The hall closet, the one at the back of the house, not the coat closet near the front door, had always been locked, ignored, not even acknowledged, except when Pamela, as a child, touched it. Jiggling the doorknob, she wasn’t even trying to open it, the doorknob was the only cold thing in the dry summer heat, had earned her a wooden spoon across the knuckles when she was four. By the time she was seven, six lashes with the coil of clothesline kept in the middle drawer in the kitchen for doing her best to open the door, caught trying to get the key, frozen fast, back out of the cold lock and onto its hook, made sure she never touched it again. Even when passing by it a short arc would be subconsciously introduced into her path. She didn’t know she was doing it. Everyone did it, the others never even needed a smack.
But now, standing in front of that same door, her knuckles and the back of her legs tingling, she had to open it.
When her youngest sister, Denise, showed up on the front porch with her three nieces, that was fine. The steak house she managed had been shut down, they could all sleep in the big room upstairs, and none of them had a fever. And Denise knew Pamela wasn’t good with company.
Joel knew it, too, that’s why her siblings let her keep the house after Mom died, but he didn’t care. Upon learning Denise was back in the house, he rolled up in his battered Camry demanding equal treatment and his old room back until the lockdown ended and he was back on his feet. As if an itinerant sign writer and knife sharpener ever had feet to stand upon.
Eight hours behind Joel, just as Pamela was thinking she might get to bed, Linda arrived. Randy, her husband, was drunk when he got out of the car. He’d been drinking the whole way from Pennsylvania, across three states and a time zone. He complained loudly about being put in the den on the sofa bed. Linda tried to shush him, but his voice got louder and his face redder until Joel called him out to the backyard, to the rickety grey picnic table at the edge of the floodlight, where he was sitting with a bottle of Jim Beam and flicking cigarette butts into the darkness.
Pamela’s quiet house was gone. Its nightly serenade of creaks and cracks, its sweet and calming whispers when the wind rose, were drowned out by arguments, thumping footsteps, the constant exercise of the plumbing, one-sided phone conversations, children whining, crying. She started scratching again, the same spot on the side of her leg. Sleep was the meagre hours between Randy’s final urination, amplified by bathroom tiles and the wall cavities, his deep throaty hawking of phlegm, and Denise’s girls opening Youtube on their mother’s phone.
At least Joel and Randy were eager to go to the store. But all they seemed to buy was beer, toilet paper and meat. Then they’d sit at the kitchen table, drinking the beer, waiting for someone, usually Linda, to cook the meat, while they agreed how much bullshit the whole situation was.
On the second morning, just before lunch, Pamela was in there with them, chopping carrots while her lentils soaked. Linda was frying steak with onions. Denise was sitting at the table, a mug of coffee on the corner away from the men.
“I reckon it’s time to sell this old heap,” said Joel. “It would be the fair thing to do.”
“Fair?” said Denise. They all had a lifetime of dealing with Joel’s golden boy, only boy bullshit, but Denise was always the first to call it out.
“Pam doesn’t need a house this size. And with the corona, we’re all hurting. And you know it’s just going to get worse.”
The knife nearly went into Pamela’s finger.
“We already got our money,” said Denise. “It’s not Pam’s fault we couldn’t hold onto it.”
“But it’s our family’s house,” said Joel. “It’s not fair that it’s all hers.”
“Are you okay, Pam?” said Linda.
Pamela wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve.
“It’s the onion, that’s all,” she said, cutting through its brown skin.
“What you oughta do,” said Randy scratching his belly under his shirt, “is get a mortgage on this place. Unlock the equity. Split it four ways, but keep a little to repaint the place, fix a few things, re-sod the yard, put it up on AirBnB and then bang, you’ve got yourselves an income stream.”
She couldn’t see much as she ran from the kitchen, but she didn’t miss Joel rubbing his chin and nodding at Randy.
The afternoon saw Joel and Randy walking around, tapping on timbers, pointing out flaking paint and gaps in floorboards. Pamela had to shift her nieces away from the closet door. They were taking turns holding the cold doorknob and marvelling at it. No-one was smacked or lashed. All it took was a tube of cookie dough waved like a flag in front of them and they followed her away from it and into the kitchen.
Six months after inheriting the house, living in it alone, filling it with her own furniture, overlaying new memories along with a new coat of paint, she had turned the key in the cold knob of the closet door and opened it.
She walked out of the house and slept in her car in the driveway for two days. On the third morning, in the back seat, she asked herself what had really changed. After that she moved back inside.
Joel and Randy spent the evening outside at the picnic bench, making up numbers and then spending them.
Denise was dismissive, but Linda kept quiet. Pamela was waking up with her leg bleeding and the fingernails of her left hand dirty with dried blood.
Denise kept telling her to ignore the men and their dumb talk. She did try, but when Denise was out walking with the girls Joel bullied her into showing him the paperwork for the house. It was still in the folder with the will. He scooped it all up and walked out of her room with it, saying he wanted to read it and would bring it back.
She wasn’t stupid, just scared. Then, while shaking out the kitchen trash can into the wheelie bin, a singed scrap of paper fluttered out and landed on a smattering of potato peels, a fair attempt at her signature scrawled and looped upon it.
She went inside and after unwinding ribbons, eyeglass chains, and perished rubber bands, she lifted the key to the closet off its hook.