Muriel Self ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Berg Gasse 19, February 2011.)
In his younger days Emory Self wanted to be an actor. He attended a Midwestern liberal arts college to learn the fine art of standing on a stage before a crowd of people and persuasively pretending to be somebody other than who he was. And college suited him well, better than high school ever had. He survived—if not flourished—made a number of friends and did fairly well in his studies. His appearance in small character roles in several college productions increased his confidence and ability.
He was preparing to play the lead in Uncle Vanya when, during the autumn months, he found himself as the least significant angle in an unfortunate love triangle. The affair, with its inevitable sad conclusion, left him with a broken heart. He attempted suicide on Christmas Eve by taking an entire bottle of sleeping pills. He woke up on Christmas morning tied to the bed in a hospital ward, refusing to believe he hadn’t died. From that moment on, he galumphed into the strange and encompassing world of a complete nervous breakdown.
His suicide attempt and breakdown were the end of his college days and of his desire to be an actor. He recuperated for a time in a sanatorium and, when he was finally released, he returned home, vowing to the world that it (the world) would never have him to misuse again.
His mother, Muriel Self, installed him in an upstairs bedroom in her large old house and devoted herself to taking care of him in the way that only a mother could. She provided for his every comfort in any way she knew how. She bathed him, dressed him, fed him, and sat beside his bed on the nights when his demons tormented him. She read to him, sang to him, played cards and board games with him, and generally devoted her life to him. No mother and son were ever closer. If any of her lady friends asked her to go out with them to have dinner or see a show, she would tell them she had to stay at home and take care of her invalid son.
Emory was lethargic at first and sedated; he wanted only to lie in bed in a near-stupor and stare at the wall. Sometimes he wouldn’t blink his eyes for hours but would just lie there breathing shallowly with his mouth open, making a kind of wheezing noise. The wheezing was the only indication he gave that he was still alive.
Emory’s mother had once been a very good cook but had fallen away from cooking after Emory became an adult. Emory had always enjoyed eating, so she decided that good food was the best way she knew to get him well again. She launched herself into cooking in a way she had never done before. She got out all her old cookbooks and pored over them in the evenings while sitting beside his bed. She made a dozen or more excursions to different grocery stores, buying the best cuts of meat and the most enticing foods she could find. She had a standing order with a certain bakery for pastries, rolls, fancy breads, pies and cakes, all the things that Emory had always favored.
The meals she cooked for Emory became ever richer and more lavish. One day it was a standing rib roast and the next day a rack of lamb, roasted turkey, chicken and dumplings, or sirloin steak—always in enormous quantities. Since Emory wasn’t able to come downstairs to eat at the table the way a normal person would, she carried all the food up the stairs to him without complaint and, since he didn’t like to eat alone, she prepared double portions of everything and ate with him while sitting beside his bed. At the end of his meal he would eat nearly an entire pie or cake for dessert, while she sat and daintily nibbled at a small slice, full to bursting but too thrilled with Emory’s apparent renewed interest in life (or food, which to her meant life) to ever complain.
Emory gradually responded to his mother’s cooking in a way he didn’t respond to anything else. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he emerged from his deep depression. Food became the center of his life, his raison d’être. He looked forward to his meals with a fierce anticipation. When he wasn’t eating, he was waiting, sick with impatience, for his next meal. He would try to nap or read or look out the window, but if he could smell the cooking smells coming from the kitchen downstairs, he would think he was going to die until the food was ready for him to eat.
In this way the years passed uneventfully for Emory and his mother. With the enormous quantities of food he ate and his never taking any exercise, he put on weight at an alarming rate. He lost the ability to walk but, since he was determined to never leave his bed again, he didn’t care to walk anyway. His mother would do his walking for him. She would do for him all he needed to have done and couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do for himself.
As Emory grew very fat, so did his mother. They came to resemble each other in a way they never had before. He had an enormous round head with stubbly red hair and so did his mother. He had puffy, drooping eyelids and so did she. He had full lips that he pursed into a little cupid’s bow whenever he wanted to, exactly like hers. He took to smoking cigarettes the way she did and he developed her laugh and her hand gestures. On “special occasions,” she gave his face the full makeup treatment, put one of her wigs on him, and dressed him in one of her gowns. When she was finished with this transformation, she would turn him toward the mirror and he would gasp at the effect, at how much he looked like her. At those times they were sisters instead of mother and son.
After Emory began to experience better days than he had for years and finally seemed as happy and contented as he was meant to be, his mother began to turn her attention more to herself than had been her wont. She believed that, even though she was enormously fat, she could still be an appealing woman. She was no longer as young as she had been, of course, but she was far from old and she was sure she had many good years remaining to her. She began spending entire days away from home, either getting some kind of beauty treatment or other or buying expensive clothes.
And finally, with the dramatic change that had taken place in her appearance, the inevitable happened. She met a man who was interested in her. He was a widower named Chester Van Runkle who owned his own antiques business. When she arranged for him to stop by and take a look at a table that she wanted to sell, she was instantly drawn to him in an inexplicable way and he to her. He ended up staying the entire afternoon, canceling all his other appointments for the day.
She began going out on dates regularly with Chester Van Runkle. He called her two or three times a week, wanting to take her to a fine restaurant for dinner, to a show or sporting event, to a nightclub for dancing, or even, once, to the circus. And she never declined any of his invitations, which left her facing a dilemma. How was she going to break the news to Emory that she had a gentleman friend, and who was going to take care of Emory while she was stepping out?
She engaged a “nurse-companion” through an agency. Her name was Miss Bibb. When Miss Bibb arrived, she was wearing men’s clothes and a men’s hat and was smoking a cigar, but Emory’s mother was willing to overlook these quirks of attire as long as Miss Bibb showed herself to have Emory’s best interests at heart.
Emory was hostile to Miss Bibb and naturally suspicious. He believed she would poison him when she got the chance. He called her a “bitch” and a “dyke,” but Miss Bibb just smiled her placid smile and wasn’t offended. Emory’s mother believed at that moment that Miss Bibb possessed just the right combination of love and firmness that would be good for Emory.
When Emory asked his mother why she thought he needed a “keeper” or “sitter” after all the years she had taken care of him on her own, she told him she was “getting older” and she had come to a point in her life where she needed to consider her own wants and needs.
“I thought your wants and needs were the same as my own,” Emory sniffled pathetically.
She decided she wasn’t going to tell him about Chester Van Runkle until the time was right.
The first time Emory’s mother left Miss Bibb alone with him, he threw a cup at her (Miss Bibb) and blackened her eye. He told her he was going to slit her throat when she had her back turned. He refused to eat the food she brought to him, until hunger overwhelmed every other consideration and he ended up eating lunch and dinner together.
“I’m going to need more money to take care of that big boy,” Miss Bibb told Emory’s mother on her return.
She agreed to pay Miss Bibb twice the amount of money she had originally agreed to.
When Emory’s mother engaged Miss Bibb to stay with Emory for an extended weekend while she went away with Chester Van Runkle on a “little trip to the country” (separate rooms, of course), Emory offered Miss Bibb two hundred dollars in cash to walk out the door and never come back.
“It’s going to take a lot more than what you’ve got,” Miss Bibb said with a laugh, blowing smoke in his face.
“I’m an invalid,” Emory said. “You shouldn’t be smoking around me.”
The next time Miss Bibb came to his room, carrying his dinner tray (bearing considerably less food than he was used to), he was sitting up in bed holding ten one-hundred dollar bills fanned out in his hands like playing cards.
“It’s yours,” Emory said. “All you have to do is walk away and pretend you were never here.”
Miss Bibb smiled and slammed the tray down on the table beside the bed. “Everybody has his price,” she said, grabbing the money out of Emory’s hand.
Before she went out the door, she turned to Emory and said, “The only thing wrong with you is you’re an over-indulged mama’s boy. All you need to do is get up out of that bed and get some exercise. Oh, and lose about eight hundred pounds.”
“It’s none of your concern,” Emory said, throwing a book at the door after she had already closed it.
After Miss Bibb was gone, Emory realized with a stab of fear that he was alone in the house and there was nobody to bring him food. His mother wouldn’t be back for two days. He would have to get downstairs to where the food was or he would die.
He eased himself out of the bed onto the floor; he rested for a while and then tried to stand up, but his legs buckled under him. After much effort, he discovered he was able to pull himself forward in a crawling fashion using his arms and legs. He crawled in this manner to the door of his bedroom and out into the hallway to the top of the stairs.
The stairs seemed steeper than he remembered, and there were more of them, like in a disturbing dream. He eased himself into a sitting position on the top step and, holding on to the spindles of the banister, let his enormous bulk fall forward enough to advance downward to the next step. In this way, holding on to the spindles and letting gravity do its part, he eased himself all the way down.
At the bottom of the stairs, he was sweating heavily but felt strangely cold; his clothing had become disarranged in his descent and he was nearly naked. A stabbing pain in his chest made him cry out and clutch at his chest with both hands. He lay for several minutes in a semi-conscious state, gasping for air like a beached whale.
After a while his breathing slowed and the pain in his chest subsided. He pulled himself to a standing position, holding on to the stair railing. He attempted to take a step or two, but his muscles were no longer accustomed to supporting his weight and he fell painfully on his side. In that position, he half-scooted and half-crawled toward the kitchen.
The tile floor in the kitchen felt cool and welcoming. He lay on his side, his head in the crook of his arm, until he went to sleep from exhaustion. How long he slept he knew not, but he awoke feeling refreshed and ravenously hungry. He pulled himself over to the refrigerator and, balancing himself on his knees, opened the door.
The first thing he saw was a lone pork chop sitting on a plate in a pool of congealed grease. He grabbed the pork chop and stuffed it in his mouth, stopping short of the bone. He threw the bone aside and picked up a large tomato. He tried to get the entire tomato in his mouth at one time and, as a result, ended up with seeds and juice flowing down his chin but he didn’t mind because it tasted so good. He discovered the remains of a pot roast and ate it with his fingers. He drank an entire quart of milk without stopping.
Rather than try to get back up the stairs, he crawled on hands and knees to his mother’s room. He pulled himself onto the bed, rolled over on his back, and emitted a pitiful groan. He fell into a deep sleep and slept until morning.
When he awoke he didn’t know at first where he was and then, slowly, all that happened the day before came back to him. He felt unaccustomed anger at his mother for going away and leaving him alone with Miss Bibb. The current state he was in was all her fault and, for the first time in his life, he believed he hated her.
He practiced walking from the bed to the vanity table and back again. Slowly he felt the use of his legs returning. After several tries and with enormous effort, he was able to walk ten or twelve feet without holding on to the furniture. After he rested from his exertions, he took a scalding bubble bath in his mother’s bathroom and when he was finished he sat at her vanity table and made up his face exactly the way she would have done and then he put on her fancy red wig that she said made her look just like Arlene Dahl.
Then he dressed in her clothes—a gauzy, frilly, floor-length dressing gown of yellow see-through silk—and after he had sprayed himself liberally with her perfume he went into the kitchen and, for the first time ever, prepared his own breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and tea.
When Emory’s mother returned from her trip to the country a day and a half later, the sight of Emory installed in her favorite and most comfortable chair in the living room, wearing her clothes and her wig, brought a spontaneous scream from her throat.
“What are you—?” she asked after she had recovered herself enough to speak.
“Hello, Mother,” Emory said.
“Why are you out of bed? Where’s Miss Bibb? Was this her idea?”
“Miss Bibb has been gone since the first day,” Emory said.
“She was wanted for murder. The police came and took her away.”
“Who did she murder?”
“It seems she’s been murdering patients for years. She might have murdered me, for all you cared.”
“And you’ve been left alone here all this time?”
“Oh, I’ve been managing on my own quite well, thank you.”
“How did you get downstairs?”
“The way a helpless baby would have done. I rolled myself down on my bottom.”
“You poor boy!”
“It was either that or die upstairs of starvation.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“Forget it, Mother. I believe I heard somebody say one time that those things that don’t kill us make us stronger.”
“How can I ever make it up to you? I feel so guilty!”
“Well, I was hoping you would, but there’s no reason for it to last more than a minute.”
When she recovered from her astonishment, she was happy again, especially to know that Emory had survived his ordeal and seemed to have emerged from it better and stronger than before.
“It’s so wonderful to see you this way!” she squealed with delight as tears ran down her face. “The Lord above was watching out for you.”
“Yes, I believe He was,” Emory said with a modest smile.
She sat down on the arm of the chair, leaning the bulk of her weight against him, and put her arms around him and sobbed. When she pulled back to wipe the tears from her eyes, he noticed she was wearing a large diamond ring on her left hand that he had never seen before.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s my engagement ring!” she said. “I’m going to be married. You’re to have a new papa.”
“Isn’t this rather sudden?”
“In a way, I suppose, it is sudden, but I’m absolutely certain that marrying Chester is the right thing to do. We’re all going to be so happy! My boy is going to have the father he always needed.”
“Funny, I never knew,” Emory said.
She told him to rest for a while. She was going to change her frock and fix him a special dinner and while they were eating she would tell him all the details of Chester’s marriage proposal, her acceptance, and of their plans for the future.
She offered to serve dinner upstairs in his room, where he was accustomed to eating it, but he told her he wanted to have it in the dining room. He wanted the occasion to be the start of a new and different life for him.
When the food was ready and the dining room table set, she went and woke him up and helped him out of the chair and into the dining room. She pulled out the chair for him at the head of the table and, when he was comfortable, she brought in from the kitchen a huge platter of fried chicken and set it in front of him.
“Bon appétit, my darling boy,” she said.
She turned on some piano music and for a while they ate without speaking. After his sixth piece of chicken, Emory looked at her and smiled. She reached across the table, tears in her eyes, and took his greasy hand in her own as though they were lovers.
“It’s so grand to see you sitting there looking exactly like me,” she said. “I swear it’s like looking in the mirror. That wig looks better on you than it ever looked on me. I always said you were far too pretty to be a boy.”
“Now, I want to hear all the details about you and this Chester person,” Emory said, in her voice.
“Well, there was just this magic between us from the moment we laid eyes on each other. As soon as I opened the door and saw him standing there—”
She talked on and on, emptying her wine glass and refilling it as she spoke. Emory, for his part, watched her and smiled and didn’t say much. She told him about the romantic interludes she had experienced with Chester, what a good dancer he was, and what a smart business man. When she came to the part about selling the house, Emory stopped her.
“You want to sell the house?” he asked. “Where are we going to live?”
“This house is much too big for us. We can sell it and get a smaller place.”
“But I like it here,” Emory said. “This has always been our home.”
“I know, darling, but it will all work out for the best. You’ll see.”
“You’re going to sell the house and the three of us—you, me, and Chester what’s-his-name—are going to live together in a tiny, cramped house?”
“Now, I didn’t say that, dearest. There’ll be plenty of room for all of us. We’ll make sure of that.”
“Have you told Chester about me?”
“Well, not exactly. He knows I have son, but that’s all.”
“It seems that suddenly I’m an extraneous appendage,” he said.
His mother laughed. “Where do you get those words?” she said. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about! I’d have to get the dictionary!”
“I don’t think I’m going to let you sell the house,” he said quietly, but she didn’t hear him because she was standing up from the table and her foot caught on the leg of the chair and she almost stumbled. He could see that she was halfway—if not more—drunk from all the wine.
“I’m going to get another bottle of wine from the cellar,” she said.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
He heard her moving around in the kitchen—opening and closing the refrigerator door, turning the water on and off. He heard her open the door to the cellar and give a little squeal, the way she did when she saw a mouse or a spider. He stood up very slowly from the table and went into the kitchen on his uncertain legs, holding to the wall as he went, to make sure she was all right.
She was standing at the top of the cellar stairs looking down into the darkness—she hadn’t yet turned on the light—teetering as if she might fall forward or backward. He went toward her as if to pull her back, but the moment his hand connected with her shoulder he gave her the tiniest shove. She grabbed for the door frame, missed it, and went crashing down the stairs in a rolling heap.
Emory ran to the phone to call for help, but as soon as he picked up the receiver he put it back again. There was a good chance his mother was dead and, if she was, no power on earth was going to help her. He wanted to see her first, up close; if she was still alive, he would call for an ambulance. If she was dead, well, that was another matter.
He kicked off the slippers he was wearing; he could negotiate the narrow cellar stairs much better in his bare feet. He turned on the light over the stairs and began his descent as if it were the face of a mountain.
When he reached his mother, she was still breathing but unconscious. Her arms and legs were splayed out like a doll that has been thrown to the ground from an upper-story window. Her head was twisted at an unnatural angle. He knew right away that her neck was broken.
“Mother!” he said.
She lifted her hand as if to reach out to him. Her hand dropped, she breathed one expiring breath, and then she was dead.
“Oh, God!” he said. “What has happened?”
He knelt down, covered her body with his own, and wept genuine tears. When his tears were spent, he gathered himself up to go back up the stairs to call someone and tell them what had happened. In that moment, though, a thought came to him from out of nowhere.
In the floor of the cellar was an old vault that had been installed by a long-ago owner of the house who had been a dealer in gemstones. The only two people in the world who knew about the vault were Emory and his mother. He hadn’t thought about the vault in years.
He had to move some boxes and barrels out of the way, but the vault was exactly where he remembered it. With the aid of a crowbar, the lid came away easily enough. He dragged his mother by the arms, inch by inch, across the floor and lined her body up with the edge of the vault. He knelt beside her again, taking her hand in his, and removed the engagement ring from her finger and put it on his own. In the simple act of putting on his mother’s ring, he became his mother.
He held her hand against his cheek, wetting it with his tears, and then he pushed her into the vault and let the lid close with a satisfying click. He put the items back that he had displaced to get to the vault and stood back to survey the scene to make sure everything was exactly as it had been. Then, exhausted from his exertions, he went upstairs to take a well-deserved rest.
While he was in his mother’s room (now his own) resting on the chaise longue, the phone rang. He answered it not as Emory but as his mother. A man’s voice, rather loud, spoke in her ear.
“Muriel, darling, this is your own Chester. I just had to call you. I have some wonderful news.”
“What is it, darling?” she asked, drawing out the syllables in a purr.
“I’ve discovered the sweetest little ranch house in the suburbs, just for the two of us, and I think I can get the owner to agree to my price.”
“Oh, Chester, that is wonderful news!”
“We’re going to have to move fast, though, or somebody else will get it out from under our noses. I want to come by in the morning and pick you up around ten o’clock and take you out to see it. If you like it as much as I do—and I’m sure you will—we can close the deal on it tomorrow.”
“Oh, dearest, you are impetuous!”
“I can’t wait to get my own little cherub in our own little love nest!”
“I’ll be waiting, dearest!
“Good night, my love.”
“I send my love and kisses over the wire to you!”
“Until tomorrow, then!”
After hanging up the phone, she stood up and went to the closet to pick out something to wear for her excursion to the suburbs with Chester. The frock she chose should say simple yet elegant, casual yet classic. She selected two different frocks that were appropriate to the occasion and took them from their hangers and stood in front of the mirror and held them up to her to see how they looked.
For a moment she became Emory again. Emory smiled at his reflection. He felt a little thrill rising up from his toes past his stomach and all the way to the top of his head. Such good times were coming. He was about to embark on the greatest acting challenge of his life.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp