Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"The Broken Door"

The apartment building I lived in while growing up had the most remarkable door. It had four doors, really - a set of double doors, with a single door to either side - but it was the door on the left that had the special qualities. Those qualities came to life one summer when management hired Joe Potts as the resident doorman.

Mr. Potts, or Doorman Joe as us kids affectionately called him, had been afflicted with spinal tuberculosis as a youth. The infection had caused his spine to deform, giving him a humpbacked appearance. His mobility was severely limited as a result, but he could stand well enough, and though his movements weren't crisp and snappy as with the doormen of the fancy hotels downtown, Doorman Joe had a talent for opening doors.

Joe's talent wasn't obvious to most of those who lived there. He was an unassuming man, very polite, but quiet. Most of the residents had only a passing relationship with him, exchanging nods and pleasantries while studiously avoiding any stray glance at his physical deformity. Certainly none of them ever asked him about it; it would have been too socially "gauche." As children, we had no such reservations.

Doorman Joe had been more than happy to tell us about his condition. He had a special fondness for us children, perhaps because once we understood his deformity was only physical, we never thought about it again.

Joe was a great listener. While other adults only pretended to listen when we spoke, Joe paid rapt attention. We shared our joys, our fears, our hopes and expectations. Joe never judged us. He gave advice from time to time, but never in a way that felt like we were being lectured. We loved him, and we knew that he loved us.

Because we were so comfortable around him, much of our play took place near the front of the apartment building. The lease strictly prohibited loitering in that area, but Joe was never one to enforce that particular rule when it came to us. In fact, Joe encouraged it.

I said he had a talent for opening doors. This was particularly true with The Broken Door. The Broken Door was the leftmost door of the four when you stood outside the building. It featured a large sign that read "Out of Order - Use Other Doors." At some point in the past the building's foundation had shifted just enough to wedge the door shut. The Door was never locked. It had no need to be. I watched person after person try to open that door - those who were either too stupid or too stubborn to pay attention to the sign. No one ever could - except Doorman Joe. Somehow he managed to position himself just right, and the Door would open. All us kids watched him do it over and over again. Joe took great pleasure from opening the Door, letting it self-close, and then watching the group of us try to open it again, all to no avail.

We asked Joe how he did it. He simply shrugged.

"It's a magic door," he said. "When opened properly, it can take you anywhere you want to go."

Of course we didn't believe him, at first. We needed a demonstration. Joe smiled.

"Where do you want to go?" he asked. There were shouts of Florida and the Zoo. "Surely you can do better than that," he said.

I had just read a story about King Arthur and Excalibur. "Camelot!" I exclaimed.

"Now that is a place worth going," Doorman Joe said. He opened the door, and we flew through it. We spent the afternoon in Camelot, joined with the Knights of the Round Table in fighting for liberty and equality. Queen Gwenevere played with Arthur and Lancelot, though no kissing took place. (We were too young to go that far, even when in Camelot.)

Joe opened the Door for us each day after that. We visited a multitude of fantastic places, from pirate coves to fairy castles, the depths of the ocean to the alien vistas of Mars. There was nowhere The Broken Door couldn't take us, and no matter how far we went we were always in reach of our mothers' calls for supper. It was childhood bliss.

An incident just a few weeks before summer's end changed all that.

We were playing out front as was our habit. Keith Fletcher had joined us that day, an occurance that was unusual all by itself. Keith had a tendency to be clumsy. He was constantly falling down the stairs and running into things. Most of us wore the bumps and bruises from such events as badges of honor; Keith tried to hide his beneath long sleeves and sunglasses. His parents kept him inside most of the time. It was a rare treat when Keith got to join us.

On this particular day, Keith's father came home from work early. Keith's expression spoke volumes. He wasn't supposed to be outside, and he had been caught. Mr. Fletcher seized Keith by the arm and jerked him onto his toes. Keith cried out.

"What are you doing out here?" Mr. Fletcher demanded. "You're supposed to be inside!"

I didn't like the look on Mr. Fletcher's face. Neither did Doorman Joe.

"Take your hand off the boy." Joe's voice was quiet, but it contained a note of anger I had never heard from him before.

"Mind your own business, cripple," Mr. Fletcher said. "He's my son and I'll do with him as I please."

"Release him now, or I'll call the authorities."

Mr. Fletcher threw Keith to the ground. He landed hard, skinning the palms of his hands.

"Get inside, son. We'll have a lot to discuss when I'm through with this."

Keith picked himself up, tears streaming down his face. He made a beeline for the Door. He didn't look up as Joe let him in.

Mr. Fletcher squared himself. He was a big man, much bigger than Doorman Joe.

"Are we going to have a problem here?" Mr. Fletcher asked, rubbing his fist into his palm.

Joe remained silent. Mr. Fletcher smirked. "Then we're done here.

He moved for the center doors. Doorman Joe stepped in front of him.

"Get out of my way, cripple."

"That door is broken today," Joe said. "We're using this one instead."

Joe opened The Broken Door. Mr. Fletcher stepped through the doorway. Joe followed him through, and closed it behind.

No one saw either Mr. Fletcher or Doorman Joe again after that. The police came and questioned everyone in the building, but could garner no clues. We tried to explain to them about The Broken Door, but as no one could open it, our accounts were quickly dismissed. After a week the police gave up. Mr. Fletcher and Joe were gone; it couldn't be explained.

A new doorman was hired soon after. Doorman Scott didn't like kids. He strictly enforced building policy, and we were forced to find other places to play. It didn't matter. We had learned what we needed from Doorman Joe.

I visited the old neighborhood today. I was surprised to discover they had demolished the apartment complex to build modern condominiums. It made me sad briefly. I had spent such a happy summer there once. It had changed my life.

As I drove away, I realized that it didn't really matter about the apartments. The building was gone, but the memories, they live on. As does the secret of the Door.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was very well done. I enjoyed your tale of Doorman Joe