No More’n a Doorknob

After flipping off the light switch, Carlos crossed the room, moving past the stool and Mother’s vacant mattress to his own.  The dark didn’t bother him, as he knew where everything was. Things like stools and mattresses don’t move on their own.   They’re dependable, even if people are not.  Even in the dark, he knew his mattress would be there when he let himself fall.

That morning, Frank had put the four new kittens in a sack, tied a cord around the open end of it, and driven off in his Durango to drown them.  Upon his return, he’d thrust Carlos a glare that dared him to utter a sound. Though the boy had said nothing, Frank had insisted on driving his point even deeper.

“Don’t even start with me, boy.  It ain’t like they got souls.  Animals don’t feel things, not like you and me.  Any more ’n a doorknob does.” 

Carlos closed his eyes to fall asleep.  Yet with desperate kittens meowing in his brain, he eventually opened them again. Seeing his mother’s mattress in the moonlight coming through the window, he tried not to think about her.

He could still hear Frank’s voice:

“Any more ’n a doorknob does.”

Frank was wrong about the feelings of cats.  Could he also be wrong about doorknobs too? 

Carlos got out of bed and crouched in front of the door to the room. The brass doorknob glowed a little in the darkness.  Wanting Frank to be wrong, he peered into the brass as if into a deep, still pool, but it didn’t make a sound.  After a minute, seeing no sign of life, Carlos felt foolish.  Frank was right, of course. Things are never the way you want them to be. Carlos returned to bed, resigned to dreams of drowning cats.

He remembered the day Mother was taken away.  Frank had slammed the door – a powerful, thunderous slam, much like the time Frank had slammed him into the Durango.  How could a door not feel such violence?  Doesn’t it tremble? And doesn’t a doorknob, bound tight to its side, tremble with it? 

Father had told him, once, before he died, that everything – even people and rocks – are made from the same stuff.  He knew how it felt to be slammed. Would a doorknob tremble any less than he had?

Trying not to think of Frank or clawing cats, Carlos imagined that his doorknob was a living, feeling thing, no less than himself. The next morning, he opened the door more gently than usual.

Father had said that if you could look closely enough, you’d be able to see that the tiniest parts of things are always on the move, vibrating back and forth. Carlos could see guitar strings vibrating, but though he’d looked as close as he could, he’d never seen the little vibrating things his father had talked about, in wood, or stone, or brass.  Father had said our eyes aren’t keen enough to see them, but we can feel them: when something feels warm, it’s because its tiniest parts are vibrating faster than usual, and when something feels cold, it’s because they’re almost still. 

Might a doorknob feel the warmth of a hand that holds it?  Might it feel the air move past when it’s opened or closed?  Can a doorknob feel everything we can feel?  But then, he thought, animals can move when they want to, but rocks and chairs and doorknobs can’t. If the tiniest parts of such things are always moving, why can’t they move themselves?  Carlos spent the day wondering.

And that night, when he fell asleep, he dreamt that Frank was about to come into his room when his doorknob turned and shut the door on its own, leaving Frank out in the hall, pounding as hard as he could, but getting nowhere.

The next day, Carlos knew it had only been a dream, but he remembered something else his father had told him: that sound is nothing more than vibration.  That when you strum a guitar or ring a bell, you hear them because they’re vibrating.  Carlos spent the day thinking about the sound of the breeze, not only when it moves the leaves of trees, but when it’s all alone.  He thought about the way fans hum. And that night, when he turned off his light, he realized that even his light made a sound – you just had to be quiet, and listen hard enough to hear it.

Then his gaze fell on his doorknob again.  If a doorknob can feel vibrations, can it also hear sounds?  Could this one hear him, if he talked?

“Oye,” said Carlos to the doorknob across his room.  “¿Como te llamas?  What’s your name?”

The doorknob didn’t make a sound.

“Alright,” Carlos said.  “Have it your way.  Just be latón, and nothing more.”

Having decided that his doorknob was nothing but latón (the Spanish word for brass) Carlos closed his eyes again, trying not to think of Mother, or Frank, or drowning kittens.

*                      *                      *

As it happens, when your whole life is spent feeling the vibrations of things, you get a lot of practice knowing one vibration from another.  Everything has its own resonance.  Like a snowflake, a fingerprint, or a signature, every sound is different. Every hand knocks differently. A knock on the door means someone is about to open it, and you’re about to be sent swinging through space.  In time, you even get to understand the meaning of the words people use.

The word ‘Carlos,’ for example.  If the boy was there when someone knocked and said that word, the boy would always answer.   By listening closely, the doorknob had come to understand much about the names for things.   Every thing, and every person, had a name. And now, Carlos had given him one.

Latón could tell the difference between Carlos’s footsteps and Frank’s.  He could distinguish their breathing.  From the sounds of footsteps, fans, and even the way air bounced off walls, Latón had created a mental map of the things in the room.  And though he couldn’t see, or taste, or smell, he knew much about what went on around him.

Still, there was one big difference between Latón and living things. Frank might put a hand on him one day, but not the next.  Carlos came and went in ways Latón could not predict.  It was as if people had the ability to do things, or not, as they pleased. 

Latón didn’t.  He couldn’t make anything happen.  He couldn’t do anything.

Pressure from a hand would turn him on his side. Release of that pressure would straighten him up again.  His favorite sensation was the movement of the air around him when the door was open or shut, but he never got to have that feeling when he wanted it; he always had to wait until someone else made it happen.  And his ride through the air always followed exactly the same path.  Sometimes, he imagined how it would be if he could just keep on going, on a path of his own choosing.  Sadly, he knew that day would never come.

The last few times Carlos held him, the warmth had flowed all the way inside him, into the metal spindle that was seated securely in his gut.  He’d liked that extra warmth.  But he had no way to make it happen again.  And he’d had no way to answer when Carlos spoke to him.  He was Latón because Carlos said he was, like it or not.

*                      *                      *

Carlos wondered: if he felt lonely, might his doorknob feel lonely, too?  Across the hallway were two other doors with identical knobs.  But his doorknob had never been with them, had never even seen them.  It seemed entirely possible that Latón might prefer to be among his own kind.  And so, waiting until Frank had left the house, Carlos removed the screws that held his doorknob to the door of his room and switched him to the other side of the door.  When he was done, he stepped into the hall, closed the door behind him, and spoke:

“Look, Latón, you’ve got company! I hope you’ll be happy now, with other doorknobs like yourself.”

*                      *                      *

When Latón heard the clinking of hard metal against his thin brass plate, he’d wondered what was going on.  In the moment that followed, he’d felt loose, disconnected, insecure.  Then, with Carlos’s hand around him, he’d felt cold air rush in to take the place of the spindle no longer in his gut.  That spindle had been more familiar to him than anything else in the world. As long as he could remember, the thin pencil-sized rod of hard metal had been seated right in the middle of his gut, so tightly it had sometimes seemed a part of himself.  With his spindle gone, Latón felt like a child who’s lost more than just a tooth.

A moment later, Carlos’s hand was lowering him, and letting go.  Latón’s round surface was suddenly rolling on wooden boards, making vibrations he’d never felt before.  It was so different, he hardly knew what to think.

Then Carlos’s hand was around him again, lifting him; there was the dull thud of contact with the door, the clink of brass and the feel of the spindle tight inside him again, everything  feeling the way it always had.

But everything was turned around.  The door, and its key hole, and its hinges, and latch – all of them – were backward.  Wait – no – he was backward, facing the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the door. And when Carlos went into the room, pushing the door back until it hit the jamb, Latón was left out in the hall by himself, with no way to understand his new surroundings 

And then, there were the startling words Carlos had used:

“… with other doorknobs like yourself.”

Was he now in the midst of other doorknobs?  The idea was deeply disturbing.  He had no way of knowing they were there, or anything about them, no way of signaling them that he was now in their midst.  He saw no way to make a sound himself, or vibrate, to let the other doorknobs in the hall know of his presence. And if they really were like him, they were equally powerless to signal him.  Had they all been banished to the same place? How could he tell anything about this place?  And how long might he have to stay here?

Latón wished he could scream. 

*                      *                      *

As even a doorknob knows, there are two types of turn in life: one from the outside, and one from within.  A turn from the outside is when, held by something else, you feel the pressure at your surface turn you.  The spindle in your gut resists the turn.  When the pressure is enough, the turning imposed from the outside makes the spindle turn with you. You are the instrument of someone’s hand, turning because someone else wants you to, and when you and the spindle have performed as instructed, the latch comes out of the jamb, allowing the door to open.

A turn from within is very different.  There’s nothing, no hand or anything around you.  You feel a tiny twist of pressure deep inside your gut, coming from the spindle.  It’s you that resists; it’s the spindle that turns you.  You turn the same way you do when you’re in a human hand, but there’s no hand around you doing the turning.  It’s as if human hands – the source of the most powerful movements you know – actually make no difference, as if they only exist in your imagination.  As if all power and energy really come from within.

Wondering about such things had bothered Latón for a long time.  But now, he came up with another theory. If he was not alone – if there were other doorknobs, on other doors, as Carlos had implied – then could one of them be just inches away, on the opposite side of his own door, attached to the other end of his own spindle?  Might a hand sometimes take hold of that other doorknob, causing him to turn?

The idea that there might be something exactly like himself sharing his own spindle, just inches away, once it occurred to him, would not let go.  The possibility of confirming its existence – even, perhaps, somehow communicating with it – became his only focus.

*                      *                      *

Frank slammed his bottle of beer on the kitchen table hard.  When he was finished reading the letter, he dropped it into the trashcan and left the house without saying a word.

Carlos might never have read it, since it was addressed to Frank, but a letter that could make Frank angry was hard to resist.  So Carlos retrieved the letter from the trash can, and as soon as he began to read, he was glad that he had.

The letter was from Mother.  She had been released.  As soon as she could find transportation, she’d be coming home. 

Carlos ran outside. For the rest of the day, every time a squirrel moved or a leaf fell, he spun around to see if Mother was coming up the drive.  When night came, he looked out the kitchen window for her. And now, as he lay on his mattress, his eyes fixed on the hallway, he kept seeing her there.  He gave no thought to doorknobs.  Instead, Carlos listened for the sound of Mother’s hand, turning the knob. 

*                      *                      *

Latón, meanwhile, had been spending every minute trying to send something of his own vibrations into his gut, in hopes of reaching his spindle-mate, while trying to feel something – anything – coming from the other side.  If everything vibrates, in tiny ways, he thought he might be able to feel vibrations coming in, or with enough intensity of will, he transmit some of his own and make some sort of connection. But try as he might, he felt nothing.

Was he a fool? If there was something so much like himself, so close, but he could never come to know it, was he better off to ignore it, to pretend that it didn’t exist at all?  Was he to be so close to something, for all time to come, but prevented from ever feeling anything about it?

Through the door, Latón could hear Carlos’s turning restlessly on his mattress.  When at last the boy fell silent, Latón was relieved.  He no longer wanted to hear or feel anything – not Carlos or anything else.  Existence itself was powerless, futile, and horrid.  He’d have rather had no feelings at all.

The moments that followed might as well have been timeless.  But then, from outside the house, Latón heard a vibration he’d never heard before. As it got louder it began to resemble the noise he heard whenever Frank came and went.  Someone was about to arrive. Latón didn’t care who.  He didn’t care about anyone any more, so he told himself not to listen.

But listening was all he could do. 

The noise outside stopped. A door opened downstairs, then closed again.  The noise started again.  It must have woken Carlos up when it did, for through the door, Latón could hear Carlos get up from his mattress.  He could hear Carlos’s feet on the floor. There were also footsteps down the hallway, coming nearer.  Latón  recognized them as Mother’s footsteps as soon as he heard them.  And Carlos’s footsteps were coming toward him at the same time, from inside the room. 

What happened next was more than Latón had ever imagined possible. Long as it had been, he’d never forgotten the gentle warmth of Mother’s fingertips, the way her palm and fingers and thumb enveloped him.  The feel of her hand around him was unmistakable.  But at the same time he felt it, he also felt a tingling in the spindle inside him, as if Carlos had taken hold of the other doorknob.  For the first time ever, the turn from outside, its warmth and pressure rolling through him, met no resistance from the spindle inside him. He didn’t make the spindle turn. The spindle didn’t make him turn.  There was no resistance either way, as if the spindle and he, too, and the doorknob on the other side were all turning by themselves, as if the power was coming from somewhere inside all of them, of their own free will.  And as Latón entered the familiar arc of movement, as he felt the brush of passing air, he felt neither pushed nor pulled, as if everything were happening this way because he’d always wanted it to.


“Carlos!” He heard the words – or thought he did – and thought he could feel warmth in them.  But whether Carlos and Mother were still holding the doorknobs or not – whether it was some connection between them that had aroused his feelings, he didn’t know and didn’t care.  There was warmth inside himself, and inside the spindle.  For all he knew, Mother and Carlos were both figments of his imagination.  He could feel himself tingling, his tiniest parts dancing, and he was very much alive.