When I Get to Where I’m Going ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The new gardener came in late summer. His name was Paulo Luster. He wasn’t like the others. His clothes were clean and he didn’t have dirt under his fingernails. And when it came to his work, he worked quietly and efficiently, cleaning up the lawn after a summer of neglect. He never complained, never made excuses, hardly spoke unless spoken to. When he was finished for the day, he put away the tools and left without fanfare.
Roddy was fifteen and in the ninth grade. Summer was over and school had taken up again. Sitting in class all day long listening to people talk about things that didn’t interest him left him with a lot of pent-up energy. After depositing his books in his room, he liked to spend some time outside, breathing fresh air, walking around in the yard or sitting underneath the mulberry tree in the front yard.
When Roddy saw Paulo working in the side yard, he approached him shyly, not knowing how he would take to being disturbed. Realizing Roddy was nearby, Paulo looked up from his work and smiled. The smile was followed by a wink, as if, to Roddy’s way of thinking, they shared something vitally important but unspoken.
Emboldened by these outward signs of friendliness, Roddy began speaking to Paulo whenever he had the chance. Paulo listened attentively to Roddy when he spoke, although he usually didn’t have much to say in return. They talked about the next-door neighbors, the rosebushes and about the gophers that made tracks in the back yard. Paulo was against poisoning them.
“I’d rather poison people than gophers,” Roddy said.
“I know what you mean,” Paulo said.
The talk inevitably turned to Roddy’s family.
“Watch out for my mother,” Roddy said. “She’ll smile to your face and then stab you in the back. She fired the last gardener for cutting back the hibiscus bush too much. She didn’t even give him any warning. He was here and then he was gone. There were no goodbyes.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Paulo said.
“Have you met my sister?”
“I’ve seen her.”
“She’s a viper. You don’t want to have anything to do with her. Her name is Janice. She’s seventeen. She’s a senior this year. She’s ten times worse than my mother.”
Paulo laughed. “She can’t be as bad as all that.”
“And then there’s my father. He’s a lawyer. He works all the time. He doesn’t want to be bothered with little domestic details. He leaves everything to my mother. He might come out of the house and fire you, but he’ll be polite about it.”
“I’ll try not to give him any reason.”
“Well, how about you? Family?”
“None to speak of. They’ll all dead. I have one brother but I never see him.”
“What made you become a gardener?”
“I don’t know. I always liked to watch things grow. I don’t plan on being a gardener forever.”
“What will you do after you’re a gardener?”
“I’m also a carpenter. A house painter. A machinist. I’ll always find work.”
“Do you like doing all those things?”
“I don’t think about whether I like them or not. I have to make a living. I like it as long as it pays me money.”
Another time Roddy talked to Paulo about school. He never talked to his parents about school. They only lectured him about applying himself and getting good grades. Paulo spoke to him as an equal, never talked down to him and never gave out with platitudes about staying in school and becoming a success in life.
“I don’t like school very much,” Roddy said. “I don’t fit in very well.”
“Why not?” Paulo asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m not like other people. I can’t wait to finish with school and get away from my family and this town.”
“Where will you go?”
“Out West somewhere.”
“Where men are men?”
“Yeah. Wide-open spaces.”
Roddy began looking forward to seeing Paulo in the afternoons after school and was disappointed when he wasn’t there. He was afraid his mother would fire him or he’d quit without saying anything, and he’d never see him again. He didn’t know where Paulo lived or anything else about him, so that would be the end of that.
On a Friday afternoon, Roddy found Paulo in the yard with his hand bleeding.
“Why didn’t you knock on the door and ask my mother for help?” Roddy asked.
“I didn’t want to bother her.”
“You need to wash that out.”
He took Paulo into the kitchen and held his hand under the faucet. Then he gave him a cold root beer and had him sit at the table while he went and got some mercurochrome and a bandage.
The next day Paulo gave Roddy a little gift. It was an insect trapped in a nugget of amber.
“It’s for helping me yesterday,” Paulo said. “I’ve had it since I was twelve years old. I thought you’d like it.”
He held it up to the light so he could see the insect better.
“It’s just between you and me,” Paulo said. “Don’t tell the others.”
“Whatever you say.”
He put the nugget in his pocket and went into dinner with a happy smile on his face. Janice couldn’t stand for him to be happy.
“When you’re smiling, you’re up to something and I bet it isn’t anything good,” she said.
“Mind your own business,” he said.
“I saw you out there talking to the gardener.”
“So? I’m the only one in the family that deigns to talk to him.”
“What were you two talking about?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Mother, I think you should fire that gardener,” Janice said.
“I don’t like his looks. He looks at me funny.”
“He doesn’t look at you,” Roddy said. “He looks through you.”
“We’ll only fire the gardener,” father said to Janice, “if you’ll do all his work after school and do it as well as he does.”
“Has he said anything to you, Janice?” mother asked.
“No, he hasn’t said anything, but he looks at me funny.”
“Like he’s thinking about things.”
“Well, if he says anything inappropriate, you let me know.”
“He would never look at you!” Roddy said. “He has better taste than that. You’re only jealous because he doesn’t look at you!”
“Neither one of you should be associating with him,” mother said. “He’s a grown man and we don’t know anything about him.”
A few days later, Roddy’s mother accosted him in the hallway when he came inside after spending a half-hour or so talking to Paulo.
“What is that man saying to you?” mother asked.
“He’s not saying anything! We’re just talking!”
“He’s not trying to get you to do drugs, is he?”
“Of course not! Do you know how ridiculous that is?”
“Is he telling you dirty stories?”
“Why would he do that?”
“I want to know what he says to you!”
“He doesn’t say anything! We’re just talking!”
“We’ve all noticed how much time you’re spending with him. Even the neighbors have noticed. You need to stop hanging around him. You’re keeping him from his work!”
Roddy the next day told Paulo what his mother had said.
“I have to stop talking to you so much,” he said. “My sister is jealous if she thinks I have a friend. She sees me talking to you and then she goes and tells my mother made-up stories. She’s a natural-born troublemaker.”
“I get it,” Paulo said. “I don’t want to be the cause of any trouble.”
“I didn’t want you to think I stopped talking to you because I was mad at you.”
“I’d never think that,” Paulo said.
“If she fires you, please don’t go away without saying goodbye.”
Roddy began having trouble in school. He was caught cheating on an algebra test. When he got into an argument with a history teacher and she told him to shut up, he threw a book across the classroom and went outside and smoked a cigarette.
When quarterly grades came out, it was worse than he expected. He was failing algebra and almost failing two other classes. If he didn’t get himself “straightened out,” as his father said, he was going to “flunk out” of school, and then where would he be? He’d end living at the city dump, a worthless hobo, without family and friends.
His father engaged a tutor, a former college professor named Mr. Hatley. Two evenings a week Roddy spent three hours with Mr. Hatley in his “study” in the basement of his home. Mr. Hatley believed the only way to save a slacking boy was through hard work and military discipline. He drilled Roddy relentlessly on the finer points of algebra. Roddy hated him instantly.
One evening when Roddy was returning home from a tutoring session, his heart gave a leap when he saw Paulo standing in the front yard under the mulberry tree.
“Are you looking for me?” he asked.
“I need a place to stay tonight,” Paulo said. “I thought I’d stay in the storeroom of your father’s garage, but I wanted to tell you about it first.”
“You can have the guest room.”
“The storeroom is good enough and I’ll be gone in the morning before anybody even knows I was here.”
“You’ll get cold.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You can stay in my room with me.”
“And how do you think that’ll go down with your parents?”
“They won’t have to know about it.”
“I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”
“You won’t. It’ll be all right.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“My parents go to bed at ten. Come to the kitchen door at ten-thirty and I’ll let you in.”
“Are you sure?”
Roddy went to his room at ten o’clock when his parents went to bed and, true to his word, he went downstairs to the kitchen at ten-thirty and opened the back door. Paulo was standing outside in the dark.
Roddy held his finger to his lips to indicate silence and the two of them, with Roddy leading the way, crept up the stairs in the dark and along the hallway to Roddy’s room.
“You can relax,” Roddy said, after locking the door. “Nobody comes in unless I say.”
Paulo took off his coat and sat down in the chair and untied his shoes. “If you have an extra blanket,” he whispered, “I can sleep on the floor.”
“Nothing doing,” Roddy said. “You’ll sleep in my bed.”
“I’m not taking your bed.”
“I meant both of us.”
They undressed in the dark and got into bed. They went to sleep to the sound of the rain on the roof and the wind gently pressing against the windows.
When Roddy awoke in the morning, Paulo was gone; there was no sign he had even been there.
At school all day long Roddy was more calm and courteous than usual. He smiled at the history teacher with whom he had had the argument and admired her expensive leather bag. He passed an algebra quiz and was hating algebra a little less. A girl in his class invited him to a party on Saturday night; he declined with a made-up excuse.
When he got home, his mother was out for the afternoon and Janice was waiting for him.
“I know what you’ve been up with to the gardener,” she said. “I can’t say I’m a bit surprised.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about! I know you sneaked him into your room last night. How many other nights have you sneaked him in? I can only imagine what’s going on in there!”
“It’s none of your business!”
“I heard you creeping past out in the hallway last night and when I opened my door to see what was going on, I saw you take that man into your room in the dark.”
“What of it? It’s none of your business!”
“Do you know that what you’re doing is a crime? They’ll lock you up for that!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about! We didn’t do anything!”
“I suppose you just ‘talked’!”
“I don’t have to explain anything to you!”
“I’m going to tell mother and father! They’ll be appalled that such a thing is going on in their own house after they’ve gone to bed!”
“Nothing is going on! He’s my friend, that’s all. You’re just jealous because he doesn’t want you!”
“Mother will call the police and they’ll come and take your ‘friend’ away and lock him up for the rest of his life. You’re a minor and he isn’t. Do you know what a serious crime that is? There are names for men who do that sort of thing!”
He pretended to shrug off the conversation with Janice, but in truth he was badly shaken. She could cause all kinds of trouble if she wanted to. He had always hated her but never more than now.
At the dinner table she looked at him smugly but didn’t say anything. He knew she was waiting for the right time to ruin his life.
He didn’t see Paulo for three days. When he asked his mother where he was, she told him he needed to forget Paulo. He wasn’t an appropriate friend for a high school boy.
On the fourth day, when Roddy was walking home, Paulo was waiting for him on the corner down the street from the school.
“Where have you been?” Roddy asked. “She fired you, didn’t you?”
“No, she didn’t have to fire me. I quit.”
“Do you have another job?”
“I’m going away. I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve been a real friend to me.”
“I’m coming with you!” Roddy said.
“Do you know how far we’d get? They’d come and get you and they’d lock me up. They’d say I abducted you.”
“I’d tell them the truth!”
“It wouldn’t make any difference. You’re a minor.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“Maybe. When you’re older.”
“Do you know…”
“Never mind. I can’t say it. I’ll save it for another time.”
“I wanted to give you this.”
He reached into his pocket and took out a small object and placed it in Roddy’s palm.
“What is it?”
“It’s an 1877 fifty-dollar gold piece.”
“You’re always giving me things. I’ve never given you anything.”
“Keep it to remember me by.”
“I’ve never had such a wonderful thing. Thank you.”
“I’ll write and let you know where I am.”
“I hope you will.”
They shook hands and then Paulo walked away quickly.
Father hired an old Italian man to take Paulo’s place. Janice never mentioned Paulo’s name to Roddy again.
Roddy never stopped thinking about Paulo. He knew they would see each other again, that Paulo wouldn’t forget him. He kept the gold coin and the amber nugget in the drawer by his bed and took them out and looked at them almost every night before going to sleep. He never told anybody about them.
The high school years passed in a blur. In his senior year he turned eighteen right before his graduation. While his classmates were excited about going to college, getting married or starting jobs, he was silent about his future plans. He told his parents he had booked passage to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion. They passed it off as part of his peculiarity.
Less than a week after graduation, he received a letter postmarked Denver, Colorado. He never doubted the letter would come.
He took the gold coin to a gold merchant and was surprised to discover it was worth a lot more than he thought. After he bought his bus ticket, he had enough left over to buy himself a used suitcase, some clothes suitable for Western wear, and a pair of cowboy boots.
Paulo met him at the train in Denver. He still looked amazingly the same, but Roddy had changed from boy to man.
Roddy and Paulo lived together for the next sixty years. Paulo died in late winter, an old man. Roddy followed him six weeks later. They were lucky to have found each other when they did. They had both known it from the first.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp