FUMBLING AT the front door. I hardly hear it over the noise of a commercial, dismiss it as too inconceivable. And then, again, the tampering of a lock, the rattle of a doorknob. It is late. The children are in bed. My husband and I are in the den, half-asleep ourselves, nodding on a couch in front of the TV.
"What's that?" I whisper. Alex stares at me, wide-eyed. We both jump up: It's automatic. We live in a middle-class neighborhood near West Hollywood, where most houses have bars on the windows or security systems. On more than one occasion, police helicopters have aimed their piercing lights into our back yards and through our windows. We watch the news, we read the paper. Here in L.A., we understand that a noise at your door around midnight is probably not a neighbor or a friend.
We dash into the living room and brace ourselves against the front door. Through a window, we can see two dark figures, and they are--I still can't believe it--really and truly trying to get into our house. Frantic, we begin shouting and banging on the door. I am surprised and frightened by the foreign sound of Alex's screaming. It makes me pound more feverishly and yell, "Get away, get out of here!"
But they don't. They don't run away as we are expecting, praying, they will. They are not bothered a bit by our animal posturing. It's as if they are deaf. Both remain intent on the lock, crouch over it as if with a key, fumbling, in deepest concentration.
Suddenly, Alex stops. "Wait," he says, looking more carefully out the window. He peers down at two backs, hunched and frail, two heads bowed and capped by wispy strands of silver. He glances at me, bewildered. "They're old," he says simply, and we open the door.
In our pajamas, we greet them, curiously, still wary. I turn on the light. A man and a woman, probably both in their 80s, stand empty-handed on the porch. They are chilled and as startled to see us as we are them. We ask, "What are you doing? Who are you looking for? Where do you live?" The woman gives us her address. She is confident about this. Yes, indeed. With raised eyebrows, Alex and I nod. We know now that it is time to invite them in. The address she has given with such assurance is ours.
"Oh, it's so warm in here," the woman sighs in relief, rubbing her arms, her hands, pulling her lightweight red sweater tightly around her. Her slip is visible at the hem of a flower-print dress, but she is otherwise dressed conscientiously. Her stockings are without runs and her shoes are new. She anxiously asks to use the bathroom.
The man is wearing an old-fashioned gray suit, with pinstripes and wide lapels, shiny with wear. It is much too loose on him, as if some bulk of him has disappeared; it hangs on him, his bony face and hands poking out like splinters of wood in some stick figure.
Not quite the pair of thugs Alex and I were expecting.
We try to gather some useful information; but the woman carries no purse, the man no wallet. Both can give us their names, though. They are Emily and Seymour from Chicago and, no, they aren't married, just . . . well, they don't know quite what they are to each other. Just traveling companions, they guess. They can't tell us how or when they came to L.A. They can't even tell us how they arrived at our doorstep.
"We got dropped off," Emily says.
Alex and I will shortly come to realize the understatement in this.
"Who can we call for you?" we ask. "How about your children? Your spouses? Where were you before you came here? When did you last eat?" No answers. After each question, they shrug their shoulders, sincerely wondering themselves, or they look at each other questioningly, as if Seymour should know the name of Emily's husband or Emily should know Seymour's phone number.
We ask if the house looks familiar.
"Not really," Emily admits. "But it's very nice."
"Yes," Seymour chimes in. "It'll do fine."
"Just fine," agrees Emily enthusiastically, as if they might consider staying, just moving in.
"Don't you have anything on you?" Alex asks quietly.
Seymour pats his pockets. He is trying hard to be helpful.
"Now, wait a minute," he says. "Wait just a minute."
Thank God. He gropes at his breast pocket. It is buttoned, and his spindly, misshapen fingers work at it like the legs of a spider. Alex and I lean forward anxiously. Finally, Seymour manages the button and reaches into his pocket.
"There's this," he says.
My heart sinks.
He is thrusting a dollar bill at Alex and me.
He behaves, though, as if this is more than a bit of currency. Or, at the very least, an exchange of a different kind. He eagerly studies the bill, limp and faded in his hand, and looks hopefully into our faces, awaiting some response. He acts as if this scrap holds some secret that might clarify everything.
Alex kindly pushes Seymour's hand away. "Yes, well, you better keep that," he says, and rises, signaling to me.