The Roommate by Rob Cook


The roommate arrived in late August. One day his room was bare. Two days later a mirror and drawn blinds. The next week a clock radio, the nautilus-drone of a vaporizer, two cans of Diet Rite in the freezer.

I never heard him enter or leave. I knew his presence only by the odd can of soda added to or missing from the freezer, and a box the size of a large man containing more belongings where there was no box an hour earlier.

I didn’t know what kind of car he drove, or if he drove at all. I imagined him owning the white Ford Galaxie that never moved from across the street, primarily for its mood, the color and shape of something missing from the world.

Days went by.

I heard the faintest din of classical music where before was only the sound of passing traffic or a game show on the landlord’s television. I kept finding more cans of Diet Rite that grew inside the freezer. The tall box still waited to be emptied. No light shone through the crack in his door.

A week later, I heard the toilet flush. When I jumped off my bed and raced out to the hallway hoping to catch him, he was gone. No sounds except for the toilet filling with water.

By the second week of September there was a small carton of cherry tomatoes in the refrigerator and a growing collection of cans in the recycling bin.

At night I heard him turning the pages of a book; another night I heard him cough once; the next the snap and hiss of a soda can opening, no sounds during the day except the vaporizer like the steady breath of insects that lived in the walls.

I never left the house due to my growing anxiety. My groceries were running out. I had not slept. One day the cherry tomatoes were gone. Six thin envelopes addressed to Mr. Ed Allen Smith from an insurance company in Oklahoma waited another week in the letterbox before somebody retrieved them.

When I allowed myself to fall asleep, I was awoken by water running from the kitchen faucet, but again I was too slow.

After still more days passed, I knew he drove a red Toyota Corolla. My landlord, who was in his late eighties, asked how I was liking my new roommate.

He’s a nice-looking, polite young man, he said.

Except for the driver’s seat, every available space in Ed Allen Smith’s car was occupied by empty Diet Rite cans and other assorted garbage, stacked to the ceiling and spilling onto the front seat, trying to breathe.

One day when there was no food left in the house, I waited across the street from his car. He would have to eat eventually, he would have to at least go out and buy some tomatoes. I waited and did not see him.

By the first day of November there were less soda cans. A white Chinese take-out container sat on the refrigerator’s top shelf. The tall box in the foyer was gone.

After another weather change there were no more Diet Rite cans. The car was still parked out front, but now even the driver’s seat was stacked with cans, all crushed flat as paper plates.

The landlord asked again how I was getting on with my new roommate.

He’s nice, I lied, and went upstairs and waited outside his room.

He was listening to his AM radio, the latest news on bacterium, the volume so low I could hear it only when I pressed my ear to the door and stood very still.


Seeing my surroundings through the newly installed contact lenses, the driftwood chair I made myself reared back as if ready to attack and just as quickly went still again.

Seeing my roommate for the first time though he’d been there a year made me think how many times he must have stood next to me and said nothing, waiting to be noticed. He smiled almost the way a friend would smile. He had just used the bathroom, as he must have done hundreds of times in this apartment already, right under my nose.

“What have you got there?” he asked, tall, gaunt, bearded and red-haired, as if me seeing him for the first time was nothing new. “Ah. Contact lenses. I tried those for a time and let’s just say I did not prefer them,” he said, absorbing the noise of a truck going by.

I could see him standing there, though I saw him incorrectly. He could have been a refrigerator, prowling from blurriness to clarity back to some obscure bacterial stage.

“For the poorly-sighted the world is rich with beautiful people,” he said.

No other vehicles passed, nothing camouflaged the slight edge in his voice.

“For the poorly-sighted nothing is ever really in place. Two roommates occupy a limited square footage and only one of those individuals is aware of an upper hand. The other loses his way on a planet inhabited only by beauty.”

I watched him shift from side to side before he lowered his eyes half-way, turned around, and went back into his room, closing the door behind him.

Something that looked like the moon but wasn’t the moon wandered in and out of the dining room’s caged evening sky. “Yes, the house tends to drift a little, if you know what I mean,” Ed Allen said, though I hadn’t heard it at the time.

I had friends back in the blurriness, but they moved to cities that possessed an even deeper lack of clarity while I moved to this town here at the edge of the nearest lights.

I removed the lenses and placed them back in their overnight baths.

I heard what he told me. Not everything is a dream. Not everything is a thought that soon passes. A loud, almost ironic blast of static from Ed Allen’s room made me flinch. Then the silence resumed, but a critical silence. Nothing else changed. The sink continued to drip. The phone stayed disconnected. I had only myself to ask if anybody else was alive.