a literary review
Our neighbors keep an extra house key on a hook in their garage. My father’s is also on a hook—inside his shed, to the left of the door. During my childhood, Grandma kept her spare buried in a flowerpot. And, as an adult, I hid my mother’s key in a broken downspout next to her garage. After it disappeared, I put a new one under a planter in the window box.
My husband and I switched to a coded lock because our daughters kept telling everyone where to find our keys. Now they tell everyone the combination. The original plan was to update the code frequently, but we lost the instructions and haven’t reprogrammed since we installed the darn thing. Some days I can’t think to say the numbers in the right order and stand on the back porch, grocery bags balanced against my hip, and rely on my fingers to remember the pattern. So far it’s all worked out. I always manage to make my way in; my fear of being left outside comes to nothing.
After my father left, my mother started locking the door. No more returning from errands to find an aunt napping in the living room or watching As the World Turns. No more coming home from school—all sixth grade hungry—to find Grandma had stopped by to leave a plate of cookies on the counter. Now people called first or left notes in the door. When will you be home?
My mother, despite her insistence on the lock, struggled with our new routines; she’d stand on the porch, tongue stuck between her teeth, bags of canned goods, meat, and potatoes balanced against the steps, and call to the key hiding in her handbag, “Oh come on now.” A prayer more than a command, oh come on now, called to tight jar lids, a splinter stuck in a hand, nail files, and stockings that went missing.
On school days, I came home first and unlocked the house before Mom returned from her factory job at Briggs and Stratton. The wrecked screen door was bowed from the push of my hand—the small squares of fine metal weave patterned against my skin—and torn from where I dragged my new, hardware store key over the mesh, liking the zipper sound and the way the dust sprinkled down to the porch. The door bounced against me as I turned the key in the back lock, chanting righty tighty, lefty loosey before greeting the dog and stepping into the silent kitchen. At night, dishes washed and dried, Mom, with her own set of car, garage, and house keys on a small ring wrapped around her finger, escaped to the tavern up the block. Her real ring, a wedding ring, slept in her top bedroom drawer. My father slept in a new apartment with a new woman.
I want to recapture those days, that post-separation season when my mother’s drinking began in earnest. There is the echo of my mother’s key struggling in the back door’s flimsy lock. It was the house on 54th Street in Milwaukee, back in the seventies during my middle school years. Our house stood second from the corner, white with red shutters. The small kitchen had diamond-patterned vinyl flooring and a Formica table with metal edging. I burned the floor with a lit match once, although I denied it. My brothers were away at college—leaving the upstairs bedrooms empty and the rest of the house quiet.
Before quitting us, my father left a note on his dresser that read, “I can’t take it anymore.” Blame for this scenario fell on The Other Woman, but now I wonder about that note, about the myriad definitions of the word it. I wish there’d been another paragraph of explanation. Looking back, I can see the odd gift of all that blame though. Blame, with its attendant hurt and anger, is so much better than digging to the shifting, murky bottom of it.
After my father left, my mother began to frequent taverns, and I spent evenings listening for her steps on the porch, waiting for the clink of metal against wood before her key entered the lock. She’d jangle and fumble the keys as she twisted the doorknob right then left. If her struggle in the dark went on too long, I’d open the door. Holding her purse tight against her body with one hand and gripping the useless key in the other, she’d say, “Oh Joanne,” when I appeared, as if she expected or hoped for someone else. Someone else awake after midnight and waiting for her inside the empty house. Someone else watching the clock and playing games with time—she’ll be home before the minute hand reaches the twelve, before I finish a chapter, before I can say ten Hail Marys.
My mother was not a sleepy or funny drunk; her personality changed and she became repetitive, quick to anger and impossible to reason with. When upset, she’d phone family and friends for support no matter the hour. If the cause was my fault, she tossed my toys in the garbage or insisted I couldn’t go to school the next day.
At first, I didn’t associate the word drunk with her. Even with all the after-bar clumsiness and flu-like mornings, I didn’t get it. Then one night, listening to her on the other side of the door calling to her keys, “Come on now, where are you?” it hit me. Standing in our alcove, I stared at our shoes lined up on the rubber mat and at our jackets hanging from the hooks on the wall above. Shoes and jackets ready for the next day, for the safe routine of work and school. Adults might drink too much and act silly, drive too fast, or argue with their wives, but being a drunk seemed darker, and so much worse.
A drop of nail polish, like red for the house and pink for the car, would have done it. Or those fitted fobs for around the top of the keys. We could even have paid extra for printed patterns—Green Bay Packer motifs are popular in this area—although this option wasn’t available in the early 1970s. Any of these could have eliminated the wasted time spent sorting through handbags for keys. One lucky thing though—there weren’t as many keys back then. We didn’t have boats, or campers, or second homes to keep locked. People in my neighborhood didn’t have office keys; the dads were laborers and the moms stayed home with the kids. Well, that isn’t completely true. My mother worked for Mr. Gibbons on Tuesday nights as a key punch operator when my father still lived at home.
Since Mom worked after regular business hours, she had her own key to the small office on 27th Street. Usually I went with her and while she typed, I sat at a big green desk doing math problems or playing with Barbie dolls. My brothers, both teenagers then, were at football practice or their own jobs. If she had to work past eight, Mom left me at home.
“Why can’t you just take her with you?” my father asked each time she put her coat on to leave.
Most nights my father worked in the garage on his Model A Ford or watched TV in the basement. On Tuesdays though, he talked on the telephone in our kitchen. He used a low, even voice that sounded unfamiliar to me. I wanted to be near him and looked for reasons to come into the kitchen so I could watch the way he moved, the long spiral of the phone cord following him from table to counter as he paced. The only familiar thing about him the way his hand—the one not cradling the phone—crossed his chest, his bottle of Pabst held steady against his heart. One night I started to unload the dishwasher while he talked.
“Never mind, I’ll do it,” he told me in the sweet voice, cupping his hand over the receiver. “You go read now.” He kept talking, opened the top of the dishwasher, and gently put each dish away. A first, as far as I knew, listening from around the corner in the hallway, the dog held tight in my lap. I wondered what my older brothers would make of this soft-spoken dad finishing my chores. The dad we knew treated the vintage cars in his garage with tenderness, but with family his anger rose sharp and startling.
I want to say I was too young to understand his tête-à-tête. But that doesn’t ring true; I didn’t tell my mother about the dishwasher. On the other hand, she didn’t ask what we did those evenings she worked and didn’t question why he wanted me with her. Besides, she should have known. Grandma always told her that wives belonged home at night.
One middle school summer I traveled with cousins from Milwaukee to Winona, Minnesota, to attend the funeral of a great-great aunt none of us had ever met. My grandmother also came, although in a different car. My mother stayed home. Long car rides made her nervous.
Over coffee and crumb cake the day we arrived, the Winona relatives worried about Aunt Laura’s possessions. There were rumors of treasures in the house, maybe even hidden money. Laura had been a childless recluse, subject to all sorts of stories due to her independent state, and nobody knew for sure. Once lawyers got involved no one would get anything—that seemed the consensus among the in-town family members.
On the day of the funeral, Grandma and a Milwaukee aunt took me to visit Laura’s house—a graying Victorian where she’d lived alone until a few days before her death. In the spirit of seize the day, after promising me no one would mind our keyless entry, they pushed aside layers of leaves and cobwebs to lower me through an unlocked basement window.
Inside, framed sepia photographs of hat-wearing men and big bosomed women watched as I shouted up my findings: straight back chairs piled against a wall, tables dusty with rows of mason jars, boxes of dishes, the cardboard sinking into itself. I had to weave amongst the boxes and push through spider webs to find the stairs. In a corner, near the sump pump, a shadowed double sink and wringer washer machine lurked, something I recognized from years back in my grandmother’s basement. I feared Aunt Laura would appear, look out from one of the ornate mirrors leaning against the walls and beckon to me, or hiss her displeasure at my intrusion into her home.
When I came up from the basement, I could see my grandmother peering in through the parlor’s windowpane. She cupped her face with her hands against the glass and scanned the room until she spotted me. As I moved through the inside, feet clomping against the hardwood floors, dust motes guiding my way, Grandma walked along the outside of the house, stopping at each window to follow my progress, my Milwaukee aunt a shadow behind her. Concern for my safety didn’t propel Grandma over the weedy, uneven lawn; no, she knew what she wanted. I was now worthy of suspicion. She carefully watched my steps until I opened the door. All of us ready to inherit
This is about the lack of a key. My empty hand and empty pockets the afternoon my mother, purse dangling from her forearm, came up the sidewalk to greet me as I returned from an overnight with friends. She was going out dancing and had already locked up. On Sunday afternoons the VFW post often hosted polka bands. I should, she said, stay outside on such a nice day.
That’s true; it was a nice day. I remember the blue sky frozen like a strip of watercolor behind the neighbor’s trees and chimney, the expanding and receding sound of Mr. Marimonti’s lawn mower next door, the way he walked towards us and then away. I’m sure I nodded and shrugged my shoulders, certain I’d get in. My mother could be unpredictable; I hadn’t a clue what time she’d return or why she’d locked me out.
But I couldn’t find a way in—no keys hidden in the usual spots, and my bedroom window sealed tight. I walked to the park and the store and then, worst of all, waited for her. I sat on the front porch, the gray paint peeling from the pockmarked stairs, the dog watching from her comfortable spot inside, atop the living room couch. Once, when my heart began to race I got a ball out of the garage. The solid rubber ball in my hand a comfort, each loud thunk against the steps a prayer she’d return soon. My steady rhythm, the imaginary crowd cheering, and the dog lifting her head to track the ball eventually calmed me.
I had friends in the neighborhood, but on a Sunday afternoon—family day—I refused to risk looking odd and alone at their doors, their mothers sighing as they let me in. I didn’t yet recognize my own appearance gave me away. That the sleeves falling above my wrist bones, the dark shadows under my eyes, and my short hair at a time of braids or ponytails told the world everything they needed to know, long before my mother walked into a room without a wedding ring on her hand.
So I played games against the porch, chasing the ball into the neighbor’s yard if it flew off on an unexpected trajectory. He had a weeping willow tree I longed to nap under, its huge branches curving down to the ground, a hidden cave, sunlight filtering through the slender leaves. My parents hated the willow; its map of roots worked their way between our cement basement blocks until spindly roots grew along our walls, thin red shoots looking for something.
I knew better than to call my father or grandmother. If I complained about my mother, told about being locked out for example, I might be taken away. Put in someone else’s care. Even then I understood the comfort of the familiar.
My mother returned towards evening. She asked how I was and I answered, “Fine.” She asked what I’d done all day and I said, “Nothing.” I walked away from her then, having found my own key for locking her out.
My mother had a goodbye ritual before going out for the evening. Her voice would become distracted, her attention already somewhere else. She’d blot her red lipstick with toilet paper and then admonish, “Don’t open the door for anyone.” Such a stupid saying—as if this ensured protection for me or absolution for her—her real concern being that I not let my father in, if, as I knew she hoped, he showed up.
On those nights she was gone, my focus was to listen for her return, praying for a release from the awful waiting. Once she returned my anxiety lessened, but the night was not over. I’d steady her as she made her way to her bedroom where, once settled, she’d watch TV with the volume on high. Across the hall, I lay awake calculating when she’d fall asleep. I wanted that TV off. Only then would I believe the night finished. A foolish girl, I wasn’t content to put cotton in my ears and leave well enough alone. If I simply snuck in and lowered the sound, she’d know I had touched her television; if I turned it off she assumed she was responsible. I risked the click of that on/off button, her waking to see me at the foot of the bed, and the night becoming even longer.
My mother was in her eighties, living alone in the house my stepfather built for his first wife, when I hid her car keys to keep her from driving. While she napped in the back bedroom, I walked around and around her rooms searching for a hiding spot, fearful she’d guess any location I chose. Eventually I settled on a yellow two-quart casserole with a lid. She never found them, although she did have the car towed to the dealership to be rekeyed.
“I knew you were home,” I told my mother over the phone one evening. I had stopped during my lunch hour to check on her—something I tried to do weekly. I knocked on the heavy breezeway door and then on the kitchen’s cloudy picture window but she never answered.
“How do you know? You should call first,” my mother replied. I reminded her she often ignored the phone, and then—without thinking—I blurted that her dog told me. It ran barking between the kitchen window and the bedroom hallway if she was home and stared quietly from its bed next to the stove if she was gone. We laughed about it, but the next week when I came to visit the curtains were closed tight—the dog now unseen and unheard.
Several months ago, we repainted our kitchen. The window between countertop and deck remains bare and I doubt we’ll get around to hanging a curtain, blind, or swag anytime soon. The days pass too swiftly for our attention to land on this detail. As it is, the view of our yard, absent a window covering, has become familiar, even soothing. There is a tree-lined fence at the end of the lot line and, beyond that, the county highway flows with a constant hum of travel. I lock the doors when I’m working in my basement office, but my loved ones know how to get in.
I still wait for the release certain sounds bring—the garage opening, the door handle turning. Signals of safe arrivals. And always, there is the need for things to be finished: the kitchen clean, the television off, the daughters settled. The Hail Marys whispered to a dark and quiet room.
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Joanne Nelson’s writing appears in Midwestern Gothic, Brevity, Consequence, Redivider, and others. She writes creative non-fiction, essays, commentaries on craft, and reviews. Nelson is a contributor to Lake Effect on 89.7 WUWM, the local NPR affiliate. In addition, she gives presentations on topics related to spirituality and writing, the personal essay, and creativity. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin where she develops and leads community writing programs, maintains a psychotherapy practice, and, of course, adjuncts. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. More information can be found about Nelson at wakeupthewriterwithin.com.