A Triptych Tale …

The Door

A Triptych Tale

 

Casper suspected that this was an elaborate prank.

He walked the block several times, occasionally looking at the business card tucked in his jacket pocket. An address was typed on one side: 2714 Magnolia Drive. On the other, a hand-written phone number. He stood across the street from a Quik Clean dry cleaner, with a large 2712 above the door. Next to it, the aroma of fried chicken emanated from a Caribbean Wings and Things. The placard above the entrance read 2716 Magnolia. Between the two was a black unmarked door.

Casper crossed the street and approached the white-haired woman sitting in a folding chair in front of the door. He thrust his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. “Excuse me, ma’am? Is this twenty-seven fourteen Magnolia?”

The woman looked up from her needlepoint with a smile, as if she greeted everyone and everything with one. “Well, hello there! Are you Margie’s replacement?”

He wasn’t used to such friendliness, not from people who didn’t want something from him. “I’m not sure. I’m supposed to be starting a new job today, and this is the address that the guy gave me.”

The woman’s smile grew larger. “Yes, this is twenty-seven fourteen Magnolia.” She began to pack up her needlework into a bag far too big to be considered a purse. “I can’t believe that Margie actually did it. She talked about it, but …” She shook her head, and her cheery expression faltered.

He wasn’t used to such friendliness, not from people who didn’t want something from him.

“Who’s Margie?”

“Oh, she’s a sweetheart. Sometimes, she shows up early, just to chat. Lovely girl.” Again, her smile slipped, but for only a moment. She held out her wrinkled hand. “Where are my manners? I’m Mrs. Shemke, Barbara Shemke.”

Casper returned the handshake. “Casper Weeks, ma’am. But you can call me Caz. Everyone does.” Mrs. Shemke struggled to get out of the chair, so Casper helped her up.

She nodded her thanks. “Nice to meet you, Casper.” She gathered her bag and began to fold up her chair. “If I don’t catch the twelve-oh-eight bus, it’ll take me an extra hour to get home.”

“But … what am I supposed to do?”

She glanced at him over the rims of her glasses. “You were hired by the man in the cowboy hat?” Casper nodded. “What did he tell you?”

He shrugged. “Not much. I was looking through the want ads at Cup-a-Joe’s, and he sat down and asked me if I needed a job. We talked for a couple of minutes and he told me I was hired. He gave me a card.” He showed her the card and she nodded as if all of this were perfectly normal. “Then, he told me to be here, from noon to six, every day, starting today. I’m supposed to guard a building or something.”

“A door,” she corrected. She gestured with her thumb to the black door behind her. “That door.”

Casper had never held a real job outside of a few feeble attempts at tending bar, but none of this felt right. “Isn’t there, like, paperwork to fill out? Or a training pamphlet or something?”

She smiled at him with what might have been pity in her eyes. “Nope.”

“So what do I do?”

She patted him on the arm. “Just what you said. You stay here and make sure no one goes through the door.”

“And that’s it?”

She reached in her huge bag and pulled out a baseball cap, which she placed on her head. “That’s it.” She looked at the small silver watch on her bony wrist. “I only have a couple of minutes, but let me tell you a thing or two.”

He nodded. “OK.”

“Get yourself a chair. Not too heavy because you’ve got to carry it around, but comfortable because you’ll be spending a lot of time here. Discount World’s got the best ones, but you have to have a card. Save-a-Penny has got some nice ones too.” She scratched her chin, lost in thought for a second. “Bring a bag lunch or some snacks. But nothing too salty. That’ll make you thirsty. And it’s not like you can take a pee break.” She grinned as if she had said something wicked. “And please, for my sake, don’t be late. I have to make the twelve-oh-eight bus or it ruins my whole day.”

“But what do I do if someone tries to go through the door?”

“You tell them they’re not allowed.”

He looked skeptical. “Does that work?”

“Hardly anyone even notices that door. If you don’t call attention to it, you won’t have a problem. And if someone does, just tell them they’re not allowed.” She scrunched up her face and pointed at him. “And say it with authority.”

“Isn’t there, like, paperwork to fill out? Or a training pamphlet or something?”

Casper felt a chill go down his back. If she had used that tone on him, he certainly wouldn’t have pressed the issue. Mrs. Shemke patted him on the shoulder again and walked away. His mind reeled with all the other questions that he didn’t have answers to. She was halfway down the block, huge bag over her shoulder, folding chair in her other hand, when he remembered the most important question.

He shouted to her, too late, “But what’s behind the door?” She just kept walking.

#

The first couple of hours weren’t so bad. Foot traffic was light, except for the occasional dog-walker or dry-cleaning customer. Casper leaned back against the door, imagining himself a bouncer at a club. A short, skinny bouncer. He tipped his fedora forward to keep the glare of the sun out of his eyes. No, not a bouncer, but an Old West gunslinger. He tested his glare on a pair of teenaged girls approaching down the sidewalk. They giggled as they passed.

Around 3:00, the school kids were out in force. And while they didn’t give him any problems with the door, a pair of boys no older than fourteen approached him to see what he was selling. He assured them that he was not a dealer. They assured him that they weren’t plants for the cops. So he tried out his best “You’re not allowed!” They rolled their eyes but left him alone after that.

After 5:00, the sidewalks surged with people returning home from work or picking up their dry cleaning. Casper noted that no one went into the wings place. He tensed and tried to stay alert for anyone who seemed overly interested in the door. Almost everyone seemed to ignore both him and the door.

… a pair of boys no older than fourteen approached him to see what he was selling.

Casper saw the pair of cops when they turned the corner and headed toward the dry cleaners. He tried to act nonchalant, tried to forget that not two hours ago, a pair of boys had mistaken him for a dealer. He reminded himself that he had a good excuse to be loitering in front of this door. After all, he had the business card with the address on it.

As they neared, one of the officers made eye contact with him. Tall and muscular with a square jaw, he would have fit right in among the superhero comics Casper had read as a kid. He felt his stomach knot into a tiny, hard ball. Just as Casper was about to launch into an explanation, the officer smiled, tipped his hat, and continued walking without a word. Casper wondered if he’d actually seen a cop smile before. He was fairly sure he hadn’t.

Soon after, the crowd began to thin. A balding Korean man closed the dry cleaner. The wing joint stayed open, but still didn’t have any customers. Now that Casper wasn’t worrying about someone trying to get past him to the door, he resumed worrying about the strangeness of the situation. He looked at the business card and called the number.

After four rings, voice mail answered — no message, just a beep.

“Hi. I started work today. At … twenty-seven fourteen Magnolia. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to start today. So … I’m here.” He paused, not sure how to continue. “Look, I have some questions. And I don’t know how to get hold of anyone. Like, who pays me? What if I need to take a day off?” He paused again. “Oh yeah, this is Caz — Casper Weeks.” He left his phone number.

A rough laugh startled him. “I wouldn’t hold my breath.” A dirty man in a long, tattered coat shambled toward him. A mangy dog, more wolf than domesticated, trailed after him. A cloud of stench, a potent mixture of body odor, wet fur, and cheap whiskey surrounded them both.

Casper took a step back. “Look man, I don’t have any money.”

The old man quickly sized him up with his too blue eyes. “Hmph. So Margie left?”

“Ummm … yeah. Why? Who’s she to you?”

The man shoved his way past Casper, and took a seat on the sidewalk, back against the door. The dog lay down beside him. “Nothin’. None of you are nothin’ to me.” He produced a tin can from inside his coat and set it down in front of him.

“Wait … you can’t just —”

“Yeah, I can. I sit here every day, from six to midnight.” Casper was unconvinced. “Don’t make me sic Dog on ya.” The dog’s ears twitched, but it didn’t bother to look up. Casper looked at his phone, wondering if he should call the number again. The man grumbled at him, “Look, kid. They’re not gonna call back. They never call back.”

“Then how do I get in touch with them?”

“You don’t. You can’t.” He adjusted his legs and leaned back even further. “The job’s real. Real as anything around here. You don’t get days off. But they’ll get a check to you every week.” An older couple walked by them and when they were a good distance away, he removed a crumpled envelope from inside his several layers of clothes. “I don’t even have an address anymore and they still find me.”

“Look, kid. They’re not gonna call back. They never call back.”

“What do you mean, they find you?”

The older man tucked the envelope away and shrugged. “I woke up this morning, and this was here. Last night, it wasn’t.” Casper looked unconvinced. The old man muttered something that could have been, “Fine, don’t believe me.”

“So, what’s so important with the door?”

The old man stood up, faster than Casper had thought possible. “How should I know?” Spit sprayed from his mouth as he shouted. “Did Burt tell you to ask me that?”

Casper held his hands up defensively and took a step back, off the curb and into the street. “Who’s Burt?”

The man’s face clenched into an angry glare. “The man with the cowboy hat. Burt. Did he send you?” Casper didn’t have time to answer. “You tell them, I never let anyone near the door.” The old man stepped closer. “And I never tried it myself.” Closer. “I don’t know what’s behind the door.” Closer. “And I don’t want to know.” The dog growled again.

A loud horn startled Casper as he almost backed into a black pickup barreling down the street. He felt the air rush by him as it passed. There was a flash in his mind, an important memory, but then it was gone.

#

“Pete wasn’t always like that. He’s changed.” Mrs. Shemke’s hands methodically worked her needle up and around, then through, then back up, while she chatted with Casper. “Believe it or not, he used to be an accountant.”

Casper sat on a stool across from her. He didn’t have a Discount World card and hadn’t gotten a paycheck yet, so he had brought an old wooden stool that served as an end table in his tiny apartment. “You’re kidding me.”

She stopped her needlepoint and looked up at him. “Swear to God. He did people’s taxes.”

“So you’ve met him?”

She nodded. “A few times. Jonesy – he worked your shift a few years back — he arranged a couple of get-togethers.” She paused, lost in thought. “At least, I think he did.”

Casper shifted on his stool, already regretting not splurging on a more comfortable chair. “How long have you been doing this?”

“About a year after my Howard passed. That would have been, what? About eight years ago.” She shook her head. “Has it been that long?” She returned her attention to her needlepoint, a horse in a pasture. After a few silent minutes, she stopped and looked up. “Howard was a good man. He was a good husband and a good father. He just wasn’t very good with money.”

She shook her head. “Has it been that long?

Casper didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded. They watched together as a well-dressed couple walked into the Caribbean Wings and Things next door. A few seconds later, they exited, checked the street sign at the intersection, and strolled back up the block to the restaurant they had meant to visit.

“Hospital bills ate up what little savings we had. And the girls both had families and money problems of their own. I didn’t know what I was going to do.” She suddenly checked her watch, then started packing her needlework away. “I remember, I was standing at the corner market, wondering how I was going to pay for what was in my basket. And a man in a cowboy hat came up to me and asked me if I needed a job.”

Casper said, “Seriously? Same guy?”

Mrs. Shemke nodded. “Same guy. I think he even hired Neal, and he’s been here longer than anyone.” Before Casper could ask, she added, “Neal works the late night shift. He’s a pip.”

Casper checked his watch. He still had a few minutes. “So, what’s behind the door?”

She looked at him seriously. “I don’t know. And you shouldn’t ask.”

“Why? Aren’t you curious?”

She retrieved the baseball cap from her bag and put it on. “No, I’m not. This is a good job, and I don’t want to risk it. Before …” Her eyes unfocused and she was silent for several moments. “Things were so hard.” Then she smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “It’s best just to forget it’s there.”

“This is all really strange.” Casper watched as Mrs. Shemke stood up slowly, then felt guilty for not helping her.

“You sound like Pete. He used to ask all kinds of questions.” She shook a finger in his face. “But then something happened, and he stopped asking questions.”

#

As promised, Casper received his paycheck at the end of the week. Later, he wouldn’t remember how exactly it had been delivered. The mail? An envelope under his door? But right now, he understood why Mrs. Shemke didn’t want to risk it. With this one paycheck, he could not only pay last month’s rent but this one’s as well. And he’d have something left over. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d had spare cash with nothing pressing to spend it on.

But the door – that still bothered him. With the money they were paying him, they could afford real security. So why him? And why pay him so much? But of all the questions, one buzzed around his head more persistently than the others: What was behind the door?

He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d had spare cash with nothing pressing to spend it on.

After just a week of gainful employment, Casper decided that he would find out. He waited until the slowest part of his shift and leaned against the door. He listened to it, but heard nothing. He casually tried the knob, but the door held fast. Of course it was locked. He waited for any sign that there might be anyone inside. But nothing happened. He lay on the pavement in front of the door and tried to peek underneath, but there was no space, not a crack, between the door and the frame.

Maybe the door was just stuck? He faced the door and grabbed the knob with both hands and tried to force it open. He leaned against the doorframe and pulled with all his might. He couldn’t even make the door rattle. It resisted, as if it were part of the wall. He noticed that a jogger across the street was watching him. Casper, hands shaking, tried to act nonchalant and sat back on his stool. The jogger continued down the street but looked back over his shoulder as he turned the corner.

Rattled, Casper tried to put the door out of his mind. It was no use. He imagined that any minute he’d get a phone call telling him he was fired. That the door was a test, and he had failed it. But there was no call, and no one paid him any more attention. That night, he imagined showing up to the door the next day to find that they had replaced him. But there was only Mrs. Shemke, working on her needlepoint.

Once he knew that he wasn’t going to be fired, Casper started checking out the surrounding businesses. After his shift, he went into Caribbean Wings and Things for dinner. The food wasn’t bad, but he was disappointed to find a plain, uninteresting wall where the door might lead. There was no interior door, no closet, nothing that gave any clue what might be next door.

The morning after that, he brought his most wrinkled clothing to drop off at the Quik Clean. The bored clerk quirked an eyebrow as she lifted a Metallica shirt out of the bunch. Casper shrugged. “It’s my favorite shirt.” He almost got thrown out when he followed the girl into the Employees Only section, but found the same thing as the wings place: another boring wall with no clue what lay behind it.

After his shift ended, he investigated the back of the building, but there were no clues to be found. Both businesses had rear entrances that led to the paved parking lot behind the building, but there was nothing between them.

#

The neighborhood was different at night. Gone was the constant drone of passing cars. Shadows covered the streets, with streetlights creating islands of light in the darkness. Casper could hear the conversation before he turned on to Magnolia Street. Two voices, both hushed but earnest.

A thin, gray-haired man sat in a folding chair in front of the door. He wore a dark jacket and slacks. Angled toward him were three other folding chairs in a semicircle. A fifth chair stood off to the side, with a simple cardboard sign that read: Free Advice, Midnight to 6AM.

A woman sat in the chair across from the gray-haired man. She wore a heavy coat, though it wasn’t particularly cold out. Dark dreadlocks spilled out from a knit cap. She turned and looked over her shoulder as she heard Casper approach. The gray-haired man held up a hand, motioning for Casper to stop, then held up two fingers: Give us two more minutes.

A thin, gray-haired man sat in a folding chair in front of the door.

Casper hung back and watched as the woman finished talking. She nodded her head slowly when the man talked back to her. Then she stood, gave him an awkward hug, and hurried away into the darkness. Once she was gone, the man motioned Casper to approach.

“Free advice?” Casper asked.

“Not much call for people to be outside this time of night, unless you’re looking for answers.”

“And you have answers?”

The man shook his head, “Not usually, no. That’s why the sign says Advice and not Answers.” He motioned for Casper to take a seat, which he did. “What’s your name?”

“Casper.”

“Ah … I was wondering when you’d come pay me a visit.” He held his hand out. “I’m Neal.”

Casper shook his hand. “You knew I was coming?”

“Mrs. Shemke told me a little about you.” Neal smiled. “She said that you’re too curious. It was only a matter of time.”

“She told me that you’ve been here longer than anyone, and I thought …” Casper leaned forward, all too aware how far their voices were carrying in the quiet night. His voice was hushed, almost a whisper. “I want to know what’s behind the door.”

Neal nodded and pressed his hands together. “Open it and find out.”

Casper swallowed. “I tried. It doesn’t open.”

“You know, years ago, Pete asked me the same thing.” He leaned forward. “He eventually found his answers, and did not like what he found. Maybe you’re better off not knowing.”

“Please, I have to know.”

Neal sat back, crossing one leg over the other. “Why does it matter so much to you?”

Casper shrugged. “It just does. It bothers me not knowing.”

Neal took a deep, sad breath. “I’m sorry. But I don’t think there’s anything I can do for you.”

#

A few weeks later, Casper played the last few guitar chords to Mrs. Shemke, his audience of one. The shiny acoustic guitar had been the second thing that he had bought himself with his newfound wealth. The first was a more comfortable chair from the Save-a-Penny.

She clapped her hands and grinned. “Say, you’re getting pretty good! I thought you didn’t know any Johnny Cash!”

“I didn’t. It just kinda came to me.” She had let it slip that she was a fan, and Casper had spent the day before tinkering around with Ring of Fire. He was able to figure it out in about an hour of trial and error.

She clapped her hands and grinned. “Say, you’re getting pretty good!”

“You’re a natural, then. That sounded just like Johnny himself.” She rocked back in her chair.

“Yeah, but I’m not. Or, at least, I wasn’t.” He thought back to the guitar lessons he took when he was twelve. After three months of mangling basic chords, he had given up. But now, in just a few weeks, he was able to play just about anything by ear.

He played every day, figuring out his favorite songs, working on a few new ones. He began to draw crowds, and starting taking requests. He wasn’t much of a singer, but he could play anything.

But everything changed the next afternoon. There was a group of construction workers in his audience; the wings place had finally closed down, and the new owner was doing some renovation. Casper noticed that some of the workers spent more time in his audience than on the job, and wondered idly if he was being a bad neighbor.

He was in the middle of a Bob Dylan set when a loud rumble erupted, followed quickly by a deep tremor that almost knocked Casper out of his chair. He steadied himself and took a few deep breaths to slow his racing heart.

He then realized that his audience looked at him, wide-eyed and worried. They hadn’t heard the sound, hadn’t felt the vibration. Shaken, Casper couldn’t continue playing. After a few moments of awkward excuses, the audience dispersed, and the construction workers went back inside the old wings joint.

It was only after everyone had left that Casper noticed it. He saw that there was a slight crack between the door — his door— and the frame. It wasn’t open enough for Casper to see what was behind it, but the door was open.

#

Casper sat in the folding chair across from Neal. Neal settled back and said, “Mrs. Shemke told me you played some Johnny Cash for her. That was thoughtful.” His smile faded and he grew serious. “Something’s changed?”

Casper simply answered, “The door.”

Neal nodded solemnly, “But you still have questions?”

Casper didn’t respond. He just stared at the ground between them.

Neal sighed. “I’ll tell you what I can. But before I do, tell me why.”

Casper started to answer, then stopped himself. Answers danced around in his head, but he had trouble settling on the right one. Neal waited patiently as Casper considered his question. “Things … they’re too easy here.”

Neal continued to wait in silence.

“We get paid to sit here and guard a door no one cares about. I pick up a guitar and learn how to play in less than a month. People smile at me, notice me. It’s like I matter here.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

Casper shook his head, feeling stupid. “No, not at all. But life isn’t this easy. So what is this?”

“Ah, now that’s the real question, isn’t it?” Neal leaned forward again, resting his elbows on his knees. He craned his head up and said, “I have a story to tell you. Will you listen?”

“People smile at me, notice me. It’s like I matter here.”

Casper nodded.

“Years ago, there was a doctor, a somnologist. That’s an expert on sleep. He knew more about sleep than almost anyone else in the world. Very well respected, very famous. And every night, he monitored people in their sleep. Every day, he consulted with people who had sleep issues. He did little else. His work was his life.

“One of the ironic things about sleep, though, is that knowing everything about it doesn’t help you actually do it. The doctor began having problems sleeping. He would start to drift off and would catch himself thinking about the chemical reactions in his brain and which hormones were being released into his system. He would recall all the things that could go wrong. He slept less and less every night as he obsessed about it more and more. And one night, he couldn’t sleep at all.”

Casper asked, “What did he do?”

“He was arrogant and refused to seek any outside help. He worried about his reputation, and he feared being humiliated. So he started medicating himself. He slept again, for a while, but he began to build up a tolerance to the drugs. So he took stronger drugs, and more of them. And he never asked for any help.

“He became overly dependent on the drugs, addicted. And inevitably, he was found out. He lost his job, his license, even most of his friends. The reputation he was so concerned about was ruined. Without a license, he could no longer work. He lost everything he cared about.” He stopped, leaned back, breathed in the cool night air. Then he shrugged and continued, “Then, one night, he took an entire bottle of sleeping pills.”

Casper sat back, trying to digest the story and what it meant. He waited for Neal to continue, but soon realized there was no more. “That’s horrible. But what does that have to do with me?”

“That man who lost everything, he doesn’t exist anymore. The next thing he remembered, he was offered a job. And now he spends every night on a folding chair, guarding a door and giving out free advice.”

Casper held his breath, then let it out slowly. “Is that all real?”

Neal shrugged. “I think so. I can’t be sure. Things here …” he waved his arms around him “… can be pretty fuzzy, especially about the past.” Another long pause. “But what I can tell you is that I have slept like a baby every day since I took this job.”

“So you’re telling me that I should just be OK with things?”

Neal shook his head. “We all have our stories, Casper. I can’t tell you what you should do. I can only guess why you’re here. You asked me a question — one you already know the answer to. So I told you my story.”

“We all have our stories, Casper. I can’t tell you what you should do. I can only guess why you’re here.

Casper stood, unsure. A cold breeze cut through the street, and he felt the flash of a memory. A truck horn. A black truck. An impact. Then it was gone.

Casper stepped forward, around Neal’s chair and stood at the door. He asked, “Why don’t you go back?”

“It won’t open for me.” Neal stood and stepped next to Casper. He grabbed the doorknob and suddenly, the door was closed fast. Neal stepped back, and the door was open again, just a crack. He explained, “Like I said, I took a lot of pills.”

Casper said, “Tell the others that I said goodbye, would ya?”

Neal nodded.

Casper opened the door. A rush of air hissed past him. The room beyond was dark and cool, with only a rhythmic, electronic beeping cutting through the silence. The door closed silently behind him.

Then he opened his eyes.

Philip W. Allen is a writer and software engineer living in Seattle with his wife and two cats. He writes fantasy and science fiction and hopes to make the world just a little bit weirder.