Not a Cough in a Carload ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Berna Taffin worked at Peek-a-Boo Laundry. All day long she put dirty sheets, towels and diapers into one machine to wash, and took them out again and into another machine to dry. Endless stretching, lifting and bending to make the world clean for democracy. The white overalls she wore, like a man’s, were stained and dirty at the end of her nine-hour shift.
She moved through her daily duties like an automaton, without thought and without feeling. To her co-workers, she was sexless and devoid of personality. If spoken to, she answered curtly and briefly. Nobody tried to make her their friend. People avoided being near her.
Did she have a husband? Children? She had to have a family somewhere. People don’t spring from rocks. Possibly she came from outer space. The people at the laundry wondered about her, as people will, and, when the answers were not forthcoming, they forgot about her.
The truth was Berna Taffin did have a home and a family. Her family consisted of an elderly father and mother, Roman and Arletta. They were superannuated and confined to their reclining easy chairs in the long, darkened living room of their sixteen-room house in the oldest part of the city that nobody cared about any more. Children in the neighborhood said the house was haunted. They hooted and moaned and ran past in the dark.
At the end of her shift, Berna put on her long man’s coat and man’s hat and left Peak-a-Boo for the day without a word to anybody. She walked down the street and caught the bus. In fifteen minutes she got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home, often stopping in at the neighborhood market to buy cigarettes and whatever else was needed.
She bought four cartons of cigarettes a couple times a week. The manager of the store was always happy to see her and greeted her with a smile. None of his other customers bought so many cigarettes. If they did, he’d be the Cigarette King.
Besides the cigarettes, she bought four cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup, a bar of Palmolive soap, a four-pack of toilet paper, four cans of sardines, six cans of Vienna sausages, four cans of peaches in heavy syrup, and a large box of vanilla wafers. At the cash register, she stood down while the manager tallied her purchases. He would have made small talk if she had seemed less forbidding.
He put all her purchases into a heavy-duty bag and folded down the top to make it easier for her to carry. As she turned to go, he went around in front of her quickly and opened the door.
“It’s pretty heavy!” he said. “Are you sure you don’t need no help?”
She ignored him and breezed past out the door into the chilly darkness.
She let herself in at the back door with her key. Right away she heard the yammer of the TV and smelled the ever-present cigarette smoke. She took the four cartons of cigarettes out of the bag and took them into the cloud of smoke that was the living room. She put two cartons on the chair-side table by Roman’s chair and the other two cartons on Arletta’s table. They didn’t look away from the TV, didn’t acknowledge Berna’s presence unless she got between their eyes and the TV screen. She knew they knew she was there. Nothing made them as happy as their cigarettes. Cigarettes were their gold.
They each smoked a carton a day, sometimes more. Each time they opened a new pack, they threw the empty pack on the floor. They had lighters for lighting up, but most of the time they chain-smoked, meaning they lit a new cigarette from the old one they were about to finish. When they had a butt to dispose of, they threw it into a large glass bowl for that purpose kept within easy reach. The glass bowl smoked continuously like an inactive volcano.
The TV played around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It was never silent. Whether it was a western, a comedy, a drama, singing and dancing, news, sports, movies, puppet shows for the under-five set, or just talking for the sake of talking, it was all the same. Every show, commercial break, or burst of artificial laughter was the cue to take another one out of the pack and light up.
They watched twenty hours a day. What little sleeping they did, they did in their chairs a few feet in front of the never-silent TV. Walking was difficult for them. They could make it to the toilet and back two or three times a day, but these excursions into another part of the house usually elicited cries of pain and distress.
Berna returned to the kitchen and took her purchases out of the bag. She opened one of the cans of Vienna sausages and emptied it onto a plate. She did the same with a can of the sardines, emptying it onto another plate. She carried the plates into the living room and presented the plate of sardines to Roman and the plate with the Vienna sausages to Arletta. Neither of them required a fork; they always ate with their fingers. After Berna went back into the kitchen, she could hear them smacking as they ate and sucking on their fingers.
One Friday at Peek-a-Boo when Berna was near the end of her shift and getting ready to go home, the boss came out and broke the news to the workers. Peek-a-Boo was going out of business. The land Peek-a-Boo sat on, and indeed the entire block, had been sold to make way for an apartment building.
Berna had worked at Peek-a-Boo for twenty-seven years. Some of the other people had been there longer than that. They wailed and worried about what they would do. Berna left quietly without a word to anyone and caught her bus home.
The next week Berna received her final paycheck from Peek-a-Boo in the mail. She took it to the bank to cash it, and withdrew, in cash, all the money she had in her account, a little in excess of two-hundred thousand dollars. She had worked all those years and never spent as much as she earned.
The bank teller, after trying to talk Berna out of withdrawing all her money, put the money into a canvas bag and handed the bag over the counter, with a warning that carrying that much money on her person, on the street, might be dangerous.
Berna carried the canvas bag under her coat and when she got home she took it upstairs to her bedroom and threw it on the floor of her closet.
She planned on putting Roman and Arletta into an old-folks’ home and taking her money and going away somewhere by herself, maybe to Peru or Iceland.
But when she asked herself the hard questions, she didn’t have any satisfactory answers. What would she do when she got to Peru or Iceland? Look for a job in a laundry? What if there were no jobs in laundries? What then? And how would she manage, alone in a foreign country, if she didn’t know the language? What language did they speak in Peru or Iceland, anyway?
And when it came to Roman and Arletta, wouldn’t she miss them quite a lot if she never saw them again, even though she got awfully sick of them sometimes?
She would defer the questions to a later date. She didn’t have to be in any hurry. She had the money to be independent. She could do whatever she wanted to do, at the time of her own choosing.
But the truth was she didn’t go anywhere or do anything. She installed herself on the sofa in the long, low-ceilinged living room along with Roman and Arletta. She began sleeping on the sofa instead of going upstairs to her bed. The sound of the TV became so incessant, so familiar to her, that she couldn’t do without it. It became as necessary to her as her own heartbeat.
And she didn’t even have to leave the house anymore if she didn’t want to. When the cartons of cigarettes needed to be replenished, or when there was no more toilet paper or not enough Vienna sausages, sardines, Campbell’s vegetable soup or vanilla wafers, she put in a call to the neighborhood market. They delivered whatever was wanted and sent a bill at the first of the month.
Months went by and then years. Berna put Peek-a-Boo out of her mind and stopped thinking, when she woke up in the morning, that it was time to go to work. Those days were over. She had been released from her jail.
Roman was the first to succumb to lung disease. Berna noticed at the end of an episode of I Love Lucy that no smoke was coming from his quarter; he hadn’t lit up for at least a couple of hours. When she got up from the couch and looked closely at his face, she knew he was dead.
She covered him over with a sheet of heavy plastic and sprinkled him with fragrant bath salts. They would go on the same as always. Arletta was unaware that he was dead and Berna thought it best that way.
After three days, Berna realized the cigarette smoke in the room was one-half what it had been. She began smoking herself, for the first time in her life. In a short time she was chain smoking up to a carton or more a day. She began buying the large quantities of cigarettes for herself that used to be for Roman.
She and Arletta kept the room filled with smoke, exactly as it had been when Roman was alive. The TV played on. Bonanza was followed by Hazel; Petticoat Junction by Please Don’t Eat the Daisies; The Beverly Hillbillies by The Naked City; Lassie by Laramie; The Munsters by… On and on without end.
During an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Arletta made a choking sound in her throat and, not surprisingly, she too was dead from lung disease. Berna covered her over with a large sheet of plastic and sprinkled her with fragrant bath salts, after which she went into the kitchen and emptied a can of Vienna sausages onto a plate and carried the plate back into the living room and ate the little sausages with her fingers, making smacking sounds and licking her fingers. Between bites, she lit a cigarette and blew as much smoke out into the room as she could manage in one breath. And the TV played on. The Red Skelton Show was just beginning. If ever she needed a good laugh.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp