With Ash In His Teeth, Cutting Teeth Into Keys

Rhoads Stevens

I consider Mr. Camps to be my mother, but I don’t tell him that. I see Mr. Camps in a hospital birthing me. He is pleased when his labor is over and that all went well and that he didn’t need a cesarean section. The nurses tell him that they’ve seen many babies but that none have ever had the elegance about them that I have. I don’t tell Mr. Camps anything about any of that, but it’s still what I think, and there is nothing that says I can’t think it if I can’t get it out of my thoughts.

I am in Mr. Camps’ key shop. It’s where he makes keys — even the keys that say, “DO NOT DUPLICATE.” Everyone knows that Mr. Camps will copy such keys. It’s just that he’ll probably charge you more. He could charge you one dollar more or maybe five K more. It’s all in how you look when you ask. At the key shop, Mr. Camps also bakes bread and repairs umbrellas.

“There are many umbrellas in this city, and no one is willing to fix them except me,” Mr. Camps often says. He repairs umbrellas for half the price it would be to get a new one. For some extra money, he will even make it so that you can conceal a knife in the handle of your umbrella. If this is what you want, then you can expect Mr. Camps will replace your old umbrella handle with a new handle that’s a wooden duck’s head. He carves these duck’s heads himself, and whenever I am walking around the city and see someone with an umbrella with a wooden duck’s head, I often cross to the other side of the street.

I bring all the keys I find to Mr. Camps and have him make copies for me. He even duplicates the ones that say, “DO NOT DUPLICATE,” and he never charges me extra because there must be something in the way I look that says I have no desire to break into anyone else’s room. I have no desire to get at something good.

I bring him five keys today. The key shop smells like bread because Mr. Camps is making some wheat bread with wheatberries and oats. He gives me some bread. He has a jar of brown spread, which he offers to me.

“Put some of this on your bread,” he tells me. I put it on. It tastes like strange chocolate and is grainy on my teeth. It has grit in it. He says the grit comes from a volcano that killed 50,000 people. He says he puts that grit in his chocolate to remind himself that, yes, I am lucky to eat chocolate on excellent bread, but let me not forget things like volcanoes, which can kill 50,000 people.

I eat the bread and feel the grit. My mother, Mr. Camps. Mr Camps looks at his shining, shimmering wall of blank keys and selects the ones for me.

Rhoads Stevens was born in Baltimore and grew up in Honolulu. His first memory is of sucking on crab legs.