Key to the City

I sank into the broken corduroy armchair, sipping coffee. A cool gust caught the gauzy curtains, and early sunlight filtered through the open window. An infomercial was playing on the television, but the sound was drowned out. Carmina Burana boomed through the bathroom door behind me in muffled apocalypse.

"What ever happened to Saturday morning cartoons?” I asked. The girl on the sofa leaned forward and tapped a bit of ash into her cup and blew a stream of smoke that mingled with the steam from the shower, curling around the edges of the bathroom door, and the room smelled sticky and soapy. She turned to look at me with big, sympathetic eyes. The music rumbled into a crescendo.

“Boy, those little speakers can really belt it out,” I said. She blinked and looked away. She was wearing a pale yellow dress and the strap had slipped off her right shoulder. Another gust of wind slipped through the window and rustled her hair gently. She glowed in the morning light. I wondered what her name was.

“It's Sunday,” she said.

The bathroom door burst open and O Fortuna crashed out in a steamy cloud and Pierce stood in the doorway, wrapped in a gold and white striped towel, hair swept wetly back. The ornate silver key hung on a chain around his neck and the girl gazed up at him, moist lips slightly parted. I rolled my eyes and turned back to the television and took a bitter sip of coffee, burning my tongue.


Down the hall, I could hear the girl being tenderly hustled out of the apartment, and then Pierce tromping back to his room. He emerged a few minutes later wearing jeans and a red flannel shirt. The silver chain glinted where it poked up from under his collar.

“Let's go,” he announced.

“I'm busy,” I said. The television was still on. The infomercial pitchman radiated enthusiasm, but it wasn't infectious.

“Well, hurry. We're going to Ted Epstein's fundraiser, and I want to get breakfast first.”

I ignored him.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Thinking about buying a blender.”

A phone number was blinking on the screen. Five easy payments of just $12.99.

“That's a good idea,” he said. “We can make strawberry banana smoothies.”

I frowned and twisted around to look at him, and he smiled benignly. I slid out of the armchair and snapped the television off.

“Let's get food,” I said.


The strip mall parking lot bristled with suburban aggression, so Pierce slid the car around the outskirts and pulled up to the curb, right in front of the entrance to the bookstore. With a self-satisfied grunt, he shoved the gearshift forward and cut off the engine. He always parked illegally. Even before they gave him the key to the city, I mean. Most of the time nobody bothered to do anything about it, and when he did get a ticket, half the time they took down the wrong plate number or something. I don't know what he did when the fines actually stuck. Paid them, I guess.


We sat down at a small table in the Starbucks that took up a quarter of the bookstore with two cups of black coffee and croissants. The café was full of women in running shorts and sneakers. Standard morning attire. As far as most people are concerned, there's nothing remarkable about drinking black coffee, but in a sea of syrupy mocha lattes it made Pierce feel rugged and austere. That's why we came to these stupid Barnes and Noble coffee shops.

After a few minutes, Pierce got up and wandered through the bookshelves for a while, and came back with a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. He flopped it open to a random page so he could glance at it between bites. I sat back, daydreaming a simpler existence. A cold gray morning, legs dangling off the pier and the fishing pole wedged between the wooden slats. Waiting for a nibble.


Within about ten minutes, I caught whispered excitement on the periphery of my attention, and when I looked around, some girl was bouncing over in black tights and a bright red top like a sexy bowl of Jello. Good god, what an ass. I glanced across at Pierce, but he was frowning in earnest concentration as Ivan Fyodorovich reflected on morality. When she got to our table, she hesitated.

“Um, excuse me? I'm sorry to bother you, but are you... Edward Pierce?”

He reluctantly turned away from the book, looked up into her eyes, and smiled quietly. “Just Pierce is fine.”

She bit her lower lip, tremulous. I could see her melting. Honestly, I doubt that things would have ever turned out this way without the good fortune of having a hotshot name like Pierce. He needed something flashy, now that he was such a goddamn hero. Before they gave him the key to the city, he used to go by Ned.

“Wow,” she breathed. “I.. It's such an honor to meet you.” She thrust her hand forward and Pierce reached up and for a second I thought he was going to kiss it, like he was some kind of prince. But he just held it.

“This is Scottie.” He introduced me without breaking eye contact.

“Nice meeting you Scottie,” she echoed. I grunted. I used to hassle Pierce about introducing me as Scottie, but I ended up sounding petulant, and I guess I don't really care anyway.

“Pierce,” she said, “I know people must ask you this all the time, but... what was it like? I mean, what was going through your head?”


People did ask him that all the time, but he never seemed to mind. I remembered when the mayor asked him, before the ceremony where they gave him the key to the city.

“Ah, Pierce, my dear fellow.” The mayor talked like that sometimes, like he had forgotten his top hat and monocle at home that morning. He had a blue bow tie, though, and he was packaged up in a gray suit that could barely hold him in when he was all puffed up with civic responsibility. The heat was sweltering, and out on the steps of City Hall the mayor huffed around, aggrandizing.

“Come now, my good man. Tell me, what was it like?” I think that was when it first occurred to him to call himself Pierce.


They went on flirting for a while. It was more of a formality than anything else, but Pierce was too much of a professional to deliver any less than a virtuoso performance, even when she was his to lose. He wasn't sleazy about it or anything. I mean, he was really a charming guy. I was half listening when she said, “My son Arthur is such a big fan of yours, too.” She gestured at a tiny droll looking kid with curly brown hair and glasses, who was sitting alone in front of a chessboard. I gawked at him.

Pierce took it in stride. “Hey there, Arthur,” he waved in camaraderie, “why don't you come on over here?” He had a vision of tousling that hair, probably. Boy, he was a real pro. Arthur didn't look like he had any intention of coming over, though.

“He's very shy,” his mother explained. “But he's really such a big fan of yours.” We nodded. “Would you mind signing an autograph for him?”

This was familiar territory. We patted ourselves down for a pen, but all came up empty.

“You know what,” said Pierce, “I think I've got one out in the car. Why don't we go out and look for it?”

That was really weak, I thought, but she seemed to go for it. I excoriated them silently with pursed lips. “Excuse me,” I said. “I'm going to play chess with Arthur.” This was a lovely idea, everyone agreed.


I sat down in the empty chair across from Arthur. The chessboard was set up for checkers, with pawns in the first two rows and bishops and knights across the back ranks.

“Hi Arthur,” I said. “I'm Scott.” He peered at me, eyes magnified by the round lenses. “Scottie.”

“Where'd my mom go?”

“They're looking for a pen.” This seemed to satisfy him. “Want to play?”

He examined me briefly, considering. “Okay,” he said.

“Do you know how to play chess?”

“No. Will you show me?”

“Sure,” I said. “But let's play checkers first. You can be white.”

We played for a while in silence. He was pretty good, but that's not saying much, since we were only playing checkers. Still, I figured he was probably older than he looked. After I jumped one of his pawns, he asked, “Is Pierce your friend?”

I said he was.

“Are you his sidekick?” His feet didn't reach the ground sitting in the chair, and he swung them back and forth under the table.

No good could come from getting pissed off at someone else's kid in a coffee shop. “Sure, I guess so. But not a sidekick like Robin. More like... Well, I don't know. A Sancho Panza figure.” He nodded, and then leaned forward and jumped three of my pieces, ending up on the back row. I swapped his pawn for a king that was lying on the table. Arthur grinned at the king, which towered regally over the rest of the board.

“Do you know who Sancho Panza is?” I asked.

He nodded again. “Yes. He's Don Quixote's friend.” He pronounced it “donkey ho-tey.”

“How do you know about Don Quixote?”

“My dad told me about him. He charges at windmills.” He looked up at me for confirmation, and I nodded.


Pierce didn't exactly charge at windmills, but that wasn't so far off. Back before they gave him the key to the city, he dabbled in activism. A utility company had proposed building a few space-age wind turbines up on the ridge of hills to the west. There's always wind crashing up over the ridge, and around early November it builds into a shrill, piercing intensity and the sharp gusts cut across the tree line and down into the city, and it gets miserably cold for a month or so. But usually the wind breaks on the hills, so it's only a light residual breeze that makes its way down to us.

The windmills were a good idea, I thought. Mostly everybody thought so, until Ted Epstein decided to turn it into a campaign issue. Epstein's a seasoned political veteran, and I guess the usual angle of snidely referring to the mayor as a fat-cat politician wasn't up to his standards this time. Instead he launched into all kinds of fire and brimstone about the sanctity of nature and the pristine landscape. Now, I'm no hippie-dippy treehugger, he said, and that was true. He went at these windmills with a righteous indignation generally reserved for Scientologists and child pornographers. He dug up a copy of a contract between the utility company and City Hall, and sure enough, there on the bottom was a scribble that very plausibly might have been the mayor's signature. (“I say,” said the mayor, “what's all this, then?”)

I didn't think much of the whole charade, but Pierce got swept up in it. He claimed he used to go camping up there when he was a kid. Maybe that's true. He also said he'd always been passionate about the great outdoors, which was definitely not true. But he stuck with it, at least for a few weeks, until the wind up on the ridge started winding circles around the partially-built turbines and the whole thing came crashing down. He went up there a few times with a group of protesters, and they'd dance around with angry picket signs and generally make life difficult for the construction workers. Not in my backyard, he maintained adamantly. That was his mantra. Not in my backyard. The ridge was nowhere near our apartment, though. You could barely see it from the roof of the building.


My checkers play was getting a little spotty. I was distracted, trying to keep an eye out for the car, so by the time I saw Pierce pull in front of the store again, my troops had taken heavy casualties. I eyed Arthur from across the board. He was leaned forward on the edge of his seat, elbows on the table and cheeks resting on his fists, surveying the situation. He looked only vaguely pleased, not willing to acknowledge that his four kings (king, queen, and two upside-down rooks) gave him an insurmountable advantage. He was still cooking up plans to induct the rest of the court into royalty.

I didn't see any sense in dragging things out any further than necessary. The doors swung open and Arthur's mother strolled in, still bouncy and no worse for wear. I moved one of my pieces forward, where it dangled juicily. Arthur pounced, jumped my two remaining pawns, and promptly thrust his arms upward, beaming in glorious triumph. I bowed my head and offered my solemn congratulations. He was still swept up in victory when the girl planted a kiss on top of his head.

“Hi there honey. Did you have a fun game?” Arthur looked slowly up at her, fists still clenched in the air, and nodded.

“That's good,” she said. “I'm glad you had fun. Sorry I was gone so long.” She looked at me. “Thanks for keeping him company. Pierce is waiting outside.”

I got up. “See you, Arthur,” I said. “I'll teach you chess next time, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.


We drove along in silence. After a while, Pierce turned on the radio, so I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. All I could hear was the rushing air in my ears. I thought about the constant battering wind up on the ridge. I had only been up there once, tagging along with Pierce and the other activists. It was warm in town that day, but by the time we had hiked up near the construction site, I was freezing and so was everyone else. Everyone just milled around, and the posterboard signs flapped frantically in the wind. A couple of college kids tried to get a kind of chant started, but their voices were whipped around into the gusty air and we could barely hear them.

It was always windy up there, and I didn't know why. I've never really understood how wind works. I leaned back into the car and pulled out my phone to look it up.

“Wind is caused by differences in pressure,” I read aloud. “When a difference in pressure exists, the air is accelerated from higher to lower pressure.” Pierce turned down the volume on the radio. I repeated it and he nodded.

“Right,” he said. “Differences in pressure.”

I shrugged. I felt sort of silly to have googled “wind”.

“Do you think you're ever going to see that girl again?” I asked.

Pierce looked around at me, and raised an eyebrow. “I don't know,” he said. “Maybe. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Just wondering.” The air outside was chilly, and I cranked the window back up. “I told Arthur that I'd teach him chess.”

Pierce chuckled. “I guess I'll have to see her again, then.” He chuckled some more. “That was pretty bad, huh?”

I shrugged again.

“If there's no God, there's no morality,” Pierce intoned. “Dostoevsky.”

“That doesn't sound like Dostoevsky,” I said. “I don't think he puts it so bluntly. Maybe you picked up the Great Illustrated Classic edition.”

“I was paraphrasing, obviously.”

I turned and looked out the window. When he got tired of the silence, Pierce asked me if I had any new ideas to write about.

“I'm going to write about you,” I said. “I'm following you around and taking notes so I can write a gritty memoir of your sordid affairs.”

“You should write a contemporary reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” he said. “About a guy who's into fat chicks. He could be traveling around America, looking for true love.” I waited. He had developed a weird comedic timing, like everyone was waiting breathlessly for his punchline and he wanted to build the tension as long as possible. I didn't want to throw him off. About a minute later, he said, “Trying to harpoon a white whale with his Moby-Dick.” I laughed a little to appease him, and then we continued on in silence.


When the car rolled to a stop, I looked around. Up ahead, a wrought iron gate opened onto a mansion on a hill. Earlier that day, a big green riding lawnmower had churned across the lawn in a tidy cross-hatch pattern. The car idled on the gravel shoulder.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Ted Epstein's place.”

“What are we doing here?”

“He's hosting a fundraiser,” he said. A big silver BMW trundled past us and pulled through the gate. “It's a barbecue.”

“Oh. Why are we sitting out here, though?”

Pierce was looking up at the big house with trepidation. “All the construction guys' wives will be there,” he said. “The widows, I mean.” He drew in a breath, shivered slightly, and exhaled. “Let's sit here for a minute.” There was always a small group of widows at these things. Everyone understood their value in political capital. Pierce drummed his fingers on the top of the steering wheel, and I adjusted my hair in the side mirror. Then he turned off the car and we walked up the driveway.


In the white marble foyer, a small crowd had gathered around Ted Epstein. He was brandishing a tumbler of whiskey and expounding.

“Oh, it's no secret that there's always a little dirt swept under the rug, here and there. That's politics. It's a dirty business. And I'm not pretending I'm so pure and lily-white. I'm not pretending that I'm some kind of saint.”

The crowd thronged conspiratorially around him. They were watching his glass, which came close to spilling onto the thick cream-colored rug each time he finished a sentence.

“But let me tell you – this time, they've gone too far. This time, that fat cat down in City Hall has simply gone too far.” Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he whirled around to see Pierce and me standing in the doorway.

“Aha! Our guest of honor!” He strode forward and draped his arm over Pierce's shoulders. “How are you, you son of a gun?”

The whiskey hovered under Pierce's nose, and he eyed it nervously. “Ted.”

“You fellas all know Mr. Pierce, of course.” The crowd nodded. “I'll tell you what, son, it sure is a relief to see a fresh face like yours up here. Here I am, sounding off about who knows what, and you were were the real visionary behind that turbine business. You knew those crooks were up to no good, right from the start.”

Pierce smiled. “Well, I had my suspicions.” Then the smile faded, and he looked solemn, and swallowed hard. “But I never imagined it would end up the way it did.”

The crowd hushed. Epstein looked thoughtful. “Sure, son. Nobody could have predicted a tragedy like that.” Nobody moved. I shifted my weight back and forth. Then Ted switched the glass of whiskey to his other hand and slapped Pierce on the back.

“It's lucky for us that you were up there when it happened. Let me tell you, son, bona fide heroism like that only comes once in a generation.”

The crowd broke forward and swarmed around Pierce, and he grinned and started shaking hands. I sidled past and went into the house to find a drink.


I missed the good old days. In the stories I'd read, parties like this would serve champagne in big finger-bowls. I had a hard time picturing a finger-bowl, but presumably it held a lot of champagne. Here it was all served in flutes, which had the endurance of a Capri Sun. I downed a couple before the waiter realized what I was up to and started steering the tray to other parts of the mansion. The unstated dress code in the place called for bright flowery sun dresses and pastel-colored polo shirts. There was nothing significant or elemental or profound about any of it.

I wandered through the house for a while, until I ended up on the big wooden deck out back. There was a pool in the backyard, and a horde of kids playing in it. They were the progeny of the sun dresses and polo shirts, I figured, because all the bathing suits were printed with appropriately gaudy and colorful patterns. As far as I could tell, the whole pool area was an isolated region of chaos, little bodies in constant motion as they fluidly transitioned between water and land.

The whole scene was straining under the weight of reality. Highly-paid landscapers had designed the place, envisioning the backyard as a quaint pastoral. The pool, we were meant to imagine, was a natural lake, and the little hut where they kept towels and noodles and long-poled nets was painted red and white like a miniature barn. There was even a little replica windmill, right in their backyard. But the landscapers hadn't accounted, in this picturesque vision, for the presence of real people, and the maelstrom of screaming kids was destabilizing the whole thing. They were chasing each other around the windmill, and I wondered how much torque the thing was designed to withstand, and what kind of angular velocity they could generate playing tag.


Lounging drunkenly on the grass, I thought about what Ted Epstein had said. Bona fide heroism. Up on the ridge, you wouldn't have expected any bona fide heroism from our pathetic bunch of protesters. The construction guys, maybe. They kept rolling their eyes at the group of us, huddled together against the cold. Flaunting their toughness. And the gusts kept coming faster and colder, whipping by, twisting convoluted spirals around the turbines. The wind was building with orchestral grandeur, and then suddenly the crescendo pushed beyond some threshold and the sound changed. It began to hum. A flowing stream of pitches, wavering into a hesitant melody that charmed the windmills into a slow, swaying dance. Pierce and I watched, mesmerized, as the turbines began to lean and shift like long-slumbering giants, stirring awake. They are dazed and groggy. They are too clumsy for their huge bodies, and when they fall they will crush the peasants below. Pierce saw the giants, saw them coming to life. Then he saw that the construction workers were in danger, unaware of the oncoming chaos. And he jumped up and charged toward them.

Charged heroically toward them, I guess.


When I got tired of sitting in the sun, I went back inside and tried to endear myself to the pimply teenage kid who'd been conscripted into bartending duty. We chatted for a while about the good old days, and after a few drinks, I excused myself. I was looking for a restroom, but instead I turned a corner and discovered Pierce and Ted Epstein and a number of women dressed in muted tones. The women ignored me entirely. Their attention was focused on Pierce.

They were in mourning, I realized. But their grief didn't take any form that resembled anger or frustration or anything like that, even towards Pierce, who hadn't been able to save their husbands. They accepted loss with a stoic resolve that probably came from being wives of construction workers. The same thing happens with loggers and deep-sea fishermen, and soldiers and criminals, probably.

Still, they were drawn to him. There was nothing sexual to it. That would be easy for Pierce to understand. Pathetic adulation. Pierce was standing before them, and in his outstretched arm he held the key to the city. They gazed up at him with thirsty eyes. But they weren't really seeing Pierce. He was just a placeholder, playing the role of the hero in somebody else's ceremony. It made me sick to watch him standing there like a well-trained puppy, giving them what they wanted. Something had to change, to break out of the pattern. I walked up, swiped the key out of Pierce's grip, and took off.


I didn't know where I was going. I made turns at random, and suddenly burst out into bright sunlight on the deck. The kids were still playing in the pool. I'll find a small kid with glasses, I decided, and give him the key. But as I ran forward, I couldn't make out any of their faces. They were blurs of motion, like a dust storm. Wind is caused by differences in pressure, I remembered. Air is accelerated from higher to lower pressure. And I understood all that. But I couldn't connect it with the constant whirling gusts up there on the ridge. I've always thought of the atmosphere as basically stationary, somehow, but it's not like that at all. It's constantly in motion. Like all the currents in the sea, but even more chaotic. It could have been anyone up there – Pierce, or anyone else. And the gusts can be so powerful, and unpredictable, that as soon as you try to control them, they can tear apart everything you've made.


  1. Ankur, that's a fantastic story ... you need to keep writing, because you are gifted. You've got great humor, beautiful rhythms, and a perfect sense of pacing a short story.

    Thank you!

  2. Ankur,
    You really hooked me with the first few paragraphs of “Keys”. And, a few paragraphs later, I found myself smiling. It was a smile of recognition—the story reminded me of how I felt in my 20s. Normally when I read about 20somethings, I’m aware of how long it’s been since I was there myself. But your first scene evoked just the opposite in me—I was back there, feeling the listlessness and the desire for something more. You captured the mood well.
    I like authors who see details more clearly or more deeply than I do. In noting that “the strip mall parking lot bristled with suburban aggression”, you made me realize that I’ve had the same thought but not as consciously as you. I enjoy discoveries like that. They require a level of observation that most of us don’t value or develop.
    I liked the pacing of the story. It moved along smoothly and didn’t get bogged down. Using short, connected sections worked well. I’d guess that you re-wrote it a few times to get the pace right.
    The final paragraph was open-ended and encouraged the reader to stop and think about the story as a whole. You avoided the potential pitfalls of hitting us over the head with a point or being maddening vague.
    You seemed very at ease with the Scott—he came naturally to you, I think. At some point in the future, could you create a character that you’d consider his polar opposite?
    As a non-writer myself, I’m interested in the writing process, how an author comes up with ideas, and what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of their own work. If you ever decide to blog about your writing, I’d like to read it. Thanks.
    Keep up the good writing!
    Dennis O’C.

  3. Ankur, I'll add a couple of other comments now that I've read another piece you've written done. My guess is that this piece is more recent -- the rhythm of this piece feels much more assured and carefully controlled, and the poetic tone is sharper. I agree with Dennis -- Scott seemed to come naturally to you. Scott is sort of a "Great Gatsby" (or maybe a "talented Mr. Ripley"?) -- an observer of men who are at the same time greater and lesser than he is.

    Also like Dennis, I'm sure you worked carefully and deliberately on this story. It's very well polished -- there are a lot of places where little details seemed to have been worked out meticulously, and where particular phrases are balanced and placed to evoke a specific response.

    There were one or two places where I thought your own emotions contained seeds of conflict or dischord. In the beginning, when you're describing the nameless woman you meet on arrival at Pierce's place, you say, "the girl gazed up at him, moist lips slightly parted". Do you mean by that to suggest that Pierce is truly an Adonis, or that he spends his time with women so uninteresting that slightly parted moist lips (and other endearing physicalities) are their only male attractant? I think you're probably ambivalent about Pierce, and that may indicate a need to think about him a little longer. It's one thing to have mixed emotions about a character you've created, but it's another not to understand him fully.

    Sometime I'll have to tell you about my friend Rick and his son Tim -- Tim at the age of nineteen was basically a narcissistic frat hosue party animal who stumbled into becoming a TV-hailed hero. He wasn't all that, and Rick knew it -- but the incident changed Tim's life, and it may well be that he has become today the real hero he wasn't at that time.

    Anyway, a beautifully crafted story, very well told. Thank you for your work!