The door to the room next to my bedroom when I was growing up was always locked. It was the only door in the house that locked from the outside. Not once did I see Mom or Dad—or anyone else—open it. I must have been six or seven when I first asked what was on the other side. “A room” was the flippant response. I persisted, and the answer was a parental cliché: “We’ll tell you when you’re older.”
We lived in central New Jersey, a stone’s throw from Cranbury, a town whose history dates back to colonial days. I was an only child, unusual for a family in the nineteen-fifties, especially one that was Italian-American. The window of my second-floor bedroom looked out onto our backyard and the woods behind it. The scenery was serene and destined for elegiac recollections a half century later. My attention, however, didn’t fall on summer’s luxuriant foliage or winter’s quilts of snow, but on the mysterious room to the right of mine.
I remember—maybe I was ten—trying to turn the doorknob and suddenly feeling Dad’s Golden Glove-boxer grip on my left shoulder. Startled, I winced and spun around. How had I not heard his approach? Dad shook his head and with an extended arm pointed to my room. He seemed at that moment to have grown much taller. I returned to the security of my model airplanes and science-fiction magazines.
After Mom’s broiled swordfish steak and buttered rice one Friday night, Dad took me to see a new movie, Psycho. The outing was a reward for my latest report card: three As, two Bs, and three Cs, but for the first time the Cs weren’t grades, but letters in our last name. Despite Dad’s multiple inquiries, Mom decided to stay home and read Hawaii. James Michener’s latest novel aside, she disliked suspense films and certainly didn’t care to see one with that morbid title. Mom wasn’t convinced it was appropriate for me, but Dad replied, “Joey’s thirteen,” as if my age alone validated his decision. He later could assure her I wasn’t the only boy in the theater.
It takes little to function as a match against the striking surface of an adolescent’s imagination. When my two real eyes saw the decomposed and skeletal Mrs. Bates, my mind’s eye saw an imagined interior. A mummified body was roped to a chair, hollow eyed and emaciated, dressed in outdated clothes, and facing the window with the never-opened curtain. But whose body was it? Both sets of grandparents were alive and a happy part of my life. I had aunts and uncles and cousins—Mom’s family was larger, so her side supplied the greater share—so my fevered, newly teenaged brain came to three conclusions in the two-dimensional presence of Anthony Perkins in deranged drag: There was a lost family member who died before I was born, the room I never saw was a mausoleum for that person, and every morning I awoke only a few feet from a corpse.
At lunch the next day, I sat at the kitchen table dipping my grilled American cheese in a dollop of ketchup. As she poured me a glass of milk, I asked Mom if there was a dead relative she and Dad didn’t want me to know about. I thought she was going to drop the milk bottle. She raced out of the kitchen, bottle in hand. She hollered to Dad, who was in the cellar, “You had to take him to that horrid movie. You wouldn’t believe the question your son just asked me.”
While Mom and Dad were at the Gallaghers’ annual Christmas party two houses away, Sean and John, the Gallagher twins, kept me company. We grew up together. They were seven months older than I, which put them at age fourteen and in their freshman year of high school.
I was better friends with Sean. We were Little League teammates. He was a catcher; I played second base. John preferred to spend his time outside of school working on his ham radio, a hobby that led to a career in electrical engineering. John also loved music and was buying records long before the rest of us.
He brought over his latest collection of singles: “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures, and six or seven others. I stacked them on the record player in the family-room console. Sean, John, and I listened to one song after another as we drank soda pop and I heard stories about high school, which was less than a year away for me. The conversation turned to Christmas and what we hoped to find under the tree.
“The present I want won’t be under any Christmas tree,” I said.
Roy Orbison’s quasi-operatic lamentation sashayed out of the speakers. “Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight.”
John looked at Sean and then back at me. “Got a paper clip?”
The blood pounded against my eardrums like the waves at Seaside Heights. John knelt before the door and stuck an end of the straightened paper clip into the cylinder. Sean was downstairs keeping an eye out the window. We promised we’d call him as soon as his brother succeeded in picking the lock.
“I don’t know about this,” I said.
“Be cool, Joey. No one will ever know about it, except you, me, and Sean. Don’t you want to know what’s in this room?”
“Don’t worry.” Since John was older, I figured he knew better than I did.
“Hey, I have to go to the bathroom!” Sean shouted from the first floor.
“Can’t you hold it in?” John shouted back.
“Make it quick!” I yelled.
“How old is this lock?” John asked as he worked.
“Beats me. Far as I know, it’s always been here.”
“Got it!” John stood up and grinned at me. “This is it.”
I shoved him aside and turned the knob. For the first time in my short life, I didn’t meet the lock’s resistance.
“Hey, Sean, get up here!” John called into the air. “I got the door open!” Sean didn’t answer. “He’s still in the bathroom. I hope he doesn’t miss the big surprise, whatever it is.”
“Listen,” I said. “We take a quick look, shut the door, and go downstairs. We act like we were playing your records the whole time. Is it a deal?
“It’s a deal.”
“And you have to swear to God you won’t tell anybody you were in the room.”
“I swear to God.”
We shook on it.
“What about Sean?” John asked.
“I’m here, I’m here,” Sean announced. His shoes hammered the stairs.
“You sound like Seabiscuit,” I said. I extracted from him the same oath John took.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Sean said. “Let’s go in.”
The door was stuck in its frame, probably from never being opened. I had to push my weight against it twice before it gave way. A musty smell greeted us. I felt along the wall for the light switch. A bare bulb in the ceiling illuminated the forbidden space.
My friends were as perplexed as I was. “I don’t get it,” said Sean. “This is what your folks were hiding from you?”
The room was empty, and by empty I mean there wasn’t a stick of furniture. The walls were painted pink. A white lace curtain with pink trim hung over the window.
I didn’t hear the front door shut. “Hello! Dad and I are home. Where is everybody? Joey, are you and the Gallagher boys in your room?”
–Joel Allegretti (originally published in The Pennsylvania Literary Journal)