The Room All to Itself
The Room All to Itself is one of James Purdy’s last unpublished manuscripts. Written in 1978, the short play is every bit as uncompromising and brutal as his fiction. And, like his other work, it’s primarily concerned with outsiders—characters outside convention, the law, and perhaps even love. We’ve appropriately paired the piece with illustrations by Purdy himself.
The rear of a cheap discotheque in San Francisco. Hurd, a retired pugilist, is seated at a large table at which 12 people could easily be seated. There is music of varying volumes coming from the dance floor. He is playing solitaire and chews tobacco. He slams each card down as if with that gesture he was cutting down an enemy. The door opens and Keith Ruthweg and his friend Beau enter. They wait to be recognized.
RUTHWEG: I know what you’re going to say, Hurd, so save your breath. Just take him off my hands for tonight, will you. You liked him once. Like him again.
HURD: You snots with the pot-ring still on your ass… Am I sick to death of you… Is there anybody today but spoiled snots like you? That’s a statistic I keep looking for in the papers. Is there anybody in the country but spoiled snots?
RUTHWEG: I’d keep him myself, Hurd, but the police are already watching me.
HURD: I know they are watching you, Ruthie. You are on the streets too often for them to do anything else.
RUTHWEG: Take him, for God’s sake, take him… Don’t let them get him. As soon as his money comes from home I’ll put him on a bus back to Chicago.
HURD: Why not Singapore, or Nepal. Why wish him back on Chicago.
(Beau, a young man, sits down on a kitchen chair. He, in the words of his keeper, Ruthweg, “does not have all his marbles,” for which Ruthweg is secretly grateful.)
Get your ass right up off that chair. You’re not hidin’ out here. Do you hear what I say?
RUTHWEG: Let him stay the night, Hurd. I’ll come first thing in the morning.
HURD: If he stays the night he might as well stay the year… The cops probably already know he’s here.
RUTHWEG: No, they don’t Hurd. I can swear to that.
HURD: What am I going to get out of it this time, Ruth?
RUTHWEG: Anything your little heart desires.
HURD: (to Beau) Hear him. And he says you have softening of the brain!
(to Ruthweg) Are you serious, Ruth?
RUTHWEG: (frightened) I’m a keeper… of my word… Only don’t make me have to kill you when I find out what you want out of me.
HURD: I used to want you, Ruth. Bad… But I’m over that now.
RUTHWEG: Well, you can have me in the bargain.
HURD: (stares at him) No, I don’t want you no more.
RUTHWEG: (desperate) You’ll keep Beau then until I can raise money for his bus fare.
HURD: Oh, so it will be more than one night, huh.
RUTHWEG: No, I’ll have him out of here by tomorrow at sunrise.
HURD: And when do you pay up, may I ask?
RUTHWEG: (hoarse, shamed) I’d rather you not discuss this in front of Beau.
HURD: Ha, so you’re still soft on each other, are you.
RUTHWEG: (with painful earnestness): We are as close… as… ever.
HURD: (brutally) Or if closer you’d be Siamese twins, I know.
RUTHWEG: (controlling his anger) What do you want… as your reward.
HURD: Reward, hell. My just due. There’s a difference.
RUTHWEG: Name it then, why don’t you. Let’s hear it!
BEAU: (standing up) Let me go, Ruth… I don’t want you to give him anything for me… Let them arrest me.
RUTHWEG: If they arrest you, Beau, you know we’ll both get it! So sit down and dry up.
BEAU: Don’t ask him to give it to you, Hurd! Have a heart.
HURD: You little sneak-thief, why don’t you have a heart with the people you rob all the time. Huh? Besides, you don’t know what I’m going to ask him.
BEAU: I can imagine.
HURD: You can’t think let alone imagine.
RUTHWEG: You lay off him.
HURD: Don’t forget who you’re talking to, Ruthie, the man you want a favor out of, dig? And don’t forget where you are, blue eyes: in that same guy’s legal residence, which is something neither of you ever had.
BEAU: (to Ruthweg): Let’s get out of here, Ruthie… It’s better to have the cops… find us…
RUTHWEG: Wait a minute… go on tell me what you want. Go on… spill it.
HURD: I want the ring Billy sent you just before he died in Vietnam.
(Ruthweg stares at him with first unbelief and then insane rage.)
Did you hear me, or have all the beatings the cops been giving you busted your eardrums.
RUTHWEG: Why don’t you ask me to dig up my mother in the cemetery and fetch you her wedding ring from her finger.
HURD: ’Cause you got Billy’s ring on your finger right there, and you don’t need to dig up nobody from the cemetery. I want that ring.
RUTHWEG: Look, you can have anything else, anything, me, what I own, I’ll be your nigger (pleading). I’ll dig for you! Don’t ask his ring.
HURD: (as if to himself, maniacal, raging) I was the whole world to Billy until you come between us. As a matter of fact that was my ring, and I loaned it to him just before he went across… He said, “let me have it for good luck.”
RUTHWEG: You lie. I gave him this ring… If you give him one, he must’a lost it or discarded it or whatever… This ring I gave him with my own hands, and kissed him when he took it… (takes off ring) Look here inside the band is my name and the date of its purchase.
HURD: (examines ring) I want it just the same, (jerking his head in the direction of Beau) or I won’t take him.
BEAU: (worried) Don’t give him the ring, Ruthie. We’ll get by somehow without him.
HURD: Who else would take either of you in, but me… There’s nobody that desperate in all Kingdom Come… You come to the right place to get rid of that little jailbait there.
RUTHWEG: (in a kind of trance) I think if I give away this ring, there would be no end to my bad luck.
HURD: Your whole life has been bad luck… Givin’ away a ring couldn’t bring down more shit on your head and you know it.
RUTHWEG: (again as if to himself) Next to Beau, I loved Billy the most. I tell you his death nearly finished me off… I couldn’t do my work for a year for thinking of it… He was just about to come home too for the war had all but ended… We were going into business together!
HURD: I’d like to hear the name of that business some time when I got nothing better to do.
RUTHWEG: (taking off the ring) If this is all that will satisfy you, then take it, and be damned… I’d as soon cut off my hand for you… But I can’t let this baby get in any deeper, eh, Beau. (He takes Beau in his arms and kisses him, while Hurd examines, with contemptuous pleasure, his acquisition of the ring.)
(to Hurd) You’ll take extra good care of him now, won’t you, if I leave now.
HURD: If you don’t think he’s safe with me, don’t leave him… (angered) When didn’t I keep my part of a bargain! You know the snot is safe here, for not one cop in a million would want to be seen in here, and you know it…
RUTHWEG: All right, all right. (goes over to Beau again, and takes his two hands in his) You’ll be all right for tonight, and tomorrow we’ll go to Chicago… They’ll be looking for us in our old rooming house still by tomorrow… They won’t think of Chicago either…
BEAU: (desperate) I have to stay here, Ruthie…?
RUTHWEG: Just for tonight… Here (giving him a small tube of something) take these after a while… They’ll quiet you down, Beau.
BEAU: (tearful) They will? (As Ruthweg goes toward door Beau rushes after him, detaining him.)
BEAU: Don’t leave me, Ruthie… Please… I’m so afraid… I ain’t been alone without you for such a long stretch of time.
RUTHWEG: (regretful) Goodbye, Beau… take a pill. (Ruthweg leaves; Beau returns to the back of the room. He looks out the window.)
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