The Look in His Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted a different version of this story previously.)
She worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. She hated her job but she went to work every day and performed her menial duties to the best of her ability because she had a dependent child to take care of on her own, a nine-year-old son named Devin. She had been a widow since Devin was three, when Devin’s father was killed when a scaffolding he was working on, forty feet high, collapsed and sent him and two other workers to their deaths.
When she wasn’t working, she liked to have a good time. She smoked a lot of cigarettes and sometimes she drank enough beer to make her sick all the next day, but she was an attentive mother to Devin and rarely punished him for not eating his vegetables, making a mess of his room, or getting less-than-spectacular grades on his report card.
Usually on the weekend she engaged an old lady from the neighborhood or a high-school girl to sit with Devin, watch TV with him (no monster movies), give him pizza or a sandwich for dinner, and then make sure he brushed his teeth and went to bed at a reasonable hour. Sometimes she would not come home until the next morning. More than once, the old woman staying with Devin got tired of waiting and took him home with her and put him to bed on her couch, leaving a note for mother to let her know where they were.
Mother attracted boyfriends effortlessly. She specialized in low-life, no-account men, she said. Some of them had long hair and tattoos and were just out of jail. They were all right for a little while but she soon grew tired of them and could never take them seriously.
And then she met Kelly Gottschalk. He was different from her other boyfriends. He had gone to college but, more importantly, he had been an officer in the marine corps. He had a flat-top haircut and he wore form-fitting shirts that showed off his bulging muscles. He had been married to a couple of different ladies (not at the same time), but he found out after he married them that he didn’t like them as much as he thought and divorced both of them.
Mother had Kelly over for spaghetti so he and Devin could meet and get acquainted. From the beginning, they didn’t have much to say to each other, but they shook hands politely at the front door and smiled. Mother and Kelly hardly looked Devin’s way or spoke to him during dinner. Mother spoke quietly into Kelly’s ear as if she didn’t want Devin to hear what she said. Her eyes shone and she giggled a lot; she could hardly keep her hands off Kelly. Devin had never seen her act so silly. When dinner was over, they sat on the couch and watched TV, holding hands, while Devin went to his room and closed the door.
Devin wanted to tell mother he didn’t like Kelly, that just the look in his eye gave him a bad feeling, but he said nothing because she seemed happy and he didn’t want to give her anything to feel bad about.
A few days after the spaghetti dinner, mother told Devin that she and Kelly were getting married and there were going to be some big changes in their lives. Finally she could quit her job at the nursing home and stay at home and be a real wife and mother. They were going to live in Kelly’s house, with its big yard, garage, and basement. Devin would, of course, have his own room. He was lucky because he could keep going to his old school, although he would have a lot farther to walk.
Mother and Kelly were married by a justice of the peace (how romantic!) and were gone for three nights, during which time Devin stayed with a neighbor lady and her yapping miniature schnauzers. He couldn’t wait for mother to get back home so he could feel normal again, but the only problem was that when she came back Kelly was with her.
Within a week they had left their small apartment and moved into Kelly’s house. Devin had bad dreams at first because his room was upstairs and he was lonely and the stairs creaked on their own as if a ghost was walking up and down them. If he called out to mother, she didn’t come to him the way she used to because her bedroom was downstairs and Devin couldn’t sleep with her whenever he was scared and couldn’t go barging into her room any time he felt like it because it was Kelly’s room too and mother said they needed their privacy, as all newlyweds do.
She didn’t quit her job right away as she thought she would, because, as it turned out, she had some old debts to pay off and she didn’t want to have to burden Kelly with them. It meant that Devin, with mother at work all day, was left alone in the house with Kelly.
Devin still didn’t like Kelly very much but he would try for mother’s sake. He’d be civil if nothing else. He’d stay out of Kelly’s way as much as he could, watch TV, stay in his room reading his comic books, or occupy himself with something in the yard.
Kelly had other ideas, though, about the way Devin should spend his time. He believed in military-style discipline. To begin with, the TV would not be turned on during the day. It sucked up too much electricity and it was a bad influence on kids; it made them soft and unrealistic and made them want things they couldn’t have.
“Your mother indulges you too much,” Kelly said.
“What does that mean?” Devin asked.
“She lets you have your way all the time. She spoils you. I won’t do that.”
“That’s all right. I like to be left alone.”
“Yeah? Well, those days are over.”
After the “honeymoon” was over and mother had returned to her job at the rest home, Kelly gave Devin a broom and a dustpan and put him to work cleaning his room, pulling all the furniture way from the wall and cleaning behind it. When that was finished, he gave him a scrub brush and a can of cleanser and made him get down in the bathtub and clean the tile.
“That isn’t fair,” Devin said. “All this dirt was here before I came here. This is somebody else’s dirt.”
“Yeah? Well, tell me about fair,” Kelly said. “Life isn’t fair, is it? The sooner you learn it, the better.”
How Kelly loved his little book of rules!
You will take baths regularly, of course, if not daily. (He came into the bathroom while Devin was in the tub to make sure he wasn’t wasting water.) After the bath, clean the tub thoroughly, tidy the bathroom, and hang all towels neatly on their racks. We don’t live on Park Avenue and we don’t have a maid. You will be your own maid, which includes hanging up your clothes and putting your dirty socks and underwear in the laundry basket at the bottom of the basement stairs to be sorted later.
We observe nine o’clock bedtime every night of the week, even on weekends. (No more late movies on TV.) Going to bed early and getting up early is a healthy habit and it instills discipline.
Every morning, you will make your own bed before breakfast and before getting dressed. Change the sheets at least once a week and take the dirty sheets down to the basement and put them in the washer.
You will only have one light on at a time and that’s the light you’re using. When you go out of a room, turn off any lights that are on. When you open the refrigerator door, get out everything you need at once. Opening the refrigerator door repeatedly wastes electricity.
Mow the lawn at least once a week. Keep the rows straight and even. Rake up the cut grass and put it in bags made especially for that purpose. After the grass is mowed, pull the weeds growing in the flower bed. Repeat in one week.
At first Devin enjoyed operating the powerful mower, but the sun was hot, his arms ached and he hated having Kelly finding fault with everything he did.
“Go over that row again,” Kelly barked. “You missed some sprouts growing there.”
Mother came out of the house to observe. “That mower is too heavy for him,” she said. “You have to remember he doesn’t have the strength of a grown man.”
“He’s never too young to learn to do things right,” Kelly said.
“Watch him and make sure he doesn’t lose any fingers or toes,” she said.
Kelly had a temper and he liked to pout, mother said. She would do whatever was needed to stay on his good side. She didn’t want to cross him or do anything to make him mad.
“I hate him,” Devin one evening when he was drying dishes after supper.
“He’s trying to be a good father to you,” mother said.
“He’s not my father. I hate him.”
“You have to give him a chance. This is all new for him.”
“Can’t we go back home and forget about him?” Devin asked.
Mother laughed. “This is home now,” she said.
And then there was the attic and after the attic the basement. They hadn’t been cleaned out in years, Kelly said, and it was high time.
The attic was full of dust and cobwebs. There was old furniture and stuff his mother and father used and, even before them, his grandparents. Kelly wanted everything straightened up, righted, and dusted off. That meant lugging the vacuum cleaner up the steps and plugging it into the one bulb that hung from the ceiling and sucking up all the spiders and cobwebs and the years’ accumulation of dust. Then there was the nightmare of bundling up all the things to throw away, according to Kelly’s exact specifications, and setting it out for the trash collectors to pick up.
The basement was dark and frightening, with strange smells and piles of old furniture and boxes everywhere. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling all the way to the floor, making it seem like Dracula’s castle. Devin saw his first rat when he was moving some boxes and ran out into the yard, shivering with revulsion.
“I can’t do this!” he said. “I’m not a slave, for Christ’s sake!”
Summer vacation was over and he started fourth grade. It was the first time in his life that he was glad to return to school. He had to walk a mile each way, but he didn’t mind it so much, even when it was raining. He liked the rainy days best because on those days there was no yard work to be done.
Mother was tired and nervous when she got home from work. She cooked the supper that they ate in silence. Devin saw that she had changed since she married Kelly. She had dark circles under her eyes and she didn’t laugh anymore. He wished that things could be the way they used to be.
On some days Kelly told mother to leave the supper dishes for Devin to do on his own. He would take her into the living room and get her to lie across his lap while he rubbed her shoulders and whispered in her ear. Mother seemed to like that kind of treatment, but Devin hated Kelly for it. He hated to see them together. Sometimes they went into their bedroom and closed the door early in the evening, before dark, and Devin wouldn’t see them again until the next morning.
It was well into fall and the big trees in the yard were shedding their leaves. There were thousands of leaves, millions of them, so many that Devin had to rake every day after school just to keep up with them. They used to be able to burn the leaves but now they had to bag them up in yard-waste bags. Devin didn’t know which was harder. raking the leaves or getting them into the upright bags. Kelly wasn’t much help—though always present—because he had a couple of slipped discs in his back and couldn’t bend over and couldn’t lift.
On a Sunday afternoon toward the end of October, Devin was in the side yard working on the leaves. He had a sore throat, didn’t feel well, and wanted to go to his room and spend the afternoon doing what he wanted to do. The leaves were never-ending.
Kelly, for once, was occupied elsewhere. He had bought a vintage 1956 Cadillac and was restoring it. The Cadillac was in the driveway, near the house, and Kelly was underneath it with only his big feet sticking out. The tires had been removed and the front end of the car was jacked up; only a thin arm of metal kept the car suspended in the air.
Devin found a formidable-looking slingshot by the back fence. He didn’t know who it belonged to, but since he found it in his yard he would claim it as his own. He picked it up and pulled back on the rubber sling to test its resiliency. It begged to be tried out. Since Kelly wasn’t paying at attention at the moment, there was nothing to keep him from firing a few missiles into the air.
In the back yard was a walnut tree. The branches were heavy with walnuts but a lot of them had fallen to the ground and lay scattered about. (Yes, Devin would have to bag them up, too, when the time came.) He picked one up and felt its hardness and solidity. He shot one up into the walnut tree, scaring a squirrel and causing some birds to take to the air.
He fired one over the house and watched the satisfying arc it described in the air. He kept firing them in all directions, realizing it was the most fun he had had for a while. He didn’t care if Kelly saw that he was playing instead of working. He’d like to shoot one squarely between his eyes.
One of the walnuts went wildly astray. He saw too late that it was headed toward the Cadillac. If it hit the Cadillac of anywhere near it, Kelly would be out from under the car and all over him in a matter of seconds.
The walnut hit the jack holding up the car. It made a ping! sound and bounced off. The jack held for a couple of seconds and then shimmied and collapsed as if by design. The Cadillac came crashing down on Kelly. He let out one short, sharp scream and his legs twitched.
Devin dropped the slingshot and ran for the back door. Mother was standing in the kitchen. She already knew something had happened. She took one look at Devin and followed him out the door. She ran to the Cadillac to try to help Kelly, but of course there was nothing to be done.
A neighbor called the ambulance. The ambulance people came with their emergency equipment and lifted up the Cadillac high enough to pull Kelly out. They rushed him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Lots of people came to the funeral home to see Kelly laid out in his casket. All the people from the neighborhood were there, all of mother’s coworkers, people she knew from as far back as high school. Relatives she hadn’t seen for years heard about the accident and came to pay their condolences.
Mother was standing in front of Kelly’s casket in her black dress. Devin went and stood beside her.
“Do you think it hurt when the car fell on him?” he asked.
“I don’t think he felt anything,” she said. “They said he died instantly.”
“I’ve never seen a dead person before.”
She put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. She started crying again.
“I’ve had two husbands and they both died in accidents,” she said. “I’m through with marriage. I will never be a widow again.”
What was going on in Devin’s mind no one could ever know, least of all her. He was the only person in the world who knew what really happened to Kelly. He would never tell anybody; people would think he did it on purpose and he would go to jail for the rest of his life. No, it was his one true secret and he would hold it close for as long as he lived.
Some new people came in and mother went to greet them, leaving Devin standing alone in front of the casket. How different Kelly was now, lying on his bed of peach-colored satin. No longer the big, blustering man, barking out orders in his best military style. He would go into the ground tomorrow after the funeral and turn to dust in his grave, never to speak another word.
Devin felt conspicuous standing there in the open. He heard his name spoken behind him. People were looking at him, feeling sorry for him. He went and found a chair against the wall where nobody could see him, flattened his hands under his thighs and took a deep breath. He wanted only to leave, to be left alone, to get into bed and cover up his head without anybody watching him or speaking his name.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp