IN the latest instalment of our short story series The Write Stuff, we showcase the work of US-born Scottish writer Elizabeth Reeder.
Clayton had built doors of all types: front doors, trap doors, cabinet doors, copper doors for a still. He built them often for himself, sometimes for neighbours, and he usually thought of a door as something you opened, something you shut.
Tonight his neighbour Sophie was keeping her door closed against a man who had screeched up her drive and shouted threats while pounding on her door and calling her rude names. Clayton, sitting out on his porch, turned to look towards her house, which sat across a thin field, his field, and he saw it all: the man with his tight, raged body and how he pounded and shouted and then how he went and sat in his car, revved the engine a few times, then fell silent.
Clayton’s skin bristled and the rat tat tat of his pulse did not slow, but rather pressed harder and faster as night fell and that shadow remained in his neighbour’s driveway. No action is ever simple. An open door is an invitation and a risk and yet behind closed doors, such violence and such love.
Doors keep out wind and rain and prying eyes, sure they do, and he knew what people might think about him with his binoculars to his eyes, but his intentions were good, his actions too. Good enough, anyway. Clayton stood up, opened his screen door and then the front door and, as he stepped through into the hall, one fell shut on a good spring, the other he pushed closed behind him. He turned the lock over. He went to the back door and locked that too, even the crappy hook-catch on the screen door.
Clayton kept the windows open and sat by the phone by the bed in case she called, in case Sophie or her girls called out. His phone was a chunky, old dial phone that didn’t need electricity or anything fancy. A reliable phone. He called her, asked if she was okay. Sure, honey, that’s sweet of you. Just empty threats. You go to sleep, we’re fine.
He lay on the bed, still dressed, shoes waiting by the front door, and he remembered a story Joe told him once. At the time Clayton had thought it was about loss, but now he was thinking it might be about something else.
He’d met Joe at a farmer’s market in Iowa City where Clayton had paid for a stall and put up a card table covered with a tablecloth his mother had brought with her to her marriage. Although a bit worn in places, it was neat and he’d ironed it before he’d put in on the passenger seat of his truck. He had his produce laid out, an early summer harvest, and a few bottles of his own rye whiskey. This was a start.
Joe was in town visiting his sister and her family, and was holding a reedy bunch of sunflowers and a half-eaten bundle of candy-floss. As he stood at Clayton’s stall, six-foot-four, with browned, calloused hands, a child would come by and hand him something else to hold or tug on his belt-loop to come and see something, right this minute. He’d allow himself to be led and then he’d come back. He bought some green beans and a narrow bottle of Clayton’s finest.
‘So, you came all the way from Walker County.’
‘That’s right,’ replied Clayton.
Joe worked for a variety of friends and bosses, when they needed someone strong and able. Clayton could use someone like that, he said, and a season or two later Joe had shown up early in March and at the end of a hard day’s work he sat in Clayton’s dad’s chair and Clayton in his own and although the two men weren’t talkers, they did pass time together easily enough.
A few weeks into his first stint on Clayton’s farm, sitting out there on the porch, Joe talked about a white stucco family home on a corner plot on a street with winter-browned lawns, beaten down by frost. Just outside of Milwaukee, he said. He’d been home visiting his parents, who were older and ageing like penguins on the ice, and he and his sister had had to help them move to a small apartment all on one floor, for their own good. They’d sold the old family house in the process and a few hearts held aches about it all.
It was between Christmas and New Year the following year and they’d have assumed, if any of them had been thinking about it at all, that this modest house was as it had been for the past 100 years – a bit worn, with faulty wiring, mice in the basement – but at five pm on the 30th of December this house, which was no longer theirs, was a mere hour away from complete demolition; with the wrecking crew having gone home for the night, all was quiet. How did Joe come to know this? His elderly father had fallen at lunch, hitting his lower back on a chair as he went down, and after only a few hours a bruise the size of a watermelon blossomed on his back. He’d been trying to talk to his son about something, but it was the holidays, and with all the kids running around, mother frantic, and the place being so small, they had not had time to just sit and talk.
Swing by the old house, the father said to his son, on the way back to their new apartment after their visit to his doctor. And this was what they saw: six concrete stairs led up to the front of the house, with the left hand metal railing still intact, and on the north end a single-room addition still sat. Behind the stairs and the temporarily reprieved room, in a pile of rubble a storey high, was the rest of the house, broken apart and pushed together, boards at every angle, plaster, and an odd window frame or glimpse of wallpaper that was familiar. This was a family home containing thirty-six years of living. His dad looked older than even a few minutes ago. On top of the rubble, beyond the stairs, was a pale green door.
‘What door is that?’
‘I have no idea.’ The father looked over the house, his eyes moving slowly as if what he saw made the looking painful, but he did not flinch and he did not look away. ‘This is something I’d never thought I’d see.’
Neither man was sentimental nor liable to believe in symbols or give meaning to something so everyday as a building being destroyed and yet there was a crush in the car, each man made smaller by what they saw. Joe sat until their breathing steadied and synched and then drove away.
Early the next morning he stopped by the old house armed with a camera. The stairs and the addition were already gone and the demolished pile was being displaced into the bed of a flatbed truck. There was no sign of the mysterious door.
Joe had helped Clayton on the farm for three years, spring into the autumn. He was a good worker on the land, so he worked outside and was personable with the other workers Clayton would bring in, in busy times. A moderate drinker, partial to the younger bourbon, he left Clayton’s older, ageing stock of whiskey undiminished. They worked well together; there were rumours, some of them were true. After the town’s talk took a firmer shape, perhaps of a hand beginning to clench into a fist, Joe simply didn’t come back. Clayton kept a room ready, and a list of things to do, which he ended up doing himself. For a few years after, he’d hired on young Billy Taylor who had hopes of running his family’s farm, one day.
The way Joe told the story of the house it was if the threat of destruction had pulsed through his childhood, through his worry about his dad, about everything, and kept him from making decisions. Once it was demolished, he said he could see how to become a man. This is what he said: childhood was over, dad gone, there was nothing to return to, no one to ask for advice. That past was a closed system he couldn’t affect. That’s what he said, when he saw the house in ruins, his childhood was finally over.
Clayton listened to the night and to the old dial phone on the nightstand that had nothing to say. The night broke in his head so bright in its noises, which many call silences, that when the pounding started again sometime near dawn, in bursts like gunfire, he almost heard them as natural too. His body knew better and he was outside and striding towards Sophie’s house knowing that the present was open and that the door would hold until he got there.
• Elizabeth Reeder is originally from Chicago but now calls Scotland home. Her short writing has been widely published in journals and anthologies and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as stories, drama, and abridgements. Her debut novel, Ramshackle, is published by Freight Books and was shortlisted for the 2013 Scottish Mortgage Investment Best First Book Award, the 2012 Saltire First Book Award, and longlisted for the 2013 Author’s Club Best First book. Her second novel, Fremont, is published by Kohl Publishing. She teaches on the Creative Writing Programme at University of Glasgow.