The Doorbell

Candice Wuehle

After Graham stopped returning my texts, I started leaving little parts of myself all over the Internet. In his early twenties, especially, Graham left doorways to himself everywhere—not just the normal abandoned social portals of MySpace and Friendster, but also a blog with a cursor shaped like a hot pink mouth. When I clicked on an entry, the disembodied lips smacked. Sickened, I kept clicking as the computerized sucking noise pulled me into page after page of journal entries, photos, digital check-ins at bars where he’d time-stamped his arrival.  

By the time I arrived for Graham’s left-behind life, it was already long past. Present Graham now used privacy-oriented search engines with names like the games he’d played in pre-school—DuckDuckGo, swisscows—for even the most mundane of e-errands. Once, out of love, I think, Graham tried to teach me to encrypt my own life. For reasons I could not understand, I resisted.

By the time Graham stopped returning my texts, he existed only virtually, way back in the early aughts. I resented how every time a tab closed behind me, it felt like the doors of a subway car I’d left my wallet in shutting. I resented the feeling that I was alone on the station platform, moored in a plane of existence now so passed there was not even any point in running.

 “Nobody likes to be stuck.”

Graham’s preferred mode of communication was the declarative statement. It irked me—this vestigial linguistic tick of a generation raised on status updates. After the texts stopped cold, though, “Nobody likes to be stuck” was the dictum that became most insistent, intrusive. An auditory tattoo inked the air around me, a punch to the ear. It rung my bell.

He must have said it more than once, or, my memory was disorienting from all the overlapping timelines of the Internet. In one recollection, Graham is again explaining his dissertation to me. Something about Pavlov’s dogs, but not the Pavlov’s dogs story about spit. A different one about a time the dogs were trapped in crates during a flood—the kind of thing so appalling you can only completely imagine it happening in a country like Russia. The dogs, Graham explained, panicked like everyone does when they think they’re going to die. His dissertation topic, it seemed, was that we don’t fear dying as much as we fear situations we can’t get out of.

Death, obviously, being the worst-case scenario.

Mortality and Internal Mutability: A Study of Stasis at the Death Threshold—the title of his dissertation—were the words I most often glimpsed beaming out his laptop screen before he clipped it shut. Eerie, how he’d flip his wrist just like my own father used to, when he was slamming closed his briefcase. What, I wonder now, were they hiding? When pressed, Graham admitted he was preoccupied with the placement of the colon, which he believed to be the crucial hinge connecting the dooryard of his mind to what that honor’s program teacher had referred to as its “promising, ornate interior.”

Graham had sheltered in that compliment, grown up in its shade.

Pavlov’s less-famous discovery, I remember now, is that the dogs that were wild before went tame and the dogs that were tame before went wild. The animals lost the ability to calibrate their internal equilibrium because they were trapped during their near-death experience. Graham used this particular phrase so often he abbreviated it: NDE.

He’d been macabre like that since childhood. In fact, in a different recollection of the phrase, I recall Graham hysterical, wild with emotion as he dragged his mother to an unfinished storage space in our home. One of those dark, concrete rooms with a pull chain hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Cool and mineral, built for the storage of winter vegetables. Useless in the modern era—I’d meant to finish it someday.

To illuminate the room, you had to walk into the darkness first. As always, Cathy saw what Graham had done before I did; when lit our unfinished space was covered in crude writing. A brute scrawl of one word carved in stone ad infinitum: SORRY. Obviously, Graham had done it himself. I reacted appropriately, I think, but Cathy insisted we place Graham in therapy. This did nothing but make the little girl (Graham said the room was haunted by the ghost of a little girl) “attach” to Graham, which was mostly expressed through annoying, reverberative noises.

An obsession with loopy sing-song nursery rhymes, crystal flutes clinking on their own, sleigh bells. Anything that stained the brain’s sonic chambers.

Most probably, though, I couldn’t get those words off the loop in my mind because he’d said them the last time we’d talked. Graham insisted we meet for a walk in the city park. It was early spring, and I’d driven all the way to Chicago to see him. Unnatural warmth radiated up from the ground in the city, the trapped sun malignant, an uncontrollable growth multiplying.

I hadn’t known we were having an argument until I heard myself say, sharply, “This is just a phase.” My collar was wet-through with sweat and whatever grime seeped through that city. Graham’s own shirt was hand cut, so his neck and collarbone were exposed beside the frayed edge of a once carefully tailored dress shirt. “Just a candy ass phase.”

He winced like the words physically hurt him.

At the entrance to the conservatory, Graham stopped and put his hand on my arm. I remember, because he was affectionate with Cathy, but never me. “Nobody likes to be stuck,” he told me, “Okay?”

I’d nodded, unaware of the significance of my agreement, even as my son was already backing away.     

It hadn’t always been bad. But I know I’d occasionally reacted poorly. Nobody likes to be stuck was also an actual tattoo Graham had gotten for his eighteenth birthday. A green symbol of a triangle overlapping an inverted triangle surrounded by a simply petaled flower—the sign of the heart chakra. Cathy told me he’d gotten it on his back because the body’s energy portals actually start on the posterior of the body, not the front like you see on Pinterest, which is a website I had to look up to know what they were talking about. So the tattoo was right in between his shoulder blades, a silver dollar sized disc in the space where the wing points of the scapula touch in extreme stretches, obscuring the image.

Of course he had marked himself in the only place on his body he could not reach on his own. As a boy, he was always asking for help.

Anahata, in Sanskrit, either translates to “unstruck sound” or to “unstuck sound.”

I'd called Graham on the phone because I wanted to know if he’d figured out which translation was the right one before he put it permanently on his body. The question irritated him and all I’d gotten by way of explanation was, “Struck or stuck? What’s the difference?”

I’d answered, but he didn’t hear because he had already hung up. I miss dial tones, the clear static that told you when you were talking into nothing.

As a kid Graham had always refused to swing at the piñata. Once, I’d blindfolded myself at a party of eight-year-olds to show him it was okay. I’d been surprised by the sick feeling of swinging hard at nothing, of the fall that came when I failed to connect.

Following another person too far back in time can take on a violative quality, especially when it’s your own son and what you’re following is all news to you. I’m not a bad person; I knew I had to stop when I traveled to the layer of Graham’s blog where the entries toggled between specific, public screeds against his AP Bio teacher and vague, public letters to an unnamed crush. The photos that accompanied these posts were always selfies, extreme close-ups of Graham making fish lips or looking at something off camera. I zoomed in on his features to try to understand why he looked so hyper, so ultra-defined. At 200 percent, I saw pixilated mascara crumbling at the edges of his eyes and a deep pink line of wax surrounding his lips.

His face had not yet taken on its adult shape.

Embarrassed for us both, and, frankly, afraid of the point when I’d find some public whining—one of my son’s many pretty grievances against me, my rules, my values, which he referred to exclusively as “politics”—I stopped moving backwards and began an intense search into now; the point represented by a spinning rainbow wheel, ellipses, a flipping hourglass. The signals of refreshing.

Ever since Cathy had posted the photo of her and Graham at his graduation, which, when clicked, refused to take me to Graham’s own page, I knew my son had put some kind of digital shield up against me.

So I made a fake account using an image of a girl wearing a U of Illinois sweatshirt and too much black makeup around her eyes. I cut and pasted it from the college’s recruitment webpage. I called the macabre co-ed Megan Walsch, which could easily have been the name of one of the morose yet chatty girls Graham brought home after school to watch an MTV version of some show that was basically American Bandstand. Megan followed Graham’s known friends, who followed back. When Megan hit thirty-five mutuals with Graham, she sent a request.

Graham never responded. The icon of a cheap lock—the kind that I could have crushed from the little diary he kept in high school with one blow of a hammer if I’d been less respectful—stayed locked.

Several months after Graham stopped returning my texts, I set an alert for my son’s name, which was also my name, and tried to be patient until he got over whatever it was.

But I admit, all summer long, I felt like I was operating at half capacity. Missing a crucial piece of myself. It was out there somewhere, stumbling around, bumping into itself. I kept coming back to that phrase—candy ass. Barely an insult. Half of it not even offensive, none of it anything my own father wouldn’t have said to me.

Sometimes I picked my phone up to Google the phrase, but before the search engine opened, I changed my mind. The waiting, I realized, the waiting and the checking had convinced me I didn’t even understand context anymore. 

I tabbed out of my email and told my secretary to check it for me on Fridays. I became less available, less notifiable. When my phone rang, I didn’t even react.

I walked through the park and watched some kids in a sack race and thought of the time I’d had to participate in one of those for the school’s Bring Your Dad to Work Day. Legs bound, I’d dropped the burlap bag halfway through and sprinted. Furious, Graham had given me the silent treatment for the rest of the day.

Technically, I’d lost. But also, not really.

 When I finally saw the email, it had already been sitting in my inbox for a week.

The Google alert had misfired, informed me not of Graham Rochester III’s activity but of my own. Cathy had finally listed the house, which even after all this time was still in both of our names. The invite sent me to an upscale website schemed in stone tones for Braid & Warren Real Estate. Here, I found a listing for the home I hadn’t entered in almost a decade that invited anybody who felt like it to an open house on Sunday.

When I finally saw the email, it was Sunday and I’d been sitting still for so long it wasn’t a decision to start moving as much as a reflex. I felt wired, predetermined. An hour later, I was walking through the house Graham had grown up in like I’d never left.

Our home had been swept clean of any remnant of life. The edges of it were unclear, like the background of the selfies Graham used to take in his bedroom—strategically blurred to hide imperfections.

Yet, as I followed the realtor, I felt as though Graham was about to turn a corner and bump into me, eyes ever fixed on his phone.

I placed my hand on a cool wall and inhaled deeply. I needed to absorb it all, keep it. The realtor, a put-together woman near my age in a pink and hot pink tweed suit-skirt who’d boastfully explained to me she’d “taken up” real estate after her kids went to college, asked me if I was okay.

She wore one of those miniature pens that buckle to a lapel with an oversized safety pin. Only women her age can look as concerned as she did—women who have seen their husbands and brothers have heart attacks, strokes in real time. Women who know they’re going to outlive a lot of death.

In the same moment, I understood why I was there and why I shouldn’t be.

“This house,” I asked anyway, “does it have a storage space?”

The realtor brightened. Storage space was one of the home’s primary assets.

Patiently, I trailed in her mauve wake as she showed me one closet after another with pristine lighting fixtures, ensconced glows with dimmer switches.

Cathy and her second husband had done a number on the place. The basement didn’t even smell like flood anymore.

When we finally got to the right door, I calmly stepped past the realtor to open it myself, to save the elderly woman the trouble of walking into the dark room. At that crucial moment, I wanted to conduct myself in a way I would remember with pride.

As if I thought she hadn’t already seen it, I stepped into the doorway to block the sight of the terrifying room: the place where the child had been trapped. That’s what Graham told his friends and, worse, the therapist. The kids spread the rumor—put it in the Internet—so pictures of the room Graham ruined show up on haunted house websites to this day. On Halloween, kids dared each other to chime the doorbell as if the sound itself were a long sonic stick they could poke the ghost with. I started sitting on the threshold with a baseball bat, but the kids were too fast. Graham, of course, insisted there were no kids. Maintained the claim that it was the ghost girl well into his teens.

When Cathy explained what was happening to the therapist, the woman uselessly remarked, “Extreme emotional pain sticks. It doesn’t move until it’s addressed.”

But the room, it seemed, had moved. Now it was nothing but a beige box, a non-descript cube pre lit by a frosted glass oval affixed to the center of the ceiling. I ran my hand over the whey-hued walls, sturdy as bone. It seemed I was about to punch the wall, to begin peeling the sheetrock back to reveal the true nature of the place.

Instead, I turned to the realtor and asked, “Has this room been renovated? I mean do you have any photos of the original structure?”

The line of her rose stained lips froze so suddenly her lipstick seeped just a bit further into the fine cracks surrounding her mouth.

“You’re another one of those ghost hunters.” Her voice was now as cold and dry as the slice-and-bake cookies she’d put in the house’s oven that morning to cover the smell of plaster and paint, of doing-over. “You know you people drive the property price way down? And over what? Something over and done with.”

There was a faux vanilla scented silence in which my ears rang.

“I’m a serious buyer.” My voice sounded so much like my own father’s in that moment—cold, more disgusted than was reasonable—that I almost flinched. The sound of it muffled everything else and I added, “I’d prefer to work with a more experienced agent from your firm.”

Her face flushed, her eyes suddenly wet. She turned on her heel to leave so quickly I was left alone in the echo of my father’s voice, reverberating throughout the empty cellar.

No, basement. Cellar was what we called it when I was the child.

I flipped the switch, closed the door, and used the surprisingly bright light of my phone to walk to the center of the space. No matter how often I used the flashlight function, I always turned the thing on right in my eyes so the beam momentarily blinded me.

In put a thumb over the tiny lamp and just stood for a moment, stunned. The dark was so deep my eyes had nothing to adjust to. In the hyper quiet, I became aware of the rushing sound of blood in my ears, of pain in my joints, of the smell of my own cologne. Without intending to, I sighed and the sound of myself redoubled in the echo.

But underneath, I heard a scratching. A fingernail hooking through time as clearly as if the hand were right beside me in the dark.

“Graham?” I asked, still in my father’s voice.

For a moment, the sound stopped. Then it began again, but multiplied. Children’s hands all around me.

I lifted my thumb from the light, shone it at the wall, and knew what to say.

The tiny text message keyboard pinged with every swipe and the room began to buzz with the echo of it. What I ended up sending was riddled with errors but it was clear enough to count, I hoped. I waited and watched the screen. It didn’t take long, in the end. For the first time in months, the ellipses below the little circular portrait of my son bubbled and dissolved and bubbled up again.

Finally, I suspend in the moment.

Behind and below me, I hear a ringing. A tethered echo, anchoring me and then—letting me loose.