I Don’t Know You
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
Tula and her mother were visiting at the home of Mrs. Flannery, an old college friend of Tula’s mother. They had been there for hours and Tula was getting tired and wanted to go home.
“My mother never liked you,” Tula said.
“Is that so?” Mrs. Flannery asked.
“Yes, I heard her say so with my own ears.”
“Now, Tula, you know that isn’t true!” her mother said. “I never said anything of the kind!”
“It’s all right,” Mrs. Flannery said with a laugh. “We don’t take eight-year-olds at their word, do we?”
“Did you know my daddy is having a love affair with a lady who works in his office?” Tula said. “My mother told him he’d better dump the bitch, or she’s going to divorce him and it’ll cost him plenty. Did you know there’s insanity in our family? I think I’ll probably be crazy when I grow up and have to go live in a mental institution.”
“I think that’s just about enough out of you, missy!” Tula’s mother said. “You just sit there quietly and don’t say another word!”
“I can talk if I want to! Everybody else is talking!”
Tula’s mother looked at Mrs. Flannery apologetically and shook her head and took a drink of her iced tea and reached for her cigarettes.
“How about another lemon cookie?” Mrs. Flannery asked.
“I don’t think so,” Tula said.
“That’s not what you’re supposed to say when somebody offers you a cookie,” Tula’s mother said.
“No, thank you,” Tula said. “I don’t care for another lemon cookie right now, if it’s all the same to you. I’m full.”
“That’s a little better,” Tula’s mother said. “A lady never says she’s too full, though.”
“Well, it isn’t ladylike to admit you’ve eaten too much.”
“Not everybody can be a lady!”
Mrs. Flannery laughed and Tula’s mother looked at her reprovingly. “We don’t laugh at her when she’s being naughty!” she said. “Laughter only encourages her and makes her think she’s cute.”
“Well, I’m afraid she is cute!” Mrs. Flannery said.
“Maybe a little too cute!”
“Mother, can I go outside for a while? It’s boring just sitting here if I’m not allowed to talk.”
“Well, all right, but stay in the front yard and don’t go any place else.”
“I won’t, mother.”
Tula liked the front yard. It was higher than the street. It was fun to look down on the world. She pretended she was a sentry guarding a palace and walked from one end of the yard to the other, carrying an imaginary rifle over her shoulder. When she got tired of that game, she practiced her ballet spins and pirouettes.
Some older boys across the street were watching her. She was performing for them. She really did like boys and found them fascinating, even though she knew she was at that age when she was supposed to hate them.
The boys watched her with great interest for a while and then they started whistling at her and insulting her, calling her a screwjob and a flip. She didn’t know what those words meant, but she was sure she didn’t like them. She was going to say something back to him and call them some mean names of her own, but she decided it was best to just ignore them.
After a while, she went back in the house. Her mother and Mrs. Flannery were still talking and didn’t even look at her.
“Mother, some boys across the street were staring at me and calling me names,” she said, interrupting her mother in mid-sentence. “They wanted me to show them my underpants, but I wouldn’t do it.”
“You stay away from them. They’re not nice boys.”
“I’m sure they’re harmless,” Mrs. Flannery said. “They’re just neighborhood boys.”
“Mother, can I have some money?”
“No, you can’t have any money! What do you want money for?”
“Remember that little store down on the corner that we passed on the way here? If you’ll give me some money, I’d like to walk down there and buy myself an ice cream.”
“I don’t think so, Tula. After all the lemon cookies you ate, how can you even think about ice cream?”
“Well, all right, but you come right back and don’t go any place else and don’t talk to anyone.”
“Because you’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood and you don’t know any of these people.”
“I’m sure she’ll be all right,” Mrs. Flannery said. “It’s a safe neighborhood.”
Still talking, Tula’s mother opened up her purse and took out some change and handed it to Tula without even counting it.
“You come back right!”
“I will, mother.”
She was a little disappointed the boys were gone and were no longer paying attention to her. If they had been really interested in her, they wouldn’t have gone away so soon.
On her way to the store, she did a few dance steps. She wanted to be a dancer on TV when she grew up and she needed to get in all the practice she could. The better she was, the better chance she would have for success.
In the middle of the second block, she saw a little black-and-white spotted dog coming toward her on the sidewalk. He looked like a good dog and not a stray. She was going to pet him, but he crossed the street to the other side before she had a chance to touch him.
The store was small and there weren’t any customers. An old woman crouched behind the counter at the cash register reading a newspaper. She didn’t look up when Tula walked in.
Tula didn’t know where the Eskimo Pies were, not being familiar with the store, so she went right up to the old woman and said, “I need one Eskimo Pie, please!”
The old woman looked at Tula around the edge of the newspaper; the corners of her mouth turned down. “In the freezer case,” she said. “At the back of the store.”
The store was so small that Tula didn’t have to go very far to get all the way to the back. She found the freezer case easily enough and when she opened the door, there was one loose Eskimo Pie right on top as if it had been waiting for her. She scooped it up and went back to the old woman to pay.
“I like Eskimo Pies,” she said.
“Yeah,” the old woman said. “Here’s your change. Come again.”
“I certainly will!” Tula said, unwrapping the Eskimo Pie before she was even out the door.
On the way back to Mrs. Flannery’s house, a strange thing happened to Tula. She was walking on the sidewalk, having just finished the Eskimo Pie, when a green car pulled up to the curb. The passenger-side door opened and a fat woman got out.
“Well, look at you!” the fat woman said to Tula, gesturing with her arms. “You certainly have grown!”
Tula didn’t know who the woman was talking to, but she was looking right at Tula and seemed to be talking to her.
“I-I don’t know you,” Tula said.
“Well, it’s all right, honey, because I know you!”
“I don’t think so,” Tula said. “I think you have me confused with somebody else.”
“What beautiful red hair you have and what a pretty dress you’re wearing!”
“Did my mother send you?”
“Yes, she did! I just spoke to her. She asked me to pick you up and bring you home.”
“I don’t believe you. My mother wouldn’t do that.”
“Well, she surely did, honey!”
“What does my mother look like? What color is her hair?”
“Now, don’t be difficult! Don’t you want to go for ride with us? Here’s Buzz driving the car. He’s a very nice man and I’m sure you’ll like him.”
The man driving the car leaned over the steering wheel to peer around the fat woman at Tula.
“Hello, there!” he said.
“Now, wouldn’t you like to go for a ride with us?” the fat woman asked.
“No!” Tula said. “I don’t know you!”
“Now, don’t be that-a way, honey! Wouldn’t you like to go for ride with Buzz and me? We’re sure to have lots of fun. All you have to do is slide over on the seat next to Buzz and we’re all set. We’ll take you home later, after we’ve had all the fun.”
“What kind of a fool do you take me for? I said I’m not going!”
“Wouldn’t you like to go for an ice cream soda?”
“No! I just had an Eskimo Pie!”
“Wouldn’t you like to see a show? How about Pinocchio?”
“I’ve seen Pinocchio.”
“Well, you’re just go an answer for everything, haven’t you?”
“I have to go now.”
“Would you rather sit in the back? You can sit in the back if you want to and I’ll sit back there with you.”
The fat woman opened the back door and smiled and beckoned with her arm. “I think there’s some candy back there if you want some. Do you like Hershey’s kisses?”
She reached out and was just on the point of grabbing Tula by the wrist and pushing her into the back seat, when Tula, with a deft sideways movement, stepped away from her and, without another word, ran as fast as she could.
When she got to Mrs. Flannery’s house, she was out of breath. She stopped on the front porch and looked behind her to make sure the fat woman wasn’t coming after her, and then she burst through the door, as if it was her own house and not somebody else’s.
Her mother looked at her in surprise. “What’s the matter with you?” she said. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
“There was a fat woman and a man! They wanted me to get in the car with them, but I wouldn’t do it!”
“What are you talking about? What fat woman? What man?”
“Right after I left the store, a car stopped and a fat woman got out and tried to get me to get inside with her. There was a man driving. They were creepy.”
“Oh, Tula! I think your imagination is running away with you! Where do you get those crazy ideas?”
“No, mother. Really! I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
“I think you’re listening to too much television.”
“No, mother, it’s not that! I got the license number of their car. You know how good I am at remembering things.”
“Oh, Tula, that’s carrying things a little too far!”
“Should I call the police?” Mrs. Flannery asked. “She might be telling the truth.”
“Oh, no!” Tula’s mother said. “I know her so well! Whenever she thinks she’s not getting enough attention, she always makes up a story that will focus everybody’s attention on her.”
“It’s not a story, mother, I swear!”
“When your daddy gets home from work, I’m going to tell him how you misbehaved today and how you told lies. He’ll be very disappointed in you.”
“Have it your own way,” Tula said. “I don’t care. In the meantime, that fat woman and that creepy man are probably luring some other girl into the car with them right now.”
When Mrs. Flannery and her mother started talking again about grown-up things, Tula went into the kitchen and wrote down the license number on Mrs. Flannery’s grocery list that was still in her head. Then she sat down at the kitchen table and had another lemon cookie, and when she finished that one, she ate another one. She would eat enough of them to make herself sick if she felt like it, and there was nothing her mother could do about it.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp