The Room All to Itself is one of James Purdy’s last unpublished manuscripts.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.)
HURD: My luck ought to return now. (stares at ring) Will return… I know it. I know it.
BEAU: What’s below this window.
HURD: Nothin’. Absolutely nothin’…
BEAU: It looks like a room all to itself down there.
HURD: (mimicking him) “A room all to itself!” Well, it’s a alley that the police sealed up a few days ago. Why I’ll never know… But for an idiot you’re right for once… It does look like a room all to itself. Nobody can get in or out, and it’s the last place anybody ever looks for anything. Why I don’t know… Ask the police… (quotes again savagely) “A room all to itself.” (laughs)
BEAU: (coming forward) What are you going to do with his ring, Hurd.
HURD: What business is it of yours!
BEAU: Because I can’t believe you want it… just for a keepsake.
HURD: You know for somebody everybody says don’t have all his marbles I think you are bright. Maybe too bright.
BEAU: Only one person ever said that about me not havin’ my marbles… But he said it out of love.
HURD: Love! Ruthie couldn’t love a dog and you know it. (shifting) I’ll tell you something since you seem to have got back some of your lost wits all of a sudden… This ring the police have been looking for… It’s a clue which will connect somebody with a crime…
BEAU: Connect who?
HURD: Who but your lord and master, Ruth the one you say loves you so much.
BEAU: But how could a ring connect anybody with a crime…
HURD: This ring, despite its having Ruthie’s name engraved on it, belonged to Guy Preston, who come between Ruth and Billy, and Ruth killed him out of jealousy and stole the ring, had his name carved on it, and sent it to Billy, knowing Billy would know his lover was dead…
BEAU: I don’t believe it…
HURD: Because you can still read part of the name Guy Preston a bit under the name Keith N. Ruthweg… Billy was the kind would have been pleased with it all too, that somebody loved him enough to kill for him.
BEAU: I don’t believe it! I don’t believe Ruthie would kill anybody.
HURD: He’d do anything for love.
BEAU: You give me back that ring…
HURD: Well, see, what have we got here!
BEAU: (pulling a knife) You give me that ring…
HURD: Why you sneaky little—
(Hurd attempts to disarm the boy but he is too quick for him and after a brief struggle he knifes Hurd who falls to the floor. In rage, Beau stabs him again and again as he lies dying.)
BEAU: Now we’ll take that ring. (rises and begins to study the ring) It’s all aswim with blood. (goes over to the sink and washes the ring, gazes at it) Yes, it does say ever so faintly Guy Preston.
(looks at the dead man now) He can’t stay here like that… (looks over at the window) “A room all to itself.” (He goes over to the body, lifts it up, and with not too much effort takes it to the window and throws it down.)
(sits down) Now all I have to do is wait till tomorrow morning, and tomorrow morning won’t take forever, I guess. (Lights begin to fade.)
(Lights up. The night has passed. Beau stirs in the chair, moves about, shakes his head, goes over to the window and looks down.)
Yes, he’s down there all right, but who’d know it, it’s so dark below. It’s lighter at the bottom of the ocean… But I dread Ruthie’s coming somehow… Maybe I’d better make a run for it. The longer I stay here, the worse off we’ll both be… (Steps are heard, he goes to the door and then puts his back against it as if holding it against the force of many men.)
RUTHWEG: (calling) It’s me, Ruthie… Hurd! Hurd…
BEAU: Hurd can’t hear you… He’s left.
RUTHWEG: Is that you, Beau… Beau! You sound so far away and different.
BEAU: (unlocks the door) Come in, Ruthie… The door’s unlocked.
RUTHWEG: (comes in and tries to take Beau in his arms, who moves away) Beau! What is it, what’s the matter. (looking around) Where’s Hurd.
BEAU: He’s… away.
RUTHWEG: Away? Away where? Beau, look at me… Look here.
BEAU: He said he had to go away on serious business.
RUTHWEG: (frightened) Were police here.
BEAU: No… nobody was here.
RUTHWEG: Beau, look at me… Why wouldn’t you let me kiss you just now.
BEAU: (frozen with fear) Oh, didn’t I… Well, you can kiss me all you want to… go ahead.
RUTHWEG: (kissing once, then holding his face back and away for scrutiny) What is it, Beau? What has happened? I’ve never seen you like this.
BEAU: Here is your ring.
RUTHWEG: Good Christ! How did you persuade him to give that back… Beau, you didn’t let him have you, did you?
BEAU: Are you crazy? He never touched me…
RUTHWEG: Then why did he give back the ring.
BEAU: He said… He was afraid of it.
RUTHWEG: Afraid of it?
BEAU: He said it was… the property of a man who had been murdered.
RUTHWEG: Why do you look like that?
BEAU: Did you love Billy more than you did me.
RUTHWEG: It was a different kind of love, and when I knew Billy, I had not set eyes on you, Beau…
BEAU: But did you love him more.
RUTHWEG: I loved him different.
BEAU: But that isn’t an answer.
RUTHWEG: If it makes you happy, I love you more.
BEAU: If it makes me happy! I’ve never been happy since the day I set eyes on you.
RUTHWEG: Beau! What are you saying.
BEAU: I’m telling you… From the moment I set eyes on you…
RUTHWEG: All right… Don’t say it again… (after a long pause) How have I failed you.
BEAU: How have you failed me? Since I’m the one doesn’t have all his marbles, why don’t you explain it to me.
RUTHWEG: Who told you that? Beau!
BEAU: He told me, the dead man, that you said that behind my back.
RUTHWEG: I never said that or if I did I didn’t mean it the way it sounds… But who is the dead man, Beau?
BEAU: What do you mean by the way it sounds…If someone don’t have all his marbles, what else can that mean but he’s a simpleton, an idiot. A body nobody can love.
RUTHWEG: Do you think if you were that then I could love you?
BEAU: Why not. If I were everything or anything, why couldn’t you love me. That is if you do love me.
RUTHWEG: Beau, I do love you. I thought I had proved that to you.
BEAU: How have you proved it.
RUTHWEG: By just being with you constantly… By protecting you… By… wanting you so passionately like just now.
BEAU: Don’t touch me. I never want you to touch me again.
RUTHWEG: What has come over you… Look, where has Hurd gone.
BEAU: Do you want an answer to that question… All right I’ll tell you. Hurd is on the blackest river to hell.
RUTHWEG: You know something. What is it?
BEAU: I don’t know something. I did something. Go over to that window, and look down.
RUTHWEG: Why should I look down some window when you’re here to tell me what I must know. Beau! Why can’t you believe I love you. I love you at this very moment intensely.
BEAU: Without my marbles.
HURD: I love all of you… I never loved anybody else more. What more can I say.
BEAU: I don’t believe you.
BEAU: Go over to that window and look down.
RUTHWEG: Who’s down there you want me to look at so bad.
BEAU: I don’t want you to do nothing bad no more… Look or don’t. Suit yourself.
(Ruth goes over to the window and looks down.)
RUTHWEG: It looks like a big bundle of rags down there.
BEAU: That’s about the size of it. (takes out his knife) In a room that’s all to itself.
(Ruthweg turns back and faces Beau and the knife.)
I killed him of course.
RUTHWEG: Of course. Look, Beau, if you want to kill me too, go ahead.
BEAU: You don’t mean that ’cause your voice trembles when you say that. (advancing toward him menacingly)
RUTHWEG: My voice trembles because I have nothing to live for if you are against me.
BEAU: Oh! Oh…
RUTHWEG: What do you mean Oh… oh.
BEAU: Take off your shirt.
RUTHWEG: Why Beau?
BEAU: I can see where to aim better.
RUTHWEG: (taking off his shirt slowly) If that pleases you too, all right.
(Ruthweg throws back his arms as if to allow himself to be knifed. But at the first wounding he suddenly grabs the knife, and in the struggle stabs Beau, who falls to the ground.)
(bending over him) Beau, you’re not hurt bad, I can tell Beau… Quit playacting, playing possum, fuck you. Fuck you, quit playacting… (He picks him up and brings him over to a chair.) Open your eyes… Why did you want to kill anybody who’s been as good to you as me, huh…
(knocking at the door)
Will you answer that one for me Beau? Who is it?
The door’s unlocked, come in.
(raising his voice) I said the door was unlocked, so come in. Come in and take a look at something you have to pay to see at the movies… Beau, you listen to me… Beau…
Beau… (His head falls over the body of his friend.)
(A policeman enters, walks slowly over to Ruthweg, takes out his handcuffs, slowly handcuffs him. Ruthweg walks over to a corner, the policeman kneels over the prostrate Beau.) The End.
The complete short stories of James Purdy will be published by Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton in July 2013.
Like James Purdy? Read his short biography: