The Midwest |

At the Gates of the Kingdom

by Stephen Tuttle

The first door was taller than seemed necessary. It was eight feet, at least, but narrow. It was made of heavy, dark wood, and I wondered if it was rosewood or walnut. It was also ornately carved, and I couldn’t help but think of it as an altarpiece. There was nothing on it to suggest it belonged in a church, but it was clearly the result of great effort. And if I’m honest, I tend to think of churches in that way, as places built by long work. The door consisted of four main panels, and each of those panels was twice inlaid, giving the appearance of windows within windows. Both in and around the four panels, the wood was covered by leaf and vine patterns, as though the whole thing were covered in ivy. There was no portion of the door that was flat or smooth, and I suspected that knocking would achieve little, except perhaps to bloody my knuckles. I still tried to knock, but I felt as though the door swallowed up any sound I created. It was clearly not a door for knocking. I looked for a bell or an intercom, but found nothing. It was a cool, gusty day. It had been hot for a week or more, and the sudden shift toward coolness caught me off guard. I had dressed for a different kind of weather, and I found the erratic bursts of wind were making me irritable. I stood there for a few moments, considering whether and where I might try again to knock, looking for a space that provided the greatest hope of producing a useful sound, when I noticed that the door was not closed tight. In fact, I could see a good portion of the strike plate inside the door’s frame. I gave a little push then and found the door to be heavier than I expected. It gave some ground, slowly at first, but then more easily. Finally, as its hinges begin to bear the full weight of the door, it seemed to slide away from me, opening itself. It came to rest, quite naturally, in a fully open position. As I crossed through the doorway, I couldn’t help but think of Hawthorne’s poor Wakefield and how the threshold represents not only the entrance to a home, but also the decision to a participate in a system, or rather, the end of the refusal to participate in a system. A door in that sense is a kind of rejection, and I found the idea intriguing.

I only had space for a step or two before I came to the second door. It was also made of heavy wood, but with much less ornamentation. What caught my attention more fully, though, was the way this door seemed weather worn. The wood here – much lighter in tone, perhaps white oak – appeared to have taken the full effect of many years exposure to the elements. The bottom inches of the door showed the clear evidence of water damage, and the whole thing, while clearly preserved to some degree, showed cracking and splintering that only comes from extended exposure to sun and wind and rain. Looking around me, I could see that I had not entered the building in earnest just yet, but was standing instead in a kind of anteroom. Why anyone would build such an addition was beyond me, and especially so considering the lack of any obvious use suggested by this space. I wondered if perhaps the room I was standing in might be some kind of coat room, but again the size of it suggested no such thing. What I could see, though, was that this addition to the building was relatively new. The brickwork of the addition stood out, if only just, in contrast to the older brickwork of what I took to be the original building. The mortar, too, showed a distinction. For whatever reason, someone had thought to extend the building in this very small way. It left me feeling that I was both inside and outside the building at once. It was a strange sensation.

There was a doorbell button there, to the right of the door. It was the sort that ought to be illuminated, but this one was not. I figured its bulb had burned out. I pushed the button and listened closely for the report of a bell or chime on the other side of the door. I heard nothing. I waited there for half a minute or so, knowing that a bell might very well have sounded without my hearing it, but nothing happened and no one responded. I pushed the button again and waited again. I repeated this process maybe five or six times. Each time I pushed the button I felt a small, illogical burst of pleasure. It was pointless, of course, but I liked pushing that button and waiting. The button gave a satisfying resistance and gave me the sense of actively doing something. This is a hard thing for me to describe, but I often long for physical response to things I have done. I’m told it has something to do with proprioception and the body’s desire for tactile feedback from the world, but what I know for sure is that I have felt an increasing anxiety over the past decades. Computers and computer-like devices might be able to do a great many things, but they fail, too often, to give clear evidence of received input. With computers there is always that helpless waiting, a period in which one must consider that perhaps the waiting is in vain. The thinking a computer does is complex and vast, but I long for simple things done clearly and cleanly. It’s ironic, I know, to lament the feedback a computer won’t give as I reflect on a doorbell that seemed not to work at all, but still, in that moment I felt tangible satisfaction each time I pushed that button. I might have stayed there and pushed it all day long.

Eventually, the second door did open, although at first I could see no one standing there to answer it, and I assumed that this door, like the first, was weighted so as to open itself. I thought about ghosts for a moment, and entertained the notion, however ridiculous, that this building was haunted and that some specter had opened the door to greet me. I liked to imagine that kind of thing from time to time if only for the pleasure of exercising the imagination. But I also found that such thinking inevitably lead to disappointment. And that’s exactly what happened now, as I leaned in through the doorway. What I saw there was no ghost, just a short man in a brown suit. He was distinctive only in the way we all are. His features, taken separately, were very much like others I had come to know well. I recognized his nose (too large for his face), and his white eyebrows (bushy and in need of a trim), and his weak chin, and the slight redness in his cheeks. I had never seen the man before, but I was disappointed by his ordinariness. He didn’t smile or seem to think much of me, and it seemed possible that he hadn’t opened the door for me at all, but that maybe he had opened the door for some other reason. He stood there and simply watched for a moment, as though waiting for me to declare my intentions. Before I could say anything, though, he invited me to come in. Please, he said, and made that hand-across-body gesture that makes us all look like bullfighters. The room I then entered was scarcely larger than the one I had just been in, but this one felt distinctly like the inside of something. The lighting here was very dim, and I felt for a moment that I had traveled back in time to a candle-lit parlor or drawing room. I was just noticing how very low the ceiling in this room was, when the man in the brown suit asked that I excuse him. I nodded and then he left the room. He left by the same door I had just entered, which struck me as odd but also served as another proof that he hadn’t opened the door for me at all, but for himself instead. I had assumed him to be some kind of butler or concierge, but now I realized that I didn’t know who or what he was. I guessed that he might return at any moment, but I never saw him again.

There was, in that room, a small wooden bench and very little else. The light came from a single lamp on the wall, and the illumination it produced came from a weak, low-wattage bulb. There were two doors here: the one I had come through, and another opposite. On the floor there was a small rug with an intricate serpentine pattern. I took it to be of Native American design, but I knew little of such things and could have said no more than that. There was, in the corner, a large ceramic pot about three feet tall. It was empty, but I took it as an umbrella stand, which only solidified my suspicion that this room was the true entry to the building. If the room I had just left was an anteroom, it was only an anteroom to an anteroom. I was reminded of my years at school and how we had, on occasion, found opportunity to slip away from our studies – or the appearance of studies – to explore the various corners of the old building. We rarely found anything on those excursions into janitorial closets and storage rooms, but we did, once, discover an unlocked utility closet, inside of which we found a ladder leading down into some maintenance tunnels. We were too young and too easily frightened to explore very far into those tunnels just then, and lamentably we never found the closet unlocked again. What we did find, though, on that first and only trip down the ladder, was a map of the school nailed to the wall just at the base of the ladder. The map looked something like a blueprint or a schematic, and it showed every room and every corridor – including the unexplored tunnels – in the entire building. It was hard for us to read the map since it abstracted and layered so much that was, to us, the very core of our dull and concrete daily reality. But we did find something there that captured our attention. In addition to the various classrooms and offices labeled on the map, we found that the area between the two sets of doors at the front of the building was labeled. This area – one we had never before paused to consider – was called the vestibule. It was a word we didn’t know, and it seemed to us somehow magical. It was a foolish thing, of course, to be so taken by an architectural label for something so common, but there we were, repeating the word to ourselves as though it were a practical incantation. That was the memory that came back to me in that small room. I was, I realized, in this building’s vestibule.

I sat quietly for several long minutes, thinking about my schooldays. But before long I began to suspect that my waiting was pointless. No one, it seemed, was coming to find me, and I didn’t assume I would cause any inconvenience by merely opening the door and calling out to anyone who might hear. I decided to do just that. The third door was plain and sturdy looking and hardly called my attention, but the knob to that door was golden and as elegant as anything in the world. At first, I hesitated even to touch it. It was large – too much so, I thought – and it was every bit as ornate as the wood of the first door, but here I found more than vine and leaf. In the middle of the knob was an image of a dog. Initially, I mistook it for a lion, but the face was too thin and the hair too long, and at last I decided it was likely a hound of some sort, probably an Irish Setter. I had to admit that I didn’t know if the Irish Setter was technically a hound, but I could do little to satisfy that question under the circumstances. What I knew was that it was not likely a lion and looked a great deal like the Irish Setter I had always wanted as a child. Around the image of the dog was a series of stars and harps that appeared to rest on a latticework. The harps were not distinctly Gaelic, but they might well have been the reason I took the animal for an Irish Setter in the first place. I then began to wonder whether or not the Irish Setter was Irish in any way. I didn’t know the answer to that question, but I did know that Bus Eireann used the Irish Setter for its logo, and this seemed about as close to a definitive answer as I could give myself. (I feel I should admit that at the time I had never been to Ireland.) I tried to turn the knob, but soon realized that it was not that type of mechanism. Instead, it was really only a handle by which to push or pull the door. I gave it a slight push and felt the door move open. I then entered a dark room that seemed as large and as empty as any I had ever known.

I say the room seemed large because it quickly became clear that it was not large at all. In fact, the room was only slightly larger than the vestibule. But there was something about the room, the quality of light there and the quality of the paint on the walls, that allowed shadows a great depth. Looking across the room, I had the sense I was looking across a great chasm or into a starless expanse of space. It took a few minutes for my eyes to make sense of the place in the low light before I realized just how empty this room was. There was nothing here. No furniture, nothing on the walls, and nothing on the floor. There was not, as far as I could tell, even crown molding on the walls. I heard once that it takes fully forty minutes for the human eye to adjust to darkness, and I considered that I might wait here as my eyes acclimated. Rods or cones, I knew, were doing their work, but I didn’t know which was which. This room confused me for a number of reasons, but its primary trick was that seeming depth. Each time I turned around, I thought I could see the room stretching out in the distance before me. But almost as soon as I started off to explore that depth, the room would end again. This happened several times and left me feeling both frustrated and confused. I seemed to be in a room with only one entrance, and yet it hardly made sense for a building so large to end so soon. If I had been disappointed by the man in the brown suit, I only felt a greater disappointment here. I couldn’t make sense of this room, and I couldn’t understand why I had been allowed to wait here so long. I don’t know what I had expected, exactly, but this did not, as they say, fit the bill.

Eventually, as my eyes began to perceive more acutely, I did see something new. To my great relief, I noticed a long line running down the wall of the room opposite the door by which I entered. The line, when I inspected it, revealed itself to be a seam. And when I put a little weight on the wall just there, a part of it gave way and opened. This fourth door wasn’t a door, properly speaking, or if it was it was a secret door. I felt a certain pride in myself just then, as though I were a detective and had just found the clue that would signal the end of a great mystery. I am no expert on the topic of mystery novels, but I have read a few in my time. I have always best enjoyed detective novels and particularly those in which the detective is, to one degree or another, common. What I mean is that I have little patience for the great masterminds and geniuses. I take little pleasure in watching brilliance parade itself before me as though it were my job merely to observe and feel awe. I feel little inclination for Dupin, or Holmes, or even Marple. Instead, I like those books in which the detective finds him or herself looking at evidence that makes no sense, or doesn’t add up. I like, figuratively speaking, standing there next to those detectives, wondering with them about this random data that points nowhere at all. And I like best of all those moments in which simple chance breaks a case open. It isn’t genius that saves the day, but hard work and good fortune. Standing in that room, looking at the hidden doorway I had just discovered, I felt that I had found my clue. I pushed the fourth door open and saw a small light some thirty feet away. I was standing at the dark end of a narrow hallway or corridor.

I could see that the corridor ended with a door and that the light came from a small sconce just to its left. The walls of the corridor seemed to belong to another century. Again, I had the sense that I had stepped back in time. The lower portions of the walls were wainscoted, while the upper portions were covered in ornate damask wallpaper. The paper was flocked velvet and the damask pattern was deep blue or purple, while the negative space was a brilliant white. There were a series of three unlighted sconces on each wall and between the sconces I found paintings of identical rectangular dimensions. Each painting was of a different hilly landscape, but they were sufficiently similar as to seem interchangeable. They were the kinds of paintings one might examine very closely and never find anything worthy of comment. I, for one, had nothing to say about them and walked quickly to the door. Given the qualities of this corridor, I was surprised to find that the fifth door was nothing more than a cheap hollow core. It seemed wrong, somehow, for this door to be in this corridor. I reached for the door and found it very cool to the touch. I stood there a moment and wondered if there was any reason to wait here. I turned and looked back at the paintings on the walls and wondered if they were important works and I had been too hasty to recognize them for what they were. And that reminded me of an experience I once had at London’s National Gallery. This was about twenty-five years earlier, and I was quite young then. I found myself in the gallery out of a sense of obligation. I wanted to appreciate the work all around me, but appreciation meant something different then, as though I needed only to cross certain items off a to-do list. It might be better to say that I wanted to perform appreciation, and I thought that being in a museum was all I had to do. But I had no context for the art I saw that day, and no instinct for it. I roamed around for maybe three quarters of an hour, listening to strangers as they commented on things I didn’t understand. I was nearly on the point of leaving when I stumbled upon something that arrested my attention in an entirely unexpected way. The painting hanging there was Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, a large piece that occupied its own wall. What captivated me was the painting’s fragmentary form, and its use of white empty space. The scene itself, a depiction of a firing squad in the very act of execution, meant nothing to me as a representation of history, but I stood there a long time considering Manet’s aesthetic choices. Why, I wondered, had he chosen to place the firing squad, their backs turned, in the very center of the canvas? And why did the canvas stop short of the frame? It seemed to me the most interesting commentary on the act seeing that I had ever encountered. I wanted to look at the face of Maximilian in the very moment of his death, but the artist refused me that privilege. What’s more, he refused it in the most deliberate way by providing room for that face but producing no image to fill it. I was fascinated, too, by the guard at the rear of the squad, the one whose uniform and posture suggested that he was not directly involved in the execution, but stood outside it somehow. That guard was given his own section of canvas, next to, but clearly separate from the larger body of firing soldiers. The way this officer casually inspects his rifle struck me as another indication that Manet meant to refuse us our impulse to see what we most want to see. Instead of examining the crude details of a public execution, he forces us to see the commonness happening just near it. I stood there and thought about that painting for a long while, and only eventually brought myself to read the interpretive placard hanging on the wall. I was surprised and more than a little disappointed to discover that the painting was not what I had thought it to be. The fragmentation and empty space I saw there, the placard told me, were not part of the artist’s conception, but were instead what they more obviously appeared to be. This painting, the first of several Manet would make on the subject of Maximilian’s execution, had once been whole. What I saw before me was the best attempt to cobble together pieces from that original. Although Manet himself may have been responsible for cutting up that original canvas, I was troubled to think that what I admired so much was something of a flaw that others had worked hard to repair. I suppose my experience is similar to that of any child who might wonder why the Greeks sculpted all those armless women. I left the gallery that day feeling defeated. It was as though I had failed by liking what I should not. I turned back to the hollow core door, turned its cheap brass-plated handle and let myself into the next room.

Or perhaps it would be better to say that I let myself out of the previous room since the room I now walked into was no room at all. What I had entered was a large, rectangular area with brick walls on all sides and mosaic tile flooring. The walls rose high above me and finally disappeared into the star-filled darkness of the night sky. It was cold here and I had, for the second time, the distinct sense that I was both inside and outside at once. The air felt fresh and moved more calmly than it had before I entered the building. To be inside and outside at the same time is a strange feeling. If I had had some version of this experience when I first entered the building, I realized that it paled next to this. Because when I first entered the building, I might have turned to leave with a single step. But now I had the sense of being deep in the heart of something, with a long distance between me and the freedom of the outside world. What a strange sensation that was, to suddenly see myself as a kind of prisoner. There were no guards here and nothing to suggest that I was held against my will. There was not, in fact, anything to suggest that anyone even knew I was here. Anyone, that is, but a small man in a brown suit, but I didn’t think it likely that he was out there locking doors behind me. There was only the sense of being in a position to see the outside world while being unable to move toward it. And then something else struck me. The sky I saw when I looked up didn’t match the one I should have expected. It was the middle of the afternoon when I first entered the building, but now I was looking at a moonless night sky that was as dark as any could be. Many hours would have passed between then and now, but I was sure it had only been a matter of a few minutes, an hour at most, since I walked through that first door. How was I to explain this? I ran through a series of possibilities, each more implausible than the last, until I finally determined that what I was seeing was not the actual sky, but a clever reproduction of one. I had seen such things before, in theaters and such, and I thought it impressive that someone had managed such a trick here. But no sooner had I put myself at ease that way than I saw a dark patch passing over the starry expanse above me. There appeared to be clouds up there, and wondered whether I was looking at the real sky or a false sky so convincing that it might have been preferable. I suddenly felt unsure about everything. By this point, my neck was beginning to ache and I stopped looking at the sky or the reproduction of the sky. It was only then that I noticed what should have been obvious to me from the start.

The sixth door was made of long wooden slats, as if it belonged to a country fence. It was squared at the bottom, but curved at the top. The door was painted a turquoise blue and the paint had faded and cracked in many places. Through the slats and around the edges of the door, I could see evidence of a strong light. The light was not enough to illuminate the courtyard (or prison) I stood in, but it was bright enough to suggest some powerful light source on the other side. I approached the door cautiously, worried for the first time that I might disturb someone. I knocked lightly on the door and took a step back. I waited a few moments and then knocked again and stepped back again. It’s hard for me to describe the sense of anxiety and anticipation I felt just then. It was a fear of that door, but also an overpowering desire to open it and rush through. I knocked several more times without answer. I found, before long, that I was pounding on the thing and began to fear I might actually damage it. I heard a sound then, like the whispered chirping of birds in a nest. I put my ear to the door and heard nothing. And then I realized the chirping was what it seemed, and that birds were above me, probably just outside my field of vision. That recognition sent a chill through me, though I can’t say why exactly. I suspect it had something to do with my indecision about the nature of the sky. I decided I had waited long enough and pulled the door open.

What I discovered there was not at all what I expected. The light coming through the door was nowhere near as bright as I had thought (or hoped). It came from a single light bulb mounted to the door itself by a mechanic’s clamp. A long extension cord ran from the light down the door and across the tiled floor until it disappeared beneath the wall. The bulb was bright, maybe 120 watts, but I had expected something more. And the room itself, which I expected for some reason to be cavernous, was actually quite small. To walk into it I was going to have to squat down a foot or so. I felt as though I were walking into a broom closet and this gave me no pleasure. I had little choice, though, and so I stepped through and found the room too dark to see in. With the door open, the bulb was now illuminating the courtyard/prison I had just been in, and if I was going to see anything I was going to need that bulb in here. I tried at first to simply pull the mechanic’s clamp from the door, but it was secured – though I can’t say how – well enough to escape my best effort. All I could do now was to bring the door closed behind me. And I did so.

Once illuminated, the room seemed both larger and more miserable than I had thought. The ceiling rose as it moved away from the door I had just closed and allowed me to stand at full height after taking just a few steps in. The walls here were covered in soot and grime and I began to fear that I was breathing in mold spores. This had been a fear of mine for several years. I had watched a television program about a man who attempted to remove mold from beneath his house. Despite the man’s best efforts to protect his lungs with a respirator, he was dead within days. I’m not the kind to live in fear of such things, but for one reason or another, the idea of molds and mycotoxins stayed with me. I felt that fear welling up now and wanted to move on as quickly as I could. There was a door here, a heavy iron thing. This seventh door struck me as the heaviest thing I had ever seen. The door’s handle appeared to be a complicated mechanism at first, but I soon saw that it was quite simple. I tried the handle, but the door wouldn’t open. I sat there and stared at the door for a few minutes before realizing that the complicated machinery of it was some kind of exposed locking mechanism and the door was almost certainly locked. But if it was locked, I noticed, I seemed to be on the inside of it. I looked and looked at the thing, finding nothing to pull on or turn. The only thing I could do, I guessed, was to pound on the door and hope that someone might open it for me. I had had, to this point, relatively little success with knocking, but I gave it a try, pounding with the side of my fist rather than with my knuckles. The sound that came back to me was hollow and empty, and I doubted that it carried very far at all. I tried the door again and realized that it was never going to open that way. Despite my fear of mold and because of the exhaustion that was beginning to come over me, I leaned my back against the wall and let my body slide down it until I was sitting on the floor. I wasn’t sure what to do at this point. Having come this far it seemed foolish to simply turn around and leave the way I had entered, but this seemed the only option. It really was a very strange building, I thought, the way room led on to room in such a linear fashion. I must have spent an hour there, thinking about the place and wondering what to do. In the end, as I was just on the point of leaving the small room and heading back the way I had come, I heard some scuffling noises on the other side of the iron door. I pounded again and called out to whomever might be there but got no response. And then the great locking mechanism of the door began to move, as though I were inside an enormous clock just as it prepared to strike the hour. The movement came to a stop with a loud thunk that reverberated around the room. There was a brief pause then, and the door opened. It was slow at first, but then I took hold of the handle and pulled it more quickly. I expected some kind of light, but through the door I saw only darkness. Very slowly, and framed by that darkness, I saw the figure of a man emerge. It was only his face at first, but then his upper body came into view. I realized I was standing between the man and the bulb on the door, blocking the light, and I moved so as to see more clearly. As I did so, the man took a step forward. He was about my age, and like me he had dressed for warmer weather. He looked at me as though I might say something, but I didn’t know what to say. The man took another small step toward me, and looked at me with a petitioning expression. It was clear that he wanted to come through the door, but also that he wanted my permission. I stepped as far to the side as I could and gestured for him to come in. We stood there together for a few moments, both of us waiting for the other to say something. I felt increasingly worried that the door was going to close again and that I might be stuck in this room for even longer. Finally, I excused myself and passed through the open doorway. Turning back, I could no longer see the man there, perhaps because he was now blocking the light. Because it seemed the appropriate thing to do, I pulled the iron door closed behind me. I heard the loud echo of the door latching shut. I examined the door briefly, but found no latch or handle that might be used to open it. I wondered how the other man had managed to open the door just now, because I certainly had not been the one to do so.

Outside the seventh door, I found myself in a blind alley. Initially, because of the high brick walls in front of me and to my left, I thought I was in another prison-like courtyard. But turning right, I saw that the alley opened onto the street. I walked to the end of the alley and onto the sidewalk where the light was low but clear. I looked up and down the length of the street and couldn’t see a moving car or any other people. I stood there for several long moments, watching for signs of life but finding none. I played with the notion that the city had been evacuated, leaving me alone in it. I began walking down the sidewalk to my right, with no clear agenda and really no sense for which direction might be the best one. But then I recognized a desire, something close to instinct or habit, that pulled me down the street. The building I had just come through was now on my right, and it filled most of this city block. From where I stood, it was nothing more than a long brick wall with very small windows placed high and far out of reach at regular intervals. I decided to keep walking, if slowly, moving toward the corner ahead of me, where I could see, for the first time, people passing by on foot or on bicycle. An occasional car rolled through the intersection. The corner seemed a long way off, and I found that fact strangely pleasant and discomfiting at once. I stopped then, looking first at the corner far ahead of me and then back toward the blind alley, which seemed about the same distance from where I stood. I faced the long, flat side of the building, and didn’t move for a long while. For the longest time, I stood there trying to remember where it was I had been going, and what I had hoped to accomplish there.