CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Room and Board 1
Not a little chilling that you come calling, Mr. Tohwey, tonight, the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s untimely and suspicious death. I’m sure you know how I, a man beyond the borders of old age, can be of use to your research. But I maintain as I did by post that I recall little more than Sunday’s supper. Even those last, cherished boyhood memories of Thun (which I rush to in dreams, only to watch them evaporate at dawn’s break) have joined the faceless crowd of so many moments lost. I remind you also that I’ve been ill beyond the norm and, if the credibility of my tale weren’t already at stake, I reiterate that I boarded at 3 Amity for scarcely a month or so. Life (even time itself, I believe) moved slower in those days; still I regret to say I enjoyed little interaction with the poet.
But you are here, burning with curiosity. This pitiless (and quite irregular) storm stands to blow well into the small hours. What good are the old if not for letting youth have its way?
That gray day (not raining, but raw and threatening) of my hunt for suitable lodging, I stopped before a red-brick house with a garret, a duplex in a wooded neighborhood then considered the outskirts, though just blocks from an uncompleted railstop and the college of dental surgery. This inconspicuous if not deliberately forgotten location attracted me straightaway, as did the house front, or face, as I like to think of it. Which was modest and a little somber, like my own mood. Climbing the stoop, made of broad American stone, I slowed not with fear but resolution, for I felt each step brought me closer to a threshold. Here was the beginning of my new story. Without wishing to probe an old wound, I should say I had lost a mother—still young herself—an event which only sharpened what was absent in my own already ruined life. In my opinion, with family tragedy, a man has two options. As I had made a sort of religion of your country, your pragmatism, your pioneering spirit, I set sail at once, never looking back. How to say that people like myself find your struggle with the natural world, though destructive, rather touching? As if nature’s only role is that of savior or rival. Manifest Destiny, a just Republic overspreading the width of a rugged continent—few at the time could help nursing secret hopes of inclusion. That even I might play a part in the unfolding drama now, lifted my spirits daily.
A handwritten card on the door read “Edgar A. Perry.”
Here I rapped lightly, saying hello. No sound from within. Only the cold leaves of the bowed oak to my right, struggling against a sudden gust, which kicked up the trio of autumn smells that marked much of Baltimore: wood smoke, crushed straw, manure. I rapped louder and realizing it was no use, took hold of the heavy brass knocker. I thought I heard approaching footsteps.
Very slowly, someone slid the bolt free, and the door opened a crack. I was met by a drooping dark eye, crowned by a caterpillar eyebrow and half a moony forehead. Then a hoarse, almost lungless voice: “What’s it you want.”
“Have you a room to let?”
The door groaned open suddenly, fully, and before me stood a gaunt, sallow-faced man in a misbuttoned black vest (his shirt collar carelessly upturned too, to say nothing of the longish tuft of oiled but barely restrained hair). Now his voice came in a curiously mellow drawl: “This is a boardinghouse?”
“I don’t know, sir. I thought—”
The man’s hand shot up. He stepped forward, adding to the little space between us his own stale odor, laced with a fragrance I took for pipe tobacco. From between his boots a slinky cat squeezed and darted past like a loosed shadow. He slid a reddish chainwatch from his fob pocket. Studying its face seemed to bring a queer smile to his own.
“Of course, you must come in.”
I was led down a dim hall, past a dusty parlor and gaping hearth, and a bare kitchen, as my eyes worked to adjust. He was right before me at times; then only an impression of a figure disappearing. Up a narrow stairway we wound, through a large musty room, whose heavy side door pushed open to a set of planks rising to an attic room. The nook immediately charmed me, so removed and secure a refuge it was. Its odd triangle shape (and sloping ceiling) was perhaps restrictive, but all proportionately adequate for my weedy build and meager needs; rather than claustrophobia, the worst I might fear was a lump on the brow. Not without some hesitancy, I asked its price, and though he seemed not to know (first patting down his waistcoat and trousers, then absent-mindedly lifting an inkwell from the desk), that peculiar smile of his brought forth a moderate sum, which I agreed to at once.
It made me glad to have the matter settled quibble-free. For I was in a bad way. Frail of mind, afflicted more than I could admit, or know at any rate, and as ragged in body as soul from a lengthy but otherwise calm crossing that, to my great disappointment, revealed a cursed weakness to the sea. (“Green of gill” as the captain put it, laughing heartily of oysters, and carelessly, I felt, of my shortcoming before the whole of steerage.) I longed for nothing more than sleep. Any pleasant, inexpensive place would’ve satisfied the sensible Swiss in me, yes, but I was pleased, too, to have this quiet, small resting spot, the peaceful, nearly abandoned house, envelop me.
“And what are you?” he asked from the doorway.
“A student of dentistry!” I said. “Foreign exchange.”
“Have you any family?”
“I am on my own.”
At this he shut his eyes and tilted back his head. He began to sigh but pressed a finger to his lips; then, lids and lashes quivering, fitted a hand around his exposed neck.
“But you loved her.”
“Sir?” I said, soft enough to believe I had perhaps only breathed.
“I will knock with breakfast.”
He left without another word.
With relief I set my luggage down and dropped to the strong little bed. I focused on my shoe tips. My tired eyes closed themselves, as if to see nothing anymore, but the swell of waves and rocking soon stood me up. Balanced on one foot—a trick of the captain’s—I held my breath till I was tight as a balloon, then took a turn around my new home. A brakeman might live here, I thought, or a ship caulker. A farmhand from Virginia or Ohio, dreaming of his wagon trek to Oklahoma or California or the extreme Southwest. Dreaming of cattle ranching and gold panning, or passing the Strait of Magellan on a steamship! “Wonderful room,” I began aloud, “you’re the pride of the place, the top floor—the crown of a sturdy sovereign. Weakly lit, perhaps, but not beyond the strength of my sharp eyes. Anyhow, I’ll kindly request a candle bracket at once. Mournful corner, chin up: You’ll soon be piled with handsome editions of philosophy and science, and novelettes of travel-adventure. Most hospitable cocoon! Walls of smooth plaster cool to the touch, lined with those tiny cracks distinct to a house and its settling, to this city’s restless shifting. Character comes only from trials. And I’ll have you, window, for daily entertainment. Sounds below will beckon me to you: children squealing after a flashy red carriage, or the carousel wheeze of a street organ. You’re sealed shut but why scrutinize? A mere blemish on an otherwise credible chamber! Morning light will surely fill the room, beam forth across this fine solid desk and strict chair, particles of sun dusting everything with golden softness, dancing right to the floor. I’m inclined to believe a burgeoning stage actor graced these creaking floorboards; I can in a sense taste his lust for greatness. Naturally he rehearsed here, before the basin, where he could study his face in the faithful mirror.”
And there I was stopped by my own reflection. “Poor boy,” I said. “How can you help me?” It was then I saw, deep in the mirror, an eerily pale face approach, with bright red smiling lips, my mother. The head—for there was no body—came closer and closer in waves, floating at my shoulder, before overtaking my own face. I screamed. Of course I screamed, my spine shot through with ice, the air suddenly frozen, my knees weak. And I struck at her with fists. At myself. At whoever that terrible fiend in the glass was. Shouting “Too cruel!” until I could only whisper then think it. I woke, how many hours later I can’t say, to my own whimpering, having passed the night curled like a puppy at the base of the hatstand, whose ghoulish shadow hung over the room like a gallows.
“You must eat now and then. I can’t allow you to starve to death,” he said to me. Outside of this, he said little. The house was steeped in almost absolute silence.
Once, from the bottom step, as I crouched for a tray of soup and bread crusts: “You miss your dazzling lake. Your brotherhood of snow-mantled mountains.”
“No. That is another life.”
His face changed with my response. Even in the dimness of the passageway, I saw the questioning look give way to a haggard frown.
Though at times, late into night, when I thought myself the only soul awake, I’d hear stirring below, coughing or throat clearing, followed by the muffled interplay of voices. I took it he handled house matters at odd hours, instructing, sometimes reprimanding, what help he employed (an ill-tempered elderly cook, widowed too soon, or not soon enough; or the very young, languid-eyed maidservant, who always, charmingly, met me with a curtsy, half apparition, half child of God in her glowing white pinafore). But the exchanges went on at length. The voices, I soon understood, whether honeyed or hysterical, plaintive or violently disturbed, came from a single source. He was rapt in the act of creation, channeling one of his many dramatic works. No doubt stalking about in a costume similar to that found in the famous daguerreotype. Though I should say I never knew him to wear a frock coat or a cravat. Of course he didn’t carry a silver-tipped cane indoors. Those familiar disjointed mustaches were shaved, I recall, revealing a liverish upper lip. His was a sad mouth, set above a rather doughy, weak chin.
Again, I confess to being the poorest sort of witness. This is because I spent whole days locked in my room. I lay there as if frozen in amber, the very sap of me seized with melancholy. I felt a complete stranger to the world. The present I’d wished into being, the swerve of good fortune I hoped to create, now draining irretrievably away. Asleep, I battled creeping demons; awake, terrible fits of desperation. I gave in to the bleakest thoughts. Perhaps this is death? And if I’m alive, aren’t I best free of this burden? I couldn’t imagine a time when I was naturally glad or hopeful. Not to think such things! I scolded myself, barely willing, or able, to breathe the stale air entombing me.
And yet a morning came when I tried to dress, and succeeded.
It was as if invisible, caressing hands raised me up and set me on my way, and in fact I began to feel somewhat better. I slid A Life before the Mast (I would read all of Mr. Fenimore Cooper in time) in one coat pocket, a decaying copy of Pierre Fauchard’s (the father of modern dentistry) Le chirurgien dentiste in the other, and left without delay. Walking the nearby forest I felt charged with health. Beneath the soft canopy of wonderfully sturdy maple and hickory, my blood plumped with courage, my own hot flushed cheeks were a shock to my happy hands. Chittering birds courted in the branches. The crisp gold and reddened leaves rasped down to me: “Don’t, dear boy, believe for a moment that all is lost, that this world’s hardened to your desires. Your charm will show, you’ll soon bloom then hurry off where opportunity gathers, where good fortune awaits your grasp.” At a clearing made yellowish by sun I let my legs fly until my chest ached with cold tight short air.
But into town, that is, amid the bustling mass of Baltimore life, I seldom did go. I had no business there, because what could I offer?
My not so secret opinion of myself, which—in spite of brave moments—stood dark, low, unfavorable at best. My rubber grin? My bony shoulders raised to my ears always, to make myself paper slim, flat, the meekest of spirits slipping along the crowded waterfront? What was I, after all? A displaced weed, a frightened idler—in truth shiftless: a mouse and sloth! My pockets held nothing but lint. My silly head empty of all but the vaguest plans to pierce the clouds—delicious shining imaginings of action, success, exceptionalism. I crept among the people—worthy people!—my whole person hid under my hat, gaze fixed on the passing paving stones, on trouser cuffs and elegant flowing dress trains, on rogues’ and soldiers’ boots, and stamping horse hoofs and coach wheels cartwheeling by, on board after wooden board groaning under my wandering feet until, quite suddenly, I stood at wharf’s end, my hand upon the rail. There, always, fluffed pigeons huddled together, their beady eyes narrowed at the wind, and the wide sky spreading itself out forever across the night harbor. Oh so many stars! Some right on top of others. All teeming high above, and glittering below, burning long reflections on the black water. It was dizzying just looking at them, and I tried hard, then, to convince myself that stars meant nothing to me.
Poor Poe, soon afterward he died.
Whoever has been lost himself, outcast and alone, understands other lost beings all the more. At least we should try to understand and comfort one another, while there’s time. If only to ease what we all suffer from, and are powerless against.
One day he surprised me in the hall, catching my arm from the parlor shadows. Through my coat I felt the pain of his icy grip.
“Are you well, sir?”
“Take my hand,” he said.
“The house warms and cools strangely.”
“Do you misunderstand?”
His pale fingers stretched out. His wrist was too thin, too ugly to see.
“You’re not to blame.”
He faced me. His gaze had the absent look of skull.
“No. Of course.”
“You must let go,” he smiled oddly. “There is a too late.” His lips crookedly arranged around his clenched teeth.
Quietly then, he took to his bed. Nobody came or visited. The old caretaker was nowhere to be found (was her withered heart wrung of all pity, too?). When his girl appeared in a state, clearly overwrought with grief, he sent her away without taking so much as a taste of broth.
He lay there, under several thick blankets, not moving.
Through the half open door: “Reynolds.”
I didn’t correct him. I hesitated. And very slowly I came in. “Here I am.” The air in the room was stale, ripe.
“I can’t remember her face.”
“Only her dark eyes, more brilliant than they should’ve been. What I wish …”
Here a fit of coughing took over his body. He looked to me, a surprising wildness in his face. I sat down. On the bedside table was a dish of camphor and a rag, plugs of cotton and a whiskey bottle.
“She was beautiful, Reynolds, wasn’t she? They say … I remind them of her.”
I squeezed the rag and pressed it to his brow. His ashen lips trembled, searching. I gave him the whiskey-soaked cotton to suck.
To be so alone: one foot in each unpitying world. Oh, whoever has been alone himself can never find another’s loneliness strange.
“You do,” I said. “Yes. Very much so.”
He took me by the wrist, his hand not cold, no, only dry and soft, and terribly light. I covered it with mine. He groaned for a time and then was silent. I lowered his eyelids.
Not days later, as I stood at my window, I heard an odd knocking below. His girl had gone, down to Richmond she said, with her own people, then to an East Baltimore family; even in sadness, she was a perfect angel and vision: You would have thought she hadn’t bent a blade of grass passing over the little front lawn. Who then? making the fierce thumping racket, which rose, now growing louder or nearer. When the heavy passage door groaned I hurried across the room and set my ear against the door.
The step planks creaked. One, two, three; and silence. My breath stopped, my blood sounded in my temples. The knob jiggled, began twisting, then was still. “I know you’re there,” came a man’s voice.
“I’ve asked first.”
“I might easily push through.”
Habit, foolish embarrassment, led to my answer, like the timorous boy I was: “Rodgers, the Swiss.”
“Ah, our squatter’s of foreign parts.”
“No, sir. Yes. But a lodger.”
“Oh? You don’t find the accommodations a touch degenerate? I’d not be one for lighting the stacks come winter, anyhow. Be hind up in soot and roast swifts, you will, not to mention burn the place down.”
“Of course, no,” I said. “I’m quite tied to this house, and myself, unharmed. Beyond that, may I add that I adjust, in a very talented manner, to the cold.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said. “As my dear mother liked to say: ‘Sweat all summer, you can freeze a bit too in winter.’ I’ll come in now.”
“Call me Salts. Most do.”
A round lump of a man, five foot tall if that, with a tiny bald head on no neck, stood in the doorway. His mallet and clothes were covered in white dust. His belly bounced first into the room, followed by his rolling body. Eyes raised, to take up my full height, as if I were the ceiling itself, or a steeple, he then came at me, chubby hand plucking mine by way of a shake: “Salts, as I said.” And he was off: knocking on walls, squatting—not very much—to give a floorboard a resounding hammer blow. All the while puffing soft air, exclaiming an almost private “Ah!” or “See!” or “Nicely so!” Finally I spoke.
“I beg pardon, sir. But please, if I’m an impediment, or can help. I mean to say, if you’re caring for the house now. Usually I’m not so strong but I’m here of course, and can be of service in spite of, well, appearances … I beg forgiveness. Did you work for Mr. Perry, then? Will the house be sold?”
“You’re a doer then? A rawboned laborer? The better I keep you downwind from Klassen. Hire you over me, he would, that cheap he is. And where would I earn a crust? Sea’s out. Shipyards won’t have a man my age—so don’t wonder—nor the granaries. And who’d want them? I’d sooner eat my own than run slaves, tell who you like I said as much. To your question—what was it? You had one I’m sure. I remember your asking.”
Here he pressed his lips firmly together, and rubbed that tiny, now reddened bare head. “Right,” his mallet raised in triumph. “I’m caretaker here! Been so nearly fifteen years, off and on, since I come back to land for good. That’s it: end of winter 1834. Mr. Klassen’s owned the house that long. Built here before about anybody, if I’m not mistaken. Be news to me if he’s selling.”
I was confused. “But Mr. Klassen—”
“Huckster!” he said. “You’re the very thing. Here I am gabbling on. You’ve drawn up a list of repairs I’m to look after?”
“No, certainly not. I’m pleased with things. Overpleased, at the risk of sounding false. But what of Mr. Perry, sir?”
“Mr. Edgar A. Perry, as on the front door.”
“He a lodger too, like yourself?”
“He let me the room, sir.”
He let out a terrible, robust laugh. He stared at me with a kind of wonder. Then his whole head lit up again, a deep scarlet, as he burst into more horrible laughing. And I must admit, though it shames me to say now, I was drained of all servility. I had the sudden urge to squeeze that little ugly head with all my strength.
“Mr. Edgar!” he said, eyes moist. “Tell me, lad, do you know Baltimore?”
“Perry is Poe, Poe is Perry. Even Henry Herring is Poe is Perry, I suppose. You see? They are all Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, the poet.”
I didn’t understand.
“But the Poes—or the Perrys, if you like—haven’t been in this house for ten years or more—if as little as that. No one has. Besides, the man—God rest his poor soul—is dead in his grave—”
“Of yesterday,” I managed.
“You are a queer fellow.” His tone was no longer mocking, or challenging. His next words were spoken with a certain finality, “The man has been buried two months now, or nearly.” After a silence, he added, as if letting me in on a secret: “As unchristianlike a ceremony as ever was, I heard. Not three ticks before the spadesman had the coffin leveled with earth, and who was witness? Five or six gentleman, minister included. In fairness to the people of Baltimore, if the funeral was postponed till the death was common fact, a day or more, mark my words: A far grander escort to the tomb would’ve taken place. Attended from Virginia and beyond no doubt.”
At that instant I felt something happen to me. Or rather, I knew something already had. It would take time to understand, but in some uncanny way I grasped, Mr. Tohwey, what you most certainly have guessed. At any rate, to flee the moment or to avoid, ironically, an outright confrontation, I seized my anger, and was in fact suddenly overcome by it.
“Out! Leave now!” Straightening to full height, shouting “Go!” moving toward him while striking at the air with vicious jabs.
“But it’s you who need leave,” he said, mallet up. “I’m to tell you to leave.”
What happened next I can’t say. He lowered that head of his, I think, and rammed home. At impact my vision went; it was like falling asleep all at once. When I came to abruptly, I was queasy, damp through with sweat, and he was gone. A note was pinned to my coat breast. I was to clear out. The next few minutes seemed to drag on for hours. When I mustered enough courage, I went below.
I entered Poe’s room, into which the late sun was shining, brightening even the dusty corners with irresistibly tender light. The bed was not only stripped of itself but gone. All things that had marked the presence of the poor man, gone, but for the bedside table. Upon it, sitting quiet as an egg on a scrap of velvet, as if made a gift, his gold fobwatch. The strange sight of it, free of its chain, made me indescribably sad. In my peculiar state of mind it seemed to me almost that I myself had died. That it had been my deathbed, my voice bellowing, my eyes closing for good. And life, which had so often appeared endless, unendurable, was sorry and slight to the point of vanishing. For a long while I looked at that watch, which now had lost its master, all purpose, all meaning. And I looked about the still bright room, oddly touched with splendid late afternoon sun, rose blond, warming me there, while I stood motionless at first, understanding something new—but, no, understanding nothing. I knew nothing. Yet, after standing dumbly for some time, I calmed and felt, above all, befriended. I was filled with gratitude and a curious fire began to animate me. My eyes burned. Life had clapped me on the shoulder and I needed little more consolation than that. The world burned too, as alive and liquid as ever, as rich and promising and awake as at the most beautiful times, no matter what this Taggart or Salts had said. It made no difference. For aren’t we all, Mr Tohwey, everyone of us, beggars in this world? And a kindness is a kindness isn’t it, whether extended by the living or the dead? I quickly left the room and went down for the street. On the last step of the stoop, I opened my hand: The watch began to tick.
1. From “Reminiscing the Raven” (circa 1899), a manuscript of oral accounts recorded by James Brody Tohwey and prepared for publication (silent correction and faithful imaginative reconstruction) by Andrew Touhy, who retains full ownership by law of descent and distribution. A slightly tarnished but otherwise perfectly preserved rose-gold pocket watch was also discovered in the unearthed trunk stowing the manuscript. It bears engraved initials “EPA.”
Andrew Touhy is a recipient of the San Francisco Browning Society’s Dramatic Monologue Award and the Fourteen Hills’ Bambi Holmes Fiction Prize. His work appears in Conjunctions, The Collagist, New England Review, New American Writing, Eleven Eleven, New Orleans Review, Colorado Review, and other literary journals. He teaches at the Writing Salon in San Francisco and Berkeley.