Keeper of the Keys
Madge Outerbridge crouches under the desk in the dark, a plastic water bottle and some peanut butter crackers at her side, a German Luger stuffed into the elastic waist of her L.L.Bean jeans. It is an unlikely place for her to be, given her age, 64, and her patrician bearing. The gun was a war souvenir of her husband’s and probably hadn’t been fired since l942. No matter. It would serve its purpose.
For the past twenty-five years Madge has walked proud and determined across the street from her home in the village, over the playing fields of the Rockleigh School, named for the hamlet surrounding it, to her office in the Field House where she attends to a variety of clerical duties, one of which is arranging transportation for the many teams that play games off campus. She takes her job seriously.
On a board next to her large wooden desk are hooks that hold the keys to the fleet of l5-passenger Dodge vans. The faculty members who double as coaches have keys to the Field House and the outer office where there is a pigeon hole called the van key return slot. When a coach has a game he or she comes to Madge for the key to the van and at night after Madge has gone home, returns the key to the slot. Under this system one who needs the key first thing the next morning would find it in the proper place without having to wait for Mrs. Outerbridge to arrive in her office at 9:00 a.m.
She tries to run this part of the department with the same cool efficiency with which she runs her home. For instance, if she is having dinner guests on Saturday, the table is set, silver polished, food purchased by Thursday night. On Friday night she cooks what she can in advance and arranges the flowers. This means, she is fond of saying, that should she die in the night the party can continue with a minimum of fuss. If she is still alive on Saturday, she can devote that period to looking good. Preparing her clothes, washing her hair, taking a power nap. She believes in the economy of time. She thinks rushing ages a person. Now that her children are out of the nest and her husband has slowed down, she leads the orderly life she has sought since her youth.
In a more perfect world she could bring the same order to the Athletic Department, but that lack is a constant source of frustration. For some reason, (and only God knows how hard she’s tried), she cannot break through the academic inertia and reach the consciences of some of the faculty. The old guard are unable to learn new rules and the young ones simply have no sense of responsibility. This ongoing dilemma makes her weary and yearn for retirement but, until then she must persevere.
An aura of correctness envelops this dainty, small-boned woman and is evident in her office, with fresh flowers and candy on her desk, newly sharpened pencils in the cup, her crisply ironed blouses and dark gabardine skirts with the tasteful just-below the-knee lengths. Her medium brown hair, shot with gray, is softly permed and, appropriately for the business world, does not dare graze her collar. Everyone agrees she’s a nice lady. The nameplate on her desk says Mrs. Outerbridge. Nobody calls her Madge.
Mrs. Outerbridge’s phone rings constantly from September to June. Many of these calls are from parents, athletic officials or fans. They often have one thing in common. They want directions to the school, and she has to bring them across the state or across the country. It seems that nobody uses a map and many are unaware of a GPS. These conversations often occur when some kid is pacing back and forth in front of her desk waiting for a lost locker combination or a coach has suddenly popped in for reimbursement of an unexpected meal on the road, both of whom are pushed for time… a fact that plays heavily with Mrs. Outerbridge’s supersensitive antennae causing notorious waves of heat to crash willy-nilly through her body. Nevertheless, before attending to them, she cheerfully gives the intricate directions and ends up having them take “95 toward Pennsylvania and get off at exit 14A. Turn right, go one quarter of a mile, bear left and take the first left onto our campus.” She utters these words perhaps fifteen times a day.
Several things about this job conflict with her desire for order, but nothing so much as the problem of keeping the van keys straight. Every third day or so a coach will come in early for the van key and it won’t be back because yesterday’s coach forgot to return it. Mrs. O has spent the whole morning tracking down the coach only to find he/she is in class or otherwise unavailable. It is abhorrent to her to use a duplicate key. This offends her sense of rightness. She does not feel it is good business to let people “get away with things.” When she is forced to release a duplicate key rather than cancel the game she does so with suppressed postmenopausal rage. Often she can’t sleep because of this great frustration in her life. The keys and the faces of the offenders whirl about in a hide and go seek frenzy leaving her exhausted by morning. She finds herself losing her pleasant office demeanor after such a night. Why just the other day she was quite harsh with the new softball coach who wandered in at ll:00 am with a missing key.
“What do you think we would have done if the Art Department had scheduled a museum trip this morning?” Her words shooting out like bullets.
“I didn’t know they had a trip.” The coach stared at her blankly. No show of remorse.
“They didn’t have a trip,” Mrs. Outerbridge grew increasingly impatient, “I’m saying what if they had?”
“Well, yeah, I know.” The disobedient coach scanned the posters on the wall on her way out.
“No, you don’t know, because if you had you would have returned the key! That trip would have been canceled because of you. These keys MUST be returned immediately after you use them.” She stood to make her final point as she watched the coach’s back fade-out through the door. “This is school policy!”
Over the twenty-five years of her employment, almost everybody has blown it with the keys at least once, and nobody wants to “incur the wrath of Madge.”
It’s a joke around campus. But for all the carrying on, the keys continue to be a problem. New faculty are hired, the athletic schedule increases, more vans and busses bought, and Mrs. Outerbridge struggles valiantly to juggle it all without perfect success.
Alumni Weekend was the mere feather that toppled the tower of her frustration. When she left the office she taped, as usual, a neat list on the van key return slot indicating the destination of each van on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She placed the keys there and went home.
On Monday her boss updated her with all the catastrophes that happened over the weekend. The maddening thing was that the keys were brought back to the box late Friday afternoon, (the coaches swore it), but on Saturday one of the keys wasn’t there. Her boss was called at home, roused from the shower and had to come down to the office to dole out a duplicate. By then the team was late and fussing and generally out of sorts over the delay. Because of the slow start they didn’t warm up sufficiently when they arrived at their destination and as a result, they said later, lost a game they should have won easily.
She does not like to learn that her boss has been inconvenienced because of a matter concerning the keys, HER domain, but Mrs. Outerbridge has long made it a habit to not let the telephone dictate her life at home. A machine takes the messages and she determines when and whether to respond to them. By dusk she is usually enjoying a demulcent scotch and soda with her husband at the beginning of the inviolate dinner hour which often stretches from two to three hours, during which time calls are NEVER accepted.
The problem of injustice, though, continues to rankle. Someone is taking the keys without permission, and she has now devised a secret plan to find the audacious, irresponsible, selfish little s.o.b. who is so self-absorbed as to not give a hoot for the rights of others. Naturally she doesn’t use this kind of language, but she thinks it. Her plan is to lie in wait to gather evidence. She has already done it once before, hidden under the desk in the outer office at night, lurking in the dark, and has seen one person cavalierly take a key and walk out without skipping a beat. She knows he never took the time to read her careful instructions in red ink that say “Do not remove keys without proper authorization.”
It was the new young basketball coach Tommy Sullivan. She should have known it was him, winking at her playfully every afternoon as he bends to take one of her candies, forcing her to blush, melting her Episcopalian reserve with that wide, dimpled smile. He’d try anything, that one. She is not surprised that all the girls are crazy about him. It’s always that way. The beautiful people get everything without any effort, while the others slave away for the most meagre satisfaction.
The next day she does nothing. She needs to know if this is a random occurrence or if he does it regularly. She’s glad her husband nods off by nine o’clock and doesn’t miss her.
Mrs. Outerbridge has been staked out under the desk, her fine bones folded like an accordion in the kneehole, for three nights now since she first saw Tommy and hopes someone comes soon. Her slender legs are getting stiff and she can meditate only so long. Can’t risk reading even with a flashlight. This night she is getting discouraged and begins to wonder whether the solitary quest for the delinquent keys is worth the discomfort she feels in her arthritic joints. She begins to think maybe she should just get five duplicates for each van and give them out till they all get lost and duplicate them again. She laments that this laissez-faire attitude is not in her nature. Then she hears footsteps outside and the key in the lock. Tommy flicks on the light and, whistling jauntily, ambles to the box, takes a key, slips it into his pocket and turns to leave.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” She has just managed to stand though her thin bird legs are shaky from the cramped position she has held for the last hour. Her hair is askew, pale eyes narrowed from the shock of the fluorescent light overhead.
“Jesus!” Sullivan falls back a foot when he sees her disheveled appearance. He has never seen her in jeans before and what’s more, she’s wearing a sweatshirt that says Co-ed Naked Lacrosse, a leftover from one of her kids. He squints and thinks maybe the beer he had earlier has clouded his vision.
“Mrs. Outerbridge! Is that you? Holy Christ, you really scared me.”
She is not in a mood to be conversational. “Just where were you going with that key?”
He regains some composure. The corners of his mouth hint at a beguiling smile when she suddenly whips out the gun from her waist band, hidden till now by the hang of the large sweatshirt.
“Don’t try to sweet talk yourself out of this,” she says, her small aquiline nose held high. “I want to know what you’re doing with that key.”
“Well, cripes, I’m just going up to Dover with some guys for a beer. Are you nuts or something?”
His large blue eyes blank out in fear or anger, it’s hard to know which. His heavy lids drop slightly. There’s petulance in his voice. “What’s the big deal anyway?” He shrugs his shoulders in an act of supplication. “Put that thing down, will ya?”
“No, the big deal is that you think you can have it all.” She shakes the muzzle in the direction of his face, still keeping a safe distance. Her indicting voice pierces the eerie silence of the empty field house. “What makes you think you can come in here and TAKE what you want. And you’ve done it before! I’ve seen you!”
“What do you do, live in the locker room or something?” His handsome face is flushed and perspiring. “What do you want?”
“I want you to put that key back….NOW.”
He quickly throws it in the slot. “There, it’s done.”
“You know I should call security on this.” Arms akimbo but with a tight hold on the gun, she moves closer. “I’m not going to, but you listen to me, and listen hard.” Her voice drops to a menacing whisper. “If you ever come in here again to steal a key, I’m going to shoot your fucking balls off. Do you hear me?”
“Okay, okay.” He backs off, hands up, palms facing out in an air of surrender. “I swear, I’ll never do it again.”
She points the Luger toward the door with the authority of a general ordering a charge. “Get out!”
Driving home, Mrs. Outerbridge is quite satisfied with the success of the evening. Back at her house, her husband is still dozing in front of the TV and nobody had seen her coming or going. She is sure Tommy raced home as fast as he could and is at this very minute having a little nip to settle his nerves.
The next morning when she arrives at the office in her correct navy blue skirt, white crisp blouse and polished leather pumps, she smiles a cheery hello to her boss and unlocks her desk.
“Oh, Mrs. Outerbridge,” her boss inquires immediately as he walks in and sits down in the leather chair reserved for visitors in front of her desk.
“Yes.” She nods slightly toward him, eager to please.
“Were you by any chance here last night?”
“Here? Here in Rockleigh? Yes, we were in last night. We didn’t go anywhere.”
“No, I mean here in the office?”
“Oh!” she laughs. “No, whatever for?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Is there some problem you want to share with me?” She looks genuinely concerned.
He shakes his head. “It’s about this young Tommy Sullivan.”
“Oh, yes. The new basketball coach. Quite a charming fellow.” She smiles. “He seems to like the root beer barrels.” She points to the candy dish.
“Yes…well…something strange happened last night. He called me at home about ll:00 p.m. He was very disturbed. I think he’d been drinking.”
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. O strokes her chin thoughtfully.
“It seems quite silly, but he said that he came in to borrow a van key from the key slot and that you confronted him with a gun.”
Mrs. Outerbridge moves her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle, her eyes wide with surprise. “A gun?” She continues to laugh, “My, that really is funny. Can you imagine me with a gun?”
Her boss joins in the laughter, his round belly shaking, shoulders heaving. He raises his hand toward her, sputtering, “That’s not all. He said you were wearing jeans… and a sweat shirt that said…that said… Co-ed Naked Lacrosse on it.”
They roar companionably over the absurdity of this till they both tire themselves out and are left finally with nothing but the hum of the electric typewriter.
“Oh, dear!” she sighs, attending to a loose thread on her skirt.
“Well, back to work,” her boss teases as he gets up and heads for his office. At the door he stops as if a sudden thought has occurred. He turns back hesitantly. “Mrs. Outerbridge, have you ever by any remote chance used the ‘f’ word?”
She looks stricken, her mouth forming an ‘O’ of surprise. “Well,” she pauses a while, looking away. “I have to admit I was very angry at my son who was visiting last week and I said ‘For God’s Sake will you please pick up your clothes from the floor?’ Is that what you mean?” She looks at him imploringly. “I don’t think I should have to do that at his age.”
Having reassembled her pencils in the cup and smoothed the papers on her desk, she looks up again. “Nevertheless, I felt badly about it…losing my temper that way. He only comes home twice a year, you know?”
“I understand perfectly,” he says, a sympathetic smile gracing his loose pink jowl. As he turns to enter his office he adds, “Anyway, Sullivan’s on medical leave. I guess he has quite a little drinking problem. Could’ve fooled me. We just can’t have that around our young people.” He leaves shaking his head and heads for his desk.
“Of course not. How sad,” she speaks to the air as the phone rings. Picking up the receiver, she swings her chair around toward the window noting the keyboard is in order—all keys in and accounted for.
“Athletic Department,” she answers brightly.
Then, after an appropriate silence during which it can be imagined that the caller is requesting directions from such a remote spot as Peoria, Mrs. Madge Outerbridge assumes her finest school representative voice. Cheery. Helpful.
“It’s not really hard,” she starts in. “We’re just off route 95, Exit 14 A.”
About the author
Marge Dwyer is a long-time resident of Lawrenceville and has appeared in Kelsey Review before. She’s an accomplished fiction writer and works diligently at the craft.