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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘Key to the City’

July 31, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 3, 2022 at 5:46 p.m.

By Stephanie Oakes

‘Congratulations,” the letter reads. “According to our records, you have accomplished the rare feat of living in every neighborhood in Spokane. For your efforts, the City of Spokane has awarded you a key to the city.”

I tip the envelope, and into my palm falls a small brass key imprinted with a crest, bevels of waterfalls stamped into the metal.

I squint at it. Whoever heard of an award for living in every neighborhood in Spokane?

It must be true, I suppose. I’ve lived all over. There was the neat white postage stamp in Hillyard, with the raised beds Julia grew tomatoes in one summer. The third-floor apartment in West Central, the turreted torso of the courthouse and the shadowy bulk of the jail elbowing for prominence on the horizon. I housesat a bungalow on Manito Boulevard, and in college, couch-crashed in a tiny smoke-stained apartment in Browne’s Addition, woke after a party to a large orange tabby cat I’d never met purring like a small engine on my chest.

The last place I lived was in a room in Peaceful Valley. We walked daily to the baseball field where marmots sunned themselves in the grass. Every day, I tried to approach but they scampered away, fat furred backsides lumbering unhurriedly across the lawn. There was always one who fled last. I’d reach toward her, her depthless black eyes taking in my fingers, as though considering what it would be like to be touched. But every time, she ran. It was her instinct.

“What makes you try to touch wild animals?” Julia asked me. “Have you heard of rabies?”

“It’s not just me,” I said. “Every Spokanite secretly wants to pet a marmot.”

Julia shook her head in mock disapproval. “We grew up with too many stories of anthropomorphized animals,” she said. “Free Willy. Babe. Milo and Otis.”

“Please don’t talk about Milo and Otis,” I said, raising a hand. “I’ve never recovered.”

Julia smiled, so radiant, I became paralyzed for the briefest moment, the slick container of my heart holding its breath. “Which part?” she taunted. “When the cat floats away in the wooden box?”

“You’d better not,” I said, pulling on a beltloop of her jeans.

“Or what?” she breathed.

I blink away the memory and recall the letter in my hand. The official-sounding script says the key will open any door in Spokane. “Even a door without a key. Even a door that’s not really a door. But the moment you use it, the key will cease to be. Use it well, and celebrate the accomplishment only a rare few Spokanites can claim.” I scoff. As though it’s some achievement, this nomad streak.

I’ve lived in so many neighborhoods mostly because of Julia, our 20s and 30s sprawled across the hills and valleys of Spokane. The brick duplex on Garland, and the ‘80s McMansion in Indian Trail, vinyl siding peeling off like a bad sunburn. We spent the longest in a clapboard shed-turned-rental in Hangman Valley with a front yard drunk with the smell of rotting pears. Julia and I had an argument in that yard one summer day, the air superheated and full of wasps drifting lazy as cottonwood. It was an embarrassing argument, the kind that feels pointless and unnecessarily theatrical the moment it’s over. In a fit of anger, I’d picked a pear from the tree and threw it to the ground. Too late to see the wasp. A second later, the electric throb of a sting.

Julia tried unsuccessfully to muffle a laugh. “That’ll teach you to throw pears.” And then she placed her lips precisely on the oblong welt on my finger, reverberating still with the wasp’s leftover anger.

I looked into her eyes. “Do you want to move in with me?”

Many times, Julia and I had come close to signing a lease together, unpacking both of our signatures onto a line printed from the landlord’s Inkjet. We were practically living together already. This was the smallest formality. But she’d look at that line, the word lessees, and her eyes would flare. Every time, she ran. It was her instinct.

So, I moved alone into a rambling Victorian on the lower South Hill, cut like an elaborate cake into wedges of apartments, and avoided the front veranda that’d been commandeered by a ferocious, wandering patrol of neighborhood cats. And the trailer in the south Valley, the home one long hallway telescoping to a window with a view of new construction slowly eating through swathes of grassland. And every time, after some months, Julia returned. Determined to try again. To outpace her instincts. To stay.

I stuff the letter and key into my back pocket and walk inside. Probably a scam, I decide.

I’ve lived in this house just over a year, a pinkish-beige rectangle on a tidy street in Garden Springs, where the houses all look the same, memories of some long-ago military dream of conformity. For the first time, I’ve unpacked all my boxes. I’m content here. Mostly. A year ago, I told Julia that this was the last house I’d live in, and she was not welcome. I threw the words like I’d thrown that pear. Impulsively. Regrettably.

A month later, I found out the way we do now, on the bright rectangle of my phone. I saw her face on my feed, sandwiched between a video of a resilient rescue tortoise and an article about the virus: A fundraiser for funeral costs. My brain made slow sense of it. And then, all at once, the knowledge detonated in my mind. I bent over at the waist, like they tell you to do on planes if you’re feeling unwell. Even standing, I’m still there, head inches from the ground.

“City of Spokane, how may I direct your call?” a clipped voice answers on the first ring.

“I’ve just received this letter – ” I begin.

“Your key to the city?” the receptionist asks. “I assure you it’s perfectly legitimate. We got them as part of a recent reshuffling. New jurisdictional powers … all in the bylaws.”

I clear my throat. “But why have I received it?”

“I assume you’ve performed a selfless act of bravery?”

“Not that I’m aware.”

“Are you famous in some way?” she asks. “Do you own a celebrity pet with a large Instagram following?”

“No,” I say. “The letter said it’s because I’ve lived in every neighborhood.”

“Ah, that’s a rare one,” the receptionist says. I can almost hear her reclining in her seat. “Well, the only real rule is that you can’t use your key as a mechanism for crime. No robbing jewelry stores or anything.”

“I don’t even know what door I’d open.”

“There’s nowhere you’ve always wanted to go?” she asks. “The roof of the Washington Water Power building? Or backstage at the Fox? Inside the Clocktower?”

“I don’t know,” I say, shrugging.

“Well, your key works exactly as explained in your letter. It can open any door, to any place or time within the city limits. Have a nice day.”

The line goes dead.

I hold the phone, blinking. Any place, she said. Any place, or time.

I needle the brass key between my fingers, grass cushioning my feet as I stride into the outfield. The baseball field is deserted, even of marmots. I glance around, hoping nobody’s here to witness my swift plummet into madness.

“Here goes nothing.”

I place the key into the air before me, lock-height, and turn. I clench my eyes shut, picturing an invisible door opening.

Nothing happens. The air doesn’t shift. The sun doesn’t fast-motion rotate in the sky. I’m exactly where I was, alone in a baseball field in Peaceful Valley, still with a hole in my heart the shape of Julia. I let out a sigh. Maybe I’ll try again, I tell myself. I have always wanted to see inside the Clocktower.

It’s then that I see her. Shining eyes, observing me from the shadowy fringe of the outfield. That marmot. The one that always ran away last.

I take several tentative steps toward her and reach out my hand. She regards it, as she always did, and I imagine her weighing her choice. To run or to stay. And for the first time, I see that, all along, I had a choice, too. To cultivate patience or to abandon this dance of pursuit and retreat. I always rushed. Approached too quickly. Didn’t allow her the time she needed to decide for herself.

I stay this time, longer than I ever did before. Wait patiently, arm extended, watch her creep forward, almost imperceptibly, a cell at a time, until she’s an inch away.

She regards me with the black marbles of her eyes and leans into my fingers. The furry bulk of her feels course and soft at the same time.

Only now do I realize that my other hand – the one holding the key – is empty. The key has vanished.

“We grew up with too many stories of anthropomorphized animals.”

A pricking like needles marches up my spine. Her voice sounds too alive to be a memory. I turn. Julia stands behind me, not three feet away. I assemble the pieces of her: the Shadle Park softball shirt that I loaned her, the strap of one sandal attached to the sole by only a few sinews of leather – the sandals she threw away after that summer. She looks exactly as she had those years ago.

“Free Willy,” she lists. “Babe. Milo and Otis.”

I can only stare at her. A spray of flyaway hair has escaped her ponytail, forming a kind of illuminated halo in the backlight of the sun.

“Hon?” she asks, squinting. “Are you OK?”

“Don’t talk about Milo and Otis,” I say, quickly, an actor who’s late with their lines. “I’ve never recovered.”

“Which part?” she taunts. “When the cat floats away in the wooden box?”

I stand, taking her in, the glow of her skin, the slight chap of her lips, the perfect aliveness of her. “You’d better not,” I say.

Her mouth hitches into a smile. “Or what?”

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