Perchance: Part X, about the matter of a closed door, is the tenth chapter in the ongoing Perchance serial. For the previous chapter, click here.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
was written upon the town sign at its entrance.
Pale lamplight washed over the tarry ground like runoff from a spilled milk truck, flipped and hemorrhaged in a sidelong collision. Echoing footsteps–mine, but not alone–clapped against the flawless pavement.
As it so happened, as I sprinted, very nearly out of breath, into the town square, I passed the pastel shell of such a milk truck. Layer upon layer of beveled curves, its otherwise spotless chassis looked like it belonged to the age of McCarthy, Nabokov, and white picket fences. Beyond the truck, the city hall loomed above a small, gloomy green, a park squared in on its remaining sides by a strip of suffocated road and, thereafter, low buildings with shop windows advertising cigarettes, antenna televisions, and neckties. Every building, except for the concrete city hall, stood two stories of ageless carmine brick against the night. It felt familiar; at the time, I had seen a place just like this in a new movie, about someone, a teenager, in the wrong time.
Running to the middle of the green, I pressed myself down around the side of a partially-lit information kiosk, as hidden from the road as I could make himself. I listened and tried to catch my breath. I listened in the direction that I had just come from, the main road into the square, opposite the town hall. There was silence; there was not the growl of a car in the distance, nor the barking of a dog, nor the whisper of wind through the tree leaves. If there had been the usual discarded foliage, newspapers, or straw wrappers to line the sidewalk gutters, even they would not have whispered in the lifeless air. But there was no such mess anywhere in the town, no evidence of the scraps of a lived-in landscape; I’m sure now that even the pristine white lines at the street medians were painted with microscopic precision, in perfect parallels and perpendiculars.
No, there was only silence.
In the corner of my eye, a light, barely a pinprick, waned above one of the shops. I thought that it might be an eye, or a firefly, but the glowing point existed motionless in the darkness of an open window, the orange dot twinkling through some unseen haze within. Then, the light fell out of sight.
Friction and a click broke the silence for all of a moment, as I saw a pair of hands wave out a cloud of smoke, then lower and lock the darkened window. Someone had been smoking just inside: the light had been the smoldering end of a cigarette. Someone was above the shop. Probably an apartment for the shop owner. I leaned in the direction of the apartment. I would make a break for it and get help from whomever was awake inside.
I continued to listen. The night held its peace. I had begun to look up over the side of the information kiosk when, on the opposite end of the square from the apartment, the glow of red and green neon spilled out from between the planks of another boarded-up storefront window. Music, the clicking tune of the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman,” resonated into the town square from the jukebox inside. It was a restaurant, by the looks of it. Not just a restaurant. A diner: if I had read the words properly on the glass, partially slatted from view and doodled around the circumference of an anthropomorphized, grinning clock, the “Time to Diner! Est. 1876.” There was nobody inside.
I thought, then, that I heard the sound that I had been waiting for–that, at the time, I feared to hear–but it was difficult to make out above the music from the diner.
There it was again, a squeaking and the grating of metal against metal. It braced itself in rhythmic fashion, almost as if in time to the music. It echoed into the square from the road, then inside the square, the clacking clattering off the cold brick.
I waited a moment, looking first to the diner, then to the apartment.
Bursting out from behind the kiosk, I ran. The sound, the constant clicking, kept its same pace, but I could tell that those accustomed eyes had seen me and were advancing upon me now. The squeaking, grating, was dragging its dead leg my way. Frantically, reaching the storefront, I knocked my fist against the window of the wooden door and shouted in desperation. I could see little more than darkness through the glass, and the thin outline of a mannequin illuminated by a sliver of moonlight. I knocked again, harder, not stopping. This would have been my only chance.
Still, no one came.
“I know you’re in there! Let me in!”
I thought then that I saw movement inside, a bulk that interrupted the contour of the mannequin, a mass that was more than shadow. And, even then, no one came to the door.
“Please, let me in! It’s coming! Don’t leave me out here. I don’t want to die alone. Please, I need your help!”
A face emerged through the distortion of the window.
The clicking had reached the asphalt behind me.
“Please, please, please, I don’t, I don’t want to die alone out here!”
I grabbed the handle and shook it, but it remained locked. The face inside the shop–it had the wrinkles of an old man’s face–stepped closer to the window and spoke. “Who the hell are you? What’s going on?” The face assumed a pair of glasses, while, in the reflection of the window, I saw that other reflection cross the white lines painted at the perfect middle of the road. The face’s view coming into focus, its eyes looked behind me with horror. The face had reached down for the locks and already drawn back the first lock, but now the hand withdrew. “No. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Why are you sorry? Just let me in!” But I already knew why. I knew one of its reasons: the lie. I had seen the face’s horror be replaced by a fresh coat of regret. With the reflection fast approaching, the click of his cane making contact with the sidewalk, there was no time for the face to let me in and still lock the door. The face’s hand lowered again to the door. “No! Don’t do this!” I threw a fist against the glass.
…………………………The first lock slid back into place.
She watched Joe as he walked naked and barefoot across the snowy stones, up and out of the wash. He did not see her.
She watched as he walked up the street, the cold ground, starting to melt in the early sunlight, leaving his ankles completely numb. There was no one else out on the street. None of the frosted cars showed any sign of recent motion or heat, more like models than the real thing. None of the lights were on in the houses, although the front driveways of the rowed homes were each uniformly shoveled out. He coughed, his breath materializing into a fading fog. His frame shook as he clutched his sides.
She watched as he came to the front of a particular house. He stared at it for a time, glancing up and down the road. On the one side, the sun greeted him. On the other, the black concrete, lightly dusted with snowfall and ice, receded into the unknown.
She watched as he stumbled up the driveway and came to the front door. He rang the doorbell only once, then leaned up against the nearest wall. A face appeared in the window, before it quickly disappeared again. The door opened. Joe walked forward and collapsed into the woman’s arms. “Bob! Bob! He’s back!” the woman shouted into the house. A man emerged in the doorway and helped lift Joe inside. The door closed.
She looked away.
She stood on the sidewalk, her face turned sunward. Tannhauser approached her, moving his free hand across the hood of a nearby car. The sunflower on his lapel seemed somewhat wilted. “I can hardly recognize this world anymore,” he observed. “It has changed so much without me. Now, it is all but a stranger to me.”
Wendy did not answer him immediately. She watched the sun, obscured by the clouds until one could just bring themselves to look at its pale disc. “Which world?”
A question, which was just another way for her to say, without the burden of the truth, “and my world too.” A way for her to say, in not so many words, as she took his hand off the car and held it firmly in her own, “that is what my world has always been to me.”
“But perhaps… another world.”
The ground pulsed up and down beneath Sandra, as though something was pushing its way up from under the leaves. The moss and dirt seemed to breathe beneath her.
The soil’s diaphragm contracted a final time, and the flat earth swelled into a rectangular mound under her feet, a narrow island in a lake of seeping fog. She shifted to the edge of the heap, looking for any signs of movement in the direction of the clearing, watching for the woman’s approach.