Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Rooming House by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik's character can't remember where he lives in this unsettling tale, with echoes of Kafka and Karinthy's Metropole (originally appeared in 34th Parallel, no. 4, Sept. 2008).

I got back late in the afternoon. Cars were double-parked in a roped-off area in front of the building but there were no cars parked at the curb, which I found odd. A teenage girl came by on a skateboard and at the end of the street veered to the left and continued down a side street rather than continuing straight ahead as I had expected her to do. I went inside and climbed the stairs. My room was on the second floor but when I got there I didn't recognize the door so I went up another flight of stairs thinking that the second floor might be the one above it, the ground floor not being counted, but I didn't find my room there either and as the doors had no numbers on them I was at a loss and couldn't understand what had happened. Some of the doors were open and the rooms seemed larger than mine and men were coming out of a bathroom that was also extraordinarily large, as big as the rest rooms at a public beach. I went back down and saw one of the spinsters who ran the rooming house in the sitting room with a mother and child who must have been boarders. I went to the front desk and told the woman there that I had forgotten where my room was and she directed me to a tall girl behind the desk who looked for my name in a big ledger.

"Here it is," she said, and pointed at it. As all the names were written in the same hand I assumed that she or some other clerk had written them. It was an old-fashioned ledger like the ones kept in another time. My room number was listed as 203. I went back upstairs but still couldn't find the door. I counted three doors from the end of the corridor and tried my key but it didn't fit. Then I did the same from the other end of the corridor but got the same result. It occurred to me that the numbering of rooms could start at nearly any point, at the staircase for example, so I knocked at random at a door and it was opened by a woman who looked like she was about to go out. I asked her what her room number was but she said she didn't know and I asked her if it wasn't written on her key though I saw there was no number on mine and she looked at hers and said there wasn't any number on it either. She left me standing in the corridor and I would have thought that I had somehow gone into the wrong building had my name not appeared in the ledger. I went back downstairs and went into the sitting room where the two women and the child were just where I had left them, as if they hadn't moved. The child was about ten years old and standing off to the side while her mother and the spinster were sitting in oversized chairs and chatting quietly. I thought I recognized the mother and had even a stronger feeling about knowing the child but none of them paid any attention to me. I went back to the front desk but no one was there for the moment. Other people came into the building and went upstairs. I went upstairs too and stared at the doors on each floor but none of them was familiar and again I thought that I must be in the wrong building. I went downstairs and saw the girl who had found my name in the ledger and told her that I still couldn't find my room. She asked me my name as if we hadn't spoken before and looked for it in the ledger and found it again and showed it to me.

"But where is the room?" I asked her, feeling very frustrated.

"On the second floor," she said. "Just to the left of the stairs."

"But I've been there," I said, "and it isn't there."

"Maybe you have the wrong key," she said, and she gave me another.

"Why doesn't it have a number?"

"None of our keys have numbers," she said.

"But why?"

"Everyone knows where they live."

I went back upstairs and tried the key in every door that could logically have been the right one though I knew they weren't from the start, and the corridor too was wider than I remembered it and somehow felt different so I knew I was not in the right building and yet I was registered there so I couldn't understand what had happened and went back downstairs and asked the tall girl to accompany me upstairs and find the room for me. She was very agreeable and went upstairs with me and opened a door with a master key and went inside with me. The room was bare. Nothing that belonged to me was there.

"I don't think this is my room," I said.

"It's 203," she said.

"Where are my things then?" I said.

"Did you have any?" she said.

"Of course."

"I don't know," she said.

"You're sure this is my room?"

"Yes," she said.

I stayed in the room, leaving the door open. Perhaps someone who recognized me would come by. I was sure this wasn't my room and looked out the window but saw nothing familiar there. I sat on the bed for a while trying to think but could think of nothing that could tell me where I was and why everything was unfamiliar. Perhaps, I thought, I might start from here and build another life without knowing where my old life had gone. I had a name, but nothing else. I was in effect like a stranger who comes to a new place and sets out to establish himself there. I found some money in my pocket, enough for a few days, and then I might get a job and continue to support myself. This, I thought, might have been my original intention, so I was really not losing anything. I thought I might befriend the tall girl at the front desk or the woman with the child and in this way I would fit into the rooming house like everyone else and live an ordinary life regardless of who I might have been. Already, as I sat on the bed, the feeling of strangeness was beginning to wear off and I was starting to settle into my new life and I was hungry so I knew I would be going out soon for a meal and in the evening I would spend some time in the sitting room and make the acquaintance of the other boarders.

Before I left the room I tried my key in the door and was surprised to see that it fit and also noted that the door was not one I had tried before so maybe the girl was right and this really was my room and somehow I had forgotten where it was though it could not be denied that my things were gone, unless I had had none. I could not remember first coming to the rooming house or having anything with me. I could only remember entering the building a while ago with the idea that my room was on the second floor and not being able to find it and the feeling of strangeness and of something amiss. Everything seemed to be hanging by a thread now and I felt that my hold on the past was loosening and it did not matter who I had been.

I went outside and started to walk. Everything was unfamiliar. These were streets I'd never seen before. There was a park up ahead with the overhanging trees shading the pavement and a boulevard crowded with cars. I was in a strange city. I couldn't say how I'd gotten there. I went into the first restaurant I saw and had my meal in a booth and then walked back to the rooming house. Someone else was on duty at the front desk and no one was in the sitting room. I went upstairs and this time I found my room without any trouble and sat on the bed again. I had a sense of a former life and remembered specific faces and specific moments but could tie none of them to the present moment. It was as if a cord had been cut and there was no way back and all the things I remembered no longer existed as in one of those science fiction stories where someone finds himself in another dimension of the universe though I was clearly in the everyday world. After a while I got up and went downstairs again. I asked the girl at the front desk when the other girl came back on duty and she said tomorrow morning so I went into the sitting room where some boarders were reading or talking or watching the TV that was bracketed to the wall. I nodded at a few people but no one took any interest in me and I sat down and picked up a newspaper and saw familiar headlines. This was reassuring and yet I was disturbed by the fact that I was in a room I didn't recognize. Had the world changed, or had I?

I went out again and bought a few things in a drugstore and then went upstairs and showered and fell asleep listening to a radio that piped music into the room. In the morning I went down to the front desk and was glad to see the tall girl there again but I didn't really know how to explain my situation to her without seeming odd so I went out to have breakfast and spent the morning walking aimlessly through the streets and when I got back the girl was still behind the desk and she looked up and smiled at me and said, "How are you today?" I said I was fine, wondering if she was referring to the previous evening or just being friendly as she would have been with all the boarders, not even remembering me just as she had seemed not to remember me last night. "Thanks for helping me find my room," I added, just to make certain she knew who I was.

She nodded, leaving the matter in doubt. She was tall and slim, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and wore a black skirt and white blouse. At moments she looked very severe but then her face relaxed and broke into a warm smile as boarders came by to exchange a few words with her. I could see one of the spinsters in the small office behind the desk talking on the phone.

"Have you been here long?" I asked the girl.

"Three years," she said.

"Like it?"

"It's all right."

I could see that she wasn't taking a special interest in me. She kept looking down at her ledger and making entries. There was a half-filled cup of coffee at her elbow which must have been cold by now. I wanted to ask her to have coffee with me when she finished her shift but was sure she'd refuse. I had shaved in the morning and thought I looked presentable but I was after all a transient here with no visible prospects. Another of the spinsters arrived and went into the office. There were two or three of them who apparently owned the rooming house, which might have been a family business, or perhaps they were unrelated and had formed a partnership. I had grasped all this intuitively, as it were, the moment I saw the one in the sitting room talking to the mother and child. The child was in the lobby now bouncing a ball and her mother was looking at some magazines laid out on a small table. I wondered where the husband was, or if there was one, and thought I might approach the woman on some pretext and make her acquaintance but she called to the child and they went out. I decided to follow them at a distance as I had nothing really with which to occupy my time. They went to the park and the child continued to bounce her ball while the mother sat on a bench smoking a cigarette and looking self-absorbed. I went over to the bench and asked her if she minded if I sat down. She looked me over for a moment and then said fine.

"I saw you at the rooming house," I said. "I'm staying there too."

"Yes, I think I saw you."

"Do you live in the city?"

"No, I'm from out of town."

"So am I," I said without thinking, realizing immediately that she might ask me where I was from or what I did and I would have no answer though I could say anything I liked, even that I had amnesia though I was sure this wasn't true. "Will you be here long?" I said after a pause.

"Just for the week."

I realized that I didn't know what day it was. She finished her cigarette and stood up. "Nice meeting you," she said, signaling to the child and walking back toward the street with her. I remained sitting on the bench and watched them walk in the opposite direction from the rooming house. I continued sitting on the bench for a while and then walked back. The tall girl was still at the front desk, joined now by the other woman, but the office behind them was empty. I went into the sitting room and saw the first spinster there. She was straightening things out on the tables. She had gray hair which she wore in a severe bun and had a nicely tailored suit on, also gray. She was not an unattractive woman. She must have been fifty. I could not have said why I had concluded she was a spinster.

Other than moving between these few fixed points - the sitting room and the front desk, the park and the local restaurants - I hardly knew what to do with myself. I picked up a newspaper and looked at the help wanted ads. I supposed I could work as a dishwasher and that would more or less pay for my upkeep. I had no idea how long my room was paid for, or even if I had paid in advance. I couldn't find my wallet or a receipt. I had no identification, just a few folded bills and the clothes on my back. I must have come from somewhere, I thought, but I had no idea where. I looked for my name in the telephone book but nothing was there. The woman came back with her child. The tall girl at the desk ended her shift. Men kept going up and down the stairs. If I didn't act, I thought, things would go on like this forever, one boarder would replace another, the girl at the front desk would find another job, or marry even, and I would still be here wondering who I was. I could only begin another life now, starting from scratch. The old life was gone and I knew I would never find it.

4 comments:

  1. An intimate and unsettling portrait of a man lost in an unfamiliar and distorted reality, disoriented, confused, detached from the past and adrift aimlessly in the present. He thinks things/people are familiar, but he is clueless to make the connection. The style of long almost run-on sentences and the simple descriptions of people and actions lends the story a droning hum you can almost hear inside the man's head--like a sountrack to the story. It is a bewildering dementia-laden landscape the writer has created and our man is caught in its web. Losing touch with reality could be like this, familiar things that slowly become part of an unfamiliar context. The story makes you want to wake up from that nightmare.

    James Shaffer

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  2. Disturbing yet compulsive reading from start to finish. Dense - almost monolithic blocks of interior monologue interspersed with short bursts of almost seemingly pointless dialogue help to skilfully demonstrate that time doesn't flow in straight lines, or travel at a constant speed. Past tense helps the haunting feel.

    Brooke

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  3. Taking from both the previous commenters - unsettling and yet compulsive reading. I almost passed on the read, but soon found myself engaged in the third or fourth paragraph, curious as to what had happened to this poor soul. And, I usually find myself disappointed with an unresolved ending, yet this seemed perfect for the story. Something Rod Serling might have written ;-)

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  4. A compelling and frightening tale of the hell of the mind that arises from lack of orientation due to dementia, amnesia or metal illness. Conditions that can render a person an alien in their familiar places, cut adrift from the anchors and comprehension that helps us to navigate our lives. The knowledge that 'I am' , without anything further to add, or maybe 'I am .... nothing'? Thank you,

    Ceinwen Haydon

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