Drawing by Judith Wolfe
The Rooming House
Mrs. Vautier, the landlady, lived alone on the first floor of her
two-story Queen Anne Victorian. She had four rooms to let on the second
floor, serviced by a single bathroom, tub but no shower. One reached the
attic rental up a narrow circular stairway.
- I occupied the smallest room on the second (its curved sash window
looked out upon railroad tracks) that barely accommodated a studio bed,
an overstuffed dun-colored mohair chair and a metal clothes closet. The
room's singular source of heat was a cast iron hot plate with starfish
burners. In wintertime I stored perishables in a milk crate on the porch
roof outside the large window.
- In the tenancy alongside mine, on Sunday mornings, a woman and her
lover would rendezvous. The walls were thin, so I'd take a stroll in the
park. Across the hall lived a boarder who stood six and a half feet tall
and taught machine shop at a local high school. A garrulous man,
Ostrovsky was forever knocking on my door. Often in the evening he'd
prepare dinner for two and leave my portion wrapped in tinfoil on a tray
in the hallway.
- In the room alongside him, I believed Mrs. Vautier stored her valuable
- A female tenant that Ostrovsky and I'd never laid eyes on lived in the
garret. We were convinced she'd linger at the attic landing, waiting
until we had shut our doors, then scuttle down to use the bathroom. Mrs.
Vautier had a penchant for using pastel colored toilet paper. The
mystery attic boarder wrapped bobby pins in twists of toilet
tissue--pale lime, or anemic strawberry--and slipped them under my door
- Overhead two recordings played continuously throughout the night:
Mozart's Klaiversonata and Eric Satie's Gynopodies.
- At various intervals of my aloneness, I fantasized that she was an
exceedingly lovely Pre Raphaelite, and that her music was meant to
entice me to ascend the garret stairs. As if incensed candles and a
carafe of rosť wine would be waiting alongside her bed. In my most
fevered imagination I could see myself boldly climbing the stairs. In
fact I never dropped a foot on the first one. When I inquired
elliptically of Mrs. Vautier the identity of the attic boarder, she
responded with equal disguise:
- "I'm not a matchmaker, Mr. Daugherty. What my tenants do on their own
behalf is their business. Collecting your rent is mine."
- Ostrovsky wasn't interested in women. Mysterious ones or not. I'd hear
male voices in his room, particularly after midnight on weekends. At
daybreak one Saturday morning, vacating the bathroom, I saw his door
open and a hardy young man in his early twenties appear. Ostrovsky was
sitting on the edge of his bed with a pastel towel about his hairy
waist. The visitor rushed down the outside steps.
- "Oh, Daugherty, I should have introduced the two of you. That was my
son, Leo. Doesn't look anything like his darling father, don't you
- Not wishing to waste the morning palavering about nothing, I waved.
- "How 'bout if I make us both breakfast? I've fresh sausages on the
- The stench of gelled grease from his infrequently washed pans and
utensils made me nauseous. (We washed our dishes in the bathtub.)
- "I want to finish another chapter this morning, Ostrovsky."
- "Oh, that goddamn book of yours," he minced. "Worse then being
henpecked by some old bitchy wife. Nothing good will come of it,
Daugherty. You got to learn how to live."
- I'd pull my door shut, then softly turn the latch. I was reluctant to
hurt him. Actually he was one of the few friends I had. On the nights he
entertained, I went out looking for female companionship in the local
cocktail lounges. I was ashamed to bring a guest back to the boarding
house. He had no such scruples.
- But then again, I hadn't just been liberated from a two-decade old
marriage that had deteriorated into acrimony and ice. Frankly I enjoyed
living alone for a change, and relished closing the door to my room, not
having to answer to anybody except my solitary self. I could sit and
write long into the darkness if I so chose, without Ruth banging on my
door, yelling for me to stop.
- I didn't even long for Ruth's body as I once had. Now it looked like a
feathered-lure. Something I'd have to pay dearly for if I partook. Bait
with a razor hook secreted inside that I'd be unable to rip out of my
psyche. No, it wasn't difficult in our final months to lie opposite her
on our bed, then turn away as she dressed for work. Yes, dress it up, I
thought, make it more alluring. Somebody will pay.
- So much better to endure the scent of rancid pork chop grease, the gas
blue and yellow flames leaping out of the starfish burners warming my
room. And me alone to dream about asphyxiation, stories and characters
and rooms which the mind could enter or depart at will.
- God knows I didn't miss her. But I did our two children. Sundays, when
the neighboring boarder opened her body to her secret lover--when I'd
vacate my room to stroll through the local park--I'd stop several houses
down from my old apartment. Loitering in the shadows on the opposite
side of the street, I hoped my daughters would be out in the yard
playing. I didn't want them to spot me.
- Why? Where could I take them? Back to Mrs. Vautier's? Better they get
used to living with their mother. One day I'd make it right and return
for them. What's more, I had to finish my book.
- The smallest, Lucy, standing in the prior year's Easter raspberry
jacket with the bone buttons and fur collar, her nose running, watching
her sister. Grace, too, was dressed in her Sunday School indigo velvet
dress, dirt about her mouth and nose, furiously digging for something.
The squirrel's nuts?
- Was I unhappy, or were they? Bleak as Sunday mornings often are, and
especially gray. Where was their mother? An unfamiliar car sat parked
outside her three-story apartment house. Was she still in bed like the
lover whose yes I was attempting to escape this morning? Grace, now on
her knobby knees, her white anklets slipping down into her black patent
and leather shoes--always, I was stopping on our walks, yanking the
stockings back up, and within a dozen steps they'd disappear again
revealing her bare ankles. Now, like some animal, her two fists about an
oak branch, scraping the dirt daemonically. Lucie, unfazed, staring
blankly into the empty street. Mucus rivulating evenly down her lips.
- That morning I didn't go to the park, but turned back to Mrs.
Vautier's. Ostrovsky heard me coming up the outside stairs and met me on
- "Oh, Jesus, I'm glad you're back."
- "What is it?" I said.
- He took me by the hand, normally a gesture I would have resisted. "We
got a problem."
- "Uh-huh. Go over there by the door next to mine and take a deep
- "Over by the storeroom?"
- "Isn't no storeroom, Daugherty. Go on, do what I tell you."
- The odor was quite distinct. One that I'd never experienced.
Unpleasant, considerably worse than any odor that had ever emanated from
- "What is it?"
- "Mr. Dobbs."
- "All dressed up for his Sunday walk." Ostrovsky, with a flourish,
opened the fourth room's door. There lying on a puce chenille bedspread
in the morning sunlight lay a corpse, fully dressed in a navy blue
pinstripe with a white linen pocket square, bow tie and black oxford
captoes. A gray fedora sat before the chest of drawer's oval mirror.
- "Christ almighty, Ostrovsky!"
- "Poor bastard. I'd say he's been lyin' there for a week."
- "I thought the room was stuffed with old furniture. I'd never seen
anybody go in or out."
- "Daugherty," he gestured to the attic, "lots of strange people in
boardinghouses like this one. Kept his room neater than a pin, though."
- "Does Mrs. Vautier know?"
- He shook his head. "I wouldn't have either if the stench finally didn't
get to me. I'm surprised it didn't get to you, Daugherty."
- "Who's going to break the news?"
- "We both will," he said, leading me down the inside steps to her
quarters. He knocked on the door.
- Mrs. Vautier was cool, as if this had happened before. Her first
response, after gravely shaking her head: "Help me get him on the porch.
I don't want him stinking up that room anymore than he already has."
- The three of us hurried back up the stairs, and with Ostrovsky at Mr.
Dobbs' head, me at his feet, and Mrs. Vautier opening the door, we
trundled him down the outside stairway, depositing Dobbs on her metal
porch glider. She covered his body with the chenille spread and went
inside to phone the undertaker.
- The remainder of the morning I could hear her inside the deceased's
room, racing the vacuum over the carpeted floor. She threw open his two
window sashes to the ceiling. Overhead, the garret was alive with
nervous prancing. Lysol fumes wafted throughout the second floor
landing. I opened my door a crack and saw Mrs. Vautier scrubbing down
his walls with the mixture.
- Ostrovsky and I both, at her urging, had to step inside the available
tenancy to detect if we could smell Mr. Dobbs. Neither of us could. I,
however, winced at the malodorous scent of hardened grease still
emanating from iron skillets Ostrovsky stored under his bed. Except for
the cadaver and a new chenille spread, this one a cheery yellow, the
room looked exactly as it had when the shop teacher flung open its door.
Even the double-curved crown felt still rested on the chiffonier.
- Later that afternoon, a limousine pulled up under my window. Two
white-gloved men in dark suits and chauffeur's caps with patent-leather
brims carried a black rubber bag with natty Mr. Dobbs inside, and
dropped him on the backseat's floorboards.
- Just as the mortician assistants sped off, there was a knock on my
- "Yes?" I answered, thinking surely it was Ostrovsky, wanting to palaver
about the vicissitudes of life. Or death. When Mrs. Vautier answered.
- "Mr. Daugherty?"
- I opened the door. She stood there with a curious smile on her face.
Her hands were behind her back. "I want to thank you for helping me take
care of that little problem this morning," she said.
- "Oh, it was nothing," I said.
- The attic peripatetic had settled down.
- "I've seen you get dressed on Sunday mornings to go for a walk. You
look quite handsome, you know?"
- "Oh, thank you," I said, slightly embarrassed.
- "Only one thing you are missing, Mr. Daugherty."
- "What's that?" I asked.
- "This," she said, proffering Mr. Dobbs' steamed fedora with its saffron
puggaree, as if it were a fresh pie.