Sleep Will Banish Sorrow ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Best Genre Short Stories Anthology #1.)
The time was between ten and eleven and traffic was light. An occasional car went by, slowly, its lights reflected in wavering bars on the wet pavement. A liquor store in the next block went dark. A policeman walked his beat, rousting a drunk from a doorway.
A man stepped out of a dark alley. He took a few slow steps into the glow of a streetlamp and stopped. He heard a siren off in the distance and lifted his head to listen, but gradually the siren faded to nothing. He reached into the pocket of his coat and removed a cigarette and put it between his lips and lit it with the little gold lighter engraved with his initials that he always carried. He took a long drag on the cigarette and turned and walked down the street.
In appearance he was a man like many others: not young and not old, of average height, lean and muscular, broad through the shoulders and narrow in the hips. He wore an expensive, perfectly tailored suit and a hat low on his brow, making his face difficult to distinguish.
He spotted a policeman walking toward him on the opposite side of the street. He knew without looking directly at him that the policeman was watching him. He didn’t want the policeman to think there was anything about him out of the ordinary or that he was, perhaps, planning on breaking into one of the businesses along the street that were closed down for the night. He began walking a little faster, with apparent purpose in his step, so as not to arouse the policeman’s suspicions.
After he had walked another half-block, he glanced over his shoulder to see if the policeman was still looking at him, but he was far down in the next block peering into a darkened window. A taxi went by, its tires hissing on the wet pavement. A woman’s laughter came from inside the taxi, a high-pitched sound that might have been a drunken laugh or even a scream. The tail lights of the taxi were receding into the distance when movement in an upper window across the street drew his attention. A woman came to the window and was silhouetted in the light behind her. She looked down to the street for a moment—she seemed to be looking right at him but he couldn’t be sure—and then reached above her head and drew the curtain closed. Seconds later the window went dark like all the others.
As he kept walking, he passed an all-night bowling alley and several small bars and cafés that were opened, but all the stores and offices and businesses were dark and shut down for the night.
After walking several more blocks he came to a movie theatre that was an island of light in the sea of darkness. The marquee was outlined in flashing bulbs surrounding the title of the movie currently playing. The sidewalk and the street in front of the theatre were bathed in garish white light. Inside the ticket booth at the front of the theatre a fat woman sat behind the smudged glass. She wore round glasses and a black dress with little red flowers. She had no customers at the moment and so appeared bored. She leaned her head on her hand and looked longingly out at the street.
He stood on the sidewalk underneath the marquee, put his hands in his pockets and leaned his shoulder against the wall. The woman in the ticket booth looked at him and then looked away. If she thought anything about him at all, she would think he was waiting for someone to meet him for the next show. He lit a cigarette and avoided looking at the woman and watched the few cars going by on the street.
A man and a woman walked past on the sidewalk. The woman stood out because she was tall and straight and she wore a red coat and a jaunty red beret with a black feather sticking out of the side. The man was older and shorter; he wore a black hat that seemed too small for his head and was smoking a cigar. They seemed too polite and restrained with each other to be anything other than business associates. They walked past and went to the end of the block and crossed the street and disappeared into the next block.
Suddenly the doors of the theatre opened and people started coming out. At first they came out in twos and threes, and then in dozens. In a couple of minutes there were as many as two hundred people on the sidewalk in front of the theatre. The fat woman in the ticket booth came alive, as dozens of people lined up to buy tickets for the next show.
After the crowd had reached its maximum size and began to dwindle, a lone woman came out of the theatre. She was the only person in the crowd who wasn’t with someone else. She was wearing an ugly tan raincoat like a man’s raincoat and a hat that covered most of her hair, the type of hat worn by women who don’t care how they look when it rains. She walked out to the edge of the sidewalk and looked up and down the street, as though looking for someone. Maybe someone was supposed to meet her or pick her up after the movie and didn’t show up.
From where he was standing under the marquee he watched the woman. She stood at the curb waiting for a couple of minutes and then she began walking down the street. After she was about halfway down in the next block, he began following her, close enough that he could still see her but far enough away that she wouldn’t know he was there.
Something in the woman’s manner indicated that she was not afraid of being alone on a dark street late at night. She looked straight ahead and didn’t seem in any hurry. He knew she didn’t know he was following her. She hadn’t even seen him. He was careful to walk so she wouldn’t hear his footsteps on the sidewalk.
She came to an intersection and stopped, waiting for a couple of cars to pass. When the way was clear, she crossed the street and went through the open door of an all-night drugstore on the corner.
He hesitated for a moment and then went up to the window of the drugstore and stood at the edge and looked in, so that anybody inside would not be able to see him. The inside was brightly lit and cheerful. He could see all the way to the back of the store, rows of display cases and a large rack of magazines and newspapers. Three fans in a triangle hung from the ceiling and turned slowly like airplane propellers in slow motion.
The woman in the tan raincoat went behind a counter and disappeared through a doorway. A man at the magazine rack picked up a magazine and went to the counter to pay for it. An old woman with a little boy standing beside her waited at the prescription counter for the druggist to come back.
Soon the woman in the tan raincoat came out of the doorway at the back of the store. With her was a slightly older woman who resembled her enough that they must have been sisters. The older woman put on a coat and picked up an umbrella and laughed and said goodbye to someone, and then the two of them came out the door. He was standing several feet to the right of the door and, since they turned to the left, they didn’t see him. He stood beside the window and watched them until they turned the corner in the next block and went out of sight.
He turned and began walking again in an easterly direction. There were more people on the sidewalks and more cars in the street than earlier. People were finished with the evening’s activities—the boxing match or club meetings or whatnot—and were heading to bars and nightclubs for some of the nightlife the city was fabled for. A dirty-looking man, a hobo, stepped out of the shadows and blocked his way, asking him for a quarter. He waved the man away and stepped around him to keep from colliding with him.
He came to a bar and stopped and looked at the place. He was tired of walking and needed to sit for a while, have a drink and maybe order some food. He was considering whether or not to go inside, when the door opened and a woman came out. She was wobbly on her feet as though drunk, or nearly drunk. She stumbled and then righted herself and looked up at the sky as though expecting rain. She mumbled something but he didn’t hear what it was.
He saw the red beret and the black feather sticking out of it, and he knew right away it was the same woman he had seen earlier in the evening when he was standing in front of the movie theatre; except now she was alone. He had a fleeting thought that, since it was the second time he had seen her in the same night, they must have been fated to meet. He believed very much that two strangers came together because they were fated beforehand to do so.
He was standing there on the sidewalk in front of the bar, silently, and she didn’t see him until she had almost walked into him. She was startled slightly and confused, but when she looked up at his face and saw he was smiling at her, she relaxed and didn’t regret so much almost bumping into him that way. She apologized profusely and gave a little laugh and stepped around him to continue on her way.
He thought quickly about how he might get her to keep from leaving, how he might engage her in conversation. He took a cigarette out of his pocket and held it between his fingers and asked her for a light. She laughed again and looked grateful that he had asked for anything at all and opened her purse and took out a lighter. She held the flame to the cigarette in his mouth and returned the lighter to her purse.
He took a draw on the cigarette and blew smoke out above her head and smiled at her again and asked if she would like to have a drink. She said she had already had several drinks but she wouldn’t object to a nightcap all the same. She suggested they go to the bar in the hotel where she was staying, which was nearby.
The bar was on the ground floor of the hotel, just off the lobby. They went inside and sat at a small table against the wall. He removed his hat and she took a good look at him. She reached across the table and ran her hand along his arm from his shoulder to his elbow. He looked at her without expression. He didn’t like being touched that way, but he didn’t tell her to stop. The waiter came and took their order and in a couple of minutes their drinks arrived.
She told him the pertinent facts of her life. She came to the city a couple of times a year on business. She always tried to mix in a little fun with the business while she was at it. She had been married once but it didn’t work out and she sent the boy packing back to his mother, where he never should have left in the first place. She liked a man to be a real man and not a grownup baby.
She lived with her sister in a big dreary house in a small town in another state. Her sister was older and a widow. No fun at all. It was a stale kind of existence, so that’s why she liked to kick up her heels whenever she had the chance. She supposed, however, that was as happy as the next person.
She talked only about herself and didn’t try to find out anything about him, not even his name. She leaned across the table and, breathing into his face, told him she found him exceedingly attractive. She was always stimulated by a man’s indifference, she said. She didn’t like the kind of men who were always cloying and falling all over themselves to present themselves well. She liked a man to be a bit of a brute. He grew bored with her talk, but he pretended to be listening to every word, while in fact listening more to the music playing in the background.
After a while the bar was getting ready to close for the night and everybody was going to have to leave. The woman smiled sadly at him and told him she hated to break up their little party, she was having such a good time. She finished her drink, and he put his hat back on and put some money on the table and they both stood up and walked out into the lobby of the hotel.
He was going to ask her if she’d like to go to a place that didn’t close for the night where they could continue their little tête-à-tête, but they saw through the window of the lobby that it was raining furiously outside and he didn’t think she would want to get wet. As he started to leave, she put her hand on his wrist and said she just had a wonderful idea. She had a full bottle of bourbon in her room and she wasn’t sleepy at all. Would he care to come up to her room for a little while?
When they got to her room on the eighth floor, she was too drunk to fit the key into the lock. She laughed and dropped the key on the floor and he picked it up and opened the door and pushed it open for her to go in before him.
She switched on the lights and took off her red hat with the black feather and put it on the dresser and removed her coat and threw it down and stepped out of her shoes. She told him to make himself comfortable and then she went into the bathroom and closed the door. He took off his hat and jacket and sat down on the couch and waited for what was going to happen next.
In a couple of minutes she came out of the bathroom and turned off all the lights except for the small one in front of the window, throwing one side of the room into darkness. She turned on the radio and found some music she liked. After she adjusted the radio to just the right volume, she opened her bottle of bourbon with some difficulty and poured some out into two tiny paper cups, apologizing for not having anything better.
She handed one of the paper cups to him and sat beside him on the couch to his right. She had partially unbuttoned her blouse so that a large portion of the area between her breasts was visible. She remarked how cozy it was sitting there with him, with the sound of the rain and the music and the drinks.
He finished his drink and she offered to pour him another, but he refused, saying he had had enough for one night. He crumpled up the paper cup and slipped it into his pocket. He put his arm up behind her on the back of the couch and she sat very close to him.
He kissed her lightly on the lips, not because he had any great need to kiss her but because he believed it was what should come next. She kissed him back harder and reached out for his left hand and placed it on her right breast. He squeezed her breast gently and she made little moaning noises.
Suddenly the phone rang shrilly. The woman sighed and stood up and answered it impatiently. He listened carefully to what she was saying; it was the front desk calling to give her a message that was left for her while she was out.
She concluded the call and came back to the couch and sat down beside him again, leaning her body heavily against his. She leaned in for him to kiss her again and he could smell her musky smell and the alcohol on her breath. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing hard.
From his pocket he extracted a two-foot-long silken cord that he always carried, very strong and lightweight. In one deft movement he had the cord around her neck, and before she was aware of what was happening he pulled it very tight. He watched the expression on her face change from surprise to fear and then to pain. He stood up and pulled her sideways on the couch and got behind her and pulled both ends of the cord at the back of her neck.
She made little gurgling noises and tried to get her hands around the cord to pull it loose. She kicked out her feet, propelling her body into his and knocking him off-balance. He pulled the cord tighter and tighter until his arms trembled from the exertion. She gave one violent backward thrust of her body against his and then she began to go limp. When he was sure she was dead, he eased her down onto the floor in front of the couch carefully so as not to make any noise.
He was out of breath and his muscles ached. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his mouth and when he pulled it away he saw her lipstick that had come off onto the handkerchief. He could smell her perfume and he still had the taste of her mouth in his. He shuddered and retched and collapsed onto the floor.
He lay on the floor until he felt that his legs would carry him again and then he stood up and went to the door and put his ear against it to see if he could hear anything from the hallway outside the door. Hearing nothing, he put on a pair of thin kidskin gloves he carried and began methodically going through the woman’s luggage and purse and other belongings. He found two hundred and ten dollars in cash in a pocket of her suitcase. He folded the money and put it inside the breast pocket of his jacket. Then he found a train ticket and put it with the money without even bothering to look and see where she was bound for.
He turned off the lamp but the light from the windows was enough for him to see the body of the woman on the floor in front of the couch. Her face was turned slightly toward him and her eyes were opened; she seemed to be looking right at him. Her skirt was pushed above her thighs and her legs slightly twisted. Her left arm was folded under her and her right arm was underneath the couch. He went over to her and knelt down and removed the silken cord that was still partway around her neck and returned it to his pocket.
The rain gently pelting the windows was lovelier than any music and made the room seem peaceful and inviting. Suddenly he was tired and every muscle in his body ached; he felt an overwhelming desire for rest and sleep. He would stay for a while and then be on his way. He knew he would be safe there until morning.
He went to the bed that had been carefully made up and lay on his back with his head on the pillow. He had never known a more comfortable bed in his life. Soon he drifted into a sleep as deep as any sleep could be.
He awoke in the morning feeling replenished. He looked at the clock and saw it was not quite seven. He sat up and put on his shoes and went into the bathroom and splashed some water on his face and combed his hair, looking at himself in the mirror the whole time.
Suddenly he was eager to be gone, to be on his way again. He straightened the wrinkles out of the bed and put on his jacket. He took a quick look around the room and made sure he was leaving no trace of himself behind. He took one tiny sentimental souvenir of the woman to remember her by.
He put on his hat and went to the door and opened it and stepped out quietly into the hallway and walked up the hallway to the elevator. When the elevator arrived and the door opened, he was relieved to see he was its only passenger.
He took the elevator down to the lobby, crossed the lobby to the front door and went out the revolving door onto the street into the gloomy morning unnoticed. He found a cab and took it to the train station and paid the driver out of the bills he had folded in the pocket of his jacket.
He hadn’t decided yet where he was going, but he planned on taking the earliest available train out. First, though, he would have some breakfast. He bought a newspaper and went into the train station coffee shop.
He sat down in a booth toward the back and a pretty blonde waitress came and brought him a glass of ice water, smiling the whole time. He ordered enough food for two people and while he was waiting for it he lit a cigarette and looked the newspaper over without much interest.
Setting the newspaper aside, he remembered the train ticket he had taken from the woman’s luggage and took it out of his pocket. It was for a train that left at nine o’clock for a city he had never visited before. He would use the ticket and not bother with buying another one. He marveled at how everything had gone so well for him, as if it had all been planned in advance—all the pieces had come together in a most pleasing and beneficial way. He would keep traveling around from one place to another until the time came that he decided he had seen enough, experienced enough. When that time came, he would buy a small farm somewhere and live out the rest of his days.
He took the black feather out of his pocket from the woman’s hat and brushed it over his mouth and held it under his nose. It smelled the way the woman had smelled. Ever since he was a small boy, he had kept a little souvenir of the significant events of his life. He had a whole box of them. From time to time he would open the box and take out each item and relive fond memories of the person or event it represented. He would add the black feather to the collection and it would help him to recollect the woman and her face and the sound of her voice and the time he had spent with her. Of course he would remember her fondly. He remembered all of them fondly, being the sentimental man that he was.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp