Strong of Limb and Sound of Mind ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
All during dinner, his mother wouldn’t look at him and his father kept his eyes glued to the news on TV, so he knew something was in the air. She must have been snooping in his room again, or she had heard some gossip about him that probably wasn’t true, but on the other hand might be.
He wanted to hurry up and finish eating and get away from them before his mother had a chance to get started on whatever it was that was bothering her, but he didn’t quite make it. Just when he had taken the first bite of his pie, she pushed herself back from the table, looked at him and said, “Phillip, your father and I need to have a talk with you.”
“What about?” Phillip asked. “I’m getting ready to go out.”
“That can wait.”
She turned the TV off in the middle of a blatting commercial about toilet paper and beckoned to the two of them, Phillip and his father, to come into the living room.
His mother and father sat on opposite ends of the French provincial couch, while Phillip sat in the platform rocker across the room from them and began studying the flowers on the drapes.
“Can we make this quick?” he asked. “I have some people waiting for me.”
“It will take as long as it takes,” she said.
“Can you tell me what this is all about?”
“We’ve known the Jeeters for more than twenty years,” she said.
He felt a combination of relief and annoyance at the mention of the Jeeters. “Oh, so this is about them?”
“They’ve been good friends to us. They recommended us for membership in the country club and when I had surgery Jeanette Jeeter was indispensible to your father and me.”
He sighed and closed his eyes at the grating quality of his mother’s voice. “I’ve heard all this about a million times before!” he said.
“Don’t you be flippant with me, Phillip!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it!”
“Judson Jeeter is a successful businessman, powerful in his own right.”
“More powerful than a locomotive?”
“Jeanette Jeeter is an attractive woman and an impeccable homemaker. Any woman would be happy to have one-fifth the good taste she has.”
“Can I go now?”
“And you’ve known their daughter, Joyce, since you first started to school.”
“Much to my regret.”
“You don’t like Joyce?”
“Not especially. I can take her or leave her.”
“Well, I know she likes you! And Judson and Jeanette think very highly of you, too!”
“You want me to take her to a dance at the country club?”
His father sighed and came halfway off the couch with impatience and then down again. “Just come right out and say it, Grace!” he said. “Don’t take all night!”
“Oh, don’t rush me!” she said. “I’ll say it when I say it!”
“Say what?” Phillip asked.
“Well, Joyce has made a bad mistake and has got herself into a speck of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“She met a boy, a man, and fell in love, I’m afraid.”
“She thought this man was going to marry her but she found out, too late, that he was already married. She was completely serious about him, while he was only engaging in a little fling.”
“You’re twenty-one. You’ve been out of high school for three years. Your father and I were disappointed that you didn’t go to college, but we have believed, all along, that you would find your own way, whatever that is.”
“Just say it, Grace!” his father said.
“You still live here at home—and we’re happy to have you—but you have shown no interest in beginning a career or starting a family of your own.”
“I have a job!” he said.
“A messenger boy!”
“I’m a courier.”
“You can call it whatever fancy name you want, it’s still what it is.”
“It’s a job for a boy!” his father said.
“I don’t plan on being a courier my whole life.”
“Well, I should hope not!” his mother said. “You’re better than that!”
“It’s all right for now, though.”
“We believe you can do much better, though. Much, much better.”
She cleared her throat and looked at her husband for encouragement, where she found none. “Last night we had a long talk with the Jeeters,” she said. “ A very illuminating talk.”
“Not about me, I hope!” Phillip said.
“You’re strong of limb and sound of mind. You’re reasonably good-looking. You’re smart and talented, even though you may not be using your gifts at the moment.”
“I’m not able to follow this kind of talk and, as I said before, I have somebody waiting for me. So, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Joyce Jeeter is going to have a baby in about seven months. Time is running out for her. You’re a smart boy. You know what I’m saying.”
“I know what you’re saying, but I don’t know what it has to do with me.”
“Just say it, Grace!” his father said. “You’re making all of us nervous!”
“Well, as I was saying,” his mother continued, “the Jeeters like you and they like us and we like them. More importantly, they know us and they know what to expect from us. They know you’re from a good family and have had a good upbringing.”
“They wouldn’t object to having you for a son-in-law.”
“What? I’m not marrying Joyce Jeeter!”
“I know this is an entirely new idea for you and is a lot to spring on you all at once, but I want you to just think about it for a while and consider all the good that can come out of it.”
“I’m not marrying Joyce Jeeter!”
“She’s a lovely girl.”
“I don’t care. I’m not marrying her.”
“I can’t stand her.”
“Any time she comes near me I cringe and I want to vomit.”
His father sighed deeply and said to the ceiling, “I knew it was going to be hard sell.”
“If this marriage takes place, as we all hope it will,” his mother said, “Judson Jeeter has consented to giving you a job with his firm selling insurance.”
“I don’t want to sell insurance.”
“Just think! You get a lovely young bride and a career at the same time without expending any effort on your part.”
“I don’t want a lovely bride and I don’t want a job selling insurance.”
“My, but we’re stubborn, aren’t we?”
“You might as well tell him the rest,” his father said. “Get it all out in the open.”
“Oh, yes! Judson and Jeanette own some property out by the lake where there are some charming bungalows. They’ve agreed to let you and Joyce live there rent-free for a year until you get on your feet in the business world.”
“I don’t want to get on my feet in the business world.”
“You will never get a more generous offer in your life than this one. I’m not going to let you sit there and tell me you won’t even consider it.”
“I don’t have to consider it. The answer is no!”
Not unexpectedly, his mother began to cry. “I can’t do anything with you!” she blubbered. “I haven’t been able to do anything with you since you were thirteen years old. I can’t stand you and I want you out of my house!”
“Now, Grace!” his father said. “That’s a little harsh.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m too emotional. It’s my time of the month and I’m just so wrought-up.”
“If I marry Joyce and do everything you say, what do you get out of it, mother?” Phillip asked.
“You must have some angle.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. What’s in it for you?”
“Tell him, Grace!” his father said.
She sniffled into a Kleenex and smiled valiantly. “Judson Jeeter is on the board at the bank. He has agreed to have the mortgage on our house absorbed.”
“How could he do that? Isn’t that illegal?”
“Just think of it! Your father and I could own this house outright and not have any more monthly house payments.”
“It sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it?”
“Then you’ll do it?”
“You won’t think about it?”
“Do you want to kill your mother?”
“No, but if it comes to that, I’ll buy a new suit for your funeral.”
“Hah-hah! Very funny! You and your mordant sense of humor! I don’t know where you get it from. You’re not anything like my side of the family.”
“I’m going out now,” Phillip said, “and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“I want you to stay home tonight, son,” his mother said.
“Well, we’ve got big plans for tomorrow. Your father and you and I, along with Judson and Jeanette Jeeter and, of course, Joyce, are going on a picnic at the country club.”
“I’m not going.”
“It will be a chance for you and Joyce to look at each other in a different light.”
“I’m not looking at Joyce Jeeter in any light.”
“It will be a chance for both our families to spend a lovely day together in the sunshine and fresh air. It will be a time for all of us to make plans and look forward to the future. It’s a new beginning. You don’t get many of those in life.”
“It’s not a new beginning for me.”
“I want you to get a good night’s rest tonight and get up early in the morning and take a shower and wash your hair. Put on a fresh sport shirt and some nice slacks.”
“Yes, mother,” he said. “Will there be anything else?”
“Just give it some time and I’m sure you’ll begin to see how much sense all this makes.”
“You’re going to be a father,” his father said. “Imagine that!”
“And without any effort on my part,” Phillip said.
He locked himself in his room and, after midnight, when he knew his parents would be sleeping, he put a change of clothes into a duffle bag, along with his toothbrush, a pair of tennis shoes, a couple of paperback books, his checkbook, and the nearly four hundred dollars he had hidden in his dresser drawer. He slipped out of the house without turning on a light and closed the door after him without making a sound.
He didn’t know where he was going, but he would hitchhike or take a bus or do whatever he had to do to get as far away as he could. He walked to a bar on the edge of town where he sat for an hour and drank two beers.
Providence arranged for him to meet at the bar an old acquaintance from high school named Malcolm Burrow. Malcolm was a musician and was on his way to “the coast” to perform. He was hoping to have some fun on the way and would welcome a traveling companion.
As they sped down the highway into the night in Malcolm’s car, Phillip looked back at the town he was leaving and would probably never see again.
“It’s a new beginning,” he said, “and you don’t get many of those in life.”
Copyright 2016 by Allen Kopp