The house on Dolores Street was built in 1911. All the handles and levers and pulls and clasps in the house were period, even the locks, which were lovely, ornate, and original.
The front door lock didn’t sound like a regular lock when you opened it. It wasn’t just the sound of the bolt pulling into the door and the door opening. You put the key in the lock, you turned it, and then you turned the knob. But in between the key and the bolt there was a thunk, almost like something dropping inside the door. Click, drag, squeak, thunk, turn.
The house was a railroad flat, long, and very narrow. The kitchen and living room, where we spent most of our time, sat at the back of the house. Unless you were standing in the far corner of the living room, you couldn’t see the door. You could only hear it. Step, step, jingle, click, drag, squeak, thunk, turn. After that, it was usually the sound of my husband Josh’s boots entering the foyer and shuffling on the hardwood floors.
But it was the sound that came after that starts to break things loose in my head, things that were locked and forgotten. There was a wooden table with a thin leather top that sat next to the front door. He walked in and threw his keys on this table the exact same way every single day. They would hit and maybe slide a little across the top and make a shhhhhsh and clank. Because he was a contractor he had lots of keys: to the house, the Jobox, his car, my car, job sites. They weren’t heavy but they weren’t light. Sometimes, the keys would slide too far and bump the wall a little bit but they always sounded like metal on leather on wood. Crash, shhhhsh, clank, stop.
I know this sound as well as I know the sound of our twelve-year-old son’s muted voice as he talks to himself in the shower, or the way my brother sneezes, or the trill my mom’s voice makes when she sings in church and holds that last note longer than anyone else. Even when I think I am close to an accurate description of the sound of the keys, there is no one in the world who can tell me if I have it right. There are no other witnesses. If Josh and I were standing in that hallway again with that table, I could hand him his keys and he could make that very same sound in an instant. Just the way he did it every single day for the seven years we lived in that house.
I had completely forgotten about the keys until I found, in a box with my important papers, a small black book with red edges and lined pages. I remember picking this journal, thinking that it looked like the kind of book that could hold important things, the kind you’d keep around forever. I was finally four months pregnant after so many miscarriages that I honestly can’t remember the number. I took this book to a cafe down the street on New Year’s Day. Josh was home sleeping off the hangover that he’d earned while I ushered in 2008 alone in the fancy house. I was mad about being left alone at home. I was angry that the closer we got to having the child that we had wanted for so long the more it felt like he was leaving. I was worried that his drinking, that he assured me wasn’t an issue, was. He wasn’t an alcoholic! He was just British. I was starting to think that this bullet was long past being dodged.
I wrote about all of that. The fear, anger, resentment. Sentences like “I should just leave now. This is never going to work. Who am I kidding?” I didn’t have the time for that feeling. I couldn’t figure out a way to go through a divorce and this pregnancy by myself. And I didn’t want to do the work to change it. So, I gently removed those pages from the book, tore them up, and threw them in the trash. Then I swallowed those feelings, shoving each one into a different part of myself. There is a deep sadness that I can remember from that moment that is still hard for me to feel. It needed to go away so I could focus on the reasons to stick it out.
The heading on the new first page of the black journal read, “Things I appreciate about Josh.” I think I was trying to commit the good to paper, to make it real, as if a shopping list of his good qualities would save us both from our shared lies, resentments, loss, anger, and regret. On that list I wrote, “I love how he throws his keys down the same way every single day.”
Even now, I want to say really nice things about him, about us. I really do. I remember the hours we spent playing Gin when we first started dating, the way he loved The Flintstones, the first time he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him too and we cried because we felt so lucky to have each other. When I do remember it clearly, it’s like seeing these moments through an old Viewmaster. They’re snapshots and nothing else. But the journal gave me back the memory of the keys hitting the table every day which is full-color picture and sound.
So when I heard the keys crash, shhhhsh, clank, stop at the end of the day I thought: he’s home.
Is he drunk? (Most likely yes.)
Is he grumpy? (50/50 odds.)
Is he happy? (Much less likely.)
There was never a threat of violence. He was never that kind of drinker. It was the threat of an ocean of complaints, a litany of daily miseries and slights reported back to me that just wore my whole world down. But in the end the noise meant he had arrived alive and we could move forward or stay stuck or fight or talk or ignore each other. Whatever happened or didn’t happen that day was home.
Our marriage lasted another nine years after I wrote the list. We spent the last two years in Austin—the move was a last-ditch effort, a geographic cure, to save us. It wasn’t that it just hadn’t worked. It had been the Hindenburg of relationships. His isolation, drinking, and lying only increased, making him less reliable and angrier, and making me more cold and resentful. We were both in tatters but every day we threw the same pile of snakes into the living room so we wouldn’t come home to an empty house. After two rehabs, two hospitalizations, and countless half-hearted tries it was done. I finally gave up and told him I was filing for formal separation over brunch on my forty-second birthday.
After our divorce, he moved into another house. I can’t be one hundred percent certain, but I’ll bet he had a similar place for keys in his new house, too, a place where the key touched whatever surface in the same way each day. I don’t know where that place was or what it sounded like because I was never in that house with him. I don’t know if he came home happy or sad because we were no longer we, and because, by that time, he hated me.
His death certificate lists him as “found” August 19, 2016.
I had lost him so long ago that I had stopped trying to find him. Instead, a policeman found him face up on his bed, alone, in the new house. It was here that he finished the long and hard work of drinking himself to death at only forty-seven years old.
I imagine his keys made a slight jingle when a homicide detective locked the front door after removing his body. A day later, the keys clanked together as they poured from a brown manila envelope with his name written on the outside in Sharpie. They landed in my cupped hands as I stood in the lobby of the police headquarters. The detective gave me his sincerest condolences. I wanted to cry, or explain, but I felt busy and the world seemed to be on fire.
I don’t think I have ever spoken so quietly as when I asked him to please throw the envelope away.
When his keys came to me they became tools for closing down his life. The clean-up crew.
The black key clearly went to his truck. When I put the key in the ignition, the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree. No fuel, no oil, no power—nothing left but the lights to show that absolutely everything had gone wrong. I slid that key off and gave it to the loan company to take the truck away.
One of the remaining five keys went to the large toolbox that usually sat in the bed of his truck. The toolbox was gone, as were most of the tools. When I went through his truck I found that they had all been traded for a small piece of paper from a pawn shop up the road, dated five days before he died.
Three of the other keys were to clients’ homes. I gave them back to his boss who didn’t know that Josh was an alcoholic until I called him up and told him that he had died and how it had happened. I still wonder if he really believed me
The last key was the key to that house I never shared with him. The house where our son Dash visited him for weekends and sleepovers. The house where he created wonderful memories for our boy of staying up late with dad. Dash said that on hot nights they would retreat from the heat into Josh’s bedroom, lay on the bed and prop themselves up on pillows for “maximum lazy comfort.” They’d turn up the AC, grab a Dr. Pepper, and watch The Simpsons. I like to think of the two of them like that, heads resting against each other, laughing at Homer and Bart.
Josh’s body was found on this same bed, only the pillows were missing and the mattress was bare except for a small amount of blood.
The mattress was put outside for trash. His things were moved out, thrown out, or packed up. The truck was driven away.
The key to his house was the only one left and it made no sound alone. It was even quiet when I locked the front door. Its last gasp was a light scraping of metal on concrete as I slid it under the doormat to return to the landlord. Every part of his physical presence was gone. The key stayed.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.