This is an auction, two towns over. Cooper taps a newspaper against his knee as he waits. He looks around at the faces of stranger seated in rows of folding chairs in a high school gymnasium. He listens to their talk but he does not join in. He unfolds the paper and lets his eyes wander over the ad for the auction and he folds it once more. He waits.
A door whines and sunshine enters in a silver haze and through this walks a man in a tailored suit the color of caramel and a straw panama which he removes and holds to his front as he walks. The man with the hat climbs three steps carpeted in felt and locked at the edge of a dais of wooden planks unpainted and unstained. The man stops at a lectern where he drops his hand and raps his knuckles and looks out at the room of faces now turned to look at him every one and this man is the auctioneer.
He takes up a notebook from the lectern and he turns a page and reads to himself what is there and then he turns another. When he speaks he explains to the room how things will go, that items will come up in an order chosen by whimsy and bidding will go on as long as it takes until all items have gone. He gives his talk in a voice jovial and dipped in the color of an accent it hides but for the soft end of a word out of every dozen or so, too little to discern, the sound of some place other than here.
A tractor sells, and a car of a model not made in years. Some items sell in lots which have no description beyond a serial number and dimensions, size or weight. When a house comes up it sells well below market value, and when another does it does the same. Cooper bids on each but each time he is shut out. The third house to come up is the Francis Top house.
“This one’s furnished in full, so if you like throwing out somebody else’s stuff, here’s the one to bid on.”
There is some laughing and the auctioneer nods and then he is reading out the house’s pertinent facts, the address, the size, and there is a note and that note reads that the house was built by Francis Top.
Cooper is the single bidder.
The keys come to him unlabeled. Cooper goes room to room in the Francis Top house and he tries keys in doors and cabinets and in latches on trunks and each time one turns with a satisfying click he takes a pen and a strip of tape and he labels key and lock both. A ring full of them, jangling as he walks. Some keys stick in old locks but each does in time turn.
A string hangs from ceiling that when pulled draws stairs leading up to darkness. He climbs until he stands on level ground once more. He breathes in the scent of years. When he is ready he makes his way to a wall and from there to a window shrouded in folds of thick wool which he pulls aside and anchors on a protruding nail. Sunlight touches this place. He steps into that diaphanous curtain of dust and warm haze. The outline of a wardrobe does coalesce in a corner. Cooper steps near and turning again to the light he searches his ring of keys for those still without a name. He tries one which does not fit, and he tries one which fits but does nothing. He tries another that clicks and throws a bolt that frees intimate banality these decades locked away. A suit jacket hangs from a peg, a tie loose but tucked knotted into suit collar. Pants shaped in neat fold lay on a shelf next to a wallet and items necessary for the purpose of smoking. Cooper takes up the wallet and he goes through its compartments but there is nothing there to find. He shuts the wardrobe doors and adds label to door and to key.
A rolltop desk is a shape in the dark. He runs fingers along its curved face until the cleft of a keyhole is felt. Again with the keys in the light. One small among the rest fits and it turns and he’s rolling up the cover, he’s staring into the dark. He closes eyes and opens them again but no shapes take form in that black. He waits. He puts both hands on that old wood and he hefts and drags until light falls onto the desk in its frame. More seconds in the dark bring a chair of simple make. Cooper sits. Dust whirls in the sun. He scoots close and on the desktop lie blank pages and an inkwell long dried. To the right there is a shelf and on this shelf there is a line of envelopes filling one end to the other. He takes one up and with great care he pulls a letter from its casing. It tells details of some minor political squabble from more than a century prior. He returns it to its place and pulls another much the same. And another, and another. Each offers thoughts on subjects with reference loose and vague and with context in many wholly lacking. Their placement along the shelf tracks in more or less chronological placing through years 1890 to 1912. He puts these things back as found and he shuts the cover and he labels key and lock but he does not lock the desk back or move it from the light.
Time is spent feeling for lightswitch or pullstring or lamp but none is found and his search is abandoned. Downstairs he checks the keys. Three remain without label and after a walkthrough of each room they remain that way still.
He finds the door on the third day. He opens windows to let in sun and air and to cleanse rooms of a staleness too entrenched to dust away and when pulling back curtains one reveals a door without adornment save a lock, the gray, metal housing of which is in the simple shape of a gaunt face, keyhole in mouth. Cooper retrieves the ring of keys. He tries each still lacking name but the lock does hold. He kneels, he looks close. The keyhole shows only black. He does not go outside, he doesn’t have to. He’s been all around this house, and though this is an exterior wall he knows there is none matching it on the other side.
The tomb is beneath the town courthouse. He searches online and he confirms with a tour guide and there is no doubt. The guide unlocks an iron gate and he leads the way down a set of stairs into catacombs cut into bedrock. The guide wears a waistcoat and bowtie and he speaks in the whispers of a man afraid of disturbing some long held peace. He points out the tombs of town founders and swells whose doings offer subtle reverberations in the fabric of township life still. Each door is like that of a prison, thick, iron, forbidding. The guide says behind each door is still more stairs and beyond the stairs sets of rooms for family and what counts as family and these bloodlines are forever sealed in these vaults.
Cooper follows and he listens and when the talk turns to the structure of these tombs and their sealing he asks just what that means. The guide raps a hand on a door. He points to a keyhole where he’s knocked.
“The families get them. The keys.”
“You said the families are buried together.”
The guide nods. His eyes blink and blink again. His smile is sardonic.
“We don’t all die in time to make the list.”
Cooper asks to see the tomb of Francis Top and the guide’s smile spreads.
“That’s what they called him. The mayor did. And the judge. The guy was Rasputin before Rasputin.”
Cooper says oh, he says he understands, though he does not. He follows the guide along the hall deeper into the catacombs and around a corner where he then stops at a door like any other save the ornamentation housing the lock, a face, gray, gaunt, with keyhole in mouth.
Cooper takes a step back when he sees. He asks the guide if he has a key for this and the guide says no, he repeats himself to Cooper.
“The families get the keys.”
“Then what? What if they move off? What if they die off?”
“Then there’s nobody coming to visit the dead anyway.”
Cooper looks at the door and he looks at the guide.
“Does Francis Top have any living descendants?”
The guide taps on the door and he says oh yes, oh yes.
The walls are painted blue and the hallway is empty. Cooper walks past a station manned by no one. He rounds a corner and walks on and at another empty station he stops and waits. He leans across the counter and says hello but no one appears, no one comes running. He moves on. The first door he comes to he knocks at and when no one responds he opens the door. A woman sits at an unshaded window. Her hair hangs down her back in silver strands. She turns to look at Cooper and then she looks away.
“I’m looking for Gideon Top’s room.”
She does not turn again. Cooper goes back to the hall.
An orderly pushes a cart hauling some sort of mechanical device, a thing with gears and tubes and a readout showing numbers. Cooper asks his question again and the orderly points out a door in the distance.
“Fourth on the right.”
Cooper thanks the orderly and makes his way to the door. He knocks and a rasp of a voice calls for him to enter. He does. Inside the room wary eyes look out of a face carved in years, a man slouched and thin draped in the clothes of a man he once was, fabric hanging loose, bunched in places.
“Sure. Who are you?”
“I bought Francis Top’s house.”
The old man looks at the floor and he looks back.
“That’s my house. They took it away from me because the county says I’m an old man. You believe that? What right do they have to take a man’s home?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about that?”
“You come here to gloat?”
“You come here to spit on a old man? Rub his face in it?”
“Mr. Top, no. I came to see if you had the key.”
The old man recoils.
“There’s a door. The housing for the lock is just like the one on your family tomb downtown. This historian told me they give the keys to the families.”
The old man moves to rise but his body does not cooperate and he falls again into his seat.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I thought you might have the key.”
“Fuck you. Get out of my room.”
The old man begins to scream, sometimes words, sometimes only noise, rage and fear and noise, and Cooper is running, he is running from the room and from the screaming and from the old man and the thought of the old man, all thought of the old man.
It takes him time to make up his mind. He moves forward like he’s going to do it but he stops and he thinks. He is unsure still. But in time he does commit and when he does there is no more hesitation, there is no more thinking. Cooper jams the crowbar in the narrow seam between door and wall and he heaves. There is a groan of things coming apart and then a dry crack, and at long last Cooper finds what is beyond the locked door.
Craig Rodgers has an extensive collection of literary rejections folded into the shape of cranes and spends his time writing in North Texas.