A brass placard etched with official-looking capital letters hung at eye-height: W.M. Theodophilus, Ph.D. The sign was shiny, and clearly new; it looked out of place against the peeling green paint of the door. Eddie stood in the alley and stared at it for a long moment.
There were no windows on this side of the building for Eddie to peer through and satisfy his curiosity. Well, none except a few narrow ones high up on the fourth floor that overlooked the rusty fire escape. The ladder was drawn up, so no luck there, either. Eddie shifted his bookbag onto his left shoulder as he stared upwards, and his sudden movement startled a few pigeons into flight above his head. I’m going to be late, he thought suddenly. He rushed down the alley and back out into the bright daylight of the street, pulling his blue baseball cap further down over his eyes as he ran.
All day while he was in school, Eddie’s thoughts wandered back to the door. Even during art class, which he normally loved, he couldn’t concentrate. He didn’t mention anything about it to Alejandro while they shot hoops at recess. He decided during lunch hour, as he silently chewed his turkey sandwich, that he would go back there on his way home. He left school in a hurry, rushing past Alejandro with a grin and a wave. Normally they’d walk together and talk about homework or the latest basketball scores before they got to the corner of 5th and Main where Alejandro turned left and Eddie turned right.
Maybe he could ask a few questions in the tiny bookstore on the street-facing side of the dilapidated brick building. All the other shops were boarded up, and had been for as long as he could remember. Surely the owner would know who this Dr. Theodophilus was. But when he got to the bookstore, the shopkeeper was with a customer who was complaining loudly about the price of a book. Eddie guessed from the harried look on her face that this was not the best time to pester her with childish questions. He pretended to scan the bookshelves for a moment, pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and pretended to jot something down, then shoved the paper into his pocket and raced home, his heart pounding. His father would be upset if he were even a few minutes late, and he didn’t want to have to make explanations.
The next day, Eddie packed his lunch in a hurry and left for school a bit earlier than usual. His father came out of the bathroom with shaving cream on his face when he heard the door opening fifteen minutes earlier than was normal. Eddie made up an excuse about needing to ask the teacher about an assignment before class, and ducked out without waiting for any further questions. It was only a little lie, but it made Eddie’s stomach feel fluttery as he raced down the damp streets to the alley and the green door.
Eddie stood in front of the door, not moving, staring at the letters on the sign. He raised his fist, and hesitated.
It was probably nothing; maybe a shrink had a new office upstairs, or maybe a crabby old historian presided over a basement full of dusty old papers. He imagined a wrinkled old man with a cane and thick glasses flinging the door open angrily if he dared to knock, demanding to know what he wanted, telling him to buzz off, threatening to call the cops if he didn’t leave.
He knocked. A bit softly at first, and then harder.
The door swung open almost soundlessly, revealing a narrow staircase. A few brave shafts of light penetrated the darkness from above, spotlighting a parade of dancing dust motes that sparkled like confetti as they fell. Eddie pulled off his hat, squinted, and stepped inside. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears now. He’d get in huge trouble if someone caught him in here, he knew. But he just had to see what—or who—was up there. He propped the door open with his lunch bag and started up the stairs as quietly as he could.
At the first landing, he heard noises coming from further up. Soft, rhythmic noises; the thick brick walls that blocked out all the city sounds from outside and ate up the sound of his footfalls as he climbed muffled the noise. From the second landing, he could tell that it was music. He topped the third landing. The window that had cast the light down the stairwell was filthy, caked with yellowish grime. Someone had drawn a little happy face with their finger in the gunk.
At the top of the stairs, a doorway to his right led to another staircase. It had a little red sign over it: ROOF ACCESS. He could hear the music more clearly now; it sounded like a Bob Marley song he knew, about bluebirds and happiness. What respectable psychiatrist would play music like that in his office? Directly in front of him was another door, this one freshly painted a deep blue; in the center hung another placard, just the same as the one outside. Now or never, he gulped.
He raised his fist, and knocked.
Nothing happened. The music kept playing: “Rise up this mornin’/ smilin’ at the risin’ sun/ Three little birds/ flew by my doorstep/ Singin’ sweet songs…” Maybe they hadn’t heard him over the noise. He knocked louder. “Singin’ don’ worry/ ‘bout a thing/ Cuz ev’ry little thing/ is gonna be alright…” Thumping sounds. The music stopped abruptly. Footsteps. The rattle of a door latch being slid free.
The door creaked open.
A woman, about his father’s age, stood there, surveying him carefully. A multitude of the tiniest braids, each tied at the end with a length of multicolored thread, framed her face and spilled down to her shoulders. Her skin was the smooth brown of a hazelnut shell. She looked a bit startled, then amused. She smiled.
“Oh, uh—hi, ma’am—I just, I mean… Are you, uh— are you Dr. Theodophilus?” His cheeks blazed with embarrassment.
She laughed. “To my students, yes. To you– well, honey, you can call me Dr. Theo, for now. My friends call me Wilma. Do you wanna come in for a minute? You look a bit… rattled.”
She opened the door a bit further to reveal the room’s contents to him before beckoning him in. Huge canvases lined every wall, and metal-shaded lamps hung from exposed ductwork above. Paint, brushes, rags, tools and other art materials filled several tables. Wilma set down the brush she’d been carrying and went over to a sink to wash her hands. “I’ve got some coffee left—are you old enough to like coffee yet? I think one of my students left some Coke in the mini-fridge, if coffee’s not your thing.”
Eddie was starting to get nervous. So she was a teacher. But even so, did that make it okay for him to be up here alone with her, when no one knew where he was? “Um, I’ll take a Coke, thanks,” he said hesitantly.
Her head popped around the corner from the sink and grinned at him.“You need to call someone and let ‘em know where you at? We won’t be a second here. But you looked like you had some questions that needed answering; am I wrong?”
Eddie swallowed and shook his head. “No, ma’am—“
“Call me Theo,” she corrected.
“No, Dr. Theo, ma’am,” he went on. “I did have some questions. I have more now than I did before, to tell you the truth.”
“Go on,” she called. He heard a microwave beep and smelled hot coffee. More clatter of dishes and running water.
“I had never noticed there was a door in this alley before I saw your nameplate.” He walked over towards a large canvas that was propped under the windows. The view was amazing from up here.
“No? Maybe it was the nameplate that caught your eye. Stuffy thing, that; a student had it made for me when his first piece sold last month. Thought I’d put it up, make him happy.” She laughed again as she came around the corner with a steaming mug and a can of Coke, handed the soda to him, and took a sip of the coffee. She stared out the window, satisfaction beaming from her face. “Nice view, eh?”
He popped the top off his can and took a swig. Eddie noticed that nearly all the paintings were of city streets from above. “Yeah, you can see everything from up here,” he said softly. Cars, pigeons, stoplights, rooftops, and people walking… well, person walking: there was only one person in most of them—a boy. He wore a blue baseball cap.
“You sure can, Eddie. Everything that matters, anyway.”
[In honor of Mother’s Day, 2011]