She “resurrected” it from the junk store on Tenth, said she saw stories in it. The night before my fifth birthday, my grandma transformed the door’s splinters and crusty lead paint into a Chagall pastiche smeared with random drifting faces—each a story and a gift—daubed on a firmament of night blue and wispy cloud. Then she crucified it to my bedroom wall with two six-inch nails. It wasn’t even dry yet. I thought I saw blood.
I remember Rainbow as a giant furry fly in a Pink Floyd t-shirt that didn’t quite cover her up. She never wore underwear, so I always got a beaver shot when she rearranged herself. She wore purple-tinted glasses as big as saucers, and her hands were always sticky. When she leaned over my bed that night and sang “It’s a portal to the really real,” I was dizzy from acrylics.
“It’s a what?” I said.
“A portal,” she said.
“Oh.” I wanted it gone.
For seven years it hung there, a passage to “the really real” at the foot of my bed—a trompe l’oeil, but it still scared the shit out me to think I could be on the wrong side of real.
At bedtime, Rainbow would “transport” me there with a story about a face on her door. Other times she didn’t talk much. And we never lost a word on the missing generation between us. There was no mother or father for me back then, just Rainbow. She was cool in a throwback Thursday kind of way; but her door, her stories and her cooter gave me nightmares—of unwanted girls, damaged melancholic old hippies, and always the cruel men who made them. “The Man,” she’d say. Seven years.
Last night she chose two of the faces and whipped through their stories faster than usual. She’d been sick a lot, kept a rag at her mouth. Her passion for the door was waning, and I was grateful for the Cliff’s Notes version. “The red-bearded man,” she said, “runs a pawnshop in Memphis. He buys handguns and wedding rings for pennies, keeps them safe for you in case you ever need to use them again. The fat-faced infant on the left panel”—she coughed—”is just now deciding to be a girl. You can too.” I didn’t know it was a choice. “Yes,” Rainbow wheezed and wandered off on a raspy jaw about gender identity, the ’60s, finding oneself, resisting war and The Man.
“Can you spell contentment?” she asked and coughed up blood and phlegm into her rag. I couldn’t; she spelled it for me. “Now you,” she said. “Where’s the door taking you tonight? Tell one for Rainbow.” She seemed to settle.
In seven years she’d never asked me to tell a story. The door was an inventory of her demons, not mine. I was a no-nonsense sort of twelve-year-old, but I tucked in and made up some nonsense for Rainbow because she was leaking everywhere like she needed some. Her real name was Joyce. I knew this from the mailbox.
I rattled off a story for the sallow girl drawn in sloppy profile against the door’s knob, for her single bare shoulder and her wicked pout. I conjured a childhood of bookish only-childness, a youth packed with party drugs and manboys who didn’t mean to hurt her but did (I pled their cases one by one). I gave her an adulthood where her sticky hands could heal everyone but herself. I made her hoard her past in heaps around her, a billion real and useless moments. But when I wanted to kill her off, Rainbow put her hand on my arm and coughed up something large that disappeared into the rag.
“I catch your drift,” she said.
She rearranged herself, took deep labored breaths, told me I had the potential of the spiritual. She spelled sublimation, and I nodded, eyelids like lead, as a cloud passed from the spotlight moon and the faces on the door seemed to blink and swirl. I almost saw the door open to let all Rainbow’s ill-drawn demons crowd the room I’d never learned to call my own, but then the moonlight faded for good behind a bank of purple cloud.
The next morning when I passed her room on my way to pee and saw her lying dead on her bedroom floor, I ran back to my room and uncrucified the door. I pried it from the wall, rocked it until it came free in piles of plaster. I did that first; then I went to her room to say goodbye. I slipped her giant fly glasses on her bluing face. I rearranged her. I spelled contentment, probably wrong. I called 911, sat down on her bed, waited and wondered if there was a father out there who’d want to know me. I put the six-inch nails in a drawer. They were rusty and bent, but I didn’t know if I’d need to use them again.