They took away every stitch of her clothing, cut off her long, glossy black ponytail, and pared her fingernails down to the quick. It was strange that they left her the keys — two small, twisted, lead-colored keys that hung between her breasts from a string around her neck. Her name was Anya, and she never answered our questions about the keys.
We knew she came from Radawiec, a small Polish town near Lublin, but that was all we knew. Anya spoke little, did what she had to do, and, like all of us, tried to survive.
I was thirteen, the youngest in the Women’s Labor Division of the Lodz concentration camp. My age earned me no special privileges. I was worked to exhaustion every day and had no energy left for thoughts and ideas. But Anya’s keys fascinated me. Day by day, the string holding them grew filthier and shorter as Anya retied the frayed ends, until it was just a choker around her thin neck. I eyed the keys whenever I could and wondered about them endlessly: Why had Anya been allowed to keep them? What secret lock did they fit?
Every morning on our way to our labor site and each night as we returned, I looked to see if the keys were still around Anya’s neck. I lived in fear that they would somehow disappear or be taken from her. I stayed close to Anya, hoping she would think I was a friend, that someday she would show me the lock the keys would open. But Anya was a loner who kept her own counsel.
The winter weather and deprivation made many of us ill, but there was no thought of rest. We knew the Nazis had no use for the weak or the sick, so we got up from our bunks each morning, fevers or no, and joined the breakfast line to receive our lukewarm soup. One morning, Anya was missing from her place in line. All day I worried. No one knew anything. She wasn’t in the barracks when we returned. I fell into my bunk feverish with concern and sickness.
I woke to the shrill wake-up signal, my entire body aching. I reached up to rub my stiff neck, and on a string around it were Anya’s keys. Ill as I was, the mystery of their presence distracted me from my pain — Anya had disappeared and left me her keys — and I was able to force myself out of bed and into the food line.
We survivors were liberated that spring by the Americans. After I was released from the hospital, where I had recovered from pneumonia, I had one goal in mind: to go to Anya’s town and find the lock that the keys fit.
In Radawiec, I searched in a frenzy. I tried every lock I could find, some rusted beyond use. I looked for boxes, chests, drawers — anything with a keyhole. I dug, looking for a hidden chest. I asked a million questions of everyone I met, but no one had ever heard of Anya.
Today the keys hang on a silver chain around my neck, cleaned and polished and restored to their former shape. I have returned to Poland seven times and still dream of finding the lock Anya’s keys will open.
Los Angeles, California
After eight years of starving and scrounging as a college student, I was finally employed, a software engineer in Silicon Valley, making more money than any of my classmates. I had never been terribly materialistic, but in no time I ran two credit cards to the limit, buying everything I’d ever wanted but couldn’t afford. Before long, I had so many things piled in my closets and garage that I couldn’t keep track of them all. I found myself buying duplicates of things I already had. It was scary. Just how scary didn’t really hit home until I moved in with Darren.
Darren had things it had never even occurred to me to want. He had two cars: a Saab with leather upholstery and a Blazer for weekend skiing and boating trips, both outfitted with every option and gadget you could imagine. (I’d been excited just to own a car with air conditioning.) He had an enormous home-entertainment system with shelves of CDs, tapes, and videos. He had a top-of-the-line racing bicycle, a full set of skiing equipment, a Hobie Cat sailboat, and a hang glider, none of which he’d used more than a dozen times. His wardrobe was impressive, his computer awe-inspiring. He insisted on having the latest, the newest, the most high-tech version of everything, and it all had to match.
But Darren was worried about theft, even the slightest possibility of it. He never went on a bike ride without his lock (his bike, with accessories, was worth more than two thousand dollars). Getting ready for a ski trip involved carefully locking all the equipment to special attachments on the roof of his car. And if you ever made the mistake of walking within ten feet of Darren’s car, an electronic voice would menacingly tell you to back off.
With all of these locks, alarm systems, and storage devices, Darren carried a truly impressive set of keys, a bundle nearly as large as a softball. One night, we had some friends over for dinner, and one of them kidded him about it: “So, Darren,” he said, “you got a night job as a janitor, or what?”
Darren stared at him for a moment, then solemnly drew the keychain from his pocket, laid it carefully on the dinner table, and began to read the rosary: ignition key, trunk key, electronic-alarm key, key to the ski rack, the bike rack, the alloy wheel rims, the stereo front panel, the ten-disc CD player. At first there was laughter, but it slowly died down as the list went on and on: he was dead serious about this. I realized with relief that I would never be able to care that much about my possessions.
Walnut Creek, California
I don’t remember locking anything in the sixties and seventies — not communal houses, not cars, not bathroom doors. I remember working very hard at part-time jobs that paid in cash, living poor, resisting war taxes, and not owning much of anything that anyone would want to steal.
When one of the friends in our household became ill with cancer at age twenty-seven, the rest of us pulled together, pooled our resources, and nursed him for eight months, staying with him day and night in the hospital and making it possible for him to die at home, surrounded by love and friendship. After his death, we took the insurance money and bought land in the backwoods of Maine, dug a garden, and built a house with our hands. The doors had beautiful handles made of curved branches and roots, and none of them had locks; none of us carried keys.
Several years later, after another death and other changes, I moved to New York City, where every door had several locks, each with a different key that turned in a different direction a different number of times. I spent the first few months terrified — not that someone would break in, but that I would inadvertently lock myself out. Each night, I felt like an obvious target for muggers as I fumbled with my heavy clump of keys. Eventually, I got more or less used to locking everything.
Now I’m almost fifty years old, and I can never seem to remember where I put my keys. My husband keeps muttering that there must be a therapy for this, but the truth is I don’t really want to lock anything. There are too many doors I’ve closed behind me.
For more than three years — from the time my mother-in-law fell and had to go into a nursing home until several months after her funeral — we went through her house, deciding what to throw out, what to give away, what to sell, and what to keep. Each key we found, we placed in a small box.
Everything had to be carefully looked through, as there were personal and official letters — some of which dated back to the twenties — and even money, mixed in with the newspapers, junk mail, and other trash. We made several trips to the recycling center, and took a couple of truckloads to the dump. The Salvation Army picked up the bags of old clothes and other usable items.
In the garage, we found an old steamer trunk. It was locked, but I got the box of keys and managed to find the right one. Inside were some National Geographic magazines from the thirties, Christmas decorations, and a lot of odds and ends.
A trunk we found in the storage room held a beautiful wool suit with beading on the collar and pockets, a pair of long, elegant gloves, a blue lace dress, and a cross-stitched tablecloth. Another trunk held a turn-of-the-century doll. All her parts were there, but not together anymore, and her head was sadly in need of new hair. There were also clothes from the daughter who had died at age four, and love letters tied up in ribbons.
But what really intrigued us was a small trunk that had been sitting in the bedroom for as long as I could remember. I knew it had belonged to a relative in Sweden, so it must be important, I thought. I tried every key, many of them two or three times, but none would open the lock.
Finally, we put the small trunk in the car and brought it home with us. It sat in our basement for months until I watched a film in which a man picked a lock with a stiff wire. Inspired, I straightened a wire hanger, poked it around in the lock, and click! Carefully I opened the lid and looked in: old newspapers, junk mail, and plastic bags.
Menlo Park, California
My dreams have always been my window into myself. I remember one in which I came home from work and found an unfamiliar woman on my front porch putting a key into the lock. “What are you doing?” I asked her. “Going to work,” she replied. She told me that many people went to work in the bottom of my house every day. She came into the foyer with me, chatting like an old friend, and showed me a beautiful wooden door I’d never seen before.
I opened the door and found, underneath my house, a honeycomb of rooms and tunnels I had never imagined. One floor was full of sprawling, spacious, light-filled offices with hanging plants in every window and multitudes of workers.
I later came to a different floor, this one dark and dank and gloomy like a cave. I went only a few feet before I was stopped by an old gatekeeper standing before a door. She was gnarled and shriveled, and she tapped her withered, claw-like fingers on a set of wooden pigeonholes propped against the dirt wall. As I stepped up to her, the tapping ceased and she extended a crooked hand. At first, I didn’t know what she wanted, but then I understood that she was asking for a key.
I searched my pockets and was surprised to find two elaborate keys that had not been there before. Instinctively I realized that I had only one chance to give her the right one. At that moment, my Aunt Lorraine appeared behind me and said quietly, “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter which key you give her. She’s blind and won’t know the difference.”
As I put one of the keys into the old crone’s hand, I awoke.
Just three weeks ago, I sat with my Aunt Lorraine for many days as she was dying of ovarian cancer. At times she suffered so severely I fantasized about lethal injections, thought of pressing a pillow to her face. On one of her lucid days, I held her hands while she hovered on the threshold between this world and the next, and I watched her whisper silently and nod “yes” and “no” to a gatekeeper I couldn’t see.
Janet L. Boyd
Outside the apartment, I was an interloper: a foreign woman in a traditionally male space. But in Madame Habib’s home, where I lived during my stay in Morocco, I’d found a haven. Madame Habib closed the windows against the acrid stench of burning garbage and the noise from the street below; instead, the scent of cleansers and the sounds of Egyptian soap operas filled the apartment. She kept the metal blinds drawn even during the day, so that we moved in near darkness. Five locks secured the front door; all the closets and cupboards were equipped with locks and keys; even the rotary phone was padlocked so that no outgoing calls could be made without Madame Habib’s consent.
Every evening, Madame Habib, Amina (her only daughter), and I would gather in the yellow-tiled salon to eat dinner and watch television. A year before I arrived, Madame Habib had forced her husband of thirty-two years out of their home. “That scoundrel,” she called him, comparing him to the most despicable characters on her favorite soap opera. “I just want a divorce. And after that I hope I never see him again.” In Morocco, a man can repudiate his wife, but a woman is unable to divorce her husband unless she can prove he has severely mistreated her. Since Monsieur Habib had never abused his wife and had no desire to separate from her, a divorce seemed improbable. While I was there, he moved back into the apartment to demonstrate his power. Though Madame Habib protested vehemently, she could not prevent his return.
The day he came back, Madame Habib instructed me to ignore him. She emptied the refrigerator, locked the cupboard, and refused to prepare his meals. The television was locked away in a closet. Amina secured her bedroom when she went to work and locked herself inside it when she came home. Neither spoke a word to him. He could do nothing but sit idly in the salon all evening. On the sixth morning, he surrendered and left for good. Later that day, I followed Madame Habib from room to room as she unlocked cupboards and drawers. Brandishing her keys, she said, “Outside, I have nothing. But at home, these give me control of my own life.”
Mill Valley, California
When I was fifteen, I and my boyfriend, Richard, did wonderful things together with our bodies. But we never had intercourse, because he loved me and didn’t want me to get pregnant. Besides, there were many other forbidden things we could do.
Richard knew where his best friend’s family hid the key to their house while they were at the lake for the summer. On hot, humid nights, I would sneak out and wake Richard, and we would walk to his friend’s empty house. It was always hot and stuffy inside, and we felt like we were on the set of a play. We never turned on any lights. I used to worry that his friend’s family would return home unexpectedly in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I would make Richard hold still and listen to be sure a car wasn’t driving up. When we were done, we tried to leave everything just as we had found it and always returned the key to its proper place.
One winter afternoon, Richard drove me to a cabin on the lake. Again, he knew where the owners kept the key: hanging on a nail on the porch. The cabin was cold inside and there was no running water. We undressed under the covers and rubbed our bodies together until we were warm. When Richard had his fingers deep inside me, I realized I was very wet: thick, membranous blood was coming out. It didn’t hurt, but I felt sick and dizzy, and we were scared we’d done something wrong. Richard ran outside wearing nothing but his socks and dipped his boxer shorts in the freezing lake. He came back and carefully wiped the blood from my thighs and crotch. For a long time, I saved the bloody sheet and boxer shorts as souvenirs of my lost virginity.
Laura Lu Hedrick
Lexington, North Carolina
When my wife and I bought our first house in South Minneapolis eighteen years ago, we were handed three keys: one to the big garage door, one to the garage service door, and one to the house side door. The house had been built in 1910, and the front door had only a skeleton key. We had new locks installed, but we didn’t have the heart to drill a hole in the old front door with its beveled glass, so we kept it locked and chained and used the side door.
After the garage was broken into, I got a set of padlocks and chained up the lawnmower, the ladder, and the canoe. A little silly, perhaps, but it felt better to do something.
Several years later, around the time gang graffiti started showing up in the alleys and on fences, we asked a locksmith to change the locks and install a lock on the front door. But instead of replacing the existing locks, he just added an extra set. And he didn’t bother to match the locks, just notched the keys so we could tell them apart: Now there were seven different keys to the house. With all these keys we needed an outside light to enable us to sort them out in the dark. While we were at it, we added a floodlight in the back with a motion detector — after all, the neighbors had them already.
Last summer, having heard gunfire at night on too many occasions, we both felt it was time to move. It wasn’t an easy decision — my wife loved our old house, and I liked living in the city — but the neighborhood was degenerating at a rapid pace. While our house was for sale, there were two murders within three blocks of us.
Our house in the suburbs has six outside doors, each with a single, matching lock. I carry one key now. I’m still angry about leaving the city, but I’m not sure whether I’m mad at myself for leaving or at the city for forcing me to move.
The tiny, silver key was just a fragile fleck of metal — too delicate to turn in a lock. It reminded me of the flakes of metal I used to find scattered on the floor of my father’s welding shop on the farm.
The key was a milagro that I found in a market booth in Austin, Texas. Milagro means “miracle.” The churches of Latin America have wooden statues of saints onto which people pin small metal images: arms and hands, animals, praying figures, sacred hearts, keys like mine — tangible symbols of prayers. The milagro may thank the saint for an answered prayer, or remind the saint of prayers still unanswered.
My tiny key became a gift for my first boyfriend, whom I met after more than twenty years of struggling to come out of the closet. He had given me a key to his apartment with a card that read, “You already have the key to my heart.” I gave him the milagro to celebrate. It was a prayer that said: My life is changed. It said: Open.
Columbia, South Carolina
I struggled to insert the key into the lock, but I wasn’t quick enough. Someone was slammed onto the ground next to me and pummeled by someone else. I heard shouting, saw bodies intertwined, blood mingling until I couldn’t tell who was the aggressor and who was the victim, until I didn’t care — I just wanted to get the key in the keyhole. I could feel the sun on my skin, could see white clouds out of the corner of my eye — a perfect day.
When I got the key to work, I burst into the shelter, slamming the door on the escalating war outside, and screamed to my co-workers to call 911.
As it turned out, it was my friends Bill and Greg fighting. They had gotten into it again over a five-dollar piece of crack. I needed to go out and talk to them before the cops came or they both would be in trouble, seeing as they both had old warrants on their heads. Gathering my resolve, I went outside and explained that we had called the cops and that they’d better high-tail it out of there. They took the hint.
I knew in their right minds they’d never do anything to hurt me. After all, they came in almost every day to talk to me about their troubles. Bill told me how he’d been tried and convicted of killing his best friend in a drug deal gone bad. He cried as he explained how his best friend had really died and how he had spent years in the pen for a crime he didn’t commit. I didn’t know whether he’d done it or not, but — with nothing else to go on except the quiver in his voice and the tears in his eyes — I came to believe that he’d really loved his friend.
Greg’s manner was different. The day we met, he came in yelling and screaming that he was completely innocent; he hadn’t wanted to hit that guy, but the guy had pissed him off by stepping in front of him. It wasn’t right. Greg often got pissed off when someone in the shelter “dissed” him or “dipped” in his business or “dogged” him. His pride was a very fragile item. I was somehow able to avoid wounding it, and so Greg held me in great esteem. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was that I had done to earn his respect, but he came to me whenever he was in trouble. This big, bad motherfucker asked me what to do, apologized for whatever he’d done wrong, and asked forgiveness, as if it were mine to give.
When I was a senior in high school, my best friend, John, died in a car accident — his stepbrother drove his pickup into a tree. It was a stupid accident, carelessness mixed with drinking. I was stunned.
Several days later, I was at jazz-band practice after school. I played guitar and had some talent and a good theoretical sense of music, but no style. What’s worse, I didn’t know I lacked style. I thought style just meant speed — fast licks and riffs and scale runs. It never occurred to me to try to play melodiously. You see, scales are patterns determined by the key, but melody is unpredictable and uncertain; it starts and it ends, and in between it can go anywhere.
Our band director, Mr. U., often had us warm up by playing a blues progression, modulating through the twelve keys. We’d take turns soloing, and he’d play right along with us. His trumpet playing was warm, throaty, never brash, just this side of understated. He was a melody player, but he encouraged us to follow our own instincts. I could even play my frenetic slop, with his blessing.
But that night I played the blues. I sang through my guitar, crying a melody as true as anything I’d ever known, and I did it without trying. I lost my pretensions and was taken over by a feeling that I still can’t put into words.
When my solo ended, Mr. U. was staring at me in shock. He stopped the band and said, “Do it again.” They started up again, the same blues progression, same key. All I had to do was jump back in. But as abruptly as I’d found my way into the blues, I lost it. I inadvertently hit a switch on my guitar and spent twelve bars trying to figure out why I couldn’t get any sound out of it. The next soloist took over, and I stopped trying. I’d lost what I’d just found — the way out of pretension and into a realm of real feeling — and it was nearly as devastating as losing John.
When I started going to the county jail, the cells were old-style tanks full of men, with steel bars running their entire length and huge locks in the doors. The guards carried rings of big, brass keys as long as your hand. The jingle of keys was audible long before the guards appeared. All down the tier, the men would pass the word from cell to cell: “Man walking.” I hated the sound of those keys and was afraid of the guards’ brutality. More than once I was knocked to the ground by a heavy key ring.
The jingle of keys followed me into the old state prison, where the same big locks secured the cell doors and grille gates. Gradually, I grew accustomed to their sound and was able to block it from my mind.
The new prisons have electric doors operated from a control booth, so the floor officers no longer carry big key rings. The guards walk so quietly it’s sometimes hard to hear them over the constant sigh of the air vents. Often, I don’t even know one is there until I see his face peek through the small window in my steel door.
It’s late night here in San Quentin. I lie in the dark with my eyes open and listen to the quiet sounds of the night: the soft breathing of my cellmate; the occasional chirp from the sparrows that nest in the rafters above the fifth tier; the hum of the ventilation system.
Then something strange happens: somewhere in the cellblock, several tiers below, I hear footsteps climbing the steel staircase, and the faint jingle of keys. After all these years, the sound is oddly comforting. It is the sound of home.
Jed H. Miller
San Quentin, California
Outside my bedroom door, my father instructs the moving men, “That piece and that piece.”
“OK, buddy,” one of them answers.
From their grunts, I guess that the movers are trying to swing the huge dresser out of his room. They bump my door, leaving it slightly ajar, and I curl back onto my bed, my heart pounding. I am afraid to face him.
After much effort, the dresser is removed. The rest of the furniture goes quickly; then the movers approach my door.
“So what do you want out of here?” one of them asks.
“No! Not in there —” my father says, too late.
The mover flings open my bedroom door and looks at me. I blink slowly. He tips his cap, says, “Excuse me, miss,” then, very gently, closes my door.
I hear my father show them out, then hear him start back toward my room. Dreading what is coming, I sit up, smooth back my hair, and wipe my eyes.
He enters without knocking. His hair is graying; his face is going slack. “I’m going now,” he says.
“Mommy wants the keys.”
I hold out my hand, and he places the keys in my palm without touching me. I squeeze them tightly and feel my courage slipping away.
“Do you want to kiss me?” he asks, opening his arms. My lips do not quite reach his cheek. Awkwardly, we release each other, and he leaves. He does not say goodbye.
Fairview, New Jersey