The old man stretched his legs in front of him and reached to run a tired hand through his chest-length beard. He gazed around at the sunny park. Not too busy. Not too empty. A perfect day to fulfill his never-ending duty.
He felt inside his left trouser pocket. He was almost out of supplies — and you’d think that would be a good thing. A good thing that twenty people today were happier than they were yesterday. A couple of them no doubt happier than they’d been in their whole life.
A runaway playground ball bumped into his feet. He raised one foot and rested his loafer on top of the bright blue orb. He straightened on the bench as a young boy, probably ten years old, gave chase.
“Thanks, Mister.” The boy stooped for the ball, but the old man didn’t move his foot. The boy looked straight into the wrinkled face. The old man knew the boy was mesmerized by the old man’s crystal blue eyes; everyone was.
“No worries, son. No worries.” He gave a grand smile to the lad and ran his hand through his beard once more.
The boy sat on the ground criss-cross style, still staring into the kind eyes. The old man removed his foot from the ball. The boy took it and put it in the middle of his lap.
“What can I help you with, son?”
“Are you Santa Claus? I mean. Well, I outgrew him. I mean—”
The old man laughed and shook his head. He often received this question from those under four feet tall. Sometimes even the adults would be daft enough to ask.
“I mean. I know how it works and all. I just… Are you him?”
“No. But I can help you.” He pulled a silver chain from his left trouser pocket. One end of the chain remained deep inside the pocket. The other end held a ring of keys. Two days ago, the ring held forty-eight keys. He was down to twenty.
“Wow. What do all those keys open?” The boy broke gaze with the old man’s eyes and was now mesmerized with the ring. “That one is awesome!”
The boys always like the skeleton keys. The grown men went for the car keys. The ladies the house keys. And the little girls could never decide. Stereotypical, but the old man never forced anyone to choose any certain key. It wasn’t about the key’s shape or the size, anyway. But they didn’t know that.
“Would you like to have it?”
“Really? For keeps?”
“Almost for keeps.” The man wriggled the ring around and around until the old skeleton key fell into his lap. He replaced the chain and ring into his left pocket and held the key for the boy to see, but just out of his reach.
“What do you mean almost?” The boy tipped his head to the side, his fingers fidgeted on top of his ball, and the old man knew the boy wanted to reach for it.
“Well, what do you want most right this moment?”
“I don’t know.” The boy still stared at the key.
“Well, think. If you could have any of your wants met right this moment, what would the most important one be?”
The boy brought a hand up to his chin and rested his elbow on the ball. His eyes lit up after a brief moment and he exclaimed, “Oh, I get it. It’s like a wish. So you’re like a genie or something.”
“Or something.” The old man smiled again and waved the key from side to side in front of the boy. He really needed to get on with this. He needed to restock today. The pawn stores and business offices would close around five o’clock. Last week, he found ten skeleton keys at the shops. The businesses in downtown had lost-and-found boxes under their desks. They never questioned or made the old, harmless man describe the keys he lost. Sometimes, they would return with several sets, and the man would choose the set with the most keys. After adding the batch to the chain in his left pocket, he would smile — like he smiled at the boy moments ago —and he would offer a key to the lady or gentleman who’d helped him recover his “lost set.”
“But you must choose quickly.” He told the lad. “Once the key is off the ring, its magic won’t last forever.”
The boy tapped on the ball again, clearly distressed about the deadline. “Well, I guess I’d like to wish for more wishes. But… that’s probably against the rules, isn’t it?”
The old man nodded. “You’re a very keen child. Exactly one key. Exactly one wish. Exactly one minute left.”
“Well, can I use it for someone else?”
“Absolutely.” The old man’s heart raced as the key vibrated in his hand. He sat up a little straighter on the bench. This had only happened once before, but the vibration faded when that young lady asked that her mother not die of cancer.
And the skeleton key stopped vibrating today once the boy spoke again.
“My baby sister, she’s four. She’s always wanted a cat, but we can’t have any ‘cause me and Dad are ‘lergic. Can I give her a stuffed cat?”
Disappointed but not surprised, the man held out the key for the boy. He took it and turned it over in his hand. Usually, before anyone could ask “Now what?” the key worked its wonders. Slowly, slowly, it rose from the boy’s open palm. In mid-air it twisted one-quarter turn, as if it were opening an invisible lock, then disappeared in a metallic sparkle.
Awe-struck, the boy’s jaw dropped open. He looked at the old man, who gave one last smile, tucked his legs under himself to stand, and started to walk away.
“Oh man! Oh man! Thanks, Mister! It’s even her favorite color.”
He glanced behind him to catch sight of the boy running toward his family at the far end of the park. Plush purple cat tucked under his arm, blue ball bouncing off in the opposite direction.
Nineteen keys left.
The old man removed his jacket and Oxford shirt and tossed them over the straight-back chair outside his bathroom door. He splashed water on his face, soaking his beard in the process. He glanced at himself in the mirror hanging from the green wall in the bathroom—which consumed about a tenth of the real estate in his studio apartment. He needed to move. He’d lived here for ten years now. A man his age would die soon. He needed a new place.
He retreated to the foot of his bed where he kicked off his loafers and unfastened the buttons on the left side of his trousers near the pocket that held the chain and keys. He slid the chain up and out, and let the pants fall to his ankles. He removed the ring of keys from the chain and placed them on his nightstand. The key-end of the chain snaked through a custom-made hole in the left side of his boxer shorts and dangled near his bare leg. He sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands and sighed.
He managed to luck out with one lost-and-found at the corner of 20th and Park. He hadn’t been there for about three years and thought he’d give it a try. He reached for his journal and made a note. He was always careful not to visit the same places too often. If he remembered clerks or secretaries, he would ask for the restroom and move on, keeping his eyes down.
He also made note of the little boy, his wish, the time of day and the location they met. Tomorrow he’d travel by subway two neighborhoods down to sit on the bench at the 10th Street bus stop.
He stood to crack open the window to let the cool spring air in. Locust trees from the street below gave off the sweetest aroma this time of year. He took a deep draw of the night air and drew the curtains to block the street lights.
He was weary.
He was weary fifteen decades ago.
He reached for the rubber band next to the key ring. He took the part of the chain that was near his thigh under his boxers and pulled it through the hole, freeing it over the waistband. He wound the length of it around his fingers over and over until he reached the end of the chain, which disappeared under his sixth rib. He attached the rubber band to secure it for the night and laid back in his bed.
He turned off the table lamp and draped his scrawny arm over his eyes. He remembered when an old man similar to himself had met him a few neighborhoods down when he was about the age of the boy with the blue ball.
He, too, had chosen a skeleton key.
“Well, what will it be, son?” the bearded one had asked of him.
“I like making people happy. I wish with all of my whole heart to make people happy forever and ever.”
The man before him had wept, then apologized, and thanked him over and over. He hadn’t understood the gentleman’s reaction at the time.
But he did now.
The skeleton key had risen from his young hand, made a quarter-turn in mid-air, disappeared in a metallic wisp, and the chain appeared from under his rib, attached deep into his heart.
Forever and ever.
With his whole heart.
And the old man in front of him was relieved of his duties and had disappeared in the same metallic magic that took away the wished-upon keys.
He rolled to his right side to face the breeze and the sweet locust. He breathed deeply and felt the chain tug at his heart.
Tomorrow he would try again.
And maybe tomorrow, two neighborhoods down at the 10th Street bus stop, someone would finally hold the key to his happiness.