What the Young Matron is Wearing ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in The Legendary.)
In preparation for company coming for dinner, Peachy Keen was in her boudoir putting the finishing touches to her toilette. She slipped her best blue dress on over her head and smoothed it over her broad hips and fastened it up the back and spritzed herself all over with eau de cologne. She stood before the mirror and touched the comb to the wreath of curls on her head, even though it was already perfect to her way of thinking, and went downstairs to the kitchen.
Hetta was working over the tray of hors d’oeuvres. She had given herself a failed home permanent and her hair hung in limp cascades around her face like seared sheep’s wool. She spread cream cheese on little round crackers and put a half-moon of olive on top of each one and licked her fingers. Seeing that everything was proceeding as planned in the kitchen, Peachy went into the dining room.
Jewell was just setting the table. The spoons were cloudy, so she was blowing her breath on each one and wiping it with the tail end of her bathrobe. Her hair was up in curlers, as it had been since the night before. When she realized Peachy was standing beside the table looking at her, she jumped back and dropped a spoon as though a loud noise had startled her, even though Peachy had not made a sound.
“When you’re finished with your work,” Peachy said in the no-nonsense way she had of speaking to Jewell, “I want you to go upstairs and get yourself fixed up. Wash your face and comb your hair and put on some lipstick and some face powder. And put on something nice. You don’t have to go around looking slovenly all the time. I want you go make a good impression on Mr. Dilly and his son.”
Jewell said nothing but only looked down at a blister on her finger and nodded her head slightly and went back to her work.
Peachy put on her little hostess apron and busied herself with straightening up in the living room. She adjusted the sofa cushions for at least the fifth time that day and straightened the picture over the divan and emptied an ashtray where Hetta had deposited the stump of a cigarette and turned again toward the mirror and tugged at a little strand of hair over her right ear that wasn’t cooperating. She was thinking about taking the scissors and cutting it off when the doorbell rang. Her heart gave a little leap and she swept across the room in her grandest manner and opened the door.
When she saw Mr. Dilly she smiled and showed all her teeth, but when she focused her attention on Chick, Mr. Dilly’s son, her smile faded. She stepped aside and motioned for them to come inside. By the time she closed the door she had regained her smile, which she shone on them like a beacon.
“So,” she said, taking the little bouquet of flowers that Mr. Dilly handed to her, “this is the son I’ve heard so much about.”
“Yes,” Mr. Dilly said, “This is my boy Chick.”
She stepped forward bravely and took Chick by the hand. “I’m so happy to make your acquaintance, Chick,” she said. “Welcome to my home.”
Chick looked at her and tilted his huge shaggy head back and rolled his watery blue eyes at her in greeting. She had a fleeting mental image of a St. Bernard.
“This is the fine lady I told you about that Daddy is going to marry,” Mr. Dilly said in a loud voice to Chick. “She’s to be your new mama.”
“Yaw-yaw-yaw,” said Chick.
While Mr. Dilly was a small man, with the bodily proportions of an ant, Chick was thickset through the shoulders and hips and a head taller than his father. They looked nothing alike.
“Won’t you sit down?” Peachy said, gesturing toward the divan in her best hostessy manner. “I’ll tell Hetta you’re here.”
When she went into the kitchen, Hetta was sitting at the table reading a movie magazine. “What’s the matter with you?” Hetta asked. “You look funny. Are you going to be sick?”
“They’re here,” Peachy said, “and it’s worse than I thought. Much worse.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come and meet them.”
Peachy took Hetta by the arm and led her back into the living room, as if she might escape if she let go of her, and introduced her to Mr. Dilly first and then to Chick.
“Enchanted,” Hetta said to Mr. Dilly, giving a little curtsey. “Enchanted,” she said again to Chick.
“Gaw-gaw-gram!” Chick said.
“Yes, that’s grandma,” Mr. Dilly said.
“Do you need to go to the toilet?” Hetta asked.
“Why, no,” Mr. Dilly said with a strained smile.
“Would you care for a beer?”
“Well, let’s all sit down, then” Peachy said. “Jewell will be right down. She went upstairs to change.”
“What will she be when she comes down?” Mr. Dilly asked, tugging at the legs of his trousers.
“You said she went upstairs to change. I asked what she’d be when she came down. I was making a little joke.”
“Oh. Ha-ha! Don’t you have the driest wit ever?”
“Oh, yeah,” Hetta said, lighting a cigarette.
Smiling brightly, Peachy went to the bottom of the steps and called up them. “Jewell, dear, we have guests and they’re waiting to meet you! Please come down right this minute!”
When Jewell came down, she was wearing silk Chinese lounging pajamas, and all eyes were upon her. She had removed the curlers, and her hair stood out all over her head as if electrified. Peachy introduced Mr. Dilly to her as her soon-to-be stepfather and Chick her soon-to-be stepbrother. Jewell looked at them solemnly and put her palms together in front of her and bowed from the waist without saying anything. Mr. Dilly looked strangely at her, while Chick lolled his head and clamped his eyes on the dragon on her chest.
“Serve the hors d’oeuvres, now,” Peachy said, forgetting, for the moment, to smile.
Jewell passed around the tray, and when she came to Chick and held it in front of his face, he took two of the hors d’oeuvres, one in each hand. He looked at them and started to put them over his eyes, but Mr. Dilly saw what he was doing and took hold of his wrists and made him drop them back onto the tray.
“Sometimes he doesn’t know what to do with things,” Mr. Dilly said apologetically.
“Glaw-tib-faw-faw!” Chick said.
“If it’s some kind of food he doesn’t recognize, he thinks he’s supposed to attach it to his face somehow.”
“Oh, dear!” Peachy said. “Should we get him something else?”
“Oh, no, we’re fine,” Mr. Dilly said. He made Chick put his hands in his lap as he fed one of the hors d’oeuvres into his mouth.
“Nyum-nyum-nyum,” Chick said as he chewed.
Jewell set the tray of hors d’oeuvres down and sat in the chair opposite the couch. She crossed her legs and rested her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand.
“So,” Mr. Dilly said, “I hear you’re a good little worker.”
“What’s that?” Jewell asked. It was the first words she had spoken to him.
“I hear you take care of things while mummy’s working.”
“I hear you clean the house and wash the clothes and help out sometimes in the kitchen.”
“I like to make tuna fish sandwiches, but they don’t like it when I make too much noise. I like it at night when everybody is gone and I’m here by myself. I can hear the wind in the trees and if it’s raining I can hear the rain hitting the windows. The best time is when there’s a thunderstorm and the lightning hits really close to the house and it makes you scream. You might think I would be afraid of that, but I’m not. Not one bit. If it ever strikes me and kills me, I think it would be a glorious way to die, don’t you? I could ride right up to heaven on the old bolt of lightning! One night a man came and knocked on the door. He was a big man, too. I went to the door and told him nobody was at home and I couldn’t let him come inside.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Dilly asked.
“I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had let him come in, though. I wonder what we might have talked about. Maybe he was a talent scout from Hollywood and he was looking for a girl just like me to be in the movies. I might have missed out on a wonderful opportunity by not letting him in. I do so wish I had let him come in. My life might be all different now.”
“Chick boy likes the movies, too,” Mr. Dilly said. “He likes any kind of picture with animals in it, especially westerns with lots of horses.”
“I like love stories where there’s lots of singing,” Jewell said. “And circus pictures and prison pictures.”
“I think you and Chick boy will find you have a lot in common. The two of you are very much alike.”
“Me and him?” Jewell asked, pointing at Chick. “I don’t know how you figure that.”
“Dinner’s ready,” Hetta said, as if she had received a telepathic communication from the kitchen.
When they were all seated at the table, Mr. Dilly set about filling Chick’s plate first. He took a little bit of everything and heaped it right in the middle of the plate and took a big spoon and mixed it all up together into a brown-and-gray mash. Then he took a napkin and tied it bib-like around Chick’s neck and set the plate in front of him and took hold of his right hand and closed his fingers around the spoon and pushed his arm forward to get as much food onto the spoon as he could and then into his mouth.
“He can feed himself,” Mr. Dilly said. “You just have to help him get started.”
“Nyum-nyum-nyum,” Chick said.
As the meal progressed, Mr. Dilly and Peachy spoke of their wedding plans. Since it was to be the fifth marriage for Mr. Dilly and the third for Peachy, they would have a simple civil ceremony at the courthouse. Afterwards, there was to be a five-day honeymoon trip to an undisclosed location that only Mr. Dilly knew about.
“That will be the perfect time for you and the Chick boy to get to know each other,” Mr. Dilly said to Jewell. “I’ll drop him off here with his grip and the two of you can have a fine time together.”
“Wait a minute,” Jewell said. “You’re going to go off for five days and leave me alone with him?”
“Hetta will be here to help out,” Peachy said cheerily.
“When I’m not tending bar,” Hetta said.
“Now, don’t worry about a thing,” Mr. Dilly said. “I’ll write out everything you need to know. Then after your mother and I get back, we’ll all be living together in the same house.”
“I just know we’re going to be so happy!” Peachy said, her eyes glistening. “Just as happy as we deserve to be!”
After dinner, Mr. Dilly had to help Chick go to the toilet, which took such a long time that Peachy thought about going to the door and knocking to make sure the two of them were all right, but finally they came out and Mr. Dilly installed himself on one end of the divan where he had been sitting before dinner and Chick on the other end. Mr. Dilly launched into a long and graphic account of a recent abdominal operation he had suffered through, while Chick roved his eyes around the walls and the ceiling, breathing audibly.
“I tell you, the gas pains were something fierce,” Mr. Dilly said in his droning voice. “I needed to have a bowel movement so bad and it just was not going to happen! They were giving me laxative after laxative and I was getting no satisfaction at all. I thought it was going to take at least a ton of dynamite to get some movement down there again…”
Peachy gave a little yelp of laughter and rocked in her chair, while Hetta yawned behind her hand.
Jewell listened for a while to what Mr. Dilly was saying and then, since nobody was paying any attention to her anyway, she blanked him out the best she could and leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She went to sleep for just a minute or two and then she awoke with a little start, wondering how she could have gone to sleep so easily.
She realized in the moment of waking that Chick had been looking at her, as if studying her. When he saw that he had her attention and hers alone, he placed both hands on his crotch and rubbed up and down suggestively. He smiled then, and in his eyes was an intimation of cognizance that had been absent before.
A little while later, when Hetta opened a bottle of cut-rate champagne to toast the happy couple and their upcoming union, Mr. Dilly asked if Chick boy, since he wasn’t allowed champagne, might have a glass of milk in a champagne glass so he wouldn’t feel left out. Jewell was sent to the kitchen to get the milk.
She poured the milk into the champagne glass and stood there for a moment at the counter looking at it. She could still hear Mr. Dilly talking in the living room and Peachy’s high-pitched laughter. Quickly, before someone came in, she opened the cabinet door under the sink and picked up the small, faded box of rat pellets that had been there for as long as she could remember.
She tilted the box of pellets and allowed two of them to come out of the box and rest on the palm of her hand. They were little brown nuggets the size of pencil erasers that rats were deceived into believing was something good to eat but that would kill them. She squeezed them between her fingers and put them to her nose, but they had no smell. She wondered if they had somehow lost their strength and their ability to poison. She dumped them from her hand into the champagne glass full of milk and took a spoon and made sure they dissolved.
When she took the milk back into the living room, Chick took it from her and drank it greedily in one long drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Jewell stood back and watched to see if he was going to die right away. If he didn’t, she would have to think about using more of the pellets the next time.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp