And That Includes Cab Fare ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Deal was eighty-five and had more cobwebs in her head than 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 all night in the winter or 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, Patsy Ruth, age sixty-three, left her latest husband in the city and went to live with Mrs. Deal in her old-fashioned house on a corner lot in a small provincial town a good five-hour drive away.
Patsy Ruth 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, Mrs. Deal tried her nerves almost beyond endurance. Mother and daughter had never been on the best of terms anyway, going all the way back to the beginning, and it was an almost impossible situation with them both living under the same roof. Mrs. Deal was stubborn on principle; it if was mealtime, she wasn’t hungry and refused to eat. At bedtime she refused to have the light off. Patsy Ruth 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, or going down to the railroad trestle and jumping into the shallow, muddy water a hundred feet below.
“I’m not a well woman,” she was fond of saying to anybody that would listen. “I still have my own life to live.”
To have an occasional “day off,” Patsy Ruth 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 Stroud answered Patsy Ruth’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. Patsy Ruth would have to pay for her to take a cab, though; Mrs. Stroud was fat, had painful varicose veins, and wasn’t able to walk very far.
“I guess we can manage the cab fare,” Patsy Ruth blatted into the phone, delighted that she had found the right person so easily and on the first day.
On Saturday, Patsy Ruth was going to visit the dentist, meet a friend for lunch and see a two o’clock matinee movie. She arranged with Ida Stroud to come on that day.
Patsy Ruth was gratified that Ida Stroud arrived on time on Saturday morning but was a little dismayed to see that she had brought her thirteen-year-old daughter, Stella, along with her.
“Stella don’t cause no trouble,” Ida said. “I can’t leave her at home by herself. She gets into too much mischief.”
Stella Stroud was a pale, skeletal girl with a permanent scowl on her face and dark circles around her eyes. Refusing to say hello to Patsy Ruth or to Mrs. Deal, she slumped down on the couch, folded her arms and yawned.
“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,” Patsy Ruth said.
“Don’t give us a thought!” Ida said. “We’ll all be just fine!”
“Do you mean I have to stay in this hell hole all day until six o’clock?” Stella asked after Patsy Ruth was gone.
“Find something to do,” Ida said. “Go outside and commune with nature.”
“I don’t want to go outside!” Stella said. “I didn’t want to come here in the first place!”
“Sit there and be miserable, then! I don’t care!”
“You’re just a horrible old woman, you know that?” Stella said.
Of Ida’s eight children, Stella at thirteen was the youngest. Mr. Stroud had been dead for many years, the victim of a bad heart passed down to him through father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Ida beamed at Mrs. Deal. “You certainly are a lucky woman,” she said. “You have your daughter to look after you and you live in this fine, big house. That’s as much as any Christian woman might expect.”
“I’m a Methodist,” Mrs. Deal said.
“Where’s your husband?” Stella asked.
“What did he die of?”
“Shut up!” Ida said. “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that!”
“Well, I just wondered!”
“Would you like a piece of butterscotch?” Mrs. Deal asked. “My daughter buys this butterscotch candy for me when she goes to the store.”
“No, thank you, dear,” Ida said.
“Haven’t you got any peppermint?” Stella asked. “I hate butterscotch.”
Ida gave Stella a warning look. “If you can’t be nice,” she said. “I’m going to slap you silly.”
“Well, let’s talk about something interesting,” Stella said. “I have sleep apnea. I could die in my sleep any night.”
“Nobody wants to hear about that,” Ida said.
“Well, I don’t know why the hell not! I think it’s very interesting!”
“You think it’s interesting because it’s about you! You need to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around you! And I told you not to use words like that!”
“Words like what?”
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about!”
“Well, pardon the hell out of me! I have to go to the bathroom! Where is it?”
“Ask Mrs. Deal,” Ida said. “It’s her house.”
“All right. What’s her first name?”
“You’re not supposed to use her first name, silly! Call her ‘Mrs. Deal’.”
“All right. Mrs. Deal, honey, I need to use your bathroom. Is that okay?”
“What?” Mrs. Deal said.
“She wants to know where the bathroom is,” Ida said.
“Oh. Go through the dining room into the back part of the house.”
Stella leapt to her feet. “It’s always so interesting to see other people’s bathrooms!”
“And don’t break nothing, either,” Ida said.
When Stella had gone out of the room, Ida gave Mrs. Deal a sad smile. “Kids!” she said. “This girl has given me more trouble than all my others put together. 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 night. I told my husband I wasn’t having any more children because I was afraid they’d turn out like her. He didn’t care if we had another dozen because I did all the work of takin’ care of them. He made the living for the family, but that was all he ever did. At home he never lifted a finger.”
“I had three children,” Mrs. Deal said, “but only one of them is still alive.”
“All of mine are still alive!” Ida said. “I rue the day! Now, let me tell you, that Stella has had a rough time of it her whole life. When she was just a baby, she had yellow jaundice, whooping cough and I don’t know what all. You name it, she had it. And from the time she started to kindergarten, it’s been one problem right after another. She wet her pants just to defy the teacher and she refused to sit still and pay attention. Finally the school gave her a test and they said she wasn’t right in the head and they put her out! Can you imagine putting a child out of school? Then we had to send her to a special school in another town and, believe me, it cost a lot!”
“Maybe it’s just better not to have any children,” Mrs. Deal said. “I had three and both my boys are dead. One died two days after he was born.”
“Oh, isn’t that a shame! But it’s such a blessing to you that you still have your daughter. She lives with you and takes care of you.”
“She wants to put me in a nursing home so she can get married again. She’s been making a lot of calls, asking questions. She thinks I don’t know what she’s up to, but I’m not as stupid as she thinks I am.”
“I’d have you come and live with me,” Ida said, “but we live in such a small house. Not big like this one.”
“She’s still married to that last husband of hers, but here she is scouting around for the next one. She’s had I don’t know many husbands.”
“No!” Ida said. “And she seems like such a nice woman!”
“One of them she was married to twice.”
“Some people is like that. Can’t seem to find what they’re looking for.”
“My son was married two different times,” Mrs. Deal said. “He was an alcoholic and died at age thirty-five. Even younger than his father.”
“Isn’t that sad! Well, I guess we learn tribulation through our children if nothing else.”
“That’s what I mean,” Mrs. Deal said. “It’s probably better not to have any children at all.”
“Then we’d be alone, I guess, and that might be even worse.”
Stella came back from the bathroom smiling and wiping her hands on the seat of her pants.
“What were you doing in there so long?” Ida asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“You weren’t smoking, were you?”
“Don’t be re-dick! I don’t have any cigarettes!”
“Mrs. Deal and I were just swapping stories about our children.”
“I bet you told her how awful I am, didn’t you?” Stella said.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I’m not ever having any kids. I don’t want the little son-of-a-bitches.”
“You shouldn’t say that,” Ida said. “You don’t know what the future holds for you. You’ll meet a wonderful man.”
“You’ll get married and live in lovely little house and you’ll realize after a while that something is missing and that something is little ones. After you’ve had one, you’ll want another and then another and then another.”
“You are so full of shit!” Stella said.
“Hey! I warned you about using that kind of language! One more word like that, and you’re going to have to wait outside on the front porch until six o’clock. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
“Oh, you know what you can do, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to hear another word out of you!”
“I just remembered,” Stella said. “Today is my birthday.”
“No, it ain’t, either,” Ida said. “Your birthday is in April. This is October.”
“I can make today my birthday if I want, can’t I? It’s such a boring, terrible day, I can say it’s my birthday just to help make it a little bit special, even if it’s not really my birthday.”
“No, you can’t, or if you do, just do it silently and don’t say anything!”
“I wonder if I’ll get any presents?”
“No, you won’t, so just forget about it!”
“When I get a little older, I’m going to run away from home!”
“Why wait?” Ida said. “Go now! Go anytime! You have my blessing!
“I’m not going to hang around this stupid, dead town and have a bunch of ugly babies and be just like everybody else. I’m going to Hollywood and I’m going to be a big movie star and when that happens, you’ll be sorry you were ever mean to me!”
“Send me a postcard!”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’d like to be rid of me!”
“You try the patience of a saint!”
Stella said to Mrs. Deal, “You see what a crazy old bitch my mother is, don’t you? And she never stops being crazy! She’s crazy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! It’s a wonder I just don’t shoot myself!”
Ida stood up, took three elephantine steps, and in one deft motion, slapped Stella across the mouth. “I don’t want to hear another peep out of you for the rest of the day!”
Stella sobbed and rubbed her cheek and was sullen for the rest of the morning.
At noontime, Ida went into the kitchen to fix lunch, leaving Stella and Mrs. Deal alone together.
“My mother says you’re a tiresome old woman,” Stella said.
“She can leave any time,” Mrs. Deal said.
“Did you ever see anybody talk as 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.”
“Stick a pin in her,” Mrs. Deal said.
“Did you know I have a boyfriend? I’ll 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. 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 girlfriend’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 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 just by looking at me.”
When lunch was ready, Ida took one of Mrs. Deal’s arms and Stella took the other arm and helped her into the kitchen.
“I’m not helpless, you know!” Mrs. Deal said.
Lunch was canned tomato soup and dainty little baloney sandwiches with the crust cut off. Ida was of the opinion that bread crust made old people choke.
“I don’t like tomato soup,” Stella said.
They ate in silence. Stella discovered she could eat the tomato soup as long as she soaked bread in it first. When Mrs. Deal was finished eating (hardly anything at all), she said she was sleepy and wanted to take her nap. Ida helped her into her bedroom, covered her up with an afghan and went back into the kitchen.
Stella was still sitting at the kitchen table, looking at something she held in the palm of her hand.
“What is that you’ve got there?” Ida asked her.
“Nothing,” Stella said.
Ida grabbed Stella by the wrist and made her drop what she was holding. It was a pair of little gold earrings.
“Where did you get those?” Ida asked.
“I found them in the bathroom.”
“Stole them in the bathroom is more like it.”
“It doesn’t concern you.”
“It concerns me if that daughter knows that you’ve been stealing from them and fires me. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s all I have coming in right now.
“She’ll never know I took them.”
“Put them back right now or I’m going to shake your head so hard it’ll fall off your shoulders.”
“Not on your life! You get paid for sitting around this dump all day, while I get nothing! Isn’t my time worth something? I’ll be lucky to get five dollars for these. I’m not even sure if they’re real gold.”
“It breaks my heart to know I have an unrepentant thief for a daughter.”
“There’s worse things.”
“If Mrs. Deal and her daughter find out you do such things, they’ll think you’re just terrible!”
“They won’t find out.”
“When that daughter comes back, I want you to tell her you found those earrings on the floor and then give them back to her. Then she’ll know you’re acting in good faith.”
“Screw good faith! I’m not gonna tell her anything!”
“If you won’t tell her, I will! Do you want her to know you’re a thief?”
When Patsy Ruth returned home, she was in a happy frame of mind, with smiles all around. “I’ve had the most relaxing day,” she said. “Sometimes all a person needs is to get away from home for a few hours.”
“I know just what you mean,” Ida said. “We had a lovely visit with your dear mother and the time just flew by.”
Patsy Ruth paid Ida, plus cab fare, plus an extra five dollars since everything went so well.
“Now I can pay the light bill,” Ida said.
Ida and Stella put on their coats and made ready to leave.
“Stella has something she wants to tell you before we go,” Ida said to Patsy Ruth.
“What is it, dear?”
“Go ahead and tell her while I call the cab,” Ida said.
Stella hesitated until Ida was in the kitchen, where the phone was. “I just wanted to say…”
“Yes?” Patsy Ruth said.
“I just wanted to tell you there’s a bad smell in your bathroom. I think it might be coming from underneath the floor.”
“Oh, really? I haven’t noticed any smell.”
“Some people can smell things that other people can’t.”
In just a minute, Ida came back into the room. “The cab will be here in two shakes,” she said.
“Finally, I can go home!” Stella said.
Patsy Ruth opened the front door and gave Ida a friendly pat on the shoulder as she passed through. Stella refused to look at her or return her smile.
Patsy Ruth sat down on the couch facing Mrs. Deal and lit a cigarette. Her smile had turned into a scowl, the scowl that Stella wore as she went out the door. The happiness she felt when she came home had left her. The good day was at an end and now it was time to return to the ugly reality of living in the same house with her mother.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp