Clockwise running off the path off the road the roads are where they want us to go—the other places where there are no roads are where all the secrets are they don’t want us to know. I walked off the road and deep back behind the woods there was a house with a woman in it with her white hair hung to the floor. Why is this? I asked her. She said because it grew. She didn’t look that old but for the snow white hair. She was cooking something that had legs and claws. It smelled strong. She said I could have a room upstairs if I would behave myself. I said How much? She said Five hundred a month. I said I didn’t have that. She said Four hundred a month. I said I didn’t have that. She was about to say three hundred a month, I supposed, but I waved and she stopped with her mouth open. Two hundred a month, I said—what do you think? I thought I would save her the effort of saying any more numbers so she said Fine. I paid her for the first month but it took all my money. So I said I’d have to have dinner with her because I had no money to go get a meal anyplace else. She asked did I have a job. I said Not yet but I would go looking tomorrow. She said have you looked at all yet? I told her I used to have a job until yesterday, but they let me go. She said What kind of job, and I said I swept floors and cleaned toilets at the city hall. That’s a government job, she said. You ought not to have been let go. I said I was anyway. So I have to look for another job. She looked at me and put bowls on the table. She wore jeans and a t-shirt—a white t-shirt—and that long white hair. It was all over the place. She got the pot from the stove and in a minute I had a hunk of meat with long legs and claws in my bowl, floating in a kind of brown broth. I said what is this and she said You ought to be able to tell what it is—tell me what it is? And I said it looked like some kind of bird because the feet looked like chicken feet. I spooned up the broth after she sat across from me and it tasted putrid and my throat protested as I swallowed and I told her I can’t eat this—I can’t stomach it. She said here’s a knife—try some of the meat and I cut off a bit of what looked like chicken dark meat and it wasn’t so bad. So I ate the meat and thought it wasn’t too bad it wasn’t good either. After dinner, she said Come—come into my living room, and sit with me. She sat in an overstuffed flowered easy chair with her hair wound round her and she picked up a book, and I said, What are you reading? Just a novel, she said. I said What novel? She said it doesn’t matter what novel—it’s just a common everyday shitty novel. I nodded toward the kitchen table and said Who’s going to do the dishes and clean up, and she told me I was. I said Why is this? She said It’s part of the rent—you got to work some off, because two hundred a month is peanuts. I said if I pay you three hundred a month will I have to do the dishes? She said no. I said how about two fifty? She said For two fifty, you would have to clear the table and do the dishes and take out the trash—I like my tenants to work off their rent. I said What other tenants do you have? She said Mister Bottoms. I said Where is he? She said He spends his time curled up in a ball in the corner of the room at the end of the hall. She said Mister Bottoms was deeply depressed. He never ate, she said. If he never eats, how can he live, I asked. She said Maybe he is dead by now—he hasn’t moved in a few weeks. Well don’t you think you should check? No, she said—if he’s dead it’s his business. Not mine. I thought this odd so I went out of the living room and upstairs, and as I put my hand on the newel post she shouted mildly No, stop! Don’t go upstairs. I said I was going to check Mister Bottoms. She said he was too far gone. I said Well can I go upstairs to see my room? She said you don’t have a room—you are going to sleep down here, in the front room. She put down her book and rose and took me down the hall to the front room. The door opened and the room was full of memorabilia of the Second World War. Pillows embroidered with USS Arizona, USS Indianapolis, Okinawa, and pictures hung on the wall of navy men in snow white uniforms and smiles, and I asked her who those navy men were and she said Those are my granduncles. They all died in the war. This room is a shrine to them. The walls were peppered with various sizes of crucifixes and small pictures of ships and large pictures of ships and pictures of many other swarthy men in uniform. The room was musty and dark and closed in, the furniture was huge and dark and the great black cabinets held many wartime mementos all shining gold and silver, and she said You will sleep on that fold-out bed. I said can I pull aside the curtains and raise the shades and she said No. This room must be cool and closed and dark. In honor of those men who died in the World War. I decided to ask her how old she was. She said It doesn’t matter—age means nothing—now are you going to come to the kitchen and clean up the table do the dishes dump the garbage and put the dried dishes away? I said I thought if I paid more money I wouldn’t have to do that. She said you said two fifty—not three. So I agreed to three because I did not want to clean the table do the dishes dump the garbage and put the dried dishes away. The thought of a dead man upstairs was a dark one in this moody mothball smelling front room—so I went back to the living room where the light slanted in and I told her, I just don’t feel right with a dead man curled up in a ball upstairs and she said Then go up and check him—he’s too far gone but if it bothers you, go up and see. She sat back down and picked up her book and wound her long white hair about her and settled in—and I said Aren’t you going to come up and check Mister Bottoms and she said No, it’s no business of mine what state he might be in. As long as he pays the rent it doesn’t matter. I said If you have not seen him for weeks how has he paid the rent and she said, He paid the rent three weeks ago and that was the last time I saw him and the rent isn’t due again until next week—so he’s not my business. If I find him dead when I go up for the rent then I will do something about it. I said Okay, but what if I go up now and find him dead will you do something about it—and she said Sure. I was surprised she was letting me go up but I went up and the stairs creaked mightily and so did the floor upstairs, like the house was straining to fall apart, and I went to the room at the end of the hall and opened the door and the room was empty except for a pile of rags in the corner. The walls were pink. I thought this odd. I went and kicked at the rags and it was nothing but a pair of soiled pants and a couple of dirty shirts and some threadbare socks and some other unidentifiable filthy scraps and I left the room and went down, and I told her There is no one in that room. She looked up from her book, aghast, and sprang up and threw the book on the table and pointed at me and said Where have you taken him you have taken him from my house he was a paying tenant you took a paying tenant from my house how dare you how dare you and I put out my hand and said Now there, calm down. I took no one from your house. There is a pile of rags in the corner in that room and that is all I found. She lowered her finger and said Really? There was no one there? I said Why would I lie? She said You mean there was never really a Mister Bottoms? And I said Maybe there was a Mister Bottoms but he’s not there right now, and she said Okay. She sat back down with her nose in the lousy novel. I decided to do her a favor then—I decided to do the kitchen cleanup even though I was not bound to do so. I told her I intended to do so and she just said Sure, thanks—I’ll owe you one, and never took her eyes off the book. I went to the kitchen. I cleared the table and I couldn’t see saving the few scraps of meat that were left and I took her plate first, to the extra large garbage can and I opened it—and I started to scrape the plate off but I saw there was a person in the can, all balled up with eyes clenched shut and hands clenched and I let the lid drop and put the plate back on the table and I went into the living room to tell her. I didn’t know if the person in the can was alive or not, but I guessed it must be Mister Bottoms. I went to her. She looked up. I said there is a man in your trash can. She said Oh, oh, that must be where Mister Bottoms has gone to—good—he will be paying the rent next week then. And she put her nose back in the book. I thought at this point this was all too weird—so I went to the kitchen and slipped out the door and stood in the front yard, bathed in the light. I found my way back to the road, where things are safe and normal, and I continued to walk and did not leave the road again until I got where I was going which was nowhere but that is a whole ‘nother story.
jim meirose’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Collier’s Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Witness, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Two collections of his short work have been published and three novels are available from Amazon. A fourth novel will be released in 2015 by Montag Press.