When They Come to Get Me I’ll be Gone ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Alva was new to the city and marveled at its wonders: the buildings that reached to the sky, the lines of automobiles that stopped and started and then stopped again, the glittering hotels and restaurants, the crowds of people everywhere, the theatres blazing with electric light, the library that took up an entire block, the department stores, the garish shops and, yes, the soup kitchens. It was 1932 and, in the midst of all this plenty, there were people who had to stand in line to get something to eat because they had no money.
The first time a woman approached him on the street he felt flattered because she wasn’t bad looking. He believed she was interested in him in a friendly way until she started rubbing her hands along his chest and abdomen, and he could tell on close inspection that she wasn’t right somehow. He pushed away from her groping hands and then felt embarrassed that a stranger would have such thoughts in connection with him.
He had always liked books but had never read many. He went into a big bookstore a few blocks from his hotel and spent a long time just walking the aisles, looking at the rows and stacks of books with colorful and interesting covers, more books that he had ever seen before. He hoped one day to live in his own house without interference from anybody and own a lot of books just like these. Even if he didn’t read them, he would enjoy having them on a shelf where he could see them.
A clerk approached. “Can I help you find something, sir?”
He blushed at being called “sir” and shook his head. It occurred to him that maybe he shouldn’t be walking around the way he was if he wasn’t going to buy anything. “No,” he managed to say.
“If you need help finding anything, let me know.”
He nodded his head and then left the store, afraid he might be asked to leave if he didn’t leave on his own.
Down in the next block was a restaurant that touted Italian and American cuisine. He went inside and took a seat at a small table where he could see out the window. A waitress approached and gave him a menu and a glass of icy water. He was still astounded by the freedom of going into a restaurant and ordering whatever he wanted to eat.
Never having eaten spaghetti before, he ordered a plate of spaghetti, and while he was waiting the waitress brought a glass of beer and a little basket full of breadsticks. He began eating the breadsticks and was sure he had never tasted anything so good. The beer tasted bitter at first but after a few sips he liked it and when he emptied the glass the waitress brought him another one as if he was a person of importance.
He took his time eating the spaghetti, savoring its exotic flavor and when he was finished he had a large piece of chocolate cake with pecans. He never knew before that such wonderful things existed in the world.
Any time he did something the mother didn’t like, she hit him on the side of the head, on the left ear, with the flat of her hand. Over time, he developed a ringing in the ear and could no longer hear out of it as well as he could the other ear.
Here was another movie theatre. He slowed and studied the posters. He had never seen movies and wondered about them. Might anybody go? When finally he got up the nerve to buy a ticket and go inside, he was relieved to see how easy it was. Nobody looked at him askance or asked him any questions. Pay your money and they give you a little piece of paper to show you’ve paid and you go inside and give the paper to a boy standing there and then you find yourself a seat and sit down. You may sit anywhere you choose. What freedom! What luxury!
The cartoon began, and in it were picture-book animals that talked and wore clothes. He thought at first this was the movie. The cartoon ended after only a few minutes, though, and then it was the previews of coming attractions to tell the audience about movies that would be shown in the theatre at a future date. The sparse audience watched the previews with rapt attention and then it was time for the feature to begin.
There was a lot of talk at first and arguing among the characters in the movie. They were all men and wore suits and hats. It wasn’t very interesting. After a few minutes, though, it became more so. One of the men shot and killed another man and then there was a scene in a funeral home with a body in a casket and women standing around crying. Then the man who had done the killing was at home with his mother and sister. The mother stood at a stove cooking and spoke in a strange accent so that you could barely understand what she said. The sister was dressed up to go out but the mother pleaded with her to stay at home.
After the first few minutes, Alva was riveted by the movie. He was seeing a side of life he never knew existed. He didn’t care much for the scenes that were mostly talking but he liked the scenes where the characters were doing things, careening through the city streets in expensive-looking cars with machine guns. It seemed so real. He had to remind himself that it was just another kind of make-believe, like reading a story in a book.
When the movie was over, it seemed there was nothing left to do but go back to the hotel. He retrieved his key from the desk clerk and went up to the eighteenth floor in the elevator, another marvel that he never expected to see.
He was tired and his room seemed comforting and inviting. It was his and his alone for as long as he paid for it. He loved the solitude. He opened the curtains and stood for a long time looking off into the distance at the buildings. The lights were like glinting jewels and there were so many of them. He could see no trees, mountains or hills. He was truly in the city.
A siren brought his attention back to the street and he looked down. He had never been so high up before and it was thrilling in a way to be able to look down at the bustling life that never ended, no matter how late. He felt a part of things but also detached.
He opened the window a couple of inches and turned off the light and got into bed. Lying on his back, looking at the ceiling, he listened to the air rushing in at the open window and the faraway sounds from the street. He turned on his side, covered up his head and soon he was asleep.
The father didn’t usually hit him the way the mother did, but he liked to flip his ears from behind with his fingertips and squeeze him painfully at the back of the neck, and sometimes he would grab him by the upper arm and throw him against the wall and the next day there would be the imprint of the hand in his flesh.
In the morning he awoke to the sound of voices outside his door. He got up and dressed and went down in the elevator to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. He took a long time eating, bought a newspaper, and was on his way back to his room when a young man of about thirty years stopped him in the lobby by touching him on the shoulder.
“Might I have a word with you?” the man asked.
Alva looked at him with surprise.
“I’ve been seeing you for several days now,” the man said. “You’re staying here…alone?”
Alva nodded, wary of this stranger.
“Well, my name is Freddie Lindhoven. I…might we sit down?”
Alva went to the nearest chair and sat, placing the newspaper on his knees, and Freddie sat beside him.
“In seeing you alone,” Freddie said, “I thought I might be of some service.”
Alva looked in the other man’s face and shook his head.
Freddie laughed. “I can see you don’t have any idea what I’m getting at, do you?”
“You’re from some other place. Let me guess. Arkansas?”
“Texas,” Eugene lied.
“Whereabouts in Texas? Galveston? One of the big cities?”
“Very good! So you are a stranger to the city!”
“I’ve been here almost a week now,” Alva said.
“Well, I’m, uh, not exactly an employee of this establishment, but I help out some of the guests from time to time.”
“I get them what they want. No matter what it is.”
Again Alva shook his head.
“I could get you a girl if you wanted one. Any kind of a girl. A Chinese or a black. Or a boy. I could get you a boy. An Asian boy or an Italian lad.”
Alva at last had a glimmer of what Freddie Lindhoven was talking about. “No,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here. I don’t want anything like that.”
“I can get you any kind of booze you want and only the best kind. Also pills of any kind. Pills to dull pain. Pills to send you off into dreamland. Pills to bring you back from dreamland. Pills to make you happy. Pills to overcome shyness.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I can get you hashish or dope. Any kind of dope. The kind you swallow, smoke or inject into your veins.”
Alva stood up. “No, I don’t want anything,” he said.
Freddie stood up too. “Well, if you think of anything later, let me know.” He handed Alva a card with his name and phone number and at the bottom these words: Fast. Discreet. Any time day or night.
The next day in the lobby, Freddie approached Alva and asked if he’d care to have lunch with him at his “club.” Alva shrugged his shoulders and accepted the invitation with indifference.
The “club” was a private men’s club where Freddie was a member. They were seated at a little round table with a white tablecloth amid a sea of identical tables, all of them occupied. Freddie asked Alva if he had ever eaten duck and when he said he hadn’t, Freddie ordered it for both of them along with a bottle of white wine.
“So, tell me your story,” Freddie said as they were waiting for the duck.
“I don’t have one,” Alva said. “My life began when I came to the city.”
“So, what you’re saying,” Freddie said, “is you don’t want to talk about it.”
“If you don’t say anything,” Alva said, “you don’t have to regret anything you said.”
“Hah-hah-hah!” Freddie said. “You are a strange one, but I like you.”
While they were eating, Freddie was more than happy to share his own story. He came from a poor family, one of six children without a father. His mother had to support all of them on the meager wages from her job in a laundry. When Freddie was seventeen, he left home to make his own way and never looked back. At the age of twenty, he married a girl named Myrtle. Six months later she died of an infection.
“And I’ve never looked at another woman since,” he said. “Hah-hah-hah!”
Alva told Freddie about the movie he saw, his first movie ever, and about the cool, cave-like theatre and how all the people sat quietly, like in church, and watched the screen, trance-like.
“You never saw a movie before in your life?” Freddie said. “Don’t they have movies in Texas?”
“Not where I come from.”
When they were finished eating and it was time to pay, Freddie signed his name to a piece of paper and that’s all there was to it.
After they left the club, Freddie took Alva to a burlesque theatre, where half-naked women danced on a dimly lighted stage before an all-male audience. Alva thought the whole thing silly and vulgar. He found the women ugly and unappealing but pretended to like it.
The father laughed at him and called him sissy and other names he didn’t know the meaning of. He asked him if he wore women’s underwear and washed his pussy at night and put powder on it to keep it fresh. The mother might have intervened, but she bent over double with laughter. The slatternly bitch in her filthy dressing gown.
Freddie became the only friend Alva ever had. They spent hours talking. Freddie loved talking about himself and loved having an audience. Alva never spoke of his past life or where he came from. When Freddie asked him about his family, he only said he didn’t have one.
They went around the city together. They rode busses, taxi cabs and the subway. Freddie took Alva to places of interest he would otherwise not have seen. They saw movies together, including a “blue” movie at a little out-of-the-way theatre in an alleyway between buildings. They walked in the park and sat on the grass and fed popcorn to ducks. They went to a concert in a beautiful hall where there were a hundred musicians on a stage and thousands of people sitting in the audience listening to them play. In a labor hall they heard a speech given by a Socialist who advocated overthrow of the government. They saw a serious play in which a man murdered his wife for infidelity.
Alone in his room at midnight, Alva counted out his remaining money on the bed. He only had enough left for two more days in the hotel and modest meals. Time was running out for him.
The next day, while he and Freddie were having lunch in a diner that had once been a railroad car, he asked Freddie a question that had been on his mind.
“You said you have pills for anything?”
“I can get them,” Freddie said, his mouth full.
“What about a pill that makes a person go to sleep and not wake up?”
Freddie looked at him searchingly, took a drink of his Coke and belched. “I’ll have to ask my doctor friend about that. Nobody has ever asked me for that particular thing before.”
The next day when they met in the lobby of the hotel, Freddie grabbed Alva by the arm and pulled him outside to the sidewalk.
“I asked the doc what you wanted to know,” Freddie said.
“He says there is such a thing, if you want it bad enough.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t know yet. The doc won’t know how much until he gets it from his source.”
“Okay. Can you get it for me tomorrow?”
“Sure. I guess. Are you sure you want it?”
“Never more sure of anything in my life.”
At ten years of age, he knew he was nothing like the mother or the father, looked nothing like them. When he inquired about it, the mother told him he was adopted. It was a lie he believed for the next ten years.
Right before he came to the city, he found out the truth. The mother was making him clean out the closet in her bedroom. He found an old yellowed newspaper, twenty years old. There was a story in it about an eighteen-month-old baby, named Draxton Capers, snatched from his parents in a Kansas City suburb. Police had no clue about where the baby might be and sought the help of the public. He was described as having brown hair and green eyes, a quarter-sized birthmark on his right shoulder.
As Alva looked at his brown hair with his green eyes in the mirror, he knew, finally, the truth about the woman and the man, the mother and the father, whom he had thought were his adoptive parents. They were kidnappers. They were the lowest form of human life. His real name was Draxton Capers. The birthmark on his shoulder removed any doubt there might have been.
The mother always said she had a bad heart and she was always so fat. She needed somebody to do things for her, to fetch and carry, to wash her back and clip her toenails. All she and the father had to do was kidnap a healthy baby and they had an unpaid servant for life.
When he found out the truth, he couldn’t go on. These people had taken away his life. He would rather they had killed him when he was a baby.
The father was sitting at the kitchen table eating his breakfast. Alva stood at the sink washing the cast-iron skillet in which he had cooked the breakfast. He held the skillet in his right hand and dried it with his left. He looked at the back of the father’s head and, wielding the skillet in both hands like a baseball bat, hit him there with all his might.
The father shrieked and fell forward, slid off the table onto the floor. He was bleeding profusely from the head, but he wasn’t dead yet. Alva hit him repeatedly until he was sure he was dead.
The mother was still sleeping. When he went into her bedroom, she was lying on her back, breathing heavily, one enormous tit escaped from her nightgown. With the skillet, Alva smashed her head to liquid pulp. She never woke up. She never knew anything.
He knew she had money hidden in the house. Ten dollars here, seven-fifty there. When he found it all, he had almost three hundred dollars. He packed a small bag, took the money and left the house in which he had lived all his life.
He rode on the bus for a day-and-a-half to get to the city and all that time his mind was blank. He felt no remorse or fear. Nothing. The hatred he felt for the mother and the father was gone. They were in the place now where they belonged.
It would be a while before anybody found the bodies, maybe as long as a week. When they did find the bodies and discovered the son was gone, they would assume he had done the terrible deed. He wasn’t right in the head, people would say. He always kept to himself. Afraid to go out of the house.
They would trace him to the city, he knew. They would find him and put him in jail for the rest of his life, maybe even send him to the electric chair. Time was running out. Any day now they’d come for him.
He didn’t see Freddie at all the next day and was afraid he had run out on him. He wanted to call the number on Freddie’s card but was afraid of what he’d find out. Freddie didn’t exist. The number was a dead end.
On Friday as he was leaving the hotel restaurant after dinner, he saw Freddie sitting across the lobby reading a newspaper. The relief he felt caused him to smile.
“I’m glad to see you again,” he said and meant it.
Freddie looked up from the newspaper. “Sit down, kid,” he said.
Alva sat down and waited until Freddie stopped reading and looked at him.
“Did you get it?” Alva asked. “What we were talking about?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Freddie said. “I don’t know if I’m going to give it to you or not, though, unless you tell me what it’s for.”
“You know what it’s for.”
“You did a bad thing back there in Texas. Maybe stole some money. Believe me, it’ll be a lot better if you go home and face the music, whatever it is, than to do a foolish thing that can never be undone.”
“I’ve already made up my mind. There’s no other way.”
“I’d talk you out of it if I thought I could.”
Freddie sighed and took a little white box, like a match box, out of the pocket of his jacket. “The doc says to get into bed and take all of these at once.”
“I can do that,” Alva said. “So easy.”
From his other pocket he took a fifth of whiskey. “The doc says to drink as much of this as you can. It’ll make the pills work better. Mix it with water if you can’t stand the taste.”
Alva took the box of pills and the fifth of whiskey and put them under his coat. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.
“It’s taken care of,” Freddie said.
“The last thing I can do for a friend.”
They shook hands, Freddie wishing Alva good luck on his journey, and then he left in a hurry.
It was too early to go up to his room. Not just yet. He still had the rest of the evening.
He took a walk, with the object of making himself tired, but, more importantly, to say goodbye to the city. He walked an impossibly long way from the hotel. He felt calm and happy, kindly disposed toward everybody he saw, even the drunks who asked him for money.
When he got back to the hotel, it was nearly eleven o’clock. He went up in the elevator to his room and took a bath and washed his hair and, when he was finished, dressed himself in his pajamas and turned back the covers on the bed.
He filled a glass half with water and half with whiskey and went to the window and looked out as he drank it. He watched the lights twinkling off and on, heard the traffic down below, and was thankful for the wondrous time he had had in the city and for the friendship of Freddie Lindhoven. All that came before was nothing, or soon would be.
He drank the whiskey mixed with water until the bottle was two-thirds empty. He sat on the edge of the bed and dumped the pills from the little white box into his hand and swallowed them and covered himself up in the bed and switched off the light.
As he drifted off to sleep, he thought of a dog he had when he was little and how much he missed the dog when it ran away. The dog would be over there waiting for him, he knew. He could already see his bright eyes and his happily wagging tail.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp