Discover more from The Neon Church
How did Howard's life turn out like this? A grinding job in a ground-down town, in a story from THE LAND OF CLOSED DOORS.
The moon’s up over the streetlights. The early morning sky an Easter egg out of the dye too soon. Howard drives to work, alone.
He doesn’t look in the rear view mirror.
The road a series of lazy swells. Up and down in county-approved grades. The tires hum over the pavement, newly replaced. The engine hums, the air drafting over the windscreen hums. He thinks of the road as a frozen wave, where the tide never comes in.
Coffee in a paper cup in the console next to him. A stopper in the plastic lid. At a red light he lets his fingers drift against the side of the cup. Too hot to drink now. It will be fine after he gets to the office.
The light changes.
Old truck laden with farm tools in front of him, ten under the speed limit. He stays behind the truck. Gives it a good distance. Drivers duck out from behind Howard and into the other lane. Each new car chewing the exhaust of the one before. Only a couple miles. There’s no reason to hurry.
He pulls off and down the drive to work. Past the gatehouse, the gate left open. Security guard inside watching something on a laptop, shine brightens his face. Styrofoam cup to his lips as he blows steam off the surface. Howard nocks a two-fingered salute from his brow. The guard doesn’t look.
He drives down the road past the office buildings. They are all the same, except they aren’t.
Howard sits in the parked car. Coffee cooling. His computer bag in his lap. On the seat next to him, a smaller bag. Inside is a pad of thick paper. Solid graphite pencils. Seven dice. Reference pictures printed out at home. Headphones. Cards cut out with scissors, printed on plain paper, curling at the edges.
Coffee cools ten degrees while he looks at the satchel.
He opens the door. Takes his laptop bag with him, and locks the door.
He makes it ten steps before he turns around.
Howard walks another five before stopping.
Just go get it, he thinks.
He wants to.
Just get it. Open the door, and get it, and take it inside.
His stomach hurts.
Howard slumps. His shoulders drop. Bruise forms in his stomach.
At the far end of the empty parking lot a car turns in. Howard turns on his heel and walks toward the office. The car behind him, satchel on the seat, tugging on the bruise with its own gravity.
Puts his tongue between his right molars and bites down.
This doesn’t help me, he thinks. It doesn’t help.
He walks away.
You fucking coward.
Don’t think that. It doesn’t help.
You fucking coward. You goddamn fucking coward.
He falls to the office one step at a time.
Plume of smoke blossoms in front of the building’s door. A stab in his stomach until Howard sees the man leaning against the building. The man’s tall—top of his head higher than the door frame—and built wide. Howard gets closer and he can see how smooth and young the man’s skin looks. It’s the color of coffee with a little bit of milk in it. Howard thinks it and then tries to un-think it. Queasy sensation that someone could call him a racist drips onto him.
The man leans against the building and takes another drag as Howard gets closer.
Howard keeps his eyes on the door. A hand on his phone in his pocket, in case he needs to pretend he’s on a call. He thinks about calling his wife but it’s too late now, he’s too close. So instead the edges of the phone case bite his fingers.
The man’s skin might look young but his eyes
it’s like Howard steps out of his body for a moment
The man has eyes like closed doors.
The man smokes a cigarette with no filter. It’s casually perched between his index and middle fingers. No one smokes anymore—not the paper ones, at least, Howard’s seen some of the younger guys gathered around the fire escape with their electronic boxes vaping giant pillowy clouds from their open mouths—and Howard’s never seen this man before.
The man is angles and parabolic trajectories of muscle beneath his skin. His cream t-shirt is snug around his upper body. Untucked hem hangs above broken-in khakis above black-and-white sneakers, the old kind, with the flat soles.
Howard lets go of his phone, suddenly aware of his hand in his pocket. Aware of his soft middle, his slouched posture, the tightness in his lungs, all he’s done is walk from his goddamn car to the door. He’s fat and out-of-shape but let’s be honest, was he ever really in shape? He grabs his wallet, his building keycard in the first slot. Pulls it from his pocket and the liner of his pocket comes with it. He moves to free it with his other hand, but there’s a cup of coffee in it, and the coffee sloshes toward the cheap plastic lid, funneled up through the pinhole mouth piece to splash on his shirt. Howard jerks his hand and spills more coffee.
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
Great fucking day.
“You all right?” the man says.
“I’m great,” Howard says.
And it’s like he can hear the guy nod and turn away.
Howard gets his wallet out, buzzes himself in. The coffee chills his gut. The motions empty now. He’s empty now. Goes to his office, puts his shit down, goes to the bathroom, wipes a wet paper towel on the coffee but it just spreads the wetness around and makes him colder, now it looks like he fucking drooled everywhere or spilled a whole goddamn bottle on himself, fucking idiot. Goddamn stupid fucking idiot. Howard, you goddamn stupid—
He makes eye contact with his reflection in the mirror.
His eyes are open doors.
The workday goes by like every other workday.
The same minutes, the same seconds.
He doesn’t daydream about his youth. Why would he? He’s married, has two children. He loves his family. Why spend time thinking about the misery before all that.
It’s not like anything has really changed.
Workday’s over like it always is, emails left unread, notes on his desk, voicemail light blinking. He needs to call IT and get them to reset his password. Then he’ll listen to his messages. He’ll call tomorrow. He grabs his bag and heads out the door. Immediately turns around to get his keys off the desk, his pen, the other pen that he actually uses because the first one is his favorite, he picks up the drink from lunch and tosses it in the trash, leaves the puddle of condensation behind.
When Howard was young, he realized he would always be alone.
When Howard grew older, he realized he was right.
He walks out the front door and there he is again. The black man smoking.
Shakes his head. Why did he think of him like that?
“Hello again,” the man says.
“Hello,” Howard says.
Man puts the unfiltered cigarette between his lips and reaches out his hand. “Jerzy,” he says.
His lips turn up around the butt of the cigarette. His teeth gleam. “My name is Jerzy.”
“I’m Howard,” Howard says.
He reaches out and shakes the man’s hand.
The man’s skin is smooth, and his hand is warm. They’re soft. Not like Howard’s—not lumps that never do anything, but supple, like good gloves.
Jerzy takes his hand back. There’s a light in his eyes in front of the closed doors. “Anyone I see twice, I introduce myself.”
“Okay,” Howard says.
“Where do you work?” Howard says.
He realizes how it sounds. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean.” Jerzy says it flat, out of the corner of his mouth. He hooks a thumb over his shoulder. “Two buildings down. Renovating some offices. They don’t want to watch me smoke, so I walk down here.” He plucks the cigarette from between his lips, keeps it nestled between index and middle finger. “Blueprinter will show the nicotine anyway.”
Howard nods, like he understands, but he doesn’t.
Jerzy nods, because he knows Howard doesn’t understand.
Howard looks at him. “What?”
“Do you smoke?” Jerzy says again.
“Oh,” Howard says. “No.”
Jerzy shakes his head. “Yeah. It’s not good for you.”
He stubs out his cigarette against the wall. Keeps the butt. “Back to it,” he says.
“Yeah,” Howard says.
Jerzy pushes against the wall of the building and it pushes back. He walks away.
Howard drives home.
What’s wrong with me? he thinks.
Besides everything else, he thinks.
He almost tells his wife, but he doesn’t.
What would he say?
I met a black man today.
Stupid, he thinks. Stupid, stupid asshole.
Besides, she’s busy with the kids, with her job, with the things around the house Howard doesn’t help with.
Cooking, cleaning dishes, laundry, bedtime. Scrubbing the bathtub. Vacuuming.
He sits on the toilet for forty-five minutes because no one will ask him to get up.
At the end of the night he lies in bed against his wife. She snores gently. She’s warm and soft and he wants to initiate—something—she has said he should be more direct, but how direct? Roll her over and say I want a blowjob? Go down on me? S—
He turns over and stares at the broken segments of the numbers on the clock.
He dreams of viscera. Tentacles and beaks.
Howard drives to work with something in his eye. It nags at the outside corner the whole time. He listens to music and thinks about rolling the window down, but who is he going to impress with this? Who would care?
He remembers a time—back in college—at the movie theater. He’d gone by himself. Came out in mid-afternoon and the radio station remote truck was next to his car. He turned up the volume before he played a CD. Back when CDs were a thing. He opened his windows, his sunroof. In hindsight he wanted to be noticed, be praised for his taste in music. To anyone else he probably just looked like an asshole.
He thinks about it and the shame is just as fresh as it was back then.
Car rolls past an empty field with a COMING SOON sign in front of it, mist drizzled atop it like marshmallows on sweet potato casserole. From the corner of his eye people walk in the mist, but they are made of mist, too tall and too skinny and too many limbs. He reaches a fingertip to the corner of his eye and it still itches, the itch scratching deeper into a harder, hotter pain.
Parked at the office lot he finally gets it out. It’s a hair, a long hair, wrapped around the side of his eyeball and going to the back, he pulls it out of his eye and it’s six, eight inches long, the itch a cold line now that hurts almost as bad as having it in.
He keeps one eye shut as he walks to his building.
Jerzy on his haunches smoking by the door. The cigarette a little thinner, a little longer. Its smoke a crushed housepaint cream. He’s in gray today. The contrast striking against the color of his skin.
“Morning,” Jerzy says.
“Morning,” Howard says.
“You all right?”
Howard stops. “What?”
“Oh,” Howard says. “Something in it.”
Sound of lungs filling with smoke.
“Y’know something?” Jerzy says. In a plume.
“There’s a lot of buildings here.”
Howard reaches in his pockets for his keys. Doesn’t have to worry about spilling coffee on himself, he didn’t get coffee. Didn’t remember. He thinks back on it
and it’s like he drove here on autopilot.
That’s terrifying. What if he’d had an accident?
“Keys,” he says out loud. Finds them in his pocket, right next to his fingertips, where they always are.
“Anyway,” Jerzy says. There’s nothing in his voice. Howard flicks through the keys to find the right one. “Lot of buildings here, but how come I only see you coming to work?”
“I get here early,” Howard says.
Jerzy nods. “Yeah.”
Howard looks through his keys. He knows the right one, it’s second from last going to the left, the ID number engraved on the key has the first digit scored out, it’s eight six seven after that.
“Yesterday you badged in.”
“What?” Howard says.
“Say it,” Jerzy says.
Howard looks at him. At his eyes.
like closed doors
Except, maybe, that’s not right?
“Badge?” Howard says.
Jerzy raises his eyebrows. His forehead creases, the smooth skin of his bald head gleams. “Well look at that.”
There’s a key card in Howard’s hand.
He doesn’t want to think about this.
So he badges in and goes to work.
what does he do here?
He’s the only one in the office. By himself—the wind picking up outside, rustling the leaves, sounding like waves on the beach—the office a matchbox glued in the wrong place. It leans. There’s rooms he’s never been in. He doesn’t go in them now. His stomach twists. He sits at his computer, beside the phone, and he doesn’t turn his computer on, and the phone doesn’t ring.
He can’t. His chair scratches backward on shitty wheels. Scratches up the plastic mat on the floor. When it turns over and crashes against the wall—when the whole building shakes—Howard’s already at the front door. Badge in hand. Watching it, in case it’s keys instead.
Jerzy smokes outside.
“Who are you?” Howard says. There’s anger in his gut, like there hasn’t been in—
“Who are you,” Howard says again. Quieter.
There’s no one in the parking lot to see the fat white slob yell at the black man, as if the black man doesn’t belong here. There’s no one to see Howard’s oily, sweating face. To see the teeth he forgot to brush. To see the strain on his shirt, bowing open between the last button and the hem of his pants.
But he knows someone’s watching.
“Jerzy,” the man says. The cigarette glides from between his lips in the crook of two fingers. “We’ve never met. But we know someone in common.”
Howard thinks about Jerzy fucking his wife.
Beneath his skin he’s wrung out like a sponge.
“McMardo,” Jerzy says.
Just syllables to Howard. “Who?”
“McMardo,” Jerzy says again, but his face
his expression doesn’t change, something behind it does, and it’s
it’s turning off the light in the basement when you’re five, and running up the stairs before the dark can get you.
“He wants you back,” Jerzy says.
“I don’t understand,” Howard says.
“I know.” Jerzy drops his cigarette, crushes it under his heel. He’s wearing the same clothes as the other day. “I don’t give a fuck if you come back or not. But if you aren’t, I got to lock the Door.”
“where are we going,” Howard says. Hand on the light switch.
“Let’s go to your house.”
“Do,” Howard says. He can’t stop himself. “Do you know my wife.”
Jerzy shakes his head. “No,” he says. Simple and true. “Come on.”
In the parking lot next to Howard’s car. The only car. Howard holds up the keys. “Am I driving?”
“I don’t know where you live,” Jerzy says.
For a moment, Howard thinks, Me either.
“Hey,” Jerzy says across the roof.
Howard looks at him. Car keys in Howard’s hand, or maybe they’re not.
And the other man almost looks kind. “It’s your choice,” Jerzy says. “One way or the other.”
Howard drives but he doesn’t know where he’s going.
Maybe he never has.
It takes a few miles before he realizes.
The little voice—the not so little voice—
isn’t talking to him right now.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” Howard says.
Maybe he’s having a stroke.
Jerzy shrugs. “Stop thinking about,” he says. “That’s how you’ll get there.”
He stops thinking.
Somewhere between the 12th mile marker and the tree that looks like a teaching hand.
“This is where I’d make some conversation, about some fucked up animal. Some creepy shit. The trapdoor spider, or those fish with the lights on their heads.”
Howard tightens his grip on the wheel. His seatbelt digs into his gut. Is Jerzy wearing his? He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t think he could drive his car into a telephone pole, anyhow.
“First time I said something like that, the guy didn’t hear me right. Thought I was talking about fish with lies on their heads. Don’t know what the fuck that would mean.” He scratches his throat. “Not wrong, I guess.”
Howard risks a look.
Jerzy stares into the distance. He looks
“Like, these spiders dig holes, right. Cover themselves up. When something walks by too close, they feel the sand shifting. Know something’s out there.”
Is it Howard’s imagination, or
does he look small, too?
“Don’t worry about it, Howard.” He breathes. In and out, slow. “I was trying to show them. What could be out here.”
“Out here?” Howard asks, but it’s like Jerzy can’t hear him at all.
“Don’t have to do that with you, my man,” Jerzy says.
“What,” Howard says. His voice a croak. “What do you mean.”
“Ain’t nothing through this Closed Door but you,” Jerzy says.
And when he turns, looking Howard dead in the eye, there’s
he turns into the driveway, the asphalt crumbling where it meets the pavement. Leaves gravel in the tread of his tires to scratch as he rolls forward. Scratch, like a hair wrapped around the side of your eye.
“What’s happening,” Howard asks.
Jerzy sighs. A tanker ship, coming to a stop, after fifty miles of slowdown. “I don’t know you,” he says.
Silence, a hanged man.
“You can stay here,” he says. “Or go back.”
Buzzing heartbeat in Howard’s fingertips. “Back where,” he whispers.
Hating himself for it.
“Where McMardo is,” Jerzy says.
He sighs again. Breaks, just a little.
Howard looks at him
and for just a moment Jerzy is—the world is—everything is transparent, animation cels laid on a lightbox, and from behind the thin nothing of Jerzy’s body the light falls out on Howard and Howard recognizes it
“Are you real?” he asks Jerzy.
His hand stops on the handle. “Yeah,” he says, quiet.
“I’m,” Howard starts.
Jerzy doesn’t look at him.
“What are they.”
“My—” he stops himself. “Everyone.”
“My family,” Howard says. “My wife, and my kids.” His hands ball into fists and they rest on his thighs. “Who’s McMardo? Where’s—who?” His lips buzz with creeping numbness.
“You can go back,” Jerzy says.
Jerzy swallows. “Back through the Door.”
“But where is that?”
“Listen,” he says.
“I don’t know where you came from.” Jerzy reaches toward his pocket. For a cigarette? For something else. He stops. “It’s sideways, or behind. But some point, you went through. And you came out here. I don’t know how long you been here. But if you aren’t coming back, then. You aren’t coming back.”
He breathes. Just a little.
Howard breathes, too.
“Where,” Howard says. His voice cracks, and he hates himself.
“Not gonna call it the real world,” Jerzy says. “Cause who the fuck knows about that.” He scratches his pants legs. Fingernails on the threads of his khakis a sewn-together group of scritch scritch noises that never cohere into chords. “You’re born on one side of a Door. And you go through that, sometimes you find another Door, and you wind up some place like this.”
Howard whispers, “I don’t—I don’t remember, some other place.”
Shrugs again. “Who knows. Maybe you can’t. Maybe you don’t want to.”
“What will…” He doesn’t know how to ask. “Am I in trouble?”
“I don’t know what McMardo wants. What the employers want.”
Only he says it weird, like some half-hitch before employers.
“I can tell you,” Jerzy says. “He’s a goddamn motherfucker.”
“Jerzy?” Howard asks. He sounds like a little kid.
“You said,” and he chokes, “you said I’m the only one here.”
Jerzy looks at him. Right at him, with eyes like
“Yeah,” he says, and it’s final, and cold.
He slaps his thighs. “So.”
“You got to decide.”
“Are you happy?”
What is that?
“Is anyone?” Howard says.
His eyes burn. “Is,” he says. “Is anyone?”
Jerzy closes the car door.
Howard watches the man walk toward his house
He does know my wife, Howard thinks.
This isn’t real, he thinks.
None of this.
What am I doing every day?
What am I coming home to?
I’m alone, he thinks.
But the music of shattering glass and Jerzy is gone, like he was never there.
Howard sits in his car. For minutes, or an hour, or no time at all.
He walks ten steps from the car before he stops.
Five steps back, before he stops again.
With his back to it, the front door of his house opens.
His shadow falls on the lawn, thrown away from the open door, even though it is mid-afternoon.
His wife, his son, his daughter, stand in the doorway.
Light falls out of their eyeholes. Their mouths pulled in wide Looney Tunes wolf grins. Their teeth big, and flat, and smooth.
A weight in his stomach, Howard looks at the other houses on the street.
They are all the same.
And they aren’t.
He turns back to his family. The light from their eyeholes blinding bright, searing.
He walks toward them.
Their eyes are open doors.