There is a side effect to never locking your doors in Western Pennsylvania. It is a common condition, and often incurable while remaining in those few county perimeters. When the business of others is accessible with the simple twist of a knob, you can turn yourself nebby in 2 seconds flat. Variations of this include becoming a nebnose, a busybody, or– on particularly difficult cases– a nebshit. Outsiders often comprehend the term as gossip; but there is a finesse and a furrow of the eyebrows that will land you in the true and unsavory condition of nebby.
As a kid on a compound of family members, where each house was built by two generations past on the backs of horses and grandfathers and great uncles, nebby just meant that Grandma dropped in during dinner to make gagging sounds at the plate of bacon in the middle of the table. Nebby also meant that an afternoon could go from playing on bulldozers and train tracks alone to Pap Pap pulling up in his blue Chevy ready to take you downtown to the soundtrack of Johnny Horton and Dwight Yoakam. And nebby also meant that all of Pap Pap’s friends would ask you more questions than you had time to answer and give you Chinese finger traps and tell so-and-so’s secrets in low tones when they think you can’t hear them while your fingers are stuck in paper.
Never locking your doors on our compound would also welcome a blonde-haired, brown eyed kid, who was often already talking before she even turned that knob. And every house had its assortment of familiar treats, that– though she was taught better than to ask– would inevitably end up in the hands and belly of this doe-eyed, tan lined girl.
In a choose-your-own-adventure sort of way, much of after school and summer was spent passing through other people’s doors. Grandma Graham’s house in back meant sliced pickles, TV shows mom didn’t let us watch, candy dishes that rotated among gum drops, homemade hard tack, and peppermints, and the faint smell of scratch made dumplings. Great Uncle Paul’s place was least frequented, as the overwhelming smell of tomatoes and chewing tobacco was enough to curl a kid’s toes backwards. The candy selection was often anise inspired, anyway, and a few vegetables from his enormous garden. Great Aunt Mildred and Uncle Pete– the ones still there alive and well and in their original home since the start– always requires a quick knock. But only for the distinct pleasure of hearing Uncle Pete call out, “Hallo! Come in! Nobody here but us chickens!” And then the rewards are long stories and the only jokes I can remember and cookies so good that, even the mention of his name, will cause locals to begin salivating at his master selection of lady lox and buckeyes and nut horns.
Cancer teaches some people to lock their doors. At least when Grandma Graham gets cancer. Maybe it’s to keep death out. Maybe it’s to keep the disease in. And with locked doors come hushed tones, and the hushed tones are whispering change for those that stand closest to the locked doors. Grandma’s locked door told me to go find one that was open, and being just a kid, I found that Aunt Mildred’s door-next-door could occupy me for the time being until Grandma’s door reopened.
The smell of death seeps into some people like a peaty old Scotch: it changes them, makes them draw hard lines and form allegiances in secret back rooms with stale thick air. And when they leave these rooms, they enter the daytime with the smoke still burning their eyes, and booze still tilting their brains, and find nothing but enemies for miles as they squint down the sidewalk. I was the one waiting outside the small back room door when my older sister stumbled out and told me I had betrayed our grandmother by spending my days in Aunt Mildred’s house, that I was the least grateful of all of her grandchildren and that she didn’t want to see me, anymore.
Every door grew a large question mark in the shape of a knocker that day.
It doesn’t last forever, the door locking. In North Carolina, where I lived two years in a post-college-sort-of-commune, I learned that locking my door meant missing out on the joke. It could mean leaving out the one person who also learned to be scared of closed doors. When you walk in, or allow someone to walk in, it decides that formality is a waste of time and let-me-get-you-a-drink-how-are-you-really-doing? There are more easy-breathing ways of keeping death out. Likely, those ways won’t work either, but it’s better than fermenting behind those latches.
Maybe knocking isn’t such a bad thing, either. Practically speaking, I’ve likely discouraged many-a-burglar with this novel tactic. And if I knock, there’s always that special idea that someone from the other side could holler, “Come in! Nobody here but us chickens.”