Billie Diderot of the Lemon-Colored Hair ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a re-post.)
We had just finished supper when we heard a car out front. The kids, sensing excitement, went tearing out the door, knocking aside anything in their path. I went out, too, with mama right behind me.
What we had heard was a new-model Ford car with my brother Tafford driving. After seeing the car and then seeing Tafford, the next thing I saw was that somebody was in the car with him and that somebody was a woman.
“Tafford got himself a wife!” mama said.
“Tafford got himself a new car!” I said.
Lupe, Willoughby, and Wiley were jumping up and down and screaming. As soon as Tafford stopped the car, they were all over him, kissing and hugging him and tugging on his arms.
“You can help me carry in the stuff I got in the back of my car,” he said.
“Oh, what did you bring us?” Lupe cried.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Mama went down the steps off the porch and ran to Tafford and threw her arms around him. “I was afraid you was dead, son!” she said.
Tafford laughed. “Why would I be dead?”
“When we don’t hear from you for so long, I imagine all sorts of things.”
“Well, I’m here now and that’s what matters, ain’t it?”
Mama hung on to Tafford’s arm. “Who’s that woman?” she asked.
“Come on out of the car, Billie, and meet my family!” Tafford said.
She got out of the car and stood beside it, looking confused, trying to smile, tugging at her clothes. She wore a flowered dress and white shoes but the thing you noticed first about her was her hair the color of a lemon. It hung in billowy cascades around her ears to her shoulders. I had never seen hair like it before in my life.
“Mama,” Tafford said, “this is Billie Diderot. She’s going to be staying with us for a few days.”
She took two steps toward mama and held out her hand. Mama wasn’t used to women shaking hands, but she took hold of it anyway.
“Pleased to meetcha,” Billie Diderot said.
“How d’ya do,” mama said without smiling and then to Tafford she said, in a whisper that all of us heard, “She ain’t your wife, is she?”
Tafford threw his head back and laughed. “Hah-hah-hah! That’s a good one, mama! No, she ain’t my wife. We’re just taking a little trip together. And not as man and wife, neither!”
Tafford introduced Billie to me, Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby, shaking hands with all of us, and then Wiley and Willoughby got into Tafford’s car and wallowed around on the seats while Lupe sat behind the wheel and pretended to drive.
“Hey!” Tafford said. “Stop that now, you kids, and help me carry these things in!”
Billie had two suitcases that I carried inside, while Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby carried in the packages from the back of Tafford’s car. As soon as they got them inside, they began tearing them open to see what was in them. When they found cookies and donuts, they began stuffing them into their mouths like hungry animals, even though they just had supper.
“They’re a bunch of barbarians!” Tafford laughed, while Billie stood beside him looking uncomfortable.
As soon as mama came inside, Billie went to her and whispered something in her ear.
“It’s out back,” mama said. “Go through the kitchen and out the back door. You’ll see it.”
“When we have visitors, I’m a little embarrassed we don’t have indoor accommodations,” mama said when Billie was out of the room.
“Don’t think anything about it,” Tafford she. “She ain’t society.”
When Billie came back in, she wanted to wash herself, so mama gave her a washrag and a bar of soap and hustled the rest of us out of the kitchen so she could have a little privacy.
Since Tafford and Billie weren’t “man and wife” and wouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed, mama decided the best place to put Billie was in the attic room. The room hadn’t been cleaned in a while, at least two years, so mama put all of us to work sweeping the floors, putting clean linens on the bed, and removing any junk that had accumulated in the interim. We were all sure we had been ill-used from the unexpected work.
“I don’t want to hear any grumbling,” mama said, “while we got a guest in the house.”
After Billie finished with her “privacy” in the kitchen, mama offered to heat up the leftovers from supper, but Tafford said they had eaten in Pecksville on their way in and wouldn’t need anything else till breakfast.
So we all sat around “visiting” for a couple of hours and by then it was nearly ten o’clock. Tafford said they were tired from the long day, so it was time to say “good night.” Mama showed Billie up the stairs to the attic room while I followed behind carrying her suitcases. I set the suitcases down on the floor at the foot of the bed and went back down to my own room, where Tafford was already asleep.
The next morning Billie was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and she looked better than she had the night before. She wasn’t dressed yet but wore a thing that ladies wore before they got dressed, called a kimono, I guess. She smiled when I came into the room.
“I’ve forgotten your name already,” she said. “I’m just terrible at rememberin’ things!”
“It’s Tyler,” I said.
“Tyler and Tafford! Ain’t that cute!”
“Wasn’t meant to be cute,” mama said.
I was getting the impression Mama didn’t like Billie very much.
“What are the two younger boys’ names, now?”
“Willoughby and Wiley,” I said.
“Two W’s and two T’s. And in the middle of all these boys is one girl.”
“That would be Lupe,” I said.
“As in Lupe Velez?”
“I don’t know. Who’s Lupe Velez?”
“She’s a Mexican movie actress, just the cutest little thing you ever saw. She’s got these big dark eyes and…”
“No,” mama said, “we didn’t name her after no Mexican movie actress. That was a name her papa picked out. I can’t say I ever liked it very much but it was his wish.”
“And now he’s dead?” Billie asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“At a young age?”
“Not yet fifty.”
“And left you with five children to take care of?”
“I wouldn’t have had ‘em in the first place if I hadn’t been able to take care of ‘em.”
Tafford came into the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. Billie smiled at him but he didn’t smile back.
“Did you sleep well, son?” mama asked.
“I didn’t wake up a single time. You could have fired a gun over my head.”
He sat down at the table with his cup and lighted his own cigarette.
Mama brought the food to the table and we began eating.
“Aren’t you going to call the kids?” Billie asked.
“They’ve already ate,” mama said. “They get up early in summertime and they don’t want much breakfast.”
“Where are they now?”
“Down to the river, I think.”
“And you think that’s safe?”
“Sure, why not? They’ve learnt to look after themselves.”
“I wonder if I could take a little bath out back after breakfast?” Billie asked. “All I need is a pan of water and a piece of soap and a little privacy.”
“I don’t know why not,” mama said. “As long as the kids ain’t around. Nobody will be spyin’ on you, I’m sure.”
For a while, we were all in the service of Billie’s bath. Mama told me to get the washtub and fill it with water from the pump, while she heated the kettle to add some warm to it. Tafford set up a screen in the yard at the corner of the house so Billie could have complete privacy from prying eyes, wherever they might be.
I didn’t want to be anywhere near the back yard while Billie was taking her bath so I went out front and pulled some weeds out of mama’s flowerbeds and when I was finished with that I sat in Tafford’s car and pretended it was mine and I was driving around the city having a good time keeping one step ahead of the law.
When I went in for supper, Billie was helping mama get the food on the table. She wore pants and a loose man’s shirt that showed how thin and small she was. She had washed her hair with her bath and had tied a red ribbon around it that held it back from her face. She had painted her nails, too, and put on some makeup. I had the idea that she was trying to get Tafford to pay attention to her, but if that was what she was about it wasn’t working because he barely looked her way.
Mama had a time getting the kids to wash their hands and faces and, with that little drama concluded, we all sat down and began eating.
“What did you do with yourself all day long?” Billie asked Tafford, flashing him a pretty smile.
“I’m on vacation,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything.”
Billie, sitting to the left of Lupe, put her arm around her and made over her because she was the only girl in a family of boys.
“How you doin’, darling?” she asked.
“Fine,” Lupe said, licking gravy off her knuckles.
“I bet you’d like to have a new hairstyle, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve been thinking ever since I first saw you that I’d like to cut and style your hair. With your mama’s permission, of course.”
We all looked at mama to see what she’d say.
“I don’t see anything wrong with her hair,” mama said. “It could be a little cleaner, I guess.”
“It needs some body, is what it needs,” Billie said.
“She’ll never know it needs anything until you tell her it does,” Tafford said.
“Well, if she wants to, I don’t object, I guess,” mama said. “If you can get her to sit still long enough.”
“How much will it cost?” Lupe asked.
Billie laughed. “Not a single samolian, baby doll!”
The next day it rained, so Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby hung around in the house or on the porch. They tried to keep themselves entertained, but more often than not they ended up fighting and mama or Tafford had to separate them. Tafford asked them if they’d like to go for a ride in his Ford and Wiley and Willoughby started jumping up and down and screaming.
“I want some ice cream,” Wiley whined.
“Stop at the store and get me some canned salmon and a box of soda crackers,” mama said.
“Bring me some movie magazines,” Billie said. “Whatever they have that’s new.”
“Maybe I won’t do any of that,” Tafford said as he walked out the door.
Lupe didn’t want to go for a ride in Tafford’s Ford in the rain because she was mad at Willoughby for getting her in a headlock and not letting her go until mama made him.
“Now is a good time to have a go at that hair,” Billie said, and Lupe agreed.
She took Lupe into the kitchen and had her stand on a chair and lean over the sink while she washed her hair with shampoo that smelled like flowers. Then she had her sit at the table, draped the damp towel around her shoulders, and took the scissors and started snipping away.
She cut off about half of Lupe’s hair and then she put curling things in what was left. Lupe sure did look silly with those things in her hair. It looked like a bunch of brown butterflies had landed on her head and died.
While they were waiting for Lupe’s hair to dry, Billie painted Lupe’s fingernails and toenails bright red and put lipstick on her lips and a little rouge on her cheeks. The funny thing was that Lupe submitted to all the beauty business and held as still as a statue and didn’t grumble.
When Billie had taken the curling things out of Lupe’s hair and combed the hair out, she looked like a miniature version of Billie, only her hair wasn’t lemon-colored like Billie’s. Billie handed Lupe the mirror so she could take a good look at herself.
“I look like somebody else,” Lupe said.
“Don’t you like it?”
“I’d like it better if it was somebody else.”
“Why, I think you look beautiful,” Billie said. “You look like a blossoming young woman, which is what you should look like at your age. If I had a camera, I’d take your picture and send it to all the movie magazines. I’m sure someone would offer you a contract to star in the motion pictures.”
When Wiley and Willoughby came back, they look one look at Lupe and started having fun with her.
“You look so stupid!” Wiley said.
“You look like a turd!” Willoughby said.
“You still look like a boy! Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!”
“We ought to take her picture and hang it out in the garden. Don’t need no other scarecrow!”
Lupe chased Wiley and Willoughby from room to room, her fists doubled up, the curls on her head bouncing. When she tried to punch or kick them, they managed to stay out of her reach, laughing the whole time. We all laughed, too, including mama. When Lupe began crying with frustration, we laughed harder. Finally she ran out of the house into the pouring rain and down the road.
“She’ll ruin her coiffure!” Billie said.
When she came back, her hair was all flat again with the curls gone. The makeup had washed away in the rain, too. There wasn’t anything she could do about the paint on her fingernails and toenails, though; she’d have to wait for it to wear off. Mama told us if we made any more fun of her, we’d get slapped.
Tafford and Billie had been with us and week and showed no signs of leaving. When Billie wasn’t in the attic room upstairs, she was taking baths behind the screen in the back yard or sitting at the kitchen table or on the front porch smoking cigarettes and reading magazines. Sometimes she helped mama with the housework or cooking or washing, and for that reason mama had warmed up to her some.
One sleepy, hot day when there wasn’t much to do between meals, Tafford asked me if I’d like to go for ride. There was something he wanted to talk to me about, he said. Sure, I said.
We’d gone out a couple of miles from home. Tafford knew the roads well. He pulled over by some railroad tracks and asked me if I’d like him to show me how to drive.
Since I was about ten years old, I had dreamed of driving and owning my own car and getting away on my own the way Tafford had done. It didn’t need any coaxing to get me behind the wheel of the Ford.
In about five minutes, he explained to me how to drive. He told me what to push and what to pull and how to keep the car on the road without running it into a ditch.
“Just takes a little confidence,” he said. “If you’re scared all the time you going to hit something, then you going to hit something.”
“I can do it,” I said.
Driving was about what I expected. After about ten minutes or so, I drove like I had been doing it my whole life. It wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was watch where you were going, keep control of the car and not let it wobble. Anybody with half a brain could do it.
“I like driving,” I said after I had driven a few miles.
“Better find a place to turn around and go back,” Tafford said. “I ain’t got that much gasoline.”
He took over driving from there and drove to a place overlooking the river where we both got out and leaned against the front of the car and watched the river. It was so peaceful and private I could have stayed there the whole rest of the day.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Just another silly girl from the city.”
“If you don’t like her, why is she with you?”
He sighed and took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “I work for a businessman in the city,” he said. “I’m what’s known as an operative. That means I do what needs to be done, whenever it needs doing, no matter what it is.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Oh, different things. I collect payments, deal with clients. Sometimes I’m just a driver. I pick people up and take them to their hotel or wherever they need to go. Sometimes I’m only a messenger boy or a go-between.”
“How come you never told us anything about it before?” I asked.
“Well, I like to keep my personal and professional lives separated from each other.”
“All right. What does any of that have to do with Billie?”
“Sometimes the businessman I work for needs a thing done that’s hard to do, but somebody’s got to do it. Do you follow?”
“I guess so.”
“I get paid and when the man in charge tells me what to do, I have to do it and leave any personal feelings out of it. That’s where Billie comes in.”
“What did she do?”
“She didn’t do anything. She saw something she would have been better off not to have seen, that’s all.”
“She saw a woman being murdered and she saw the man that did it, too. She was the only other person there. Her testimony in court will send that man to jail for the rest of his life.”
“It just so happens that the man who did the murder is a powerful man with lots of money and connections. He’s paying the businessman I work for, and the businessman is paying me, to take care of this little problem for him.”
“Wait a minute! Are you saying you have to…”
“That’s right. I should have already done it by now, but I wanted to give the poor kid a few good days before I…”
“Hold on a minute! You brought Billie down to our house to…”
“I’m not going to do it in the house, silly! Not with mama and the kids there!”
“Why don’t you stay at home with us and not go back to the city and send the businessman you work for a telegram and tell him he’ll have to get somebody else to do his dirty work?”
“That wouldn’t work.”
“It’s part of my job. You have to take the good with the bad. And anyway, I know what they do to people who go back on them. Do you want that to happen to me?”
“I have to go through with it. I can’t back out now.”
“Can’t you just give Billie some money to send her away somewhere far away, like California?”
“They’d find her but they’d take care of me, first.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“First of all, I want you to promise me you won’t ever tell mama or any of the kids about any of this. Not ever, not even in fifty years when you’re all old.”
“I won’t tell.”
“I believe you. Second, I might need your help when the time comes getting Billie’s things together out of the room upstairs so I can make mama and the kids believe she had to leave in a hurry without saying goodbye.”
“I guess I can do that.”
“Third, I might need you to help me to dispose of, you know…”
“Yeah. Remember that old abandoned mine way back in the hills that people used to talk about?”
“I guess so.”
“The road is so washed out you can hardly get to it anymore, but I think I know of a way in. I’m going to need some help, though, and that’s where you come in.”
“I’ll do what I can to help you, but I’m not going to jail for you.”
When we got back to the house, I was feeling so blue like I just wanted to cry. At the supper table, I could hardly stand to look at Billie as she laughed with the kids and petted Lupe. I just wanted to yell out at her to warn her to get herself far away and dye her hair and change her name and not ever come back.
For several days I had a stomach ache and fever. I vomited some and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Mama said I had the summer ague. She made me drink plenty of water and eat cabbage and oranges. She wanted to take me to the doctor in town, but I’d just about rather die than do that.
I didn’t speak to Tafford again about what he had told me at the river. When we were alone in my room at night before going to sleep, we didn’t talk at all or we only talked about things we had done that day. I knew what he had to do and that he didn’t have any choice about it if he wanted to go on living. I mostly just wanted him to get it over with and be done with it. When the time came that he needed my help, he’d let me know.
Five days later, after Tafford and Billie had been with us for two weeks and two days, I was sleeping late in the morning. I usually got woke up about daylight with all the noise the kids made, but I guess mama had made them be quiet this morning so I could get some extra sleep.
When I woke up, I looked at the clock and when I saw it was ten minutes after nine I started to get up and that’s when I saw Tafford sitting on the other bed, wearing his clothes, smiling at me.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“All our worries are over,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Everything is taken care of.”
“You mean you…?”
“That’s right. Happy days are here again.”
“It’s better for you not to know. Nobody can make you tell something you don’t know.”
That evening Tafford took us all to the best restaurant in Pecksville for steaks or fried chicken or whatever we wanted. We were all happy, except a little sad that Billie wasn’t there to enjoy the dinner with us.
“She could at least have told us goodbye,” mama said.
“She told me to thank you for your hospitality,” Tafford said. “She said she had a truly wonderful time and that she would carry all of you in her heart for as long as she lives.”
“I hope you can bring her down again for another visit.”
Tafford left again the next day. We wouldn’t see him again for a long time and maybe never.
I often thought about Billie and took comfort in the thought that Tafford hadn’t killed her but had let her go. I thought I spotted her in town a couple of times but was sure afterwards that it couldn’t have been her.
At any time, I could imagine Tafford marrying Billie and the two of them driving down to our place in yet another new Ford with three little Tafford look-alikes with lemon-colored hair hanging around their necks. It was a pleasant enough dream but I had the feeling it was never going to happen.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp