A Typical Evening at the Peabody Boarding House

By Andrew Looney

It is a Tuesday night, in late November. The trees are mere skeletons now, having lost most of their leaves, and the overcast sky gives the city a gray complexion. Winter is on the way.

The city begins to light up as evening closes in on the world. But the streetlight in front of the Peabody boarding house does not work, and so this house seems to disappear from the street, vanishing in a pool of darkness.

In the kitchen, Miss Jones has just finished washing the dishes. As she puts away the soup ladle, she notices that one of her knives is missing. She has a special wooden tray, in which she keeps her three best knives. Only two are there now. She painstakingly searches the kitchen, wondering what could have happened to it. This knife is her favorite of the three, having the sharpest edge and the keenest point. She looks everywhere, even under the icebox, but cannot find it.

Upstairs, in her study, Mrs. Peabody is doing the bookkeeping. She has just received Mr. Thompson's November rent payment, and is puzzled by it. She sits there at her polished oak roll top desk, carefully examining the crisp, new twenty dollar bills. Mr. Thompson is a law student, and is struggling financially. His payments are often late, and usually come in badly worn small bills, mostly ones and fives. Once, he paid with a Mason jar full of change. Mrs. Peabody holds the brand new bills up to the light, wondering if they're counterfeit.

At 7:51, someone knocks on the front door. Mr. Jenkins answers it, wearing his silk-lined, blue brocade bathrobe and bunny slippers. The stranger at the door is wearing a trenchcoat and a bowler hat. He hands a package to Mr. Jenkins, asking that it be delivered to Mr. Thompson.

After the stranger leaves, Mr. Jenkins examines the package. It is heavy, wrapped in brown paper, and tied up with shoelaces. He places it on the marble-topped table in the hallway, beside the green lamp. Then he picks it up again, and shakes it gently, wondering what it contains. He recalls a newspaper article he once read, which said that illegal drugs are often shipped in commonplace packages, right under everyone's nose. Perhaps it's full of opium, thinks Mr. Jenkins, as he goes back into the parlor.

Miss Williams, who works in a floral shop, is upstairs in her room, brushing out her long black hair. As she gazes at her reflection in the full length mirror, it occurs to her that she hasn't seen Mr. Stodner in several days. Mr. Stodner is a cheap man. He wears cheap clothing, occupies the cheapest room in the boarding house, and uses cheap after-shave. Rumors persist that he is actually a millionaire, and lives modestly in order to preserve his millions. The only evidence for this is that he doesn't seem to have a job, and sits in the parlor most of the time, reading old issues of "National Geographic".

Miss Williams doesn't really like him much; no one does. But since she is a person who tries to be nice to everyone, regardless of how unpleasant he may be, Miss Williams is concerned by Mr. Stodner's disappearance. She makes a few inquiries, but none of the other tenants can recall seeing him recently. Some seem pleased about this.

Mr. Jenkins is in the parlor, with his newspaper and cup of coffee. He is also in a bad mood, having just spilled coffee on one of his bunny slippers. He turns to the racing forms, and indicates his choices with a red fountain pen. Mr. Jenkins has never been to the racetrack.

His left hand comes to rest on something stuck between the cushions of the red velvet chair. It is a folded piece of yellow paper, on which is written:

"10:30 - The Cafe - table by the fig tree - bring Revolver."

Mr. Jenkins reads the note three times, trying to understand it. He sets aside his newspaper and lights his pipe, thinking both about the puzzling note and the package for Mr. Thompson. He can't help thinking these things are connected.

Miss Williams, still troubled by the absence of Mr. Stodner, is brushing her teeth in the second floor bathroom. She notices a small white towel lying rumpled on the floor behind the green porcelain bathtub. Hanging it back up, she observes a number of small brown marks, which she quickly and correctly identifies as blood stains. The stains disturb her, and she soon retires to her room, locking her door and closing the heavy brown drapes.

Miss Jones, still bothered by the disappearance of her knife, goes down to the cellar to put out some rat poison. She has never actually seen a rat, but is very fearful of them and is convinced that the basement is infested. As she opens the bottle, she looks to see how much is left. It seems to her that it now holds less than it did earlier in the week. After a moment, she dismisses this idea, blaming it on her imagination.

Mrs. Peabody goes into the library, returning "The Horses of Liberty", a ponderous volume about the use of cavalry in the Franco-Prussian war, to its place on the dusty shelf. Then she glances along the row of titles, trying to decide what to read next. She chooses "Murder on the Queen Mary".

On her way out, she hears footsteps in the hall. She waits in the darkened room, hiding behind the door, until the footsteps pass. When all is quiet, she hurries up to her room.

As the clock strikes twelve, Miss Jones climbs the stairs to her room on the third floor. She pauses in the shadows of the second floor landing, and looks down the hallway. Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Elnorton are standing at the end of the hall, quietly discussing something. They are whispering, but Miss Jones can make out a few words... something about a large emerald... something about a blue sportsjacket... someone owed someone else a lot of money... someone had made a tragic mistake.

The conversation ends abruptly. Mr. Jenkins goes into his room, and Mr. Elnorton remains in the hall, looking through the window at the dark, chilly night. Miss Jones silently moves up to her room, and locks her door.

At 2:39 AM, Miss Williams awakes to a loud crash, which sounds like a large object falling to the floor and shattering. This noise is followed by groans and cursing, and footsteps in the hall. She pulls the blankets up over her head, and, with difficulty, goes back to sleep. Later, she has a bad nightmare.

In the morning, Miss Jones finds her knife, which has fallen behind the stove. Mr. Stodner returns from Chicago, though he hadn't told anyone he was going there. Mr. Thompson receives his package, which contains several out-of-print books that he's just inherited, along with a large sum of money, from his deceased uncle. Mr. Jenkins again cuts himself shaving and again wipes the blood off on one of the white towels. Mr. Elnorton explains that he walked in his sleep and knocked over one of the vases in the parlor. He offers to pay for it. Miss Williams meets her boyfriend at the Cafe, but forgets to bring "Revolver", an album by the Beatles, since she lost the note reminding her to do so. Mr. Jenkins finishes reading "The Blue Sportsjacket", a detective novel, and lends it to Mr. Elnorton, who has expressed an interest in reading it.

Everyone enjoys the warm sunshine of the last nice day before Winter. That night it rains.

This story appears in My Secret World. Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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