Something goes overboard from the dusty catch-all that forms the base of my desk lamp.
Getting down on my hands and knees under my desk, I retrieve a frequent-sleeper card for a hotel chain that I think I’ve graced with my presence only once or twice. Surfacing, I bang my head.
Particle-board may not be as attractive or as expensive as wood, but it is just as hard.
As I settle back into my chair, I take another look at the junk in that catch-call: a twenty-year-old solar-powered calculator; three rocks from the beach at Tuktoyaktuk; a broken piece of china smoothed by wave action and picked up on a beach east of Inverness, Scotland; a four-month-old reminder notice for my next ‘annual’ physical, still fourteen months out; two data sticks; a metal bookmark embossed with two puffins; a newspaper clipping with my name on it but referring to Hurricane Isabel, sans the ‘Hurricane’; and a key.
I pluck the key from its slot and turn it over in my hand, thoughtfully. I have no idea what it’s for.
Oh, I can tell it’s for a standard door lock, but which door? That’s the rub.
It’s not one of those new cheap keys—it has some heft—so I figure it’s not for any door of any house I’ve owned in whole or in part since 2002. It’s possible that it’s for my Edmonton house which was built in the early 1950s, although I’m pretty sure I rekeyed that when I moved in.
It’s possible that it’s for the Edmonton apartment that was home from 1994 to 1998. The apartment block was built in the 1970s I figure, and likely had not been rekeyed in all that time. But truly, I have no idea.
This old-fashioned, singleton key reminds me forcibly of a tin of keys I found in my parents’ home when we were clearing it out in preparation for their move into the lodge. Shelves and basement boxes yielded oddments not unlike my desktop catch-all, adjusted for scale.
Five spray cans of Off! Deep Woods Mosquito Spray. This, in suburban Calgary. Five.
Three tins of dried-up shoe polish—two black, one brown—from the days when my father’s fine motor skills still allowed him to spit-shine his dress shoes.
Jars of nails and screws; slightly rusty hand tools; purses not used in thirty years; toys from two generations of children; board games missing essential pieces.
And somewhere in there, a tin of old keys, the locks they fit long since misplaced, thrown out, or moved away from.
How does such a collection happen? You find a key you don’t recognize and somehow you hesitate to throw it out. After all, if you can’t remember what it’s for, how can you be sure you won’t need it again? So you set it aside, hoping that time will bring clarity.
And so the collection grows, one key at a time. Not taking much space, there’s little incentive to dispose of it. And for some perverse reason, the longer you keep an unknown key the harder it is to chuck. It’s not a reasonable response, but there it is.
I drop my mystery key back into the catch-all. It could be a sombre warning of all the things I hang onto without reason: the old junk stuffed into basement boxes, the outdated attitudes tucked away on my mind’s shelves.
But today I must be feeling more positive than usual, because today it makes me wonder about keys that I don’t even know I have.
Keys to puzzles, human and otherwise.
Keys to problems, acute and chronic.
Keys to the meaning of life? Well, let’s not get carried away.
But maybe I do already have everything I need, and just need to figure out where it all fits.