It happened the first time as he left his house for work. On the threshold, as he turned the key in the deadbolt, he thought: “Door.” He thought nothing of this, of course. As he got into his car, again he thought: “Door.” Again he thought nothing of it. Entering the Qampanog Trust bank, where he worked, he thought: “Door,” and crossing the lobby he thought: “Chair chair chair chair.” Going into his office he thought: “Door,” and sitting down at his desk he thought: “Chair.” This sudden quirk amused him, at first, even as it continued throughout the day. Moving around in the bank, and when he went out for lunch, whenever he saw a door he thought: “Door,” and whenever he saw a chair he thought: “Chair.” By the end of the day it annoyed him. Back home, alone in his hollow rooms in a creeping silence (his teenage son kept such erratic hours that he hardly ever saw him), he tried to stop it but to no avail—his empty house was full of doors and chairs. He thought: “I just need a good night’s sleep and I’ll forget all about it in the morning.”
But he did not forget. Just like a song stuck in his head, the thought of what had happened the day before, on waking, brought it back. It went on and on. When he went into the supermarket: “Door.” When he went to the post office: “Door.” A trip to the shopping mall was a hell of doors and chairs. He argued with himself: “Technically those aren’t doors, they’re gates, or maybe entrances. And those aren’t chairs, they’re benches.” But whenever he looked at them he thought “Door, chair” anyway. It was all he could think about, and he left the mall without buying anything. As he drove home he imagined how many doors and chairs filled up the buildings that he passed. He had no idea the world was swamped in so many doors and chairs. The thought of them took over his life.
Instead of just thinking the words, he began to say them aloud. Efforts to hold back did not go well. His ruddy cheeks and what could be seen of his pink scalp, which from most angles was a lot, would brighten; his plump neck, already squeezed up and over his shirt collar, would puff into a quivering little roll as though pumped full of gas, until he couldn’t hold it anymore and out would pop one of the words. It happened at the dentist’s when the girl ushered him into the exam room, and, seeing the big chair after enduring an orgy of waiting-room chairs in silence, he spat “Chair!” and grinned at her.
She probably thought he was an idiot, smiling back with enviable self-control and saying, “That’s right. Chair.”
He said the words all the time. When he came into work he said, for everyone to hear: “Door! Chair chair chair chair! Door!” He pointed at the doors and chairs when he said it. It became routine to needlessly work the words into dealings with clients, as when they entered his office he would say, “Have a seat in the chair,” and when they left he would say, “Thanks for coming in. There’s the door.” Sometimes they thought he was hustling them out, but he only had to say “Door” somehow. For a while, saying the words in ordinary conversation kept him level, like ballast in a ship. He practiced leveling himself in his sales pitch. He would say: “We have a full line of products to offer. I know that sounds like a strange thing to say. After all, a money market isn’t a concrete item that you can hold. I mean it’s not something made in a factory like that chair you’re sitting on, or that door you came through, but it’s just as real as a chair or a door. And you can buy them here, the same as you can buy whatever chair or door you want at a chair or door store.” The clients had no idea what to make of the grinning man in front of them, who panted and sweated as though, perhaps crouched behind the desk, a robber pointed a gun at him the whole time. They couldn’t know that all the doors and chairs of this world, because they must be named on sight, every time, so distressed him in his battle against the naming that his heart faltered with the effort, and a helpless sensation, as though the bones of his ribs and chest were separating and floating away, constantly wracked his nerves.
He did gain a few respites, though, like an invalid whose fever subsides for a while, as when a woman came to him in tears for the death of her husband, wanting to withdraw money from an account which would trigger a penalty amounting to half the total funds.
“But it’s my money,” she sobbed.
“I’m afraid those are the conditions of your product,” he told her. “You can sit in that chair and get every penny of it in six months, but not now.”
“But I’m going to be evicted!”
“I’m sorry. Those are the rules.”
After she left (“Door”) another banker came in (“Door”) and half-sat on his desk, having been drawn over by the ruckus.
“That was a tough one,” the other banker said. “But what are you going to do?”
“Exactly. What are you going to do?”
It was time for lunch, but instead of going out he stayed in his office, floating in a peace which passes understanding, on a velvet cushion of relief, savoring the words instead of fighting them: “Door…chair…door.” But such respites never lasted more than an hour or so. The fever may have guttered for a while, but like a fire fed by a blast of air it always flamed up again.
He did not go to a therapist because he had driven his son into his ex wife’s camp with all the naming of doors and chairs. No, he went into therapy the way someone with the hiccups will say to a friend: “When I’m not looking, scare me.” And the therapist did indeed scare him but not in a good way. First of all, the outer office had four doors and seven chairs, a formidable gauntlet to run before getting into the session room where, on top of everything, the therapist made him sit in a chair, with two other empty chairs beside him, and face the door to “conquer” his quirk. He succeeded in avoiding the chairs, for the most part, but said “Door” several dozen times during the first session. What he very much wanted to talk about were his dreams. The therapist denied him, wrinkling his nose in the tooth-baring manner of an aggressive wolf, saying: “I’m not of that school. And besides, your disorders do not require it.” Towards the end of the session the therapist kept glancing at the clock, thinking, so it seemed: “Time.” Then he asked for his co-pay, preferring cash.
Despite the therapist’s wishes, he ruminated on the quality of his dreams for a week with the intention of helping himself, since no one else would do it. Lately, they were all of the same stripe, involving, as one would expect, a multitude of doors and chairs. For instance, he often dreamed himself seated in a chair and propelled by unknown magnetisms through door after door, but not naming them, in an ill defined place, perhaps an empty building (empty save for all the chairs) as vast as a warehouse but subdivided into a dense maze of black walls, and as he shuttled through narrow interlocking corridors a pulsating glare, from an unseen source, would dazzle his eyes.
At his second session he desperately wanted to talk about his dreams, sensing, as we all sense about our dreams, a hidden meaning of profound import, in his case the root of his debilitating quirk, but again the therapist refused, this time not just wrinkling his nose but huffing like an exasperated schoolmarm. Why did the man let him sit there and say “Door” the whole time? What was the point? How could he stand it? The therapist scratched his nose, crossed and re-crossed his legs, tapped his fingers, blinked languidly—impervious to the barrage of “Door.” It was terrifying. He jumped up and fled the room, screaming his loudest “Door!” to date. Needless to say, though it will be said anyway, he did not return.
Now, one might think his rash act and his desperate cry of “Door!” to be the classic defining moment for this episode of his life, but it was not. No defining moments punctuate any of this, nothing to wreck the pattern of suffering, no catharsis to end it all. Just as no single event started it, none would finish it. Whatever fuel sustained his suffering ran out, and his quirk sputtered to a halt. One day he found that he had made it all the way to work without saying or even thinking the words; then, of course, the quirk started up again. But calm spells lengthened and fevered ones diminished. As time went on he thought: “I haven’t said the words for two weeks!” Then: “I haven’t said the words for two months!” Then: “I can’t remember the last time I said the words!” Sometimes he would sit in his chair at work and look at the door to his office, thinking: “It’s pretty good not to talk about doors and chairs all the time.”
Here we find him, shortly after being diagnosed with bursitis, at his desk at work, not thinking about doors and chairs as a pair of newlyweds walk in, so ferociously in love that they still find excuses to touch each other. They tell him they want to buy a loan for their brand new house, their brand new life. “No problem!” he says. “I have a fine product I know you’ll enjoy.” They are so happy, and he is happy too. How could one not be happy for all the happiness in the room? As he enters the loan details into the computer he looks at his hand and thinks: “Hand.”
James Alexander’s fiction can be found online at Unlikely Stories, Wilderness House Literary Review, BULL, Gadfly, and Prick of the Spindle.