by Dennis Must
The room had one window, a metal cot, a lime-green chest of drawers, and a mirror that hung on the backside of its shellacked door. The distance between the bureau and the bed was the width of a heavyset man. Twelve pairs of shoes placed toe to heel its length.
Each morning an attendant in a cotton electric-blue uniform knocked. Did he want his bed made?
Muller always said no.
A portable Royal typewriter sat on the bureau alongside a comb and a straight razor. Tenants stole each other’s rations. Over the weeks of his stay he cinched his belt tighter, taking insidious pleasure in returning to the weight he held as a young man. On his trips to the Single Room Occupancy’s bathroom he’d open the bare communal refrigerator and laugh to himself. A second mirror.
It’d been one week since the trace of onion juice and ground meat had all but disappeared from his clothes. But so had most of the wages he’d earned on the grill. When hunger began to threaten his concentration, he’d lie down upon the cot, look up at the cracked ceiling, and visualize lemon meringue pie—the White Tower specialty. Methodically he’d cut himself a wedge, then, savoring each bite, even the ceiling crumbs, he’d devour the memory.
The lunch surfeit would carry him to the evening meal at Horn & Hardart. These latter days it consisted of a serving of Parker House Rolls and a glass of milk. Packets of sugar cubes he’d pocket to melt in a hot-water drink for bedtime.
Muller had no clock. The thread from morning to half-light or darkness was the clacking of his typewriter. After dressing and splashing cold water on his face each dawn, he’d lift the instrument off the bureau, pull the window blind down so that the room was in virtual blackness, and sit on the bed to begin working with his back against the wall.
He typed for hours, interrupted only by the ceiling repast. When his output was niggardly, he’d punish himself.
“I can’t look at the pastry,” he’d cry, staring vacantly into the darkness. Even the sugar tea was off limits.
Muller had no idea what he was writing, for that was the presumption. “If I know what I’m about to compose, then what is its value?” Better to absent oneself as the machine clacked, one page of text followed by another, all hammered onto the white rice paper in darkness. Prior to turning in each night he’d gather the pages in sequence and resist reading them under the overhead light.
Actually there was somebody else inside his room.
A genius of a writer, Muller believed—for whom he was the designated medium.
“Talk to me,” he’d urge. “I’ll get it all down.”
In the early days of their tenancy it would take hours for the guest to break his reticence. As noontime approached—bodies shuffled in the hallway, a sign they were traveling to the empty refrigerator—Muller grew increasingly anxious. The Riverside Suites tenants passing his door mid-afternoon could hear him utter “Please.”
But at other times they’d hear him instruct: “Don’t palaver to me. No, I’m not listening. Yes, I am getting it all down. Get to the good stuff, please!”
The 7th floor residents had no way of knowing, however, that the intervals of absolute daylight behind tenancy 65 signaled that its two occupants were dining on ceiling pie.
“The more I encourage him to speak, the greater the chance that he will utter a story never before spoken. My manuscript’s pages will be rife with layered meaning, more than I could ever cause to come out of my brain—that weak handmaiden of reason.” And as the September days progressed, the hallway travelers were now accustomed to hearing one voice pleading: “Please, I’m hungry. Can we eat the pie?”
Sternly rebuked by, “More words. Another ten minutes of words, then we’ll break.”
The Royal literally clacked away from morning to evening with scarce snacking periods—or toilet calls—in between. Days earlier the housekeeper had given up on knocking on Room 65's door.
Muller now slept wearing his clothes on top of a bare mattress.
Each morning before placing the typewriter on his lap, he’d hold the growing sheath of papers in his right hand, and fan them with his left. “Soon it will all be worth it,” he’d reflect. Even his belt was now two sizes too large. An occasional giddiness had begun to set in.
His opening of the empty refrigerator at the end of the corridor now provoked bald laughter. And four days before the close of the two-week period, Muller made a decision: “The voice—I can’t shut him up at night. I mustn’t sleep.”
On Saturday the management would escort him out to the street.
“We’ve only three days left,” he cautioned his guest. “Finish up. I must return home to resume my duties as father and loving husband. Complete your tale, I beg of you.”
The hallway denizens no longer heard cries for “More lemon meringue, please!”, merely the furious clacking of the metal typewriter keys against the hard rubber roller. Inside his cell Muller didn’t even look up at the ceiling. Sugar cubes lay unopened in their Horn & Hardart wrappers.
And he mocked the sad refrigerator without remorse.
Like a court reporter’s, Muller’s fingers, the final twenty-four hours, blazed over the Royal’s keyboard. He’d decipher his guest’s narrative once he was done. Further, whoever was so privileged to record a disembodied voice willing to reveal its secrets, to spin its narrative untrammeled? Ernest Muller, the happy medium, tapping it all out furiously for posterity.
Saturday morning, on the fourteenth day, he ceased typing. The sun had just begun to cut across his wall. The assembled manuscript, two inches thick, sat at his side. Mysterious its contents. Even up to the last hour Muller sensed there was so much more his guest wanted to say. That he, Muller, understood in the latter days of the testimony the pair was repelling down deeper caverns. If only he could hold out, the manuscript would become even richer.
That, in fact, he might not ever again have to eat, or waste long hours sleeping. His typing now so regular in rhythm it beat loudly like the heart he no longer heard.
But Muller also knew that any moment a key would be placed into his door’s lock. There were only several coins on the bureau’s top. It was time to throw water on his face, mock the Frigidaire one last time, and descend the SRO’s stairs to the brisk October air—his manuscript wrapped tightly against his person.
Outside, the street’s shop windows moved in and out of focus. He was having difficulty moving forward.
“I must adjust,” he thought. “The light is blinding me. I have to be stronger.”
He clung tighter to the manuscript. “How do I get back home to Pittsburgh?” he worried. “I’ve seventy-eight cents to my name.” Purposely Muller had made no friends in Gotham so that, uninterrupted, he could complete the manuscript.
“Now that I’ve accomplished that, I must concentrate on getting back to the life I’ve left behind. But will they still be there?” he fretted. Was Grace still waiting for him? And what if she wasn’t? How could he work if he was unable to walk straight and continued to be seduced by the guest’s narrative?
Get it down, Muller, make sure you get it all down.
The manuscript felt extra heavy.
“I must get back home.”
He approached a blood bank storefront. “Seven dollars for the first pint. Twelve dollars for each successive pint,” a placard in the window advertised.
“I’ve two units to donate,” Muller told the receptionist.
In a thick German accent, a white-smocked attendant replied, “Today we take one pint. Fourteen days, you return—we take another. Then give you twelve dollars for the second.”
Muller lay upon the metal table and stared at the ceiling.
“Clench a fist and pump it!” the attendant ordered after inserting the needle in Muller’s forearm. Several bodies on either side of him, all vagrants, opening and closing their fists as the blood spurted into plastic pouches suspended like vermilion bats from chromium rods.
At some point in the bloodletting procedure, Muller heard his guest’s voice:
“Hurry! Get to the typewriter. I’ve much more to tell you.”
“But I’ve no typewriter!” he cried.
“It’s here sitting on the cot. We’re waiting for you,” the guest assured, lamenting, “The unexamined life is not worth living. Furthermore, I’m famished.”
Muller twisted and turned on the gurney, awaking to the foreign doctor bending solicitously over him. “You should not be giving your blood.” They drew the needle out of his arm.
“I must have the money!” Muller cried.
The doctor instructed the attendant to remove seven dollars out of the cash register.
“But, sir.....” The donor’s pouch was half full.
“It’s all he can afford.” The physician said, placing the bills into Muller’s hand. “Nobody in Babylon will pick you up if you collapse on its streets.” He studied the manuscript still firmly gripped to Muller’s side. “It is valuable, no?” Muller nodded. “Then for its sake and yours—get something to eat, now.”
A window poster across the street displayed a Salesbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy; two pats of butter melted on a side of sliced carrots. A Woolworth five-dollar special that included a beverage of choice.
Muller spent his blood money on dinner, then placed a call to his wife.
“Hi, this is Ernest. I’m ready to come home.”
He heard a heavy sigh.
“Muller, why do you want to come home?” her weary response.
“Because of you and Laurel.”
“Where are you calling from anyway?”
“New York City.”
“You making it big like you said you could?”
A sliver of sarcasm in her voice. It hadn’t started out that way. But now these were the only two people in the whole world who were legally attached to him. And if she didn’t want him....
“Please stay there, Ernest. Laurel and me—when she grows up and you become famous—then I’ll tell her about her daddy. It’s peaceful here since you left. I’ve put up new curtains. And painted our bathroom canary yellow.”
“Grace, I want to come home.”
Would she break down and say OK? If I can just get her to wire me bus fare. “I’ll make it right for you and the child, I promise. I’ll get a job like other fathers. I’ll buy a suit and a hat and earn a respectable wage.
“I’ve been doing much thinking of late since I’ve been alone. I’m not the same person. In fact I’m even a short order cook. When I get back I’ll fry eggs in our black skillet the Big Whitey way.”
Her voice was bone dry. “What is it you want from us, Ernest?”
Grace dropped the phone. He could see the receiver swinging pendulum-like on the kitchen wall as she shuffled off in her felt slippers, looking for a pencil.
Muller walked to the nearby Western Union Office and sat on its bench waiting until the next morning, when at 11:05 the clerk handed him the cash.
“Was there any message?” he asked.
The clerk shook his head, grinning. “There would have been, mister, if the dough hadn’t arrived—huh?”
That afternoon somewhere between the Hershey and Breezewood Pennsylvania turnpike exchanges Muller chanced a look at the manuscript. It sat alongside him in the rear of the fume-laden Greyhound bus. With a blend of excitement and dread he pealed the last thirty pages off the packet, and began reading.
Within seconds he grew pale and began trembling.
The Frigidaire stood at Muller’s door 65, leering. The Floor 7's denizens peering over its round shoulders, ogling his room. Two men were lying on the cot. One with a porcelain dessert plate balanced on his bare chest. The other’s vermillion lips were outlined with lightly browned meringue.
And the leather heels of the management clicked up the hallway.
Even he couldn’t understand it.
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