AT 16½ WEST WATER STREET, Franklin leaned against the frame of an open window in his second floor apartment. He was watching the snow fall onto the city park below, a glass of Corby’s Whisky rested in his hand. At a nickel per bottle it was undrinkable to most — the kind of stuff that would twist your guts up in a knot — but for Franklin it did the trick just fine. The frigid winter air whistled past him, but he neither felt nor concerned himself with such sensations anymore. His preoccupation was consumption of the drink, secondary only to his endless yearning for peace and quiet — something he’d never quite been able to attain (at least not for any acceptable period of time).
He turned the years over in his head and thought of his wife. She’d left him some time ago and the atmosphere, empty of her voice, had thus been filled with blessed silence. For that brief moment, all had been right in Franklin’s world. He had his whisky — as much as he could stomach — and her incessant chirping was a distant bell that rang only in his memory. But the righted nature of everything in that moment seemed to him more and more brief with each time he’d called it up from his memory. As he thought back to it now, leaning against the window, he figured that it had really only lasted for the most minuscule fraction of a second: There had been the wife — and her very aura the center of his misery — then a flash of contentedness, and then the roommates.
It seemed the drink had only just touched his lips, his wife’s poisonous voice had only just stopped its vibration against his eardrums, when the roommates had been forced upon him. Despite all the tactics that had finally driven away his wife (the yelling and the swinging fists and the bottles smashed against the wall), Franklin’s protests against the roommates were, for all intents and purposes, wholly ignored by his landlord. Since then — since the roommates came — Franklin felt as though he merely “existed” in this space.
The first roommate had been a veteran of the war, but had fought on the opposite side as Franklin. He was a quiet man who kept to himself and Franklin’s only qualm with him was that he occupied the space at all. The man would come home with some new piece of furniture, and place it in Franklin’s own bedroom without so much as a how-do-you-do. Franklin would slug down his whiskey and shout at the man, “Excuse me sir! Just who do you think you are! This is my room, sir, and I’ll ask you to keep your things in your own space!” But the man would continue unperturbed.
And while the first roommate was a bothersome individual enough, he absolutely loathed the second. Firstly, and most importantly, the second roommate was a woman. He despised the “fairer sex” — and not solely because of the incessant mewing and clucking like that of the wife who had finally left, but because they seemed always to demand accountability and attention from him. His mother, the worst of them, easily pierced through his ostensible stoicism and called it for what it was: a wooden mask held fast with corn liquor. “You best stop that drinking or you’ll rot out your brain!” she’d screech. “The Lord sees those filthy whores you lie with, boy!” As his life slogged on — and especially after the war — Franklin only wanted the attention of these shrill and judgmental creatures when his flesh demanded it; at all other times he found himself shuddering with annoyance at the very energy which their souls occupied in the room. The second roommate’s brittle voice drove him up the walls and into the ceiling, where he stooped among the rafters and puffed on his pipe in relative quiet. The garbled whine of her voice in the apartment below reminded him of cicadas in the summer nights of his childhood, and he wondered why he’d ever decided to come here and why he didn’t just pack up and leave.
Why didn’t he just leave? That’s what he was thinking as he stood and stared out the open window on that chilly winter’s day. The curtains swayed with the frigid breeze and he could already hear the current roommate’s wail of disapproval. He couldn’t leave now even if he wanted to, he knew. He had reached a point of no return. He had whiled-away too many days in these walls, and somewhere along the way the world had become too fast and loud and frightful to him.
Even if he did leave, God knows what the roommate would do to the apartment if he were left to his own devices. The goddamned roommates. They were impossible. How many of them, he tried to remember, had come and gone from the space between the first and the current? Before this one — who would surely make a fuss about the open window — there had been the worst of them yet: A woman who was the incarnate of Franklin’s worst memories of his mother and wife.
She had adamantly refused to leave him be. She looked for him with every turn of her nervous little eyes. She brought in groups of professionals who poked and prodded and interrogated him, trying to figure out what was so wrong. They lit candles and spoke softly, asking him things like “Who are you?” and “What do you want?”
He had only been drinking his whisky and smoking his pipe in peace and they acted as though he was some monstrous fiend threatening their very existence. “I want to be left alone!” he shouted. “Leave me be!” and he stormed and stomped up into the ceiling, leaving them to their grumbling below as he’d always done when he could take no more of a roommate’s prattling. But just as he’d breathed a sigh of relief, she sent a man up the stairs and into his private space. He possessed some machine which could monitor Franklin. This vacuumed away his last shred of patience and sent him into a rage. Of all the things he had stomached over the years, this woman had crossed a threshold which he would not tolerate. He moved from the shadows of the attic, showing himself to the man with the monitoring machine, and bellowed, “Leave me be!” The man recoiled in horror and retreated to the apartment below.
That will be the end of it, Franklin told himself. But the woman was not satisfied. Though the man refused to enter the attic again, the monitoring system was placed in the apartment downstairs. Afterward she spent even more time speaking to Franklin and shrieking at him and fretting over him. So he paid her the same favor, hovering just behind her as she walked through the apartment and hiding the moment she turned to look for him; knocking pictures off the walls and bottles from the top of the white box where she kept her food; pacing upstairs as she lay in her bed with her covers pulled to her nose, staring at the ceiling with wide, frightened eyes.
Finally, late one night — as a thunderstorm raged outside and Franklin stomped around above her — the woman could take no more. She crammed armfuls of clothes into a suitcase and skittered out the door and down the hallway stairs, practically falling down them. Franklin’s laughter practically curdled the paint from the walls as she fumbled with her keys at the landing door and then threw the suitcase into the rain.
After she was gone, most of her furniture and possessions remained in the apartment for weeks. The woman herself, however, refused to come inside the apartment ever again.
Eventually, some men came and took away all of her things. This worried him, because in his experience, it meant that a new roommate was coming. And sure enough, it wasn’t long before this one had arrived — the one who would be oh-so-offended by the open window.
But compared to the others, he thought, was this one so bad? Yes, he would be upset about the window. On the other hand though, he always kept bourbon and other spirits on hand, to which Franklin could help himself. And unlike the others, he had never recoiled from Franklin; or angrily demanded that Franklin leave; or let his friends tease and try to coax Franklin out of hiding. Unlike the others, he seemed to purposefully will himself to believe that Franklin wasn’t even there. Franklin suddenly realized that, maybe, since he’d gotten so used to one awful roommate after another, he hadn’t given this one a fair chance.
As he turned over the lattermost of these thoughts with another sip of the whisky, the roommate came through the threshold, shivering and rubbing his arms. Franklin rolled his eyes, already reprimanding himself over his most previous thoughts, and readied for the dramatic wails of disapproval. The roommate was looking around the room, trying to figure out where the draft was coming from. He saw the curtain move and looked a bit confused. There was a large dresser in front of the window. He labored to pull it away, and it was then that he confirmed the source of the draft.
He closed the window and then turned around. Although his eyes caught hold of nothing in particular, it was quite clear at whom his words were directed: “Listen to me. I don’t bother you. I know the last person did … I heard she bothered you and you didn’t like her … but I’ve left you alone. Please … please don’t do that again.”
The roommate hurried out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Franklin was taken aback. It was the first time that a roommate had ever addressed him so matter-of-factly. With the other roommates there had been screams, gasps, demands, and the professionals who poked and prodded … but never anything like this. Never anything so personal. Beneath the vainly-masked terror, Franklin had sensed compromise, and even understanding in the roommate’s words.
In that moment, as he digested the interaction, Franklin suddenly felt that his thinking had never been clearer — at least not since that ethereal moment just after his wife had left. He realized that the solution to his woes lie not in vanquishing the roommates from the space, but in this roommate himself — the only one of them who seemed to appreciate him. So it was decided, then. When the men came and filled boxes and took them from the apartment — when the roommate left the space, as he surely would — Franklin would go with him.