Before You Know I’m Gone ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
All that was left of the family had gathered on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. There was old Mrs. Vandergriff, seventy-six years old, along with her two daughters, Pinky and Rosalie, and Rosalie’s husband, Benny. Pinky still lived with Mrs. Vandergriff in the family home and had never married. She was nearing forty and found life a mostly unhappy affair, although she tried to pretend otherwise. She attended the Methodist church regularly and had worked as a secretary in a law firm downtown since high school. Rosalie was four years younger and, where Pinky was faded, Rosalie was vivid. She wore lots of makeup and had a flashy, expensive wardrobe and lots of expensive jewelry. Benny was proud of the way Rosalie looked, believing it was a reflection on his prosperity.
“Santa has been very good to us this year,” Benny said. “Business has more than doubled.”
He wore an expensive red cashmere sweater and a ridiculous-looking Santa hat on his round, balding head. His face was red from too much wine.
“This is what my lover boy gave me,” Rosalie said. She held up her wrist and flashed a gaudy diamond bracelet.
“She means me!” Benny said and laughed foolishly.
“Oh!” Mrs. Vandegriff exclaimed. “That is just the loveliest thing!”
“It’s very pretty,” Pinky said politely.
“Nothing too good for the little woman!”
He and Rosalie made eyes at each other and clicked their glasses together.
“Pinky and I decided to put our money together and buy a new TV,” Mrs. Vandergriff said, “instead of the usual gifts.”
“That should be nice,” Rosalie said.
“It’s supposed to be delivered this afternoon,” Mrs. Vandergriff said. “No later than four o’clock, they said. I’m very excited!”
“Well, I guess there’s nothing much for you and Pinky to do in the evenings except watch TV, is there?” Benny said.
“I don’t watch much TV,” Pinky said. “I find it’s just always the same.”
“It’ll be a comfort in your old age,” he said. “Hah-hah-hah!”
“Why do you always talk to me like I’m a fool?” Pinky asked, emboldened by the four or five glasses of wine she had consumed.
“He didn’t mean anything by it,” Rosalie said. “He was only making a little joke.”
“No, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “You’re way too sensitive, old girl!”
“Yes, lighten up!” Rosalie said. “It’s Christmas!”
“Don’t forget the trip!” Benny said. “Tell them about the trip, honey!”
“Oh, yes!” Rosalie said. “Benny and I are going to the Bahamas on the twenty-seventh for ten days! We’ll see the new year in on foreign soil. Isn’t it thrilling?”
“How nice!” Mrs. Vandergriff said.
“I’m so happy for you!” Pinky said.
“Of course, we’ll want to bring the kids over here and leave them with the two of you, if that’s all right.”
She looked from Pinky to Mrs. Vandergriff and back again.
“We’ll be glad to have them, won’t we, Pinky?” Mrs. Vandergriff said.
“It seems we don’t have much choice.”
“The kids will get along just fine,” Rosalie said. “Pinky can drop them off at school on her way to work and then pick them up again in the afternoons. We’ll be back home again almost before they know we’re gone.”
“You assume I’ll do anything you want,” Pinky said, “without even asking me if it’s all right.”
Rosalie’s smile faded. “Oh, is there some problem?” she asked.
“I might have plans of my own on those days you want me to ferry your children around.”
“What kind of plans?”
“Never mind!” Benny said. “If she doesn’t want to keep the kids while we’re gone, we’ll make some other arrangements.”
“I’ll keep them,” Mrs. Vandergriff said.
“Yes,” Pinky said, “that’s fine, isn’t it, as long as I do all the work that’s involved?”
“What the matter with you?” Rosalie asked. “Why are you in such a bad mood on Christmas?”
“I think she got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Benny said, “or maybe it’s her time of the month. Haw-haw-haw!”
Pinky didn’t even bother to glare at him but instead said, “I think I’ll call the place that’s delivering the new TV and see how far down on the list we are.”
She could hear them talking about her but couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying as she got up and went into the kitchen. She rinsed out her glass and poured herself some more wine from a bottle in the refrigerator and drank it down.
“They say the delivery truck is on its way and will be here soon,” she said when she went back into the living room. She smiled but didn’t look at Benny.
She had always despised her brother-in-law, from the first day she ever met him. She despised him now more than ever since she heard, by way of the gossip grapevine, that he had a mistress and a love child over in Hecksville. Of course, she was more than willing to believe any bad thing about him. He was just the type, though, to cheat on his wife.
“I was just telling mother how talented Melanie is with her artwork and what a good speller Jordan is,” Rosalie said to Pinky.
“I’m very proud of my grandchildren,” Mrs. Vandergriff said.
“When are you going to give your mother some grandchildren, Pinky?” Benny asked. “Haw-haw-haw!”
“Oh, one of these days,” Pinky said, “I’ll surprise all of you!”
“I’d say the clock is running out for you, old girl!”
Rosalie turned to Benny and pointed her finger in his face. “I think that’s just about enough out of you, mister!” she said.
“What did I say?” Benny said. “Can’t I make a little joke on Christmas? When did you all become so sensitive?”
“Yes, Benny has always been the master of jokes at somebody else’s expense,” Pinky said, trying, but failing, to smile.
“Now, let’s not let this turn into a family brawl,” Rosalie said.
“No brawl, dear,” Pinky said. “Just a little raillery between loving family members. It exists in every family.”
“Well, anyway, as I was saying,” Rosalie said, “I was always a good speller in school and guess Jordan takes after me.”
“A boy shouldn’t be a good speller, though,” Benny said. “A boy should excel at mathematics and sports. Spelling is for girls.”
“That’s just the kind of thinking that causes a lot of insecurity in the world,” Pinky said. “I think any child should follow his or her gifts wherever they lead, even if the world doesn’t approve. People are a lot of damn fools, anyway. You can’t pay any attention to what they say.”
“Now, when I was in school,” Benny said. “I was a track star.”
“He still has all his old medals and newspaper clippings,” Rosalie said.
“I was written up in the paper several times.”
“And was he handsome!” Rosalie said. “All the girls were just crazy about him!”
“I can’t even begin to imagine!” Pinky said.
“What were you good at in high school, Pinky?” Benny asked.
“She always made very good grades,” Mrs. Vandergriff said. “I was always proud of her and she never gave me any trouble.”
“I’ll bet she was the kind of little prude that was always snitching on the other kids. Self-righteous little toady.”
“I never snitched on anybody,” Pinky said. “I was too shy and self-conscious. By seventh grade, I was already five feet eight inches tall, taller than anybody in my class. Of course, everybody caught up with me after that, but for a while I had a terrible time. I would slump my shoulders to try to make myself less tall.”
“All kids have problems, I think,” Rosalie said. “We’ve all been through hell and back.”
Benny laughed and said, “I’ll bet even when Pinky was a little kid, people would look at her and say ‘now here is a natural-born old maid’.”
Mrs. Vandergriff and Rosalie both laughed. Pinky wanted to pick up the andiron and smash his head in with it.
“I’m seeing someone,” Pinky said.
“What did you say?” Rosalie asked.
“I said I’m seeing someone.”
“What? A man?”
“No, it’s a department store mannequin!” Benny said. “Hah-hah-hah-hah!”
“Shut up!” Rosalie said. “I think you’re bordering on cruelty now.”
“Don’t you tell me to shut up! I’m still boss here.” He doubled up his fist and made as if to hit Rosalie in the face but ended up grabbing and kissing her.
“Stop it, you brute! You’re messing up my lipstick!”
“Isn’t that what it’s for? To mess up?”
“Oh, you are impossible!”
“You love me, though! You know you do! Haw-haw-haw!”
“When did you start laughing like a hyena?” Pinky asked. “Isn’t that something new?”
“Oh, he’s just happy!” Rosalie said. “He laughs that way all the time. I’ve learned to ignore it.”
“It’s better to be happy than unhappy!” he said.
“I have lots of happiness in my life,” Pinky said. “As I said, I’m seeing somebody.”
“Who is he?” Rosalie asked. “Where does he live? When do we get to meet him?”
“It’s going to be a surprise,” Pinky said.
“Is he in town? Does he live here? He’s not a married man, is he?”
“Poor sap, whoever he is!” Benny said. “He has my sympathy! Haw-haw-haw-haw!”
“Do you think the two of you might get married?” Rosalie asked.
“Well, you can never tell!” Pinky said, downing another glass of wine.
Finally, the truck from Higginbotham’s Department Store arrived with the TV. The delivery man brought the thing into the house in a big box on a wheeled cart and set it down in the middle of the floor.
“You’re going to get it going for us, aren’t you?” Mrs. Vandergriff asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” the man said. “First things first.”
He took off his coat and hat and put them on a chair. On getting a closer look at him, Pinky realized he was somebody she used to know in high school. His name, she remembered, was Frankie Dutton. He had changed a lot since high school but not so much that she didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t handsome but he was pleasant-looking and clean. When he looked at Pinky and then looked away, she knew he didn’t remember her.
Mrs. Vandergriff and Rosalie sat and watched Frankie Dutton as he stripped the cardboard away and set up the TV in the time-honored corner where the old one was. He connected the wires, made some adjustments with his little tools and then turned it on. Mrs. Vandergriff and Rosalie sat back and marveled at how clear the picture was.
“I think that’ll just about do it,” he said. “If you have any problems with it, call Higginbotham’s and let us know. Of course, we’ll be closed all day tomorrow since it’s Christmas Day.”
He cleared away the papers and cardboard, put his tools away and put his coat and hat back on. Pinky walked with him to the door and then out onto the porch.
“You’re Frankie Dutton, aren’t you?” she said, making sure the door was closed all the way.
“Used to be Frankie,” he said. “It’s Frank now.”
“I knew you in high school,” she said. “I recognized you as soon as you came into the house.”
“Oh, yeah! I thought something about you was familiar.”
“I’m Pinky Vandergriff.”
“Of course! I remember now. You were a cheerleader, weren’t you?”
“No, I was never a cheerleader. You’re thinking of somebody else.”
“Can you refresh my memory?” he asked.
“I was the good girl that nobody remembers.”
“I remember now. You fell down the steps at school once and broke your leg, didn’t you?”
“It was my arm, but at least you remember my fall.”
“Well, it’s always good to see somebody from high school again after all this time.”
He started to walk away and she touched him on the forearm.
“Are you in a hurry?” she asked.
“Not especially,” he said. “This is my last delivery for the day. I get to go home now.”
“I’ll give you a tip of a hundred dollars if you pretend to be somebody you’re not for a few minutes while I introduce you to my family.”
“Is it some kind of a Christmas joke?” he asked.
“I just want to tell them that you and I have known each other since high school, that we’ve been ‘seeing’ each other for a while and are going out on a date tonight.”
“I guess I can do that,” he said. “Then what?”
“The two of us will leave together in your truck. You’ll drop me off at the Chester Lodge and then you’ll go home. You know where the Chester Lodge is, don’t you?”
“Then you’ll do it? For a hundred dollars?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t think of any reason not to,” he said.
She took him back into the house and, arm through his, introduced him to Mrs. Vandergriff, Rosalie and Benny as her old friend Frank Dutton.
“What exactly is his relationship to you?” Mrs. Vandergriff asked.
“We’ve known each other since high school,” Pinky said. “We’ve been ‘going out’ for some time.”
Frank played the part perfectly. He shook their hands, smiled pleasantly, and wished them a merry Christmas.
“Well, I must say I’m rather surprised,” Rosalie said, “that you have a beau and never mentioned it until now.”
“Well, we’d better get going,” Frank said, smiling down at Pinky
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Vandergriff asked.
“We’re going out together on a date, mother!” Pinky said.
She went upstairs and got her coat and hat and when she came down again, Benny and Frank were talking about a recent football game. Frank snapped to attention the way a boyfriend should, opened the door for her, and the two of them went outside and left in his truck.
The Chester Lodge was on the edge of town, a very sedate and expensive little hotel. Frank pulled his truck up as close to the door as he could get because it had started to snow.
“How’s this?” he asked.
“Perfect,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out.”
She tried to give him the hundred-dollar bill that she always kept in her wallet for emergencies, but he wouldn’t take it. “A favor for an old friend who sometimes falls down stairs,” he said.
She laughed as she got out of his truck. After she watched him drive off in the snowy gloom, she went into the lobby of the hotel and was happy to discover they had one room left just for her.
She took a hot bath, ordered an expensive meal from room service, and watched TV as she ate. When she was finished eating, she got into bed and continued to watch until after midnight.
In the morning, Christmas morning, she took a cab home. Her mother was waiting for her at the door.
“Are you all right?” her mother asked anxiously.
“Yes, why wouldn’t I be?” Pinky said. “I’m all grown up now.”
“You spent the night with him?”
“You’re not allowed to ask questions like that,” she said. “Adults respect the privacy of other adults.”
All the family came for Christmas dinner; she knew they were whispering about her and wondering, but she didn’t care. She helped her mother with the cooking and remained silent. When Rosalie took her aside and asked her if Frank would be joining them for dinner, she smiled sadly and looked away in a manner to suggest she didn’t want to talk about it.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp