Fiction · 04/24/2013

Open and Shut

after Steven Millhauser

At 2:36 on a clear, blue Tuesday afternoon, Linda Edelstein pulled into her driveway after a trip to the Pathmark. She popped the trunk of her car, took two heavy grocery bags in each hand and headed for the kitchen. It wasn’t until she reached the bottom step of her patio that she looked up and saw the front door to her house wide open, the dimly lit rectangle of her foyer yawning at her like a challenge, or an invitation. Later, she would think how she should have called the police, should have put the groceries back in the car and driven to a safe place until they arrived. In her confusion, however, she just walked — a little more quickly — through the open door and ventured a meek Hello? Her heartbeat drumming in her inner ear, she proceeded to do a quick tour of the ground floor, scared of what she might find, but a little disappointed when that turned out to be nothing. As far as she could tell, not a single thing was missing, or even moved out of place. Her coffee mug still sat with a brown ring in the kitchen sink, the stack of dry cleaning she’d picked up that morning still lay flat on the living room couch, and her son’s soccer ball was still perched expectantly in the middle of the downstairs hallway. Standing, squint-eyed, next to the breakfast room table, she suddenly realized she’d never put down the grocery bags, their plastic handles spreading tingly waves through her fingers. She set them on the table, opened and closed her fingers a few times, and decided she would not tell her husband Richard about the door. With a quick look up and then down her empty block to make sure no one was watching, she shut the door. The soft _whoosh _where its edges met the frame felt both violent and tender, like an unknown man unhooking her bra.

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We have a tremendous amount of respect for our police. They patrol our streets like manatees crawling through the Florida swamps, driving calmly. Because of this, we believe, we don’t have a lot of crime. Of course there is the petty stuff — the unpopular teacher waking on a Saturday to find their front yard draped in toilet paper, the occasional phone swiped from an unattended table in the coffee shop, candy bars gone missing from counter displays — but for most of us, the nature of these problems make us feel relieved, they remind us how much worse it could be. We raise our children to respect law and order. We allow them to break small rules in order to protect the big ones. We teach them how to sustain white lies — how young you are looking, Mrs. Burdick — so that they won’t have to get caught in big ones. We love our homes and we care for our neighbors, and we are grateful for the police that maintain an orderly space between them.

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Wednesday morning, around 7:30, Pilar Sorensen stepped out of the shower and heard her husband, Donald, calling her name from downstairs. His voice sounded urgent and unusual. She threw on the faded salmon bathrobe she’d picked up on their honeymoon to Playa del Carmen and headed down the stairs. She found him by the front door, which was wide open, staring at the floor. Though he’d been yelling for her, at first he barely registered her presence. “Did you leave this open?” he asked. She had gone out to get the paper before her shower. “No. Definitely no.” She couldn’t help craning her neck to see the paper lying where she’d left it, on the coffee table in the den. Donald shook his head slowly. “That’s what I thought.” Then why did you ask, Pilar wanted to answer. “Look,” he said, pointing at the floor. On the tile inlay — a compromise between Donald’s desire for a marble entryway and her own wish to stretch the Brazilian cherry wood straight to the door — sat two unmistakable, dirt-crusted boot prints. Her first thought, almost clinical in its detachment, was that they belonged to boots found nowhere in their house. Pilar looked at Donald, and Donald looked at Pilar. “Not in my house,” he said, and then went to find a phone to call the police.

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This was how we first found out about the openings, as we later came to call them. There was a brief item in the paper’s Police Blotter section the next morning. It mentioned three details: the open door, the boot prints, and Pilar Sorensen’s memory of the dark blue Camry she’d seen rolling down Bayview Dr. when she went to get the paper. A few of us made jokes that if we knew Pilar Sorensen was taking a shower, we might be tempted to join her too. Underneath the joking, though, we didn’t know which was stranger, finding your front door open to the worlds’ eyes, or the fact that nothing was moved, nothing taken. We turned it over, shook our heads in sympathy, and then moved on with our days. We talked about sending something to the Sorensens, about making a gesture that might say the neighborhood is watching. But then we thought about the pies and casseroles and cards we’d sent over after they lost the baby, and to tell the truth, an open door didn’t seem like such a terrible interruption. Then, as a week went by, the items started appearing every day. The Pulaskis, the Richardsons (on Maple St., not Hilltop Dr.), the Rivera family — each time, the same open door and the same brown boot prints. When the Mulaneys reported that the prints extended in a straight line from the front door to the sliding screen door at the back, we realized, with a level of excitement we weren’t proud of, that we were facing an epidemic.

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Danny Fontaine was playing outside the following Saturday in the bright fall sun. His parents had left in a hurry, to attend a meeting of the newly popular neighborhood watch, promising to be back by dinner. He had the whole afternoon to himself. He was chasing a football back and forth across his backyard, color commentating the downs and yardage in an epic, imaginary battle. Sweat-drenched and red-cheeked, savoring the smell of mulched grass and fallen leaves, he went inside in search of orange juice. With the glass in his hand and the TV schedule in his head, walking towards the Fontaine family room, he was surprised by a crisp draft of air coming from the front hallway. He turned the corner, froze, and then dropped the glass with a dull thud onto the carpet. Later, the orange puddle that formed at his feet would always remind him of a crime show bloodstain. He picked up a wooden bat from the front hall closet and followed a trail of boot prints down the hallway, up the stairs and straight to his parents’ bedroom. “Mom? Dad?” he quietly called out. Getting no answer, he peeked his head into the room. His mother’s blue cotton dress, the one that always smelled like fabric softener, was laid out on the bed next to one of his father’s gray wool suits. Everything else looked just the way his parents always left it. He tried to decide whether to call the police or his parents’ cellphones first. While deciding, he crossed to the bed, lay down next to his mother’s dress, and pulled it over himself like a toddler’s blanket.

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Almost immediately, we settled on three main theories about the openings. First, some said it was local kids letting off some steam. But the single set of boot prints sat like uncollected evidence, sowing doubt about this interpretation. Secondly, some claimed it was a crazy from the bigger, scarier town next to ours. Or maybe even someone who took the train from the city and folded back into its darkness at night. But the randomness of this theory left us all searching for more meaning. Third, and most popular, was that it was a former resident of our town, forced into foreclosure by the housing crisis. We have nice houses, mostly older, and we were hit less hard by the crash than most. We are insulated, affluent, by and large buffered from the difficulties we watch unfold on the evening news. Faced with the serene facades of our two-story homes, we could understand how someone down on their luck might grow to resent our security. In this reading, the openings accrued interest, became a fluctuating addition to the principal of family life in our town. We suspected this minor affront — and it was minor, as long as nothing went missing — was the price we paid. Late at night, we might admit to being smug, self-satisfied, even a little glib about our opportunities and others’ misfortune. We might even entertain the idea that we deserved this.

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As Linda Edelstein read each subsequent item in the paper, she began to understand less and less about what had happened to her. She had still never told Richard about the afternoon of her own opening. After all, there hadn’t even been any boot prints; how could she be sure — absolutely sure — that it was related. For his part, he blamed it on the “Mexicans” moving into the other side of town. Too many people, not enough stuff, he said. Until the Rivera family got hit. Then he came around to the idea of revenge. This generation’s being taught to hate success. At first, Linda found herself distracted, coffee mug half-raised to her lips, staring off at space until she realized she was listening — hoping, even — for the sudden whoosh of the door and the sound of boots on the hardwood. Then, as the openings mounted, she began what she came to call her “investigations.” “Something must be missing,” she said one morning. Each day, she would pick a different room in the house, opening drawers, doors and cabinets, checking the contents against a mental inventory most notable for its lack of certainty. On the floor playing Go Fish with her son Matthew one evening after dinner — Richard was working late once again — she found herself studying the thatch of brown hair on top of Matthew’s head and the tip of tongue sticking out from between his molars as he thought about his cards. She wondered, briefly, about Richard’s recurring absences, thought about the gambling he’d given up when Matty was born, considered his quickness to blame and judge in the case of the openings. If one were going to steal things, wouldn’t it make sense to try a practice run at a safe place — namely, your own house? Then, she remembered that nothing had been taken — not anywhere — and she asked Matthew if he had any tens. “Go fish,” he smiled.

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Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be a part of the neighborhood patrol. For the first time in its ten year history, we had to turn people away, to make a schedule. We looked for pedestrians we didn’t know, for dark blue Camrys, and for boot-shaped dirt clods on the sidewalks. But mostly, we looked for open doors. Very few of us had actually been the victim of an opening, but we all imagined what it must feel like — the unexpected current of air, the sudden rush of blood, the moment of indecision about what to do next. Secretly, we wondered how many of us had found our doors open, turned scarlet with embarrassment, and simply shut them again, looking forward to resuming our show or meal or online shopping instead. And many of us on patrol were surprised: by the feeling of hope each time we turned the corner. Hope that instead of a street-long string of the usual suspects, we might find a sudden interruption, a startling rectangle of empty space. We quickly realized that through an open door, one could catch a glimpse of a living room, an entryway, or even a TV. Some of us, privately, likened it to seeing a woman through a window when she got out of the shower. We were relieved on the days when there were no openings. We felt dutiful and good and proud that we had prevented something. We also felt disappointed.

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The next week at work, Donald Sorensen found himself walking the halls of his office building more often than usual. First, he noticed, he was counting the doors. Then, he realized he was waiting for his coworkers to walk past his office window, on their way to the bathroom or a meeting or out to lunch. He was thinking about their doors, brown laminated wood, shut tight for the foreseeable future. And before he had time to analyze it, he was out in the hallway, moving with a sure step straight to their metal handles. He paused, listened for a minute to make sure he was alone, then proceeded to open each door just enough for a few inches of office air to escape. At the end of the hallway, he turned, surveying his work. Lightly, he breathed out, in expert mimicry of each exhaling doorway.

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We came together. We put our best foot forward. We proved the opener — whoever he was — wrong. Our police chief suggested an “Open Doors, Open City” night, and we all participated eagerly. All afternoon, we laid votive candles in sand-bottomed bags, we set up folding tables full of food, we levered portable basketball hoops into the air at either end of our block. Then, at 7:00, we all opened our doors as wide as we could and walked into the streets to share food, conversations, and our suspicions about what the openings meant. We watched our kids play; we marched from one block to the next; we swapped stories about who had been hit; in hushed tones, we compared our fears about what we would be saddest to lose, if he began to take things. But mostly, we kept an eye on each others’ open doors. As the candles began to die out, the sidewalks falling once again into simple, streetlit darkness, we looked at each other sheepishly, like we’d just shared some intoxicated intimacy, and began to offer our lamest excuses — it’s getting late; Danny’s got soccer in the morning; we should do this again. After all the doors were closed again, an intrepid observer would have seen our faces, expectant, pressed to windows — the sidelights flanking our doors, the upstairs bedroom panes overlooking our yards, even those above the kitchen sink — waiting for what, we were not sure.

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The same night as the “Open Doors, Open City” event, Marcus Gilmore was doing his usual rounds as the night watchman at the Chemtex plant on the edge of town. He had his flashlight in his hand, sweeping a wide arc of light across the mostly deserted parking lot. He’d already checked the locks on the labs and offices inside, and was now doing his hourly stroll around the lot’s perimeter. Much to his surprise, at the back corner away from the building, he saw a dark blue Camry that he knew didn’t belong to any of the plant’s employees. Marcus did not live in the town, but he had been following the news like anyone else. His suspicions were confirmed when, shining his light through the passenger side window, he saw a cracked pair of black brogan boots resting peacefully on the seat. Though the tags were missing, the police were able to trace the VIN number to a house in Wisconsin, whose owner told them he’d donated the car to his brother’s salvage yard two years earlier. The number to the salvage yard sat on the investigating officer’s desk on a piece of paper, which, as the months went by, sat under more and more pieces of paper.

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Our town went back to normal after the openings. Two or three families moved away, saying that they no longer felt safe. Pilar Sorensen took a less active role in the investigation after one too many questions about the cut of her bathrobe the morning in question. The neighborhood patrol slowly leaked members like heating from a poorly insulated house, until it was finally down to its original founding members, plus Richard Edelstein, who enjoyed watching his house more than being inside of it. But most of us continued to go to work, to raise our children, to mow our lawns, to give to charity when we could. Many of us invested in better locks and security cameras with remote monitoring. In the supermarket, or in the stands at a Pop-Warner game, we often look at each other, wondering who was a part of it, who got to feel the excitement, the terror, the activity. And some of us — hiding our hopes from our friends, our families and our coworkers — click the deadbolt open as loudly as we can before leaving the house, willing the wind to carry its echo out across our sanitary streets all the way to Wisconsin, or wherever there are hands to unshut our doors.

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Charles Walker lives with his wife and two sons in Boston, where he is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Emerson College. “Open and Shut” is his first published story.