Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Looking For a Room

Phillip Good


Alas, Wood and Zellner were not meant to be roommates. For one thing, Wood arose each morning, bright and early with the dawn, ready to eat his weight in eggs and pancakes. Zellner seldom got home before four or five a.m. and then he slept through until noon despite the steadily increasing heat.

For another, Zellner did not have an apartment but a single room off a littered courtyard. The one large double bed where Zellner slept filled most of the space and left Wood with only a few yards of flooring. And though Wood would much prefer to have slept near the huge rattling fan in the window that brought in an occasional cooling breeze, he was condemned instead to the foot of the bed, in the hottest most stifling portion of the
room, to be woken each morning in the early hours when Zellner at last came stumbling in.

No food in Zellner's apartment, Wood discovered the first morning and rediscovered each evening thereafter when he renewed the search for nourishment as if somehow, inexplicably, a well-stocked refrigerator might have materialized during the day. Fortunately, food was to be had in the Quarters nearby, and Wood had coffee and doughnuts each evening before
retiring, and fried eggs and grits and a huge glass of orange juice for breakfast, and coffee afterwards and a roll filled with pecans.

Once, the last morning he slept there, he found an oil-stained brown paper bag, still smelling of fresh hot doughnuts, pinioned beneath Zellner's hand, but the contents of the bag were an inseparable mass of powdered sugar, wax paper and macerated beignet so that Wood, though unaffected by the food's appearance, was unable to make the fulfilling meal he'd
envisioned.

With no particular plan in mind, he purchased the morning Picayune and looked through the classifieds under "Rooms for Rent." The procession of street names only confused him though the street map he had severed neatly from the center of the telephone book offered endless possibilities. Here the Elysian Fields, there Lake Pontchatrain, and the muses-Clio, Erato,
Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Polymnia, and Urania-one after the
other on the way uptown.

He drove slowly along St. Charles Avenue following the trolley line. The homes on one side of the tracks, toward the river, had wide set porticos and broad stairways. But the room he had seen advertised was on the other side, in a genteel slum where homes had been divided and divided again, first into duplexes, then into apartments, on and on, until, finally, they resolved into some fundamental quantum of space of which no further subdivision was
possible.

Wood could accept the scuff marks on the walls and ceilings, for he was not really a very tidy person, but he was not prepared for a window that looked out on a window, or a floor that sloped away from beneath his feet curving into the center of the room, or the awful loneliness and the strange accents of the vacant-eyed people who lived in the houses on either side.

In the end, after a brief walking tour of the Garden District (for Wood prided himself on taking advantage of every moment), he headed the cycle uptown again still following the trolley line. When he judged he was close enough to the zoo and the university to stop and look around, he had already gone past them and was lost in a twisting labyrinth of residential streets that even the trolley car avoided. The sun was hidden in a steaming mist and the promises of early morning had given way to an endless brooding gray.

He paused, the cycle braced against one leg, and consulted his map. It told him nothing, perhaps because he no longer had any idea of where he was. The motorcycle's engine died. Wood tried the kick-starter, failed to ignite the engine, and tried again.

Everything is going to be all right, Wood thought. Be cool. The cycle would start. It had started before in Amarillo, Fort Worth, Shreveport, Opelousas. Just that ever since he and the cycle had left the breathless agony of Tehachapi Pass, 7000 feet up in the thin mountain air, the cycle had seemed to need more help in starting.

He bent over the motor with a wrench, not so much to repair it, for Wood's mechanical knowledge was limited to tires and spark plugs, as to hit smartly and firmly at the one spot-fuel line or electrical system--where the obstruction was hidden. At the moment when Wood felt he most needed to keep mind and body focused in the same direction, a young man only a few years older than himself emerged from the cellar doorway of an imposing mansion
across the way.

Jacket over one arm and half a dozen books under the other, the young man exuded an air of confidence Wood would have given anything to match. Seizing the opportunity, Wood called out, "Do you know where I can rent a room?" and when the man did not reply added, "Are you renting a room here?"

"Why yes, I rent a room, downstairs," the man replied warily. He looked at the ground, at the doorway he'd vacated, at the sky, anywhere but at Wood's blue and gold leather jacket with University of California Wrestling stenciled across its back, anywhere but at the small red motorcycle with "Jesus Saves" painted on its front fender.

"The Vicker sisters live upstairs," the man continued just as Wood was thinking he might have lost his voice entirely. "Two retired maiden school teachers. They rent rooms. Two of us live downstairs. And there's a girl living upstairs, I think."

Wood smiled eagerly.

"I don't think they have any more rooms though," the man added quickly. "How did you find out about the Vicker sisters? Did you hear about them at the university?"

"There can't be any harm in asking," Wood replied affably, ignoring the questions.

The man looked dubious.

Wood walked onto the wide front porch. Wide enough and long enough to hold three rooms the size of the one where he was staying.

Two huge chairs were set together before a series of closely spaced windows. Wood knocked on the big front door, using an ornate knocker half again the size of his fist. The curtains moved in one of the windows facing on the porch, but no one answered his knock. He knocked again. Still no answer. He knocked a third time and then walked the length of the porch, conscious as he did so that someone inside the house was tiptoeing from window to window ahead of him each time.

Finally, when he had reached the far end of the porch and was trying unsuccessfully to look past the curtains to the gloom within, the door opened behind him and a faint quavering voice said "Yeass?"

Wood bounded across the porch in the direction of the voice. The figure in the doorway, a slight elderly woman, immediately retreated, as one might step back in fear of a large and untrained puppy. "Can I help you?" she asked when she had regained her composure.

"I'm looking for a room," Wood said eagerly.

"Yes, we have a room," the woman replied. She spoke slowly and carefully, her slow measured Southern accent lengthened even further by the quaver associated with advancing age. "I'm not sure you would like it," she finished at last.

"It looks fine," Wood reassured her, "I mean the house looks fine. This is a great old house."

The woman seemed pleased. "It's a very old house."

"Our father built this house," a second equally ancient voice said from the doorway behind her.

A pair of women in their late seventies or early eighties stood framed in the opening, the elderly sisters the young man had spoken of. The one who had answered the door appeared shorter and frailer than the other, though presumably the braver, since it was she who had first confronted the stranger. Tiny, dressed all in black, from her shoes to the tight ruffled
collar at her throat, Wood guessed she could not have weighed more than seventy or eighty pounds.

"We taught history," she said unexpectedly, "to three generations of students."

"I like history," Wood said.

"Do you?" said the larger sister, "There's a lot of history in this city. French, Spanish. Four hundred years. Our father told us so many stories."

"We taught history to three generations," interjected the elder. And as an afterthought, asked, "Would you like to come in and sit down and talk to us about it?"

Wood stepped slowly over their threshold and into the front hallway, careful not to make any sudden moves that might startle the elderly pair. After some shuffling of chairs, the three of them sat down facing the porch, much he supposed as they had done sixty or more years earlier when a beau came calling. The two elderly women looked at Wood expectantly.

"I'd like to see the room," he said.

"It's a big one, a very big one."

"On the first floor."

"Just off the front porch."

"But you'd have to go through the front hall of course, to get in and out."

"That might not do."

"No, that might not do at all."

The pair continued to chatter, heads cocked at various angles like two particularly intelligent parakeets, but neither, Wood noticed after some moments, gave the slightest indication of wanting to go with him to look at the room.

"And you'd have to share a bath," said the younger sister, or at least Wood assumed she was the younger from the manner in which she deferred to the other, the frail woman in black who'd answered the door originally.

"Father left us this house," the older one said.

"We already told him that."

"I'd like to see the room," Wood said.

"You'd want to see the bath too, of course."

"Of course." the older sister agreed.

They sat in companionable silence for several moments, planning the room tour, presumably, when the elder sister asked unexpectedly, "You don't take showers, do you?"

It was not really a question but a request, Wood surmised. He nodded agreement, though he had a sinking feeling this was only the first of many privileges he would be forced to surrender to get the room he wanted, the room he so urgently needed, the room he still had not seen. I'm desperate, he thought. But it is such a nice house. And all the other rooms I've seen have been so without hope.

"There's no way you could take a shower, here," the older one continued.

"Not necessary," Wood said agreeably.

"And of course, we would have to find some way of signaling when the bathroom was empty."

"We live on this floor you see."

"That could be worked out."

"If he was agreeable."

"Yes, but he still might not like the room."

"I'm sure I'll like it!" Wood shouted, unable and unwilling to tolerate their chatter a moment longer.

The two women looked at him reproachfully. He had been much too loud.

"I'm sure I'll like it," he whispered.

"We must ask Annie," said the younger sister.
"We must talk with Annie."

"Let me go and talk to her."

"She'll talk to Annie to see if it's all right for you to look at the room," said the older sister.

The younger stood up slowly and, leaning on her cane, she shuffled from the parlor. The elder remained in her chair, hands folded in her lap, staring straight ahead unblinking like a museum mummy in its sarcophagus. Wood looked away. When he looked back her eyes
were closed. Just napping, he hoped.

Five minutes or more passed and still the other woman did not return. Wood could not recall when he had last heard voices. He stood up. The older Vicker sister stirred in her chair. "I suppose you have to go now," she said. Had she had been awake all along? "I'm sorry we only had the one room. Perhaps some other time."

"Oh, but I haven't seen the room," Wood declared, indignant. He was not going to go until he had seen it and he hoped the determination showed in his voice.

She sighed as she must have sighed over a truly slow-witted pupil. "Let me show it to you then," she said, defeated. The elder Vicker sister led him slowly out of the front parlor and down a long papered hallway lined with a succession of suitcases and steamer trucks. Most of the doors to the hallway were closed, except for one leading to the kitchen, where a cleaning women, dust rag in hand, watched with amazement as he passed slowly by.

They halted finally at the entrance to a big comfortable room at the far end of the hall. The elderly woman made no move to go further and he peeped inside over her shoulder.

Paradise. A bright sunny room, the opposite of all the life-draining accommodations he'd toured so far.

"How much a week is it?" Wood asked, and was conscious of his voice booming out awkwardly in the silence. He smiled nervously
.
"Oh, you'll have to see the bath first," the old woman said.

He looked inside the bathroom. An old-fashioned toilet with its tank high on the wall above the throne, a sink, and a wooden clothes hamper. In the far corner next to the window sat the object of the earlier conversation, a deep porcelain bathtub perched on four legs. All was neat, the porcelain freshly scrubbed, and the room held a slight odor of disinfectant. What could the fuss be about?

"I like it," Wood took pains to say, since the bath appeared to be a point on which the sisters had to be satisfied.

He returned then to the bright airy room and made himself at home in a large armchair. The search was over. He had a place to stay, people in town he could visit, and he could easily find a job, perhaps teaching or doing some kind of research.

He heard a disturbance now in the hallway, several voices all talking at once. Three people came into the room, one behind the other as in a painting by Brueghel the Elder. The cleaning woman he'd seen in the kitchen led the procession, still wearing an apron around her waist and a kerchief tied over her hair. The two Vicker sisters stood at various distances
behind her, the smaller and older sister in front, the younger and larger a few steps behind, just as they had been when he first met them. Both women, he noticed, were very careful to keep the cleaning lady between Wood and themselves.

"Mistah," the black woman began in halting fashion; she seemed to be missing several teeth or to have left her upper plate behind in the room where she was cleaning.

"Yes?"

"They's no room."

"Yes, I want to rent a room." His own voice sounded strange in his ears, like some character in a play.

"They's no room for you to rent." the woman said, although her words sounded to Wood's ears more like, "Thais nrumfyu too rennt."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"Tell him Annie," said the younger of the two sisters in a tone that suggested Annie might be deaf, "that we don't have any rooms for rent now."

"Not now," Annie said, "You go."

Wood went.

He stood outside, kicking futilely at the cycle's starter pedal. The man he had talked with earlier came back up the street and approached him. "Any luck?"

Wood told him the whole story, the visit in the beau's chair, the wonderful room, the three women repelling the male invader.

The man shook his head sympathetically. "I don't think they want a man living there. I think, and don't laugh, remember the times they grew up in, they were embarrassed about sharing the bathroom with a man. I told you they had a girl living up there before."

"But they're eighty years old."

"Well, that's the Vicker sisters. Chalk it up to experience. They probably embarrassed generations of teenagers the same way. I'd wondered how you'd heard about this place."

"Nothing downstairs?"

"Just my room and the other one's rented. Why don't you try at the university? I thought you came from there in the first place."

Wood thanked him. "Join me for lunch?" he suggested. He was not sure why, but he was reluctant to let go of this newfound friend.

The boy gestured with the books he held in one hand. His message was clear. He had things to do. Wood did not.

"Do you know how to pick up girls?" Wood persisted, raising a topic that interested him.

"In a general sort of way. I do O.K."

"What do you say to them? In this town? I mean, do you just walk up and say, 'Hi, you're beautiful.'" Wood's tone made it clear he was ready to accept the young man as his mentor in all things.

"I wouldn't be as direct as that."

"Thank you." Wood said.

Wood's cycle started at that moment, and two-banger and driver disappeared up the street trailing clouds of oily smoke. The young man shook his head in wonder. Above him, on the first floor of the mansion, the Vicker sisters trailed Annie slowly through the house as she cleaned.

***

Phillip Good frequented the Tulane University cafeteria (where this story was experienced and written) while acquiring a doctorate at Berkeley. Phillip has ten trade books and six text books in print (two in their third editions) along with 600+ published articles and 21 published short stories.

"Looking For a Room" is from the novel I Love You Maggie. Email Phillip at pigood@verizon.net.

© Phillip Good

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012