It happened the night that I attempted to pull the screen door open and unexpectedly found it locked. Locked? No one, not ever, locked the doors to the house. There was no need to. You could hear a car coming the moment it turned up the long quarter mile drive because of the crunching of tires on the gravel. I had been hearing that sound since I had moved there when I was seven or eight. I heard that crunching sound in my sleep, in fact. There was always someone home; my Mother, my father, Anna, the housekeeper who took the train from downtown Philadelphia, the other Anna, our Au Pair from Denmark, and Elwood, the farmer who lived in the apartment over the garage. By the time any car arrived at the top of the drive, day or night, there was somebody waiting at the door to see who had come.
Even though it is the back door, it is the first door you come to when you drive up the drive. Strange as it seems, everyone always entered the house “the back way in.” In through the shed, where the fridge, freezer, washer and dryer were; in through the kitchen, where the oven, stove, porcelain sink and the long gray Formica table, across the way and under the window, so you could look out on an ice cold morning, and watch a family of red cardinals dance in the pure white snow, while eating your oatmeal; then into the children’s living room, where the television was, into the dining room with its massive furniture and brightly polished candlesticks and urns and the dining room table I once stabbed three times with a carving knife in a temper; then into the tiny hall of windows where my mother grew pots and pots of violet violets. The big living room comes next, the long living room, the imposing, majestic, magnificent living room with Maasai spears, a Koboko cane whip, crossbows, a boar’s head, a rhino’s foot holding Briggs tobacco for my father’s pipe, an elephant’s foot containing spirits, a vast, red, oriental carpet, a wall, a very long wall, entirely covered floor to ceiling with books from four generations. There is an oversize stone fireplace at the far, far end of the room, the kind you can walk into and stand up in, if you are so inclined. Its mantelpiece is covered with ancient Hopi Kachina dolls, Maasai figures lovingly carved in Kenya, where my parents lived and worked for several years, and a framed painting of a majestic peregrine falcon hangs on the wall looking down over all that.
There are two overstuffed chairs on either side of the fireplace. My father’s shiny and dimpled brass lamp, that had been his father’s, sits on a table near his chair, and my mother’s standing lamp with its pockmarked shade, once her mother’s, looms over her chair. Each chair has a camel saddle from Cairo in front of it for outstretched feet. There is a massive, deep couch, my great Aunt Jule’s, with pillows, and a long table made from a trunk of an ancient tree. Lastly, but never finally in that room so full of things, at the far end is an entry hall full of other relics—the actual entry for the real front door, the front door that no one uses because it is in the back of the house. The wall here is coved with my grandfather’s naval medals and honors and three very large swords. Locked in the closet in the hallway, not to be seen, hidden behind coats and other hanging things, are the magic tricks my father inherited from many magicians passed on, which he had used in the circus when he was little more then a boy. That locked cabinet of magic tricks also contains all the swords he swallowed.
I stood dumbfounded staring at the old green chipped door that had been slamming behind me for decades. Then I reached for the rusty handle and pulled at it again. Still locked. It was night. The middle of the night when the sky is dark and every star in it is perfectly visible. My eyes cautiously searched around as I stood silently with my hand still frozen on the familiar handle. I heard the wind blowing through the giant maple that stood between the house and the barn behind me.
All of the lights in the old stone house were out, upstairs and down, to the left, to the right. That was not strange however. That was the way it was meant to be. I heard the familiar humming of the old fridge on the other side of the screen door and the wood door behind that. I heard the ticking of my parent’s clock coming from the open window of their bedroom across to the right where the house came around. I heard the pounding of my heart. Something wasn’t right. I knew this because of what I didn’t hear, which was anyone, not a single soul, on the other side of the old screen door.
Everyone was gone. The door was locked because everyone was gone now. Over the years, each had died in their time. But then, I had lived in a house where death had been taught to me since childhood. Now I was here to gather and box the remnants of that childhood and take it away. Who had locked me out?