The Percy Costellos ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This short story is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” posted on September 4, and “The Celestial City,” posted on Sept. 16.)
She was without illusion. She was ugly. She would never be anything but ugly. Ugly was not without its compensations, though. People didn’t ask her for directions or to lift things down for them at the grocery story; they looked through her as if she wasn’t there. She had heard about women (mostly from watching the eye, which she didn’t bother with much, anymore) having terrible problems with boyfriends and husbands, or just men in general. And, then, of course, there were the children that resulted from the relationships with these men; the children were a whole different set of problems that one might avoid by being ugly. She didn’t choose to be ugly; it was just the way things happened. If she had been given a choice, would she have chosen to be beautiful with all its attendant problems? No, she would have chosen not to be born at all.
Shakespeare might have had any of a dozen women at the mannequin factory—and not just mannequin women, either, but real ones. He was, if not exactly good-looking, at least passable, with a good smile, abundant hair, clean fingernails and a flat stomach. Why he would pay any attention at all to Elma the Ugly was beyond her ken.
She was sitting at her desk when he came in and placed a chocolate bar with nuts in front of her. Her first instinct was to say she didn’t want it, but when she saw the way he was smiling at her she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“What’s this for?” she asked.
“You don’t like chocolate?” he asked.
“Because we’re friends.”
“No, we’re not.”
Her voice didn’t have quite the edge that it had before. She was softening toward him.
“Have lunch with me today,” he said.
“I never eat lunch.”
“I have something I want to discuss with you.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Mr. Hilyer is out of town at a mannequin convention.”
“Nobody will know if you step out for lunch today.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’ll come by about a quarter to twelve. We’ll go to a spaghetti place I know.”
“I don’t like spaghetti.”
“I’ll see you at a quarter to twelve.”
She spent ten minutes in the ladies’ fluffing up her hair and painting her lips with a lipstick she had taken to carrying around with her. At a quarter to twelve, her heart was pounding and she felt nauseated.
He showed up exactly on time and she was waiting for him.
The spaghetti restaurant was a ten-minute walk from the mannequin factory. He walked leisurely, as if he had all day. She worried about how much time she was going to be away from the mannequin factory but said nothing.
Over a plate of spaghetti, he leaned forward and said, “You look different now. Better.”
“There is no reason for you to make personal remarks about the way I look,” she said.
“You saw the Celestial City,” he said. “That’s why you look different.”
“I will admit that I took the stupid pill you gave me because I was feeling very bad.”
“And you were looking for an escape.”
“I thought I was going to die and I wouldn’t have cared much if I had.”
“You saw the Celestial City.”
“I saw something. I don’t know what it was. I won’t ever do it again.”
“It made you feel better, though, didn’t it?”
“I don’t know why I don’t call the police and report you for the drug dealer that you are.”
“That’s not what I am.”
“I have to get back to the mannequin factory. I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Nobody will know you’re gone.”
“Thanks for the lunch,” she said. “Let’s not do it again.”
“I have something important I want to discuss with you,” he said.
“No matter what you have to say, I don’t want to hear it.”
“I want you to meet me after work on Friday.”
“How do I know you won’t murder me?”
He surprised her by laughing. “If I wanted to murder you,” he said, “I could have already done it. Remember, I know where you live.”
“Let’s just forget the whole thing,” she said. “Forget you’ve ever seen me. Forget you know where I live.”
“It’s about your parents.”
“You don’t know anything about them. They keep to themselves and so do I.”
“I don’t want to say more now than what I’ve already said. Meet me on Friday at five o’clock.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“Yes, you will.”
He was waiting for her at the door as she exited the mannequin factory on Friday. She sighed when she saw him but went with him to his Cadillac.
He drove out of the city into the country and stopped at an old cemetery, the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost.
“Is this where you’re going to kill me?” she said.
“If I was going to kill you, this would probably be the place to do it,” he said.
They got out of the car and he led her past a myriad of grave monuments, down a hill and then up another hill to a recent grave that didn’t have a headstone. The dirt was still mounded up and there were some remnants of old flowers.
“I need to get home,” she said. “I have things to do.”
“I’ll bet you’d never guess whose grave this is,” he said.
“No, and I don’t care.”
“It’s my mother. She died almost four months ago.”
“All right. Now that we’ve seen it, can we go?”
“Not just yet. She made me promise before she died that I’d find you and tell you the truth.”
“The truth about what?”
“Let’s find someplace to sit down.”
“I’d rather stand. That way I’m closer to leaving.
“Suit yourself. Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Do I have a choice, now that you’ve dragged me out here?”
“Your father is Percy Costello and your mother is Estelle Costello? Is that right?”
“How do you know their names?”
“When my mother was young, she was a baby snatcher and she was never caught.”
“She was a what?”
“Just let me explain. She made her living as a baby snatcher. She was never married to my father and she needed money to raise me.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Percy and Estelle Costello are not your real parents.”
“Are you crazy? What are you talking about?”
“When you were nine months old, my mother kidnapped you from your real parents and sold you to Percy and Estelle for a thousand dollars.”
“That’s not true.”
“The police looked for you but after about three years they figured you were dead and gave up. Your real parents were dead by then, anyway, killed in a plane crash, so there was no reason to keep up the search.”
“I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”
“My mother told me all about it from the time I was old enough to understand. She never stopped feeling guilty over it. She used to sit at night and cry about it. She had newspaper clippings about your disappearance as a baby and how the police never had any leads.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Your real name is Paulette Merriman. Your father was a policeman and your mother a high school teacher. You were an only child. You lived in Lincoln, Nebraska.”
“I was never in Nebraska.”
“Percy and Estelle wanted you to help around the house because they had trouble walking and doing things for themselves. They promised my mother they would never mistreat you and would give you a good home, like a puppy or a kitten. She told them she’d keep an eye on them to make sure they kept up their end of the bargain. If there was any reason for her to think you were being neglected or mistreated, she threatened to go to the police and tell them the whole story.”
“I think you have me confused with somebody else. I never knew anybody named Paulette Merriman. That’s not my name.”
“When I was in high school, we lived about three blocks from you and we both went to the same school. I used to see you at school every day. You were so shy you wouldn’t even look at me.”
“I don’t remember.”
“My mother used to park on the street and watch you go in and out of your house. She would ask me almost every day if I saw you at school. She would want to know what you were wearing and if you seemed clean and happy.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That you were like a little mouse afraid of being eaten by the cat.”
“I don’t believe any of this.”
“There was an English teacher with a fake nose. Her name was Miss Jilson. I’ll bet you remember her, don’t you?”
“That doesn’t mean you went to the same school.”
“A boy a grade ahead of us got drunk and passed out on the highway at midnight and was hit by a car and killed. Everybody talked about it for weeks.”
“Ellis Persons,” she said. “That was his name.”
“Now do you think I’m lying?”
“Just because you know about Ellis Persons isn’t proof that what you’re saying is true.”
“Just think about what I’ve told you. I think it’ll all start to make sense after a while.”
“You’re a liar. Take me home now.”
“Ask Percy and Estelle if they’re your real parents. Ask to see your birth certificate. Ask them where you were born and when.”
“They’d only pretend they don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d never get the truth out of them.”
“Didn’t you always having the feeling there was something missing in the way Percy and Estelle behaved toward you? They didn’t mistreat you, but not mistreating you was the only good thing you could say about them.”
“How do you know so much about it? I want to go home now.”
On the way back to town, despite her objections, he stopped at a road house. They went inside and sat at a back booth, had chili and ribs. The place was quiet. She had her first beer out of a bottle and then a second.
She didn’t say anything for a long time and then she said, “All these years I’ve cleaned up after them, taken them their snacks, breathed their cigarette smoke, helped them to bed and to the toilet, and I’m not even related to them.”
“So, do you believe me now?”
“If it’s true—and I’m going to have to see some proof—I’m going to kill them.”
“No, you’re not. You’d go to prison.”
“Not if I do it right.”
“I have eighteen thousand dollars. That’s enough for you to go far away and live decently until you can find a job.”
“I don’t want money from you.”
“It’s not from me. It’s from the person who kidnapped you and ruined your life. I told her I’d see that you got it. She thought it would square her in heaven.”
He didn’t take her home until eleven o’clock, and when he pulled up in front of her house he shut off the engine.
“I want you to see my people,” Elma said.
“Percy and Estelle?”
“No. I mean my real people upstairs in my room.”
Momma and Poppa were sitting in front of the eye, puffing away in a fog of cigarette smoke. When Elma came into the house with a person they didn’t know and had never seen before, they didn’t even look up.
“Get me some cheese crackers!” Momma said.
“About out of smokes here!” Poppa said.
“Good evening, sir!” Shakespeare said. “How are you, ma’am?”
“They don’t hear you,” Elma said. “They’re in a trance. That’s what the eye does to them. And the Marlboros.”
“This is no way for a person to live,” Shakespeare said.
After Elma got Momma and Poppa the things they wanted, she took Shakespeare up the winding stairs to the rooms above and, once they were inside, she locked the door.
Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for the mannequins was equal to Elma’s own. He admired all the figures in her collection, their clothes and especially the way their faces made you feel that everything was going to be all right.
“I paint their faces, you know,” he said. “They speak to me in my dreams.”
Frankie, in the bed in the silk pajamas, was her favorite, she said. She pulled back the covers and picked Frankie up and set him on his feet beside the bed.
“I have another pair,” she said. “I want you to put them on and take Frankie’s place tonight.”
She took a pair of yellow-and-red silk pajamas out of the dresser drawer and handed them to Shakespeare. As he undressed, she turned away and prepared herself for bed.
So now she lay in bed, with Shakespeare beside her in Frankie’s favorite silk pajamas. She turned off the light and lay back and pulled the covers up to her chin. She didn’t need the Celestial City or anything else as long as he was there beside her, living and breathing.
(To be continued.)
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp