The year of my late father’s eightieth birthday he left his small hometown in England to visit me. Each day while I was at work, he would walk my huge mixed-breed dog to the nearby park. Unaccustomed to city living, he often forgot to lock the back door and take his key.
Our nearest neighbors, just a whisper away, were a rough bunch: two young men who beat their mother and sometimes left her in the street to come hobbling to my door for help. She never had her sons arrested, so their presence was always a threat. I had not told my father about these young men, yet I reminded him daily to lock the doors when he went to the park. One evening when I arrived home, my normally quiet father was quivering with excitement.
“I locked myself out today,” he said. “I had no money, no telephone number to call, and I was tired and thirsty. So was the dog.”
“How did you get in?” I asked.
“Oh, those two nice young men from next door came over to help me,” he exclaimed, “and they were able to open the door in a flash.”
St. Louis, Missouri
Once, for a whole school year, I was in love with Bob Landers. I was in love with his ears and his long, pale neck and his maroon and creamy beige V-neck sweaters. I was in love with the way the fabric of his pants curved tight around his wallet in his back pocket. We never spoke. I’m sure he didn’t know my name. But, oh, the nights Bob Landers and I shared.
I conspired. I lied. I said I had homework to finish, headaches, cramps, anything so my family would all go out and leave me alone in the house. After I heard the last crunch of gravel in the driveway, watched the headlights circle up Park Avenue, after I checked the front door lock twice, even drew the deadbolt, I’d go upstairs, pull down the shades, Clearasil my pimples, comb my hair, and put on my Lady Mist pink lipstick. I’d turn off all the lights except the one on my dressing table and open my blouse to the waist. I’d just look first, to see how my breasts filled out my cotton brassiere, spiral stitches shaping them into cones.
Then, eager as a bride, I opened my bedroom door and pressed my bony pelvis against its narrow edge. I turned side to side so my almost bare breasts would touch it. I kissed that edge hard, very hard, lips puckered. I clutched at the doorknobs with both sweaty hands. I knew what it would feel like, Bob Landers’s body hard like this against the length of mine. I bent my knees, slid the door tight between my thighs, squeezed.
Afterward, the door was a door again. I was careful and never forgot to wipe away my lip prints with toilet paper. I imagined Bob Landers’s lips smeared with my Lady Mist pink. I saw myself wiping them clean with the folded handkerchief he pressed into my hand.
In the morning, in homeroom, I sat behind him, two seats back, one row over to his right. Nearly forty years have passed and I remember the dark hairs on the nape of his neck and the feel of his lips better than I remember his face.
Ann Bender Mattingley
Before lock-in for the evening inmate count, he would come out to the block office and talk to me, tell me about his past and why he was here. He told me that his mother was dying of cancer in a nursing home in Lewiston. “She was mean to me,” he said. “She’d let my sisters get away with murder and spank me for things I didn’t do. She made me quit school, get a job, and give her the money. One night when I came home late, she had locked the door and wouldn’t let me in. She locked me out!”
“So she wasn’t a very good mother,” I said. “Maybe you weren’t a very good kid. We can’t really know what burdens other people carry, but we sometimes have an opportunity to rise above ourselves and act nobly. I’ll get an outside line, call the nursing home in Lewiston, and let you talk to your mother. You can tell her you forgive her. Tell her you love her.”
He thought for a long while. “No,” he said. “No, I couldn’t do that.”
When I was a kid, all of the rooms in my house had two doors, which connected each room to two others or to the outside. My single-doored bedroom was the exception; Dad had built it on to the back of the dining room just before I was born.
One day, during one of my father’s drunken rages, on his shuffling circuit through the house, he found the door between the bathroom and my sister’s bedroom locked. I suspect that my sister had locked it, though we never talked about it afterward. She knew she couldn’t keep him out of her room, but she needed to try, even in this one, small, shortsighted way.
It took him some time to figure out why the door wouldn’t open. From my hiding place, perched on the railing between my bed and the wall, the familiar pain cutting into my right knee and elbow, I could hear the stream of curses. (The navy had taught my father how to curse “like a sailor” and drink “like a man.”) I heard him pound on the door for quite a while before giving up.
Then I heard him dragging his bad leg as he shambled through the house — “Ca-lunk! Step, sliiiide. Ca-lunk! Step, sliiiide” — the whole time muttering paranoid versions of who had done what and why and how he was going to set them straight. I was surprised to hear him go through the kitchen and out the back door. I slipped out from my hiding place and cautiously peeked through the gap beneath a timidly raised Venetian blind. He stumbled his way across the back yard to the garage.
It seemed like a long time before he reemerged, dragging an ax behind him. I crawled back to my hiding place, straightened out the covers and pulled the pillow back to hide my head. His cursing was louder now. He repeatedly bellowed a clear warning that nobody should try to stop him. He was carrying an ax and yelling at an unarmed woman and two children.
He never asked for the key. He did not want to open the door. He wanted to punish the door. He chopped it into slivers.
The next day, when he was sober, he replaced the door. To my recollection, the new door was never locked.
I have a big, half-built house in a remote rural area of Oregon. For several years while I was away in New York City, the woman who stayed here insisted that things were disappearing — my things and her things. During one of my visits she asked me to put locks on the doors. I explained that the place was so secluded that if thieves really wanted anything they could break in anyway, though I’d never heard of this happening. No one I knew in this area had ever had a door that would lock.
Still, she wanted that feeling of security, so I relented. Two doors, two keys. Two different ways to lock yourself out and have to crawl in through the windows, as far as I was concerned. But the woman seemed content, and for years she kept extra keys in the yard: in the crook of a cherry tree, under a flowerpot, by the ax in the woodpile, magnetized onto the fender of her car, at the bottom of the cat’s water bowl.
When she moved away and I moved back, I realized that a lot of my things had disappeared with her, and I felt newly chagrined at having put locks in. I got rid of all the keys but one, which I kept under the water bowl.
A few days later, after dark, a huge thunderstorm rolled in from the east. For hours the clouds rushed by in luminescent gray clots, with mounting tension. I’d just gone to bed when the storm finally broke. The crashing drama had me peering out the windows, wondering, What if somebody tried to get in the house while this was going on? I wouldn’t hear a thing.
I was downstairs in an instant, locking doors, locking out an electrical storm and my memories of senseless urban violence. Back upstairs, I fell asleep wondering what it was that the woman before me had been locking out.
Almost eleven years have passed since my adopted brother, in an alcoholic rage, attacked my mother and tore apart the house. We don’t even bother to lock up our cars in these parts, but each night since then, for the past eleven years, she has taken the time to lock the front door, windows, and sliding glass doors all along the back of the house, which faces a magnificent blue bay.
I’m housesitting for a month, and each night — remembering her serious instruction, her hand passing me keys — I too bolt the doors, front and back. I remember how she had to sweep up the glass, wipe the blood — his blood — off the walls and paintings. Sometimes I’ll still see a dark, beet red spot, and it breaks my heart that I’ll never again consider that blood to be the same as mine.
I was a shy child, and when I was twelve I spent most of my time in a fantasy world filled with horses. I read hundreds of books in the Black Stallion genre, featuring beautiful animals with flowing manes and tails, liquid eyes, willing dispositions, and great physical power entirely at the disposal of their young masters. These were entirely unlike the real horses I rode, cantankerous, uncooperative beasts whose physical power was principally used in efforts to drag me back into the barn, where they hoped to shake off their saddles and eat themselves into colic.
My mother felt that I read too much and branded me “antisocial,” so for privacy I’d lock myself in the bathroom — the only room in our house with a lock on the door — and imagine myself on a mighty stallion, dazzling a stadium full of people in races or in open jumping exhibitions. I played all the parts, including horse, rider, and audience, and would indulge myself by snorting, blowing, and panting. I’d whisper, “Come on, boy! Come on!” and cry out, “Yes! Yes! Do it! Bring him on home,” emitting great sighs of satisfaction as horse and rider cleared a particularly challenging obstacle.
My mother took to stationing herself outside the bathroom door, pleading with me to come out, but I stayed barricaded in the bathroom with my equine fantasies. In despair, she took to discussing my behavior with my father and the neighbors, who counseled that I would probably grow out of it. Several years later, I realized my mother thought I had been masturbating, and I was so mortified that I didn’t speak to her for weeks.
As a youth, I abhorred strange toilets, so I learned to control my bowel movements for many hours. My greatest achievement came one summer at Boy Scout camp. For a full week I never once sat on the coarse, wood outhouse seat. In fact, my disgust was so great that not once did I really feel the need to go.
At the end of the week, as I was being driven home by my friend’s parents, the urge came. By the time we reached my driveway, the pressure was insistent. The release would surely be ecstatic.
My house, which my friends referred to as Fort Knox because of all the chains, bolts, and locks, was, of course, locked. As my friend’s parents drove away, I futilely searched my gear for the keys I didn’t have.
My mind raced. After holding it for a whole week rather than use a strange toilet, to break down and use a neighbor’s toilet or to go outside seemed unthinkable. Ready to burst, I scanned the house for a way in. Despite Mom’s paranoia, a small cellar window had been left open a crack. Within minutes I squeezed through the narrow opening and hopped to the floor. Moments later I reached the bathroom. Then I couldn’t help laughing — at the ease with which I broke into our supposedly impenetrable house and at my greatest triumph over a bodily function.
On a windy March night in a Los Angeles suburb, I was walking home with a friend down Hawthorne Boulevard, passing shops locked up tight behind iron bars. Suddenly, in front of a darkened insurance office, I heard a faint whimpering and tapping. We peered through the glass and were shocked to meet the terrified, dark-eyed stare of a little girl curled up near the window, crying for help.
“Are you alright?” I asked. “Can you get out?” We tried the doors. Locked tight. She was no more than five, scared and alone, locked inside a dark office. Teresa ran across the street to a bar to call the police. I put my hand on the glass by the girl’s face and told her not to worry. She put her hand by mine.
Teresa came back and we waited about forty minutes until a patrol car arrived. We began explaining about the little girl when a silver Mercedes pulled up. A man and woman got out of the car. They were dressed in expensive evening clothes. The man looked furious and asked what was going on. We told him a little girl was locked inside. He told us to shut up and mind our own business. Then he told the police that everything was fine, that they had left her only a few minutes ago after forgetting something at home. We suggested it was probably more like a few hours, since we had waited close to an hour after making the call. To my surprise the police officers seemed satisfied and left. The man glared at us and asked if we didn’t have anything better to do. The woman never said a word and followed him into the office. He turned, closing the door, and told us to go to hell.
When I was four years old my parents began locking me in my bedroom, apparently as punishment. They installed a latch and eye high up on the outside of my door, and at least once a week they would shove me into my room with screams and slaps. Then I’d hear a rattling, scraping sound, and I could no longer open the door, though I could turn the knob. I’d scream and cry and kick the door and beat on it until my fists grew red and sore. I felt frustrated, angry, and totally powerless. Many nights, I would sob and scream myself into an exhausted sleep. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom so badly I ended up wetting my pants or the bed. I usually received spankings on those mornings.
This continued for about two years, until I finally figured out how to win some control: I began locking my door from the inside. I did this every night, with mixed feelings of relief and spite. A few times, I awoke to hear my parents banging on my door, ostensibly wanting to see if I was “all right.” Usually, I slept through the racket, only to learn about it the next morning when I unlocked my door and came out for breakfast.
Once I started locking my parents out, they stopped locking me in. This was probably why I continued locking my door until I was almost twelve, despite many spankings, no TV in the evening, and threats to remove my lock and even the entire door. The strange thing is that while I remember the punishment they doled out, and my rage and frustration, I have not one clue why I was treated that way.
Bumping along on the streetcar, one of the old, rounded, burgundy-roofed ones, I rested my head against the window and watched the thrift shops and fish-and-chip places near Queen and Pape until my lids closed with fatigue. The driver was more outgoing than most, greeting the oncoming passengers with a “How’re ya doing this damp day?” My eyes opened as he called, “Hey, Mrs. Archibald, good to see ya again.”
“I been at the Queen Street, Harry. They got me there again, and it was hard to find the way out. Gets harder, Harry.”
She was round — her head, her haircut, each cheek, her hands in fists as she sat across from me. Her dress, dark blue with variously sized, green polka dots. Her mouth, pursed into an O, matching the constant surprise in her eyes.
She was watching me. I smiled, just a little, instinctively reluctant to engage too much and, ever so Canadian, not wanting to intrude. Not like the New York Thruway toll collector, just outside New York City, who warmly gushed a “What do ya say, hon?” — actually wanting to know, as if I could explain my reality in ten seconds. Or the pixie Argentinian woman who runs the coffee-and-cookie store, who asked this morning if I was making out all right now. When I nodded shyly, she added, “You never know, everything has a purpose, and when you’re hurting a lot, you can’t see just what it is.”
So after this careful smile, I closed my eyes again and in no time had the queerest feeling. It was like being poked in the forehead, on the chin, on my chest. My belly tensed. Mrs. Archibald.
“You ever been at the Queen Street?”
My eyes opened. “Me? Uh, no.”
“You look familiar. I thought maybe you were the one who carried the fiddle to Day Program.”
“No. Not me.”
“Don’t let them put you there then. I mean it’s OK, but crazy. They’re all nuttier than the Cracker Jacks we used to get, and they had plenty more caramel nuts than nowadays. I’m not crazy, you know, not like some of them doctors or some who’ve been living there mostly always. Nice folks, but too nutty for me, too noisy too. I mean, I like to talk, to have some company. Like Harry, eh? You like to talk too, eh, Harry? Maybe I should get me a transit cap like yours and get me a driving job, and I could talk to lots of folks, different ones. I’d change routes. No. I’d be like you, Harry. I’d get to know the same ones every day.”
She coughed. A croupy, choking cough. “The doors were all locked. It was hard to get out.”
When I heard my brother come pounding up the steps to my third-floor bedroom, I quickly bolted the door and ran back to the phone to tell my sister-in-law — the wife of my other brother — that I had to hang up. Too late. He kicked the door off the hinges and came into my room and knocked me from one side of my room to the other, using his fists like battering rams, punching anything he could reach that I couldn’t block. Face, arms, stomach, breasts, head — it didn’t matter to him. I thought I would die just from the embarrassment, because he brought a friend up with him to watch, with me in just my bra and underpants. Of all the times he beat me up, this was the one time I could never forgive him for, because he showed me by kicking the door off the hinges that there was no place where I was safe from him; even a locked door made no difference.
It was only years later that I realized my brother was enraged not because I stayed on the phone longer than he wanted me to but because I was talking to our older brother’s wife. She had blackmailed him into having sex with her, which ended up destroying his relationship with our older brother. I realized that she was just using me to keep track of his comings and goings, that all of his anger at her was taken out on me that day.
I still couldn’t forgive him until recently, when he apologized for all of the beatings he had given me, but I never once stopped loving him. Isn’t that strange?
My father would fasten the latches on the door, then slip the key from the lock and hide it. The back door had a turnkey, a slider, and a chain. The front door had two locks, a bolt and a chain. The windows had locks, and their shades were always drawn.
But the locks didn’t quiet my father’s fears. He was as protective of his possessions as any desert chief of his harem. His prize was my mother, and she was slowly dying of a degenerative heart.
Before my father was able to leave the house, he would check all the locks on the back door, reach behind the shade to be sure the kitchen window clamp was secured, test the knobs on the gas stove to be certain they were turned off — being sure to touch each knob with the same degree of pressure, compulsively doing it again and again until he was convinced — check the latches on the other windows, and, by the time he got to the front door, come back to the kitchen and start again. When he had finally managed to get partly through the front door, he would turn back and yell for me to come turn the bolt and fasten the chain and “don’t let anyone in.”
With his tantrums he had succeeded in stopping Mother’s family from coming to the house, with his rage he had repulsed his own family, and by ignoring their existence he had kept the neighbors from his door. No one was going to take his wife away from him.
My mother went into a coma. The more she deteriorated the harder it became for him to leave the house at all. Though he would lose himself briefly in the radio or the television, he would soon jump from his chair and start his guard duty again, pacing from one room to another, testing the locks, balancing the stove knobs, checking on my mother. Finally, emotionally exhausted, he would fall into his chair, rest his head, and fall asleep.
Mother slipped away when my father wasn’t looking. I was left alone with him, locked in.
Santa Rosa, California
We were living in Manila, and my husband was away on one of his frequent out-of-country trips. That night, after routinely securing all the doors, I climbed the stairs, checked on my sleeping children, and got into bed with my book, anticipating a few more hours of reading while raindrops began hitting the tin roof.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that Linda, our live-in maid, had not returned home from her day off, though it was past eleven. President Marcos was still in power, and he had declared a curfew between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. Anyone found on the streets of Manila between those hours could be picked up and taken into custody. I guessed that Linda wouldn’t jeopardize herself by trying to get back to our village after curfew. She was probably staying with her aunt who lived in Quezon City on the other side of Manila. It was too late to telephone Linda’s aunt to be sure she was safe, but I was confident she was there and returned to my book.
Soon, however, I found myself listening for a strange noise I thought I’d heard. The rain had cooled the air enough so that even the incessantly roaring air conditioners had temporarily shut off. I heard dogs barking in the distance. The usual traffic sounds, so loud in the early evening hours, had been quieted by the curfew. Except for the gentle rain on the roof, there was an eerie silence.
Suddenly the noise started up again. It was a sharp tapping sound, followed by muffled voices. It seemed to be coming from downstairs, beneath my window. I turned off the lamp beside my bed and carefully pulled back the drapes. I saw nothing but the darkness. I heard the noise again, TAP, TAP, TAP, like some metal object striking a piece of glass. I was certain I heard voices whispering beneath my window, but I could see nothing.
As I hesitantly walked toward the top of the stairs, I felt a sense of panic. I thought of my children sleeping peacefully in their rooms just a few feet away and checked to make sure they were safe. Remembering my son’s baseball bat, I quietly sorted through the clutter in his closet and found it. I started down the stairs.
It was an open staircase, each step unconnected by a riser. Anyone on the ground floor would see me coming down the stairs; someone could simply reach up and grab my feet. The third step creaked as I put my weight on it. I paused and clutched the wooden bat tighter. The tapping noise grew louder. It sounded as though someone were removing the jalousies from one of the windows in our den. My thumping heart seemed as loud as the tapping sounds outside. I took another hesitant step. Just then, I heard a key turning the lock in our kitchen door on the other side of the house and the familiar sound of the door’s weatherstripping scraping on the terrazzo floor. My heart was racing. Suddenly the crashing sound of glass shattered the night. I screamed. Below the staircase, just beneath me, I heard cautious footsteps. I stood frozen. Then I heard a little voice say, “Madame, are you all right?”
It was Linda, and she was shaking with fear too. She had come home earlier, during the rain, and had gone right to her room to dry off. Our relief at finding each other safe abruptly came to an end. We heard more shattering glass, and the muffled voices grew louder. Together, Linda and I peeked into the den. The jalousie windows were secure. But we still heard the sound of breaking glass.
I started to call the police, but Linda placed her hand on the telephone and pointed to the house next door. Lights began to go on all over the house. The high concrete wall around our property prevented us from seeing directly into the windows, so we rushed upstairs to the bedroom and peeked out. We saw two teenage boys walking through the house, turning on the lights in every room. I recognized the woman of the house walking into her home carrying her youngest child. Just behind her were her two other young children. She laid the child in a crib, then led the other children downstairs. The older boys joined the woman and children at the empty dining room table. They all held hands and appeared to be praying.
Linda and I pulled the drapes closed, feeling as if we had intruded on a very personal moment. We walked back downstairs and sat wondering why our neighbors had broken into their own house.
The next day we learned that the family had gone to the beach. The father had been swept away by an undertow. He’d had the only keys to the locked doors in his swimsuit pocket. His body was never recovered.
Betty L. Wagner