Keys to the Past

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
A man on a walk finds a set of keys that opens a door to the past.

Submitted: November 15, 2016

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Submitted: November 15, 2016



It’s a cold March morning; daylight but no sun yet.  I’m out early savoring the quiet beginning of a new day.  Across the street, some of the locals are already gathering in front of the new Smoke Shop, anxious and annoyed that the owner is again not open at the promised time. The allure of a dollar savings on a pack is enough to keep them queued up in the cold rather than crossing to the convenience store to get their fix.  Oddly, the convenience store is their other daily destination for a twelve pack of cheap beer. But, after all, when you’re not working, it’s important to be budget conscious.

I’m headed for the other convenience store, not the one next door.  It’s newer and somewhat cleaner and an excuse to take a walk.  The coffee is better too.  The doughnuts have the heart stopping taste of over used lard, but they are rumored to be fresh daily.  This convenience store is a reincarnation. For years it existed in a former gas station.  Then, out of the blue, the chain bought up and demolished the surrounding houses along with the gas station and erected a gleaming new building with eight gas pumps under a canopy and a “beer cave” inside.  A beer cave, by the way is a walk-in cooler where you can select your favorite twelve pack already cooled to eliminate the wait time.  The new store aroused a glimmer of economic optimism in the weary fading village; evidence that the hope of survival is not lost.  Of course, something new always brings a trade-off.  The small friendly staff at the original store was not increased to accommodate the extra tasks and increased business, rendering them angry grumpy and hostile to even long time customers.

As I walk through the pleasant village park, I see something blue bobbing in the breeze at the base of the fountain.  It’s a half-filled balloon about the size of a small melon.  I wonder why the balloon hasn’t blown away, but then I notice that it must be weighted down somehow because it moves only inches with each new gust instead of taking flight.  I reach for it and hear a clink of metal as I pick it up.  There’s something in the balloon!  I squeeze the balloon to pop it but it just squishes in my hand.  I look around for something sharp and pick up a twig and poke the balloon and it gives up with a little rush of air.  I can feel the object inside now and I’m sure it is keys.  I stretch open the hole I’ve made and pull out two keys on a ring with a small round tag.  I strain to read the neat cursive written in pencil on the tag, “17 Canal Street rear”.  The smaller key looks like it will open an old padlock.  The other one is a skeleton key.  I slip the keys in my pocket and plan to walk by 17 Canal Street on my way back from the convenience store.

On Sunday morning, I discover the keys again at the laundromat while I’m checking my jeans before throwing them in the washer.  Sunday morning at the laundromat is my weekly ritual like other people attend church.  We go for the same reason; to get a fresh start for the week.  There’s faith involved too.  I take it on faith that the insides of the washers and dryers are clean even though the scruffy surroundings, the worn and missing floor tile, the peeling paint and the residue of dirty mop water on the baseboards causes me to question my beliefs.

Like church, the faithful each morning are few.  There’s the big lady from the country.  She uses an entire row of jumbo washers and the entire wall of dryers.  I said hello to her once but she just grunted and turned back to her book or her knitting.  There’s the silent guy who wears shorts and sneakers year-round.  He’s my age and rumor has it he blew his mind with LDS back in the sixties.  He rarely leaves his street level apartment except to retrieve the canned goods and home-cooked meals his mother brings to him weekly.  There’s the skinny, wired girl with the tattoos and the tiny Hispanic baby who chronically spews expletives in anger and frustration at being one quarter short for the washer.  I silently walk over and put a quarter on the table near her because I know from experience that she doesn’t have a dollar in her pocket for the change machine.

I have time while my washer is going so I walk over to find 17 Canal Street.  It turns out to be the old Coffee Shop building at the corner of Canal and River streets.  I walk down River Street past the building and turn into the street that long ago was the Erie Canal.  In the back of the building, I see a half-hidden recessed door with a rusty padlock on the handle.  There is no one around so I try my key in the padlock and with some effort it opens.  I have to press my shoulder against the door to push it open part way so I can squeeze through.  I’m in the store room of the Coffee Shop which I remember closed in the late 1980’s.  It doesn’t look like anyone has been in the building since then.  I walk through the store room and the kitchen area into the Coffee Shop.  The fixtures are long gone.  Many of the ceiling panels are on the floor.  The metal grid that supported the ceiling tiles is hanging down unattached in several places.  Through the false ceiling I can see the original ornate tin ceiling.  Disappointed, I walk back through the kitchen into the store room and head for the door.  To my right, I notice an enclosed stairwell with an unpainted door.  The doorknob is missing but I try the skeleton key in the lock and it grudgingly opens.  I can see daylight at the top of the stairs and the steps seem sound so I slowly climb the stairs.  My rising anticipation is dampened by the expectation that I will again find nothing but dust and debris from the past.

At the top of the stairwell, I can see through an open doorway into a front room.  To my right is a narrow hallway with two more closed doors.  I walk into the room and see two large windows with small panes facing out on Canal Street and another facing River Street.  Some of the panes are missing and have been replaced by wood.  Some of the panes are cracked with missing pieces.  The remaining ones are dirty.  The walls are covered in ancient, water-stained wallpaper.  The floor, what I can see of it through layers of dust, is lighter around the edges with a darker rectangle in the middle where a carpet must have protected the varnish from fading.

I walk up to the window on the left, rub away some of the dirt on a window pane and look out.  To my surprise, I see buildings I don’t recognize!  Then I see horse drawn carriages and wagons on the street.  I’m looking out on a scene from the past!  I press my face close to the window so I can look out in both directions.  The store fronts on the buildings have unfamiliar names but all seem to be thriving with men and women coming and going.  Toward the junction of Canal and Main Streets, I see a crew working on laying paving bricks. It must be 1903.  I want to see more so I rush over to the other window facing Canal Street and I’m shocked at what I see!  The scene in front of me is right out of the movie “Pleasantville”.  There are shiny 1950’s vintage cars and trucks moving along the street. Kids are riding by on bikes with big tires and fenders on the wheels.  The street is bustling with activity; men and women all walking here and there with a sense of purpose.

I back away from the window feeling dizzy.  I am almost afraid to look out the side window facing River Street.  I look to my left to the junction of Canal and River Streets and I see the sidewalks crowded with men, women and children watching a huge parade pass by. I’m sure it’s the Old Fashioned Days parade, but what year is it?  Parked on a side street, I see cars from the 1960’s.  Then I notice that the parade has a decidedly military bent.  There is a National Guard unit in dress uniform followed by Brownies, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Explorer Scouts all in uniform too.  The Fort Plain High School marching band is in full force and full uniform.  The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars follow proudly.  Bringing up the rear is the Army Reserve unit from Utica, dressed in camouflage, just back from Viet Nam, moving more slowly to accommodate their members who are wounded or in wheelchairs.  I am truly shaken by the sight.

I turn back to the hallway wanting to leave but knowing that I can’t leave before I look out the windows in the other rooms.  I move to the middle room and hesitate at the door trying to prepare myself for what I might find.  Like the first room, I find an empty, dusty space.  I see another door that I guess is a closet. I make a mental note to check the closet and walk over to the single window and wipe a clean spot on one of the window panes.  I’m prepared for almost anything now.  Will I see space ships?  I look to the right out the window and see the iron pedestrian bridge that spans the Erie Canal.  That’s all I can see so I leave the room and go on to the last room that faces the back of the building.  To my dismay, there are no windows, just two large doors that are boarded up. I push on one of the doors and it squeaks loudly but opens enough so I can see out the back of the building.  Before my eyes is the Erie Canal!  Directly below me is a canal boat that appears to be ready to unload some big wooden crates.  The crates are marked “Tingue & Co.”.  I know that name!  Then it comes to me.  I am standing in the Tingue Building!  I recall now seeing the name in large wooden or tin letters at the top of the building.  I watch fascinated as a heavy chain descends from the building. A workman wraps the chain around the crate, secures it and gives the sign to lift away.  The crate climbs to the second floor and is hauled into the other door of the room I am standing in!  I look over at the other door which of course is boarded up too.  I back away from the door, too confused to think.  Then I have a wild idea.  I’ll bust through the heavy wooden doors, somehow climb down the building and enter that world; the world of the Erie Canal, a world of energy and optimism and thriving farms and growing industries.  My next thought stops me cold.  What if I get stuck there?

I return to the hallway and the stairs then I remember the closet and turn instead to the middle room.  I turn the doorknob of the closet but it must be locked.  I take the keys out of my pocket and try the skeleton key.  The lock reluctantly yields.  I pause before opening the door.  Will this closet lead to a different world too?  I open the door wide so I can use the available daylight to see inside.  The closet is empty except for a handsome three-drawer wooden file cabinet in perfect condition despite a thick, thick layer of dust on all its horizontal surfaces.  The cabinet is surely locked, but it’s not!  The long stationery metal rollers of the first drawer screech in protest as the drawer is opened to reveal nothing.  The second drawer yields only decades of dust too.  The third drawer appears empty, but behind the wooden file separator I spot a small discolored envelope.  It’s a pay envelope with a string and round tab closure.  The string disintegrates in my hand as I unwind it.  There is something metallic in the envelope.  Is it coins, maybe gold coins?  I open the flap and pull out two keys on a key ring with a round tag that has fine cursive written in pencil.  It looks like a duplicate set to the keys in my pocket!  I reach for the keys in my pocket to compare them and find my pocket is empty.  I check my other pockets.  They are empty too!  Somehow, the keys in my pocket, the keys I found inside a balloon drifting aimlessly in the park have been in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet in a pay envelope that hasn’t been opened in over one hundred years!

I reach into the envelope again and pull out a folded letter written in ink in the same fine cursive and penned on Tingue & Company letterhead.

Mr. Frederick Haslett
Fort Plain National Bank

My Friend and Business Colleague:

As we have discussed over these many months, I have properly disposed of the material assets and remaining inventory of the Tingue & Company Mercantile.  I leave in your most capable hands the task of finding a suitable buyer for my building.  The entry and internal keys will be delivered to your safekeeping in the coming days.

With your most sage advice and considerable financial support, I have consummated the purchase of a textile mill and machinery to manufacture a quality felt to serve the growing needs of the Pullman Rail Car Company.  With a company of this reputation as our first client, I feel strongly optimistic that other large companies will look to us to fulfill their requirements.  You can trust that your funds and your shareholder’s funds are well invested in this new enterprise.

Frederick, I trust too that you will keep in confidence what I have told you about certain aspects of the Tingue & Company building.  As you are aware, in the confines of my office, I have viewed the past the present and the future which prompts me to have every confidence that my prospects are rising like the grandest of the new hot air balloons.

With the most sincere regards I remain,

William Jay Tingue

I pulled out my phone to check the time and saw that my wash has been sitting in a lump in the washer for over an hour.  I left the building locking the padlock behind me and thinking about my next visit.

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