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Melanie’s mother always said not to open the door to strangers. But this one is different, Melanie thought. She stood on tiptoe to look out at him through the door’s peephole, its convex glass magnifying his face as the rest of his body seemed to recede to the point where it ended on the shabby door mat. He wore a cheap suit and carried a briefcase, and he grinned into the peephole as if he could tell she was looking at him. Her fingertips brushed the doorknob, and then she hesitated, remembering her mother’s constant admonition—but he certainly looked harmless enough—and he might have a very good reason for being there. He might have something important to tell her mother. He seemed nice. And it would be rude to let a nice man stand there on their doormat until he tired and went away. Meanwhile, he rang the doorbell incessantly. Her sister lay in the next room with a migraine, and would shout at her any minute to make it stop. Her mother wasn’t home, which made it somehow worse to disobey her. But she couldn’t let him stay there, waiting. He might wait for hours. He hadn’t left yet, which suggested that his business was more important than bibles. She decided she would open the door, politely tell him that her mother wasn’t home, close the door, and that would be that. Her mother would never have to know.
She took a small breath as her fingers closed around the doorknob. She opened the door and his body parts settled to more natural proportions.
“Ah—hello,” he said, smiling down at her. “Is your mother home?”
“No, sir,” Melanie responded, with that non-inflection peculiar to polite children. “She’s on an errand. She’ll be back later. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Goodbye.” She began to close the door.
“That’s perfectly all right,” said the man, whose briefcase swiftly inserted itself between the door and its frame. “I’m happy to wait.”
This was not part of the plan. But how could she politely tell him no? Surely, it wouldn’t hurt for him to wait inside, if he insisted on waiting at all. She stepped aside and let him enter.
“Please, sit down,” she said, motioning to the hodgepodge of chairs that constituted their living room, as she had seen her mother do when there was company (a rare occurrence). It rather amused her to play hostess.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve been standing all day.”
“Would you care for something to drink?”
“Water would be wonderful, thank you,” he said in one weary exhalation, his veneer of charm for a moment slipping, and her heart went out to him.
She went to the kitchen and poured him a tall glass of water, even going to the trouble to add a lemon wedge. She returned to the living room and saw him with his briefcase on his lap. He looked up at her and smiled as she presented him with his glass, giving her the courage to ask—
“What’s in there?”—gesturing to the briefcase.
“Oh, nothing much,” he said lightly.
“Does it have anything to do why you’re here to see Mother?”
“I’m afraid not.” He paused, and said, “Would you like to look inside?”
She nodded, edging closer. He undid the two buckles and the lid popped open to reveal, inside, a neatly folded pair of flannel pajamas and a toothbrush. The sight filled her with tenderness—it was what a child who was running away from home might pack.
“Are you going on a trip?” she asked him.
“I don’t know if ‘trip’ is what you’d call it,” he said.
“What would you call it?”
“I”—he faltered—“I live out of this suitcase.”
“Live!” she exclaimed. “How can anyone live out of a suitcase! You poor thing! Don’t you have a home?”
“Well, not at the moment. But I can do without,” he said crisply.
“I feel so sorry for you.”
“Ah, don’t feel sorry for me!” he said, and his courage brought tears to her eyes.
“If there’s anything I can do—”
“You’ve already given me a chair and a glass of ice water, which is all I could ask for.”
“But where will you sleep tonight?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t usually have it planned out. Maybe on a bench, under a bridge—I’ve slept beside dumpsters before,” he added, with a hint of boyish boastfulness.
“You poor, poor thing!” she sighed. And she collapsed into the armchair beside him, her brow knit as she pictured him curled up beside a dumpster. Mother always said life wasn’t fair. But this beat the cake! she thought to herself, borrowing an expression—or rather, two—from her older sister Marjorie.
“I wish—” she began, and stopped herself.
“What do you wish, little one?” he asked her.
“I wish you could stay here with us. Just for one night. I hate to think of you sleeping beside a dumpster.”
“That’s a very kind offer,” he said, with a chuckle, “but what do you think your mother would say, hmm? I don’t think she would like it.”
“Oh, Mother wouldn’t mind,” she said, though she wasn’t entirely sure of this. “She always says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And if I were you—well...” she trailed off tactfully.
“I don’t know. I hate to impose on you. You’re certain your mother won’t mind?”
“Absolutely,” she affirmed.
“It’s awfully nice of you. They ought to give you some sort of medal, or something. Where should I put my suitcase?”
“You can sleep in my room. Second door to the right.”
He thanked her and rose wearily to his feet.
“Oh, mister?” she said suddenly, stopping him.
“What did you want to see my mother about?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes, as if trying to remember. “Oh, that,” he said. “That can wait till some other time.” And he shuffled off to his room—or rather, hers.
* * * *
Her mother was late getting home from work. Marjorie hadn’t woken up. Neither had the man—the salesman, she thought; he looked like a salesman. Though she couldn’t think what he would be selling, beside a set of flannels and a toothbrush. She sat stiffly on the arm of a chair, facing the front door, willing it to open. The more she thought about it, the more she began to feel her mother wouldn’t like finding a stranger in her daughter’s bed at all. She waited in agony, anxious for the worst to be over.
At last she heard a click and her mother entered. She seemed surprised to see her daughter sitting there, and mumbled a bemused “Hello, darling” as she threw down her coat. “Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s all right,” said her daughter.
“Have a good day at school?”
“Marjorie still asleep?”
This seemed an opportune time to inform her mother of their guest. “Marjorie’s not the only one,” she said significantly, her heart racing.
“Oh?” said her mother.
“We have a guest.”
“He’s very nice. I don’t know his name though.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Explain, Melanie.”
“He’s one of those door-to-door salesmen, I think. Only he had flannels and a toothbrush. And he doesn’t have a home. He’s homeless, mother. Only he doesn’t smell. I always thought homeless people smelled. Especially since he sleeps next to a dumpster. And I know life isn’t fair but it seemed especially unfair for a man like that to sleep next to a dumpster, instead of in a real bed. And I thought about doing unto others, and I decided to let him sleep here.”
“And is this an indefinite arrangement?”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry, Mother. It’s only for tonight.”
* * * *
“I can’t thank you enough for your kindness,” said the salesman to Melanie’s mother the next morning as she leaned over him to refill his glass of orange juice. In response she flashed him a tight smile, but said nothing. “I haven’t slept that well in weeks,” he continued. “I haven’t eaten this well in weeks, either,” he added, pointing with a fork to the plate of scrambled eggs before him.
“I’m glad you like it,” said Melanie’s mother, without sounding particularly glad at all.
“Oh, I do, I do,” he said. “I like everything here. I—I could live here.”
“It’s a shame you have to leave,” murmured Melanie.
He reached across the table for her hand. “Thank you, little one,” he said, “but I’m afraid I’ve overstayed my welcome.” He glanced hesitantly at Melanie’s mother, who pretended not to notice.
“Well,” he said, exhaling as he stood, “this is it.”
“Now?” Melanie cried. “You’re leaving now?”
“But you haven’t even finished your eggs!”
“Which I assure you is no reflection on your mother’s cooking,” he said charmingly.
“But this might be your last meal for ages!”
“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t think,” Melanie said decisively. She stood up and followed him to the door, where he stopped and turned round to face her. “At least finish your breakfast,” she said, her voice cracking on the penultimate word.
He only smiled, and tweaked her nose. “Maybe next time, little one.”
Melanie, somewhat heartened by the prospect of a “next time,” nodded and looked shyly away.
“Well,” she said. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, little one.”
And he opened the door and walked out of her life.
* * * *
“Well, I’m certainly glad that’s over,” said Melanie’s mother once he had gone. “And Melanie, I’m warning you, you mustn’t invite strangers for sleepovers anymore, do you hear?”
“Yes, Mother,” Melanie mumbled. Then she looked up. “But he wasn’t a stranger. He was a nice man.”
“A nice stranger,” her mother corrected her. “We don’t know anything about him. For all we know he could be a—a—a serial killer, or something.”
Melanie cocked a doubtful eyebrow. “A serial killer, Mother?”
“Has he stolen anything?”
“Well, I don’t know. I haven’t inventoried the whole apartment, but—well, in any case, men like that are like stray cats: they always come back in numbers for another handout.”
Melanie tried to picture the salesman as a cat, but her imagination failed her.
“Look, Mother,” said Marjorie, pointing to something beside the door.
“It’s his suitcase!” said Melanie. “He’s forgotten it.”
“By design, I’m sure,” said their mother. “He’ll be here any minute, with some other pitiful waif he’s happened upon, and next thing I know I’ll be tucking them both in to bed. But I won’t. I won’t. Hear me, Melanie? Marjorie? You give him his suitcase then say goodbye. I don’t care if you have to slam the door in his face. I’ll do it, if you won’t.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Well, shall you do it or shall I?” Melanie’s mother asked her.
Melanie felt as if she were about to cry. “I’ll do it,” she said. She went to the door and opened it—but it was not the salesman, after all; it was a young girl approximately her age. She carried a suitcase at her side and looked blankly at Melanie for a moment before turning to call down the corridor, “You said 4120?”
“That’s the one,” responded another voice from farther off.
“Excuse me,” said the girl to Melanie, and Melanie stood aside to let her enter. She was barely through the door when another girl appeared behind her, this one slightly younger, followed by a woman who might have been their mother; bringing up the rear was the salesman.
“Now—what is all this!” cried Melanie’s mother, who had watched the procession thus far in silent bewilderment. She stomped her foot and, when no explanation was forthcoming, repeated the question. “You!” she said, pointing at the salesman. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
His gaze rolled over her as if she were something distasteful. Then he said to the eldest girl, “Oh, Marsha—there’s a dear little room down that hall that I think would suit you. Second door to the right.”
“What is this!” her mother barked, chasing Marsha down the hall. She caught her by the neck and hissed, “I don’t think so!”
“Kindly unhand my daughter,” drawled the salesman.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“But I thought it was obvious,” he said. “We’re moving in.”
“Moving in?” Melanie’s mother repeated, and, torn between hilarity and outrage, ultimately settled on the latter. “Oh, is that all?” she flashed. “Moving in? Well, I wish you had let me know, because then I would have tidied up a bit.”
“It’s quite all right,” said the salesman distractedly, as he fingered an ornament from the mantle. “It’s not exactly our taste, but you know what they say.”
“What do they say, darling?” asked his wife, hoisting the youngest daughter up onto her lap.
“A fresh coat of paint can work wonders—and inexpensive, too.”
“You’re sure to be tight,” said Melanie’s mother through gritted teeth, “what with that tremendous rent.”
“I don’t understand,” said Melanie to the salesman, fighting tears. “You’ve changed. You aren’t the same anymore. I don’t understand what’s happened.”
“Where shall we put little Megan?” asked the salesman’s wife.
* * * *
If any of the apartment’s original inhabitants had wondered what was to become of them, their question was soon answered. The salesman owned that it would be hard of him to cast them out before they could stand on their feet. So a pantry’s contents were emptied to make room for them.
“You may be a little short on space,” he warned them. “But it’s only temporary, after all.”
Melanie’s mother rose earlier than usual the next morning, having gotten no sleep that night. She took a shower, tiptoed into her bedroom for a clean change of clothes, and was about to slip out the door when the salesman, in a fresh pair of flannels, flicked on the lights.
“I’m off to work,” she explained with a little laugh.
“I’m afraid you’re not.”
“It would look very odd, wouldn’t it, two families coming and going from the same apartment?”
“No—no. I can’t see how it would.”
Melanie’s mother did not go to work that day. And Marjorie and Melanie did not go to school. They sat in the pantry and listened to the salesman’s wife poke through their drawers and cupboards. At about a quarter to three, a neighbor came to the door. It was Gladys, the woman from across the hall. They listened as the salesman’s wife informed her that she and her family had only just moved in.
“Goodness me!—and I didn’t even know the unit was for sale,” said Gladys.
* * * *
A month passed. The salesman and his family adapted quite nicely to their new home, new life. Melanie and her family adjusted, as well. It wasn’t the same, of course, in the pantry, but it was only temporary, after all, and not unpleasant. Melanie felt as if she were in one of her role-playing games, the sort of games her sister Marjorie had given up years ago with a sudden air of worldliness. She felt as if she were being held captive by pirates or one-eyed monsters (alas, the salesman had both eyes intact)—held captive with all of the excitement and none of the risk. Because, as the salesman said, it was only temporary.
Her mother, meanwhile, having resigned herself to the situation, spent her time planning out their new home. If you cared to listen—Melanie did not—she would tell you about every square inch of it. And Marjorie—well, who knew what Marjorie did, her sister thought dismissively.
But one morning, Marjorie surprised her family in an unusually loquacious moment.
“Look here, Mother,” she said. “When do you plan to leave?”
“Leave?” said her mother.
“Yes, leave. What are your plans?”
“Well, I—I don’t have any plans. You haven’t given me time to think of any plans.” She began to get upset.
“You’ve had a month. We’ve been here in this pantry for a month.”
“Surely not that long. What have you been doing, dear, tallying up your days on the wall like a bedraggled inmate?”
“We’re certainly no better than inmates.”
“Now that’s absurd, Marjorie—comparing us to inmates! First of all, we’ve committed no crime—”
“Then wrongly convicted inmates, which only makes it worse. We’ve done nothing to warrant this sort of punishment!”
“I don’t know if I’d call it punishment.”
“Well, maybe you’re right, Mother. Maybe we’re only getting what we deserve, for letting them take our home right out from under us.”
“You make it out to be so much worse than it actually is.”
“In what way is it good? We’re practically under house arrest.”
“The salesman would let us leave whenever we want to.”
“Then prove it.”
“Well—very well. I will.”
Melanie watched, wide-eyed, as her mother went to the door. She knocked twice, and the salesman’s wife answered.
“Yes?” said the latter, blinking rapidly.
“Hello,” said Melanie’s mother. “I was wondering if I could go to the store to pick up a few things.”
“If there’s anything you need I’ll be happy to fetch it for you.”
“Thank you, but I was hoping to go myself.”
“I’m afraid that’s quite impossible.”
“Impossible? Why is it impossible?”
“I’m afraid it’s quite impossible,” said the salesman’s wife, and she closed the door.
“You see?” said Marjorie to her mother. “House arrest.”
“Don’t be absurd,” her mother snapped. “I’m sure if I’d had a better reason—”
“Who is she to decide whether your reason’s good enough? It’s still your home, Mother, legally. And legally, you’ve the right to come and go as you please.”
“What if I don’t please?”
“What?” In the twilight of the pantry, Marjorie looked as though she had been slapped.
“What if I like it here? What if I’m perfectly comfortable with things as they are, for the time being?”
“I can’t believe that you would be.”
“Well, I am. It’s a nice respite from—”
“Reality?” Marjorie flashed. “Well, I hate to tell you, Mother, but you’ve got to get back to it sooner or later. I choose sooner.”
“Do you mean to tell me you’re going to try to leave?”
“That’s exactly what I mean to tell you. And both of you are welcome to come or stay as you please.”
* * * *
“Are you really going to do it?” whispered Melanie to her sister later that night. Marjorie nodded.
“Wait till they’re asleep,” she said, shrugging.
Melanie frowned, disappointed at the lack of ingenuity in her sister’s plan. A pirate’s captives never just waited till he fell asleep.
“I take it you aren’t coming with me?” Marjorie said.
Melanie shook her head.
“Have it your own way.” Marjorie glanced at her mother, who lay on the ground, eyes shut—whether asleep or merely pretending, she couldn’t tell. “Goodbye, Mother,” she said tentatively. There was no response. “Goodbye, Melanie,” she said.
* * * *
She surfaced for the first time in a month in the kitchen. It was dark and still. Water droplets fell rhythmically from the faucet. Marjorie tiptoed into the living room. The salesman and his family all appeared to be asleep.
She padded across the carpeted floor, almost laughing at the strangeness of her predicament. But her amusement was kept in check by a nauseous suspicion that surely, it couldn’t be this simple; surely, at any moment the salesman would pop out at her, brandishing a sword or some other weapon. He would wave it at her, ward her off, and she would slink back into the pantry, demoralized.
But as far as she could tell, she was alone in the living room.
She came to the end of the carpet, and stepped cautiously onto the cold wooden floor. It was no use—the boards sounded immediately under her weight and she froze, waiting to be caught. But no one stirred. Somehow, she was safe. And only three feet from the door. But she took tiny steps, under the mistaken belief that she would be quieter that way. One-two-three-four miniscule steps—and then the door, a few inches in front of her. The brass doorknob winked in the moonlight.
Here she paused, wondering how best to go about it. It was one of those awful creaking old things—the more careful you were in opening it, the more noise it managed to make. She knew from experience that she was best off opening it quickly. But she hesitated to do this.
She thought about her mother, sleeping (or pretending to sleep) in the pantry. She thought of wide-eyed Melanie, listening breathlessly for the closing click of the door. Did she really mean to leave them there? I’ll come back for them, she thought, to reassure herself. But this provision didn’t quite satisfy her. Any number of things could happen to them before she was able to return. The salesman might anticipate her and move them to some other place. And then she might never see them again. She stood there, on the threshold of freedom, testing the ties of affection. It was unfair of them to make her choose. She felt as if she were the subject of some sick social experiment, watched by invisible men in white lab coats who could read her thoughts.
She pictured them—her sister and her mother—living out the rest of their days in a tiny pantry. They were content, at the moment, and the trend would either continue or it would not. She supposed as long as they intended to stay there, it was better for them to be content. But if she were to stay there with them, she knew she could not be content. But she would have done her duty, as a sister and a daughter, and in doing so might have found something like contentment. A sort of ethical gratification. Whereas as if she opened the door and left, she would always feel guilty—but she would also be free!
Would she? There are different types of freedom. There is physical freedom—the freedom to move where you choose. And there is mental freedom—the freedom to think where you choose. And if she left them, she would not be free to think where she chose. Always there would be that one compartment she avoided, too painful to enter.
But there was the door in front of her, and the sliver of moonlight upon its knob drew her eye irresistibly. Her fingers reached for it, moving suddenly of their own accord, and she knew what she wanted—
No. She drew back her hand, horrified. And she returned to the pantry.
* * * *
“Marjorie!” Melanie gasped as her sister opened the door.
Marjorie raised a finger to her lips. “Marjorie!” Melanie said again, lowering her voice.
Their mother sat up. “You’ve come back,” she said. Marjorie couldn’t tell whether it was a question or a statement.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’ve come back.”
“Come here,” said her mother, and Marjorie allowed herself to be embraced. “We’ll be happy here, the three of us. We’ll be happy. You’ll see.”
“Yes, Mother,” whispered Marjorie, but already there was the nauseous recollection of what might have been—
She mustn’t think of it; it was too painful to think of. She must force herself to smile, to nod at her mother’s words—to be happy.
Her mother stroked her hair and Melanie nestled up to her, and it occurred to Marjorie that they might have looked the picture of domestic comfort, were they not sitting in a pantry.