gear and sit at his desk in front of the gun slit, watching with his binoculars to see if anyone would pick up the jeweled key. If a woman noticed the key, stopped to pick it up, looked at it and tossed it back to the ground or just stuffed it in her pocket callously, or if a man picked it up, he’d pay no mind.
But if a woman stopped to pick up the key with an air of mystery and excitement and she examined it with wonder, turned it over in her fingers, and even though she could see the jewels were fake, she seemed still to covet the key, perhaps as a child’s lovely creation, then he would run out of the house in whatever direction it took to meet her head-on to effect a chance encounter. And he planned to do this every day for as long as it took to find a woman who would equally covet him and the child she’d bear for him so that she could never part with either of them.
On good recommendation from one sweet key, Paschal, here is Bryan Ferry doing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” perfect for this piece. Full version of Ferry’s cover is here. CCR’s version is hot, too.
Missalister’s “If jewels could yearn,” copyright © 2009, was spun off the Sunday Scribblings prompt “#179 – Key” Click here for more on prompt #179 from other Sunday Scribblings participants.