The Girl With a Face Like a Pekingese ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
As the wheelchair bumped over the separations in the sidewalk where weeds were growing, Ouida gave a little grunt of pain or alarm, but Verlean kept pushing forward, ignoring Ouida’s discomfort as well as her own. About halfway to Miss Lyle’s house, Ouida wanted to stop and rest under the shade of a big sycamore, even though Verlean was doing all the work.
“Give me a Lucky, honey,” Ouida said.
Verlean lit the cigarette in her own mouth and drew on it a couple of times to get it going good and then handed it to Ouida.
“I can’t do much of anything else, but I can still smoke,” Ouida said.
Ouida was seventy-eight and her bones were falling apart. She could take a few baby steps when she had to, but mostly she stayed in the wheelchair or the bed, pulling herself with her arms from one to the other when it was called for.
Finally they arrived at Miss Lyle’s house. Verlean’s arms were so tired she thought they would drop off and droplets of sweat had formed on her brow. Miss Lyle had been watching for them and when she heard them coming she went out and helped Verlean pull the wheelchair up the two little steps and into the house.
Miss Lyle’s house was cool and dark and smelled like some unidentified herb. She watched as Verlean settled Ouida’s wheelchair in the corner of the room facing out with her back to the wall. Verlean sat on the old sofa, folded her arms, crossed her ankles, and hoped that she might go to sleep while Ouida and Miss Lyle “visited.”
Miss Lyle was famous for her hospitality and always served “refreshments.” She went to the kitchen and came back with cans of malt liquor for herself and Ouida and a bottle of ice-cold root beer for Verlean. Miss Lyle and Ouida tapped their cans together before they drank.
Ouida and Miss Lyle were the same age and had known each other since grammar school. Miss Lyle had had three husbands, all dead, and she was only four feet, seven inches tall. She made her own clothes and what she didn’t make she bought from the children’s department at the clothing store. When people called her half-pint or shortstop or midget, she pretended not to hear but was deeply offended, anyway.
Buster, hearing that company had arrived, yipped from the kitchen and came bounding into the room. He was an elderly Pekingese, Miss Lyle’s friend and companion. He sniffed at Ouida’s feet and then, deciding she was of no interest, ran to Verlean, kissing her ecstatically as she picked him up and held him on her lap.
“He’s just a little baby!” Miss Lyle said.
“Do you think he’s cute?” Verlean asked.
“Well, of course he’s cute!” Miss Lyle said. “I never saw anything cuter!”
Verlean had hoped that Ouida would answer the question herself because she was thinking of the time that Ouida remarked what an ugly face Buster had and how she, Verlean, had a face just like his.
“He’s the smartest thing in the world,” Miss Lyle said. “He knows what I’m thinking.”
“Do you know what he’s thinking?” Verlean asked.
“Sure I do! He’s thinking how happy he is and how lucky!”
“Why is he so lucky?”
“Because he is loved.”
“He doesn’t know anything,” Ouida said. “That’s what makes him happy.”
“When I die, I’m going to have him buried with me,” Miss Lyle said. “Keep me company.”
“What if you die before he does?”
“Well, we’ll figure that out when the time comes,” Miss Lyle said. “I’ve asked the Lord to let us both die on the same day, though.”
“It’ll be a neat trick if you can pull that one off,” Ouida said.
It was time for Ouida to smoke another Lucky and after Verlean had lighted it for her in her own mouth, she got up and went to the mantel and looked at herself in the cloudy mirror that hung there, trying to see if there was any similarity at all between her face and Buster’s. Her eyes drifted from her own image to the framed picture of Miss Lyle’s son when he was younger.
“Where is Turk now?” Verlean asked.
“Still on the run from the police,” Miss Lyle said.
“Doesn’t he ever call you or stop by and see you?”
“No, he knows the police are keeping an eye on me, expecting him to do that very thing. They been here a dozen times asking me questions. As long as I don’t know anything, I can’t tell them anything.”
“What did Turk do? Did he kill somebody?”
“No. Killing ain’t his style. He was involved in the rackets or something. I don’t know for sure and I don’t want to know.”
“What’s the rackets?” Verlean asked.
“It’s better for you not to know.”
As always, Verlean was charmed by any picture she ever saw of Turk Lyle. There was something about his dark eyes, looking serenely out at her, that stirred something inexplicable in her. If he wasn’t quite as handsome as Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn or Clark Gable, he was much more interesting. He had been places and done things.
“I’m going to marry him,” Verlean said.
“What did you say, honey?” Miss Lyle asked.
“I said I’m going to marry him.”
“Turk! I’m going to marry Turk!”
“You’ll have to catch him first.”
“Has Turk ever said anything about me?” Verlean asked.
“Why no, child! Why would he?”
“He’s never even noticed me or anything?”
“I think he’s got other things on his mind, now, honey.”
“When you see him, tell him I said ‘hello’.”
She sat down and drank the rest of her root beer and, while Ouida and Miss Lyle talked about things that didn’t interest her, she thought about Miss Lyle being dead and herself and Turk living together in that very house with its big rooms and antique furniture. She could fix it up so cute if she had the chance! And one day there might be a baby or two, but if there wasn’t she wouldn’t mind. If it was just her and Turk, that would be enough.
Verlean excused herself to use the bathroom and when she came back, she picked up Miss Lyle’s issue of Vogue and began looking at the pictures. She pretended not to be listening to what Ouida and Miss Lyle were saying, but she was taking in every word.
“I wish she could find a husband,” Ouida said, “as long as it’s not Turk.”
“What’s the matter with Turk?” Miss Lyle asked.
“Well, he’s a criminal for one thing.”
“She could do a lot worse, criminal or not.”
“I’m all the family she’s got,” Ouida said. “I worry about what will happen to her when I die. She can’t take care of herself. She’s simple in the head.”
Verlean sighed but Ouida and Miss Lyle didn’t notice. It was as if she wasn’t even there.
“Who wants to marry a girl that’s simple in the head?” Miss Lyle said.
“Nobody!” Ouida said. “And when I die, she’ll end up a ward of the state.”
“They’ll put her on one of them work farms where they’ll make her dig potatoes all day long!” Miss Lyle said.
Ouida looked around to see where Verlean was, if she had come back from the bathroom. “Light me another Lucky, honey!” she said.
When Verlean and Ouida left Miss Lyle’s house to go back home, Verlean pushed the wheelchair silently over the bumpy sidewalks with her head down. She didn’t want Ouida to know that she was hurt by the things she and Miss Lyle had said about her not being right in the head and how she would never be able to find a husband and how she had a face like Buster’s and would end up living at the poor farm. She wasn’t going to let them get her down, though. She had a plan. She would have a husband and, if everything worked out the way she hoped it would, she knew exactly who he would be.
At suppertime, Verlean stirred one teaspoon of poison into Ouida’s soup. She didn’t know what one teaspoon of poison would do, but if nothing happened she would do the same thing tomorrow and the day after that. Over days, the poison should have a cumulative effect. When Ouida became ill and had to be taken to the hospital, the doctors would just think her bad heart and smoker’s lungs and the condition of her bones falling apart had finally got the best of her.
And then there was Miss Lyle. With Ouida gone, Verlean would go to work on Miss Lyle, or maybe try a different approach. Startle her into having an old-age heart attack or push her down the cellar stairs and make it look like an accident. Any number of ways it might be done.
Of course, with his mother out of the way, Turk would stop his wandering ways and return home, where Verlean and Buster would be waiting for him with open arms. And when that happened, Turk would see—the whole world would see—that Verlean wasn’t as soft in the head as everybody thought she was.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp