The Key

It was only a matter of time before they turned on each other, and 40 minutes into the search, that time had come.

This was their third day at the no-frills cabin they’d rented through a classified ads in Sports Afield. “Outfitted for the real outdoorsman”, the description promised, which they learned on arrival meant it had all the amenities of an ice fishing shack. When Earl expressed his disappointment, Ray declared, “Did we come here to play house, or to fish?” As soon as they confirmed that the ad’s promise of easy access to the Umpqua river was completely true, the shortage of pillows and kitchen utensils became future funny details to add when they told the story at the Eagles club.

All in all, it had been a great weekend, but after two long days hauling in steeelhead and salmon, and two nights spent drinking and eating like kings, they were tired of each other’s stories and ready to get home. Midway through loading the car, Earl reached into his pockets but found them empty. They’d both used the key that morning, either to pull the car further up the driveway or unlock the doors they’d accidentally locked or to roll down the wagon’s rear window. It had changed hands several times, and since Earl didn’t have it, he assumed Ray did. “Hey Ray, lemme have my key.”

“I gave it back to you when I opened the tailgate.”

“No, you gave it back to me when you moved the car earlier, but not then.”

“Yes I did.” Ray checked his pockets thoroughly, even opened his wallet. “I don’t have it.”

Earl rechecked his own. “Well I don’t have it.” He walked around the outside of the car hoping he’d find it sticking out of a door lock, then looked in at the ignition. “Son of a bitch, we gotta find that key.”

The initial panic was met with determined unity. It wasn’t as if the key had plunked into the river while they were fishing – it had to be close by. “Okay, retrace what you did since we started packing, and I’ll do the same. One of us is going to find it.”

Ray had started the morning with a jacket on, so he found it and checked those pockets, too. Nothing. He’d brought out the tackle boxes, so he checked on and around those, then slowly scanned the ground between the car and the door. He looked on the bare counters in the kitchen and on the vacant cup hooks by the door, even checked around the bathroom sink.

Earl looked all around the front seat and on the car floor, hoping maybe one of them had left it on the vinyl and it slid between the back and the bench. He knelt and searched the ground beside the car in case he’d dropped it getting out. He checked the ash tray and the dashboard, hoping he’d find it laying somewhere in plain view and the two of them would laugh and call themselves idiots, but it was nowhere to be found.

After 15 minutes, they paused. When Ray insisted he’d looked everywhere, Earl pointed out that if that was true, they’d have the key. There was obviously someplace they hadn’t looked. They tried to recreate the timeline of each use of the key, but their memories differed significantly. Both insisted the other was the last to use it.

“Maybe one of us put it somewhere thinking we’d remember it,” Ray said, “some easy spot we were sure we wouldn’t forget?”

One of us? Are you saying I lost it?”

“I didn’t mean you,” Ray lied. He was sure Earl had lost the key. He’d noticed all weekend that Earl didn’t clean up his messes – he left fish guts in the sink instead of putting them in the bin outside, stacked his empty Olympia cans next to the couch instead of putting them in the trash, and stored a lure in the tackle box in the tray that was obviously just for hooks and bobbers. He was a slob, and why would he be more careful with the key than he was with anything else?

Earl, on the other hand, was annoyed that Ray had not only lost the key, but was now blaming him. He was a good friend, he wasn’t saying otherwise, but he’d grown tired of Ray’s fastidiousness, always having to put every little thing in its proper place and have everything arranged prim and proper. It would be just like Ray to tuck it into some empty cubby of his tackle box for safe keeping and forget he’d done it because he was so busy nitpicking every other little thing in the world. “It doesn’t matter who it was, we need to find the damn thing.”

Soon, the logical retracing of their steps gave way to more irrational searching. Ray was certain he hadn’t opened any of the tackle boxes since they’d begun loading the car, but he opened them all to confirm. He lifted the soiled welcome mat in the mud room of the cabin, and even looked in the bare kitchen cabinets they hadn’t opened all weekend. Earl sifted through the pile of papers and maps in the glove box, even though he couldn’t imagine why either of them would have put the key in there. He removed every floor mat in the car, and even opened the gas door as he walked past, just in case. It seemed inevitable that one of them would suddenly shout “I found it,” but the driveway was silent except for annoyed grumbles and the sound of boxes and doors slamming.

“Too bad that key isn’t on some kind of a keychain that’s easy to see,” Ray said as he foraged through a cardboard box full of knives and descaling tools, most of them sticky with a film of fish guts that Earl claimed to have cleaned. He knew the comment was going to start something – he’d said the same thing to Earl Friday night as he ribbed him about carrying around a single, flat key – but he felt justified bringing it up again because he was tired of looking for something Earl was too careless to keep safe.

Earl climbed out of the car and put his hands on his hips. “I’ve been driving this car for six years and I ain’t lost the key once. The only difference I see between those six years and this weekend is you.”

Ray stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans. “All I said was it would be easier if you kept it on a shoelace or something. I don’t think you can argue against that.”

“It would be a moot point if someone had taken better care of the key.”

Ray wished he had something in his hands so he could slam it down. “So who’s making accusations now?”

Earl raised his hand like a traffic cop. “Stop. Look, I don’t want to spend another night here, and I doubt you do, either, so let’s just find the key, okay?”

Ray didn’t nod. “When we find that key, we’re going to know right away who lost it. You know that, right? And you’re going to owe me a burger and a beer when we see it was you.”

“I have to buy you lunch because you lost my key?”

Ray leaned over and started pawing through another box. “I’m just saying, if you’d tied a goddam shoelace around it…”


© 2016 WPReagan. This is one story in the 2016 series, Everyday Stories: 30 Tales in 30 Days Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs.

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