Originally published on Thumpcity.com

Three Keys

She was starting to feel like the woman of a thousand keys. Her worn red leather Coach wallet contained exactly 32 separate keys to other people's houses, apartments and condos. As a semi-professional house/pet/plant sitter, Joanna Greenberg had one of those "responsible" type of faces which gave her a trustworthy air. Only lately, she was feeling weighed down by all the keys--it gave new meaning to the term "heavy metal" and she could totally empathize with school custodians and building superintendents clanking around with their massive keyrings containing bits of metal that unlocked secret doors into other worlds. Worlds that contained lives within lives and worlds that were inhabited by surreal tableaus; overflowing ashtrays, clutter gathering in cobwebbed corners and some worlds that could fit on the head of a pin in their anal neatness. Personalities assaulted her in the form of lime green shag carpets and Pottery Barn room replicas of pg. 72 of this month's mail-order catalog. As if one could mail-order a life so cozy and chic, yet at the same time undeniably bland and safe.

An expression she'd come to abhor, probably as a direct result of her occupation, was "Take Care"; it was how many of her clients signed their notes with instructions on how much Fluffy would eat in a given day or how the spider plant desperately needed reviving and could she "..be a love and add a few drops of Miracle Gro every third day, pretty please?" She cherished the colorful touches of flamboyancy that her gay clients added. One couple left snapshots of their kitties with brief personality profiles. She supposed these were her favorite moments--bursts of sweetness added in amongst the often dull routine. And they never signed signed these missives with the impersonal to the point of rudeness phrase that now made her wince. Take Care--wasn't that redundant? After all--that's what all these jobs were about were they not? It was excessive and yet almost infuriatingly noncommittal at the same time.

Once, during a dusty yet awe-inspiringly beautiful trip to Greece, she'd come upon a unique key in a jewelry shop on the island of Santorini, famed for its black sand beaches and its hush-hush rep as a long-ago Jackie O. hideaway oasis. This particular key was silver and ornate and the older woman shopkeeper, wearing traditional Greek black (was it the national uniform?), noticed her admiring it and pulled her aside conspiratorially, whispering in an accented and breathy-grave tone, "That is the Key to Happiness". When happiness' price was haggled over until mutual satisfaction, Joanna had won the token which she'd carried home with her over the Mediterranean and then worn on a chain as a pendant. For awhile, she'd even harbored fantasies that it would someday unlock the secrets of her future lover's heart. Schoolgirl stuff that had been shattered when the head broke from the shank leaving her happiness mojo symbol cleft in two.

In high school she'd worked the obligatory retail mall jobs and became the "third key" a position imbued with the dubious honor of having an extra key in case both the Manager and Assistant Manager happened to be hung over at the same time. An altogether frequent occurrence as it happened, especially when her 16-yr.-old form of transportation at the time did not include a set of keys but rather a well-worn bus pass. The third key position, which her parents had beamed briefly about and then gone back to watching Dateline, had been the beginning of this affair with the keys. Or the beginning of the "Key Karma" as she sometimes liked to think of it. With all this key karma she figured at least one of these keys would lead to a Pandora's box of forbidden yet interesting treasures. Never a stranger to irony and symbols, she translated things into keys sometimes just for amusement. For example, the third finger on the hand, or key, was the middle finger aka the bird. She made ! up riddles and poems for herself.. "The bird is the third key and the key to happiness broke in two making happiness split itself into a head and a body. The second key points to the other keys on the keyboard--key...bored." This frivolous sort of wordplay was an attempt to assign meaning to the meaningless and to give her brain cells a task other than figuring out how to muffle the sounds of metal clicking against metal.

Each time she added a new key or set of keys to her ever-growing collection, she'd feel it in her hand--its solidness, its cool sharp edges. She fancied herself a key clairvoyant. Sometimes when she touched a new key she'd be inundated with a rush of images, colors, sounds and snippets of conversation. It was if she were able to decode the vibrations held by the metal, just like those psychics on TV who could hold an object of a dead loved one and then with all sincerity tell the bereaved, tear-streaming face before them the tiniest of details that seemed impossible to know. It was a fascinating yet fleeting sensation and it would pass as quickly as it arrived leaving only a residue of a memory behind. Maybe the key to her destiny was hidden in these moments. She could be a key reader--reading lives rather than deaths. She'd looked it up once... psychometry... something about reading the energy of things. She did know for a fact that objects, like people, had an energy that could be read. If Russian telekinetics could bend spoons just by intense thought concentration then maybe she could bend keys into a life of her own by simply willing it to be so.

In the meantime, she waited. She waited for the one key that would turn all the locked places in her life. The one that would be the equivalent of an epiphany worthy of E=MC2 or if not that profound then something softer but equally powerful in its revelatory quality. She didn't necessarily need the grandiosity of an AHA! or a EUREKA! Maybe just a humbling, "oh." As she studied the keys more closely she saw that some were more worn than others and some had the shiny glare of having come freshly made from the hardware store--a set made especially for her. Keys with no history yet. She had a few of those thicker dorm style ones that had dire warnings of the illegality of duplication. Just like the warnings on mattress tags that everyone ignored except to make the occasional passing "mattress police" joke.

Joanna often wondered at that first stoner store manager who'd decided to so casually pass on the power and burden of her third key status. What if the decision that had imprinted her life in such a way, shaping it with its own grooves and sharp places, had been a mistake? What if, rather than a destined quirk, it had been a drug-induced prank? Give the kid a key and let her feel important so we can go off and party like cheetahs smoking our faces off and boozing it up until the dawn yawns back at us? No matter. It was all part of a bigger picture and the details were unimportant. This path had chosen her, hell, even the keys, themselves, had chosen her in a manner of speaking. She'd go on watering and feeding and walking and locking up and unlocking strangers' doors. The keys were her passport to other places. And the other places were the keys to her mystery.

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