Key to Happiness

by Karen Kinley

Sheri stepped into the foyer of her house, the front door making a muted click as she pulled it closed.

Well, that’s that, she said almost aloud. Thirty years of marriage dissolved with the swipe of a pen. Not that she really could call what they had a marriage. At least not for the last dozen years or so.

She dropped her keys in the crystal bowl on the entry table, a wedding gift all those years ago. But now her keys would sit alone in a spot that once overflowed. Not just Len’s keys, but the kids’ too. Each one, in turn, getting their driver’s licenses, their first cars. The jangling of keys in the bowl was a welcomed signal that they were home safely. Music to a mother’s ears. But now only her keys echoed into an empty house. The kids were grown and gone. Scattered all over the East Coast like autumn leaves.

The divorce was Len’s idea. Actually, the whole thing was so cliché. He had been fooling around with one of the associates in his firm for years, and now he wanted to marry her. Sheri felt bad for the girl, because she was barely older than their eldest daughter. Len wasn’t always what he seemed. But she’ll need to figure things out on her own, Sheri told herself, not without a little guilt.

Pumps clicking on the hardwood floor, Sheri crossed to the living room and let her eyes survey the space. Two easy chairs were gone, as were the end tables. A large rectangular shape was ghosted on the wall where the widescreen TV had been mounted. Len and his brother had come over this afternoon with a truck and took away half the furniture, per the divorce agreement. Sheri told him she didn’t care what he took. At least he left her the sofa and the coffee table. She could live with that for now. She noticed that he also took the bookcase, but left all her books stacked on the floor in the empty space. Asshole.

I wonder if I’ll even have a bed to sleep in tonight, Sheri wondered. But at the moment, she didn’t care. In the kitchen, she poured herself a large glass of cabernet and sat at the table. After a big swallow, she set down the glass and lowered her face into her hands. She could feel the tension in her shoulders slowly loosen its grip and waited for the tears which were sure to come.

Sheri wasn’t always this much of a pushover. Sometimes it made her angry to think about how much she let others dictate who she was. At 56 years old, she should have more to show for her life. She never finished college, never got that Fine Arts degree so she could become a writer. Len didn’t see the point, since he had just become partner and wanted to start a family right away. Sheri was only too happy to drop out and have his babies. She had married the tall, dark, and handsome man of her dreams, and he wanted to build a life with her. It was easy to fade into the background while he called the shots in their life together. He picked out this house, bought all their cars, and chose their vacations. If she ever disagreed, he let her know who was in charge. First with words, then in more forceful ways. After a while, Sheri just stopped speaking up.

The ringing phone jolted her from her thoughts. “Hello?” It was her sister, Donna.

“How about we go out for a drink or something to eat?” Donna’s voice was conciliatory.

“I’m way ahead of you,” Sheri said dryly and took another swallow of wine.

After several attempts to cajole her sister, Donna gave up and said, “So what’s next?”

Sheri sighed. “Oh, you know. Go back to college and become a famous neurosurgeon, lose 30 pounds, get some plastic surgery…oh, and win a Pulitzer.”

Donna laughed. “I see your sense of humor is intact.” A pause. “No, seriously. What’s next? Are you selling the house? Or at least changing the locks? Don’t let that bastard back in there.”

Sheri hadn’t really thought about those details yet. Even though the house was hers according to their agreement, she figured she would have to sell it. She certainly couldn’t afford to stay here. The mortgage was about the same as her paycheck.

“I don’t know just yet. I guess I have a few things to figure out.”

After promising to call her sister tomorrow, Sheri hung up and downed the last of her wine. Then she poured another and carried it from room to room, taking note of what Len took. No use worrying about refurnishing, she thought. She would have to sell this house. It’s too big for her, and she can’t afford to stay. But where will she go? She should feel excitement about her new beginning, all the possibilities of what her life could be, but somehow she couldn’t muster any. She received a modest settlement from the divorce, but it wasn’t enough to do anything drastic.

Eventually, Sheri retreated to her bedroom where she changed into some yoga pants, then reached into the closet for a sweater. At first, it startled her to see it half empty, since Len’s items were now gone. But then a small smile made its way onto her lips before she could stop it.

Just as she was about to slide the door closed, something caught her eye. Sitting askew on the top shelf was a large green plastic bin. Len must’ve pulled it out to inspect it and then just left it there. It took her a minute, but Sheri recognized it as hers. It must’ve been behind his stacks of shoeboxes all these years, hidden out of sight. She found a chair in one of the spare bedrooms and stood on it, carefully pulling the bin off the shelf and placing it on the floor.

When she opened it, her heart filled with a joy she hadn’t felt in a long time.

In it she found photographs and mementos of her life before she and Len were married. There was her fake ID so could go to the clubs with her friends, a spelling bee trophy from eighth grade, even her high school diploma. Lining the bottom of the bin was a stack of half-started manuscripts from her college days. Oh, she had dreamed of writing the Great American Novel for as long as she could remember. As she scanned the pages, she was surprised by the strength of the narrative. “I was pretty good,” she mused out loud.

Sheri turned her attention to the photographs. There weren’t too many from her childhood. She imagined that Donna commandeered most of them after our mother died. But there were photos of her high school days—all the pep rallies and school dances—as well as a bunch from college. There were photos of Sheri with her friends, of summers spent sunbathing on the beach and winters spent ice skating on the lake. Each photo made her smile even more than the last.

Then there was that fabulous trip she and her two best friends took to Key West, Florida. Sheri had fallen in love with the town: the activity of Duval Street, the delicious food, entertaining street shows, and gorgeous sunsets every night. She held up the photo and peered at it. Her own happy face, posed in front of the Ernest Hemingway House, stared back at her. She had so enjoyed touring that house, a stately French Colonial, even envisioned herself moving to Key West to become a writer just like Hemingway. Once, years ago, she had suggested to Len that they go there together, but he immediately shut it down, saying he didn’t like “all the gays” as he put it. Personally, she loved the diversity there. Be who you want to be. Good advice for her, if only she’d followed it.

Sitting on her bedroom floor with the evidence of a previous life scattered all around her, Sheri started imagining a new life, one in which her needs and her dreams came first. But just as quickly, those dreams dissipated, gone before they were fully formed. Sheri simply lacked the confidence she once felt about herself. It was there, years ago, but over time had been slowly drained out of her like a slow leak in a worn tire.

Leaning forward, Sheri gathered the photos and mementos together, scooped them up, and placed them reverently back in the bin. A photo slid free from the pile and landed on her lap. She picked it up and gazed at it. It was a picture of her grandmother, wearing a blue dress, her head thrown back in laughter. Her grandmother was the sweetest woman she had ever known and had passed away years ago. A memory tugged at the corner of Sheri’s mind. Something about a letter her grandmother had given her not long after she and Len were married.

Sheri stood and went into Len’s office, which was now empty except for a small filing cabinet that held copies of bills, mortgage information, and miscellaneous papers. She yanked open the bottom drawer and searched until she found what she was looking for: a pale pink envelope bearing the handwriting of her grandmother. The script on the front read: Open When You Are at Your Lowest.

At the time her grandmother gave her this, Sheri was deeply in love with her new husband and couldn’t imagine ever feeling unhappy. She filed the letter and promptly forgot about it. Until now.

Carrying the envelope to the kitchen, Sheri placed it on the table and just stared at it. Open When You Are at Your Lowest. Back then, Sheri wasn’t sure what to make of it. But now, with the hindsight of a failed marriage behind her, it seemed like the right time to open it.

She refilled her wine glass, then sat down. She pulled open the flap and turned the envelope upside down, letting an index card and small brass key slide onto the table. Odd. Sheri picked up the key, turning it over in her hand. There was a tiny “R5117” stamped on one side. The index card simply stated the name of a bank no longer in existence. That bank has changed names at least three times since Sheri and Len were married. I’ll have to look into it tomorrow, she thought, the wine finally taking effect and making her sleepy. She didn’t bother with dinner.

By the next morning, Sheri had pushed the letter out of her mind. She went to the dental office where she’d been working for the last 10 years or so, handling appointments and processing insurance claims. On her lunch break, she placed a few calls to realtors to inquire about putting the house on the market. After work, she needed to stop by her attorney’s office to pick up her copies of the divorce paperwork. When she finally got home, her daughter, Maya, was sitting on her front porch.

“Mom, are you okay?” Maya said before Sheri even got to the front step.

“Yes, of course I am,” Sheri replied, unlocking the door so they could both step inside. “Why?”

“I called you twice last night. No answer and you didn’t call me back.”

“Oh.” Somewhere in the back of Sheri’s mind, she remembered hearing the phone ring, but by then the wine had done its thing. “I’m sorry. I went to bed early and never checked messages this morning.”

“Alright. I’m just glad you’re okay. Yesterday couldn’t have been easy.” She didn’t wait for a response. “Anyway, I just wanted to check in on you. Make sure you’re eating and all that. I know how you get when you’re stressed.”

Sheri smiled at this. Her daughter knew her well. “Hey, while you’re here, take a look at this.” She picked up the pale pink envelope, careful not to reveal the writing on the front, and handed the key and index card to Maya. “What do you think this is?”

“It looks like a key to a safe deposit box. Where did you get this?”

Sheri waved her hand in a dismissive way. “Oh, I found it in the filing cabinet upstairs.”

“Well, you might want to check out what’s in it.” Maya turned toward the door. “I’ve gotta run, Mom, but promise me something, will you?” Sheri nodded. “Promise me you’ll do something soon that will make you happy. After this whole mess, you deserve to do something just for you.

Tears jumped to Sheri’s eyes, and she smiled at her daughter. “I promise.”

On her lunch break the next day, Sheri found herself in the lobby of a bank downtown that once was the bank listed on the index card. After providing identification and some other details listed on the card, she was escorted to the vault where the safe deposit box was opened. Inside was a slim envelope with her name on it and a thick manila envelope. She slipped both in her purse, left the bank, and headed to her car.

Once she was settled behind the wheel, she opened the slim envelope. It contained a letter. She unfolded it and began reading:

My dearest Sheri,

Please don’t share this with your sisters, but you were always my favorite granddaughter. You remind me so much of myself when I was young, full of love and hope, never doubting those around you. When you love someone, you trust them with your whole heart. This is a beautiful thing, but it can also be quite dangerous to your soul.

Sheri, I hope I am very, very wrong, and I apologize for not telling you this outright. Love often blinds us to things, and I am convinced you wouldn’t have listened to me at the time. But I see something in your new husband that scares me for you. Again, I could be wrong, but I see him as a man who will try to control you and suppress your spirit. I saw the same kind of character in my own father, and he nearly destroyed my mother. I don’t want that for you.

If you have found this letter, it means you are not in a good place in your life. I hope and pray that this money will help you in whatever way you need it. An escape, a safety net, or perhaps a new start. In any case, please remember me fondly and know that I love you from the bottom of my heart.

All my love,
Gran

Sheri replaced the letter, then opened the bulky manila envelope. When she reached in, she pulled out a bundle of bills. Hundred dollar bills, in fact. This one had a paper band wrapped around the stack that read “$10,000.” Sheri blinked, thinking she hadn’t seen correctly, but when she looked again, it still said $10,000. Then she realized there were more bundles in the large envelope. How many were here? Four? Five? Six? She didn’t dare dump out the contents right here in the car.

The heart in Sheri’s chest began thumping and spots swam before her eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was holding in her hands. Could this be real? How did her grandmother have this kind of foresight? And where did this money come from? She had never known her grandmother to be wealthy. She lived her entire adult life in the same rowhouse she and her grandfather bought when they married. After his death, she lived simply and quietly. Who knew she had this kind of money?

Suddenly aware of how exposed she was sitting in the parking lot, Sheri stuffed the envelopes back in her purse and drove away. Instead of going back to work, she drove home and locked herself inside. Upstairs in her bedroom with the drapes pulled closed, she sat on her bed and laid the bundles of $100 bills side-by-side on her comforter. She reread the letter twice, then counted the bundles.

She counted $100,000. It was just too much to fathom. What on earth am I going to do with all this cash? she thought.

Then something flashed in her mind. Just yesterday Maya had stood in this house and pleaded with her mother to do something for herself. In fact, made her promise to. Hadn’t Sheri wanted things for herself that never happened in all the years she’d been married? Hadn’t she had a plan for her life that changed when she met Len? Hadn’t she slid her dreams into a green bin and placed it on a high shelf in the closet? Yes, she had done all of those things.

But today she was going to do something different.

Sheri got up off the bed and went over to the green bin, still on the floor by the closet. She removed the lid and rummaged around inside. When she found what she was looking for, she moved back to the bed, placing the photograph on top of one of the cash bundles. It was the photo of herself standing in front of the impressive French Colonial-style home in Key West, her dream of becoming a writer glistening in her young eyes.

Before she could waste any more time, Sheri went to the attic, retrieved a large suitcase, and started filling it up. If she left for the airport right away, she might be able to catch the last flight to the Keys today. It was worth a try.

After all, she made a promise.

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