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Free Live Free
FREE LIVE FREE
FOUR ROOMERS OF WAR
It was not yet night, though the streets were already dark. A few stores and restaurants had switched on their lights. A neon sign thrusting like an erection from a bar on the corner winked redly at thirsty patrons who were not present. There was rain in the wind, and the feeling that the rain would soon turn to snow.
Stubb swore, rounding the corner. He took off his glasses and wiped their bottle-bottom lenses on the sleeve of his trenchcoat, then swore again as they were spattered with fresh rain. A Checker passed, throwing fine spray at the sidewalk. Stubb entered an alley and walked it with ferocious energy from end to end and back, looking in doorways, occasionally stopping to examine a garbage can, at last emerging where he had come in. Half a block down the street, a fat, blond girl in a white plastic raincoat waved to him, and he nodded almost imperceptibly.
She was waiting for him in the musty little hall, rain trickling from her coat and white plastic boots onto the worn linoleum. "How'd you do?" she asked. She loomed over him, a head taller than he.
"How'd you do?" Stubb said.
"I haven't yet. I just went out for gum and stuff."
"You shouldn't smoke," he told her. "Screws up your lungs."
"Yeah," the fat girl said. "That's right." She opened her purse and took out a pack of Viceroys. Two were gone. She pulled out two more. Stubb reached up to light hers, and she smiled.
"Going to be a lousy night," he told her. "You ought to stay in."
"I think maybe I will. Till eleven or twelve anyway. You going to watch TV? It's Hellcats of the Navy."
Stubb shook his head, drawing on his cigarette.
"You like the oldies almost as much as he does."
"I saw a piece of it."
"I wish they'd run The Wizard of Oz again," the fat girl said. "That's the one I like. But I could watch this."
"I've got things to do."
She waited for him to go up the stair, then toiled after him. The parlor door was half open, but if the three people in the parlor had heard them, they gave no indication of it.
They sat before a television set as they might have sat around a fire. On the small screen, images hardened to harsh lines of black, then spread the shadows of humanity again. The voices of the film murmured like little waves, and like little waves seemed to die.
The most impressive of the three was an old man. He sat in the largest chair and gripped its arms as though for him it were a seat in a plummeting plane. He was bald. He had once been a powerful and perhaps even a fearsome man; now his chest had fallen in, and his blue eyes seemed awash in milk.
The man on his right aimed at a prosperity his check suit did not confirm. The leather of his wingtip shoes was polished and cracked, and his carefully knotted rep tie revealed at the knot an area worn threadbare by the heavy stubble of his chin. His broad mustache and thick hair shone black and oily as fresh paint. A tarnished chain stretched across his vest, ending in an empty pocket; there was a rubber daisy in his lapel.
A young woman in a black toque sat on the old man's left. Her long-sleeved lace dress suggested Italy or Spain, but there was something of the East in her thin, strong face and dark eyes. Suspended from a silver cord about her neck was a circlet of silver from which three points radiated; it was no bigger than a small coin.
The man with the black mustache asked, "Would you like something, Mr. Free? A glass of sherry, maybe. Or I could make you some coffee."
The old man seemed not to hear him.
"You may go to the kitchen and take whatever you can find," the woman said. "He will not object."
The other man glanced at her, and then (perhaps because he feared his regard had somehow offended her) looked around the room as if taking inventory of its dusty furniture. His eyes, slightly divergent and dryly black, might have been buttons of jet.
"Go on, Mr. Barnes. You are so hungry."
"Can I bring you something?" the man called Barnes asked.
"For eight days I have fasted," the woman said.
Barnes rose. "I'll fix tea, if there is any."
Neither of the others answered, and he went into the kitchen. There he washed a teapot and put a pan of water on the stove. There was a tablespoon of black tea loose in a cannister, and, to his surprise, a little sugar in the sugar bowl. In the refrigerator he discovered a small cube of cheddar, which he ate. When he carried his tray into the parlor again, neither the old man nor the dark woman appeared to have moved.
"You like some, Mr. Free?" Barnes asked. "I brought you a cup."
The woman said, "How was the cheese?"
For a moment Barnes stared at her. The color drained from his florid face. Then he laughed. "You smelled it," he said. "Smelled it on my breath. That's terrific! Listen, Madame Serpentina, I can take a joke as well as anybody. Better, in fact."
"I cannot," the woman said.
"Hey, you ought to. There's nothing in the world better for you, for your health and your whole outlook on life, than a good laugh."
"I laugh often, but not at jokes."
Barnes grinned. He had large, square, slightly yellowish teeth, like a horse's. "That's because you haven't seen mine. But if you'll excuse kind of a personal comment, I've been watching you since we got here, and I've never seen you laugh."
"I am laughing now," the woman said. "My spirit laughs, because I did not come here with you."
"We both came Monday," Barnes said. "Answered the same ad. That's all I meant."
The woman did not reply, and after several minutes had passed in silence except for the muttering from the old television and the rattle of the rain, Barnes said, "Nice weather."
For the first time, she turned her head to look at him. "You like this?"
"Sure I do." Barnes grinned again. "Made three sales today, and selling weather is as good a weather as Ozzie Barnes ever asks for."
"You have sold nothing, or you would go into the street and buy bread. You are very hungry."
"I didn't say I got any money. I got orders. Tomorrow I'll send them in, and when the merchants pay, I'll get my commission. I do like this weather, though. You probably don't believe that."
"Belief insults the mind. A thing is so or it is not."
"Say, that's good. I'll have to remember it. But I like this weather--not many customers coming in, which is always good for a salesman, and then, too, some merchants feel a little sorry for me. That makes them readier to listen. The whole secret of selling, let me tell you, is just getting your customer to listen to what you're saying. Nine times out of ten, a man will stand there and stare at you like he's hearing every word, but what he's really listening to is something he told himself a long time ago, or maybe just his wife telling him not to lay in any more stock. He no more hears you than Mr. Free here does."
The woman said, "He hears."
"Okay, but he doesn't pay attention."
"That is so. We are to him what that," the woman's eyes moved briefly toward the television set, "is to us. We are that to me also."
"Is he following the story, you think?" Barnes's voice dropped to a whisper. "I wouldn't want to bother him."
"Less than you. Less even than I."
There was a knock at the door. The old man rose at once and went into the narrow hall, where pools of water from the fat girl's raincoat still lingered sullenly. Behind him, the voices of Barnes and the dark woman mingled with the roaring of piston-engined aircraft.
The newcomer was a uniformed policeman, his shoulders white with snow. The old man bobbed his head and led him into the parlor.
"I'm Sergeant Proudy," the policeman said. "Thirteenth precinct. I'm looking for Bernard Free."
The old man nodded. "Sam'l Benjamin Free, son. That's me. Call me Ben."
Rising, Barnes said, "There's no Bernard anything here Sergeant. This is Mr. Free."
The policeman nodded and took an envelope from the inner pocket of his overcoat. "Who are you?"
"My name's Osgood M. Barnes. I'm in sales."
Proudy nodded. "And you, Ma'am?"
"I am Serpentina."
"I bet you are. You a snake charmer?"
"I am a witch."
"It's against the law to tell fortunes in this city," the policeman said.
"I do not tell fortunes."
Proudy shrugged. "I don't give a damn what you do outside this precinct, but--"
The fat girl's voice floated down the stairwell:
"The bosun's pipe, it felt like tripe, The Chaplain's it was good ..."
"That's Candy!" Proudy said. "Candy Garth. You know her?"
"I have sat at table while she ate," the witch said. "That was not today."
Barnes put in, "Madame Serpentina's fasting."
"Candy ought to take lessons--she'd do more business. She lives here?"
Barnes nodded. "This is a rooming house. It belongs to Mr. Free."
Proudy turned back to Free. "You let whores stay here, sir?"
"No Horace here. You from the Building Commission, son? You can't tear my house down--we got five people living here right now."
Barnes said, "He doesn't know, officer. Take it easy on him, huh?"
Proudy fingered the envelope he held, and for a moment looked tired. "Yeah," he said. "I bet he forgets to collect his rent sometimes too."
Free said, "They live free. I don't charge."
"And maybe you might lend your boarders a little something. If they told you a real good story. Old folks are like that." He was not looking at Free, but at Barnes.
Barnes looked away. The witch said, "I do not believe he has anything to lend."
"You ought to know."
"You asked of Candy Garth, does she live here. She is upstairs on the left."
"Thanks." Proudy handed his envelope to Free. "Nobody's going to live here a hell of a lot longer. Yeah, it's the Building Commission, old man. You got to be out tomorrow, understand? That's all the time you got."
"Used to have a lot more," Free said slowly. "All of it. I'm not going. Going to die right here."
Barnes said, "And we'll help you."
"I'll bet you will," Proudy said.
A moment later they heard his feet on the stairs, then a hard rap and the word Police at the fat girl's door. Barnes satdown again and looked at the flickering television, where rotary-engined fighters warmed up on the deck of a black-and-white aircraft carrier. "All the time there is. I know what you mean, Mr. Free. When I was younger I used to feel the same way. I guess for you this is practically a new show, isn't it?"
Free shook his head. He had pushed Proudy's envelope into his shirt pocket unopened. "Ages ago, Mr. Barnes. Whole ages."
The fat girl's voice came faintly from upstairs, followed by the sound of a blow. A moment later, Proudy tramped down the steps and went out into the snow, slamming the door.
"I'm hungry," Free said suddenly. "Anything left in the kitchen?"
Barnes shook his head. "You could have some tea." The old man fumbled in his pockets. "Not a continental dollar. Got to sell some skins tomorrow. But if somebody's got money today, I'll get us something."
"I'll have some for you Tuesday, Mr. Free. Believe me, I will. Twenty dollars, I swear."
The witch said, "You are overgenerous with your oaths, my friend."
Free did not seem to hear her. "No rent," he told Barnes. "Live here free, like I said. You just help hold 'em off. I'm a mite hungry, though."
The stair boards creaked. They heard the fat girl's sniveling, her wheezing breath.
"She must have something," Barnes said. "I'll talk to her."
"No." The witch touched his arm. "She has nothing. She gave him what she had, and it was not enough. Here."
As if she were alone, she pulled up her skirt and took a rolled bill from the top of her black stocking.
"Take this," she said. "But you must go, not Mr. Free. Get fruit and bread, and if there is money remaining, whatever you like. I expect a receipt and my change."
Copyright © 1984, 1985 by Gene Wolfe