Metaphysical Noir: The Key, by Brian Behr Valentine
Flirting with the lawyers and singing some dumb sixties song. “Up up and away…” I bounced in, all teeth and dressed to kill, at the reading of my aunt’s will. I was about to become wildly rich . . . again! I acted a fool right up to the part where her entire fortune was left to charity. I was stunned. She knew my own money had run out; knew I was desperate. The lawyers seared me with the inquisitive gaze people give a freshly burning auto upside down in the ditch. I could feel that fire in my face.
I had a date with a handsome, wealthy corporate raider that evening. You know the type, face of a leading man, heart of a pirate… It went from rich guy engaged to rich gal to rich guy is shocked this bimbo’s not bringing her own money to the potential union. He was a man about financial gain––even in marriage. Again I burned hot with humiliation, watching the light switch off in his eyes.
Within days, everybody in the top New York circles knew it.
“Did ya’ hear? Miranda’s broke!”
There is nothing more humiliating to a rich person than falling from that lofty social altitude. People disconnect quickly. You hit very hard. Your ego dies.
Dear Miranda, we overbooked at the Hyperion Club. Need to revoke your invitation. Maybe next time. Best…
And of course, even in a city of millions, I ran into people who would still call me friend if I had money. I don’t know which is worst. The sharky ha-ha-ha bitch smile, or the turn-away-in-disgust “unclean” glance. I think the smug, polite I-always-knew-that-bitch-was-class-climbing grin has them both beat.
Each shunning brought fever to my face and poured deep humiliation like heavy molten lead into my soul. I’ve been out on the balcony of my thirty-sixth floor condo many times since; but never looking out over the city as if I owned it anymore. I looked down to the square of sidewalk I had nicknamed “Relief.”
The only thing my aunt left me was a piece of advice. Go see Splain on the sixth floor of the old bank building. He has unusual talents. Ask him to help find your key. It’ll mean more than the money ever would. My key? What fucking key!? As my financial clock ticked down, the balcony began to feel like the place to hang out and drink hard. It got even more so when I was thrown a line by one of the richest men I knew. I was about to be offered the newly-broke girl’s ultimate humiliation. Trade my ass for a roof over my head. Come and let’s talk. The wife’s away. Maybe we can work something out. I faced the fact that my only choices were a bloody square of sidewalk or low-grade prostitution.
So, I swallowed my pride yet again––the only thing I had to eat for weeks––and took a taxi down to old Manhattan. A place where the crumbling Art Deco buildings look like worn old ladies dressed for church in their finest out-of-dates, wearing their reddest lipstick, strands of pearls swinging loose below the waddles on hunched-forward necks.
I took the ancient, lurching elevator to the sixth floor of the old bank building as instructed. When it opened on several suites of ruffled glass office doors, it felt like stepping back in time, or maybe onto a B-movie set. The white marble floor tiles were yellowed, the ceiling tile cigarette stained, the wainscoting scuffed. The whole level smelled of old aftershave, old cigars and old lemon polish. Through the ruffled glass panels I could see men working in each tiny office. They looked up then back down when I did not approach their door. Even through the opaque glass, I could see that Splain was right out of a ‘50s detective movie.
Disgusted and deeply shamed––and here I thought I had bottomed out––I stepped into his doorway and stood hipshot with my arms crossed. He sat in his ancient wooden desk smoking as he read. He looked up from his newspaper. I could imagine his B-movie voice-over: Here we go again . . . another pushy dame! Leaning forward at the desk he appraised my anatomy.
“Penny for your nasty thoughts.”
“Well, I was thinking,” he said, checking me from head to toe, “that your skirt is just a little too short for the daylight hours.”
“Don’t like the legs?”
“Oh, I love the gams, just love ‘em. You got yourself a great set of sticks there. But that skirt! Whoooo! I knew a stripper who had one just like it.”
“I ought’a scratch your Goddamned eyes out!”
“Hey now, miss. You’re the one who came to me––wearing your pushy broad face with your tiny little skirt riding up, making me wonder . . .”
“How much I charge?”
“Not at all, I was wondering how much you cost, if you get my drift.”
“Damn you! Is this what you do for kicks? People come to you with real problems and you . . . you put on this charade!”
“Why don’t we back up a bit and you tell me why your great set of gams, that heartbreaker body and your rattlesnake personality are here in the first place.”
“I came here looking for answers,” I stated coldly. “I was told . . . you had special talents for finding things.”
“Check the door, babe,” he said.
“Rick Splain Meta-Physical Detective Services,” I read aloud with scorn.
“What it says.”
“And you’re Splain, of course.”
“Of course. Who are you?”
“And whadda ya want, babe?” he said in his bogus Bogie voice.
“I need to find a certain key.”
“Did ya look between the couch cushions, sweet stuff?”
I was so appalled I could only glare.
“Why don’t ya take a load off and tell me all about it” he offered.
“Tell you what,” I purred dangerously, “you prove that you have ‘extraordinary talents’ as I was told, then you get to watch me sit down and cross my legs in this skirt you’re sweating over!”
“Whadda ya wanna see?”
He picked up a deck of cards and fanned them out. “Pick a card . . . any card.”
I gaped in surprise. “That’s… I just… I can’t believe I’ve wasted my time with this!”
“Ah, come on. It’s a cute trick!”
“Up yours!” I yelled, turned and stomped to the elevator. His desk chair squeaked as he moved to lean in the doorway and watch me. I stepped in and punched the lobby button, flipped him off and rode down, seething. To be played such a nasty joke on… When the doors slid open I stalked out––I was still on the sixth floor. He smiled.
I blinked and re-entered the elevator. This time I carefully pushed the lobby button and watched the red lights change as it went down, lurching sideways and back a little as it dropped. The doors opened on the sixth floor. After a few more rounds, I walked back to his office. He had his feet up, his hands behind his fedora-topped head, smoking a Lucky. I walked to the chair in front of his desk and slowly sat crossing my long, work-out sculpted legs.
“Wow,” he said around the Lucky. He took his feet down and leaned across with the cards. I stared at him, worried, angry. I chose a card.
“What did you come up with there?”
“The ace of . . . Cleveland? What the…?”
“Must have something to do with your key.”
“And the elevator wasn’t?”
I blinked several times. “Right!”
“So how about you tell me what your key is.”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“I see,” he said, drawing on the Lucky.
“Look… My aunt died. She had a lot of money. A lot of money! I’m her only living relative, so I expected to get it. I’ve needed it for some time, but she wouldn’t give over. Just sat on it, even though I needed it bad. Real bad!”
“Because that’s the way she was––tight as a twisted thong.”
“No. Why did you need the money?”
“Are you a moron? I need the money to live on.”
“You don’t work?”
“I wasn’t raised to work.”
“Because my daddy was rich… Very rich.”
“So, what happened?”
“My parents and my brother died in a plane accident.”
“It was a long time ago. Only I and my aunt remained. His will split the fortune between us.”
“So what happened to your half?” Splain asked.
I stared hatefully.
“Okay,” he said, “for the sake of argument . . . let’s say: you burned through yours partying.”
Now I glared hatefully.
“So, your aunt’s will?”
“She left all her money, all of it . . . to some damned charity.”
“That was charitable of her,” he smirked.
I gave him my best twin-lazer-beams-of-hate glower.
“What was the charity?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Well, if she left it to some charity for the benefit of over-the-hill-party-hags, you might get some back when you trade the stiletto heels for a walker.’”
“I have slapped better men than you to the ground for less offensive statements, and stepped on their balls,” I said with icy precision.
“Ouch!” he winced. “When was this, by the way? The reading, not the slapping and stepping.”
“A couple of weeks ago. I’d been living on credit. They all knew I had a fortune coming.”
“And she left you?”
“She left me a piece of advice––‘See Splain!’”
“She must have loved you bunches.”
“She did! That’s why I can’t figure this. I cried for three weeks. We were close. I mean, she didn’t like my lifestyle; she felt I had made a lot of bad life decisions based on my father’s vicarious desires, but I didn’t think she hated me.”
“You two have a fight lately?”
“No . . . well yes, kind of an ongoing argument about settling down and starting a family.”
“And so what was the problem there? You don’t want kids?”
“Yes! Yes I do! But…”
“I need a man with the kind of money my father had.”
“Lot of competition for that.”
“My aunt wanted me to marry for love, not money.”
“And the problem with that was?”
“You don’t need love to have a family!” I barked.
“You don’t need gas to own a fine automobile either, but it sure makes the whole owning-a-car-shtick a lot more fun.”
“Crap! No wonder my aunt picked you!” I said icily.
“Okay, so what’s with the key?”
“I don’t know! Haven’t you been listening?”
“I need more info, babe. Talk to me.”
“Her will… Her will said, see, Splain. He has extraordinary talents! His office is on the six floor of the old bank building, on…”
“I know where it is, sweets. I park my keister here every day.”
“It said . . . see Splain, and find the key. That I would be happier than I ever would with the money. Which is clearly impossible.”
“Did the old dame know me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, when you’re as gifted as I am,” he grinned smarmily, “your name gets whispered around.”
“How humble,” I scathed.
He smoked his Lucky around a grin. I could imagine his voice-over in his Bogart voice: “She sat there with her great set of gams crossed, pouting and sullen, a heartbreaker, even angry. I reached across the desk, took the card and turned it back to face her. She jumped and snatched it away looking at both sides.”
“The ace of hearts? How did you do that,” I demanded. “It said Cleveland when I handed it to you.”
“It said Cleveland because that’s where your key is, I’m guessing.”
“Can’t be. I grew up in Cleveland and swore I would never return.”
“I think we need to go to Cleveland.”
“I am not going to Cleveland!” I declared, waving distractedly at the cigarette smoke.
He stubbed out his Lucky and tilted his hat forward. “Let’s go for a drive, sweetheart.”
“To talk while we get some air.”
“Open the damned window if you want some air.”
“For the fun of it then,” he proffered.
“Hardly,” I sneered.
“Because it’s a classic car and a hot dame like you would look fantastic riding in it?”
I stared at him, my lips pursed. Why not, I thought. “Okay,” I said. So we took his ‘49 Plymouth for ‘a spin.’
“This key thing. What makes you think it’s in Cleveland?” I asked.
“I don’t. You do.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The card came up, Cleveland.”
“What’s the trick?” I demanded.
“It’s a trick of the mind.”
“No, it isn’t, it’s just a trick card . . . or a card trick, one or the other . . . or both.”
“You saw what you needed to see.”
“Nah, it’s easy,” he said slyly, making a corner in the beautiful old beast.
“I’m telling you, I know what I saw! The mind doesn’t work like that!”
“Oh, yes it does––when it needs to . . . it does. You’ve heard of schizophrenics seeing and talking with people who aren’t actually there?”
“Well, that’s an amazing thing to be able to do.”
“I suppose it is, but so what?”
“The problem with schizophrenics is that their brain’s gone haywire. But that don’t mean they suddenly have this super ability to create a false reality. That goes with everybody’s package,” he said tapping his head. “Healthy people use it, but just a little, now and again. You just did.”
“No I didn’t, and I never have!”
“You’re doing it right now.”
“How do you figure?”
“You know there are blind spots in your eyes, right?”
“Yes,” I said slowly.
“Soooo, how come you can’t see ‘em?”
“Because your brain fills in the… Crap you’re right!”
“The schitzos don’t have it all to themselves honey, we all have the ability to see something other than reality. We all do what we need . . . when we need it. You needed it today, obviously.”
“Are you saying I’m crazy?”
“We’re all a little nuts. Sanity is a subjective state of mind. You’re sane only as far as society defines reality and you conform to it. I mean, why not? It all starts nutty as hell anyway.”
“Living––being alive at all––that’s crazy to start with. There is no real reason for the 126 elements on the periodic table to band together in such a way they can defy gravity by walking around on a great set a gams, asking silly questions.”
“So my questions are crazy and silly?”
“Sure they are, but they are also the most import things you could be asking.”
“How can they be both?” I demanded, feeling hysteria lurking close.
“That’s the crazy part, ain’t it babe?”
“Yee Gods, your logic circles around like a flushed toilet.”
“Ouch,” he replied.
“And for your information, there are only 118 elements on the periodic table.”
“You a science chick?”
“A crossword puzzler.”
“You’ll have to trust me on the 126 elements thing,” he said smugly.
I crossed my arms and looked out the window. “Hey, where the hell are you taking me anyway?”
“What? I can’t go to Cleveland today! I have a dinner date tonight. I can’t just take off on a twenty-hour drive on a whim. I don’t even have a change of clothes.”
“Relax. I know a shortcut through the suburbs. We’ll be there and back easy before your date with the shark tonight.”
“Oh crap. If that really happens then I am nuts.”
He looked over at me and smiled.
“So, am I nuts?”
“You might be, seeing how you’re a dame, an I ain’t met one yet that wasn’t.”
“Well, I thought you, of all people, would have an opinion!”
“I’m not a psychiatrist,” he announced.
“Funny, I’m not a proctologist, but I know an asshole when I see one,” I said, glaring.
“Ouch again! But hey, look, my opinion is worthless anyhow.”
“I’m certain that’s true, but let’s hear your angle anyway.”
“If I’m your imaginary friend, you’re the last person I’m gonna tell!”
That hit me hard. “Ohhhh crap! This is . . . this is spooky.” I felt woozy. “How do I figure out what’s real then?”
“That’s the problem, ain’t it babe?”
I shut my eyes and rubbed my temples for a few minutes. When I opened them we were in Cleveland. I looked around wildly, recognizing the skyline. “WHAT IN HELL?”
“Told you I knew a short cut.”
“Oh my God! I am crazy! I am, aren’t I?”
“Hey, you might be stark-raving nuts. But if you want my opinion, I’d say you’re way too self-possessed to be crazy.”
I snapped back. “Thanks! Thanks a lot! Now, where are we? I know this isn’t really Cleveland.”
“Sure it is.”
“So, with you driving, Cleveland is just ten minutes from New York. Why, you could put the airlines out of business in a week if you started a taxi service,” I said acidly. The magic taxi––“We might be sleaze but we aims to please!”
That burned him. “It’s not magic. It’s superior knowledge. Just like an awful lot you do everyday, seems magic to aboriginal peoples. A flashlight, a cell-phone.”
“So, you have some sort of . . . transporter machine.”
“Just better knowledge.”
“Just better knowledge!” I mocked.
“Look at the Heimlich maneuver. For thirty-thousand years, humans smacked someone who was choking on the back with little or no results. Then along comes a guy with a method based on anatomical science and now thousands of lives have been saved. Could a caveman have done it? Sure. It’s simple. Why didn’t he? Because understanding how and why, took modern medicine.”
“Or look at the Vulcan Nerve Pinch. Spock could put someone out like a light and humans didn’t know how.”
I looked around incredulously. “That’s a TV show you moron! There are no such things as Vulcans!”
“How do you know?”
“Well, I know there is no such thing as a Vulcan Nerve Pinch!”
He reached over and pinched my shoulder and everything went black. When my eyes fluttered open, I was crumpled against the door, slipped down in the seat with my skirt riding up. He eyed me with a glance at my legs and a smarmy smile. I sat up quickly, straightened my clothing and gave him a hard look. “So, you’re a Vulcan, I guess?”
“There’s no such thing as a Vulcan.”
“Has anyone ever threatened your life?”
“Happens all the time, for some reason.”
“I can well imagine. Where the hell are we, anyway?” I screeched.
“The suburbs of Cleveland.”
“How is this possible?”
“There is only one suburb . . . worldwide. What I mean is, see, they are all interconnected. See? You just have to know where to turn.”
“It has to do with how the electric grid interacts with the Space Time Continuum and . . . well, Nicola Tesla actually figured it out while he was working on his intercontinental wireless transmission theories that . . . that . . . the . . . uhm…”
“You don’t know do you?” I charged.
“You’re right, I don’t.” But, hey, you don’t have to know Spread Spectrum Communication Technology to use a SmartPhone do you?” He brightened. “By the way, the actress Hedy Lamarr, back in the 1940s––she was also a scientist for the War Department––invented WiFi signal processing way back then. A fun dame that one, pretty and smart,” he said in a reminiscing tone.
“You knew her?” I asked in surprise.
He went blank. “Here’s our turn.”
“We are not in Cleveland,” I stated flatly.
“Well, actually,” he remarked agreeably, “if you want to be precise about it, this is in the past. We’re really watching a historical documentary of Cleveland, if you will, from the inside.”
I turned to him holding my knuckles to the side of my temples. “What an enormous load of crap! I was wrong about the taxi, you should go into the fertilizer business.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Of course I don’t. Time travel is impossible! I’ve heard the theories. It’s bunk.”
“But this ain’t time travel, sugar. This is looking back in time not going back. We’re not really here . . . or here now, er, well, no one can see us and we can’t interact with them.”
“Right,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Say… You’ve heard that there are four dimensions?”
“Of course,” I said, glancing over at him. I could hear the voice-over: “She looked at me like I was nuts or something!”
“Dimension implies a distance of some kind between points, just like the height, width and length of three-dimensional space. Time, though, stretches backward and forward: A dimension, see.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Three-dimensional space moves through time. Now is always where three-dimensional space is . . . at the living instant.”
“If time is a dimension, then it’s all out there. Everything that ever happened still exists, it’s just behind us, like the film on a movie roll of a scene already played. It’s stored, not gone.”
“So tell me,” I scoffed, “why isn’t everybody jumping back to have a peek?”
“Almost no one knows how.”
“So you can do this . . . this time travel thing . . . because you’re from the future.” I suddenly felt flushed and hot.
“Maybe. But I might be from the past,” he stated.
“Because if we knew how to do this time-travel thing in the past, we would know it now.”
“Ha! Common fallacy. The Romans built the coliseum out of concrete several thousand years ago. When their empire crumbled––no pun intended––the trick to making concrete was lost. Nothing was built from concrete for the next 1,700 years, until it was rediscovered.
I thought about it a few seconds. “My head hurts.”
“You’ll get over it. So that’s the first, second, third, and fourth dimension. Interested in the fifth?”
I sighed. “Why not.”
He flipped the radio on to, This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, age of… Killing him would not be good enough. I flipped it off.
“That Marylyn McCoo, now she has a set of legs let me tell you,” he said, pulling up outside of a long building with lots of fencing around it. Seemed like there was a hundred dogs of every size, shape and questionable pedigree. The sign said –CLEVELAND NO-KILL CANINE SHELTER.
“Oh my God,” I breathed very quietly. “He really did it.”
“Who did what?”
“Martin… He was my college… A guy I . . . went to the University with. He was in school for an MBA with one goal in mind.”
“And that was?”
“To learn management and fundraising so he could start and run a no-kill shelter here, then help people start them elsewhere.”
“Must like dogs,” Splain remarked.
“He loves dogs. Just loves them. And kids too. He wanted a dozen children.”
“Let me guess––you two drifted apart because you hate kids and dogs.”
I looked over at him quickly. “I love kids and dogs!”
“Yeah? How many you got?”
I could only bite my lower lip as I looked over the well-constructed kennel system.
“Ah,” Splain said. “A big city condo is no place for a dog or a child when mamma is always out partying.”
“I wasn’t always that way.”
“But you want to raise your kids that way. How was that for you, growing up?”
“No fun,” I said quietly, shocked to my core. I had never thought it through.
“So why did you continue to live like that if it sucked? Why did you leave Martin?”
“It’s . . . complicated.”
“My father insisted I live the way he raised me to live. He said he didn’t make all that money to see me hanging around with a working-class kid.”
“Yeah. Daddy didn’t like him at all.”
“Martin didn’t respect his . . . wealth. He asked my dad to donate to his shelter idea and my father scoffed at ‘spending even a dime on a bunch a mangy mutts.’
“Nice guy,” Splain mocked brightly.
“Martin informed him that having millions didn’t make him ‘any less a cheap, shallow, prick,’”
“I like the kid already.”
“I love . . . loved him, but… Oh, God, there he is now!”
Martin was tall and still thin in his mid-thirties with a large shock of unruly hair. He walked across the yard carrying two big buckets of dog food. My hand started up then fell back into my lap. I knew Splain had seen my first impulse was to push that hair out of Martin’s eyes.
“You loved him, but?” Splain asked.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” I said quietly.
I knew he was about to ask why when a woman in a car drove up beside us.
“Crack the window a bit, babe,” Splain said.
“Martin!” the woman called from her car. “A bunch of us are going camping this weekend and I want you to come along!”
“Uh, well . . . I got a lot to do,” Martin yelled back.
“Oh, come on! We can zip our sleeping bags together,” the bimbo said suggestively.
Martin looked a little shocked, but then slowly smiled and shrugged, “Okay.” He had always been surprised by suggestiveness. It was one of the qualities that endeared him to me. He was pure and simple and passionate and just . . . he was . . . Martin!
“I’ll pick you up Saturday morning,” she yelled then quietly added with a flourish, “my future husband!” Instantly in a jealous rage I wanted to scratch her eyes out. Martin watched her leave with a look of tired resignation on his face.
“Spending a night in a sleeping bag with a game broad has a way a turnin’ a guy’s head, doesn’t it? I think she’ll get what she wants. A ring and him on a string, don’t you, Miss Miranda? With a whole passel of kids to boot!”
“Passel? You are from the dim past aren’t you?” I screeched.
“You’d love to have Martin’s children, but you left him because your daddy didn’t think he was good enough for you,” Splain spat, cold as ice now. I nodded. “And you both been miserable ever since.”
I began sobbing hopelessly.
“Well,” he said, “we need to find this key of yours, don’t we?” He started the car. “I been trying to think of all the types of keys there are. You know, so we can narrow it down.”
I stared wide-eyed at Martin as he dumped food into large bowls for the dogs then leaned over the fence to pet them. It was obvious he loved each and every one and they loved him back. I knew what kind of wonderful father and husband he would be.
“Let’s see now,” Splain said, “there’s the key to the kingdom, the key to the city, the key to house, the key to the car, the key to the problem, hmmm, am I missing something? It seems like I’m missing something. The key to…”
“My heart!” I sobbed, hands to face.
“Ah! That’s it! I knew there was another. Well, let’s go looking for that darned key, shall we?” He grabbed the gearshift and I seized the door handle to get out. But Splain took hold of my arm.
“No can do, missy. This is history. The past, remember. We’re not really here.” he said with kind sympathy.
“The . . . the past?”
“I’m sorry, yes.”
“Oh, NO!” I put my hands to my face and wept openly. The ass let me get a good squall going before he added, “Yesterday, as a matter of fact.”
“YESTERDAY? YESTERDAY!” I screeched, and glanced off at the bitch’s accelerating car. “SPLAIN YOU ASSHOLE! Yesterday was Wednesday and this is Thursday!”
“It usually works out like that.”
“I thought we were like, like, like years back!”
“I never said that,” he replied petulantly.
“Damn you! What are you sitting here for? Do your magic shortcut crap . . . entreat Tesla’s ghost or whatever . . . just get me back, NOW!”
“For your dinner date tonight?” he grinned, putting it in gear.
“Christ no! I’ve got to catch a flight to Cleveland and I’ve only got today to arrange it.” I glanced hatefully up the street at the receding car. This was war and that BB gun totin’ bitch was about to be run down by a tank! When I looked back Splain was smiling at me smartly. “DAMN YOU, QUIT GRINNING AND TAKE ME HOME!” I could hear the voice-over: “Jeez, what a pushy broad.”
Six months later, Martin and I were padding around the yard in our flip-flops, sipping coffee and wrestling some of our mutts. My life was perfect now. The simple life is as rich as it gets! I get it!
I’d been thinking of Splain lately and when a special delivery truck pulled up to the shelter, I got the weird feeling he was there watching. Sitting out there in the street in his ‘49 Plymouth with Hedy Lammar.
The envelope was from my Aunt’s lawyer. She had left her entire fortune to Martin’s shelter. I laughed, wept, turned to the empty street and with a bright, teary smile, placed one hand on my newly rounding belly and flipped him off with the other, mouthing, “Thank you!” I swear I heard the voice-over: “Jeez! Pushy damn broad! Looks even better knocked up, though!”
Brian Behr Valentine, (55) formerly an engineer and then an international award winning winemaker, is now an MFA in Creative Writing student at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
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