Kla . . . moth . . . five. Three . . . eight . . . seven . . . six. Rock of ages. Dum-de-dum. Let me dum-de-dum-de-dum.
Hello. May I speak to Reverend Melchior, please? Tell him it’s Mrs. Phoebedeau.
Dum-de water dum-de-dum. Dum-de-dum and dum-de-dum.
Hello Reverend Melchior. Yes, it’s me again, Reverend. I’ve got another batch for you. You remember I told you about him, that boy who came down from Clarksville last November?
Yes, it is, Reverend Melchior. It is a real pity, and a truly dreadful thing to have happen right in a person’s own home. But I knew he was going to do it. I can always tell.
Well, no one has seen him since Saturday, and his toothbrush has been in the glass the whole time. This is a small town, Reverend. I’d know if he was still in town, and if he’d gone out of town visiting, he wouldn’t have left his toothbrush behind.
All right. I guess it won’t hurt to wait a few more days, if you insist, but I’m sure we’ll never see him again.
Well, you know, he always wore really nice clothes, and his suit cases are genuine Samsonite. I’m sure he has some really nice stuff. Someone will be really pleased to get some of his things.
Yes, I’ll have them all ready to go. You can send someone around to pick them up in a few days then.
Oh, excuse me Reverend Melchior. There’s someone at the door. I hung out the vacancy sign a few minutes ago, and it looks like I might have a new tenant already.
Alright. Good-bye, Reverend Melchior.
No. Not at all. I’m always happy to help. You’re very welcome, Reverend Melchior. Good-bye.
Lord, that man can talk. I suppose he wouldn’t be much of a preacher if he couldn’t, bless his soul, but it would be nice to get in a word edgewise once in a while.
Good morning, won’t you come in. My name is Mrs. Phoebedeau. I’m the landlady.
I’m happy to meet you, Mr. Grindly. May I call you Benjamin? We’re very informal here. Have you come about the room?
Would you believe that I just now hung out the sign? If you’d come by half an hour ago, you would have walked right by and never even known that there was a room for rent here.
Just put your luggage down by the door there, and I’ll show you around. We have a nice big closet here in the hall, and each of my boys − I call all the roomers my boys − each of my boys has his own hook for his jacket and cap. Of course, you young fellows don’t wear caps any more, do you? It really is a wonder you don’t all catch pneumonia.
In here is the living room. We’ve got a brand new 25-inch color Sony with Trinitron. I’m not sure what Trinitron is, but the salesman told me that it’s something really special. You can’t get it on just any television set, but we’ve got it on our new Sony. We vote on the programs, of course. Majority rules. That’s the only way we can all get along. It’s the American way, you know.
Of course, if you’re a reader, we have all the Readers Digest condensed books, and we subscribe to five different magazines. There’s also a stack of comic books if that’s what you like. We cater to all tastes here, Benjamin. We don’t allow Playboy though, or girls in the rooms, either. This isn’t that kind of house, if you know what I mean.
We have a really good library in town too, in case you want something different to read. If you want to get a card, you just tell them you’re staying at Mrs. Phoebedeau’s, and they’ll fix you right up. Most of my boys have library cards. We read a lot here.
You were walking when you came, weren’t you, Benjamin? Do you have a car?
That won’t be any problem at all. We’re right on the bus line here, you know. It runs every half hour during the day . . . only ten minutes to down town. It’s all really convenient and everything.
And, if you want to go to a movie, the Bijou is on Second Street just across from the park. They change the shows on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Sound of Music is playing right now. Have you seen it?
Oh, you’ll have to go while it’s still on, Benjamin. It’s gonna be a classic. It stars . . . oh, now what is her name? Julie something . . . a really big star. You know who I mean. She is just the sweetest thing.
Well, you’ll just have to go and see it before they change it. I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it. It’s gonna be a classic, you know.
Will you be working at the doily factory, Benjamin?
Isn’t that nice? Most of my boys work at the doily factory. They have a car pool, and I’m sure they’ll make room for you. It’s really convenient and everything, and, besides, you’ll save money over taking the bus.
Isn’t that something though, the biggest plastic doily factory in the world right here in Rock River. We’re getting more and more like the big city every day. I tell you, one of these days we’re going to look around and there’ll be skyscrapers and our own television station and everything, and they’ll be landing jet planes out at the municipal airport. We’ve got a really big future here in Rock River, really big.
There’s something I have to ask you now, Mr. Grindly, and I hope you won’t take it the wrong way, but I just have to ask. You don’t have any . . . you know . . . little buddies do you, Mr. Grindly?
Well, that’s not exactly what I meant, Mr. Grindly. What I mean is . . . well . . . you don’t have any . . . crawly things on you, do you?
Oh, I just knew you were going to take it the wrong way. I really didn’t mean anything personal by it. You look like a very sanitary sort of person, Mr. Grindly. It’s just something I have to ask everyone. I have to be sure. I mean you wouldn’t want to live in a place where they didn’t make sure that no one would move in with crawly things, would you? What if I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to offend someone, and someday somebody moves in with all his little buddies, and pretty soon everyone in the house has them? What then?
Well, any way I’m glad I got that out of the way. I know I have to ask, but I always hate to do it.
Why don’t we go into the kitchen now? I’ll turn the heat on under the coffee from breakfast, and we can have a nice cup of coffee and a cookie. You do drink coffee, don’t you?
There, that’ll be nice and hot in just a minute. Just sit anywhere you like, Benjamin. Except here, of course, that’s my chair. Just let me get a couple of cups here. Do you take milk or sugar?
No? I like milk myself, but my husband − rest his soul − always took it black. I think it’s a very manly thing for a man to drink his coffee black. I don’t know why, but it always seemed to me that women should take their coffee with milk or sugar, but I never really felt right about a man who couldn’t drink it black. It just seems to me that you can’t quite trust a man who takes milk or sugar in his coffee.
My husband was a veteran, you know. He fought in World War Two. That’s how we got this house − bought it with the G.I. Bill when he got his discharge. Have you been in the service, Benjamin?
No, boys don’t go into the service any more like they used to. There’s no draft nowadays. Years ago, when there was the draft, boys used to figure, well, they had to go some time − might as well get it over with − and they’d go out and enlist right out of high school. Of course, they were happy to serve their country. Not like today. Nobody enlists any more. Nobody’s proud to wear the uniform any more. It just doesn’t pay enough money, I guess. Not when you can get a good paying job at the doily factory.
Well, there. The coffee’s hot. Just sit right there, Benjamin. I’ll get it. Would you like an Oreo, or a sugar cookie? The sugar cookies are homemade.
I think so too. You just can’t beat a real homemade cookie. I don’t know, though. Young people today get used to store bought cookies, and that’s all they want. They just don’t seem to appreciate the time someone spends over a hot stove just so they can have homemade cookies, and then all they want is Oreos.
I blame their mothers. A real mother wouldn’t buy those store-bought cookies in the first place. If mothers today would stay home baking real cookies, there wouldn’t be any profit in store bought, and then those people could make something we really need, like Christmas tree bubble lights. Do you remember bubble lights, Benjamin?
No, I suppose that was before your time.
Well, you know, here we are, talking about philosophy and literature and everything else on earth, and I haven’t even got around to telling you how much the rent is. Well, it’s twenty-five dollars a week. I know that sounds like a lot of money, Benjamin, but that includes meals.
I’m a really good cook, if I do say so myself. You know, when my husband passed away, I almost sold this house and opened a café. It was a toss-up whether I would take in boarders or open a restaurant. I really do like to cook.
But, what the heck − if you’ll pardon my French − what the heck, I had the house already. And if I sold it and started a business, I’d have to hire a lawyer and everything, and I really hate to have anything to do with lawyers. They could just rob you blind, and you’d never know it. It’s like they can get away with anything because they know the law and the rest of us just have to take their word for everything. So, I just kept the house and started taking in boarders. I think I could have made a go of the restaurant though. I’m a really good cook, if I do say so myself.
Anyway, you get three meals a day except Sunday. Sunday dinner is at two and you’ll have to fend for yourself in the evening. Most of the boys go down to the Merchants’ Café for a hamburger around six and then take in the movie at the Bijou. It’s a really pleasant way to spend a Sunday evening.
Of course, during the week you’ll get a brown bag lunch to take to work. You can’t take chicken and dumplings, can you? But it’s always a good nutritious meal.
I hope you like bologna sandwiches . . . and summer sausage . . . but not salami. I never send salami sandwiches. We don’t approve of garlic. We live very close together here, Benjamin, and we have to consider each other’s rights. We don’t play our radios or the T.V. or make any other loud noises after ten o’clock, and we don’t inflict our garlic breath on one another.
I already told you we don’t allow Playboy or other dirty magazines . . . and no girls in the rooms of course. Other than that, the only other rule is the green door. That’s that door on the outside wall on the first landing. You never open that door.
Well, it doesn’t actually go anywhere. It’s on the outside wall. Look, you can see the trees through the window right next to it. The door doesn’t go anywhere. When you look from the yard you can see the window all right, but there’s no door there. The door’s only on the inside, and it doesn’t go anywhere.
It’s just the rule is all. When we bought the house . . . after Alexander − that was my husband’s name − Alexander . . . well, anyway, after Alexander got discharged from the Army, we bought this house. And that was just one of the conditions of the sale, that we never open that green door. It says so right in the deed. It never seemed like such a big deal to me. Every house has got easements and zoning regulations and things like that. This was just one more rule. And we did get a pretty good deal on the house.
Well, I have lived in this house since 1946, and I have never had occasion to open that door. Of course, I realize that the male of the species just naturally has this morbid curiosity and wants to go poking his nose into things that don’t concern him. That’s why I make it a rule. And, if there is one rule that you never ever break − never as long as you live here − you make sure it’s this rule. You are never to open that door.
Well, I wouldn’t do anything myself. It’s not really my rule. I mean the rule came with the house when we bought it. But I can tell you one thing, you’d wish you hadn’t, if you ever did open it.
I’m not really sure what happens to the people who open the door. And to tell the truth, I don’t even like to think about it.
Yes, over the years a lot of people have opened the door. Alexander opened it.
Well, it was about six months after we had bought the house. At first, he didn’t bother about it at all. He was working down at the old shoe factory during the day, and at night and on weekends we would work together fixing the place up . . . you know, painting and papering and things like that. We planted those two trees in the back yard that first summer. You can see them out the window there, with the hammock slung between them.
At first, he was just too tired to bother about the door. But after we had finished all the painting and everything, when he had more time to think about it, well I guess it just started eating at him. He had never been a drinking man, but he got so that, after I went to bed, he would just sit there in the living room in that big brown chair that he liked so much . . . and he would sit there and drink beer and stare at that door.
I should have seen it coming, but I really believed that he was smarter than that, that he just wouldn’t give in to his stupid curiosity. If I’d known then what I know now about a man’s morbid curiosity, maybe I could have stopped him. But I was young, and we hadn’t been married long. I didn’t know anything at all about men back then.
One night I woke up for no reason at all. I just knew that something terrible was going to happen. I didn’t have any idea what it was; I only knew that I had to get up and do something. When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Alexander standing there with his hand on the knob like he was trying to work up his courage. And then he saw me coming to stop him, and he jerked the door open before I could get to him.
When I think back on it now, it all seems so natural; like it was the sort of thing that happens every day on every street corner. The two soldiers just stepped in the door and took Alexander by the elbows and escorted him through − him in his old purple robe − and he wasn’t resisting or anything. It was like he knew he had broken the rule, and he had to take his punishment like a man. And that was the last I ever saw of him.
No, I’m sure he’s passed away. I’m sure they did something to him.
Well, I really don’t know. One soldier looks like any other to me. They wore khaki uniforms, so I guess they were soldiers and not sailors. But I don’t know anything about insignias. And they didn’t say anything, so I couldn’t swear that they were even Americans. They could have been Russians I suppose, but I’m sure they weren’t Chinese.
Anyway, the first of the next month I started getting Social Security survivor’s benefits, and before long I got the proceeds of his veteran’s insurance. I didn’t have to apply for it or anything; the money just came in the mail.
That’s why I’ve come to believe that they were our boys. If those soldiers had been from the other side, the government would never have found out that Alexander was dead. And I never would have got all his death benefits.
Yes, quite a few. Averaged over the years, I guess I lose one of my boys about every six months. I’ve never seen them get taken, of course. Just one day they turned up missing, and no one ever saw them again.
No, it has never been locked. I’ve never had a key.
Well, I don’t know. All I can say is that nothing has ever happened to anyone who left that door closed. One thing is, though, before I rent the room to you, you’ll have to promise me that you’ll never open that door.
Okay, that’s all I wanted. I make all my boys promise me. That way, if anything happens, I know I’ve done all I could to save them. I can’t force anybody. I’m just one old lady. As far as I’m concerned, my conscience is clear. My conscience has always been clear on that point.
Well, I’ve said enough about the green door. You know what to do and what not to do. I’ve told you, and that’s that, and I personally don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s a subject I truly don’t care to discuss.
I’d better show you the rest of the house now so I can finish the cleaning before the boys get home from work. There’s a half bath through that door by the refrigerator. We’ve got a shower in there, but if you want a real bath you’ll have to use the tub in one of the bathrooms on the second floor.
There are two on the second floor. There’s one on the third floor too, but that one is mine. There are two bedrooms on the first floor and five on the second. I’m the only one on the third floor.
Watch that loose carpet on the stairs there. Henry – he’s one of my boys – he’s promised to tack it down when he gets home from work tonight. I’ll introduce you to all my boys when they come home. They get off at three thirty. They’ll be here in about an hour.
This is the first bath on the left here. Let me show you how this works. See, if you pull this thing out like this, it plugs the drain and you can fill the tub. Then when you’re done you flip it back and it drains. If you want to shower instead, you pull this lever here and the water will come out of the shower head up there. But be sure you have the curtain pulled, and the curtain has to be inside the tub. Otherwise, the water will run right down onto the floor, and then we’ll have a real mess.
The other bathroom is just like this one. It’s right at the end of the hall, third door on the right. Your room is right over here in the back. Benjamin . . . Benjamin? Are you out here? Now where did you get to?
Oh lord, you went and did it, didn’t you? You went and opened the door. You just couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Well, I might have known. Young Mr. Grindly had that sneaky look about him. I can always tell the ones who can’t resist poking their noses into things that are none of their business.
Anyway, my conscience is clear. I warned him. If he wouldn’t listen to me, it’s his own fault, and no one could blame me for anything. Reverend Melchior would certainly agree with me on that point. I am without sin in this sad spectacle.
Rock of ages. Dumpty dum. Let me dum de dumpty dum. Dumpty dum ta data dum. Kla . . . moth . . . five. Three . . . eight . . . seven . . . six. Da dum ta data dum.
Hello, may I speak to Reverend Melchior please? Tell him it’s Mrs. Phoebedeau again.
About the author
My stories/essays have appeared in the Eunoia Review: the Blue Lake Review: Firewords Quarterly, the Beorh Quarterly, and The Mensa Bulletin, Buried Letter Press: and Novella T, among others.