The Next Life ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
To those who knew him, he was known simply as Sidney. He lived on the big, wide-open streets of the city. By day (having nothing else to do) he roamed, ostensibly looking for work but more likely looking to snatch a purse or a briefcase. When he was feeling particularly adventurous, he would try his hand at shoplifting—although he was mostly kept out of the shops and stores because of his appearance—or hang around the train station and filch the occasional piece of stray luggage. At night he slept in the park, the cemetery, or any of the countless alleyways that were available to him, staying always one step ahead of the law.
When he heard about a three-day job with a work crew clearing brush in a cemetery, he was somehow able to produce from his pocket the bus fare to go see about the job. He took the wrong bus, though, and ended up in a far-flung suburb of the city. As soon as the bus roared away, he knew he wasn’t in the right place, but there he was, stranded in a world not his own. To find his way back to where he belonged, he would have to prevail upon some kind soul (who wasn’t repelled by his appearance) to give him, not only a little cash for bus fare, but also some directions.
He looked around at the strange neighborhood in which he found himself. The houses were large and beautiful; the trees that graced every spacious lawn graceful and scenic. All was pleasing to the eye, cool, clean and quiet. He imagined living in such a neighborhood but was unable to reckon what it would be like. For a few moments he had the sensation of being in heaven without dying first to get there. Or was he really dead and just hadn’t realized it yet?
A short distance away was a little neighborhood park with benches, many more trees, and picturesque rolling hills. Since it was getting on toward evening and he was feeling tired, he found a cozy spot, soft and dry, underneath a clump of bushes where he might rest without being seen from the street. He was glad to have eaten earlier in the day because the absence of gnawing hunger made his repose all the sweeter.
He ended up sleeping the night away and awoke at dawn to the singing of birds. He was confused at first and thought he was in the cemetery, but after he had stood up and stretched his legs and worked the kinks out of his back, he remembered the bus ride that had brought him to this place and his mind cleared a little. There was something about a job but he couldn’t recall all the details.
He staggered (he hadn’t had a drink in over a week) out of the park back to the street and stood, confused, on the sidewalk. He looked, first one way and then the other, for a clue to tell him which way to go. Nothing looked as he remembered it. He began walking in an easterly direction, toward the rising sun, because it had the advantage of being downhill.
After a few more blocks, he was even more confused. There were so many streets with odd-sounding names (Calderon, Ishmael, Augur, St. Pike) and none of them seemed like the right street to take.
Up ahead on the other side of the street a woman came a few steps out her front door and looked off to her left, in the direction away from him. He started toward her (he would be careful not to alarm her), but when he saw a police car turn the corner at the next intersection, it scared him so much that he ran into the yard of the house behind him and around to the back.
He looked around frantically for a place to hide. He was about to try to conceal himself behind some trash cans when a dog in the next yard spotted him and began barking. Nothing would attract the attention of a police officer faster than the frantic barking of a dog.
Down three steps was a door built into the foundation of the house. He sprang for the door and turned the knob but it was locked. When he gave one hard push with his hip and shoulder, using all his strength, the door sprang open. He entered, closed the door, and knelt down behind it, his heart pounding and his breath coming in painful rasps.
In a little while the dog stopped barking. He stood up partway and lifted the curtain to take a peek out the window in the door. He could see only a small portion of the yard but all was quiet. He seemed not to have aroused the people who lived in the house. He believed he was probably not seen at all. For once in his life he was lucky.
Instead of leaving at once, as he had planned to do, he lingered. He was in a sort of play room, with pool table, musical instruments (including drums and guitars), TV set, record player, an enormous couch and some comfortable-looking chairs. On the far side of the room was a small bar. He had never known of anybody to have a bar in their own house before and had to take a closer look. He approached it cautiously, all the time listening for footsteps or for the sound of movement somewhere in the house.
Arrayed behind the bar on glass shelves were all shapes, sizes, and colors of bottles, as beautiful as any work of art. There were wines, liqueurs, vodka, tequila, rye whiskey, scotch, bourbon and other bottles that confused him because their labels were in foreign languages. He picked up a small glass from the bar and filled it with vodka and drank it down.
For a minute the room spun around and he thought he was going to be sick. He sat down on the couch that was a deep-red color like the color of wine and put his head forward. When the sick feeling passed, he had another glass of vodka and then a glass of scotch.
With just three small drinks, he was well on his way to being drunk and he knew it was because he hadn’t had any food since the day before. Did he dare go to the kitchen and grab something to eat before he left? Having food in his stomach would make anything that happened to him easier to face.
He sat down on the luxurious couch (he was already in love with the house) and rested. He longed to lay down and kick off his stinking shoes and go to sleep but didn’t dare let down his defenses to that extent.
He heard a clock chime somewhere in the house and jumped to his feet, not realizing at first what he was hearing. There was still no sound, though, of voices, footsteps, or anything else to indicate that anybody was at home. It was still early in the morning, he had to remind himself, and maybe they were still in bed.
The stairs seemed to beckon to him. Come over here and climb us, they seemed to be saying. If you think this room is something, wait until you see the rest of the house. Before he knew what he was doing, he was creeping up the steps, holding on to the wall, his senses on high alert.
At the top of the stairs was a hallway. To the left was the kitchen and to the right the dining room. He paused and held his breath. He took the silence as encouragement and went into the kitchen.
He caressed the immaculate countertop as if it was a religious article and, moving around the room, stopped at the enormous refrigerator. He opened the door and looked over the array of foods inside; he selected a half-full bottle of green olives and began eating them with his blackened fingers. When he had eaten all the olives, he discarded the jar and opened a can of sardines and ate them while standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window.
When he was about to open the refrigerator door again to see what else he might find, he saw a note attached to the door that he hadn’t seen before. The note read: To the maid. My husband and I will be out of the country until the twenty-third. Please be here at 9:00 o’clock on the twenty-fourth to resume your duties. And make sure all the doors are locked before you leave! Mrs. Hester Chuffee.
He smiled and then laughed at the note. So, that’s the way the cards were stacked! He believed, although he wasn’t entirely certain, that it was the seventeenth of the month, meaning that it would be six days before the owners of the house came back. He didn’t need to be in any hurry to leave. What quirk of fate had put a cockroach like him in such a place?
Feeling confident and almost at home, he began exploring the other rooms. First the downstairs with its living room (comfortable, overstuffed furniture, fireplace, thick carpet), dining room (a table big enough to accommodate fourteen chairs and another fireplace) and den (dark-paneled walls with thousands of books and a collection of guns). Then the upstairs with its five bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. He had never seen a house like it before. To live in such a house and to own such things, one must be very rich.
In the lovely surroundings in which he found himself, he was aware of the smell that was coming off his body and of how filthy his clothes were. He wasn’t able to remember the last time he had taken everything off and washed all over. He went into one of the five bathrooms, the one that seemed to beckon to him the most, and closed the door. The gleaming tub looked as if it had never been used. He turned on the water and, while waiting for the tub to fill, removed his clothes and let them fall in a heap to the floor.
He scrubbed himself thoroughly from top to bottom and when he was finished he refilled the tub with fresh water, this time using a generous portion of bubble bath, and washed again. When he was as clean as he was going to get, he got out of the tub and, standing at the sink with a towel around his middle, shaved off his scrubby growth of beard and cut his hair with a pair of scissors.
Emerging from the bathroom, he went into the bedroom to find something to put on, as his old clothes were nothing more than a pile of smelly rags that he couldn’t stand to touch, now that he was clean. He opened the door to the closet, which was another room in itself. He had never seen so many clothes! There were suits of all colors, evening clothes, casual clothes, shirts, ties, shoes. He selected a pair of pants and a shirt. First, though, he needed undergarments.
The men’s underwear he found in the bureau drawer was so big he could hardly keep it on. Holding up the pants and shirt he had selected from the closet, he saw they were enormously big and he wasn’t going to be able to wear them, either.
Not knowing what else to do, he put on madame’s clothes, which, he found, were just the right size. Wearing a silk blouse and loose-fitting slacks made of a soft, stretchy material and a pair of sandals, he felt better than he had felt in a long time, since taking up the hobo life. He didn’t care that he was wearing women’s clothes. Nobody would ever know it and, if they did, let them laugh. One does what one must.
Through the rest of the day he moved quietly from room to room, sitting in one place in one room for a while and then moving to another place in another room. He drank generously from the bar downstairs and ate whatever was at hand from the refrigerator or pantry. That night he slept on the wine-colored couch in the playroom, more drunk than sober, sleep sweet and untroubled.
The next morning, after another bubble bath, he put on madame’s dressing gown and sat down at her dressing table. He looked at his reflection for a long time in the mirror, disliking the rat-faced thing looking back at him.
He longed to be somebody else, to have a different face. He began applying makeup. He didn’t know what some of the jars and bottles were for, but that didn’t stop him. The powdery stuff covered up the flaws in his skin. A bit of red stuff on the cheeks, flattened out with the fingertips, gave his face some color. A spot of eye shadow on the lids and mascara on the lashes made his beady eyes a little less so. An eyebrow pencil gave his eyebrows clarity and shape. A dab of tangerine-colored lipstick was what was needed for the lips. When he was finished, he laughed at himself because he looked so silly with his face all made up that way and his botched haircut. He was going to take a rag and wipe the stuff off his face when a thought came to him.
He had seen madame’s wigs on the top shelf in her closet. (At first he had thought they were small, sleeping animals.) He selected an auburn wig of medium length and carried it back to the mirror and put it on. He turned this way and that and was pleased with the overall effect. The best thing about it was that he looked like somebody else, a person he didn’t know.
And he wasn’t able to stop there. He took off the dressing gown and put on madame’s undergarments and stockings, using rolled-up handkerchiefs where padding was needed. He selected a print dress with a full skirt from the closet and put it on over his head and succeeded in zipping it up in the back. He slipped his feet into a pair of madame’s two-inch high heels for casual wear, and the transformation was complete. He was somebody else. A new life had begun. The old life was over.
Feeling exulted, he began delving into madame’s things, careful to not mess them up or overturn them too much. He loved handling her intimate articles of clothing and uncovering things in the bureau drawers that only she had seen or touched. He felt close to her, almost that he and she were the same in some elemental way that he didn’t understand. He knew now why fate had brought him to this house, out of all the houses in the world.
Deep in one drawer he found a stash in bills inside a little wooden box. He counted it out and slipped it inside one of madame’s large shoulder bags that he planned on taking with him when he left. He believed the money had been left there for him. By her. He also put some blank checks and credit cards in the bag, along with a diamond bracelet and earrings that he would be able to pawn somewhere along the line when the money ran out, if it ever did.
Finding a medium-sized suitcase in the back of the closet, he began filling it with clothes: a couple of dresses, a suit, two pairs of slacks, some blouses, several changes of underwear and stockings, a couple pair of shoes, pajamas, dressing gown. What he didn’t have he could get when he got to where he was going.
He took one last fond look again into all the rooms and called a taxi. He left the house through the same door by which he had entered it, picking up a bottle of scotch and another of vodka and stashing them in the suitcase on his way out the door.
When the taxi arrived, he was waiting on the sidewalk in front of the house. The driver, believing he was a woman, got out of the cab and opened the door to the back seat for him. He got into the cab demurely, giving the driver a big smile and folding the skirt modestly under his thighs as he positioned himself on the seat.
“Where to, ma’am?” the driver asked.
“Take me to the New World hotel downtown,” he said, finding in himself the ability to raise his voice a couple of octaves so that he really sounded like a woman.
On the drive downtown, the transformation from male to female was complete. “He” was now “she.”
At the hotel she asked for a room on an upper floor and signed the register Mrs. Hester Chuffee. When the clerk asked her if the fifteenth floor was all right, she nodded her head, took the key from him, and gave him a significant look.
Alone in the room, she took the two bottles from the suitcase and set them on the dresser, labels facing outward. She called room service and asked for some ice. After it was delivered, she locked herself in and took her dress off and hung it carefully in the empty closet. She fixed herself a drink, switched on the TV to hear what they were saying about her, and lay down on the bed in her slip. The new life was about to begin and when it did she planned on being ready for it.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp