“Skeleton Keys” By Beth Darby

“Forensic Foraging #1” by William C. Crawford

Side by side the skeleton couple sits, the skull of one against the cheekbone of the other. The spindly arm bones of the figure on the right drape over the clavicle of its mate just above the sternum. The mate’s left hand rests above the spot that caged a heart once upon a time. They lean against each other, leg bones dropping over the mantel’s front edge. The other figures sit or stand in various yoga poses, their carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges flat-line in prayerful gestures above tree and pigeon poses, opening hip flexors, and wormholes through the labyrinth of Karla’s memory. “Even skeletons can be windows,” Karla thinks, realizing she’s been staring through the five boney figures on the mantel since midmorning. Retracing paths from long ago there to here, logic fails. She might as well put all the significant dates, times, and people in a Yahtzee canister, shake it up and roll them out tumbling helter-skelter.

Karla’s left arm rests palm up on the shabby armrest of the paisley double recliner which sits back in that same hidden corner the movers from Platte Furniture placed it in more than 15 years ago. She rubs the fuzzy lavender throw draping across her lap onto the latch hook butterfly pillow beside her. Hattie made the pillow when she was eight, and when she had called that rainy Wednesday trying to catch her breath between sobs as though she were a little girl still, Karla convinced her to cancel her appointments and come over to “cocoon”. Cocooning is what they had called respites taken through Hattie’s teen years when they’d sit together in the recliner, a bowl of parmesan popcorn between them, binge-watching Anne of Green Gables, Sense and Sensibility, and other films of seemingly simpler times. The day Hattie had been so upset, Karla had gotten the storage bag off the top shelf of the closet in her old room and pulled out the throw and pillow. Aside from one trip to the dry cleaners after the spilled merlot, they’ve been on the recliner ever since.

The window to Karla’s left looks out onto Behan Street where cars rumble over the brick, children with heavy backpacks scuffle up and down the sidewalks, dog walkers lean forward or back depending on the size of the pet at the end of the leash, and leaves fall with increasing frequency from the sleepy limbs of maples and oaks. Through the window to her right she watches titmice, chickadees, and cardinals mostly, flit amongst the thicket of weeping mulberry, scolding and chasing each other between turns at the feeder or, sometimes in late afternoon, just preening, or listening with cocked heads to the mysterious frequencies of birds. Straight in front of her… the mantel lined with skeletons.

Inez brought the skeletons yesterday, along with an assortment of vinyl autumn leaves she had scattered on tables after dusting them. Inez cleaned the whole downstairs, actually, including the bathroom. She put jugs of cider in the fridge (non-alcoholic, of course), and a corn casserole she intends to reheat when she arrives today at four with Rosie, and probably Cricket, to finish preparing for this evening’s Halloween party.

Karla met Inez after nearly fainting in the Food Fair parking lot while wheeling her rattling grocery cart back to the buggy corral. Before Karla even knew she was falling, Inez was there, one arm around her waist, the other across her chest supporting her shoulder. “Deep breath, honey,” she said while helping Karla onto the front seat of a nearby Volvo. Inez brushed Karla’s silver bangs from her forehead, wiped away the perspiration with a napkin she pulled from the glove box, then opened the orange juice she’d just purchased and offered it. Not wanting to spoil the whole container with stranger germs, Karla tried to refuse, but Inez was insistent. “There’s plenty of orange juice in this world, darlin’, but only one you!” She leaned by the passenger door, talking constantly, the ends of the long white scarf banding her bottle-black hair occasionally moving forward in the breeze of her own gesticulations to brush against Karla’s cheek.

“I’d be happy to drive you to the ER just to get you checked out.” Inez’s hand was on the passenger door, blocking Karla’s exit. “I’ll run in and have the manager send out a bagboy for your groceries.” Inez’s hand gestured toward the store entrance. “I’m sure they’ll hold them for us.” Inez’s hands were clasped under her chin and she was smiling like she’d just placed the last tile into a very complicated jigsaw puzzle.

Karla took another sip of orange juice and squinted. “I’m fine. I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast. No big deal.” The orange juice had steadied her shaking hands, but the old car smelled of oil and gasoline which wasn’t helping Karla’s queasy stomach. “Thanks so much for coming to the rescue, and for the juice. It’s helping.” Karla popped the cap on, put the OJ on the floorboard, stood and slid past the pushy, well-meaning lady who’d appeared so suddenly between her and the asphalt.

“You’re so welcome, honey!” Inez was right behind her, scarf tails bouncing from the brisk clip of the short-legged trying to keep up. “I could follow you home. Help you get your groceries in. Just to make sure.”

“Not necessary. Really, you’ve helped enough. My husband will be there to carry things in,” Karla lied.

“If you’re absolutely sure.” Inez paused. “You still seem a little unsteady to me.”

“I am absolutely sure.” Karla got into her car and turned the ignition. “Thank you, again.” She closed the door, turned up the radio and rearranged a few things on her front seat hoping Inez would be out of her way when she looked up so she could back the hell up and head home.

Ailsa Chang was discussing China’s ambitions in Kenya on “All Things Considered,” and Karla was about to turn left onto Faulsey Way when the square gray Volvo appeared in her rearview mirror. The tips of Inez’s white scarf were flapping out the driver’s window. “You’re fucking kidding me.” Karla considered making a detour, but made her turn deciding she was just going to have to have it out with this over the top do-gooder.

Seconds after pulling into the driveway, the Volvo pulled in, too. Out popped Inez with the jug of orange juice sloshing as she quickstepped in her direction before Karla was even completely out of her vehicle.

“Oh, I know honey… you probably think I’m a crazy woman for following you home.” The orange juice was outstretched in front of her like a Welcome Wagon bouquet. “It’s just… I thought maybe you could use the rest of this… Otherwise it will go to waste. And, to tell you the truth, I wanted to make sure you got home. You remind me so much of someone I knew who was so important to me. So important. It was like I had no control of myself, and here I am.” Inez shrugged her shoulders and looked a little lost. Karla remained expressionless. “I’m leaving now. Now that you’re really home and safe, and here’s your juice.”

Karla was too stunned to say anything but, “Thanks,” as she took the orange juice from Inez.
Inez turned and walked back to her car, then turned again to Karla, palms up and out like flippers. “You know, I really would like to just give you my phone number.” She looked sheepish. “Just in case you ever need anything. Anything at all.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Karla thought again. She shook her head but could not keep the smile from her lips.

Nearly two years later and Karla’s bathroom porcelain is shit-stain free and Inez’s casserole is in her fridge. Inez runs the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at Redemption Community Church. AA isn’t supposed to have a leader but if you ask anyone, it’s Inez. Redemption is holy rolling and so is Inez. AA isn’t supposed to have a religious affiliation either.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Inez repeated this over and over the first week that Karla dried out. She delivered cartons of juice and the 12 steps when she stopped by to take Karla to each of the 30 meetings in 30 days.
“I don’t believe in God,” Karla said.

“Well he believes in you, honey! And so do I!”

Remarks like this made Karla wish she still smoked so she could join those on the back stoop with their hidden flasks, only there to get slips signed for their probation officers. Karla didn’t even really need to be there. Hers had been a brief relapse, a weeks-long binge into oblivion. She doubted it would have lasted with or without Inez.

“You know, you haven’t picked a sponsor yet,” Inez reminded Karla again. She looked as though she had the perfect candidate in mind.

“The only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to quit drinking,” Karla threw back. “I can be falling down drunk and if I want to quit drinking I have as much right to be here as anyone no matter what else I do, or don’t do.”

“Well, you just let me know when you’re ready to go in a little deeper.”

“You will be the first to know.”

Inez had something to say about everything… except her past. She never talked about family, other than to say they are not currently in the picture. More likely, it is Inez who is not in the picture. What had she done? Not that it mattered. Toxic shame isn’t based on error in judgment. It swims in your blood. Shame can lead to addiction just as addiction leads to shame. Use, addiction, remorse, resolve, craving, hunting, use, humiliation. An endless cycle of use and no use. Everyone tumbles inside the wheel. Only the luckiest get churned out and hurled to land broken and afraid on the hard, rocky bottom. Inez had survived her fall and, in homage maybe, or haunted by guilt’s demons, she had given up spirits and men for the Holy Ghost. And who had she found along her salvation path? Karla, stumbling toward her own bottom, or a ledge of the abyss. Who really knows when it’s bottom for keeps? She was hung over and falling, a useful candidate for some of the amends Inez was hot and hell bent on making.

The sun is moving toward the western horizon, its light catching in the blue marble spheres of the mobile hanging in the window, dappling the chimney stones. The skeletons pose and wink. Hattie had practiced yoga for a while. She would move into her positions at the oddest times. It could be irritating.

“I know you are 26 and capable of making your own decisions, but I don’t understand why you are DECIDING to make me worry by not letting me hear from you for weeks on end.” Karla would finish her sentence, turn around from putting dry goods in the pantry or whatever she was doing, and Hattie would be standing there on one leg, hands palm to palm overhead, closed eyes searching hidden realms for peace, love, and understanding. Nothing says, “You’re a basket case, Mom,” like serenity and a refusal to join the drama. Of course, the temperature of Hattie’s moods was variable, and her cool could quickly vaporize into steam, inflaming her features with the red swollenness of a firestorm coming.

“The wisdom I need will never come from your lips,” she once screamed at Karla before slinging her backpack over her shoulder and stomping out. But wisdom wasn’t what Hattie had needed, was it?

Tree pose skeleton grins. Lotus skeleton’s empty eye sockets keen to invisible heights; hand and finger bones cup receptively but hold and touch nothing. Karla imagines throwing her glass of nearly melted ice, sending the inanimate bones into motion. The bones have always been there. Skulls with gaping sockets, ribs and vertebrae, pelvises and sacra, femurs and fibulas, all there, under wraps. We are skeletons clothed in people.

“Is there a reason we’re having the party here instead of the meeting hall?” Karla asked yesterday when Inez appeared on the other side of her front door, only her burnt orange tam visible over the array of boxes, bags, and containers piled in her arms.

“If you won’t go out in the world, I will bring the world to you,” Inez said over her shoulder on her way to the kitchen. The cheerfulness in her voice was rankling. Some days it was hard enough putting one foot in front of the other without hearing the upswing of Inez’s “dancing through life” façade. “You didn’t come to the last planning meeting, and I thought this would make it easy for you. You don’t even have to put your shoes on. Plus, I need your input. We’ll have a little food and fellowship with all the gals, and Rodney, then…” She set a bag of candy corn pumpkins near a dish on the end table and clapped her hands together twice, “We can figure out how to help those veterans!”

Inez chirped on and on. “Twenty percent of veterans who have PTSD are also addicted to something. I’ve already ordered some little flags. We can make iced cookies or cupcakes with red and blue sprinkles. Bet they will be out in full force for Veterans Day. We should probably take at least 100 to be safe, and some pamphlets about meeting dates and times. The VFW opens at 11:00 a.m. Should we make sandwiches?” Inez moved as she spoke. Her voice rose and fell as she passed between rooms. Some words were lost in the rattle of dishes, heels click-click-clicking across the wooden floors, and the tapping of glass candle holders being placed along the hearth and mantel. The skeletons appeared to be swaying in shadows she cast. “They fought for our freedom,” she was saying, “maybe we can help them get free, too.”

“Are you sure you’re not just trying to get laid?”

Inez came to a complete stop and put her hands on the countertop. She leaned as if she needed support, steadied her gaze, spoke slowly and deliberately, “I know you’ve been through a lot, Karla but you don’t own all the pain in the world. Isn’t it about time to think of the suffering of others? Hattie is gone. Help others the way you wish you could have helped her.”

The hard poke of Hattie’s name hit the center of Karla’s breastbone, stopping her breath for a moment. “And who are you helping, Inez? You’re applying Band-Aids to mortal wounds. Can you stop the wars innocents are sacrificed to? Can you do anything to change the senseless deaths these vets have witnessed and been party to? No! And your Plan B is cupcakes and tiny flags! Are you serious?” Karla was standing now, trembling, pacing between the fireplace and the windows. With her big toe she tried to dig her shoe from under the recliner’s edge and caught herself from tripping on its threadbare arm. Where were her keys?

“You think I don’t struggle?” A tear slid down Inez’s cheek. “I know I don’t have all the answers. I know I’m as lost in the dark as anyone. That’s why I keep looking for the light. And I try to share it. You’re sober. I’ve been trying to help you, too. What happened to Hattie isn’t your fault any more than it was hers.”

“You don’t know anything about Hattie.” The keys tightly gripped in her shaking fist cut into Karla’s palm. “And you aren’t helping me. You think I quit drinking because of something you did? There is nothing, Inez. Nothing. Not inside a bottle or outside either. I’m too tired of living to even hold a flask to my lips.” Karla spat her words. “I. Don’t. Care. About anything. And you will do whatever it takes to keep from looking at your own miserable life. It’s only yourself you’re trying to save. So ‘Praise the Lord, pass the ammunition’ and God help whoever lands in your sights.”

Karla pulled in behind a red Acura, its windshield covered with leaves and a tire boot on the front driver’s wheel. She did a sloppy job of parallel parking despite the leeway afforded by the empty loading zone space behind her. Here in the downwardly mobile shopping section of the east end known simply as “The District,” most of the shopkeepers only open Wednesday through Saturday to save on overhead. So Sheffield Street usually had plenty of open parking spots. Karla had pulled into the first one she saw without potholes. She felt too exhausted to carry an umbrella but grabbed a hoodie from the back seat, hoping the rain wouldn’t start up again and slid it on as she stepped onto the curb.

Because of low rent, the shops were mostly run by the young, or potentially shady. She’d never been around when Lansky’s Keys and Property Management was open. Yet it had been on the corner for as long as Karla remembered, faded circulars drooping from the delivery box, both sagging hands of the “Will Return” clock sign pointing straight down to six behind the dingy door glass. Axis Skates had moved in next door. Beanies, tees, helmets, and sunglasses interspersed the display of cruisers and longboards. “New shipment of Ripstiks” was handwritten in black Sharpie on a lime green index card propped against a slim board that resembled a very short kayak paddle.

The bongs in the next window were discreetly arranged between other bohemian paraphernalia: carved wooden incense holders, prayer beads, tie-dyed pillows, Buddhas, Ganeshas, tom-toms, singing bowls, and small pouches woven in Rastafarian green, yellow, and red. But Smoke Time Stu’s is primarily a head shop specializing in merch and legal smokes in the front, and according to what Hattie once said, had a grow room in the basement. From a small blackboard decorated with Gandalf blowing smoke rings, Karla read the flavors of e-liquids and vape juices available for your pod or pen: Apple Turnover, Lucid Dream, Hibiscus Halo. Everything from fruits and flowers to rock stars and kid cereal. Motley Brew for the don’t give a damn vibe, or Count Chocula for those with no reason or capacity, as yet, to consider their health.

The smell of grilled pork chops, twice-baked potatoes, blackberry cobbler and all the fixings for the Friday Special at Jill’s pulled Karla from her cynical head trip toward the diner. Looking in on the window table where, on another fall day she and Hattie had sat looking out, she felt herself sliding down the folds of time.

Hattie is wearing the peasant shirt Karla gave her for her 27th birthday. It is cream, made of cambric with floral embroidery around the neck and sleeves. Karla loves it and knows Hattie, who usually dresses in denim and leather, is wearing it to please her. Hattie opens one of the little packets of coconut sugar she carries with her, stirs it into her coffee, and continues her story.

“It was awhile after Mickey died. It had been months and instead of feeling better, I felt worse. I was in bed more than I was out but couldn’t sleep, ever. I didn’t want to breathe anymore. Carmen came a couple of times a week with food, but I rarely ate. Jason was covering for me at “The Squid” but you can only do so many tattoos before your fingers cramp up. That’s when they hired Monique… really intricate designs, subtle colors with bright vermillion accents. We showed you some.”

“I remember,” Karla nodded. “Monique Hamamoto… Pretty woman… lots of flowers and koi.” She was sipping her tea and listening intently, grasping for clues of how and why it had come to this.

“It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around, Mom. So, I don’t really see how I can help you understand it. I guess I wasn’t expecting life to deal me a blow I couldn’t handle. Mickey’s death… well, I’m still not sure I’ve survived it.”

“Did you feel like I was unavailable? Like you couldn’t come to me? More than anything in this world I have wanted to do better by you. You don’t deserve so much of what has happened.”
“Mom. What does ‘deserve’ have to do with anything? Please, don’t go down that road. What is done is done. You had your own stuff. Newly sober. You’d been in a downward spiral since Gary left and, you were just starting to come out of it. Plus, it was March for God’s sake. You were up to your eyeballs in taxes and still weren’t sure Waterhouse and Proctor was going to let you stay on. I didn’t want to drag you down. You were working your way through things. I figured I would, too.”

“What happened?”

“Bad timing. Denny came to town. He’d heard about Mickey and came to my apartment with two bottles of cabernet and some junk.”

“Asshole! You should never have let him in!” Karla felt her veins trembling.

“I didn’t want to. I ignored his knocking, but he kept on. He even left and came back. I hadn’t seen him in three years. I wasn’t prepared. I thought maybe… Oh, I just wasn’t thinking! He didn’t tell me about the heroin ‘til the wine was gone.”

“Why, Hattie, my love? Why?” Karla couldn’t hate this more, and it made not one bit of difference.

“Nothing mattered, Mom. The only thing I wanted was oblivion and stopping the pain. I know the relapse worries you, but I’m back on track, and I want to live. Let’s try to focus on that.”

Charlene came over to the table to refill Hattie’s coffee. “Want some more hot water and another tea bag, Karla? Maybe a blueberry muffin? Made this morning.” She smiled at Karla then put her hand on Hattie’s shoulder. “How about you, sugar?” Both women declined, but Hattie and Charlene caught up while Karla fantasized about Denny in the State Correctional Institute for life.

Since The Squid and Ink was only a few doors down, Hattie’s struggles were no secret on this block. When she’d OD’d at work, news spread fast and the pimply, red-haired part-timer from Smoke Time brought over an intranasal Naloxone kit and had probably saved her life. Karla and Hattie didn’t need to change their conversation or lower their voices on Charlene’s account. But talking about it was exhausting to the bone. After Hattie assured Charlene she was doing everything she could to stay clean, and Charlene reminded Hattie she could call her any time day or night, they changed the subject.

“When are we going to get back to work on that sleeve?” Hattie asked Charlene.

“As soon as tips pick up, so leave me a big one!” Charlene held up her forearm, partially inked with a heart locket caught in a dream catcher. She winked, then headed toward a group of green-beanied teens who’d just perched on the counter stools.

“What about you, Mom? When are you going to let me use you as a canvas?”

“Oh, Hattie, tattoos are so unnatural!”

“So is deodorant!” Hattie sneered.

“And I’m too old. My skin is disintegrating. I wouldn’t be good advertisement.”

“Mom, you’re beautiful. Maybe you’d like your skin better if it had some of my art on it. I know exactly what I want to do!”

“A waterfall? Something the gravitational pull of time might enhance?” Karla laughed.

“Here.” Hattie pulled a couple of pens from her pouch and smoothed her napkin. She sketched a lock, heart shaped, shading it with antique swirls. The shackle she gracefully entwined with ribbon, her brush pen moving like a wand dispensing magical lines, dark and rich, interwoven and complex. This was her signature design. “And here is our unique and special key. The head a simple oval, but inside the bow it’s more of an eight, an infinity symbol.” Hattie smiles, pleased. For the bands at the blade top and throating at the collar, she uses her fine point, etching small circles around the barrel. “And for the pièce de résistance… If I put this ridge here and these like so… the teeth are an ‘h’ and a ‘k’. Hattie and Karla. Always!”

Hattie held up the napkin and they both laughed.

“It’s lovely, Hattie! I’ll think about it, honey. I really will”.

Hattie had been trying to give something of herself. Permanent ink. Karla realized that now. One more item on the long list of things she would do over if she could.

Karla turned and continued down Sheffield, watching her steps on the uneven sidewalk. “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back,” she thought. But the cracks are impossible to avoid, and she can’t even think of a mother who isn’t already broken. The lot adjacent to Jill’s has been long vacant and used to be a community garden cared for by nearby tenants. Karla stepped over railroad ties and walked between raised beds of brown cornstalks and creepers to the alley on the other side. The trash strewn alley was sidelined by dumpsters overflowing with rubbish from the last inhabitants, squatters who moved at night through pane-less windows after the legal tenants of the Carter G. Woodson housing complex were given notice to vacate. Karla could see that some of the buildings, including the one where Hattie had lived, had already been torn down. The rest were scheduled for demolition before spring to facilitate University Hospital’s new Endocrinology and Diabetic Center. Crossing the alley, Karla sidestepped a broken bottle but slid on the still wet brick when she stepped instead on a pink button that tiddlywinked across the pavers before disappearing down a manhole.

Aside from the rubble, yellow hazard tape and “Keep Out” signs were the only barriers to the demolition lot. Pieces of rebar and PVC pipe jutted from piles of smashed concrete, sewer shards, brick fragments, and rotting plywood forming strange crosses and angles. Above, the clouds were almost pulsating, their linings coppery from the sun above them. Karla doubled back to the garden.

Past the tentacles of a chipped blue plaster octopus, someone had made what appeared to have been a sandbox. After brushing wet leaves from the bowed slats of a wrought iron bench, Karla sat down, hidden in the basketry of rickety lattice and browning ivy. A rusty spoon, its floral stem bent back upon itself, protruded from the dirt between stubby tufts of bittercress. Here, almost everything was dead or dying.

“Where are you gone to, Hattie?” Karla whispered. “Put an end to this madness and come home.” Some children on Sheffield with a barking dog hollered for Ethan to hurry up. Loud rapping beats rose and receded with the car passing slowly down the alley. “How can an absence be so present? Two years and I’m a cage of emptiness and memories. Death isn’t final. Death is forever.”

White down feathered and lifted like angel wings from the dangling pods of milkweed vine entwining a leaning trellis. It was peaceful among these once solid, disintegrating structures finally submitting and bowing to gravity, collapsing into the equilibrium of Earth.

Karla listened unnoticed to sounds from the street, her eyes drifting with clouds until the chill of metal bit through her jeans. Karla was shivering. She moved from the shadows back to the street.

Security gates folded to either side of Sunny’s Bodega affording Karla a clear view of the bottles shelved behind the window. Plenty of Dr. McGillicuddy’s, Pinnacle, UV Blue, and Bacardi with a few higher end brands on the top shelf. A gold card which read “Classy and Complex” hung on gold cord from a $25 dollar bottle of vodka. There would be nothing classy or complex about Karla if she drank it, but Inez wouldn’t smell it on her breath. She saw Mr. Patel in back and wondered if he would remember her.

The jingle of a doorbell turned her attention to the young man exiting The Squid and Ink. The right sleeve of his t-shirt was rolled over his shoulder and he was carrying a plaid flannel shirt. His upper arm was red and shiny, from Vaseline, Karla presumed, but he was too far away to make out the ink’s design. More jingling, and there was Monique, running and yelling, “Hey Bobby! You forgot your toboggan!” Seeing Karla, she did a double take, then smiled and waved.

Inez had not been here when Karla had returned home last night. She had locked the door with the spare Karla keeps on the key hook, then dropped it through the mail slot. She’d turned on the entry light so Karla wouldn’t walk into darkness. The house had smelled of waxy pumpkin spice. Of course Inez would have had a practice run with the candles to see the effect. In the fridge this morning, Karla found a smiling candy corn pumpkin on top of a can of double espresso cold brew. Inez was not one to give up.

Karla’s ice has melted, but the glass is still cool and feels good on her forearm. Monique had kept all of Hattie’s designs. The bottom of the glass moves lightly as a planchette over a Ouija board, magnifying the ink, the heart lock, the unique and special infinity key, the scrolling ribbons with Hattie’s name. Karla will get up now, apply more ointment. She will put on the kettle for Inez’s tea, find some pens and notepads for the planning meeting, and light candles between the skeletons on the mantel.

Beth Darby is a lifelong journaler who, at 62, is just beginning her foray into the craft of writing stories. During her studies at Marshall University, her essays received several Maier Awards. Her work has appeared in the Vermillion Literary Project and she received an Honorable Mention for her story submission to the 2020 West Virginia Writers Contest. Beth lives on 26 acres in Huntington, WV with 2 dogs, 2 cats, 2 geese, an assortment of chickens, guinea hens, and roosters, and one much beloved human.