Photograph by Reelika Ramot
A face full of whiskers and smudged with a lifetime’s worth of dirt peers back at him from the mirror-like finish. He smiles, revealing his yellowed teeth—dirty and distant neighbors—in a garish grin, the black orbs of his eyes twinkling back at the trinket in his hand. The cold metal jolts the nerves in his hands, tiny bolts of electricity spur his heart rate.
Scurrying back to his overflowing cart, his tattered rags swish along the ragged cobblestones, he opens a filthy box, once a rich purple velveteen treasure, and carefully places the key among a bed of hundreds of others. The gathered metal blinks up at him in silent wonder, and he can only return the awed gaze.
Black birds crow at him and hop along the industrial wires as he makes his way further along the street. He feels at home in the surrounding gloominess, the dark and decrepit buildings that still stand acting as the gravestones of their fallen brethren. It isn’t so much the people that he cares for, as they are as shady as the businesses that flourish in environments such as these, but rather the atmosphere of it all. He blends in as much as any man pushing a rather overweight cart does, but the questions that plague a figure such as his in any other place were left unasked here. Or rather, no one cared to know the answers.
As he makes his way towards home, the train station greets him as it always does; broken windows winking as he trundles up the gravelly path and the gaping hole left behind from the doors’ departure feeling like the biggest smile, welcoming him back from his day’s journey.
He brings the cart to a stop near one of the larger windows facing the tracks, the glass here aged yellow but still intact, somehow. Placing his face nearer to it, he lets out a heavy breath, the mist from his breath fogging the weathered glass. With grimy fingers he draws two circles, then connects them with a box. Crudely drawing in a triangle near the front, the point raking into space, he exhales once more near the top of the figure. Whispering to himself, though no one is around to overhear, he mimics the clacking and chugging noises of the great engines that once barreled along the tracks without picturing their majesty in his head, much greater in his mind than what his fingers are able to distinguish.
Continuing to chatter along as if he were an engine himself, the chu-chu chu-chu resounds off the steel frames of the station as he makes his way towards the rear of the structure, almost to the tracks themselves. Resting once more on the concrete platform, he glances down at the tracks below, the neat gravel bed they lie in and the uniformity of their resting places soothing his mind.
He follows a route only known to him, his body urging the cart forward with the practiced ease of habit. Ramps form an intricate switchback, descending into the earth with the regularity of planning and design. With each turn, he begins to slip into whistling, quietly at first and then increasing in volume as he finally comes upon his destination.
The makings of a small camp lay before him; a small cot lies rumpled in the corner, propped against the firm walls of the station’s subterranean structure, its rough blankets illuminated softly by a glowing lantern nearby. The lantern crouches low on an old produce box, the ragged boards held together by a sparse number of nails. The floor is barren except for a pit which he had scratched into the surface, most of the job already accomplished by the weathering of foot traffic long since gone. It made for a wonderful fire pit, as evidenced by the battered pans that lay nearby, his favorite bowl, plate, and utensils their only company.
He drives the cart to a nearby wall, and lets it stop on its own as if it were a tired steed, wheels coming to rest in inanimate fatigue. Carefully removing the purple box from its perch near the handlebars, he opens the lid and peers once more down upon the mass of metal within.
As he begins placing the keys onto nails he had managed to hammer into the stiff sheetrock, his mind mulls over the events of the day. With each key placed on a specific rack, in a system only known to him, he remembers its story, the way in which it had come into his life and the feelings he had experienced in their meeting.
The day’s first memory is of the last key he had found, and as he continues, the day moved backwards in his head, sometimes crossing time past as he picks up keys found before and after another. Made recently, as he could tell from the lack of discoloration, the latest key he had found that day deserved to be hung from a nail farther up, above the dirtier and older keys. He made no other distinctions between the shaped metal, but somehow it feels right to privilege the cleaner ones, their finery setting them apart from the rest.
After placing the last key and emptying the purple box, he closes the lid and steps back.
Before him, a wall of metal rises, glinting in the dusk. Hung in inarticulate rows alongside, above, and below one another, the keys trace their own lines in a pattern of jagged edges, rounded tops, and pressed bellies. He marvels at the designs of each, as even though they looked similar and performed the exact same function, their qualities set them apart as if they were living, breathing organisms, finally coming here to revert back to their natural state.
His steps are measured and graceful, he moves tenderly towards a dingy bag that hangs from one nail by a drawstring, the black nylon sheen feeling slimy after the cold yet firm surface of the metal hanging nearby. Removing it from its resting place, he walks back towards his rows of findings. One by one, laying each within the folds of the bag with the care of handling a newborn child, he places the keys together, filling the bag until it is obese with metal. Drawing the strings closed like a seal, he lays the bag down below the now-empty grouping of nails. He looks back at it fondly as he moves towards his living quarters, not without a mix of trepidation, anxiousness, and sadness. Patting his stomach as it growls for attention, he thinks to himself.
It must be done. Their sacrifice for my life.
The weight of his precious metal is the only comfort for him this day, and he feels slightly angry at the thought. The emotion is soon replaced by purpose and he lowers his shoulders somewhat, giving in to the inevitable. Soon he will be back where he belongs, the comfort of his home and familiar surroundings distant and altogether like an imaginary land compared to his current location.
The sun shines jubilantly above him, its blinding rays force him to gaze down at the street that lies perfectly before him, each stone seemingly carved into the land like the intricate scales of an ocean fish. Looking to his sides, he knows he will find buildings and structures, statues and signs that exemplify the same minute and deliberate attention to detail. In a world of perfection and sanitary divinity, he is not only alone in his expression of dynamic life, but avoided for his very antonymic existence.
Devoid of any expression of liveliness except for the looks of consternation and horror thrown like protective shields before him, the people that walk around him—and they do walk around—are no different than their creations. The sterile beauty and porcelain figures that glide along the well-kept streets elicit in him no recognition of the likewise-animate, only the disturbing lack of originality and disconcerting thoughts of possession or something of the like. Hefting his bag closer, he clutches it to his chest like a dying loved one.
His distress only heightens as he finally arrives at his destination. Two enormous and altogether menacing doors bar his way, and he feels extremely dirty, almost unwelcome by their pristine handles as he pulls one towards him. This metal does not speak to him in the way the tiny little jagged figures nestled between his beating chest and tense fingers do; instead they resist his touch, almost recoiling as if in disgust and horror.
“What in the--ahem . . . what are you doing here?!” The man, if you could call the suited and groomed automaton that marches before him that, practically spits in his face. Perfect white teeth, stationed like soldiers in neat ranks around a pink tongue bristle as the man continues to stare with alarm at the abject wretch of a person before him.
He only holds up his black bag, as if, like a mediator, the presence of an object between their worlds might act as translator.
The man spins and gestures for the security guard with a swift flick of his manicured fingers, the hardened gaze returning as he speaks once more. “Your kind are not welcome here! If you ever come—”
“Reginald, please! This man is my guest!”
A well-dressed older gentleman appears from within, and with a sigh of relief, he finally allows the door to shut behind him, thankful that he can let go of the lifeless metal. Reginald, as the man must be called, gawks as the security guard, who had been strutting towards the entrance with purpose, now eases back into his post with military-like efficiency.
“Please, allow this man to enter.” The gentleman nods in dismissal and Reginald retreats with one last backward glance.
“Now, come my dear sir, please.” The man smiles and though the results are similar to the visage presented to him not moments before, a warmth of caring softens the man’s features. “I have been expecting you, Master.”
Instantly allowing his tense posture to relax into a close resemblance of familiarity at the mention of his title, he follows the older gentleman as they move towards the back of the business. Master cannot resist looking into the large, clear, glass cases that hold metal of all shapes and sizes. These too, however, hold no interest for him, as they are even more lifeless than the handful of salesmen standing at attention behind them.
Opening a door, the glass frosted window reading “Mr. Owen Johnson, General Manager,” the gentleman places his hand out, palm upward, fingers pointing towards his enormous desk and the chair resting before it. Master nods his thanks and shuffles within, gently placing the sack of keys upon the richly-upholstered stool. He watches as Mr. Owen strides around the desk, and clasps his grimy hands before him in wait. He had made every effort this morning, before setting off, to scrub them of the dirt that seemed to cloth his exposed skin, but no amount of elbow grease and soap suds could wash away the years of living.
“Are you sure you won’t sit?” Mr. Owen knows the answer, but it feels wrong, what with the modicum of respect expected with his usual clients, not to ask. Even though he shares a small part of the clerk’s opinion, Mr. Owen has taken a liking to Master.
Master shakes his head, then inclines it towards the resting bag. Knowing his part in the silent act, Mr. Owen has already readied his scales and a waiting bag of his own, the stark differences in quality not unlike their respective owners. As Mr. Owen gestures to the waiting scales, Master moves to heft the nylon bag once more, his shoulders slumping a tiny bit as he does so.
After weighing and relocating handfuls of keys at a time, Master finally sets the last one down upon the pile, the break in contact between the piece of metal and his skin like the last kiss of a lover before parting. He steels himself; though they will be leaving his presence, their future does not end in the hot cauldron of the forge. They are to be reborn into a new life, new circumstances, and possibly, just maybe, into another experience where they meet again. Mixed together as they are, he can never know which key it is that returns to him—changed—but the prospect of a future reunion eases the grief.
After all, it is with their sacrifice that he is afforded a future, a gathering of days extra as he searches them out, again and again.
“I don’t know how you do it, Master. It is quite amazing.” Mr. Owen interrupts his reminiscences, but Master only nods. “Where do you find all these keys?”
Master shakes his head slightly. Mr. Owen, taking this as a dismissal of sorts, concedes. “Ah, right, if you told me then we wouldn’t be in business together, right? I could just find them myself, melt them down to make my own jewelry, and not have to pay you!” He chuckles, unsettling Master. Holding out his hand in the universal form of expectation, Master peers over at Mr. Owen and nods once, swiftly. As Mr. Owen places a $100 bill in his hand, the green crisp rectangle looking as if it had fallen upon bare dirt, Master speaks.
Mr. Owen watches him leave, Reginald joining him.
“That’s all he ever says, Reginald. He brings the keys, I weigh them, and he gets paid. Always the same weight, no matter what. Amazing really. Only ever says, ‘thank you,’ and I don’t see him again until he comes up with that same amount. Exactly. Quite a thing of curiosity if you ask me.”
“Why do you call him ‘Master?’”
Mr. Own shrugs, inclining his head towards Reginald. “He’s the Keymaster. Calls himself that and I see no sense in changing his mind.”
An hour later finds Master settled in his makeshift home, laden with nourishment for the next few months and the loss of the only thing in his life that brings him happiness.
Countless rows of nails hang unfettered, silently awaiting their more dazzling companions.