Strange Innertube ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Like the four points of a compass, they sat evenly spaced around the table. Miss St. Clare and Miss Wheaton were north and south; Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Dade east and west. When addressing each other, they never used first names, but were always Mr. and Miss.
No one had spoken for several minutes. Miss St. Clare made little clicking sounds with her knife and fork as she attempted to cut her meat. She lost control of her knife and dropped it. Mr. Faulkner had been nearly asleep but the sound of the knife hitting the floor brought him back.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Just somebody being clumsy,” Miss Wheaton said.
Mr. Dade laughed and stuck his fingers in his mouth to straighten his dentures.
“You know, this spring weather makes me want to go on a cruise,” Miss St. Clare said.
“Yes, let’s all go on a cruise,” Miss Wheaton said.
“Where shall we go?”
“I hear Havana is nice.”
“Farther than that. How about Rio?”
“Yes, I think Rio would be perfect.”
“I can’t go,” Mr. Dade said. “I get seasick.”
“Well, you fly down, then, and we’ll meet you there.”
“I’ve been to Rio,” Mr. Faulkner said. “If I was going on a cruise, it wouldn’t be South America.”
“I don’t know. Up the west coast to Alaska or up the east coast from Florida to New England.”
“A domestic cruise,” Miss Wheaton said.
“Oh, that sounds lovely,” Miss St. Clare said.
“None of us are going anywhere,” Mr. Dade said.
“I said none of us are going anywhere.”
“That’s true,” Miss St. Clare said, “but it never hurts to indulge in a little fantasy.”
“To help get us through,” Miss Wheaton said.
“What is this meat?” Miss St. Clare asked.
“I think it’s veal,” Mr. Faulkner said.
“It doesn’t look like anything I ever saw before,” Mr. Dade said.
“I think it’s made from old innertubes.”
“It’s funny you should mention innertubes,” Mr. Faulkner said. “When I was three years old my grandfather took us swimming to a river in Ohio. I remember floating on an innertube. I thought it was the most fun in the world. And not only an innertube, but I was wearing water wings. When was the last time you saw water wings? Last night it all came back to me in a dream. I could see myself. I was three years old again.”
“I hate it when people talk about their dreams,” Mr. Dade said.
“He died not long after that,” Mr. Faulkner said. “My grandfather, I mean. He was only in his fifties. He was an alcoholic. We went out for his funeral. I was a little thing.”
“I don’t think young people even know what innertubes are anymore,” Miss St. Clare said. “You have to be our age.”
“What do you mean ‘our’ age?” Mr. Dade said. “You’re four years older than I am.”
“I think people make too much of age,” Miss Wheaton said. “It’s only a number. I think of myself as still young.”
“When was the last time you looked in the mirror?” Mr. Dade said.
“I avoid mirrors. They have no meaning for me. What matters is not on the outside but on the inside.”
“You know, I’ve had four husbands,” Miss St. Clare said, “but I think I’d get married again if I had the chance. I find Dr. Wolfe awfully attractive. He’s like a combination of Cary Grant and Burl Ives.”
“You’ll have to hit him over the head and drug him,” Mr. Dade said.
“Which one is Dr. Wolfe?” Miss Wheaton asked.
“He’s very distinguished, rather heavyset with graying temples and a big mole the size of a grape on his cheek. He’s about fifty, I think.”
“Oh, that one!” Mr. Dade said. “Haven’t you heard? There’s a rumor going around that he’s gay.”
“He is not!” Miss St. Clare said. “You’re just jealous because I said I find him attractive.”
“Have it your own way, lady,” Mr. Dade said. “Whatever makes you happy.”
“I’ve had two husbands,” Miss Wheaton said, “and two were enough for me. I wouldn’t get married again if Gary Cooper walked in here and got down on one knee and proposed to me.”
“Gary Cooper’s dead, but even if he wasn’t I don’t think he’d want to marry you.”
“You know what I mean! You don’t have to be so cynical all the time.”
“I was a newspaper reporter for thirty years. If that doesn’t make you cynical, nothing will.”
“What about you, Mr. Faulkner?” Miss St. Clare said. “What did you do in the world?”
“I was head of my own company. At one time, I employed as many as a hundred people.”
“What kind of company was it?”
“Wealth management. Securities, stocks and bonds.”
“Ever do any embezzling?” Mr. Dade asked.
“No, I never went in much for embezzling.”
“I hear embezzling’s the thing if you don’t get caught.”
“I knew some Faulkners once a long time ago,” Miss St. Clare said. Wasn’t your wife’s name Catherine or Margaret or something like that?”
“I never had a wife,” Mr. Faulkner said.
“What? You were never married?”
“Didn’t you get awfully lonely, being alone?”
“I didn’t say I was alone. I said I wasn’t married.”
“You had a girlfriend?”
“No wife and no girlfriend and you weren’t alone?”
“That’s what I said.”
“You must tell us all your secrets, Mr. Faulkner,” Miss Wheaton said. “We’ve told you ours.”
“I don’t think it’s any of your business, but if you must know, my partner in life was a man.”
“A man!” Miss St. Clare said.
“Well, I might have known!” Mr. Dade said. “I never would have guessed it, but I might have known.”
“Where is he now?” Miss Wheaton asked. “Is he still alive?”
“No, he died a number of years ago. His name was Patrick White. He and I had twenty-three wonderful years together. When I die…”
“Which might be any minute now,” Mr. Dade said.
“When I die, I’ll be buried right beside him.”
“That’s very sweet,” Miss Wheaton said.
“It’s kind of creepy if you ask me,” Mr. Dade said.
“Well, we’ve learned a lot about you today, Mr. Faulkner,” Miss Wheaton said.
“I had a wife,” Mr. Dade said, “and—believe me—she was a pain in my ass. She drank herself to death.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Miss St. Clare said.
“We had two daughters and—wouldn’t you know it?—they were both just like their mother.”
“Where are they now?”
“I don’t know. They never come and see me. When they found out I wasn’t leaving them any money, they dropped me like I had the plague. Family!”
“We’re your family now, Mr. Dade,” Miss Wheaton said.
“All four of us sitting at this table,” Mr. Faulkner said. “We have nothing to live for. We have no one. There is absolutely no reason to go on another minute.”
“You never know what the day will bring,” Miss St. Clare said.
“Old reruns of Bonanza, unidentifiable food, enemas, bad days and worse nights.”
“When we’re finished with dinner, let’s play some cards,” Miss Wheaton said. “I think that will cheer us all up a little.”
“No! I hate cards!” Mr. Faulkner said. “I hate all the stupid games that people play!”
“Would you rather play charades?”
There was a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder, and everybody looked toward the window.
“I think it’s going to rain,” Miss St. Clare said.
“Brilliant deduction,” Mr. Dade said.
“I like rain,” Miss Wheaton said. “I like to be inside when it’s raining and look out.”
“It got dark so quick,” Miss Wheaton said.
“That’s the way it is in the spring.”
“I like spring.”
“What month is it?” Mr. Dade asked.
“It’s April, I think. Or May.”
“No, I mean what time is it?”
“I don’t know. It was six o’clock about an hour ago.”
“What difference does it make what time it is?” Mr. Faulkner said. “We eat dinner, we sit around and watch some stupid shit on TV, and then we wait around until it’s time to go to bed. It’s the same thing every day. Every day. Every day until we die.”
The rain began to pummel the glass and Miss St. Clare got up from the table and ran to the window like a child.
“Oh, just look at it come down!” she said.
“I like storms,” Miss Wheaton said.
The next flash of lightning caused Miss St. Clare to suck in her breath and jump back from the window.
“That was close!” she said.
“That’d be a good way to die,” Mr. Faulkner said. “A bolt of lightning from the sky. Quick and painless.”
“How do you know it’s painless?” Mr. Dade asked.
“It would overpower you. You’d be dead before you feel anything.”
“You always get around to the subject of death, don’t you?” Miss St. Clare said.
“Do you know anything better to talk about?”
The storm gathered intensity. Lightning flashed. Thunder peeled. Wind howled. Rain fell in sheets. Windowpanes shook as though under siege. The storm seemed centered directly in the sky above their heads.
When the lights flickered and went out, Miss St. Clare screamed and grabbed her throat. Miss Wheaton patted her hand to comfort her.
Miss Wheaton stood up from the table. Seemingly able to see in the dark, she went to the sideboard and retrieved two candles in holders, lit them and set them in the middle of the table.
“Candlelight is so romantic,” Miss St. Clare said, having recovered her nerves.
“It transforms the room,” Miss Wheaton said. “Suddenly it’s 1816 and we’re in a medieval castle.”
“You’re a little off with your dates,” Mr. Dade said. “Eighteen-sixteen isn’t medieval.”
Miss St. Clare leaned back in her chair and cocked her head to the side. “Oh, listen!” she said. “Somebody’s playing the piano. Isn’t it lovely?”
“It’s Clair de Lune,” Mr. Faulkner said. “My brother and I used to play it for violin and piano when we were in high school.”
Miss Wheaton and Miss St. Clare stood up and began dancing together to the music. They danced around the table and then they moved farther away, to the middle of the room, where candlelight met shadows.
Mr. Dade leaned back in his chair and lit his after-dinner cigar. Mr. Faulkner fanned his hand in front of his face to keep the smoke away.
“Look at those two old dames,” Mr. Dade said. “The candlelight makes them look young again.”
“No reruns of Gunsmoke tonight if the power doesn’t come back on,” Mr. Faulkner said. “The only thing to do is to go bed and listen to the rain.”
“You know,” Mr. Dade said. “I think I’m going to make love to both of them tonight in my room. First one and then the other.”
“Miss Wheaton and Miss St. Clare.”
Mr. Faulkner laughed. “I don’t see that happening.”
The storm continued unabated. Rain lashed the windows. Lightning purpled the air. Thunder shook the trees to their roots. It was a ferocious display of nature, a little bit like the end of the world.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp