The Door That’s Always Closed ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
My name is Charles Anson. I moved in with my mother in her apartment after my father died. At first I hated the idea of living with her at the age of thirty-seven, but soon I got used to it and thought of her home as my home. And I have to admit my life was easier than when I had my own place. My mother had a cook and housekeeper, so I no longer had to buy my own food or cook it and no longer had to do any housecleaning, which I was never very good at anyway.
My mother didn’t give birth to me until her mid-forties, so to me she seemed old before her time. She had developed a bad heart in the years after my father’s death and told me she was happy to have me there with her—I was her only family that counted, she said—even though we argued quite a lot at times about my drinking habits and the late hours I sometimes kept. My mother had a bad temper, which my father could have told you about if he had still been alive. I remember when I was little and heard them fighting late at night. It wasn’t unusual to hear glass breaking or wood splintering. When my father got enough of being goaded, he would end up breaking something. In the morning when I asked about whatever it was that got broken, my mother would laugh and say my father had a little accident while sleepwalking. I knew it wasn’t the truth but it was a good way to gloss over an ugly situation.
I went to work every day and when I came home my mother was there and dinner on the table and all was well. After dinner, I would usually step out if I felt like it, and I see now that my mother was a little jealous that I didn’t spend all my time with her when I wasn’t working. She watched movies on television and she was always happy to have me watch with her, but it wasn’t my idea of a good time. I could only take so many Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movies.
Most of the time when I came home from a night on the town, sometimes at one or two in the morning, my mother would have all the lights on in the place and also the TV but would have retired to her room. This made her feel safer when she was alone, she said. I would turn everything off, starting with the TV, and make my way to bed, sleep for about four hours, get up and begin my day all over again, as so many of us working stiffs do. My mother had told me I didn’t even need to work, that she had plenty of money for us both to live on, but I couldn’t see myself hanging around all day with just her to talk to and having to ask her for money anytime I wanted to go out and have a few drinks.
On weekends I always tried to spend either Saturday or Sunday with my mother, just the two of us. She liked to go for a drive and I would very often take her to the cemetery where my father was and take her to a hamburger place for lunch. If it was a Sunday, we would try to take in a museum or a concert. If we ever went to a movie, she always said she preferred seeing movies on TV, and when I told her most people who liked movies wanted to see them at the theatre and not on TV, she only shook her head as if she didn’t understand.
“Movies today are not like the old ones they have on TV,” she said.
“To each his own,” I said.
All in all, my life was agreeable. I didn’t spend most of the money I made so I was able to invest. The market was doing well, so I did well. I didn’t miss the things I didn’t have that other people had, like a marriage and children. I had learned early in life that not everybody in the world is the same and I found it out more and more as I got older.
My mother went on for years with her bad heart, but she came to a point where she couldn’t go on any longer. She looked pale and drawn all the time and spent most of her time lying down. She stopped fixing herself up and having her hair done up. Most days she didn’t even bother to get dressed.
She went to the hospital for a few days and when she came home she swore she would never go back, no matter what. She wanted to be in the privacy of her own home and not have a bunch of strangers around her at the end. I hired a nurse to be with her during the day when I was at work and another at night. They just did their work quietly and effectively and didn’t bother me. I paid them when the time came and left them to do whatever needed to be done.
I decided to quit my job in early summer. I didn’t need to work, as I said before, and all the time I was away I was worried that the end would come for my mother and I wouldn’t be there when she needed me. I dismissed both nurses and told them I would take over from there.
My mother moved into one of the guest bedrooms—she didn’t want to mess up her own room where all her treasures were—and became entirely bedridden. Her doctor sympathized with her desire to be at home and gave me lots of pills to give to her. He told me I didn’t have to hold back in administering her medicine and nobody would ever know the difference. I knew what he was talking about without having it explained.
We kept her heavily sedated and I knew she wasn’t in any pain. Every so often she would open her eyes and look at me and I knew she was happy with the way things had turned out. She drifted away peacefully on a blazing day in August. She was breathing and then she wasn’t.
Now, when a loved one dies, there are things that need to be done. I was supposed to call the doctor and get a death certificate and then call the funeral home and have them come and get her. I found I wasn’t able to do those things, though. I could not speak the words to anybody that she was gone. All I did was close the door and lock it. I placed a beautiful Chinese screen she was fond of in front of the door to make it look like there was no door there at all.
I knew it was wrong to just leave my mother in the room that way, but it seemed the only thing I could do. I was distraught. My world had been ripped asunder. How could I go on living day after day, year after year? I had nothing to live for.
I kept the apartment dark and I started drinking heavily and taking my mother’s pills. If I didn’t know what they were for, it didn’t make any difference. If I took too many and went to sleep and didn’t wake up, it was all the same to me. I was in a state between living and dying. Time lost all meaning for me.
Then, after two weeks or so, I suppose I snapped out of it, at least partway. I looked at myself in the mirror and vomited. After that, I cleaned myself up and went out and had a good meal in a restaurant. The next day I hired some cleaning people to come in and clean the apartment and air everything out from top to bottom. Except for the room my mother was in, of course.
I began eating regular meals again and gained some weight. I bought some cook books and learned to fix dishes I had never fixed before, like leg of lamb and Hungarian goulash. I bought myself some new clothes and began going out more, but always alone.
In the evenings I would pass the time reading novels, listening to classical music or watching old movies on TV as my mother had loved to do. I became as knowledgeable in movie lore as she had ever been. I saw all the films of Ramon Novarro and Ruth Chatterton. Kay Francis came to seem like an old friend.
To keep from feeling so alone, I bought a life-sized human female doll. It was supposed to be a young and beautiful woman, of course, a substitute companion for lonely men, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted it to resemble my mother. I put makeup on it to make it look older, put one of my mother’s wigs on it and dressed it in my mother’s clothes. I created an illusion. At night in the dark, with just the light from the TV screen, I would have sworn it was her sitting there if I hadn’t known better. I know she would have been pleased.
From there I took the next logical step and began dressing in her clothes myself. It made me feel close to her as though I were absorbing her essence into my body. She wasn’t a rotting corpse behind a closed door. She was right there with me and had been all the time.
After I dressed in her clothing a few times, I started experimenting with makeup. I applied it to my own face exactly as she would have applied it to her face. She had a couple of wigs on the top shelf of her closet and I got them down and tried them with different outfits. I would spend the entire day dressed as her. If it made me feel better and less alone, what did it hurt?
As I stood and looked at myself in her full-length mirror, I realized for the first time how much like her I was. My face was the same shape as hers, down to the dimple in my chin, and I had the same coloring. My beard stubble was light and nonexistent for at least a day after I shaved. I was the embodiment of my mother. I saw nothing of my father in me. He had been large with fleshy ears and a nose like a lump of cauliflower. When I was a child, I used to wonder how the two of them ever came to be together.
I spent hours practicing her walk, her laugh, the way she spoke, lit a cigarette or downed her vodka and tonic. I could match her signature so well that the most highly trained handwriting expert in the world would never have been able to tell the difference. But for whom was I doing all this? Was it was just tricks to be performed for my own amusement or was it something else?
One day when I was feeling brave and more than a little bold I decided to try a little experiment. Dressed as my mother—in her clothes, shoes, wig, hat and coat—I went down in the elevator and down the street to the market on the corner and bought a bag of groceries. I expected people to look at me and know I wasn’t what, or who, I appeared to be. If anybody noticed me at all, though, they looked away without giving me a thought. It was exactly the effect I hoped for.
On my way home, a neighbor woman stopped me on the sidewalk. She put her hand on my arm and leaned in familiarly.
“I heard you were sick,” she said. “I’m glad to see you looking so well.”
“I’m much better now,” I (my mother) said. “My son has been taking care of me.”
I began going out more as my mother. People who had known her for years weren’t able to tell the difference. I kept them from looking at me too closely but, even if they had, I don’t think they would have suspected anything. People see what they want to see and are not all that observant.
Take my mother’s lawyer, for example. He had some documents he wanted her to sign. Now, my mother and her lawyer had known each since high school. Making him believe I was her would be the ultimate test. I was sure I could do it but I was little anxious he would take one look at me and know I was somebody other than my mother. Would he then think I had murdered her or something equally bizarre? I knew I was taking a chance, but I was willing to risk it.
I didn’t need to worry. The lawyer held onto my gloved hand longer than was needed and led me to a chair in front of his desk.
“I’ve never seen you looking so radiant,” he said.
“Why, thank you!”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Lots of broccoli and blueberries.”
“It has to be more than that.”
“Well, we all have our little secrets.”
“You can’t fool me about your age. I know exactly how old you are because I’m the same age.”
“It’s only a number,” I (my mother) said. “I stopped counting a long time ago.”
After I signed the papers, he invited me to lunch but I lied and told him I had an appointment to see my doctor. I wasn’t sure I could keep up the illusion through a long, liquor-infused sit-down.
When I went out of the apartment now, about half the time it was as my mother. People were attentive and polite to a well-dressed woman alone. I got the best tables in restaurants and some man or other was always more than willing to give me a seat on a crowded subway or bus. People lit my cigarettes, opened doors for me and held elevators. I could always get a smile out of even the most sour-faced old buzzard.
Sometimes, but not often, I thought about my mother lying on the bed in that room behind the screen. I couldn’t visualize her as a rotting corpse. You hear stories about a dead body being closed up in a house and people realizing it’s there only because they can smell it. There had been no odors in my apartment and no complaints from any of the neighbors. I had heard stories about the bodies of saints that aren’t subject to the laws of decay. I could almost believe that my mother was one of those. Wondrous are the workings of heaven and not of nature.
I dreamed often about my mother, a happy dream in which I could hear her voice and see her laughing face. She was always excited about something she had seen or read, a trip she was taking, a play she was going to or an old friend she had met again by chance. She was the only truly good person I had ever known. Everybody loved her.
When I was myself, Charles, I felt dull and uninteresting. My clothes were ill-fitting, no matter how much I paid for them or with what care I chose them. In conversation I was a nonentity. I had nothing to say to people and no desire to be with them.
I went to a lecture on Nebuchadnezzar at a museum, not as my mother but as myself. There I ran into an old acquaintance named Hulga Bosworth. We had dated for a while right after college. It was never what I would have called a romance but more just something I did back then because it’s what everybody else was doing. Hulga told me she had been married and divorced two times. When I asked her if she thought she was ever going to get it right, she just laughed.
She gave me her phone number and a few days later, when I was feeling low, I called her and we spent the next couple of hours filling each other in on our lives. We went out to dinner the next day and a couple of days after that we went to a piano recital. She told me on our second outing that she had never stopped thinking about me and hoped we would somehow meet again. When I said I was surprised that she had ever given me another thought, she laughed and said my modesty was one of the things she had always loved about me.
Hulga and I started spending a lot of time together. Since we were both alone, getting married seemed the next logical step. I wasn’t in love with her but we were compatible and I didn’t relish the idea of spending the rest of my life with nobody to talk to or eat dinner with. When I asked her if she’d like to get married, she didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
It wasn’t to be, though. When she told me I would have to give up my apartment, I refused.
“But darling,” she said, “we don’t need ten rooms for just the two of us.”
“I’m not moving,” I said. “This is my mother’s apartment. She expects me to keep it up while she’s away.”
“Isn’t your name on the lease?”
“It doesn’t matter if it is or not. I’m not moving.”
“You’re being childish.”
“Women always think that men are being childish when they refuse to take orders.”
We had a terrible argument, during which she demanded that I open the door to the room behind the Chinese screen.
“It hasn’t been opened in years,” I said.
“I want to see what’s in it.”
“Maybe it’s none of your business. Did you ever think of that?”
“It seems that since we’re to be married, your business is my business.”
“Not always,” I said.
She cried and threw an expensive vase at me and stormed out the door. The next day when she called to apologize I wouldn’t take her call or the calls that came after.
It was for the best, I knew. I didn’t want to enter into a bad marriage and then have to end up giving her half of everything I owned in a divorce settlement.
After that I drowned Charles in the bathtub, burning his tuxedo as a symbolic gesture, and lived my life as Margaret, mother of Charles. I never did like Charles anyway and I was sure nobody else did. But I continued in the hope that someday there would be somebody for me. If not my mother then somebody like her. Somebody to close the door and lock it when the time came and make sure nobody ever got in.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp