One of My Own ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
When Alvin Goldsmith married Alma Mound and the babies started coming, he knew life for him would always be a struggle. After the first year of marriage, they brought Earl into the world. Then there was Peggy, then Damon, and then a girl they named Storm. After the fourth baby in five years, Alvin said there would be no more. One more would upset the balance.
Alvin had never been smart. He graduated from high school, but just barely. His last two years he was so lax and so lazy that, when he was allowed to graduate with his class, it was an act of generosity. Two weeks after graduation, he went to work in a shoe factory operating a leather press and stayed for thirteen years until the factory shut its doors. After that he painted houses, worked in a lead mine, drove a school bus, worked as a janitor in a church, clerked in a hardware store, did cleanup work in a cemetery, and even for a while worked as a trash collector.
The growing-up years of his quartette of children passed in a kind of blur to Alvin. They were starting to kindergarten and, then, before Alvin knew it, he was putting on his one blue suit that he wore to weddings and funerals and going to their high school graduations. Peggy and Storm were both married by the time they were nineteen and started having babies of their own. Earl, never much interested in the girls, moved to Alaska with a couple of his male friends and got a job there. He sent greeting cards to Alvin and Alma on Christmas and birthdays, but he would never come back home, he said, not even for a visit. He was happy in Alaska and didn’t want to be reminded of his growing-up years.
The only one of the four children that had ever caused Alvin and Alma any trouble was Damon, the third child and the younger of the two boys. As a child, he had temper tantrums in which he pounded his head against the wall. If anybody ever crossed him or kept him from doing what he wanted to do, he went into the kitchen and began taking dishes out of the cabinet and throwing them against the wall and breaking them. He played cruel tricks on his sisters, one time putting a decaying skunk in their bedroom, another time taking some of their clothes and books out into the front yard and setting fire to them. He called his mother vile names and painted obscenities on the wall of his room in his own blood. Alvin and Alma were intent on getting him through high school, after which they considered their duty to him was finished and the boy was on his own.
Damon’s high school years were fraught with trouble and heartache. He was always in trouble at school. He cheated on tests, stole money from girls’ purses, engaged in fistfights on little provocation, threatened to kill a teacher for touching him on the arm. At night, he went out and drank, sometimes not getting home in time to go to school the next morning. He shoplifted cigarettes and small food items. He had been barred from every pharmacy in town because he roamed their aisles and pilfered drugs. Alvin prayed, though he knew he was wrong in doing so, that Damon would take the combination of drugs that would end his own life and in doing so, bring the family tragedy to an end.
Finally, through the grace of God, Damon graduated from high school. He had the lowest grade point average in his class the highest number of days missed, but still he made it through. The entire family attended his graduation and were happy for him. The next day he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He spent six months in the state mental hospital, after which he was said to be cured of whatever had been wrong with him and sent home.
He got a job as an apprentice meat cutter for minimum wage. In the evenings, he would come home wearing his white apron covered with blood, in which he seemed to take pride. Sometimes he brandished a meat cleaver in his mother’s or his father’s face, but they could ignore this as long as he was going to work every day and staying at home in the evenings and watching television and napping in the recliner.
He began dating a checker named Joanne in the supermarket where he worked and, in a few weeks, they announced they were to be married. Joanne was going to have a baby, but she hoped nobody would notice until after the wedding. They rented a small house a few blocks from the supermarket where they both worked and, seven months after they were married, Joanne gave birth to a son, Matthew.
In the year after Matthew’s birth, Damon began going around with other women, barflies and other low types. He stole money from Joanne’s purse, just as he had stolen money from girl’s purses in high school, and he began staying out all night, sometimes being gone for two or three days at a time. When Joanne confronted him over the loss of the rent money, he hit her in the head with a bottle and tried to strangle her. As he held her down on the floor, she slashed him across the face with a steak knife and got away. After that, she quit her job as a checker and took Matthew and went back to her childhood home to live with her widowed mother.
By now, Alvin was sixty-three and, after forty-five years, he had to give up working. He had a heart murmur, a fatty liver, arthritis, asthma, and deteriorating disks in his spine. Every movement for him was painful. He and Alma, sitting at the kitchen table, figured they could get by on what little money they had, since they only had themselves to take care of and didn’t need anything in the way of luxuries.
Just when Alvin was looking forward to not having to go to work every day anymore, his son Damon was once more thrust upon him. Damon had lost his job, his home and his wife. He had no place to lay his head. Alvin and Alma had to take him in. He needed them. They didn’t have any other choice. What parent can turn away a child, no matter how old the child is? They allowed him to move into his old room, telling him they were no longer going to play any more of his old games. He either had to get himself straightened up, or he had to get out.
He did all right for a couple of months but after he started feeling better he was up to his old tricks. He stole his father’s pain medication. He took grocery money from his mother’s purse and used it to buy whiskey. He stayed out all night and slept all day. He was dirty and sloppy and his mother had to pick up after him the same way she had done when he was five years old. Anytime she tried to speak to him in a sensible way to get him to try harder and do better, he called her a meddling old bitch and demanded that she leave him alone so he might live his life the way he saw fit.
When Damon pushed Alma against the refrigerator, causing her to fall and sprain her wrist, Alvin told him he had to get out before the day was through. He would have to make his own way in the world. His parents were no longer responsible for him. He got his things together and left, damning his parents to hell and telling them he’d come back and, when he did, they’d better start saying their prayers.
“Have somebody come and change the locks on the doors tomorrow,” Alvin said to Alma.
Without telling Alvin, Alma took a few lessons on gun safety and how to shoot and, after that, bought a small handgun at a gun shop twenty miles out on the highway. She learned how to load and how to shoot at a moment’s notice. She wouldn’t let Alvin know she had the gun but if he happened to see it, he would know she was only doing what she had to do to protect their lives, which was all they had in the world worth protecting.
Two weeks after Damon left, Alma heard a car door slam out in front of the house just as she was finishing up with the supper dishes. Alvin had gone out to the garage and wouldn’t have heard the door. When she went to the window, she saw Damon coming toward the house carrying a shotgun. She heard him try to open the door and, when his old key wouldn’t work, he began shouting and swearing.
“Go on, now, son!” she called to him. “We’ve already made it clear we don’t want any more trouble with you!”
“Let me in!” he bellowed like a bull.
“No!” she said. “I’m not going to let you in! If you don’t go away and leave us alone, I’ll call the sheriff! I swear I will!”
He banged on the door with his fists and, when she still didn’t open the door, he blasted the lock with his shotgun. It fell away like a cheap plastic toy.
Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the bedroom and got her gun that she kept on the top shelf in her closet, in a place where Alvin would never see it. She ran holding the gun out in front of her and into the front room, where Damon was just coming through the door. When he saw her, he leveled his shotgun at her.
She believed in her heart that he was going to kill her in the next few seconds and after he killed her he’d kill Alvin too. To keep that from happening, she fired one shot at Damon and that’s all it took. The bullet from her gun hit him squarely where his heart was, as if she had been shooting at targets her whole life. He sucked in his breath, fell to the floor and was dead.
The story was in the newspapers and on television. Rural Woman Kills Schizophrenic Son in Self-Defense. No Charges to be Filed.
There were more than two hundred people at the funeral. Everybody heard about the killing and wanted to be part of the excitement. No matter how many people expressed condolences and sincere regrets, Alma was sure that many of them looked upon her with disgust and believed she was a monster for killing her own son. It’s easy to judge people when you don’t know all there is to know.
Alvin wanted to put it all behind him, to live the rest of his life in peace, but Alma couldn’t let it go.
“I would rather have cut off my hand than to lift it against one of my own,” she said.
“No, old girl,” Alvin said. “You did absolutely the right thing. Nobody blames you. If you hadn’t done what you did, you and I would be in our graves right now.”
“When I think about my poor boy and his miserable life, I don’t know if I can stand it,”
“You’ve got to! There’s no other choice.”
“There’s nothing I can ever do to make it up to him now.”
The river ran about a mile behind Alvin and Alma’s house. After three days of rain, she heard talk about how it might flood. She thought about the swirling waters and what a comfort it would be to have them rise over your head and take away all your troubles and all your sins. Like being baptized in the River Jordan.
Not being able to sleep, she got out of bed at three in the morning and slipped a jacket on over her pajamas and stepped into some old boots she kept for rainy weather. She tied a headscarf around her head and got a flashlight out of the kitchen drawer and walked down to the river in the dark and silence, being observed only by an owl or two or a possum.
When she came to the river, she thought she’d be afraid but she wasn’t. Without hesitating, she stepped into the water as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. She kept walking without stopping and when the water was up to her chin and there was only one more step to take, she stopped and looked up into the trees and, just past the trees, at the shining stars. She saw Damon looking down at her from heaven and she heard him whisper the words: Mama, I forgive you.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp