ENOUGH: Skeleton Key

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Skeleton Key
H.E. Fisher

Dad purchased the mesh fire screen for our fireplace with Raleigh cigarette coupons. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands it took, but he had a whole extra bag full of the strange beige and brown paper squares, stashed in the bottom draw of his secretary desk, along with his bar mitzvah yarmulke and a cardboard box of pressed shirts from the dry cleaner.

I was no more than four when I would watch him open the Raleigh fire screen, lift the chute’s wrought iron cover, and sweep the burnt logs’ ashes into the dump in quick, restless strokes. Once the brick floor was clean, Dad would re-cover the hole with the plate and draw the screen closed. Then I would follow him into the kitchen to the cellar door. In its lock was a skeleton key, the only one that could lock or unlock any room in the house. As was our habit, my father and I arranged ourselves in front of the key like archeologists considering an ancient relic.

“You can turn it,” he would say, encouragingly. This was always the first time in the process that the two of us would make eye contact as though the key could not only open the door but had the capacity to engage and unlock our connection, too. It was during this exchange that I came to understand this experience was more ritual than chore and bound me and my father to our own private society apart from the others in our family; this was our thing, unshared by my mother and three brothers. With a quiet click, the cellar door, now unlocked, gently eased open. Dad would reach around me to switch on the light in the stairwell illuminating the steps leading down to the cellar. The bare wood steps took my father’s weight noisily.

“Hold on,” he’d caution. My hand was too small to get a true grip around the handrail. Instead, I would place my palm flat on top of it and let it glide, and starting with my right foot each time, took careful steps down.

The chute’s wrought iron door, the size of a marble notebook, was built into the whitewashed stone wall a few inches to the right of the landing.

“You can open it,” he’d say with the same tone reserved for unwrapping presents on my birthday. It was easy for my small eager hands to flip the forged latch. The door swung open gracefully. To my delight the remains of the logs, the gray and white powder Dad had swept away, were piled into a small mound, reminding me of the summer anthills I’d bother at the edge of the stone walkway in the backyard near my swing set.

Across the seasons, when no one was looking, I habitually lifted the iron plate in the fireplace and dropped small objects into the chute: a coin, a Superball, jacks, a marble, a plastic ring from the supermarket’s bubble gum machine. I’d give it a minute for the object to make its descent. Then, stealthily, I would go to the cellar door. The skeleton key was a lacy brass beauty that reminded me of a music box ballerina performing a retiré on one pointed foot. I’d pinch the bow and rotate it once clockwise, as Dad had instructed, and listened for the mechanism’s soft click and the door to ease open as though gravity worked horizontally. I always checked again to make sure no one in the house could see or hear me, and when I felt certain the coast was clear, I’d step onto the top landing and flick on the light. A single bulb dangled above the steep wooden steps lighting my way. I’d head down.

Once in the cellar, I’d step in front of the black iron door forged into the whitewashed stone wall and made quick work of retrieving the object, careful never to turn around. I always sensed that something was wrong in the cellar. The cellar had eyes. I could feel them on my neck and knew they looked harder when I was there alone. The ghostly space did not matter as much when my father was around; he was protection from whatever was lurking in the antique shadows.

The last time I went down to the cellar to retrieve an item, as always, I hurriedly unlatched the door and watched it swing open. This time it was the skeleton key itself I had thrown down, but it wasn’t there. The chute’s stonework wasn’t smooth; ash gathered on the shallow ledges between the stones that led up into the chimney like crazy steps. I quickly deduced that the key’s lacework must have gotten hung up on an uneven stone somewhere in its long descent from the fireplace. I hoped that in time it would somehow get shaken loose, perhaps when the house settled, or be knocked down by another object coming through like one of those Hit ‘Em Up games at the arcade on the boardwalk.

I decided not to tell Dad or anyone I’d lost the key and crept into the cellar as often as possible to check if it had finally emerged, but it never did. Days and weeks passed. If Dad, or anyone else, knew it was me who had lost it, no one said a word. The doors to the rooms in the house were never locked, anyway. Except for the front door, the back door to the yard, and the door that led out from the cellar to the back patio. Each of those had modern locks and keys and everyone, except for me, had a set.

 

I was the youngest of four with much older siblings and on a daily basis clocked in hours observing others. I didn’t always understand the specific definitions of the words spoken in our house, but I could poke at them imaginatively and loosen their meanings. I was sensitive to nuance, could smell a rat, and easily became paranoid. More often than not, my nervous hunches proved to be correct. There was, then, a clairvoyant-like aspect to my childhood, a sense of the kettle boiling and the promise of its lid popping off.

 

Sometime in my early teens, I began to think my dad had touched and hurt me. When or where—or if—he had, I didn’t know. There was no memory of a single event; it was visceral and as sinister and ubiquitous as the eyes in the cellar. It was a fear that something terrible had happened, a feeling that a wind had picked up, invisibly stirring leaves.

My bedroom was set apart from the rest of the rooms upstairs, at the end of a hallway that jutted off like a broken finger and curved around to the doorway. Because the wall was curved, you could not see who was approaching the room until they arrived at the threshold. I kept myself awake at night waiting for the door to open, for him to appear at that threshold, to enter the room, to fight him off.

Had I done so already? How did I even know of such things? Were the words incest and rape even in my vocabulary? It was the mid-1970s. There was no such thing as the Internet or cable television. Had I read something, saw something in a movie, heard talk? I felt it in my gut, along wiry nerves. I listened for footfalls in the creaky hallway, trying to identify who they belonged to, until I slipped into dream-rattled sleep.

 

There were clues. My mother often reproached him, saying “Don’t” or “Stop” when she felt he had hugged me too hard or too long or said something overtly sexual. I never knew what to say and sometimes didn’t even recognize the wrongness of whatever she was trying to stop—until she had said something to signal there was something to stop.

He overstepped, not just with me. He flirted with my mother’s female friends, commented on their looks in a way that crossed a line just far enough to be met with an eye roll or a deflective or dismissive phrase. “Oh, you’re being silly,” they would say to him, always playing it down—at least in front of me. He commented on actresses’ looks—“She’s a goddess”—or exaggerated his feelings for them—“I’m in love with her.”

Now and then, I’d catch him looking at me. His gaze registered. I felt like an object being puzzled.

“Why are you looking at me?” I’d ask, inquisitively.

“I ain’t never seen no one like you,” he’d say in this put-on accent as though he was a character from a stage play. I knew it was meant to be a compliment.

When I was twenty-one, a houseguest, a person my age who was very close to me, was stretched out on the couch, relaxing. Dad went over to her, sat down on the edge of the cushion, and fondled her breasts. She told me and anyone who would listen about the incident. It was the week of my mother’s funeral, we were sitting shiva, and so it was hard to give the violation top prize for awful as it vied with our mourning. But, of course, we never forgot.

 

There was the good dad and the creepy sexual dad. There was the dad who taught me how to ride a bike, who took me to Broadway shows and movies. One time I came home from college on break with a photo assignment from class to document something. I chose to shoot the local amusement park rides on the boardwalk, which were scheduled to be torn down that spring. It was freezing with snow and ice on the ground, and I had a terrible cold. Dad accompanied me holding a box of tissues so that I could blow my nose between shots. It was sweet. Not long after, when my heart was broken after a bad breakup, he comforted me on the telephone, saying all the right things. He had health problems by then, was less freaky. He died a few months later, on my mother’s birthday.

I have often wondered who he was when my parents married and how he became what he became, what longing that never got fulfilled, what kind of hurt he might have had, what debris got swept away that led to his violations, and if there had been others, incidents I never knew about. Including my own.

My brothers got his Marine sergeant jacket and wedding ring, books. I inherited the secretary desk. I opened the bottom drawer to clean it out. I lifted the bag of brittle Raleigh Cigarette coupons smelling of tobacco and Aqua Velva aftershave, and found, underneath it, next to his blue velvet bar mitzvah yarmulke, the skeleton key.

 

“Almost doesn’t count,” he would say if something bad almost happened but didn’t. A near fall on a bike, a passing grade, a close call. Almost is different than wondering if something had occurred—an event you cannot remember and can only sense, as it lingers, haunts, gathers you in its sights. That counts.

Sometimes it is enough to anticipate that something bad will happen. You lock in to your animal senses. That is what you do when you are prey to fathers and ghosts. You wait. With the hairs on your neck raised.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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