When Woolworth’s Closed Its Doors ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a slightly different version of a short story I posted before.)
He sat on a hard-backed chair and wished he was someplace else. His name was Cleland Entwistle and he was nine years old. It was his day to stay with grandma and it was grandma’s day to visit friends. Come rain or come shine, come hell or high water, he had to go along with her whether he wanted to or not.
They were in Lucille Alcorn’s home, in her comfortable living room. Lucille Alcorn herself sat on a settee to the left of the fireless fireplace. Around her were her old friends Jane Peabody, Shirley Singletree, Mildred Entwistle (Cleland’s grandma), and Grace Milford. They were all widows except for Grace Milford, who never married. She was an old maid schoolteacher all her life, until she turned seventy and was forced to retire.
These five women had all known each other for a long time, fifty years or more. They all loved to talk and they were never without things to talk about. They talked about family, their own and others. They talked about friends, acquaintances and neighbors, and if their talk bordered on the malicious or the exaggerated, they were forever unconcerned. They talked about themselves, their trips to the doctor and the medical procedures they might have experienced; their shopping and their cooking; their problems with cleaning ladies; their hairdressers; their run-ins with the auto mechanic who was always out to cheat them; books they had read or wanted to read; movies they saw or wanted to see; television shows they watched that they found risqué or offensive; the pastor at their church (just a little too sexy for his own good), his ferret-faced wife and his two pimple-faced, overweight daughters.
“I hear the pastor’s younger brother is in all kinds of in trouble,” Jane Peabody said. “Everybody was talking about it in church on Sunday.”
“What kind of trouble?” Grace Milford asked.
“He got a girl in a bad way and when it all came to light he refused to marry her.”
“What else? He’s twenty-three and it seems the girl is only a senior in high school.”
“That sounds like a case of statutory rape.”
“I think the little girl was willing. At least that’s what everybody says.”
“Even so, it’s a crime if the girl’s underage. He could go to jail.”
“He ought to be horsewhipped.”
“The family tried to keep it hidden, but once the ladies in the church get hold of it, it might as well be printed on the front page of every newspaper in the country.”
“People certainly get themselves into some messes, don’t they?”
“I hope it’s not too much of an embarrassment for the pastor,” Lucille Alcorn said. “I think he has enough problems as it is.”
“Having an ugly wife, you mean?”
“No, I don’t mean that. I mean other things.”
“Remember that old song that says, ‘if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, just make an ugly woman your wife’.”
“I’m sure there’s some truth to that.”
“Did I tell you my hairdresser broke his arm and is going to be out for at least two weeks?”
“No! Who’s your hairdresser?”
“Julian LaGrange is his name. He’s an absolute treasure.”
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of him. He wears colorful silk scarves and always smells like a whorehouse.”
“That’s the one.”
“He’s just a little too feminine for my tastes. I mean, how do you know he’s not breathing disease germs all over you while he’s doing your hair. Those people have diseases, you know!”
“I don’t think Julian has any diseases. He’s like one of the girls. I would trust him with my life.”
“Well, those people give me the willies, anyway.”
“We’re supposed to be tolerant of others,” grandma said.
“We’re not supposed to judge.”
“Well, how would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry one of them?”
“I don’t have a daughter, but if I did I don’t think I’d be in charge of choosing her husband.”
“You’d just go ahead and let her do it? Marry one of them hairdressers?”
“If she wanted to, I guess I couldn’t stop her.”
“My tolerance just doesn’t extend that far!”
Cleland caught grandma’s eye and mouthed the words: I want to go home. She gave him a stern look that said: Behave yourself and be quiet.
“Did any of you go to Val Acker’s funeral last week?” Jane Peabody asked.
“I wanted to go but that was the day I had the plumbers,” Grace Milford said.
“She was only fifty-six, poor old soul.”
“She was so fat she couldn’t even take one step on her own anymore. Over four hundred pounds, they say.”
“Isn’t that a shame?”
“They had to special-order a large-sized casket. From another state. While they were waiting on the casket, they had to put poor Val on ice.”
“I heard it was the kind of casket they bury elephants in,” Shirley Singletree said.
“I didn’t know they had caskets for elephants.”
“When I was in high school, I used to baby sit for Val and her little brother,” grandma said. “She was fat even then, when she was no more than eight or nine years old.”
“I guess some people are just born fat and stay that way their whole lives.”
“Her mother would always pay me fifty cents an hour. If I had a dollar or a dollar-fifty, I’d go down to the Woolworth’s and buy lipstick and face powder and girly stuff. My mother never knew what I was spending my money on. She thought I was saving it for college.”
“When Woolworth’s shut its doors, that’s when the world changed,” Lucille Alcorn said.
“You’re right,” grandma said. “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”
“I remember when the Woolworth’s downtown caught on fire and burned,” Jane Peabody said. “We cried for days. There were lots of things Woolworth’s had that other stores didn’t have.”
“It took them a couple of years to rebuild, but when they did it was bigger and better than ever. The new one had a lunch counter and a bulk-candy counter and everything. It had a smell all its own, a smell from heaven. People came from all over for the grand opening.”
“Yes, I remember the grand opening,” Shirley Singletree said. “My cousin and I got dressed up for it. We pretended we were going to a movie premiere.”
“Well, I guess it’s as close as we ever had to a movie premiere in this town.” Lucille Alcorn said.
“When I got a little money,” Grace Milford said, “I didn’t buy cosmetics; I’d buy cigarettes. My friends and I would go to the cemetery and we’d smoke the whole pack. They tasted awful, but we thought we were so grown up. My mother would have strangled me if she had known.”
“When we were fourteen,” Shirley Singletree said. “We bought a pack of rubbers out of a machine. We didn’t even know what they were for, but we wanted to see what they looked like. We unrolled them, wondering which part of the anatomy they were used on. We didn’t know if you wore them on your thumb, or your big toe, or what. They were oily and kind of disgusting. We took a look at them and then threw them away and washed our hands.”
“What’s a pack of rubbers?” Cleland asked. It was the first he had spoken.
All the women turned and looked at him.
“What’s a pack of rubbers?” he asked again.
“It’s nothing at all, honey,” Grace Milford said. “Just something kids buy when they think nobody’s looking.”
“Who is this little man?” Jane Peabody asked.
“You’ve met him before,” grandma said. “I had him with me at the lodge dinner at church last spring.”
“Oh, yes, I remember him. He’s grown quite a bit since then, hasn’t he?”
“Is he Kenny’s boy or Andy’s?” Lucille Alcorn asked.
“Andy’s,” grandma said.
“Now who was it Andy married?”
“I had a little brother,” Cleland said, “but there was something wrong with his heart and he died. He was six weeks old. His name was Marcus. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night, I think about him in the dark inside his grave and I get scared.”
“You need to think about happy things and then you won’t be scared any more. Do you like clowns? Think about clowns.”
“Clowns scare him,” grandma said.
“Andy and Earline Jett are still young,” Shirley Singletree said. “They ought to have more children.”
“Earline can’t have any more. She’s not very well.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Female trouble. You know the story.”
“Oh, isn’t that shame!”
“What grade are you in, cupcake?” Grace Milford asked.
“Fourth,” Cleland said.
“Did you know I used to teach little boys and girls just your age?”
“I taught elementary school for thirty-seven years until I got too old.”
“They told you to get in your car and go home?”
He was awfully bored and was ready for some diversion. He kicked off his shoes and laid across the chair and looked up at the ceiling. He was careful not to look at grandma because she’d point her finger and tell him to sit up straight like a normal person.
From upside down, lying on his back across the chair, he spied a picture on the mantel of a gray-haired man in a dark suit.
“Who’s that man?” he asked
“That’s my husband,” Lucille Alcorn said.
“Where is he now? Is he at work?”
“No, he died.”
“What was the matter with him?”
“He got sick and they took him to the hospital and he died.”
“Was he old?”
“Not very old.”
“That’s enough questions, Cleland!” grandma said.
“What did he do when he was still alive?”
“He owned his own business.”
“What kind of business?”
“He owned and operated a clothing store downtown.”
“Clothing? You mean likes suits and hats and underwear and things?”
“That’s right. It was before you were even born.”
“A long time ago?”
“Yes, a long time ago.”
“Cleland, stop talking now!” grandma said.
All the women laughed and Cleland felt embarrassed.
“What did I say?” he said.
“You sit there and don’t say a word and once you start talking, you don’t stop.”
“You got a girlfriend, honey?” Jane Peabody asked.
“No, I don’t want one.”
“You’ll change your mind about that, I’m sure.”
It was time to serve refreshments. Lucille Alcorn went into the kitchen and came back a few minutes later pushing a little cart with a pot of tea on it, a plate of cookies, a bottle of wine and some wine glasses. She poured a cup of tea for everybody and then passed around the plate of cookies.
Cleland drank his tea, slowly at first and then faster. It was slightly bitter with a little tang of lemon and a little sugar, but it tasted good. With his cup in his right hand, he took a cookie in his left hand and bit into it. He was careful not to drop any crumbs on the floor.
The cookies were orange and lemon, the best cookies ever. Cleland ate three or four and drank two cups of tea. The refreshments were always the best part of the visits.
When he was finished, he wasn’t shy about asking to use the bathroom. All the women stopped what they were doing and looked at him strangely as if he had said pack of rubbers again.
“Up the stairs,” Lucille Alcorn said. “Down the hallway on the left.”
He planned on taking his time because he wasn’t having a good time and he wanted to leave. The longer he stayed away, the less time he’d have to sit there and listen to grandma and the others talk about things that didn’t interest him. And, anyway, he enjoyed being in a strange house and looking at things he hadn’t seen before and walking through strange rooms.
He went up the stairs slowly, planting his feet firmly on the carpet and holding on to the mahogany banister, barely making a sound. Being quiet was part of the fun because he was going to do things he wasn’t supposed to do. Halfway up the stairs, on a landing, was a huge grandfather clock. It was old-looking and mysterious with its ponderous pendulum going back and forth, counting out the endless seconds. He stood looking at the clock for a minute and then moved on.
The bathroom was large, cool and quiet, with an old-lady smell like the stuff they use under their arms. There was an old claw-footed tub like nobody had anymore. The floor was black-and-white squares with a blood-red rug by the tub to catch drips.
He closed the door for privacy and, after he did what he had to do, he spent a long time washing and drying his hands. After he folded the towel neatly and hung it back on the towel bar, he opened the medicine cabinet over the sink and looked at the bottles, jars and little boxes arrayed neatly on the shelves. He saw nothing of interest and reclosed the door.
In the hallway across from the bathroom was a bedroom. He walked in slowly, as though entering an unexplored cave. It was cool and dark, with heavy draperies covering the windows. He walked around the high bed to the other side of the room, where there was a door.
He opened the door slowly, as if a skeleton might jump out at him, and saw it was a closet. Clothes hung in parallel lines, way up over his head. He couldn’t imagine anybody ever having that many clothes. He took a few steps into the murk and stale air of the closet and then he saw something that might have startled him out of a year or two of growth. Someone was standing against the back wall.
It was a man, an older, gray-haired man dressed in a tuxedo. He was smiling, he had a little mustache; his lips were red and his teeth like pearls. His right arm hung at his side and his left arm was extended as though about to take hold of something being handed to him.
“I…I was just…” Cleland began, but then he realized he wasn’t talking to a living person. It was a man that had been stuffed like a cheetah or a gorilla. It was Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband. He was dead, all right, but he wasn’t in any grave the way other dead people are. She had him stuffed and hidden in her closet. It was an exciting thing to stumble upon and he was sure he was the only person in his class at school to have seen a dead stuffed man up close.
He walked closer to the stuffed man, looking at him carefully to make sure he wasn’t going to move unexpectedly. He touched the hand; it felt smooth and cool like a dinner plate. He looked up into the face; it was shiny and there were a few tiny cracks around the mouth. The stuffed man seemed to be working up his facial muscles to speak and, if he spoke, Cleland was anxious to hear what it was he was going to say.
A creak in some other part of the house made him think somebody was coming, so he turned to go back downstairs, when he saw a gray object on the floor next to the right shoe of the stuffed man. He had to get down on his knees and move the cloth of the pants leg slightly out of the way to see it was a large gray rat, stiffly dead. Its eyes were fixed and staring, just like the eyes of the stuffed man, and its little paws were outstretched, as if in the act of running. When Cleland saw how his whiskers had grown quite long and curved downward, he felt sorry for him and believed he deserved better than lying dead on the floor of a closet at the foot of a stuffed man. He picked him up by the tail and looked around for a more fitting place.
On the dresser in Lucille Alcorn’s bedroom was a large wooden box with a carved lid. Grandma had a wooden box something like it, although not as big. It was a jewelry case.
He opened the lid of the jewelry case and saw a surprising array of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, a veritable king’s ransom in jewels. The case was almost full but there was still plenty of room inside for a good-sized rat.
He didn’t want to just put the rat in on top of the jewels and then close the lid; something more was needed. In the top drawer of the dresser was a stack of ladies’ handkerchiefs. He took out two of them and, refolding one lengthwise, placed it on top of the jewels and laid the rat carefully on top of that. Then he used the other handkerchief as a cover for the rat and closed the box.
He went back downstairs, believing he had done a good, kind thing.
Grandma looked at him but didn’t say anything as he re-entered the room. If they had been at home, she would have asked him where he had been and what he had been doing. He couldn’t keep from smiling.
The tea was all gone and now and everybody was drinking the wine. There was one glass still left on the little cart.
“Can I have some wine?” Cleland asked.
“No!” grandma said.
“Just a sip?”
“Can’t he at least taste it?” Lucille Alcorn asked. “He’s been such a good little man all afternoon, sitting with a bunch of old hens.”
“Well, all right,” grandma said, “you can taste it but you won’t like it.”
With his back to grandma so she couldn’t see what he was doing, he filled the little glass and swallowed it down like water. It was bitter and sour, it burned his throat and almost made him gag, but he told everybody afterwards that he liked it.
Finally it was time for Cleland and grandma to go home. All the women embraced each other as if they were setting out for Asia and wouldn’t see each other again for a long time. Grace Milford bent over and gave Cleland a wet kiss on the cheek. Her breath smelled like the monkey house at the zoo.
Going home, grandma had to walk slow because her knees were worn out and didn’t work so well anymore. Sometimes she put her hand on Cleland’s shoulder to steady herself.
“Did you enjoy yourself this afternoon?” she asked.
“The cookies were good,” Cleland said.
“You ate too many. You spoiled your appetite for supper.”
“I liked them.”
“We’re having liver and onions.”
“I don’t like liver and onions.”
“Be glad you have healthy food to eat.”
“I’d rather have fried chicken.”
“What were you doing so long when you went to use the bathroom?”
“I was only gone a minute.”
He was bursting to tell grandma about Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband upstairs in the closet, but he knew it would lead to inevitable questions that he wouldn’t want to answer. Instead he said, “They have a big house, don’t they? When I’m grown up, I’m going to have a house like that.”
“Best of luck,” grandma said.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp