Keys to My Heart

Keys fascinate me. Perhaps they are remnants of a little girl who once dreamed of a key to her heart. Or the longing of a teen to be like Nancy Drew and discover a secret hidden door. Maybe they are reminders of a father who himself was once fascinated with keys.

I caress keys that I pull from the bottom of a forgotten drawer, feel the rough edges along my fingers, remind myself how different they are, how different we all are, and how I learned that lesson long ago.

My dad carried about thirty keys on one large silver hoop, tucked in the front pocket of his blue Docker-type pants. The keys were for his job, where he opened school doors for children, let repairmen in before the first bell rang, and helped police officers enter in the middle of the night to turn off a broken alarm. Whether working or not, his keys were always with him.

In his other pocket was another set of keys, for the house, car, gate, and random keys found orphaned on the street or in a drawer. “You never know when these will come in handy,” he’d say. I always wondered for what, but I never asked. His collection grew over the years, and sometimes, I wondered if he didn’t just buy locks, or change the ones on our house, just so he could acquire more keys.

He jingled those keys wherever we went, sticking hands deep in his pockets, moving his fingers about, making a loud clinkety-clink while standing in line at the bank, a hardware store, or waiting for the first fresh donuts of the day. I’d cringe and step away, pretending I didn’t know the man who played music from his pockets.

He’d smile at those around him, “Don’t you love that sound?” he’d say. And the other older men would agree. I’d roll my eyes and walk away.

At night, he’d sit at his desk, and carefully examine each key. “Isn’t it amazing how different each one is? Totally unique. Like a snowflake. Like people.” I’d shake my head, never understanding his weird emotional attachment to keys.

One cold, crisp winter day, as winds blew across the Midwest, my dad slipped on his coat. “Going to the store! Be right back!” he yelled, jingling his keys.

He returned later, walked gingerly across the frozen lawn, his feet slipping and sliding beneath him. Groceries flew as he landed on his back. He pulled himself off the ground, dusted flakes from his pants, and recovered the food scattered in the yard. Then he searched the snow frantically. Finally, he came inside.

“They’re gone,” he said, setting the broken bag of groceries on the table.

“What’s gone?” asked my mom. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to my dad.

“My keys. I lost them.”

“Hmmm…” She turned back towards the sink, then paused briefly. “I’m sure they’ll turn up,” she said, and finished washing the dishes.

My dad went to the window and stared out. “Gone. House keys, car, everything. Where could they be?”

“It’s getting dark,” my mom said. “You’ll never find them now.”

My dad put his hands in his pockets, moved his fingers around, briefly stirring a sound with his work keys, but he soon quit. That night, there would be no music.

In the morning, my dad sat mindlessly stirring his Rice Krispies, little sugar crystals sprinkled across the top, glittering like ice on the window. I watched him for a bit before I knew what I had to do.

I slipped on my coat, slid my feet into my boots, grabbed toasty mittens from on top of the register. Outside, the air sparkled like diamonds, icicles dropped off the roof like spears of glass, and the ground had turned to a pebbly frozen lake. A blast of frigid air hit my face as I opened the door. I hesitated, looked at my dad, then stepped outside.

The earth crunched beneath my feet. I paced in even movement across the yard, stopping to check the car to make sure my dad hadn’t left the keys in the ignition. I was about to quit when from across the yard, a glimmer caught my eye.

I ran inside. “Dad, you’ll never guess what I found.”

He looked up. “Were you outside? It’s freezing out there.”

“Look.” I held up a set of frost-covered keys.

He nearly knocked the table over as he grabbed for his keys, holding tight to their frozen little edges. His face beamed as he warmed gold and silver treasures against his skin.

“Thanks,” he said, puffing his chest out. “These will come in handy.”

I twirl my own keys in my fingers now, wondering why it is so hard to let go. And then I know. It is the jingle, the chorus meant only for my dad.

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