The Locked Room

Door handle
Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

The woman who worked at the coffee shop opened the bathroom door and caught Louis sitting on the toilet, his cell phone in his hand. His thumb slipped and smeared gibberish across the text message: Oplm. Vgtyiop.

“Oh my God I’m so sorry!” The door slammed.

“Sorry—thought I locked,” Louis stuttered. He rose slightly from the toilet seat, leaned to the side, and pressed the button on the doorknob again, or perhaps for the first time. He sat back down on the toilet, but then a moment later he rose, slipped his phone into the bent pocket of his loose trousers, grabbed the roll of toilet tissue, unspooled a handful, and wiped himself. He pulled his trousers up, fastened them, washed his hands roughly at the sink, and left the bathroom.

Louis wandered through the tables, back to his own. He picked up the empty cup and brought it to the tray where people left their dirty dishes, next to the counter. He looked for the woman who had burst in on him—he wanted to apologize again to her, properly, to let her know that it had really been his fault, his failure to lock the door, not hers for opening it. He spotted her dyed red hair through the door to the kitchen. She was at the sink, rinsing cups.

Louis looked at his watch: his break was nearly over. He needed to go back upstairs to the office, but he wanted to apologize to the woman first. It would make it much easier to come back to the coffee shop on his lunch break. It would…defuse, that was the word: it would defuse the potential embarrassment.

Of course, it would be embarrassing as well to call her away from her work to apologize for something so trivial. Louis weighed the two senses of embarrassment, one immediate and one postponed a few hours. He turned and left, deciding that it was probably better to let the apology arise naturally, rather than rushing into it awkwardly, like an actor who hadn’t taken the time to memorize his lines before stepping on the stage.

He walked around the corner of the building to the main entrance and the elevators that would take him up the three floors to the office.

***

He liked to think that he “ran” rather than “managed” the office. It gave him the sense that he did things, rather than just arranging them or letting them happen. Still, his title was “Office Manager,” so he supposed that was what he did. He took steps to ensure that everyone else was able to work. He paid the electric bill; ordered office supplies, as well as coffee, condiments, and paper towels for the break room; paid the rent; called Maintenance when something leaked or was clogged; made sure the phones and computers kept working; ordered new ones when the old ones broke or began to seem out of shape in comparison to the latest models; and basically was just there most of the day. Even when his presence wasn’t truly required for a job—replacing a broken light switch, for instance—he still called the electrician, scheduled the work, let him or her in, confirmed that the problem was solved, and paid for the repair. So, he might not be doing the work, but he still had to be there. His job was to notice that work needed to be done and ensure that it had been done. He was the unceasing gatherer of loose ends that tethered him to the building.

This sense of confinement made the coffee shop downstairs important to him. He never felt that he could stray far, even on his lunch hour, let alone on a break, and there was nowhere else to go in their prairie of low office buildings. The coffee shop was an anomaly, a quasi-bohemian cavity tucked in one molar amongst rows of dismal, toothy buildings. On most days he stopped in it, however briefly, an average of four times. First, for breakfast, right before his workday, which started at seven-thirty, when he unlocked the office, turned on the lights, and passed a quick eye over the various copiers and the fax machine; second, for a fifteen-minute midmorning break, after he was sure that Nick, the CEO, was settled in, and all the salespeople and programmers and project managers had been given their fair chance to make any emergency requests; third, for lunch (the shop sold sandwiches, too, almost as cheap as he could make at home); and fourth and finally, for another break, sometime in the midafternoon, depending on the day’s workload and meeting schedule. He didn’t stop by after work to buy a coffee for his car ride home, because the shop closed at five and he left at five-thirty. It was just as well, really: by then, he had generally drunk so much coffee that quivers of taut pain travelled from his shoulders up the sides of his neck, twisting at the corners of his jaws.

He couldn’t afford to let any shame or embarrassment fester; if he couldn’t retreat to the coffee shop periodically, he would be trapped the whole of every day in hallways of spreadsheets and memos. He had to have someplace to go.

***

At midmorning, when the crowd in the shop had thinned and settled, Louis went back in, and the woman was at the counter, waiting to take his order.

He took a moment, moving his gaze over the drink menu on the wall behind the counter.

“A large Americano, please,” he said after a moment. “To go.”

The woman—he saw now, from the tag on her shirt pocket, that her name was Debra—pressed images of buttons on the screen above the cash drawer and called to her side: “Takeaway big Americano!” Down the aisle, the young man before the hissing, gargling machine nodded into the cloud of steam.

Louis held a five-dollar bill out to Debra. “So,” he said. “I just wanted to say about this morning, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s—” Debra started saying.

“It was totally my fault,” Louis interrupted. “I thought I had clicked the lock, but I must have missed it.” He coughed and then said: “I just wanted to let you know.”

Debra shook her head. “It’s no big deal. It’s all okay.”

Louis nodded. Down at the end of the counter, the man working the machine called, “One Americano in a big takeaway cup!”

“Okay,” Louis said. “Bye.” Debra gave a little wave, and he walked away.

He picked up his coffee and turned to study the mostly empty tables. In the end, he decided to go back upstairs. The apology hadn’t taken a minute, even, but the time spent on it had seemed much longer to him.

***

When he went down for lunch, Debra was gone or at least out of sight. He bought a roast beef sandwich and an iced tea and tried to find a table, but they were all taken, so he went back upstairs and ate at his desk, staring at a faint scar in the fake wood.

***

Louis had three brothers and two sisters. He was the fourth child, and he had spent his youth in a crowd. He supposed that he might have had some retreat as a child, some private lair to which he could escape, but if so, it had faded from his memory. Certainly, he had no single memory of spending a moment in the bathroom without the fear that one of his siblings or parents would burst in on him, regardless of what he might be doing.

The truth was that this lack of privacy had extended to everything in his life, no matter how mundane. He wasn’t allowed to maintain even the illusion of being able to possess something of his own—he never managed to keep even some small object, some talisman that wasn’t usurped by others.

Once, when Louis was perhaps five years old, during a family visit to his father’s sister, he had gone into the house, leaving everyone else outside, grilling and playing volleyball, to get a glass of water. After he finished drinking it, he just stood in the kitchen a moment or two, relishing the emptiness, the distance from the muffled shouts of his siblings.

His aunt came in and found him that way, drifting over the linoleum. She put his glass in the sink and took him by the hand, drawing him to the end of the kitchen, where a wide drawer was set beneath the counter. She pulled it out.

“Go ahead and dig around in there,” she said. “You can pick out one thing to take home with you.”

He rummaged through the fractured collection of wooden spools and old wristwatches missing their straps and unmatched porcelain angel figurines and layer upon layer of cards and beads and broken bits of costume jewelry until he found a small, hard, black rubber ball.

He had seen plenty of brightly colored rubber balls with names to indicate their power—Superball! Ultraball! Megabounce! Skyscraper!—but he had never, as far as he knew, seen a plain black ball.

“What’s this?” he asked his aunt.

She took the ball from him and threw it gently against the floor. It rebounded nearly to the ceiling.

“Wow,” Louis breathed. He caught the ball after it bounced twice more.

And the best thing was, who would want it but him? It wasn’t bright or big. It was just a little, plain ball, something no one would bother to take from him.

So he thought, until his oldest brother Joey found him bouncing it on the front porch, snatched it away, and ran with it to the backyard. Over Louis’s shrill objections, he substituted it for the baseball in the game the rest of the kids were playing. Joey swung at Tommy’s pitch, and Louis watched his ball shrink to a speck and disappear over the tree line.

“It was mine!” he screamed at Joey. “Aunt Jenny gave it to me!”

“What’s he screaming about?” his father called from the picnic table.

“Just a stupid ball that was going in the trash anyway!” Joey shouted back. “He’s making a big deal out of nothing. Like usual.”

“Well, try to keep it down over there. Y’all are giving me a headache.”

Louis tore away from his brother and ran to the edge of the woods. Ignoring the whistles and taunts of his siblings, he stared frantically and fruitlessly into the dark spaces between the branches.

***

When he went into the coffee shop at three-thirty, he was the only customer. The man—Carlo, his name supposedly was, according to the tag on his shirt—was the only one working.

“Americano, right?” he asked as Louis walked up to the counter.

“Um, yeah, sure,” Louis said.

Carlo pressed the ghostly electric buttons on the screen. He laughed then, briefly. He pressed his lips together and the laughter turned into a muffled warble, and then a whimper.

“You okay?” Louis asked. He handed three dollars to Carlo.

Carlo shook his head. “I was just thinking about something. Sorry. So stupid.” He counted the change into Louis’s waiting hand. Louis caught two quarters under his thumb and let the rest fall into the tip jar. As Carlo started coaxing the machine to make the coffee, Louis walked toward the bathroom, slipping the quarters in his pocket as he went.

Twisting the handle, he pushed the door with his hip, following it into the bathroom. As the door slowly swung closed, he pressed the button in the handle to lock it. When the latch clicked into place, the button popped back out. Louis frowned and pressed it again. It didn’t move. He opened the door an inch, pressed the button, and watched the door shut. The button snapped back out.

The door automatically unlocked when it closed. To lock it, you had to wait until it was all the way closed. That was what had happened—he had mistimed locking the door.

“Crap!” Louis growled. He jammed the button back into the knob and stood for several seconds, with his eyes closed, in the half-light of the small, gurgling room.

***

That night after dinner, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. He didn’t do anything; he just sat, fully clothed, on the closed toilet lid.

It couldn’t have been three minutes before Claudia, his two-year-old, was banging a soft fist against the bathroom door.

“Dada,” she called. “Dada, watch you doin’?” She paused, breathing, and then she called down the hallway. “Dada makin’ water in the potty!”

“Go back to the front room, Claudy,” he called through the door. “Dada will be out in just a minute.”

The hallway was silent; she was just standing there, refusing to leave. Well, let her, as long as she was quiet.

Another two minutes and Kevin, his seven-year-old, was rapping his knuckles against the door—punching the door, it felt like.

“Come on, Dad, I got to pee!” he whined.

“Use the other bathroom!” Louis barked.

“I can’t use the other one. I hate the other bathroom. It stinks like perfume and stuff.”

“Dada, Dada, Dada, Dada!”

“Come on, Dad—shut up, Claudia. Dad, you’re going to make me pee myself! Daaddd!”

“God damn it!” Louis screamed at the door. “One goddamn minute to myself without being interrupted. When am I going to get that? Huh?”

The hallway was again silent, but only for a few seconds. Then there were swift drumming footsteps—a mixed rhythm of Claudia’s awkward stomp and Kevin’s feathery scramble—as his children ran down the hallway, as they ran away from him, as they left him where he was, finally alone, in a locked room, silent, unprovoked.

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