SUNDAY BLOG READ is your glimpse into the working minds and hearts of Utah’s literary writers. Each month, 15 Bytes offers works-in-progress and / or recently published work by some of the state’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction and memoir.
Today, 15 Bytes features Provo-based Stephen Tuttle who offers an excerpt from a short story still in the works.
Sunday Blog Read continues to accrue a distinguished group of established and emerging Utah writers for your review and enjoyment.
So curl up with your favorite cup of joe and enjoy the work of Steve!*
At the Gates of the Kingdom
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.
Copyright, Stephen Tuttle, 2015
Used with permission
Stephen Tuttle’s short fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Gettysburg Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other journals. He earned his PhD at the University of Utah. He lives in Provo and teaches in the English Department at Brigham Young University.
Past featured writers in 15 Bytes’ Sunday Blog Read:Katharine Coles, Michael McLane, Darrell Spencer, Larry Menlove,Christopher Bigelow, Shanan Ballam, Steve Proskauer, April Wilder, Calvin Haul, Lance Larsen, Joel Long,Lynn Kilpatrick,Phyllis Barber, David Hawkins, Nancy Takacs,Mike Dorrell,Susan Elizabeth Howe, Star Coulbrooke, Brad Roghaar, Jerry Vanleperen, Maximilian Werner, Markay Brown, Natalie Young, Michael Sowder, and Danielle Beazer Dubrasky ,Kevin Holdsworth, Jacqueline Osherow, Stephen Carter and Alex Caldiero.