I Liked Her Better When She was Ugly ~ A Short Story
by Allen Kopp
She set her battered suitcase on the bed and began putting things in it: a dress and then another dress, a pair of shoes, stockings, a hairbrush.
“How long are you going to be gone?” Freda asked.
“Two days,” her mother said. “Now, we’ve already been all through that. I’ll be back on Sunday night.”
“I want to go with you.”
“You’d hate it. Funerals are terrible.
“I’ve never been to a funeral, so I don’t know if it’s terrible or not.”
“Take my word for it.”
“If I have to stay here by myself, I might not be here when you get back.”
“Where will you be?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“I really don’t need any trouble from you right now.”
“What am I supposed to eat while you’re gone?”
“I spent my entire paycheck on food. I don’t think you’ll starve.”
“But I don’t know how to cook!”
“Get Squeak to cook something for you.”
“Squeak’s a mess. She doesn’t know how to cook, either.”
“I thought you liked Squeak.”
“Why does she have to stay with me? I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
“No, you’re not. Squeak likes staying with you. It makes her feel grown up.”
“You pay her, don’t you?”
“You can just save your money and let me stay by myself. I’ll invite some friends over and we’ll have a party.”
“Now you’re talking nonsense.”
“When you talk about having a party or Squeak talks about it, it’s fine, but when I talk about it, it’s nonsense.”
“That’s because I’m an adult and you’re a child.”
“Squeak’s not an adult. Not yet, anyway.”
“Well, she’s closer to it than you are.”
“It’s terrible being a child, isn’t it?”
“Not everybody thinks so.”
Her mother left and, while Freda waited for Squeak to arrive, she sat in the middle of the couch facing the TV and had her dinner, which was a cold hot dog right out of the refrigerator, a piece of pimiento cheese, a couple of dill pickles and a piece of lemon pie, not baked but out of a box from the grocery store.
One show ended and another began. When she looked at the clock and saw it was after seven-thirty, she hoped that Squeak had decided not to come and she would be staying by herself after all, in which case it would Squeak’s fault and not her own.
Squeak finally showed up, though, with an overnight bag in one hand and her school books in the other.
“You’re late,” Freda said.
“My mother made me wash every dish in the house before I left.”
Squeak was a big girl with a broad face and a high forehead. Her pale skin and very fair hair gave her the appearance of having no eyebrows. She was one of the less popular girls in school, although she tried hard.
“Have you had your dinner?” Squeak asked.
“Hours ago,” Freda said.
“Go to bed, then.”
“I never go to bed this early on Friday night!”
“If you’re not going to bed, then, I want you to do something for me.”
Squeak gave to Freda a picture of a woman’s face she had cut out of a magazine. “I want you to draw my eyebrows on just the way they are in this picture.”
She handed Freda the eyebrow pencil, turned all the lights on in the room and lay down on the couch. After she adjusted her hips and crossed her ankles, she snapped her fingers to let Freda know she was ready.
Freda studied the picture, eyebrow pencil poised in hand. “I’m going to make you look so glamorous!” she said.
She leaned heavily on the eyebrow pencil, almost breaking it a couple of times. After she drew the first eyebrow on with some difficulty, the second one was easier.
“There!” she said with satisfaction.
“How do I look?” Squeak asked.
Squeak sat up and studied herself in the hand mirror. “You’ve made them too dark,” she said. “I look like a prison matron.”
“I like prison matrons,” Freda said.
“You got anything to eat in the house?”
“You don’t think my mother would go away for two whole days and not leave food for me to eat, do you?”
They went into the kitchen. Freda sat at the table while Squeak looked in the refrigerator. She took out the pickles, cheese and butter.
“How about a grilled cheese sandwich?” she asked.
“I’d like one,” Freda said.
“I thought you said you already ate.”
“I did but it was hours ago.”
“Well, I haven’t eaten since lunch at school today and I’m starved,” Squeak said. “It was some kind of slop on toast. I couldn’t even eat it.”
“You need to diet anyway.”
“That’s not very nice,” Squeak said.
“Only speaking the truth.”
“Well, you have to be careful and not hurt a person’s feelings, you know.”
Squeak put the pickles on the table. Freda took off the lid and stuck her fingers in the cold green liquid.
“You got a boyfriend?” Freda asked.
“Hell, no!” Squeak said. “I don’t want one.”
The skillet heated while she slathered butter on the bread.
“They’re a pain in the butt is why not.”
“Wouldn’t you like to have a boyfriend that looks like Rock Hudson?”
“Rock Hudson is a total fake. There are no people in the world who look like him.”
“My mother says the guy at the gas station looks like Rock Hudson.”
“I know who you mean. He’s got black hair. He sort of looks like Rock Hudson a little bit, but he’s got broken-off teeth and he walks with a limp.”
“He smokes cigarettes, too, when he’s pumping gas,” Freda said. “He’s going to blow his ass clean off.”
“You shouldn’t say words like ‘ass’.”
“You can say it in front of me because you know me but you shouldn’t say it in front of just anybody. It’s not refined.”
“What’s ‘refined’ mean?”
“You know what ‘refined’ means. It means doing and saying the right things so you meet the right people and find yourself a good husband.”
“I don’t want a husband,” Freda said.
“Of course you don’t! Not yet, anyway. You’re only ten years old.”
“I won’t ever want a husband, even when I’m eighty-five. I’m not ever getting married.”
“You’ll change your mind when the right one comes along,” Squeak said.
“If I can’t have one like Rock Hudson, I don’t want any at all.”
“Do you want some chicken noodle soup to go with your grilled cheese?”
After they were finished eating and Squeak had stacked the dishes in the sink to wash later, they went into the living room and sat side-by-side on the couch. The movie Now, Voyager was just starting.
“Oh, I love Bette Davis!” Squeak said. “I want to be just like her!”
“I’ve heard she’s had about six husbands,” Freda said, “and they all beat her.”
“Be still and listen.”
A homely Boston heiress named Charlotte Vale wears orthopedic shoes and matronly dresses. She doesn’t wear any makeup and her eyebrows meet in the middle like an immigrant longshoreman. She stays in her room all the time, smoking cigarettes and carving ivory boxes, because her elderly mother is cranky with her and obviously doesn’t like her very much. When a sympathetic sister-in-law arranges for Charlotte to meet a pipe-smoking psychiatrist, he sees right away that she isn’t right in the head. Her mother, of course, believes there is nothing wrong with her and she is only putting on an act to try to get attention.
Charlotte has a nervous breakdown (who wouldn’t?) and spends several months in the clubby, resort-type mental institution that the pipe-smoking psychiatrist runs in the country. When he says that Charlotte is once again ready to mingle in society, she goes, by herself, on a luxurious cruise to South America—not, however, before undergoing a physical transformation that can only be found in the movies: she loses thirty pounds, plucks her eyebrows, throws away the unattractive glasses she wears, starts using makeup, and develops a taste for high-fashion clothes. How could we have known there was a beautiful swan waiting to emerge from the ugly duckling?
On the boat, the newly beautiful Charlotte Vale meets a man (what else?) to whom she is irresistibly drawn. His name is Jerry and he is strangely attentive to her in a way that no man has ever been. (“Nobody ever called me dahling before,” she says.) They spend a lot of time together seeing the sights in South America. When there is a problem with their car, they spend a night together in a shed, doing something called bundling, which, Charlotte says, is an old New England custom.
Charlotte learns from someone who knows Jerry that his life hasn’t been especially happy, either. He has a clinging, possessive wife who won’t give him a divorce. He also has a crazy daughter named Tina who is like a younger version of Charlotte, unwanted by her mother in much the same way that Charlotte was unwanted by hers.
The boat lands back in Boston and Charlotte says goodbye to Jerry, believing she will never see him again. All Charlotte’s friends and family, including the servants, are surprised at the extent to which she has changed. Everybody thinks she looks better, of course, except her mother, who has nothing good to say to her. She is offended by Charlotte’s new spirit of independence and threatens to take away all her money.
Charlotte becomes engaged to a Boston blueblood like herself, but she doesn’t love him and can’t forget about Jerry. She wants to break off her engagement, and it is while she and her mother are arguing on this very subject that her mother dies of a stroke. Charlotte, of course, blames herself for her mother dying that way, right in the middle of an argument. Just as she is about to descend once again into madness, Jerry reappears, as much in love with her as he was on the cruise.
In the end, Charlotte has her mother’s money and the enormous Boston house to herself. We know she could probably go crazy again at any time, but she is, for the moment anyway, oddly contented. She has Jerry with her and also Tina, Jerry’s crazy daughter.
In the final scene, Charlotte and Jerry are standing at an open window in the library. Jerry lights two cigarettes at once in his mouth and hands one of them to Charlotte, in that odd way of his.
“Do you think we can ever expect to be happy?” Jerry asks.
Charlotte, her eyes wet with tears, says, “Oh, Jerry. Let’s not ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
The Max Steiner music swells and the camera pans upward to the summer sky, which has about as many stars in it as one might expect.
Squeak blew her nose loudly and dabbed at her eyes. “A sweet, sad ending,” she said. “The kind that always makes me cry.”
“I thought the whole thing was silly,” Freda said.
“Don’t you think I look a little like Bette Davis?”
“No. You look more like the Bride of Frankenstein.”
“Remember what I said about hurting people’s feelings,” Squeak said. “You need to work on that.”
“There’s nothing wrong with looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. It’s better than looking like Bette Davis any day.”
“A lot you know! You’re still just a little kid.”
“If somebody told me I looked like the Bride of Frankenstein, I’d be happy.”
“I think it’s time for you to go to bed.”
“I’m thinking about staying up all night as an experiment.”
A loud knock at the door just then made Squeak scream.
“Don’t answer it!” Freda said. “It might be the police.”
Squeak stood up and went to the door, put her hand on the knob and said, “Who is it?”
“Open the door!” a voice said.
Without hesitation, Squeak swung the door open, and Stinky, her friend from high school, came inside. Behind Stinky was her boyfriend Ellison.
“What are you doing here?” Squeak asked.
“Your mother told me you were staying over here until Sunday,” Stinky said. “We thought we’d drop by and get a little party going.”
Ellison made himself at home, sitting on the couch and putting his feet on the coffee table. “Got anything to eat?” he said.
“I’m babysitting Freda,” Squeak said. “I was just about to put her to bed.”
“I can put myself to bed,” Freda said.
“Well, hello there, little chickie!” Ellison said, taking hold of Freda’s arm. “Why don’t you come and sit down beside Uncle El on this here ol’ couch?”
“Leave her alone, jerkface,” Stinky said. “Can’t you see she’s only a child?”
“Nobody ever said I don’t like a little chicken now and then! Hah-hah-hah!”
“I think you’d both better leave,” Squeak said.
“You got any liquor in the house?”
Ellison had white-blond hair and a porkpie hat seated on the back of his head. He told people he was a jazz musician but he couldn’t play a note on any instrument. He was over twenty and always chose his girlfriends from the high school crowd. He and Stinky had been going around together for about a year.
If Squeak was in the middle of the social hierarchy in high school, Stinky was all the way at the bottom. She lived with her mother and retarded sister in a residential hotel. She belonged to a girl gang, smoked cigarettes and drank hooch. The worst, though, was that she had been arrested for shoplifting costume jewelry and cosmetics.
“Let’s get this party going!” Stinky said. “It’s still early!”
“My mother wouldn’t like it if you had a party with her not here,” Freda said.
“Where is she?” Ellison asked.
“She had to go out of town.”
“Out of town where?”
“She took the bus to the city to go to a funeral.”
“Uh-oh!” Ellison said. He put his hand over his mouth.
“What’s the matter?” Freda asked.
“I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”
“Tell me what?”
“There was a terrible wreck about twenty miles out of town. A bus on its way to the city collided with a tanker truck. The truck exploded and everybody on the bus burned to death. I’ll bet it’s the same bus your ma was on.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Stinky said. “He’s making that up. If he doesn’t watch himself, I’m going to have to slap the shit out of him.”
“Why don’t one of you baby dolls go into the kitchen and rustle up some grub?” he said. “I’ll stay here and get better acquainted with the little chicken.”
“The two of you are going to have to leave,” Squeak said. “Freda’s mother is paying me to make sure nothing like this happens. You’ll have to take your party someplace else.”
“I always thought you were a fun girl!” Stinky said. “I never knew you were such a tight ass!”
“Come and give your lovin’ daddy a great big old kiss,” Ellison said to Stinky, holding out his arms to her like a mammy singer.
“Always ready to accommodate my man!” she said. She sat on the couch next to him and soon they were entwined in a passionate embrace.
“Oh, brother!” Freda said.
“Go to bed, Freda!” Squeak said.
“I don’t want to miss any of this!”
Stinky and Ellison were smacking their lips together and moaning. Stinky was pulling at Ellison’s back, trying to get him on top of her.
“I never saw anything like this before,” Freda said.
“I think they need to cool off, don’t you?” Squeak said.
She went into the kitchen and filled the dishpan with cold water and carried it into the front room and poured it over Stinky and Ellison.
“You crazy bitch!” Stinky said, pushing Ellison away and jumping up. “What’s the matter with you? I just had my hair done!”
“I warned you and you wouldn’t listen,” Squeak said. “If you don’t go now, I’m calling the police.”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Stinky said. “I thought you were my friend!”
“All right,” Ellison said. “We’ll go. It’s no fun here, anyway. I want something to eat.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Stinky said to Squeak. “I just can’t stand to see a good time wasted.”
After they left, Squeak said, “I think that’s the way Bette Davis would have handled the situation, don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Freda said.
“Go get some rags and let’s get this water cleaned up.”
“Do you think my mother really burned to death?”
“No,” Squeak said. “If there had been an accident, don’t you think somebody would have called?”
Freda ran into her room and closed the door, jumped into bed with her clothes on and pulled the covers over her head. She would have to wait until Sunday night to find out if her mother had burned to death. It was going to be an awfully long weekend.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp