The House Without Doors
“I got here a little early. The front door was unlocked.”
The startled owner could see she had been wrong about the door being boarded up—and about me—standing just inside, holding it open, and out of sight from the quiet street. I had carefully pried off and hidden the boards, front and back, the night before and come in by the back door earlier this morning. The old locks were child’s play. It was not the first time I’d done it, but it would be the last.
And I was still a shade too black for this Montgomery, Alabama neighborhood in 1956.
Yet in December, eight months before, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white man on the Cleveland Avenue bus and things were less certain. Mrs. Parks was a great believer in the “self-help” philosophy of Booker T. Washington. I was too, long before she kept her seat and took a stand. I practiced a selfish, more extreme form of that philosophy.
I waited with laughter in my heart.
“Uh, I’m Deborah-Lee Deveraux. But call me Dee-Dee, everybody does.” Dee-Dee looked very white, putting aside the unladylike crowbar and returning the skeleton key to the clutch purse that matched her pale pink shoes and summer dress. The noon hour was drowsy and hot. Beads of perspiration jeweled Dee-Dee’s upper lip.
“Jackson Mississippi. I’ve looked forward to meeting you,” I said.
The hesitation was fractional before the Ipana Toothpaste smile was in place and she extended her hand to shake mine. “Just like the town?”
“Yes. Not very original. Thank you for making this time available after I phoned only this morning. I go by Jack.”
“Well, uh, Jack, why don’t we start with the basement? The rest of the doors are there, or used to be.”
“The basement would be perfect.”
Dee Dee led the way down the center hall to the empty basement doorway, halfway along. The house was stripped of furniture, decoration and any personal touches. The throw rugs were gone and left behind only their lighter shadow selves on the worn pine boards of the floors.
“The kitchen’s straight ahead, of course, with the water-heater in the broom closet by the back door.” She hesitated again when she saw the back door hanging open, yet decided not to mention it.
Now I bit down on the laughter before it could escape my lips.
“The plumbing’s a bit primitive like everything else in these old prewar cottages. The house really needs some TLC.”
“Yes, it does.” I waited until she pushed the button of the old basement light switch and then followed her downstairs. The light from the single, clear-glass bulb amplified the effects of humidity and neglect. The corners remained in shadow.
“Damn! Watch it, Mr. . . . uh, Jack.” Dee Dee had hit her head on a low joist and had to pull cobwebs from her stiff brown hair. But I had control now.
“I’ll be careful.”
She took a few steps forward. “This is the furnace, although we rarely had to use it when I was growing up.”
The ancient coal-burner sat like a leprous toad in the middle of the windowless room, the white paint gone gray and peeling. Its heavy iron door lay on the floor in front of it, and the black circle above looked like a mouth gaping in frozen surprise.
“You’d probably want to convert to oil,” she said. “It’s cleaner. Not as much soot to contend with.”
Dee-Dee stooped under the fat octopus arms of the furnace pipes that appeared to support the house above. “All the wiring is still knob and tube though, and I’m afraid it may not be safe anymore.” She indicated the pairs of white, ceramic insulators carrying the crusty black wires to the single light.
“So I noticed.”
“The doors are in a pile over here . . . at least they were?” Her mascara brows wrinkled briefly in a delicious puzzlement.
The doors were laid out in a neat line in the dim space behind the furnace.
Dee-Dee stepped forward for a closer look—then abruptly lurched sideways with another curse. I reached out to help her. Didn’t want her to hurt herself.
“Thank you, Jack. These rotten old floorboards are not made for high-heels.” She stooped and tenderly probed her right ankle. The grey boards sat unevenly on the dirt floor. A dark smudge of dirt marred the pink fabric of her shoe. “Darn. I think I’ll wait here if you don’t mind? I may have a bit of a sprain. I hope the doors are all here.”
“Not at all. And, yes, I believe every one is here.” I stepped into the shadow behind the furnace. The doors had the same pale, scabrous appearance as its cast metal surfaces.
“I confess we have had the house on the market for almost a year, ever since Mr. Villier’s wife had the coronary. The poor woman’s heart was weak. And then he disappeared himself, nine months ago. The sheriff searched the place, but found nothing. I accept he’s dead in the woods out back somewhere, but no body found yet.”
Why did she call her father, “Mr. Villier,” and her mother, “the poor woman?”
“Yes. That is strange.”
“I finally did take down the sign and my husband boarded the place up three weeks ago, after some vandalism. Just me left now. Mr. Villier had two older daughters and the twin boys. But almost two years back, they were driven off the road by a hit-and-run driver on their way here before Christmas.”
“Oh my. I can’t imagine . . .” More control as she nodded in painful remembrance.
“Such bad luck, too. The one time they would all be together. But the children’s annual reunion was a tradition of sorts. Almost killed Mr. Villier, as well. Five children and four of them gone in the same accident.”
“Yes. A loss that must mark you for the rest of your life.”
“It’s so very true, Jack. And I might have been with them. My husband and I were waiting for them to pick me up here in Montgomery for an afternoon outing, just the five of us. When we got the news, why I just couldn’t believe it.”
I offered her my fine white cotton handkerchief. Still that brief reluctance, but she took it and pressed it against the corner of each wide blue eye, blotting the dark mascara.
“Who could?” I agreed.
If only I was there to enjoy the horror on Dee-Dee’s pretty pink face. But of course, I had to be miles away by then. She returned the mascara-smeared handkerchief with an apologetic smile.
“Now Mr. Villier’s wife is lying beside them in the old Villier family crypt, in the cemetery down the road a bit, waiting for her missing husband.”
Dee Dee didn’t mention that the once prosperous, slave-owning family had fallen quite a ways since the Civil War scattered them, and that the big wreck of a house was finally torn down to provide space for the cemetery. Or that she often went by only the Villier name herself. She certainly didn’t mention that my mother, too-early dead from a cancer these three years past, was their housekeeper, let go when her pregnancy began to show. Old habits die hard in the south.
The gloom hid my smile, bitter this time.
“I’m sorry to hear all that,” I said. My efforts at the cemetery had been considerable, yet the smells of putrefaction were perfume to me, all worth it. I didn’t correct her.
“To be truly honest, Jack, I’m desperate for any offer.”
“Doors,” I said. “I counted them.”
“Oh. You wouldn’t think there’d be that many in a small house like this, even with the front and back I mean.”
“Yes. I didn’t count those.”
“Mr. Villier took the doors off himself, you know. And began to leave the lights burning all night. Drove the nearest neighbors to distraction.”
“Why, I wonder?”
“I asked him that. He said, ‘To keep away the shadows.’”
“Kind of embarrassing. Must have gone a little crazy after his wife’s death.” I could just make out Dee-Dee’s moue of distaste. “He found her body right there, behind the furnace.”
Strictly speaking, the wife wasn’t necessary. I could sympathize. She was a kind of victim too. Yet I was curious about the effect her added death would have on the old man.
“Found here? Are you sure?” I waited . . . and Dee Dee finally felt her way over, favoring her right foot like a wounded animal.
“Just where you’re standing,” she agreed. “I guess he about tripped over her in the dark.”
“Yes, I know.”
Deborah-Lee Deveraux, “call me Dee Dee, everybody does,” didn’t have a chance to scream.
I opened the seventh door in the row and kicked her body into the hole underneath. Next came a thick layer of quicklime, smoothed with the shovel like the frosting on a wedding cake, one my mother never had. Husband, wife, sisters and brothers—one big, happy family together again.
“Six children, actually, Dee Dee. Welcome home, little sister.”
The final door was closed, like it and the others had always been. Now I was free at last to leave the home I’d never known. This time I walked out the front door into the empty street and let it hang open behind me. The sun was blinding white, so I slipped on my dark glasses.
I left the light burning in the basement against the shadows to come.
“For you, father.”
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