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Three Keys

A Novel

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Newly widowed and unemployed, a woman in her mid-fifties sets off on a journey of trespassing and adventure through the American West and beyond in this witty, thought-provoking novel from the PEN USA Award–winning writer.

“Filled with award-winner Pritchett’s electric prose and love of the natural world, this book is irresistible.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Days of Wonder

Becoming invisible is painful . . . unless you know how to work it.

Ammalie Brinks has just lost the three keys of her life’s purpose—her husband, her job, and her role as a mom, after her son went off to college. She’s also mystified to find herself in middle age: How exactly had that happened? The terrifying idea of becoming irrelevant, invisible, of letting her life slip away Into obscurity, has her driving distracted through Nebraska with a broken plastic fork in her tangled hair.

But what Ammalie has found are three literal keys, saved in a drawer for years, from her and her husband’s past. They are the keys to homes that she hopes will be empty—and plans on spending time in. Embarking on an international and increasingly complicated journey (criminal behavior turns out to be challenging!), she seeks to find a life truly her own. And that middle-age business? As someone breaking the law, Ammalie finds there's a real benefit to being invisible when you’re working on becoming the striking, bold, and very much manifested self you want to be.

Laura Pritchett, winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Colorado Book Award, offers a delightful exploration of the very serious business of living a full and honest life. Filled with love, heartbreak, and misdemeanors, Three Keys tackles the unavoidable sorrows and joys experienced during a second coming of age with the zest and vigor that it deserves.

Chapter 1

How quickly she’d become animal. How fast feral had descended. The upkeep of the body seemed beyond her—hair tangled, teeth filmy, a real need to shower. It was absurd how fast a foggy lonely had descended too. How, exactly, was she to occupy herself for the next three months, not to mention the rest of her empty, empty life?

Ammalie ate a pear with one hand, her driving hand, and combed her hair with the fingers of the other as she drove past the dried grass outside Cheyenne. Empty, empty, empty. She jerked her fingers through graying tangles—dry as the grass outside—which she’d done for most of the entire circuitous drive from Chicago. Finger-combing was simply not the same as with a brush, which she had forgotten to pack, and then subsequently forgot to buy on each of her stops. She’d had the seemingly brilliant idea to grab an extra plastic fork from the cafe in Chadron, Nebraska, but it broke nearly immediately after trying to use it in her unruly hair somewhere right on the Wyoming-Nebraska border in a town called Ditch Creek, which was as absurd as the fork. Was it a ditch or was it a creek? How could its status be so poorly defined?

She was acting kind of crazy and she knew it. Self-awareness was not reserved for the highly educated white-collars of the world, though she suspected they thought otherwise. Anyone with half a plastic fork tangled in her hair should get some help. Anyone who’d left her humble-but-comfortable home in a rush in order not to lose momentum or let reason seep in, and anyone who likely hadn’t brushed her hair fully in a week or a month before that, well, that person was. not. well.

She didn’t care. She could care less. She could care less than caring because she’d hit rock bottom, end of a rope, the place where maxims or axioms—or whatever one called phrases about phrases—no longer applied because the world no longer made sense. Bits of sweetly-worded wisdoms simply did not apply to chaos. Last night, prone in her sleeping bag in her car, she’d listened to a podcast about people who’d experienced a recent breakup or death of a partner, and how they had reduced executive functioning. She snort-laughed at the truth of that. Yes, her neural and behavioral changes were wildly evident. No MRI images needed here. Husband dead, son launched, job she liked gone, a world running amok, a planet lurching through space and being mistreated all the way.

Without a doubt, her brain was not working right. But the real mystery was: How did others continue to pierce the fog with clear and focused thoughts? And why couldn’t she be one of them?

She spit the half-chewed pear pieces into a plastic cup containing the remains of sunflower seed shells. The pear was underripe, it was going to give her a stomachache, she should listen to nature. Then she reached for her water bottle, and, in doing so, spilled the pear bits and sunflower seed shells all over her cupholder and floorboard and her mail, which is when she acknowledged once again how very wide was the gap between the goal of “Be Interesting!” and the “Being Interesting Is F***ing Difficult!” truth.

It was a chasm, really.

She blamed it on the people who made videos on van-living and strong-women-solo-traveling. She blamed it on Frances McDormand. How delightful it would be to put them in jail for misleading the public. Living on the road was not as easy as it looked, and she ticked off the missing essentials in her mind:

The frequent need for a pair of scissors, tape, fingernail clippers.

The frequent need to pee.

Ice to keep food cold.

Heat source to keep feet warm.

Something to do during long dark hours.

Room to move around, to stretch legs, to bend at the waist. She was not born a hunchback, after all, and she felt a pang of sorrow for those who were, and then felt a zing of shame, since she should be grateful for a straight spine that required bending when living in the back of a car.

Oh, and yes. And someone beside you. So that when you saw sunlit sandstone cliffs and mammoth bones and heard wind whistling through caves, as she’d done in South Dakota, there would be someone to ooh and aah with, which made the oohing and aahing comfortable and fulfilling instead of stab-your-heart-out depressing.

These were essential things.

She scratched at her scalp and dandruff swirled in the air, caught by the sun. Disgusting. This air was dry, no joke. Perhaps her scalp was emitting the particles of fog in her consciousness, an indication of her unclear thinking and the reduced activation of network areas of her brain. Her whole head, inside and out, was a dry-hot mess. What she needed was a brush, soap, and water, which is when it would get better. She would get better. Life would clarify. Make sense.

Soon. Maybe tonight. Tonight, she’d be turning a key to the rest of her life.

Denver was an unsurprising hell—no one, not even a nutcase such as herself, delighted in the trauma of speeding, merging, honking traffic. She felt like she was in a flock of berserk geese, all of them nearly flying into one another in a moment of panic. But soon after, she was on the exit that took her into the mountains, and then, yes, it was like freaking angels singing. Early October, the aspens bright yellow, lit up by a fall-tilted sun that was playing hide-and-seek with storm clouds.

She pulled up to a rest stop with a sign that read KENOSHA PASS, parked in the gravel pullout, and sat, dazed. Beautiful, truly beautiful; now we’re talking. This is where calendar photos were born. Golden leaves, green pines, blue peaks, buttery sunlight slants. She closed her eyes and rested, heard herself make a gurgling sound as she fell into a brief moment of sleep. This was a new skill set of middle age that kept surprising her—a lifelong insomniac who could now zonk out in a car. It was a brief moment, though, and when she opened her eyes, she was surprised to discover that the sky and weather had undergone some kind of seasonal surgery. Now it was blustery, the sun hidden, and there was a hint of spitting snow.

She let out a dramatic sigh—she had noticed her new penchant for those too—and gave up on her daydream of a sandwich in a sunny splotch on a fallen tree. Instead, she stayed in the car and ate and read the Colorado sign’s details, something about South Park Ranching and Kake’s Charcoal Kilns, which she knew nothing about, did not care about, and never wanted to care about, though she had the vague notion she should. If she had been with Vincent, he would have found a way of cajoling her into caring, if only because he cared, which she would have found annoying but maybe simultaneously endearing.

The parking area was crowded—mostly with people in their twenties or thirties and unaware they were in the best years of their lives, brazenly heading into the mountains despite the dandruff-like snow—the planet having the same dry-scalp problem she did, apparently. Something about these hikers’ tenacity both annoyed and endeared them to her, and she took inspiration from their bravado and sighed and got out to pee, which was her version of living it up bravely, she supposed. There was no Porta Potti or outhouse, so she crouched between the two car doors, even though someone might see her bare ass briefly as they whizzed by on the road. Arrest her, already.

She had become an animal. This lunacy could put her in jail. Jail! She should think this trip through a little better. Mari kept telling her so with an increased pitch and vigor in her voice, and Mari was right, and Mari didn’t even know the whole truth. The trip was dangerous on several levels. Dangerous because she couldn’t think too far in advance—Just one key at a time, she kept saying. Dangerous because Powell or Apricot might come looking for her and see what a mess she was. Dangerous because she was about to break into a house, dangerous because she knew she was flipping out—and that worst of all, she was flipping out for the first time in her life, which meant she had no experience in how to handle it.

She considered the tangle of keys dangling and clanking on their key ring, turned the one that started her car, then turned it back off and did the drama-sigh. “Learn to live a little, push yourself a little, eh?” she said, and forced herself out, bundling up with hat and mittens and scarf, muttering a scattering of cusswords about the cold, the curses somehow feeling deeply satisfying and absolutely necessary.

She was asked immediately to take a young couple’s photo with a JUST MARRIED sign soaped on their window—first some shots with the mountains behind, and then some that included the parking lot, because the two women were trying to fit in the sign that said 9,999 FEET, which they clearly found amusing, giggling and falling into one another with laughter, something about one foot shy of five digits, and she had to relent and smile at how in-love people found nearly anything amusing. Plus, she suspected they were high, the pot shops being plentiful in this state, maybe the 9,999 kind of high. Very high. She might be a bland-white-bread-middle-age-invisible woman, but she wasn’t stupid. She started humming a Billy Joel lyric, “She’s been living in her white-bread world,” as she tried for several angles in an effort to cut out the cars, including her own dirty beast, since they made the photo ugly, although youngsters these days could probably just fuzz out the ugly of any photo, a skill set she had not yet cared to embrace and would die without embracing.
“Laura Pritchett gives us an unforgettable portrait of a woman—every woman—who has lived a life for others and needs to start living for herself. Recently widowed Ammalie isn’t entirely sure how she feels about her late husband and so sets off to find him in the places he most loved. Fancying herself a fugitive, not deserving of society, she finds instead a world full of grace and compassion—for herself, her journey, and for all who grieve. This is a beautiful, funny, meditative novel that will bring you to tears with its optimism.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of California Golden and The Swans of Fifth Avenue

“In her mid-fifties, everything about Ammalie’s life changes. She knew the empty nest was coming, but the loss of her job and her husband’s sudden death are brutal, unexpected blows. Reeling, she sets off on a trip she doesn’t quite know how to define. Is it a quest or an escape? A crime spree or a hero’s journey? Pritchett has written a beautiful, age-defying story about discovering your inextricable connection to the whole wide world. This is a book to hold close not only while you read, but as you march into your own battles against the joys and terrors of a life in constant motion.”—Nina de Gramont, author of The Christie Affair

“How could I not adore a book featuring a strong, feisty, fifty-something woman, who despite being widowed, unemployed, and empty-nested, goes out on the road to break into three very different homes she just happens to have the keys to? Audacious and inspiring, Three Keys isn’t just about breaking in, it’s about breaking out, of finding the person you were meant to be all along, despite anyone else’s expectations or insistence that you be invisible. Filled with award-winner Pritchett’s electric prose and love of the natural world, this book is irresistible.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Days of Wonder

“You wouldn’t expect a book about grief, fear, and climate anxiety to be un-put-down-able, and yet: I read the final third in one sitting, eager to follow Ammalie’s adventures to the end.”—Blythe Roberson, author of America the Beautiful?: One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled

“Newly-widowed Ammalie’s road-trip hijinks are a reader’s delight, but underneath them is a journey toward self-discovery as genuine and imperfect as the protagonist herself. Laura Pritchett brings grief and hope together in this hilarious, heartfelt story of one woman’s solo journey through her past, present, and future.”—Shelby Van Pelt, New York Times bestselling author of Remarkably Bright Creatures

“Engaging . . . thought-provoking and insightful . . . a satisfying examination of one woman’s journey of self-discovery.”Kirkus Reviews
© Leslie Reeves
Laura Pritchett is the author of seven novels and two books of nonfiction. Her work is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by her upbringing in Colorado. Both her fiction and nonfiction often focus on issues of ecology, conservation, climate change, and social justice. She has been awarded the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the High Plains Literary Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Colorado Book Award, the WILLA Fiction Award, and shortlisted for many others. She is the editor of three anthologies, all on environmental topics, and writes regularly for magazines. View titles by Laura Pritchett

About

Newly widowed and unemployed, a woman in her mid-fifties sets off on a journey of trespassing and adventure through the American West and beyond in this witty, thought-provoking novel from the PEN USA Award–winning writer.

“Filled with award-winner Pritchett’s electric prose and love of the natural world, this book is irresistible.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Days of Wonder

Becoming invisible is painful . . . unless you know how to work it.

Ammalie Brinks has just lost the three keys of her life’s purpose—her husband, her job, and her role as a mom, after her son went off to college. She’s also mystified to find herself in middle age: How exactly had that happened? The terrifying idea of becoming irrelevant, invisible, of letting her life slip away Into obscurity, has her driving distracted through Nebraska with a broken plastic fork in her tangled hair.

But what Ammalie has found are three literal keys, saved in a drawer for years, from her and her husband’s past. They are the keys to homes that she hopes will be empty—and plans on spending time in. Embarking on an international and increasingly complicated journey (criminal behavior turns out to be challenging!), she seeks to find a life truly her own. And that middle-age business? As someone breaking the law, Ammalie finds there's a real benefit to being invisible when you’re working on becoming the striking, bold, and very much manifested self you want to be.

Laura Pritchett, winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Colorado Book Award, offers a delightful exploration of the very serious business of living a full and honest life. Filled with love, heartbreak, and misdemeanors, Three Keys tackles the unavoidable sorrows and joys experienced during a second coming of age with the zest and vigor that it deserves.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

How quickly she’d become animal. How fast feral had descended. The upkeep of the body seemed beyond her—hair tangled, teeth filmy, a real need to shower. It was absurd how fast a foggy lonely had descended too. How, exactly, was she to occupy herself for the next three months, not to mention the rest of her empty, empty life?

Ammalie ate a pear with one hand, her driving hand, and combed her hair with the fingers of the other as she drove past the dried grass outside Cheyenne. Empty, empty, empty. She jerked her fingers through graying tangles—dry as the grass outside—which she’d done for most of the entire circuitous drive from Chicago. Finger-combing was simply not the same as with a brush, which she had forgotten to pack, and then subsequently forgot to buy on each of her stops. She’d had the seemingly brilliant idea to grab an extra plastic fork from the cafe in Chadron, Nebraska, but it broke nearly immediately after trying to use it in her unruly hair somewhere right on the Wyoming-Nebraska border in a town called Ditch Creek, which was as absurd as the fork. Was it a ditch or was it a creek? How could its status be so poorly defined?

She was acting kind of crazy and she knew it. Self-awareness was not reserved for the highly educated white-collars of the world, though she suspected they thought otherwise. Anyone with half a plastic fork tangled in her hair should get some help. Anyone who’d left her humble-but-comfortable home in a rush in order not to lose momentum or let reason seep in, and anyone who likely hadn’t brushed her hair fully in a week or a month before that, well, that person was. not. well.

She didn’t care. She could care less. She could care less than caring because she’d hit rock bottom, end of a rope, the place where maxims or axioms—or whatever one called phrases about phrases—no longer applied because the world no longer made sense. Bits of sweetly-worded wisdoms simply did not apply to chaos. Last night, prone in her sleeping bag in her car, she’d listened to a podcast about people who’d experienced a recent breakup or death of a partner, and how they had reduced executive functioning. She snort-laughed at the truth of that. Yes, her neural and behavioral changes were wildly evident. No MRI images needed here. Husband dead, son launched, job she liked gone, a world running amok, a planet lurching through space and being mistreated all the way.

Without a doubt, her brain was not working right. But the real mystery was: How did others continue to pierce the fog with clear and focused thoughts? And why couldn’t she be one of them?

She spit the half-chewed pear pieces into a plastic cup containing the remains of sunflower seed shells. The pear was underripe, it was going to give her a stomachache, she should listen to nature. Then she reached for her water bottle, and, in doing so, spilled the pear bits and sunflower seed shells all over her cupholder and floorboard and her mail, which is when she acknowledged once again how very wide was the gap between the goal of “Be Interesting!” and the “Being Interesting Is F***ing Difficult!” truth.

It was a chasm, really.

She blamed it on the people who made videos on van-living and strong-women-solo-traveling. She blamed it on Frances McDormand. How delightful it would be to put them in jail for misleading the public. Living on the road was not as easy as it looked, and she ticked off the missing essentials in her mind:

The frequent need for a pair of scissors, tape, fingernail clippers.

The frequent need to pee.

Ice to keep food cold.

Heat source to keep feet warm.

Something to do during long dark hours.

Room to move around, to stretch legs, to bend at the waist. She was not born a hunchback, after all, and she felt a pang of sorrow for those who were, and then felt a zing of shame, since she should be grateful for a straight spine that required bending when living in the back of a car.

Oh, and yes. And someone beside you. So that when you saw sunlit sandstone cliffs and mammoth bones and heard wind whistling through caves, as she’d done in South Dakota, there would be someone to ooh and aah with, which made the oohing and aahing comfortable and fulfilling instead of stab-your-heart-out depressing.

These were essential things.

She scratched at her scalp and dandruff swirled in the air, caught by the sun. Disgusting. This air was dry, no joke. Perhaps her scalp was emitting the particles of fog in her consciousness, an indication of her unclear thinking and the reduced activation of network areas of her brain. Her whole head, inside and out, was a dry-hot mess. What she needed was a brush, soap, and water, which is when it would get better. She would get better. Life would clarify. Make sense.

Soon. Maybe tonight. Tonight, she’d be turning a key to the rest of her life.

Denver was an unsurprising hell—no one, not even a nutcase such as herself, delighted in the trauma of speeding, merging, honking traffic. She felt like she was in a flock of berserk geese, all of them nearly flying into one another in a moment of panic. But soon after, she was on the exit that took her into the mountains, and then, yes, it was like freaking angels singing. Early October, the aspens bright yellow, lit up by a fall-tilted sun that was playing hide-and-seek with storm clouds.

She pulled up to a rest stop with a sign that read KENOSHA PASS, parked in the gravel pullout, and sat, dazed. Beautiful, truly beautiful; now we’re talking. This is where calendar photos were born. Golden leaves, green pines, blue peaks, buttery sunlight slants. She closed her eyes and rested, heard herself make a gurgling sound as she fell into a brief moment of sleep. This was a new skill set of middle age that kept surprising her—a lifelong insomniac who could now zonk out in a car. It was a brief moment, though, and when she opened her eyes, she was surprised to discover that the sky and weather had undergone some kind of seasonal surgery. Now it was blustery, the sun hidden, and there was a hint of spitting snow.

She let out a dramatic sigh—she had noticed her new penchant for those too—and gave up on her daydream of a sandwich in a sunny splotch on a fallen tree. Instead, she stayed in the car and ate and read the Colorado sign’s details, something about South Park Ranching and Kake’s Charcoal Kilns, which she knew nothing about, did not care about, and never wanted to care about, though she had the vague notion she should. If she had been with Vincent, he would have found a way of cajoling her into caring, if only because he cared, which she would have found annoying but maybe simultaneously endearing.

The parking area was crowded—mostly with people in their twenties or thirties and unaware they were in the best years of their lives, brazenly heading into the mountains despite the dandruff-like snow—the planet having the same dry-scalp problem she did, apparently. Something about these hikers’ tenacity both annoyed and endeared them to her, and she took inspiration from their bravado and sighed and got out to pee, which was her version of living it up bravely, she supposed. There was no Porta Potti or outhouse, so she crouched between the two car doors, even though someone might see her bare ass briefly as they whizzed by on the road. Arrest her, already.

She had become an animal. This lunacy could put her in jail. Jail! She should think this trip through a little better. Mari kept telling her so with an increased pitch and vigor in her voice, and Mari was right, and Mari didn’t even know the whole truth. The trip was dangerous on several levels. Dangerous because she couldn’t think too far in advance—Just one key at a time, she kept saying. Dangerous because Powell or Apricot might come looking for her and see what a mess she was. Dangerous because she was about to break into a house, dangerous because she knew she was flipping out—and that worst of all, she was flipping out for the first time in her life, which meant she had no experience in how to handle it.

She considered the tangle of keys dangling and clanking on their key ring, turned the one that started her car, then turned it back off and did the drama-sigh. “Learn to live a little, push yourself a little, eh?” she said, and forced herself out, bundling up with hat and mittens and scarf, muttering a scattering of cusswords about the cold, the curses somehow feeling deeply satisfying and absolutely necessary.

She was asked immediately to take a young couple’s photo with a JUST MARRIED sign soaped on their window—first some shots with the mountains behind, and then some that included the parking lot, because the two women were trying to fit in the sign that said 9,999 FEET, which they clearly found amusing, giggling and falling into one another with laughter, something about one foot shy of five digits, and she had to relent and smile at how in-love people found nearly anything amusing. Plus, she suspected they were high, the pot shops being plentiful in this state, maybe the 9,999 kind of high. Very high. She might be a bland-white-bread-middle-age-invisible woman, but she wasn’t stupid. She started humming a Billy Joel lyric, “She’s been living in her white-bread world,” as she tried for several angles in an effort to cut out the cars, including her own dirty beast, since they made the photo ugly, although youngsters these days could probably just fuzz out the ugly of any photo, a skill set she had not yet cared to embrace and would die without embracing.

Reviews

“Laura Pritchett gives us an unforgettable portrait of a woman—every woman—who has lived a life for others and needs to start living for herself. Recently widowed Ammalie isn’t entirely sure how she feels about her late husband and so sets off to find him in the places he most loved. Fancying herself a fugitive, not deserving of society, she finds instead a world full of grace and compassion—for herself, her journey, and for all who grieve. This is a beautiful, funny, meditative novel that will bring you to tears with its optimism.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of California Golden and The Swans of Fifth Avenue

“In her mid-fifties, everything about Ammalie’s life changes. She knew the empty nest was coming, but the loss of her job and her husband’s sudden death are brutal, unexpected blows. Reeling, she sets off on a trip she doesn’t quite know how to define. Is it a quest or an escape? A crime spree or a hero’s journey? Pritchett has written a beautiful, age-defying story about discovering your inextricable connection to the whole wide world. This is a book to hold close not only while you read, but as you march into your own battles against the joys and terrors of a life in constant motion.”—Nina de Gramont, author of The Christie Affair

“How could I not adore a book featuring a strong, feisty, fifty-something woman, who despite being widowed, unemployed, and empty-nested, goes out on the road to break into three very different homes she just happens to have the keys to? Audacious and inspiring, Three Keys isn’t just about breaking in, it’s about breaking out, of finding the person you were meant to be all along, despite anyone else’s expectations or insistence that you be invisible. Filled with award-winner Pritchett’s electric prose and love of the natural world, this book is irresistible.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Days of Wonder

“You wouldn’t expect a book about grief, fear, and climate anxiety to be un-put-down-able, and yet: I read the final third in one sitting, eager to follow Ammalie’s adventures to the end.”—Blythe Roberson, author of America the Beautiful?: One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled

“Newly-widowed Ammalie’s road-trip hijinks are a reader’s delight, but underneath them is a journey toward self-discovery as genuine and imperfect as the protagonist herself. Laura Pritchett brings grief and hope together in this hilarious, heartfelt story of one woman’s solo journey through her past, present, and future.”—Shelby Van Pelt, New York Times bestselling author of Remarkably Bright Creatures

“Engaging . . . thought-provoking and insightful . . . a satisfying examination of one woman’s journey of self-discovery.”Kirkus Reviews

Author

© Leslie Reeves
Laura Pritchett is the author of seven novels and two books of nonfiction. Her work is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by her upbringing in Colorado. Both her fiction and nonfiction often focus on issues of ecology, conservation, climate change, and social justice. She has been awarded the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the High Plains Literary Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Colorado Book Award, the WILLA Fiction Award, and shortlisted for many others. She is the editor of three anthologies, all on environmental topics, and writes regularly for magazines. View titles by Laura Pritchett