The boy was born with fingers shaped like keys. All except one, the pinkie on the right hand, had sharp ridges running along the inner length and a flat circle at the knuckle. They were made of flesh, with nerves and pores, but of a tougher texture, more hardened and specific. As a child the boy had a difficult time learning to hold a pen and use scissors, but he was resilient and figured out his own method fast enough. His true task was to find the nine doors.
Door one he found as a kid; it was his front-door key. He did not expect this because it seemed so obvious but one day he came home from school and was locked out; his mother, usually home, had just begun taking some kind of sculpture class and was off molding clay and forgot to leave a key under the welcome mat. So he was unwelcome, in his own home. He cried for a bit and tromped on some pansies as revenge and got so frustrated staring at the lock, such a simple piece of metal separating him from his palace of food and bed and TV and telephone, that he stuck the index finger of his right hand inside. It shoved deep into the lock, bumping around, ridges trying to find a perfect spatial match. Nothing clicked. But he’d enjoyed the sensation so he tried the middle finger next. Too big. The pinkie on the left hand: too small; it wiggled inside like a wire. It was the ring finger on his right hand that slipped inside smooth as can be, easy as a glove, ridges filling the humps, and the boy settled it deep, rotated his entire hand, heard a click and the door opened cleanly. He was inside. He ripped his finger from the door and let out some kind of vicious, delighted laugh.
When his mother came home, two hours later, hands red with clay, he pulled her straight to the door and showed her the trick. Shove in, turn, click, open. He did it ten times because it felt so good. His mother kept laughing. And I didn’t even want to buy this house! she said, holding him close. And to imagine what if we hadn’t? The boy shrugged. He had no idea how to answer that question.
The second key fit the lock of the bank deposit box that held all the securities of the family. The two had gone on a trip to the bank and the boy was bored in the room of security boxes while his mother spoke worriedly with an accountant. He stuck the pinkie on his left hand into their security box and ta da: it opened. He was very surprised. So was his mother. I didn’t like this bank either, she said. I considered the one closer to home but this one was bigger, she said. Can I have some of this money? the boy asked, looking with interest at the large piece of gold sitting in the box like a glowing turd. No, she said, but I’ll buy you a burger. They went out to his favorite burger joint, where the lettuce was shredded, and sat together and she told him about how she was making a clay version of him. It’s you, she said, but you are surrounded by doors. You are standing on doors and wearing doors and your hand of keys is held up like a deck of cards. The boy splayed his fingers out on the table. Gin, he said.
The third, fourth and fifth keys opened his camp trunk, the neighbor’s car and the storage room of the school cafeteria, respectively. He opened the cafeteria door one day at school when he was wandering around, not wanting to go home yet because there was nothing to do and no one to be with. All the other kids were off playing sports. The boy opened the back of the cafeteria with his right pointer, to his almost dulled surprise that day, and sat with the frozen chicken nuggets for awhile. It got boring quickly so he went home, opened the door with his other finger and watched TV.
His father was away at war. No one knew what war it was because it was an unannounced war, which made it worse because he could tell no one because that would cause great governmental problems. So he just held on to that information and when his friends asked where his dad was on Open House Night at school, he said: He’s away on business. He wanted to yell out: The business of saving everyone’s life! but he knew that would cause further questions so he kept his mouth shut.
His mother brought home the clay sculpture. It was about two feet tall and looked very little like him, and the doors resembled flying walls. One day when he was home alone and she wasn’t back yet, having enrolled in another course, this one called How to Make Glass, he threw some baseballs at the sculpture but the clay held strong. The boy was twelve now. His hands were growing, but his fingers still fit the same locks. Somehow they stayed the size they needed to be, while the rest of the hand—palm, knuckles, wrists—grew with him.
The sixth and seventh keys fit doors in France. His mother and he went to Paris to visit his father, who was on leave from the mysterious war, and together the three of them had lunch at a café with iron lamppoles nearby and ate crusty bread and red ripe tomatoes. His father looked older and stronger than ever, with big arms and a ruddy tan, and the boy stood next to him and wanted to push all his keys at once into the man’s palm, to click and turn his father open, to make him tell what was happening. Secrets. His father and mother shared a room in the hotel and the boy had the room next door, with a strange-smelling comforter and a weird phone that had numbers in different configurations.
He learned how to say Où est la porte? which means “Where is the door?” and the porter at the hotel, after ignoring the question for the first five times, finally showed him a door, standing alone, on the lobby level of the hotel, hoping to shut the boy up. Using the middle finger on his left hand, boom, the boy opened it to reveal just a closet, empty, with a few clothes hanging up and several swinging hangers. The porter babbled in amazement, Mais qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?! and took one of the hanging shirts straight away to the maître d’ at the restaurant who had been bemoaning the loss of it for over a year, and the boy said, to no one: I suppose I’m just going to sit here, and he went inside the closet and sat down. The porter, when he returned, was worried about the boy, so solemn! and brought him a glass of wine and a piece of apple. The boy ate the apple and drank the wine and fell asleep. When his mother found him, she hugged him for a long time and he showed her how his hand was international.
At the Louvre, the boy felt the pointer finger on his left hand itch after looking at Mona Lisa under glass. He found the docent room the way a hound finds blood, and played gin rummy with a pooped guide whose earrings were little diamond stars. His father was off doing business that day. When they returned to the hotel, the mother angry at the boy because he’d vanished, they found the father weary on the bed, looking worried, his ruddy tan fading like a bright couch left in the sun for fifty years.