Thick Ankles ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He heard her voice downstairs and recognized her tread across the floor. She’d be up—he knew it—but it would take a long time, she had grown so fat. He smelled her awful perfume already; the whole house would smell of it long after she had left. He counted to himself the seconds it would take her to get up the stairs. He heard her pulling herself up by the banister; heard her huffing, her joints creaking. He pretended to be asleep, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Before he was ready, she burst into the room like a steer out of a chute, throwing out her arms like the winner in a beauty pageant. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she had thrown some kisses.
“Uncle Hale!” she almost screamed. “You old rascal! How in the heck are you doing today?”
He opened his eyes and managed a weak smile. “How do you think?” he asked. “Now that you’re here, I’m worse than ever.”
“Always the joker!” she said. “You’ll be cracking jokes right up until the very end, won’t you?”
“What can I do for you today, Pert?” he asked. “You must want something or you wouldn’t be here.”
“Well, can’t a girl pay her old uncle a visit?”
He gestured toward her wide hips as if to indicate a girl was not the thing she was, but she didn’t catch the implication. Instead she plopped herself down in the nearest chair and placed her patent leather pocketbook daintily over her broad thighs.
“I swear!” Uncle Hale said, looking down at her feet. “Your ankles are as thick as logs.”
Suddenly Pert was solemn. “Well, if you must know,” she said, “they’re swollen.”
“Why are they swollen?”
“They’re swollen with worry.”
He laughed. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that condition. Usually worry makes your stomach hurt or your hair turn gray. Worry doesn’t usually make your ankles swell.”
“Well, a lot you know.”
“Where’s Alveda?” he asked. “I want her in the room.”
“Why?” Pert asked.
“Because if she’s in the room, plopping up the pillows and taking my temperature every few minutes, you won’t be inclined to stay so long.”
“I left her downstairs,” Pert said. “I told her she didn’t need to show me up.”
“Well, I want her here, or you’re going to have to leave.”
“I want my nurse with me, that’s why.”
“She’s not really a nurse,” Pert said, but she stood up and went out of the room to the head of the stairs and screamed down: “Alveda! He wants you in the room! For some reason that only God knows!”
When she went back into the room, Uncle Hale was shaking his head. “A voice like that ought to win you a first-place ribbon in a hog-calling contest.”
“Well, I’m sure I didn’t come here to be insulted,” she said, taking her handkerchief out of her pocketbook and fanning it in front of her face.
“Which brings us back to the original question,” he said. “Why are you here?”
“David’s in trouble again. We need to get him a lawyer.”
“What is it this time?”
“Well, the kids were drinking and having a barbecue or something. There was a rape. There were about five boys. David was one of them. They all say the girl was willing, but after she got back to town she wasn’t so willing anymore. She went to the sheriff’s office and charges were filed.”
“And David is innocent, I suppose?”
“He says he didn’t do anything. He was just there, he says. Never laid a finger or any other part of his anatomy on the girl.”
“Of course, that’s the story he would tell to his mother.”
“It’s serious this time, Uncle Hale. We need to get him a good lawyer. No mother wants to see her child in prison.” She sniffled into her hankie. “That’s why my ankles are swollen.”
Alveda, Uncle Hale’s nurse, pushed open the door and came into the room just as Pert was working herself up into a good cry. Pert immediately stiffened her back to let Alveda know she disliked her.
“Did you want something, Mr. Hale?” Alveda asked.
“I want you in the room so this old heifer will go away and leave me alone.”
Alveda smiled at his little joke and took a seat in a chair against the wall on the other side of the room that was hardly ever sat upon.
Pert managed a little laugh so that Alveda would know his calling her an old heifer didn’t bother her in the least. “I’d be careful who you’re calling names,” she said airily. “I could think of a few to call you too, old man, without trying very hard.”
“It’s true,” Uncle Hale said. “I am an old man. Nobody will dispute that fact. I remember when you were born. I was thirteen years old. You were my brother Ivan’s child. He was eleven years older than me. So, if I’m eighty-three now and I was thirteen when you were born, that means you’re seventy years old now.”
“What of it?” Pert asked.
“Well, if you call me old, that means I can call you old, too.”
“So what? It’s all in good fun.”
“So, that’s your idea of fun? Me calling you old and you calling me old?”
“For your information, I’m not seventy yet, not until November. I’m sixty-nine.”
“Well, that makes all the difference in the world, then, doesn’t it?”
“I didn’t come here to talk about my age,” Pert said. “I need eighteen thousand dollars and I need it bad.”
“Good God!” Uncle Hale said. “Is that how much it takes to retain a lawyer in a rape case?”
“It’s not just for a lawyer. It’s for other expenses, too.”
“What other expenses?”
“I have doctor bills.”
“You’ve had to see a doctor?”
The tears started flowing again and she dabbed at each eye in turn with her hankie. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’m dying.”
“What is it this time?”
“I have a terribly weak heart.”
“Too many cigarettes.”
“I had to give up smoking.”
“If you’d lose a couple hundred pounds,” he said, “your heart would be able to pump blood the way it’s supposed to.”
“Please stop joking for one moment and listen to me,” she said. “The doctor has given me no more than six months to live.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s not so much myself that I care about. It’s David. I’m all he has in the world. I’m afraid I’ll die while he’s in this rape mess and there won’t be anybody to help him through it.”
“How old is David now?”
“Most men age thirty-nine no longer rely on their mothers to pull them along through life.”
“David is not like others,” she said. “He was a breach birth. He came out feet first. The doctor thought he would die right away but he survived and I think the only reason he survived was because he had a mother like me.”
“And he’s been nothing but trouble ever since.”
“Having children is like a game of roulette. You spin the wheel and you don’t know what you’ll get. You hope they turn out well and most of the time they do, but when they don’t you have to take the bad with the good and help them through whatever mess they make of their lives.”
“Very sad,” Uncle Hale said, “but I’m not going to give you eighteen thousand dollars.”
The tears came out in a torrent then. “Why the hell not?” she sobbed. “You’re all the family that David and I have left in the world. I have nobody else to turn to for help.”
“Forget the expensive lawyer,” Uncle Hale said. “If David is innocent, a court-appointed attorney will be good enough.”
“I’m afraid that’s too risky! I abhor the thought of dying with my son in the penitentiary and not even being able to stand beside my grave as they lower my body into the cold ground.”
“Find out who the girl is. The victim in the rape case.”
“I already know who she is. Her name is Willie Walls.”
“More than likely a tramp. She probably makes it a practice of accusing men of raping her.”
“What’s your point, Uncle Hale? You’re making me sick to my stomach talking about that terrible woman.”
“Offer her a thousand dollars to drop the case. I’ll bet that’s more money than she ever dreamed of owning in her life.”
“Why would she drop the case for a thousand dollars?”
“She’ll be exposed in court. They’ll bring up her past to discredit her. She’ll be exposed for what she really is and will lose the case and end up with nothing. If she’s offered a thousand dollars to drop the case, she’ll be spared the embarrassment of a trial and she’ll have a thousand dollars to boot.”
“I don’t know if I would try that or not,” Pert said.
“So you want to throw away thousands on a lawyer if you don’t have to?”
“I just don’t know what’s best! I’m at the end of my tether!”
“I’ve given you what I consider sound advice. That’s the best I can do.”
“Advice is one thing, but I need money! Money is the oil that greases the machinery of the world.”
“What machinery are we talking about, Pert?”
“You have this big house and I know you have plenty in stocks and securities.”
“You don’t know any such thing.”
“Are you planning on taking it with you when you die? David and I are all the family you have left. You might as well spend some of it to help us now instead of leaving it to those who don’t deserve it.”
“Once again, Pert, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s not as if I’ve ever asked you for much. It seems like now, when I’m pushed absolutely to the wall, you’d be able to help me out a little bit.”
“Eighteen thousand is not a little bit, dear. It’s a considerable sum of money. And if I gave you the eighteen thousand now, you’d be back again in no time with your hand extended even farther.”
“That is so mean and ungenerous of you, Uncle Hale! I will just never understand how you can be so heartless.”
All this time Alveda had been sitting across the room, her arm leaning on the occasional table next to the chair on which she sat, her attention divided between looking out the window at the street and the conversation going on in the room. Uncle Hale motioned for her to get up and cross the room to his bed.
“My niece is just leaving, Alveda,” he said. “You can show her out and make sure she understands that she won’t be admitted to this house again if she’s going to ask me for money.”
Alveda looked at Pert, but Pert remained sitting.
“Just what are you planning on doing with this house and all its furnishings after you die?” Pert asked. “At your advanced age, it must have crossed your mind at least once or twice.”
“I don’t think it’s necessary for me to divulge my business dealings to you,” Uncle Hale said.
“You are a mean, nasty, contemptible old man!”
“Good bye, dear! Drive carefully on your way home. Don’t let your heart fail you while you’re driving in traffic.”
“I want to know! Who are you going to leave your house and money to when you die? David and I are your only family! Isn’t it just right and natural that we should get everything?”
“You just informed me that you have six months to live. Why would you be concerned about inheriting a house?”
“It’s for David, you dolt!”
“So he can have drinking parties in it or turn it into a brothel? Maybe sell it on the cheap to support his drug habit?”
“You don’t know David. He’s a fine boy.”
“I’ve made Alveda my power of attorney, in all matters pertaining to my health and finances.”
“She’s worked for me for more than three years, always doing what is required without complaint. She knows the meaning of loyalty, if nobody in my family does. Because of her faithfulness and her great help to me in the face of my declining health, I’ve signed the house over to her. When I die, she and her four fatherless children will make this house their home. And I trust they’ll be very happy here.”
“What? People like that don’t belong in a house like this!”
“People like what?”
“People from Shantytown!”
“Haven’t you heard? A law has been passed. People from Shantytown can live anywhere now.”
“I won’t let you get away with this! I’ll engage a lawyer. I’ll have you declared incompetent! I’ll fight you in a court of law. You can’t disinherit your only kin!”
“Be careful going down the stairs, dear. I know your girth makes stairs difficult for you to negotiate.”
“I’ll show you out, ma’am,” Alveda said.
“Don’t bother yourself!” Pert snapped.
They heard Pert going down the stairs and then the front door slam.
“Go to the window and watch her,” Uncle Hale said. “Make sure she gets into her car and drives away. She’s desperate now and might try something stupid.”
Alveda went and stood at the window and looked down into the street.
“Tell me what you see,” Uncle Hale said.
“She’s going down the walk. Stops and looks back. Takes a pack of Lucky Strikes out of her purse and lights up.”
“Had to give up smoking!” Uncle Hale said.
“Did you know she’s got a beautiful new Cadillac? It’s dark blue. Very fancy.”
“Does that sound like a woman desperately in need of money to you?”
“She opens the door but doesn’t get in just yet. She just stands there with the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and looks up and down the street. She takes a couple of deep drags on the cigarette and throws it down and stomps it out with the toe of her shoe. Now she’s reaching into the car for something.”
“Might be a gun,” Uncle Hale says.
“No, wait a minute. It’s a jacket. A fur jacket. It looks like mink. That woman has got herself a new mink fur jacket. She drapes it over her shoulders and gets into the beautiful new Cadillac and slams the door and starts the engine. She looks at herself in the mirror and pulls at the front of her hair. She puts the car in gear and checks to make sure no cars are coming. And now she’s driving away.”
“Whew!” Uncle Hale says. “What a liar and a hypocrite that woman is! It just takes everything out of me to be in the room with her for a few minutes.”
“Why don’t you take a little nap while I get lunch ready?”
“The doctor says I’m getting better and I can get up in a few days and get dressed. I want you to go downtown with me.”
“It’ll be fun. I want to stop in and see my lawyer and I really will do the things I told Pert I’ve already done.”
“I’m going to make you my power of attorney and I’m going to put the house in your name, with the stipulation that you don’t take possession until I’m dead.”
“Do you think that’s wise? You niece will be laying for you now.”
“I can do what I damn well please. There’s not a thing she can do about it.”
“How do you know I won’t steal your money and poison you to get the house early?”
“You wouldn’t. I know. You’re not the grasping type.”
She smiled at him and went out of the room. He turned over on his side, adjusted the pillow under his head and settled himself down for a sleep that would rid himself of the memory of his niece’s fat buttocks and thick ankles. When he woke up, though, he would still be able to smell her perfume.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp