We get an unusually high number of people knocking on our front door at all hours, considering the small size of our town.  It must have something to do with our proximity to the Patel’s Texaco station on Tomahawk Road* which is a service station in the most literal sense of the word for those residents of Traveler’s Joy* who lead challenging lives.  It is a check-cashing center for the bank-less and a grocery store for those lacking conveyances to the Food Lion at the edge of town.  (The only other market in town used to be the Piggly Wiggly on Tomahawk which was the first place I ever saw fatback being sold.  It closed in 2012 after thirty years in business.  As the manager explained at the time, the lease came up for renewal and the property owner wouldn’t budge on the terms.  “I’m fifty years old!  Why would I want to sign a lease for another thirty years?”)  
            The Patels have a lottery concern and they sell liquor in a little ABC alcove that reeks of incense.  They sell bait to Saturday fishermen, energy drinks to truckers, and gasoline to people passing through who don’t know that the prices are much better a stone’s throw away at Exit 102.  It is a way-station in the sense that it marks a pause between true destinations, a place where wayfarers lay over, hoping soon to be headed somewhere better.  People fill the exterior bins with their trash, and sometimes they dump their dogs there as well, those weary-looking bitches with their teats still hanging down that one sees everywhere in the unsentimental South, animals too disoriented to eat the food one offers them or to settle and rest.  God knows what’s been done to the puppies -- I don’t want Him telling me. 
            Humans get dumped there, too, as I discovered early one Sunday morning when an intoxicated woman knocked on our door.  She looked about sixty but was probably thirty-five, dressed in cut-off jeans and a tube top, scuffed nail polish on her toes.  She was already mumbling at me before I opened the door.  All I could make out was that she’d been ‘dropped off in town’ (translation: pushed out of a car at Patel’s once the fun ended for her companion) and was distraught over not being able to find her daughter’s house. 
            “My grandbabies are waiting!” she yells, but I can’t help her.  She doesn’t have a phone number or even a phone.  In fact, she has nothing on her at all – no identification, no money, no keys, and she’s too confused to tell me her name.  Her grandbabies may live in Traveler’s Joy, or in another town down the road.  They may have grown up and moved on since she was last sober. 
            I watch her walk stiffly back towards the Texaco and I’m thinking that the kind of man who kicks a woman or a dog out of his car far from her home, making her someone else’s problem now that he’s used her for what he wants, is the kind of man I’d like to see tied to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in the center of town – one ankle strapped to each rail with his feet pointing towards the oncoming engine.
Before we even had a door to knock on, when my husband was renovating the house with his friend Robert and was commuting to Traveler’s Joy every day from our place fifty miles north to lay the kitchen flooring, install cabinets and paint -- the Jack Russell named “Daytona” who lives next door used to appear on the porch to survey the work going on inside, sniffing the air suspiciously.  Then one morning my husband was on a ladder wielding a paintbrush when he felt a tug on his pants leg.  He looked down expecting to see Daytona, but it was a barefooted little boy, asking “Kin I have a Pop-tart?”  This child and his siblings lived in the house for several months before moving in with their grandparents nearby, and four-year-old Kaden* was still understandably confused about the arrangement.  Before my husband could answer, Grandpa showed up and shooed the youngster home.  I bought a box of Pop-tarts once we moved in and kept them in the pantry for a time, but the boy never returned and then they all moved to the country.
            The summer we moved to Traveler’s Joy, FK and I were thrilled to welcome our first official houseguest, a very old friend who, like us, had moved all over and was now settled in New York.  Annabeth* and I were in the front parlor at dusk when our conversation was interrupted by several loud ‘thwacks’ outside.  I opened the door and discovered a woman in a motorized wheelchair pulled up to our front steps, beating one of our wooden porch columns with a metal cane.  She was familiar to me: I’d seen her rolling up Limestone Street from her small house in the flood-prone flats of Baylor* Street numerous times, a reflective vest looped over the back of her chair to warn motorists.  She was tiny but her hands were as big and strong as a man’s – she could have cracked heads with that cane.  She seemed surprised to see me, making me wonder if she’d been looking for someone who lived here before us.  She didn’t say so, if that was the case.  She asked me for $40 to pay her light bill, saying her grown children needed their money for college.  She wasn’t especially courteous; in fact, the transaction felt more like a shakedown than a solicitation, but that might have been because she was trying to mask her embarrassment.  I didn’t have $40, so I gave her $4.  Strangely then, I was the one feeling embarrassed.  It was difficult explaining to Annabeth that we live where the neighbors beat on your millwork when they want money.
            Another neighbor, the elderly woman who drives her golf cart up and down the hills when the weather’s fine, claims that drugs are dealt out of the swampy environs of Baylor Street, but I haven't been able to confirm this.  Miss Connie does have a nephew who’s a deputy in the Tomahawk County Sheriff’s department and who supplies her with this type of information.  He’s the one she sent over to tell my husband to stop shooting at squirrels with a B.B. gun.  I’d already told FK he was being an ass firing that pistol and to cut it out before he hurt himself or blew my eardrums out, but the squirrels digging holes in the roof had finally spun him into a rage he couldn’t seem to control.  This is why men should never be allowed to have real guns.  At least, not unless they’re sheriff’s deputies.
            The next time a stranger knocked on the door he was accompanied by his entire family.  His wife carried a baby, while a boy about six and a younger girl clutched the man’s jacket as they walked behind him.  The young white couple had ruined teeth and their clothes smelled of cigarette smoke and mold.  He pushed a stroller ahead of them all; I leaned forward to see the infant nestled there but the buggy was half-filled with candy bars they must have purchased at the Texaco and which the man asked me to buy.  I don’t remember what I bought -- I only remember feeling so drearily sad for the entire family and especially the little boy who had stepped on to the porch to lift the knocker.  What I glimpsed in his wide, pale face was that he was old enough to feel the humiliation of grinding poverty but too young to do anything about it.
            One night someone knocked at our door so late we had already gone to bed.  I’ve told my husband not to answer after dark, but he can’t stand not knowing who is out there and what they need.  He was out on the porch a long time and I drifted off before he came back.  The next morning he told me of the strange young lady who had knocked on our door with an implausible story.  She told FK that she’d left her children sleeping in her car at the Texaco; that she couldn’t drive them home because she didn’t have money for gas.  Despite the fact that he was in his pajamas, my husband asked if she wanted him to drive her and the children home, wherever that was, but that made her irritable.  No, she snapped, she didn’t need a drive. She needed cash.  She said she’d been walking through the neighborhood knocking on doors, including at the house of our neighbor up the street with whom she has an acquaintance, ‘Mr. Scott,’ but he wouldn’t come to the door. 
Most of our neighbors on Kent Street are elderly and hard of hearing, but I can imagine that anyone else taking a peek out the window in answer to her knocking would have been dissuaded from opening the door by her appearance.  FK said she was a tall, coffee-colored woman with intensely bright eyes and wild hair frizzing out around her face.  The sense of desperation coming off her like steam was intensified by an odd air of haughtiness, a remnant of what may have once been justifiable pride.  It was as if she felt she shouldn’t have to be degrading herself before every stranger in Traveler’s Joy in order to drum up a bit of money. She demanded respect along with cash.
            Her story was shaky, my husband told me that morning.  The details changed slightly with each retelling of it, but there was no doubt her agitation was real.  He suspected controlled substances were the cause, and he did not give her the twenty dollars she asked for.
            Later, we heard from one of our neighbors on Limestone Street that she had knocked on his door, too.  She was no stranger to him, however; his daughter had gone to school with her.  Her identity was confirmed by a friend in town to whom we mentioned the incident in passing.  Like our neighbor, Sweeney* concluded from my husband’s description of the woman that it was most likely ‘Audrey,’ a person without fixed abode who lives off and on in a low-slung collection of damp structures beside Doolittle Creek that offers Section 8 housing to the poorest members of the community.  Sweeney attended high school with Audrey, and he claims that at eighteen she was the most beautiful girl anyone had ever seen.  (As I heard another Carolinian say once in describing a pretty woman: “she was as purty as a speckled hound in a Tennessee field.”)  Her mother, who was white, was a hard-working nurse “and a good Christian woman,” as our friend attests, but Audrey didn’t know her black father.  He said everyone thought it a terrible shame that Audrey fell in with some bad people after high school and was soon addicted to drugs, mostly prescription pills.  Over time, she lost her looks.  Then, one by one, she lost the children she bore to foster care.  She occasionally goes on a tear when she’s run her usual sources dry, he explained, and goes knocking on doors until she’s scared up enough cash to see her through the night.
            There are mythic elements in this tale that take root in my imagination and won’t be brushed off.  A beautiful girl, born innocent but doomed, is fated to wander the streets of a cold-hearted town in the grip of an evil spell.  She knocks and knocks, searching for the miracle of redemption that will lift the curse and return her to her family.  Whole again.  Cleansed.  Loved. 
          It happens in fairy tales but seldom in life, I fear, where endings are too often grim.
            When I’ve passed along some of these stories to friends they ask me why we don’t stop answering the door.  At the least, they say, don’t leave the wooden door propped open during the day and only the glass storm door on the latch.  But I worry that if I do that, I’ll close off the chance of making good connections.  There are the church ladies who come by in sunny weather, selling a religion I can’t use but sowing plenty of good will, the Cub Scouts collecting canned food, the candidates for sheriff and councilman, and most welcomed of all, the neighbors I’ve come to think of as friends, individuals who represent close links to the town’s present pulse as well as its past glories.  There’s Steve, with his gifts of raspberries and seed catalogues and his calming, easygoing manner, and Miss Ramona,* who, before she broke her arm this winter and took a long time mending, used to amble down the sidewalk on fine evenings to pat Miss Billie on the head and view the garden, telling me about growing up on the farm as “Baby,” her father’s favorite.
            Shortly after Miss R. got out of the hospital, her family gathered in her little house on Kent for Sunday dinner.  Rain was pouring down on that cold afternoon, so I was reluctant to answer the door when the knocker sounded.  FK opened it and called me to come out.  Miss R.’s grown son Philip* introduced himself, shaking the rain off his hat, and pointed to the small brown dog shivering at his feet, soaked through so fully she looked like a muskrat.  “She’s been running around the backyard the whole time we ate dinner.  Mama sent me down here because she thought it might be yours.”
            The next time I saw Philip was six months later, on a scorching June day.  He’d been at his mother’s house picking up some things for her, and pulled the truck over to talk on his way out of town.  When he spied Tiny Alice standing on her hind legs with her paws against the garden gate, several pounds heavier and a good deal happier, he beamed from ear to ear.  “I knew she’d make a nice little dog for y’all!” he crowed. 
            I was thinking:  your mama knew, for sure.  She knew we’d open that door if you knocked.