The Hidden Keys

André Alexis

October 20, 2016 
The following is from André Alexis’s novel, The Hidden Keys. André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His most recent novel, Fifteen Dogs, won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Book Award. His other books include Pastoral, Asylum, Beauty and Sadness, Ingrid & the Wolf, among others.

Tancred Palmieri was sitting in the Green Dolphin thinking about how best to dispose of a black diamond he’d stolen from a house on the Bridle Path. He was twenty-five years old and he’d been a thief from the age of eleven, but this was the first time he’d had difficulty deciding what to do with a stone. It was as if the diamond had a personality.

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Tancred was a tall and physically imposing black man, but he was also approachable. He could not sit anywhere for long without someone starting a conversation. This was, his friends liked to say, because his blue eyes were startling and his voice deep and avuncular. So, when he wanted to be alone without necessarily being alone, Tancred answered in French – his maternal tongue – when spoken to by strangers. Few who came into the Dolphin knew the language. But Willow Azarian did, and she took the fact that Tancred spoke it as a portent. They would be friends. She knew it and, touching his arm, she blithely began to tell him about her family.

Tancred interrupted her. In French, he said

-You know, I’m not really one for family.

In French, Willow answered

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-What have you got against them?

-I just don’t like them, said Tancred.

Willow nodded in sympathy and patted his leg. Then she carried on from where she’d left off, speaking about her family as if its story were something Tancred had to know. Willow was in her fifties, more than twice his age. As he was chivalrous by nature, he listened to her, skeptical but polite.

To be fair, there were a number of things that made Willow’s story implausible. To begin with, she was a junkie. Tancred himself had seen her, either high or strung out, stumbling around Parkdale like an outpatient from Queen Street Mental.

Then there was what she told him. Though they were meeting for the first time, Willow expatiated on her family’s wealth. The Azarians – about whom Tancred had heard – owned property all over the world. Her father had been brilliant, generous, wonderful! He had always treated her – his youngest – as if she were a princess. She had millions, thanks to him. A fortune. Enough to last a hundred years.

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-Of course, he didn’t leave as much as he could have, she said.

It all sounded to Tancred like the daydreams of an orphan.

Then, too, there was her appearance. Willow was thin and pale. She was in her fifties but his impression was of someone older. Her hair was greying. There were crow’s feet at her eyes and her lips were those of a smoker, puckering when she spoke. Her clothes were out of style: a green-and-white floral dress with padded shoulders, a felt hat with wilted green plumes curling around to the side, a white sweater and clunky black shoes. It was not a getup you’d associate with wealth.

Finally, there was the place itself. Why would a rich woman hang around the Dolphin? Tancred came to the Dolphin in the afternoons to think things through, to stand at the bar and withdraw. At night, the Dolphin was a different story: noisy, filled with regulars or stragglers or cops. He went then to be with people he knew – thieves, dealers, users and prostitutes. Seeking company, he would stand at the bar and talk to whoever was there. One night, for instance, he spoke to a Salvadoran refugee whose family had been wiped out by death squads. On another night, not long after, he’d listened to a Salvadoran refugee who’d been a member of a death squad. Neither had looked like victim or executioner.

Though he did not often drink alcohol, Tancred had been going to the Dolphin since he was eighteen. In all that time, he could not remember meeting anyone posh. The place was too rough for it. Even Willow’s dealer – ‘Nigger’ Colby by name, though he was albino – preferred to drink across the street, at Jimmy’s. As far as Tancred knew, the most common reason for strangers to choose the Dolphin was the price of beer: it was twenty-five cents cheaper there than it was anywhere else. But Willow did not drink beer. She drank vodka and orange juice, and it seemed to Tancred that if she had really been wealthy, she’d have frequented better places, junkie or not.

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Then again, who could tell about the rich? In ’03 or ’04, there’d been a politician caught trawling for prostitutes on Queen Street, not three blocks west of the Dolphin. In those days, the most unfortunate women worked Queen between Lansdowne and Triller. The wealthy men who came around looking for sex must have been attracted to something in Parkdale: the lawless, the sordid, the unlikeliness of being recognized. For all Tancred knew, the streetwalkers’ desperation was itself what turned these men on. It may have been something similar that brought Willow.

He found her difficult to credit, but she was also amusing and surprisingly sympathetic. He listened to her for an hour, listened until she spoke again about her father and then faltered and then stopped.

-I’m sorry, he said, but I’ve got to go. It was nice to meet you.

-You speak English, said Willow.

-Yes, said Tancred, but I prefer French.

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-So do I, she said, but Japanese is my favourite.

She held up a hand, limp-wristed. Unsure what he was meant to do, he held it. He felt faintly ridiculous, but that was part of what made the encounter memorable.

* * * *

Their second meeting was more memorable still.

One night, Tancred was at Close and Queen, walking home. Behind him, toward Parkdale Collegiate, he heard a cry. Turning, he saw three young men pulling at a woman. His adrenalin immediately spiked. He walked toward them. The woman called for help, as two of the men tried to keep her quiet.

The third and most imposing came forward. Tancred calmly said the first thing that came to his mind

-Are you guys holding?

before running at him, catching the man by surprise, punching him (accidentally) in the throat and then (somewhat purposely) in the face. The man growled and hit out but lost his balance, ending up on his hands and knees. Tancred kicked him, very hard – not in the ribs (where he was aiming) but only in the arse. The man swore and tried to get up but, as he did, Tancred kicked him (accidentally but with a physically pleasing thuck) in the face, breaking his nose.

The man stayed down, loudly cursing and holding his face.

Thirty seconds of close-quarter chaos that might have gone either way. But Tancred was fortunate. Fortunate, not only because he was unhurt (though his foot had hit the man’s arse at a bad angle and would later swell slightly from the sprain) but also because the other two, seeing their friend incapacitated, backed away, forgetting about the woman – Willow Azarian! – as they prepared for Tancred’s onslaught.

It was an onslaught that never came. It seemed to Tancred that a beating would have done them good – high school students, they looked like, five or six years younger than he was, thin as whippets. It would have given him pleasure to hurt them, but instead he helped Willow up and led her past the one who was groaning and complaining as he tried to stand up.

They reached Dunn, a block away, when Willow stopped. She could not go on. She stood shaking, her hat almost falling off.

-We should keep going, said Tancred. Where do you live?

It was a while before she could answer. Tancred waited, looking warily west to where they’d left her assailants and east at all the lights along Queen Street, the city stretching from the small desolation of Parkdale to the tall buildings and illuminations in the distance.

-I can’t go home, Willow said.

What she meant was that she did not want to be alone, and Tancred understood. The problem was, he knew nothing reliable about her and nothing about what had happened. What had the three men been after? Were they after her still? Who could he trust to take care of her? All he knew for certain was the reality of the human being beside him: thin, a foot or so shorter than he was, her lipstick smudged so that it looked like a reddish cloud on her cheek, streaks of grey in her bottle-blond hair. Seeing her like this, by street light, it added up only to distress and need.

-I don’t live far, he said. We can wait at my place while you decide what to do.

They made their way to King Street, then past old apartment buildings, rooming houses, big homes and corner stores to Temple, where Tancred rented an apartment. A fifteen-minute walk during which neither of them spoke.

There was a moment, as they climbed the stairs to his place, when Tancred questioned the wisdom of what he was doing. He allowed few strangers into his home. It was his sanctuary. He took pains to keep it as he wished it to be: four rooms (living room, bedroom, small kitchen, bathroom), white walls with ocean-blue trim. There was little furniture. He had a bed from iKea, a table with four chairs, a blue sofa his mother had insisted on buying for him, above which hung a painting she had made for his home: a portrait of the goddess Oshun in the shade of a tall tree, the goddess – breasts bared – wearing a bright yellow skirt and an ankle bracelet, the whole scene set under a cloudless blue sky. He had lived in this apartment since moving out of his mother’s home on St. Clarens. Though he could have afforded something bigger in a better neighbourhood, it had never occurred to him to move, the simplicity and warmth of his rooms being a tonic to the complications of his life.

On the landing, Tancred looked back at Willow, forlorn as she stood on the step, her hand on the banister shaking, blood on her knuckles. What was this person to him? Nothing, really, but that she needed help. He opened his door for her.

He made her tea, after helping to clean the blood and dirt from her hands, knees, elbows and cheek – the places scraped when she’d fallen. Her clothes – flimsy-looking – had not torn, despite being pulled about. Somewhere between Dunn and his apartment, she had lost her hat. Two or three of the hairpins she’d used to keep her hair tucked in dangled like clots.

Willow was in shock. The only words she managed – insistently repeated – were

-I won’t forget your kindness.

Somewhere around two in the morning, after they’d spent hours quietly speaking of personal things, her words of gratitude gently met by his assurances that he’d been pleased to help, he asked if she wanted to sleep.

-I think I should, she answered.

So, Tancred gave up his bed and slept on the sofa.

He came to think of this as a second first encounter with Willow. This time, his impression was of a woman in distress. But there was more to it than that. As she recovered from the indignity she’d suffered, there were also moments when he sensed strength in her, a resolve. These were unusual things to sense in an older, frail junkie, but they struck Tancred the way the integrity of her clothes had: flimsy-looking was not always flimsy. The glimpses he had of her resolve and determination were what interested him most. He was not moved by weakness, though he felt bound by vulnerability.

This was a precept Tancred had taken from his closest friend, Daniel Mandelshtam, one of two friends he’d had since his childhood in Alexandra Park. As Daniel put it, weakness was a habit, one that led to a kind of contented incapacity. It made no sense to help the weak, because that was what people called ‘enabling.’ But as to the vulnerable – there was a different story. Anyone might, given the circumstances, find themselves in above their heads. And it was dishonourable, Daniel thought, to let such people sink. Tancred had agreed. But the distinction was neither clear nor absolute to the young men since, as Daniel said, the weak, too, could be vulnerable. A further twist: Daniel was now a policeman, paid to protect the weak and the vulnerable indiscriminately.

Early the following morning, Willow emerged from his room and thanked him. She would not hear of his accompanying her. She was not afraid of the boys who’d attacked her. It had all been a misunderstanding, she said, an accident for which she blamed herself. She’d spoken of her wealth to the wrong people, that’s all. Tancred was not to worry about her safety. She would be grateful if he forgot the night they’d just passed. It was too humiliating for words.

Which was not to say she would forget what he’d done. How could she? He’d proven her right. They were destined to be close, and she never questioned destiny, whatever else she might dispute.

* * * *

A long time passed before Tancred saw Willow Azarian again. Almost three full years. Nor was the time insignificant. His mother died.

Clémentine Fassinou, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer on a bright day in June, her soul leaving earth from her apartment on St. Clarens. She had been suffering for months, and her dark, African face had grown meagre and grey. Before she died, Tancred, her only child, had wished for her release from discomfort and exhaustion. After her death, he was contrite that he’d wished such a thing, though he had wished it out of love.

Then again, he and his mother had always had a complex relationship. From his childhood, they’d been as much friends as they’d been mother and son. This was just as well, because Clémentine had been a somewhat inattentive mother – unavoidably inattentive. Over the years, she had taken on any number of low-paying or temporary jobs to support them. And when she came home, exhausted from a day’s – or night’s – work, it was he who comforted her – keeping the house clean, preparing her meals once he was old enough to do so, washing the dishes. It was a role he had liked, one that he had jealously guarded against the occasional intrusion from men who stayed over from time to time before disappearing from their lives.

As it happened, his mother’s absence brought great good to Tancred’s childhood. When he and Clémentine lived in government housing near Alexandra Park, Tancred spent most of his time at the home of the Mandelshtams, who lived on Denison, and the Mallays, who lived around the corner on Carr. Baruch Mandelshtam, Daniel’s father, had been like a father to Tancred as well. Daniel and Tancred, both born of African mothers, looked like siblings. The Mallays’ son, Olivier – pale as winter – was almost as close to him as Daniel. The three boys had been inseparable from kindergarten until the end of high school, and they were close still.

Tancred had long forgiven his mother for any supposed damage his childhood had done to him. But it seemed that she hadn’t entirely forgiven herself, that she blamed herself for his way of life. Before she died, Clémentine had made him promise to read the Bible in her memory. Tancred had agreed, because it would not have been possible to refuse her anything as she lay dying. And although he was not much of a reader, reading mostly to please others, it was an easy promise to keep. His mother had asked Daniel and Olivier, who’d been on death watch with him, to help her son change his life. A more difficult proposition. Daniel had said he would, when Tancred was ready to change. But Ollie said that he would not.

-I wouldn’t know how to do that, he said.

Ollie being Ollie, he could not have answered otherwise.

But Clémentine had asked in earnest. She’d wanted to believe, before dying, that her son would find the right path. And Tancred had been hurt, not because his mother wished him to live a better life but, rather, because she knew he was living a life in the shadows. That she knew this, moreover, had been his fault. He had decided, at nineteen, to be honest with her, whatever the consequences. So, when she’d asked him where he got his money, he had defiantly admitted that he stole things for a living. At her death, he cringed at the brashness of it. She’d loathed thievery. He had put her in the position of having to choose, day after day, between her conscience and her son. That she had steadfastly chosen her son was no credit to him, and he knew it.

After his mother’s death, it was as if Parkdale had turned away from him, all the familiar places seeming drab and pointless. This was not the worst of his bereavement, but it was unexpected. The worst was the feeling of irreality, like living in a state just before waking. Parkdale had been home to him since he’d moved there at eighteen, his first home as an adult. It was unbearable to feel as if he were suddenly estranged from the world.

For a while, nothing mattered to him. He went on as he had, stealing what was wanted by those who paid him to steal. But something was working its way out. He had become strange to himself as well and he began to question his way of life and his motives. Ironically, this was also the time when he most needed his skill – the planning, the cold carrying out, the algebra of thieving. It seemed to be the only thing to distract him from grief.

For three years following his mother’s death, Tancred did not see Willow at all. The idea that they were destined to be close faded to grey, along with any number of assumptions and ideas that had preceded the death of his mother.

* * * *

And then Willow walked back into his life.

It was a Sunday and it had rained. Tancred was wet and cold as he sat in one of the half-booths at the Skyline: orange leatherette seats on both sides of a white laminate tabletop. Sunday was now the day he spent alone. He would wake at seven, eat eggs and brown toast at the diner, return home, read from the King James Bible, make plans for the week to come, clear his mind and go to sleep early.

By now, he’d spent Sundays this way for years, and even some who knew him assumed there was a religious tinge to his discipline. But there was not. What there was was devotion to his mother. For the hour or so it took for him to read twenty pages, Tancred felt her presence. Or at least he thought of her. His reading of the Bible did not lead him to God or prayer or worship. It did not lead him to a new life. Though it was no doubt less than what his mother had hoped for, he simply grew more and more familiar with what was, for him, a mostly tiresome but sometimes entertaining repository of catalogues, tales and poetry.

He had ordered his eggs and toast, when Willow came in off the street. She saw him and, speaking to the waiter, asked that her coffee be brought to Tancred’s table. She was neither spaced out nor flagrantly high. She was thinner than she had been, however, and she wore more makeup. She greeted him, took off her raincoat and sat down.

-I’ve been looking for you, said Willow. Freud Luxemberg told me you come here on Sundays. And Nigger told me you’re a thief. Is that true?

-Why do you want to know? asked Tancred.

-You think I’m a foolish old woman, said Willow. And I am. I know it. But I’m more than that, Tancred. If you’ll listen to me, I have a proposition. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll do the talking. But first, I want you to know how I ended up here.

-Where? asked Tancred. The Skyline?

-No, no, said Willow. Here. In this life.

She began to rummage in a purse that was black, cumbersome and capacious, with a clip that looked like two brass moths meeting, their entangled antennae keeping the purse closed.

-My name is Willow Azarian, she said. My family is well-known.

-You told me all this, said Tancred, when we met.

-Yes, she said, and you may have got the impression that I worship money and status. But I don’t. I just wanted you to know who I am.

She took a bank statement from her purse and said

-This is from my expense account.

She pushed the statement to his side of the table. Tancred looked at it. Yes, it belonged to ‘Willow Azarian.’ Willow reached across and put her finger beside a number at the bottom of the page. For a moment, looking down, Tancred assumed he was mistaken about the figure he saw there:


-It’s only my mad money, said Willow. I have much more.

-Why are you showing me this? asked Tancred.

-I want your help, she answered.

Her eyes were blue, not big or round, but set off by her thick eyebrows. Her face was pleasantly oval, her lips thin but expressive. Her ancestry would have been difficult to guess. Her clothes, on the other hand, suggested ideas of elegance whose time had long passed. She was wearing a black dress with padded shoulders, the dress’s collar cascading from one shoulder like three dark ripples and coming to a point on the other.

Willow was out of place in Parkdale. It would have been difficult to say where she’d have fit in. But she was not weak.

-What can I do for you? he asked.



From The Hidden Keys. Used with permission of Coach House. Copyright © 2016 by André Alexis.

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