“The Nonquitt Key,” a Short Story by Becky Renner

This story was originally published in Buffalo Almanack in 2013.

key-620x649

Footsteps tumbled up the front stairs. Tremaine stowed the magazine under the couch cushion, hiding the  infamous mugshot of his boss, gossip column party boy du jour Bobby H., facedown. Tremaine ran a hand over his shaved head and tugged his lapels straight. Nothing out of place, except for the worry lines. In this first month of his employment as Bobby’s butler,  Tremaine had spent most of his time playing bodyguard and conscience, sprouting worry lines like whiskers and giving Polaroids to the maid so she’d arrange the clean clothes on the floor in the same heaps as Bobby left them. Tremaine stood, six foot four and sturdy, ready to tower over anything. The door shot open. Bobby tossed his coat over Tremaine’s head and skidded on melted snow to the guest bathroom.

While Bobby retched, Tremaine thought back to his time as a nightclub bouncer, and then to the rapper whose security detail he had headed. That brother quit touring to join the Jesuits. No more saintly word-spinners for Tremaine. He got an off-his-nut, entitled, packrat of a white boy.

A heavy plunk and something clanked in the toilet. Against his better judgment, Tremaine opened the door.

Bobby gripped the toilet seat like a steering wheel, pasty-faced and pouting like his mugshot.

“I think I’m gonna to die,” he said.

“What did you do this time?” said Tremaine.

Bobby reached into the toilet and withdrew a silver key.

“I swallowed two.”

***

Tremaine called a cab and guided Bobby down to the stoop with sloth-like grace. Saturday night traffic jerked through Manhattan. They stopped at a light, and Bobby inhaled through his teeth. “Tell him to drive better,” Bobby hissed. “If he speaks English.”

“You’re not going to die,” said Tremaine. “Stop being an asshole.”

“I’m docking your pay.”

“I’ll tell Daddy Morebucks what happened, and he’ll prolly give me a goddamn raise.”

“Shut up.”

“Thank you Mr. Louis for saving my dumbass son—”

Bobby clutched his wrist.

***

Pictures of Bobby slumped in a wheelchair popped up on the internet before dawn. Tremaine surfed TMZ on his phone, hiding it behind an old issue of Men’s Health.

Elsewhere, surgeons passed a scope down Bobby’s throat, removed the key, and sewed up the slice in the wall of his stomach.

Hours passed with Bobby in recovery.

PerezHilton.com said, Bobby Healy Sloppy Drunk After Benefit Soirée.

E!Online had, Housewife Barbara Kendrick Talks Her Fight with Bobby H.

Rumors snowballed out of proportion. Bobby H’s Padded Room at Lennox Hill. Bobby Healy: Cancer Scare. Robert Healy Junior’s Suicide Attempt.

Tremaine pushed into Bobby’s room through a cluster of photographers . Bobby was sitting up against the pillows. A specimen container on the tray table held the infamous key.

“Did you get me a change of clothes?” said Bobby.

Tremaine raised the duffle bag.

“First you tell me why you’re swallowing shit like a fucking toddler.”

“Fuck you,” said Bobby.

Tremaine dropped the duffle and went for the key. He opened the container, pinched it by the blade. Nickel-plated, hardware store. It looked like any old key, except for its inscription: Don’t Throw This Key Into The River.

“What’s it open?”

“Do you know if they’ll let me eat anything?” Bobby said. “I’m famished.”

“I asked you a question.”

“And I asked you one.”

Bobby frowned at him. Tremaine frowned back.

“It’s the key to my fucking heart,” said Bobby. “Get me a pudding cup.”

Tremaine made an exaggerated bow and threw open the door. Reporters gushed in like salmon at spawn. Tremaine stepped out into the hall.

“I’m sorry, Trem,” Bobby yelled over the reporters. “Please come back. Ow, you lunatic. Tremaine!”

Tremaine passed a man in a linen suit and Hawaiian shirt.

“Tremaine Louis?” he said, brandishing a legal pad. “My name is Nicky Dew. I’m with the Post. Can I ask you a few questions?”

Happy to be in print  — and tired of Bobby’s crap — Tremaine embellished the night’s events, from Bobby buying the cabby’s sunglasses to hide his face, to his histrionic ducking of teenage girls in the waiting room.

“So that key,” said Nicky Dew. “Is it true he got it from Barbara Kendrick? And that she’s, well, you know. She’s diddling Bobby’s pop. I really thought this sort of all confirmed it, don’t you think? I wanted a definite before I let anything roll, you know, having several witnesses from their fight last night and all.”

“Healy Senior and —”

“Bobby and Barbara. They went at it at the Evance after-party. She dangled those keys in front of his face. He says she shouldn’t have them. Bing bang boom. He grabs them. She yanks off her heels and runs him down. Next thing everyone knows, he’s got them off the ring and he’s swallowing the things. You don’t know what they’re for, do you?”

Tremaine glanced down the hallway. Bobby’s door had cleared of intruders. He opened his mouth and closed it again. Nothing he had to say belonged in print. None of it.

“Too bad,” said the reporter. “I can use this, though. Good eye for detail.”

***

Daylight came after only a few hours’ sleep. Tremaine returned to the hospital. He sat beside Bobby’s bed until he woke up. Bobby asked for some coffee.

“And not the shitty stuff from downstairs.”

Then he paused.

“Please.”

Okay, sure. Tremaine hiked down to the street, bought some from a cart. On the front page of the paper: Bobby’s Breakdown. Tremaine turned stiff and robotted inside.

Tremaine bit back his comments for the rest of the day and acted like a real butler. He went on trips to bookstores, a bodega, and a tech store. He fielded reporters, let in the right photographers, and intercepted flowers from people he didn’t know. That night, when Bobby was released, Tremaine even tied Bobby’s shoes. “That’s really not necessary,” said Bobby, but he winced lowering himself into the wheelchair.

They made it outside before the wave of flashes hit. Bobby’s name rebounded like an echo chamber. “How are you feeling, Bobby?” “Do you really have cancer?” “Is it true you tried to kill yourself?” Bobby didn’t pause for their questions. He gave them a half-smile, a swoon-inducer, and they ducked into the waiting Bentley.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Bobby said after the locks clicked. “I was a mess.”

***

Soon as Tremaine helped him upstairs, Bobby fell asleep on the couch. Tremaine went to his own room to change clothes. He found the maid’s usual complaint note on his bed along with the first key, which was inscribed with the name Barbara. The elder Mr. Healy must’ve had it made for her, to get into—a what? A house? A love-nest? He slipped it into the pocket of the coat hanging on his closet door and left the room.

Bobby was standing in the kitchen, a little pale, waiting for him.

“Don’t take this wrong or anything,” said Bobby. “But can you bend down for me?”

Tremaine fetched chicken from the meat drawer, rice from the pantry, broccoli from the crisper, all enough for two. Bobby, the Culinary Institute dropout, let the chicken sit in a lukewarm pan until it finished cooking on its own. He said, “I’m such a dick,” and, “I should tell him,” and, “Trem, I’m sorry. I have to tell you something. You’re going to find out anyway, and it needs to be from me.”

***

“So here goes. Last night. God, not last night. Whenever it was I was at that party for that perfume pretending to fund AIDS research. It smells great, and they gave me all this free shit, paid me to be there even, but I left it all there.

I’d had a few glasses of champagne. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not such a lightweight I can get shitfaced out of a shot glass. Nobody was talking to me since I had the most super-fun talk with Juney. I said I like steak, and she called me a murderer or a caveman or something. Who cares. I was out and I guess I was trying to find a waiter to bum a cigarette off, or maybe someone capable of facial expressions, to talk to them.

My mom wasn’t there like she said she’d be, thank God. But yeah, the convo with Juney. Not only do I eat meat, I cook with it. How did she miss that? So we split before the photogs could catch us and blow the thing up, and I evaporate from that room and into another, and who do I see, drink in her hand, but Barbara Kendrick. Let me tell you, she’s really as plastic as she looks on TV. Thing is, I didn’t know why she came up to me. I never met the woman in my life.

So Bah-bra Kendrick comes sashaying up to me and is all like, ‘Dah-ling,’ and I’m like, ‘Dolling?’ She kisses the air, and I play along, thinking she has maybe some spinoff idea for me. I can always use the press. When she says, ‘We should really get to know each other, Robert. We’ll be seeing a lot more of each other very soon.’

I’m thinking, another E! show, or she’s hiring some ghost-writers to pretend we write about our escapades, make up some escapades, etc.

No. She comes right out and says it. ‘Your father and I have been seeing each other, Robert.’ She says he just filed for divorce, that they were just waiting for Sasha to turn 18. Just for her. Like I’m some kind of nothing. Like it doesn’t even matter that the most important relationship in my life, the only one I’ve ever seen work, is fluff, zip. So I call her a liar.

And she’s all like, ‘How dare you!’ in so many words. What kind of person says that? Who is she? The Queen of Long Island? But I was yelling at the top of my lungs. ‘Liar! Liar! Liar!’ I wanted everyone to hear me. All of them. Plaster it on the side of every city bus, hire me a skywriter, liar! But no. She pulls out proof. The keys to our summer house in Nonquitt.

‘Where did you get those?’ I say.

‘Your father gave them to me.’

But they’re skeleton keys. They open everything.

Maybe I saw it in a movie. Spy swallows a poker chip, hacks it up at HQ. I guess it goes without saying it didn’t really work out quite so easy.”

***

Bobby set out two plates and salvaged dinner. Tremaine ate—Not bad, really. Not impressive, but not bad. Bobby picked and rearranged.

“Thing is,” Bobby said, “I kind of want to go out there. To Nonquitt I mean. It’s been so long and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’d like to go tomorrow, but I don’t think I could go by myself.”

“You’re asking me to take you there. Out to — where is it exactly?”

“Sort of the east side of Buzzards Bay, in Mass. Near Rhode Island.”

If he goes out, the paps’ll slam him, thought Tremaine. Easier to keep him from reading the Post.

“I don’t know,” said Tremaine. “Your dad will kill me if anything else happens to you.”

Bobby pushed his plate away and left the bar. He went back to the couch to sleep.

***

Three days had passed without  a mention of Nonquitt or of the article in the Post when Bobby’s bedroom door banged open. Tremaine hid the magazine he was reading.

“You rat bastard, no good, fuck all —” Bobby’s string of profanities escalated until he slammed his laptop on the table so hard the screen flickered. On it, an article from the Post, the headline:  The Healys Unlocked! by Nicky Dew.

“…I would never have publicized such a private affair,’ says Robert Healy Sr., adding, “I would love to put this whole embarrassing episode behind…” was all Tremaine managed to read before Bobby closed the computer.

“How did he get into my bathroom?” Bobby shouted in Tremaine’s face. “How could he know what I said? Verbatim!”

Tremaine opened the computer and read. It started out like a story, with Bobby on his knees saying he was gonna die, reaching into the toilet. Even nailed the inflection of, I swallowed two. Next, a first-hand account of the Bobby-Barbara argument (from a vegan parfumier named Juniper Smiley) described Bobby as violent, made him sound like a maniac. Then the frigid Taylor-Healy union and the effects it clearly had on their children, especially Bobby, when Bobby yelled,  “What did you tell him?”

“I didn’t think it would come out like this.”

“How’d you think it would come out?” Bobby shouted.

Big Tremaine felt about a foot tall. “You said it yourself. You always need press.”

“Not when it breaks up my family!”

***

Bobby regained composure one breath at a time. Then he left the dining room. When he came back, Tremaine was still stunned. Bobby hoisted the duffle over his shoulder, said, “I’m going to Nonquitt,” and left.

Tremaine called Bobby’s publicist.

“Retraction?” she said. “You must be a little touched, honey bear. This is the best thing happened to Bobby since that fake sex tape. Retraction. Ha! Do you realize how many pingbacks I’m getting? Bobby H. is trending on Twitter!”

***

After that, Tremaine used Bobby’s laptop to find a number for the Post. He bounced from desk to secretary to answering machine and back again, an infinite loop of “He’s out,” “She’s busy,” “He’ll be back later.”

On to the emergency contact list.

“Don’t be mad at him — sir. Your son isn’t taking this well,” is part of the message Tremaine left with Mr. Healy’s assistant. “I’m not sure if he’s had enough time to heal, and he’s got it in his head he’s going to your house in Nonquitt.” Then, to the assistant, “You got all that?”

“You really think Mr. Healy’s going to want to hear this? No I don’t ‘got that.’ Where did you go to butler school, the hood?”

“He really needs to know what’s going on with his son.”

Everyone knows. Clean up your mess, Tremen.”

“It’s Tremaine,” he said, but she had already hung up, mocking him with the dial tone.

***

One by one, Tremaine went down the list of Healys. No one answered for the mother, not even an assistant. The elder sister hung up after Tremaine introduced himself as Bobby’s, eh-hem, “butler.” His brother gave Tremaine a message he wouldn’t relay: “Get your shit together, Bingo. Enough’s enough.”

The little sister, Sasha, though at the moment inconsolable, answered her cell phone. She had stepped outside her boarding school’s chapel, into the snow. It fell muffled past the speaker, into her hair. Tremaine could picture her face, like Bobby’s, proportionate and fair, nipped by the cold.

“Give him a hug for me, Tremaine, would you? Oh, I wish —” her connection fizzled out, “wrong. We deserve better than this, and they know that. You tell him that. Tell him that I’m on his side.”

“Have you called him?”

“He isn’t answering his phone. He’s okay, right?”

“Sure. Tonight, I’ll have him call you.”

“Oh, please, thank you, Tremaine. Make sure he does.”

Tremaine said goodbye and hung up. He grabbed his coat. Then he went outside to hail a cab.

***

The cabby had never heard of Nonquitt, so he followed the GPS, through Connecticut and Rhode Island to the coast of Buzzards Bay. The cab rounded a ridge of pavement by an empty wharf, and the cabby said, “You want out here? Do you got an address?”

“I’m looking for someone,” said Tremaine. “Can you drive around?”

The sunset over the water was ringed in hazy snow clouds. They wove through the streets, inland first and then toward the shore. Tremaine peered through the window in search of Bobby, of anyone who might have seen Bobby, of anyone at all.

An hour passed, the meter ticking.

What if Bobby froze? Tremaine thought. He chewed a cuticle until it bled.

“It’s the offseason, huh?” said the cabby. “Maybe you’re out of luck.”

Far back from the road, the houses evolved from fishing shacks into fantasies, magnificent Victorians with turrets and wood lace. The road grew more rocky, the view more desolate, out onto a marshy peninsula into the bay.

A solitary mailbox passed the driver side. Its brass lettering read: Healy. Tremaine slapped the partition, the cabby slammed on the brakes, and Tremaine climbed from the cab in a sparse tidal stand of trees. The drive marked by the mailbox snaked toward a tall-grassed bluff.

The cabby grinned so wide his fillings showed. Tremaine paid the man with a card, the one reimbursed by the Healys. It didn’t seem right to charge Bobby for rescue, but considering the height of the fare, Tremaine didn’t have much choice.

“You want I should wait here?” the cabby asked. “Keep the motor running?”

Tremaine glanced at the dusty inlet to the drive, and with a strong hope, he tried to conjure the image of a palatial stronghold waiting warm on the other side of the hill. “No,” he said, and the cabby shrugged.

He drove a length and stopped again to lean out the window and call, “Good luck, my friend!” before shrinking over the tideland.

Tremaine hiked up the drive. Soon, the house rose above the horizon, first the gambrel roof, its gray clapboard trimmed in white. Towards the east, a sweeping deck met the view of Buzzard’s Bay, a boardwalk, a discarded rowing hull. On the forest-side, the drive snaked to the garage, three separate doors for three separate cars, and nailed to the lattice beside the kitchen door, a weathered basketball hoop hung with leafless vines. Bobby hunkered at the foot of the lattice, barely protected from the wind, and hugged a half-deflated basketball to his chest like an egg he was trying to keep warm.

“I can’t get inside,” he said. His face was puffy from crying. He spoke through muffled tears.

Up a set of steps, the key, jammed in the lock, stopped the screen from closing over the kitchen door. Tremaine blocked open the screen door to try the key, turning, pushing. It wouldn’t budge. It was the one that said Don’t Throw This Key Into The River.

“My dad took it back when I got into that fistfight at the Met,” said Bobby. “He took it back, so I didn’t think he’d change the locks. He doesn’t ever want to see me again, and I don’t blame him. I don’t want to see me either.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Haven’t you noticed I never finish anything? I can’t even get inside my own house. That damn key is probably half-stuck in that damn lock. I’m the only person in the world who could dig half a goddamn hole.”

Before he could stop himself, Tremaine snorted. He glanced at Bobby, who reluctantly smiled.

“What’s so funny?”

Tremaine let himself laugh. “You should have seen my cab bill!”

“I’m sorry,” Bobby said. He pressed his thumbs into the basketball, making a dent. “I guess that cab is long gone, huh?”

“If I knew you were locked out, I would have gotten it to stay.”

Bobby sighed. “I thought I could get inside, like it would mean something. I could show my dad I’d finished something.”

Tremaine offered down his hand. Bobby gave him the basketball. Tremaine passed it around his back and reversed to do a lay-up. When the ball hit the backboard, melted ice showered from the naked vines. Bobby covered his head. The ball swished through the waterlogged netting and hit the ground with a flat thump.

Bobby rubbed his hair, trying to dry it. “The point was—There’s no internet out here. Only one phone. So if somebody wanted to talk to me, they’d really have to want it. Even then, they’d have to know where I was. I don’t know. Sometimes I think I sold my privacy away.” He looked out across the marshes.

“I used to love it here. I never wanted to leave.” Bobby ran his palms over the wet pebbles. “I was going to come out here and finish the boat and let this whole damn thing blow over, but it’s like he was already here. We might as well hike back into town.”

“Do you think you can make it that far?” said Tremaine. “I mean, walking, your stomach and all.”

Bobby reached out, the slow motion of the night when everything collapsed for a memory of summer. Bobby snatched up a rock the size of his fist. He crawled to his knees with the rock in his grasp.

“I can’t believe you cared enough to come out here,” said Bobby.

He hurled the rock at the kitchen window. It crashed through the lowest pane.

“Shit,” Bobby said. He picked up another, hidden by the foliage at the base of the lattice. It was slick with melted snow.

He pitched. Three of the remaining panes shattered.

He approached the window, absent of his reflection, of the tire swing from the tree halfway to the woods and the canoes land-bound forever by invisible holes that filled with water. Of lobster pots hung drying, cracking in the day. Of fireflies out of season beaming messages between blades of grass disappearing as the night fell. He turned to face the only friend he could remember, who had betrayed him and come back like no one else, and he said, “I’m sorry for the blood,” before forcing his hand, through the jagged glass, to turn the lock.