Richard Warren Field - Writer/Musician
The Five Rooms
The First Room
Into the front of the large white house I walked, preparing for the tour. The house was a picture from a fantasy, bright white with a dark green trim on the shutters, approached by a long sidewalk lined by symmetrically pruned trees. On either side of the walkway was a lawn interspersed with gardens of multicolored patches of flowers. Hedges formed squares around the lawn and flower segments. It was the kind of house I could see myself living in, and never leaving.
My guide greeted me. “Right on time, as usual,” he said with a jolly smile. The short round man, dressed in a too-small black suit, black jacket with tails, overdressed as far as I was concerned, seemed friendly enough. But his smile had a superior sparkle to it, as if he was planning to show me more than I expected, and more than I wanted to see.
“I try to be on time,” I told him.
“Yes. You always are.”
I forced a smile and nodded politely. This was my first visit to the house. How did he know I was “always on time” to my appointments?
We entered the house into a small, plain hallway. I was disappointed. With the extraordinary appearance of the outside of the house, and the grounds, I had to believe that there was much more to the interior than the plainness of this hall.
My guide motioned me through a door with a stencil on it: The First Room. He pointed to a painting on the wall. It depicted a depressing image of paupers in a town square, a scene straight out of Charles Dickens’ London. Children wearing rags had their hands out begging. A drunk in a tattered brown cloak lay stretched out prone next to empty bottles. My guide went on and on about the history of the painting, the period it was from and the background of the artist. I looked around. This first room was apparently a gallery of some sort. I just wanted to go on to the next painting.
As my guide continued to drone on, I thought I saw the eyes on one of the little pauper boys move. His head tilted up, as if he expected something from me.
“Next painting,” my guide finally said.
But this painting was more depressing. It was from what appeared to be ancient times, maybe Greek. No, I saw a Roman guard. He wore a stern expression as he stood ready to deal with a group of starving citizens waiting in a long bread line. The people shuffled slowly forward. One fell from hunger and exhaustion. A small boy, with similar features to the boy in the previous painting, looked at me, tilting his head up the way the other boy had.
I looked at my guide for an explanation. He droned on again about the history of the painting and the artist. I needed to know why this painting seemed to be coming alive. My guide seemed completely oblivious.
“Is there something special about these paintings?” I asked.
“Oh, of course,” he said, but went on about the history and the artist without elaborating.
He motioned me to the next painting. But here was another depiction of despair, a scene from the Far East. Again, people attired in rags, smudge-faced people with gaunt, grim expressions, stood about in a village waiting for rations of rice. Again, I saw the people fidgeting, uncomfortable, with eyes moving around, some glaring at me.
We went to another painting. A tribe of early humans struggled in the cold, digging at roots, gnawing at bones on animal carcasses. The people grunted and moaned. Grunts, moans, wails and even an occasional shriek started to sound from all the paintings. My guide pointed to one of the people, an emaciated woman trying to breastfeed her child. The woman angrily flung her left arm forward as she held the baby cradled in her right arm. Her arm reached out of the painting and struck my guide.
But my guide did not react. He moved on to the next painting.
I recognized this location. This was a painting of a huddled group of homeless people at a freeway offramp I used almost every day. In fact, I recognized a few of them. One of the women glared at me. I had seen her before, standing next to a sign: “Will work for food.” I had always wondered if she really meant the offer in her sign, but I’d never given her more than a glance. I tried to listen to my guide’s description of this painting. Did the painter live near me? Maybe I knew the painter. I moved toward my guide, but could not hear him over the growing cacophony of moans, wails and shrieks. One of the homeless grabbed my t shirt. They were grabbing my guide. He still kept talking as if nothing was happening.
The woman, the one who offered to “work for food,” yelled “He is the reason!” She was looking at me with one of the most bitter, hate-filled expressions I had ever seen.
“No,” I said. I shook my head. “I’m not. No.”
“He is the reason!” erupted from all over the room. The people were no longer just moving within the paintings, or reaching out from them. They were coming out of the paintings and seemed to be converging on me. Hopeless people from many varied distant places and times suddenly seemed united on one common idea—they had transformed their hopelessness into hate for me.
My guide disappeared within a crush of desperate humanity. I had no idea if they had attacked him as well. He didn’t call out or seem to react in any way. He should have been able to address this situation and warn me of the nature of this room. So it was every man for himself. He was on his own. And, I was on my own.
I had to get out of this room. These were weak people who might wish to harm me, but who were wretched and starving. I lowered my head and plowed through them, occasionally glancing up for a door out. They bounced off of me, still yelling “he is the reason.” I looked up and finally saw a door with a stencil on it: The Second Room.
The Second Room
I burst through the door and stopped short, confronted with a thick, black darkness. It was as deep a black as I had ever seen or imagined, and it seemed to stretch into infinity. I could not see more than six inches in front of me. I put my hands out. There was nothing in front of me that I could feel. I took a step and did not bump into anything. I wondered if this was a passage to the Second Room, and maybe the lights had not been turned on.
“Hey!” I called out.
No one answered.
I took another step forward. Again, I did not touch anything. I took a few more cautious steps, still unable to see anything in the darkness. Emptiness was all I encountered. I moved in a faster walk. I was sure I would hit a wall, or something. But I just kept moving in dark space. How could this house contain all this space? Where were the walls? Where was the boundary? Was I moving in circles? I couldn’t see my direction, so I needed to rely on the feeling that I was going straight, and not in a circle. I still made no contact with anything. I started running. I didn’t care anymore if I just slammed into a wall. I needed to end this apparent encounter with total nothingness. I ran faster and faster, breaking into a sprint.
As I started to tire, I saw two light beams in the distance. I stopped. This was the first thing, other than utter darkness, that I had seen in this room. The beams appeared to be approaching. I waited.
A few moments later, I could see the beams came from two eyes, from a man with short black hair wearing a dark suit and a black top-hat. “Do you know the way to Trafalgar Square?” he asked with a thick English accent.
“I’ve never been to-”
But before I could finish my response, the two beams moved off in the opposite direction.
Two more beams approached. “Hey, uh, can you tell me how to get to Tavern on the Green in Central Park?” a middle-aged woman asked with a thick New York accent.
“New York? In New York?”
But again, the woman left as quickly as she arrived.
More beams started appearing. “Do you know the way to Red Square?” “I must find the Eiffel Tower.” “Please give me directions to Anzac Bridge.” “Do you know the way to Hollywood and Vine?” The beams started popping up from every direction, asking me for all sorts of directions. Some of the cities I recognized, some of the locations I knew, some I didn’t. But no one ever stayed long enough after asking the question to hear an answer.
I started walking toward the direction of the first set of beams. I figured that would be the best bet for an exit from this room. As I moved, I noticed the questions began to change. “Sir, do you know the best food to eat for a long life?” “How do I attract the man of my dreams?”
But again, the people asking the questions veered off before I could answer them. I didn’t even try to respond, but just kept moving, looking for a way out of the room.
“How do we deal with wrongdoers—do we punish or rehabilitate?” “What is the key to living a meaningful life?” “Are there other intelligent creatures in the universe?”
The questions seemed to get more general, and more involved as I moved ahead in the direction I had chosen.
“Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there life after death? What is the one true religion, or is religion itself a crutch and an illusion?”
These questions now seemed to be unanswerable with any certainty. And now, the beams from the eyes of the questioners lingered longer, waiting for an answer. I wondered if they would grow impatient with me. I had become so accustomed to not answering that I wasn’t even offering a response.
Suddenly a woman stopped right in front of me. “Why is there something, instead of nothing?”
“What?” I looked around her and saw a door ahead. I was close.
“I asked you—why is there something instead of nothing?” She had stopped long enough for me to see her face. She had a tense, angry look on her face. She expected an answer.
Before I could get my mind around the question, an elderly man with white hair and a craggy face added: “Yes, why is there existence instead of no existence?”
I shook my head. “I-” I had no idea what to say. Such a question had never occurred to me. I tried to move toward the door. I was within a few yards.
The area now lit up with beams closing in from all directions. And now they all asked a variation of the same question: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
“I don’t know,” I told them. “I don’t know,” I kept repeating. I pushed through them. They kept asking. They seemed angrier and angrier that they were not getting an answer. But I couldn’t even bluff an answer. I was grateful to finally arrive at the door with a stencil on it: The Third Room.
The Third Room
I emerged from the darkness filled with beams and a deluge of insistent questioning into an atmosphere that looked much more agreeable. I arrived at an elegant cocktail party. Everyone held a fancy glass containing either champagne or a martini with an olive in it. They were all well-dressed, the women in elegant evening gowns and the men in tuxedos. I looked at my own attire, a white t shirt and jeans. I was conscious of being grossly underdressed for this gathering. But I didn’t see the party participants flashing me any condescending looks. In fact, they weren’t paying attention to me at all. Everyone seemed to be laughing and having a good time. I surveyed the room more closely and saw no faces with a negative expression of any kind.
I walked toward the middle of the room. All of the people seemed involved in their conversations, laughing and carrying on with a light, frivolous mood. I felt awkward trying to break into one of the conversations, just to see where I was and if they could direct me to the Fourth Room. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. It was as if I wasn’t there.
A buzzer sounded. Everyone set down his or her drink, and picked up another one from waiters who sauntered by with trays of them. I shrugged and took a drink from one of the trays. I took a sip. It tasted like nothing, but I felt a chuckle emerge from my face. My inadvertent chuckle made me laugh.
A tuxedoed man with wavy gray hair looked at me, smiling broadly. “It’s quite. Indeed. Certainly magnificent. Mostly so.” He nodded.
I didn’t know what to say at first, but finally replied with my own smile “exactly.”
“Oh yes.” He tipped his glass to me and moved on with a look of exquisite satisfaction on his face.
I took another sip of the drink and giggled. Where did that come from? I tried to stop the next giggle, and did, but couldn’t prevent a smile.
“You are indeed the most of what there is and you, well, you are,” gushed a middle-aged woman as she approached. She was a heavyset, well-fed woman who wore a light-purple gown frilled with white lace.
I smiled and nodded. “Yes.”
“Wonderful,” she said.
Another buzzer sounded. Every man and woman paired off and began to dance. The music pounded with a thumping beat, and repeated a simple jazz motif over and over. I found the choreographed behaviors, seemingly controlled rigidly by buzzers, to be strange. But I was an observer. I was content to remain a largely unnoticed spectator.
I saw a large young woman, in a red cocktail dress, revealing more of her plump body than propriety should have allowed, moving toward me, giggling and smiling. I looked for her partner. When I didn’t see him, I realized, her partner was going to be me.
“There you are!” she called out. “Isn’t it all?” She threw her arms around me. “All it should be!”
I smiled, but I knew my smile was completely insincere. This woman was not my choice for a dance partner, or a conversation partner.
She smiled at me as she throbbed in rhythm to the music. “Yeah,” she said. Her head bounced up and down on her neck. “I feel that.” She moved up against me. “Feel that with me! Yeah!”
I tried to match throbs, but looked around for the door to the Fourth Room.
A buzzer sounded. The music stopped.
The large young woman gave me a bone-crunching hug.
I looked around. The other couples were all hugging.
Another buzzer sounded. Two people joined us, another well-dressed couple, maybe in their thirties.
“Such a party!” one said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “A lot more party action than the other rooms.”
“Great party!” my dance partner added. “The best since the last one.”
“But the last one was good,” another said.
“Oh yes. All of it! Without a doubt!” My dance partner laughed.
The other two laughed.
I laughed at the fact they were laughing.
“You,” one said to me.
“Exactly,” said another.
“Right,” I said. “Listen, um, can anybody tell me what is in the Fourth Room?”
“It’s not here, it’s there,” my dance partner told me.
A horn sounded. “Party-goers,” a DJ sounding voice said over loudspeakers. “Some dude is asking about Room Numero Four. Conformity warning, people! Rank conformity! Vicious insane-on-its-face conformity.”
The room burst into a spontaneous, unison laughter
A buzzer sounded. The waiters with the drinks circulated again. I did not take one.
Another buzzer sounded. If I understood the pattern, it was time to dance again.
The music started. My dance partner throbbed again with her odd gyrations, odd and awkward for a woman of her shape and lack of grace.
“Conformity warning” for the Fourth Room? How could there be more conformity than in this room? As I did my own version of awkward throbbing, I looked around for a door. I spotted it, not far away. I smiled at my partner and made sure our dancing took us in that direction. I turned and saw behind me the door with a stencil on it: The Fourth Room. A buzzer sounded. It was time for the hug. It was time for me to slip through the doorway.
The Fourth Room
Next to me were at least twelve duplicates of me to my right, maybe more—twelve was all I could see. And to my left, were also at least twelve duplicates. The room was large and completely white, devoid of furniture, only containing me and my duplicates. I turned my head to talk to the duplicate next to me. But he had done exactly the same thing. They had all done exactly the same thing. I turned the other way. They had all done the same thing.
“Hey! Are you guys-” But they started to ask the same question at exactly the same moment.
I glanced to my left and right, barely moving my head, to make sure they were all standing still. Suddenly, with as much quickness as I could muster, I jumped in the air and spun, and landed facing in the opposite direction. Every duplicate I could see had repeated the move. We had all independently taken the exact same measures to test all the other duplicates’ copying ability. We had taken these actions at the same exact moment because we were exactly the same. We had the same mental and physical attributes.
I sat down, acutely aware that all my duplicates had also sat down at exactly the same moment. I shook my head as an unsettling thought occurred to me. Was I the original, or the copy? The thought gnawed at me. I looked up ahead and for the first time saw a sign that read: exit. There was no way all of us could fit through that door. I would move to the door and go through it. If I still existed after I left the room, then I was the original. As I made my move, I realized the duplicates were all trying the same test. But as I passed through the exit, I realized I must have been the original, because it was me and only me who appeared on the other side of the door.
The Fifth Room
But my satisfaction was short-lived. I had stepped through the doorway into a shaft. Air rushed by me on both sides as I fell. I closed my eyes and let out a scream. But when my scream ended, I was still falling. I looked down. I saw no bottom at all. Maybe being the original wasn’t such a victory after all, if all my duplicates were still back safe-and-sound in the Fourth Room.
My falling continued. The shaft seemed to continue, with no bottom and no obstruction. I wondered if I was now fated to fall forever. But just as that thought occurred, I spotted a metal bar in front of me in the shaft. I reached out and grabbed it. It gave a bit, but supported my weight easily. Above the bar was a stencil: The First Room. Did I want to fall forever, or end up alive somewhere? I pulled myself up and through the opening.
The pathetic pauper-types were still out of their paintings. And they hadn’t forgotten me. It was as if they had been watching and waiting for me, because almost in unison, they were back after me, chanting “He is the reason,” and foaming with rage. It didn’t look to me as if I would survive in this room. I spotted a door that had a stencil: exit. My choice was to risk falling forever, or get torn apart by the desperate and lost of the human condition over all time. I stepped through.
I was falling again. This time, I did not scream. I simply looked out, hoping there would be another option. I saw another bar and grabbed it. Above the bar was a stencil: The Second Room. I pulled myself up and through the opening.
Again, the people still seemed to remember me. “Why is there something instead of nothing?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know,” I said in exasperation. “Why don’t we just be glad that there is something?”
“We have to know,” an elderly woman insisted. “It is the key to our purpose, to God, to the Universe—why is there existence instead of no existence?”
“I… don’t know.”
But they wouldn’t take that answer. They kept asking. It didn’t matter how many times I insisted that the question shouldn’t be important, that it was an unknowable question, and that I did not, and would never, have the answer. More of them closed around me, asking again and again—why shouldn’t there be nothing? Why shouldn’t there be nothing at all? They seemed to be getting more and more impatient. I wasn’t sure I could survive here either. I looked out and saw the stenciled sign: exit. It was time to leave this room as well.
At this point, I expected the fall, and saw it as a relief. I also expected to see the bar under the stenciled sign to The Third Room. I saw it, grabbed it, and pulled myself up into that room.
The buzzer went off. It was the dancing period of the predictable cycle. My dance partner found me and I throbbed my dance to match hers. I survived her bone-crushing hug, and took my sip of the drink that made me chuckle. I managed to force out the same vapid phrases that my conversation partners bantered about. I was getting accustomed to the routine, and realized this room was certainly physically safer for me than the first two. But I was become overwhelmingly bored. I felt my mind deteriorating. The endless mindless predictability of existence here began to seem as much a hazard to my survival as the threatening circumstances of the first two rooms.
I thought about the Fourth Room. I had been very quick to leave it. Sure, there were the duplicates. But I had never really explored the room. There could have been a livable place for me there. The buzzer went off again. Small talk. Dance. Hug. Drink. No, I was not going to last here either.
I spotted the stenciled exit sign. I left and fell to the stenciled sign for The Fourth Room. All right, I was here. This was where I would need to stay—I did not seem to have a choice. It was time to explore the room. I turned to my right and charged ahead. I was in a line of duplicates doing exactly the same thing. I increased my speed, to a fast-walk, to a sprint. The duplicates did the same thing. We never seemed to arrive anywhere. If we ever did reach anything to the side, the huge line of duplicates to my side was going to reach it before me. Did that mean the original was at the front of the line, and I was not the original? I didn’t want to start pondering that again. I turned and tried the other direction, with the same result.
Since the duplicates were to my side, maybe we could turn around. I turned completely around. Of course, they all turned too. But I did not see any duplicates in front of me. I started forward. Sure, I was flanked by my duplicates, but at least I had a clear path to whatever was in front of me. Maybe that would lead to something livable in this room. I increased my speed, to a fast-walk, to a sprint. A white wall was ahead. But nothing else. I reached the wall as I slowed my sprint. Of course all the other duplicates did the same thing. I fisted the wall in frustration, as did my duplicates. “Come on,” I uttered, and found I was part of a “come-on” chorus.
The perfect unison actions of the duplicates had me again pondering whether I was the original. But I had to be. I had my memories. I had the memory of being in this room before. I turned to talk to the one next to me, to ask him some question about my past that I was sure he did not know. But, of course, he had done exactly the same thing, so was turned away from me. And if I was an exact duplicate, of course, by definition, I would have exactly the same memories, experienced or implanted.
Was it really important whether I was the copy or not? It shouldn’t be. The problem was that there was no one to communicate with in this room. I could survive forever mirrored by every living creature in the room, but what kind of life would it be?
I slumped down into my despondency. So did the all the duplicates. I flopped my head into my hands, as did my duplicates. The magnified hopelessness annoyed me. My upper lip quivered as I sneered. I started to wonder if I should reconsider one of the other rooms. Then I realized the importance of whether I was a duplicate or the original. The copies only existed in this room. If the original left, the copies would cease to exist. I decided to strike a blow for my uniqueness. “I am the original!” I blurted out suddenly. But so did every other duplicate.
“I”ll show you, you bunch of copycats!” I moved to the stenciled exit sign. “You can’t all get through here! I can.”
But they all did the same thing. They couldn’t all have that sign directly in front of them. But they all apparently believed they did, because they mirrored my actions. I reached for the exit door. They all did as well. Fine, I would dangle a foot through the door. They would hit the wall, while my foot would go through. I put my foot through the door, then looked back at my duplicates. But they all looked as if they had completed the same action I had. If they had hit the wall, instead of going through the doorway, they did not give any indication of it.
“You all hit the wall didn’t you.” But that’s what we all said! We were all saying the same thing to each other! But I never hit the wall.
I kept my left foot standing, and kicked my right foot through the door while keeping my head turned to my left to catch those duplicates all hitting the wall. But as I twisted to try to get a good view, my left foot slipped out from under me and I fell through the door, out into the shaft. I have to admit, I had an enormous feeling of satisfaction. I had seen the others slip, just the way I did. But only I had gone into the shaft. I existed. They no longer did.
But my satisfaction was short-lived. I was falling again. I could grab the bars and try all the rooms, but none of them had any appeal. Almost right away, without much distance at all through the shaft, I saw the first bar. But the stenciled sign above it read The Fifth Room. I grabbed the bar below it and flung myself into the room. No matter what, I would have to stay here.
I found myself in a dark hallway. Not the total blackness of the Second Room, but a gentler darkness, with a slight flickering of lights in the distance.
I walked toward the flickering. The hall opened up into a room, and the flickering appeared to come from four separately lit panels at the far end of the room. I took a deep breath and walked toward it. My feet sounded against the hard, solid floor, a squishy sound from the soles of the running shoes I wore.
As I approached, I saw that the panels were four television screens built into the wall. They depicted the events in the four rooms I had been in. I watched the soundless screens, and recalled how miserable I had been in all the rooms.
Behind me, I heard the sound of hard-soled shoes against the floor. The sound got louder as it moved closer and closer. I was frozen in paralyzed terror, unable to turn and look back. My punishment for being so foolish, so impulsive, so particular that I had rejected all the previous rooms as too good for me, was about to be delivered. The footsteps moved closer and closer, louder and louder. Would it be a thrashing from one of the paupers, or the seekers of the nature of existence, or from one of my duplicates? I thoroughly expected to feel the heat of the flames of hell torment me. Or would my punishment be quick and merciful? The footsteps stopped behind me. Nothing happened. I took in another deep breath. I couldn’t stand waiting any longer. I turned to receive my castigation.
It was my guide.
“Are you ready to leave now?”
“Yes,” I told him with a shrug.
We left the house together.
“Did you enjoy the tour?” my guide asked as we walked together through the tree-lined walkway.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, well, I can assure you, I will not be back.”
“You always say that, and you always come back.”
“Now that is ridiculous. This is the first time I have ever been here.”
My guide smirked.
“Are you trying to tell me that I’ve been here before?”
I motioned at him with a dismissive wave as I walked away, certain that I had just finished an encounter with one of the most foolish people I would ever become acquainted with.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard Warren Field
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Richard Warren Field is the author of the award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith.
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