The Key and the Orange

by Rhys Schrock

 

We keep the key that Ricky lifted from the collection box. Yesterday he overheard Father Feiffer tell the imposter in the other confessional that he couldn’t find the key. The unseen stooge—who did not express the sort of remorse traditionally attached to this ritual—replied that now they’d never be able to activate the device in the room over the hardware store. FF wrapped up the summary of penance with a second reference to the objects of his concern, his stern voice adding caps: The Key, The Device.

Ricky fills in the details, and Freddie is bouncing on his toes, alive to the possibilities, ready to “head over there right now.” Mooch says we should put the key back. Freddie snags Moochie’s collar, smacks his forehead with the heel of his hand, and I get between them, tell ’em to knock it off. We hear a squeal of tires, a chatter of gunfire, and watch in slow-mo as Ricky is killed in a drive-by. His body arcs like a breaking wave, and what’s left splays across the sidewalk. Ricky never hurt nobody; all he wanted was a good time, but now the good-time bus has dropped him off in a bad part of town. He’s a busted bag of groceries, and I dig The Key out of his pocket while Mooch slips behind a phone pole to watch for the return-of-the-death-car. It never reappears.

Freddie claims he saw the shooter before, saw him coming out of the candy store on Main Street just last week. He vows revenge, but it’s all talk; Freddie can’t keep his mind on anything long enough to carry through. His life is a relentless pursuit of thrills and dares—his mind is a hummingbird in a crowded greenhouse.

We aim our ostrich boots toward the south end of town to show The Key to the creepy old dude who sits by the well. His name is Orville and people call him the Oracle. People say he sees-all-knows-all, even if he is blind, but as we approach, I flash that maybe this isn’t the smartest plan in the world. The Oracle might not be all that thrilled that we have The Key—in fact, he might paralyze us with voodoo spells and make us hand it over.

“Mornin’ boys.” The Oracle aims them milky orbs straight at us. Lily always says he’s not really blind, and she won’t go anywhere near the well. Orville’s face follows our movements like a radar dish, but soon enough his watery pupils break loose and drift aimlessly as if each eye is a detached floater. He says, “Sounds like they’s three of yun. And the one holdin’ back is nervous.”

“Our friend was just killed,” I say, and it comes out as shaky as an alibi.

Freddie says, “We got something we want to show you.” He holds The Key by the blade and sunlight gleams off the chrome-plated bow.

Blind man says, “What? What you got?” I wonder if he’s toying with us.

“Nice day,” Mooch says lamely, and his voice tremolos unevenly like a first-year violin student. The winter sun is low over the Chuma Mountains and peeks through the high slat fence that encloses the elephant graveyard behind the well. Glints of sunlight sparkle off bent chrome and shattered safety glass, and the comforting scent of depleted motor oil soaking into sandy soil wafts across the yard.

“Nice day,” echoes the Oracle. He breathes in deeply and says, “All things return to base elements,” and I don’t know if he’s talking about the expired cars in the elephant graveyard or the death of Ricky and the vulnerability and mortality of the human body.

Freddie twists The Key in the sunlight, catches a reflection and aims it at the Oracle, lands the reflection in the center of his forehead, and it lights the mottled skin like a third blind eye. The Oracle goes stiff, cries out, “What is dat?” It’s a shock to hear genuine fear in the old man’s voice.

Freddie says, “We want you to look at something, oh great Oracle. Tell us what it is.” He keeps the bright spot on Orville’s forehead as he walks closer.

The Oracle dodges his head from side-to-side and Freddie steps close, holds The Key out. “Take it. Feel it. Tell us what it is.” The Oracle opens his right hand tentatively, as if afraid that he might be burned. He turns his palm up, half closed, and Freddie tosses The Key in the cup. The old man flinches, puts his hands together, presses The Key between his palms. He closes his eyelids, breathes with his mouth open, exposing black gums, a pink tongue, and three yellow teeth. A moan escapes him, and his face takes on an expression of pain and sadness. His body spasms, he falls off his stool, and a stain darkens the front of his pants. The Key drops in the dust and Mooch rushes toward the gate calling out, “You killed him, dude. Let’s get out of here.”

The Oracle disproves Moochie’s theory by rolling to his side and using the chair to climb into a semi-vertical position. He reaches a hand to the sky and his voice booms like a biblical prophet: “Shun dat key and dem that traffic in such tings.”

Freddie is not impressed. “Come on, you old freak, spill. What’s The Key?”

“Be not fools, I tell ye. Thou shalt rue this day.” This is a bit overboard, I’m thinking. The old fraud has flipped a tile or two, and the pee running down his leg diminishes the authority of his dire prophesies. But he’s serious, and just then the sun goes behind a cloud; the whole thing starts to feel sinister. No slouch when it comes to drama, The Oracle shouts, “Get dat accursed ting away from dis place,” and he jumps into the well.

The three of us look at each other in surprise, but Freddie recovers first, bends down and fishes The Key out of the dust. He rubs it clean against his blue satin trousers and says, “Crazy old coot. It’s just a piece of metal.” He bounces it in his palm, and The Key does a back flip before it settles on his heart line. He tempts fate by pressing it in his palms the way the Oracle did. He starts twitching the same as the old man, his torso bucking and twisting, his eyes rolling up in his sockets until all I see is whites. Mooch expresses his dismay by letting out a squeal like a cat caught in a fan belt, and I have to admit I’m close to wetting my pants until I notice the smirk on Freddie’s thin lips. When he separates his hands he laughs and says, “If I jump into the well, you can have my stamp collection.” He stuffs The Key into the pocket of his long coat, laughs again, then stops when we hear a moan from the well. I’m thinking that maybe we should rescue the Oracle. After all, he’s wearing pee-stained pants in the town well, but the moan is followed by a low melody with lots of nice reverb thanks to the stone lining of the shaft. He’s singing “The Tennessee Waltz,” in a strong tenor, goes at it like Plácido Domingo.

From the alley next to the barber shop a dog attempts a backup harmony. It’s a pitiful howl, as if he’s been deserted, tied to a lamppost while his master ducked into a coffee shop, slipped out the back door, met a beautiful stranger in a convertible, and ran off to California without another thought. Orville stops singing long enough to tell the dog to shut up, then starts into some god-awful light opera.

A little girl about ten years old in a plaid granny dress and wire-rimmed granny glasses stomps past us in scuffed Doc Martens. She wears a batik do-rag over curly blond hair and carries a hank of jute rope over one shoulder. She is Orville’s granddaughter and sometimes magician’s assistant, Jasmine. She dismisses us with a, “Thanks a lot, mutants,” ties one end of the rope—a granny knot, natch—to a dead tree trunk behind the well and tosses the coil into the opening. She leans over the lip and says, “Orville. Grab the rope and climb out.” He keeps singing and she looks up at us impatiently and repeats, “I said, thanks a lot. That means you can go back to committing whatever misdemeanors or mortal sins your little pea brains can dream up. Go on, now. Scoot.”

Our boots boom on the plank sidewalk as we hustle back to the center of town. The streets are deserted, but we can still hear Orville going on about “a little China man in yellow pantaloons.”

We cross Main Street, and the stairway that leads up to the room with The Device is directly in front of us. The stairs run up the middle of the building, tucked between the hardware store and a book store that was shut down two years ago. A wicked looking sign on the cobwebbed bookstore window says, “Closed by order of Homeland Security. Unauthorized entry constitutes a Federal Offense and may include Charges of Treason.”

There is no warning sign on the opening to the staircase, despite rumors of The Device at the top, and the stairs are an open invitation, a tantalizing finger beckoning three susceptible boys to “come on up,” like the dark, smoldering widow next door with a freezer full of ice cream. “I got sprinkles, boys. And butterscotch.”

“No time like the present,” Freddie says, flashing a grin and The Key before heading straight for the staircase. Freddie is disturbingly charismatic, an irresistible force who drags you into his gravitational field like a black hole. We lesser mortals are passing particles of space dust with no choice in the matter. Mooch and I follow as Freddie takes two steps at a time, the tails of his coat flapping like he’s dancing up the risers in an old musical. He spins once on the landing next to the door with The Key in his hand. His grin widens as if he is about to open his birthday presents and wants to start in on the big package with the red-velvet bow. I follow closely; Mooch stops at each step to look around and see if anyone knows we’re there. How could they not? Each time Mooch lands a boot on another tread it creaks like the door to a haunted house.

Freddie tries The Key and it won’t go in the slot. He swaggers with confidence, calls Mooch a scairdy-cat, but his hand is shaking, and I tell him to give me The Key, I’ll do it. I’m nervous too, but there’s no backing down, so I use both hands to steady The Key. I jab it at the keyhole and it still won’t go. The Key is way too wide for the slot. “Sorry, Freddie. Wasted trip.” I’m relieved. “Wrong key. Let’s get out of here.” I hand The Key to Freddie who stuffs it in his pocket with a scowl. He reconsiders, fishes the scowl out of his pocket and tosses it to the side.

Mooch is already heading down the stairs, this time at a good clip, and the treads are quiet. Freddie grabs the door handle, yanks on it in frustration, pounds on the center panel, then turns around to look down the stairs and over Main Street. He spreads his arms like he’s about to give a speech. Freddie is the Pope addressing and blessing a crowd of pilgrims from Iowa. He’s on a balcony above Piazza San Pietro gathering his thoughts. Behind him, I hear a low creak as the door swings slowly inward. My eyes catch movement inside. Freddie spins as a wicked grin crosses his face. He heads for the door and I say, “Don’t go in there, I saw something move.”

Freddie ignores me, kicks the door wide on its hinges and it bounces off an inside wall. Across the room I see white curtains fluttering before an open window. The room is small, no other doors, no furniture, no Cardinals, wolfhounds, or nuns, but The Device is sitting in the center of the room.

The Device: a cube of steel, gun-metal blue, the top crowded with rabbit ear antenna, a timer with red rhomboid numbers stuck on 00:00:22, a block of chrome with a keyhole in the center, and a brightly-painted statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A bundle of multi-colored cables pour out the back of The Device, snake across the floor, and disappear into a crude hole smashed through the plaster wall. The antenna makes the device look like a dormant TV set with an elaborate converter box, but other possibilities include high-end microwave oven, mini-bar, or WMD.

Freddie digs out The Key and holds it to the keyhole. I expect to hear a protest from Mooch, but he’s still at the bottom of the stairs milling about with the imaginary tourists from Iowa. Freddie studies The Key, the keyhole, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. “Careful analysis of the complex forms involved indicates a complementary relationship, a rare balance of physical proportionality, the receptive yin of the keyhole, the assertive yang of this baby.” He holds up The Key and slashes the air like a fencer. The movement is harmless, but the fact that he’s gone into his professorial mode, using what linguists call BIG WORDS, means that he’s about to do something stupid. Freddie’s eyes are wide, the pupils purest black and as deep as a collapsed Mayan cenote. He’s a housecat preparing to knock a vase off the piano.

“Freddie…” I say, elongating the last syllable and bringing up the pitch a notch.

“Chabo…” he replies as he slides The Key into place. He turns it, and the timer lazily shifts to 00:00:23. I think that might be good, but I still don’t have a clue what The Device is supposed to do. So it might be bad. Real bad.

A loud hiss like a boiler with a popped rivet starts up in the next room and the bundle of wires is drawn through the hole in the wall. Lazy loops straighten out, and The Device begins a slow slide across the floor. Loose linoleum tiles bunch up and tear free, moving along with The Device, clutching at it like they can’t bear to see it leave the room. Freddie stands back and watches hungrily. He’s anxious to see what happens next, but it is a slow process. The Device takes five minutes to travel five feet to the wall, and the hissing sound grows louder. Puffs of steam ooze through the hole around the cables, but are immediately sucked back. When The Device hits the wall it doesn’t even slow down. It slices a clean hole, a perfect square in the wall, with little outlines on top for the rabbit ears and other accessories, including a detailed cameo of the Virgin. It’s a clean cut, like it was done by a laser, leaving no plaster dust. The opening is black, a void, no color, no more steam, almost as if it was painted on the wall with flat black primer.

I ease closer, anxious to investigate but scared of what I might find. I take out my lucky weasel foot and toss it straight at the opening in the wall. I half-expect it to bounce off the black outline, but it disappears inside without a fuss; no noise, no flicker of light, no flutter of white doves. I kneel close to the hole, lean down for a look, and my vision goes wonky. Focus shifts erratically so that the wall around the hole could be two feet away or a hundred. I reach my hand toward the opening, scared to be sucked in, but mighty curious all the same. I poke an index finger into the hole and the tip disappears. I don’t feel anything, and when I pull out my finger it is intact. The phenomenon must be a purely visual thing, possibly harmless, but my ration of bravery is used up.

“What do you think?” I ask Freddie.

He’s standing at the window, has the curtain pulled to one side. “Well smack me with a spatula,” is probably not intended as a reply to my question.

I walk to the window, look out at the town, but the air is hazy-fuzzy-blurry. I wonder if there is a fire, if smoke is obscuring things. I don’t hear church bells, so nobody in town has spotted a fire yet. Somehow, it doesn’t look like smoke.

“This is all right,” Freddie says. “Look at that.” He points at the bank building, which is fading to a screened gray.

“What?”

“The circus is in town.”

I don’t see signs of a circus and wonder what he’s looking at. Is it a figure of speech?

“Oh, Yea-uh,” he says. “Lady acrobats. Zowie.”

I lean out the window for a better look. No circus I can see. Town keeps fading to a lighter and lighter gray, and behind me I hear a bloodcurdling scream. It’s Mooch standing at the door with a look of horror on his face. “Freddie, Chabo. Oh, god. Oh. My. God.” He’s staring at the floor, where The Device used to be. He rushes over to the spot, kneels, reaches down like he’s scooping up dry leaves. He stares at the empty space enclosed by his arms and sobs, “How could this ha-ha-happen? Oh god, Chabo.”

Freddie glances over his shoulder, not pleased that his attention is drawn away from whatever he thinks he sees out the window. “Alas, poor Chabo, I knew him, Mooch. What are you going on about?”

“Yeah,” I add unnecessarily. “What gives?”

Mooch looks at Freddie and me, then back at his armful of nothing. His sobs deepen, his lips gape and flap—not a gambol or gibe left in the poor boy—and his intakes of breath are erratic and screeching, a barn door in a windstorm. He stares in horror. “Gh-gh-ghosts. That’s what you are.” He buries his face in his arms, collapses on the floor.

Freddie shrugs, turns back to the window. “Boo,” he says over his shoulder. He leans out the window and adds, “That’s what we like. A parade. Come on girls, up here.” He waves and puts two fingers to his mouth, cuts loose with a piercing whistle.

I look down at Mooch who is a quivering puddle of panic and fear. I pop my head out the window, hoping to get a glimpse of Freddie’s parade, but all I see are the vague outlines of town getting paler, the grays giving way to whites. Freddie is waving and calling out, and I see nothing to justify his excitement. I glance back to the room and notice that it is turning white as well; the floor, the walls, the frames of the door and window. Everything except the cutout where The Device disappeared. It’s still an inscrutable void, but it’s starting to take on an orange tint, scarcely perceptible, like the shifting image of a total lunar eclipse rising over the Sinai Peninsula. The outlines are loosing their definition, the sharp corners smoothing out as the opening consolidates.

Okay, now I’m open to the possibility that Mooch might be right. I might be a ghost. Maybe The Device was a WMD, maybe we’re all dead. “Mooch,” I say, and can hear the puzzlement in my own voice. “Mooch. Look at me.”

He looks up, sneaks another peek at whatever he thinks is in his arms, a glance at Freddie’s back, then looks straight into my eyes. “What? What do you want?”

“Just to talk.”

“Okay,” he says doubtfully. “Does it hurt to die, Chabo?”

“Good question, but I don’t feel dead. Why do you think I’m a ghost?”

He nods toward the space in his arms. “I saw them kill you. You are dead.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can’t you see?” he asks, shaking his arms. “Oh, god. The blood.” He smears a hand across his face, wipes it on his shirt. “Don’t you see the blood?”

I don’t see blood. “Why don’t you tell me what happened? What you think you saw.”

“From the bottom of the stairs,” he sobs, “when the door wouldn’t open at first, I ran down to the sidewalk. Then you disappeared, and I was so scared of what might happen. I heard the argument, the yelling, you pleading for mercy, saw the whole thing through the open door. ‘The whoosh of a Byzantine scimitar cut through the air,’ ” he quotes from somebody else’s lurid memory. “And the screams, the sound of chopping. I’m sorry I didn’t save you Chabo. I was so scared.”

“I think I’m okay, Mooch. I just don’t see what you see. All I see are these white walls and floors, and everything outside turning white.”

“What are you talking about? The town is on fire. Can’t you hear the church bells?”

I listen carefully and the town is perfectly silent. White and silent, even the Oracle has run out of gas. The white is not smoke, it’s simply an absence of color, so peaceful, and I don’t hear a thing. I turn to Freddie who still leans out the window. He breaks the silence by calling out. “You bet I’m in. I’ll be down in a minute.” He turns to us. “You guys coming?”

“Where?”

“I got us a party lined up. With the circus people. Right after the parade. There’s a redhead who’s perfect for Mooch. And for Chabo,” he winks, “a magician’s assistant with a shape like a Kewpie doll. As for me, I got my eye on twins, a pair of Lithuanian trapeze artists with arms like weight lifters and thighs that could crush an engine block.” He leans his head out the window and yells. “Yeah. Be right there.”

“Come on guys.” He sits on the window sill, swings a leg out, waves us on.

“We’ll just hang out here,” I say.

Freddie looks at us, incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding. I got this all fixed.”

I look at Mooch who is incapable of pulling himself together. “Me and Mooch have some issues to work out. You go on ahead. You can lie to us about it later.”

Freddie laughs, swings his other leg out the window and drops. I run to the window to watch him splatter, but when I stick my head out and look down I see him hit a smooth white canopy over the hardware store loading dock, ride it like surf, catch the tassels at the front edge, then execute a smooth spin, ankles over samovar with reverse Veronica. He lands lightly on his feet on the white chalky surface of the alley. That ought to impress the trapeze artists, but I still don’t see anybody.

Freddie takes a bow, and then he’s talking to the air in front of him, curling his arms like he’s hugging people, laughing, making a fool of himself. I wonder what he sees. I’d like to see it too, but now the town is pure white, the light suffused as if coming from all directions, the outlines of buildings hard to make out because there are no shadows. Freddie stands out like he’s cut out of a magazine, curly dark-brown hair shaking as he laughs, tails of his coat swinging, tan ostrich boots skipping through the white dust. A one-man party is all I can see, but his hands are extended to each side at waist level and he’s leaning forward as he moves through the alley.

“Chabo,” Mooch says. “Don’t worry about Freddie. You can’t die twice.”

“Knock it off, Mooch. We aren’t dead.” I’m pretty sure this is true. What I’m not sure of is what’s really happening. “It’s The Device,” I say, looking toward the white wall where it disappeared. The opening has now smoothed itself to a circle and has begun climbing the wall. The coppery tint has migrated to the circumference and I can taste it inside my lower lip, as if I bit the skin and brought blood to the surface. The hole is about four feet off the ground, and I know a mystery lurks inside. I walk over, wonder if it’s still a hole, or if by now it is a solid. Except for the copper edge, it still has a matte black surface. I push my arm into the hole up to the shoulder, feel around, grab hold of a round object, pull it out, and I’ve got a plump navel orange in my hand. “Hungry?” I say over my shoulder.

“I’ve got to get out of here before the fire gets me.” Mooch stands up, looks regretfully at the floor in the center of the room. “Sorry you’re dead.”

“You still on about that?”

“I can see the pictures on the walls, right through you,” he says. “I like the wallpaper in this place. Same stuff as when I was a kid. I used to imagine that those horses were mine, and in my dreams I rode them across the desert at night.”

I look at the walls; they are bone white and bare. Mooch walks to the door. He’s calmer now. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, takes a deep breath, puts the hankie over his mouth and descends stairs that now look like they’re cut out of ice. He races around the corner and disappears into the whiteness of town.

I head back to the window and sit on the ledge. I see Freddie at the corner. He’s laughing, strutting back and forth like he’s telling stories. Freddie has always been good at keeping the girls entertained. He can tell lies like a seasoned diplomat. I look at the wall in the room and the copper moon is at eye level and still moving upward. I smile. I like this room. With Mooch and Freddie gone it is quiet and peaceful. The orange is brilliant, a visual delight, a singular object of infinite beauty among the nearly unbroken whiteness of the room and the world outside. The shiny rind is dimpled and pregnant. I dig a thumb into the thick flesh to peel it, and in the quiet I can hear the zest escaping; the pure white light from outside splits the zest into a rainbow that quickly fades, and the scent is tangy and sweet.

I remove a wedge and place it in my mouth. The citric acid bites back—the orange is delicious. I think about The Device. It is not a nuke, that’s for sure. I look out the window in time to see Mooch racing around the corner of a building. He looks back in panic and continues to run along the highway to the edge of town, out into the whiteness of the wilderness. That’s Mooch, scared as always. In the distance I hear the faint voice of the Oracle who’s found his second wind and is now singing, “Put the lime in the coconut.” Every once in a while I hear Jasmine cry out, “Orville, grab the rope.”

I take another slice of orange, turn around to watch Freddie at the corner. He’s still entertaining an invisible audience. I think about what Mooch said. He saw our dead bodies. He heard and smelled a fire. Mooch has always expected the worst to happen. Maybe The Device makes us see what we want to see. Or are expecting to see.

I lean on the sill as Freddie drifts down the street with his invisible entourage. He really sees a circus crowd: the redhead, the acrobat, the twin trapeze artists with thighs like the jaws of life. Freddie has always felt incomplete, his life a series of prowls, in search of adventure, action, and dangerous women. I smile as I watch, and hope that he hasn’t made the mistake of finally getting what he’s always yearned for.

As for me, I like it here. I’ve usually gone along with other people’s dreams, a minor character, a bit-player in their lives. Whenever Mooch is around, I pick up on his energy and end up adopting his nervous state. Freddie can make me feel daring, ready for adventure, when all I really want is peace and quiet. When I am alone I can sit for hours, thinking random thoughts, and never feel the need to challenge life’s big questions. Maybe now I’ll have my chance to accomplish nothing.

I see an orange moon arising through the thick, pale sky, the only vivid color outside, a blotchy sphere—as unnatural as The Device—as it thrusts its way upward through the thickening white of the milky atmosphere. I think about poor Ricky, gunned down in front of the store a couple of hours ago. Oh, Ricky, how you loved to hang out with a crowd, friends, strangers, anybodies. You’d sink back in that deep-dish sofa, crack peanuts and jokes, make small talk, listen; a room with Ricky in it buzzed with low-level conversation and goodwill. I chew on another slice of orange and speculate about whether Ricky gets to take advantage of the effect of The Device. He hasn’t been gone all that long, his corpse is still warm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back at home in his favorite chair, laughing.

 

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