"Key Change" by Margot Douaihy
The first time we met, I was extremely turned on, but also really confused. That’s what happens when you meet a hot ghost.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” You walked through the fog. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like I’m a UFO.”
“You’re see-through,” I whispered, even though no one was around.
Your head bucked back in genuine shock. “I am?”
“I can see through you.”
“Not all the way.” You danced your hands in the air, like you were hammering a ragtime tune on a high piano. “See? A solid hand.”
Your right hand was normal, but your left hand was translucent.
“You’re a ghost,” I said.
“I’m tired. I need to rent a room.”
Even though you were half invisible, you looked good. How you were able to wear makeup, I’ll never know.
“Are you a human or a ghost?” I couldn’t believe the words I was verbalizing.
“This is a motel, right? Can I rent a room or what?
“Take your pick. You’re the only ghost…I mean, guest here.”
My title hasn’t changed since we met. I’m still the owner, housekeeper, bookkeeper, key cutter, landscaper, and everything-in-between at Hawk Motor Lodge, the oldest motel in Old Hawk, Massachusetts.
DD joked that Old Hawk is the Town Time Forgot.
But, really, Old Hawk is the Town Held Captive By Time.
DD’s a bastard—an assassin at the pool table, our most popular and only cool feature in the motel bar, besides cheap beer. The pool would be fun if it stayed full, but there’s an invisible crack somewhere. Water kept disappearing, so I emptied it. DD was one of the three regulars at the motel, along with earnest Stevie and sweetheart Gloria. I’d known them forever, DD, Gloria, and Stevie. They all lived in other hill towns, but they stayed over when they worked double-shifts at the prison. The prison and the asphalt plant were the only employers left in town after the Kodak factory closed.
It’s hard to believe you landed in Old Hawk, Massachusetts, when you could have dimension-hopped to any woods behind any motel in any city in any world. Or galaxy.
This town is all I’ve known, but I’ve always had my eye on the map. I was saving to move Nashville and sing Patsy Cline covers. I practiced Patsy’s songs so often, Gloria started calling me Cline in 10th grade. The nickname stuck.
I know. A New England girl obsessed with the south—you always laughed at that. I loved your laugh. Uncontainable and absolutely infectious from an otherwise measured lady ghost.
I liked to sing when I worked—still do—fishing rings out of bathroom sinks, making beds, smoothing pillowcases (crisp edge to crisp edge), cutting endless keys for the rooms. Every other guest managed to pocket their damn motel key. People find ways to carry the places they’ve been or people they’ve met. Are we always stealing pieces of one another?
Why am I recording these dumb tapes and hiding them in the pool drain? Where else would I keep them?
I’m testing my memory to figure it out. Me and you. That one exquisite fever dream of a year we spent together. The miraculous days you materialized—just one day a month. The other dark days you were invisible. After you left for good, I survived by working and singing—folding towels, mopping floors, cutting guest keys. The Mortise Lock shaved just enough to make each key fit.
We started meeting at 11:11pm on the eleventh day of every month in Room 11.
“I can still only see half of you.”
You shrugged. “Maybe you need to sing more.”
“Are you real?” I asked.
“Are you real?” Your eyes were caring, but they stirred with mischief and movement, so painfully alive, like ice floes.
“I think. Were you, like, murdered?”
You rolled your eyes. “How many times do I have to say it? I wasn’t murdered. I was—I am—very alive. I was working one night, in my world. It was storming. It went dark. Then I was awake in your world, behind your motel.”
“What kind of work?”
“I’m a horologist,” you said proudly.
“I make clocks and fix old clocks, like that one in your lobby.”
“Why?” I asked.
“What do you mean why?”
“Why clocks and not computers or cars or minds or whatever else needs fixing?”
You squinted. “You’re the only person I’ve ever known to ask that. I was married to someone for twenty years who never asked why?”
I didn’t want to talk any more about you being married. “What is time?” I asked airily.
“Sorry,” I clarified, “I meant, what is time?”
“A concept,” you replied. “But it can be measured.”
“No. Time is real.”
“Love is real,” I said.
“How do we know?” You gesticulated. “Love can’t be measured or weighed. It comes and goes. Time is constant.”
“Change is constant.”
“Maybe time is change,” you volleyed.
“But some things never change, like Old Hawk. Except when hot ghosts show up.”
“It’s time for beer,” you suggested.
No one else ever saw you at the motel.
Not Stevie, Gloria, nor DD. We were the Old Hawk kids who still hung out in the same motel rooms Aunt Ezza let us use as teenagers when we wanted to play poker and get wasted.
In high school, Stevie always concocted some stupid reason to bring me out to the woods, for a moment alone. He was handsome, but I didn’t think about him all that much, if ever. He didn’t make me crazy. Not how it was with you.
February gleamed with indigo snow light. We sat on the bed in Room 11, my legs wrapped around your waist. Save for your left ear, which was just an outline, you were fully materialized.
“How many lovers did you have…in your world?” I asked.
I held you tighter. “Have you always been with women?”
“Don’t sulk.” You kissed my left temple. “I’m with one now.”
“What’s your world like?”
“Like this world, but different.”
“What’s different about it?”
“You aren’t in it.” You kissed my right temple.
“We should move to Nashville together. I’ll sing Patsy Cline covers and you can run a clock shop. We will wear fancy dresses and be fancy.”
“We can’t move to Nashville. I’m only half here, most of the time.”
“Then fully materialize. What will it take? Electricity or clock power or—”
“I like your mouth.” You touched my lips.
“We could do it,” I pressed.
You blinked, disappearing for a second, like a black cat melting into dusk. “I don’t want to talk about this stuff.”
“Real stuff?” I asked.
A drop of rain crackled on the neon motel sign.
Hear that? Patsy Cline’s voice is so spellbinding it hurts. A Patsy Cline key change is like a trap door you want to fall through forever—the ecstasy of weightlessness when you’re driving fast and hit a bump or buckle in the road. A key change doesn’t swallow a song. It’s just one slide—a modulation from a major chord to a minor chord. But when a key change works, it becomes its own piece of art, a story within a story, like it’s the most important discovery in the world. It has to surprise you every time. I was trying to learn the trick of the key change, of the Patsy Cline key change, when I was practicing in the empty pool night every night. Maybe my voice chipped away at the door to your dimension; connected our pathways. Like me, Patsy Cline felt called. Patsy and me, we were both loners, seekers. We were both sickly kids too. Lots of fevers growing up. Auditory hallucinations. Delusions.
I ran to find you on August 11th, but you were gone.
You weren’t in Room 11 nor the motel lobby nor the empty pool.
I never saw you again.
You left me a note on the diving board, I Love You, written in clock pieces and old keys.
It’s been twenty years since our one year together. Am I the ghost now? My hands look normal, but I can’t be sure.
Stevie moved into the motel. He’s the manager of the asphalt plant. We don’t talk about Nashville. He plays his guitar, and sometimes I sing. It’s nice, this life. Safe. But mostly I lay in the empty pool and make these tapes for you and sing, waiting for the sound to sink to the bottom, simmer, and unlock the door to your dimension. If I close my eyes and bring both hands up in the air, I swear I can feel your breath through my fingers, like a key that can unlock everything.
Margot Douaihy, PhD, is the author of Girls Like You and Scranton Lace (Clemson University Press). Her work has been featured in Adirondack Review, Colorado Review, The Indianapolis Review, The Florida Review, North American Review, PBS NewsHour, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Portland Review, The South Carolina Review, The Wisconsin Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She serves as editor of Northern New England Review and is a member of the Radius of Arab-American Writers. Twitter: @MargotDouaihy