Walk By on the Road ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
A long time ago, when Zeno was fourteen and his sister Isolde was seventeen, Isolde was going to have a baby; having a bad time of it, too, because she was little more than a child herself, weighing only ninety pounds. Nobody knew where her husband, George Coyle, was; he got into some trouble and had to go away to keep from going to jail. He said he’d be back for Isolde and the baby. She believed him if nobody else did.
Mother was gone too, in the state mental hospital where they put people when they lose their minds and don’t know if they’ll get them back again or not. Father was pursuing his own pleasure with at least one woman, believing, as he did, that mother would never be right in the head again, even if she did come back. He said he’d come home again in a couple of months, but he’d been gone a lot longer than that. He might be dead and he might never come back at all. He might be in jail or he might darken the doorway at any moment of the day or night. You never could tell about him.
Isolde tried to keep busy but there wasn’t much she could do because she was weak and sick a lot of the time. She swept out the house every day and folded and refolded baby clothes and put them in a trunk and took them out again and looked at them. When the clothes, some of which were decades old, started smelling musty again or looking dull, she’d wash them all over again from the beginning.
“I saw daddy walk by on the road last night,” she said one day when they were eating supper.
“Why would he do that and not stop in and at least say hello?” Zeno asked.
She didn’t have an answer but only shrugged her shoulders and chewed a piece of bread.
“It couldn’t have been him,” Zeno said.
On a rainy Saturday Isolde wasn’t able to get out of bed. She screamed with the pain and couldn’t keep anything down.
“I’m going to go get Miss Settles,” Zeno said, scared and not knowing what to do.
“No, it’s not time for the baby yet,” Isolde said. “It’s only seven and a half months. George isn’t home yet.”
“If I knew where George was, I’d go and get him.”
“If mama was here, she’d know what to do.”
“She’s not, though.”
“I’m just having a little sinkin’ spell, that’s all. I’ll be fine after I rest for a while. I want to get up after a little bit and make a nice stew for supper. George might be home today. Or daddy.”
“We don’t have anything in the house for a stew,” he said.
“Take some money out of the jar and go to the store and buy some bread and a few carrots and a couple of turnips and some celery. Doesn’t that sound good for supper?”
There wasn’t much money left in the jar in the cupboard in the kitchen that they had been drawing on ever since father went away, but he took the money out that he needed and didn’t tell her how little was left. She had enough to worry her now. They’d talk later about money.
Before he left to go to the store, while he was putting on his coat and hat, she called him over to the bed and took his hand in hers, a thing she had never done before.
“I’m awful sorry to put all this off on you,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here, with everybody else gone the way they are.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t mind since I’m the only one here.”
“You’ve been a better brother to me than I deserve.”
“Try to rest now. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The store was a half-mile away. It felt good to breathe the fresh air, to be out of the house, even though he knew Isolde shouldn’t be left alone.
He bought the things she told him to get and, while he was paying for them, saw a box of oranges, looking sunny and bright on a rainy day. He bought two, one for Isolde and one for himself to have for dessert for supper. He knew she’d like that. He’d let her have both of them if she wanted them.
When he got back home, Isolde was in a bad way. Her face was white and she was screaming in pain and bleeding and pulling at the bedclothes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, dropping the paper bag.
“It’s time!” she said. “The baby’s coming early!”
“But we haven’t had supper yet!”
“Run and get Miss Settles! Quick!”
Miss Settles had just washed her hair, but as soon as Zeno told her Isolde’s baby was coming, she grabbed her bag and was off in her old Ford car. He could have ridden with her but didn’t think about it until after she was gone. He rested for a couple of minutes on her porch and then ran home, getting there about the same time she did. With her was her assistant, a large albino woman named January Maitland who had a voice like a man and pale hair on her upper lip.
As Miss Settles and January Maitland began working over Isolde on the bed, Zeno stood in the doorway, relieved now that he wasn’t the only one there.
“Brother, you don’t need to see any of this,” Miss Settles said to him. “You take yourself a long walk and don’t come back until you’re so tired you can’t take another step.”
“Is she gonna be all right?” he asked. “She seems awful sick.”
“We’ll do all we can.”
It was two miles to town. There was no place else to go, so he headed in that direction. He was tired and hungry but almost happy now that the baby was about to be born and Isolde cold stop being sick.
Mama and daddy would come back as soon as they heard. George would come back, too, and that would make Isolde happy. Mama would be all right in the head again and would know what to do for the baby. They’d all sit around the table, eating fried chicken and chocolate cake. Daddy and George would smoke cigarettes and drink beer and mama would hold the baby on her lap and smile. When they heard about the money in the jar, they’d laugh and tease Zeno a little and tell him he did a good thing by making it last and not telling Isolde how little was left.
Town was busy with people coming and going. When one car pulled away from the curb, another immediately took its place. The little stores along the two streets were abuzz with activity. There were loud voices, laughter, honking of horns.
He went into the drugstore and took a seat at the counter. He was a little shy with the waitress, not used to being around strangers, but she didn’t treat him any different than anybody else. He still had the change from the store so he ordered a hot dog and a root beer and counted out the money over the counter. He slathered mustard on the hot dog and after he ate it in three or four large bites he wished he had another.
After he left the drugstore, he walked all over town, looking in the store windows at all the things they had to sell. He couldn’t imagine ever having enough money to buy those things, but it was fun thinking about it. He stopped at the movie theatre, closed now, and read the posters for the westerns and comedies and romances that would be playing there in days to come.
He seemed to have been gone from home for a long time, four hours at least. That should be plenty of time for the baby to be born. He felt excited about getting back home again, seeing the baby for the time and seeing Isolde laughing and feeling all right again.
The way home seemed very long. The legs in his muscles ached and he longed to fall into bed and go to sleep. Of course, the first thing he would do was to make sure Isolde and the baby were all right and afterwards he could rest.
It was just beginning 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 called to 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.”
“What did you say?”
“I did all I could. You have my sympathy.”
“Do you mean Isolde’s dead?”
“And the baby too?”
“He never felt nothing. Never knew nothing.”
He looked from Miss Settles to January Maitland and back again and fought back tears. “Now what do I do?” 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 little 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, started to go inside and faltered.
“You don’t need to be afraid to go in there,” Miss Settles said. “There ain’t any mess. We cleaned it all up. The two of them are lying side by side on the bed. They look to be asleep. It was a hard struggle but she’s in a better place now.”
He was almost afraid to look at Isolde but it was all right once he did. She was lying under a sheet, clean and peaceful. Beside her was the baby, looking no bigger and no more real than one of the dolls she used to play with. He expected her to open her eyes and smile at him and ask if George was home yet.
He pulled up the rocker beside the bed and, with nobody there to see it, sat down and cried a good long time until there were no more tears to squeeze out. It was dark now and he could hear rain hitting the roof. He lit a candle beside the bed and also one on the dresser so the room wasn’t so dark.
It was his first experience with being up close to a dead person but he knew it was nothing to fear. He tried to read in Isolde’s face what she might be seeing at that moment, what she might be experiencing, but her face was as blank as a dinner plate. She was no longer the person he knew so well and had been with every day of his life. She had gone away and left behind a shell.
He wrapped himself in one of mama’s comforters and sat beside the bed all night long, listening to the steady patter of the rain on the roof. He tried to think of a prayer to say for Isolde and the baby but he didn’t know any prayers by heart. Mama had a Bible somewhere in the house, but he didn’t know where it was and didn’t want to look for it. He didn’t think the words mattered much anyway. What he was feeling without words was that he hoped Isolde and the baby were in heaven and he would one day see them again.
At seven o’clock, Hiram Settles came with his young graveyard assistant. As they carried the empty coffin into the house, Zeno 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, Zeno held the door for them as they carried the coffin outside and loaded it into the back of the truck in the rain.
The truck made a terrible noise and belched out a cloud of exhaust. Zeno stood on the front porch and watched it until it was all the way out of sight and then he went back into the lonely, quiet house.
For breakfast he ate the two oranges and some bread and made himself a cup of hot coffee, which he could hardly drink. When he was finished, he went into his room and lay down on the bed in his clothes and pulled the quilt up over his head. Soon he was fast asleep.
He slept for several hours, until noon or a little after, and awoke refreshed. The rain had stopped, the sun was shining and the birds singing. He arose from the bed, washed himself all over, including his hair, and dressed in clean clothes.
Somebody had left behind a valise in the top of the closet that still looked good as new. He took it down, opened it up on the bed, and put his clothes in it and some other things—the two dollars and thirteen cents left in the jar in the kitchen, the bread and the other food that was left, a hairbrush, a little picture of mama when she was young, a dictionary and a copy of The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Valise held firmly in hand, wearing his coat and hat, he left the little house he had lived in all his life, careful to close the front door so anybody walking by on the road wouldn’t think it was all right to come inside and take their comfort. Mama and daddy might be home, or George, but he thought it very unlikely.
He walked out to the highway and began walking in a westerly direction, toward the sun. When a truck or a car came along, he held out his thumb, believing firmly that nobody would ever want to pick him up. Soon a truck stopped for him, though. He greeted the friendly driver and got in and closed the door after him. As he felt the truck’s powerful engine moving him forward through air and sunlight, he knew that from that moment on he had to abandon all thoughts of home.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp