The Steel Doored Room

By Jim Meirose

h1ildie fiddled with the ring of keys. None of them seemed to fit the first of three big padlocks on the steel door in front of her. Some slid smoothly into the keyhole but failed to turn the lock. Hildie knew this was going to be her only chance to find out what lay behind the steel door. It was after midnight, and once Nick had fallen asleep she’d forced her way into the cabinet he kept the keys in. Even though he told her she should never go in the room behind the steel door, she had to know what was happening. So Hildie tried key after key. The right ones had to be here.

Three years ago things had been different. There had been no steel door in the basement, and Nick had been working as a high school janitor for close to minimum wage. Hildie had taken a job as a maid with a local cleaning outfit to bring in some money to make ends meet.

I’m tired of having no money, said Nick. I’ve got to do something to get more money.

I’m tired of it too, said Hildie. They sat in the kitchen drinking coffee as they always did on the weekend. There was no money to do anything else. They managed to get the rent paid each month and to put some food on the table, but there was no money for anything extra – no movies, no eating out, no vacations, no luxuries. Life had been this way as long as they had been married. And it looked like things would continue this way for the rest of their lives, until Nick started installing the steel door on the musty dirt-floored brick-lined room in the basement of their old house.

Why are you spending money on a door like that? she asked him over Saturday coffee.

There’s good reason for it, he said without looking at her. We’re going to need to lock that room up good and tight, down the road.

Why?

Because I’ll be doing things in there, said Nick. I found out some things I ought to be doing but they need to be done behind closed doors, and it all needs to be locked up while we’re at work or I’m not working in there.

What kinds of things will you be doing in there? she asked.

He continued talking without looking up.

I’m not sure, but they’re things that need to be done. And only I can do them.

Hildie raised her coffee to her lips. That afternoon Nick went downstairs to work on the steel door like he’d done the past three afternoons, and she sat drinking coffee by herself until he came upstairs wiping his hands with a dirty rag.

Well. All done, he said.

Good. Now what?

Got to go get some locks for the door tonight. Then I can start my work.

What kind of work?

I can’t tell you.

She squeezed her coffee cup. What do you mean you can’t tell me?

He continued wiping his hands as he answered.

I can’t tell anybody.

What kind of things are you going to do in there that you can’t tell anybody?

Please don’t ask me any more, Hildie. I can’t say any more and if you keep on asking me we’re just going to get into an argument.

His face was set hard, his mouth a hard line.

All right, she said.

All right.

So starting that next weekend, he spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons down in the room with the steel door. When he was in there it was locked from inside and when he wasn’t in there it was locked from outside with three big padlocks, one near the floor, one at hip level and one at the top. Why did the room require so many locks? She missed drinking coffee with him on those afternoons. And when he came up from the steel doored room, he was always flushed with excitement and all he could say was one thing.

It’s hard work Hildie, but somebody has to do it.

She looked down at the tabletop. She’d stopped asking him what work he was doing. She wondered what he’d have to show for it. Was it just some kind of hobby that wouldn’t ever bring any money in, or was it something else? Weeks went by and he spent every minute he was home in the steel doored room, except when they were eating or sleeping. One day at dinner, he had something to say.

We’re going to go look at new cars tonight Hildie.

New cars? she thought. There’s no money for any new car.

Where are you going to get the money for a new car? she said. We can barely pay the rent.

There’s money, he said rising from the table. Go on – go get ready. We’re going down to Wilson’s.

Wilson’s is a Mercedes dealer, she said.

I know, he said.

The next day a brand new full size Mercedes sedan sat shining in their driveway.

How are we going to pay for this? she asked him.

It’s paid for, don’t worry. But now I need to get busy. Got to get busy. Got to stay busy now that it’s started.

And down he went to the room in the cellar and locked himself in behind the steel door.

She stood looking out the window at the new car and wondered why he’d bought it. They couldn’t afford it.

And what did he mean now that it’s started – now that what’s started?

The next day he came up from the cellar and told her to get ready, they were going to the store.

What store are we going to? she said.

Williams’, he said.

Williams’? They sell new kitchens.

I know. Don’t you want a new kitchen?

Yes, but-that’s a lot of money.

Come on, let’s just go. Don’t worry about the money.

At Williams’ he said to the owner, We want our kitchen remodeled.

What are you interested in spending? said the owner.

Sky’s the limit.

Two months later the work had been done, and they had a brand new kitchen.

How did you pay for this? she said.

Never mind, it’s paid for. But now I have to run.

He went downstairs to the steel doored room and locked himself in for the rest of the evening. She sat at the kitchen table upstairs with a coffee cup clutched in her hands.

We can’t afford this, she said, looking around at the brand new cabinets and tile and appliances.

We can’t afford this.

Three days later, she was surprised to see a moving van backed up to the front of the next-door neighbor’s house. The neighbors had been a source of annoyance for years; the children ran wild through their yard, their dog barked day and night tied out in the back, and half-dismantled cars and trucks littered the front and back yards. She went in quickly to Nick, who was just coming up from the room with the steel door, and she spoke breathlessly.

The neighbors from hell are moving away, she said.

I know, he said. Isn’t it something? I bought them out.

What?

I bought them out.

What do you mean you bought them out?

I gave them a good deal on their house.

You mean you bought their house?

Yes, he said.

Where did you get the money to buy their house?

He looked away toward the wall, then back at her.

There’s money, he said. Don’t worry about it. Just think about the fact that we’re getting rid of the neighbors from hell. Isn’t it great?

Yes, but to buy their house—

We’ll sell it to a nice family, he said. We’ll pick and choose. We won’t just let anybody buy it-

I don’t understand this, she said. We’re not rich—

I know.

Then they went into their brand new kitchen and had dinner, and after dinner he went down into the steel doored room and stayed in there until bedtime. Lying in bed awake beside him, she thought, Something is wrong here. My stomach is in knots. He bought the house next door – he really did! But with what? There was the car – and as a matter of fact, he had just bought another new Mercedes so they’d both have one – and the kitchen remodel and buying out the neighbors from hell-what is going on here, she asked herself, He’s still a janitor, I’m still a maid – The next day she came home and there was a long sleek white and blue boat on a trailer in front of the house, hooked up to a big brand new fire-engine-red pickup truck. He was out in the yard to greet her.

Hildie, he said. How do you like our new boat?

Our new boat? What do you mean, our new boat?

What I said – look at it – and oh, we needed something to tow it with, so I picked up the truck, too.

Nick this is crazy. I feel dizzy. We don’t have this kind of money.

You don’t always need money to get what you want, he said.

What do you mean?

Oh-nothing. But just think of the ball we’ll have with this boat. Oh, and come on – we’re going out to eat tonight. You’re too tired to cook. Come on.

He edged her toward his Mercedes. They went out to eat. After dinner he spent the evening in the steel doored room. She watched TV alone, and she thought, it’s that room. There’s something he’s doing in that room that’s causing all this – Lord God knows we can’t afford all these things.

He came up from the cellar wiping his hands as he always did, as though he’d been working with something dirty, and she blurted it out to him.

You know Nick-this is driving me crazy.

What’s driving you crazy, he said, leaning against the cellar doorframe looking down at his hands.

All this money you’re spending.

Money? he said. What money I’m spending?

The money for all the things you’ve been buying.

I haven’t been buying anything he said. We deserve things, is all – and I get them for us.

But how.

Never mind how. It’s really very simple. But I can’t tell you, or it will have to stop.

It has to do with something you’re doing down in that steel room down there doesn’t it?

What? he said incredulously, spreading a hand out on his breast – What could I be doing down there? I don’t do anything down there—

But you spend day and night down there-

Yes I know, he snapped harshly. But it’s worth it. Don’t you think?

He was talking in circles. Her head spun.

I-I suppose, she said. I just don’t feel right having all these things we can’t afford.

Just feel good, he said. Don’t worry about feeling right – just feel good.

They went to bed.

Don’t worry about feeling right – just feel good. The room spun around her as she lay clutching the covers. She went to sleep with these words repeating in her head.

The next day, she got a call at the house she was cleaning. It was Nick.

Nick, she said. What’s wrong, you never call me at work—

Get out early today, he said. I’ve got something to show you. Something really special.

But I can’t just drop everything and leave early—

Just do it!

Well, all right.

She got home and he ushered her into his Mercedes and they drove across town and pulled up in front of a huge, brand new colonial-style house with turrets and balconies and a slate roof and a wide green yard—

Well, he said. What do you think?

What do you mean what do I think?

It’s our new house, he said.

Our new house, she said. You bought us a new house. We can’t afford a house like this-

It’s paid for, he said. It’s ours. We’re moving tomorrow.

She felt as though she’d been hit with a two by four. Her hands and feet felt numb. She couldn’t think clearly. A week later they were settled in. And this house also had a steel doored, locked up tight room in the basement that Nick spent every night and every Saturday and Sunday afternoon in. One night, when they were out to dinner at an exclusive restaurant, he gave her another surprise.

We can both quit our jobs, he told her.

What do you mean, quit our jobs?

What I said. There’s plenty of money. You hate your job I hate my job. Let’s do it.

Nick, she said. What do you do downstairs in that room with the steel door?

He sat back and pushed a finger into his cheek.

Well. I do a lot of thinking, for one thing.

I want to know what’s behind us suddenly being rich like this! It has to do with something you do behind that steel door, doesn’t it.

I don’t know what you’re talking about. For one thing, we’re not rich-and I go down there to meditate. Meditation is good for the soul – haven’t you heard that—

Her hand came down on the tabletop.

No! I want to know what you do behind that steel door – I’ll ask you right out  – you know what I think you’ve been doing down there?

What, Hildie?

You’ve been printing money.

What?

Nick began to laugh out loud from deep in his gut, so deep that Hildie was afraid he was going to vomit.

What’s funny?

I don’t print money. I don’t know anything about how to print anything.

Then why are we rich all of a sudden?

We’re not rich-

Well it’s wrong. It doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand it. Can’t you tell me why? Can’t you tell me what you do down there?

Desperation clutched her. She writhed in her chair.

No, he said. I can’t tell you.

Why not? I’m your wife. I’ve got a right to know.

Enjoy it, he said.

Just make yourself enjoy it.

They ate the rest of the meal in silence, and she resolved that she was going to get into that room with the steel door and see for herself what he was doing. He had the keys on him at all times during the day. At night, the keys were locked in the side cabinet, and the key for that was hidden. What did he think, she was stupid and couldn’t see that he was hiding something from her? Something big and important? Their lives had been transformed – for the better, perhaps – but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t. It felt wrong. She had to get into that room.

The next day over bacon and eggs, she asked him.

I want to go into the room with you today Nick.

He looked up, chewing.

Oh-that’s not possible.

What do you mean that’s not possible.

No one can go in that room but me – that’s why I keep it locked up. I wouldn’t want you going in there by accident.

And why can no one go in that room but you.

It’s just the way it is. No one can go in there – no one, or things will change.

Finished eating, he rose, wiping his mouth.

What do you mean things will change?

Just that-got to go down there now, he said.

And he went down there. Hildie spent most of the day sitting at the kitchen table alone, shivering from deep inside, wondering what he did down there. She couldn’t imagine – it was a big blank in her mind. Whatever he did, it had brought them a new life.

Waiting to fall asleep that night, she knew she had to get into that room. She had to see. She waited until his snoring was at its loudest, which meant he was most deeply asleep. Most of the time when he snored like this she’d poke him and prod him to wake up or roll over or do something to stop the snoring-but tonight she took this as her chance. Rising, she went to the garage to get a long, thin screwdriver. Returning to the bedroom, she knelt down by the locked cabinet that held the keys to the steel door. Silently, she pushed the screwdriver into the crack between the edge of the door and the doorframe, by the lock, and she pried the doorframe. Silently it gave, the wood bowed, and the door came open. She held her breath. He’d never known she knew this trick to get the locked cabinet open without a key. She’d had to learn it years ago when she locked something important in the cabinet and misplaced the key. She silently opened the door, and the snoring filled the room and wound about her, and she found the ring of keys to the steel door-and she went downstairs to try them.

There were so many keys, and just the three locks. She forced herself to breathe evenly as she tried the keys one by one – and at last, the first lock opened. After some more time had passed, the second opened. And then the third lock opened. She put her hand on the doorknob and stood there. She couldn’t believe she was about to do this; but she held the knob and paused as she remembered what he had said-no one should go in there but him-he kept it locked so she wouldn’t accidentally go in there – things will change if she ever went in there – he had said this so ominously, so seriously. Her hand trembled.

But baloney. She’d steal a peek, lock the room back up, put the keys back in the cabinet upstairs, and he’d never know.

No one would know.

The door opened smoothly. She stepped inside. The room was dark. She fumbled for a light switch, found it, turned it on.   A sudden, deep-down chill went through her for an instant. It was almost painful-she doubled over, clutching her stomach, but she straightened up, shrugging it off.

She found herself in a brick-lined room-old, crumbling brick, like the brick in the basement of the other house – how odd that this new house would have a room just like it in the basement-And it was made more surprising by the fact that the house they lived in now was new – there should be no old crumbling brick like this. In the center of the room stood a straight-backed chair. But for this chair, the room was empty. There was no clue as to what magic the room held. She sat in the chair. Silence shrouded her. The smell of dirt and old cellar met her nose. Funny, it smelled like the old house’s basement.

How had he made a room to look and smell just like the one in the old house? And there was still no clue as to what he did down here. She decided to go back to bed. She rose from the chair and went to the door, turned off the light switch, stepped out of the room, and closed the door behind her. She stooped to close the bottom lock but stopped halfway as she spun around to a sight that made her dizzy.

She was back in the basement of their old house. She pressed a hand to her forehead. There was the old boiler. There was the old washing machine and washbasin. This couldn’t be. She turned back to the door. There was no steel door, no locks. She stumbled backward. Shaking, she slowly began to walk toward the cellar steps – the cellar steps of the old house. Growing faint, she gripped the railing and struggled up the steps – and opening the door into the hall, she saw it was not a hall at all. She stood in the kitchen of the old house. How could this be, this couldn’t be, they had a new house, what was wrong? The room spun and spun, and she lost her grip on the doorknob, fainted to the floor, and lay there all night.

Hildie opened her eyes. Nick sat by the bed, holding a damp washcloth to her head. Her eyes focused – no!

She was in the bedroom of the old house. Her body turned rigid as stone, and Nick’s words washed over her as she stared at the wall and tried not to think-for this couldn’t be.

I called the cleaning company, Nick said. I told them you were sick. What did you get up in the middle of the night for? I found you laying there on the kitchen floor. The paramedics have come and gone – they said you just need to rest a bit, and you’ll be okay, but you should see a doctor if you have another fainting spell like that. What was the matter last night Hildie? Why did you get up?

I-I wanted to see something, something’s wrong, this has to be a dream. Wake me up, Nick – this isn’t our house – where’s the room with the steel door-

What do you mean, it isn’t our house – Of course, it is honey – what room? What steel door—

Oh my God, oh my God – and she fainted again. It was all too much. As she faded away she heard Nick’s words drifting through her mind.

No one can go in that room but me – no one – no one—

Or things will change.

She lay unconscious, her breathing shallow. Alarmed, Nick called 911 again, and this time the paramedics took her away. Hildie was never quite the same after that.  As they took her out she saw the two ancient cars parked in the driveway. It was the old driveway, it was the old house – no Mercedes, no boat-and the neighbors from hell’s kids were out running wild. And Nick said he had to call work to say he wouldn’t be in today – jobs, they had jobs—

But Hildie never returned to hers; she ended up in a room at Joy-Jamee’s nursing home. Nick came to visit her once a day and wondered what had caused her to crack so badly. She lived out the rest of her days in that room, never speaking, looking at the wall. Whenever she tried to think she just got dizzy – so she stopped trying to think. She just stayed in the room. And the musty smell of old brick and dirt floors and old cellars wound about her as she struggled to remain in what was left of that last moment of her old, gone, better life – struggled to remain in that last moment, as she switched on the light in that steel doored room.

——————–

Jim Meirose’s short work has been published in many leading literary magazines, including Alaska Quarterly review, Witness, South Carolina review, and New Orleans review.   His work has been nominated for the pushcart prize and was cited in the O.Henry awards anthology.  He lives in central New Jersey with his wife Marybeth, her dog, and his cat.


Comments are closed.