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He's Never Been Inside

"He's never been inside the house, you know."

"What?" I knew for a fact he'd been over to dinner at least three times. Elsa was private, but after four months of dating she'd allowed him that.

"Oh, he's been on the porch, but I've never let him inside."

"But he's been to dinner-"

"I mean he's never been inside my house," her emphasis finally came to meaning.

"Ah," I didn't know quite what to say.

"He's played around in the front yard," she nodded meaningfully, "but beyond the odd peek in the windows, that's it."

"You don't trust him in the house?" I said, playing along and hoping there was a point to this seemingly meaningless revelation.

"I don't think it's necessary," she agreed. "I've let him in as far as the front door, and at some point he can come the rest of the way, but for now, I think he can wait."

I could think of a few needed home repairs that might alloy his interest, but I asked, "He's never tried?"

"He's mentioned it. And I've stopped him climbing over the back fence a few times," Elsa shifted meaningfully in her chair. "But I'm having none of that. I told him the key to the backyard gate is lost and my storage shed is closed permanently, unless I want to do some spring cleaning."

Elsa's extended and rambling metaphor was starting to go beyond what I could follow. I said nothing for a moment. We sat in silence, me pondering the doors of Elsa's house and her pressing her palms over the stretched fabric of her pants.

"When do you plan to let him in?" I asked lamely.

"The backyard? He's never getting in the kitchen entrance."

I tried to imagine the layout of Elsa's house in reference to the new information.

"But I might let him beyond the porch in the next few weeks. Depends on whether he's a pushy salesman or the meter reader. A liquored up home invader, or just some elderly relative. I'd rather have a plumber good with his hands, than some demanding census taker, if you know what I mean?"

I assured Elsa that I understood, even as I was uncertain, then told her I had to catch my bus home. On the way, I watched the sun wash over my dingy city. I had stayed at Elsa's until the dawn light had addled the conversation, and all my responses felt like they were tongued around cough drops and raw with chafing.

I tried to ignore the tiny clapboard houses, and the more stolid brick duplexes. I tried not to think of their many entrances and windows that needed cleaning. I wilfully forgot the alarm systems of the rich that brought a paid security service running when the door was breached, the many keys that are lost and the finality of deadbolts. I tried to look away as I saw a drunken reveller fishing for his keys and vainly trying to understand the lock while my bus idled at a red light. We pulled away while he was still fumbling, and I remembered the many times I'd rung doorbells and buzzed strange apartments. I remembered calling ahead, only to find the doors locked and the lights out.

Halloween is just such a ritual, I suddenly thought. It is about the opening of doors under some pretence. Trick or Treat. Open the door to give me treats or I will play a trick on you. Christmas is more about the visitation of staid relatives. They are visitors you haven't seen in a long while and who hover uncomfortably in the living room until they leave, the detritus of their visit mince pies and candies. Easter is for opening your house to children, and while they search for goodies hidden behind dusty furniture and in cupboards, you try to let them have their fun, the magic of that evening meaning nothing to you, although as a child it was a wonder-filled time. New Year's is about drunken groping, staggering home with an equally inebriated partier, wondering, in your sodden state, if you can key the locks of your own house. Valentine's Day is staged, with its window dressing of feeling, the long fingers of its attempted touching slapped away by the closing door of a house you'll never be inside.

We open our house on other occasions as well. The official calendar holidays are superseded by the informality of weddings and funerals. At the marriage ceremony, you feel as though you glimpse the foyer of a beautiful building that you will never be allowed to enter. Faceless valets take your coat and do not return it; you strongly suspect it has been sent away for shredding. You watch the happy couple, dancing through the ritual that will allow them into the temple, and just before the doors shut and they are lost from view, you see her dress yellow with age and he grows a sudden gut.

At funerals, the grim house is long and dark. Rooms that have been closed for many years tempt prying children, who peek through the keyhole and are justifiably terrified at the thought of entrance. Funerals are about battening the hatch on the other holidays. It's a locked entry of a celebration. Christmas rituals suddenly look like knickknacks in the foyer forever beckoning toward an audience, and Easter is a fantasy not even entertained by the grieving. New Year's becomes something to look forward to, once the coffin is safely sealed by the ground, and Valentine's is not even on the horizon.

Only Halloween, the unlocked, gaping entrance of its mad hilarity and dried leaf and candy wrapper litter, with its plastic skeletons and bobbing bats, its orange skulls and discount uniforms, makes sense at a funeral. Halloween suddenly resembles a celebration; for every door that has so recently closed, a dozen playful others open, their insights beckoning, and the long hand of their judgement momentarily suspended.

"You getting off or what?"

I snapped out of my reverie at the bus driver's question, and then realized I'd been tugging on the cord for long minutes, the bell trying to ring open a door that seemed so firmly closed. Is it true the door can't be opened unless the bus is stopped? I unclamped my fingers from the cord, ignoring the blocked stares of the commuters, and left, the gate miraculously releasing me into the frost of early morning. I thought about my tiny apartment, about the fire escape entrance which had been nailed shut due to burglary, about the deadbolt on my front door. Suddenly, I couldn't face the landing, the lidless eyes that peered from keyholes to watch me enter. I knew no other place I would be welcome so early in the winter dawn, so I went downtown.

Only in the city centre do we find doors that are permanently open, their entrances soiled with the many winter boots of desperate solace, coffee shops that never close, the price of their entrance having to drink their mixture of motor oil and river mud. I suddenly remembered that libraries are open as well, and welcome equally the steamy bundled derelict in the magazine section and the executive with his self-help books. Police stations are open too, although the price of entering is too steep for any except the most desperate. Downtown I could find hospitals and shelters, and some churches, ignoring the many times their doors had been breached by false prophets and clergy, stayed open for the needy.

Not every door was closed, I realized. Elsa's world was one of earned entrance and careful tabulation, but hers was only a small house on the fringes of a huge city. The teeming multitudes had long ago found a fluctuating answer to the lost keys of fear and the slammed door of desperation. They lived in a world of weather stripping and lifted doormats, of long cords that opened the lock on the landing, of generous buzzers that opened to all, listening only for a certain timbre of voice, a kindliness.


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