When the Knock Comes
First place: Adults
When the knock comes, do not answer the door. It may be the man in the bowler hat and round glasses from the collection agency. It may be the woman two doors down who drinks too much gin and asks too many questions and smokes Virginia Slims hunched forward while her backend does a be-bop and her fish lips puff smoke. You do not want to answer the door. It may be the landlady in her housedress and slip-on shoes worn flat, clutching her tiny rat of a dog that breathes fast and stares at you with moist bulging eyes.
When the knock comes lie still on your Grandmother's chenille bedspread in your white slip on this muggy Wednesday afternoon, hands protecting your heart. Lie still behind those dark sunglasses, hiding from a Technicolor world. Wait for the footsteps to fade down the hall. If the feet stay put and the knocking gets louder, get up and get into that getup — the one you bought from the vintage store, the one you wear every day since the army deployed your only son to Iraq; since you refused his checks, your savings ran out and you stopped paying the bills; since you started taking the stairs to avoid the neighbor lady and her endless questions about Tommy; since the longing to live in a black-and-white movie, when life was simple, became a constant ache. Slip into that black rayon dress with the wide shoulders and the hemline that brushes your knees. Clasp the white string of pearls behind your long neck. Pin the black feathered hat on an angle to your pin-curls and button the white gloves at your wrists.
When the knock comes, crawl out the window, the one where you first saw the bespectacled man six floors down standing in front of the glass doors adjusting his brown bowler, where you watched the landlady call for Fido and give him a smart spank before stopping to leaf through the mail at the box and then glare up at your window — the one you were hiding behind — where you heard the smoker's cough before you saw the neighbor and her long thin fingers waving her cigarette, saying I see you, I see you behind that filmy white curtain, and have you heard anything from your dear brave boy?
When the knock comes, hurry down the fire escape in your open-toed shoes, and board the bus to the renovated movie palace downtown. Buy a ticket for the matinee, "The Best Years of Our Lives," and sit through both showings. Settle into your seat, the one halfway down the aisle, and let it cradle you in red velvet. Let the air-conditioning be a lullaby against your cheeks — the aroma of popcorn and hot melted butter a soothing balm. This is normalcy. This is a ticket to another world, a world where children beam hope and teenagers say things like gee, that's swell, and mothers are devoted to their families, and husbands work in banks, and there are no nosy neighbors. Rock from side to side as the elderly man in the navy blue suit plays the Mighty Wurlitzer, his left foot swinging end to end on the pedalboard, building to a crescendo as the organ descends into the orchestra pit, ending with a flourish as the velvet drapes rise to reveal a giant window into the past, a world where boys come home from the war — maybe without their hands, maybe bottled up with nightmares that leave them wide-eyed and sweating and panting in a young woman's canopied bed, but they come home — while underneath it all is the lush sound of violins.
You do not want to answer the door. You spent the morning standing in line for your allotment of day-old bread and canned vegetables from the county. When the Latino man behind you said it's easy to get a free meal at Albertsons, "jus' make the rounds of the food demos," you turned and lowered your sunglasses for an instant. "Our country is spending millions of dollars a day to bomb a foreign country into an empty lot," you said, "and we're standing in line hoping for a gray steak." What you didn't say is how it tears you up inside that nobody's saving bacon grease and scrap metal for the boys in Iraq, least of all yourself. You didn't say how you're sacrificing your only son in a war that you're against. You faced forward and thought how Myrna Loy never used food stamps to pay for all those cocktails in "The Thin Man," and if she had, violins would have played.
When the knock comes, do not heave yourself from the mattress and travel the long distance to the door.
If you do find your hand turning the knob, pray that it isn't the man you saw six floors down moments ago stepping out of a black car.
Pray that it isn't him with the polished shoes, the trousers of his dress uniform seared to a point, beret in hand, a serious pull to his brow.
Pray, when you open the door, that you hear the soundtrack of a Goldwyn world, and not the regrets his mouth will form, when the knock comes.
An audio recording of "When the Knock Comes" has been posted on Palo Alto Online.