Death is Kind ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Pulse Literary Magazine, June 2011)
Rosette was in the kitchen when she heard voices out front and car doors slamming. When she went to the front window and looked out to see what was disturbing the quiet in the middle of the morning, she saw three men getting out of an old green Ford pickup truck. Two of the men were dragging and practically carrying a third man between them. She didn’t know any of their names but she recognized them as workers on the place. The two carried the obviously stricken third man into the bunkhouse and laid him carefully on a bunk and then sped away in the truck as if they had just committed a crime.
She went into the bunkhouse timidly as if she might accidentally see the man undressing and, when she saw he was only lying there and not moving, she went over to the bunk and looked at him. She thought he might be dead but he opened his eyes and looked at her.
“You hurt?” she asked.
“No. I’m fine. I just need to stay her for a minute or two and rest.”
She recognized him as the one they called Tobin. He was at least fifty, older than the other men and always quiet. He had deep lines in his forehead and his hair was mostly gray.
“What happened?” she asked.
“We were taking down that old shed on the south side of the big barn,” he said. “I was loading an armful of lumber onto the truck and I started to feel light-headed. I guess I passed out.”
“Too much sun,” she said.
“I don’t think it was that.”
“I’ll call the doctor.”
“No, don’t do that! I don’t need a doctor. I’ll be fine in just a minute.”
“Well, I’m the only one on the place right now,” she said plaintively. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You don’t need to do nothing, ma’am. Just let me stay here for a few minutes and then I’ll be up and on my way.”
“Would you like a drink of water?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
She brought him a cup of cold water; after he drank it he leaned over the side of the bunk and vomited on the floor.
“I think I’d better call the doctor,” she said.
“Sorry about the floor,” he said, wiping his mouth. “I’ll clean it up.”
She went to get some rags to wipe up the floor and when she came back he was gasping for air and the color had drained from his face.
“We need to get you to the doctor,” she said. “I’ll go find Mr. Orange.”
“No! Don’t do that! I’ll be fine. I’m just having a little spell, that’s all. I’ve had them before.”
“We can’t just let you lie there and die without getting you some help.”
“Do you think the Mr. Orange will fire me?”
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“I need this job.”
“He won’t fire you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because he’s my brother and I know him. Bastard that he may be, he’s not going to fire you for getting sick.”
“I saw him fire a man last week for being drunk.”
“That’s not the same thing. That man chose to be drunk. He had a choice. You didn’t have a choice about being sick, did you?”
“No, ma’am, I guess I didn’t.”
“You need to get over being sick first and then worry about whether or not you still have a job.”
“It sounds like you think he’ll fire me.”
“I give you my personal guarantee, for what it’s worth, that he won’t fire you. If he fires you, I’ll poison his coffee.”
“You might as well poison mine, too, while you’re at it.”
He fainted again and she left the bunkhouse and went back into the house to telephone the doctor.
The phone wires went dead two or three times a year and no calls would go through for a day or so, and this was one of those times. When she realized she wasn’t going to be able to get through to the doctor anytime soon, she thought about striking out on foot to find Mr. Orange and get him to come back to the house in his truck, but she didn’t know where he was working or how far away he was; he might be as far as eight miles from the house and if she was on foot she would never find him.
When she went back to the bunkhouse again, she was carrying a washrag and a dishpan with some water in it. She didn’t know what to do for the sick man, but at least she could make him as comfortable as she knew how.
He opened his eyes and at sight of her started to get up off the bunk but she pushed him back down by the shoulder and dipped the rag in the cool water and bathed his face with it.
“I couldn’t get through to the doctor,” she said. “I’ll try later.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” she said. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
“You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you?”
“If I lose this job, I go back to jail. I think I’d rather just die right now than have that happen.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This job was a condition of my parole. Without it, I’m back in jail.”
“Surely there are other jobs.”
“Just look at me and tell me who would hire me. I’m old and beat down and that’s on the outside. On the inside I’m even worse.”
She thought she had a car approaching and went to the window to look out but saw nothing—must have been a distant airplane.
While she had her back turned, he tried to stand up but lost his balance and fell back heavily on the bed.
“I don’t think you’re going anyplace just yet,” she said.
“I’ll feel better once I’m out in the fresh air,” he said, clutching his head in his hands.
She went to the window and opened it. A fresh breeze blew in past the curtain.
“Is that better?” she asked.
“I think it’s going to rain tonight.” he said.
“Do you know where Mr. Orange is working today?” she asked. Ordinarily she cared nothing about where the men were working or what they were doing but today was different. If she could find Mr. Orange he would know what to do about the sick man and she would be free to go about her own business, which was cooking supper for twelve people.
“I wasn’t on his crew today,” he said. “I think he mentioned something about laying some fence.”
“Always more fence,” she said disgustedly, hating her brother for his driving ambition to make the place profitable. “He’s never here when he’s needed.”
“Isn’t that always the way?”
“You said you’ve had these spells before?”
“What do you do for them?”
“Well, I had these little white pills that I took but I haven’t had any of them for a long time.”
“I think that’s what they were called.”
“That’s what people take for a bad heart. You’ve got a bad heart, haven’t you?”
“I believe I do.”
“How many heart attacks have you had?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t kept count. About five, I guess.”
“Don’t you know you can’t do heavy lifting work after you’ve had a heart attack?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” he said.
“Didn’t the doctor tell you anything?”
“They don’t tell you nothing in prison, ma’am.”
“Did you tell Mr. Orange you had a bad heart before he hired you?”
“Now, why would I have done that? That would have been rather foolish, don’t you think? He had me stand up, looked at me front and back, and said, ‘You look fit enough.’”
“You should have told him. He might have put you to work in the kitchen or in the stable taking care of the horses.”
“Kitchen work is woman’s work and I don’t know anything about horses.”
“You men are all alike, aren’t you?” she said. “Afraid somebody will think you’re less of a man if you have a weakness. Well, we all have weaknesses. You can pretend to be Hercules all you want to but anybody with two eyes in their head can see otherwise.”
“I think it’s all Adam’s fault,” he said.
He laughed and then shut his eyes again and winced with pain.
“Is it a bad pain?” she asked.
“It feels like an elephant standing on my chest.”
“I’m going to go try to get the doctor again.”
“Have you got a husband?”
“That’s a funny question for you to ask,” she said. “For one thing, it’s none of your business.”
“It’s just a question. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Well, I had a husband but I don’t anymore. We went our separate ways a long time ago.”
“When I first came here I thought you were Mr. Orange’s wife.”
“I’ll take that as an insult.”
“Are you happy living here?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think about it.”
“Must be a lonely kind of life for you. I mean with no other women around and nothing to do besides work.”
“It’s not so bad. I got what I deserved.”
“I needed a job and there weren’t any. I didn’t know how to do much of anything, but I could cook and keep house, so I came here to work for my brother. It seemed safe. I knew he’d take care of me. I’ve been here almost three years now.”
“You’re still young. If you stay here, life will pass you by and you won’t know what happened to it.”
“I’ve got my own little room in the attic where nobody bothers me. I don’t have a care in the world.”
“Don’t settle for that.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” she said. “You’re a farm worker with a busted heart.”
“That’s what I am now,” he said, “but I haven’t always been that.”
“Oh, and what were you before?”
“I was a real estate speculator.”
“We—my partner and I—used to buy up property and then sell it for more than we bought it for.”
“You were a businessman.”
“Until we got into a jam. I won’t go into all the ugly details. My partner committed suicide and I went to jail.”
“You experienced what they call a reversal.”
“That makes it sound not as bad as it was.”
“Do you have a wife or family? Anybody I can call for you?”
“You mean if I die and you want to know what the folks back home want to do with the body?”
“If that’s the way you want to put it.”
“I had a wife but I don’t know where she is. I haven’t seen her for ten years. I’ve got a grown son, too, about twenty-five years old. He’s as much a stranger to me as I am to him.”
“You ought to try to see him when you can.”
“It’s too late for that now.”
“Would you like a drink of water?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.
“No, I don’t need anything.”
“I’ll go try to call the doctor again.”
“I’m real glad you were with me today,” he said. “I sure do thank you.”
He seemed to drift away then—either asleep or unconscious, she didn’t know. He was breathing shallowly, making little twitching movements around his mouth, until, without warning, he let the air out of his body and didn’t breathe in again. She had never seen anybody die before, but she knew with certainly he was dead. He just slipped away quietly—she didn’t know death could be so easy.
She didn’t have time to fix the supper before the men came back from work, so she went into the kitchen and opened some cans of corned beef hash and emptied them into a big pot and set the pot on the stove. When the hash was hot and the men were coming into the kitchen and sitting down at the long table, she put a bowl at each place and put the steaming pot in the middle of the table.
“Where’s Tobin?” Mr. Orange asked, taking his seat at the head of the table. “Heard he was sick.”
“He’s in the bunkhouse,” she said.
“What’s he doing there? Is he asleep?”
“He’s dead,” she said, taking the cornbread out of the oven.
At the word “dead,” all the men stopped what they were doing and looked at her. Suddenly the room was very still.
“What happened?” Mr. Orange asked.
“Did you call the doctor?”
“I couldn’t get through. I was stuck here all alone with a sick man and had no way to get help for him.”
“Well, what do you know about that?” Mr. Orange said.
The men were silent; after a couple of minutes they began talking and laughing again as if nothing unusual had happened. Not one of them had any real regard for Tobin or counted him a friend, she knew.
“Going to have to hire a new man now,” one of the men said.
“I think I know of somebody who would take on the job,” a second man said.
“Tobin was a steady worker but he never could keep up the pace,” a third man said.
“He was afraid you were going to fire him because he was sick,” she said to Mr. Orange as if the other men weren’t there.
“He probably would have, too,” somebody said, and the men all laughed.
“I don’t see anything funny about it,” she said.
She looked around the table, her eyes skimming over every face. On the faces of a couple of the men she saw something like amusement. They could enjoy a death as long as it wasn’t their own and they knew they would go on living.
“Yes,” she said, “you’ll hire a new man and in a few days you’ll forget Tobin ever existed. And if the new man should happen to die like Tobin did, there’ll be somebody else to step in and take his place. People are just replaceable parts, aren’t they? Just like cogs in a machine.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Mr. Orange asked. “Why are you getting so upset?”
“Maybe she was in love with Tobin,” one of the men said as a joke, but nobody laughed.
After supper the men gathered outside the bunkhouse, talking and smoking cigarettes. Their usual roughhousing and joking were absent. None of them wanted to go into the bunkhouse with Tobin dead in there, but one by one they went in to have a look and to satisfy their curiosity; some of them had never seen a dead man before. They were wondering if Tobin’s body would be removed before bedtime or if they would have to sleep all night in the bunkhouse with him lying there, stiff as a statue.
She waited until the end of the week and then, without a word to anyone, she packed her bag and walked the mile and a half to the crossroads and caught the bus to St. Louis. She had a little money saved and she would be fine in a new place where she didn’t know anybody. She would send for the rest of her things later.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp