I Won’t Ever be in the Army ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Georgie went into the kitchen where his mother was sitting at the table making deviled eggs with a cigarette dangling from her lips. “I want to stay at home,” he said. “I don’t feel well.” He had just looked at himself in the mirror and he knew he was paler than usual.
She plucked the cigarette out of her mouth as if it got there on its own and let the knife clatter into the bowl. “I don’t think so,” she said. “We can’t go off and leave you here all day by yourself. You might get lonely.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I thought you said you didn’t feel well.”
“I mean I will be fine if I can stay at home.”
She looked closely at him as if taking his measure. “You’re a very selfish boy, you know that?” she said. “You should take every opportunity to see your family. Life is short and none of us know when it’s going to be curtains. It’s Grandma Pearl’s birthday and we’re going to have a little celebration in her honor. You don’t want to miss that. When people get as old as she is, every breath they take might be their last.”
So, against his will, he got into the car on a hot July morning with his mother and father in the front seat and his sister, Biddy, and him in the back. His mother was taking a covered basket with food in it, including—besides the deviled eggs—ham, pickles, potato salad and strawberry pie. His father joked about all of them getting food poisoning from eating unrefrigerated deviled eggs on such a hot day but his mother just ignored him and lit another cigarette.
All the way there, he eyed the rolled-up red towel on the floor at his feet with distaste. It contained his baggy plaid swimming trunks that made him look so silly. And, if the swimming trunks weren’t bad enough, he had to put on the obscene-looking jockstrap first and wear it underneath the trunks. When he asked his mother what the jockstrap was for, she told him without looking directly at him that it was underclothing. Decent people wear underclothing.
The thought of having to go into the changing room and change out of his clothes and into the jockstrap and trunks with his cousins watching him—not to mention all the other boys and men that would be there that he didn’t know—made him feel sick. And then, after he got changed, what then? He had to go “swim” in the pool and pretend he was enjoying himself until such time as somebody came and told him he could get out and change back into his clothes and leave with the wet jockstrap and swimming trunks wrapped in the stinking red towel.
As his mother and his aunts were putting the food out on the table, he thought he might really be sick. Of course, if he could work up a good retching in front of everybody, that would give him a good excuse for not going to the pool. He eyed the deviled eggs glistening in the sun and remembered what his father had said about food poisoning. He planned on eating more than his share of them.
They were all about ready to begin eating—putting on the feed bag, as grandpa would have said if he had been there and not in his grave—when Wesley and Watson arrived in their old Ford pickup truck. Wesley and Watson were identical twins, who, at age forty-two, seemed permanently mired in adolescence. Neither of them had ever married or had a girlfriend; they were too busy drinking beer, rebuilding engines and collecting firearms. They both wore sleeveless shirts that showed the intricate tattoos on their upper arms. Wesley, who was driving, slid to a sudden stop and honked the horn, causing Aunt Alma, sitting on the ground underneath the tree, to let out a little yelp.
Watson got out of the truck and reached in and scooped Grandma Pearl up in her arms as if she was a sack of feed. She was wearing little booties on her feet that somebody had knitted for her and a shawl over her head, tied under the chin. When she saw that everybody in the family had assembled in her honor, she covered up her face. “I said I didn’t want no fuss for my birthday,” she said.
“Did you think we would just ignore it?” Aunt Juanita said. “You have only one ninety-fourth birthday in your life.”
“We’ll ignore your hundredth, granny, how will that be?” Watson said as he set her in a chair at the end of the table that was waiting just for her.
“All right, the guest of honor is here!” Uncle Delano announced in his authoritarian way. “It’s time to eat!”
Georgie sat squeezed in beside his mother at the end of the table. He tried to look aggrieved to let her know how much he didn’t want to go to the pool after lunch, but she just ignored him. He ate little and spoke not at all. The deviled eggs were still cold from being in the refrigerator at home and didn’t taste at all poisonous.
“How are they treating you in that place?” Ouida asked Grandma Pearl in the loud voice she always used when speaking to anybody over the age of fifty. Ouida was the only person in the family with a hook nose. She wore her thick hair tied back with a ribbon, which made her nose in profile look that much more menacing. There was a joke in the family that her father was not Uncle Ardelle at all, but a buzzard.
“Too many baths!” Grandma Pearl said, not bothering to swallow the food in her mouth before she spoke. “They take off all my clothes and wheel me into a little room naked. The water comes out of the walls and nearly drowns me.”
“That’s what kills the cooties,” Wesley said.
“I scream but they don’t pay no attention.”
“Why are you wearing your pajamas?” Kay-Kay asked. At age nine, she was like a miniature version of her mother, Aunt Hootie. She was all ready for the pool in her hot-pink swimsuit made of stretchy material.
“Those aren’t pajamas, honey,” Aunt Hootie said. “That’s loungewear. Very comfortable on a hot day.”
“It doesn’t matter what she’s got on,” Aunt Doris said in her baby-talk voice. “We’re just so happy to still have her with us, we wouldn’t care if she was wearing chicken feathers, would we?”
“Just as long as she’s not in the nude,” Watson said.
“Uncle Dick sent Grandma Pearl a card for her birthday and enclosed a nice little letter about how she used to buy him candy and take him to grown-up movies when he was little.”
“That was sweet of him,” Georgie’s mother said. “Where is he now, anyway?”
“I believe it’s Thailand or one of those places. Maybe it’s Switzerland.”
“Is he there all alone?”
“Hah-hah-hah!” Wesley said.
“When I die,” Grandma Pearl said, “I want you all there.”
“Oh, hush up that talk about dying!” Aunt Doris said. “Nobody’s paying any attention. Not on a day like this.”
“She means she wants all of us to die at the same time she does,” Ouida said.
“I went and picked out my casket the other day,” Grandma Pearl said.
“Where did you buy it?” Kay-Kay asked.
“You go to the funeral home to do that, dumb ass,” Kay-Kay’s brother, Guillaume, said in his superior way. “You don’t get it at the supermarket.”
“I think you picked out your casket about twenty years ago, honey, didn’t you?” Aunt Hootie said. “I remember you described it to me on the phone. You said it’s white with silver handles and pink satin lining. I always remember those little details.”
“That’s the one,” Grandma Pearl said. “They’re holding it for me special. Even if the president of the United States died, they wouldn’t let him have it because it’s got my name on it.”
“He wouldn’t want it, anyway,” Wesley said. “They’d have something better for him.”
“What does it feel like to be ninety-four, granny?” Kay-Kay asked.
“I don’t know,” Grandma Pearl said. “It feels like when you look at an old picture in a scrap book that fades a little more every year. One day the picture will fade completely off the paper it’s printed on and there won’t be anything left there at all. That’s when you die.”
“Tell me how I might live for ninety-four years,” Uncle Ardelle said.
“If I knew how, I would tell you,” Grandma Pearl said. “I never expected to live this long.”
After the birthday cake and the singing of “Happy Birthday,” the meal was finished. Aunt Hootie and Aunt Juanita helped Grandma Pearl to the toilet and when they came back they began cleaning up the dishes and putting away the leftover food. Seated in her chair again, Grandma Pearl smoked a cigarette and then drifted off to sleep with her mouth open and a can of beer in her hand.
It was time for all the kids—all eight of them—to go to the pool, while the adults sat in the shade and drank beer and “visited.” Biddy went to the car to get something and when she came back she was carrying the rolled-up red towel, which she handed to Georgie with a smirk. “Gee, thanks for thinking of me,” he said. He had abandoned all hope of being able to get out of going “swimming.”
The pool was crowded. He waited in line to get in and, after he paid his admission, received a metal basket to put his clothes and shoes in. He took the basket into the men’s changing room, went over to the corner and sat down on the bench. Slowly he took off his shoes and put them into the basket.
He was surrounded by men and boys in various stages of undress. He was embarrassed by the culture of nakedness, the flash of buttocks, the removal of the shirt that revealed that which no man should ever have to see. Maybe if he had had brothers of his own, it might have been different. He had never had to take his clothes off in front of anybody before, let alone a room full of strangers. He couldn’t even remember ever being undressed in front of his mother.
He stood up and unzipped his pants and started to slip them down, when a guffaw of laughter from across the room made him stop. Whoever was laughing wasn’t laughing at him, of course, but it didn’t make any difference. It was like the snap of a twig to a scared rabbit in the woods. He put his shoes back on and left. On his way out of the changing room, he tossed the rolled-up red towel into the trashcan, relieving himself of all that was irksome in his young life.
At home that evening, his mother, who had pointedly ignored him all day, made him come out of his room and sit in the living room with her and his father, where they were watching TV.
“Why didn’t you want to go swimming with the other kids in the pool today?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t like pools.”
His father, whose favorite western was being interrupted, groaned and looked at Georgie with distaste. “What do you mean you don’t like pools?” he said. “All kids like pools.”
“Your cousins were very disappointed you didn’t join in,” his mother said.
“They didn’t even know I wasn’t there.”
“Why do you always have to go out of your way to be the exact opposite of what everyone expects you to be?” his father asked.
“I don’t know. I just don’t like undressing in front of other people.”
His father gave a scoffing little laugh. “Quite the little prima donna, aren’t we?” he said. “What are you going to do when you get to high school? Or the army? Do you think you’ll be able to go through life weaseling out of the things you don’t want to do?”
“I’m pretty sure I won’t ever be in the army.”
“They’d be sure to make a man out of you!”
“Who said anything about the army?” his mother said. “He’s still a child.”
“There’s obviously something wrong with him. He’s not right in the head. We need to take him to a psychiatrist to try to get him straightened out before it’s too late. And do you realize how much that is going to cost?”
“Everything with you always comes down to money, doesn’t it? And there is nothing wrong with his head. He’s just different, that’s all. That’s the way some people are.”
“When I was growing up, everybody was the same and liked it. If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for him. Nobody in my family is going to be different if I have anything to say about it!”
“He’s starting to remind me more and more of Uncle Dick, I’m afraid,” his mother said with a sigh.
When his parents’ attention drifted back to their TV show, Georgie went back to his room and quietly shut the door. He didn’t want them to see the smile on his face. He didn’t care what they said to him or what names his father called him, but he had to admit his mother’s remark about Uncle Dick was oddly flattering.
He only remembered meeting Uncle Dick one time, when he was about six years old, so he didn’t get a chance to know him very well, but he always listened to the stories of him with interest. He was the one that got away from the humdrum small-town life of marriage, children, and a lifetime job in a factory or an office. He made enough money early in his life so that he would never have to work again. He became a painter (not of houses but of pictures), a world traveler and a writer, writing articles that from time to time appeared in travel magazines. He had even written a play or two that had been produced. He inspired jealousy, distrust and even hatred in those he left behind. They would never forgive him for being different and for being what they themselves could never dream of being.
Yes, if Georgie had to be like anybody in his family, he was glad it was Uncle Dick. As he drifted off to sleep, he said a little prayer that maybe some day, when he was a little older, his parents would give up on him and send him to live with Uncle Dick in Japan or Brazil or Germany or wherever he would be living at the time. Someplace where there are no swimming trunks, pools or jockstraps.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp