Horse Face ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I bought only two items, a pound of butter and a jar of pickles. I could have gone through the express lane and been on my way in thirty seconds, but I waited twenty minutes or more behind an old lady with a couple hundred dollars worth of stuff in an overflowing cart. When my turn finally came, I smiled at the checker and placed my items on the conveyor belt. When she looked at me, she blushed a little. I know she did.
Her name, displayed on her name tag for all the world to see, was Patricia. She was twenty-eight years old, wasn’t married, and lived with her mother the same as me. I knew these things from hearsay. I had been seeing her in the Food Giant for two years. We had been on a first-name basis ever since I had told her my name.
“Hi, Patricia!” I said, hoping she wasn’t catching any bad smells coming off my body.
“Hello, Morgan. All alone this evening?”
“I’m just stopping by on my way home from work.”
“Most people go through the express lane when they only have two items. It saves time.”
“I know, but I prefer your lane.”
She laughed and pushed her glasses in place up her knobby nose. “Why is that?” she asked.
“You’re my favorite checker.”
“I didn’t know I was anybody’s favorite anything,” she said with a little deprecatory laugh.
The trouble with buying two items is that it takes such a short time to pay for them. It was over all too fast. I gave her a pained smile, took the bag with my two items in it, and left.
When my mother and I were having dinner that evening, I decided to bring up the subject of Patricia to see what she would say.
“At the Food Giant,” I said carefully, “have you ever noticed a checkout girl named Patricia?”
“I don’t pay any attention to their names,” mother said. “The only thing that matters to me is whether they’re fast or slow. The fast ones I like. The slow ones I don’t.”
“Patricia is the one with brown-blond hair that looks like a curtain that’s about to close over her face.”
“Does she have spots on her hands?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Is she the one that’s so fat it looks like she’s eaten half the food in the store before she started her shift?”
“No, mother. The one I’m talking about isn’t fat.”
She thought for a moment. “I know who you mean!” she said. “She’s the one with a long face like a horse.”
“Well, if you want to be cruel about it, that’s the one.”
“What about her?”
“I’m thinking about asking her over for dinner.”
She was speechless for a moment. Then she laughed as though I had made a joke. “Why would you want to do that?” she asked.
“I think she’s lonely.”
“Why should that concern you?”
“Maybe I’m lonely, too.”
“Do you mean you’re thinking of asking her out on a date?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“You don’t know anything about her. She might have filthy habits. She might have insanity in her genes. She might have diseases, for heaven’s sake!”
“Yes, the possibilities are limitless, are they not?”
“I seem to feel some kind of connection between us, and I have ever since the first time I saw her.”
“The last girl you dated turned out to be a man!”
“That isn’t fair. She was a girl stuck in a man’s body.”
“She could be a frog stuck in a man’s body and she’d still be a man. It’s the body that counts.”
“That doesn’t prove anything.”
“It proves you have poor judgment.”
“My judgment is as good as anybody else’s!”
“I don’t care what you do. It’s your life.”
“But I refuse to stand idly by and see you ruin your life on…”
We went on and on in that way until she couldn’t stand to look at me anymore and retired to her room to watch her TV shows, leaving me to wash the dishes on my own.
The next day I again stopped at the Food Giant on my way home from work. I bought a bag of peanuts in the shell and a bottle of maple syrup and stood in line to pay for them. When Patricia saw me, the pained look on her face went away and she brightened.
“Back again, are we?” she said.
“Always the loyal customer,” I said.
“If you buy only two items at a time, it’ll take you forever to finish your grocery shopping.”
“What are you doing Saturday night?” I blurted it out before I lost my nerve.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t thought about it. I’ll probably catch up on my sleep.”
“Would you like to have an adventure?”
“What kind of adventure?”
“Come to my house and have dinner with my mother and me.”
“Well, um, I don’t know.”
“I’ll make lasagna. Tell me you don’t like lasagna.”
“I do like lasagna.”
“You mean you’ll come?”
I gave her directions to my house and told her to be there around six o’clock.
My mother was still peeved with me that evening. She didn’t chatter on about her soap operas and the things that had happened to her that day, as she usually did. She hardly spoke at all and when she did speak, she let me know how much it pained her.
“Is horse face coming for dinner?” she asked, looking down at her plate.
“Yes. And her name is Patricia.”
“I’ll make it a point to be gone. I’ll go to a movie or something.”
“I’d like for you to be here. I want you to meet Patricia.”
“Why would I want to meet her?”
“Because she’s a friend of mine. I think you’ll like her.”
“When she ruins your life, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
On Saturday I cleaned house, or at least the parts that Patricia was likely to see, and then I took a long bubble bath. I put on a brand-new plaid sports shirt and pants I had been saving for a special occasion. I set the table for three with the good dishes.
Patricia arrived right on time. I gave her a glass of wine and we sat on the couch and talked about small things—the weather, traffic, and her job at the Food Giant. Then we went into the kitchen and I showed her the place at the table where I wanted her to sit. She pulled out the chair and sat down with a set-in-place smile.
Before I took the lasagna out of the oven, I went upstairs to the door of mother’s bedroom and knocked softly. I could hear the voices coming from her TV.
“Mother,” I said, “dinner’s ready and we have a guest.”
She said nothing so I thought maybe she had fallen asleep. I knocked again, this time a little louder.
“It’s time for dinner, mother,” I said. “Please come to the table before the food gets cold.”
I heard her say, seemingly from far away, “I don’t want anything.”
“You have to eat, mother,” I said. “You haven’t eaten all day.”
“Go away and leave me alone,” she said. “I have a headache and I just want to be alone.”
When I went back into the kitchen, I smiled at Patricia and said, “Mother is doing the Greta Garbo routine this evening,” I said. “She just vants to be alone.”
“She what?” Patricia said.
“She has a headache and doesn’t want any dinner.”
After we ate, Patricia helped me clean up the dishes and then we went into the living room and watched Now, Voyager on TV. I had seen it maybe ten times, but Patricia had never seen it. When it was over, I could see she was puzzled about something.
“Did Charlotte Vale really kill her mother?” she asked.
“Not literally,” I said. “Only figuratively.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
I could see then that Patricia wasn’t as bright as I might have wished.
The dinner went well, I thought, in spite of mother’s refusal to come to the table, and the next time I saw Patricia I planned on asking her out on a real date.
Mother was fine the next day, her usual self. She went to church with her girlfriends, Pansy and June Ellen, and when she got home she was laughing about some gossip she had heard involving the minister’s wife. She didn’t mention my dinner with Patricia.
After my third date with Patricia, I realized that if mother was ever going to meet her, I was going to have to force it.
It was Sunday again and she wanted to drive out to the cemetery and put some plastic flowers on my father’s grave. Before we left home, I called Patricia without telling mother and asked her if she’d like to join us for a drive in the country. She said yes, so I told her I’d stop by and pick her up on our way out of town.
As soon as I deviated from the expected route, mother knew something was up.
“Why are you turning here?” she said. “This is not the right way.”
“I have a little surprise for you,” I said.
“You know how I hate surprises!”
When I pulled up in front of Patricia’s house, she came out the door in her coat with a big smile on her face. Her mother, who could pass for Marie Dressler, was right behind her in her bathrobe. She waved to us from the front porch.
“Would your mother like to go with us?” I asked Patricia as she climbed into the back seat. (Mother wasn’t about to give up her spot in the front.)
“No, she’s having a bad day,” Patricia said. “She’s got the twitches.”
“Patricia, I want you to meet my mother,” I said.
Patricia pulled herself forward on the seat back and reached awkwardly for mother’s hand with her left hand. Mother shook her hand and then looked at her own to see if anything had been left behind.
“I’m so happy to finally meet you, Mrs. Fenwick!” Patricia gushed. She seemed about to climb over the seat and crawl into mother’s lap.
“Hello,” mother said.
“You have a wonderful son!”
“And isn’t it a beautiful day to be out of the house?”
“I suppose so.”
Mother seemed disinclined to speak further, so Patricia shut up. I knew what mother was thinking and I was glad that Patricia didn’t know. I was hoping we could get through the day without mother calling her horse face.
At the cemetery when we were standing over my father’s grave and mother was fussing with the artificial flowers, Patricia wanted to know all the details about his death.
“Was it a painful death?” she asked.
“I’m afraid you’d have to ask him that,” I said. “He was in coma for the last ten days of his life.”
“The gophers have been digging again,” mother said.
“How did he die?” Patricia asked.
I mimed dying, the best I could standing up, but that’s not what she meant.
“Silly,” Patricia said.
“Do you mean of what did he die?”
“He had a heart condition.”
Patricia seemed disappointed that there was so little drama surrounding his death. “Don’t you feel sorry for the people who kill themselves?” she said.
“That’s enough of the chatter,” mother said. “This is a solemn occasion.”
“What’s the occasion?” Patricia asked.
“Anytime you’re in a cemetery, it’s a solemn occasion,” I whispered.
“That’s my place there, right next to him,” mother said. “It’s waiting for me.”
“You’ll outlive us all,” I said.
“I’m going to be cremated,” Patricia said, “unless, of course, I die in a place where my body is never found, like outer space.”
When we were walking back down the hill to the car, Patricia took my hand and twined her fingers through mine. She giggled like an adolescent girl on her first date and whispered in my ear. Mother was right behind us taking it all in.
After I had dropped Patricia back at her house, mother said, “I don’t like her.”
“You haven’t given her a chance,” I said.
“It’s not what I see that I don’t like. It’s what I don’t see.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said.
“I think you should get rid of her.”
“I’m thinking of asking her to marry me.”
I continued to see Patricia on a regular basis. On the two or three nights a week I was gone, I knew mother knew I was with Patricia, but we didn’t talk about it. She filled in her time alone like the stalwart she was, with her lodge functions, TV programs, and phone conversations.
Patricia won a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to a lakeside resort in the mountains for two. She asked me if I’d like to go with her and I said yes. I planned to propose to her in the romantic setting of the resort. When we returned from our three-day trip, we would announce our plans to be married. There was no turning back now.
“When I told mother I was going to be gone for three days, she said, “With her?”
“Yes,” I said. “With her.”
“I’m not going to let it upset me,” she said.
“Good,” I said.
“I’m not going to try to interfere because you are an adult now and you have your own life to live apart from me.”
“That’s very sensible of you,” I said.
She sniffled a little into her hanky but that was the end of it.
Patricia and I had a wonderful time in those three days. We indulged in lavish meals, swam in the lake, rode horses, hiked, and just got to know each other better. It was a sort of preview of what our future life together would be like. On our last night there, I asked her to marry me and she accepted.
I couldn’t wait to share my happy news with mother. I was sure she would overcome her reluctance and would come to love Patricia as much as I did. We would be sure to include her in all our future plans and would, of course, expect her to live with us.
When I got home on Sunday evening, I knew right away that something was wrong. All the lights were on, but there was an abandoned feel to the house as if it had not been lived in the whole time I was away. Mother wasn’t in the kitchen or in any of the downstairs rooms.
I found her upstairs in her bedroom. She was in her bed, wearing her pajamas, barely breathing. She had taken a bottle of sleeping pills and had timed it, apparently, so I would find her when I arrived home.
On the bedside table was the empty bottle, minus the lid. Underneath the bottle was a suicide note: “Dear Morgan,” the note read, “If I’m going to lose you, I don’t want to go on living. Love, Mother.”
I called an ambulance. They came and took her to the hospital, where emergency room doctors pumped her stomach. I sat beside her bed for twelve hours until she regained consciousness. When she woke up, she had a terrible headache and a sore throat.
When I told Patricia I couldn’t marry her and wasn’t going to see her again, she took it well. She said she never really believed me anyway. I didn’t know what she meant by that, but I didn’t press it any further.
Now when I go to the Food Giant, I use the express lane. If I have more than twelve items, I use one of the regular lanes, as long as it’s not Patricia’s. I keep my eyes down and don’t look her way. I’m sure it’s all for the best.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp