She sat in the chair waiting. Let it come, she thought. I am prepared for every eventuality, and when it comes I will not be surprised. Nonetheless, she was tense, apprehensive, alert, and when the doorbell rang her blood froze. Now, she would say. Here it comes. She tried to hide, inside the room, inside herself, but still she heard the sound of the doorbell like someone screaming in her ear. She tried to make herself smaller and smaller and sometimes even fled to the farthest corner of the room. The farther away she was the less she felt the threat. Sometimes she turned her face to the wall and began to count, ring by ring, and if the ringing did not stop began to mumble words of entreaty or supplication.
She never left the house, and sometimes she sat in the chair for days. It had not always been like that. Once she had been quite active, up and about, heedless, going out to shop nearly every day, seeing a movie occasionally or borrowing books from the library, even eating out. She had had many connections to the world, brothers, sisters, parents still alive, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, old friends. But gradually the fear had taken hold of her, germinating like a seed in the hothouse of her fevered mind, filling all its recesses like a creeping vine. Now she knew only the fear and the waiting. It was always in the back of her head, this thought of what the next moment would bring. It was lodged there like a malignant growth that swelled or shrunk but never went away.
She could not say what was more terrible, the waiting or the ringing itself. Each moment that she waited was less bearable than the last. She felt like a balloon being pumped full of air, straining and straining inside herself and about to burst, or like someone drowning, struggling against the absence of air, holding her breath and feeling the void expanding in her chest. She was at the edge of a precipice, always looking down, waiting for the little push that would send her plunging into the abyss. She held her body rigid as the moment came closer and closer. Any second now, she would say again and again. Now, she would say. Now it’s coming.
It was terrible to wait, hour by hour and minute by minute, always waiting, the scream already in her throat, always alert, sometimes whimpering while she sat in the chair as though waiting for a bomb to fall or the executioner’s blow. It was terrible to wait but when the doorbell rang each ring was like a knife twisted in her flesh, shrill, insistent, razor-sharp. Six, seven, eight times the ring would come, and then when it should have stopped another ring and then another and still more so that she sobbed and moaned and sometimes couldn’t catch her breath and once had wet herself.
And though she was always expecting the doorbell to ring and was in a manner of speaking primed and braced for it like anyone expecting to receive a blow, sometimes she let her guard down and then she would be taken completely by surprise, gasping or crying out when it came and for a moment losing her presence of mind as though guests had arrived for a dinner party before the table was properly set, or she had been shaken out of sleep, and then she jumped out of her chair and ran around in circles not knowing what to do and wanting to hide herself, anything but to hear that sound. It was essential, always, to be ready for it, to be poised in her chair so that it might somehow seem to enter the moment unobtrusively like a plane passing overhead and quickly receding in the distance. Even then her hair stood on end, though at least she was ready and almost relieved to find that at last it had come.
And while experience had taught her that the doorbell might ring at any hour, she was better prepared at certain times than at others. In fact she expected it to ring at those hours when it was logically least likely to do so, early in the morning or very late at night, though when she woke up in the morning she sometimes didn’t think about it at all until she was in the midst of dressing or washing up or otherwise fully absorbed in her morning routine and then suddenly the apprehension hit her and she found herself saying, Now, now it will come, and held her head very still like those animals who look around alertly when they pick up a scent on the plain. But though the terror seized her even when she was ready for it, she was able, when the doorbell rang, depending on the day of the week and the hour of the day and the season of the year, like those madmen who are shrewd enough to measure the responses of others to their madness, to calculate very nicely the probabilities involved. Her intuition guided her and over the years she had become quite adept at gauging what the ringing might signify. Not that this encouraged her to answer the door at the times she judged to be relatively safe, or alleviated the sense of foreboding that overwhelmed her mind as she cringed and wept and moaned.
She occupied herself by knitting. She knitted sweaters but did not send them out. The room was full of sweaters and old newspapers. She had stopped reading the newspapers and had gotten rid of the radio and the telephone. The only sound in the house was the sound of the clock ticking, measured, unvarying, the center of her world. She always knew the time without looking at it. She had placed the clock opposite her bed so that she could hear it ticking in the night. Minutes stretched into hours as the seconds ticked away, hours into days, and then the years. The silence that filled each moment as she waited for the clock to tick was like an eternity, full of menace, auguring the moment that was to come, so that again and again she wanted to scream, for the silences were themselves like blows, palpable, heavy in their emptiness. She knew she must contain herself, she must not listen to the ticking of the clock that brought her closer to the moment when the doorbell rang, but she could not ignore it. It measured every moment of her life.
And once when the doorbell rang in the middle of the night she did scream and couldn’t stop and a neighbor came and banged on the door and then the police and they took her to the hospital and she spoke for a long while with a doctor who asked her questions that had little to do with her physical state and she had understood where the conversation was leading and had in the end spoken quite sharply to all concerned making it clear that she was of sound mind and fully within her rights to ward off intruders by whatever means available as anyone else would under similar circumstances. Emily could assert herself when she chose to and they had backed off and she had gone home in a taxi and arrived just as it was getting light and because she hadn’t been out in such a long time and certainly not so early in the morning she stood for a few minutes on the sidewalk looking around and breathing in the fresh air and was tempted in that moment to modify her way of life and perhaps sit outside for an hour or two each day. But then of course there would be nothing to shield her from those who disguised themselves in sheep’s clothing and assumed an unremarkable manner until you opened your door and inquired what their business was. Emily did not wish to be caught unawares. She preferred to sit in the chair behind the locked door and let the ringing go on until the caller grew tired and went away.
The last visitor she had had, years and years ago, had been a traveling salesman. She couldn’t say why she had opened the door. It must have been his ring, gentler than most, unassuming. He had a suitcase and showed her its contents. He must have been new at the job. She felt safe with him and imagined that they might inhabit the house together, wait in the room together, in separate chairs, chatting perhaps during the day and even sharing her bed. She had purchased one or two items, hoping to see him again, but he never came back, or if he did she hadn’t realized it, for his ring must have changed as he gained experience and self-confidence, sounding like all the others, so that she would have shrunk into herself waiting for him to go away.
She was afraid to enter the kitchen because it was so near to the front door. When she was in the kitchen and the doorbell rang she felt she would explode and cowered in the corner until it stopped, trembling and sobbing. In the chair she was less exposed, so she tried not to leave it. She had bought a freezer and this kept her in supplies for months at a time. These supplies were delivered by the neighbor’s boy whom she identified through an elaborate system of signs and countersigns. She kept the freezer as well as a small refrigerator and a hotplate in the room and washed her dishes in the toilet sink. The makings of each day’s meals were separated and marked and everything arranged in neat rows week by week and month by month with a calendar to keep track of the days. She ate sparingly and there was also little laundry to do, especially in summer when she sat quite naked in the chair, at first for comfort but soon enough realizing how economical it was. She often touched herself when she daydreamed and reminisced and this gave her pleasure.
The slightest sound in the house, creaking or scraping or the whistling of the wind, would bring her to attention as she sought to interpret its meaning. On the rare occasions when she came downstairs she spent many minutes at the threshold of every room searching for signs. In general, she had been pleasantly surprised by the permanence of things. There were few surprises now. For years nothing had been disturbed in the many rooms of the house, everything remained in its place.
Emily sat in the chair waiting. Each day was a new day bringing the same hazards and threats. Each moment brought her closer to the fateful moment. It always came, if not today, then tomorrow. She could not escape it. It was always in her mind. She sat in the chair with her head cocked at a certain angle, attentively, and her mouth half open as though prepared to gasp or scream. Her body was always tense, her breathing quiet and even so as not to call attention to itself. She was so small she might be missed. But the fear held her like a vise and pressed against her chest until she could barely breathe and her eardrums seemed about to burst. She sat in the chair waiting. She knew it would come.
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