Labeling Keys
by Taylor Mali

Though not a secretive man,
my father understood combination locks and keys.
Yes, he was a Yale man. And he had a love affair with brass.
And he had a key rack as organized as the writing on the label of each key was neat.

It’s the same angel that made him label and date
butcher‐paper­‐wrapped leftovers in the refrigerator
with Christmas‐present creases & hospital corners
and little 2 by 2 post‐it notes with possible suggestions
for the leftover’s use: “Turkey scraps. November twenty­‐three.
Yummy treat for the D‐O‐G?”
secured with (count ‘em) one, two rubber bands,
one for snugness, the other for
symmetry.

But there’s an art to labeling keys.
The one you keep to your neighbor’s house
cannot say on it:
“Neighbor’s house across the street.
In Maine for all of May.”
Similarly, GUN RACK, BURGLAR ALARM,
SPARE SET OF KEYS TO SAAB IN GARAGE:
these are labels you will not see at our house.
Instead, my father wrote in his own argot,
in a cryptographic language of oblique reference;
the key to the burglar alarm he called THE SIREN’S SONG,
the gun rack, THAT INFERNAL RACKET,
the neighbor’s house across the street was now the FARM IN KANSAS.
VICTOR was the Volvo, HENRY, the Honda, GABRIELLA, the Saabatini.
A security of the mind, no doubt, and not so much precluding burglary
as offering a challenge to the industrious burglar,
as well as evincing from my brother and me
much in the way of loving parody,
such as the key to the side door which we labeled:
NOT THE KEY TO THE SIDE DOOR,
DESTITUTE NEIGHBOR’S SQUALID HOVEL FAR, FAR AWAY,
BOATHOUSE IN BAY OF FUNDY.

But among the neatly labeled keys
(some to cars we no longer possessed, like POTEMKIN and GERALD, the Ford)
is a brass ring of assorted expatriates called KEYS TO UNKNOWN PLACES.
Little metal orphans, they have lost their locks; or rather,
their locks have all lost them, misplaced them all in the same place,
on the same ring, which is a sadness no bolt cutter can cure

Even the key that says simply HARTFORD—
somewhere there’s a door, a box, a closet full of secrets locked—
and the only thing I know about it is that it is probably not in Hartford.
I keep them all, jingling and jangling, turning the tumblers of the past.
Who knows when I might not be in Hartford again
and have a need for such a key?
Who here knows nothing of magic that escapes
every time a key that should unlock a door
does?

Mali. Taylor. “Labeling Keys.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­‐887012-­‐17-­‐6)