Poor People of Our County ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Nineteen twenty-one was the year mama lost her mind and went into the mental asylum and daddy, tired of being alone, found himself a woman friend and left home. If he had any misgivings about going off and leaving his son and daughter, he soon dispelled them. Phinis was fifteen, almost a man, and Isolde was seventeen, already a married woman. She had been married to Dexter Wooley for six months. Dexter was twenty-nine years old and had a job on a road crew.
Dexter was a steady-enough fellow but he drank too much. One night while drinking, he got into a fight with a fellow named Sutton from out of state and punched him so hard he knocked him into the river. Sutton flailed his arms and legs and screamed that he didn’t know how to swim, but Dexter ignored him. Sutton drowned and after that Dexter was wanted for second-degree murder by the local police. If that wasn’t bad enough, Sutton’s two brothers were looking for Dexter, saying that when they got hold of him they would hang him by the heels from the bridge during cottonmouth-infested high water.
So, Dexter went into hiding for a while; nobody knew where he was. Right after he left, Isolde discovered she was going to have a baby. She was little more than a child herself, weighing less than a hundred pounds. She would not have an easy time of it.
For the first time in their lives, Phinis and Isolde were left on their own. As brother and sister, they had never been especially good friends, preferring instead to go their own separate ways, but now they were all the family left and they had to rely on each other.
“Do you think mama will come home?” Phinis asked late one night when a thunderstorm woke him up.
“I think she will,” Isolde answered from the rocking chair. She was mending baby clothes and hadn’t been to bed yet.
“I wish we could go visit her.”
“It’s not that kind of a hospital where she is. They don’t allow visitors.”
“Why not? We’re family.”
“I don’t know. It’s more like a jail, I guess, than a hospital.”
“Mama’s in jail?”
“That’s just the kind of a hospital it is. They have to keep the patients locked up and apart from each other.”
“I wish we could go visit her.”
“After the baby’s born, we’ll all go visit and she can meet her grandson for the first time.”
“Do you think daddy will come home before the baby’s born and before mama comes home?”
“I think he will, but you never know with daddy.”
“Do you think Dexter will come home before the baby’s born?”
“I feel it in my bones. And won’t he be surprised when he sees his son for the first time? I can’t wait to see his face.”
This same conversation—the same questions and the same answers—occurred almost every day.
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 them decades old, started smelling musty again or looking dull, she’d wash them all over again from the beginning.
She liked to read. She had a few old newspapers and magazines that had somehow accumulated, mama’s King James’ Bible, and a battered copy of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. She had read The Old Curiosity Shop all the way through once and was reading it again. She was surprised at the things she learned from reading that she didn’t know before. Someday she hoped to go to the library at the county seat and see what books she could read.
On one of her good days, she said she was hungry and wanted a stew for supper. She sent Phinis to Ivan’s to buy a turnip, a little bit of beef, a couple of carrots and some celery. As always whenever food was needed, he went to the jar on the top shelf in the kitchen and counted out the money. When he saw how little was left, he kept it to himself. He didn’t want Isolde to have more to worry about; the baby was enough.
He spent longer than usual in the store. It was a friendly place and he liked the smells and the piles of stuff stacked on the shelves waiting to be bought. He walked up and down every aisle and looked at everything. It was just a little country store, but to him it contained unimaginable riches. Some day he would have enough money to buy anything he saw. As he was standing at the counter to pay, he saw some oranges in a crate and bought two, one for Isolde and one for him. They would be good for dessert after the stew.
While he was gone, Isolde had had another sinking spell. She was deathly pale and there was blood on her lips, meaning she had been vomiting blood again. He gave her the sack of stuff from the store and she began making the stew.
She ate hardly anything but smiled a lot and seemed happy. “I think I saw daddy and Dexter this morning,” she said.
“Where?” Phinis asked.
“Walking by on the road.”
“I don’t think it could have been them. They would have stopped in to see us.”
“I guess it couldn’t have been. Maybe I just dreamed it.”
“I have dreams about mama,” he said. “I hear her voice and when I get out of bed she’s cooking breakfast. I can smell it.”
“Dreams are funny sometimes.”
“Do you think we’ll die before mama and daddy and Dexter come home?”
“Why would we die?”
“I don’t know. Just something I think about sometimes.”
“I don’t feel like eating my orange now,” she said. “I’ll eat it later.”
A few days later, on a rainy Saturday, Isolde wasn’t able to get out of bed. She screamed with the pain and couldn’t keep anything down.
“Is it the baby?” Phinis asked.
“No, it’s not time for the baby. Dexter isn’t home yet.”
“If I knew where he was, I’d go and find him and bring him home.”
“If mama was here, she’d know what to do.”
“I’m going to go and get Miss Settles.”
Before he left, 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 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.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’m the only one here.”
“You’re a better brother than I deserve.”
“Try to rest now. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Miss Settles had just washed her hair, but as soon as Phinis 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 what looked like cotton dust on her upper lip.
As Miss Settles and January Maitland began working over Isolde on the bed, Phinis 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 to the county seat and back and don’t come home until you’re good and tired.”
“Is she gonna be all right?” he asked. “There’s a lot of blood there.”
“We’ll do all we can.”
To the accompaniment of Isolde’s screams, he took some money out of the jar in the kitchen and left.
The county seat was a long walk and he was feeling tired before he even started, but he walked with a lightness in his step because the baby was coming and Isolde would stop being sick and be her old self again. The baby coming early would be the beginning of good things happening. Daddy would come home and they would all go and get mama out of the mental hospital and bring her home. Dexter would fix his troubles with the law and would walk a free man again. They’d all sit around the table, eating fried chicken and chocolate cake. Daddy and Dexter would smoke cigarettes and drink beer and mama would hold the baby on her lap and smile. When they heard how well Phinis took care of things while they were gone, they’d say good things about him until he blushed and had to hide his face.
Phinis had been to the county seat many times, but it was always a revelation to him with its cars and people and the little shops that sold everything from farm implements and cars to cigars and ladies’ dresses. 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 had never seen a movie in his life, but had read about them and wanted to.
He went into a working man’s lunch counter, sat at the counter and ordered a plate of eggs and ham and a root beer as if he had been ordering things in a restaurant all his life. From there he went to the drugstore where he bought a peppermint stick for the baby and a magazine for Isolde with stories for women.
He didn’t know how long he had been gone but it must be four hours at least and it would take him another hour to walk back home. The aching muscles in his legs didn’t matter; he could rest when he got home. He felt a happy anticipation when he thought about seeing the baby for the first time and making sure Isolde was all right. He hoped Isolde was right about the baby being a boy. His nephew.
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 carrying white-wrapped bundles.
“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 mama lost so much blood I couldn’t save her, either.”
“What was that you said?”
“I did all I could. You have my sympathy.”
“Do you mean Isolde died?”
“I am so sorry.”
“And the baby too?”
“He never felt nothing. He never knew nothing.”
He looked from Miss Settles to January Maitland and back again in confusion. “What do I do now?” he asked.
“You don’t need to do nothing,” Miss Settles said. “Try to get word to her husband.”
“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 put his hand on the doorknob, started to go inside, 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 now on the bed. They look just like they’re asleep. It was a hard struggle but she’s in a better place now.”
Isolde was lying under a sheet, clean and peaceful. He expected her to open her eyes and ask if he had seen Dexter. Beside her was the baby, fully formed, looking like one of the little dollies she used to play with when she was a small child.
He pulled up the rocker beside the bed and sat down. With nobody there to see it, he cried bitter tears. Isolde lying there dead with her little baby was the most pitiful thing he had ever seen in his whole life. He wished he could kill Dexter Wooley for doing such a thing to Isolde and then going off and leaving her. He would never do such a thing to any woman for as long as he ever lived.
He lit a candle as Miss Settles told him to do and read aloud from mama’s Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still…”
Rain began pounding the roof, shattering the silence. He sat beside the bed all night long, sleeping little. The candle burned down and went out.
At seven o’clock, Hiram Settles came with his young graveyard assistant. As they carried the empty coffin into the house, Phinis directed them to the bedroom. He looked away as they picked up the two bodies from 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, Phinis 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. Phinis stood on the front porch and watched until it was out of sight and then he went back into the lonely house.
He was as tired as he had ever been in his life, numb with tiredness. He slipped out of his clothes and got into bed and slept until it was night again.
When he awoke, rain was again pounding the roof and it took him a while to remember all that had happened. Oh, yes, he was alone in the house. Isolde died, and her baby died, too. She was right. The baby was a boy.
He went into the kitchen to see what food was left. There wasn’t much, and only a little money left in the jar. He would starve to death if he stayed at home by himself. He couldn’t eat the leaves off the trees or the grass in the yard. He had to go find daddy and tell him all that happened, but find him where? He didn’t even know where to begin.
Mother had an older sister named Ruth. She lived in St. Louis. She was the only living family member that he knew about. He remembered seeing her once when he was only five or six years old He didn’t know exactly where she lived but he knew her name and would find her. She could maybe help him find daddy or tell him what he should do.
St. Louis was a hundred and seventy miles away. He didn’t have money for a bus ticket. He’d hitchhike, or walk every step of the way if he had to.
Having a plan was a good thing. St. Louis was a long way off, but he’d make it, for sure. He put a few things in the little suitcase that belonged to mama: the food that was left, the money jar, a change of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, mama’s Bible, The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, pictures of mama and daddy and Isolde, a comb and a toothbrush. He needed to travel light.
He waited then for morning and, just as the sun was coming up, set out in a northerly direction. He didn’t know exactly how to get to St. Louis, but he’d figure it out as he went along.
He walked all day, hitching rides for a couple of short distances. At ten o’clock, it seemed he had traveled a long way from home, but still had a long way to go. He was thinking about where he might spend the night when a couple of boys came upon him out of the dark. They were some older than he was, but not much. They said their names were Freddy and Len. They wore cowboy hats and boots.
“Where you headed?” Freddy asked.
“St. Louis,” Phinis said.
“Do you live there?” Len asked.
“No, just sightseeing.”
“We’re looking to steal a car.”
“It beats walking, don’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Phinis said. “I never stole a car. I don’t think I’d care to go to jail.”
“You’re a real smart guy, aren’t you?” Len said.
“No. My sister just died and her baby. My mother’s in the mental asylum and my father went off and left us. I had to leave home.”
“Oh, what a shame!” Freddy said. “We’re orphans, too.”
“I didn’t say I’m an orphan.”
“If you’re not an orphan, what are you, then?”
“I don’t know. I’m tired. I need a place to stay tonight.”
“We’re camping over in them woods over there. Do you want to throw in with us?”
“I don’t know. I’m not stealing any car.”
“We’ve got a tent and a campfire and some food. There’s room for one more in the tent if you’d care to join us. We were just fooling about stealing a car.”
“No, I’ll just keep looking,” Phinis said.
“Did you ever rob a store? It’s real easy if you’ve got a gun.”
“No, I never robbed a store and I don’t want to. I don’t want to go to jail.”
“Did you ever rape a woman?”
“I’ll bet you’ve never done anything, have you?”
“Life ain’t been very fair to you, has it?”
“I never thought about it.”
“We’re not really rapers and robbers,” Cal said. “He’s full of shit for saying that. He’s play-acting like a little child.”
“You got any money?” Freddy asked.
“None to speak of,” Phinis said.
“The world is just an awful place, ain’t it?”
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp