Walk by on the Road ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
“Where does the baby come out?” he asked.
“None of your business,” she said. “You don’t need to bother with things like that until you’re a grown-up man, and maybe not even then.”
A shining example of the cruelty of nature and of the world in general: children having children of their own.
Eunice was born in the first month of the first year of the twentieth century, making her seventeen at the time of which we speak. Not a womanish seventeen but a childish seventeen, and with a baby due any day now. Her husband, George Coyle, had left her. She didn’t entirely blame George. He was in trouble for something he didn’t do and had no intention of going to jail. He was keeping out of sight until the trouble was over. He’d be back to get Eunice and the baby as soon as he could. She was sure of it.
The only person Eunice had with her was Del, her brother. He was thirteen and far from being a man. Del was scared when he saw Eunice lying on the bed, looking like she was going to die. It had been a difficult pregnancy. She felt so bad all the time and couldn’t keep anything down. There was no doctor, only Miss Settles, the midwife. She had come two times and had taken a look at Eunice and said everything was fine. Come and get me when it’s time, she said. Until then, just stay down as much as you can and don’t exert yourself.
“I think I’ll name the baby Ouida,” Eunice said. “A name I saw once in a story book.”
“I don’t want to be no daddy,” Del said.
“I said I don’t want to be no daddy!”
Eunice laughed. “You don’t know anything,” she said. “George is the daddy. You’re the uncle.”
“I don’t want to be no uncle, either.”
“Don’t be cranky with me! I’m not the cause of your troubles.”
“You’re the one married George. Nobody forced you to it.”
“I married him because I loved him. Still do.”
Eunice and Del’s mother and father, Lester and Adele Pierce, had gone away before George Coyle disappeared. Adele was insane and was confined to the state mental hospital in the town of Bellibeau fifty miles away. After Adele left, Lester took up with another woman and went off to be with her. Lester left believing that George Coyle would take care of Eunice and Del until he decided to return. George would just naturally take care of Eunice, his wife, but Eunice’s brother, Del, was another matter. Lester made George Coyle promise that he would look after Del as if he were one of his own kin.
“Don’t worry,” George had said. “I won’t let anything happen to him.”
Of course, that was before the trouble that was the cause of George running off.
Del and Eunice were left with a little money to buy food. Del was in charge of buying the groceries. He bought a loaf of bread or a small box of crackers at a time and a little bit of meat and sometimes turnips or corn. He longed to buy candy or little cakes or soda pop, but he knew those things were going to have to wait. One day, he knew, he’d have as much money as he wanted to buy any kind of food his heart desired.
Eunice had told Del as soon as they were left alone: “Don’t tell anybody it’s just the two of us. They’ll come and take you away and put you in an orphanage and make you go to school. They’ll probably throw me in jail for being in my condition and having no husband to throw rocks at.”
These warnings made Del reticent with strangers. When he noticed the storekeeper or people on the street looking at him with more the usual amount of interest, he put his head down and hurried to remove himself from their presence before they had a chance to grow too inquisitive.
On a soggy day in spring, Del was in the store buying something for his and Eunice’s supper that would need to last two days. He had a can of vegetable soup in his hands, a can of peaches and two potatoes, and when he went to pay for them, Hennepin, the storekeeper, gave him an evil look with his one squinty eye.
“Lester Pierce is your daddy, ain’t he?” Hennepin asked.
“Yeah,” Del said.
“You say ‘yes. sir’ when you speakin’ to me.”
“Ain’t seen old Lester around in a while. Where’s he keepin’ hisself these days?”
“He, uh, he had to go away for a while,” Del said. “He’ll be back, though.”
With just those few words, Del was afraid he had already told too much.
“Had to go away where?” Hennepin asked.
“I don’t know for sure. Up north somewhere.”
“Well, the next time you see your daddy, you tell him he owes Hennepin money and that Hennepin wants his money.”
Hennepin gave Del his thirteen cents in change and Del ran all the way home to tell Eunice what Hennepin had said and to ask her what she thought they should do. As soon as he went into the house, he heard Eunice calling to him and he knew something was wrong.
She was lying on the bed, twisted in great pain. She gripped the bedsheets in her hands as though she would fall if she didn’t.
“It’s time,” she said through gritted teeth. “Run and get Miss Settles. And tell her to hurry!”
Miss Settles has just washed her hair but as soon as Del told her she was needed, she grabbed her bag and was off. Del rested for a few minutes on Miss Settles’ front porch and then ran home, getting there about the same time that Miss Settles arrived with her assistant, a large albino woman named January Maitland.
As Miss Settles and January Maitland began working over Eunice on the bed, Del stood in the background, wondering what he should do or how he might help. He winced every time Eunice thrashed or screamed and thought he might be sick.
“You don’t want to see any of this,” Miss Settles said to Del. “Why don’t you take a long walk and, once you’ve found yourself a quiet, lonely place, take yourself a nap and don’t come back until you’ve slept yourself out.”
He didn’t want to abandon Eunice but he was glad in a way that his help would not be needed and he could remove himself from the awful scene.
As he walked along the road away from the house, he indulged in fantasy. Far ahead of him, two men came toward him, an older and a younger. They were tiny specks at first, but as they got closer he knew who they were: his father, Lester Pierce, and Eunice’s husband, George Coyle.
He ran toward them and when they recognized him they both cried out and embraced him, first one and then the other. He tried not to cry but he couldn’t help it as he told them in a torrent of words that the time had come for Eunice’s baby to be born and that they were down to the last of their money and they hadn’t had much to eat for a few days. He felt such relief at being able to hand the burden over to them. After he had told them all, they would run to Eunice and take care of everything and keep her from dying. With the baby safely delivered, they would all have a sumptuous meal and sit around and laugh and talk about how terrible things were for a while but how they soon got better.
In another fantasy, he saw a woman walking toward him. She was tall and dressed in a long black dress, like a woman in a magazine photo or in moving pictures. She wore a fur piece around her shoulders and neck and a big hat with feathers. He didn’t know her at first but when she looked at him he knew it was his mother, released from the mental hospital and cured. She would know, without being told, the troubles he had been through. And now that she was back, everything would be right again. He wouldn’t have to be hungry anymore, or lonely, or worried about getting through the next day or night.
For four hours he walked, all the way to the county line. When he got back home, Miss Settles and January Maitland were coming out the door.
“I’m sorry,” Miss Settles said when she saw him. “I did all I could.”
“The baby was born dead, a little boy, and the momma lost so much blood I couldn’t save her.”
“I did all I could. You have my sympathy.”
He looked from the albino woman to Miss Settles and back again. They were both looking at him as though waiting to see how he would take the news. “What do I do now?” he asked.
“You don’t need to do nothing,” Miss Settles said. “Try to get word to her husband.”
“He’s run off. I don’t know where he is.”
“Look,” she said, shifting her bag from one hand to another. “My brother, Hiram Settles, will come by tomorrow to perform the burial. In the meantime, sit with her tonight. Say your goodbyes. That’s what family does. Light a candle and say a prayer for the repose of her soul.”
He nodded his head; stepped toward the door and hesitated.
“You don’t need to be afraid to go in there,” Miss Settles said. “There’s no mess. We cleaned it all up. They’re lying side by side on the bed. They look like they’re asleep. There’s nothing equal to the peace of death.”
Near starved, he ate the food he had bought at Hennepin’s store. He ate all of it, without thinking of saving any for later. When he was finished, it was nighttime and a hard rain, punctuated by lightning and thunder, was pelting the little house. He lit the candle his mother kept behind the cook stove and carried it to the bed.
Miss Settles was right. His sister, childlike as she was, looked to be asleep. Her dead, nameless baby lying beside her might have been a doll she had been playing with before she drifted off.
He pulled the rocker up beside the bed, placed the candle on the bedside table and sat down. He tried to think of a prayer for his sister and her baby, as Miss Settles told him to do, but he didn’t know any prayers and couldn’t think of the right words, even if he tried. Looking at the two of them, he believed they were already in heaven and wouldn’t be helped by anything he might say or do.
He slept sitting up in the rocker. His full stomach and the sound of the rain helped him.
Once in the night he heard somebody at the front door. He got up and opened the door and his father, Lester Pierce, was standing there in the wet dark. Del took Lester by the hand and led him over to the bed. Lester stood there, hollow-eyed and emotionless, looking at his dead daughter and grandson. Del started to say something but a clap of thunder woke him and he knew it had only been a dream.
In the morning, barely daylight, Hiram Settles and his young graveyard assistant came to take away the bodies of Eunice and her baby. They were businesslike and barely looked at Del as he held the door for them. Del watched them as they drove away on the muddy road until he could no longer see them. The rain had stopped, though, and soon the sun would be shining again.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp