For a Room
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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.
"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
"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."
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
"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."
"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
Wood thanked him. "Join me for lunch?" he suggested.
He was not sure why, but he was reluctant to let go of this newfound
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
"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.
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.
For a Room" is from the novel I Love You Maggie.
Email Phillip at email@example.com.