~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
(This short story has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)
In 1945, my friend Maggie Biederhof didn’t mind going around with a married man as long as his marriage was in the trash heap anyway. It was all pretty innocent with Burt, although to the casual observer it might not seem that way. He came over in the evening, she’d fix him a sandwich or a salad, and they’d have a few drinks and a few laughs and maybe play some gin rummy, but mostly they talked. He talked about his wife, whose name was Mildred, his job as a real estate agent (things weren’t going so great at the time), and his two daughters, Veda and Kay.
The way Burt talked about Veda, she sounded like the real debutante type. She was pretty and she knew it and, already, at the age of sixteen, was a real snob. Veda saw her father as a failure because he wasn’t rich and she knew he’d never be rich and could never give her the things she thought she deserved, like a limousine and servants. She wanted to be a rich girl but the sad truth was her family had to struggle to live from day to day, from week to week. With the real estate market in the shape it was in, Burt barely brought in enough money to make a living for four people. His wife, brave struggling soul that she was, baked pies and cakes in her own little kitchen and sold them to the neighbors for a dollar here and a dollar there. She made enough extra money to buy Veda an occasional new dress and to pay for Kay to have piano lessons with an old woman down the street. Kay didn’t really care for the piano—she’d rather be playing baseball with the boys in the neighborhood—but Mildred wanted both her daughters to have some culture, which was something she’d missed out on entirely.
Mrs. Biederhof was fond of Burt. She liked entertaining him in her home and liked spending time with him. He was a few years younger than she was, but what did that matter? When he moved out on his wife, she told him he could move in with her. She knew the neighbors would talk, but they had talked before and she didn’t care. Because of his daughters, though, because of Veda and Kay, he didn’t think it was a good idea for him to live in the same house with a woman he wasn’t married to, even if it was all perfectly innocent. That was one of the things Mrs. Biederhof liked about Burt. He was a good man and she hadn’t known many of those in her life. She hoped to marry him after his divorce with Mildred went through, although neither one of them ever talked about it.
She knew Burt’s wife, Mildred, or at least knew of her. She recognized her when she saw her. She was a straitlaced, noble thing, long-suffering, a martyr for the cause. Just what the cause was, nobody quite knew. She was pretty enough but didn’t seem to care so much about herself. She lived for the two daughters, Veda and Kay. She wanted them to have all she things she missed out in when she was growing up in Kansas City. Her mother scrubbed floors and her father, well, he was a drunk and spent most of his time in jail and was of no use to anybody, himself included. Mildred left Kansas City as fast as she could and moved West, where she took a job as a salesgirl and met Burt. He was modestly good-looking, moderately ambitious, and she saw right away he would make a decent husband. They’d never be rich, but there are a lot of people like that. They married six months after they met and a year after they were married, the little bundle known as Veda arrived.
Right away Veda was the spoiled child. Mildred doted on her. Burt was only human, though, meaning he was a little jealous of Veda. Mildred lavished so much love and attention on Veda that there wasn’t much left over for him. All day long, from sun-up to sleepy-bye time, there was nothing but Veda, Veda, Veda. Burt knew a little about child psychology and he knew that Veda was one day going to be an uncontrollable monster. When the second child, Kay, came along, he thought it would be a good thing for Veda to have a little competition and for Mildred to have another person besides Veda to think about.
Mildred spoiled Kay, too, but nothing like Veda. With two children to take care of and still baking her cakes and pies to bring in some money, she was busy all the time, but Veda was still uppermost in her thoughts. Mildred would never admit it, of course, but she preferred Veda over Kay. Kay just wasn’t as pretty and feminine as Veda. When she started to grow up and be something other than a baby, she showed a tomboyish side that Mildred didn’t care for. She liked rough-and-tumble games, the kind of games that boys played, and she didn’t care much for dolls and frilly dresses. It’s not that Mildred neglected Kay, but Veda was always the apple of her eye.
Mrs. Biederhof happened to meet Veda on a Saturday morning in spring, and not under very happy circumstances. She had been out with some friends the night before celebrating somebody’s birthday and she was nursing a hangover. It was about eleven in the morning and she hadn’t found the will to get all the way out of bed yet. When she heard someone knocking, she thought it might be Burt, but when she went to the door and opened it she saw a pretty, dark-haired, girl standing there with a petulant smirk on her face. She had never seen the girl before but she knew who it was before she even opened her mouth.
“Yes?” Mrs. Biederhof said. “Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any.”
Veda didn’t speak for a minute. She seemed to be taking in the sight of slightly overweight, middle-aged, bleach-blonde Maggie Biederhof, slightly the worse for wear and in her none-too-clean dressing gown.
“I just wanted to see what you look like up close,” Veda said.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Not that it could possibly mean anything to you, but I’m Veda Pierce, Burt Pierce’s daughter.”
“Oh, yes. I’ve heard all about you, Veda. Would you like to come in?”
“It won’t be necessary. I just wanted to inform you that my mother and I know all about you.”
“I’m so happy for you,” Mrs. Biederhof said, putting her hand on the door to close it.
“You’ve been seeing my father, I believe, for quite a long time.”
“I don’t think it’s any secret that Burt and I have become friends. We’re both adults.”
“Yes, but he’s still married to my mother.”
“Only because the divorce hasn’t gone through, yet.”
“Don’t think for one minute that he’s ever going to marry you.”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Veda. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have something on the stove.”
“He would never marry a cheap, common woman like you.”
“How many times have you been married, Mrs. Biederhof?”
“Now, wait a minute!”
“Oh, yes. We know all about you. My mother is a lady and I’m sure that’s something you would know nothing about.”
“Now, look here, you! I’ll give you about five seconds to get away from my door. I keep a gun in the house and I don’t mind using it.”
“I also have a gun,” Veda said. “It’s right here in my bag. Would you like to see it?”
“So, you came here to threaten me? You want to kill me?”
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m just telling you I don’t mind killing you if it comes to that. Some people can kill and others can’t. I’m one who can.”
“Well, thank you for that insight into your character, Veda, but I don’t know how it could possibly interest me.”
“You’ve had your cheap, tawdry, little love affair with my father and I think it’s time for you to drop out of the picture and leave him alone.”
Mrs. Biederhof laughed in spite of herself. “You make it sound as if I’ve been pursuing him the whole time. He comes over here of his accord. We laugh and talk and have a good time. We have become very dear companions.”
“If all he needs is a drinking companion and cheap sex,” Veda said, “I’m sure he could do much better than you.”
“Now I wish you had come in,” Mrs. Biederhof said, “so I could have the pleasure of throwing you out!”
She slammed the door in Veda’s face, locked it, and, for good measure, closed the curtains and blinds. She was so angry she wanted to kill someone and the someone she wanted to kill was Veda. The nerve of that little tootsie, she thought, coming here and talking to me that way. I’d like to wipe up the floor with her pretty little debutante face.
By the time Burt came over that evening after work, she had calmed down and decided not to tell him about Veda’s little visit. Somebody had to be the grownup and it would be her if it had to be. She cooked him a steak and after they ate she turned on some music and they just sat on the couch and smoked and talked. He put his head in her lap and before long he went to sleep. Poor dear, she thought, he’s exhausted from his miserable life at home. We could be so happy together if it wasn’t for Mildred and that little witch Veda!
A few days later there was some good news about Mildred. She opened a restaurant and it was certain to be a big success, pulling in the customers day and night. Not only that, but she had a new boyfriend, a man named Monte Beragon. He was plenty good-looking and from a rich family, Burt said. He didn’t do much of anything except go yachting, swimming, riding and to dances at the country club. A real society boy. He seemed better suited to Veda than to Mildred, but Mrs. Biederhof pretended to be happy for Mildred.
She was thinking, of course, of Mildred marrying Monte Beragon and leaving Burt entirely free to marry her.
It wasn’t long, though, before disaster struck and life took one of its ugly little turns. Mildred was spending the weekend with Monte Beragon at his beach house, and Veda and Kay were staying with Burt in his new bachelor apartment. He was going to take them to the lake for an overnight camping trip, but Kay complained of a sore throat and pains all through her body. As the day progressed, she became more and more sick. Not being used to taking care of kids on his own, Burt panicked and, not knowing what else to do, took her to Mrs. Biederhof’s house.
Right away Mrs. Biederhof saw that Kay was plenty sick and put her to bed in her spare bedroom. She wanted to get her to the hospital, but Burt said the hospital would only scare her and make her worse, so he called a doctor friend of his. The doctor came over with a private nurse and began ministering to the sick child.
When Burt saw how sick Kay was, he put in an emergency call to Mildred at Monte Beragon’s beach house and arranged to meet her and take her to Mrs. Biederhof’s. Mildred ran to Kay’s side, but the doctor made her stay back. Veda was also there with Mildred. When Mrs. Biederhof looked at Veda, she didn’t look back. Nobody would ever know that just a week earlier they had been on the verge of a gun battle at Mrs. Biederhof’s front door.
Kay died within a couple of hours. The doctor said it was meningitis and it was contagious. Mildred, Veda and Burt were all terribly broken up about it. Mrs. Biederhof remained in the background, offering help where it was needed, feeling utterly helpless. When it came time for the funeral, she thought she should go, but Burt told her it wasn’t a good idea. She sent an arrangement of snapdragons instead.
To heal her broken heart, Mildred threw herself into her business. Her restaurant had done well so she opened a second one and was considering a third. Now that she and Burt were successfully un-married, she married Monte Beragon in a small church ceremony with three hundred guests (mostly Monte’s friends and family) in attendance. Burt bought a new suit and went to the wedding alone.
The marriage was written up in all the society columns, Monte being a bonafide member of the social register. It was his fifth marriage and Mildred’s second. After a week-long honeymoon in Acapulco, they took up residence in Monte’s family’s estate, which was badly in need of renovation. Monte let Mildred take charge of all the repairs and remodeling, seeing as she would be paying all the bills.
Veda, of course, lived with Mildred and Monte and she was flying high. Finally she had all she had ever dreamed of: A beautiful, palatial home; servants to satisfy her every whim; plenty of money to spend on clothes and trips; endless country club dances, weekend parties, swimming and riding. Mildred bought her an expensive convertible and wondered how long it would be before she smashed it up.
All principal parties were happy and satisfied for a few months, but then the inevitable happened. Veda fell in love with her stepfather, Monte Beragon, or thought she did. She always wanted the thing she couldn’t have and would do anything to get it. Monte played along, flattered as he was by the adoration of a pretty young girl half his age. He didn’t see—or didn’t want to see—how serious Veda was and how dangerous she could be if didn’t get the thing she wanted. Mildred also refused to see it until she was confronted firsthand with the proof: she walked in on Monte and Veda when they were naked together in bed. (This scene was relayed to Mrs. Biederhof by way of Burt by way of Mildred.)
“I’m glad you know,” Veda said, getting out of the bed and putting on a dressing gown. “Finally the truth comes out!”
“Veda, how could you!” Mildred said. “He’s your stepfather!”
“I think that makes him even more desirable, don’t you?”
“Veda, you’re a very sick person and I don’t know what ever made you the way you are!”
“Well, we could stand here all day and all night and analyze the situation, but the truth is that Monte and I love each other. He wants you to divorce him so he can marry me!”
“What’s this?” Monte said, pulling on his pants. “I never at any time said I’d marry you, Veda!”
“Your mother is a perfect wife for me. She’s a fount of ready cash and she always looks the other way and doesn’t ask any questions.”
“I can’t look the other way this time, Monte!” Mildred said. “If a divorce is what you want, I’ll accommodate you!”
“What do you mean you don’t want to marry me?” Veda shrieked.
“Very simple,” Monte said. “I’d rather be dead than married to a spoiled, selfish little brat like you! You’re a dime a dozen, kid!”
Monte continued to get dressed. He put on his shirt and put his necktie around his neck before tying it, trying to avoid Mildred’s gaze. Feeling faint, Mildred sat down on the edge of the bed and put her head forward.
Unnoticed by either Mildred or Monte, Veda went to the dresser and opened the drawer and took out a small object. When Mildred saw the object was a gun, she stood up from the bed and was about to speak when Veda pointed the gun at Monte and fired, once in the chest and two times in the abdomen. He pitched forward and before he fell to the floor, he spoke one word: “Mildred.”
“Veda!” Mildred screamed.
Veda looked coolly from Monte to Mildred and back to Monte and when she seemed to suddenly be aware that she was holding a gun, she threw it on the floor.
“You’ve killed him!” Mildred said.
“I don’t think I meant to kill him, mother!” Veda said.
Mildred went to the phone and picked up the receiver.
“Mother, what are you going to do?” Veda said.
“I’m calling the police.”
“Oh, no! You can’t do that!”
“You’ve killed a man! You can’t just walk away and pretend it didn’t happen!”
“Mother, we need to talk about this first. You don’t have to tell them I killed Monte. Tell them the gun just went off. Or tell them you killed him. Accidentally, I mean.”
“Veda, you have to be an adult for once and take responsibility for your actions.”
“They’ll put me in jail!”
“We’ll get the best lawyer we can find.”
“Oh, no, no, no, I can’t let you call the police. You’ve got to give me all the cash you have in the house and let me get away. I’ll go to Mexico and you’ll never see me again. I promise!”
“I can’t get you out of this, Veda.”
The police came and took Veda away and later that night she made a complete confession. There would be no sensational trial. Her lawyer promised to try to get her off with a manslaughter charge. If she was lucky, she’d spend ten years behind bars.
The murder was all over the front pages: Society Girl Kills Stepfather. The public ate it up: Sex, money, infidelity, a love triangle involving an older man and a younger woman, and the fact that she was his stepdaughter made it even spicier.
Mildred went into hiding to keep reporters from hounding her, making herself available only to the police. Veda was in the county jail and would be transferred to women’s state prison after sentencing. She called Mildred every chance she got and berated her and blamed her for Monte’s death. “You’re the one that should be in jail!” she said. “Not me!”
Mrs. Biederhof didn’t hear from Burt for five days and when he came over again, looking tired and grim, he told her that he was going back to Mildred. He still loved her and believed she loved him and, with both Kay and Veda gone, he was all she had left in the world. The two of them would spend every dime they had to get Veda’s sentence reduced.
Mrs. Biederhof had been in California for twenty-five years. She was sure she had had enough sunshine to last her a lifetime. She had a sister living back East and planned to go stay with her for a while, maybe for the rest of her life. She sold her house, put her furniture in storage, packed her bags and got on the train for the long trip that would take her to the other end of the continent. She didn’t even bother to tell Burt goodbye. In time she would forget him, as she had all the others.
Copyright © 2023 by Allen Kopp