If I Knew You Were Coming ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Crumb was eighty-five and had more cobwebs in her head than in the basement and attic combined. She could no longer be trusted to stay at home by herself. She had been known to leave the front door open in the winter and then wonder why it was so cold in the house, or to turn the burners on in the kitchen and let dangerous amounts of gas escape into the room before she noticed the blue flame hadn’t come on the way it was supposed to. Her daughter, Lucy Ethel, age sixty-three, left her latest husband in the city and went to live with Mrs. Crumb in her old-fashioned house on a corner lot in a small and not very prosperous town a good five-hour drive away by automobile.
Lucy Ethel had smothering emphysema from a lifetime of smoking Camel cigarettes, but her more immediate problem was her fragile nerves. She took little yellow pills her doctor had prescribed, sometimes twice the number she was supposed to but, still, no matter how many pills she took, her mother tried her nerves almost beyond endurance. They had never been on the best of terms, anyway, and it was an almost impossible situation with them both living under the same roof. Mrs. Crumb was stubborn on principle and refused to do almost everything Lucy Ethel tried to get her to do. If it was mealtime, she wasn’t hungry and refused to eat; time to go to bed, she refused to get undressed. Lucy Ethel thought at times about taking the whole bottle of yellow pills at once and getting into her big four-poster bed and going to sleep and never waking up.
“I’m not a well woman,” Lucy Ethel was fond of saying to anybody that would listen. “I still have my own life to live.”
To have an occasional “day off,” Lucy Ethel had to engage the services of a “woman” who was willing to spend a day, or at least part of an afternoon, sitting with an impossible old woman and keeping her from doing any harm to herself or to the house. When Mrs. Ida Lehigh answered Lucy Ethel’s newspaper ad the first day it appeared, she seemed ideal; she had sat with old people before, she said, had some nursing experience, and lived only a short distance away. Lucy Ethel would have to pay for her to take a cab, though; Mrs. Lehigh was fat, had painful varicose veins, and wasn’t able to walk very far.
“I guess we can manage the cab fare,” Lucy Ethel blatted into the phone, delighted that she had found the right person so easily and on the first day.
On Saturday, Lucy Ethel was going to see the dentist, meet a friend for lunch and see a two o’clock matinee movie with said friend. She arranged with Ida Lehigh to come on that day.
Lucy Ethel was gratified that Ida Lehigh arrived on time on Saturday morning but a little dismayed to see that she had brought along her thirteen-year-old daughter, Stella Lehigh.
“She won’t cause no trouble,” Ida said. “I can’t leave her at home by herself. She gets into too much mischief.”
Stella Lehigh was a pale, skeletal girl with a permanent scowl on her face and dark circles around her eyes. Refusing to say hello to Lucy Ethel or to Mrs. Crumb, she slumped down on the couch and crossed her arms, looking bored.
“We’ll all get along just fine!” Ida gushed. “We’re going to have a fine time, aren’t we? Everything will be just fine.”
“I’ll be back around six,” Lucy Ethel said.
“Don’t give us a thought!” Ida said. “We’ll all be just fine!”
“Do you mean I have to stay here all day until six o’clock?” Stella asked her mother.
“Well, you need to find something to do,” Ida said, dropping her cheery manner. “Why don’t you go outside and twiddle your thumbs?”
“I don’t want to go outside!” Stella said. “I didn’t want to come here in the first place!”
“Well, sit there and be miserable, then! I don’t care!”
Mrs. Lehigh had eight children. The oldest was middle-aged. Stella at thirteen was the youngest. Mr. Lehigh had been dead for many years, a victim of sour stomach and poor circulation.
“This is a lovely house,” Ida piped to Mrs. Crumb. “They just don’t build them like this no more, do they?”
“It came to me when my second husband died,” Mrs. Crumb said.
“What did he die of?” Stella asked.
“Stella!” Ida said. “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that!”
“Well, I just wondered!”
“I was widowed twice,” Mrs. Crumb said. “My first husband was thirty-eight when he died. We had three children. Only one is still living.”
“Well, it must have been a comfort to you to have this lovely home when they passed.”
“Would you like a piece of butterscotch?” Mrs. Crumb asked. “I like to sit here and suck on a butterscotch because I don’t have anything else to do.”
“No, thank you, dear!” Ida said.
“I hate butterscotch!” Stella said.
“My daughter gets it for me at the store,” Mrs. Crumb said.
Stella rolled her eyes and sighed with impatience. “If you want to talk about something real,” she said, addressing herself to Mrs. Crumb, “I have sleep apnea. I could die in my sleep any night.”
“There’s no reason to talk about that now,” Ida said. “Nobody wants to hear about that.”
“Well, I don’t know why the hell not! I think it’s very interesting because it’s about me!”
“Well, the world doesn’t revolve around you, now, does it?” Ida said. “And I told you to not to use that filthy language!”
“Hey, I have to go to the bathroom!” Stella said. “Where is it?”
“It’s back through there, I guess,” Ida said, pointing over Mrs. Crumb’s head. “And don’t break nothing, either.”
“I always like to look at people’s bathrooms,” Stella said. She smiled and stood up and went toward the back of the house.
“Kids!” Ida said to Mrs. Crumb apologetically. “This one has certainly been a handful of trouble, let me tell you!”
“What?” Mrs. Crumb said.
“From the time she was born, she was trouble with a capital T, morning, noon and night. She would lie in her crib and scream all day long and all through the night. I said to my husband, I said, ‘I’m not havin’ any more children because I’m afraid they’ll be just like her’. We had eight by that time and he didn’t care if we had another dozen because I did all the work of takin’ care of them. He made the livin’ and that was all he ever did. I guess that’s not inconsequential, when you think about. Feedin’ all those mouths.”
“My second husband and I owned a grocery,” Mrs. Crumb said, “but it went bankrupt.”
“Now, let me tell you,” Ida said, “Stella has had a rough time of it in school. From the time she started to kindergarten, she had behavioral problems and learning problems and all kind of other problems. I’m sure I don’t know why the Lord burdened me with that one. He must think I’m guilty of some terrible iniquity. And then, if that’s not bad enough, the kids at school bully her and call her frog legs and bone mama and names like that because she’s so thin. Kids can be so cruel, as I’m sure you know. She was having nightmares for a while from the terrible way she was treated at school. I went to the principal of the school and said, ‘if you won’t do something to see that my little girl is treated better, I’m going to take her out of here’. And don’t think I wouldn’t do it, neither!”
“Better not to have any,” Mrs. Crumb said.
“What, honey?” Ida asked.
“I said it’s probably better. Not to have any children.”
“Oh, I don’t know. They’re a comfort to you in your old age, I suppose, but I guess you know that better than anybody else since your daughter lives with you and takes such good care of you.”
“She can’t stay married,” Mrs. Crumb said. “She’s been married a bunch of times. I think it’s six. I’ve lost count. She was married to one of her husbands twice.”
“Well, my goodness!” Ida said. “You’d never know it to look at her. She’s such a nice lady.”
“My son was an alcoholic and died young. Married two times.”
“Tsk-tsk-tsk! Isn’t that a shame! Well, I guess we learn tribulation from our children if nothing else.”
Stella came back into the room, wiping her hands on her hips. “That bathroom stinks!” she said. “I think you’ve got a skunk under the floor in there.”
“Miss Crumb was just telling me about the trouble she’s had with her children,” Ida said as Stella positioned herself back on the couch.
“I’m not having any of the little son-of-a-bitches,” Stella said.
“That’s a mean thing to say,” Ida said, “and you shouldn’t say it because you don’t know what the future holds for you. Whenever you have them, you’ll see there’s nothing more precious in the whole wide world.”
“I just remembered,” Stella said. “Today is my birthday.”
“No, it ain’t,” Ida said. “Your birthday is in April. This is October.”
“I can make today my birthday if I want, can’t I?”
“No, you can’t! It’s just another way you have of trying to make yourself the center of attention.”
Stella looked at Ida with contempt. “Oh, you’re insane!” she said.
“I’m insane? If I’m insane, what does that make you?”
“I’m the only sane person in the family. I’m going places and doing things. I’m not going to stay around this dead old town and be like the rest of you!”
“Well, you’d better get started then, missy!” Ida said. “I’m ready to sign the papers!”
“Oh, you make me sick, you old fool!” Stella said.
Ida stood up, took three elephantine steps, and in one deft, fluid motion, slapped Stella across the mouth. “I don’t want to hear another peep out of you for the rest of the day!” she said.
At noontime, Ida went into the kitchen to fix lunch, leaving Stella alone to “visit” with Mrs. Crumb.
Stella and Mrs. Crumb looked at each other from across the room. “My mother says you’re a tiresome old woman,” Stella said after a while.
“She’s tiresome, too,” Mrs. Crumb said.
“Don’t I know it! And did you ever see anybody talk so much and not say anything at all? She’s like a big gas balloon with a leak. And did you ever see anybody so fat in all your life? Lord God! I’m embarrassed to be seen walking down the street with her.”
“Call you a cab,” Mrs. Crumb said.
“Did you know I have a boyfriend?” Stella asked. “I bet you’re kind of surprised to hear that about me, aren’t you? He’s sixteen and he has his driver’s license. He hasn’t got his own car yet, but he can borrow his brother’s car any time he wants to. He’s coming to pick me up tonight. My mother doesn’t want me to go out with him, so I’ll tell her I’m going to a girl party at a friend’s house. She’ll never know the difference. And me and my boyfriend? We’ll drive out someplace to a secluded, romantic spot, and when we’re sure there’s nobody else around we’ll get into the back seat and make love. Doesn’t that sound romantic? I’m a very romantic person, but I guess you can tell that by looking at me.”
“Lunch is on the table!” Ida called from the kitchen. “Stella, make yourself useful and help Mrs. Crumb out of her chair!”
Lunch was canned beef stew and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches made with strawberry jam. Ida had cut the sandwiches diagonally so that each one was a little triangle.
“I don’t like beef stew,” Stella said, sitting down at the table.
“Go hungry, then!” Ida said. “I don’t care!”
The little triangular sandwiches were to her liking, though, and she ate until the plate was empty and drank a large quantity of orange juice.
Mrs. Crumb ate about as much as a mouse would eat and when she finished eating she was sleepy, so Ida took her into her bedroom, took off her shoes, and covered her up on the bed with a quilt.
Back in the kitchen, while Ida was washing the pan she heated the stew in, she asked Stella in a soft voice, “Did you take anything a while ago when you got up and went to the bathroom?”
“Just a pair of little gold earrings.”
“If that daughter of hers knows you stole something from the house, she won’t want me to come back and, believe me, it’s easy money and I’d hate to lose it.”
“Oh, don’t excited! They’re not going to miss some stupid old earrings.”
“I ought to make you put them back where you found them.”
“Not on your life! You get paid for sitting around this dump all day. Isn’t my time worth something? Don’t you think I ought to get something out of it. I’ll be lucky to get ten dollars for those earrings. I’m not even sure if they’re real gold or not.”
“Well, you be careful is all I’m telling you. Don’t get caught stealing.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I know how to do things.”
“You’re just an old thief. It breaks my heart to have such a child.”
“You get what you can,” Stella said. “That’s the number-one rule.”
When Lucy Ethel returned home, she was relaxed and in a happy frame of mind. She paid Ida for the day, including cab fare, and Ida and Stella put on their coats to go home.
Before Stella went out the door, she put her arms around Mrs. Crumb’s neck and gave her a squeeze. “I hope you’ll let me come and visit you again real soon, you sweet old thing!”
The sweet old thing gave Stella a confused look and shook her head. She couldn’t remember ever seeing this girl before in her life.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp