Say Your Goodbyes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Isolde was born on the first day of the twentieth century. Seventeen scant years later, in 1917, she was about to have a baby of her own. Don’t think she wasn’t married, though. She had a husband—his name was George Coyle—but he got into some trouble and had to go into hiding to keep from going to jail. He told Isolde he’d send for her and the baby later, as soon as the trouble cleared up. She didn’t doubt him.
She was sick a lot and having trouble with the baby. Some days she couldn’t keep anything down and could hardly get out of bed. The only one she had to help her now was Roland, her younger brother. There was no doctor, only Miss Settles. Roland would have to run and get her when the time came.
The thought of the baby scared Roland. He knew he’d have to help with it after it was born and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know why people had to have babies. They were just a lot of bother and having them caused pain. He’d never have any as long as he lived.
“I might go away too, like daddy,” he said one day when he was tired of having only Isolde to talk to.
“Where would you go?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I’d go someplace and find me a job, I guess.”
“You’re still a child. You have to stay here until daddy and mama come back home.”
“I don’t think mama’s ever coming back,” he said.
“You don’t know that. She just might turn up any day now.”
“Daddy says she’ll never be right again. If he thought she’d come home, he wouldn’t have gone off with that woman.”
“I just wonder where daddy is now,” she said.
“He might be dead for all we know.”
“He must be having a really good time with that woman, or he would at least write us a letter.”
“Maybe he’ll marry her and bring her back here and she’ll be our stepmother.”
“He couldn’t marry her as long as mama’s still alive.”
“A man can only have one wife at a time, silly. It’s the law. If he married another woman while mama’s still alive, it’s bigamy and they’d come and put him in jail.”
“He could live with her, though, and not marry her. Then it’s called ‘common law’.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“Everybody knows that, silly.”
“Wherever George is, maybe that’s where daddy is, too.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Unless they just happened to meet up somewheres.”
“If daddy and George meet up, then daddy will know George isn’t here to look after things and he’ll come home real soon because he’ll know we don’t have any money.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Try not to think about it so much.”
“I wish I had never been born.”
“Everybody wishes that.”
The money jar on the top shelf in the kitchen was almost empty. When they started out, it was nearly full. It’s true there had been a lot of pennies in it, but there were also quarters, half-dollars and dollars. Since George left, it’s what they had been using to buy the stuff they needed from Devine’s grocery. Now that the money was almost gone, he hated looking at the jar and he didn’t talk about it to Isolde because she was so taken up with worry about the baby.
That night he dreamed Isolde told him to go out and find George and bring him back. While he was walking along the lane to town, he saw mama coming toward him, wearing a big hat with feathers and a long black dress. His heart leapt—she’d have money to buy food and she’d know how to take care of Isolde.
As mama came closer to him, though, he saw it wasn’t really her. It was at first an old man, then a dog, and finally a big crow that squawked and flew away as soon as it saw him. When he woke up in the morning, he could have sworn he heard daddy’s voice in the other room but, of course, it was only part of the same dream.
Isolde seemed to fade away more every day, as the time came closer for the baby to be born. On a rainy Saturday, while she was taking a nap, he counted out some money from the jar and went down the hill to Devine’s grocery to get what they’d need for a day or two. He bought a can of soup that they could have for supper, a can of peaches, a loaf of bread, a half-pound of baloney. A box full of oranges, looking so bright on a dreary day, caught his eye, so he bought two, one for himself and one for Isolde. He knew she’d like it. He’d let her have both of them if she wanted them.
When he got back home, Isolde was in a bad way. She was crying in pain and twisting the bedclothes in her fists.
“It’s time,” she said through gritted teeth.
“But we haven’t had supper yet,” he said.
“Run and get Miss Settles. And tell her to hurry!”
Miss Settles had just washed her hair but as soon as Roland told her she was needed, she grabbed her bag and was off in her old Ford car. He rested for a couple of minutes on the front porch and then ran home, getting there about the same time as Miss Settles’ car pulled up in a mud puddle. With her was her assistant, a large albino woman named January Maitland. At any other time, he wouldn’t have been able to take his eyes off the strange whiteness of January Maitland, but now he barely looked at her.
As the two women began working over Isolde on the bed, Roland stood in the doorway, relieved now that somebody else was there and his part, at least for the time being, was finished.
“You don’t want to see any of this,” Miss Settles said to him. “Why don’t you take yourself a long walk and don’t come back until you’re so tired you can’t take another step.”
He was glad he wouldn’t be needed. He had only a vague idea of what was about to happen and he was sure it would be fairly horrible.
As he walked toward town, he felt tired and hungry but almost happy. Now that the baby was about to be born, Isolde would get up from the bed and be well again. Mama would come home and maybe George and daddy would come home too. All three of them! Mama would do what needed to be done with the baby. Daddy would have forgotten about the woman he went off with and would have plenty of money. While Isolde held the baby, they’d all sit around the table and laugh and eat fried chicken and chocolate cake and daddy and George would smoke cigarettes and drink beer. When he told them about the dwindling money in the jar, they’d make fun of him a little but tell him he did a good, brave thing.
He walked all the way to town, more than two miles. He realized he still had the change from the store, so he bought himself a hot dog and a root beer and sat on the street and watched the people come and go as he ate. Nothing he had ever eaten tasted so good before.
He walked around looking in the store windows and after a while he figured he had probably been gone long enough for the baby to be born, so he headed for home. He had to smile when he remembered there’d be a new person waiting there for him when he got home.
He had been gone more than four hours. It was starting to get dark when he turned off the lane toward the house. Miss Settles and January Maitland had just come out the door and were standing on the porch.
“Hey!” he said when he saw them. “How’s the baby?”
“I’m sorry,” Miss Settles said. “I did all I could.”
“The baby was born dead, a little boy, and the momma lost so much blood I couldn’t save her.”
“I did all I could. You have my sympathy.”
He looked from the albino woman to Miss Settles and back again. “What do I do now?” he asked.
“You don’t need to do nothing,” Miss Settles said. “Try to get word to her husband.”
“He had to go away. I don’t know where he is.”
“Look,” she said, shifting her bag from one hand to another. “My brother, Hiram Settles, will come by tomorrow to perform the burial. In the meantime, sit with her tonight. Say your goodbyes. That’s what family does. Light a candle and say a prayer for the repose of her soul.”
He nodded his head to show he understood, started to go inside and faltered.
“You don’t need to be afraid to go in there,” Miss Settles said. “There’s no mess. We cleaned it all up. They’re lying side by side on the bed. They look like they’re asleep. It was a hard struggle but she’s in a better place now.”
Miss Settles was right. Isolde, looking clean and childlike, seemed asleep rather than dead. The perfectly formed, nameless baby lying beside her was something that had never been alive, had never had a chance to take even one breath.
He pulled the rocker up beside the bed, placed the candle on the bedside table and sat down. He tried to think of a prayer for Isolde and the baby, as Miss Settles said, but he didn’t know any prayers and couldn’t think of the right words. There was mama’s Bible somewhere that he might read from, but he wasn’t sure what mama had done with it before she left and he didn’t have the strength to look for it.
He cried a little and was glad nobody was there to see it. He sat in the rocker and looked at Isolde and the baby and wondered what it was like to be dead. Did you really go to a place where all your troubles were over and everything was beautiful? He tried to read in Isolde’s face what she might be experiencing at that moment, but her face was as blank as a dinner plate. Regardless of what place she had gone to, he was comforted by the knowledge that nothing else bad would ever happen to her again.
The rain picked up again in the night. He dozed in the rocker and when at last he awoke the candle had gone out and morning light was coming in at the window. Ravenously hungry, he ate the food he bought at Devine’s grocery—when was it?—only the day before. He ate unsparingly. He ate recklessly, without saving anything for later. He didn’t care if it was his last meal. If he had to die too, he wanted to go ahead with it and get it over with.
At seven o’clock, Hiram Settles came with his young graveyard assistant. As they carried the empty coffin into the house, Roland directed them to the bedroom. He looked away as they picked up the two bodies off the bed, first Isolde and then the baby, and placed them in the coffin and put the lid in place.
After Hiram Settles and his assistant extended their matter-of-fact condolences, Roland held the door for them as they carried the coffin outside and loaded it into the back of the death wagon in the rain.
He watched the wagon until it was out of sight. Before going back into the lonely house, he looked off into the distance. The sky was lightening and the rain, it seemed, was coming to an end. A hopeful sign. Mama and daddy would come home soon, he knew it. He was going to have so much to tell them.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp